Posts Tagged ‘‘nature’’

Alchemy

June 19, 2017

Alchemy was an art of all kinds of transmutation and ‘perfection’: of metals, human bodies, souls, agriculture, pottery, politics and so on.

Those alchemists working on metals, usually attempted to transform Mercury, rather than lead, into gold. The lead is a popular story and I’m not sure when it originated. However, the mercury may not be what we call mercury, it is the ‘Mercury of the Philosophers’ which is something completely different but like mercury…. alchemy is confusing in that way.

As many people are aware, Isaac Newton was an alchemist and spent far more effort on alchemy and biblical interpretation than on physics which was simply a sideline. Some have argued that alchemy was important in supporting Newton with the otherwise unpopular idea of action at a distance. Robert Boyle and lots of other members of the original Royal Society were also alchemists, although Newton was the most traditional of all of them and incredibly secretive about what he was doing – as he was with everything. The others tended to exchange notes and procedures.

I have read of people using nuclear reactors to do transmutation of the elements but ,as everyone notes, that is way too expensive at the moment – although it can be taken as demonstrating that alchemy is possible ūüôā

There are alchemists operating today doing the work on metals, although they seem to be more interested in medical alchemy than gold making. There are also those who see alchemy as more of a psychological or spiritual procedure.

This psychologizing has a surprisingly long history but, while it simplifies, it basically arises because alchemists generally did not see a difference between interior work and exterior work. Everything was connected, the change in the alchemist was as important as the change in the material, and the two were linked. Everything was mutable. Psychologising also serves the function of explaining why any particular alchemist did not make the transmutation, and further explained and justified the altered states of consciousness that arise through inhaling and tasting various substances and concentrating on being a human thermostat for weeks on end. It may also be true of course ūüôā

However, separating the spirit work into its own domain becomes more usual during and after the 17th century. By the late 19th century it was often considered that work on the spirit was the secret of alchemy, probably because it became increasingly difficult to see spirit and matter as related.

More interestingly, Carl Jung argued that Western alchemical symbols arose as a kind of collective dream, acting as compensations for the kind of psyche produced by official Christianity. If that is the case, then alchemy can, even today, act as a map of psychological transformation – what he called individuation. James Hillman expanded on this, pointing out that alchemical symbols actually give us a very concrete embodied way of seeing, feeling and engaging with psyche.

I personally think that alchemical symbols can give us a way of thinking about transformations of all kinds, and that they are particularly useful for thinking about chaotic, complex and messy processes. But that is a subject for another blog post sometime.

How many people might die from climate change?

June 2, 2017

Sorry that is the sort of question which cannot be answered accurately.

Social systems, environmental systems and climate systems are complex systems which means they cannot be predicted in detail. All these systems will be interacting with different forms of landscape – such as low lying areas, loss of glaciers and water and so on. We need all of them to remain stable to make valid detailed predictions. All we can predict is the general trends, and these can be disrupted by rapid changes of state into new systems which may not be human friendly.

The trends are likely to be extreme. People will try and move from parts of the earth which become difficult to live in, because of temperature (heat stroke, heart failure, dehydration), lack of drinking water and sea level rise, and that will likely cause wars – in which people will die as well. The massive storms we have seen will cause deaths as well, as well as disrupt the balance and interconnection of social functioning which will produce more deaths. Destruction of agricultural stability will produce problems with food supply, which is likely to produce malnutrition, which makes people more vulnerable to the other effects. Tropical diseases will move into what have been temperate climates, as well as be carried by people movement. It is likely that those of us who live in temperate environments will have little resistance to these diseases. We may see some parts of the world which have previously been uninhabitable become open to human life and the great powers will compete over those areas, which is also likely to produce war and death.

We also keep polluting the oceans which will disrupt the climate and ecological systems. Many biologists think that ocean death is possible, this will mean we will lose most of our fish stocks, we may also lose oxygen supplies if the plankton die and we keep cutting down forests, although it is unlikely we will kill ourselves, this will also lessen resilience.

With pro-corporate policies which help corporations release chemicals pollution without much in the way of check we will also poison ourselves and the other creatures and plants we need to live. The results of these chemicals on bio-system evolution cannot be predicted at all…

Basically there are a whole heap of endangering ecological processes going on, of which climate change is only one. What the results of multiple chaotic disruptions will be is absolutely unpredictable. However, it can be predicted that normality is going and that many people will die as a result.

Is ‘sustainability’ impossible?

March 27, 2017

1) Human social systems and ecological systems are complex systems.

2) Complex systems are surprising and cannot be predicted in detail, especially over time, only by trend.

3) This means that the systems vary considerably over time. They are not always stable. Quite small actions, accidents or external events can affect the system significantly.

4) The ‘excess’ produced normally in a complex system is part of its resilience to accidents and internal or external variation.

5) If that excess is removed, then the system may become less resilient. There may be times when the excess is needed to make up a ‘natural’ loss of certain participants.

6) We tend to think of systems as sustainable with a fixed excess which can be removed for us to use.

7) Removing this excess in a fixed form renders the system less resilient and more prone to crash. If people keep extracting the same amounts without observing the system, then the system can be completely destroyed.

8) Maintaining ‘sustainability’ of this type, varies from impossible to extremely difficult.

Science and uncertainty….

March 3, 2017

Most forms of human knowledge are fallible.

Despite this, it may need to be recalled, that everything we know about the global despoliation of nature comes from scientific work.

It is scientific work that shows us that ‘nature’ is a vast set of interactive systems, essentially powered by the sun and, occasionally, by¬†global thermal energy.

It is science which shows us that we are dependent upon other people, that we share as part of our nature, and that we compete as part of our nature. The individual only exists because of the group. We are shaped by, and shape cultures (collective ideas, feelings and habits). We emerge from the collective interaction.

It is science that shows we are related to many other Terran life forms, and depend on the interactions of other life forms. It is science that shows us our bodies and minds are fractious colonies.

Science shows us that natural systems are inherently complex and unpredictable in detail. Natural systems are unstable and subject to contingency and accident. They eventually escape human ordering, although we can disrupt them.

Science shows us that eventually, at particular times, there are natural limits. It is capitalism and developmentalism which insist these limits can always be overcome, and hence are prone to lead to lead to disaster

Spirituality in the Anthropocene

February 26, 2017

I keep reading and hearing people saying, or implying, that what we need is a spiritual approach to fix the problems we face. I hear this a lot in the Depth Psychology community in particular.

I think this is fundamentally wrong. Spirituality is not automatically a solution, and ‘rationality’ is not always a problem. Human knowing is very often fallible, irrespective of its source, and this should be remembered, otherwise both spirituality and reason become props for the ego, its limitations and defence, rather than ways of accessing knowledge or relatedness.

The¬†potential problems¬†with spirituality¬†seem as important to me, in terms of our ecological problems, as is the use of science or technology to ‘control’ nature.

For example, in Western and many other traditions, spirituality has been used to deny the reality of nature, or used as a means to get out of nature or to diminish nature. Christianity and Islam have both taught that our true life is elsewhere. It is not in nature. Nature is a snare, at best a distraction to be mastered. Reality is found after death.

Intensely spiritual people can believe and intuit strongly that everything is in the hands of God, and that humans can do nothing to hurt the cosmos. They can be both calm and beautiful as they destroy the world. They could for example, think it is their duty to cut down forests and destroy fertile fields to bring forth their temples, unaware of what they are doing, or even condemning those who protest as heretics or unspiritual. They can be passionately devoted to killing people or animals as sacrifices to the Gods.

Perhaps one of the most harmful ideas ever proposed, is the spiritual idea/experience usually associated with Plato, that the real is perfect and unchanging and not of this world. This may completely alienate people from any engagement with life and the natural world as it is, as that is constantly in flux, birth, death and decay. The acceptance of such an idea, and the spiritual practices around it, may mark our initial separation from Nature, and our attempts to control it rather than live with it.

There is nothing inherent in spirituality which leads to a beneficial interrelationship with natural processes. Spirituality can impose a hostile order on the world as much as any reason.

Similarly, while we may want to forget, war can be intensely a matter of spirituality. Not just for zen samurai, Vikings, Nazis, shaolin monks, warring Tibetan temples, jihading Muslims, Crusading Christians, and Aztec warriors gathering sacrificial prisoners, but to ordinary people who may frequently tell you that they felt more alive, more connected and more meaningful when the war was on. Not all people feel this way, of course, some live in terror and die in agony. However, this aspect of spirit should not be forgotten.

People can see¬†the position put forward here as an attack on valuable experiences. However, I want to suggest that ‘peak experiences’ or ‘spiritual experiences’ have little to do with ‘spirituality’. They are, in some ways, frequently ‘mundane’, they seem to happen irrespective of whether a person is particularly spiritual or not. They might imply connection, or simply the sheer strange presence of something different from yourself. Spirituality has little to do with this, and is more like a theory of everything or an approach to the world.

Whatever it is, spirituality is often assumed to be good, and in opposition to whatever is bad Рmany people seem very confident of that. Indeed, contemporary spirituality is often defined by opposition. It is opposed to logos, it is not science, it is not reason, it is not materialism. People also seem to assume that logos, reason and so forth have the dominant position in the world, and are therefore responsible for the destruction we observe. However, even a brief look at our politics should lead to that particular theory being cast aside. Reason, whatever its failings, is not even vaguely dominant. If it was then we would be seeing some attempts to deal with climate change. Science is largely captive to State and commercial interests.

Given the oppositions people set up, it becomes too easy for spiritually aligned people to say science is the problem, and spirituality is the solution, when they may well be both parts of the problem and solution. The Sacred and the Profane are perhaps not separate… Personally I was relieved to discover that anthropologists decided this distinction was not present in many societies.

Historically, spirituality has grown up alongside (and with) logos, science, materialism, reason; and similarly they grow out of it. As mutually dependent, both ‘sides’ are as responsible for our problems as anything else.

Jungians might be expected to sit with these opposites, rather than to declare one side responsible for harm and the other good. We might find that both are necessary, to correct the other, or we might find that we discover something new.

Souls, Cyborgs and Symbiotes

January 3, 2017
I’ve been reading Donna Haraway again and that leads to certain reflectionsThe three terms – ‘souls’, ‘cyborgs’ and ‘symbiotes’ seem to summarise different approaches towards the body and the world, and I suggest that the idea of ‘symbiotes’ suggests a fruitful way of acting towards the ourselves and the world, which could provide a better framework for problem solving and general understanding

‘Soul’, as the term is usually used, implies that everything important (or eternal) about the human is separated from, and independent of, the material world. Usually with this theory the world and the body are obstacles to the perfection of the soul, distractions at best, to be dominated or despised in any case. The body and nature tend to be seen in terms of ‘their’ unholy demands and needs, even as inherently hostile. They must be shut up, shut down or disciplined. Death opens the way to freedom, as the world is a prison and punishment

In this theory, the soul seems usually to be assumed to be what I’ll call ‘the ego’, clear conscious thought untroubled by the world, independent of all physics. The “I am”. Things that disrupt the imagined perfection and singularity of the soul are usually held to stem from the flesh… sex, hunger, pain, disease and so on.

Oddly, there is plenty of Christian theology which suggests that humans are trinities (soul, spirit and flesh) not binaries. However these variants easily get lost despite the importance of their writers (St Paul, Augustine etc). Furthermore, the idea of the resurrection of the dead implies that God wants us to be a body, so bodies could be holy. Other religions are equally flesh despising: *some* forms of Hinduism and Buddhism for example. Christianity is not altogether to blame for this situation.

Some post Jungians (Hillman, Moore etc) use the term ‘soul’ to emphasise the mystery of the psyche, its messiness, and the importance of image and feeling; but it is probably never a good idea to use a familiar term for an unfamiliar meaning, as the old meanings can come through implicitly. I’d prefer to stay with Jung’s ‘psyche’, as that is much now a rarer word and can be given precisely these connotations and does not have to make claims to immortality or purity of some sort or other.

The cyborg idea seems to derive from soul tradition. In it, the human, is independent of any particular body. It can be downloaded into machinic immortality. The body becomes a tool to be engineered or altered to have new capacities, subject to the demands of the ego. Nature has no independent rights. “Pave the earth” seems a cyborg slogan.

Cyborg theory like soul theory, implies that intelligence can be disembodied (‘light’) or unaffected by embodiment. Yet, it seems reasonably obvious (assuming evolutionary theory) that all intelligence must have developed to deal with ‘real world situations’, and these include the exploratory capacities of bodies, interaction between bodies, and the range of sensory inputs available.

This does not mean that intelligence is transparent and accurately perceives the world, just that it has been good enough to solve the problems of previous evolutionary paths (not necessarily the problems of future or current paths).

Haraway, as I’ve argued elsewhere, used the cyborg manifesto to argue against a ‘goddess feminism’ that stripped women of technology and idealised nature, but she got caught in the soul trap of cyborgism. She has over the last 10 or so years, revised her metaphor to talk of companion species, or of symbiotes.

Her point is, that in a ‘natural’ world people depend on other creatures and ecologies, they exist along with other beings/events. We have relationships with pets and other animals. Sometimes deep relationships, relationships of unknown complexity and mutuality, even with predators. Bodily, we are composed of cellular and sub cellular life forms existing in colonies. Our mind is multiple, composed of many functions acting together and apart. There is no clear point of ego; mind exists in the circumstances, or contexts, of its existence; it is not separate but dependent. We are part of greater social intelligences as well. Everything is diffuse with strange boundaries. This does not mean that we, and others, cannot try and enforce boundaries to protect ourselves, that too is ‘natural’, but it is hard, sometimes self-destructive,¬†and not always necessary.

This realisation is important for the way we relate to our bodies and nature. In soul theory bodies are only¬†slaves, obstructions, or illusions. The normal mode of response in this framework, is to despise them, and drive them to labour under the dominance of someone’s ego.

In cyborg theory, nature, the self and the body is a tool to be exploited, and abandoned when it fails the utilitarian demands of the ego – again labour is the metaphor and relationship.

In symbiote theory, we depend on our body and the world. That body and world has its own multiple intelligences and imperatives. It does not always do what we want (what we want may be incorrect, we may need to talk with and learn from our obstacles. ‘The body’ may have its own paths to healing, it may rebel intelligently against our slave-driving or our enforced refusal of relationship).

At worst our body is like a pet; we can love it and pet it, relate to it, look after it (as it looks after us). We can treat it with respect as a symbiote, a fellow creature, and we open ourselves to relationships of many kinds, not just labour.

Most pet owners will probably treat their pets better than they treat their bodies. Perhaps they should extend that affection, love and care to ‘their’ bodies and the world, and see what happens?

It will be hard and will take time, but this might be an idea which transforms everything.