Countering Natural Isolation
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If you are following work on my second book, I have finished the editing phase and am taking a short break before beginning final proofreading and polishing. Drafting the book took 16 months and editing it about 8 months, so I am hoping this final phase will last about 4 months.
As touched on in a previous post, the new book is very much the philosophical companion to my first book, The Seven Keys of Natural Life. This earlier work introduced my natural or evolution-based philosophy, but overall is focused on the application of its core ideas, and primarily is a book of practice – one that began as a series of seven personal and group development workshops.
Even Surrounded By Wild Nature, We Can Have A Degree Of Natural Isolation
By contrast, the new book is almost entirely a work of philosophy, though I do include calls to action in the chapters, as is my frequent practice and general recommendation amid all new learning and understanding. In particular, the new work explores twenty-four human ideals or perennial attributes – from happiness and beauty to inspiration and growth – approaching each definitionally, historically, scientifically, and then essentially. Using this material, I show how these and indeed all other attributes or aims, except one, are inherently instrumental, subordinate, or aids to natural life – and as such, are not nature’s central, overarching, and controlling ideal or imperative. The book has been a journey of discovery and insight for me, and I hope it will be for you as well.
For today’s discussion, I want to begin by pointing out that the new book contains and expands upon two crucial themes from my Seven Keys. These are the modern opportunity of renaturalized life and the natural limits of knowing amid all life. I would like to briefly explore each of these ideas here, but indirectly and in keeping with my title, by taking up a third, intersecting, and perhaps more pressing or evocative topic, that of countering natural isolation.
The concept of natural isolation is of course familiar and recurring in modern life. But it is also an idea that is variably defined and interpreted, and thus perhaps superficially or narrowly so at times. For many, it seems plain that at least part of modern life, notably in its intensely consumerist or wealth-preoccupied forms, is now proceeding without significant regard for its longer impact on our species and the broader natural world around us. Owing to this, and particularly to the extent people are conscious of this fact, we might conclude that much of modern life is substantially denaturalized or unhealthy, and estranged or isolated from nature in important regards.
Expanding on this idea, I would add that perceptions of modern isolation or natural estrangement appear credible across multiple definitions of what it means either to live naturally or be isolated from nature, suggesting that modern natural isolation may be pervasive and sweeping. Notably, these varying potential senses of naturalness or natural human life include: 1) regularly being present in or routinely interacting with wild nature, 2) appreciating and seeking lessons from living and non-living nature, 3) living in ways that seek to be sustainable, or unharmful to or in harmony with the earth’s natural ecosystems, 4) pursuing or possessing elevated natural health and vitality as people and groups, and 5) alignment with essential or recurring aspects of pre-industrial or pre-agricultural human life (whether conservatively and strictly or more progressively and synthetically).
I should point out that the term natural also can be taken to mean everything occurring in nature, which of course makes the idea of natural isolation less tenable. While this definition, interpretation, or framing of the idea of naturalness is doubtlessly valid or logically consistent, I would suggest this may be trivially so, and often have found it an unaiding sense of naturalness, natural life, and natural progress. In particular, this way of thinking may miss essential opportunities for learning and growth waiting in more active or keener senses of what it means to be natural, connected to nature, or optimally integrated with nature overall.
Building on these themes, let me add that just as the above senses or definitions of naturalness are fairly common – and suggestively, fairly intuitive as well – various prescriptions or remedies for shortfalls in essential naturalness are recurring and widespread today as well. For example, we might be encouraged to visit or recreate in wild nature, live in more natural settings, or move to more sustainable and thus arguably natural living patterns (see here and here). Alternatively, we may be advised to bring elements of wild or living nature into our urban surroundings. Somewhat less commonly, but perhaps more cleverly, and returning to the idea that nature is indeed everywhere, we might be counseled to find and better appreciate living nature at work in and around urban life – from the marvel of plants sprouting out of city cracks to other species living alongside us, and from the natural features of modern social groups to the workings of our psyches.
While these renaturalizing steps or formulations may be familiar – and thereby also perhaps naturally and ironically downplayed – it is essential and instructive to highlight that they often can be quite beneficial. Whether we review science summarized in the self-help press or examine the empirical study of nature connectedness and similar lines of investigation, we see strong indications of regular advantage from many of these measures. To begin a list, new time in or exposure to wild nature, increased appreciation of nature, or greater feelings of affiliation with nature are correlated with: 1) reduced stress, 2) positive emotional affect, 3) improved social harmony, 4) greater health-mindedness, 5) more sustainable living patterns, and 6) new perspective and learning (including the often especially advantageous perspective and learning that is metacognition or metalearning).
Notably, many of these effects, or at least associations, can occur amid novel experiences more generally and not only during naturalistic ones. But the last point above seems especially important to our discussion, and an opportunity to highlight that we, our groups, and indeed all of life naturally function or exist in three crucial ways. First is with the potential for new insight and action at each point in time, second as natural processes of insight and action at our core, and third as the ongoing products of insight and action – whether by us or others, and past or present. For me, these attributes are all fundamental aspects or properties of our human and larger natural condition. But they are also basic features of natural life that are often unfamiliar, unintuitive, and unexamined, and I would encourage you to consider these natural or inherent qualities of all life, especially if they strike you as novel or uncertain.
Together, this set of observations suggests at least two important things for a discussion of natural isolation. One is that we, and all of life, invariably are caught up in natural processes of action and learning, can be defined quite elementally as natural successions of action and learning, and therefore may be seen essentially as ongoing instances or cases of information processing. This is inevitably and inescapably true across living nature – to see that this is so, try to conceive of an instance of life, or perhaps even a case non-living nature, that does not involve some form of processing. Further, it is also clear that all evolved organisms are similarly and inescapably suspended, contained, immersed, or enmeshed in the biological and experiential programming that enables their natural information processing. Indeed, in our essence, we are our natural processing and programming, and are inseparable from and untenable apart from these natural dimensions of life.
Owing to this functional specialization and autonomy, another crucial point for the topic of natural isolation is that each of us, and every organism, are at once part of and yet apart from the rest of nature, or are subject to degrees of natural isolation or individuality. Though we all may be derived or evolved from the totality of nature and plainly are aspects or expressions of nature in a broad sense, we also are clearly individualized as organisms and groups, subjective and specific, functioning on our own unique terms or processes. In other words, we are not all things and everywhere, are always at least somewhat separate or differentiated and isolated or demarcated from other things, and of course we are never the collosal thing-in-itself that is nature in total.
This fact or degree of natural isolation or separation of all specific things is inevitable, unavoidable, and ongoing. Crucially, it is most complete or least trifling in the case of functioning organisms, subjective entities, or autonomous subjects, and amid the often intricate and highly idiosyncratic processes and programming we use for learning, insight, and action – properties that we perpetually rely on and again even are in our essence. And let me add that this is true regardless of how natural or isolated we may or may not feel, the skill or excellence with which we act and learn, and whether or not we directly and actively live in wild nature.
While all this is naturally and unavoidably the case, and perhaps uncomfortably or humblingly so, I want to end our discussion by pointing out that there is at least one essential aspect of our natural functioning that can be significantly freed of natural isolation or separation, individuality or errantness, and idiosyncrasy or particularity. Critically, though this is just one area, it also may involve the most fundamental dimension or quintessential quality of nature, and take us to the core or heart of all of natural functioning.
As you may know from my earlier writing, this core and arguably most crucial aspect of nature is the quality or process of adaptive learning and action, or the pursuit of surviving and then thriving life and existence. Looking across nature, and again in both its living and more elemental forms, we have good reason to believe first, that the quest or opportunity for adaptive health and progressive ascent is the central ordering principle and imperative of all of nature, and second, that this is necessarily so, since any other mode of functioning would be selected against or disfavored in the eternity of time and opportunity that is complex nature in its broadest terms.
Owing to this, we as living organisms are always and never naturally isolated. Though we are indeed inherently different from and less than the whole of nature, we also can live in harmony with this whole in its essence – via a natural life of continual striving, probing, learning, health-mindedness, endurance, and transcendence. In this way, and perhaps only in this way, we can become, reflect, and remain rich expressions of all of evolving nature, unisolated from and integrated with it, and manifestations of all-pervading nature at its core.
I welcome your comments and questions on these far-reaching ideas, ones which find a prominent place in my new book.
Health & best wishes,
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