How to think about Science (David Abram)

Phenomenology – the investigation of the world as we experience it prior to reflection; a science of experience itself of perception form which the other more abstract sciences would launch themselves without setting themselves in opposition o to our felt experience. This school of thought was started by Edmund Husserl.

Cartesian – The philosophical system of René Descartes (1595-1650), the French mathematician and founder of the modern science of thought through his belief in the possibility of mathematical exactitude in metaphysical reasoning.  He formulated the axiom “cogito ergo sum:” I think therefore I exist.

The next step in developing phenomenology was Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who believed that the body is not just the location of consciousness, it is consciousness itself. The very one that is experiencing this consciousness – this bare awareness – is none other than the body itself. The body is the being of awareness. The body is the subject of experience – the experience of being. Merleau-Ponty had to invent a whole new way of speaking to step out of the Cartesian way of speaking.

The core of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is a sustained argument for the foundational role that perception plays in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world. He overcame the separation of mind and body in Cartesian philosophy and relocated mind in nature. “Our thoughts are the world’s thoughts – our flesh; the world’s flesh. If I think the sky blue, then the sky is equally thinking itself blue through me. If I speak of the world, then the world also speaks in me,” says Merleau-Ponty.

Language, so often taken of the crown and seal of human uniqueness, is not our exclusive possession, but belongs to the world to which we are giving voice. “Everything is in some sense animate and alive, but also that everything speaks. Any sound can be a voice. Any moment can be a gesture; a meaningful expression. That expressiveness is a property of the world itself. Everything around me has, at least the capacity, for meaningful speech: even the hum of the fluorescent lights in the ceiling overhead. That too is a kind of voice, because there is a kind of meaningfulness present in sound itself. It is not an articulate meaning, necessarily, but that particular sound, say of the tires of some cars swishing/swooshing along the wet streets in a rain at night, that that sound affects the listening organism of our body, it slips us into a certain mood, just as the songs of birds affect our mood or affect our state of mind. Sounds influence us and we respond.

And in some sense, our own human languages were all born as a call for and a response to the whole world sounding expressive shapes that we inhabited. It is quite clear, for instance, that our indigenous ancestors, hunting and gathering forbearers were quite depend upon their ability to listen in on, and learn from, and even mimic the sounds of animals upon whom we depended for our sustenance, to draw them close…Our own languages have been deeply informed by the calls and the cries of these other animals, as well as by bird songs, and even the sound of the wind in the willows, because this too would seem to be a kind of voice, as each entity has its own eloquence, and our speech is just part of a larger conversation.”

“However, language is not strictly a code. All of our terms carry a sort of a poetic resonance, like thunder and lightning…The words seem to mimic the sounds…It is not by chance that the words we use; so our human languages have been informed by many others sounds and voices besides those of our own kind. And of course it follows that as we dam all of our rivers and clear cut more and more of our last forests, and as there are fewer and fewer song birds in the destruction of their wetlands and their wintering grounds in the tropics, our own human languages lose more and more of their meaningfulness because they are no longer informed and influenced by the splashing speech of those damned-up rivers or by the caginess of the wobblier.”

Language will diminish if we silence the world around us or replace it with manufactured sounds…Many contemporary people live in a techno-scientific world. Digital technologies project us into what Abram’s calls “bodiless spaces. Underlying both science and technology there is a more primordial reciprocity…

Today we are sounded by a cocoon of technologies that have very little direct access to the human field of life. Everything seems to be an artefact; an ingenious invention of my own species…Until I look closer and realize that we are still breathing air, and the air that we breathe is the oxygen that is being breathed out by the grasses and the tress out there. I am still under the influence of gravity while I sit here; this very strange mystery that holds my body to the body of the earth…Gravity is an uncanny mystery to our brothers and sisters at the dawn of the scientific revolution. But, once it began to be spoken of as a law, then we stop noticing, as it happen automatically, so there is nothing very mysterious there. But what is this mystery?  We define it as “the mutual attraction of bodies at a distance,” which is as good a definition of “eros” as I know…I am in an ongoing erotic relationship to the earth at every moment…So, it seems to me that with a bit of attention as well as careful attentiveness to how we speak, we can begin to notice and make evident once again how wild and quite outrageous still is this interaction or reciprocity between our organism and the larger world that we did not create or invent; a world that created us.

According to David Abram, our belonging to the world, our reciprocity with it is the foundation of on which all our science and technology is built and is also our foundation of ethics…Do people who spend a lot of time in virtual worlds live in the moment like they are inside a video game? Abram goes on to speculate that people who spend an enormous amount of time in virtual spaces lose contact altogether with the sympathies of embodied existence…In the case of the Columbine tragedy, was it that neither they nor the people they killed were altogether real? It is from the body and from the body of the earth that our sympathies come. (Essay — Ethics: Earth – An Eclipse.)

Ethics is not first and foremost a set of rules or principles that we learn from a book or a teacher. It is first and foremost a kind of sense in our bones. Ethics, in this sense, is the ability to move in this world without unnecessarily violating the ability of other bodies to move in their own way: How to give space to others; how to restrain oneself where one’s exuberance or anger might impede the ongoing exuberance of another person. Ethics as how not to do violence, is seems to me is something we learn first and foremost as bodily beings. To the extent that we are living today in a technologically mediated world and cuts us off from our senses and has us living in a field of abstractions, almost oblivious to our bodily senses and the sensuous earth around us, it is difficult to be ethical. It is difficult to live in right relations to others – both with other people and other shapes and forms of our world…People don’t feel any deep affinity with the earthly world that they inhabit. The body is our primary access to that world, and to the extent that we are living such disembodied lives, and to the extent that we are also projecting the deepest truth of things into some dimension entirely transcendent to the sensuous (a heaven hidden behind the stars), we are not living and participating with all of my intelligence here in this world. So, I don’t fee any deep affinity with this world. So, when we heard of climate change or species are going extinct at unprecedented rate, it is interesting, but it does not affect me that deeply, as this is not my home. My real, truer home is elsewhere. ”

Science has estranged us from the natural world. Abrams hopes for a homecoming, while not denigrating science and technology, so that is does not continue to overcome sensory experience…”There is a world, a field of experience, that we need to reclaim as our real home, as the primary dimension of human life and experience and relationship…And that that is the world of community – not those I like to dialogue with on-line, but the community of those that I meet face to face in my neighbourhood. So, beginning to recognize a certain primary to place or to the sensuous, and to begin to practice a way of speaking and “languaging” that allows that primacy, this is not to disparage the internet or what is happening on the other side of the planet, but rather to be recognizing that there is one realm that is kind of the soil, the ground within which all those other more abstract dimensions remain rooted and from which they still tacitly or secretly are drawing their nourishment.”