Peirspicacity

Self is arrayed as the whole world.
Dogen, Uji (Cleary 1986, 345)

What you are aware of, mindful with, is the entire universe, as far as you are presently concerned. Can you point out one thing in the universe that you are not aware of?

No, but you can surely think of things or events that you became aware of, things that surely existed before you were aware of them, events that you did not foresee, places you have never been, situations that did not concern you at the time.

So you are aware that there is more to the universe than you are now aware of, or will ever be aware of. You also know that some of your beliefs about it have turned out to be wrong, which leads you to believe that some of what you now “know” may also be wrong. The universe of your awareness is infinitely incomplete. Does that concern you?

Charles S. Peirce was thinking along these lines in 1913, a few months before his death, when he wrote that

what I am aware of, or, to use a different expression for the same fact, what I am conscious of, or, as the psychologists strangely talk, the “contents of my consciousness” (just as if what I am conscious of and the fact that I am conscious were two different facts, and as if the one were inside the other), this same fact, I say, however it be worded, is evidently the entire universe, so far as I am concerned. At least, so it would seem. Yet there is a wonderful revelation for me in the phenomenon of my sometimes becoming conscious that I have been in error, which at once shows me that if there can be no universe, as far as I am concerned, except the universe I am aware of, still there are differences in awareness. I become aware that though “universe” and “awareness” are one and the same thing, yet somehow the universe will go on in some definite fashion after I am dead and gone, whether I shall be the least aware of it, or not.
— Peirce, EP2:472
Life flows on within you and without you.
— George Harrison, 1967

Charles Peirce and George Harrison are both dead and gone now, and life flows on without them. It flows within you too, the little current of awareness, the entire universe as far as you are concerned, but a drop in the Big Current of Okeanos. The bubble of what you know embodies your concerns, and though it’s only made of surface tension, there’s no getting out of it while you live. At best you can take in the odd bit from beyond the barrier to make it a little bigger.

Peirce was thinking about this too toward the end of his life:

… I was many years ago led to define “real” as meaning being such as it is, no matter how you, or, I, or any man or definite collection of men may think it to be; where I use the long and awkward phrase in order to avoid all appearance ​of meaning ​independently of human thought. For obviously, nothing that I or anybody ever can mean can be independent of human thought. That is real which men would eventually and finally come to think to be absolutely necessary to be thought in order to understand the truth, supposing the existence and advance in knowledge of the human race to be continued without any limitation, though I cannot pretend that I have as distinct an idea of exactly what that means as I could wish. But, alas, there seems to be a principle as inexorable as that of action and reaction condemning those creatures who enjoy the privilege of perpetually learning to find their outlook forever confined within a sharply drawn horizon, a confinement the more exasperating for the fact that they have only to exert themselves sufficiently in order to enlarge it while leaving it still a prison-wall.
— Peirce (R 681: 35–36, 1913) quoted by Lane (2018, 193-4)

What does it mean to suppose ‘the existence and advance in knowledge of the human race to be continued without any limitation’? Certainly not to believe that human life will never end, or that human knowledge will be forever advancing. It means to imagine what it would take for humans to finally ‘understand the truth,’ knowing the finality to be imaginary.

As for the little current, what does it mean to suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission? It means to imagine that your life has a definite purpose. Why would you do that?

The Determinator

The early Wittgenstein wrote that ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ (Tractatus 5.6). But the deeper limiting factor is the limits of experience due to the mind’s embodiment, which enables even the wildest imagination. This includes one’s conception of the Creator of the universe. Peirce as a pragmaticist held
that man is so completely hemmed in by the bounds of his possible practical experience, his mind is so restricted to being the instrument of his needs, that he cannot, in the least, mean anything that transcends those limits. The strict consequence of this is, that it is all nonsense to tell him that he must not think in this or that way because to do so would be to transcend the limits of a possible experience. For let him try ever so hard to think anything about what is beyond that limit, it simply cannot be done. You might as well pass a law that no man shall jump over the moon; it wouldn’t forbid him to jump just as high as he possibly could.
For much the same reason, I do not believe that man can have the idea of any cause or agency so stupendous that there is any more adequate way of conceiving it than as vaguely like a man. Therefore, whoever cannot look at the starry heaven without thinking that all this universe must have had an adequate cause, can in my opinion not otherwise think of that cause half so justly than by thinking it is God.
CP 5.536, c. 1905
Unfortunately, for many believers the conception of “God” has not been anywhere near vague enough, as they imagine the ‘stupendous agency’ to be something like a dominating alpha male, rather than a Mind whose only embodiment is the lived and living universe of experience. Surely the Creator and Determinator of whatever happens cannot be as determinate as any willful or existing Self. There is no Dominus but the dominance of reality itself, and we poor creatures can only determine what that is within the limits of our own embodiment.

What Peirce called ‘the scientific method’ in his ‘Fixation of Belief’ essay, he later called ‘the method of experience’ – emphasizing the wild reality of experience and the humility of the method.
Changes of opinion are brought about by events beyond human control. All mankind were so firmly of opinion that heavy bodies must fall faster than light ones, that any other view was scouted as absurd, eccentric, and probably insincere. Yet as soon as some of the absurd and eccentric men could succeed in inducing some of the adherents of common sense to look at their experiments – no easy task – it became apparent that nature would not follow human opinion, however unanimous. So there was nothing for it but human opinion must move to nature’s position. That was a lesson in humility. A few men, the small band of laboratory men, began to see that they had to abandon the pride of an opinion assumed absolutely final in any respect, and to use all their endeavors to yield as unresistingly as possible to the overwhelming tide of experience, which must master them at last, and to listen to what nature seems to be telling us. The trial of this method of experience in natural science for these three centuries – though bitterly detested by the majority of men – encourages us to hope that we are approaching nearer and nearer to an opinion which is not destined to be broken down – though we cannot expect ever quite to reach that ideal goal.
from How to Reason, 1893 (R 407: 20–21, CP 5.384fn)
Over a century later, is ‘the trial of this method of experience’ still encouraging us? Or is it proceeding like Kafka’s Process?

Collapse and renewal

We’re all wondering how many of us will survive the coronavirus pandemic, but in the longer term, many of us are wondering what remnants of our globalized civilization are likely to survive the collapse that is now under way.

In her 2015 book The Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Tsing addresses the question in her subtitle: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Those “ruins,” by the way, should be pictured not as crumbling buildings like the “ruins” of ancient civilizations, but as the ecosystems that have been systematically ruined by extractive capitalism.

Jeremy Lent also raised the question last fall on his Patterns of Meaning blog, ‘As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs’. Here he applies the concept of “the adaptive cycle” to human society.

Scientists have studied the life cycles of all kinds of complex systems—ranging in size from single cells to vast ecosystems, and back in time all the way to earlier mass extinctions—and have derived a general theory of change called the Adaptive Cycle model. This model works equally well for human systems such as industries, markets, and societies. As a rule, complex systems pass through a life cycle consisting of four phases: a rapid growth phase when those employing innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities; a more stable conservation phase, dominated by long-established relationships that gradually become increasingly brittle and resistant to change; a release phase, which might be a collapse, characterized by chaos and uncertainty; and finally, a reorganization phase during which small, seemingly insignificant forces can drastically change the future of the new cycle.

As many other commentators are saying, the shaping of our “recovery” from the pandemic is an opportunity to change the future of the new cycle of civilization. It is clear that many of the people and subsystems of the now-collapsing global system are not going to survive, but chances are we can have some influence on how it all turns out. For more on this cyclical pattern, including diagrams of it and my own reflections on it, visit rePatch ·11 of Turning Signs.

Solar-powered car

Richard Heinberg shows in a new article that the global energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources is still going much too slowly to save us from our own bad habits.

Locally, though, i’m happy to report that we at gnusystems have powered nearly all of our transportation this spring with solar energy. We’ve been charging the BatBolt, our electric car, with our solar panels, adding up to 30 km of range every sunny day. For more details, have a look at the video introduction to EV driving (mostly for rural drivers) I posted on Youtube. Considering your transport options in the near future? EVs can be an important part of the transition, and not as expensive as you might think.

Gut feelings

In the early stages of writing my book Turning Signs, i was very strongly moved by the realization that the world is inside out – that the whole of your experience of the world is something going on in your brain. This activity is taking place at the cellular and subcellular levels, and not until the 20th Century was it possible to investigate in detail how these microcosmic processes actually work to generate our thoughts and feelings. More recently we are learning that the brain is only part of this microcosm.

At the same time, we have been developing the technology to explore the macrocosm, the vast reaches of the physical universe. This development began 400 years ago with the first telescope, but it was only 100 years ago that we recognized the existence of other galaxies far beyond our own. Our knowledge, our cognitive universe, has been expanding both inwards and outwards toward the micro- and macroscopic limits of our augmented perception. Our comprehension of time has also expanded in scale, in both directions: we have begun to appreciate how much can happen in a millisecond, and how long it takes the light from a distant galaxy to reach us. Our moment in cosmic time is marked by a wonderful flowering of the imagination.

Returning to the microscopic scale, this excerpt from a recent Science magazine article is a good example of that flowering:

Over the past 20 years, the recognition that the microbes living inside us outnumber our body’s own cells has turned our view of ourselves inside out. The gut microbiome, as it’s known, weighs about 2 kilograms— more than the 1.4-kilogram human brain— and may have just as much influence over our bodies. Thousands of species of microbes (not only bacteria but also viruses, fungi, and archaea) reside in the gut. And with as many as 20 million genes among them, those microbes pack a genomic punch that our measly 20,000 genes can’t match. Gut bacteria can make and use nutrients and other molecules in ways the human body can’t— a tantalizing source of new therapies.

The brain is the newest frontier, but it’s one with an old connection to the gut. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed mental disorders arose when the digestive tract produced too much black bile. And long before microbes were discovered, some philosophers and physicians argued that the brain and gut were partners in shaping human behavior. “What probably happens is that our brain and our gut are in constant communication,” says [John] Cryan, who over the past decade has helped drive efforts to decode those communications.

—Elizabeth Pennisi, “Meet the Psychobiome” (Science, 8 May 2020, Vol. 368 Issue 6491, p. 571)

John Cryan is a neuropharmacologist at University College Cork. He and a psychiatrist colleague, Ted Dinan, coined the term “psychobiotics” for the new field of research into microbe-based treatments for mental illnesses. No doubt this research is being funded by an industry hoping for profits down the road, but it contributes nonetheless to the flowering of imagination that “has turned our view of ourselves inside out.” In 2020, the virus which has turned our daily lives upside down should only add to our respect for life at the micro-scale and its effect on our human-scale lives.

On the other hand, our growing ability to conceive of (and measure) vast differences of scale in space and time is still rooted in the human scale of experiencing. We know much more about past events than we do about the future, but the past is no more present to us than the future. What is present to us is the remains of the past, the traces of what’s happened, the signs we can read in order to imagine our planet’s history with some degree of accuracy. In the same way, by reading what is present to us and puzzling out some reasons why it is the way it is, we imagine the future with some degree of plausibility.

Our ability to imagine the deep-time context of the present moment enables us to feel its presence all the more deeply. That’s the gift of this brief moment in the history of the universe. But our acceptance of this gift, our experience of it, seems to depend on the myriads of microbes inhabiting the psychobiome. We begin to see with our high-power microscopes how much of our mental life we owe to gut feelings.

Emerging world

Living through this pandemic has given many of us a chance to slow down and reconsider what “normal” life is, or could be, for us. We’re facing systemic changes that affect us all as we try to sustain our physical, mental and spiritual resilience. We’re living a transition that could be a turning point for life on Earth, at every level from global to household. I think it helps to talk this over in small groups from time to time, even while we practice physical distancing. So i’m hosting a transition conversation, via Zoom, at 7 pm Eastern this Tuesday evening, April 28.

If anyone reading this wants to join in from your computer, tablet or phone, send me an email, and i’ll send you back a link which, when you click on it at meeting time, will take you into the conversation. You’re receiving this email because you’ve subscribed to my Turning Signs blog or the Resilient Manitoulin group. (Please don’t forward to others.)

One question i’ve been wondering about lately is what we on Manitoulin can (and can’t) do to “localize” by shortening our supply chains – for instance, to make our food supply more local and less dependent on factory farms and agribusiness giants. I hope that others will bring their own questions to the conversation – bearing in mind that none of us has all the answers.

If this kind of “live” conversation is not your cup of herbal tea, but you want to use other online resources to explore the larger systemic contexts of your choices, Pam and I at gnusystems recommend the Think Resilience course (https://education.resilience.org/product/self-directed-course/ ) which is still offered for free by the Post Carbon Insitute. Also their Crazy Town podcasts (https://www.postcarbon.org/crazytown/ ), which always get us laughing even as our minds boggle at what’s going on in the world.

thought for Earth Day

Every living thing on Earth plays a part in the biosphere.

The biosphere is not merely the stage on which we all perform; it is the whole performance.

A fascinating kind of anteater called the pangolin is the only mammal on Earth that has scales. Its scales are its only defense against predators. Unfortunately this defense is useless against the dominant predator on Earth, humankind. (Or as e.e. cummings called it, ‘this busy monster, manunkind.’)

In a human-dominated world, the pangolin’s scales are even worse than useless for its survival, because they have a high “market value,” meaning that too many humans “make a living” supplying that market.

Humans have scales too, but only artificial ones, often used for weighing things that have “market value” – such as pangolin scales. In the gigantically top-heavy artificial monster called “the economy” by its human constructors, pangolin scales far outweigh the lives of pangolins, just as “market value” outweighs the value of life itself, including human life.

Pam Jackson has caught the whole strange scenario in a small painting:

Scales

This has a special meaning on Earth Day 2020, as it’s been suggested that the pangolin might have been a carrier of the virus that jumped to humans to cause the COVID-19 pandemic. The pangolin – poached, trafficked and endangered – is as innocent as the virus itself. If anyone is to blame for the pandemic, it is the humans who “make a living” from an extractive “economy” which is destructive, on an overwhelming scale, to other players in the biosphere. The pandemic is just one symptom of the busy monster in self-destruct mode.

Earth Day should redirect our attention to the natural economy, the economy of the biosphere. As if our lives depended on it – for in truth they do, just like the lives of pangolins, ants and viruses.

Transmission

Transition link for the day: George Monbiot gathers examples of how people all over the world are stepping up to help their local communities cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

I’ve been revisiting my own book lately, and realizing how much there is in it that could be useful to people coping with the current situation and the broader transition. For instance, most of the transition sources i’ve been reading and citing here emphasize the importance of “systems thinking.” That kind of thinking pervades Turning Signs, with a particular emphasis on what i call guidance systems. It also has an apocalyptic side, though maybe not in the way you think: For instance look at the latter part of the first chapter, Beginning: Apocalypse.

If you’d like to comment on any of this, you can type it in below, or join the conversation live.