“If contemporary science points to inadequacies in present-day modes of thinking, we can ask: What will be the shape of the new manner of understanding required by our future? I believe that artists are the harbingers of the future mentality required both by science and by the imperatives of living in our precarious times. For centuries, artists have struggled to create ways of seeing and knowing that often appeared to be at odds with the burgeoning science of our era. I believe that we now truly stand in need, not only as scientists but as a civilization, of the artist’s cognitive capacities. In them, when rightly developed, might the two streams of our cognitive inheritance commingle?” – Arthur Zajonc, Goethe’s Way of Science.
To a profound yet rarely acknowledged extent, our basic understanding of the world is shaped by the culture within which we find ourselves. We learn what thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and aspirations are appropriate from a kind of collective mindset, which operates like a constantly modulating swarm – the influence of a powerful individual or idea resonates within the cloud, altering its shape to dramatic or subtle effect, for better or for worse.
Here in the early 21st century, the notion that each of us is an isolated entity, ever at odds with one another and with the ecosystems of which we are a part, is a fundamental aspect our collective belief system. Until we evaluate the implications of this assumption and discover that there may be new, more multifaceted and constructive ways of thinking, our collective swarm – unaware that it is a swarm at all – is bound to drift ever deeper into perilous territory.
How did we arrive at a worldview so deeply invested in dividing things up into distinctly isolated, irreconcilable parts? From the 16th century onwards, with the advent of scientific techniques for analyzing the world, separateness seemed rationally verifiable – microscopes allowed us to see that matter is composed of smaller, distinct parts; telescopes showed us that our universe contains celestial bodies separated by vast distances. In some parts of the world, the dominant holistic, interdependent way that our ancestors perceived themselves as woven in to a vast web of being was on the wane. Humans became the self-imposed most sophisticated entities in the Universe. And yet we had nothing to do with the design of the hardware that we use to make this bold determination.
Some believe that the human intellect evolved at random out of available building blocks. Some attribute it to a supreme being or entity. In the Western world, these are the standard choices: random or God, take your pick. Other cultures have more nuanced ways of defining and expressing the kinds of intelligence that go into the making of a fish, a leaf, a rain cloud, a mountain.
During previous eras in recorded history, humanity has undergone profound collective shifts in the ways in which we perceive ourselves in the world, often accompanied by fierce resistance. During Galileo’s time, emerging forms of analysis clearly demonstrated the reality that our planet is not at the center of the solar system. While this revelation took time for many to accept, we have since collectively agreed to depend upon science as the preeminent way to gather information, going so far as to diminish other less quantifiable ways of knowing (such as “gut feelings”, empathy, and intuition).
The knowledge that emerges from hard science tends to reinforce a dualistic perception of the world. Because something is made of parts, we conclude that each of those parts has an existence separate from the whole, neglecting the logical corollary that parts can exist only in relation to the whole. Science favors definitives, and culture follows. But human consciousness is not limited to understanding through absolutes – we are capable of perceiving and transmitting subtle shades of nuance, irony, and paradox. We are individuals and part of society simultaneously. Embracing interdependence does not require us to forsake independence. Concepts do not often fit neatly into boxes.
Perhaps we are now in the throes of a radical new paradigm shift, one that we are looking to science to confirm, but one that cannot be expressed through empirical data alone. We cannot turn to the scientific method to prove that objectivity is an illusion, that the existence of parts does not preclude the existence of a contiguous whole. It will require a comingling of qualitative and quantitative methods of inquiry in order to effectively transmit the notion that humans must now relinquish our assumed position as separate, superior beings. We are receiving overwhelming data from all fronts: violence begets violence, pollution begets disease, greed begets poverty and instability. No action happens in a vacuum – autonomous agency is an illusion. Our spaceship Earth and everything aboard it functions like a giant living organism; if its parts cease to be in commensal relationship with one another, the system breaks down.
The humancentric model of the biosphere is an improvident construction.
400 years ago, there were profound sociological implications of the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism. But humanity was not in imminent danger of perishing as a result of a faulty worldview. Today, in the absence of a visceral realization that the perilous state of our environment is the direct result of systemic social and political injustices enabled by an inherently narcissistic narrative, we are likely to continue our flaccid attempts to mollify symptoms without the ethical foundation required to shift the behaviors that are causing the problems. Until we begin to perceive ourselves not as superior but as equal and integral to all other phenomena, our misguided actions will continue to serve as a destructive force in the world.