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.

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