Commusings: Three Models of Nature

Jul 05, 2024

Dear Commune Community,

Over the past 5 years, I have been immersed in two distinct, yet increasingly convergent, inquests.

I have peered toward the heavens to better understand the metaphysical while also turning my eyes inward to grok the physical.

As is often the case, I found the micro reflected in the macro. Everywhere I looked, the immaterial was patterned in the material. These findings have informed an evolving understanding of human physiology that I dub the Tao of Health.

My philosophical meanderings took me deep into the universe of the British philosopher, Alan Watts. Watts posited three primary understandings of the cosmos: The Hindu conception of life as a drama, the West’s mechanical model (as influenced by Abrahamic religions and Newtonian physics), and, lastly, the spontaneous and organic model of the East as informed by Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen.

I will briefly unpack his taxonomy in this week’s musing.

Always here for feedback at [email protected] and putter around IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,

• • •

Three Models of Nature

The Dramatic Model

The Hindu view is of the world as a stage. There is a singular ultimate reality, the Brahman, of which all beings are temporary modifications. Individuals, manifestations of a greater supreme oneness, act out a fantastic play (the lila) as dramatis personae, getting lost in the illusion (maya) of temporal reality.

People strut and fret upon this great stage, masked as separate individuals, and become so enchanted in the spell of the tawdry affair that they lose all sense of being the delegated adaptability of a unified reality. As such, they become obsessed by their egos, mired in a karmic cycle of death and rebirth until they transcend their sensory instruments, shed the sensation of separateness, and return to source.

The Mechanical Model

The last two thousand years have been largely dominated by the “mechanistic” or “ceramic” conception of life. The Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – purport that the universe was created by an omniscient, omnipresent, and merciful God. As part of His cosmic handiwork, this almighty Lord blew life into the nostril of a clay figurine animating a species known as Homo Sapiens.

Genesis 2:7 states, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

This mechanical model is hierarchical in nature with an invisible (yet curiously bearded) godhead perched in a celestial panopticon, tending a moral abacus and registering man’s sexual transgressions. This robed patriarch, whose wardrobe curiously resembles that of a king, serves as the ultimate arbiter of every individual’s eternal fate. If God is the putative Chairman of the Board, he has chosen Homo Sapiens as his executive team to oversee the flora and fauna who toil away on the factory floor of his “corporation.”

God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” [Gen 1:26–28]

This prevalent Western framing of life always includes a boss. It views the world as a product made of stuff. Further, Abrahamic religions include a dualism between the transcendent, eternal soul and the earth-bound, ephemeral incarnated body, which is susceptible to vice and over-indulgences. In this scheme, matter is unintelligent and the material world is meant to be sublimated.

Descartes reinforced this notion with his famous aphorism, “Cogito, Ergo Sum”
(I think, therefore I am). He conflated “being” with cognition, discarding everything occurring below the crust of consciousness, including physiological function. Cartesian dualistic philosophy underwrote a vision of mind as separate from body and matter.

The Enlightenment of the 17th century ushered in empiricism. As a means of understanding the universe, rationality became favored over blind faith — or belief in the absence of evidence. Science offered religion regular embarrassment as a means of prophecy. It anchored its understanding of the nature of reality in a method of repeatable observation and experiment. Unlike religion, science has no final word. It constantly evolves based on new information.

Still, classical Newtonian physics was also mechanical, as it sought to break down “stuff” into smaller and smaller particles in order to find the universe’s fundamental building blocks. These small component parts informed linear causality across fixed time. Essentially, one thing triggers the next and gives it its motivation.

Newton’s explanation of phenomenal behavior was always by analogy with billiards. Fundamental particles were banging each other like billiard balls. The eight ball will be still until the cue ball bangs it. And that will be its impetus and set it going – hopefully not prematurely in the side pocket.

The reductionist principles of this mechanical model sought to describe an objective reality that could be predicted by measuring the attraction of different material artifacts.

The Organic Model

Let me describe the organic model – organically – through story.

For years, I visited a summer cottage on the Long Island sound, the briny inlet cleaving the North Fork of Long Island and Connecticut’s Southern coast. The stultifying humidity made everything perspire – your brow, the windows, the tumblers of Arnold Palmer. In the thick dank afternoon, I would amble to the end of the long jetty that jutted into the sound and, from its edge, dive into the sea. Once acclimated to the water’s energizing chill, I would paddle myself out to one of the floating wooden platforms that rocked gently side to side with the undulating tide. I would hoist myself up, back into the oven of the day and find my equilibrium.

Balancing in the center of the buoyant pad, I would look far out in every direction – squinting my eyes to see where ocean yoked with sky. Merely yards away, there was another such platform upon which invariably doughty old Mrs. Brainard would perch and behold a similar, yet slightly different, 360-degree perspective.

This individuated manner of seeing the world is a portrait of relativity theory. Each of us observes life from our own unique platform. At the same time, we’re all on one – united by the phenomenon itself. Spatial subjectivity feels quite natural as a product of direct experience. From the vantage point of Mrs. Brainard, the entrance to the iconic lighthouse that stood at the mouth of the Connecticut river was quite visible. But I couldn’t quite see it from my angle. She had a different point of view, probably on matters beyond the lighthouse as well.

Einstein upended physics in the early 20th century by connecting space inextricably with time. The variables of location and velocity in conjunction with the unwavering speed of light created a world in which there is no absolute linear time. This phenomenon is distinctly less instinctual than the relativity of space. The velocity of light, 186,300 miles per second, is so fast that it doesn’t impact terrestrial, quotidian life. For practical purposes, we feel like we all see things at the same time. But, in reality, we don’t.

The relativity of space-time is more easily grokked at the level of astrophysics. For example, it takes light eight minutes and twenty seconds to travel from the sun to the earth. If you were vacationing on Jupiter (nothing I’d recommend), your retina would need to patiently wait an additional thirty-five minutes to receive the same photon. The “creation” of that light energy as a product of hydrogen fusion in the sun may have happened at a definable objective moment, but the perception of it is relative.

Shortly after the codification of relativity theory, particle physics further disassembled our understanding of a fixed, mechanistic Newtonian reality. Matter is not inert. It is representative of an endless vibrating dance of particles that have dual personalities both as mass, confined to a location, and a wave, spread out over space. The incessant exchange of sub-atomic particles between atoms – which form molecules and then compounds and subsequently things we call stuff – portrays a spontaneous, impermanent universe that is constantly emerging, evolving and interdependent. In fact, merely observing the particles themselves alter their behavior. In this new comprehension of reality, the traditional subject-object relationship crumbles – as the seer is in a dynamic relationship with the seen. Instead, we are all participants in an infinite web with no boss. As Watts was apt to say, “We are petals on the same flower.”

It’s curious that the Buddha posited this vision of the world twenty-five hundred years prior to the advent of electron microscopes and the brilliance of Einstein. Pratītyasamutpāda, commonly translated as dependent origination, or dependent arising, is a key doctrine in Buddhism. In short, this theory postulates that everything is reliant on everything else. And nothing is absolute or fixed. This is also redolent of Heraclitus’ Logos and Lao Tzu’s Tao, the course of nature. Both Eastern mysticism and modern physics share a common essence: the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events. We live in Indra’s Net, an infinite web which, at its junctures, holds crystalline drops of water that reflect every other drop.

The empiricism of modern physics has pointed us strangely back to the intuition of ancient Eastern mystics. As we penetrate deeper and deeper into matter, physics doesn’t show us any basic building blocks. The fundamental nature of stuff doesn’t appear to be matter at all — but spontaneously arising, ever-changing organic pattern.

What Does This Have to Do with My Body?

The challenges to medical orthodoxy and the efflorescence of longevity science since the beginning of the 21st century in many ways reflects the upending of Newtonian physics at the beginning of the 20th century.

Einstein, Bohr, Planck and others pointed to a world that wasn’t fixed, that could not be reduced to its smallest component parts. At the quantum level, all of existence is a vibratory energetic dance of construction and destruction. The emerging fields of epigenetics, neuroplasticity and the microbiome, along with new discoveries into the nature of metabolism have demonstrated a similar phenomenon – one with ancient Eastern roots. The human body is not fixed. The human organism exists as a fluctuating process in constant interaction with its environment.

When we look closely at the human body, we see a dance. The blood constantly exchanges CO2 and oxygen. The pancreas alternately secretes insulin and glucagon. The brain is awash in a sea of neuromodulators – both excitatory and inhibitory. The mitochondria produce reactive oxygen species and antioxidants. Glucose is being converted to energy, known as ATP. 150 pounds of ATP is being burned per day. 39 trillion bacteria are splitting in binary fission and perishing every day. Humans are not things made of stuff. We are organic pattern constantly changing in relation to our environment.

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