Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.— John Lennon, ‘Beautiful Boy’
And they leap so looply, looply, as they link to light.— Finnegans Wake 226
Symbols (and even natural or non-symbolic dicisigns as self-representing signs) are the semiotic equivalent, or mental manifestation, of the brain processes that appear as consciousness. This self-representation is a feedforward-feedback cycle like the meaning cycle. Thomas Metzinger explains:
In conscious visual processing, for example, high-level information is dynamically mapped back to low-level information, but it all refers to the same retinal image. Each time your eyes land on a scene (remember, your eye makes about three saccades per second), there is a feedforward-feedback cycle about the current image, and that cycle gives you the detailed conscious percept of that scene. You continuously make conscious snapshots of the world via these feedforward-feedback cycles. In a more general sense, the principle is that the almost continuous feedback-loops from higher to lower areas create an ongoing cycle, a circular nested flow of information, in which what happened a few milliseconds ago is dynamically mapped back to what is coming in right now. In this way, the immediate past continuously creates a context for the present— it filters what can be experienced right now. We see how an old philosophical idea is refined and spelled out by modern neuroscience on the nuts-and-bolts level. A standing context-loop is created. And this may be a deeper insight into the essence of the world-creating function of conscious experience: Conscious information seems to be integrated and unified precisely because the underlying physical process is mapped back onto itself and becomes its own context. If we apply this idea not to single representations, such as the visual experience of an apple in your hand, but to the brain’s unified portrait of the world as a whole, then the dynamic flow of conscious experience appears as the result of a continuous large-scale application of the brain’s prior knowledge to the current situation. If you are conscious, the overall process of perceiving, learning, and living creates a context for itself— and that is how your reality turns into a lived reality.— Metzinger 2009, 31-32
My wife Pam and i recently visited the Art Gallery of Ontario to take in the Anthropocene exhibit. Anthropocene is the name proposed for the geological epoch in which we are now living, and though it has not yet been officially adopted by the international commission which has the power to do so, it’s becoming a household word. I’ve posted about it twice in the past year (you can use the search box on this blog to find those posts), but words can’t evoke the feeling of the Anthropocene as powerfully as the images in the exhibit and the feature film bearing the name. In this post i’ll focus on the name.
The graphic above, taken from the book published by the AGO to document the exhibit, shows the Anthropocene as the epoch following the Holocene. But some sources use it as another name for the Holocene, or a subdivision of it. This makes a kind of sense because the Holocene is defined as beginning about 11,700 years ago, with the retreat of the glaciers from the last ice age, which was also around the time when humanity began to make its mark on the biosphere, especially with the new technology called agriculture. But why was this most recent geological epoch called the Holocene? It’s hard to see anything “holistic” about it, with all these humans messing up the planet.
According to Wikipedia, ‘the name Holocene comes from the Ancient Greek words ὅλος (holos, whole or entire) and καινός (kainos, new), meaning “entirely recent.”’ So the concept of “wholeness” is applied here adverbially, to modify the ‘-cene’ suffix which (with its Latinized Greek root) is etymologically related to recent. The habit of adding that suffix to the names of ‘recent’ geological periods was introduced by Sir Charles Lyell, who called the preceding epoch the Pleistocene, from the Greek superlative pleistos meaning ‘most.’ But when you have an epoch named ‘most recent,’ how do you name one that is even more recent? Lyell’s choice was Holocene, or ‘entirely recent.’
That pretty well exhausts the possibilities for naming a new geological period according to how recent it is. Anthropocene (‘humanly recent’?) is more informative than Holocene because it names the current epoch after its most remarkable characteristic: the collective impact of humans on their home planet. The idea is that geologists (of whatever species) studying the rock strata of the Earth hundreds of thousands of years hence will find a layer full of ‘technofossils’ and other traces of the human rearrangements of nature we are now making.
But there is another side to this ‘human epoch’: the same technology that is causing mass extinction of other species is giving us more, and more useful, information about our planet, its history, and its predictable future than we’ve ever had. With this predictability comes a new sense of responsibility. Now that we are aware of the unintended consequences of our past actions, it’s our global mission to revise our intentions and observe more carefully what happens when we try to carry them out. This is the only way we can harmonize and integrate anthropomorphic systems with the more inclusive natural systems of the planet.
The challenge is not so much technological as political, even spiritual. For instance, we have the technology to halt or possibly even reverse anthropogenic climate change, but so far lack the global common sense to make it a priority. It seems we’d rather put our energy into petty squabbles and paranoid schemes, judging from the leaders we’ve following lately. But if we could overcome this tendency and unify human practices for the common good of all life on Earth, maybe the Holocene could turn more holistic after all.
Speaking of the common, there is another Greek root Latinized as -cen- which is highly relevant in the Anthropocene. This one is derived not from καινός (“new”) but from κοινός (“common”). It’s the root idea of Cenoscopy, which bases itself on experiences common to all, and is closely allied to what Peirce called ‘critical common-sensism.’ Common sense in our time sees that philosophy, and even religion, ought to be working hand in hand with globally-based sciences such as ecology and climate science. Ironically, it’s the so-called “populist” politicians of our time, with their hate speech and antiscientific disinformation, who are working against the common sense that could save us from ourselves.
… and animals, both wild and tame, feeding in the air or on the earth or in the water, all are born and come to their prime and decay in obedience to the ordinances of God; for, in the words of Heraclitus, ‘every creeping thing grazes at the blow of God’s goad’.— Pseudo-Aristotle, De Mundo (Περὶ Κόσμου), tr. E.S. Forster (Oxford, 1914)
In the original Greek of Heraclitus, as quoted here by the author of On the Cosmos, there is no “God” and no “goad”. A more literal translation of πᾶν ἑρπετὸν πληγῇ νέμεται would be “All beasts [πᾶν ἑρπετὸν] are driven [νέμεται] by blows [πληγῇ].” But the verb νέμεται was ordinarily used with reference to herdsmen “tending” their flocks or herds; driving the beasts to a pasture where they could ‘graze’ was a regular part of this “tending,” and this was often done with a stick like the one in the picture.
This explains the grazing and the ‘goad’ in Forster’s translation. But the Greek does not specify who is delivering these benevolent ‘blows’ to the beasts. The context indicates that the class of “creeping things” includes not only domestic cattle but all animals throughout their life cycles, including wild and human animals as well (Kahn 1979, 194). Who or what drives the deer to their pasture? What kind of “blows” compel us to carry our own lives forward?
“Pseudo-Aristotle” tells us that all life cycles proceed according to ‘the ordinances of God,’ who is metaphorically the “pastor” driving us all to “pasture.” Others might substitute for those ordinances the laws of nature, governing everything impersonally. But if all animals are guided from within and powered by their own metabolism, it would seem that we are driven by internal “blows” or “motivations” rather than external forces, whether divine or natural. We are “driven” to dinner by the same “force” that drives the deer to their pasture, namely hunger.
But this is not the whole story either. We are all shaped, physically and mentally, by the same sacred laws of nature that formed the worlds we inhabit and the habits that inform our relations with the world and one another. These Laws have made us all anticipatory systems, and the “blows” driving us are the blows of experience, which happens to us as some kind of collision between our guidance systems and our circumstances. An experience feels real here and now because of the difference, the Secondness, between our own needs and the necessities of external world. But what really determines the kind of experience that strikes us at the moment is the Laws in their Thirdness.
For reality is compulsive. But the compulsiveness is absolutely hic et nunc. It is for an instant and it is gone. Let it be no more and it is absolutely nothing. The reality only exists as an element of the regularity. And the regularity is the symbol. Reality, therefore, can only be regarded as the limit of the endless series of symbols.— Peirce, EP2:323
Our lack of control over existing things and actual events, their way of forcing themselves on our attention, is what makes them real to us at the moment. But the laws governing these things are equally real – or more real, considering that they will continue to determine what form the future will take long after the immediate past and present are gone. To the extent that we have self-control – that is, control over the form and the enforcement of our inner “laws” or habits – we can participate in this determination of the future. We never break the laws of nature, but we have ways of co-operating with it to realize imagined possibilities; and these may include our ways of responding to the “blows” of experience.
Life cycles, like meaning cycles, are governed by the reciprocity of practice and perception. They are driven by the “blows” of experience just as inquiries are set in motion by surprises. This is a law of nature which we can only symbolize in some kind of diagram. We can’t make a photograph of it as we can an existing ‘goad’ or an actual ‘blow.’ The image of ‘God’s goad’ confuses the regularity of law with the the force of law. A law (natural, human or divine) has a general form but can’t be adequately represented by any specific image – unless that image is read as a metaphor. Metaphors, in their aspiration to the generality of symbols, reveal those realities which images conceal by their very presence to our sense perception. Only symbols can express the Law turning the wheel of life.
to be continued
The stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.— Tao Te Ching 76 (Feng/English)
Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.— Samuel Butler, Note-Books
Life teaches us who we are.— Salman Rushdie (quoted in Ledoux 2002)
My life has a superb cast but I can’t figure out the plot.— Ashleigh Brilliant
All the charictures in the drame!— Finnegans Wake, 302
Who knows whether the present speaker is awake or dreaming?— Chuang-tzu 6 (Cleary)
How bootifull and how truetowife of her, when strengly forebidden, to steal our historic presents from the past postpropheticals so as will make us all lordyheirs and ladymaidesses of a pretty nice kettle of fruit. She is livving in our midst of debt and laffing through all plores for us (her birth is uncontrollable!), with a naperon made to mask and her sabboes hikkikking arias (so sair! so solly!) if yous ask me and I saack you. Hou! Hou! Gricks may rise and Troysirs fall (there being two sights for ever a picture) for in the byways of high improvidence that’s what makes lifework leaving and the world’s a cell for citters to cit in.— The Restored Finnegans Wake, 9-10
As the time is not other than appearing, appearing is the arrival of time. What is it that appears? Appearing appears.— Dogen, ‘Ocean Mudra Samadhi’ (Tanahashi 2010, 381)
— Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Everything is connected, but some things are more connected than others.— Herbert Simon (Pattee 1973, 23)
If the great ocean thought it was full enough, the hundred rivers would flow backward.— Dogen, Eihei Koroku 3.242 (Leighton and Okumura 2004, 240)
The Way of heaven is impartial.Daodejing 79