Wonders of Nature

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 awake 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.

Will you partake of that wonder of Nature we call mind, to contemplate that wonder of Nature we call mind?

 

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Note:
(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.

3 thoughts on “Wonders of Nature”

  1. Thomas, mind and language are, I agree, wonders of nature. But I ask myself at times whether we regard them so highly in part because they are…well…us. They are what goes on inside us and, as you say, we like to talk and write about how we talk. But we don’t know what the inner experience of other living things is like. Other organisms, I believe, probably have versions of experiencing their essential self-sustaining processes. Winter is arriving quickly, and I wonder whether the crows in the barren trees, the hustling squirrels still fattening themselves up, and the tall trees themselves, streamlined to survive the winter storms–whether they don’t all experience some positive response, wordless flourishing, some rightness in their programmed actions and preparedness.

    When humans speculate about other species’ subjectivity, our words–though valuable otherwise–get in the way. I can’t use much more than blunt instruments like “experience,” “sense,” “respond,” and “probably.” Such terms point in the right direction, but barely.

    Thank you for stimulating the speculation.

    Brock Haussamen
    38by.blog

    Reply
    • Brock, Certainly we humans are biased towards things human, and it’s something to always be aware of in evaluations of the type my article makes. But I also think the idea that humans are just another animal is something of a naturalistic dogma, and I’m against dogma wherever I find it.

      The earth we inhabit is filled with highly organized entities. All of this variety can be classified under three different types: self-organization, which is characterized by there being no central plan; and two types of organization where there is a central plan, one where the plan is internal to the elements organized and the other where it is external.

      Entities that are self-organized include such things as galaxies and solar systems, ecosystems, and simple economic markets. The first type of organization with a plan includes all biological organisms, the central plan being the genetic instructions. The second type with a plan includes buildings, machines, and such things as the Library of Congress classification system.

      For all practical purposes, this last type of organization is exclusive to human beings. During the last couple hundred years, for better or worse, much of the inhabitable surface of this planet has come to be covered with items based on this type of organization. Thus in addition to being “just another animal,” we are also the loci of one of only three basic types of organization in this region of the universe. That’s rather wonderful.

      But note, the creativity of this type of organization is an extension of Nature’s creativity as much as self organizing ecosystems, or genetically organized organisms are. And that’s the point I’m really hoping to get across in my article here. Language provides the means to almost endless creativity, and that creativity is an extension of Nature’s originating creativity. A work of art is no less an example of Nature’s creativity than is a trillium or a peacock.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for the response. I certainly agree with your last point that if humans belong to the realm of Nature, so do our “products” such as art, a computer, the Library of Congress classification system. Also, your word choice–“extensions” of Nature’s creativity–offers a promising path for easing people’s discomfort with the notion of modern human culture as Natural.

    Brock

    Reply

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