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The Eros of Everyday Life

In Western thought human intelligence has been elevated above all of nature. The price has been the loss of a sense of being immersed in something bigger, of awareness of being a humble part of something larger than humanity.

By Susan Griffin
In this fabulous rendering of the scientific method, the scientist brings reality into his laboratory and returns with truth. Here in this room I can hear water falling outside, see moisture on the ground in the garden outside, feel the dampness in the air and in a certain heaviness of body and mind that overtakes me in the rain. Yet this is not how my eyes were trained to see. I was taught to think of the mind as independent from place. Among all the fantasies of independence that are part of the Western mythos, the adventurer, the pioneer alone in the wilderness, the sailor on the open seas, the crusading knight, the heroic marine, perhaps the most enduring and profound in its influence has been the idea of a mind autonomous from any surrounding.

The idea of a separation between consciousness and physical existence is deeply worn into the crevices of European thought. This division is the metaphor through which a transcendence over earthly process is imagined. Only by considering itself independent of the earth can consciousness believe in its own transcendence.

Just as the natural process of human birth is reversed in Genesis to make woman born of man, so mental process has been reversed in the mythos of this civilization so that the physical universe is depicted as proceeding from abstractions. Plato's idea of earthly existence as a poor shadow of eternal ideas permeates not only the dominant traditions of Western philosophy, but also reflects a fundamental posture toward existence, a hierarchy of values in which abstractions, theories, principles, ideas, mathematical equations, logic, and analysis are elevated above what is called concrete, corporeal, sensible, palpable, tangible, solid, physical, material, and contextual.

In the theology that preceded and yet still shapes modern scientific thought, the realm of the abstract was said to reflect the mind of God more accurately than a corrupt earthly life. The heresy of science was to observe the things of this earth. Science made a break from pure deductive logic by inserting experiment into the process by which truth is discovered. And to a certain degree, through experiment, what is palpable has been given value again. Yet by an odd twist of mind, what is palpable has also been robbed of credence. Now what one perceives directly is no longer trusted without the intervention of scientific method.

By what almost amounts to a kind of psychological sleight of hand, science has by one stroke seized authority over both concrete and abstract realms of knowledge. In this fabulous rendering of the scientific method, the scientist brings reality into his laboratory and returns with truth. This story gains strength through a subtle heritage, which partakes of religion, philosophical assumptions and the intrinsic authority of direct sensual experience. And so we do not notice that even scientific conjecture remains conjecture still. So inured have we become to the authority of science that when one "proven" scientific idea of the world, such as Newtonian physics, is supplanted by other theories, such as relativity or quantum mechanics, we never question the scientific method itself, nor do we understand that all along scientific thought, like religious abstraction, is not the same as reality.

An experiment conducted in a laboratory is subject to many different kinds of influence; that is why experiments must be replicated in more than one laboratory to be taken seriously. But even what is taken as proof by the scientific community isnot conclusive. A condition in one laboratory may be replicated in almost all laboratories, because this condition is part of the ethos of a whole civilization. One of these conditions, a mostly unquestioned part of the scientific method, is the practice of studying any being in isolation from the environment in which it lives. But as ecologists have shown, to study a creature outside of its surroundings is to study another animal altogether, one that does not exist in nature.

As the philosopher and historian of science Paul Feyerabend has made clear in Against Method (Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1988), no theory accounts for all of the facts in its domain. There are always seemingly stray aspects of reality that remain outside every theory's capacity to explain phenomena, and there are even occurrences and test results that appear to contradict what becomes in the end an agreement about what is truth. And facts, whether from the laboratory or the field, do not make theory by themselves. They must be interpreted and in science as in other fields this interpretation is not immune to diverse influences including political bias. And finally, as Feyerabend makes clear, even what is called a fact is constituted by scientific effort; it is made. Theory is implicit in the language of science, the method, the attitudes by which "facts" are discerned and shaped.

One of these prejudices is certainly the enshrinement of numbers as the most reliable kind of data. Yet, as descriptions of the material universe, mathematical calculations must always be tried and proven by experiment. During the Manhattan Project, numerous mathematical calculations were done before the first explosion of the atomic bomb. These calculations were partially based on smaller experiments such as a small chain reaction Enrico Fermi had created in the Chicago Metallurgy Laboratory. Partly on conjecture. Partly on mathematical theory. But as Hans Bethe pointed out, no calculation can be relied upon to produce predictable consequences. Some early calculations, which were later "disproved," suggested that an atomic explosion would set off an endless chain reaction that would destroy the earth. In fact, the calculations which preceded the first experimental explosion of the bomb at Alamagordowere in error. The power of the blast was underestimated. The bomb destroyed the instrument designed to measure its force.

From hindsight, one might say that those earlier calculations which were dismissed had in them a grain of truth which was concealed by the limits scientific tradition places on knowledge. For the study of the bomb's effect was done by physicists, who were uneducated in botany, biology, and physiology. That infinitely small but also infinitely destructive nuclear explosions are still occurring in the bodies of those exposed years ago to ionizing radiation is a consequence which was not discernible in earlier calculations.

Even in my own mind I can discern the great appeal of numbers. They have about them a kind of coolness which makes for relief from the chaos of need and desire, anguish or anger, the flood of words, not to speak of sounds, textures, sensation of every kind. When I think of numbers proceeding in orderly sequence, or balanced carefully into equations, my mind arranges itself into a kind of calm. I think of Bach. Of quiet. Reason. And this realm of the mind is as real as any place in the universe. But in the history of Western science the mathematics has taken on a metaphysical experience. Identified with the mind of Kepler, among others, with the mind of God, the world of numbers has claimed to be not only real, but more real than any other place.

The metaphysics continues but now transcendent truth is wrought from specimens of earth. In the public mind, scientific knowledge rests on hard facts conjured from incontrovertible calculations and dense material evidence alike. This would appear to be a union of spirit and matter. But science is subtly arranged around an opposition between the two. Even if modern science no longer bifurcates matter and energy, by the scientific method, theory has been elevated above the realm of matter, as if scientific intelligence, like all intelligence, were not of the earth.

Yet in the actual processes of thought, scientific or otherwise, no absolute division between material and theoretical or concrete and abstract actually exists. Thought not only moves back and forth on a continuum we have described as abstract and concrete, but the human experience of knowledge can never at any instant be wholly one or the other. Even theory itself has a materiality rarely acknowledged in a culture still aiming toward transcendence. Ideas, as well as poems, narratives of any kind as well as stories, sounds of words, even alphabets, certainly numbers, exist as physical entities, not only becoming flesh as they affect the thinker, reader, speaker, or listener, and acting as a kind of mortar for communities, families, peoples, but themselves emanating from and participating in an ecology of mind that is as much of nature as are rocks and trees.

But in the West this commingling is veiled. If by means of duality Western culture has secured the illusion of transcendence, the culture is also blind to the order and pattern, the memory and intelligence, all qualities of abstract thought, that exist in nature. By that hubris which in Western culture characterizes most thought about human intelligence, the ability to perceive pattern and order in nature has been elevated above nature, while pattern and order are not perceived as qualities of a profound analytical intelligence in nature. Even the most abstract concepts of science, those which belong to mathematics, exist in nature. One has only to slice open an apple to find symmetry. Birth certainly contains a kind of division and multiplication at the same time, as does cell mitosis, DNA, the future lives within a seed pod, a copse of birch trees, splitting and reproducing even as they appear in repose.
If the child sees heaven in a wildflower, her innocent vision must later yield to a higher but severing wisdom which would have it that heaven exists on the earth only in the eye of a human beholder. Sequence was not invented by the human mind, but exists as a significant principle of order within all nature, most clearly perhaps with seasons, the progress of the earth circumnavigating the Sun or human growth and aging. Even the concept of the integer exists in nature, in beings and things which have a discernible integrity, a wholeness within themselves, such as one day, or as the astronomer Caroline Herschel called them, "the integer days." Even computations made possible by the use of Arabic numerals, with their crucial use of position, can be observed in the meaningful arrangements of chromosomes which also change significance through where they are placed and in what sequence.

Gregory Bateson was famous for beginning his classes by throwing a crab on his desk and asking his students to describe the qualities of life, using the crab as an example. The order is so clear. Near the end of his life Bateson argued that the capacity to symbolize, basic not only to all mathematics but also to what is called abstract thought, is deeply embedded in natural process. In an interview taped for a Lindisfarne Fellows meeting, Bateson described metaphor as the "logic upon which the biological world" has been built, "the main characteristic organizing glue . . ." of what he elsewhere calls the mental world of organisms.

The manner of symbolic thinking he describes is not the symbolic representation of logos but the metaphor of poets. He compares two syllogisms, the famous example of "good" thinking,

Men die.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates will die.

and the equally famous example of "bad" thinking,

Grass dies.
Men die.
Men are grass.

Because the first example depends on the likeness of subjects rather than verbs, it is a kind of logic not found in biology. For billions of years there has been no separation of subject and verb in living organisms. To extend the implications of Bateson's insight, one can see in the very insistence that the subject be separated from this verb, a separation from the natural world and natural process. A human death is made distinct from the death of grass. And the biological cycle of participation and transmutation at the heart of being by which men and women are grass and grass is fed by and becomes animal life, is obscured. But of course what is equally obscured, and for the same reasons, is dependence of thought on the attributes of the natural world. The possibility certainly exists that human beings have the capacity for and have invented forms of thought which are unique in the universe. But the assertion that what is considered the highest form of thought, namely abstract thought, is uniquely human has an emotional valence. This assertion takes the human thinker in the direction of a mythical world of ideas outside the biosphere. "For most mathematicians (and, one can add, most scientists)", Brian Rotman writes,"mathematics is a Platonic science, the study of timeless entities, pure forms that are somehow or other simply 'out there,' pre-existent objects independent of human volition or of any conceivable human activity . . ." and, I might add, of any biological or earthly activity too.

If with arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus scientists are able to measure and begin to describe and in some ways even understand the abundant complex patterns in nature, this is an astonishing accomplishment. It is a mirror of human nature and of the dimensions of human intelligence, including the human desire to know. Yet in every aspect this accomplishment is also a mirror of the complexity and the vast intelligence which belongs to natural existence. Human intelligence is woven fromthis complexity, the complexity of the universe. But with the concealment of nature the full dimension of human knowledge is also sacrificed. Those forms of human knowledge associated with materiality suffer invisibility and marginalization. It is thus not only the natural world that is mechanised but one's own experience of the natural world. Sensual knowledge, seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling, hearing crucial abilities through which the human species has survived for millennia in balance with other life forms have been subject to distrust, given a lower value, and hence, outside of a handful of artists and healers who are also marginalised, these capacities have been left undeveloped in Western culture. And what suffers equally in the estimation of modern science is what Pascal describes as the reason of the heart. Human emotional knowledge, which has also evolved in community with natural existence, has been reduced to a problem that gets in the way of objectivity. By this method, what is lost is the human experience of the beauty of a river, the trees along its side, the mountains rising behind it, the rocks washed, polished by waves of water, silvery fish leaping within it, leaves falling on its surface, shining, illuminated by the setting sun an experience central to what we would call any question of truth.
What is sacrificed with the elevation of human consciousness above natural process is not only the idea of the intelligence of nature, but one's experience of being immersed in a larger whole. I can remember the intensity with which as a child I entered the Sierra mountains, the deserts outside Los Angeles, the ocean just over the hills ringing the valley where I lived. Were I to put language to these experiences now I would describe them as meetings transformational exchanges which touched me and through which I learned the nature of existence. I was taught. But I had no way to explain such lessons. The cosmology I had been given, the philosophies, would not embrace this knowledge. In the world view I inherited, if nature seems to have meaning, its meaning is only an appearance, a sentimental overlay, one which only the naive, children, the uneducated, or lesser cultures take at face value. If the child sees heaven in a wildflower, her innocent vision must later yield to a higher but severing wisdom which would have it that heaven exists on earth only in the eye of the human beholder.

What is sacrificed with the elevation of human consciousness above natural process is not only the idea of the intelligence of nature, but one's experience of being immersed in a larger whole. A deep and continuing relationship with all other forms of existence is an ancient aspect of human consciousness. One encounters it in children who delight in plants and animals. And we keep this knowledge alive in the myths and stories we tell our children about the natural world.

But the child becomes an adult. Culture schools her to imagine her own intelligence as unique and isolated in the universe. An older sense of participation in a world of meaning is traded for a mental world that, however dry and abstract, is independent. To know is no longer erotic, no longer relational, but becomes instead a means of escape from an enmeshment in material existence. By an incremental process of separation from the body, from emotions, from the direct experience of nature, nature becomes alien. Now independence from nature is supposed to provide safety from an increasingly menacing nature. Knowledge, which has become a form of power rather than intimacy, works a kind of magic in the psyche. In this habit of mind, understanding and analysis bear with them the illusion of having captured the material world and bent it to submission. Yet, ironically, the mind that imagines itself to be independent from the physical universe is more fearful when confronted with natural power. The fear becomes a terror that is as inescapable as the fact of the human dependence on the biosphere, a dependency that seems terrible only because in the Western mind existence has become meaningless. To be swallowed by such a universe would be a preternaturally cold and lonely fate. But the mind is already swallowed. Just as in any ecosystem the existence of each species or life form is dependent on the matrix in which it exists. As Hans Blumenberg writes of the Copernican revolution, the air we inhabit is just dense enough to allow us to draw breath and to shield us from cosmic rays, and yet thin enough to allow us to see the stars. Or, less sanguinely, one might imagine a nuclear winter in which the sky is darkened, the polluted air stings the eyes, a lack of oxygen and the effects of radiation, not to speak of the trauma of events, affect the brain; since the smell of ash expunges every other scent, food cannot be smelled to know if it has gone bad, because buildings, trees, shrubs, rocks no longer exist as markers of a familiar landscape, one cannot find one's way. Without the other and without otherness, knowledge is limited to the point of extinction. But any number of less dramatic examples might be drawn from the history of scientific discourse. Within the history of physics, two simple examples spring to mind. One is from the written work of Galileo. As Italo Calvino points out, whether he is describing a dialogue, the process of thought, or physical motion, he is likely to use the image of a horse, racing, dragging sacks of grain, performing elaborate feats. The other example I use is more famous. That is Einstein's description of relativity, which he describes at times as being like the operations of an elevator and other times as being like a train. These concrete metaphors are not just illustrations. Human perspicacity is literally constituted by what can be perceived on earth and in the universe. Thought is impossible without such images.
A kind of mad arrogance flows from the diminishment of meaning in nature, one that approaches megalomania. The interdependency of human thought and the environment is a vast topic which has not been explored with anywhere near the same passion as the assertion of independence. But this mutuality goes back to the very origins of a human consciousness that evolved with the rest of nature. Answering Bishop Berkeley's famous epistemological question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is present to hear it, does it make a sound" one might pose another question: "If sound does not exist, can there be such a thing as a human ear" For the ear, and human knowledge, evolved in community with other life-forms and with the physical properties of an audible universe. Human knowledge, if nothing else, is a testament to the connectedness and interdependency of life. There can be no subject apart from an object. This understanding should transform our epistemologies by embedding not only being but the capacity to know in an earth imbued with intrinsic significance.

And a return to what is a birthright of meaning is more than a philosophical journey. Something changes in the mood. An atmosphere of nihilism dissolves. Certainly I notice this shift when turning away from the page, or the computer screen: the living world is suddenly present. When I rise and walk under the trees in my neighbourhood, the russet colour of their leaves burnishes my mind. Even turning in my chair, opening the window, feeling a cold wind against my face, my mind is joined, taken up, educated. This simple experience is one that most of us regard as an emotional necessity. A room, an enclosure, must have a window. Yet out of the mentality of this civilization we have made a windowless room.

What is at stake is sanity. A kind of mad arrogance flows from the diminishment of meaning in nature, one that approaches megalomania. A presumption of omniscience accompanies every dangerous attempt to control and dominate nature. Again and again, disasters are created because human knowledge has been imagined as having no limits. A substance is given to young pregnant women because scientific tests indicate it can prevent miscarriage. Decades later this substance is shown to have no effect on miscarriage, but it causes cancer in the daughters born of this experiment. Fields are saturated with another chemical because this substance kills certain pests. But the lesson is never learned. With each new invention, a claim for safety is made that is founded on an image of infallible knowledge.

In his beautiful accounts of peasant life in alpine France, John Berger describes a very different attitude toward knowledge. The peasant farmer lives and works with an understanding of scarcity. This understanding diverges from both the "bourgeois and Marxist ideals of equality" which "presume a world of plenty," he writes. "They demand equal rights before a cornucopia . . . to be constructed by science and the advancement of knowledge." But the peasant ideal of equality is different. It "recognizes a world of scarcity, and its promise is for mutual fraternal aid in struggling against this scarcity and a just sharing of what the work produces."

The experience of scarcity delivers a dramatic lesson in dependency on the earth. Not only the dependency of the body but of the mind too. Closely "connected with the peasant's recognition, as a survivor, of scarcity is his recognition of man's relative ignorance", Berger writes. "He may admire knowledge and the fruits of knowledge but he never supposes that advance of knowledge reduces the extent of the unknown.... The unknown can only be eliminated within the limits of a laboratory experiment. Those limits seem to him to be naive."

It is these limits that are ignored when, in the case of possible pollution from ionizing radiation, or one of hundreds of thousands of manmade chemicals released into the environment every day no margin is made for the limits of human knowledge. If an effect cannot be measured by modern scientific and statistical means, it is presumed not to exist.

In an ironic footnote to the history of mathematics and to the history of a certain hubris, the symbol for zero z which came from the Hindu tradition, stands for the unknown. It was the adoption of this symbol and its use to occupy space that so radically advanced mathematical knowledge. Now, an older understanding of zero is crucial to human life, and that is the limitation before which we must learn to stand in respect as well as wonder.
  Susan Griffin lectures throughout the US and Europe, and lives in Berkeley, California. This article is excerpted from her book The Eros of Everyday Life, Doubleday, 1995. Griffin has been influential in several movements, shaping both ecological and feminist thought.

This article was first published in Whole Earth Review No. 86. Summer 1995. Whole Earth Review is published by POINT, a California nonprofit corporation. Editorial office: 27 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, CA 94965.

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