I feel like I’ve been working through first principles for a while. But I haven’t covered one big one — dualities. Our propensity to look at the extreme end points of a spectrum and not the entire spectrum. To classify everything as good or bad, when neither actually exists. I think about this quite a lot at this time of year when time itself is in the middle. Not the longest days, not the shortest, squarely in neither category. It is a time to think about balance, but it is also a time to recognize that the end-points we apply to every scale are actually nonexistent.
This has all sorts of ramifications in society, of course. From our utter confusion on gender and the role of sex in our bodies to our ideas of merit and who deserves to have their needs met. Everything in our minds must be classified into bins. Good or bad. When in reality nothing is one or the other, and the actual classifications only exist in our minds — because we define good and bad. We make the bins. The bins do not exist in the world.
This is a social disaster and I’ve talked quite a bit about it from other angles. What I want to talk about now is more of the first principles in this issue. I’ve talked about effects, maybe a few causes. But there is a deeper problem. Duality, indeed all labeling and symbolism including language, does not exist in reality.
Our ancestors knew this. Maybe they were closer to communicating without words. Maybe this print-based method of communicating has elevated words to an outsized importance over time and we’ve forgotten that they’re just words. Numbers, too. These are just ways for our brain to break apart the continuum that is the world and deal with little chunks here and there. It’s so very difficult to manage the whole thing all at once that we just don’t do it often. Those that do are called magicians and wizards, uncanny. But that is how many languages that have not been reduced to just the tools of the language — the symbols, the words, the numbers, the musical notes — still work. Navajo is not a written language, and you can’t talk about one thing without talking about the whole in Navajo. It would be nearly impossible to write a EuroWestern novel in Navajo.
However, in print languages, it’s very difficult to talk about the whole. You will note that my writing is scattered and wandering and can’t seem to find a focus or narrative flow. Because those are the tools we use in writing to break the whole apart. There is no actual focus in the world. There is no one part that shines out from all the others. It is all a smooth continuum. It is the same in every direction. Chaos. We are looking at a the hyper-surface of a multidimensional dragon when we want to see a sturdy angel standing there with a sword.
Brian Swimme wrote a book about everything and called it The Universe Is a Green Dragon. He was talking about a conscious basis for reality as a whole. The universe is a whole being, not a divided thing. What his words did not say specifically is that if you don’t compartmentalize intentionally, there is little evidence to show that there is actual division in the universe. What he shows is that if any part has consciousness, it is because the whole has consciousness. There are no special parts that belong in special bins that are labeled with this word we’ve created — conscious. This is equally true of all the parts that are not as special tossed in the much larger bin that we label with the dualist opposite — unconscious.
These are our bins. They have nothing to do with reality. These are our words. They are meaningless except in reference to a tiny portion of reality. In English, they are divided from the whole continuum of existence so thoroughly that is it hard to talk at all in this language and still keep that whole together.
Science is supposed to be evidence based. We use our brains to look at the world and determine its nature based on the facts that we gather. Very few people in print languages question this method of understanding the world. But very few people in what I’m going to call whole languages ever think in these terms. This is a very interesting contrast. Evidence is, by its nature, small bits of the whole that relate to some larger bit, but even this larger bit is not the whole. We don’t study the whole even in cosmology. Science is evidence based, but we are determining what evidence is worth recognizing. We are asking the questions to be answered. We are assuming that there are questions that can be answered. We are taking the whole apart and trying to comprehend portions of it in isolation — when there is no functioning part in isolation.
We ask questions and then look for bits of information in the whole that we think relate to those questions that we have created. In words. All in words. We don’t experience, we experiment. We don’t live the information, swimming in it, immersing our words in it. We take bits out of the stew pot and try to understand them without the context of the stew. Then, in what can only be labeled arrogance, we make declarations about the stew itself from these dead bits we isolated and labeled and tried to understand.
We can’t talk about reality with any authority. Especially in print. Because words are all symbols of parts. Symbols of parts of parts of parts. Look at what happens when we try to describe the everything. James Joyce spent over 265,000 words on one day in the small life of one place, mostly in the head of one man. Just human ephemera in isolation from nearly everything else and yet it took over 700 pages in print to get just that small portion into words. That should be evidence.
We divide the whole up in our words and thoughts. We decide what is worthy of focus and what is discardable. We determine the reality that is symbolized in our minds. We do not, as some say, determine reality as it exists. That the two are ever conflated is, I think, evidence of the depth of our problem with understanding, with words, with whole and parts and continua and end-points.
There are no end-points. But we treat the world as though there are. And then we suffer the consequences.
Whole languages do not assume that parts in isolation have any meaning, certainly no meaning for the whole. Whole languages are about flow and experiential existence. Life. Being. Whole languages do not look for evidence to answer their own questions. People in these cultures take in information as it exists, without classification, without distinction, without divisions that determine what is evidence and what is noise, what is relatable and what is irrelevant — all bins that we create in our heads, not realities that exist. The world comes to the mind through the senses — which is enough of a filter — and is simply accepted.
What does the world feel like in Navajo? Some in our culture would say it feels like fantasy. Like superstition. Not evidence based. Not factual. In Navajo, one might say this obsessive labeling and determining what is right, wrong, real, fake, and so on, is in fact the fantasy. All these labels are human words, human opinions, and words and opinions of a specific and isolated kind of human. These labels don’t have meaning in Navajo. In Navajo, it is sort of a silly fantasy to try to impose our ideas onto what exists. Is there science in Navajo? Of course. But Navajo-inflected science. Perhaps science as it was before the Enlightenment got ahold of it and divided everything up into good and bad bins (and put the entire non-EuroWestern world into the bad bin… by design…) Humans will ask questions, will try to figure out how something works or doesn’t, how we relate to the something, if we relate to it beneficially or not. All living beings do this. Science is not a human trait, never mind a EuroWestern trait. But the answers to those questions in Navajo are fluid and indeterminate. Math of a much more complex order than the English calculus of isolated parts. There is no answer that does not feed back into the question. Just like there is no part that does not feed back iteratively into the whole.
Just like there is no part that is not the whole. Or dead.
Navajo has a particular horror of dead things. There is a good deal of avoidance of dead bodies in Navajo culture. I’ve not studied the culture enough to be an authority — and by now you probably see that I don’t believe there are authorities, full stop — but my hunch is that this horror stems from a recognition of isolation and the horror is of that. Not death, but an isolated, broken part. A broken part that lost its connection to the whole. A broken part that might infect other parts with its brokenness because, even in death, all parts are connected. And what happens when the life, the soul, the being is sucked out of a body? It is the most horrible isolation.
Of course, dead tissues are not truly dead. There is much life happening in a dead body. We call it foul and disgusting and we recoil from it because that dead body with all that life feeding on it used to be Uncle Fred. In our culture of labels and end-points, there is Fred alive and thinking and, significantly, talking. And then there is not-fred, the dead body. But that’s just our labels. Even when Fred was living there was less Fred than all the other life forms in his body. There was less Fred thinking than all the decision-making that happened in cells and tissues that were not specifically Fred in chemical composition. But Fred did all the talking. And that’s how we make labels. And labels are the end-points that we have determined to be significant.
We don’t make reality. We don’t understand reality. We label the bits of it we can grasp. The bits of it that can be fit into a word in our tiny brains.
And then we have the arrogance to call all the whole that we don’t understand, that we can’t understand, unreal.
Real, unreal. This is the the ultimate isolating duality that we have created for our minds, the ultimate isolating brokenness in our language and our culture. A brokenness that is of our creation. And as such is not reality. And as such can be unmade. If we accept the humility of being a part, a small part, of the whole. If we accept that we do not have all the labels, that we can’t make all the labels, that all the labels do not even exist. If we accept that evidence is only the bits we want to see of the whole, not all the bits, certainly not the whole. If we accept that we are determining what we see of reality, not what exists. But I don’t know that we’re going to get there through words. I don’t know that many of us are going to get there at all. We want to be special, reality-makers. We refuse to be parts.
We can’t know the whole multifarious and utterly amazing dragon. And we’re too stupid to just accept that.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021