19. When Nothing Is Done, Nothing Is Left Undone
( March-April 2008 )
When I say we have to trust nature, I’m not adopting a deliberate naiveté. I don’t mean to minimize its threatening aspect. Nature can wipe out New Orleans and we know that. It’s not as though I can assume nature is always benevolent, and therefore it always will be. There is no particular reason that planet Earth should evolve in a way hospitable to us. The explosion of human population (we’re now on the steep part of an exponential curve) may be a glaring indicator of ecological imbalance. The self-correctingness of the system could involve the demise of a majority of the human beings on the planet.
How do we avoid hopelessness and fear? The threats are real. But trying to control something you don’t fully understand is not likely to work, and for certain, we don’t fully understand nature. If Rosen is right, ultimately one cannot control living things anyway – even if we understand them – because they cause themselves. This hasn’t stopped us from trying. We still think in terms of “control, engineering or purely human design” rather than “dialogue and co-evolution.”
What could change this?
Only some level of trust can keep you from feeling driven to control what you don’t understand, or enable you to be somewhat cautious in your interventions. And we do need to be cautious because of how much power our technology gives us. It’s difficult to restrain ourselves, because we know the situation is urgent, but we could mess up in ways whose consequences would be almost unimaginable. (If that seems exaggerated, check out this link to an account of a genetically modified bacterium that could have wiped out terrestrial plant life and almost got released into the environment.)
This line of thinking leads me to say that some level of trusting the natural world is the only good option open to us. By trust I mean this: even though we can’t necessarily explain, predict, or control natural systems, at some point we have to rely on their mysterious inner workings instead of trying to engineer them into a machine-like process.
A wonderful example of this approach in action comes from John Todd, the head of OceanArks International and a designer of natural wastewater purification systems. In 1988, he took on the seemingly impossible assignment of cleaning up lagoons of untreated waste (sewage, garbage, industrial chemicals) in the town dump of Harwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. These unlined pits, in sandy soil, were leaching into the drinking water what the EPA identified as high priority pollutants, including known carcinogens. John Todd and his team built a series of large tanks through which water flowed sequentially; then – and this is where trusting nature starts to show – they planted in the tanks thousands of species of organisms from nearby wet habitats, as diverse a population as they could collect. Once the organisms were established, he started introducing the severely polluted wastewater he wanted to purify. What happened was that each tank in the series evolved a different ecosystem, with the organisms in them interacting in ways that, according to another biologist, hadn’t been seen before. Once the system was in full operation, it removed not only the priority organic pollutants but the heavy metals which were among the most dangerous toxins present. Coliform bacteria were removed to the point where the water could be considered safe to swim in.
John Todd knew what the problem was that needed solving, and he had a plan in the sense that he knew, in a general way, what he wanted to try. He set a process in motion, relying on the organisms he collected; he didn’t know if it would work, or if it did, exactly how it would work. He also “knew” (felt, intuited, sensed) – or so I imagine – when to just let the process run and develop. He knew when to start trusting, relying on the system itself to take over, run in its own way.
What Todd did at Harwich reminds me of cooking, or anything you do at least partly by feel, by getting the hang of it, in short by a convergence of multiple perceptions which you can’t or don’t tease apart; you respond to the whole gestalt, you “just know” when or how to act – and when to back off. What he did worked because of a crucial lightness of touch.
That is what I would call dialogue with the natural world.
Using the word “dialogue” means believing that there is something you can be in dialogue with. We can’t even use the word until we trust, as John Todd did, that there is a larger harmony or order at work, of which we are a part; and being a part of it means there’s more to it than we know.
Intellectually, Bateson takes the position I’m talking about when he “surrender[s] to the belief that [his] knowing is a small part of a wider integrated knowing that knits the entire biosphere or creation.” I think I am invited to do the same when I contemplate the arguments of Rosen about the power of formal cause and final cause, or Ulanowicz’s hypothesis (supported by a great deal of data) that the “indirect mutualism” of an ecosystem has a propensity to increase in ascendency. These are arguments for the existence, and the continual emergence, of an order that we do not create.
I find them convincing, and clearly so do many other people who are grounded in different fields of study than my own. But there is yet a further step implicit in the I-thou analogy, because it says the independently existing order is a “thou” rather than an “it.” And this is where I’m going to take my own personal leap.
The key idea that I’ve been mulling over for four months now is Bateson’s assertion that ecosystem is mind, or that there is a “wider integrated knowing.” It does not seem to me outlandish to say that nature works in intelligent ways, considering that organisms in an ecosystem manage to order themselves in complexly mutually supporting relationships. But before I encountered Bateson, I would have said that with “intelligent” in mental quotation marks. I would have assumed, as a matter of course, that I couldn’t mean nature was really intelligent. Bateson, on the other hand, means just that. I heard him, but I could not assimilate what he was saying.
It took me a while to pinpoint the difficulty I was having: the nub of the problem was that an ecosystem does not possess consciousness, and I was absolutely identifying mind, or intelligence, with consciousness.
But was that identification necessary?
Human consciousness is reflexive; it consists in being aware of our awareness. Little wonder, then, that we are so enamored of it when it’s what we focus on and depend on all the time. But having this crush on our type of awareness makes it hard for us to imagine that any other mode of being could support intelligence. This consciousness of ours is an exceptional characteristic that helps to define what we are (and maybe some other creatures are as well), but that doesn’t make it a sine qua non of intelligence.
It’s as though we make this syllogism:
We are conscious.
We are intelligent.
Therefore, intelligence is found only where there is consciousness.
But that doesn’t follow. It’s like saying:
All A’s possess the attribute X.
All A’s possess the attribute Y.
Therefore, Y is found only where there is X.
What is the hidden assertion in the faulty syllogism? There seems to be an unspoken line in the argument, something like “When it comes to X and Y, all entities must be like A” – an assertion that would require its own supporting argument. The hidden assertion about human beings might be, “There are no other entities who are in our class” (therefore consciousness and intelligence only exist together). Or to put it more bluntly, “Nothing else is conscious the way we are and nothing else is intelligent the way we are” appears to be what we assume.
But that is a mere assumption.
The class of intelligent entities could be larger than the class of conscious entities. Not many people think this way, it seems, but that doesn’t make it automatically wrong.
I don’t know why it took me so long to correlate these thoughts with my experience of the creative process as a writer. For over twenty years I’ve been aware that as a fiction writer, I’m depending on unconscious abilities all the time. As I often say, the unconscious does all the really heavy lifting. This is true in at least two ways. Writing the first draft of a piece of fiction is a process of waiting for words to come from some unidentified source that I cannot push into action; neither can I tell the imagination what to create – at least not with any kind of desirable results. Sure, I can march characters through actions I’ve thought up for them in advance, but all that produces is lame and boring crap that I have to throw away. The way first draft writing works is that I have to wait for the characters to say or feel or do what comes from within them. It’s like getting any kind of an idea: I can’t order my mind to do it. It has to happen in its own good time.
It’s only after the first arrival of words on the page that a consciously calculating kind of intelligence comes into play. And yet, even then, during the long process of revision, there are aspects of a novel too complex for me to think out in the forefront of my brain. I always say, at some point in the writing of a novel, that I’m just barely smart enough to do this, and this is where the unconscious again does the really hard work. I believe that in completing a novel I’m working, in part, from an awareness of the whole network of connections and echoes within it, resonances among all its parts, a subtle structural intuition which encompasses more simultaneous specifics than the conscious mind can possibly keep lit up at once.
So I have the most practical sort of personal experience with intelligence existing and functioning outside the boundary of consciousness. I know it works, because without it I couldn’t have written seven novels. And it’s not necessary to write novels to know this; in everyday life there are plenty of intuitions, gut feelings, moments when we “read each other’s minds,” tasks that we “have a knack for,” enough to make the same point on any given day when one is open to it. The question, really, was taking seriously what I already knew.
Consciousness, then, is not a necessary foundation for intelligence. The two exist independently of each other, and this removes what had been for me the last barrier to accepting Bateson’s assertion that there is a “larger thinking,” mind beyond the boundary of my skin.
One more piece fell into place when I came upon (or the wider thinking led me to) the website synapse9.com, belonging to Philip Henshaw, an architect, scientist, and environmentalist. His work – this is my wording, not his – is a careful, systematic (and theoretically revolutionary) noticing of the signs and characteristic patterns that show nature’s intelligence at work. These include self-organization (in human beings we’d call it creativity), practicality (nature does things that work and avoids doing things that don’t work), exploration of the surroundings, adaptability, resilience, self-correction (homeostasis), accommodating or incorporating the unexpected, seizing opportunities (nature, Henshaw says, is opportunistic not deterministic), both being able to start growing and knowing when to stop. Natural systems know when to say “enough”; Henshaw calls it “switching from expansion to refinement” or “stopping at a point of maximum freedom rather than maximum burden.” Everything in this list would be a sign of intelligence in a human being.
Henshaw’s work takes Bateson’s notion of a larger mind or ambient intelligence and tells me what that mind is thinking about. That was the last necessary piece. It was no longer just a wonderful idea with no specifiable content.
Finally, with all this in mind, it becomes possible to take one more step, or leap.
If there is intelligence beyond the circle of consciousness (which I’m certain of)
If there is intelligence beyond my skin (which Bateson and Henshaw have enabled me to accept)
Then why make a boundary between the intelligence “here” and the intelligence “over there”? Why not, instead, conceive that it’s continuous?
So I’ve gone from acknowledging the unconscious intelligence within me to acknowledging the unconscious intelligence outside of me to seeing that there is no reason to assume they’re separate. If organisms existing in a network of relationships are an intelligence, and I am one of those organisms, then I am inescapably a part of that intelligence. The only question is whether I know it or not.
About seven months ago I was thinking that the ecosystem has evolved to consciousness via the human organism. Now what I’m saying is, in a way, the flip side of that idea: my intelligence is one localization of the intelligence of the ecosystem. But it’s more than a mere reversal. The difference is crucial: contrary to my earlier notion, human beings are not a sort of conning tower sticking up out of nature, overlooking it. We are set into the pattern of it, and the ambient intelligence thinks through us. Under one condition: if we let it. There is no barrier to my continuity with the larger intelligence except the barrier of my personal conception of reality. Change that, and the barrier evaporates.
Nothing is harder to change than one’s personal reality and yet nothing is easier. We live, as Maturana and Varela went to great lengths to establish, in a reality that we create for ourselves through our making of meaning, most crucially through the use of language. Mind is part of the ecosystem, and it is self-shaping. World-view is a formal cause that has autopoiesis: it causes itself. We’ve got the power, and I’m using it.
To say that we are surrounded by intelligence, that we can be continuous with it, is not really to say anything new. It’s basic Taoism, a tradition 2500 years old. Tao (the “way”) is the word the Tao Te Ching uses for something that has no name, something invisible, silent, and tasteless which is the source of all things, eternally renewed, inexhaustible; it cannot be known but it can be lived. It is like water, a comparison often used in the Tao Te Ching: “All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea” (#32, translated by Stephen Mitchell).
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible
nothing can surpass it.
(#78, tr. Mitchell)
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
(#8, tr. Mitchell)
All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.
(#66, tr. Mitchell)
The Tao is a fundamental harmony that is ever-present to the “sage” or “master” who learns to, and chooses to, be open to it. It is firmly rooted in nature and the practicalities of life, as well as being entirely mysterious.
I seem, therefore, to have found a difficult, roundabout, scientific, abstract, perfectly un-Taoist way to go full circle and arrive at the Lao Tsu I first read when I was fourteen.
Again and again the Tao Te Ching talks about the power of non-action, the futility of trying to dominate:
Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
(#37, tr. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)
My saying we eventually have to trust the natural world seems only a slight variation on this thought. One is far more supported by being part of the whole than by being supposedly in control of it.
And is the mysteriousness of this Tao really so foreign? 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. I think of three things I have some experience with: teaching, writing a novel, and growing a vegetable garden. In each case, I’m working with an Other whose autonomy I respect and rely upon – an other whose inner workings are not visible to me, not explainable by me, and without which I am absolutely nowhere, lost. Without the mysterious inner workings of the student, no learning happens no matter what I do as the teacher. Without the mysterious unconscious workings of the imagination, I write boring crap. Without the mysterious inner workings of living organisms, nothing grows, no food is produced to sustain life.
When we forget this, when we ignore the fundamental distinction between an organism and a machine, we fail to respect the aliveness of the living. When people work in concert with the aliveness, as John Todd did at Harwich, they have to leave the frame open; there must be some crucial element of non-action. If we are part of a self-organizing system, and we are, then if we’re going to succeed and survive, some of the time we have to be willing to let the system organize us.
The 48th section of the Tao Te Ching, one of my favorites, says:
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.
(tr. Feng and English)
Perhaps, in my pursuit of this project, enough has been acquired; perhaps there has been enough effortful striving to forge a synthesis like a blacksmith going at ideas with hammer and tongs.
There is something very ironic about taking a complicated route to reach simplicity. Maybe this is the Western mind’s way to the Tao; at any rate, it seems to be the half-Chinese-100%-American way that I have needed to take thus far.