Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head
White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane, 1967
I graduated from college with a degree in philosophy in 1969, two years after this song was released, I’ve been joking about never finding a job as a philosopher ever since. But now as a farmer, I might have found it. My studies back then focused on the history of western philosophy, concepts like everything is composed of earth, air water and fire (Aristotle) and these ideas will explain everything: the ‘Mechanics’, the ‘Physics’, and the ‘Organic Physics’ (Hegel). Missing from that education however was any recognition of Asian philosophers.
I did a little catching up by reading Alan Watts who assured me that I am one with everything. This was one of many books that have changed me. I spent a more transformative time learning Vipassana meditation where I maintained silence for a week and focused on my breath. What you really end up doing in that kind of meditation is becoming aware of what you are paying attention to. I realized that controlling my “monkey mind” was not at all that easy. Just as disturbing however, was beginning to notice that our whole marketing-based economy is trying to grab our attention. In fact I am trying to get some of yours right now.
So I bought another book, The Attention Economy by Thomas Davenport. It boiled down to something I had heard of before, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, typically illustrated as a pyramid with dominant “Deficiency Needs” such as food, shelter, safety and love as big attention-getters at the bottom and needs for growth: knowledge, beauty and spirituality, making the narrower part at the top. It made a lot of sense at the time but as I will propose, things have changed.
Another influential book was The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler which (along with ruining my back while working at a log mill) convinced me that computers were going to be a big thing. Years later having learned to program and securing a job programming in Dbase II, I was unhappy to realize that I had to reprogram all my work in FoxPro. Seems like you used to be able to learn a skill, welding for instance, and stick with it. Not any more. It began to dawn on me that there was no end to this. One new programming language or platform would replace the next year after year. Similarly all my years of schooling had taught me “facts” that became less true and valuable as time went on and basically all I accomplished was learning how to learn.
I’ll get back to Maslow, but first I want to introduce another illustration, the Tree of Life. A simple look at living things we can see and imagine as the branches of evolution leaves us with a picture that harkens back to my college education. Since then scientists have been mapping the complete DNA of earths trillions of creatures. A more complete picture of the results of 4.5 billion years of evolutions looks like a giant fan. As the anthropocentric picture of mankind at the apex of evolution begins to dissolve, we find the vast majority of life on earth is microscopic “According to a new estimate, there are about one trillion species of microbes on Earth, and 99.999 percent of them have yet to be discovered.” (NYTimes) To bring that figure home, Scientists concluded that the average human body contains approximately 37.2 trillion cells! (wonderpolis.com). “An unfathomably vast array of invisible life – bacteria, protists, archaea, and fungi – thrives on us and in us… Their cells outnumber our own cells by at least three to one. (The Hidden Half of Nature, Montgomery)
So here we are, right up there with slime molds and fungi as the apex of multicellular lifeforms. Not too glamorous really and those inscrutable single cell microbiota make up the majority of what we think of as our own bodies.
But what if we move away from picturing the kinds of DNA to weighing biomass? Surely our position at the top of the food chain makes us the rare royalty of evolution. There is some truth to this in the original terrestrial ecosystem. But a closer look at the top predators, eagles, lions, bears, coyotes, wolves etc. shows that they get a lot of their food from carrion and tend to die off quickly if the supply of herbivores dwindles. So it surprised me to learn that in an aquatic ecosystem the top predators, (basically sharks) have much more mass than the fish they eat. (https://www.brainkart.com/)
What makes the difference is that in water they don’t have to spend much energy hunting or keeping up their temperature. You might also conclude that they don’t pay as much attention to finding food. It turns out that we are a lot like sharks that way now. “Thanks to the mind-boggling scale of factory farms, 70 billion animals now exist as objects for human consumption, including 60% of all mammals on earth.” (Wired Magazine) So there are about 10 animals out there to eat for every human.
Yuval Noah Harari in his bestselling book, Sapiens, explores the evolutionary explosion of a limited number of plants and animals that have accompanied humankind to its massive position in earth’s ecology. He writes: “Egg-laying hens, dairy cows and draft animals are sometimes allowed to live for many years. But the price is subjugation to a way of life completely alien to their urges and desires.” This is one of the many ironies he finds in a science-based look at who we are.
Science itself is almost an oxymoron. “Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge.” (Harari) So my classical education faces continual upsets from evidence-based scientific discoveries, which brings me back to Maslow’s triangle.
In a world where the pressure to just survive predicates our very existence, focus on food and safety is helpful and necessary. Maslow’s triangle mirrors the eastern concept of chakras. Food, sex and fighting for safety are necessary. But in a world of abundance there has been an explosion of information and communication more in resonance with mind and spirit. Like sharks in a less stressful ecology we can afford to pay more attention to the thoughts of others than to merely surviving. Microbes and plants in the soil feed on organic matter that in turn becomes the feedstock of other lifeforms. Our life experience is built with attention. Increasingly that attention feeds on media and information built from the thoughts and desires of other people. In many ways that attention is being farmed to feed views of the world that may be only self-serving and will be overturned eventually. We need to spend more time sorting fact from fiction and to pay attention to what we are paying attention to.
There is hope and fear in the realization that these revolutions in thought portend the probability that there are realms of being and knowing that we have no clue about. Maybe they will arise from dark matter, artificial intelligence, native cultures, quantum entanglement, psi energy or from realities for which we have no words. The admission of ignorance opens the gates of knowledge. Feed your head.