10. I Take a Flying Leap
Several days pass. I’m trying to do too many pieces of the project at once; I’m succumbing to the influence of my environment, namely Boston, where the Great Time Shortage of the 21st Century is in full swing. I re-read Maruyama; I wake up in the middle of the night and write my 1:45 a.m. surmises about what the hell Maruyama means, while waiting for the Ambien to kick in. I get Vaughn to go back up to Bangor Mall with me and photograph the wetland with her good camera and her artist eye. I notice Charles Johnson’s book The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, one of my favorites, on my bookshelf, open it to the story “Alethia” and rediscover a passage that completely connects to what I’m working on. Plus it reminds me of another book I return to regularly, Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle, which causes me to poke around in several essays there. They too seem peculiarly relevant now. The so-called “research” is doing itself, but meanwhile, if it is my job to pull these elements together into some sort of grand synthesis, that moment of insight seems to be farther away with each new piece I read, receding over the horizon of what can be thought. At least by me.
The mail comes, and in it is a book I ordered from Amazon, called Uncommon Ground: rethinking the human place in nature. Help! There’s already too much! I don’t dare open it.
Vaughn takes to calling me “Cliff,” as in Note, i.e., that’s my job as far as she is concerned. Vaughn won’t be reading all this stuff anytime soon, because school has started and she’s busy being a photo professor and department chair. Division of labor: I’ll read the books, I’ll write the Cliff Note, she’ll take the shortcut. I know Vaughn is to be taken seriously even when she says these things that sound like a joke, so do I, in fact, need to write a Cliff Note about, say, Magoroh Maruyama? And if I do , how the hell is it possible? Can I actually boil it down without killing it in the process?
In the car on the way up to Bangor, Vaughn puts me on the spot. Where have you gotten to? Just spit it out. I’ve got to be Cliff for better or worse and say something, ready or not. Where to begin? There are too many connections, language is linear and can’t say them all at once. Enough excuses, already. Of course language is linear; it also happens to be my chosen instrument, so I’d better use it.
Being a professor has accustomed me to this weird position of acting like the one who knows. I do it mostly by saying that I don’t know – which I say because it’s true – but since I’m aware that my students, at least, will continue to believe I do, it is a complicated game but it’s possible to play it so that in the end, it’s a beneficial one for all concerned. With Vaughn it’s even more complicated. After fourteen years of marriage, I’m still trying to figure out if she really thinks I know or not. Given that she effortlessly detects the latent bullshit in any sweeping assertion I make, she must know that I don’t know, but then, she acts like my Cliff Note is worth paying attention to . . . all I can do is edge my way out on the limb and wait for it to get sawed off.
As we drive up the Maine Turnpike, I deliver my amateur version of intellectual history on fast forward. Scene One: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Hurray, the Dark Ages are over, man is the measure of all things, reason can bring us to truth, encyclopedic knowledge is possible. Conveniently skipping Galileo, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, lots of things I once learned but don’t remember enough about, I jump to Scene Two: Isaac Newton. Newtonian mechanics provides a complete and rigorous way of understanding the motions of physical bodies (within our frame of reference, anyway, but I’m not going to bring that up, lest I have to pretend I understand quantum mechanics). In the Newtonian paradigm, A causes B through the operation of some mechanism that can be expressed as a mathematical formula, and this transaction is a one-way street. It is transitive, like a verb doing something to its object. It’s repeatable. It’s reliable. A always causes B, and by definition B does not cause A. That would be “circular reasoning.” (Thoughts flit through my brain about agency, what “A causes B” means about being a doer of actions, but I can’t get sidetracked on that, not to mention I’ve barely begun to think about it.)
Up to a point, the Newtonian paradigm works like a charm. Maybe the ultimate demonstration of how well it works is that we were able to send men to the moon using this understanding of phenomena. Or maybe the whole damn Industrial Revolution is proof that when you apply Newton, you really start to look like you’re in control. Voilà, all of a sudden humans have mastery over the natural world via instrumental reason. And by the way, speaking of dogma, this mastery is sanctioned by religion too, as in the case of the Mormons in the West and every other builder of dams and canals who talked about how man was completing God’s grand plan.
On to Scene Three, or whatever number it really is. I have to jump over lots of stuff I don’t know anything about and hope Vaughn doesn’t call me on it. I vaguely know that when people started thinking about thermodynamics, and electrical circuits, and relativity, and cybernetics, they somehow moved into a whole new realm where it appeared that a new understanding of causality was required. At some point in trying to understand natural processes, people got a sinking feeling that the Newtonian paradigm wasn’t enabling them to think about things as they actually were. This is the Robert Rosen territory, and I definitely have not internalized that. And the reason all this matters for my project is, you can’t think about ecological systems in the Newtonian “A causes B” way.
This is where Maruyama comes in, and to boil down what Maruyama is saying way too far, there are different epistemologies at work in different people in this world, and besides that, the same person may be using different ones at different times. The one that corresponds to the Newtonian paradigm is what Maruyama calls the “H mindscape.” “H” apparently stands for “hierarchical”; at any rate, this way of seeing the world is hierarchical. There is one-way causation, there is one truth, there are universal principles that apply to everyone; man’s interaction with the environment is a zero-sum game; objective reality exists independent of the perceiver. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. You look for regularity, universality; you ignore differences and variations as insignificant. Man is at the top of the earthly hierarchy and it’s up to him to be in control. To pursue the elusive thoughts about agency, when you assume that causation is transitive and one-way, this also means you assume that a doer is fundamentally separate from the thing done. Which is exactly the kind of relationship with nature that Worster and Reisner were writing about in their histories of water in the American West. Now we know how that relationship turned out, and it’s got some serious problems. Maybe what this means is, we have to move our thinking away from “H” in order to be with nature in a way that works. But there’s a lot of resistance to that; for one thing, the “H” mindscape goes with what we assume to be the scientific method. Or at least we assume it as long as we remain in the land of “H,” because for “H” there has to be one ultimate universal principle.
There are three other mindscapes in Maruyama’s world, which then combine and interact in countless ways. There’s the “I,” which seems to stand for “individualistic.” This, to say the least, is one Vaughn and I are familiar with, because it seems to be one of the stops that every student must make on the way to growing up. In the “I” worldview, only individuals are real and they think and act independently of each other. They are all operating on their own personal value systems and randomly bumping into each other while they do their own thing. If there is such a thing as a big picture, it’s a picture of the random interactions; any more structure than that is a temporary accident or somebody’s unfair imposition. While a student is thinking this way, it makes sense that she gets offended when I have the nerve to think I might be able to teach her something. I understand this, but it’s kinda hard to work with.
Then there are “S” and “G.” They are the favored children in Maruyama’s family, and “G” is undoubtedly the favorite. These two mindscapes are pretty similar; they aren’t hierarchical and they don’t seek a single truth or a universal principle. In “S” and “G”’s view of society, people are presumed to be heterogeneous, and the interactions of these heterogeneous individuals are to their mutual advantage. “H” mindscape thinks that sameness creates harmony and unity; “S” or “G” thinks that sameness creates competition and conflict because everyone wants the same things. It’s difference that makes it possible for the whole society to function successfully. Which, “S” or “G” would say, is what happens in nature generally. Here’s how Maruyama puts it: “Animals convert oxygen into carbon dioxide, and plants do the opposite. In so doing, animals and plants help each other. The richness of life on the coral reef or in the tropical rain forest is due to the heterogeneity of species. Tall trees, short trees and algae absorb solar energy in different ways. If all animals ate the same food, there would be a food shortage. And if there were some animals whom no other organisms ate, there would an intolerable accumulation of corpses.” (47)
I’m inching toward a point, though I’m afraid Vaughn doesn’t think so. “S” and “G” thinking about causation appears to be the kind that becomes necessary when you start trying to understand what goes on in an ecological system. It’s no longer Newtonian, no longer “A causes B.” Instead, there are causal loops. Things mutually cause each other. A causes B which in turn influences C – and C alters A. This is exactly where the mind starts to boggle. It’s all going on at once. “Circular reasoning” becomes reality. A causes B but B then, indirectly, causes A. Even when you say it that way, A then B then C then A, it’s misleading because in reality, nothing comes first. You pretend the chain of causes starts with A, but in truth you can’t point to where it starts. The situation could be even harder to grasp: it might be that while A causes B, leading to the chain of A then B then C then A, A is also triggering Q, which is having an influence on C. This would create another separate feedback loop that alters A. At the same damn time. This kind of thinking defies the basic ground rules of reductionistic science, which arrives at an analysis by breaking a phenomenon down into parts that can be explained in a mechanistic A à B way without loops. And it seems to be inevitably required once you start looking at biological systems.
When I was a lab tech, back at Moo U., doing my alternative service as a conscientious objector, I worked for a med school professor who was interested in the microcirculation – the small arteries and veins – and he let me take the nurses’ physiology class during working hours. So I can, for once, come up with a scientific example: the way blood pressure is regulated in the human body. There are multiple receptors within the body for variables relating to the circulation, like the level of oxygen in the blood, or how forcefully the walls of blood vessels are being stretched by the blood rushing through them. These receptors feed signals back through the nervous system, or through hormones, to different circulatory functions. One set of nerve impulses is constantly trying to accelerate the rate at which the heart beats, while another is constantly holding it in check. Another feedback loop affects the amount of blood the heart pumps at each stroke (but doesn’t change the rate); others cause the small arteries and veins to constrict or dilate; all of those things change the blood pressure. Not to mention that the total volume of blood in the body is affected by the exchange of fluid with surrounding tissues, and if you change the volume of blood being pumped through the system, you change the pressure. All of this is going on at once, and nothing comes first. There is no unmoved mover. While one part of the system is busy making sure the blood pressure doesn’t get too low, another is making sure it doesn’t get too high. While the small arteries may be constricting because of some neural or hormonal stimulus – thereby raising the pressure – another receptor is noticing a drop in oxygen supply and telling them to open, which will tend to make the pressure fall. In a constantly varying way, the ongoing interaction of all these internal adjustments of the human body produces the 120/80 that, if you’re lucky, gets written down in your vital signs.
By now, the thread is probably hopelessly lost in digressions, but I try to pick it up anyway. The “S” and “G” mindscapes both accept that there are causal loops, not just in the control of blood pressure but potentially everywhere. They accept the notion of simultaneous mutual causation by multiple actors. Consistent with this in the world of ideas, they both approach problems using what Maruyama calls “poly-ocularity”: a belief that understanding emerges when diverse minds with multiple points of view interact. But here’s the crucial distinction between them, finally – the difference that makes “G” Maruyama’s protagonist. In the “S” mindscape, these mutual interactions among heterogeneous elements maintain a harmonious equilibrium. They bring about what biologists call homeostasis: the whole system constantly corrects disharmony and brings itself back into balance. Which is what happens with blood pressure, as long as everything is going well. The “S” stands for pattern-Sustaining.
“G” stands for pattern-Generating. In the “G” mindscape, the mutual interactions among heterogeneous elements, instead of maintaining an equilibrium, constantly generate more difference, more diversity, new patterns, new structures and this is a good thing. The result isn’t increasing chaos and disorder; instead, new kinds of harmony, new mutually benefical relations are constantly being created in the course of an always-ongoing process. Nature, in the “G” mindscape, is a positive-sum game.
I’ve talked way too long and I have a feeling Vaughn is secretly wishing she never asked. Get to the point. What’s the point? Maybe this. We could say that when the Enlightenment happened, the West took this turn from domination by a religious worldview to domination by instrumental reason. We congratulate ourselves, justifiably, because people emerged from the darkness of superstition into the light of reason. But now we have to emerge from the darkness of reason, or what we have understood reason to be. Some people, recognizing this, think the answer is to revert to fundamentalism, religious dogma. But you can’t go back. The genie is already out of the bottle. We have to go past instrumental reason, to some other kind.
Maybe Maruyama’s “G” is that kind. When you say the basic unit of life is the ecosystem, and the ecosystem constantly evolves, it’s like saying that physical, biological reality confirms the “G” mindscape. New patterns, new relations among organisms do in fact keep emerging. What’s cool is, Maruyama was mostly writing about cybernetics and management and anthropology, ecology wasn’t his central thing, so when his ideas get confirmed from this other direction, it’s fairly convincing.
Being on a roll, I can’t resist adding one more thing. I pull Charles Johnson’s story “Alethia” out of my knapsack, and read a passage to her:
Nature, contrary to common sense, needed man to clarify its meaning. (Of course, there was a paradox in this: To say “Man clarifies Nature” is to say, oddly, that “Nature clarifies Nature,” because Man is a part of Nature, which suggests, stranger still, that man – if self-forgetful – is not an actor or agent at all.) (103-104)
Immediately she says, “So does that mean we’re not responsible for global warming?” She’s quick, all right. I ponder that for several miles and decide it all depends on what “self-forgetful” means. It could mean that if man fails to reflect on his actions, he becomes supremely irresponsible and blithely fucks up the world. But with a totally different spin, it could also mean that if man forgets about his pretense of being other than nature, of being outside it, bigger and better than it, then he acts in accordance with it; thus “Nature clarifies Nature”: Nature thinks about Nature through man.
I’m convinced he means the second thing. If you start from “Man is part of Nature,” it would follow that if man can forget to maintain the illusion of self (and Charles Johnson is a Buddhist, so this wouldn’t be a foreign idea to him), he then is not an agent separate from Nature. Which seems to be a more than philosophical idea. To say that we’re part of the ecosystem could be called “G” type thinking, but it could also be called a biological fact. And if we say that the ecosystem as a whole evolves, then we can go on to say this very odd thing: rather than claiming that human beings alone evolved to consciousness and self-awareness, we could say that the system evolved to the point of self-awareness via the organism homo sapiens. We, however, have hijacked this self-awareness capacity and hogged it for our own uses, via “H” thinking, thereby missing one of the basic points. Self-awareness would/could/should be a functional and beneficial component of the whole ecosystem, but it gets lost when the system is broken down into parts, that is, when humans decide to see themselves as separate from the whole.
Vaughn thinks this “H” and “G” business is all very interesting, but having her eye on the prize, she also wants to know what all this has to do with water.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Well, just tell me someplace you can apply this stuff.”
Think, pig. “Okay, try this. Remember that guy Joel Salatin in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the farmer in Virginia that Matthew told us about? He’s like the farm’s organ of self-awareness. He changes the way it’s organized, on purpose, and the way he sets it up is good for the cows, it’s good for the pigs and chickens, it’s good for the grass, right? The soil, the trees – right? It all works together because he sets it up that way. Everything benefits. He’s a functional component of the ecosystem.”
“Hmm,” Vaughn says, which means she doesn’t immediately see any glaring flaws in this thought. Still, I can tell she has some reservations. “You need some more examples.”
Right. Well. I don’t have any more; I thought I did pretty well coming up with that one. But I like this idea a lot.