Home: Scrying: The Indefinable

The Indefinable

February 15, 2006

“For the love of species” will continue soon, but I’d like to pause for a check on perspectives. We tend to make assumptions about the world around us… That is, we are taught from an early age to sort things out into categories, even though such distinctions are merely conveniences. That can be a hard fact to swallow, especially if we encounter something that doesn’t easily fit into a category.

As I’ve discussed recently (here, here, and here,) morality is often frustratingly indefinable in this manner. The same goes for seasons (not only is my lotus trying to grow in the middle of a Colorado winter, but my yarrow as well.) Now, as I look at speciation, the theme returns. The idea of a species is a mere human convenience, representative of a group in an indefinably complex and dynamic system. In order to approach the topic with this understanding, I’d like to share several quotes and a biological koan.

This first one had a powerful impact on me. I had been working on my “dimensions of reality“ metaphysics outline, feeling a bit overwhelmed, and wondering if I’d lost touch with reality. Pondering the indefinable in Eldorado Canyon--or taking a pause to keep Gus from fishing in the icy creekMy only assurance was the works of Robert Pirsig, who seemed to have gone through similar struggles and drew similar conclusions. So, that day, I headed up to Eldorado Canyon, and found a boulder overlooking the creek, hoping to read Pirsig’s Lilaand clear my mind. Instead, when I ran across the following quote, I nearly fell off the rock. He captured the essence of the indefinable most beautifully, using the platypus as a metaphor for the fuzziness between subjective and objective:

Early zoologists classified as mammals those that suckle their young and reptiles as those that lay eggs. Then a duck-billed platypus was discovered in Australia laying eggs like a perfect reptile and then, when they hatched, suckling the infant platypi like a perfect mammal.

….What an enigma! it was exclaimed. What a mystery! …Even today, you still see occasional articles in nature magazines asking, “Why does this paradox of nature exist?”

The answer is: it doesn’t. The platypus isn’t doing anything paradoxical at all. It isn’t having any problems. Platypi have been laying eggs and sucking their young for millions of years before there were any zoologists to come along and declare it illegal….

“Subject-object metaphysics is characterized by hers of huge, dominating, monster platypi. The problems of free will versus determinism, of the relation of mind to matter, of the discontinuity of matter at the subatomic level, of the apparent purposelessness of the universe and the life within it are all monster platypi created by the subject-object metaphysics. Where it is centered around the subject-object metaphysics, Western philosophy can almost be defined as “platypus anatomy.“  (p. 116-117)


Henri Poincare captured the same essence in Value of Science:
If we ought not to fear moral truth, still less should we dread scientific truth. In the first place it cannot conflict with ethics…. But if science is feared, it is above all because it can not give us happiness…. Man, then, can not be happy through science but today he can much less be happy without it. Science is facts. Just as houses are made of stones, so is science made of facts. But a pile of stones is not a house and a collection of facts is not necessarily science.

Several bird nests in a tree behind near my home, revealed by the shadowy chill of winterBy the way, if you looked at the outline linked to above, you might notice I give credit to both Poincare and Pirsig for influencing my ideas on metaphysics. (Pirsig is referred to as “Phaedrus”, as he refers to himself in his novels.)

I’ll come back to this same theme again in “For the love of species.” But for now, as promised, I will leave you with a bit of a koan:

Is the nest of a bird artificial or natural?

Feel free to respond in the comments; Socratic discussion is encouraged.