When we talk about the wonders of Nature, we are likely to think of prominent geological features like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, notable plants and animals like the Giant Redwoods or the Bengal Tiger, or rare astronomical events like the appearance of a comet or a solar eclipse.
Here, I would like to suggest that the greatest “wonder of Nature” might be, for each of us, exceedingly close at hand. Perhaps the human mind is Nature’s most wonderful achievement (at least in this part of the Universe), along with those integral elements of mind: language and meaning. I won’t insist on this, but I do think it worth considering.
Calling the mind a wonder of Nature may seem a little odd. Western culture for ages has deemed the mind as something other than Nature; something from a different realm of being than Nature. Yet, for anyone who accepts a naturalistic view of the world, there is no justification for this dualism. What we call mind is an emergent property of the brain, the brain a biological phenomenon, and all things biological are a part of Nature. (In last week’s post, “Objective Value and Natural Morality,” Eric Steinhart provided us with a detailed exploration of how we can derive such obviously mental qualities as value and morality from simple natural principles.)
There are those who prefer not to talk of “mind” at all, but consider “real” only that which is fully objective. They prefer to talk about brains and nervous systems, things that one can see and feel with the senses. Mind is not something tangible to the senses. Yet, without mind, the senses are senseless. Mind may be an epiphenomena of the brain, but the only sense we have of “brain” is the one we have in our mind. Thus, I have no problem with the word “mind”.
Since the mind refuses to be an object, I will direct my discussion to its more objective products: language and meaning. But first I would like to point out the following: the practice of “mindfulness,” in addition to everything else one may say about it, is a direct engagement with this great wonder of Nature. We don’t need to travel anywhere to enjoy it. Even a person stuck in solitary confinement has this wonder present, if only they are mindful of it.
Language and Meaning
There is an old Chinese saying that “when you make an axe handle you have the model close at hand.” To understand this, it helps to know that at the time of this saying, a person would use an axe to carve a piece of wood into an axe handle. Thus he or she would be holding one axe handle even as they were making another. They had the model of an axe handle in their hand. Extolling the wonder of language brings this proverb to mind, for similarly the means of extolling language is with the very thing being extolled.
Language comes so easily to us that it is easy to forget what an incredible skill we possess in its use. Is it not a wondrous thing that with a mere 26 letters (in English) and a roughly similar number of sounds, we can create tens of thousands of distinct words each conveying one or a few meanings (the 1998 O.E.D. contains 171,476 words in current usage). Combining these words with relatively few rules of syntax and grammar, we can create sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books, through which we can express a near infinity of different descriptions and thoughts.
This is somewhat analogous to the phenomena of biology, where roughly 20 amino acids can form into hundreds of thousands of proteins in endless combinations, which form into the cells, tissues, organs and organisms which make up the great diversity of living creatures found on our planet. An old religious text called the diversity of living creatures “God’s ideas.” A good metaphor, though I’d prefer to say “Nature’s ideas.”
In the twentieth century, the topic of language and meaning dominated philosophy and much of the humanities. During the later part of the century, semiology, the study of sign systems and how they give rise to meaning, was the hip new topic on college campuses, particularly in Europe. But even with all that attention paid, just how language gives rise to meaning, meaning gives rise to language, and the two together awaken a simple conscious awareness into full-fledged consciousness – all this remains mysterious.
We humans live in a world of meanings. Imagine walking out in the world having lost all sense of what anything means, any connection between things and words, any sense of whether things are safe or dangerous, even of what the words “safe” and “dangerous” mean. Rather unsettling. From our earliest youth, the things of the world have been clothed in words and meanings. This “clothed” world, this world that can be put into words, is the one we are familiar with. We live as much in this fabric of words and meanings as we do in an “objective” world.
One aspect of this “fabric of meanings” is the distinction between subject and object, between our self as a beholder and that which is beheld. Another is the distinction between mind and nature.(1) Calling mind a “wonder of Nature” is meant to challenge both of these distinctions, to challenge us to rend this old fabric of meanings and stitch together a new one. One in which Nature is the sole process generating both the external cosmos and the little cosmos that each of us experiences in our mindfulness.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
(1) When I use the word “nature” in the dualistic sense of something other than human, I use the lower case “n”. When I use it in the sense of that which is all-inclusive, I use the upper case.