12 December 2014

Nature, the Sublime, Wonder and Deep Freedom

An earlier post on this blog noted, and questioned, the claim that nature could no longer supply a feeling of the sublime.

Sublime is a big word. What about wonder? The two are related but they are not the same. Also, both are historically and culturally contingent. [1]

I agree with George Monbiot that unplanned or re-wilded places can arouse a sense of wonder.  I also agree that there are dangers in dreams about space exploration when they lead people to devalue what we have on earth and deny or ignore the challenges, especially for the poor and oppressed, right in front of us. [2]

In Nature in its Place, Roberto Unger writes:
At first, we needed nature so much that we worshipped it. Now we need it less and less...As a result of [our] growth in power, our experience of nature has fallen...into four pieces, each marked by a distinctive attitude toward the natural world and a...contest of aspirations. [3]
The four phases, says Unger, are: the delight of the gardener   we treat nature as a setting for escape from strife and striving into aesthetic freedom; the responsibility of the steward   we view ourselves as managers of a sinking fund of non-renewable resources in trust for future generations; the infirmity of the mortal  we work to cure the illnesses that waste us, and dream of undying life; and the ambivalence of the titan   a conflict we cannot hope to settle, only to endure, to understand, and to direct.

Our experience of nature, he says, is torn into these four shreds.  Resolution, if there is to be one, will come from the capacity to remain open to alternative futures:
We are unquiet in nature because the mind concentrates and focuses a quality diffuse in nature: the [human] mind is inexhaustible and therefore irreducible and uncontainable. No limited setting, of nature, society, or culture, can accommodate all we  we the species, we as individuals   can think, feel, and do. Our drivenness, including our drive to assert power over nature, follows from our inexhaustibility. We should not, and to a large extent we cannot, suppress, in the name of delight, stewardship, or reverence, the initiatives by which we strengthen our command over nature. 
We nevertheless have reason to stay our hands from time to time and gradually to extend the areas of the planet and the parts of each human life that we set aside for activities free from the tyranny of the will and the dictates of society. By dividing our time between restless conquest of nature and artless reencounter with it...we can guard against brutalizing ourselves.


[1] See, e.g., Daston and Park (1998):
Boyle and many of his contemporaries saw wonder as a goad to inquiry and wonders as prime objects of investigation. Descartes called wonder the first of the passions...Bacon included “a history of marvels” in his program for reforming natural philosophy. Their focus on wonder and wonders in the study of nature marked a unique moment in the history of European [science].  But before and after, wonder and wonders hovered at the edges of scientific enquiry. Indeed, they defined those edges...Wonders as objects marked the outermost limits of the natural. Wonder as a passion registered the [frontier] between the known and unknown...A history of wonders is therefore also a history of the orders of nature.
[2] Fascination with the possibilities of space does not, of course, have to result in indifference to life on Earth. Indeed, the opposite can be true. Many who reflect on the prospects for life in the universe turns back towards Earth with a heightened sense of how marvelous life on this planet is, and how worthy of attention and care.

[3] This appears as a digression, or appendix, to The Self Awakened (2007). Here is an excerpt from Unger's The Religion of the Future (2013)

Image: Selk'nam, early 1900s.

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