Contemporary understanding of what it is to be human has been morphed again and again by advancing scientific understanding. First the human went from the animistic spirit thing, then on to the the polytheistic and monotheistic soul as a specific embodiment of god(s). With the dawn of the renaissance and positivism religious definitions finally became moot and the search began anew for an all encompassing definition of humanity. Mechanistic Cartesianisms came to dominate and have done so through much of contemporary thought, causing conflict and contention with the religious definitions of the self that attempt to reconcile themselves with the modern world-view.
The purely physical, rationalised rendition of the self does not have true roots anywhere. It has arisen as an implication of the various philosophical positions that have sought to create a special place for humanity in the hierarchy of existence while essentially denying any possibility of transcendent being – be it our own pursuit as such or the a priori existence of a non-human transcendent entity. Husserl’s ego cogito (the ‘thinking I’) may be drawn to such a belief to rectify its experiences of life and eventual death with its incapacity to truly contemplate a world in which the ego itself is no longer there to perceive. At risk of sounding cliche, it really does touch on the ancient riddle of the tree in the forest. If there are no more ears then what does sound become? Doesn’t perception require the perceiver and well as the perceived?
Rational existentialism, in which I must come to terms with my physical existence and its limitations in order to function within the world in any meaningful way, has a transcendent root. First and foremost it posits the existence of meaning, a category of knowledge that exists outside the being. Meaning is discovered and not made. When an author writes or an artist paints they imbue their work with meaning but this meaning is considered to have existed prior to the work. Hence the importance of allusion, which attempts to tie into the stream of meaning that stretches back into human history. But where is the origin of meaning? Does it begin with existence itself, or in the origin of language or perhaps the visual arts or music?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” -John 1:1
Second we have the world, another entity which exists outside of and completely separate from the observer. This is the simplification of our age-old religious problem. Many ancient cultures are though to have doubted the regular rising of the sun, or to at the very least have endorsed myths that posited scenarios in which the sun refused to rise on its usual schedule. It appears as though they would not take for granted something which they themselves were not able to verify. Be it Horus, Helios or Inti, someone usually stood in the stead of the average person so they could sleep in comfort knowing that the next day would proceed just as the previous even without their constant watchful gaze. In the complex mathematics of Newton and Leibniz a mechanistic explanation becomes possible but instead relies on paradoxes that troubled even the mos educated minds.
How then does this all relate to ecology? Ecology is the study of systems in which the evidence garnered at certain points proves the functioning of the system within certain parameters during the intervals between observation. While the same is broadly true for all the positivist physical sciences (i.e. the entire Faculty of Sciences save Mathematics) there are features that distinguish this particular branch of biology and render it especially relevant in light of our existential argument. Within the understanding of the human entity as a complex ecological entity with a natural flora in constant flux and and the nuanced and unpredictable complexities this brings, lies the possibility for rectifying the need for transcendent understanding within a purely natural world-view. For the ecological individual the world – including the functioning of their own internal organ systems – is subject to to complex interactions of a nearly countless myriad organisms. Each organism is its own actor with a certain degree of free will – if we take the term loosely. Even chemotaxis is not predetermined, but depends on subatomic quantum interactions which react in a chain to produce an observable effect. Different not so much in type but only in degree from the interactions that give rise to thought in our current neurological understanding, quantum reality gives each and every living creature a certain capacity for self determination. In a roundabout way we have returned to the pre-civilized (read: pre-settlement and pre-agriculture) animistic beliefs in which transcendence and self-awareness are not the sole domain of human actors.
The human community I refer to hear is not the fraternity we should experience as the now cliche ‘global village’ but the fraternity we feel with our guts and simple facts like the newly recognized importance of the appendix. From our throats to our anuses, our urethras and at times our lymph and blood streams – we are not human entities so much as we are a complex flora – we are an ecological entity with our own webs of production and myriad commensal, mutual and parasitic interactions.
The arguments presented here do of course require further thought and elucidation. They deal heavily with the a priori, or that which exists prior to and without the influence of perception. The writings of Immanuel Kant deal heavily with this concept and I am not overly familiar with them. Also herein are references to Descartes, another recent thinker with whom I am not overly familiar. As well I have knowingly missed the complex treatment of anti-rational existentialism found in Kierkegaard and excluded the popular and widely known philosophy of Platonic Forms which also deals heavily with the nature of experienced reality. Yet I think I have built enough of a concise and complex argument to make my main point; that much in the way that the absolute vacuum of space has been re-filled with the very ether-like dark matter, so too could the philosophical void left by the mechanistic human (especially contentious since the time of Darwin), be re-filled with the animistic understanding of human life as an amalgam of beings. We can only hope that soon new discoveries in the physical world will help us extend this animism back to the inorganic, to understand how even rocks, stars and galaxies make their ‘preferences’ felt. In that age the need for classical religion will disappear – though we can expect its hangers-on to linger at least a few millennia more.