Article in Society / Philosophy
A description of the harmful mistakes of thought and behaviour that arise from abstract perceptions of reality and how these can be disarmed through awareness of natural inclusion
 
 
 

PREVIEW

Abstract perceptions of reality always either encase natural phenomena entirely within non-existent boundary limits, or entirely disregard any source of distinction between natural forms and their surroundings and neighbours. Unlike natural boundaries, such as skin, abstract boundaries are simplified, orderly and definitive. They completely isolate the insides from the outsides of things and places. Hence they treat Nature either as a whole object in itself, or as a collection of whole objects that are divisible into fractional parts and separated from one another by variable amounts of space and time. In conventional mathematics, these entities are defined as numerical and geometric figures (discrete numbers and shapes) and in conventional language they are defined as nouns (discrete subjects and objects). Energetic actions of various kinds upon or between these entities are defined as verbs. For the sake of convenient calculation, description and argumentation, Nature is frozen into isolated units of space, energy, time and matter within a superimposed frame of reference that does not actually exist. The only envisaged alternative to this categorization is to merge all into formlessness. As the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, understood, however, nature is always and only properly imagined as variably fluid. Fluidity rules everywhere, and space, time, energy and matter can neither be separated from one another as isolated entities nor united into absolute singularity.

Through our human habit of imposing these abstract boundary limits onto nature, we introduce something fundamentally anti-natural into our worldview, which not only steers us away from perceiving true nature, but disrupts and damages our natural neighbourhood in a huge variety of ways. Because this habit has such a tenacious grip on our thinking, it can be called "abstract fundamentalism". We adhere to it because we (both in Academia and in society at large) think it is sufficiently useful and correct to "freeze" nature into abstract entities, and to relate with nature as if these entities actually existed. They do not, and the consequences of living and thinking as if they do have brought devastating consequences for us, psychologically, socially and environmentally.

There is a way out of this devastation, without any loss of useful knowledge, through recognising the principle of ‘natural inclusion’ as the co-evolving flow of energy and space as distinct but mutually inclusive, informative and receptive, presences. Sadly, however, humanity has been habituated to abstract fundamentalism for so long that all of our institutions are built upon it. Whether we speak of engineering, economics, politics, the sciences, or any other field of study or expertise, the predilection for abstract conceptualization remains firmly in place. We try to solve our problems of living using the same kind of thinking that gave rise to them. But the natural truth remains:-

Abstract fundamentalism, the imposition of definitive discontinuity onto natural continuity, cannot solve the problems of living it causes.

Introduction

Whether we realize it or not, and no matter how well educated we are or aren’t, all of us in modern cultures have been brought up to perceive ourselves and the natural world in an abstract way that leads us to make all sorts of basic mistakes in the way we live. These mistakes cause psychological, social and environmental harm, ranging in severity from minor quarrels to mental illness, genocide, global warfare and destruction of our natural habitat.

Oddly, this perception is often described as ‘rational’, or even ‘realistic’, so that to question it is assumed to be ‘irrational’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘unrealistic’ and ‘emotional’ . But if we think about it carefully, it becomes clear that this perception is itself based on fundamentally unrealistic assumptions about ourselves and the natural world. It originates in a kind of idealism that reaches back at least to the times of ancient Greece, and most particularly to the definitive logic of Aristotle and others, which to this day underpins modern science, mathematics and technology. Put very simply, this logic holds that one thing cannot simultaneously be another thing. Correspondingly, all natural forms are treated as discrete objects and subjects separated by rigid boundaries and/or gaps of space. C.S. Lewis described this logic as ‘the Whole Philosophy of Hell’, in which ‘to be’ means ‘to be in competition’.

It isn’t difficult – although it is very unusual – for anyone to recognise the fallacy in definitive logic. We can make a start by asking ourselves ‘does this logic correspond with our actual experience of life, and does it make good sense of our experience?’ In particular, does the idea that the inside of anything is cut off from its outside relate to our actual experience? What kind of boundary would be needed to distinguish the space inside something from the space surrounding something without itself including space? Such a boundary couldn’t have any thickness, because if it did, the space within this thickness would be continuous with the space on either side of it. But anything without any thickness would have no real size or shape: a knife that could cut through space without itself including space – like the ‘Subtle Knife’ imagined by Philip Pullman in his ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy – can’t exist as a physical reality: it can only exist as an abstract concept. That is, we can only imagine its existence!

Realistically, we have to recognise that in the natural world, space and whatever informative presence that distinguishes the inside from the outside of what we call ‘things’ are distinct but mutually inclusive presences, both of which are needed for these things to be distinguishable from one another and their surroundings. Moreover, we can recognise that such mutual inclusion requires one of these presences – space – to be everywhere, motionless, and without substance, and the informative presence that distinguishes different localities in space, to be in continuous motion (because if it were motionless even momentarily it would reduce to no thickness and hence cease to exist). We may then recognise the latter presence as what physicists call ‘energy’, which occurs in two distinctive guises in Nature: weightless, ‘electromagnetic radiation’, and weighty ‘gravitational bodies (matter)’. But, being founded on the unrealistic definitive logic that treats matter and space as mutually exclusive, modern physics gives rise to paradoxical conundrums that obscure this recognition, such as ‘wave-particle duality’ and ‘non-locality’. These conundrums cannot be resolved without changing modern physics’ underlying perception of space and boundaries as sources of definitive exclusivity. We need instead to appreciate that natural space and boundaries are mutually inclusive sources of continuous stillness and continuous mobility, respectively.

To get more of a ‘feel’ for what has just been said, imagine drawing a circle with a pencil on a still sheet of paper. You have to move the pencil point around to produce the circle, while not making the pencil point so utterly sharp and hard as to cut a hole in the paper. The circle is formed by a combination of continuous paper with continuous pencil movement. Time is implicit in this movement, but, like space, cannot be cut into discrete segments or intervals. The circle is a dynamically formed locality somewhere in ‘place-time’ – the energetic inclusion of space in form and form in space.

We can now dispense with our abstract need to define ‘things’ by recognising how natural space and boundaries actually are and must be as distinct but mutually inclusive presences. We can do this by appreciating:

    Natural space as an intangible presence everywhere that is not a substance but makes the existence of substance possible

    Energy as continuous motion that locally in-forms space into bodily presence

Every ‘thing’ or ‘body’ is 100 % space PLUS energy, a dynamic locality somewhere in place-time, not part space and part energy within a completely definable entity or ‘whole’.

Now, having recognised the fallacy in the foundations of abstract perception that cuts energy, time and space into discontinuous units, we can begin to recognise the mistakes it leads us to make in our modern everyday lives, and how these mistakes can be remedied through an appreciation of ourselves and all natural forms as ‘flow-forms’ – ‘natural inclusions’ of space in energy and energy in space, NOT isolated objects and subjects.

Let’s now review these mistakes under a number of generic headings, beginning with the most fundamental:-

Regarding only what is tangible as physically present

This is the mistake upon which the dogma of materialism is founded. This seeks to explain natural phenomena in terms of material properties alone and so explicitly either excludes any kind of immaterial presence from consideration, or treats this presence as if it is actually material. Taken to extremes, it leads to the negation of emotion and the attribution of value only to that which can be quantified precisely. All forms of life, including people, become regarded as machines, and are treated accordingly as ‘performing objects’.

This dogma gathered strength especially during the twentieth century, following upon the widespread acceptance of Darwinian evolution by ‘natural’ selection (‘the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’) and increasing secularization of society. It was readily assimilated into callous political and economic regimes based on fascism, capitalism and communism and was boosted further by the advent of neo-Darwinian interpretations of social and environmental biology, notably ‘selfish gene’ theory. Despite being widely caricatured in the science and social fiction literature, e.g. in George Orwell’s novel, ‘1984’ and in the stories of ‘Dr Who and the Daleks/Cybermen’, it is deeply embedded in our social, scientific and educational practice and in the basic premises of both ‘reductionism’ and ‘holism’. It is embedded also in those religious belief systems that divide or conflate the ‘material world’ from or with the ‘spirit world’ as independent/unified existences.

The fallacy of materialism lies in the exclusion or conflation of the immaterial presence of space from or with the material presence that couldn’t exist or move without it.

Correspondingly, materialism is based on the abstract concept that matter can be abstracted from or conflated with space – which is not supported by actual experience and does not make consistent sense.

The remedy for this mistake is as simple and obvious as it is revolutionary: we accept, realistically, that material form is a combination of space and energy as distinct but mutually inclusive presences. Correspondingly, we recognise that all natural form is continuously in flux as what we could aptly call ‘flow-form’, and so cannot rigidly be defined into discrete numerical categories. As William Wordsworth recognised:

‘In Nature, everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute, independent singleness’.

No sooner do we do this, then we come alive with feeling for ourselves and others as natural, dynamic inclusions of our neighbourhood, not subjects distanced from objects. Emotion is no longer divorced from reason. We see the source of so many of our modern and global problems in false dichotomy and false conflation – and hence begin to see a way out of their entrapment. New possibilities emerge for our scientific, mathematical, artistic, spiritual, social, psychological and environmental understandings and endeavours.

Let’s now look in more detail at some of these possibilities, by reviewing some of the other, inter-related, mistakes that arise from overlooking the vitality of intangible presence.

Mistaking distinction for definition – treating and imposing boundaries as fixed limits

Abstract perception depends on defining boundaries in space and/or time, as absolute demarcations between what is and is not ‘the same thing’. This definition allows ‘outside influence’ either to be ignored or regarded as an external ‘force’, ‘driver’ or ‘opponent’, which must be dominated if it is not to dominate the subject. Einstein’s contention that ‘the environment is everything that isn’t me’ epitomises the resultant abstract demarcation of ‘self’ from ‘other’ and is encapsulated in Wheeler’s summary of ‘general relativity’ that ‘space-time tells matter how to move; matter tells space-time how to curve’. It is also encapsulated in the Darwinian view of life as a ‘struggle for existence’, and in Hamlet’s pondering:-

‘To be or not to be, that is the question: whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, OR, to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them’.

It is quite obvious, here, that the definitive exclusion of ‘other’ sets up an abstract opposition that all-too-readily is translated into enmity. Hence the root of human conflict and misunderstanding is embedded in abstract definition – the objectification of what is deemed to be outside the subject. As Michael Polanyi (1958) put it:

“For once men have been made to realize the crippling mutilations imposed by an objectivist framework—once the veil of ambiguities covering up these mutilations has been definitely dissolved—many fresh minds will turn to the task of reinterpreting the world as it is, and as it then once more will be seen to be.”

But the definitive placement of ourselves and others in an objective space/time frame is something we have all been taught to do on an everyday basis. We do it in our language, when we define ‘things’ as ‘nouns’ that do things verbally to other things. We do it in our mathematics when we define numerical and geometrical figures as discrete ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ (fractions and integers, segments and spheres etc). We do it in abstract logic that excludes the middle possibility between alternative propositions. We do it in our science when we confine our experiments within discrete containers. We do it in politics when we divide into parties that oppose each other and submit themselves to elections in which majorities gain mandates, undemocratically to overrule minorities. We do it in religion that divides people into exclusive sectors and factions. We do it in educational systems that divide themselves up into discrete disciplines and select ‘the best’ while failing ‘the rest’. We do it in ‘sport’ and every form of ‘competition’. We do it in Art that divides itself into ‘isms’. We do it most terribly in warfare and genocide. Basically we do it whenever we impose unnatural discontinuity upon what is naturally continuous and treat this discontinuity as real. As the nursery rhyme discloses: whenever the natural spatial and temporal continuity of Humpty Dumpty is shattered, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, cannot put Humpty together again.

The fallacy of defining boundaries as fixed limits of space, time, energy and matter resides in the fact that natural boundaries never are or can be definitive. Natural space cannot be cut into separate pieces. Neither can natural movement actually be segregated into discrete time frames (as per the ‘freeze-frames’ of a cine film). Natural boundaries are continuously in flux and freely permeable to space, and so dynamically distinguish, without isolating, insides from outsides.

The remedy for this fallacy is as simple and obvious as it is revolutionary. Accept natural space and boundaries to be as they are – continuous and continuously dynamic; don’t try to force them physically or mentally to be as they aren’t.

For example:-

As a practical, experience-based approach to bringing up children lovingly and protectively, apply boundaries as dynamic transition zones rather than hard and fast rules. These boundaries can change and become more complex as the child gains experience. While young children may need to be told to “finish dinner before starting to watch TV”, this rule can evolve for older children into more flexible guidance regarding good nutrition, courtesy toward others, and spending time wisely.

Such use of experience-based guidelines that can soften and harden, open up and close down as appropriate to circumstances, in place of unrealistically inflexible and impermeable rules and regulations is not an invitation to utter unruliness. A tree with no bark is as unable to thrive as a tree with cast-iron bark. By the same token, a child growing up with no constraining influence is as lost and vulnerable as a child subject to iron-discipline is stultified and liable either to rebel or inflict the same oppression on those that it comes to exert power over. On the other hand, a child brought up lovingly and flexibly learns how to care for its self, its neighbours and its natural neighbourhood, in variable and evolving conditions.

Mistaking quantity for quality

That ‘more is better’ is a widespread assumption applied to such notions as ‘productivity’, ‘efficiency’, ‘evolutionary fitness’, ‘economic growth’, ‘ability’, ‘happiness’ and ‘health’. Conversely, ‘less’ is considered ‘better’ when applied to ‘unproductivity’, ‘inefficiency’, ‘death’, ‘economic recession’, ‘disability’, ‘sadness’ and ‘disease’. Implicit in such assumptions is the further assumption that all natural occurrences can be quantified in terms of exact and equivalent numerical units (i.e. definitive numbers).

A salient example is the utilitarian ethical doctrine that judges the value of actions in terms of their capacity to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This doctrine actually opens up some very problematic notions, e.g. the idea that ‘the end’ (in this case ‘the greatest happiness in the most people’) justifies the ‘means’ (how to achieve that ‘end’). Such a notion enables nastiness to be justified if it yields goodness in the end. It combined with Social Darwinian racial and eugenic favouritism to underpin the Nazis’ ‘final solution’ of exterminating a scapegoated minority objectified as ‘other than us’.

Here we are obliged to ask questions like, ‘what do you mean by the greatest number?’; ‘Are you talking about the greatest number now, or at some future time, in which case, when is that? ‘Is each of the numbers you are considering truly of equivalent size and quality?’

The fallacy of regarding quantity as a measure of quality resides in the fact that distinctive natural identities are dynamically bounded and so are neither definitively discrete entities in themselves, nor confined to discrete locations in space and/or time.

Once again, the fallacy arises in imposing unnatural discontinuity (i.e. definition) on what is naturally continuous or continuously dynamic. The remedy is as simple and obvious as it is revolutionary: accept natural numerical identities to be as they are – local energetic inclusions of continuous (i.e. infinite) space. While this does not alter the way simple numerical calculations of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication are done, it does radically change understanding of what the results of these calculations – and the numbers themselves – actually mean. At the heart of this new understanding is appreciation of Wordsworth’s recognition that ‘nothing in Nature can be defined into absolute independent singleness’. In other words there is no such thing in Nature as ‘One Alone’ or ‘All One’. There is only ‘one’ as a dynamic inclusion of intangible space within and intangible space all around. To put it another way, rather than being a rigid figure set apart from the intangibility of zero and infinity, natural singleness is a dynamic inclusion of zero as an intangible point of space infinitely deep within its core and infinite intangible space all around. Infinity and zero are qualities of space, not quantities of matter.

Natural ‘oneness’ is therefore indefinable as a figure apart from space, a ‘material unit’, but is instead a combination of tangible and intangible presence. Natural oneness is a fluid quality of dynamic local distinctiveness within and as an inclusion of infinite space. It can vary in shape and scale from regularly spherical to irregularly branched, and from subatomic to galactic. It can expand and contract and it can differentiate from and integrate with others in diverse combinations and re-combinations. ‘Twoness’, as a coupling of the boundaries of two ones in common space, is not the same as two individual ones with distinctive boundaries, as is evident from the fact that 2 x 2 is not the same as 1 x 1 + 1 x 1. This simple fact, when its iterative implications were appreciated, gave rise as recently as the 1960s to the development of ‘non-linear dynamical systems theory’ as a radical departure from the familiar linear mathematical models of natural dynamics used, for example, in Newton’s mechanics. Even so, its deeper significance regarding the fundamental quality of natural flow-form escapes notice, so long as the abstract convention of treating numerical and geometric figures as definitively bounded entities remains in place.

The fact that what I have just written may sound abstruse is testament to the capacity of successive generations of doctrinaire mathematical teaching and theorizing to obscure the central fallacy embedded in its foundations and establish itself as an unquestionable pillar of exactitude in the minds of the public. This central fallacy was exposed as long ago as 1985, by Nigerian mathematician, Lere Shakunle, who, as a result, formulated a radical new methodology, which he called ‘Transfigural Mathematics’.

Meanwhile, this fallacy continues to affect us every day, and to be exploited by political and commercial profiteering and obfuscation, in a huge variety of ways.

For example:-

The unwary modern supermarket-shopper is lured into making unnecessary and unsatisfactory purchases by a plethora of ‘special offers’ and ‘bargains’, all based on the illusion that more product and/or less cost are necessarily ‘better’, while obscuring hidden cost and lack of quality. The wise shopper knows how to see through and avoid these temptations; the unwary shopper falls for them. Those ‘two for the price of one’ purchases prove not to be such ‘great value for money’ when we get them home and realize that we haven’t got the storage room for them, that we can’t possibly consume them before their ‘use by’ date without getting fat, and that they’ve flown umpteen air miles and don’t taste so good anyway. Need I say more?

Overlooking context

As predatory primates with grasping hands, binocular vision and an inability to digest grass, human beings are predisposed to focus on whatever grabs their attention and ignore what surrounds this. If we were rabbits, surrounded by swathes of delicious grass and with eyes on the sides of our heads, our predisposition would literally be more circumspect and wary, while less prone to place ourselves and other locally distinct identities at the centre of our attention.

This may help to explain why we are so cognitively predisposed to focus solely on individual ‘figures’ while losing sight of the ‘ground’ or ‘spatial context’ within and as a dynamic inclusion of which those figures are situated. This may suit our catching, grasping lifestyle in many ways, but when it comes to acting wisely in relation to our natural neighbourhood, it pays to be more circumspect – to remind ourselves, or be reminded, to include ourselves and others in what is all around, within us and throughout us. Otherwise we fall into the trap of abstract perception that leads us to isolate ourselves and others from our natural environment as definitive subjects and objects.

The fallacy of excluding context from consideration resides in the fact that no natural form or figure can be isolated from what it inescapably includes and is included in.

When unaware of this fallacy, it is a short step to profound misunderstanding and the development of abusive relationships with our neighbours and our neighbourhood. We get ‘tunnel vision’ and ‘wall ourselves in’ to false perceptions of absolute freedom and security, which can have catastrophic consequences.

For example:-

Back in the supermarket, armed with steely shopping trolley, our focus on the bargain buy over there, we take aim and charge, failing to notice the other shopper about to cut across our path, and collide. Meanwhile, someone else gets there first. Frustration leads to rage and we get caught up in an exchange of accusations with the other shopper. Similar situations occur every day on our roads, all of which could be avoided with a little more circumspection and empathy for the other sharing our space.

Mistaking consequence for cause

Talking about collisions, the perception of Nature as a set of inert, hard-lined objects separated from one another by variable gaps of space led Isaac Newton to formulate his ‘Laws of Motion’ in terms of bodies moving and interacting by means of ‘forces’ imposed upon them. This is related to the familiar idea that whatever happens must have a cause. When you think about it, this also implies that without some kind of intervention, Nature would not change. So, the default position in this view of Nature is stasis – changelessness. If ‘something’ happens, ‘something else’ must have made it happen.

This kind of thinking leads us to look for causal agencies for whatever happens, and for millennia an enormous amount of philosophical enquiry has been devoted this search. One of the frustrating things about this enquiry is, however, that it leads to what is known as an ‘infinite regress’ because every cause that is identified must itself be caused by yet another causal agency. Every child knows how to taunt their parents by repeatedly asking the question ‘why?’ In the end some recourse to ‘ultimate Authority’ or ‘ultimate cause’ is made: ‘because I say so; because God/Nature made things that way!’

The temptation to put a stop to infinite regress by singling out a particular local agency as ‘prime cause’ or ‘prime mover’ is one way in which what is actually the outcome of some deeper reality – or misconception of reality – becomes mistaken for the originator of that reality. For example, the ‘source’ of a river may be traced back along the path of the river to the tip of one of its tributaries. In this way, a local spring in the Cotswold Hills is often spoken of as the source of the great River Thames that flows through the City of London and out into the North Sea. But we have only to question, ‘where does this spring arise from?’, for our enquiry to take us on an exploration into the ‘water cycle’, and beyond, ultimately to everywhere within the infinite expanse of what we call ‘the cosmos’.

Ironically it is this temptation to isolate and believe in an ultimate, independent, singular cause for all that happens, which ultimately causes all the mistakes of abstract perception listed in this essay. Even supposedly ‘evidence-based’ theories of origin and causation can nonetheless be undermined by false assumptions that are not consistent with evidence. A good historical example is the Ptolemaic representation of the Universe, based on actual evidence of the apparent movement of stars and planets, yet founded on the belief that the Earth was fixed in the centre of the solar system. By the same token, all modern scientific theories of biological and cosmological evolution are based on actual observations (e.g. fossil record; red shift of galaxies) but
undermined by the abstract mathematical and philosophical assumption of a paradoxically definitive starting point/process in which material presence is isolated from or conflated with spatial presence.

The fallacy here resides in the assumption that some singular entity or event had to get things started from an initial default position of utter incoherence (‘randomness’, ‘entropy’, ‘anarchic disorder’ or ‘chaos’) or utter formlessness in which space and energy are mutually exclusive or indistinguishable.

If, however, it is recognised that all natural, distinguishable forms arise from the continuous flow of energy in space and space in energy, then the assumptions of randomness or formlessness and singular intervention in the first place must be false. Hence, it becomes possible to move on from thinking simplistically in terms of interminable, interlinked chains of cause and consequence where ‘one thing leads to another’, to a more contextually aware recognition that all natural occurrences arise within each other’s simultaneous mutual influence.

For example:-

What really caused the collision in the supermarket? Was it one or other of the shoppers? Was it the tempting bargain? Was it the supermarket chain that puts profit, before people, before environment? Was it capitalism? Was it money? Was it possessiveness? Was it mistrust? Was it materialism? Was it the assumption that material bodies can be independent from their contextual space? Ah!

Attributing too much or too little responsibility to self or others for fortune and misfortune – the claim, blame and shame game

With the recognition that there can be no such thing as singular causation, comes the awareness that no single person can ever be solely responsible for whatever happens, including their own behaviour. Modern human culture is, however, full of people who seek to claim full credit for whatever ‘good’ that happens and ready to attribute or accept blame for whatever ‘bad’ that happens to others or upon themselves.

To claim full credit for good outcomes and behaviour is a source of ‘feel good’ exultation, and especially characteristic of people with aspirations to political leadership and/or winning various kinds of contests for money, fame and glory. Those same people are as ready to attribute blame to others as they are unready to accept blame themselves – a condition sometimes referred to as ‘passing the buck’. Meanwhile, those who accept blame or are blamed suffer ‘feel bad’ emotions of guilt, shame, deprivation and demoralization as social outcasts.

The fallacy here resides in the assumption that anyone can be free from the influence and support or antipathy of their social context and natural neighbourhood.

Whatever we do may be wilful, but is never entirely the product of our independent ‘free will’. It therefore makes natural sense to accept a fair share of responsibility for whatever happens, and to admit to making mistakes – even and especially when these mistakes are deeply socially embedded – and to seek to avoid repeating these if possible. It also makes sense to forgive ourselves and others for mistakes we make, while learning from them: not to admit to making mistakes is an even bigger mistake – the mistake of arrogance. But it does not make natural sense either to accept sole responsibility or to deny any responsibility for whatever happens within our vicinity as living creatures.

For example

That altercation in the supermarket could so easily have been avoided if:-

1. Each shopper had been more circumspect and aware of one another’s dynamic locality in the first place..

Or, failing that..

2. Admitting and forgiving each other’s mistakes, through an empathic appreciation of the situation that gave rise to them, and, maybe, even, having a good laugh about it.

Mistaking Human Rights for Human Needs

According to the United States Declaration of Independence:-

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

This statement continues to this day to underpin U.S. Governmental policy, both at home and abroad. It is a source of immense national pride and belief in the moral and technological prowess of the U.S as a dutiful and benevolent ‘World Leader’. Its very wording defies anyone to question its validity.

And yet, if we were, without prejudice, openly and honestly to question the grounds on which this declaration is held to be a statement of self-evident truth, we might find ourselves surprised and troubled by our answers. Bear in mind, here, the historical context that the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the U.S. Constitution were not only dissociating themselves from their British origins, but also very strongly influenced by the abstract, rationalistic worldview of the Enlightenment. Moreover, the principal author, Thomas Jefferson, inherited and owned many slaves, and freed only few of them, in spite of his stated opposition to slavery.

When we examine the statement carefully, we have to recognise that there is no actual evidence to support any of its contentions. In reality it is a product of abstract single-mindedness and idealism, which bears no relation to how we self-evidently are as living inhabitants of the natural world: i.e. variable and energetically dependent on our neighbourhood. And as a product of abstract thinking, it is a source of all the mistakes described in this essay.

Notice especially, that at the core of the declaration is the notion of an ‘inalienable Human Right’. What does this really mean? What could it be taken to imply?

The very notion of an ‘inalienable Right’ brings with it a sense of irremovable self-entitlement to how things must be as a given endowment, privilege or possession that can be expected, demanded and taken for granted. Now let’s take a look at what is being expected, demanded and taken for granted: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Can anyone honestly and realistically expect these as a given? Moreover, in the case of Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, are these actually desirable? Freedom from oppression is one thing; freedom to do as one pleases, without consideration for neighbours or neighbourhood is quite another. Desiring happiness is one thing, hedonistic pursuit of happiness at all costs is quite another.

A strong sense of self-entitlement combined with lack of empathy for others is recognised nowadays as a widespread and intractable psychological condition called narcissism. It brings with it a selfish, intolerant, domineering, exploitative and vindictive attitude of mind that is angered when it doesn’t receive what it expects, by way of licence to possess and do what it pleases, and seeks revenge on whatever it deems to oppose it. Commonly it hides these traits, both from itself and others, behind a hypocritical façade of benevolence and rectitude that in truth is no more and no less than arrogant paternalism, a ‘living contradiction of itself’.

Many, if not most of us in modern cultures will not have difficulty recognising narcissistic traits in people and indeed in Governments that we encounter: if we’re really honest, we’ll recognise them in ourselves. The sad fact is that narcissism has become a prevalent world-wide mental condition, rooted in abstract single-mindedness.

The fallacy in the core of narcissism resides in the biological fact that we are not born as fully formed, identical entities into an homogenous environmental and social context that belongs to us alone.

Realistically, life is not an inalienable right; life is a gift of natural energy flow that we receive, sustain and pass on in the goodness of time. We are born as variable offspring from sexual union between male and female parents and we can never be free from dependence on our natural neighbourhood for the supplies of energy that sustain us as living, breathing, loving, feeding, urinating, defecating, sweating, mobile, learning, maturing, ageing creatures from conception to expiration. Like all living creatures, we are vulnerable, needful creatures, doing what we need to do to sustain, comfort and protect ourselves and our offspring. This is not selfishness, it is necessity. If we can’t get what we need to sustain, comfort and protect ourselves, we suffer and die. When we appreciate that this is true, we recognise that all forms of life on Earth live in each other’s neighbourhood, fulfilling our needs as best we can. With this appreciation, empathic fellow-feeling grows along with an awareness of how we can care for and help one another and our neighbourhood to fulfil our needs. In caring for our natural neighbourhood, we care for ourselves and our neighbours in a natural communion of varied life.

So, why pretend otherwise? What good does our sense of self-entitlement truly serve? What kinds of mistakes does it lead us to make in our everyday lives?

For example:-

In our workplace, does a domineering boss who neglects everyone’s needs including his or her own, help us to be happy and fruitfully productive, or make us resentful, fearful and hesitant? You might think that question’s a ‘no-brainer’! But the sad truth is how many ‘bosses’, by their very nature only become bosses by dint of their sense of entitlement to power. We are obliged to put up with them when we are prevented – or prevent ourselves – from speaking the truth that uncovers the flaw in that sense of entitlement’s underlying abstract logic.

Crime and Punishment

“Cobra found guilty of biting man sentenced to death by lethal injection”

Indian Summary Execution Times, October 31st 2066

Where abstract conceptions of Human Rights and Wrongs supersede empathic awareness of natural needs, the ground is readied for those two great misadventures of single-mindedness that so distressingly curtail human life, liberty and happiness: Crime and Punishment.

Both the concept of Crime and the idea that crime should not only be prevented but punished, hence adding damage to perpetrator to damage to victim, arises from the abstract notion of human entitlement to ownership of property. Any infringement of that entitlement is regarded as a crime. By the same token, a strong sense of self-entitlement may itself be a motive for committing a crime – literally taking the liberty of depriving others of what they need and may have strived hard for. On the other hand, what is perceived by a property-owner as a crime committed against them, may be motivated by the natural need of the perpetrator. An impoverished poacher may ensnare a rabbit to feed his family. To punish someone for desperately trying to fulfil his or her needs is not a charitable action, to put it mildly. Equally, to treat as personal property what has been taken from others by force – as in colonialism – might well itself be considered criminal: ‘property is theft’. Who is perpetrator and who is victim in such situations may not be easy to judge. Either way:-

The fallacy underlying the concept of crime and the associated desire to punish miscreants is the belief that any individual or group is entitled to sole ownership of personal property, given the interdependence and indefinable dynamic boundaries of natural living systems.

Through appreciating that life itself is a gift of natural energy flow, to be sustained and passed on in the goodness of time, the motive for crime and punishment is removed and replaced by a joy in caring for self, neighbours and neighbourhood, and pooling resources and abilities, as in natural ecosystems. This doesn’t remove our needs to feed, comfort and protect our self-identities, as are expressed in natural patterns of territoriality, home-making and consumption of energy sources, but it does provide us with a means of appreciating and respecting instead of abusing our own and others’ needs. Where such appreciation and respect is lacking, then we may have to resort to aggressive and/or restrictive means of preventing abuse, like a cat that hisses and lashes out at someone pulling its tail, or a robin fending off transgressors into its territory. But the intention of such responses needs to be recognised as protective, not vindictive.

For example:-

Your home is burgled and trashed. Some pieces of artwork that you have been working on for months are destroyed, along with some precious porcelain left to you by your dead mother. The young man responsible is arrested and brought to trial. It turns out that he comes from a broken home and has been abused by his father. He has become addicted to heroin to ease his pain, and has burgled your home in order to pay dealers for the illicit substance that he craves. Which, in the long run would do most to ease your distress?

1. The young man receives a prison sentence, and is described by the Judge as an irresponsible person who has turned to evil in order to satisfy his illicit craving. While in prison he is abused by other inmates, and upon release reoffends within a week. Meanwhile, you make a successful claim on your house contents insurance policy, while recognising that what you have lost is irreplaceable.

2. The young man’s extenuating circumstances are taken into account and he is sent at taxpayers’ expense to a rehabilitation centre, where he is treated kindly and with respect. A year later, he appears on your doorstep bearing a big bunch of flowers and saying that although he recognises sadly that he can never repair the damage his actions have caused, the kindness and understanding he has received have turned his life around, and he is so very grateful.

Mistaking predictability for proof

A feature of the criminal justice system, based as it is on abstract notions of cause and consequence, ‘whole truth’ and free agency, is the idea that ‘guilt’ can be ‘proved beyond a reasonable doubt’. Sadly, there are a great many tragic examples of ‘miscarriages of justice’ that do cast a lot of reasonable doubt on this idea. These miscarriages are partly the result of the very dubious belief that truth can be revealed through the opposing arguments of prosecution and defence, the outcome of which, in terms of a simplistic ‘guilty or not guilty’ verdict is liable to be decided by whichever case succeeds in using the most persuasive rhetoric, and makes best use of or casts most doubt upon the available evidence.

Similar notions that truth can be revealed through opposing argument occur in adversarial politics and abstract scientific theorizing. Crucial to the success or defeat of the opposing arguments or schools of thought is which of these appears to be the better predictor of future happenings and/or yields the most desirable future. A politician or scientist who expresses uncertainty about the outcome of their policy or theory in practice is generally considered ‘weak’ or ‘woolly’-minded, and so not to be trusted. The assumption arising from abstract logic is that truth can be proved definitively, that any statement concerning reality is either true or false and that a true statement will provide accurate predictions when put to the test. Political and scientific credibility has come to depend on the ability to make statements (in science these are known as hypotheses) that provide accurate predictions, and accurate predictions are considered tantamount to proof. Any politician or scientist considered to be worth his or her salt is expected to be able to ‘prove it’ and ‘answer, yes or no’. To be unable to respond to that challenge in definitive terms is taken as evidence of not knowing what they are talking about.

The fallacy in assuming that truth can be proved definitively arises from the fact that there are no definitive limits in Nature, because natural space is continuous and natural boundaries are continuously dynamic, as can be inferred from the evidence that natural forms are distinguishable from their surroundings and capable of movement. There is no such entity in Nature as ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’

So, actually, it is the politician or scientist who refuses to provide definitive proofs, answers and predictions who is being realistic, not the one who feigns certainty in order to secure credibility and popularity. As was demonstrated mathematically in 1931 by Kurt Gӧdel, definitive proof is only possible within definitive limits, and so all such proofs are self-referential, self-fulfilling prophecies. You might have thought that this was obvious, as indeed it is, but the mathematical argument was tortuous because of the definitive assumptions pre-embedded in conventional arithmetic. In effect the mathematical argument was an extension of an ancient, well-known logical paradox, known as the ‘Cretan Liar paradox’, in which a citizen of Crete declares definitively that ‘all Cretans are liars’. This declaration gives rise to what has been called ‘a strange loop’ of circular argument and self-contradiction.

Extraordinarily, self-fulfilling prophecy continues virtually unabated and unquestioned to this day as a basis for scientific and political rationalization, sometimes alluded to as ‘in the box thinking’ (i.e. thinking that is restricted within definitive limits). It entails two distinctive forms of ‘reasoning’, deductive and inductive. Deductive reasoning is based on arguing from what is defined as a general truth to particular manifestations of that truth. Inductive reasoning is based on arguing from particular manifestations to a general truth. The inductive procedure goes like this:- (1) Define the frame of reference that you going to restrict your attention to; (2) observe what occurs within that frame of reference; (3) devise a general hypothetical statement that is true for all those occurrences (4) test the ability of that statement to predict further occurrences within that frame of reference; (5) consider your statement to be true as a general rule (i.e. a theory) until or unless an exception to it is encountered (whence the theory becomes ‘falsified’, as philosopher of science, Karl Popper put it, notwithstanding the fact that it already based on a false premise). The deductive procedure goes like this:- (1) Define the frame of reference that you are going to restrict your attention to; (2) deduce what the outcome will be IF contents of that frame of reference are treated in accordance with a particular rule; (3) confirm that this treatment invariably has the predicted outcome; (4) consider the rule to be proved.

The deductive approach alone provides the basis for mathematical proofs, such as the proof of Pythagoras’s theorem that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle with straight sides on a flat surface is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Here the proof relates only to an abstract mental construct and so no reference need be made to actual physical occurrences in Nature. The mathematics is ‘pure’: independent of natural reality, and so need take no account of uncertainty. As Einstein famously put it:

" ... as far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.".

Science on the other hand is at least supposed to be concerned with reality and actual observations. In what has become known as the ‘scientific method’, a combination of induction from actual observations, and deduction from the conclusions drawn from these observations is used to discover and confirm the underlying physical ‘Laws of Nature’ that are assumed must exist and, once revealed, will enable accurate predictions to be made. Arising as they do from pre-defined frames of reference that exclude whatever resides outside them from influencing what resides inside them, these laws generally become expressed in such a way as to make it seem foolhardy to question them. It needs always to be remembered, however, that as a result of the particular combination of theory and practice (known as ‘praxis’) from which they originate, such laws themselves are abstractions that don’t necessarily apply to the natural world as it actually is – only to how it has been pre-defined. Not only is the method itself prejudiced by this pre-definition, but the pressure on scientists to demonstrate proof of their theories, can lead them to ignore or force-fit findings that don’t support their suppositions.

The trouble is that these limitations on abstract scientific praxis are rarely admitted or even recognised by most scientists, and the general public is generally unaware of them. No effort is made to attune the praxis to the reality of nature – as can be done through unprejudiced observation of natural space and boundaries combined with inferential reasoning from actual phenomena, free from definitive limits.

The way is then open for abstract science to be used and abused as a source of false authority instead of valuing truly natural science as a source of real knowledge of how we actually are in the world as it actually is and evolves.

For example:-

Instead of being taught to recognise the difference between those phenomena that can be predicted with reasonable certainty and that cannot – we are led to expect science of any true worth to predict all occurrences with complete assurance. Not appreciating the difference between slowly evolving, highly repetitive behaviour and turbulent fluids, we may disparage weather forecasters for ‘not getting it right’ even within a 24 hour period when astronomers can predict the movements of moons and planets in the solar system with extreme accuracy even hundreds of years in advance. Without this kind of appreciation, we find ourselves utterly lost and unsure who or what to believe, when faced with many of the environmental, social and psychological challenges of modern life. Who or what do we believe in regard to climate change, genetic modification, fracking and badger-culling when scientists and politicians can’t be honest with us or themselves about what can and cannot be predicted?

Mistaking competitive success for excellence

Competition is an invention of abstract perception, in which individuals or groups consume energy within a definitive arena of space and time, in order to deprive others of status and resources. In leading either to the defeat of one (the ‘loser’) by the other (the ‘winner’), or to mutual stalemate, it precludes any possibility of co-creativity and so is ultimately self-defeating. In itself, competition therefore impedes rather than drives evolutionary innovation and diversification. To suppose otherwise is a huge mistake. In human communities, competition is a source of enormous waste and misery, not flourishing. Competitive ‘triumph’ is disaster in disguise, truly an impostor, which has nothing to do with the reality of evolution in natural living communities. Competitive success indicates excellence only within pre-defined limits and offers no guarantee of continuation when the goalposts change. Evolution is a learning process of cumulative transformation, not running ever faster on the same spot like a demented Red Queen. History teaches this lesson repeatedly: what serves well in one context ceases to do so in another – light bulbs supersede candles as we learn how to channel electricity through copper wiring.

The fallacy of seeking competitive success resides in the fact that competition only occurs within abstract definitive limits that do not occur naturally: to impose such limits on our own and others’ lives is ultimately a source of profound limitation and loss, not enhancement.

So, if competition – and hence Darwinian selection – impedes evolutionary possibility, what naturally opens it up? The answer is as simple and obvious as it is revolutionary: the openness to possibility that is implicit in natural fluidity!

There is a radical difference in attitude of mind between that which desires to ‘win’, and that which desires to do as well as it possibly can in the circumstances it finds itself in. The former is ruthless in its treatment of what are considered to be its opponents, and is ready to use any means it can to serve its purpose: ‘all’s fair in love and war’ is its maxim. There is no place in its armoury for contemplation of its actual situation in relation to its neighbourhood, beyond its determination to predominate. The latter, on the other hand, is deeply aware of its actual situation and considerate of the needs and complementary skills of itself and others within its neighbourhood, which it seeks to optimize as a participant or ‘team player’ making its own and benefiting from others’ contributions to ‘the common good’. Where ‘the common good’ is perceived, however, to be the defeat of ‘the common enemy’, these participatory and domineering attitudes of mind can come into direct conflict.

For example:- In team sports like football, the interests of players in individual success can conflict with those of their own as well as the ‘other team’, especially when expectations are high and national and international glory is at stake, as in competitions like the ‘World Cup’. The resulting spectacle can be as unpleasant as it can be fascinating, as ‘professional fouls’ are committed, tempers flare, cheating is rife, goal-scoring opportunities are squandered through ‘selfishness’, and scorers exult in displays of insulting and arrogant behaviour, all roared on by a baying, partisan crowd. Ultimately, the delight of the winning team and its fans is matched only by the misery and humiliation of the losers, with the result often depending on the tiniest twist of fortune. It is like watching a war, and that of course is just what it is, in microcosm.

On the other hand, when taking part, not winning, really is the principle motivation, then team sports can truly be joyous, where players delight in one another’s skills and learning through each other’s ‘friendly rivalry’. Here we might notice that whereas competition to win or lose within a defined arena is an abstract invention, rivalry for resources within energetically open ecosystems is very much a natural phenomenon, which gives rise to various examples of territorial behaviour, and can and does gives rise to evolutionary innovation. Such rivalry need not even be between what are conventionally regarded as living systems. Adjacent river drainage basins for example, co-create ridges called watersheds where they meet, and can manifest all sorts of phenomena such as river capture, which, were they living organisms might be interpreted as the result of intentional conflict.

Mistaking speed for efficiency

Competition in modern human societies and organizations is closely related to another source of enormous stress and wastage of energy: busyness within a restrictive time frame. This arises from the abstract notion that superiority of performance increases as the time taken to complete an action decreases. A common expression of this is ‘time is money’, whereby time is regarded as a commodity equivalent to that other great abstraction from natural energy flow that has become the predominant motivating force for most people in modern cultures.

The fallacy here resides in the fact that time as an abstract commodity independent of space and energy does not actually exist.

Our natural perception of time arises from our implicit, if not explicit awareness of living, like the spinning, sun-orbiting planet we inhabit, as dynamic rotational energetic inclusions of place-time – the continuous circulation of natural energy flow, experiencing natural rhythms and the alternation between daytime and night-time.

The abstract perception of time as a measurable commodity, divisible into discrete units or intervals (seconds, minutes, years etc) arises as a derivation from the flattening out of this circulation into a straight line. The resultant ‘arrow of time’, as a ‘fourth dimension’, stretches from past into future via an eternally shifting definitive cut-off point between the two, which is called ‘the present’. The use of this arrow of time as a baseline against which to measure performance always begins with this non-existent cut-off point in the present and ends with another non-existent cut-off point ‘sometime and somewhere in the future that has yet to arrive’.

Newton’s ‘Laws of Motion’ and associated invention of calculus are based on this flattening out or ‘linearization’ of continuous dynamic curvature into local flat-lines. These local flat-lines, known as ‘infinitesimals’, provide a useful way of calculating (but in reality only simulating by approximation) the trajectories of what are treated as if they are independent objects forced into motion by externalized agency. As a calculating tool, this is unproblematic. The problems begin when we start treating ourselves and others as if we really are such independent objects.

Abstract perceptions of time rule out rotational liveliness, operating over spatial scales from microcosm to macrocosm, into the local deadlines and external force that we have allowed to overrule our natural lives. Instead of simply using ‘clock-time’ as a convenient source of guidance, helping us to plan meetings, for example, we find ourselves trying to pack as much as we can into a restrictive schedule between enforced deadlines. We believe that this makes the most productive and efficient use of our time, especially our time in what we think of as ‘the workplace’. In truth, however, it is soul-destroying, wasteful and counter-creative, through its denial of our needs as living, loving creatures –inhabitants of ‘place-time’, not discontinuous space, time and energy.

For example:-

We are currently being required to minimize greenhouse emissions by using long-life, energy saving light bulbs and reduced power vacuum cleaners, at the same time that we are being urged to ‘cut travel times’ and so increase our commercial productivity and competitive advantage by being able to journey further, faster and more often between sources of supply and demand. Time devoted to busyness is increased while time for reflection and enjoyment of life is eroded, resulting in a huge shift in our ‘work/life balance’. And yet, we all know, don’t we, that travelling fast wastes fuel. A 100m sprinter hasn’t the stamina to run a marathon. And we all recognise, don’t we, that being too busy to think about what we’re doing – and whether it’s really needed – leads us to work unnecessarily hard doing things that aren’t necessary, and so working even harder to compensate for the wasted effort, in an exhausting vicious cycle? Saving time costs energy – it’s as simple as that. Time-efficiency is not the same as energy efficiency. All naturally sustainable forms of life on Earth live in accordance with their spatial scale of organization and the availability of energy as their natural currency. A mouse has a much higher metabolic rate and shorter life span than an elephant, but in its own terms lives just as long. Only Homo sapiens tries to oppose this natural principle.

Expecting too much and imagining too little

Through striving for happiness and competitive success, busying ourselves within restrictive time frames and accepting more than of our fair share of responsibility we expect too much of and for ourselves as perishable creatures. Even those few of us who appear to fulfil our expectations sooner or later are reminded of life and death’s realities, and discover that what we may have gained at others’ cost does not bring true contentment, especially if it has been gained dishonestly. At the same time, the definitive restrictions we impose upon ourselves and others lives, in order to meet our expectations can greatly narrow our horizons, so that we ‘miss out’ on what life truly has to offer us if we open ourselves up to it.

The fallacy of expecting too much and imagining too little arises from failing to make allowances for our natural situation as local dynamic inhabitants of an ever-changing spatial and energetic context, which is not predictable in the long run.

By failing to make these allowances, we find ourselves chasing impossible dreams while overlooking the reality of the here and now, along with the opportunities it brings for new discoveries and living, loving and being loved well.

For example:-

What are ironically described as ‘Reality TV’ shows thrive on the promise of seeming to give contestants the opportunity to ‘live the dream’. The true reality is that very few actually ‘succeed’ in surviving the stringent selection process that whittles down the candidates and the emotional devastation of those who don’t make it is awful to witness. It is like watching a donkey follow a dangling carrot while all sorts of delights along the wayside are passed by.

Mistaking difference for opposition

The notion that what is not the same as me or us must be in competition with me or us is a very common source of human conflict, and has become deeply embedded in neo-Darwinian notions of evolution by natural selection, most notably the idea of ‘the selfish gene’ popularized by Richard Dawkins. ‘To agree to differ’ is therefore regarded, by many, as a failure to achieve ‘consensus’, not a resolution, and it is widely thought that a great many human social problems would ‘disappear’ if only our differences could be removed. Totalitarian regimes of all kinds seek conformity through uniformity, and may even enforce the wearing of uniforms to signify the absence of difference amongst their membership.

The fallacy in this is that Nature itself is dynamic and variable, not an eternal status quo, so that difference is vital to the evolutionary sustainability of natural communities, not its antithesis.

Uniform social organizations are hence inflexible and unable to tolerate or give rise to the complementary qualities needed to sustain viability in changeable circumstances. They are oppressive regimes that require iron discipline, usually imposed by zealous policing and military force to sustain their unnatural order. Sooner or later, they collapse, but not before they have inflicted enormous suffering on themselves and their neighbours.

For example:-

The brutal nationalistic, racist, communist and fascist regimes of recent and current human history are only the most extreme manifestations of an intransigent attitude of mind that permeates throughout modern human groupings, from local clubs, schools and churches, to national and international institutions and nation states.

Mistaking individuality for independence

Gaining independence is often regarded as the most desirable objective of ‘growing up’, whether from infants into adults or from local geographical regions into ‘fully fledged’ nations, complete with their own laws, currencies, governments and borders. We desire to ‘stand on our own two feet’ and to ‘do it my way’ and be ‘self-sufficient’. We call the process of becoming independent ‘individuation’ or ‘maturation’. We speak of the ‘Struggle for Independence’ in much the same way as we speak of the ‘Struggle for Existence’, and human history is filled with the painful record of ‘Wars of Independence’. We desire to be different and yet, at the same time, we live in cultures intolerant of difference that call us to ‘conform to a norm’. Most perversely, in individualistic cultures, we find ourselves required to conform to the norm of being individually different and self-sufficient, if we don’t wish to be alienated as ‘weak’ or ‘needy’.

The fallacy here resides in assuming that being individually different requires us to relinquish our need for support from our neighbourhood.

The reality is that being individually different makes us more dependent on our neighbours and neighbourhood, not less so. Along with individual differences come individual strengths and weaknesses that complement rather than oppose those of others in our neighbourhood. Moreover, in a natural world that is intrinsically variable and dynamic, we cannot avoid being individually different, because our outlook from any particular locality is invariably unique.

For example:-

A football team in which all players are equally skilful in all respects, have the same view of what is happening, and play as if none of the others have anything to do with them isn’t likely to score or prevent many goals!

So what good sense is there in aspiring to create such social formations?

Mistaking objectivity for impartiality

‘Let’s look at this objectively’, is the almost universal call of the abstract thinker who believes that human problems can only be solved by standing emotionally apart from them, as an independent judge, and deciding from that position of distance how things can be put right. This emotional stand-off was at the heart of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, and continues to dominate academic and educational philosophy to this day, where detachment is thought of as the one and only way of avoiding ‘subjective bias’ in evaluating people’s ideas, skills and knowledge. It is implicit in such notions as ‘double blind-testing’ and ‘anonymous exam scripts’ in which an evaluator is deliberately denied knowledge of what and/or who is being evaluated. Unfortunately this deliberate distancing of the ‘observer’ from the ‘observed’, and its associated denial of ‘inside knowledge’ to either can actually lead the observer to ‘turn a blind eye’ to important information and so form conclusions that are very one-sided and hence not at all impartial in the sense of comprehensively taking all relevant facts into account.

The fallacy of regarding objectivity as unbiased resides in the fact that a detached view automatically excludes relevant information in the same way that not having eyes on the back of our heads can render us unaware of what’s behind and to the side of us

In other words, objective vision renders us unaware of context and our own presence and influence within what we are observing.

For example:-

A ‘birds-eye view’ of a football game may enable us to locate the positions and trajectories of the players, and to see possibilities that the players can’t, with great accuracy. But it provides us with no awareness of what each of the uniquely situated individual players is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, and what they are responding to, including the observers watching them. This is why the comments of ‘spectator-critics’ are often so ‘out of touch’ with what is actually going on, notwithstanding their privileged position. True understanding of situation requires much more than the one-sided view given to us by our binocular vision. True understanding requires an all-round or ‘circumspect’ awareness of spatial and energetic context, and to gain this requires imaginative insight and sharing of individual viewpoints with others – as in the ‘sharing circles’ of indigenous cultures.

Mistaking financial wealth for quality of life

‘Money can’t buy me love’, the Beatles once sang – rather ironically in view of the fact that singing about love brought them loads of money. Since that time, in the 1960s, when ‘Love’ was top of the agenda for discussion, and materialism was seriously being questioned, albeit with the aid of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, modern cultures have reverted to an obsession with money and power as primary motivating forces. Under the influence of ‘Game Theory’, neo-Darwinian ‘sociobiology’ (incorporating ‘selfish gene theory’) and monetarism, the socio-economics of restrictive self-interest and purely financial wealth prescribed by Adam Smith have returned to prominence, and love has disappeared from the map of serious and even polite discussion. Disparities between rich and poor have grown even wider, and the need to sustain economic growth continues to take precedence over environmental sustainability, for all the talk about the need to protect and enhance our quality of life. Meanwhile public knowledge and appreciation of biological diversity within their own neighbourhoods continues to dwindle as our educational institutions become dominated by commercial interests instead of seeking to enhance public awareness of the natural world as it actually is.

The fallacy in prioritizing financial wealth resides in the fact that money as an abstract commodity based on the principle of personal ownership of property is NOT natural currency: energy is natural currency.

There is clear anthropological evidence that prior to barter and financial transaction, human social organization was and in some indigenous communities still is primarily orchestrated according to principles of ‘gift flow’. These correspond closely with the circulatory and redistributive supply, receipt and temporary retention of natural energy flow. Life is appreciated as a gift of natural energy flow, to be received, cared for and passed on in the goodness of place-time. Even in modern cultures, intangible qualities of love and artistic creativity are a shared source of profound human pleasure and caring that defy, and are defiled by, any attempt to commoditize or quantify them.

At the heart of traditional gift flow is trust in the principle that what is freely given is equally freely returned in the long-run, such that whoever gives away most also receives most, and vice versa. This harmonizing principle is broken as soon as anyone accepts without giving or vice versa. Such restrictive practices give rise to a breakdown of trust that gives rise to further restrictive practices, setting the scene for a vicious cycle of competition, conflict and increasingly rigorous legislation to define trading practice and monetary transactions. By the same token, such restrictive economic rationality is associated with the localization (privatization/ nationalization) of self and/or group identity and individual or public ‘rights’ of property ownership. Sometimes systems of gift flow may operate within family/social groupings alongside rigidly structured trading or economic practice between groups. This implies a hard boundary limit between the two and a resulting ‘double standard’ sometimes referred to as ‘the double law of Moses’, which permits repayment of a loan to be demanded from ‘another’, but not from a ‘brother’. In other words, there is one rule for ‘insiders’ or ‘familiars’ and another for ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’. The question then arises as to where and when to define the limit between one and the other. Where and when does the natural inclusion of each in the other’s gift end, and the abstract estrangement and exploitation of the other’s needs and talents begin?

Having recognised the origins of financial systems in abstract notions of personal property and fear and exploitation of strangers, it is easy to see how these systems become a source of human conflict and disparities in social status that have little to do with individual and collective contributions to natural energy flow and quality of life.

For example:-

Any current viewing of lists of the world’s wealthiest and most highly paid people reveals that those most rewarded are not generally those who contribute most to the wellbeing of their natural neighbourhood. Instead we find a tiny minority of people whose wealth far exceeds that of the vast majority of people put together. While most people struggle to fulfil their most basic human needs, these relatively few fritter their wealth on superfluous extravagances, and encourage others to do the same in order to keep the ‘wheels of industry and commerce’ turning. In many cases financial wealth is traceable to socially and environmentally exploitative endeavours, including slavery. Currently we have lottery systems in which non-wealthy people are tempted to gamble a proportion of their limited income on the remote chance of becoming multi-millionaires overnight, and the proceeds are used to fund charitable projects intended to promote the well-being and natural heritage compromised by money-making. That these systems are regarded as morally acceptable is ironic, to put it mildly, a symptom of the double standards we have come to live by.

Meanwhile, with so much attention being diverted to money-making, few people are able to spare ‘time’ to enjoy the deeper pleasures that life and love have to offer. Even fewer are prepared to reflect on the fundamental mistake of abstract perception that leads us to prioritize money-making at the expense of our natural neighbourhood, and show how this mistake can be amended.

Mistaking arrogance for strong leadership

Strong leadership is widely regarded as essential to the success of human organizations. By the same token, weak leadership is commonly held responsible for organizational failure and breakdown. When things start to go wrong, the call therefore almost invariably goes up for a strong leader, in the form of some kind of messianic agency, to put things right.

The kinds of qualities expected of a strong leader are, however, liable to depend greatly upon whether the underlying perception of successful organization is abstract or natural. Abstract perceptions are based on the imposition of order and predictability onto what would otherwise be expected to be shambolic free-for-alls. Authoritarianism – Iron Rule imposed by Iron Men and Iron Ladies is therefore called for, and all-too-often given, with what can prove to be catastrophic and long-lasting consequences that bring immense human suffering in its wake. The rise to power of all sorts of despotic figures, throughout recorded human history is testimony to this tendency.

The fallacy of authoritarian leadership resides in its quest to subjugate instead of facilitating and channelling natural energy flow.

As King Canute is reputed to have demonstrated, authoritarian leadership seeks from a single vantage point, to ‘rule the waves’, not to attune with their flow. This is brittle vanity, not resilient sanity. And as Jesus of Nazareth sought to demonstrate, at great personal cost, true Messianic qualities arise not from the imposing ‘cast iron certainty’ that issues ‘Thou shalt not’ Commandments, but through the forgiving ‘bamboo flexibility’ that encourages loving acceptance of natural human vulnerability and neighbourhood. And as the legendary figure of King Arthur humbly recognised, the circumspection of an all-round view is as vital to sustaining life in a changeable world as is the directional focus from a singular viewpoint.

So, what abstract perception views as weak and indecisive, a path to individual and collective annihilation, natural perception reveals to be courageous, realistic, democratic and loving leadership, fluidly open to the possibilities of sustaining life in the long run. And what abstract perception celebrates as strong and decisive, natural perception reveals to be cowardly, unrealistic, divisive and derisive, rigidly closed off from the possibilities of life in an evolutionary context. Abstract leadership is suppressive and adversarial, implacably opposed to whatever is outside its definitive frame of reference, whereas natural leadership is progressive and inspirational, accepting of truth in all its guises. Abstract leadership leads into conflict with what it opposes and urges people to take sides; natural leadership leads into appreciation of the middle way, which recognises the complementarity of distinctive but not mutually exclusive views of nature and human nature.

For example:-

The history of human discovery is full of ‘tales of the unexpected’, where the rigid and suppressive beliefs of an authoritarian leadership were eventually, and sometimes after the great struggle and hardship of pioneering ‘doubters’, shown to be untrue, allowing a ‘new paradigm’ to emerge. So much knowledge that we nowadays take for granted, from the Earth’s orbit around the sun to our own capacity to travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere has been discounted vehemently by the definitive thinking of previous authority. Moreover, for all our technological advancements and biological knowledge, the way we continue to treat ourselves and our natural neighbourhood as if we were definable objects, subject to authoritarian rule, flies in the face of our natural condition as living inhabitants of a variably fluid world in a variably fluid planet. Definitive authority is arrogance, not natural strength. To doubt the truth of definitive authority brings sustainable strength – whenever it gets the chance to do so.

Mistaking popularity for preferability

In social situations where abstract thinking requires a decisive choice to be made between two or more alternative views, people or courses of action, it is common for that which is most popular to prevail. Indeed this is the basis of what are misleadingly called ‘democratic’ elections, but in reality result in the suppression of minority views by ‘majority rule’ – a far cry from ‘governance for all, by all, through all’, in which ‘all kinds contribute in complementary ways to the common good’. This is unfortunate, because there is no guarantee that the most popular view, person or course of action alone will be ‘correct’ in all respects. Indeed, there is good reason to recognise that whichever of two or more alternatives is most popular is certain to be deficient in some way.

The fallacy of regarding whichever of two or more alternatives is most popular as preferable resides most fundamentally in the fact that alternative views of the same situation are, by their very nature, partial views, not comprehensive views that take into account all aspects of the situation.

For truth-seekers, comprehensive views are obviously preferable to partial views, but are not possible to obtain from a single vantage point. Everyone located around an elephant has a different view of the elephant: no particular view is any better or worse than any other, but each can contribute in a complementary way to a comprehensive awareness of the elephant in all its aspects. The ‘sharing circles’ of indigenous cultures are a truly democratic form of governance based on bringing diverse views together so as to gain comprehensive awareness of a situation. Most modern forms of governance and peer-review are, by contrast, based on disputation between partial views, not their synthesis into a broader vision that encompasses all of them. This has especially serious consequences when valid and vital views are suppressed by using emotive and abstract arguments, not realistic reasoning, to make them unpopular and so discourage from expressing them.

For example:-

All kinds of partisan politics go out of their way to polarise public opinion between alternative positions, which exclude any middle ground view that can recognise the validity and limitations of both. Each position demands ‘unity’ amongst its supporters, such that any expression of dissent within its ranks is seen as divisive and liable to undermine its credibility and popularity. Most commonly, the polarization is between individualistic and collectivistic interpretations of nature and human nature that are characterized respectively as ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’. A right-wing politician may then declare that ‘there is no such thing as society!’ A left-wing politician may declare that ‘there is no such thing as individual aspiration’. Voters may then be required to choose which of these alternatives should prevail, not asked how the conflict between the two could be reconciled. Situations then can and do arise in which large proportions of a population is subjected by a government from which it feels alienated – hardly a recipe for good neighbourhood!

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his book, 'Between The Woods and the Water' (p. 95, 1986; John Murray, G.B.) described the antipathy between Rumanians and Hungarians in pre-war Transylvania as follows:

"The opposing cases were skillfully and persuasively argued: in each the chains of logic seemed faultless; all objections were faced and demolished; and when I turned from one argument to its rival the same thing would happen, leaving me stranded between the two. I am the only person I know who has feelings of equal warmth for both these embattled claimants and I wish with fervour they could become friends....My unsatisfactory position between the two makes me useless to both"

The sad irony in this is that he saw his 'position in between' as 'useless to both', when it was actually what both desperately needed.

Mistaking antagonistic argument for conflict-resolution

The paradoxical idea that disagreement can be resolved by antagonistic argument is deeply embedded in abstract philosophical, legal and political thought. Philosophical and scientific issues are debated by representatives of opposing schools of thought. The innocence or guilt of people accused of committing crimes is determined by the rhetoric of cases for prosecution and defence appealing to judge and juries. Parliaments are divided between government and opposition benches that propose and oppose motions. The chances of finding what each have in common and how each can complement the other co-creatively, given mutual understanding, are obliterated by the determination of one to defeat the other and declare ‘victory’. But, with vast quantities of pride and prejudice at stake, it is rare for any party to admit to more than temporary defeat. And so the conflicts are not resolved, but perpetuated.

The fallacy in assuming that antagonistic argument can resolve disagreements resides in the fact that disagreements arise from definitive polarization in the first place.

Definitive polarization is a form of disablement – what Michael Polanyi described as a ‘crippling mutilation’ – which imposes a communication barrier between subject and object as isolated entities, albeit that in reality each is inescapably included in the other’s spatial and energetic neighbourhood.

For example:-

Anyone who commits themselves to be entirely ‘for’ one side and ‘against’ the other side of a dispute shows themselves to be intransigent – unable to take into account whatever contribution to mutual understanding the ‘other’ offers. Whether the dispute is between left and right, black and white, wife and husband, theist and atheist all possibility of dialogue is occluded by irresolvable debate.

Such is the deep cultural entrenchment of definitive language and polarized debate that readers of this essay may think I am arguing ‘entirely for’ natural inclusion and ‘entirely against’ abstract opposition – that I am opposed to opposition and am therefore guilty of ‘double standards’. This is not the case. I am arguing for a move, through awareness of natural inclusion, from the restrictive vision that isolates each from other to the more comprehensive and realistic vision that includes each in the other’s neighbourhood. This move recognises that abstract demarcations can provide useful ‘navigational aids’ as an adjunct to awareness of natural inclusion, like lines of longitude and latitude on a map, but become objects of polarized dispute when regarded as real dividing lines. The equator doesn’t cut planet Earth into antagonistic hemispheres – it is where the rotational influence of each comes into confluence with the other.

Mistaking central influence for central control

The notion that organizations are controlled from their centre has become a widespread and fundamental mistake of abstract thinking, which has been incorporated into human governance and management theory. It is a source of great resentment and stress, for administrators and administrated alike. Central administrators are overloaded with responsibility for far more than they can manage. Those administrated are aware of how remote from the realities of everyday life administrators generally are. A ‘them and us’ polarized mentality develops and self-perpetuates, which is detrimental to the quality of life of all concerned, but which neither ‘side’ can recognise how to resolve.

The fallacy of assuming central control resides in the fact that natural dynamic organization arises from the circulation of energetic activity around intangible centres of stillness, NOT from the forceful action of a tangible centre upon its surrounding objects.

Literally at the heart of this fallacy, then, is the primary mistake of mentally excluding or confining the intangible presence of receptive space from or within tangible and/or definitive structure.

For example:-

One only has to observe a spinning wheel to recognise that it cannot be driven from the motionless, ultimately intangible, central axis that has to be present if the wheel is to be able to spin in the first place. Natural organizational centres cannot drive anything – they are receptive centres of inactivity that induce the flow of energetic activity around them, as in the ‘eye of the storm’. As recognized long ago by Lao Tzu:-

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub

By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use.

The use of clay in moulding pitchers

Comes from the hollow of its absence;

Doors, windows, in a house

Are used for their emptiness:

Thus we are helped by what is not

To use what is.

From The Way of Life: According to Lao Tzu (Witter Bynner translation)

The currently fashionable field of network theory, in which abstract control ‘hubs’ and ‘nodes’ are joined up by connective lines is an example of the trap that notions of centralized control fall into when receptive influence is ignored. The resulting definitive spider’s web-like structure is a far cry from natural flow-networks like blood systems, nerve systems and fungal mycelia:-

► Rather than being formed by stringing together a given set of initially independent entities, flow-networks grow into place through a combination of surface-maximizing and surface-minimizing processes that configure and reconfigure space in dynamic correspondence with energy availability.

Fungal mycelia form when a spore germinates by first swelling symmetrically as it takes in water and nutrients across its bounding cell wall and membrane. The resulting structure then elongates,hence increasing surface area to volume ratio, through the emergence of a germ-tube or ‘hypha’ with a parabolic growing tip. Growth of this tube accelerates exponentially, as its absorptive surface increases, before attaining a more or less constant rate of extension, whence branches begin to emerge, each with their own parabolic growing tips. Eventually, in many fungi, as resources are depleted by the growing system, some of the branches begin to fuse or anastomose with one another, so converting the inner part of the system into a network of labyrinthine channels. During this process, the branches open up their external boundaries to one another, so that the space initially between them becomes the communicative space within them. The hubs and nodes in this system are the places from which the branches originally arose, rather than the loci of initially discrete entities. At no stage in the evolution of the system have these identities been fully dislocated from one another or the limitless pool of common space in which they are immersed and of which they are dynamic inclusions.

► By growing into place, these dynamic systems exhibit indeterminacy, the potential for indefinite expansion and transformation within boundaries that vary in their deformability, permeability and connectivity depending on contextual circumstances. Such indeterminacy brings scope for continual improvisation, discovery and learning through co-creative evolutionary play that is not fixed on a pre-determined course, but eases its own passage through a process of autocatalytic flow in which the flow of current lowers resistance to subsequent flow: sheep, wildebeest, ants and humans all exhibit this phenomenon as they create paths by following in one another’s wake. Some fungal mycelia making their way through ancient forest in this fashion are thought to cover up to square kilometres of ground and to be thousands of years old.

► By connecting their internal space in parallel rather than purely in series, flow-form networks greatly increase their conductivity and consequent capacity to store and supply power at or to localities on their boundaries (cf Figures 1, 3).

► Local, well connected centres in flow-form networks drain resources from the system, and inhibit its expansion. In fungi, fruit bodies and storage structures may form at such centres. In human organizations they have the potential to develop into exploitative growths and megalithic power structures.

► Degenerative processes in flow-form networks are vital as a means of preventing retention of power by core components of the system. For example, ‘fairy rings’, consisting of an annulus of spreading mycelium, result from the degeneration of the colony centre and release of its resources to supply the growing margin. In the absence of such degeneration, expansion of the system stalls.

► The ability of flow-form networks to differentiate, integrate and degenerate, by varying the dynamic properties of their boundaries in tune with their circumstances and avoiding the wastage implicit in rationalistic ‘cost-cutting’, allows them to produce extraordinarily efficient organizations in highly heterogeneous situations. In fungi inhabiting the forest floor, for example, this ability allows them to make connections between local sources of nutrients in decaying wood, leaf litter and roots, to form an underground communicative infrastructure, which brings the lives and deaths of the trees into a common circulation.

So, altogether, these living flow networks are far more sensitively attuned to the ever-reconfiguring space that their channels embody, than the inflexible meshwork entrapments current abstractions represent.

Mistaking emotion for lack of reason

Detachment of the observer from emotional involvement with the observed has been recognised as a requirement of objective reasoning since the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. This emotional detachment has been thought to be so essential to the making of impartial judgements that any expression of emotion has become inimical to abstract scientific methodology and discourse. Charles Darwin put it this way:-

"A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, - a mere heart of stone."

Objective science and its underpinning definitive logic have hence gained a reputation for cold-heartedness, which is as off-putting to romantics as romanticism is to those who regard themselves as ‘hard scientists’. The resulting alienation of emotionality from science and vice versa has been psychologically, socially and environmentally damaging – a crippling negation of what truly ‘natural’ science has to offer for understanding of our place in the world as it actually is, and is a source of dreadful cruelty in the treatment of ourselves and other living creatures as ‘machines’.

The fallacy in alienating emotion from reason resides in the fact that there is good reason for the existence of emotion: emotion is no more and no less than an expression of the natural energy flow (‘e-motion’) responsible for the emergence of living form.

The alienation of emotion from our natural understanding of life is hence, quite literally, deadening. It numbs us from awareness of what it means to be alive, by closing the door on the possibility of appreciating ourselves as inextricable natural dynamic inclusions of our neighbourhood. It renders our view partial and prejudiced, not comprehensively impartial.

For example:-

Many of us have experience – as employees, students and patients – of how unpleasant it feels to be judged solely on our performance and treated without empathy as a machine, especially a defective machine, by managers, teachers and the medical profession. Just when we have most need of feeling cared for and reassured, we find ourselves placed in stark, uncomfortable surroundings and exposed to tests of our competence and health that if not ‘passed’ satisfactorily can seriously jeopardise our prospects. This lack of empathy that we encounter is a direct and sometimes deliberate product of objective detachment. Here is how John Keegan (The Face of Battle. London: Pimlico, 2004) describes military training:-

‘…the deliberate injection of emotion…will seriously hinder, if not altogether defeat, the aim of officer-training. That aim…is to reduce the conduct of war to a set of rules and a system of procedures – and thereby make orderly and rational what is essentially chaotic and instinctive. It is an aim analogous to that pursued by medical schools in their fostering among students of a detached attitude to pain and distress… the rote-learning and repetitive form and the categorical, reductive quality …has an important and intended psychological effect. Anti-militarists would call it depersonalizing and even dehumanizing. But given…that battles are going to happen, it is powerfully beneficial…one is helping him to avert the onset of fear, or, worse, of panic… ’

Notice the assumption here: ‘given that battles are going to happen’. This is what objectification of ourselves as machines ultimately does. It depicts life as a battleground – a ‘struggle for existence’ – in which anxiety is the last thing we want.

Anxiety, as the product of sensitivity to uncertainty and compassion for self and others, is, however, actually a powerful and realistic deterrent from conflict – a means of avoiding battles! Running away from the ‘face of battle’ is eminently sensible! It is true that there are situations in which anxiety can be disabling – you don’t want a surgeon to have a panic attack in the middle of an operation! The real source of comfort in such situations is, however, not vainly to deny emotion, but to accept and soothe it through awareness of the source of most profound calmness deep within oneself.

Mistaking receptivity for weakness

Those of us who suffer from anxiety (and who, honestly, doesn’t do so?) are all too familiar with the urge to ‘pull ourselves together’ and ‘get a grip’. We’re also only too familiar with how much easier this is said than done, and how, in any case, it really doesn’t help us to address our fears in more than a very temporary and unsatisfactory way.

Ironically, attempting to exclude emotional distress by seeking ‘strength in hard-lining’ – the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ of an ‘armour-plated self’ – is an all-too-emotional response to the insecurity that comes with admitting vulnerability. Far from truly being a robust show of strength and courage, what it actually betrays is a fearful inability to face the reality of what it means to be a living, loving, needful creature. And what it actually excludes is the open-hearted receptivity that comes with awareness of being in the midst of life, not set apart from life as a detached observer. It is this receptivity to inclusion in and of our natural neighbourhood that is the true source of emotional strength, courage and inner calm while fully acknowledging – not denying – our human vulnerability in the face of danger.

The fallacy of regarding receptivity to natural neighbourhood as weakness – a source of vulnerability to external influence – resides in the fact that such receptivity, which arises from the intangible presence of space within our energetic hearts, is the deepest form of Love, Agape Love, which human life cannot exist without.

An appreciation of natural inclusion can help us here to acknowledge the potent cocktail of desire and fear that leads us to seek the certainty of hard-lining ourselves against the receptive influence that we most need to recognize within ourselves. This appreciation enables us to review afresh some ancient ideas regarding the fundamental nature of life, love and their dynamic relationship. 'Eros' corresponds with 'radiant energy' (~light/electromagnetic radiation), ‘Agape’ with receptive space in the heart of bodily form and continuous with receptive space everywhere, and ‘Philia’ with 'bodily energy', which circulates around local centres of Agape (~gravity) to give rise to bodily flow-form. None of these can express their reciprocal co-creative potential in the absence of the other. The bringing of each into the other’s influence can, on the other hand, lead to the most extraordinary expression of human potential.

For example:-

You don’t have to be a religious ‘believer’ to be able to recognise Agape as the loving receptivity to neighbourhood shown by Jesus of Nazareth, stripped bare of all pretension to high and mightiness, during his ordeal on the cross. Here were the passion and compassion of the human spirit and soul in frailty of body most poignantly displayed. How many could honestly describe that display as the display of ‘weakness’ and ‘sentiment’ that abstract thought attributes to expressions of vulnerability and love? Clearly, it was nothing of the sort. On the other hand, the display of iron will that nailed Jesus demonstrates only too clearly the cruelty that abstract authoritarianism is capable of when its credibility is threatened by what it despises as weakness. This is what underlies all kinds of bullying and victimization, over scales ranging from schoolroom to Nation State.

Regarding error as a mistake

The fear of receptivity as a source of weakness is closely related to intolerance of our human capacity for error, which some cultures go so far as to regard as ‘original sin’, a catastrophic departure from the path of righteousness, which renders people mortal and damnable. Efforts to remove or minimise error by ‘straightening out irregularity’ are hence evident to this day, throughout human theological, educational, management and engineering practice as well as in conventional mathematics and scientific methodology and conceptualization. The ideological intolerance underlying these efforts is perhaps most paradoxically expressed in the Darwinian oxymoron of ‘natural selection’ as a process of elimination of the very variability upon which evolution itself depends. This intolerance is in turn a source of deep human distress, conflict and loss of creativity. It is a fundamental and damaging mistake of abstract thinking.

The fallacy of regarding error as detrimental to human life resides in the fact that the capacity to deviate from a pre-defined path is implicit in natural fluidity as an expression of the mutual inclusion of space and energy in the evolutionary processes that make human life and inventiveness possible.

Here it is important to recognise that the original meaning of ‘to err’ is ‘to wander’, not necessarily to ‘make a mistake’. Error hence has an experimental or playful quality. We only have to observe the irregular patterns formed by meandering rivers, undulating hillsides, rocky seashores, billowing clouds, flickering flames, branching trees and all kinds of animal trails to recognise that erratic wandering is a fundamental quality of the natural flow-geometry of which we human beings are ourselves an expression. Exact reproducibility, regularity and straight-lining are features of immobilized and repetitive structure, as in frozen and crystalline form, not natural wildness, warmth and creativity.

As William Blake recognised:-

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature as all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see nature at all. But by the eyes of a man of imagination, nature is imagination itself”

He might have added: error is the imagination of Nature

So it is only the prejudice that Nature and human nature somehow ought to conform to some pre-imposed order or set of rules, which leads error to be perceived as ‘wrong-doing’ – making a mistake, which needs to be corrected. But it is this same supposition that actually makes the truly huge mistake of requiring us to behave in a rigidly restricted way that contradicts how we naturally are in the world as it naturally is, and by so doing prevents us from fulfilling our potential as living, loving, explorative, imaginative and creative creatures.

For example:-

Those of us who have experienced a rule-bound education know what a disconcerting, unadventurous experience this is. Instead of being guided out into a wider awareness of ourselves and the world we inhabit, we experience a narrowing of our mental horizons as we are prepared for a life of doing what we are expected to do in accordance with established theory and practice. That is, we experience ourselves being trained to follow the prescriptive rules of a ‘standard curriculum’ into becoming another ‘brick in the wall’ of definitive abstraction, not truly educated into realizing our human creative potential. We are equipped only to repeat the learning experience – and mistakes – of our predecessors, not to explore the unfamiliar territory in which new discovery becomes possible.

This isn’t to say that there is no place for discipline and repetition in our educational praxis. Certain facts of existence and human history don’t change, and certain procedures are best done in a specific way. In such cases it is a mistake to depart from what our predecessors have learned and passed on to successive generations. But in a changeable and uncertain world and evolving culture, our minds need also to be prepared to be open to the possibility of discovering new knowledge and understanding, and here error as a means of departing from previously established pathways becomes vital. Indeed, if we care to admit it, the story of radical scientific and technological discovery is not one of consciously planned, incremental advance along a predictable trajectory, but rather a story of unintentional error as the imagination of human nature! An often quoted example is Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin through his imaginative understanding of what was happening in a contaminated Petri dish that most microbiologists at that time would have discarded as an ‘impure culture’, not part of their research plans. Fleming didn’t just observe what was happening with his eyesight, he saw in his ‘mind’s eye’ the new path of enquiry and discovery that it opened up.

Mistaking unity for community

The call for ‘unity’ to remedy the division of a human community into antagonistic factions is one of the many paradoxes arising from the abstract intolerance of natural variation as a product of error. It is closely related to the mistake of equating difference with opposition. Instead of appreciating the vitality of natural variety to the co-creativity of community life, all are ordered to combine together as ‘One’, with a common purpose that overrides individual differences and aspirations. Moreover, this call most often goes out as a response to what is perceived to be a common enemy, for example in wartime. So small scale hostility is replaced by grand scale hostility of one towards other.

The fallacy of seeking ‘unity’ as a basis for social coherence arises from the fact that the imposition of conformity upon individual variation produces a sterilized monoculture, not a fertile community.

This fallacy can quickly be recognised through appreciating the functional dependence of natural collective organizations upon the diverse contributions of their membership.

For example:-

Unlike a plantation, natural forests are not fenced-in monotonous stands of the same kind of tree. They are rich assemblages of all kinds of trees, herbs, fungi, bacteria and animals of different size and age, each of which influences the lives of the others in diverse ways to produce a dynamic collective that lives openly attuned within and as a co-creator of its environmental context. Human communities originally evolved and functioned in much the same way. All that prevents them from continuing to do so is the abstract division of different kinds into definitive categories, whereupon the scene is set for trenchant opposition between them in place of co-creative interplay. This opposition cannot be remedied using the same kind of ‘one or many’ thinking that gave rise to it. It can only be remedied by resisting the compulsion to divide or unify:

United we stall, divided we fall; dynamically diverse we thrive in the energy flow of each in all

Mistaking incompleteness for inadequacy

A widespread product of the definitive discrimination between ‘wholes’, as singular entities, and ‘parts’ as component entities is the idea that inadequacy within ourselves or others arises from incompleteness – missing one or more parts that are needed to make us or them ‘whole’. We may hence seek to remedy this inadequacy by adding what’s missing to make us or them ‘complete’, by way of a suitable partner, philosophy or piece of information. Trying to find what’s missing may then become a lifelong and ultimately insatiable obsession, because what’s actually missing is an appreciation of the fact that in the real world of natural energy flow, there’s no such thing as completeness.

The fallacy of seeking completeness as a remedy for inadequacy resides in the fact that the idea of completeness itself arises from an inadequate comprehension of natural continuity.

Completeness, as an abstract concept, implies the absolute isolation of the inside of something from its surroundings by a definitive boundary. To seek completeness in one way and another is therefore to seek to end life, not to sustain life. The desire for completeness is a desire for closure, which ultimately can only bring sterility, not lasting contentment.

For example:-

The completion of a jigsaw or crossword puzzle brings only temporary satisfaction, before the search for another puzzle or the break-up or erasure of the existing one begins. The life of the puzzle comes from the void space within the interior of its determinate (i.e. definitive) design that we hunger to fill by exercising our imagination. No sooner is the last piece added or the last clue solved, then the fun stops dead. The real life of natural energy flow is like this too, except in one vital respect: real life is indeterminate – it never ceases to circulate and reconfigure around and within the receptive space that makes its movement possible in the first place. Real life never imposes closure on itself: the incompleteness of its openness to evolutionary change sustains it indefinitely.

Mistaking death for finality

Ironically, it is the belief in definitive beginnings and endings that is the source of fear that perpetuates the devastating mistakes made by abstract perception: the perception of death as an ultimate discontinuity, which finally cuts life off from its past or future. Faced with this apparent finality, life appears as a fixed term contract that begins and ends in either nothing or eternity, which humans have to make the best of in one way or another. But which way is best? There are three possible attitudes that people tend to display, each of which is detrimental to life as it’s actually lived, in one way or another.

Some people tend to face life with eyes fixed predominantly in the present. Neither past nor future life is of any concern beyond the life span of the individual because this individual wasn’t there and won’t be there. This is a prescription for selfish behaviour in which as much pleasure or profit is abstracted from life as possible in the short term, oblivious both of heritage and sustainability.

Other people tend to face life with eyes fixed predominantly on the future, from which the past is excised by the present. This future is determined absolutely by what immediately precedes it. History is a thing of the past and can be forgotten. By contrast the future - whether in this world or what is imagined to be the next – becomes an objective ‘end’ or ‘goal’ for which we can strive by any means that appears necessary in the short term of the present. Hence undesirable means may be thought to be justified by a desirable end, leading us altruistically to sacrifice past and present to future, so as to ensure what is imagined to be the prosperity of our souls or offspring.

Yet other people tend to face life with eyes fixed predominantly on the past, from which the future is excised by the present. This past is all we can know about and therefore care about, which we may wish to preserve at all costs as our best insurance against the dreaded uncertainty of the future. We cannot forget this past, least of all the many hurts that may have been suffered there, and so may traditionally sacrifice both present and future to it, locked into defensively preserving the dignity of our ancestry and heritage forever.

Whatever seems to threaten these attitudes to our past, present or future is perceived as an enemy. Ultimately, we may feel obliged to kill or be killed in a struggle for survival – persistent individual or collective existence. The resulting quests, as in the world wars of the twentieth century, to expunge enemy agency and so bring an end to past grievances and secure a desirable future are, however, no ‘final solution’ to our troubles, but serve only to perpetuate them through the abstract perception of death as a finality.

The fallacy of regarding death as finality is the fact that in natural ecosystems death is actually vital to the evolutionary sustenance of life as an expression of natural energy flow.

As can readily be surmised from observing natural processes of growth, death, degeneration and regeneration, far from ending life, death releases the energy present in one form of life to become available for assimilation into new forms of life. Death feeds, structures, protects and transforms life as a gift of natural energy flow to be received, sustained and passed on in natural relay, not a mad dash to be first past the finishing post.

For example:-

When we take a meal we participate in the great recycling process that is known as ‘the global carbon cycle’. The initiation of this process comes largely through the reception of sunlight by green plants and the associated combination of carbon dioxide with the hydrogen from water to produce carbohydrates, whilst releasing oxygen. This photosynthetic receptivity of green plants makes them the sunlit world’s primary producers of sources of organic carbon upon which the consumer world’s animals, non-green plants, fungi and many kinds of bacteria depend.

The consumption of organic compounds as fuel involves the process known as ‘respiration’. This can be thought of as a controlled explosion, analogous to that in an internal combustion engine, which releases chemical energy in a form (known as adenosine triphosphate or ATP) that supports the vibrant activity of living systems. In its fullest expression, respiration involves that other product of photosynthesis, oxygen, to support the combustion of organic fuel into carbon dioxide and water - i.e. it is the reverse of photosynthesis.

Within the carbon cycle, hugely complex arrays of feeding relationships become possible in which death enables redistribution from one form of life to another. These arrays are commonly referred to using such terms as ‘food webs’ and ‘food chains’, but in reality they are branching channels that combine into flow-networks. Here, herbivorous animals consume plants. Carnivorous animals consume the meat from other animals, both as carrion feeders and as predators. Larger carnivores consume smaller carnivores. Carnivorous plants, like venus fly traps, supplement their photosynthetic diet by consuming small animals like flies as a source of nitrogen. Carnivorous fungi consume small animals like nematode worms. A host of small animals consume the detritus from larger animals and plants. Fungi and bacteria play enormously important roles in decomposition of the remains of other organisms.

There are also many ways in which death enables redistribution from redundant to active phases of development within the same life form. A good illustration of the re-distributive role of death in the life of plants can be gained from studying trees. Imagine for a moment what a mature tree would look like if it had retained all the branches and leaves that it produced over its long life span: an impenetrable thicket! In the process of maturation, trees undergo annual cycles of expansion and shedding of their canopy, which we can trace in the scars of detached leaves, bud scales, acorns and twigs along its branches. These self-pruned detachments will have fallen as a rain of litter to the underlying ground, and been incorporated into soil through the process of decomposition, whence the mineral nutrients they contain can be transferred back into the tree through its roots and fungal partnerships called mycorrhizas. Meanwhile any soluble sources of carbon they contain will have been transferred back into the tree via an abscission zone before fall.

The central core of what is known as ‘heartwood’ in trees is produced through the death of cells in wood that has ceased to conduct water. Once removed from the tree, this heartwood provides a very durable timber, useful in the construction of ships and buildings, but within the tree it is susceptible to decay by fungi. Correspondingly the core of many mature trees is actually a hollow heart, a cavity that provides a habitat for many other forms of life, and into which the tree may itself root.

Amongst fungi, one of the most familiar examples of the vital inclusion of death in life occurs in the hollow centre of fairy rings. As the centre of these systems dies, it feeds the expansion of their perimeter.

What is known as ‘metamorphosis’ in animals involves the conversion from a larva to an adult, e.g. the transformation of a tadpole into a frog or a caterpillar into a butterfly. In the case of a tadpole, the tail and gills which are appropriate for a life in water degenerate and become replaced by the legs and lungs that enable frogs to make their way on land. The degeneration and re-absorption of the tail is a re-distributive process that involves what is known as ‘apoptosis’, developmentally ‘programmed’ cell death.

Degenerative processes are even more apparent during insect metamorphosis, where virtually the entire muscle system of a larva is absent from adults. This transition also involves conversion from soft-bodied forms with relatively deformable external boundaries to hard-bodied forms with a rigidified, armour-like ‘exoskeleton’. The soft-bodied forms are able to enlarge partly because of the expandability of their skin or ‘cuticle’ and partly because once the cuticle can be stretched no further, it is separated off and discarded. Often there are several such moults (‘ecdyses’) between separate larval stages (‘instars’), analogous to the annual shedding of leaves and twigs from a tree. When the final instar reaches its size limit, the cuticle is hardened to produce a pupa, which does not expand further and seals in the resources accumulated by the feeding larva. Emergence from the pupa then entails the degeneration of larval tissues, abandonment of the pupa casing and activation of embryonic cells that have lain dormant during proliferation of larval tissues from the egg.

Trees provide an excellent example of how death structures life, consisting, as they very largely do, of a bark-covered set of woody channels that connect its photosynthetic canopy with its water and mineral gathering roots and mycorrhizas below ground. Both wood and bark are the products of cell death, associated with the formation of relatively impermeable compounds known respectively as lignin and suberin. Correspondingly, the living tissues of a tree are distributed very thinly indeed within and over the skeletal lining that they continually add to. In somewhat similar ways, animals may fashion internal or external frameworks to live within and upon, both individually, as in shells and skeletons, and collectively as in coral reefs.

Quite recently, it has been recognized that programmed cell death in multicellular organism limits the spread of cells that would otherwise develop into cancers. Indeed cancers can be thought of as potentially immortal forms of life that bring death to the corporate bodies that they inhabit, and so to themselves. Death can also protect an organism from infection by potentially disruptive intruders. Both the immunity systems of animals and what are known as the ‘hypersensitive’ systems of plants involve the ‘suicide’ of host cells as a way of sealing off their bodily interiors and releasing toxic chemicals that inhibit colonizers.

So, all in all, the real life study of natural biology tells us that death is not an ending, but an opening of possibilities for living, in which the present is not an instantaneous cut-off, but rather the bringing of past into the coming of future in a continuous process of evolutionary transformation. Lest we forget: the influence of past remains as life passes on endlessly into future; it cannot be expunged. When our own lives pass on, there will be other lives to receive our legacy. We need to care for now and then, not now or then, and that caring is what makes our endeavours worthwhile.

Mistaking pragmatism for realism

When seeking to bring about any kind of change in the way we live and think, there is an obvious pragmatic need to address the practical realities of the situation we find ourselves in. On the other hand, pragmatism can become a very serious source of inertia, which impedes much needed change by portraying this as ‘unrealistic’ and itself as ‘realistic’. The problem becomes acute when the reality of our human situation is that we are living and thinking in a way that contradicts the reality of how we naturally are in the world as it naturally is. Pragmatism can then make it well-nigh impossible to change.

The fallacy of regarding pragmatism as realistic is that the reality of current practice can conflict with the reality of what is actually true.

Pragmatism can hence perpetuate the reality of living in accordance with a false perception of reality. Despite its intention to be concerned only with what is practical, not with theories or ideas, it is nonetheless ‘theory-led’, by abstract perception.

For example:-

When an oppressive governmental regime based on abstract individualistic or collectivistic perceptions assumes or is given power, supported by media propaganda, military force and policing, the pragmatic tendency is to ‘stay with the Devil you know’ rather than risk challenging it and embarking on an unfamiliar course whose outcome cannot be predicted. In this situation, change is only possible when public resistance grows to a threshold where the need for a change of course becomes irresistible. Change may then come about remarkably rapidly, as with the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, in the absence of deep understanding of how the situation has come about, this threshold is only reached when the human suffering it induces has become sufficiently intolerable. Moreover, the rate of change may then be too fast to allow adequate understanding of the underlying issues and the uncertainties these bring, whereupon reactionary appeals for a return to ‘the old ways’ become strengthened. Ultimately, the need is paramount to develop a truly realistic understanding of how the devastating mistakes of abstract perception come about, and how these can be circumvented through a deepened awareness of our natural situation.

Taking language literally

The development of spoken and written language, as a pragmatic way of communicating knowledge, ideas and understanding, is a double-edged sword that can both preserve and undermine abstract perceptions of reality. Which way it cuts depends fundamentally on how this sword is wielded.

When language is taken literally as an abstraction from actual experience, the intention is to gain control over our neighbourhood by isolating objects as ‘nouns’ from their habitat and describing their inter-actions as ‘verbs’. We speak from a place offset from the midst of life, using linguistic and mathematical definition to impose definitive structure onto ourselves and our neighbourhood, and expecting others to do the same. We become so familiar with this practice that we start to conflate it with reality. Language becomes a trap for the unwary, not a liberator.

The fallacy of taking language literally is that actual experience is not definable into discontinuous packages of space, time, energy or matter.

On the other hand, when we use language as an adjunct to actual experience, there is no conceptual intent to isolate what is experienced from its context. The underlying need is simply to learn from and recall experience in the process of distinguishing recurrent and non-recurrent forms and patterns, and to communicate this to others. We speak from a place amidst life as flow-form, using linguistic and mathematical description only as a way of signifying our current awareness of situation, a temporary guide-lining to help us and our companions on our way. Our language is therefore always poetic, allusive and metaphorical – it is never literally definitive. Recognising this, we make generous allowance for our own and others’ use of language in order to appreciate its underlying intent – while using language as carefully as possible to avoid the danger of being taken literally. We really listen to what is said, instead of leaping to definitive conclusions.

For example:-

I may describe language as a double-edged sword.

Epilogue: abstract and natural perceptions of self-identity in relation to environment

The above ‘pendulum diagram’ shows the difference between abstract and natural perceptions of ‘self’ in relation to ‘environment’, and how this relates in turn to different perceptions of space and boundaries. So much of our modern difficulty arises from excluding ‘the middle way’ that is able to resolve the incompatibility between alternative abstract views.

Instead of viewing this diagram askance, as an outsider, you may find it helpful to imagine yourself within each of the three figures. Does the following description hold true?

Within the definitively bounded figure, you feel entirely alone within yourself, aware of your set location as a centre of ‘your’ universe but utterly detached from it: you judge everything around you against a fixed reference frame set by yourself. This is the Cartesian view of the objectivistic framework, which still holds sway in abstract scientific methodology and theory, and treats boundaries as definitive dead zones (‘hard lines’), not live interfacings. This is ‘separate knowing’. Within the figure with dissolved/no boundary, you feel indistinguishable from all around you, yet have no sense of locality and so ‘are lost in space’: you are everywhere and nowhere at once. This is ‘connective knowing’, which treats boundaries as non-existent illusions and annihilates or diffuses self-identity to all around: to some it feels like bliss, a realm of utter calm, utter passivity/lack of agency, which simply accepts whatever comes, unconditionally. Within the figure with dynamic boundaries, you have a sense of being included in all around you, without entirely losing your locality or agency, aware both of the omnipresent calmness of space and the local excitability of energy within your living boundaries as dynamic distinctions between your spatially continuous inner and outer worlds. This is what it truly means to be alive, involved and fully aware of your self-identity as a dynamic natural inclusion of my neighbourhood.

You might also find it helpful to view the image as a ‘negative’, such that the omnipresence of darkness and locality of light as a dynamic inclusion of and in darkness is brought out.

Abstract thinking removes the middle possibility of self-identity as a dynamic inclusion of neighbourhood. This leads to two incompatible kinds of abstract logic, which have been at odds with one another for millennia. Propositional ‘two-value logic’ (also known as the Law of the Excluded Middle) straightforwardly regards one or other of the two mutually exclusive alternatives (definitively bounded or unbounded) to be ‘true’ and the other as ‘false’.

Commonly, however, since definitive isolation precludes passionate and compassionate feeling, a need arises to accept that both abstract alternatives are equally true, even though they are mutually exclusive. Since there is no way to resolve this incompatibility naturally, by allowing boundaries to fluidize and space to be continuous, the brutality of one and the softness of the other are held in the mutual antipathy of an inescapable dialectic logic.

It is as though, in the attached diagram, the hard-bounded and the unbounded are pummelled like a boxer’s punch-ball between alternative forms of abstraction, instead of being allowed to balance dynamically.

What then can happen is for fear of the alternative to drive violent opposition between irresolvable desires for absolute internal security and absolute external freedom, neither of which is possible in the reality of natural evolutionary process. The opposition of each to the other drives the opposition of both to what brings each into the other’s embrace in an anti-natural dynamic that brings great distress, conflict and inconsistency. The rigidly encapsulated ego sees the need for softness but can’t relax its self-definition for fear of losing its identity and mastery over other. The dissolved ego feels the need for agency but fears the potential brutality of self-encapsulation.

And so the living contradiction of each against other continues, without the natural resolution that is ever possible through the mutual inclusion of receptive presence and informative presence in each other’s natural embrace. Abstract logic denies the natural resolution as the result of what might be called ‘Anti-Naturalism’ or ‘Abstract Fundamentalism’. That is, all forms of ‘fundamentalism’ arise from ‘abstraction’ as one form or another of ‘anti-naturalism’. Literally by definition, they are impervious to and denigrating of natural wisdom. They therefore come fully equipped with an imperialistic attitude of mind, which seeks to overrule one aspect or another of what they denigrate, and does so remorselessly.

This Anti-Naturalism is the symbolism of the Fall – the fear of Nature and its false dichotomy into Light and Dark as manifestations of Good and Evil instead of the mutual inclusion of each in the other. The result of that false dichotomy between abstract alternatives remains with us to this day as an ongoing tragedy, the antithesis of natural wisdom.

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the support of several friends, most notably Rev. Roy Reynolds, during the preparation of this article.

 
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About the Author 

Alan Rayner
Dr Alan Rayner is a naturalist who uses art, poetry, fluid mathematics and careful science to enquire and communicate about the evolutionary

 
 
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