Fourth three: the organisation of knowledge

How is knowledge organised in this topic?


In Dualism, knowledge is ordered chronologically in the literature on the development of attitudes, from the time of the Greeks, onwards. You can do a chronological search for knowledge on dualism and you’ll find that the literature traces attitudes developing in the global North through first the Greeks, then the Judeo-Christian tradition, then Descartes and, since we’re looking at this from the point of view of the ecological emergency, finally through the ecophilosophers who have worked on the subject.


In a parallel vein, we can trace the history and chronology of the development of ideas in Soto Zen, first from India and the development of Buddhism, then through Tibet, SouthEast Asia and China and finally to Japan. However, it’s also useful to take a perspective on this and look in particular at the development of thought as it relates to dualism, and in particular to the understanding of the self, and of nature, and finally to the development of various aspects of non-dualism since I want to point out that Soto Zen focuses on dissolving boundaries at all kinds of levels, including between theory and practice, and there’s no journey, no road, just practice, which is enlightenment. I think this traces back to the tradition of buddhism, which was radically revolutionary (in the most peaceful sense) and I think there are parallels with Yoga that I want to point out.


Within Zen too, the knowledge that I am particularly interested in looking at is that which describes and outlines the practices that relate to respecting the process that is unfolding around the perceiver. I want to show how this idea has a strong resonance with the scientifically-based theories that posit, first, that all activities, including all human activities, are patterned processes and systems that accord perfectly with natural laws. This naturalistic approach means that there is no room for thinking that we exercise agency in the traditional sense of exercising free choice. Instead, we have to think of ourselves as being utterly enmeshed in relationships and responses that we can bring into awareness but not direct, escape or avoid. We are purely conditional on the laws that govern everything. These universal laws are not God, of course: we cannot posit a God that is as indifferent as that. It would be absurd. Yet we can develop a strange relationship with this information that is key in Zen: the ability to reflect back upon this understanding of ourselves. It is this reflection that creates additional layers to the process. We have, within the informational exchange that is a core feature of being alive, the emergent quality of perception. This might feel like a solid point of view but it is, of course, shifting and unsteady.


Next we can look at how knowledge is organised in evolutionary biology and in a sense we are looking at the development of ideas again, since there was an attempt to fit the findings to the current ideology and Darwin didn’t want to create too much of a stir so he may have underplayed some of the interdependencies and failed to point out or even recognise how interlinked and even how symbiotic some of the evolutionary developments were. Knowledge of evolutiaonry biology is organised differently from pure chronology though because it’s a recent (relatively) field so it’s probably important to organise it into the different branches and fields, from microbiology to paleoentology, to geology and the study of fossils to medicine, to plant physionomy, to genetics. I could probably organise those more carefully. Let’s try a historical perspective first, both in terms of subject matter (fossils, geology, and so on) and in terms of the history of the ideas (I’m only going to be sketching these in because the reality is that I want to give a background and an overview and then direct my attention to the areas that are relevant). On the origin of species, The Descent of Man, work by Wallace, Huxley’s defence (what else was written?) 1859, organic evolution, that was ok as long as we don’t have to give up god entirely. Darwinian evolution was incomplete. Mendel’s genetics needed to be synthesised with evolution. Discovery of DNA in the 1950s meant there had to be a synthesis between molecular biology and evolutionary theory. At the other end of the scale, E. O. Wilson in the United States and Konrad Lorentz and Niko Tinbergen in Europe were both working on the implications of evolutionary theory on the understanding of the behaviour of animals (for Wilson, groups, for Lorenz and Tinbergen, individual-to-individual and group activity, in the field they formed: Ethology). Both Lorenz, in his book, On Aggression, and Wilson in Sociobiology, took the next logical step, which was to apply their research to the behaviour of humans. The idea that human behaviour might be understood in purely naturalistic terms was hugely controversial, and still is. Yet the resistance is as much about a sense of reductionism as it is about confronting the potential loss of human separability that this final step implies.


Is it reductionist to talk of human activity in terms that are basically naturalistic? This takes us back into the realms of philosophy and since the 1960s, has formed a huge proportion of the work of major philosophers and areas of philosophy, from studies on Consciousness, and Agency, in the work of such philosophers as Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, to considerations of whether or not animals are themselves moral (Scott James, Frans de Waal, Richard Joyce), or whether our relationships with other animals depend upon the kinds of creatures we, ourselves, are (Mary Midgley). What matters, then, is that there has been an inherent conservatism in reaction to this idea that human activity is naturalistic. Some of the resistance has been well articulated but at heart, I want to suggest, this has as much to do with a very human, or even a very natural, inertia towards the introduction of change or novelty. Personally, I think a good argument can be made for emergentism, which is the position that describes the characteristics of being conscious as arising out of the conditions that evolutionary pressures have brought about, purely by chance. We are not souls and bodies. We are evolved creatures who happen to have a self-awareness (that is shared, to a lesser degree, by other creatures, although because our brains have evolved along one trajectory and theirs along another, we cannot know how much of our kind of awareness they share, and nor can we know how much of existence, let alone living existence, shares any kind of awareness at all.


So we have to take a stab at guessing. And, at a guess, since consciousness seems to be a somewhat accidental function of being able to mirror the world back to ourselves in various potential states, there is an argument to be made that some sort of awareness (nothing remotely like human awareness, but awareness nonetheless) could exist at any level, certainly of the stuff we call ‘living’. So we can move from the literature on evolutionary biology, and of the philosophical reaction to it, to the literature of physics.


The Schrodinger Paradox


There are a few people who have thought about the next potential step to this process, which is to think about the awareness as an informational exchange, in the same way that energy, at the physical level, is an informational exchange. I’ve written about this elsewhere and don’t want to repeat myself, but this is like weaving a pattern into a tapestry and I just want to show how the pattern echoes. Scott Sampson was the first writer I came across who had articulated this idea (in What is your dangerous idea? 2006). He said that he had traced the idea as far back as the Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger, one of the first to articulate the hypothesis, as part of his famous “What is Life?” lectures in Dublin in 1943. More recently, Jeffrey Wicken, Harold Morowitz, Eric Schneider and others took the idea further, supported by results from a range of studies in both physics and biology. The most comprehensive description of the idea is laid out in Schneider and Dorian Sagan’s book, “Into the Cool”. John Tooby also talks about this idea in his 2012 answer to the question, what is your most beautiful/elegant explanation.


The basic answer to the paradox has to do with context and hierarchy. Material and energy are transferred from one hierarchical level to another. To understand the growth of natural complex systems such as life, we have to look at what they are part of—the energy and environment around them. In the case of ecosystems and the biosphere, increasing organization and evolution on Earth requires disorganization and degradation elsewhere. You don’t get something from nothing.

The spectacular rise of one side of Schrödinger’s program—the genetic and informational—has been made at the expense of the other—the energetic and thermodynamic. So, if we look at the dual information and energetic capacities of living clusters and ecosystems, we find that they maintain organisation as a result of the complexities that they offer for dissipating energy in increasingly complex patterns. More energy is used in the complex unfolding of life than is used in systems that do not have the replicative processes that they offer in place.

This applies beyond life too. Life processes information, in the form of DNA and RNA protein building and replication, but it functions, too, as a transformer of energy. It is an open, recycling system of energy transfer and dissipation, organised by the laws of thermodynamics, even though it came about purely by chance.


What are the implications of this idea for the current study? Firstly, I want to be clear that I’m not appealing to the authority of the people who have talked about this idea as proof of its veracity. There are good reasons why appeals to authority need to be rejected on principle since they prove nothing but that authorities have spoken. Nor can I defend the idea on the grounds that I have sufficient understanding of the scientific findings that have made connections between energy and biological complexity. Instead, from a philosophical point of view, I want to look at the idea and see what it involves and how falsifiable it is at each stage. Then, in terms of more elementary understanding of science, I want to lay out how at each stage the rationality of the argument, and its servicability as an explanation, works, given the best explanation we have of how we came about, which is evolution.


(I don’t know if this is the right place for this explanation but very briefly, it will have to proceed with an elementary explanation of the second law of thermodynamics, and proceed with an explanation of energy in terms of information exchange. There is another theory that I wrote about in my Oct 2012 presentation that I want to bring in at this stage, since it talks about the relativity of relationships. Then I will bring in an explanation of how we might understand the evolution of life in the context of the exchange of information, the flow of energy and the cycling of matter. In order to explain why the evolution of complex organisation and replication does not violate the second law, I will show that Schneider and Sagan’s explanation neatly fits what we know so far, that is, that it shows how life obeys the laws of physics itself. Then I want to add that the implications of this explanation include an acknowledgment that more complex relationship, informational exchanges, energy flows and matter cycles, all increase the dissipation of energy and therefore accord with these findings. In other words, biodiversity, and complex, naturally evolved clusters of organisms and ecosystems, generate more dissipation than less complex, less diverse systems. Therefore more complex systems create more stability, more flexibility, and are anti-fragile (can tolerate more extremes, since there is more recourse to alternatives). Simpler, less diverse systems are less tolerant of alterations in conditional changes, like temperature increases or decreases, acidification, and so on.


Eggs in Baskets


Does this give us an obligation to respond? No. An is cannot imply an ought. Yet if we acknowledge that this is how information is conducted through systems, then we can see that there are reasons why living in a more complex system, particularly given our own complexity (and therefore our vulnerability to the breakdown of complex systems) is to our benefit, if by benefit we mean, survival.



Definition of emergent: to be emergent, a thing must have a characteristic or a feature that did not exist and could not have been predicted, given its constituent parts. For the purposes of this paper, agency is emergent but agency in a special sense, in the sense of being able to create conditions (a meditative, background awareness) that allow one to bring into play a biofeedback mechanism that in turn influences the neural activity and allows psychological and physiological room to develop so that the neural pathways can explore alternative potential patterns. In other words, we can chose how to react to our entrapment within cause-and-effect chains. Secondly, consciousness is emergent: large numbers of neurons, evolved as responsive systems, combine to produce mind. Someone could argue that the initial impetus to create a space is a part of a causal chain and I would agree. This is the impetus to practice enlightenment and provoke curiosity in others, to write books, to take part in discussions, so that, without force, the response elicited will be to seek out more information, and that may lead to creating conditions, making room, as it were, for meditation.


Finally, in describing how knowledge is organised in the field of environmental ethics, we can take the view that it is organised around the principle of the centre of value, that there is a chronology to the development of the field, and that there is the organising principle of relativism versus monism.


The main questions in the four fields are as follows: firstly, in dualism, the main question has been, how many kinds of entities are there? Do we all belong to the same ontology? The second field, that of Zen, asks questions around how to live and how to relate to the world primarily from a sacred point of view. The third field, that of evolutionary biology, asks what life is, whether or not we can madke sense of it in scientific terms, and the questions I allso want to ask here are how can life be related to other levels of scientific understanding, like energy, matter, the distribution of heat, and the flow of information. The final field asks what we need to do to deal with the problems that have arisen as a result of negative human impacts on local environmentals and global environemntal systems.


The key players in the field of dualism are Descartes and crossing the boundary between environmental ethics and dualism, warwick fox and lynn white jr. Then crossing the boundary between dualism and Zen is Roger T Ames and Graham Parkes and J Baird Callicott. The key players in Zen are the Buddha and his sutras, and then Francis Cook, and Dogen with the Shobogenzo. The key players and texts in evolutionary biology are richard joyce on evolutionary morality, Darwin, Lynn Margulis, and then all the writers on energy, including Scott Sampson and so on. The key players in the field of environmental ethics – the list is huge. Holmes Rolston, Keller, Scott James (that might be ev mor) Sterba, and many, many otehrs, Rachel Carson, etc. Wendell Berry.


What links all the ideas that I’ve talked about, the intersection, is respect/self-respect, two sides of the same coin.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s