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Can We Learn to Think Like a Plant?

Stephen L. Talbott


This chapter is part of a work in progress and is subject to continual revision. Date of last revision: July 5, 2005. The chapter was originally published in NetFuture #164. Copyright 2005 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter for noncommercial purposes only.


Perhaps never in the history of the world has so vast a project yielded such overwhelming benefits at such a terrible cost. The technological products of our massively institutionalized science are such visible and effective instruments of power that few would question the essential rightness of this science as an inquiry into the nature of the world. And yet, thanks to this same science we find ourselves increasingly alienated from the world and bereft of any sense of human understanding. What understanding we are offered derives primarily from instruments and, as data, passes straight from the instruments to computational machines fitter than we to cope with it.

The technological benefits of this science hardly need defending. On the other hand, we find no clarity, no consensus, and in fact precious little discussion about what it might mean to understand the world. The crucial notion of scientific or causal explanation is almost nothing but confusion. My aim in this and subsequent essays will be to clarify some of this confusion as best I can.

Where Does Unity Reveal Itself?

We must start somewhere, so consider the field buttercup (Ranunculus acris), whose leaves are shown below in Figure 1. Here I will draw heavily upon a discussion offered by the late philosopher, Ronald Brady (1987). Brady was a leading expositer of what is often called "Goethean science" (and what I prefer to call "qualitative science").


Buttercup leaf sequence

      Figure 1. Sequence of buttercup leaves.

What you see, from lower left, clockwise around the circle to lower right, is a sequence of leaves taken from a single buttercup plant. The leaf at lower left appeared first and lowest on the stem, with the others appearing successively higher in the order shown.

Give yourself time to experience the series repeatedly, moving from one leaf to the next, both forward and backward. You should do this until you can, in imagination, provide a smooth series of transitional forms between any two leaves. Through this process you cannot help experiencing the entire series as a unity.

But here already we are in trouble if we remain within the frame of conventional science. The term "unity" suggests some sort of reality spanning the gaps between material leaves, or hovering over them so as to constitute the many as one. But what could this reality consist of? Whatever it consists of, we can say this: the unity that binds material things or phenomena together cannot itself be just another material thing or phenomenon.

Unity as a Movement

But perhaps, keeping your eyes fixed on the material leaves, you will say that the unity consists of what the leaves all have in common -- something we can abstract from the series. Just about the only candidate for this commonality, however, is a three-part (trifoliate) schema, and such a schema is compatible with an unlimited variety of radically different leaf sequences, none of which need be very much like the buttercup. So by itself the schema hardly gives us a key to the distinctive unity we so clearly recognize in this particular species. Nor (which is the same thing) does it elucidate the character of the transformation from one leaf to the next.

None of this is any surprise. Clearly, what the leaves have in common cannot by itself enable us to understand the movement from one leaf to a different leaf. Differences are not a matter of commonality.

Brady suggests that the starting point for understanding must be the progression itself, not the fixed forms of the individual leaves. In an initial (and necessarily unsatisfactory) attempt to describe the progression of the buttercup series in words, we might say that its first half shows a successive enlargement, or expansion, of the leaf and an elongation of the separate parts as the leaf becomes more intricately articulated. In the second half of the series we see a general contraction along with an ever more severe, and at the same time more simplified, articulation. But we can already glimpse something of this later movement in the first half of the series, before it overwhelms the expansive tendency. And the different aspects we have tried to describe are in fact caught up within a single, complex-but-seamless gesture that we can capture only imaginally.

But in representing such a progression imaginally, are we taking hold of a reality we can work with in any practical way?

Suppose we had viewed the sequence with one of the leaves missing, and then were given the leaf and told to place it wherever we thought it belonged. Brady describes the process this way:

The movement we are thinking would, if entirely phenomenal, be entirely continuous, leaving no gaps. Thus as gaps narrow, the impression of movement is strengthened, and the technique by which a new form can be judged consists in placing that form within one of the gaps or at either end of the series and observing the result. When the movement is strengthened or made smoother the new form may be left in place. But if the impression of movement is weakened or interrupted, the new form must be rejected. Thus the context of movement is itself a criterion by which we accept or reject new forms.

Read that last sentence again; it is central. The unifying element we were looking for is nothing other than the movement by which membership in the series can be determined. This is the element that all the individual leaves participate in. It is not so much a given thing they have in common as something they all do, each one entering into the same, overall gesture in its own place and distinctive way.

A willingness to deal with change or movement as such -- to deal with movement in its own terms -- is an essential feature of any qualitative science. And it requires a new kind of thinking. Brady remarks that "the impression of 'gradual modification' cannot depend any more on what each form has in common with its neighbors than upon what it does not share with them. Change demands difference, and continuous change, continuous difference". That is, we can "see" the movement from one form to the next only by virtue of a characteristic "distribution of sameness and difference between them". This dynamic context alone is what brings out the lawful relation between forms.

To make the matter more vivid, consider the two leaves shown below.

Two buttercup leaves

        Figure 2. Two buttercup leaves.

If you had seen only these at the beginning, you might well have assumed they came from entirely different plants. But after you have worked through the sequence, both forward and backward, bringing it into continuous movement in your imagination, you can see these two leaves within the context of that movement, and they will no longer seem unlike. They will, as Brady remarks, "bear a distinct resemblance to each other, and bear it so strongly ... that the impression arises that they are somehow the same form. Here is the intuited 'single form' of the series, but it cannot be equated with anything static".

The Primacy of Movement

We need to press our consideration of the buttercup just a little further.

As we have seen, no individual form in the leaf series can give us the difference between forms or the character of the overall transformation. Brady comments that "The movement is not itself a product of the forms from which it is detected, but rather [it is] the unity of those forms, from which unity any form belonging to the series can be generated. Individual forms are in this sense 'governed' by the movement of the series in which they are found".

So there are two, very different ways we can think of a leaf in the series. One is as a given "thing" -- a fixed form considered as an isolated, static, and material end-product. Seen in this conventional light, the leaf cannot serve as a revelation of the movement or unity we have recognized. The isolated leaf, so far as its given form is concerned, could just as well be part of a different sequence, entirely unlike the buttercup.

In other words, there is no necessity, implicit in a static end-product, for a generative movement of a particular sort. The only necessity we find in our leaf sequence is an expression of the movement itself, which is capable of generating particular forms out of its own nature. When we think of the leaf in this second way -- in the context of a transformative movement with a power to generate particular forms of a particular imaginal character -- then we no longer have the leaf as a mere thing. The image of the single leaf, Brady writes, "becomes transparent to the whole 'gesture' -- which it now seems to express". As we saw when we looked at just two leaves isolated from the sequence, they can appear either unrelated or as expressions of a unity, depending on whether we see them as mere objects or as momentarily frozen gestures of a continuous movement. In the latter case,

The individual leaf now appears to be "coming from" something as well as "passing to" something, and by so doing represents to our mind, more than itself -- it can no longer be separated from its before and after. Indeed, its only distinction from these moments lies in the conditions of arrest -- that is, we see it "caught in the act" of becoming something else .... Each visible form now emerges as partial, and becomes a disclosure of another sort of form.

Or, as he also puts it, each leaf "is becoming other in order to remain itself". It has to be becoming other; given that it is in fact a manifestation of a movement, it can retain its identity only so far as it is itself seen to be in movement. Every leaf is now representative of all the others in the series because each is born of the same movement. This is how the two forms of Figure 2 manage to look alike.

This means that the difference between two leaf-forms is required if we are to see the kind of unity at issue here. If in Figure 2 we had two identical forms, we would be able to say nothing about any unity or generative movement. Mere sameness is not unity, and it cannot give us movement. This is why a science based on abstraction, whereby we abstract from things their sameness -- what they have in common -- cannot deal with the various sorts of dynamic unity we find in the world's phenomena.

Finally, pattern and Gestalt have become popular terms today in some branches of science, but we need to distinguish these terms, as they are general employed, from the "movement" or "gesture" we have been considering here. Goethe summarizes the matter this way:

The German has the word Gestalt for the complex of existence of an actual being. He abstracts, with this expression, from the moving, and assumes a congruous whole to be determined, completed, and fixed in its character.

But if we consider Gestalts generally, especially organic ones, we find that independence, rest, or termination nowhere appear, but everything fluctuates rather in continuous motion. Our speech is therefore accustomed to use the word Bildung pertaining to both what has been brought forth and the process of bringing-forth.

If we would introduce a morphology, we ought not to speak of the Gestalt, or if we do use the word, should think thereby only of an abstraction -- a notion of something held fast in experience but for an instant. (Quoted in Brady 1987, p. 274)

What has been formed is immediately transformed again, and if we would succeed, to some degree, to a living view of Nature, we must attempt to remain as active and as plastic as the example she sets for us.

The Explanatory Power of the Whole

All this lands us in territory both familiar and strange to science. Everyone, with some inner, imaginative work, can recognize the coherent movement, or shaping potential, that engenders and unifies the leaf sequence. This is hardly esoteric stuff. But what sort of reality can be claimed for a movement or shaping potential we can recognize only between material leaf forms, and what do we mean when we say the movement governs the individual forms? Can we say in any legitimate sense that the movement accounts for or explains the forms -- or that it brings us scientific understanding of the buttercup?

To say any of this is to appeal to principles of understanding and explanation that stand behind or precede the phenomenal appearances they apply to. Brady is indeed invoking such principles when he speaks of "a law by which the plant produces its multiplicity of forms", and also of a "whole which designs its own parts". Contrary to our analytic habits, he says, we must learn to think from the whole to the parts. However, so far as we remain stuck in those usual habits, we can scarcely imagine the kind of immaterial unity at issue, and therefore we may object to the "obscurity" of all references to it.

The objection rings hollow. There is nothing particularly obscure about the structure of our cognitive activity in grasping the unity of the buttercup, as outlined above. We "see" this unity beyond any doubting, and it is dangerous to the health of science when we ignore what is right in front of us. Moreover, we have already noted (Talbott 2005) that the recognition of such unity is a routine, if underappreciated, experience of the scientist. For example, every biologist and every naturalist relies upon this irreducibly qualitative experience when identifying and classifying species.

Such recognition of unities that cannot be equated with any particular collection of physical things must be acknowledged by anyone who is not already shut off from the testimony of his own senses. A qualitative science does not posit some mystical and unknown source of insight. It simply refuses to ignore the routine powers of cognition prerequisite to all scientific analysis. After all, we cannot meaningfully analyze and divide unless we are first given a significant unity to analyze. If there is obscurantism here, it lies in the refusal to take a critical, investigative stance toward the starting place for all our scientific work. It lies in the willingness to build this work upon a kind of cognitive blank.

If we prefer to fill in this blank, we need to reckon with, among other things, the explanatory power of the dynamic unity observed in the leaf series. In a sense, the matter is so simple as to preclude argument. We see an overall gesture in the temporal unfolding of leaves on a plant. This gesture cannot be equated to any tangible object, and it clearly gives us a much fuller picture of the reality of the plant than any collection of tangible objects alone could possibly give us. The gesture expresses something of the character and unity of the plant that we can grasp no other way. It gives us the life and the becoming of the plant rather than isolated, frozen snapshots taken from that life. Do we really need to debate which approach captures more of the world's reality -- the snapshot or the underlying gesture that engenders and lives in all such snapshots?

The problem is that we have carried over from the nineteenth century an outmoded desire for explanation in terms of the impact of particle upon particle, gear upon gear, object upon object. More recently, as we saw in "The Vanishing World-Machine" (Talbott 2003), explanation has shifted toward the formalisms of logic, rule, equation, and algorithm. These two modes of explanation have tended to combine, so that we feel most securely possessed of understanding when we can picture machine-like objects whose "gears" and "levers" seem to be little more than condensations of logic -- when, in other words, we can picture the world in the way we picture a computer.

By comparison, the unity we observe in the leaves of the buttercup may suffer from all the vagueness and insubstantiality we associate with consciousness. It seems to be a a mere image held in our minds. It is more pictorial and imaginative than logical and computational. It does not readily lend itself to the action of gears or levers or transistors. To equate it with any particular physical object is, in fact, to lose it. Can such a pictorial idea manifesting in our consciousness contribute to a genuine understanding of the world?

But, crucially, the idea does not manifest only in our consciousness. After all, we recognized it in a series of leaves. It is the kind of idea botanists routinely encounter in the phenomena they deal with, and is required in order to make these phenomena intelligible. Where is the idea if not in the phenomena that demand it from any understanding mind?

Many scientists, of course, will stumble over the notion that what occurs to us as imaginative idea may occur in the world as well, where it acts as a kind of shaping power. "How", they will ask, "does a mere idea gain power to mold the physical world?"

Actually, our science of laws and causes points us toward nothing but such shaping power. I certainly do not wish to equate the lawfulness of gravity with the lawfulness of leaf transformation; they are very different sorts of lawfulness. But if the governing unity of the leaf series is not a physical thing, neither are the equations we identify with the law of gravity. The principles of order in both cases are neither more nor less than articulations of our conscious activity.

But the whole point of articulating these principles in our minds is to elucidate the phenomena we encounter. These principles either do or do not make the phenomena intelligible, and if they do, then they undeniably belong to the phenomena. And they cannot belong to the phenomena while residing solely in our heads.

Yes, the notion that imaginative contents have a power to shape the world is alien to modern sensibilities. But to find ourselves continually forced to draw, not only upon mathematics, but also upon dynamic images in our attempt to understand the world, and then to deny that, not only a mathematical shaping power, but also an imaginal shaping power is what we see at work in the world -- this requires a human being who is at war with himself. The only thing I know of that could drive one into this self-contradiction is the materialist's urgent need to avoid recognizing anything of an inner, living character in the objective world around us.

But you cannot really even have gravity except as (among other things) an imaginal power. It manifests itself in the characteristic forms of physical movement -- as when you throw a ball -- but makes use of no gears or transistors in playing its role. If you stop and think about it, you will find you have no more reason to ascribe explanatory power to the physicist's formulation of the gravitational law than to the governing gesture of the buttercup. This remains true despite the drastically different kinds of form evident in the two cases.

Intelligibility Comes from Within

A great deal needs to be said to enflesh these brief suggestions. For the moment I will conclude my comments with the barest sketch of some of the territory we will need to survey more fully, especially when we come to the epistemological underpinnings of a qualitative science.

What conventional science has done with the law of gravity is to make it so thin and abstract, so bloodless, so empty of content, that we can easily forget its true nature. But, however much we have emptied them of all but quantitative content, our gravitational equations remain nothing if not expressions of our mentality. Numbers and formal relations are not physical things. Ironically, the materialist who more and more sees the world in terms of equation, rule, and algorithm -- and who, like the philosopher Daniel Dennett, can say, for example, that evolution just is an algorithm -- has become a kind of airy idealist. His "physical" world is almost nothing but mentality -- and mentality of the most insubstantial sort.

But whether you consider this science of abstraction to be materialism or idealism, it remains largely vacuous for the simple reason that high abstractions have almost no content. I said a moment ago that we have no more reason to ascribe explanatory power to the usual formulation of the law of gravity than to the governing gesture of the buttercup. Actually, we have less reason to consider the gravitational law, in its usual formulation, explanatory. The problem is that we have no meaningful law of gravity so long as we take Newton's (or any later) equation in its strictly abstract and quantitative aspect. We have to have qualitative concepts of mass and force as well. Without these concepts, we might see objects moving along certain mathematically describable trajectories, but we would have no sense at all that each object was attracting or pulling the other.

Where do we get a concept of force? You will struggle in vain to find any origin for it other than in your own inner experience -- for example, the experience of exerting your will to move your muscles, and the experience of being drawn or compelled by the force of someone's personality. In such experience we find the prerequisites for our scientific thoughts about force even if we tend to ignore the experience while working with our equations. If Eddington had reckoned with this source of our scientific insight and had been able to integrate it into his science, he would not have had to say, as we heard in "Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen?" (Talbott 2004):

[Our knowledge of physics] is only an empty shell -- a form of symbols. It is knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All through the physical world runs that unknown content.... (1920, p. 200)

The only way to gain the unknown content is to cease neglecting the only content we are given, which is the inner content of our own experience. This experience is the primal source of any science, any knowledge of the world, we could possibly have. Eddington could find only empty structure because his science refused to acknowledge its reliance upon human experience or to recognize the human being as by far the most perfect "instrument" for perceiving the world -- the only one of our instruments capable of supplying the content from which all data is abstracted.

Returning the data to its original, qualitative context is, obviously enough, the only way it can become meaningful. And wrenching the data away from its context is, obviously enough, a formula for denaturing the world, and for reconstructing it in the image of a badly compromised human instrument -- compromised because abandoned from the neck down, leaving only our ability to emulate a computer.

Our choice, then, is not between remaining respectable, hard-headed materialists or else projecting fanciful, immaterial ideas upon the physical world. Rather, it is between projecting a drastically inadequate, anemic, abstract mentality upon the world (while forgetting that this is nevertheless a content of our own consciousness), or else discovering in ourselves the imaginative, muscular, aesthetically felt contents that can render the world more fully intelligible.

Why should we employ less than our full range of our conscious awarenesses when we try consciously to understand the world? Where does the world impose upon us the rule, "ignore everything but your capacity for measurement when you contemplate nature"? How can we forget that measurements mean nothing except so far as we know what we are measuring? And there is no what given except the quality. (Go ahead: try to describe any what you wish without resorting to qualities.)

We have seen with the buttercup a little bit of what it means to apprehend the qualities of things. A certain quality of the buttercup (we could also say: a certain meaning of the buttercup) is expressed in the gesturing of its leaves. To capture this gesturing we had to do inner work, bringing the gesture to life within ourselves. Our imagination had to be brought willfully into movement.

This effort of will, as a conscious work, is what we usually lack when thinking much too easily about gravity -- that is, when manipulating well-defined equations while forgetting that these equations are about a power of movement. We can scarcely hope to understand this without our own experience of the power of movement. The problem with science today is that it stops short of knowing the physical world -- as opposed to the self-contained domain of logic and mathematics -- because it ignores the many-faceted inner realm where we experience the world as much more than measure and quantity.

Ideas or laws in the qualitative, imaginal sense I have been speaking of are nothing other than the phenomena themselves in their transparency to understanding, in their expressiveness, in their different ways of being. Expressing this or that character is what physical phenomena do. It is what gives them content. It is the life by which they exist. Phenomena would be nothing to us if they were not intelligible expressions. In some ways the last few hundred years of science have amounted to the insane project of mapping reality according to a schema of intelligibility while denying intelligibility to reality.

Within human consciousness we discover a language for understanding the world (Rozentuller and Talbott 2005). If this were not so, we could only stare blankly at our surroundings. What scientists need to realize is that our conscious (and unconscious) interior is vastly richer than the contentless abstractions playing over the convoluted surface of our brains. We are creatures of imagination, of heart-felt feeling, and of will raying out through our muscles and bones. And to the degree we must call on the full powers of this inner language in order to comprehend, for example, the leaves successively gestured forth along the stem of a buttercup -- to the degree this language makes the world intelligible -- we must acknowledge that the language speaks truly. That is, it reveals the world, which is to say that what speaks in us speaks also in the world.

Or, as the ancients might have put it: the same logos shines through both the world and the human being. How could it be otherwise?

Much more remains to be said.

Bibliography

Brady, Ronald H. (1987). "Form and Cause in Goethe's Morphology", in Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, edited by Frederick Amrine, Francis J. Zucker, and Harvey Wheeler, vol. 97 of Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, edited by Robert S. Cohen and Marx W. Wartofsky. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co., pp. 257-300.

Eddington, Sir Arthur (1920). Space, Time, and Gravitation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rozentuller, Vladislav and Stephen L. Talbott (2005). "From Two Cultures to One: On the Relation Between Science and Art", In Context #13. Available at: http://natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic13/oneculture.htm.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2005). "Recognizing Reality", available at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/ch08.htm. Originally published in NetFuture #162 (April 5, 2005).

Talbott, Stephen L. (2004). "Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen?", available at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/ch03.htm. Originally published in NetFuture #155 (March 16, 2004).

Talbott, Stephen L. (2003). "The Vanishing World-Machine", available at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/ch01.htm. Originally published in NetFuture #151 (October 30, 2003).

Steve Talbott :: Can We Learn to Think Like a Plant?

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