Missing the point
I say that we’re missing the point simply because mankind’s study of the physical world around him has become the central and major focus of all of our sciences, to the detriment of a real understanding according to principles of metaphysical humanism. We have become accustomed to studying the trees, not the forest.
I can’t think of any better recent illustration of this issue than a story of a biology professor at an important New York University who took a group of PhD candidates to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. My wife and I are members, and we’ve spent many a Saturday morning strolling through the various exotic plant environments in the Conservatory.
In the Wall Street Journal article about this professor and her candidates, they came across an orchid that, as one student noted, had very peculiar leaves. The professor agreed, and waited for someone else to make a comment. But none of the PhD candidates seemed to understand why the leaves were unusual.
Finally, the professor explained that the reason the orchid was so difficult to identify was that there wasn’t just a single plant in the pot: it contained both a fern and an orchid.
The take-away from this was that the PhD candidates, who were undeniably well-educated in the field of microbiology and the art of lab study of plant tissue, didn’t know the difference between a fern and an orchid if they looked at one — something I am certainly aware of, even though my degree is in art. The mistake is so basic that the idea anyone could make it is astonishing; yet our sciences focus so much on the material, and on top of that so much on the micro – material, that we are producing a generation of human beings unable to know the difference between an orchid and a fern.
We’re missing the point.
The point, as it happens, was amply illustrated by Emmanuel Swedenborg, certainly one of the preeminent scientists of his own time — the age of Enlightenment — who clearly understood the difference between the physical and the spiritual world, that is, the difference between the material and the metaphysical. There is a world, he wrote, that transcends the physical world and lies, as we might say, “above” it. This world, which was understood to have metaphysical ( ideational or conceptual) characteristics beyond the obvious implication of the material, was well-known as long ago as during the classical Greek, and featured in Plato’s dialogues. It is, in summary, a world of meanings, not of physical things — and all understanding of physical things derives from it. One might argue, in fact, that the world of physical things as we know it is essentially dependent on it, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s get back, for a minute, to our PhD candidates who know how to look at things through microscopes and interpret major from the perspective of cellular biology and in DNA, but don’t know how to use their own eyes and ordinary senses to take in the world around them and understand it. If it sounds familiar, in a general sense, that’s because most of the world has become accustomed to using technology as a means of understanding, instead of our own senses and our own minds. The technology appears to make us stronger, but it is in fact weakening us substantially relative to our understanding of life in its organic nature. I’m reminded of the story Jared Diamond tells in Guns Germs and Steel, when the tribesman he was with in the jungle in Papua New Guinea laughed at him because he was too ignorant to know which mushrooms in the forest were reliably edible.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.