Monday, March 05, 2012
Let Spring be my muse
If I were a farmer I’d be wandering these meadows and arable fields, taking a keen interest in the renaissance of everything at this end-of-winter moment. But I’m merely an observer, with no vested interest, no trained eye, ear or nose. I see how the birds, thorn bushes, young nettles & all wildflowers in their turn awaken, look to expand their territory; sniffing the wind, temperature and humidity; noting the lengthening days & the brighter sky. Intelligence, in the whole being, not just the brain, determines when to continue in hibernal mode, when to let the sap or blood quicken for growth or mating. Tramping by, in mud-caked boots, I sense all this; using reason merely to unravel what I have sensed, and put it into coherent prose.
People think of “dumb animals”, but the perception is false. In the universe of all living things there is knowledge and wisdom, equally wondrous in every creature. It is contained in i) instinct, ii) acquired skill and iii) reason. There is good reason for extolling reason: it’s one of the defining attributes of the human ape, a gift which matures in each of us with a healthy brain. But it’s no more wondrous than the other two.
Instinct is knowledge and wisdom in its stored form, already present in the seed or ovum. No scientific insight can dim its glory. In us, instinctual nature has not been superseded. What the autonomous systems do in our bodies cannot be replicated by reason. These systems keep us alive in almost every varied circumstance, till things become too hostile for our continued singular existence; then we unravel and merge back to the All. Intellect is not the master of all it surveys. We (our conscious intellectual selves) are wholly dependent on hidden bodily mechanisms. We can’t control them and we cannot replace them with thought.
We acquire many skills in life. The baby takes its first steps, speaks its first words. These are observable milestones, but the skills go on becoming more complex. The underlying mechanisms might be understood and documented in books; but they cannot be learned from books, for their execution is beyond analysis. I refer you to the “Centipede’s Dilemma”:
A centipede was happy—quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
As for reason, we’re fully aware of it, “we” meaning I writing and you reading. We won’t get far without it. I shall merely say that it differs from the other forms of intelligence (instinct and learned skills) in one characteristic only: its spontaneous inventiveness. For example in language communication, without the faculty of reason we could not make up new sentences to suit the occasion; or understand them. We’d be reduced to the formulaic, and learn a phrase-book. At any rate, reason is too big a topic for me to think of at this irreplaceable moment. I’ll just focus on our capacity for improvisation, whether in jazz, speech or dance; a kind of reasoning whose steps we cannot see, possibly the best kind; the mathematics of the ear that flowed from the pens of Bach and Mozart like a constant spring.
Some of the signs of human industry are a mystery in these rolling meadows; archaeological remains of the very recent past. I saw at the edge of a field, in the shade of an ancient hedgerow, some huge paving stones which seemed to hide something beneath, like the entrance to a cave or sewer, with a neat pile of about 50 bricks on one corner, as if to prevent the stone being lifted. I could not make sense of it.
There was a time when most phenomena could be ascribed to God because no other explanation was available, and this ascription had the advantage of uniting everything known or unknown. You could talk of Divine Providence, as I still do, without any prescribed worship. It’s true that today, there are more explanations, but they don’t diminish Providence: they fill out the rough outlines with more detail, a kind of fractal recursiveness. I’m confident that mysteries will always outrun explanations.
What I see in these fields, cultivated for two thousand years at least, is effort, by man and his near and distant relations. Impulse precedes effort. For the miracle of life there has to be potential energy. Most of it comes from the sun. Then there has to be purpose, at any rate, that’s what I lightly believe. If you say it was randomness I will not burn your books. Potential energy is there but purpose-driven impulse, I think, is what lets off the brakes so that potential energy turns into kinetic. Or to put it another way, Nature doesn’t fool around in mindless interaction for its own sake. Ask James Lovelock*; he’s spent his life gathering evidence. Not that nature is perfect. It makes mistakes. We have only to look at ourselves, or (to see them more obviously), at one another.
I seem to gain a kind of direct knowledge, tramping these fields: a peripatetic† philosophy open even to the illiterate, like a ploughman who walked these fields a few centuries ago, whose entire spoken eloquence derived from the Bible cadences he had heard.
I see that human separateness—from one another and from the rest of Nature—is an illusion; a necessary one, whose potential is built-in and whose actuality is gradually learned in early childhood. I call it the primary illusion, from which others derive along with philosophies and religions. I have no authority to say it’s an illusion, other than personal certainty derived from intuition whilst passing through landscapes, and confirmation from others§ who have travelled the same paths, viewed the same reality.
* For example by reading any of his Gaia books.
† Peripatetic: from classical Latin peripatēticus of or belonging to the peripatetic (Aristotelian) school of philosophy, philosopher of this school; from Hellenistic Greek περιπατητικός given to walking about, especially while teaching or disputing, especially with reference to Aristotle and his followers; from ancient Greek περιπατεῖν to walk about, to walk up and down while teaching ... (Oxford English Dictionary)
§ See for example The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and reality in a more-than-human world, by David Abram.
Posted by Vincent at 2:43 pm