Back in March, when I wrote about my (potentially) fortunate encounter with Anne Ehrlich, Hank asked me where Visions “came from?” Since I claim to have seen one, he apparently thought I might have an answer. Some Visionaries may feel they do know, and the experience definitely seems to convey a sense of certainty with it, but, being from such a tradition of “hard science” as I am, all I can say is that I’ve pondered that question deeply ever since the experience, and still can’t say I have a firm sense of the answer.
One avenue of my thinking suggests very strongly that Visions are broadcast, not beamed, so that, despite our tendency to attribute them to only one person, it’s almost certainly the case that many people have the same perception, or a very similar perception, at about the same time as the person that gets the credit.
So, for example, Moses’ burning bush was merely a very concrete perception of a very widely held view that it was long overdue for the Israelites to take their future into their own hands and strike out for anywhere, even on their own into the desert. I wrote about that way of perceiving the events of the Exodus at some length in my book.
Of course, there’s also a firm certainty, justified or not, that all Visionaries seem to share, that the origin is outside themselves.
More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about how Isaac Newton’s discovery of the calculus is often told anecdotally as an “ah-ha” moment motivated by having been struck on the head by a falling apple. Most don’t know much about the history of Newton and the calculus, nor really the significance that his discovery of that discipline had.
First thing to know is that the calculus is certainly the greatest technological step man had made since the invention of the wheel. But to get a handle on Newton’s role you must also realize that it is known fact that Newton discovered the calculus twenty , or thirty, or I forget how many, years before sharing it with the world. And then he only revealed the method because Leibnitz, a young German (or was it French?) mathematician discovered it independently and asked the then already extremely famous Sir Newton to look it over before submitting it to be published. Scared that he wouldn’t get credit for his most important contribution to a new way of approaching real world problems of every sort, Newton immediately published his already carefully constructed theories on the subject. Today everyone knows of Newton’s role, and few realize Leibnitz’s. This seems to have been a common way academic types operated in those days, for the parallels between Darwin and Wallace can hardly be overlooked.
Basically, what Newton did, for years after his discovery of calculus, was to take solutions to problems he arrived at by using that technique and rewrite them in the language of the contemporary science of the day so that no one would be able to see the methods he’d truly used to arrive at the solution. Ironically, he built his whole reputation as being the world’s smartest man on the foundation of hiding his greatest invention from the world until forced to reveal it or loose the claim to its discovery.
Ever since learning of these facts I’ve struggled with the question of whether Newton was so great or not. On the one hand, the very discovery of the calculus clearly establishes his genius. Any one who truly understands how brilliant that approach to analysis, as teaching the subject for almost thirty years has shown me, cannot deny this fact. But, on the other, one has to question the ethics of an individual who would conceal such a breakthrough from the rest of the scientific community for decades merely to enhance his own reputation as the greatest mind since sliced bread (which they didn’t have at the time, of course). What if he’d been thrown from his horse or something? And, of course, there’d never been a Leibnitz?
Hell. What if there’d just never been a Leibnitz?
But I digress. The point I wanted to get at was that the building of the apple myth and the Visionary element attributed to Newton’s conception of the whole idea of the calculus is striking when one is trying to answer Hank’s question of “where do Visions come from?” Maybe the burning bush was once as metaphorical as the apple.
The calculus was such a revolutionary way of thinking about how to approach problems that it transformed many totally intractable questions into routine exercises. By changing the way he thought about approaching such questions, Newton changed the problems themselves from impossibly difficult to relatively easy. Such a revolution in thinking is probably only attributable to an insight of Visionary proportions.
But the insight itself may not be so complicated. It may mainly consist of merely a refocusing from the common way of thinking about the problems to taking a different tack which makes the solutions almost trivial. This breaks through the barriers of the conventional approaches by simply going about the whole process differently.
That is how I see my insight into the environmental question. We’re always focusing our efforts on questions of “how do we cope” with this or that environmentally disastrous result of some widely used technology or another. We repeatedly come up with solutions which eventually lead to greater environmental distress than we were under when the first problem was the concern of the day.
Thus the stink from horse manure was apparently relieved by the unnoticed odor from burning fossil fuel, which led us to the current trauma of the global warming threat of today. Nanotechnology (or something else) may give us an apparently new lease on life, who knows? But we also know nothing of the downsides that solution may eventually display.
The solution to spoilage via refrigeration led to the depletion of the ozone layer through the wide use of CFC’s. The introduction of lead into paints solved most of the bleaching difficulties that medium suffered from, only to result in a generation plagued with the effects of exposure to a very toxic substance throughout it’s youth. The examples are as rife as the stars were in the sky before we invented lights to hide them.
My insight, which came in a flash just like all the “ah-ha” experiences I ever had as a student learning mathematics, was that this is the way of all of our “solutions.” We are not going to find solutions to the environmental problems our society creates because the solutions themselves become the root causes of greater, usually totally unanticipated, problems. We are not going to solve the assaults on the environment for the simple reason that each solution is a new and worse assault lying in wait for the inevitable resurrection of newer, deeper, problems–at which time we’ll see our mistake. We are not going to make it in that way.
The earth is, thereby, doomed. And, therefore, Our only hope of eventual survival is too get off. That humans are almost certainly the cause is a minor issue once you realize that it’s not merely mankind that is threatened. It’s Gaia Herself. Thence the significance of “Our only hope” vs. “our only hope” becomes obvious.
That observation–those realizations–bring into stark clarity so much that it changes the whole game. Our attitudes must change if we are to succeed in saving the life from this planet, but they are so close to the bone or our culture that no one who fails to make this obvious connection–We’re not going to make it and, therefore, We’ve got to get off–will be able to change them.
Working alone, I could never hope to list all the transformations we must undertake, let alone explain how they might be implemented. This is a task for us all. But even the smartest of our scientists, unless they are able to see this bottom line, will find themselves victims of the dysfunctional approach that’s brought us to precisely this point in time.
So, let me turn Hank’s question back on him: Where does the “ah-ha” phenomenon come from? Is its origin any different when it addresses the concept of “a variable” vs. something really big, like “the calculus?” Is a Vision no more than a really big “ah-ha?”
I just don’t know. Nor do I know if it matters. What matters is whether we really are “saving it,” and, if not, then what? And how much time do we have/need?