Tikkun Magazine


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

The Presence of  Living Organisms

by Peter Gabel

Ray Barglow criticizes my attribution of an in-dwelling presence to plant life by saying, essentially, that my attribution is wrong because science has demonstrated that the movement of plants can be explained by purely material factors. He cites a passage in which I appeal to the reader to agree that when plants turn toward the light, we sense their presence as living beings. Barglow rejects my appeal, saying that scientists have shown that "hormones" called "auxins" cause this turning, by stimulating cell division on the shady side of the plant, causing the plant to bend away from the shady section and toward the light.

But if we look more carefully at the way the scientist develops his or her knowledge about auxins, we can see that the scientist has simply redescribed the plant's behavior solely in terms of the plant's material elements. The scientist first looks at the plant as an "object," then takes note of the behavioral fact that the plant bends toward the light, then examines biochemical processes that are visible under a microscope that accompany this bending, and then invents certain concepts to name the biochemical elements in the plant that make the bending possible (in this case, the scientist uses the Greek-derived concept "hormone," meaning "stimulate," and the similarly Greek-derived concept "auxin," meaning "grow," to describe the empirically observed gooey stuff that appears to be associated with increased cell division in the plant). The scientist has not by this process explained what causes the plant perceived as an "object" to bend; he or she has simply redescribed the bending process itself in terms of the visible, material processes that are associated with the bending.

The great error of "scientism," as we refer to it in Tikkun, is to mistake this material redescription for an explanation. Since the scientist may believe, as a matter of conviction, that all that can be said to be "real" is what is visible to the objectifying, detached gaze, the scientist may a) notice the plant's bending behavior in the presence of sunlight; b) invent certain concepts like auxins to describe the biochemical correlates of the behavior; c) "reify" the concepts, meaning treat the gooey stuff he or she has named "auxin" as if it were a real thing called auxin; and d) assume that this production of auxin is the "true cause" that explains the bending behavior. He or she may assume -- "Well, there's nothing else going on that we can see."

I acknowledge that it is possible that there is "nothing going on" except a mere physical process -- that sunlight stimulates the tip of a plant to spur the production of auxins that cause the plant to bend. But it is also possible that the plant as a living and vital presence responds to the warmth and radiance of the sunlight and turns toward it responsively, with the production of auxins being merely the biochemical, material correlate of that turning process. This latter interpretation, which I favor, understands the plant as a spiritual-material unity rather than reducing the plant to the materialist dimension that is visible to the detached, scientific eye. To see the spiritual element requires that we trust our intuitive response to the plant's outreaching tendrils, that we "let ourselves go toward the plant" rather than "standing back" and looking "at" it. I say to the scientist: "If you let go of your standing back and if you instead ‘go forward,' and if you then spontaneously sense the plant's responsiveness to the sun, you will see it is reaching toward the sunlight, and you have helpfully showed the material means, the biochemical correlative process, by which it has enabled itself to do this. Amazing!"

By "standing back" I do not mean that biologists are detached people or that they don't greatly appreciate nature. I know lots of them do and that's why they become interested in the natural world. By "detachment" or "standing back" I'm referring to the epistemological stance of empiricism itself, a detachment that is the very basis of its claim to objectivity and neutrality as regards its own conception of "validity." I'm saying as long as you take that stance, you can't perceive the spiritual/invisible dimension of the world. On the other hand, when you "go forward" or let go of that neutral di-stance, you become one with the spiritual dimension, a spiritual dimension that is actually self-evident to the engaged intuition that comprehends life moment to moment. I'm also claiming that that engaged intuition can approach its own objectivity through communal discourse and reflection, in a way that's analogous to but yet completely different from the natural science method -- namely, by serious reflective discussion in a peer community in which intuitively grounded perceptions are tested discursively and corrected for biases such as anthropomorphism, projection, and other common interpretive distortions.

But please note that I am not merely saying that the spiritual way of seeing exists alongside the scientific way. Rather, I am saying that the spiritual dimension -- the dimension of the life-world accessible to intuition -- is the ontological ground of the total epistemological enterprise. This ground is Being itself, and to "know" the life-world, the knower must travel a pathway from one's own interior to the interior of the known. One must "go forward" via intuition and empathy into the heart of the known, which is composed of the same Being, the knower's own Being.

For specific purposes, the knower may make use of an ingenious special practice that we now call the scientific method, with its techniques of detachment, objectification of phenomena, correlation of sense data, experimentation including altering of material conditions, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. This specialized practice produces information that may be useful and "valid" according to its own terms but is not true in an ontological sense, nor does it aspire to truth in this sense. There is a possibility that what we now call inanimate matter is in reality just dead, inert matter, in which case the existing disciplines of physics and inorganic chemistry might actually be producing truth because there may be no ontological commonality between the knower and the known, and the known may in fact be nothing but a passive material object, although this is doubtful considering the vitality of what we call energy and the relationship of mass to energy. But as regards animate matter, the use of what I'm calling the scientific method can produce no more than provisional verification of hypotheses pertaining to the known phenomenon when we pretend that the phenomenon is a mere object -- when we treat it as if it were an object for some useful purpose. It can't be "true" in an ontological sense because an animate phenomenon exists, is alive, is a portion of the Being of the knower.

In the context of evolutionary theory, the scientific determination to exclude the "invisible" from what is "real" has led to an unfortunate aspiration to explain the entire unfolding and development of life by the "standing back" approach. Like my plant scientist, the evolutionary biologist seems to want to "stand back" from the fossil record, examine parts of objectified bodies as they change over time, and then invent a concept that can explain the entire process without recourse to anything "invisible." The main explanatory concept since Darwin has been "natural selection." By "standing back" the scientist can "observe" that some plants and animals have survived and others have not, that adaptive changes have facilitated survival, and since no other mechanisms of evolutionary progress that satisfy the requirements of "visibility" have been sufficiently supported by empirical evidence, the scientist proposes that natural selection explains all of evolution. With the growth and development of the science of genetics, adaptive changes themselves have come to be explained by genetic mutations that are presumed to occur randomly and accidentally (a purposeful alteration would depend on an "invisible" influence that the "standing back" method has declared to be nonexistent, or at least unknowable).

As in the case of the plant scientist interpreting plants' turning toward sunlight, the Darwinian evolutionary biologist uses the "standing back" method of looking to develop very useful and helpful-to-humankind knowledge about the material world -- in this case identifying the very existence of evolution itself -- but then goes too far and allows his or her method of looking to box him/her in to a closed and self-referential explanatory narrative that is a matter of belief rather than proof or demonstration. By adhering to the a priori conviction or belief that only what is visible to the standing-back eye, the detached eye, is real, the biologist locks him/herself into an explanatory hypothesis that says: "All that is visible is survival. Therefore accidental adaptation furthering survival is all there is."

Here are four problems with this proposal:

1.      It suggests that the vast unfolding of life across time and through the extraordinary manifestations of the various species of plants and animals can be accounted for by a single, essentially passive factor: survival. It declares a priori based on the "visibility-to-the-detached-eye" requirement that there is no interiority or forward motion to the ascension from microscopic bacteria to human life.

2.      Because the natural sciences method excludes all but the empirically visible -- because it erases by epistemological fiat the influence of Being or Spirit on the evolutionary process -- the theory of natural selection can be entirely "correct" on its own terms and yet be false in relation to reality. The fact that evolution can be explained by natural selection does not mean that it is explained by natural selection, and even if there were a perfect fit between the hypothesis of natural selection and the empirical data provided by the fossil record and other sources, that would only make the theory the more deceptive if the excluded aspect of reality, the spiritual dimension, is in truth at the heart of the matter.

3.      As Christian de Quincey emphasizes in "Nature Has a Mind of Its Own" (page 45 in this issue), the theory of natural selection simply cannot account for the appearance of consciousness or the evolution of consciousness because to call consciousness an accidental adaptation in the service of survival suggests that non-conscious matter could somehow, by an accidental mutation, make an ontological "leap" into becoming sentient, then conscious, then conscious of itself.

4.      Even apart from the problem of accounting for the appearance of consciousness, because of the visibility-to-the-detached-eye requirement, the theory of natural selection and all other materialist theories of evolution reduce the totality of the evolution of existence to its objectified physical manifestations. This means that as I, a sixty-three-year-old man typing on a computer in the year 2010, sit here and think about the prevailing natural-selection theory of evolution from microorganisms to me, there is no possibility of any interior, existential relationship between me as an actual living person and all the life-forms that have preceded me and that have been evolving "toward" me. By an unconscious trick inhering in the method itself, inherent in the visibility-to-the-detached-eye requirement, the evolutionary biologist has both erased his own existence as a living existential being from the evolutionary process and "canceled out" the Being of everything from the entire upward movement of the evolutionary enterprise. To put this another way, Mr. Darwin is not in his own theory and neither is any one else. As the Talking Heads put it, "lights on, nobody home."

What I am proposing is not that we reject the contributions of Charles Darwin or of the great naturalist field of evolutionary biology, but that we open ourselves to the possibility that Darwin and his successors have made an error in radically separating spirit (or consciousness) from matter and that we must take a new approach if we are to grasp the spiritual-material unity of the life-world in its true unfolding through its manifestations in plant, animal, and human life. This requires that we adopt a new method of gaining knowledge based upon a new conception of the Being of living manifestations (there are no "living things"). This we do by beginning with our own Being as living presences inhabiting and co-constituting a meaningful life-world suffused with desire and intention, including both material projects (the desire not merely to survive but to achieve full vitality or health) and inter-subjective social projects (the desire to give and receive nurturance and love, to complete ourselves through transparent mutual recognition, to together transcend ourselves toward some ultimate unity or Oneness). Beginning with the recognition of this spiritual essence at the heart of his or her own Being, the scientist then must "go forward and comprehend" rather than only "stand back and observe"; he or she must embrace the teeming life-world as a universal spiritual presence manifested uniquely in every embodied living organism. The central medium of investigation in this approach to the pursuit of knowledge is not detached analysis of empirically visible sense data, but rather intuition of meaningful manifestations of embodied social consciousness. In other words, we must anchor ourselves in the self-evident knowledge that Being has of its own presence and intentionality, and engage in empathic apprehension of the other forms of life that surround us in our own time, or past forms of life accessible through meaning-revealing artifacts that both point backward toward shaping material and social conditions and forward toward the projects that these earlier life-forms were at their moment on earth seeking to realize. This is the path by which we can come to grasp the evolution of the species as the upward movement of Being that it self-evidently is, worthy of the vast intelligence manifested in every living form and worthy of the immanent bond that unites us to every living form.

Peter Gabel is associate editor of Tikkun and the author of The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning (available through our online store at www.tikkun.org).

Source Citation: Gabel, Peter. 2010. The Presence of  Living Organisms. Tikkun 25(6): 42

Peter Gabel is editor at large of Tikkun and the author of The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning and Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture (available at quidprobooks.com www.tikkun.org/store).
tags: Abiding Perspectives, Biology, Earth-Based Religions, Eco-Spirituality, Rethinking Religion