Nature and Experience
Sometimes, when we are drawn into a problem of what is and is not, we forget how and why we got to that point. But, metaphysical problems – indeed most problems – emerge from the things in our experience that make us uneasy or that expose conflict, both with others and in ourselves. Indeed that is how “live options” show up. Sometimes, when frustrated, we try to get away with denying that a problem exists but that doesn’t really work. We stay awake at night rehearsing the problem in our heads. We share our discomforts and our responses with others. In other words, we can’t really avoid trying to make sense of our discomfort, and resolve conflict. Knowledge may serve this purpose. But experience is bigger than knowledge. So in ending this module, we’ll take a look at others ways of dealing with what we may call “existential” conflict and discomfort.
The sciences – physical, chemical, biological and social – give us reliable knowledge and methods for keeping it up to date. That’s one way, a very important way, by which human beings are related to nature and all that is in it. But knowing, important as it is, is only one way among many of relating to the world. We feel, react, respond, appreciate, and care. We invent, tell stories, sing, and dance. A lot of this happens between human beings and other living things. Not a little happens between human beings and things like mountains and lakes and oceans and forests. Other relationships to the world are functional, like using tools to build houses and getting the resources from the world around us to make it possible. Not least of all, human beings are self-reflective so we have relationships to ourselves. We surprise ourselves and judge ourselves. All of this is natural and all of this can be studied, can be a theme of the sciences. But we also daydream and poetize, imagining other realities, other beings, other worlds and this too is natural. We are lovers of alternatives, of “what if…” We appreciate, celebrate, reflect on, react to, and so forth. In fact, our experience in and of the world is filled with all kinds of relationships. In turn, our presence in the world is part of nature’s richness and diversity.
Human beings are, in other words, many dimensioned and our philosophies are shaped by that fact. Naturalism then, cannot only be a philosophy of reason and inquiry even if philosophers from Plato to Kant have named us “rational beings, “ and even if we sometimes forget that, as it were, we speak both prose and poetry. Nor does this demean our commitment to the sciences. The same event that can be a question for science can be a stimulus for response, a motive for action, an invitation for reflection, an opportunity for appreciation. We see a sunset or hear a birdcall. The sciences will do their job, telling us about the physics of sight and sound, about what makes suns appear to rise and set and what makes birds sing. The sciences will remind us of other suns and other songs and of the natural laws that are their organization and connection.
But we will also respond, maybe with annoyance if a birdcall wakes us when we’d rather sleep or maybe with gratitude if its music catches us with its beauty. We will respond to the moving reds and oranges and yellows of a sunset, to the shapes and colors of a landscape. We will share our responses with others, inviting appreciation, comment, and criticism. And we will remember with them, re-living in shared story, poem, and picture what struck us or fancied us or troubled us. We may relieve our uneasiness by action – we are, after all, embodied beings with purposes and projects, taking pleasure in achievement and completion. And each of these capacities – to dream and sing, to act and act out – reveals other sides of our relationship to nature. So, if knowledge is not ready or not relevant, there are yet other resources that enable our relationship to the world and all that is in it. Art is one such relationship, feeling is another, comradeship is another, performance is yet another, and so on. These may be said to be ways of shaping our experience, relieving discomfort and resolving conflict.
Humanists, given their rationalist and legalist roots in the Enlightenment, tend to underplay these varied dimensions of human experience. One temptation of this ancestry is to believe that argument can, of itself, deal with conflict. Yet argument, a linguistic art, more often than not fails to convince, particularly when the argument touches on that which is deep within us. Another temptation is what is called “reductionism,” to reduce the complexities of experience to a single dimension and thereby to trivialize feeling and dreaming and acting and the rest. So, it is all too easy to adopt a “nothing but” philosophy, as in love is nothing but nature’s way of perpetuating example, reduce history to “class conflict” and to the claim that idea and art are mere “epiphenomena,” i.e. secondary realities that are really nothing but tactics in class warfare. Some literalists in western religion reduce history to drama with a beginning, middle, and end – creation, living for the sake of salvation, and “end-time” when the players, you and I, are judged. Humanists, by the way, are not immune to the ideological trap, to reducing reality to an either/or, as it were, to seeing the world in black and white and human beings as enemies or friends. A familiar point of view that plays the reductionist game is the idea of “progress” as if history moves in one and only one direction.
To be sure, the apparent clarities of reductionism can be cures for conflict and discomfort. But it is only temporary. Sooner or later reductionism fails and brings into play an escape to power – the urge to control – and “apology” – the sometimes skillful and fascinating efforts to explain away conflict and contraction. The human story is filled with such efforts – often metaphysical or theological – is filled with self-deception.
And that takes us back to naturalist metaphysics. Just as our experience of nature is layered and thick, so it is also true that nature is layered and thick. In other words, we are natural beings in a world that makes us what we are and allows for us to be as we are. In that sense, we may be said to be at home in the world. Now this would not and should not be surprising except that others deny that claim. For St. Paul, we are “in the world but not of it.” For the Hindu the world in which we find ourselves is an illusion to be dissolved. For the existentialist, we are “thrust into the world” and find ourselves “strangers in a strange land.” Naturalism, taken seriously, acknowledges these and other alternatives in its own way by asking questions. Our first question is: what discomfort and conflict led to these alternatives? Our second question is what can we learn from them? Our third question is why should they be rejected? In short, naturalism is truthful to its basic premise, all human behavior is to be included in the world and it therefore follows the humanist maxim: “Nothing human is alien to me.” For naturalism, the leap to judgment and to conflict is a philosophic error.
Finally, a word or two on “being at home in the world.” It is possible to interpret this notion sentimentally, attributing, for example, the pervasiveness of love to all levels of being. Certainly there are those that speak to this kind of reading of the world saying things like “God is love.” But this is to ignore the precarious and the destructive in experience and, not least of all, the destructive that we human beings introduce into the world in so many ways. It is also possible to read being at home as a type of damnation. Certainly there are views that adopt an ultimate and inescapable pessimism. For a humanist’s philosophy of naturalism, neither of these is adequate and both are mistaken. Instead, to be at home is to acknowledge our situatedness. The world in which we find ourselves supports opportunities for knowing and feeling and creating. Instead, to be at home is to acknowledge our situatedness. The world in sense, it allows, metaphysically, for freedom and action and denies the inevitability of fate. As it were, nature neither blesses nor damns our dreams and our efforts. To be at home, then, is a metaphor for the possible without guarantee of success or failure. What is really real for us permits reading human being as adventure.
Reflection: Recall an event, a scene, or a relationship. What led you to remember it? Describe the experience? What led you to describe it the way you did? Are there other ways to describe it?