Thursday, August 8, 2013

Of Poppies, Philosophy and Mystical Woo: for Daniel S. Hummel II

In his 2-star Amazon review of The Power of the Poppy, Daniel S. Hummel II complained that "it's loaded with way too much mystical woo and pseudo-science for [his] tastes." He further advised that I should have done more research and "better acquainted [myself] with reality before writing a book." (I'm not sure how this would have helped, since he also believes "writing and thinking are probably not [my] best qualities.")

To be or not to be?
I can't blame Mr. Hummel for being disappointed. Looking at some of his other reviews, he appears to be a diehard atheist who finds mysticism useless. A book which treats plants as sentient beings with their own agendas is likely to leave him cold.  He gave me credit for including "a few morsels of good info" so his critique was fair if harsh.  (I'm glad he didn't find Power of the Poppy a complete waste of time and wish him luck in finding a book more suited to his needs).  And while he obviously missed my point, it's my job to make my ideas clear. Perhaps I can do so by reference to one of the 20th century's most opaque thinkers, Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger is often dismissed (or celebrated) as a Luddite. As Hubert Dreyfus points out, his views on technology and science are considerably more nuanced.  In his 1954 essay "The Question Concerning Technology" Heidegger described technology as a "mode of revealing," a way of understanding and interacting with our world. He illuminates this in a famous passage:
The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears as something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.  
I called Papaver somniferum an ally. I could instead have discussed its relationship with Homo sapiens in terms of symbiosis.  Because it generates morphine, a plant which originated on a small strip of the Mediterranean coast now grows on six of seven continents. And while contentious at times, the relationship has by and large been mutually beneficial: most contemporary analgesics are derived directly or indirectly from opium poppies.

There's nothing mystical or pseudoscientific about symbiosis. Many flowering plants depend on pollen-carrying insects for propagation.  Others use sweet fruits to attract animals who will later scatter seeds (no pun intended) in their dung.  P. somniferum appears to use morphine as a tool to attract human attention and cultivation. This claim does not require recourse to supernatural explanations.  Nobody points to durian seeds in civet shit as proof of Intelligent Design. Neither does anybody dispute that humans can cause rapid evolutionary changes.

"Symbiosis" would be a perfectly acceptable word, one which correctly described poppy/human interaction. But it would not tell the whole story. In Heidegger's words, it would "[set] nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance [and order] its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way." It would leave intact what Galina Krasskova calls "the Monotheism filter:" it would reaffirm the comfortable notion that H. sapiens is set apart from every other living being on the planet, endowed by the Creator evolution with an immortal soul free will and the capacity for reason.

Throughout Power of the Poppy I suggest that poppy has agency and sentience.  You can take that as a metaphor if you like.  Read Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire: consider the ways in which we have improved the lives of rats and cockroaches.  From there you might reconsider humanity's place in the ecosystem.  Instead of reveling in our ability to manipulate our environment, you might realize how much our environment manipulates us.  Power of the Poppy could become not a teaching tool but a catalyst for "letting-learn," an experience which changes the way you relate to yourself and your surroundings.

Do I believe that poppies literally have sentience?  I'm not entirely convinced that humans are sentient.  The jury is still out on free will: evidence suggests reason is more often used to win arguments than to discover Truth.  Crows have complex societies. are capable of co-ordinated efforts, and pass knowledge down through generations.   Gerhard Roth and Ursula Dicke note that intelligence has appeared independently among different classes of vertebrates (birds and mammals) and among different orders of the same class (i.e. dolphins and chimpanzees).  Even cabbages may be able to remember and respond to information.   I think it exceedingly unlikely that poppies have developed anything which resembles human intelligence. The concerns of plants are not the concerns of toolmaking primates: their experience of space differs vastly from that of creatures endowed with mobility.  Hummel and I share a distaste for anthropomorphism. Where our thinking diverges is on anthrocentrism.

Hummel takes it as a given that humans can only interact with nonhumans in what Heidegger disciple Martin Buber would call an "I-it" relationship. Yet for much of human history we have felt it possible and even desirable to have an "I-thou" relationship with nonhumans, to treat them as beings rather than objects.  This does not, of course, mean that those beliefs are correct simply because of tradition (the argumetum ad antiquitatem fallacy).  But it suggests, to me at least, that the misunderstanding may be on our end rather than theirs. We view their experience through our own prejudices: we assume their conception of "gods," "spirits" and suchlike are identical to our own.  This conflation lets us dismiss traditional beliefs as superstitious nonsense. But it also leads us to think we are debunking delusions when we are merely burning straw men.