A friend recommended Harding’s Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth after a late night beer conversation that was one of those sort of soul-searching / meaning of life chats you have often in college… or after a year of pandemic lock-down.
Harding veers (especially later in the book) towards religious apologist territory, but I did appreciate his reaction to modern science with a sense of reverence (vs despair).
It is a great counterpoint to Arendt’s Human Condition (she basically argues scientific instruments like telescopes and microscopes enable us to view nature as fodder for our infinite production/consumption machine) whereas Harding takes a more reverent view and kind of says these instruments can free us from false anthropocentric POV / see a sort of divine in nature.
Here are some of my favorite bits…
We don’t have access to the world as it is:
341 If the foregoing account is in the main true, I can only know what happens in a part of my brain, at the terminus of the incoming train of events. The outer world is an inference. Worse, I must confess it to be the wildest of guesses, when I bear in mind all the hazards of that long journey, with its variety of vehicles, and the business of changing vehicles so often, and above all the immense discrepancy between the universe at one end and the brain cell at the other. To believe that ‘the world I see’ here is anything like ‘the world as it is’ there, is blindest faith, making belief in the most colourful miracles of religion seem cautious realism.
Besides, the entire story from sun to cortex is itself more than suspect. For it is impossible to throw doubt upon what this apparatus is supposed to reveal, without throwing doubt also upon the apparatus itself. And so, if I take the scientist’s tale seriously, I am not even left with that tale, but only with my private collection of coloured and moving shapes, which may have no relevance whatever to any universe beyond themselves.
Harding argues that all POVs (for him as observer) are both subjective and objective, because there every POV must contain outward location / reference / relationships to the whole:
437 (Of course I may abstract from the strictly indivisible mind-body complex as many part-functions as I please, and call some mental and others physical. For instance, noting in my objects here such common characteristics as painfulness, promise, interest, marvellousness, on the one hand, and such common characteristics as roundness, redness, movement, weight, on the other hand, I may feel the practical need for a distinction between the two classes. Nevertheless this distinction is not between the psychical and the physical, between mind and body, but between two aspects of the mind-body complex. For all these qualities belong impartially to mind and to body, seeing that every view out from one centre is a view in to another, and there are no views which are not views out. I can find here no experience which is merely central and subjective, which has no outer location or reference, and which is not a part of the way my regional objects come to themselves in me.
Necessity is the child of invention (the tail wags the dog):
908 Yet it is not so much this growth as its correlated ungrowth which is the essential human achievement. I should be less and not more alive if it took a surgical operation to remove my house and my overcoat, if my piano were built of cells, if my wings sprouted from my shoulder-blades like an angel’s. It is more important that the telephone and the pen should die the moment I put them down, than that they should spring to life the moment I pick them up. But too often necessity is the child of invention. If we do not keep killing our tools they will make us their tools and finally kill us. The appendage I cannot do without is a malignant growth, a shirt steeped in the poison of Nessus.
I like this idea of “peripheral mortality.”
917 Though the secret of their living unity lies in their disunity and unlikeness, yet the inner and the outer organ, as stages of a single development, have much in common. The new evolutionary venture does not contradict what it extends.
Let me give examples. An organ develops by adaptation to its environment; and so, also, does the tool which buds at the end of it. Thus my fins are prolonged into legs, and my legs into wheels and caterpillar-tracks, by progressive adjustments to conditions on land. I develop also by integration, as when, ceasing to be one cell, I become many specialized cells; and as when, much later, this multicellular organism expands to include a car which unites such separate specialized devices as the wheel, the spring, the internal combustion engine, and many more. Now the result of such modes of development is variation (the emergence of minor novelties) and mutation (the emergence of more important novelties) first among protoplasmic organs and then among their outgrowths. In both stages of evolution life advances by alternately crawling and leaping: there comes a moment when the improvement of the old device cannot go much further, and a new departure is needed. And variations and mutations are alike subject to selection—first a wasteful sifting of the unfit, giving place at last to more economical and deliberate methods: the mounting scrap-heap is the price of progress, but we have learned to throw the organ away instead of the organism. Man is the deciduous animal: acceptance of peripheral mortality is the secret of his survival. Nevertheless advance is not always assured: there is much degeneration. Thus only vestiges remain of my tail and fur, and all that is left of my turned-up cuff is a row of dummy button-holes. Conversely, there is exuberance, the tendency for organs to go on developing far beyond what is needed: the human head of hair, and its further elaboration into hats, are instances.
It is up to us to choose the hierarchy of life over death – sort of like optimism vs pessimism is a choice. This section borders on a bit of argument that what is beautiful is true, which is tenuous, but I think the choice part is spot on:
1485 (x) Again, if our aesthetic and moral preferences are deep-rooted in life and in the cosmos itself, then it is absurd to suppose that they are no guide to the nature of the cosmos. Of course we are apt to mistake our desires—and, conversely, our fears—for fully established facts. But to give up regulated wishful thinking for unregulated fearful thinking is neither practical nor reasonable; and, seeing that we cannot suspend judgment but must live by faith of one sort or another, let us then choose the beautiful and magnanimous and heartening alternative—the hierarchy of life and not death. Certainly it is no mark of wisdom to say: the more exalted and universal and compelling our intuitions, the less they have to do with the universe that produces them in us.
Artistic creation requires slowing down and periods of waiting:
2118 A further complication comes from what may be called delayed correspondence. Obviously the speed of the postal service is not the only factor which settles the tempo of our communication; how long we take to reply is another determinant. And the hierarchical rule is that only routine letters can be answered by return of post: the others are held up for reference to higher authority, and this takes time. The more important the issue, the higher the level which settles it, and the longer we must wait for a decision. In fact, however, this higher correspondence is not other than the lower, but only its larger rhythms apprehended. Our lesser correspondence is overruled and brought round in the long run. And our freedom lies in our recognition of this control. We realize the hierarchy above us by delaying our responses, by slowing down. That is why thought and prayer and artistic creation need, between seeking and finding, between the conscious posing of the problem and the answer to it, long periods of waiting while less conscious levels are consulted.
– from Harding’s Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth