Refreshments

Another excerpt from Breaking Boundaries:

In our global intertwined system of 7.8 billion inhabitants living within a complex biosphere, the best way to change course is to alter the lens through which those people in the system view the world.”

Carl Folke: “We must reconnect with the biosphere: the living part of the planet.”

“This may seem obvious. It is like saying, ‘Hey, guys, remember, we live on a planet and we depend on it being stable.’ As if we had forgotten. But when you step back a bit – while driving down asphalt roads surrounded by concrete, steel, and glass, on your way to the shopping mall, to fill up on basic goods like food, and materials for shelter, safety, and comfort – you must admit that, yes, most of us have disconnected from the planet. A slow, silent, but all­-encompassing disconnect. We take our planet for granted, at least its stability.” [Breaking Boundaries, p. 110]

Viewing the world at every scale, without taking it for granted, refreshing our view of the time and place we inhabit, is the kind of meditative practice we need in order to “change course.” It’s also an essential practice for philosophers, who are perpetual beginners.

That link takes us to the beginning of the reverse side of Turning Signs, which is also “under refreshment.” The current (2nd) edition of Turning Signs, like the current (3rd) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, is frequently updated online. In addition to some of the points in TS ·1, i’ve updated my introduction to phenoscopy (my name for the practice of “stepping back” to refresh our perceptions). It’s now also an introduction (or “presign”) to Turning Signs online. I’ll be giving links to other updates in future blog posts.

review: Power

Richard Heinberg has been researching the central role of energy in civilization for years, and shown how the human addiction to oil has brought us to an unprecedented crisis. His new book gives us a longer and broader perspective on the deeper addiction to power in its physical and social forms. He draws upon insights from biology and anthropology to tell the story of the evolution of power, from the beginnings of life on earth through the development of social hierarchies up to the present, in a very accessible way.

The book’s subtitle is “Limits and prospects for human survival”, and he does explain the radical changes in human habits and systems which must be made in this decade if we are to salvage our planetary life support system along with the better qualities of our collapsing civilization. But given the history of how this situation has evolved, it’s difficult to be honestly optimistic about our prospects. Heinberg’s view is more realistic, for instance in this excerpt from the final chapter:

“There can be no perfect, stable society. Imbalance and impermanence are baked into biological existence. But we are in a particularly explosive moment now. History shows that overconcentrations of physical, economic, military, and political power create instability, and, in the past few decades, humanity has found ways to build and concentrate these kinds of power as never before. The strong likelihood is that we are headed toward what economists glibly call a ‘correction,’ though not just in stock market values but also in population and consumption levels. If we hope to minimize the shock and casualties, we will need to mobilize cooperation and behavior change, aiming to limit our own collective power at a speed and scale that are unprecedented.” [p. 356-7]

This is not a feel-good book, but it is a live-well book that everyone can learn something from.

Forthcoming works

My ongoing revision of Turning Signs now includes the first 12 chapters. Along the way, it’s persuaded me that the book contains some important ideas relevant to the personal and systemic transformations we are all living through these days. Later on, I’m hoping to make some of those ideas more accessible through this blog. (More visually oriented, for one thing.)

In the meantime I’m looking forward to a couple of forthcoming books that have been recently announced. One of them is by Jeremy Lent, who’s been quoted here before: it’s called The Web of Meaning and will probably explore some of the same territory as Turning Signs. I expect his approach to it will be different from mine, which focusses on core ideas drawn from Charles Peirce’s philosophy of signs. So it will be interesting to see how much the two approaches agree on scientific, cultural and ethical issues.

Another forthcoming book of great interest is Richard Heinberg’s Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. If you follow that link and pre-order it, as i did, you get online access to a pre-release version. Based on my reading of it so far, it’s another wide-ranging interdisciplinary book about the biological and cultural evolution of power among humans. By studying the uses and abuses of power, it will draw some conclusions about how we might deal with the economic/ecological mess we humans have gotten ourselves into.

I’m happy to see that both Lent and Heinberg seem to honor the roles of both scientific and religious (or “spiritual”) experience in shaping human habits. There have always been people who were more science-minded than religious, and religious people who tended to distrust scientific thinking, and dogmatically driven people on both sides, but i’ve always found this mutual animosity lacking in common sense. Turning Signs delves fairly deeply into both scientific and religious experience, and the differences between them (see Chapter 8). My own research leaves me with no doubt that both are vital to human guidance systems, as i call them. That’s one example of an affinity i see between Jeremy Lent’s work and Richard Heinberg’s, and my own. But i trust that i’ll learn something new from them too.

In the between

My slow revision of Turning Signs has now reached the beginning of Chapter 6. Chapter 5 took longer than expected, but the good news is that it’s not only better but a bit shorter than it was before. The downloadable version of the complete book has been updated as of yesterday.

This revision has been sparked by the continuing dialogue between some ancient scriptures and recent reflections on the transition. I’ve been studying Robert Thurman’s book on the Bardo Thödol (known in the West as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”) – and hearing Laurie Anderson’s beautiful rendition of Songs from the Bardo as well. Thurman explains that the root meaning of bardo in Tibetan is “the between,” and the vast bardo literature reflects a conceptual scheme which ‘is used to create in the practitioner a sense that all moments of existence are “between” moments, unstable, fluid, and transformable into liberated enlightenment experience’ (Thurman 1994, 34). So wherever we are in spacetime, we are in the between.

I’ve also been reading a collection of very recent essays called The New Possible, and to give a taste of it, here’s an excerpt from Jeremy Lent’s contribution:

As long as government policies emphasize GDP growth and transnational corporations relentlessly pursue shareholder returns, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe. These practices ransack the Earth without regard to long-term effects. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices we make, but by a transformation in the very way we make sense of the world, and by a concomitant revolution in our predominant values.

The depiction of humans as selfish individuals, the view of nature as a resource to be exploited, and the idea that technology alone can fix our biggest problems are all profound misconceptions that have collectively led our civilization down this madcap path to disaster. We must recognize the destructive nature of the dominant mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming, embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services. We must emphasize core human values of fairness, justice, and compassion as paramount—extending them through local neighborhoods to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis (p. 5-6). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

It’s all one transformation.

Corpus

In English and many other languages, including Latin and Greek, the same word can be used for a living body or a dead one, even though the difference is crucial in terms of how we relate to it.

On the other hand, several esoteric traditions, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Iranian mystics investigated by Corbin (1960), and early Christian texts such as the Gospel of Philip distinguish between two (or more) kinds of ‘body’:

[The master] was conceived from what [is imperishable], through God. The [master rose] from the dead, but [he did not come into being as he] was. Rather, his [body] was [completely] perfect. [It was] of flesh, and this [flesh] was true flesh. [Our flesh] is not true flesh, but only an image of the true.
Gospel of Philip 68 (NHS, 174)

We might compare Philip‘s ‘true flesh’ with Walt Whitman’s ‘real body’:

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?

Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the moment of death.

Not the types set up by the printer return their impression, the meaning, the main concern,
Any more than a man’s substance and life or a woman’s substance and life return in the body and the soul,
Indifferently before death and after death.

Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul;
Whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any part of it!
Starting from Paumanok, §13
For Whitman, the ‘real body’ is the type which, like the type set by the printer, leaves its ‘impression’ on everything it touches. The printed copy of a book is but a token (replica, sinsign) of it; but it must exist in order for the act of meaning to occur. Likewise your soul must be embodied in order to manifest itself, but your living-and-dying body is only a temporary token of your real body.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Art of Living (2017), says that ‘we are not limited to our physical body, even while we are alive.’ He lists eight bodies that we all have: the human body, the buddha body, the spiritual practice body, the community body, the body outside the body (which is ‘present in many places in the world’), the continuation body (by which our thoughts, speech and actions continue to influence the world), the cosmic body, and the ultimate body (‘the nature of reality itself, beyond all perceptions, forms, signs, and ideas’). All of these bodies are real in the continuity of their presence: their interbeing is living the time.

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?

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.

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.

Life the pandemic

It seems that everyone has something to say about the COVID-19 pandemic. Still i can hope to say something you haven’t heard before.

The coronavirus is a life form which exploits the internal resources of its host for its own purposes. All it wants to do is proliferate; destroying the health of its individual host is a side effect. If it mutated into a form that killed all of its hosts, it would destroy itself as well. If it mutates into a form we can live with, like the common cold or something more benign, it will live as long as we live to host it. But it has no control over how it mutates; it is not aware of the effects it has or even of what it ‘wants to do.’

Humanity too is a life form which exploits the resources of its host (the Earth) for its own purposes, and is busily destroying the health of its own support system. The present pandemic has slowed down our busyness, which we are pleased to call “the economy,” and this slowdown has given some of us a rare opportunity to step back and reflect on the whole situation. We might even mutate into a more benign and less destructive presence on the Earth. Unlike that of a virus, though, our self-mutation could be consciously chosen – if humanity as a species can achieve something like a collective consciousness.

No matter what conscious choices we make, either as individuals or as a species, they are motivated by values that we are hardly able to question while we live. Living makes us partial to life. All life forms are held in the ruthless grip of life itself, compelled to seek out forms of energy that they can transform into their own activities, embodiments and infrastructures. Every living body is driven to survive and reproduce, to crowd out a place for itself and its kin. Every life form is dedicated to continuing its existence; even a life form that realizes its kinship with all living beings is partial to life itself. Life not only determines our needs but tells us what to want.

There is no force in the universe more creative, or more destructive, than the life force. If it has any purpose other than persisting, it must be to diversify its embodiments. Over the course of evolution on earth, both biological and cultural, it produces ever more baroque and bizarre complexities of body type and behavior, often at the expense of other types, other species. Since every one of them wants to go on living, Life imbues us all with a horror of death, making us forget that death is an essential feature of it, and extinction an essential feature of evolution. Life does its best to hide that side of its nature by distracting us with all sorts of motivations, pleasures and predilections, interests and intentions, celebrations and cerebrations. Even now it inspires this writer with the illusion that life is coming to know itself through me.

Yet there are moments when life seems to loosen its death grip on us, when we let go of conscious intentions and allow time, which is even deeper than life, to carry us along. After working on Turning Signs for 20 years, or perhaps all my life, it now occurs to me that living the time is what it was all about. All i have to do now is let go of it, and be ready for what’s coming next. Can humanity do that?