That reminds me of a story...
Project: The Total Library
Project: The Total Library
We have constructed a ladder of how to think about – about what? Oh, yes, the pattern which connects.Gregory Bateson
Few are the authors that succeeded to embed in their writing the process of thought that brought them to write what they did while writing it. Gregory Bateson in his monumental work “Mind and Nature – a necessary unity”, Achieves just that, which, in my eyes, earns him the respectable place in the total library project.
Mind. Understanding mind for what it is, is humanity’s greatest challenge. What is mind? What is perception? How do we know? Are questions that touch the very root of our being. We know ourselves as observers, and we know the world by way of observing it; Or do we? The very concept of ‘knowing’ is deeply rooted in the belief that there is a ‘knower’ and there is something to be known, and these two, the knower and that which is to be known can always be held in clear distinction, in a safe distance of sorts, a distance being partially bridged by cognition. We call this distinction the subject-object dichotomy. It is the basis of western epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and as such it is the foundation of virtually everything from everyday life to the remotest frontiers of science philosophy and art.
Language is structured to describe our experience in terms of this dichotomy. And as we humans, live in a manner of speaking(!), in language, we are bound to exist and interact on the basis of this very dichotomy. Whenever we come across those aspects of existence which would not fall neatly into this subject-object dichotomy, we usually file it as a ‘paradox’. Etymologically, paradox is a combination of the word ‘para’ which means outside, and ‘doxein’, meaning to point, to teach, to know. Paradox is if so something out of the teaching, out of knowledge, something that cannot be pointed to, excommunicated from our safe conceptual grounds. Paradoxes have always been and still are the greatest headache of philosophers. It is the mote in the eye of our most fundamental beliefs about reality, a constant disturbance, something we cannot make go away as much as we try. And we do try…
Mind is the greatest of paradoxes, it is not going away. When we try to observe the observer itself, and especially when we try to observe the observer while observing, the very concept of knowing, our very epistemology crashes. We confront a formidable perception barrier.
If we are to ever understand mind, a conceptual breakthrough is necessary. A new kind of theory of knowledge that includes the observer and eliminates the dichotomy that stands at the basis of this perceptual barrier.
Very few thinkers are willing to even consider the proposition of including the observer, though the necessity is recognized today more than ever before. Most thinkers still believe that the issue can be circumvented somehow by clever philosophical or methodological maneuvers. Of those few, even fewer made a significant contribution to the issue. The observer-observed dichotomy is a kind of a cognitive taboo that seems to resist any effort to crack it or even to touch it.
Gregory Bateson, is, in my eyes, one of those courageous thinkers that tried and to a degree succeeded in climbing this ‘mount impossible’. As such his contribution to the treasures of human thought is immense and largely under appreciated.
He writes in the introduction to his book:
My central thesis can now be approached in words: The pattern which connects is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect.
I warned some pages back that we would encounter emptiness, and indeed it is so. Mind is empty; it is nothing. It exists only in its ideas, and these again are no-things. Only the ideas are immanent, embodied in their examples. And the examples are, again, no-things. The claw, as an example, is not the Ding an sich; it is precisely not the "thing in itself." Rather, it is what mind makes of it, namely an example of something or other.
Content wise, “Mind and Nature” is by all means a fascinating and interesting book. But I chose to write about it not because of its specific contents but rather because the way it is written. Bateson exposes in the book a thought process of a very special kind. A thought process which tries, to reflect/observe itself while unfolding. By that, Bateson shows a path of investigation that starts almost imperceptibly to depart from our so deeply rooted epistemology, and hints towards an integrated holistic kind of knowing. A knowing that goes beyond the observer-observed dichotomy. He does it so smoothly and masterfully that the reader can almost miss that she was delivered across an epistemological rift.
Here is one beautiful example from the introduction to the book:
There is a story which I have used before and shall use again: A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private large computer. He asked it (no doubt in his best Fortran), "Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?" The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words:
THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY
A story is a little knot or complex of that species of connectedness which we call relevance. In the 1960s, students were fighting for "relevance," and I would assume that any A is relevant to any B if both A and B are parts or components of the same "story". Again we face connectedness at more than one level: First, connection between A and B by virtue of their being components in the same story. And then, connectedness between people in that all think in terms of stories. (For surely the computer was right. This is indeed how people think.)
Now I want to show that whatever the word story means in the story which I told you, the fact of thinking in terms of stories does not isolate human beings as something separate from the starfish and the sea anemones, the coconut palms and the primroses. Rather, if the world be connected, if I am at all fundamentally right in what I am saying, then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all kind of minds, whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones.
Context and relevance must be characteristic not only of all so-called behavior (those stories which are projected out into "action"), but also of all those internal stories, the sequences of the building up of the sea anemone. Its embryology must be somehow made of the stuff of stories. And behind that, again, the evolutionary process through millions of generations whereby the sea anemone, like you and like me, came to be – that process, too, must be of the stuff of stories. There must be relevance in every step of phylogeny and among the steps.
Prospero says, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on," and surely he is nearly right. But I sometimes think that dreams are only fragments of that stuff. It is as if the stuff of which we are made were totally transparent and therefore imperceptible and as if the only appearances of which we can be aware are cracks and planes of fracture in that transparent matrix. Was this what Plotinus meant by an "invisible and unchanging beauty which pervades all things?"
What is a story that it may connect the As and Bs, its parts? And is it true that the general fact that parts are connected in this way is at the very root of what it is to be alive? I offer you the notion of context, of pattern through time.
….And "context" is linked to another undefined notion called "meaning." Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all. This is true not only of human communication in words but also of all communication whatsoever, of all mental process, of all mind, including that which tells the sea anemone how to grow and the amobea what it should do next.
I am drawing an analogy between context in the superficial and partly conscious business of personal relations and context in the much deeper, more archaic processes of embryology and homology. I am asserting that whatever the word context means, it is an appropriate word, the necessary word, in the description of all these distantly related processes.
Here I am telling a story about a story about a story about stories. Turning a full circle around, it is actually a story about me. Only that the circle is never a full circle but an incomplete recursive reflection, the way mind describe itself to itself.
Crossing the epistemological rift, bringing the perceiver into the equation of perception brings out all those self referential monsters that give so much pain to logicians, linguists and philosophers. However, it makes a completely new sense out of connectedness.
There is no need to completely eliminate the observer-observed distinction, just to soften it, make it less certain, less final. Once we soften our borders, also our obsessive occupation with objectified truth will lessen, and our binary modality of experience will expand into a new spectrum of possibilities. Nothing of our hard won scientific outlook will be compromised. By allowing this new conceptual flexibility, a door is opened to a profoundly valuable insight; the unity of Mind. We are minds, and we are Mind, an intelligent pattern of interconnected reflectivity.
“Mind and Nature” is unique in the thought process it catalyzes. A holistic reflective process, that by asking the right kind of questions, dissolves the unnecessary assumptions that clog human perception, and prompts in the courageous reader the kind of thinking I wish to call insightful.
If we are ever to understand the mind, we must augment our epistemology and as a consequence our language, and finally the meta-structure of the stories that we are. Bateson certainly had in mind something of this kind when he wrote this brilliant book. While going through the pages of this book I have this feeling of connectedness, as if by the fact of reading it I, the mind, also write it, and by that I, the mind, evolve.