Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nature, Science and Wisdom (13 February 2014)

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”           - Charles Darwin
I have been re-reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004) this winter.  Greene is a wonderfully vivid and literate writer who explains the mysterious revelations of contemporary physics with aplomb.  At various points, Greene makes observations about physics and life that cause me to reflect philosophically upon the whole project of science and its impact upon our life and existence in Earth & Cosmos.  He reminds the reader on a number of occasions how our commonsense, intuitive understanding of everyday life – while it works more or less well on the mundane level – fails to grasp reality at its deepest levels.  He says in the opening pages, for instance, that—
 “The overarching lesson that emerged from scientific inquiry over the last century is that human experience is often a misleading guide to the true nature of reality.  Lying just beneath the surface of the everyday is a world we’d hardly recognize.” (5)
"[T]he insights of modern physics have persuaded me that assessing life through the lens of everyday experience is like gazing at a Van Gogh through an empty Coke bottle.” (5)
I was reminded reading this of many things, including Darwin’s remark, cited above, that the survival of a species is linked to its ability to change; i.e., for Darwin, primarily, to adjust to changing environments.  But, I thought, this applies not just to physical survival, but also to psychological and spiritual ‘survival’ as well; if affects and influences our flourishment (Gk: ευδαιμονεια).  We are a species that has the potential to deepen our self-understanding through experience, exploration and – as in science – discovery, experimentation and theoretical adventuring into the deep nature of Nature – and thereby attain to touchstones of well-being.  If we are going to live and not merely survive, we need to grow, change, adapt and wisen with regard to what is known about ourselves, our world and the Cosmos itself, via science as well as via experience, art and philosophical reflection.

Our ability to change and adjust to new experiences and adapt to new understandings via the knowledge accrued along life’s path is part of the warp and heft of spirituality; a praxis which leads to flourishment, wellbeing and ultimately wisdom—spirituality lends to the improvement of life and our ability to dwell authentically in Earth & Cosmos.

As we path our way, we are faced not only with changing environments but also changing ideas and deeper, more accurate understandings regarding our biological and physical natures, not to mention our existential selves.   Changing environments and changing understandings of ourselves and our world are often linked, as in the current climate crisis; e.g., will we be able to respond wisely; will be we able to change, in a timely and efficient manner – to avert potential disaster?  I would argue that being human in the fullest sense implies changing as we adapt to the deepening of our understanding of Nature and ourselves; a hermeneutics that has been propelled more and more by science over the last few centuries, and which is enhanced, extended and reflected in the best storytelling, art, music and visual media our species produces.  Evolution, ecology, cosmology – these are all ultimately linked as descriptions of – and facts about – reality.

I am often impressed by how Nature, science and wisdom are linked and interface synergistically with one another.  The word ‘Nature’ is commonly used to mean our ‘non-human’ environment and is set in dialectic with ‘culture.’  But I prefer to use the word in a more archaic sense.  Our word "Nature" comes from the Latin natura, which was used to translate the Greek work phusis (φυσις) – from which our word "physics" comes.  [Now there was a nice little circle!] This implied ‘identification’ between "Nature" and the "queen of the sciences" – i.e., physics – however, has always struck me as both right and wrong.

When I think of "Naturalism" – the study of Nature; I always think in terms of an experiential, aesthetic and philosophical enterprise.  Naturalism as a praxis involves reflective meditations grounded in experience augmented by disciplined empirical observation and scientific study of the "world;" the cosmos (another powerful Greek term)—in which we find ourselves.

As such "physics" in the modern sense is a somewhat too-narrow rendering of the Greek word phusis, which Aristotle used to mean something like "the nature of everything that 'exists.'"  It was the study of ‘material’ nature, as opposed to meta-phusis; what might be termed the 'abstract,' or 'ideational' dimension of our reality.  So our word "Nature" is, perhaps, a better translation of phusis than is the more narrow term "physics."  Nature can be accessed, described and studied from a variety of standpoints, scientific, philosophic and artistic.  Yet what always strikes me is how phusis – translated as "physics" – most readily connects our study of Nature directly into what we now understand by the word "science," for Aristotle's book, The Physics, was an early ‘scientific’ attempt at understanding Nature. [That another little circle, wasn’t it?]

And why did Aristotle study Nature? – Why did he investigate phusis; the "natural world," the nature of everything that exists?  Because he was seeking Wisdom.  He was a philosopher; a philos-sophos; a "lover of wisdom."

When I am immersed in Nature through scientific study – as much as when I am simply out in the woods, experiencing and observing, thinking (in both rational and poetic ways) and dreaming – my intent is always to be involved in the pursuit of Wisdom (Gk. Σοφια; “Sophia”) – that kind of knowledge which helps us to live life to the fullest; the kind of knowing that facilitates "the good life."  And why do I make this connection?  Probably because of the fact that we are manifestations of Nature ourselves; that we are natural beings—animals of a specific lineage on a specific branch of the Bush of Life.  Thus, to understand the wider realm of Nature is to better understand ourselves.  Nature, Science and Wisdom are connected.

Charles Darwin has so transformed our understanding of Nature and thus ourselves that a chiasmus has opened up between what came before and what has come since in terms of our knowledge of the Earth & Cosmos.  By putting evolution on a sound theoretical footing, Charles Darwin opened the way to a deeper knowing of ourselves; a richer, more interesting, even more gratifying and aesthetic grasp of who and what we are as the particular species of animal that we are; which we call, rightly or not (only time will tell) homo sapiens.  Darwin grafted us onto the vine of life; he closed the gap between us and the rest of Nature so neatly that anyone who now understands his theory cannot see themselves in the same way their ancestors did just two centuries.  We have – because of Charles Darwin's insight and devotion to the question "where did life come from and how did it arise?" – a fuller grasp on 'human nature' than anyone before his time could have imagined.

To approach the Henges of Wisdom, we must cross into the realm where this knowledge grounds our experience and self-understanding.  We must traverse the Darwinian watershed and enter more fully into the understanding of life.

This experiential 'watershed' – created by the rise of evolutionary theory in the late 19th century – portends an existential deepening of our communion with Wisdom.  Science contributes to wisdom, for it shows us more and more clearly the actual 'nature' of the universe in which we find ourselves and out of which we have emerged; one of millions of emergences; a fruition of the 'directionality' of cosmic expansion and the playing out of the laws of physics through time.  And I ponder two quotes_
“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything – all change, that is – from happening all at once.”        - John Wheeler
“The existence of time relies on the absence of a particular symmetry: things in the universe must change from moment to moment for us even to define a notion of moment to moment that bears any resemblance to our intuitive conception.” (226)
-        Brian Greene
The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004)

Charles Darwin contributed to the human quest for the 'good life' by giving us the key (natural selection) to the process of evolution. Scientists and philosophers have been working out the implications of this key ever since.  The last century and a half since the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) has seen a revolution in our self-understanding as human beings, brought to new thresholds by the discovery of DNA in the 1950's and then the mapping of the human genome in the first years of the 21st century.

While the revolution will no doubt continue – for there is much more to discover and learn – we are at a point now where there is sufficient insight into human nature via evolution and genetics, that meditating on evolution and on how it transforms our understanding of Nature and ourselves can bear much fruit and lead to evanescent runes of earthen wisdom.  As we move forward it would greatly benefit us to meditate on evolution, as well as on physics and cosmology, and ask ourselves, "Who are we?" and "What is our potential as a species and as individuals?"  We might ask, "Given our nature as human animals, having evolved over millions of years, what is our ethical place in the world – in Earth & Cosmos – where we find ourselves and awaken to our own becoming?”

Adopting an evolutionary self-understanding requires a sea-change in our beliefs and in the basic notions we hold to about who and what we are.  I have used this triad:

We are human animals;
We manifest on one twig of the Bush of Life;
We are an effervescence of Nature.

as a focus in daily meditation and found it a powerful rune in conjunction with my study of biological evolution and the history of the cosmos.  As self-understanding deepens, the rune becomes ever clearer to me: what it means to be an animal, to be evolved from biological ancestors, and to be a manifestation of Nature (phusis).

Earthen meditation has taught me that only with an evolutionary understanding of ourselves can we fully comprehend how we stand in relation to the rest of Nature and thus find a footing for ethics and aesthetics; that is, 'right action' and 'right enjoyment' of the world and of life itself.  This way lies flourishment and the Henges of Wisdom.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Watching Icicles: A MidWinter Meditation on H20 (2 February 2014)

     It is Brighidmas (Imblog, Candlemas); the old marker indicating we are halfway through the winter.  This morning in meditation I imagined sitting beneath the rock-overhang at a local overlook. To keep warm I lit a small, iconic fire in which I saw a symbolic representation of the origin of the universe. The cosmos began in ‘fire.’ The Big Bang was hotter than anything we can imagine, based as our experiences are in the current phase of cosmological expansion where the background radiation is close to absolute zero. It will end in ice and darkness; if current projections are ultimately correct.

       Before me, suspended in stalactite attitude from the rough edges of the sandstone rock-face that sheltered me from the elements, were a group of icicles that had formed during the recent melt-freeze-melt-freeze pattern of weather we’ve been having. Some were quite large; others we smaller. The arrangement of the icicles reminded me of upside down organ pipes or perhaps pan-pipes, descending in size from the left to the right along the rock-face edge.

     As I meditated on the icicles, I imagined seeing their internal structure, with crystals arranged in an ordered, hexagonal lattice. I imagined the 60° rotations about particular axes that characterize the internal structure of ice.

     It was a severe day; the temperature had not risen above - 5° C all day and, as I lit my little symbolic fire, there was not a sign of liquid water on the icicles. However, as my fire began to take hold and burn more brightly, it also grew in heat. Soon, there were small droplets of water forming on some of those icicles hanging suspended nearest to the fire. These droplets then began to run as the heat intensified; I then imagined the fixed state of the molecules in the icicles being undermined by the increased energy affecting them! As the ice melted, the crystalline lattice previously predominant in the ice ‘let go’ and the molecules began to slide, as they picked up enough heat from the radiation from my fire! In the running water droplets I imagined a jumble of molecules in a more or less uniform arrangement; responding over all to the force of gravity, now drawing them down the side of the transforming icicles; heading for the ground.

     The first water droplet, having beaded at the end of its stalactite, now fell—descending to the rock floor on which I was sitting. As one after another droplets fell, I imagined the inner symmetry of the watery little pool that formed in a trough on the floor of the rock shelter.

    It amazed me to think of the water as more symmetric than the ice; as the water molecules can be subjected to more transformations – through rotations around axes – while its appearance remains the same. In water, the side of each hydrogen molecule is packed in against the 2 oxygen atoms of its neighbor. This is what gives water its viscous, liquid texture.

     I watched this transformation go on for some time, until the icicles were almost raining drops of water down into the little trough at the edge of the rock shelter.

    Then, water droplets running back along the underside of the rock shelter began slipping off the rough sandstone and falling into fire, being transformed immediately into vapor! Here was another phase transition! I imagined molecules in the water droplets suddenly gaining enough energy from the fire that they let go of their partners and flew off in random directions into the air. As more water droplets began to fall into the fire or near it, the rock shelter began to fill up with steam. I imagined that in this gas there was no longer any pattern to the orientations of the H2O molecules. Thus, rotating them would produce no change in the overall appearance of the gas; the water vapor was more symmetric than the water had been!

     I was suspended in a quiet state for minutes and then what seemed like hours, meditating on this transformation and, while in this state, the fire died out and guttered! Then, as if in a dream, I saw the icicles – what remained of them – becoming less and less prone to releasing bundles of molecules and sending them, as water, to the ground. I saw the water falling near the dwindling fire remaining in a watery state. I imagined that, if I stayed there long enough, I would witness the falling droplets of water re-freezing on the ground, becoming ice on the dirty sandstone floor. I imagined that, as evening came and the temperature of the air fell further, that everything would return to ice.

     As these phase transitions took place before my eyes and in my imagination’s vision, I began to meditate on the nature of the universe as a whole. I reflected on the idea that the universe had undergone a series of phase transitions of its own, starting at a state of very high symmetry and moving to a state of much lower symmetry. I imagined the very early universe as like the cloud of steam in the rock shelter, and then the early formation of stars and galaxies being what happened as steam reconverted to water. (Whether this actually happened in the rock shelter around me is beside the point. I imagined it happening!)

      At this stage, the universe had less symmetry than it had just after the Big Bang. The Big Bang is said to have been a moment of the highest possible symmetry. As the universe has continued cooling from this earliest, water-like phase to where we are now—an ice phase to be sure; with the universe more or less ‘frozen’ to the point where it has solid matter as a constant constituent—symmetry has continued to decrease. This process is mirrored in the return of steam to water to ice in the rock shelter around me.

     As I reflect on this imaginative experience I see myself getting up and hiking home, in a state of natural contemplative ek-stasis, before I too begin to freeze! For, like everything else in the universe, if you cool a living body down far enough it will die; and everything liquid in it will freeze.

[A meditation inspired by a passage in Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, 2004; pp. 252-254]