IV. Process: Intangibles
The value of remaining open to the unknown
This section began as a rewrite of what was tentatively being called: Ecology is the Forgotten Science, which was making, I suppose, the rather banal point about the interrelatedness of phenomena, people.
While this is hardly controversial there is a rather linear tendency evident in how defining something “this policy is socialism” “he is a racist” approaches the limit of our public discourse. Knowing what someone or a phenomenon “is”, what ‘type’ of person it pertains to is to know how to value it, react to it, independently of any disparity between the Big Picture of an event, and what we see through the label attached to it.
This allows us to be very efficient, in moving through the world, rapidly sorting what is relevant, what is irrelevant, what is good what is bad. I encountered the idea recently that some people have difficulty with what some would call relativity, difficulty with the notion that in any given situation there be many different ways to see what seems like an objective event with an obvious interpretation. It was suggested that there was a fear regarding how many choices we are confronted with, which leads some to an attraction to institutions or philosophies that definitively tell them what to do, who is good or bad, and away from a presumably anarchic flexibility to take each case, or person, as they unfold.
Fear aside, our economic system involves a similar process of asigning a discreet value to something that is part of a larger field of relationships, that has roles beyond what profit can be derived from it. In a sense, both this fear-based simplicity, and profit-based reduction shrinks the circle of what, in an ecological view, are the relevant details.
Though we act as individuals, seven billion of them, we experience the feedback from reality across large scales, as societies, as a species. The response we get from Reality when we act is not based on the factors we are willing to consider, but on the full size of the web of cause and effect we breeze across on the way to what is personally or institutionally fulfilling.
That the circle of considerations is often shrunken to what is convenient, whether economically or psychologically, is visible in events, actions, that seem to come from nowhere. The ideas of “natural disaster” or “random acts of violence” separate a visible effect from the potentially limited way in which a context had been perceived, the shallow explanations that hide our role in the events that come back to us.
The more radical point to be made on the matter of context, on which, to an extent, the fulfilment of this project’s intention depends, has to do with expanding our circle of consideration to take into account the intangible. That is, people often ignore what are known, at least to some, dimensions of an issue already, perhaps for reasons previously described, but then there are the unknown variables, or intangibles and what may seem a maddening, perhaps, suggestion to create space for them. How and Why?
The why is the easy part, lets start there. The extent of the picture we do not see, or that is ignored, is usually implied when the “wrong” thing happens. We act with an expectation based on our understanding and the unwanted consequences, like the side-effects of medication show that either the solution is imprecise, or the understanding of the factors involved is incomplete.
We might be able to observe that spending a certain amount of time in nature has benefits to health and a sense of well-being but that doesn’t mean we know what it is, fully. The only thing that can be observed is the results, but the extent of what it is exactly that we are in contact with, what is acting on us, that is responsible for that increased well-being can only be speculated upon.
We don’t have to know what it is, we know that it increases our well-being. Why it does are explanations that come in pieces but we are interacting always with a whole, that includes, at every stage of knowledge, in every moment in which we think we see reality, unknowns, and intangibles.
The reason we should always expect them–variables from the margin of the unknown–has to do with solutions based on what is assumed to be the extent of reality, what we have yet seen, what can be measured. A doctor can do tests that see nutrients, chemical imbalances, the presence of pathogens, and so solutions, like medications, address things on a chemical level. Because such solutions often do not solve the problem and may create new ones, that non-chemical solutions to psychological and even physical ailments can have better results, implies factors beyond what have been measured.
To think that everything that is real can be measured, scientifically, is a limitation that can potentially lead us to resign ourselves to the professional opinions when we can find results outside of them.
I was at a holistic detox–something for a certain type of person right–where the current program director had had terminal stage 4 cancer. Two different professional opinions had told her there was nothing she could do. She disagreed. Through a process that defied the dominant perception of cause and effect she made a full recovery. She was not the only one. Sometimes if someone cannot explain something according to what they currently know, the variables they are currently aware of, they settle aberrant results with: “There must be some explanation” (that preserves my framework). One doctor, who had scheduled cancer surgery for a patient in two weeks based on a tumor obstructing her colon, explained–when she returned–her tumor having fallen out during her stay at the detox–that he must have made a mistake and that there must never have been a tumor.
There is an explanation, to everything if you look far enough, but the results show that there may be more variables than prevailing views account for, and, more importantly, we can experience improvements without knowing every mechanism of cause. And, crucially, what we are willing to believe changes what we can experience.
The “placebo effect” can be interpreted as an improved sense of well-being taking place in our minds. Another way of looking at that phenomenon is that believing we are healing can improve our sense of well-being, or, to be more specific, our bodies can, given the right conditions, heal themselves and our mindset plays a role in this.
We can live based on those subjective results or wait for a measurement to validate them. In remaining open to life at the edge of what is known, what has yet to be proven, we discover things that the small picture derived from the parts, the world in a test-tube or simulation cannot reproduce. The benefits of diets primarily based on raw vegetables were discovered before research followed up to “confirm” it. To have waited in what is known, was to operate on an “enough protein”-based conception of health that health trends in the United States are in part a reflection of.
Is it possible, that like a fly, a dog, the human brain can access only a spectrum of reality? We can’t see the mechanism responsible for object’s falling, though we could deduce it. Are there other dimensions of existence affecting us more subtly than gravity? If there are layers of cause we don’t notice, it would not matter, unless there were circumstances when we could perceive them.
Humans no longer live in nature, awash in the intangible that staged our emergence. One could say we are better off, but that is only a potential that science and higher standards of living contribute to but do not, on their own, guarantee. Our society emphasizes cold hard reason to the suppression, particularly in men, of the evolutionary inheritances under the blanket pejorative of ‘feelings’. What avenues to beneficial results we have lost with our forgotten capacities may yet be glimpsed among individuals and communities that are open to them, but unlike math, the development of one’s intuition for instance, may be reflected in ways that are personal and contextual. Moreover, if each individual expression of forgotten sensitivities is discounted, what would have been an empirical clue to a bigger world is instead interpreted as multiple instances of delusion.
The path to what we know, our picture of cause and effect, is some times arrived at by an intuition that there is a margin beyond its current dimensions.
What is convenient, what is profitable, and what is known, are each spheres that are smaller than reality.
The negative side-effects we experience along the human quest for more happiness and less collateral suffering is feedback suggesting an incomplete picture. For this reason, our process is sometimes more important as a subject to investigate than the world that appears through that process.
But how to functionally maintain a posture of openness to factors we are not aware of? And how open? Intuition? Psychics? Prayer?
How do we remain open to what we do not see, what only might be influencing us, when there are easier explanations available? Maybe it is as simple as deciding to. If in relation to what we see, think, imagine, we are moved, whatever it was, including the undefined, had an effect. The ability then to see, think, imagine your way to better well-being in a reality of unknown dimensions is a relevant skill in an age where truth is contested.
The desire for simplicity, for an answer, a value is dangerous to the extent it impairs our process of adaptation in a complex and ever-changing environment. What is right, what will work may depend on the inner and outer context through which we access it.
One way to interpret the distribution and degree of happiness, unhappiness, health, unwellness is: as potentials for what is possible. To fall short of more satisfying outcomes, on an individual or societal scale, with all the modern knowledge and amenities suggests deficiencies in the prevailing process.
The point here is not to replace one fixed picture with another, but to loosen them, to infer a larger picture and acknowledge unlikely possibilities. To consciously walk into each moment is to listen to the margin beyond, to turn on those senses that had once no walls of “facts” to stop our exploration of them. An automated, defined, existence, while orderly, while efficient, is fatally superficial and not sufficiently adaptive in a time when environmental, political and social pressures are mounting.
While different possibilities create the potential for disagreement, if we can shift our priority from a fixed ‘truth’ to subjective results, subjective well-being, we lose some of the basis for conflict in a shrinking, increasingly interconnected world.
We open the doorways of discovery and approach hopefully the unknown extent of ourselves.