The Natural World
The experience of awe one feels standing beneath the star-filled heavens is by no means unusual, though it is becoming more rare as the world’s population continues to move into urban areas where city lights blot out the glorious firmament above. A sense of wonder in the presence of an infinite number of stars is no doubt what inspired the ancient Neolithic sky watchers who built Stonehenge, and the court astronomers of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Mayan civilizations. Gazing at the stars, the ancients created numerous stories to explain the existence of the universe.
Egyptian myths tell of an original creator Ra-Atum, who manifested from primeval chaos and spawned the first essence of the male and female in Shu, the god of air, and Tefenet, the goddess of moisture. Shu and Tefenet soon gave birth to Geb and Nut, who embraced so tightly that when Nut became pregnant, there was no room for anything to be born. Shu separated his incestuous children so that there could be life, with Geb becoming god of the Earth and Nut, goddess of the sky.
The theme of separation courses throughout human history. Just as myths of creation separate us from the Divine, the birth of civilization served to separate us, for the first time, from nature. As we gathered into larger and larger settlements, we moved further away from the reality of the Earth. From initial settlements like Catal Huyuk in what became modern-day Turkey, to the rise of city-states such as Sumer and Babylon, humans drew further from nature. These were the first cuts along the cord connecting us to our primal selves, and this separation brought incredible changes.
Cities demanded bureaucracy, which in turn required a means of record-keeping. In short order, spoken language transformed into writing, and for the first time our interior thoughts could be transmitted and preserved. The human love affair with the written word flowered, engendering what would eventually become a full-fledged retreat from the world of places and things into the ephemeral land of ideas and concepts that constitute our minds. And while civilizations continued to rise and fall for four thousand years, through the grace of, and often in spite of the written word, it was not until the Italian Renaissance of the 1500s that the most significant separation from nature occurred.
Though mythology and civilization had divided humanity from the Divine and nature, science soon began to sever the ties between the universe and the Divine. The universe in all of its mysterious glory had always, in nearly every religion, been considered divine. All this began to change as the Renaissance of Western Europe bloomed into the Enlightenment. Again, written language was a large part of the separation. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of a movable type printing press around 1440 revolutionized the transmission of information throughout the continent. Books no longer needed to be copied by hand but could be produced with minimal effort and expense.
One of the first men to take advantage of this new technology was Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In 1543, he published his infamous On the Revolution of Heavenly Bodies in which he proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system. Ignoring the pre-scientific supposition of Ptolemy and Aristotle, Copernicus relied on empirical observation to determine that the planets of the solar system revolved around the sun, not the other way around, as many Greek philosophers had reasoned.
The dispute between science and religion took its most dramatic turn with Italian priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno. His publication of On the Infinite Universe and Worlds in 1584 made him few friends within the Catholic Church. The irony is that Bruno believed the universe is Divine. However, his insistence on its infinite nature and his ideas about sensory evidence being given more credence than scriptural writing put him at odds with the leaders of the Church. After seven years of inquisition, he was burned at the stake in 1600, becoming an instant martyr for the cause of rationality over superstition.
Well aware of Copernicus’ ideas when he built one of the first telescopes, Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei published confirmations of the heliocentric theory in 1610. By 1616, writings about the heliocentric theory were banned by Church edict, and Galileo faced the Inquisition. Not wanting to follow in Bruno’s fiery footsteps, Galileo wisely recanted his most controversial ideas and was allowed to remain under house arrest until his death. Two years later, in 1618, Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer, began publication of his mathematical confirmations of the Copernican theory. Basing his calculations on the studied observations of his mentor, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, Kepler succeeded in showing that the planets did not move in circular orbits as Aristotle had deemed necessary, but instead revolved around the sun in an elliptical fashion.
Meanwhile, in England, the philosopher Francis Bacon was developing his ideas about the nature of science. In 1620, he published his Novum Organum in which he declared that science, and thus knowledge about the universe, should be based on strict observation and careful experimentation. Reacting to the tendency to displace scientific inquiry for religious dogma, Bacon wrote, “Thus it happens that human knowledge, as we have it, is a mere medley and ill-digested mass, made up of much credulity and much accident…”[i]
In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes provided Bacon’s vision of science with the perfect metaphor. Speaking of the human body, Descartes said, “I assume that the body is nothing less than a statue or machine of clay…”[ii] In fact, Descartes envisioned the entire universe as a giant mechanism, and each of its living and non-living inhabitants as finely tuned mechanical devices that could be understood by understanding their parts.
Some 50 years passed before the mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, discovered how certain parts of the universe interacted with each other. The co-creator of calculus, (along with the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz — the man who coined the phrase perennial philosophy), Newton used Kelper’s mathematical and observational proofs of the elliptical orbits of the planets to formulate his laws of gravity and motion. Newton showed that not only could the universe be comprehended, but more importantly, that events within it could be predicted with accuracy.
Against this onslaught of rationality, the Western churches, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant alike, could no longer hold their privileged positions as interpreters of the cosmos. Copernicus, Galileo and Newton led a revolution (fueled by Guttenberg’s printing press), that would, within the relatively short span of 400 years, completely divest the universe of divinity, creating a Cartesian cosmos envisioned as a splendorous machine, not quite infinite, but quite certainly knowable. Thenceforth religion would only be allowed to discuss what could not be seen, while the whole of the visible universe would become the empirical domain of science.
Science, of course, has little concern for that which cannot be seen, or at least theoretically supposed with enough mathematical imagination. Though all of the men of science aforementioned believed in a divine God (with the exception of Bruno), they did not see the possibility of, nor the need for, a divine universe. Not surprisingly, in the course of the centuries that followed, scientists and philosophers managed to erase even the need for a God, a divine force, a cosmic creator. God, the cosmos, humanity, and the very idea of divinity had all been dismantled and compartmentalized.
This brief history is not intended to imply a denigration of science or a denial of its contribution to human civilization. It is not that the reductive Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm is incorrect, as some New Age pseudo-sages would have us believe, but that it is incomplete. The mind-body organism is not a machine; it is a vastly complex system of intricately interdependent subsystems all functioning in relative harmony. A holistic science, still empirical and evidence based, will examine both how individual holons function as well as how entire systems behave.[iii] However, regardless of the scientific principles we use to understand the universe, science has nothing to say about some the most important aspects of human existence.
Science can tell you about hormones and pheromones and explain the nuances of the maternal instinct, but it cannot quantify love. It can explain the birth of the cosmos, exploding forth from an unimaginably non-existent point known as a singularity, but it can’t give meaning to that birth. Nor can it give meaning to the evolution of the human species, from a single-celled organism in the primordial soup of Earth’s long distant past, to a race of beings that is haphazardly changing the very language in which that evolution is written.
From Copernicus’ notion that the planets revolve around the Sun to Darwin’s insight into our intimate relation to all life, from the wonders of Quantum physics unfolding in the integrated circuit and the nightmare of nuclear release to the Frankenstein-like exploitation of the planet’s genetic treasures, science and its doppelganger, technology, have changed not only the way we think about the universe around us but the universe within us as well — separating one from the other.
Separation is a necessary aspect of growth in any living system. However, a healthy separation does not attempt to deny that the previous connections ever existed. This is why all of the world’s great religious traditions contain a path that acknowledges humanity’s union with the Divine. The mystic paths of Sufism, Kabbalah, Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, and Christian Mysticism are attempts to foster a reunion with the Divine. On the other hand, science, particularly in its current corporate-directed incarnation, possesses no yoga of communion with the Divine. Science has shown us that the universe has no need of a divine creator to exist, but it has nothing to say about the actual divinity of the universe itself.
In contrast, devoted practitioners of spiritual paths learn to apprehend directly the divinity of all things, and that the separation of them, which at first seemed so useful, is, in fact, an illusion. A classic example of this is found in the Hindu Chandogya Upanishad, which tells the story of a young man, Svetaketu, who returns home from years of schooling convinced that his knowledge of the world is superior to his father’s. His father soon shows him that, while he sees the parts of the world, he does not see its indivisibility. Repeatedly making Svetaketu experience different parts of his world, he chides his son with the refrain, “That is the True, that is the Self, and thou, Svetaketu, art That.”[iv]
An excellent examination of the separation between nature and humanity and the problems between the Traditional and Modern worldviews can be found in the animated film Princess Mononoke. In the film, the forest spirit, a creature of divine power that gives life to the animals and plants of the forest, is threatened by the modern science and industrial designs of Iron Town. The leaders of Iron Town see nature as an obstacle to progress and something that can be discarded. Only the young hero has the ability to see the necessity for both and the ability to unite them in an Integral vision. The film is a powerful commentary on the current trajectory of our worldwide clashes between nature and science, Traditional and Modern worldviews, spirituality and secularism, and the need for an Integral vision to see beyond the illusion of their separation and unite them all.
The damage to the natural world that we humans are creating is something that few of us seem to think about on a regular basis, and even fewer of us seem to notice directly. This is in part because these processes, these changes, occur over an extended period of time. A species doesn’t normally become extinct overnight. It takes years. And as our brains tend to think in short-term threats, the threat from the degradation of the natural world doesn’t register as easily as the threat from being hit by a car.
The other reason we personally find it difficult to get a full grasp on the ecological state of the world is that most of us are completely separated from it. The majority of people in developed nations (where most of the ecological change finds its source, if not its effect) live in urban and suburban areas distinctly removed from the natural world. Our relationship with nature has been severed. Our idea of nature is a community park, or a box of flowers on the fire escape. Even those who still live in nature, in the rural areas, have become more disconnected from it. We have turned our homes into little electronic fortresses, blocking out the natural world outside the door and turning inward to TV, the Internet, and central air-conditioning.
We in the Western world have created cultures that see nature not as a mesh of life enfolding us and supporting us but as a distant “thing” that is pleasant to visit but not seen as a part of “modern life.” We see nature on the TV and maybe use the Web to plan a vacation someplace where they have a spa, but we don’t actually experience nature as a part of our existence. We don’t see ourselves as a part of nature and the processes of the natural world. This makes it easier for us to see our actions that are deleterious to the biosphere as something set aside from it. We don’t see the connections between our actions as individuals, as communities, and as nations, with the effects of these actions on the environment.
We have not only become disconnected from nature but from our own lives. And we bring this disconnection into the very structures we create to live in. Our cities are designed to enhance the separation between urban and rural, between humans and nature. Suburban sprawl is a poor compromise between urban life and rural contact with nature. It only encourages the very structures of society that help to create that separation. Sprawl requires more cars, and more cars require more freeways, and more freeways create more sprawl. Look at Los Angeles and its surrounding counties and you can see the separation from nature just as easily as walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
This separation from nature, this disconnect between our actions and their ultimate consequences weighs heavily on the life systems of the planet. Environmentalists worry this damage may be irreparable, permanently destroying vast and important aspects of the nature world. Eco-optimists believe that the natural world, while important, is not as important as human progress, and that we can adjust to any changes we might create.
Both of these views miss a central point — the planetary Gaian system, will survive, whether or not we do. It has survived at least five extinction level events in the past four billion years, and it will eventually recover from whatever we throw at it. The question is whether we will survive with its recovery.
The natural world, the biosphere, the world of life, of living organisms and systems, is dependent upon and lives in interrelationship with the physiosphere. The idea that the processes and complex systems of the physiosphere and the biosphere work in symbiosis as a single complex system, much like cells and systems of a living organism, is called the Gaia Theory.[v] The ideas behind this theory are fairly straightforward. We know that Earth contains a large number of individual ecosystems that strive to remain in balance between their living systems and the physical systems of the environment they occupy. Thus the bacteria, insects, plants, and animals that inhabit a marsh will tend to coexist in a fashion that allows all of them the maximum chances for survival. The wastes of one species will become the food for another, and all will attempt to respond in balance with the physical constraints of that particular environment. This pattern of interrelationship is called an ecosystem.[vi]
The term ecosystem was coined by British ecologist Sir Arthur George Tansely in 1935 to describe the continual interchange between living and non-living parts of natural systems. The Gaia theory simply takes this long-proven science of interdependency and applies it to the entire planet. It suggests that all of the planet’s systems, living and non-living, exist and evolve in mutual interdependency. Thus changes in some aspect of this system, particularly those that destabilize it, will result in fluctuations, or system changes, that will attempt to restore balance to the system. Currently 10,000 species are going extinct every year, which is estimated to be at least 1000 times the natural extinction rate and we are presently cutting down enough forests to fully cover the country of Panama each year. More than half of the world’s fisheries are harvested to capacity and nearly a third are fished beyond sustainability. Our levels of externalized pollution contributes to the deaths of nearly 100 million people each year, some 5000 dying each day from the lack of clean drinking water. Rampant species loss, unchecked deforestation, depletion of world fishing stocks, and increasing levels of pollution are only some of the ways humans are impacting the natural world and destabilizing the global Gaian system.[vii]
As scientist Elisabet Sahtouris writes, we must realize that “…the Gaian life system has evolved in such a way that it takes care of itself as a whole, and that we humans are only one part of it. Gaia goes on living, that is, while here various species come and go. We used to believe that we were put here to do whatever we wanted to with our planet, that we were in charge. Now we see that we are natural creatures which evolved inside a great life system. Whatever we do that is not good for life, the rest of the system will try to undo or balance in anyway it can. That is why we must learn Gaia’s dance and follow its rhythms and harmonies in our own lives.”[viii]
To learn this dance we will have to rediscover our intimate connection with the natural world. This will take more than a hiking trip or a vacation of camping. It will require even more than growing up surrounded by nature, as I was fortunate enough to do. It will require that we change the way we look at the world, and the way that we live in it, as part of it.
Contemplation of the Natural World
What is your relationship with the natural world? When you think about nature, what comes to mind? Do you live in a place that allows you daily contact with nature? Do you live someplace where you have little or no contact with nature? How do you think where you live affects the way you relate to the natural world? How do you think the natural world supports your life?
What do you encounter in your daily life that finds its source in the natural world? Everything you eat and much of what you use have their origins in the natural world. How often are you aware of this? The processes we use to make many items pollute the natural world. How much of this pollution are you aware of? How much of it do you contribute to? How does the way you live your life pollute nature? How do you feel about this?
How do you think your worldview informs the way you react to pollution of the natural world? How do you think you could change the way you live your life to reduce and eliminate pollution? How do you think the country you live in contributes to pollution of the natural world? How do you feel about this? Do you think there are things your country could do to reduce its pollution?
In general, what do you think about nature? Does it strike you as some resource we should conserve for our enjoyment? Does it seem more like a resource that should be used for our benefit? Do you see nature as a web of life supporting human society? Do you see nature as sacred? How do you think your worldview informs the way you perceive the natural world? Do you think the amount of time you spend in nature impacts on the way you perceive it? Would you like to spend more time interacting with the natural world? Why or why not?
How do you feel that your relationship with the natural world differs from the people you know? How do you think your family impacts the natural world? How does it affect the lives of your family? What about your community or your country? Do you think that your community has a different relationship with nature than others? In what way? Would you say that one is healthier than another? What about your country? How does your country seem to relate to nature and how does this compare with other countries?
How does the relationship between nature and your country affect your culture? How does your culture impact the natural world? Does your culture encourage massive consumption of goods from the natural world? Does your culture condone pollution of nature? How does your country compare to others in this respect? What about your society? How are the social structures of your community and your country shaped by their relationships to the natural world? How does your society impact the natural world? Are there ways you would like to change the manner in which your culture and society interact with the natural world? What are these ways? How do you think your worldview informs the opinions you have about the natural world? How do you think your own experience with the natural world informs your opinions?
Action: Take a day — or more if you can afford the time — and specifically spend some time interacting with nature. If you happen to live on a farm, this isn’t really something you need to practice, but if you live in a city, you might find a great deal of benefit from working on a farm, if only for a weekend. This interaction can take the form of a camping or hiking trip, or it can be a weekend meditation retreat in the mountains. The idea is to take the time not to distract yourself from where you are by some sort of directed action, but to immerse yourself in the presence of nature. Try to stay mindful of the way that the natural world supports all of human life and how humanity is part of the natural world. Spending some time in nature, particularly near a city, will inevitably reveal some level of pollution. Take some time to think about this and what effect it has on nature, and then eventually, you and the rest of the world.
[i] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum. Quoted from The Philosophers of Science. Edited by Saxe Commins and Robert N. Linscott ( New York: Random House, 1947), p. 129
[ii] Rene Descartes, The Treatise on Man. Quoted from, Descartes Selections. Edited by Ralph M. Eaton. (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons), p. 350
[iii] See Fritjof Capra’s The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life Into a Science of Sustainability (Doubleday, 2004) for an outline of potentially holistic scientific paradigm.
[iv] Swami Prabhavanda and Fredrick Manchester, ed. trans., The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal, p. 70.
[v] See James Lovelock, Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth.
[vi] For a good introductory guide to ecology see John Cloudsley-Thompson, Ecology (NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company, 1999)
[vii] For information on species loss see: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/biodiversity/biodiversity/. For information on deforestation see: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation-overview/. For information on world fishing stocks see: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/problems/problems_fishing/. For information on pollution facts see: http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/various-pollution-facts.php.
[viii] Elisabet Sahtouris, Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos, p. 62
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