Oh my, I seem to have wandered into some untoward mystic terrain. From my vantage point in this valley I look up to see several hills surrounding this place with their waters running down to the lake I stand beside. From the summit to the east comes the waters of Zen and Taoism and a hearty respect for the mystic beyond. From the west comes Monod and the marvelous biological mysticism I have gleaned from him. From the north comes the cold, clear waters of Oyama, Thompson, Varela, and others running swiftly over rocky intellect and eroding past mechanistic paradigms. From the south the warm waters of feeling, communality and art flow down from the springs of Langer, Damasio, Panksepp, de Waal and many others. Looking down into the clear waters of this lake I am mindful of ancient beginnings, the transformation of planet Earth into Gaia with the upwellng from the spring of life over the past 5 billion years. At this moment I hold fast to a thread of the Tao.
Consider this Zen koan from The Gateless Gate: What is your primal face before your parents were born? As I understand this, there is no understanding this. The ‘answer’ must be experienced so that enlightenment washes away the categories of this world. I seem to be, however, too literal minded for such an experience, and instead I am lost in the mystic details Monod laid bare in Chance and Necessity: “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”
What was my primal face before my parents were born? They were born in 1919 and 1922, so that my grandparents were born say in the late 1800s. I have no real answer to the koan but it would seem my primal face was inherent in Monod’s “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability” composed from the genetic, developmental and cultural streams flowing through my ancestors. Also from the fact that these people would meet while engaging in their everyday lives and decide to marry and bear children and that the biological processes carrying their lives forward were of unimaginable detail, e.g., just consider the metabolic processes alone and then add their brains’ carrying forth their minds in time within the world and human culture plus the connectomes of all those people with whom they interact. Fortuitous? Yes. Chaotic contingency? Yes. And this is the simplified version. Better to fall back upon James Joyce’s phrase, “accidental music providentially arranged” and let my primal face rest somewhere in ALL that welter of life.
Evan Thompson characterizes a life as a path created by walking, each step contingent upon all that has come before and current conditions in the surround. For humans this includes the fluctuating appearance in the human condition. Thompson, Oyama and the rest of this group argue quite that focusing on the flow of genetic information is inept. This particular scientific abstraction of gene-centricity loses validity because it misses context. Focusing on the figure forgetting the ground is a modern vice; it is at the basis of the loss of factual validity in our social discourse and the uncritical acceptance of ugly, mis-shaped and excremental thinking for keen intellect.
Maybe Gregory Bateson’s idea that mind is everywhere in the universe is more than a useful heuristic. Maybe the Gaia hypothesis should be a guiding light. We feel and that is the basis of our thinking. We are the most astonishing herd creatures on our planet; our communality based upon empathy of the highest order (that we know of) and symbolization enables the wealth of individual experience and the ubiquitous social world in which we live. Still we carry on with the basics of life, and that means exploiting chance possibilities and mitigating the exigencies of the human condition. 50 years ago I read Susanne Langer’s challenge to develop a conception of mind adequate to the reality. We have made some progress despite the general relegation of her thinking to the background. We will make deeper progress when more understand the place of art and aesthetics in our lives and minds (or mind). Non-discursive or presentational symbols, as Langer explicated from the 1940s onward, are a key to understanding how and what we experience and who we are as humans in the herd.
I stand in my valley watching appreciatively the light playing on these summits. I look down into the waters and feel the ancient past. Fed by mountain streams and life’s springs this lake overflows with wonder and creates new streams that will flow to the ocean’s shores, creating estuaries where new life abounds. I usually close by saying travel on, and I know you will do so, but I am going to camp here for awhile. “On to where?” seems a meaningless question. The waters here are clear and invigorating and the view spectacular. I must grow old and seek other figures with their grounds while I may, “a unique and irrefutable witness” to myself.