Secluded forests can stimulate private thoughts about my place in the universe, the meaning of life, destiny, mortality. The rhythms of the woods offer hints—of what? The flow of a trout stream takes me—where? Then, when I again succumb to the usual distractions of our lives, it seems like I am leaving some Great Questions for another time. Is there something I want to discover but am not sure how to do it?
I have available a writer who has offered me a sure but gentle hand for the most troubling of questions, including: should I expect to understand how everything fits together, how should I understand my own mind, and how should I deal with death? The writer is William James.
What is it I'm discovering? I have to take a little journey. That’s where I see it. James spent his whole life thinking, doubting, writing, and talking about it. It’s there in plain sight, but I need to uncover it.
Here’s a well-known glimpse: “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
Here’s an obscure one shining with even more poignant brilliance:
“[T]o anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate cooperates, lends itself to all life's purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter's possibilities.” [William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p 7]
If I felt I had the answers I need from a place of worship, I’d still find something in William James that enhances my understanding.
When I suggest to myself that any talk about a Great Beyond is a waste of time because we know from science, first, that anything beyond myself is a construct of materials in the brain, and, that when I die, I’m just dead and gone—I now feel that is probably wrong. James tempts me with an otherwise in a way that does not violate my rationality. He has encouraged me to overcome my reluctance to appear arbitrary or unreasonable, and to seek instead to uncover my most intimate understanding of things.
Among all our deep concerns—happiness, suffering, degradation of our surroundings, meaning, and the rest—one clearly fundamental to all of us is that we die. No matter what’s going to happen to the planet, no matter who suffers or prospers, no matter what it all means, I’m not going to be here. In a matter of years, my body will cease to function. Will I cease altogether, or does some other prospect await?
I’ve learned to approach such a question with all my faculties, reason and spirituality among them. I consider the tangibles as well as the intangibles.
Plants use what we would identify as thought and memory in appraising a situation and preparing a proper response. Their cells operate like our nervous system. They read what we would call coding in light, using it for such responses as building immunity against pathogens that appear in certain seasons. Plants will respond even to light exposed to a single leaf. They will continue in the dark to internally process a cascade of events triggered by the exposure to light. [findings presented to the Society of Experimental Biology in Prague in summer 2010]
We’re looking at subtleties of the individual interacting with its greater whole. While thinking about this, I was gazing at a white pine. White pine needles interact with outer at each separate location. We humans have only our few fingers to weakly approximate that pine experience. My whole body approximates one needle thrust into its surroundings. Who’s to say that a human is more aware than a tree of its surroundings? For that matter, who’s to say what constitutes an individual?
Scientists now estimate we have ten times more microbes than human cells in our body, bacteria that act like our organs. They exist as ecosystems. There are 500 to 1,000 species in the mouth alone. Microbes destroy invading misfits in the colon. Those in our nose make antibiotics that can kill dangerous pathogens we sniff. Our bodies wait for signals from microbes in order to fully develop. The microbial species are like individuals residing on planet me. Only 17% of the species living on my left hand also live on my right. And they are in some way uniquely me. Only 13% of the species on my right and left hands also live on yours.
So in a real sense we humans are a stew of microbes acting and interacting in myriad ways. It rather complicates the question of just who we are.
And it surely gives us sufficient reason to consider other input besides rational thought.