There is a part of reality that is up to us to create – the perceptual, cultural part – and a part that isn’t – the world as it really is, the thing-in-itself. The key is knowing there’s a difference and deciding where to draw that line. Human beings are self-defining, and we don’t have direct perception of the thing-in-itself that surrounds us. In one sense we have no choice but to live in a dream world, a “reality” that we create and reconfirm all the time. Yet while the reality we create through our cognition may never allow us access to the thing-in-itself, there must be some reliable correlation between the two, because the thing-in-itself, or nature, really is out there and is not synonymous with our idea of it. It is possible to be mistaken about the nature of the world surrounding us, and for those mistakes to have serious consequences.
At the same time, we ourselves are self-defining within the theatre of our awareness. Whatever way we create ourselves is self-confirming. If we imagine that we’re stuck in a demoralizing prison of mere mechanism, in the style of behaviorism or the “selfish gene,” then so be it: that’s all we are. If we imagine ourselves imaginative, capable of creation, of origination, of being more than the predictable, then that’s what we are – or at the very least, that’s what we have an opportunity to become. Though we create our personal reality, that doesn’t mean it has to be a hall of mirrors. We can experience being part of something much more expansive and open and fruitfully mysterious, a reality that we are constantly discovering. In that one way, but only in that way, we are subject only to the limits we put on ourselves, the “mind-forg’d manacles” that William Blake warned us of.
Human beings seem to be susceptible to grandiose fantasies of limitlessness and omnipotence, in which we tell ourselves that just because we haven’t yet achieved total control, that’s no reason to stop thinking we can. When the self is in this state, it butts its stubborn horns against reality and demands to be in charge, as if somehow, finally, after all this evolution, all this technological invention – and after all this grasping hungrily for spiritual aggrandizement – one would finally break through every known limit and become . . . well, to put it bluntly, like a god. As if that is what should happen, in the grand plan of the universe, when cosmic rightness finally prevails. In our human dream world at its extreme, there is one ultimate efficient cause at work and I am it, period.
One version of this doctrine is proselytized by futurists like Ray Kurzweil, who believes that the ever-accelerating advance of computing and nanotechnology will lead to artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence in a few decades, virtual reality indistinguishable from “real” reality, uploading of human minds into computers, human body 3.0 which can alter its shape at will through nanotechnology, and on top of all that, the really big one, immortality. In other words, Kurzweil’s vision totally denies death, and assumes that human beings can float completely free of their context, namely, the environment of planet Earth.
Beware of this dream. Another word for “limit” would be “relationship,” because a limit signals the presence of the other. If the beloved had no boundary, there would be no such thing as touch, no resistant, resilient, living presence of another body. There would be no intimacy. If there were no limits, there would be nothing outside the self to have a relationship with; one would be the solitary ruler of a ghost world, all-powerful and emotionally starved.
The dream of perfect control is aided and abetted by the fact that consciousness inherently makes it hard for us to tell that there is a difference between our personal reality and the rest of the surrounding world. We are each perfectly capable of walling ourselves up in a self-created fortress, artificially subtracting ourselves from the larger organization; we always have the power to make ourselves stupider. It’s not surprising, then, that we could become blind to the existence of limits. For the last two centuries at least, we humans have tended to believe that our actions vis-à-vis nature could be unilateral and without constraint. In our history as a species, we only very recently acquired the power to carry out such a program all the way, so we didn’t know that it was a case of “watch out what you wish for.” Maybe now we’re starting to see differently, because we have to; the jury is still out on that. Perhaps we’re learning the hard way that we can’t live in this world by stubbornly, and to the exclusion of all other strategies, trying to squeeze it into some desired shape.
There’s a dance improvisation technique that embodies the different kind of action that works in a world of formal cause. If two dancers are told to improvise as a pair and mirror each other’s movements, without talking to each other, what will happen is this: at first, without saying anything, they’ll trade the lead role back and forth between them a number of times. One will always be aware of following and echoing the other. Then there will come a point when both dancers will realize that no one is leading and no one is following; after that they will mirror each other, period. At that point, larger mind, incorporating both dancers, has taken over. The same thing happens in a jazz group, perhaps in any musical group, when the music takes flight. A very good musician said to me once, “It’s more important to listen than to play.” That doesn’t mean you don’t play your instrument; you play it differently.
Can we work with nature in anything like this way? The example of John Todd at Harwich says we can. He set up and populated his artificial wetland making use of all of his education and experience, but he also left room for other expertise to come from the surrounding environment. When he collected the organisms and established them in his tanks, he in effect said to them, “Please work on the problem of eliminating these pollutants and show me whatever you come up with.” Nature, which “thinks” by doing, proved to have some pretty smart “thoughts” on that topic.
Such a strategy is not really anything new. It’s basic Taoism, which is 2500 years old. It’s like Chia Jang controlling water by giving it the best chance to flow away. Tao (which means the “way”) is the word the Tao Te Ching uses for something that has no name. It’s invisible, it’s silent, it has no flavor, and it’s the inexhaustible source of all things; it can’t be known, but it can be lived. The Tao is a fundamental harmony – which makes me think it might be a formal cause – that is firmly rooted in nature and the practicalities of life, as well as being entirely mysterious.
Again and again the Tao Te Ching talks about the power of non-action, the futility of trying to dominate. This is section 37:
Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
What I believe the Tao Te Ching means by “non-action” is not that human beings should be passive or fatalistic, but that the way to live is to stop trying to grab the world’s steering wheel and drive it where we want to go. That metaphor doesn’t work, it only misleads. “Non-action” doesn’t mean no action at all, it means not that kind of action.
The mysteriousness of this Tao is not really so foreign to our experience. The truth (my truth) is that we are always depending, at least in part, on things the workings of which we don’t fully understand. And this is not merely a reflection of our ignorance; it’s a recognition of the autonomy of living beings and living systems. If we forget this, if we ignore the fundamental distinction between an organism and a machine, then we fail to respect the aliveness of the living.
The question is not whether such a recognition is possible or reasonable, but whether we humans as a species can adopt such an attitude before we irreversibly plunge ourselves into an emergency of our own making. On May 15, 2008, the Mauna Loa Observatory reported 387 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Around the same date, James Hansen of NASA and nine other climatologists submitted a paper which concludes that the target long-term CO2 level should be no more than 350 parts per million, to avoid passing a number of irreversible tipping points, such as loss of ice in the polar regions leading to a rise in sea level that would inundate coastal cities. If their analysis is correct, we are already operating in the danger zone and continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere much faster than it can be absorbed. If a tipping point comes, we’ll have to deal with the natural world differently and so, perforce, we will. But at this point, our hope, our denial of death, our bid for immortality still seems to be invested in an absolutely sovereign self – a misunderstanding of our sovereignty, which is absolute within a certain sphere, but not truly absolute; yet this dream of omnipotence could carry us over the falls, into what sort of radically altered world we can’t be sure, dashing the very hopes we’re trying to protect. In the end, hope resides in conceiving the self as less than a Prime Mover, because giving up the illusion that we can have complete control makes it possible to learn how things really work. And we have a lot to learn. We’re part of a self-organizing system, and if we’re going to succeed and survive, some of the time we have to be willing to let the system organize us.
Given that “nature” for each of us is our idea of it, given that the feedback we receive from the environment is prepared for and filtered by our mental constructs, given that this feedback shapes our future actions, our human imagination or epistemology is one of the key players in the complex system of which we are a part. And human imagination is free to influence its own evolution. In the end, all of this comes down to an act of choosing what kind of world we want to believe we live in, and what kind of beings we want to be in it.
This is how it looks to me: the way we can learn to imagine a world of formal causes, like ecosystems, is by giving up the fantasy that we can be totally in control of it. The way to enlarge the mental horizon is to recognize that we’re not superior to, and not smarter than, the world we live in. Thinking this way gets us off the top of the hierarchy, creates a situation of greater equality between humans and the other life around us, locates us in a world of relationship rather than the solitary confinement of the ego. It restores the aliveness that gets drained out of the world when we imagine it as mechanism. If we respect that the aliveness around us is not less than our own, then at least we have a shot at learning to collaborate with it instead of trying to dominate it. And learning to do that, I believe, is now our only good option.