The Intelligence of Earth

skepticI’ve never been much good at being “right-brained”. In fact, I’m not even sure how legitimate the “right-brain / left-brain” distinction is anymore, or if its scientific basis, assuming it ever had such, is still legitimate. What I mean to say, terminology aside, is that I have always approached questions, issues, and experiences analytically and logically and with attention to the “down-in-the-weeds” details, i.e., supposedly with my “left brain”. Partly this is because of my native temperament; partly this is because of my academic training in math and physics. Oh, I fully recognize that people can have flashes of insight and intuitive apprehensions. I have had such myself. But my knee-jerk response is always to do post facto critiques based on the rational, “left-brained” criteria of logic and evidence. Well … almost always … there have been exceptions …

One such exception was my “visionary” experience at my father-in-law’s funeral. Another was afforded by my exposure to the Ten Ox-Herding Paintings that was so instrumental in my recovery from “vocation fixation”. Another – the latest and the most gradual – is my growing conviction that the earth and its environment – climate, weather, oceans, plants, animals, the evolutionary process, the very geophysical dynamics of the deepest earth under our feet – all evince behavior one may reasonably describe as “intelligent”. Maybe even “conscious”. I am even more firmly convinced, once we broaden our definition of “intelligence” and “consciousness” to include “non-human-centric” modes of cognition, that, while neither rational nor conscious, the environment may reasonably termed “para-rational” or “para-conscious”, i.e., rational and conscious according to principles other than the principles that govern human intelligence and human consciousness. Hamlet was right: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy … “. So I guess you could call me somewhat oxymoronically a “naturalistic mystic”: matter and spirit are no more sharply divided than matter and energy.

Diane and I have a small house on the beach on the easternmost point of the Big Island of Hawaii, Cape Kumukahi.  The ocean is literally a couple dozen yards outside our front door in the form of a calm little inlet.  That inlet is the habitat of a large colony of sea turtles.  When we visit, the turtles are always there, cavorting in the gentle surf of the inlet. So we always take some portable plastic chairs out to the edge of the inlet, put them in the shade of the sea-grape and palm trees, drink our beer or Cokes, and go "turtle watching".  We have seen as many as 20 turtles in 2 hours. Maybe it's just my imagination, but I always have a strong sense that the turtles always know we are there, and pop to the surface to see us as much as we go to the sea's edge to see them.  I always feel ... well ... regarded ... attended to.  Known.  (The turtles are a protected species in Hawaii, and our neighbors around the rim of the inlet are always very careful to leave them undisturbed.)  DSC00571There, more than perhaps anywhere else, I always catch a sense of how seamlessly the web of life is woven, a sense that gets me out of my Cartesian consciousness that says I'm here; the world is there; we are separate and apart.  That sense of separateness, of apart-ness is what allows us to believe that we can manipulate, and even abuse, the world, its resources, and its environment without consequence, damaging the world even as we ourselves escape damage.  The turtles always remind me otherwise, not on a level that my left brain can access, but on a level both beneath and beyond my carefully crafted Kevlar layer of cynicism and skepticism, on the level of the glands and of life's most primal juices.

I also caught a sense of that wholeness the first time I visited the Grand Canyon.  One of the most vivid memories I took away from that awesome place was of myself standing alone on the rim of the Canyon, a few hundred yards away from the visitors' center.  It was a sunny day, cloud shadows drifting over the Canyon, and there was a group of Native Americans back at the visitors' center giving an exhibition of religious chant and dancing.  I stood on the edge looking out over the vast expanse of strata through which the Colorado River had carved a channel over the millennia, listening to the primal rhythms of the drums, the flutes, and the chants, and watching a hawk as it soared from north to south.

DSC00637I remember having this eerie, even numinous, sense of having been transported back in time 500 years -- and yet, in another way, of time becoming irrelevant altogether, utterly suspended in the reality of the moment.  I seemed to belong there, not as a visitor, least of all as an interloper, but as a part of the vista that was somehow, in a manner beyond all words, necessary, even essential.

But a characteristic of all entities that are conscious and intelligent in any sense of those terms, "para" or otherwise, is the drive to defend themselves.  In this sense, also, the earth -- including its climate -- acts with (para-)intelligence to a degree we are only now beginning to dimly appreciate.  Let's acknowledge up front that the full spectrum of consequences of human-driven climate change have yet to become evident.  Certainly there is an important difference between "climate" and "weather".  Isolated storms, even on the scale of hurricanes, are not necessarily attributable to global warming.  But if current models of climate change are even approximately accurate, the conclusion is inescapable that the climate is showing signs that, if displayed by biological species, would be regarded as self-defensive, often even violent. In "The Dry Salvages," the third of his great Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot wrote I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river / Is a strong, brown god -- sullen, untamed, and intractable, / Patient to some degree ... / Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of what men choose to forget. / ... Unhonored, unpropitiated / By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting. Even in a time that is in the process of becoming painfully aware of the consequences bp14of large-scale climate change, our conceptions of the world and its climate tend to still be controlled by Wordsworthian Romantic paradigms of female gentleness and nurturing. But all conscious and intelligent beings, when backed into a corner, can and usually do resort to violence to defend themselves, and at most are only "waiting, watching and waiting".

Contemporary climate science is beginning to teach us in the early 21st century what quantum mechanics began to teach us in the early 20th:  that the observer is an integral part of what is being observed, and that the actions of the former influence, even to the point of determining, what is seen in the latter. We need not go as far as to endorse a form of the Gaia theory that implies actual conscious or para-conscious purpose, any more than we need to infer purpose from the statistical formalism of quantum theory.  But we certainly can agree that both climate science and quantum theory offer a way out of the dead-end dualism of Descartes. The salient difference is that, in quantum theory, if we divorce ourselves from the phenomena we observe, we will not be able to sustain a coherent view of physical phenomena, whereas if we divorce ourselves from the earth's climate, we will not be able to sustain life itself.

Categories: Spirituality


  1. PoetJanstie said on September 18, 2014
    Very well articulated reminder of our responsibilities, JRC. I recognise the same tendencies of my own analysis of life on earth for the same reasons - that is my own engineering background and fondness of physics as a tool to explain as well as analyse the phenomena that we observe. You have put into far greater detail and articulated far better my own feelings about the (non-human) world, when I wrote "Chalice" [] over on the Bardo. You might also like to read Michael Watson's insightful piece, "In Wilderness is The Preservation of The World" []. Thank you writing this and to Terri for hosting it. I enjoy reading your contributions.
  2. Terri said on September 18, 2014
    I remember Chalice! This: "But if current models of climate change are even approximately accurate, the conclusion is inescapable that the climate is showing signs that, if displayed by biological species, would be regarded as self-defensive, often even violent." I would like it in larger font, bolder, with shiny stars pointing at it, please. :) Thanks, James!
    1. jrcowles said on September 18, 2014
      Well, I was trying to steer clear of the misconception, bequeathed to us by the European, especially English, Romantics -- thank you, Messrs. Wordsworth & Blake & Keats! -- that Nature, being female, is invariably & necessarily mothering & nurturing ... which is blatantly sexist when you think about it. It implies that (1) men cannot be nurturing and (2) Nature can never be a bitch-goddess. But Nature can be a bitch-goddess, especially when provoked. Eliot says Nature keeps her "seasons and ... rages" -- though he succumbs to the sexist stereotype & casts the "river" in male terms. I think one consequence of conceiving of Nature in Romantic / female terms is that doing so entails the consequence that we can do anything we want to Nature & "she" will -- like any respectable Victorian wife -- just "lie back and think of England" & never protest. Nature-as-passively acquiescing is very much a (male!) Victorian idea. If the controlling metaphor had been coined by, e.g., Virginia Woolf, matters would be much different!
      1. Terri said on September 18, 2014
        There are a few metaphors that I think are funny and just prove that some men haven't a clue. The beautiful, poetic scripture in Job about nature...the fish teaching us, the birds, etc., that I've used this week. Really? Orcas are violent, no?! Vultures? Eagles? :) And in the Bible where Jesus is all, "Be a child." Clearly proves he has never had kids. ... poop, temper tantrums, stubbornness, etc. ... I appreciate going against type. Because the truth is, it is both/and.

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