Learning What Humanity's Place in the Natural World Might Be.pdfDownload PDFWhat is nature? What does natural mean? Or, more specifically, what is natural for humans todo and to be in the world, and what is our relationship to the world? Do we belong to theworld, are we wholly made of the world, or are we a part of it and also alien to it? What is ourresponsibility to the world? To investigate these questions we will explore examples frommythology, biology, physics, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and the arts.There are origin stories from around the world that describe our situation as partly of theworld and partly not of the world. Here are just three stories, and they are amazinglycongruent:From Greece - Prometheus and Epimetheus were spared imprisonment in Tartarusbecause they had not fought with their fellow Titans during the war with theOlympians. They were given the task of creating humanity. Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into his clay figure. Prometheus had assignedEpimetheus the task of giving the creatures of the earth their various qualities, such asswiftness, cunning, strength, fur, and wings. Unfortunately, by the time he got tohumans Epimetheus had given all the good qualities out and there were none left forman. So Prometheus decided to make man stand upright as the gods did and to give himfire.…Native American - In the beginning there was no land, no light, only darkness and thevast waters of Outer Ocean where Earth-Maker and Great-Grandfather were afloat intheir canoe... Earth-Maker took soft clay and formed the figure of a man and of awoman, then many men and women, which he dried in the sun and into which hebreathed life: they were the First People.…Old Testament - Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, sothat they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock andall the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earthand subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every livingcreature that moves on the ground.”…Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, forthe LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work theground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of theground. Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathedinto his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.The simple way to read these accounts is that our bodies are made from the same stuff as everyother natural thing, such as clay, and the breath of our life comes from supernatural forces thatcreated and govern the world. Even in comparison to the animals, of which at least our bodieshave so much in common, humans are particularly situated not just with life but also with agod-like fashioning. Other aspects of these peculiarities include morality , language ,abstraction , timing , calculation , imagination , understanding … in short, what reason produces.Differing Abilities and Their ConsequencesEven if we want to criticize these origin stories for uniquely raising the status of humanity todivine proportions (or at least divine instigation), it’s difficult to deny that our experience inthe world appears to be distinct from other life. Let’s consider a few examples:1) You can watch a nature program and see a group of lions single out a juvenile antelope,cut it off from the herd, tackle it, keep a firm bite on the antelope’s neck until it falls,and then the lions begin to tear the flesh away while the antelope dies. It’s gruesome. Weunderstand that this is the way of nature, and the entire living world only survives withthe death of other living things. Even plants require the nutrients that soil provides, andthe difference between soil and sand is dead plants and animals. Even floating sea plantsmetabolize the soil-like nutrients found in the water, the product of former livingthings. The disturbance here is that we know this is how life works and if we want to bealive we have to cause the death and potential suffering of other living things, but wecan’t ignore the pain and presumed terror of the antelope, nor the suffering of thehungry lion. But of course the lion is not being cruel . The whole system seems cruel tous because we can imagine what it’s like to be all of the creatures. Not only that, we alsofind life and living things profoundly beautiful and rare in, at least so far, an otherwiselifeless universe. By nature, it seems, we are fundamentally driven to want to continue tosurvive while we abhor (when we deeply think about it) the method of ourcontinuance. When we don’t think about it we just enjoy our burger. It does seemstrange that nature would have an offspring so ill-disposed to the process, but hold thatthought for now.2) If we try to define music , we typically come up with something like the following:the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and intemporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity. Or moresimply: vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, andharmony. So, by these definitions, when wind chimes are blown and making sound arethey also making music? And when birds are singing in the forest are they makingmusic? Let’s take each question in turn.A stove in action is only hot for beings that have nerves. For a rock, the stove is not hot,better said the stove is in greater molecular motion which will influence the molecularmotion of the rock if the rock is close enough. That is a way of understanding whattemperature means, and we are lucky to be able to sense it in order to avoid injury.Similarly, when the wind chime is in motion, we hear the sounds it produces and find itto be beautiful and even musical, but the chime does not hear or understand what it isproducing, nor did it compose the sounds. The maker of the chime intended thosesounds, and that maker is also a potential maker of music, just as we listeners are. So, thechime does make music, for us.The singing bird in the forest is intending to make the sounds it’s making, unlike theblowing chimes. Again, we may find the sounds to be beautiful and musical. All of ourobservations of birds singing seem to involve communication of territory and matingreadiness, although we should always be cautious about defining the intention ofanimal behaviors with absolute confidence. Still, we would not call all bird“communication songs” harmonious. Kingfishers rattle, owls hoot, and woodpeckersseem to use hammering to communicate as well as to find food. Contrast these birdexamples with a woman alone at home, learning to play a song on her guitar. Whymight she be learning to play a song? If the song has lyrics we could say that the music isspeaking to her experience or emotionally moving her. Let’s say this is a song withoutlyrics… the song is not about anything, it is just melody. Why learn the song now?Maybe she plans to perform the song in a crowd, in the hopes of attracting a mate. Let’ssay she is shy and never intends to perform the song in front of others. Why now?What’s the point of learning the song?Music has the distinct honor of being the most muse-like of all of the art forms, hencethe name. In its non-representational melodic and rhythmic forms, music seems to havethe potential to elicit fantastically rich responses: excitement, sadness, melancholy, joy,wonder, peace, etc. Of course the addition of lyrics can make music be about somethingparticular, and that is just another dimension of the form. Consider what more is withinthe practice of music – ratios. When we hear a C , and a C’ , they are stacked, they belongto each other. Then we learn that the C’ vibrates at double the frequency of C . Thenconsider the perfect 4 th and its ratio of 2:3, and the perfect 5 th at 3:4. Were we simplyinterested in making maps we would say that it makes sense that the 4 th or 5 th work withthe root, because there is a proportion that appeals to our cognitive sensibility. Luckilywe are not just mapmakers… these notes together also sound beautiful.The name music suggests that this art is a gift from the gods, and therefore notoriginating from the natural world… another example of our peculiarity. Learning asong certainly does not feel artificial or unnatural to us, but it does seem to be a uniqueactivity in the world.3) As some thinkers have questioned, if we were to visit another world and look for a signof intelligence there, what might we look for? An easy and demonstrable sign would bea made image. Why? Consider what goes into the making of an image, such as aprehistoric painting of a bison on a cave wall. The producer of this work must be able todo the following things:a) Hold a mental image from the past and reproduce it in the present,b) Have the ability to discern essential qualities of a many instances of thesame general kind of thing, and reproduce that essence,c) Both a) and b) suggest the ability to experience time outside of thepresent awareness and abstraction outside of the present senseperception.d) If the bison happened to be present and modeled for the artwork, theimagemaker is still deciding what is essential to reproduce from themodel, since some truncation must occur.Beings who can make images also time and abstract in a manner non-image-makingbeings do not seem to be doing, and this might be the beginning of symbolic, abstractlanguage. In the animal kingdom we do find signs, such as urine marking territory orlocation, but these signs seem to lack the dimensionality and depth of definition we seein human image making.4) In the animal kingdom apart from humans, suicide is extremely rare and, when it doesoccur, seems to generally take three manifestations:a) self-destruction to defend the colony – as in the case of carpenter ants,b) suicide-inducing parasites – such as worms that control crickets fromearly age and then, in adulthood, get them to die in water so theworms can reproduce and find new crickets to zombify,c) animals such as dogs and ducks that appear to be depressed about thedeath of the human master or the life-long mate, and thenabstaining from food until the animal dies.Approximately 0.5% to 1.4% (varying by country) of people die by suicide, a mortalityrate of 11.6 per 100,000 persons per year. Suicide resulted in 842,000 deaths in 2013 upfrom 712,000 deaths in 1990. Rates of suicide have increased by 60% from the 1960s to2012 , with these increases seen primarily in the developing world. (Wikipedia). In theU.S, firearms account for 51% of all suicides in 2016 (American Foundation for SuicidePrevention). This highlights a difference between human and the rare animal suicide:we use tools . According to Psychology Today , there are five main reasons people attemptsuicide:a) They're depressed,b) They're psychotic,c) They're impulsive,d) They're crying out for help,e) They have a philosophical desire to die.The last cause offers the most to consider for our purpose here. Our peculiarity gives usa distorted view, or a view that exposes too much, and makes some of us to preferunconsciousness over continued consciousness. Healthcare professionals will say thatsome thoughts of suicide are normal… So whatever happened that triggered our longago ancestors to be able to see and do more came at a price. Jeff, our storyteller onFriday morning, will touch on this.5) Sometimes a bright young person will ask: “I know in English we call that thing overthere a dog , and in Spanish we call it a perro … but what does the dog call itself?” Theanswer: “We’re not sure if it calls itself anything, or even if it calls anything anything.”What avalanche of cognitive implications does (simply) giving something a namesuggest, and how does that indication separate the named thing from all other namedthings? So much has been said of human language and we need not reiterate it here, wecan just point out that while we continue to learn more about animal communicationand different species’ abilities at recall and limited abstraction, the spectrum of animalabilities (humans included) does not seem incremental… rather exponential or at leastwith enormous qualitative gaps. We will certainly learn more about animal’s abilities inthe future.There is a lack of consensus on the difference between humans and our close animal cousins(in nature, without being trained). In general, the following list summarizes what many say arethe observable divergent attributes, while omitting more obscure abilities such asself-reflection:Symbolic, recursive languageFashioning permanent toolsImage making (abstraction)Making art (visual, musical, etc.)and, Burying our deadPerhaps we can take this list as a tentative group of examples to suggest why, in the area ofabilities, we sometimes feel alien to the world.The World as a Testing GroundIn religions and philosophies that involve an afterlife, the world is often considered a testingground, and humanity’s performance during the test will determine what will happen in thenext phase. Sometimes the next phase is coming back to the world to be tested again, anexample of this system being the karmic cycles in Hinduism or in Buddhism. But just as in thefinal-resting-place type of afterlife, the karmic cycle can end in a final destination ofnon-existence when all goes well (Nirvana). So, within this framework of losing the self ormaintaining the self in something like heaven, the world is not our true home… it’s ourtemporary home, just as our body would be our temporary suit. Within these beliefs, thebreath of life (or the spark of human consciousness) given by the creating powers is our realself, or at least the self or essence or quality that will endure for the next or final phase.There are at least three ways we can respond to the world-as-testing-ground proposals:1) The afterlife accounts are right, or perhaps one of the accounts is right. We don’t reallybelong to the world and whatever kinship we feel to other life or non-life ends at thebody. Our essence, which manifests in abilities we don’t share with other life, isevidence of our difference in kind. The reason we might feel alienated or expatriated isbecause we are longing to go to our final home, which is God, Nirvana, etc.2) If one does not subscribe to a traditional religious or philosophical belief that advocatesfor an afterlife system, one could propose that the afterlife accounts are a consequenceor an attempted soothing reaction to the differing abilities we described above. Moreexplicitly, when we first encounter the death of a beloved, we say “what was the mosther or him is not there now… the body is still there but the main thing is not… theanimating thing is not.” And since we have the ability to time in a way that can holdboth the past and the future, including the past before us and the future after us, wequite naturally ask where the departed beloveds are now ? Where were they before theirbirth? Where will I be after my death? It’s comforting to think of the beloved orourselves as continuing after death, but perhaps the richer question for our task now isto ask How can we imagine eternity and glimpse universals and seemingly be at leastsomewhat free from the mechanical constraints we see in matter, and yet be finite, clunky,self-delusional flashes of ephemera? How can both be true?The mechanical or reductive view that is sometimes posited is that human life andhuman abilities solely reside on a spectrum that includes animals and plants, andextends further to non-living matter, since that is what everything is made out of. TheEnlightenment view of matter is that it is predictable, extended, measurable, governed,and can be useful when viewed through these mechanical laws. By extension, thisparadigm can be applied to complicated things (e.g. the heart is like a pump), which toomust be guided by material laws. Finally, even the most complex things we can findwould also fall within these material structures, and living organisms are by far the mostcomplex phenomenon we have encountered.Animal life seems to will and want things, and more complex creatures seem to have aninner lives (e.g. dogs dreaming). Human life also has a sense of free will and all of theabilities we described before. But within the mechanical view, some have argued, thehuman abilities mentioned above are not the essential forces or attributes that defineand motivate human kind. Instead, the forces that govern humanity are the same forcesthat motivate all life: the drives to survive and reproduce. Consider the followingquotes:“We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfishmolecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.” ―Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene“Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled intooblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survivethe shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over,they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is theirbusiness. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we haveserved our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes areforever.” ― Richard Dawkins, The Selfish GeneSometimes the human abilities above our animal kin are called epiphenomenal,generally meaning that the abilities are there but are not the main thrust of our being.They are more like attribute such as hair color… they are real but not essential. Somethinkers believe these abilities are actually illusions, the most common culprit being thefeeling of having a free will which seems to be at odds with determined matter. Otherswould argue that our ability to reason is an aid to survival and reproduction, but alsocauses us to do things that don’t seem evolutionarily beneficial, such as voluntarycelibacy or committing suicide. Or sometimes the argument is that the origin ofsomething like music comes from ancestors such as bird songs… useful origins that haveabstracted and don’t have their original function.So, in this view, we are lying to ourselves when we say the world is a testing ground. It isthe only ground. The faculties we possess allow us to hold the past and the futurewithin the present thought, and makes the non-existence of the beloved or the selfunbearable, so we make up a story that we will meet again some day. This might be thekind of thinking Francis Bacon is critical of in The New Organon , whom we arediscussing tomorrow. Whatever alienation we feel from the natural world is caused inpart by the stories we tell ourselves, exemplifying that we are different from the rest ofthe world in the most essential ways. If we do feel alienation from the natural worldbecause we are different, an alternative response could be that our accidentallyenhanced awakenness is just allowing us to see the world more of the way it actually is.Sometimes the way it is is harsh and perhaps meaningless, and our final resting place,our “home state or homeostasis”, is non-consciousness and material dissipation. Thisshould sound like a bummer.3) Imagine a vertical line, where on the top you have the following:a) The body, wholly made of matter, following all physical laws,b) The soul (animating principle or force), which is not made of matter,and therefore not subject to physical determinism. The substance ofthe soul is what the gods breathed into the clayNow, on the bottom of the line, you have the following:a) Everything about a human, and all life, is made wholly of matter andsubject to all physical laws and biological imperatives. If the humandoes something out of the determined ordinary, it’s a quirky,inessential byproduct. The mind is a feature of the brain and isstrictly a physical phenomenon.Of course this is just another way of describing options 1) and 2) above, and is also thefamous mind/body problem. The mind or soul does not seem to be the same thing asthe body, but all of the work and scientific discovery since the Renaissance has been inthe realm of matter, with the incorporeal substance of the mind or soul nowhere to befound. Our third way of responding to the world as our natural home versus a testingground is to take the bottom of our vertical line and circle it to the top, connecting theends to become one thing. It will be a cautious approach, step by step. (Much of thisportion is elaborated by Hans Jonas in The Phenomenon of Life, whom we will bediscussing on Thursday).Let’s start from what is closest to us, and that is our inner life. We should be moreconvinced that we have inner lives than that each other actually exists. An inner life isour first fact. We also have a strong sense that we get to make choices. We have a senseof beauty, even if it’s hard to exhaustively define. We have some moral sense, even if theorigins of that morality are debatable or obscure. We can calculate, imagine, perceive,create, and emote. These qualities and their relatives are the exact opposite ofepiphenomenal, in fact most of us prize these characteristics above many others thatseem more basic. A life without these rich abilities is no life we would want. So, we willposit step one: Attributes that are dearest to us are most essentially us.Next, when we study non-human living things we see incredible similarity in bodystructures and many behaviors. As we mentioned above, if our natural abilities are on aspectrum with other animals, there are some huge qualitative gaps. But, the evidence ofour senses indicate that we have much more in common with our animal kin than wehave differences between us. If we are to take that evidence as true, it’s not a big leap tosay that animals too must have some form of inner lives (the dreaming dog), even if thatinner life is the faint irritation in the single-celled creature. All metabolizing beings haveinner and outer dimensions, and it could be argued that this makes us related not just inbody but in essence, at least foundationally.If, just for the moment, we are to set aside incorporeal soul-stuff, simply because wecan’t find it, and say that matter is the sole source of life and nature, then we need torethink what matter is capable of, because here we are . In the 20th and 21st centuries,much work has been done in the fields of Complexity, Chaos, Emergent Properties,investigations into dark matter and dark energy, and the instances of Quantumstrangeness continue to amaze and puzzle us. Without detailing all of these theorieshere, we can simply say that there is a lot happening with matter that we cannot predict,especially when structures get complicated. The vision of Enlightenment materialpredictability does not categorically pan out upon further scrutiny. Even cause andeffect relationships betray our own limitations in understanding and our use of overlysimple categories. Can’t we take this last step and wonder… since we can do all of thewonderful things we are naturally able to do, and if we are made solely of matter, thanmatter is capable of making beings who can do these wonderful things. Thereforematter is much richer than it appears.If we stick with our senses, what appears to be the norm after the death of an organismis for the material and energy to dissipate into other life forms. In this view individualitydoes seem to be a dance of moving parts. But since storytelling is something the naturalworld has fostered in us, it will be our privilege and duty to carry on the story of theworld.Conclusion - Rethinking what Natural MeansIs a beaver’s dam natural? Everyone says yes to that. Is a building natural? Put another way, is itnatural for people to make buildings? If it is not natural for people to make buildings, what dowe mean by natural ? A dichotomy many make is that there is the natural world and thehuman-made world , which is another way of saying that we are not a part of the naturalworld… or perhaps we used to be a part of it but when we ate the apple we were exiled fromnature. In this scheme the building is unnatural to the world. However, if we ask: Are peoplenatural to the world or unnatural , and if we answer that people are natural to the world, thenwe belong to the world and our buildings do too. If we change what natural means to: Whatfrequently and regularly occurs then buildings are natural to people, just as dams are to beaversand nests to birds. But conversely, we see that if people spend insufficient time innon-civilization (what is typically called nature ), they can become fragmented, anxious, anddepressed. Our “at-homeness” in the world seems to require some time away from the stuff wemade in order to plunge into what made us.We will conclude that if humans are natural to the world then what we naturally do is also aproduct of world. The list of natural activities include reasoning, music making, abstraction,laughter, appreciation of beauty, mathematics, emotion, having a sense of time, morality,storytelling, image making, curiosity, kindness, and so much more. Instead of these abilitiessetting humankind apart from the world, by re-understanding the natural world and what theworld has actually made in us, we can potentially recognize a richer home here. If we see thatthe world made creatures who are kind and artistic, then the world must at least have thepotential of these qualities within it in order to generate these traits in its offspring. Theso-called dumb matter swirling in a meaningless void has, in the right configuration andcomplexity, the potential to make creatures who can see the world, embrace the world, andmake meaning in and of the world. Again, if our senses and essences are any guides, our job isnot simply to reproduce, it is to love what is most precious to us… to recognize the cosmosbecause we participate and partake of that same cosmos.I would like to conclude with a poem by Mary Oliver , whom we will read on Friday:Blackwater WoodsLook, the treesare turningtheir own bodiesinto pillarsof light,are giving off the richfragrance of cinnamonand fulfillment,the long tapersof cattailsare bursting and floating away overthe blue shouldersof the ponds,and every pond,no matter what itsname is, isnameless now.Every yeareverythingI have ever learnedin my lifetimeleads back to this: the firesand the black river of losswhose other sideis salvation,whose meaningnone of us will ever know.To live in this worldyou must be ableto do three things:to love what is mortal;to hold itagainst your bones knowingyour own life depends on it;and, when the time comes to let it go,to let it go.