- Published: April 12, 2018 April 12, 2018
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Plato famously spoke of of natural philosophers carving nature at its joints, likening how they divide nature up to the decisions a butcher must make of which joints in a carcase to sever to best dismember it. If the study of evolution passes from science to the humanities, how can we expect them to carve nature up in order to make more sense of it? Does the agency responsible for evolution consist solely of physical processes acting on elemental matter, or should we include in what evolves a consciousness that's not altogether physically determined, that may be genuinely creative? Are we, as the Stoics believed, minature reproductions of the agency responsible for evolution so what is true of us is likely to be true of that agency as well? Or do the various limbs of nature that lie between its joints bear no relation to one another at all, so what we discover about one limb tells us nothing about any of the others?
This takes us far beyond the reach of the methods of today's science. So what else is there? In this section of the site I explore using methods of the humanities--fiction and armchair speculation. How successful are my confections? I think the test is simply, how good do they taste? Do we recognize ourselves in them? Is that the best we can do? It may be centuries before science, following along behind us, can surge ahead and confirm our speculations. Meanwhile, each of us has a life to live, as best we can, guided by the best principles we know of.
The first three pages in this section, as I write, are linked. The first divides nature into five limbs, characterizing them as five creations. The second is a story involving our relation primarily to the first three of those creations. The third is a consideration of what it is we're most ignorant of--life and mind. The fourth consists of speculation about the sources of our experiences of conscious human being--that is, the experience of being, conditioned by our being human and conscious--and what it "means." Finally, at the time of writing this, comes a time travel fantasy that allows us to compare the potential of a humanities' approach to what science seems likely to deliver, which from its progress over the past century isn't very much.
Does this mean, anything goes? What distinguishes the humanities from art alone, in my opinion, is their ability to combine creativity with discipline. The outcome could be a new religion, but that needn't be so bad. That may be, for our lifetimes at least, the best way available to us of conceiving of our place in nature.
WHY ORIGIN STORIES
From "Come, Tell me How You Live" by Agatha Christie, about her time with her anthropologist husband on a dig in Syria.
A party of women are coming from the distance towards me. By the gaiety of their coloring they are Kurdish women. They are busy digging up roots and picking leaves. They make a beeline for me. Presently they are sitting round me in a circle.
Kurdish women are gay and handsome. They wear bright colors. These women have turbans of bright orange round their heads, their clothes are green and purple and yellow. Their heads are carried erect on their shoulders, they are tall, with a backward stance so they always look proud. They have bronze faces, with regular faces, red cheeks, and usually blue eyes...
In this part of the world Kurdish and Arab villages are about equal in number. They lead the same lives and belong to the same religon, but not for a moment could you mistake a Kurdish woman for an Arab woman. Arab women are invariably modest and retiring; they turn their faces away when you speak to them; if they look at you, they do so from a distance. If they smile, it is shyly, and with half-averted face. They wear mostly black or dark colors. And no Arab woman would ever come up and speak to a man! A Kurdish woman has no doubt that she is as good as a man or better! They come out of their houses and make jokes to any man, passing the time of day with the utmost amiability...
My Kurdish women this morning are examining me with frank interest and exchanging ribald comments with each other. They are very friendly, nod at me, ask questions, then sigh and shake their heads as they tap their lips. They are clearly saying: "What a pity we cannot understand each other!" They take up a fold of my skirt and examine it with interest; they pinch my sleeve. They point at the mound. I am the Khwaja's woman? I nod. They fire off more qiuestions, then laugh at the realization that they cannot get answers. No doubt they want to know all about my children and my miscarriages.
They try to explain to me what they do with the herbs and plants they are picking. Ah, but it is no good! Another great burst of laughter breaks out. They get up, smile, and nod and drift off, talking and laughing. They are like great gay-colored flowers. They live in hovels of mud, with perhaps a few cooking pots as all their possessions, yet their gaiety and laughter are unforced. They find life good, with a Rabelaisian flavor. They are handsome, and full-blooded and gay.
My little Arab girl passes, driving the cows. She smiles at me shyly, then quickly averts her eyes...
[About death and honor.] Accustomed as we are to our Western ideas of the importance of life, it is difficult to adjust one's thoughts to a different scale of values. And yet to the Oriental mind it is simple enough. Death is bound to come--it is as inevitble as birth, whether it comes early or late is entirely at the will of Allah. And that belief, that acquiescence, does away with what has become the curse of our present-day world--anxiety. There may not be freedom from want, but there is certainly freedom from fear.
[In retrospect] I love that gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and enjoy life; who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of huimor, and to whom death is not terrible.
What makes the difference? Largely, origin stories, I say. That is why I care about them, and why I ask you to too. And principal among origin stories in our time is how we evolved.