Toward a Philosophical Foundation for a New Story

As we stand helplessly by, watching the global industrial machine dismantle the world before our eyes, it is important to understand that what is happening has the full sanction of our culture. These destroyers of the Earth are not renegades or monsters, but are ordinary people obediently acting out the directives of the culture of civilization. Those directives are transmitted in many ways, but chiefly through cultural myth (in the anthropological sense), consisting of origin stories, moral tales, and various cultural memes, all of which add up to the Story of the People. The Story of the People is inevitably based upon core assumptions about the nature of reality, who the people are and where they came from, and how they should behave. But what if these core assumptions, and the stories built upon them, are not only dead wrong, but malevolent in their effect? Foundational assumptions are so basic to the way we think that we rarely stop to question them–but maybe we should. Maybe we should look at them very closely, not only to discover error, but to discover the truth that the error has hidden. This is not an academic exercise. If we have any chance at all of preserving the Earth as a home to Life, including human life, this may be how we can do it: by rooting out the false premises and faulty assumptions and replacing them with a worldview that works for all, knowing that all flourishing is mutual. To build the better New Story we all yearn to live in, we must start at the very foundation and build from there something that is both beautiful and true.

     An essential ingredient to the New Story, as I see it, is the concept of holonomy, because it acts as a unifying foundation for so much else within the New Story. Holonomy refers to a fundamental condition or property of the Universe—one of nested interrelatedness. A holon is a self-bounded whole which is part of a larger whole, and which cannot exist independently of that larger whole(or holarchy). Such a holon might be a cell within the human heart. The cell takes its life within the context of the heart, and cannot live separately. The organ of the heart takes its life within the context of organ systems, and these in turn take their life within the context of an entire organism, a living human being. That human takes its life within the context of local, regional, and global ecosystems. The Earth, or Gaia, is itself a self-bounded holon within a larger solar system, and that system is in turn embedded within a galaxy, which is likewise part of something larger still. Everything is connected; everything is interdependent, and there is nothing woo-woo or mystical about this. It is an obvious fact of life. Trouble is, the people of our culture have for thousands of years tried to live in the pretense that humans are separate from everything else– exceptional, sapient, and autonomous- and this lie has led to the Earth Crisis we find ourselves in today. The truth is we are not, and could not possibly be, autonomous. What we are instead is holonomous: interconnected with everything in the world in a vast network of mutual interdependencies.  We are part of something far grander and much more wondrous than a single isolated narcissistic species. Within this larger, grander identity, we are wholly holonomous.


     This new, yet ancient, understanding of the Universe, and our place in it, carries with it some profound implications. All of the interlocking systems, from smallest to largest, depend upon reciprocity. The individual cell depends upon the organ of which it is a part (or holon) for its life, but the organ itself is made up of cells, and requires the contribution of each cell in order to function and have its own being. If a single cell decided it wanted to continue receiving all the benefits of living in the context of the heart, but didn’t want to continue making its usual contribution to the whole, that cell would then become a free-rider. The loss of a single cell would not greatly harm the heart, perhaps slightly damaging to its overall performance. If, however, thousands or millions of cells all went on free-rider status, the heart could suffer major, and possibly terminal, damage. This fact of life applies at all scales, from subatomic particle to galaxy: every holon within every holarchy is required to give back to the system which gives it life at least as much at it takes from that system (and preferably a little bit more, to compensate for free-riders). This is what it takes for any system to function optimally, and the requirement, or responsibility, for each holon to give back to its system at least as much as it takes is known by indigenous people as the Law of Reciprocity. I call it the Law of Holonic Reciprocity simply as a reminder of why it is Law: it is because all systems are holonomous, and require reciprocity to function at their best.

     The Law of Holonic Reciprocity has, in turn, its own inherent implications. One such implication– and a huge one– is that the Universe is moral at its heart; that justice inheres in the very nature of the Universe. This is very far from the scientistic doctrine of a random meaningless Universe—very far indeed. But can that doctrine—based not on scientific fact, but on scientictic ideology—refute the obvious fact of how systems work? Not in an honest way; not that I can see. But let’s leave the ideologues aside for now and consider some of the further implications of a moral Universe.

     The Law of Holonic Reciprocity invites us to look at the world in terms whole systems, and not of single whole systems, but interlocking, interdependent systems of systems—all the way up the scale and all the way down, systems connected to systems connected to systems, from quark to Milky Way. Seeing the world in this way can, and perhaps should, expand our sense of self beyond our isolated individual personalities to include everything that allows us our being: the air we take into our bodies, the trees that respire the oxygen that enriches that air, and which help absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale; the water that keeps us hydrated, including each individual (and individuated) drop, and its immediate source (lake, river, well), but also embracing its source within the water cycle, including sky, cloud, ocean, land, precipitation and evapo-transpiration –all the macro-systems and micro-systems that allow the water cycle to work as it does, and make Life possible. Likewise, every morsel of food we take into our bodies for ongoing sustenance is the product of countless cycles and systems, beginning with the energy of the sun, transformed by photosynthesis into nutrient-rich plants, which may be consumed by us directly, or first passed through the body of another plant eater. Breath passes in and out of us, as does food and water, in ongoing cycles within cycles within cycles. The thing we identify as “me,” the individual, is much more illusory and much less definite than we like to believe. We are, after all, eighty percent bacteria by genetic code, and by weight. Our gallbladders completely reconstitute themselves, replacing every ‘old’ cell with a new one every two days. And every part of our body is going through a similar process of dying and regenerating every day of our lives. Given all this dynamic connection with everything around us–and as far away as the sun, and beyond—we may be due for a new definition of self. And with that new definition, a new morality.

     Most people regard the Golden Rule as a universal axiom about how we should live in the world: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But this is based on the old cultural notion of self and other, subject and object, in a world of discrete autonomous entities and beings. But, as we now see, this is not the way the world really is. Nothing is truly separate from anything else, except perhaps in superficial appearance. Thus the Golden Rule as it now stands makes only superficial sense. A better maxim to live by, a Holonic Golden Rule, might go something like this: Take great care in all that you do, knowing that what you do to the apparent ‘other,’ you are also doing to yourself—both your smaller self and your larger Self, which are inseparable.

     As things stand now within the Old Story, Nature is something quite separate from the human being, and is made up of ‘dead’ matter, and of course is without sentience, intelligence, or volition of any kind. Certain animals may seem to have the appearance of such qualities, but, according to Descartes and his followers, animals are really just machines, automatons, and thus can feel or think or want nothing. These culturally sanctioned perceptions provide self-interested rational actors with a license to do whatever they will with dumb brutes on a dead Earth—and especially in pursuit of wealth creation: a preeminent value within civilization. Certain extreme individuals living within this Old Story have proposed the fool notion that Nature ought to have rights of its own, to help protect it (and the humans that depend upon it) from the most damaging of wealth creation schemes. Of course such a notion is ridiculous on its face: how can something that is dead have rights? Only humans have rights. Right?

     But just suppose that what we call matter, the ‘stuff’ of the Universe, is not dead at all, but is in some sense alive, sentient, and capable of cognition. And in fact there is very good reason to believe that this is actually the case. If these qualities did not inhere in the Universe right from the very beginning, then where did they come from? No one has yet offered a convincing answer to this question. If matter can sense its environment and make choices based on what it senses– and evidence demonstrates that it can, and routinely does– then our world, and the Universe which contains and sustains it, is not dead at all, but is living, intelligent, and volitional. This is the Universe as seen by our wild ancestors–living, sensing, self-directed– and sacred. Mother Earth and Father Sun, the Givers of Life, were revered with humility and gratitude, and regarded as super beings possessed of intelligence, intention, and a unique personhood, with its own characteristics of temperament. We now live in a world where almost nothing is personal; our wild ancestors lived in a world where everything was personal, because they recognized the uniqueness of each and all. If every snowflake that has ever fallen has had its own unique identity—and we are justified to believe this is the case—then why shouldn’t we believe that everything in the Universe, above the size of an atom, is likewise possessed of individuality and personhood? This is not meaningless speculation, but has far-reaching implications in terms of the Rights of Nature.

     If we live in a Universe that has fairness and justice at its very heart, and depends upon the Law of Holonic Reciprocity for its own smooth functioning, then we, the people of civilization, are outlaws .We are free-riders who have declared ourselves exempt from the Law’s requirement of giving back as good as we get to that which gives us our life. The Old Story of our culture has given us permission to take and take and never give anything back, and that is what we have done, to the point of nearly exhausting he Earth’s amazing abundance and resilience. In a world where all flourishing is mutual, and reciprocity is the Law of Life, we have been blood-sucking parasites, fattening ourselves on the lifeblood of our Sacred Mother and the Community of Life. The New Story of holonomy (which is also quite ancient) requires that we change the way we understand the world, and our place in it. Change the story and our behavior must change with it, because we are beings who live by story.

     In a world that thrives on justice, and is meaningfully alive with the subjectivity of personhood and the capacity for knowing and choosing with self-agency and intentionality, the role of the human being changes from ruthless exploiter to caring tender of the Gift. What these principles come down to is a philosophical foundation for the New Story we so urgently need. If enough of us recognize the truth of these ancient but forgotten principles, and incorporate them into our own thinking, perceiving, and being, and insist upon them in public, against the pressures of all the well-worn cultural lies, we can be part of the change we seek. Paradigm shifts don’t come easy, because everyone is invested, to some degree, in the old paradigm. Of course the extreme urgency of our situation requires more than a slight shift to the left; it requires a paradigm somersault. And it has to come from the bottom up. A good place to start seems to be the very foundations of our beliefs about the world, and our place in it.


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