Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is: A ramble through "the natural world"

Pooh and Piglet, "tracking something." Also titled, "How the Meridian comes to write some of his blog posts." (Originally found here)

By way of beginning, here's an excerpt from the chapter from which this illustration comes:

One fine winter's day when Piglet was brushing away the snow in front of his house, he happened to look up, and there was Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh was walking round and round in a circle, thinking of something else, and when Piglet called to him, he just went on walking.

"Hallo!" said Piglet, "what are you doing?"

"Hunting," said Pooh.

"Hunting what?"

"Tracking something," said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.

"Tracking what?" said Piglet, coming closer.

"That's just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?"

"What do you think you'll answer?"

"I shall have to wait until I catch up with it," said Winnie-the-Pooh. "Now, look there." He pointed to the ground in front of him. "What do you see there?"

"Tracks," said Piglet. "Paw-marks." He gave a little squeak of excitement. "Oh, Pooh! Do you think it's a -- a -- a Woozle?"

"It may be," said Pooh. "Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. You never can tell with paw-marks."

With these few words he went on tracking, and Piglet, after watching him for a minute or two, ran after him. Winnie-the-Pooh had come to a sudden stop, and was bending over the tracks in a puzzled sort of way.

"What's the matter?" asked Piglet.

"It's a very funny thing," said Bear, "but there seem to be two animals now. This -- whatever-it-was -- has been joined by another -- whatever-it-is -- and the two of them are now proceeding in company. Would you mind coming with me, Piglet, in case they turn out to be Hostile Animals?"

Piglet scratched his ear in a nice sort of way, and said that he had nothing to do until Friday, and would be delighted to come, in case it really was a Woozle.

"You mean, in case it really is two Woozles," said Winnie-the-Pooh, and Piglet said that anyhow he had nothing to do until Friday. So off they went together.
(Just for the record: I bear no resemblance whatsoever to these two, as I have nothing to do until January 14.)

"Tracking" reveals its double meaning in this little scene: Pooh and Piglet track (follow) the Woozle, and they at the same time track (mark) the snow. What they regard and fear as a future unknown is really retrospection, a surveying of the past of their own ma(r)king. We recognize this because we are observing their world--we are outside their matrix (to borrow a term); they, of course, cannot, because they are giving shape to very world they are seeking to make sense of--one, moreover, that they assume they are somehow not affecting by virtue of their presence. Indeed, it's not too much to say that their assumed position relative to their world is exactly that of our actual position relative to theirs.

But it doesn't do to be too smug here. Sometimes--maybe most all the time--it is really ourselves we are tracking in the world, and we just don't recognize it. The phrase "natural world" is a sort of tracking-by-negation (or perhaps "denial"): embedded in it is the assumption that humans are fundamentally "unnatural."

This "ramble," as this post's title calls it, is about "tracking," very broadly defined.

At my previous place of employ, it so happened that outside one of the buildings where I taught a lot of my classes there were three young oak trees which, by some freak of nature (they weren't put there by a human agency), just happened to form a precise line (or precise enough for my purposes)--and, moreover, the space between trees 1 and 2 was almost exactly that of the space between trees 2 and 3: about 7' in each case. These trees came in extremely handy at that point in the semester when it came time to teach Wallace Stevens. Stevens' big theme is that the "imagination" is that which allows us to speak of what we observe in the world. For Stevens, there is a material world, and there is what we say about that world, but because language (broadly defined) is the means by which we speak of it and besides (for Stevens) has its origin with humans, there is always a bit of uncertainty as to whether what we say about it is in fact what is actually there independent of our perceiving it.

Enter those trees: As we'd go out and move among them I would ask my students, That we observe them as forming a line and being equidistant from their neighbors, are those observations the result of a set of ordering principles--in this case, those of Euclidean geometry--almost reflexively applied to what we're observing, or is that what is in fact true about them, independent of our making those observations? Sure: those observations "fit" what's in front of us; but how can we be certain that our observations are in fact what there was to observe? Maybe what we're "seeing" isn't an actual relationship involving those trees but only what our various languages allow us to express regarding them--even, perhaps, a subconscious product of our (human) desire to perceive an order regarding them: Stevens' "blessed rage for order . . . /The maker's rage to order . . . ("The Idea of Order at Key West"). But how to know, really know, what is really there? The stubborn, material, concrete thereness of these trees and their positions relative to each other and, simultaneously, our collective realization that whatever we "said" about them--whether verbally or through mathematics or some other means--originated with us and not with the trees themselves, worked perfectly (to my mind) to introduce Stevens' themes, to begin to make sense, for example, of his poem "The Snow Man," his attempt to describe what is required of us to truly "see" the world (assuming that is even possible): to "[behold]/Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is."

Stevens wasn't a scientist. His "day job," as he himself phrased it, was helping to run an insurance company. But, given his preoccupation with the theme of observation and how the frame(s) of language(s) at our disposal cannot help but shape observation, he'd be a poet I'd quickly recommend to any scientist who thinks seriously about the relationship between the observer and what s/he observes--specifically, the extent to which the observer is really observing himself/herself.

Below the fold: "the natural world," within a Stevensian context.

What got me to thinking about that phrase most recently was this post by my bloggy friend Pam of Tales from the Microbial Lab. Pam's thing is microbes--at least, she makes her living by studying them and writing grant proposals to put some of our tax dollars to work in studying them some more. But her other thing is poetry. And gardening. And her two dogs and a cat. And building a new house to LEED standards while living in an Airstream travel trailer. She mixes all that up into her gumbo of a blog and makes it well worth her readers' time to keep going back for more. Anyway, you'll want to read her whole post, but here's the passage that got me to thinking about the phrase "the natural world" as she reflects on both her attempt earlier in the day to save a bird from a hawk and the question of how pathogens found in humans were also showing up in the respiratory tracts of dolphins (the italics are hers):
The questions have distracted me.

Why are you finding organisms in dolphins that are similar to those associated with humans?

How did the bottlenose dolphins become infected with human pathogens?

Is the antibiotic resistance of the dolphin microorganisms due to exposure to antibiotics from humans?

Questions, that in my conversation with several individuals today, kept getting me off-track. I knew differently, intuitively, but I nonetheless encouraged these conversations. So as I read some tonight, I was feeling awkward - and then I realized that I needed to shed these questions, dead-end questions, that everyone was asking, to shed the day's conversations, and come up with my own question and internal dialogue.

So I thought about my response this morning, my rush to save the captured bird - as you all know, as I have trouble accepting, the hawk was just doing what a hawk does. I could have just as easily cheered the hawk on, been relieved that it had captured it's lunch - my perspective was just skewed and biased.

It is much more likely that we humans have dolphin microorganisms associated with us.

Reading that prompted me to comment, in part,
[P]erhaps the a priori assumption for some hypotheses shouldn't be, "How have people screwed things up?" (e.g., the assumption that these dolphin pathogens originated in humans) but something more along the lines of "Is this something that actually confirms our connection to the 'natural world'?" (and it just struck me that that phrase "natural world" presumes or implies that humans are somehow "unnatural").

"Natural world" is one of those phrases that for most people, I suspect, just sort of rolls on past, an unremarkable, taken-for-granted expression of something. But of what? What is implicit in its taken-for-grantedness? I answer my question above, of course, in my comment on Pam's post, but I'd like to do a little teasing out of things here, using Stevens (and Pooh and Piglet) as contexts.

"Natural" is an adjective or, more generally, a qualifier: a word that delineates, that measures; a descriptor. We know, in a way that feels instinctive, what "natural" means in this particular usage: something that is pure, uninterfered with by humans. Indeed, the phrase's very existence implies human beings' felt or assumed disconnectedness from the world (one of the defining characteristics of modernism and postmodernism). An alternate take on this is the phrase's implication that our corners of the world aren't natural . . . not even for us, the very people who design and inhabit those spaces. It begs the question of where the boundary that demarcates the "natural world" is located and how we would know it. Thus, I'd argue, the very adjective "natural" makes the "natural world" unnatural: an artificial space, an abstraction.

My only real point in saying the above is that, at the level of observation--and not just scientific observation, either--adjectives such as "natural" aren't helpful. It creates situations such as the one Pam describes above: it causes the implicit assumption that humans are alien beings (shades of Scientology) or contaminants. Or, alternately, it creates situations such as those that Pooh and Piglet find themselves in: it causes the implicit assumption that the very world they move about in is a sort of petri dish that they observe from without.

How to get out of this bind? Well, get rid of the adjective. Adjectives are human judgments, human pronouncements--our tracks--and not, necessarily, words that actually describe what is/is not There. I hope no one misunderstands me to be saying something like, Well, then, there must not be any Nature, then, or Well, then, this must mean that we can do any old thing to any old part of the world, then, since we're no different, at base, from any other living thing here. Nope--just that adjectives are relative terms. They are human things. They aren't substantives, or verbs.

The world is the world, neither natural or un-, and there is what is done to/in it. Life is a web; all living things are enmeshed in it, all interacting with each other more or less directly, sometimes beneficially, sometimes not. One of those species in particular is adept at adapting to and/or modifying itself and/or its environment to suit its needs and wants, often to the detriment of other species and maybe, in the long term, to itself; but it's also shown itself in the past to be adept at recognizing detrimental behavior and, occasionally, changing for the better.

Yada, yada, yada, you say. Well, then, perhaps it would be a Good Thing to observe the world--and live in it--like it's "Yada, yada, yada."

UPDATE (January 9): Via 3 Quarks Daily comes some (Western) cultural context on this theme:
To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles, as they arise either from the world given to the five human senses or from the categories inherent in the human mind. The question assumes that man is the highest being we know of, an assumption which we have inherited from the Romans, whose humanitas was so alien to the Greeks’ frame of mind that they had not even a word for it. (The reason for the absence of the word humanitas from Greek language and thought was that the Greeks, in contrast to the Romans, never thought that man is the highest being there is. Aristotle calls this belief atopos, “absurd.”)[2] This view of man is even more alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat—the earth, together with earthbound laws—is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe. Surely the scientist cannot permit himself to ask: What consequences will the result of my investigations have for the stature (or, for that matter, for the future) of man? It has been the glory of modern science that it has been able to emancipate itself completely from all such anthropocentric, that is, truly humanistic, concerns.

Also: If you're still interested in all this, do NOT miss Randall's posing of some important questions he was kind enough to say my post raised.


R. Sherman said...

We can't have it both ways, can we? Either we humans are the results of a lot of Darwinian coin flips, or we're not. If we are, then we, in all our glory, including empty beer cans, are part of "Nature." Alternatively, if there is something different, in a metaphysical sense, about humans, then the Nature/Man divide makes some sense.

I must think about this some more, darn you. Please refrain from posting thought provoking stuff until the weekends.

Thank you.


Cordelia said...

Interesting to see Perry's "trail of sugar" (Oedipus discovers it is himself !) argument fitting Milne's description of Pooh and Piglet's lack of self-recognition. So they have been bam(b)woozled ? I believe Perry's example (and paper) elaborated on Wittgenstein, but it is fascinating that Milne's so perfect illustration of subject-object identification errors (Pooh and Piglet, according to Perry, err in their employment of first person indexicals; they think they know where they stand. Brilliant !

John B. said...

Randall and Cordelia, thanks for commenting.

Randall, in my defense, I've been working on this post for the better part of a week, and it was only this morning/early afternoon that it kinda sorta came together. As to your either/or proposition, I see it, too, though not, perhaps, as starkly as you. Unless I'm dumb and/or blind to some theological or scientific or logic problem (any or all are probable with me, I assure you), I don't see how evolution and the notion of God as creator must perforce be mutually exclusive propositions. I know, having read Dennett, that evolution doesn't require a Creator to explain its mechanisms. But the lack of that requirement doesn't thereby argue God's absence. Genesis doesn't describe the mechanism of creation, after all, the sequence of things made as described in Genesis 1 corresponds to the generally-agreed-upon sequence of evolved life forms, and Genesis itself doesn't provide any rationale for creation. We assume that God, being rational, has a purpose for His creation, but it never quite gets stated in the creation account itself. Religion at its root, after all, is the search for that rationale. What greater evolutionary development can there be than the awareness and acknowledgment of our Creator? But as I say, I'm very likely overlooking some crucial something.

All this aside, though, my post isn't so much about origins as it is about how, no matter how we got here, language isn't always as helpful as it appears to be in thinking about the fact that we're carbon-based lifeforms like every other living thing. We're special: no question. But being too insistent on our exclusivity is, potentially, not a healthy thing for those parts of it we inhabit.

Cordelia, your comment forced me to do a bit of Googling (the interested can find the paper she's referring to here). What little I've read of the Perry paper tells me that I'll have to read it closely and slowly before I can respond adequately.

R. Sherman said...

John, actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a moral component to humans. On one hand, we have those who feel humans are some sort of virus in what would otherwise be a pristine universe. That could very well be true, if one begins to think about the purpose of the universe. That is, did we come from "outside" and screw everything up? Yet, how is that possible if we are nothing more than the result of random chance, along with everything else that is here at the moment?

It's not about God so much as it is the philosophical inconsistency of those who take that view. Paraphrasing Lil' Abner, "I've met Nature and he is us."

Again, I need to think about this some more.


John B. said...

Randall, thanks for setting me straight. I was reading your comment through the lens of something that had come to mind as I was writing the post.

See? ::in loud a slave-rebel voice:: "I am Pooh!"

Pam said...

I must have done something stupid (surprise, surprise) because I was pretty sure that I left a comment here earlier. (Going back to work today must have been more challenging than I thought!). Anyway, I had a thought to contribute - and said I'd get back to it - and now, poof, all gone. But...this is quite fun! When I'm a bit more coherent (and awake) I'll come back.

(I've never thought that humans were all that special. I mean, we're okay - interesting even - but there are a bunch of interesting species out there doing all sorts of fascinating things. And regarding the comment above, there are a number of different species that wreak havoc - perhaps not with the same force as homo sapiens do - but it's all a matter of scale...perhaps?)

Pam said...

Okay, I made it back to read this through more closely. I realized where I came to a sudden stop before: it was the whole use of the word 'natural' as well. As a scientist, it is not a word that I use often (ever?) in my scientific/technical writing. We use indigenous or anthropogenic to signify relevance to place - whether the object is a contaminant (say, a heavy metal) or a biological species (say, an opportunistic bacterial pathogen that is not usually associated with a coral reef community). But then, the very concept of 'anthropogenic' suggests a human-centric view, so not necessarily a holistic one.

Perhaps it's just important to observe - and not just from one viewpoint, but from many - before drawing a hypothesis (which, I suppose, is what we all try to do anyway).

I don't think I contributed anything here. It's been a long day.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by.
Actually, I think you did contribute, in that you indicate that vocabulary--adjectives, in fact--can express more accurately (read: "objectively") relationships between/among organisms and other entities. But (I'd think) a holistic approach to observation, and not just in the sciences, would be the ideal, no?

Paul Decelles said...


Funny you mention Dennett. This week when I should have been getting ready for the Spring semester I have been reading Dennett's Freedom Evolves, which is all about free will and whether or not it exists. One thing he argues is the freedom in the sense of free will did not exist until humans evolved. Of course I can't find the exact quote now that I need it.

So we are of the natural world but we have added something to it, namely free will which Dennett argues is all bound up with the evolution of language.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by, first of all.
Second of all, in response to Dennett's argument, all I feel smart enough to say just now is "Huh." It leads me to wonder, though, what the implications of his claim for a concept like natural law would be, then.

Paul Decelles said...

Sorry I haven't gotten back to answer your question. Dennett would probably agree with your conclusion that "the very adjective "natural" makes the "natural world" unnatural: an artificial space, an abstraction."

In fact he speaks to this point with the example of nudists (ummm naturists) who claim that nudism is good because is somehow our natural state. Yet at the same time, he constantly makes the point that our development of culture and language really has set us apart. We arose as a species through the evolutionary process and are part of the natural world and yet the result is a set of mental processes, foresight, morality etc that are in some respects qualitatively different from those shown be all other species.

Enough blathering on my part.