“Anatta: Literally ‘not-self’. The teaching that there is nothing that we can call a fixed self.” Jim Pym, You Don’t Have to Sit On the Floor

“Buddhism is often accused of being a religion so aborbed in the impersonal and the eternal that it overlooks the importance of individual and temporal things. According to its teachings, all things that have form are subject to change and void of any enduring “self,” but this does not imply that such things are unimportant.” Alan Watts

“It may only be a certain nagging sense that the world you live in does not fit. The job you hold, the education you recieve, the institutions that claim authority over you ( the government, the corporations, the courts, the welfare system), all these may seem to have been crudely designed for everybody in general, but for no body in person – least of all you.” Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet

“And still, you know, with an instinctive conviction, that there is an essential you behind all the world’s imposed identities, a you that needs a meaning of your own making, a personal emblem to hold in the face of grief and before the advance of death.” TR

“To give a face to the faceless, a voice to the voiceless – and to each person the one face, the one voice that is uniquely theirs… that is the meaning of personhood.” TR

In Buddhism there is the idea of anatta or no-self. That really the self is just a composition of various elements, converging and diverging in a series of rebirths. Science seems to confirm this; “I” am just a product of a highly developed neurological system, evolved in order to give coherence to the psychological experience of being an organism, itself constituted from various cells, genes, molecules and atoms in a state of flux or “rebirths”.

According to this explanation self is an experience that appears when I awaken and disappears when I go to sleep. If this is the case then “I” do not exist when the brain rests, and perhaps it is a different “I” that wakes up than the one going to sleep the night before. Perhaps “I” am a different “I” every moment time passes. The brain is not static, all cells and molecules within it are in a constant state of flux and nor is its sense of self.

And yet, there it remains; a strong, persistent sense of self. Despite changing over time, despite interruptions in the flow of consciousness called sleep, there is a strong sense of continuity, that, despite being different ages and with different personal qualities, the “I” ten years ago is the same “I” that is experience by this brain now.

Science says I am an impersonal package of impersonal neurons and synapses evolved to ensure the survival of the whole organism and the species of which I am a part. They may well be right, and I don’t deny there is truth to that. But really, let’s be serious, this is not how I experience myself, and no matter how many times I try to convince myself otherwise there’s that persistent feeling that “I” am there and “I” am very real and undeniable.

And with a scientific view we might say that this is fine, it’s way we have evolved, it’s how the organism survives and ensures the survival of its species. But even such a reductionist explanation still doesn’t quite do it justice, not the way I live it every day of my life. I feel it needs more honouring than that (and perhaps that’s just another survival trait?).

From an impersonal “soup” we call the Universe, a person can emerge, consciousness can take on a personal form! Not like it is imposed from somewhere “outside” or “beyond” but that personality is latent in the physical laws of the Universe. “I” existed as sleeping potential in the very fabric of the Universe, but without form or presence. And then an impersonal egg and sperm came together and began a journey that would lead to personhood through a miracle of biology and neurology, with millions of years of evolution preceding this moment. And this has happened not just once but many times over. Millions of persons. Billions of persons. Individual persons, not just masses of people.

Amazing that each human face and each human voice is so distinctive as to not be confused with anybody else… most of the time. Imagine over 6 Billion people with a face and a voice that is uniquely theirs! And that’s only now, imagine all the unique humans there have been and the unique humans there will be! Even animals transmit some sort of instinctive self, if my Cocker Spaniel is in a room of similar Cocker Spaniels I’ll still know which one is “her”. It is imprinted in me. Something that happens with people we don’t know as well, though seem to know so well…

You hear a voice on the radio, you see a face on the TV and instantly you have a sense of recognition. Sometimes you may not remember the name or why they are famous but instantly you know it is that person and no one else. Looking at a DVD cover right now I see a woman’s face, I don’t recognise her. I see a name -Kate Beckinsale- and instant recognition comes to me, it is her, much much younger but you see it is the same “person”. And turning over to the back I see another picture of her with another man poring over a map or something and I recognise him instantly; Art Malik. I see only his face looking down, can’t see much of a profile but I know it is him. Why can’t I mistake him for anyone else if he and I are just impersonal bundles of neurons and synapses amongst billions?

Impossible! Isn’t it? And what if it isn’t impossible, what if it is true? Doesn’t that make it even more of a miracle that “I” am here communicating with “you”?

How can individual unique persons be so “mass produced” in such an unconscious and impersonal Universe? The mind boggles! The mind gropes for some plausible fantasy to explain this; a “superbeing” “out there,” or manifest destiny, or a ghost in the machine, or, or, or…

It’s a miracle of nature, an implausible reality, to distill many millions, billions, trillions of impersonal elements; like cells, atoms, subatomic particles, through long long processes of evolution to finally arrive at personhood! The machine is the ghost! There I am. And there you are!

Miracles, each of us.

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“This, in essence, is the hypothesis that Lovelock and his close collaborator Lynn Margulis were to call “Gaia.” The idea significantly modifies the central Darwinian paradigm of modern biology. Competition – natural selection at the species level – becomes much less important than the overall integration of living things within a symbiotic global network. The basic unit of evolutionary survival becomes the biomass as a whole, which may select species for their capacity to enhance the liveability of the planet.” Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth

There can be said to be three interpretations of Gaia; scientific, theistic and philosophical. The science, which I have described briefly, is basically about looking at the Earth physiologically, as a body, and the practical implications of that. But I’m not a scientist, so although I take an interest I can only explain it up to a point. Theistic Gaia is the view that the Earth is sentient, and is literally seen as a single living being. Not something I believe in, but the image is interesting and certainly useful in a poetic sense.

What really interests me is a Gaian-based philosophy. This stands somewhere between science and theism, using scientific ideas and mythological images as a model that we use to view the world and as an ethical guide.

For a while we have had a view of evolution as something competitive and the Earth as an arena in which this biological struggle is played out. Although science is not meant as a tool to give us meaning or ethics, anything that gives us a view of the world, whether myth or science, also gives us a sense of meaning and ethics. Sometimes it is obvious though mostly it is subtle.

The view of competitive evolution has become a tool to legitimise a “dog eat dog” or “every man for himself” attitude. In this view the Earth is a resource and the world is seen as a hierarchy of power where the strongest preys on the weakest. And to some extent this is true, if you see the relationship between some species, and individual organisms of the same species, you will see there is a competitive, even violent, relationship. However, in the same way the classical view of physics breaks down in quantum mechanics, the localised competition of species breaks down in the broader ecological view. Each species fulfills a role in the bigger ecological system; any competition is just one aspect of a cooperative network.

Can the body’s major organs compete with each other? Can the heart win or lose against the lungs? Of course not, they are major organs and are completely and utterly interdependent with one another. However, minor organs or biological features can compete. A species of fish whose ancestors got trapped in a cave system lost their eyes because there was no need for them. The digits and claws of whale ancestors have eventually receded to be replaced by more useful flippers. The long grasping digits on the feet of our tree climbing ancestors have been reduced to small stumps on the end of our feet. But these minor “competitive” adaptations are relative compared to what is going on in the whole body.

We can use this analogy to look at the Earth. It too has major organs, species or certain groups of species that cannot be replaced. For instance, I remember in a biology class being taken out by my teacher with the class and being asked “Can plants live without animals or can animals live without plants?” No one answered plants, and yet that was the answer. Most plants, because they get energy directly from the sun, are self-sufficient, so if the animal kingdom inexplicably disappeared many photosynthesisers would be able to survive. Not so with animals.

There is, what I consider, to be a myth about humanity as the “dominant species”. We might have become very powerful and intelligent but that’s a very superficial dominance. Let’s put it this way, prey do not depend on predators but predators depend on prey, the foundation of a building does not depend on the upper floors but the upper floors depend on the foundation. This echoes a fairly Taoist principle and gives a different spin on Jesus’ “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

We owe our existence to the almost omnipresent microbial lifeforms, like bacteria, that were the first life-forms to exist and surely will be the last ones to exist. When Gaia was young this was, and still is, the basic components, “major organs” or major organisms, that sustain her existence. Without them nothing larger, like humans, could exist.  So it really does turn the concept of dominance on its head. We owe our existence to life-forms that are smaller, simpler and far less intelligent than us, which is humbling really.

We are left with an image that humanity is an interesting but unimportant contribution to the Earth’s evolution. We are left with the principles of respect, humility and cooperation. A good starting point for how we might conceive a Gaia-based philosophy. But this philosophy isn’t just for individuals to choose, as one philosophy amongst so many to pick and choose from; it is the context of all other philosophies. In a sense all organisms are gaian by default. All organisms derive their evolution from a long history where biological traits are developed within an ecological context. To defy this context is to upset the balance and threaten your own existence. Only humans need to make a mental effort to align with gaian-based principles.

This philosophy is something that has to be built into the structure of society itself, a structure that operates with respect, humility and cooperation to the home it depends on for its existence. We cannot go on thinking and acting the way we do, seeing Earth as a resource to be used and abused in service of commercial consumerist philosophy, and other humans and other nations to be viewed as opponents to be beaten in some never-ending economical and fashion-driven race. This cannot work anymore, there needs to be a reform in human civilisation and I think we are waking up to realise it now.

“Art does not solve problems but makes us aware of their existence. It opens our eyes to see and our brain to imagine.” Magdalena Abakanowicz

 

“The capacity for wonder has been called our most pregnant human faculty, for in it are born our art, our science, our religion.” Ralph Sockman

 

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” Albert Einstein

 

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

 

Oh yes, all very nice quotes, very “inspirational” but probably nothing without the grounded perspective of the next quote…

 

“On this planet, we are probably the creatures most capable of perceiving and responding to God’s vision of a different, better world. God’s primary avenue for liberation is through responsive human hearts. We can wait for supernatural miracles, or we can roll up our sleeves with God and get to work.” C. Robert Mesle

 

That about sums it up for me. We no longer need to be God’s passive “puppets” but active cocreators, consciously participating in the ongoing creative evolution of Creation! In the past humans had to make up for the mystery of the universe by projecting various ideas onto it. We didn’t know anything about it, so it was best done by filling in the gaps of our knowledge with magic, myths and miracles. In a word, imagination.

 

Of course we could think that as knowledge expands we need the imagination less, but I don’t believe that for one second. It is the imagination that lets our knowledge grow, it is a tool that helps us break free of outdated ideas and think beyond the box into newer dimensions of knowledge. Without the imagination, we’d have no way of understanding things like genetics, astrophysics or quantum physics, because these things can never really be experienced directly. It is the imagination that allows us to “experience” them. For me, practicing “miracle mind” is a necessary stage before the expansion of knowledge and experience, a provisional state of being that allows us to take the next step in evolution. I still enjoy looking at the world with myths in mind, especially when I have some creative project in mind (the sun really does ride around in a chariot!).

 

But our knowledge and our control over that knowledge will never be absolute; we’ll forever be searching the mysteries, and forever practicing some form of “miracle mind”. Myths, magic and miracles are still a part of what makes us human, what gives us a sense of a world that is alive and meaningful, that the world is somewhere where you “roll your sleaves up with God and get to work.”

So… GET TO WORK! 😉

“These days we are surrounded by debate and discussion about climate change. It is a complex scientific problem which is still not completely understood, and its implications could have major implications for the human species and indeed the rest of the world. Moreover, humans actions to reduce climate change and adapt to its effects could also have major implications. Inevitably, then, the issue is the topic of heated debate.” Richard Betts, Human-Caused Climate Change in Earthy Realism edited by Mary Midgley

After reading the science behind climate change AND the alternatives, I still wonder how people don’t understand it. Either they deny it completely or take the parts that are theory and think that it is fact. So I thought that I should explain a few of the facts behind it and reveal the legitimate doubt there is behind all of the confusion. This is a very simple overview, and there is more to climate change than just what humans are doing to it, but it’s a place to start…

Simple Fact: Greenhouse gases (like methane and carbon dioxide) absorb heat.

Too little and our climate cools down. Too much and our climate heats up.  Extremes either way make the atmosphere uninhabitable for life.

Not-So-Simple Fact (but a fact nonetheless): The collective action of life on Earth regulates and is regulated by the atmosphere to keep the atmosphere inhabitable.

The Earth is a closed system, barring the constant supply of solar energy and occasional meteorite and perhaps other cosmic phenomena, so it has its limitations, such as how well it can cope with stress to its system and how well it can maintain balance (see homeostasis).

Fact: The Earth’s climate changes naturally, being maintained between livable extremes of glacials (ice ages) and warmer interglacials (like now).

Fact: Humans are also having an impact on global warming.

Humans are digging up and burning carbon, as fossil fuels, and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  The capacity for the atmosphere to absorb heat is increasing, so, yes, it is getting warmer.

Another Fact: Humans are destroying a lot of ecosystems which weakens the Earth’s capacity to maintain itself at habitable levels for life.

One such destructive action is deforestation, which weakens the Earth’s capacity to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere. If we see the Earth like a body, we can say that humans are poisoning the Earth AND taking away the Earth’s ability to remove the poison, which, as the saying goes, adds insult to injury.

Legitimate Doubt: It is known that we are contributing to climate change but it is not known to what extent.

A spectrum between two possibilities exists, a best case scenario and a worst case scenario.

Best case scenario: We might only be warming things up a little more than usual, in which case the Earth will resume its usual climatic course and return to an Ice Age.

Worst case scenario:  That we reach some sort of tipping point where the Earth may not be able to recover sufficiently to return to an Ice Age and move into hotter climatic levels in which humans won’t be able to survive.

So, these things are not doubtful:

YES we can and do affect the planet.

YES we do have to be careful.

YES we can overpopulate the planet.

YES we can overuse resources.

YES nonbiodegradable matter can choke up the system if there is too much of it.

YES we can end up making our planet uninhabitable for ourselves.

And YES, we do have to review our effects on our planet’s capacity for life and effective changes in our ways to avoid potential climatic catastrophes.

The FACT that humanity can contribute to climate change ought to tell us that we are capable of reaching tipping point. Its happened to local civilisations that misused the environment, but now it could happen on a global scale. Considering all of the carbon that can be dug up and burnt and all the forests we are capable of cutting down, it’s not hard to imagine the Earth heading into the Worst Case Scenario, it is not impossible.

Here’s three books that I recomment reading;

Healing Gaia by James Lovelock- This is a more up to date and clarified overview of his Gaia Hypothesis, as it has since been revised, put under testing and shows its successful predictions. It also integrates some of the criticisms leveled at it and works to resolve and include these arguments within it, such as biological evolution and defining life.

Earthy Realism edited by Mary Midgely- With articles written by several people this includes explanations about Gaian or Earth Systems science but also looks at its implications for it in several aspects of human existence, political, social, economical, philosophical, ethical and spiritual.

Collapse: How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared M.Diamond- I haven’t read it yet, but from what I’ve found on the internet of it, it shows some good examples of environmental collapse that causes the collapse of civilisations. In my “to read” list.