“The fact is that we are selfish,” she summarised the central problem succinctly. “But where does ‘Self’ begin and end?” I queried.
In Spring 2001 I convened a new, transdisciplinary final year undergraduate course at the University of Bath, entitled “Life, Environment & People”. My intention was to explore with the students how Biology, the science of life itself, might help us to understand and resolve the growing social, psychological and environmental problems facing humanity at the beginning of the new millennium.
I had invited the students to voice their personal views and to question the origins and evidence-base of their own and others’ assumptions and beliefs about human beings and Nature, including those of modern-day science. The student’s assertion and my response to it reflected my personal discomfort in the wake of monetarism, Game Theory and publication of Richard Dawkins’ influential book, “The Selfish Gene”, which conflicted both with my compassionate human values and my own researches into fungal territoriality and partnership with other organisms.
My questioning response concerned the fundamental nature of ‘self-containment’ and hence natural space, boundaries and energy as sources of distance, distinction, power and influence. The very idea of ‘selfishness’, I felt, depended on a paradoxical view of self-identity as a singular ‘figure’ that is isolated from and in executive control over its neighbours and neighbourhood at the same time as being dependent upon them for its sustenance and welfare. It is a narcissistic, mirror-image or ‘selfie’ view of ‘self’ as ‘alone’ or ‘all one’. I had dismissed this as a young child no sooner than I had realized that others viewed me from outside in the same way that I viewed them from outside, while we each inhabited our own private worlds from inside. ‘Selfishness’, in other words, arises from viewing oneself and/or others exclusively from outside or inside (i.e. objectively or subjectively) instead of combining the two and recognising that none of us is either alone or all one but all inescapably dwell in one another’s natural neighbourhood.
Having always considered my self and others both from inside and outside, knowing from personal experience how it felt to inhabit my own body and neighbourhood, and empathetically imagining how it would feel to inhabit another’s body doing the same, I was disturbed by the self-exclusive objectivity of abstract scientific method and rationalistic philosophy. Eventually, in spite and because of my academic training as a scientist, I came to recognise just how restrictive and misleading a way this is to view life and Nature.
I wanted to find a more comprehensive way in which to understand my self and Nature, through simultaneously looking inward and looking outward. So my interest naturally focused at first upon the natural boundaries of living systems, which by their very nature face both ways, like the Roman God, Janus. It was obvious to me that to treat these boundaries objectively as definitive demarcations made no sense because to be so they would have to be completely impermeable and hence incapable of allowing communication between inner and outer worlds of the kind needed to sustain any activity, growth, excretion or relationship with others. Rather, natural boundaries of living systems are necessarily to variable degrees permeable and capable of expansion and contraction.
Think of our human skin — what kind of a life would we have if it was completely rigid and sealed? None of us is entirely self-contained as an independent entity, we all dwell in some degree of dynamic relationship with our neighbours and neighbourhood. We are individually distinguishable, but not isolated from one another. As William Wordsworth put it: ‘In nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute, independent singleness’. And yet that notion of independent singleness is deeply embedded in objective science, rationalistic philosophy, abstract logic and mathematics as well as in our psychological quest for individual freedom and power over others, which worms its way into our economic and political systems.
Where, then, does ‘Self’ begin and end if what what we influence and what influences us does not stop and start definitively at our bodily boundaries? This question brings into consideration the relationship between space and energy within our natural neighbourhood.
As Northrop Frye puts it in his book, “The Double Vision” (1991, University of Toronto Press): “at the centre of space is ‘here,’ but ‘here’ is never a point, it is always a circumference. We draw a circle around ourselves and say that ‘here’ is inside it.”
But where do we draw the circumference, and what, in reality, does it represent? As a child, like many, I used to enjoy writing my home address starting with the street number, then the street, then the town, then the county, then the country, then Planet Earth, then the Solar System, then the Milky Way, then the Universe. My sense of the natural neighbourhood in which ‘I’ was situated kept expanding outwards to take in larger and larger localities within which smaller and smaller localities were nested. Every locality was ‘somewhere distinct’, while ‘space’ was ‘everywhere, without limit’, in other words infinite and continuous as an eternal, intangible (i.e. frictionless), motionless omnipresence of profound Stillness. Right at the centre of ‘me’ was a centre of space, a ‘still point’, ‘ground zero’ or ‘centre of gravity’, while all around me radiated a set of spheres of ever-increasing radius. Gosh! When I thought about my ‘self’ in this way, as locally centred ‘somewhere’ naturally included in space ‘everywhere’, ‘I’ was clearly neither ‘alone’ nor ‘all one’ as a singular, isolated object or ‘whole’, I felt more like a ‘hole’ nestling within ever-increasing circumferences within infinite space. Around twenty years ago I wrote the poem below and painted the picture above, entitled ‘the hole in the mole’, which describes this feeling of self-inclusion in natural neighbourhood.
The Hole in the Mole
I AM the hole
That lives in a mole
That induces the mole
To dig the hole
That moves the mole
Through the earth
That forms a hill
That becomes a mountain
That reaches to sky
That pools in stars
And brings the rain
That the mountain collects
Into streams and rivers
That moisten the earth
That grows the grass
That freshens the air
That condenses to rain
That carries the water
That brings the mole
But what is it that makes the distinctions — the ‘interfacing boundaries’ between somewhere ‘in here’ and somewhere ‘out there’ within the infinite stillness of space ‘everywhere’? A clue comes from the very act of ‘drawing a circumference’. It requires a ‘moving point’, not a ‘still point’! No distinction is otherwise possible.
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
― Omar Khayyám
This is the essence of the philosophy I developed twenty years ago of ‘natural inclusion’ as ‘the evolutionary process through which all natural material forms come into being and diversify as ‘flow-forms’; mutual inclusions of space and circulating energy in receptive-responsive relationship. Self-identity is understood to be a natural dynamic inclusion of its neighbourhood, simultaneously both shaping and being shaped by its surroundings within continuously receptive space, NOT as an object isolated from its neighbours and neighbourhood by definitive boundaries and intervening space. This is hence a very different kind of understanding from that of abstract logic, which treats material ‘figure’ and immaterial ‘ground’ as mutually exclusive ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ instead of distinct but mutually inclusive presences. With this understanding, the restrictive boundaries of the ‘selfish mind’ can begin to melt into love, but only if it is prepared to ‘Look Both Ways’ instead of one or the other alone or all one.