Saturday, March 07, 2009

Tree Hugger

“Tree Hugger” has pejorative connotations; a tree hugger isn't in step with the economic program. Over the weekend I went to a party in an urban neighborhood. Pittsburgh is a hilly place and because of the geography neighborhoods are often little enclaves. Behind this house are two paper streets on paper, but never developed because there was mining underneath years ago and the danger of subsidence made building untenable. So in my friend's back yard and beyond is an urban forest. Dominating the view is a huge Black Locust tree, a fairly common native species here. I've never seen a more perfect specimen.

The tree inspired awe and affection in me, and my gushing about it among other things prompted a friend to remark about me approximately:
“You say you don't believe in God, but you tell stories like this. Sooner or later don't you think the stories fit together in a pattern that belies your profession 'There is no God?'”
Posts at Keith Hart's blog The Memory Bank are always though provoking. Hart is anthropologist and looks closely at economics through that lens. In his recent post about speculation in the art market, Hart writes:
My favourite definition of religion is Durkheim’s, the attempt to build meaningful bridges between the known and the unknown, between everyday life and the disasters that lie in wait for all of us, especially death.
In my study of the human and behavioral sciences, way back my early days in college, I became increasingly sure there was a fundamental problem about them, a rather philosophical problem about how we think about objects and subjects. Identifying the problem in this way points to the territory Durkheim stakes out for religion: building meaningful bridges between the known and unknown. And turns attention towards the meaningful bridges between knower and known.

Anyhow, about this sense that there's something fundamentally missing in the human studies, the work of Gregory Bateson has provided me with a reference and a guide since my college days in the 1970's. He was British and trained in British school, but worked during his career in the United States. He was an anthropologist, and also in on the beginnings of the development cybernetics.

The issue I'm dancing around goes by many names which are pairs; partial listing of pairs would include: mind/body, form/substance, subject/object. German philosophers had much to say about the topic of these pairs and their relations; American and British philosophers too. Bateson was a bit idioscyratic in the ways he talked about everything. When it comes to this general subject, partly his way of talking has to do with the British and American schools of philosophy, and part his unique insights.

Stewart Brand's inspiration for the first Whole Earth Catalog were the writings and ideas of Buckminster Fuller. Gregory Bateson the inspiration for the Whole Earth Epilog. It's hard to imagine today that catalogs printed on newsprint would be influential to a generation of Americans, but these were indeed. Yet I've never really met anyone much interested in Gregory Bateson. Among those I've talked to interested in the problem of human studies have been more steeped in German philosophy or various stripes of post-modernism. It seems people come to the topic of objects and subjects with very different frames with particular vocabularies. Whenever I bring up Bateson, I seem to get into a muddle.

In thinking about “Why Buddhism?” an observation that Bateson makes in the introductory chapter of his book Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity seems important. Bateson wrote:
I hold to the presupposition that our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity was, quite simply, an epistemological mistake...

A part of the stroy of our loss of the sense of unity has been elegantly told in Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being, which traces the story from classical Greek philosophy to Kant and the beginnings of German idealism in the eighteenth century. This is the story of the idea that the world is/was timelessly created upon deductive logic. The idea is clear in the epigraph from The City of God. Supreme Mind, or Logos, is at the head of the deductive chain. Below that are the angels, then people, then apes, and so on down to the plants and stones. All is in deductive order and tied into that order by a premise which prefigures our second law of thermodynamics. The premise asserts that the "more perfect" can never be generated by the "less perfect."
I found online a page of a handout for a philosophy class taught by Peter Suber. Suber has organized the claims of the great chain of being to show how they fit together to form a single large argument.

Bateson points out that in the history of Biology that Lamark was the first to invert the great chain of being. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is mostly known for Lamarkian errors of the heritability of acquired characteristics. Nevertheless Lamarck's theory of "tranformism" presaged Darwin's theory of evolution. Bateson was concerned with epistemology, a branch of philosophy which deals with the theory of knowledge. He was interested that what he said contained fewer epistemological errors. He doesn't follow the logical argument of the great chain of being, nor an inverted form. Rather he points to them to show a hierarchic structure of thought. Steeped in Anglo-British philosophy he relies on Bertrand Russell's Theory of Logical Types.

A sort of a recap of my recent ramblings over my last few posts:

A friend who is very knowledgeable wrote a proposal to do a session at the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions on Buddhist economics. She opened up the process of making the proposal online. I wrote some of my thoughts about it, but they didn't come together. So I thought to break my writing into parts here to see whether I could get the parts to hang together better. I began this with the post Why Buddhism?

I mentioned a post at Religious Dispatches about America's oldest man, as well as E.F. Schumacher's essay "Buddhist Economics." Two anecdotes don't make a trend, but it seemed enough to frame a question why Christians would use Buddhism to explain something. While I am genuinely curious about this, posing the question really was rhetorical, a means to begin speculating wildly. I don't know much so clearly anything I say falls into the "for what it's worth category."

For what it's worth, my hunch is part of the reason why Christians turn to Buddhism to explain something has to do with skirting around the deductive logic of the great chain of being.

In religion and philosophy distinctions are of great importance, so it takes a great deal of skill and study to negotiate these areas. About how we think and how we make are lives meaningful are questions everyone ponders and have something to say about. When discussions about religion and philosophy come up there's a tension between insisting on important distinctions and a spirit of tolerance which enables conversation across differences.

I know my friend Linda Nowakowski, who's deeply immersed in the study of Buddhist economics is very careful about making distinctions. And she very much people with differencing views to speak to each other, hence the effort to make a proposal for the Council for a Parliament of World's Religions.

Economics like other human studies has to contend with the problem of subject and object. That's a problem religions address too. The intersection of interest around this problem makes me want to persist in laying out my views, even when I see that my writing isn't making much sense, and is boring. For better or worse I plan to explore this line of thinking in future posts.

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