Ecology with Mystery


Artists, poets and philosophers throughout the centuries have striven, through words and brushstrokes, to describe that which words and brushstrokes simply cannot capture. In the modern world, a mystery is something to be unravelled or a veil that is drawn across matters that are not for us to know. But Taoists have always been drawn to mystery. Just as a sheet draped over a statue reveals the shape of the statue beneath, so mystery, to a Taoist, is revealing of the secrets of the universe; you just need to know how to look. Richard Seymour.

Humanists and absolutists

Any achievable goal of recognizing culture as being indivisible from ecology as a global system of interdependency of all beings requires damping down an excessive caring focus on attachment to the immediate ‘home-place’. A singular locus for our ‘ecological footprint’ of daily living, whilst vital for fostering stability within a community, can desensitize us to the vital role of other place relationships. In the practice of pilgrimage or journeying between places, place is encountered as an end and not primarily as a means to some other ‘holiday’ end, such as improving one’s income or health prospects, gaining exercise or relaxation, escaping the problems of daily living, or meeting people who can further our personal aims. The orientation of journeying, as a project of multiple place-encounter, is dialogical rather than monological. It is a communicative project to explore the more-than-human as a source of wonder and wisdom in a revelatory framework of mutual discovery and disclosure. Pilgrimage is the ultimate model of travel referring to the mind’s journey from ignorance to enlightenment, from self-centeredness and materialistic preoccupations to a deep sense of the relativity and inter-connectedness of all life.

Eastern and western philosophers have long been divided between humanists, for whom man is the measure of things, and their opponents, the absolutists, who claim that there is a way that the world is more than human and is independent of human perspectives and interests.

One definition of humanism is any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate. As a philosophy it emphasises the application of scientific reasoning for individual fulfilment in the human economic niche.

The Humanist Manifesto of 2000 confirms that humanism is based on the fruits of scientific enquiry, which has expanded our knowledge of the universe and the place of humankind within it. Humanism is now able to advance and to have its findings confirmed by science and reason, whereas the metaphysical and theological speculations of the past have made little or no progress towards human well being .

In contrast, absolutists hold the view that transcendent knowledge and its intuitions reach beyond human comprehension and therefore cannot instruct us because we cannot relate concretely to them. The way in which humans accept supposed transcendent or spiritual knowledge is by arbitrarily taking a leap of faith and abandoning reason to take up wonders perceived through the mental senses. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there’s anything lying behind them. This mode is called emptiness because it is empty of the presuppositions we usually add to experience in order to make sense of it: the stories and worldviews we fashion to explain who we are and the world we live in.

According to the philosopher David Cooper, the typical form taken by absolutist doctrines subscribe to what he calls the ‘independence’ thesis, which states there is a discursable way the world is independent of ‘the human contribution’. As the humanist sees it, however, the substance, and even the sense of that thesis, typically relies on the claims that absolutists make about human abilities. To begin with,absolutists claim that human beings have the capacity to arrive at an absolute account of the world, which captures the way the world, independent of humanity, really is. They back their claim by saying that human beings have the capacity to arrive at an account of the world which is both ‘acceptable’ and ‘clean’. An account is ‘acceptable’ to absolutists if it is true by their own criteria of truth. An account is ‘clean’ if it is suitably untainted by ‘the human contribution’; in other words if it does not bear the stamp of a human perspective or form of life. Finally, the absolutist’s claim that human beings have the capacity to produce an ‘acceptable’ and ‘clean’ account of the world is typically supported by the further claim that this capacity has been at least partly realized by physicists. That is to say they have have already arrived at an account which approximately describes how the world independently of humans is. However, the physicist Max Planck reminds us that “Science cannot ultimately solve the mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery we are trying to solve.”

A deeper, non-anthropocentric relationship with nature emerges from Taoism and its institutions which guide absolutist ways of thinking about culture, ecology and environmental ethics. The word Tao is nothing less than an expression of the profound unity of the universe and of the path human beings must take to join, rather than disturb, that unity. The path begins with an understanding of the origin of the universe. “Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of the way,” stated the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu. The way of the Tao is the ultimate reality; a one way flow of Nature and the position of humanity in this flow. But the ultimate reality, like a draped statue, is enshrouded in mystery.

Taoists seek an attunement to the mystery of beginnings through non-interference, humility and patience. These are virtues which contrast with the aggressive and exploitative values so prevalent in our modern world because of its fixation on forcing a flow of wealth through economic growth. The older classic Taoist texts reveal a yearning for convergence with nature, nostalgia for a lost intimacy with the natural world, disillusion with humanity or its products, and a feeling for nature’s mystery. These attitudes are rooted in Taoist philosophy and have implications for our practical engagement with natural environments when we try to be good to planet Earth.

Our response to the wonders of the human ecological niche depends on the nature of the stimulus which prompted the response. Actually, a sense of wonder is only one kind of mystical feeling acknowledging the marvels of existence. Others are an awareness of being part of something larger than oneself; and an overpowering egocentrism. The latter can readily persuade an individual that the perfection of one’s own complexity could not have come about by accident.

But these are general human sensations and can have humanistic outcomes. For instance, it is wonder that drives the scientist to ask “How come?” and to seek an intellectually satisfying answer. Also, the curiosity engendered by awe and wonder has fuelled the scientific process since human beings discovered fire. The experience of being part of some larger entity has spurred us on to discover our evolutionary history and the socio-cultural context of the individual. The same is true of the egocentrism that renders us susceptible to the urge to view our own “selves” as the consciously designed, ultimate products and central concerns of the universe. Pat Duffy Hutcheon says how could we not feel thus, given the natural origin of our species and its integral relationship to all aspects of its physical surroundings and to the dynamic web of life? Our millennia-long legacy of an anthropocentrically oriented culture is reflected in social evolution of current society which, in turn, has shaped these “selves” as surely as inherited genes have formed our organic building blocks.

The glue of mystery

The impasse reached when humanism and absolutism are discussed fiercely as rival accounts of cultural ecology may only be escaped through adopting an attitude of humility and accepting a doctrine of mystery that encompasses both humanism and absolutism. A doctrine of mystery says there is indeed something beyond the human but this is not discursable. Such mysteries are exemplified by the existence of human life itself and are bound up with the question; Is human life the result of many coincidences and random chance? Or is it instead the fine-tuning of the laws that govern the universe which have led to our existence? And if this is the case, what is the origin of this fine-tuning?

In the closing pages of his book ‘Just Six Numbers’, the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, concedes that science cannot explain the fine-tuning of the physical environment that made the development our universe and human life on Earth possible.

He formulates the fine-tuning of the Universe in terms of the following six dimensionless constants:

N = ratio of the strength of gravity to that of electromagnetism;

Epsilon (ε) = strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei;

Omega (ω) = relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the Universe;

Lambda (λ) = cosmological constant;

Q = ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass;

D = number of spatial dimensions in spacetime.

The reasons for it lie beyond anything within our universe and therefore beyond anything we can ever measure. This is an absolutist semi-mathematical mystery of the first order.

David Cooper, believes that the only escape from the rivalry between humanism and absolutism actually lies in the doctrine of mystery. He says there is a reality independent of the human contribution to material knowledge but it is necessarily ineffable. Drawing on the Buddhist conception of emptiness and Heideggar’s later writings, Cooper in his book ‘The Measure of Things’ advances the idea that it is only through appreciation of mystery that we can fully understand our beliefs and conduct particularly when we try to define what it is ecologically “good” to do. One person’s notion of the good life might clash dramatically with another person’s formula.

In support, Cooper quotes Iris Murdoch, who writes that ‘ A genuine mysteriousness attaches to the idea of goodness’ and ‘true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism’. She continues that ‘the most central’ of the virtues is that of humility, understood not as a ‘habit of self-effacement’ but as a ‘selfless respect for reality’ There are two components to being humble in this way, the selfless respect for reality, which includes respect for the integrity of things and what Murdoch calls ‘unselfing’. By unselfing she means humankind should abandon hubristic efforts to dominate the world by finding out how things are and planning to control the future. Unselfing is the antidote to what she calls the ‘flimsy’ creed of managerial humanism.

Concentrating on little things

Murdoch’s two humilities come together in a stance towards creatures and other living beings, and indeed towards things generally, that Heidegger calls ‘letting be’ or, following the medieval philosopher, Meister Eckhart, ‘releasement’.

First, things should be treated as what they are and not as they happen to figure in some ‘dimmed down’ vision that suits certain human purposes. For example, it is necessary to resist such practices as genetically engineering bulls. These domesticated farm animals with the bovine equivalent of Down’s syndrome (as one writer describes them), become fat, placid lumps convenient for masturbation by machines. Such practices are blind to the integrity of bulls, to the ‘place’ they have in the world, to what they are. Contrast this description of ‘ humanism running amok’ with Cormac McCarthy’s wonder at the impact of human materialism on the mountain brook trout. The following is a quotation from his book ‘The Road’:

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

The second attribute of the humble person is respect for ‘little things’. Murdoch reminds us that these are ‘the little accidental jumbled things like little stones, like bits of earth’, and for inconspicuous, unglamorous activities, like eating a meal. ‘Ways of life’, she reminds us, ‘imply times for breakfast’.

In this context of allocating time, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says;

“If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realising the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking a cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life”.

Drawing attention to the little things and everyday actions of life, Cooper, in his ‘A Philosophy of Gardens’, suggests that gardens may contribute to what he calls ‘the good life’. He argues that many of the little things we do in gardens – ‘induce virtues’, and that gardens are hospitable to various practices many of which ‘. . . invite and attract certain virtues by providing especially appropriate opportunities for their exercise’. For example, when a plant which has been the object of our tender care flowers or fruits, there is the delight in something to which we have contributed but which we could not have achieved alone, and this induces the virtue of humility. This close connection between humus and humility dates back at least to the monastic gardeners of the Middle Ages. And this humility is related to the virtue of patient hope, an optimistic expectation that in the fulness of time things will turn out well, that the future has positive things to offer. The virtuous behaviours of feeling humble and grateful, and of putting the needs of other living things above one’s own, are all exemplified when developing and maintaining a garden with non-utilitarian aims. In looking after our plants Cooper says we are exhibiting the virtue of care, ‘a virtue that stands close to that of respect for life’. And by thus caring for our plants we enhance in ourselves a virtue, self-discipline, a virtue that ‘imposes a structure and pattern on a life that might otherwise be lacking in shape and unity’.

In contrast to concerns about these little things Heidegger thinks we have become obsessed with the ‘gigantic’ and the ‘striking’ and have become incapable of celebrating the sense of wonder in the ordinary and unassuming. Here, we have fallen victim to measuring the world by a yardstick that inflates the scale of human achievement. The humble person, will recognize that, as a Zen poet put it, there is ‘wondrous function’ in ‘carrying water and logging firewood’. Another Buddhist,the Zen philosopher Master Dogen, saw that Buddha-nature or ‘the mystical power’ is realized as much in the cypress tree, the bundle of flax or the reflection of the moon, as in more dramatic and ‘gigantic’ vehicles of human imagination. A ‘sense of the mystery of things’, evident in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, may be ‘focused on to ordinary aspects of life’. Indeed, it is attention to the ‘right mindfulness’ of something unassuming that might best attune us to the ‘gathering’ of a world in something. The reflection of the moon, writes Dogen, is a ‘place’ where ‘something ineffable exists’. It is just such an experience of a pine tree’s transparency-its ‘concentrating’ of wind, sea, night, and moon-that the poet Saigyo records:

‘Inviting the wind to carry

Salt waves of the sea,

The pine tree of Shiogoshi

Trickles all night long

Shiny drops of moonlight’.

Cooper leaves it to the reader to consider the implications of a ‘celebration of the ordinary’ as a way in which human beings might relate to one another. For example this could be a way that would call for rather ‘simpler’ and more ‘local’ forms of community seemingly required by current political and economic imperatives.

In Cooper’s final analysis, humility implies tolerance towards ‘ways of revealing’, schemes of thought and evaluation that are different from those prevailing in one’s everyday form of life.

‘This is not due to recognition of others’ ‘rights’, nor to utilitarian calculation of the benefits of non-interference, nor to ‘postmodernist’ delight in ‘difference’ for its own sake. Rather it is a humanist recognition that, as the Taoist Chuang Tzu puts it, a given way of revealing is ‘rooted’ in a given form of life. People ‘agree because they are the same’, not because agreement is imposed upon them by the independent way that reality is. It also requires an appreciation of what is beyond the human, i.e ‘The Buddhist’s Way’, ‘sends’ or ‘gives’ many ways, which are evident in the Tree of Life. The world on a given way of revealing is not our ‘possession’, but a gift from ‘something ineffable’. The person of humility will not be a triumphalist about, say, our modern democratic institutions or ‘scientific culture’: he or she will not want to see other ways of living together or thinking together automatically despised or obliterated. Humility is the virtue that exhorts us to accept that it is impossible, as Iris Murdoch warns, always to ‘limit and foresee’ what is ‘required of us’.

Here we approach the realm of artistry as a kind of pilgrimage. It is defined by the painter/attorney Paul Hampton Crockett, in terms of his experience of making pictures, where ‘… each painting is very like a journey, of a kind measurable neither in distance nor in time. And no matter the artist’s initial plans, expectations or intention, there is neither a charted course available nor any means of ascertaining how the experience will take you wherever-it-is. Not necessarily at all a comfortable or safe process, but beyond doubt one of real value. Maps are traded for leaps of faith, and smaller conceptions happily die and the existential clutter (at least to some extent) cleared, so that visions larger and more fresh may be born’.

Fig 1 Mystery as an arbitrator between humanism and absolutism


In summary, the emergence of ‘humanism is understood as the claim that any ‘discursable’ world is a ‘human world’, one whose description is relative to human purposes and perspectives on nature as an absolute economic asset. Humanism is contrasted with ‘absolutism’ which, it is argued, is a doctrine at once hubristic and implausible. However, it is also argued that a ‘raw’ humanism, which denies the existence of any reality beyond the human world, is also hubristic and ‘unliveable’. It has put humanity on the Titanic pathway to extinction. The conclusion is drawn that we must take seriously the existence of a radically mysterious order of reality, a ‘source’ for unifying our human world. It is in this perspective that a cultural ecology of mystery is an arbitrator between humanism and absolutism. It is a way of looking at the world behaviourally by adopting an attitude of humility and developing bigger picture thinking through artistry (Fig 1).

‘The Measure of Things’

David E Cooper

Clarendon Press, 2002

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