Sunday, September 01, 2013

Love of the world

As the new semester settles into a rhythm (actually, holidays will knock us right back out of that rhythm this coming week), I'm finding a little time to think about other, longer-term projects. The big one, I suppose, is the "next project," which I have to introduce to the world at AAR in November as "Wider Moral Communities." A second is what to do in 2014-15, when I'm due to be on leave, and am close to deciding should be very significantly about China. You'll doubtless hear lots about both of them in the coming months and years. For now, some glimmers of the next project.

There is a sense in which the next project is simply what everyone everywhere is doing - well, lots of people in lots of places - varieties of what you might call posthumanism or postanthropocentrism. The human story isn't the only story any more and, as importantly, can't be understood only in its own jealously protected terms. Put this way it probably just sounds like "religion," but I'm as interested in the ways this thinking crosses over from the sciences.

I suppose a seed was planted way back when I was at Princeton when a group of students asked me to supervise a reading group around E. O. Wilson's Consilience:The Unity of Knowledge (1999). Wilson can sound narrow on human culture but the idea that the universe is shaped by self-organizing systems at various irreducible levels, among which are the dynamics of social animal communities like our own, is an exciting one.

Yet I'm intrigued also by thinkers like primatologist Frans de Waal's championing of what's usually critiqued as anthropomorphism; it's from de Waal that I got the notion that we were moral before we were human: demonstrable similarities among species make it not just defensible but important that we use previously exclusively human categories when discussing animals. Questions along those lines come up, for instance, in observing animal mourning. The new horizon: "morality" or "mourning" are no longer quite the same if they are not a human monopoly (though we may still count as specialists, perhaps). Or even, perhaps, an animal monopoly... or an organic one? We're not the only show in town, but the show, with a vastly bigger cast, is still our show too...

Some of the people who look at these questions call themselves "new materialists," a movement I need to get to know better. From a few first glances this movement seems to move beyond the matter/spirit dichotomy not by denying the existence of spirit or mind or whatever (as did materialisms past) but by insisting that everything thought to be immaterial must be found in matter if anywhere. This reminds me of what I've long been calling "religious naturalism" but something's very different about it. A friend who knows more about this than I suggests that it is still different from the impulse driving me (an impulse he shares) because new materialism understands the world as ultimately meaningless, and I'm trying to track moments of unexpected meaning.

My sense is closer to one mentioned by Natalie Batalha, a NASA scientist interviewed by Krista Tippett on "On Being" this morning, who finds even shadowy dark matter to contribute to a sense of being at home in the universe.

Ms. Tippett: I sense that this life of discovery that you're involved in does bring you back to think about something like love differently. That it informs and somehow infuses your thinking about that. So talk to me about that. 

Ms. Batalha: Yeah. This has been the surprise to me actually that my perspective on love has been so informed by science, but it has. It's been fundamentally shifted, you know. And then I read other scientists who've had the same perspective and it all kind of makes sense. I mean, Carl Sagan's quote, you know: "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love." This love, this idea, is this moving force. I mean, it just permeates our history, our culture. I've equated it to, you know, this analogy of dark matter. 

Ninety-five percent of the mass of the universe being something we can't even see, and yet it moves us. It draws us. It creates galaxies. We're like moving on a current of this gravitational field created by mostly stuff that we can't see. And the analogy with love just struck me, you know, that it's like this thing that we can't see, that we don't understand yet. It's everywhere and it moves us. And science has given me that perspective, but also in very logistical, tangible, practical ways, you know. I mean, when you study science, you step out of planet Earth. You look back down at this blue sphere and you see a world with no borders. 

You see a tiny mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. You see the expanse of the cosmos and you realize how small we are and how connected we are and that we are all the same and that what's good for you has to be good for me, you know. I mean, it just changes your perspective.

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