A New Way of Seeing Ourselves in Nature

by Barbara Goodrich


Part I

A. The old way doesn't work; it leads to environmental crises and self-defeating plans.

(Part II will cover the new way. If you would prefer to skip straight to Part II, click here.)

1. The question:

How should we think of ourselves and our well-being in relation to nature as we plan our future?

2. The standard answer, and what's wrong with it:

Is each of us an isolated, rational individual who can pursue all his or her goals privately, according to his or her chosen values, and have a decent chance of achieving them? A human who has the inborn right to seize control of his or her destiny, as long as no other person's liberty is curtailed?

This is the world view of the English-speaking American west. It presupposes infinite natural resources to be used by humans in any way they wish, and people as disconnected "atoms" floating around the world more or less randomly, competing with each other according to their enlightened self-interest.

This world view has led to the current environmental crisis. It must be revised to put an end to the crisis, and to prevent new ones from occurring.  

Some people have suggested that we continue to think of ourselves as isolated rational minds -- but in a disappointingly limited eco-sphere. Thus, we should face up to the unavoidable reality that we'll have to compromise our ambitions to fit into the overpopulated under-resourced world. But this sad conclusion won't work -- fortunately.

The old description of humans as isolated rational minds is itself incorrect. Though people often think of this purported individualism as just plain common sense, it's not. It developed from a series of historical accidents; it is just one particular set of assumptions and beliefs inherited from several particular thinkers. And it doesn't orient us to what we need to become happy and fulfilled. It doesn't foster genuine individualism or real freedom. It leads to problems, even logical paradoxes. Its internal weaknesses and tortuous lines of thought become obvious when we try to apply it in the real world.  

3. Three self-defeating strategies

Here are a few of the resulting paradoxes that threaten our Golden valley:  (a) The potential resident paradox Golden has beautiful surroundings; it's saturated with history; its society is refreshingly gritty; social exchange is pleasant, amused, making room for marvelously colorful characters. It's within driving distance of the greater metro area.

More and more people want to live here. Pro-development people have argued that potential residents should be welcomed. They shouldn't have to face the obstacles of 1% growth ordinances and other laws limiting growth. "After all," these development supporters say, "don't they have the right to live in this wonderful little town, with its beautiful surroundings, its history, its small-town atmosphere, too?"

If we were to adopt this pro-development position, then Golden's beautiful surroundings, historical buildings, social patterns shaped by a tough, intelligent populace laced generously with eccentricities -- these would all be destroyed, so that no one would be able to enjoy them. Oops.

What's going wrong here? Well, first, too many people want to live on too little land. There's simply not enough room for everyone without ruining the area. But second, these plain facts are obscured by talk of individuals' rights to live where they please. The problem here is confusing actual residents with potential residents. Potential residents, who haven't joined the community and don't even know it yet, can't be expected to uphold the priorities of the actual community. If you have lived somewhere for more than a few years, you are more than an isolated, "abstract" individual. You are someone who has influenced and been influenced by your society and surroundings. Your participation has helped shape that society and those surroundings; its habits of behavior, its laws, its traditions and expectations. They have become your home. It's not possible to think of people as so many uprooted little atoms of humanity, interchangeable place-holders for the category "individual." We are also members of particular groups and particular environments.

(b) The responsible manager paradox:

Whenever there is any large scale development, of factories, residential suburbs, whatever, we need to ask if the profiteers are really covering all the costs. All too often, many of the costs are shifted onto unwilling non-participants. For example, apart from the obvious direct government subsidies, developers and large business owners are also aided by publicly funded new streets, schools, etc. The most insidious of the many ways of "externalizing" costs is not to minimize pollution.

To what extent do company managers think that companies are ethically obliged to pay their own costs? Imagine an environmentally friendly upper-level manager of a large industrial company. Should he direct the company to pollute less? The influential economist Milton Friedman has said no. The manager's primary ethical duty is to the company's owners, the shareholders, who presumably want their profit maximized as far as the law can be stretched. Decreasing pollution cuts into profit.

How can the poor manager help mitigate the pollution? Well, says Friedman, after hours, he can individually donate some of his own money to the Sierra Club or some such organization.

Of course, by this time, great damage will already have been done to the environment, to people exposed to contaminants, etc. And cleaning up pollution is notoriously more expensive than preventing it in the first place. The consequence would be shareholders with temporarily slightly larger dividends (probably only until the lawsuits begin), the manager and his friends sacrificing to make wholly inadequate donations, taxpayers' being unnecessarily burdened with supporting another cleanup site, and a huge toxic mess leading to entirely unnecessary human and animal suffering.

And all this because our unfortunate manager was trying so hard to be ethical!

What's screwy here? Friedman's economic model, based on humans as abstract rational self-interested individuals -- as mere disembodied minds -- ignores all the "costs" that can't be simply calculated and financially compensated for. And these "costs" are high: human health problems, non-humans' lives and environments, effects on future generations of humans, etc. Friedman also must deny the basic ethical attitudes we all have -- for instance, loyalty to family, friends, and community, and a desire to flourish without it being at the expense of innocent third parties. These commitments are more important than any "company loyalty," even though we won't get a bonus or a pat on the head for upholding them.

There's a pragmatic problem in Friedman, as well. Solving environmental degradation requires us acting together as well as thinking independently and creatively of new solutions. But if we reduce ourselves to our individual workplace roles, (perhaps we could call this "the cubicle self") then we can't act together -- our roles keep us apart. And, worse, if we identify ourselves with nothing more than our workplace roles, we can't think autonomously. We've been trained to think along carefully delineated, institutionalized, lines. (Sound paranoid? It's not. Remember: Friedman's main characterization here of private life outside work is the manager's freedom to donate his own money according to his own values. It's based on the model of the company. Friedman's free human individual is nothing more than a poor stiff who is CEO of his own little budget.) We've got the worst of both worlds -- isolation, but without creative autonomy.

(c) The growing towards bankruptcy paradox:

In small towns, small locally owned businesses and their employees will often welcome growth in population, business, and traffic because they hope to increase the number of their customers.

As the growth increases, though, large chain stores will be tempted to move in, to tap into the growing market. The larger chains can offer more goods at better prices because of buying bulk and underpaying their employees. The smaller businesses usually can't survive this kind of competition. Even if their longtime customers stay loyal, higher property taxes and leasing expenses that aren't covered by a growing clientele will bankrupt them.

Thus, rather than sharing their town's promised prosperity, the beloved, small, locally-owned businesses are often destroyed, and their employees will often be stuck in minimum wage jobs at the new chain store. (This has happened over and over again in Colorado.)

What went wrong here? It's a confusion between real people and artificial ones: corporations. People live in particular places with particular histories. They develop loyalties to their employees, their employers, their merchants, their customers. Large corporations, though, are artificial "beings." They are really nothing more than a collection of job descriptions and other roles (such as shareholder), and binding agreements among these various roles, and certain legal rights to carry out other agreements with other institutions, actual people, and actual things. In the past, this artificiality was less obvious, since the roles were often identified with the people who held them for many years. Current technology, though, now enables large corporations to move operations around the world with great speed, to take advantage of changing labor markets, climates, political systems, even tax, pollution, and employee regulations. Our information technology allows shareholders to buy and sell stock in the blink of an eye. And, of course, job turnover has become rapid. For any corporation, the people who fill its various roles are constantly changing, coming and going.

These corporations, these unanchored artificial entities, can move into a location to profit from its markets just as a small businessperson can profit, but the relationship with the local community isn't symmetrical, isn't real. The chains don't reinvest in the community. They maximize profit by paying the lowest wages possible and the fewest benefits possible, and then their profits are sent to wherever headquarters happens to be that quarter, to be parceled out to upper management and shareholders, whoever they are, and wherever they are. (Adam Smith, incidentally, wasn't able to foresee this development. His arguments that a business's local area would benefit are good arguments; they have just been outdated by technology Smith could never have dreamed of. )

4. Here are a few more contradictions and tensions resulting from the old view:

(a)Working for income that's not worth it: A laborer in Golden earlier this century would have made very little, and worked very hard. He would have walked to work, and would have come home for lunch every day. Nowadays, he, or she, would be paid more, maybe enough to buy the vehicle that he or she would have to have to commute to work and back, to pay for gas and insurance, to buy a cheap lunch every day that he or she would have to get, etc. We have the technology to raise our quality of life far beyond that of the poor early 20th century worker, but instead we must "invest" almost everything we make at our jobs into things -- not necessarily desirable -- necessary for us to keep the jobs.
(b) Architectural snafus! Too often, city planners and architects think only in terms of filling available lots, disregarding the effect that one building or parking lot may have on another. Our city of Golden is planning a golf course that will surround a youth prison on three sides. Well, the fencing around the prison is probably high enough to keep out most golf balls.

The much-touted new Golden Hotel was built with the main doors to its fancy lobby facing the side door of our little mortuary -- the door through which the caskets are carried in and out. The two sets of doors are separated only by the width of a small back street. 

(c) "I'd pay more for less 'value.'"

Here's my favorite. I have a twenty-pass card to the Golden recreation center. The rec. center is crowded on the weekends, so price for single "at the door" passes have been raised on Saturdays and Sundays to discourage the crowding. The price raise doesn't affect my twenty-pass card, though. I can use it any day of the week. This makes a slot on my pass more valuable than it would be otherwise, if I use it on a Saturday or a Sunday. Therefore, shouldn't I use it more on Saturdays and Sundays, to get the most value out of my card? But that would just exacerbate the crowding! (The problem: Market "value" is decided by a huge number of different factors. It isn't a reliable measure of the value something has for someone. Not surprisingly, I like best to go to the rec. center on weekdays.)

(d)"Survival of the tackiest" won't do.

As tourism in Colorado grows, some people try to profit from it by turning real towns like Golden into tourist attractions, inept caricatures of themselves. So a few misguided people want to make Golden itself over into a second and larger "Heritage Square." At a recent city council meeting someone actually proposed legislation forbidding our dear old bikers from being served their booze on Washington Avenue sidewalks, in order to present a more "family-oriented" object of tourism. (Any bikers out there want to know his name? Email me!)

If we allowed this to happen, we'd be a lot less happy, as would be the visitors who love real Golden. And their decreasing visits might not even be partly replaced by tourist dollars since Colorado is already glutted with bland and overly thematized tourist attractions.

5. Historical background: how the weak old standard answer came to be:

(If you would like to skip the history and go directly to the new paradigm, click here.)

(a) Overview:

How could the widespread "isolated rational individual" world view lead to such absurdities? It's pretty subtle. And to understand it, we need to touch on some of thinkers who unknowingly contributed to the problem.

The chief culprits:

16th century philosopher René Descartes (pronounced "Day CART");
Early economist Adam Smith (though in many respects an admirable figure);

Religious reformer and zealot John Calvin; and

19th century journalist Horace Greeley of "Go west, young man" and Manifest Destiny" fame.

During the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, roughly from the 1400s to the 1700s, humans were beginning to gain unprecedented knowledge and control of the natural world. Old threats like disease and famine were beginning to be understood and parried. New theories about metals and natural "laws" of physics permitted the invention of labor-saving engines and other mechanisms. Humans had always been a vulnerable species fighting for its survival within nature. The new science's brilliant successes prompted excitement, ambition, and not a little human arrogance. People began to think of humanity as a separate force superior to (the rest of) nature.

Thinkers since at least the time of Plato had been fascinated with discovering the unique characteristics of humans that set us apart from everything else. These purported distinguishing characteristics, such as "reason" and "freedom," were celebrated anew, and people began to identify themselves more with these characteristics than with the characteristics they obviously shared with "animal nature." The eminent scientist Francis Bacon spoke for his colleagues and his generation when he proclaimed: "We will put Nature on the rack, and force her to give us her secrets!"

(b) Descartes:

Bacon's near contemporary Descartes (a generation apart) was interested in human consciousness and how humans can come to know things. In his search for a bit of knowledge that we could be absolutely certain of, he had to reject just about everything.
"Can I be sure that the outside world exists? No, not absolutely certain. After all, I could be hallucinating or dreaming or being deceived by some mean-spirited being, or something."

"Can I be sure that my neighbor really has a mind, is conscious, like me? No, he could conceivably be a really well-made robot."

"Can I be sure even that my own body exists? Well, no, not even that. Maybe I'm really a disembodied spirit, and some other spirit is playing a practical joke on me. Maybe my whole life, as I have always thought of it, is really just illusion. I only think I had that childhood. Really, somebody just implanted those false memories in me."

Much of modern science fiction seems to be indebted to the imaginative Descartes! Finally, Descartes found one piece of knowledge that he could regard as absolutely certainly correct, beyond any possible doubt. (Whew!) What is it? His knowledge that he himself, as a conscious mind, exists!

"Whatever happens, though, I can never be mistaken about this: that I, as a thinking thing, a doubting thing, do exist! I am thinking, therefore, I can know with absolute certainty that I as a thinking thing exist."

You may have heard this famous Cartesian (from "Des -cartes") line:

"I think, therefore (I am certain that) I am."

It's a brilliantly clever move. The only problem is that it sets the stage for thinking about who we are in terms of us as conscious and isolated minds.


When Freud (and his predecessors Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) started suggesting that much of the human psyche is subconscious, he had a very hard time, because people had got in the habit of thinking in Descartes' terms, and Descartes' terms don't have room for anything like subconscious thoughts or desires.  


Because Descartes thought we could imagine ourselves existing only as conscious minds, not in a body, Descartes regarded our bodies as not really part of "us," but only as a sort of vehicle that we're stuck in. Non-human animals were supposed to be mere bodies, uninhabited by conscious minds. Thus, Descartes had no problem with dissecting cats alive to study their circulatory systems, etc. If the cats screamed in protest, Descartes would remind himself that it was just an unconscious mechanism making a noise, like a log when we crack it open. We human minds, as rational, were diametrically opposed to non-human "nature," with its messy matter, its non-rational behavior, its bodily appetites, etc.  


Because I have direct access only to my own thoughts, I am a kind of complete little universe in myself. You are a complete little universe in yourself. I may be lonely, but at least I'm free! I make my own decisions, come to my own conclusions, act for myself, etc.

Thus, Descartes gave Europe a new and influential way of thinking of the human person. And he thought he was accurately describing how we all really are, how we experience things. If he had been correct, then workplace and marketplace roles based on this model wouldn't have left anything out. But they do.

(b) Smith:

This new model of the human person was combined with Adam Smith's new economic theory. According to Smith, we are all (rather Cartesian) individuals, and all self-interested. Fortunately, if each of us is allowed to pursue our own interests in a free competitive economy, everyone will ultimately benefit. For example, people will tend to get the sorts of products and services they want, because their desires form a demand. Individual entrepreneurs will be motivated to answer a demand by providing a supply to meet it, hoping to compete successfully for a large part of the demanding market by offering the best commodity at the lowest price. Variations in supply and demand will produce prices that will tend to equalize the two: If supply isn't adequate, the price will rise, encouraging other entrepreneurs to get involved in making more of the commodity available. If there is an oversupply, the price will drop, encouraging some of the producers to change to producing more lucrative products. Employers will tend to pay employees the maximum wage affordable in order to attract the best employees, and to keep them happy. After all, the potential employee is a free individual, and can choose the best deal he is offered.  

Much of what is incorrect or oversimplified in Smith can be explained by the unforeseeable changes in technology, business law, and culture since his lifetime. But already we can see how his theory anticipated the 20th century consumer culture's definition of happiness as consumption, as a sort of filling of the Cartesian space of "inner" experience. And human need isn't addressed at all. If people haven't the money to buy the necessities of life, well, their desire doesn't count as real "demand."

Further, especially since the rise of modern advertisement and marketing earlier this century, "demand" no longer reflects any desire originating from the consumer. Instead, the demand is manufactured almost as much as the product is. Nonetheless, influential economists still quote Smith as if the economy were perfectly in line with his theory. When someone is pressured by dire poverty and a high unemployment rate into accepting a demeaning, dangerous, underpaid job, Smith's theory is brought in to blame the situation on the employee himself. After all, he freely agreed to the job on the free market. (The strategy: when the sordid facts diverge from an attractive theory, just hide the facts behind the theory.)

The most important point for our purposes to note is that Smith believed that people, by acting independently to achieve their individual goals, would end up promoting the benefit of all. And as we've seen over and over again, this simply doesn't work.

(c) The Calvinist work ethic:

Adding to the isolation was the growing middle class's ethic of hard work, with a bizarre new combination of asceticism, avarice, and self-absorption. Previously in Europe, for example, in medieval Christendom, religion had expressed itself in a rather down-to-earth ethic and world view. Ideally, one took one's rest and recreation when and where one could, one persevered in adversity, one took comfort in devoting oneself to something bigger than oneself and in contributing to "the glory of God." Asceticism was generally left to those in monasteries, who were greatly admired, and not much emulated. These habits were diverted by misanthropic reformers such as John Calvin into the goal of trying to assure oneself that one is indeed saved.
(Calvin: Humans are such lowly creatures that nothing we could possibly do, including having faith, could influence God one way or the other in deciding whether to "save" us from eternal damnation or not. This belief understandably leads to an obsession about whether one is predestined by God to be saved, that is, "elect," or not. One looks around for any little hint that God might like one, or has forsaken one. Well, surely, if God has decided that he approves of you, he'd take care of you and make sure that you succeeded. And surely, if God has condemned you, he wouldn't bother with you. So if you happen to be successful in business, maybe that means that God has "elected" you to be saved! And if your neighbor is very poor, well, maybe that's God's judgment on him. So, paradoxically, because one has no control over one's destiny at all, one starts self-deceptively working extremely hard to be a success in business, etc., because then one can tell oneself that one isn't condemned.)

So the new ethic emphasized working much more hard than was necessary, and allowing oneself little or no leisure or luxury, including leisure with friends, energy spent in unnecessary pursuits of the arts and education, and the "luxury" of generosity! Dickens's character Scrooge is a caricature of this "Calvinist work ethic." (Remember how hard the young Scrooge works? How he makes himself turn aside from the natural joys and pleasures of youth? Scrooge isn't just a miser by temperament. He has to work hard at it to become one! And unlike other non-Calvinist misers, Scrooge is very proud of his self-control, and fiercely judgmental of everyone who doesn't share his priorities.)

This new "Calvinist work ethic" spread through much of British culture, influencing even the otherwise sensible deists in the American colonies. Even jolly, life-affirming Benjamin Franklin became a mouthpiece for the new ethic.

"Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.

"Remember that credit is money. "The most trifling actions that affect a man's credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at might, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he see you at a billiard-table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day; demands it, before he can receive it, in a lump."

The Calvinist work ethic is not the perfectly reasonable advice to work and save. It can be distinguished from this commonsense advice not only by its being so extreme, but also by its deeply judgmental flavor. If someone is idle, he isn't just being lazy. He's evil, disgusting. (Are you working hard enough? There -- doesn't that give you the willies and make you start getting defensive? That's because U.S. culture is saturated with a secularized Calvinism.)

The Calvinist work ethic functioned to undermine traditional solidarity, loyalty, and compassion in a way parallel to the Hindu justification for the caste system. If someone has a miserable life, well, that person must deserve it.

The Calvinist work ethic has undergone one dramatic change. Before the late 19th century and early 20th century, Europe and the U.S. had only two substantial classes: the upper class and "gentry" and middle class consumers, and the lower "working class." As industrialists saw their markets getting filled, they discovered a way to create a new market, while simultaneously quieting labor unrest. They agreed to pay higher salaries: just enough so that their employees could afford to buy some of the products they themselves made at work. Thus was created the new working and consuming middle class.

Prior to this, workers had received endless sermons on the need for asceticism. After all, that's what the economy had needed. But now, consumption, even conspicuous consumption, became acceptable. As long as one worked extremely hard and continued being successful, one could indulge in the hope that one was of God's few "elect."

(d) Manifest destiny:

In the U.S., all the above ideology was combined with the 1845 notion of "manifest destiny." This notion was originally used to rationalize the annexation of Texas, but it was soon applied to "taming" the North American west, as well. The surging U.S. birth rate and the immigration wave from Europe gave rise to a need for more land.

Journalists such as Horace Greeley offered expansion into the west as a solution. These writers claimed that God himself had ordained white protestants to multiply and to spread their region and their political ideals throughout the continent of North America. This conveniently sidestepped the question of whether indigenous peoples or previous (for example, Hispanic) settlers had any say in the matter. In a stunning tour de force of self-deception, white protestant entitlement was not only taken for granted, but transformed into a divinely mandated duty. And frontier life was usually harsh enough that the successful felt themselves fully justified in enjoying their wealth. The effects of this expansion on the less fortunate whites, on the previous inhabitants, and on the wildlife and ecosystems, were blocked out of awareness. After all, a pioneer had enough on his mind just trying to survive and prove his election.

We find the extreme version of this as recently as the Reagan administration. Then Secretary of the Interior James Watt based his polices on his rather unorthodox religious beliefs. Mr Watt's beliefs went as follows: Nature was given to us by God to make use of. When we've exhausted it, the Second Coming will happen. So, let's use it up, and then God will come to take us home. (No, I'm not making this up. Really.)

Here Watt was demanding to play a sort of Russian Roulette. But he wanted not only to be allowed to play it, but to play it with the lives of everyone on the planet -- no matter that they didn't share his beliefs -- and with all possible future generations of humans, and with all non-human organisms present and future. "Unjust" isn't quite the word to describe Watt's attitude. "Autistic" is more accurate.


Part II

A. A new way will do more justice to ourselves, our capacities, our desires

1. The question we'll address:

How should we think of ourselves and our well-being in relation to nature, as we plan for our futures?

2. The answer starts with honoring what is present and different from ourselves.

One night last summer a young and probably naïve raccoon waddled onto our patio to get the food we had set out for the two feral cats who claim our yard as their territory. I started to chase the raccoon off, but my curiosity got the better of me. I put some food for it a few yards away, and sort of herded the raccoon over. The darn thing ate all the food, and started to go back to the cat dishes. For the next couple of hours, I kept replenishing its little heap and watching it eat in its business-like way, and then make moves towards the cat dishes. The two cats were just disgusted by the whole affair, but for me the air was crackling with magic for the whole evening. Just to watch its dexterous paws at work was astonishing.

People have always been fascinated with achieving contact with different creatures -- from other new humans whose customs, beliefs, behaviors we can't predict yet, to creatures of a different species, but complex enough to elicit some kind of respect from us.

We find this in ancient legends of mythical beasts and strange half-human races, legends which survive even into tabloid claims of "Big Foot." We find this fascination also in science fiction stories about intelligent aliens, from H.G. Wells to the film "ET." Those of us skeptical readers who didn't get a thrill up the spine from reading about chimps apparently "speaking" using sign language couldn't stop a chill going up our spines when we read about Koko the gorilla's undeniably deliberate sign-language response to the question "What is it to die?" (She had become very distressed because she'd been informed that her kitten had died. It had been killed in a traffic accident, away from her. The researchers wanted to determine if she had in fact understood what they had told her.) Her mournful description: "You go to sleep and you don't wake up."

It's hard not to be overwhelmed by such spectacular cases of contacting "alien" intelligence. But the more mundane cases of contacting what is different from us are equally compelling of wonder.

Notice that the contact we're talking about here is entirely different from the sort of "knowledge" that Descartes took as his paradigm. For Descartes, and many thinkers after him, knowledge is a kind of space, within which the knowing mind understood everything, and outside of which the mind didn't go. Knowledge was like the area examined through a microscope, or -- perhaps a better analogy -- like a perfect courtroom allowing for absolute scrutiny. Even Nature can't remain recalcitrant on a torture-rack. (Plato had the same implicit analogy. This led him to the problem of "then how can we come to know anything new, anything that we don't know already?" Not surprisingly, he wasn't able to solve this problem.)

But this isn't at all how we do become familiar with people, or things, or events. Our knowledge isn't a space, but a contact, an interaction, within the larger space of reality. One's beloved will always remain a mystery to one, a fascinating universe in himself or herself of experiences, desires, purposes. Nonetheless, profoundly different though we are from one another, we can make contact, can come to know -- and be -- more than before.

This complex relation of contact with an other is the basis of the notion of respect. The term "respect" comes from Latin, respicio, to look back, to regard, to hold in regard. If we respect someone, we return his or her glance; we make eye contact. If we don't respect someone, we don't bother. (In some societies, those in subservient positions are supposed to keep their eyes lowered, to show that they are not presuming to be acknowledged by those in positions of power.) Making eye contact is a way of acknowledging and honoring an other as present and as different.

Until very recently, researchers studying non-human animal behavior were terrified of letting themselves develop relations with non-humans, or make even the most basic inferences about their charges' "internal lives" (notice the "space" analogy). To do so was to be criticized as "anthropomorphizing," projecting human characteristics onto non-humans. This was a mortal sin against scientific method, and sentimental to boot. Any non-human animal's experience would be "outside" the scope of human knowledge, outside the courtroom. Therefore, researchers were enjoined to leave everything about non-human experiences outside their studies and speculations, where they belonged, to avoid incorrect inferences. What resulted was, paradoxically, the worst kind of anthropomorphism. The experiences and goals of non-human animals were not considered except insofar as they could be interpreted according to human terms, narrowly conceived. Researchers' presuppositions about humans and human nature, as well as about other animals' natures, would be protected from any challenge, any stretch.

We still run across this anthropomorphizing. Think of little dogs in Santa suits. Think of pet owners who are determined to see their animals almost as little people -- lesser little fake humans rather than perfectly whole dogs or cats or whatever. This is not a result of sentimentality. And it isn't due to making incorrect inferences about the animal's "internal life." The person with the doggie Santa isn't making cognitive errors, but is acting like a parent cramming a child into unwanted clothes. Real anthropomorphizing is a result of thinking of other animals as either not fully present, or as not different. It is due -- precisely -- to a profound lack of respect.

B. Let's start again -- this time with ourselves.

With this experience of contacting what is different in mind, let's start again from a new vantage point. We won't start from Descartes' theory of humans as disembodied, allegedly rational consciousness (what we humans were thought to be, in opposition to nature).

Instead, we'll start the way we did when we were small children. We'll start from our bodies, from our non-conscious processes and "preconscious" (non-self-conscious) experience, of volition, of purposeful action. Let's start with all those aspects that we share with non-human animals.

After all, our more "abstract" capacities and characteristics such as "reason," "self-consciousness," language, etc. are essentially refinements of our experiences seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, acting in the world. This isn't to say that "reason," "self-consciousness," and language could be reduced to crass biological mechanics. It is to say that our experiences of seeing, hearing, acting in the world are already breathtakingly complex and personal.

We usually take them for granted. (Poor Descartes surely did.) But think of a time you watched a new baby learning to focus her eyes, or learning to reach for those magical, mysterious, brightly colored toys you held over her. Or listened to a toddler learning how to create really quite complicated sentences. Or, perhaps, were surprised when a small child came up and comforted you when you needed it. Or even a teenager learning to debate something intelligently with his parents. These are all astonishing accomplishments.

Once we let ourselves appreciate these constant miracles, we immediately notice the underlying problems with the old view. Descartes had taken a spectator's passive, detached attitude towards the world -- "I think" or "I think that" -- as the paradigm case of human experience. He was wrong to do so. Instead, a better paradigm case would be the purposeful, engaged: "I can.!" (can reach the toy, can make the long sentence I want to, can help the sad person, can at least get Dad to acknowledge this position as possibility.)

And if our paradigm case is doing, then the old "isolated rational mind" definition gets exposed as just being really weird. You can't be a Cartesian when you're busy planting an apple tree. You won't be able to take Descartes' claims seriously. Try it!

C. We see and hear and feel things as parts of a larger whole.

When we are planting apple trees or pruning grape vines, we often feel connected to the matrix of things in a way that we overlook at other times. But this "part of the whole" pattern is everywhere in human experience.

The "part of the whole" pattern was first analyzed by early 20th century German psychologists studying vision. They called it the Gestalt, or "figure-against-a-background" pattern. It's the reason why visual illusions work! (It's pronounced "gheh shtalt.")

The key to the Gestalt is this: Humans (and presumably other vertebrates) don't perceive things in the way that television screens work. We don't start with little isolated "pixels" and then fit them together into conglomerates. Instead, since we are constantly exposed to a huge barrage of sights, sounds, and sensations, we sort through the whole sensory field for meaningful patterns. For instance, a baby begins to see a toy as a whole rattle rather than just a confusion of colors and sounds. And the baby is focusing on the rattle as a separate object, in contrast to the less interesting background of crib, walls, parents.

Our conscious awareness is very efficient. It gets our subconscious or potentially conscious awareness to do most of the work. We pay conscious attention to one part, one aspect, of our whole visual field at a time. (Usually, we focus on only one part of our whole sensory field: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.! For example, as you read this, you probably weren't thinking about the sensation of pressure on your feet from the floor until I mentioned it. My mentioning it probably invited you to notice it consciously, to "bring it into figure," if only for a moment.) What we consciously notice is what our whole central nervous system has already sorted out for us as important.

Sometimes there's a real choice to be made.

Do you "see" the white vase as "figure" against a plain, meaningless black background? Or do you "see" the silhouettes of two faces, against a plain, meaningless white background?

We can sometimes deliberately shift how we see things, shift the Gestalt that we are using.

But while we might automatically push lots of what we see and hear into the "background," out of conscious awareness, that background still affects how we see the "figure" that we are focusing on!

Are the lines in the circles perpendicular or not? They are; they only seem slanted in contrast to their background, the slanted lines around them.

Our habits of thought and our memories and expectations and desires are also part of any "background." Here, our intellectual expectations help to guide our vision.

Sometimes habits of thought get in the way; they filter out what we don't expect. For instance, a friend with low self-esteem can't fully register evidence that should disprove his low opinion of himself. He forgets all such confirming events, and only remembers the problematic ones, since those are what he expects.

Except in a few artificial or abnormal cases, we always perceive something as "figure" against a less important "background." If we perceive something as if it were isolated, with no background -- no sensory background, no historical context, no surrounding environment, no expectations, it won't make sense to us.

It will have no more meaning for us than a single note pulled from, say, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

D. Our sense of self has the same structure. Even freedom and individuality have the same structure.

Our very sense of self has this Gestalt pattern. As toddlers, we learn that we can act on the world, bring about changes, pursue our own purposes (even against parents' wishes) in the context of the world as it already exists. (This is the necessary stage of child development also known -- with good reason -- as "the terrible twos.")

We are able to achieve self-consciousness because of a similar Gestalt pattern. As sentient creatures, we experience our bodies in two entirely different ways. (If you want to experience the different roles really vividly, remember the first time you tried to put on contact lenses. This often causes us to get really disoriented for a moment: "But my eyes aren't objects to which to adhere little plastic thingies! My eyes are me!") On the one hand, we experience our bodies as "objects," as things to be perceived. I can brush my hair, check my stockings for runs, take my own pulse. On the other hand, we experience our bodies as expressions of our goals and our awareness. It's me brushing my hair, looking at my ankles, touching my wrist. (Someone once wrote that we experience our busy hands as "embodied curiosity.") And each hand can serve in either role. If you put your fingertips together, you can feel one hand with the other, and then you can switch their roles, just as you switched the roles of the vase and the faces in the image above.

Even human freedom has this "part of a greater whole" pattern. If being free were just an absolute absence of constraints and preferences, it would be vacuous. If I weren't limited even by time or the law of gravity, or my basic instincts, I wouldn't have freedom as we usually use the term. Instead, I am free by what I can freely do with what has been given to me already, by what I do with the genes I inherited, the memories I have that I didn't choose, and so on. I develop my freedom in the context of choices I can make, and limits I can't change. (Even dissent would be meaningless in a vacuum.)

Likewise, each of us becomes an individual by coming to know who we already are, including our inborn dispositions, the influences we have been subjected to, and our limited knowledge, and then seeking to expand our choices beyond these, to do more justice to our untapped potential. If individuality was the sort of thing that each of us already had at birth, it would be no more than having a unique set of genes. It would be the sort of null "individuality" that is ascribed to workers who are regarded as interchangeable.

The old view of humans as isolated rational minds is confining. If we believe it and act on it, we reduce ourselves to what we already are, and we block out what we have the potential to become. If we accept its vacuous notion of freedom and individuality as isolation, then we forfeit the chance to achieve real, substantial freedom. Perhaps paradoxically, we have much more room to create new choices and discover new potentials if we adopt the view that we are part of a greater whole.

E. We are part of a greater whole.

We already imply that we are a part of a greater whole whenever we offer respect to others. When we acknowledge that they are both present and different from us, we're acknowledging that reality doesn't begin and end with us and what little we know. However vast the world seems to each one of us, our own little universe of experiences is one corner of reality, and we can at least touch others, even if we can't directly share their experiences.

F. A few ramifications of the new paradigm:

This is just a brief sketch of the new paradigm I'm suggesting, but we can already draw a few ideas from it.

First, our own well-being is significantly increased by just allowing ourselves access to surroundings and creatures that haven't been already worked over by humans, that are as different from us as possible. For this reason, untouched and little-touched land should be left alone, as much as possible. Human artifacts from previous generations can also be valuable, both as expressions of different world views, and as giving us a sense of where we came from.

Regarding civil planning, residential lots would ideally have a high proportion of land to building-space, as they did when people relied on their own gardens and orchards. Our lot, one of the oldest in Golden and the smallest size available at the time, is narrow and surprisingly long. Our tiny house -- originally a worker's shack -- is close to the street, so there's plenty of room behind it. The area furthest back was reserved for the chicken coop and the outhouse. It was a remarkably efficient and beautiful use of space. And we probably won't get any more neighborhoods built on these proportions, since it's so economical. Developers get more money by building over as much of the ground as possible, even though the result is ugly, unpleasant, and alienating.

For kids to be raised in preprocessed new houses, in processed and planned neighborhoods and schools in which conformity and homogeneity are the norm, is a tragedy. They aren't learning much about the mysterious relation of respect that we discover by living in a matrix of differences. They aren't learning as much as they could about their influences, their limitations, their histories, in contrast to other possible influences and histories. Consequently, it'll be that much harder for them to recognize their tacit potential and all the choices available to them.

Second, in making plans for further working over the natural environment, we take into account the needs and purposes of other sentient creatures, as well as of humans. Raccoons, rats, bats, prairie dogs are their own little universes of experience and volitions, and we can't deny this without violating something in ourselves as well as them. Precisely how we take these into account will vary with each case. Serious human need pretty clearly trumps serious raccoon need -- at least it seems that way to all the humans I know. But slight human convenience, or an entrepreneur's gambling on a development project to be profitable -- I think we all really know that that's simply not acceptable. The people trying to convince themselves otherwise are usually tying themselves into knots denying and dealing with their incongruities. (How to justify good ol' Fido's vet bill without acknowledging the interests of those nasty little prairie dogs? Well, we just won't think about it, ha ha. Or: OK, Junior, so we're destroying the habitat of a lot of deer and elk. Well, aren't human jobs more important than a deer or an elk? OK, so the jobs are temporary anyway. Well, then, the laborers probably need the money all the more then! Even if I am just postponing the problem by trashing some fragile ecosystem, hey, the economic boom won't last forever, and we need to get some profit to see us through the bust. All the houses that'll be abandoned and given back to the mortgagers during the bust? Well, yea, but then the deer and elk can return and wait for the houses to rot. OK, I'm being irresponsible, but if I don't develop that property, somebody else is going to, anyway.)

Third, we can do justice to our friendships, our neighborhoods, our work associates, our histories. We are each far, far more than an interchangeable unit of "human resource" or "consumer." For example, by remaining loyal to our wonderful local merchants, we may be accepting a slightly smaller choice of consumer commodities and slightly fewer bargains than by going to chains --- and this negligible inconvenience is a sin in terms of consumerism, a sin against the dollar. But we are also acting in our capacity as citizens, supporting our neighbors who own those shops and reinvest much of the profits locally, supporting our neighbors who work there and are paid decent wages and benefits, and supporting our town.

The central shift: We no longer conceive being an individual as being isolated, which is ultimately paralyzing, but instead we think of becoming a a person as developing initiative and learning to recognize and create new options in particular contexts. And we are no longer restricted to putting value only on things that we can dissect in our minds or on people whose actions we think we can predict. Instead, we can be enchanted by what is different from us, and requires our respect.

email Barbara Goodrich

Town Hall

Main Menu