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In Context #1 (Spring, 1999, pp. 3-5); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

A Way of Knowing as a Way of Healing
Stephen L. Talbott

What, you ask, is The Nature Institute? Good question. We've made repeated attempts to write the definitive, once-for-all mission statement, and somehow the essence of the thing always slips through the gaps between the words. This, of course, isn't really surprising, since The Nature Institute is a living, developing enterprise. As long as this remains true, it will escape every effort we make to capture it "once for all."

Nevertheless, the effort to catch the vision as best one can is a healthy one. What follows is certainly not a definitive statement. It is merely the first of what will probably be a continuing series of reflections in which we look at The Nature Institute's commitments and activities from different angles.

Entrenched Habits

Throughout this past century many have sought a new, more contextual, holistic, and participative science, in which the observer is cognitively and ethically united with the object of observation. This desire to overcome the alienation inherent in a fragmented, mechanistic view of the world has turned up everywhere from systems science to complexity studies to "new age" endeavors, and has spawned countless interdisciplinary programs at colleges and universities. The rhetoric of wholeness confronts us on all hands.

And yet, the alienation from nature and community runs deep in our culture. The massive funding, agenda-setting, and research institutions of mainstream science continue to pursue a compartmentalized and one-sidedly quantitative knowledge aimed at little more than effective manipulation of the world. The overwhelming testimony of science and technology, borne in upon us from all sides, is that we and all other living organisms are mechanisms, suitable to be tinkered with in the name of abstract, quantitative "values" such as efficiency.

Clearly, achieving a new science will not be an easy task, even if the world's health and survival depend upon it. Among other things, the habits of thought we have acquired over the past several hundred years stand in the way. They encourage us to seek effective manipulation rather than understanding -- in other words, blind power. They substitute analyzable fragments for contexts and wholes. By narrowing our awareness to matters of instrumentality, they make us subject to unconscious and destructive drives. They blind us to the qualities of our own lives and the qualities we are imparting to the world.

It was with the challenge of these habits of thought in mind that the founders of The Nature Institute articulated the following statement:

Nature around us is whole and interconnected. Though we are part of nature, we do not yet fathom nature's depths, and our actions do not embody her wisdom. A fundamental shift in our way of viewing the world is necessary, if we would contribute to nature's unity rather than dissolution. At The Nature Institute we seek ways of knowing and doing that are fashioned after nature's own wholeness. Science becomes a participatory dialogue with nature, wherein each phenomenon finds its unique, contextual expression.

A New Practice

At The Nature Institute we believe that science can evolve toward a genuine holism. The demands this places upon the researcher, however, are exceedingly great:

An attention to qualities. To read nature, rather than merely to manipulate it, is to reckon with its qualities. It is through their qualities -- not the mutual exclusiveness of their abstracted "elements" -- that things declare their distinctive nature and relate to each other. While measurement can be automated and made easy, the reading of qualities cannot. The scientific researcher must gain the sensitivity and discrimination of an artist.

The exploration of context. If nature around us is whole and interconnected, then every investigation opens outward without predefined limit. The expressive qualities of things -- like the words in a sentence -- mutually interpenetrate and influence each other. They are each an expression of an encompassing whole, and therefore can lead one back to the whole from which they arose. Every phenomenon can only be understood in its context.

An inescapable ethical commitment. A nature that is qualitative, expressive, and whole is a nature ensouled. It is a nature that addresses us, a nature we must engage in conversation. As in all conversation, the ethical element is always present, and is not something just tacked on at the end by asking, "What shall we do with the result of this conversation?" The conversation itself -- in field and laboratory -- expresses our ethical respect or disrespect for nature.

A new kind of objectivity. Every scientist must learn to be rigorous and objective in his or her judgments. But this is not so easy once we have rediscovered our ties of kinship with, and responsibility for, nature. It is always tempting to yield to mere sentiment or wishful thinking, and to mistake one's own soul for the soul of nature. So the demands for clear judgment and knowledge of self are much greater for the holistic than for the conventional researcher. As Owen Barfield once remarked, "Any reasonably honest fool can be objective about objects." But it's a different matter when, having experienced ourselves in the world and the world in ourselves, we must nevertheless distinguish our purely individual, subjective tendencies from the surrounding life of the world.

Bearing these responsibilities in mind, The Nature Institute seeks to provide a home for the practice of a qualitative, contextual science; to encourage other researchers in the pursuit of such a science; to cultivate holistic science education; and to present the new science to a larger public through lectures, publications, workshops, and courses.

Original source: In Context (Spring, 1999, pp. 3-5); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: A Way of Knowing as a Way of Healing

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