Accelerating Self-Decolonization With A New View of Life

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My ancestors go back through Ireland, England, Denmark, Germany, Austria, all the way back to the cradle of the earliest form of my recognizable ancestry on the Central Asian and Eastern-European steppe. My people worked for empire and civilization for a long, long time. And so decolonization looks very different for me than for indigenous peoples just a few generations into coercion to collaborate on this modern project.

For me, fully embodying the fundamentally different, animist perception of life, continues to challenge me. But year by year I make progress. I believe the only way “away-from” destructive and rapacious modern technological mythologies lies through them. Which means that we must find our animism there, somehow.

I have seen some amount of attention on a new physical theory of life, based primarily in physics rather than in biology as we know it. A professor at M.I.T. recently has gotten a lot of attention from the media, and in his view we can talk about life, in physics, as structures of energy diffusion, that naturally emerge in a field of energy work (sunlight, tidal waves, geothermal marine vents, etc.), as what-we-think-of-as matter aligns and forms into structures that more and more efficiently diffuse that energy – structures that once they get complex enough and self-replicate, adapt, and so on, that we feel compelled to call them life.

Christopher Alexander’s 4-volume book, the Nature of Order, offers another view on this very same thing. In his view, matter and space-time naturally wants to differentiate itself into more and more “whole”, coherent structures that we eventually call “life”.

My friend and fellow tracker Garth Olson, co-host of the Art of Tracking podcast, also introduced me to Constructal Law, another way of looking at the puzzle; that what we think of as (dead) matter aligns and forms into structures that more efficiently accommodate flows of energy into a natural system – we eventually call this too “life”.

You can see our direction by now.

All of this fundamentally connects with the world of complexity sciences, where science looks at systems that are far from equilibrium, high-dimension, and open, calling them “complex”.  Living and non-living systems cannot be distinguished through this lens – a galaxy, or a village, can be viewed intelligibly and usefully with the same perspective.

In my opinion, these points of view, these approaches, all fall in the category of “western science slowly creeping towards animism”. I don’t think the scientists would necessarily agree with me, but as time goes on indigenous points of view become more relevant, not less, which ought to surprise you.

With this point of view, Carl Sagan’s “demon-haunted universe” gets its demons back – but these demons generate insights, rather than blunting curiosity out of fear, as Sagan once worried. By recognizing spirits and demons we can interact with complex systems that we normally wouldn’t call “alive”, from a scientific perspective, and yet they have as real an influence on the world as me. The internet for example, has as much life as any other complex being – and its impact is unfathomable. Ideas, stories, Richard Dawkin’s almost robotic notion of cultural “memes” that at once seem both slave and master to human beings, rather than that notion demoting life to artifice and dead matter, we can promote them to the status of fully “living” agents – because we understand that all of space-time lives. Emptiness has life – fullness has life. The Tao Te Ching famously speaks to this.

Christopher Alexander might jump in here and say – “Well, sure, but also remember that everything also has degrees of life.” And I would agree with him – in the sense of places, times, stories, people, can become fully alive, or they can fall asleep, so that they have very little influence. In this talk about degrees of life, Alexander doesn’t refer to their value, he points to their impact and level of complexity. These complex beings – rivers, storms, cultures, recipes – may even die and return to feeding the rest of life. But they never stop participating in the space-time field of life. They never lose their fundamental aliveness.

I believe when I can embody that a story told, or watched on a screen, has as much life and agency as myself, that I will have really integrated something deep about diffusion structures, constructal law, complex systems, and most of all – animism. 

Written by Willem