Gaian Axioms

The final wisdom of life requires not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity
within and above it —Reinhold Niebuhr

Preamble It has often been said and can hardly be denied that science is the view from nowhere. Science is as close as it is possible for humans to approach the mind of god, or gods if you prefer. Yet we are humans, not gods, and it is hubris to think otherwise and dangerous to wish it so. Some other way of knowing is called for, some way that brings into dynamic balance the view from nowhere with the view from somewhere, which is the view from lived experience. The view I’m gesturing to here is a view that, in principle at least, would enable deep reconciliation between our lived experience – how things feel to us – and its external referents – what things are, at least in a scientific frame.

I go on about this because to me it seems important in these Pandoracenean times, first, to appreciate that the processes that shape the unfolding of the Living World are qualitatively other than our normal modes of speaking and thinking, and second, and to this end, to have on hand a workable set of axioms on which to base our lives – Gaian axioms, let’s call them. For only once we begin to apprentice to Gaian modes of seeing/thinking/being can we begin also to lay the foundations to lifeways that place us, or can, into right, sustaining relation with the only world we’ll ever know.

Taken as a whole, I think you’ll find me a rather stout cheerleader for what I call a top-down view of life. The following “Gaian axioms” are the exception to this rule, needing to be grasped, if at all, from bottom-up. According to Merriam-Webster, an axiom is a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true. Note that while Euclidean axioms and the axioms of mathematics are stand-alones, Gaian axioms necessarily overlap, lean into one another; such is the nature of life. In any case, and to get most mileage from the Gaian axioms outlined below, the first step is to consider their meaning carefully, which takes some doing, and the second step is to practice applying them in your day-to-day. In time, you’ll find they begin to bridge the existential divide that separates how it feels (to be you) and what it is (to be a citizen of Gaia).

Yes, I do go on about this, and I do so because we now live in the Pandoracene, a time of daunting uncertainty in the unfolding of human destiny, a time when each of us, according to capacity, needs to look sharp, look carefully about, and take stock as never before. No longer can humanity afford to silo itself without remainder into two solitudes called the arts and the sciences. We need cross-over. We need some kind of conceptual bridge by means of which at least some of us can stand in both places at once: one foot in the sciences, the other in the arts. The following Gaian axioms are intended as abutments to such a bridge. As for the bridge itself, if there is ever to be a bridge, that’s for you to build, as indeed to cross. May the gods of apprenticeship be with you.

First Approximation


n setting forth the following “Gaian Axioms,” I’m well aware, indeed painfully aware, that some/many/all of them are in need of elaboration, fine-tuning and, in a few cases, closer fit with the facts of the case. All of this I hope to attend to in months and years ahead. In the mean time, perhaps they’ll prompt a lively campfire conversational or two here at Edgewood Blue.

puzzle pieces from wikimedia
  1. [sc]PAST AND FUTURE:[/sc] Viewed from perspective of our lived experience of life, the past and the future are two very different, fundamentally incompatible quantities. Thus the past is always emergent outcome (see below) that can only ever be experienced from without, while the future is lived experience that can only ever be experienced from within.
  2. [sc]THE LIFE/NONLIFE DISTINCTION:[/sc] Plato and other early thinkers posited that existence cleaves most naturally along the “shadow-formal” or “body-spirit” joint – insights eventually codified in Christianity and then later taken up in and amplified by Descartes. But Plato and Christianity and Descartes were mistaken. In fact existence cleaves naturally only along the life/nonlife joint; and here it is that science has found the way forward.
  3. [sc]LIFE:[/sc] Life is matter that matters.
  4. [sc]NONLIFE:[/sc] Nonlife is matter that doesn’t matter.
  5. [sc]CONVERSATION:[/sc] The essence of life as process is interchange, conversation. To be alive is to engage endlessly in multiple conversations simultaneously: cell with cell, organ with organ, self with self, inside with outside, outside with inside, before with now, now with before, and now, to some degree, with the future.
  6. [sc]INFORMATION:[/sc] Life’s multitudinous dialogues turn on the continuous exchange of information which, as tidily defined by Gregory Bateson, can be thought of as a difference that makes a difference.
  7. [sc]THE SHAPE OF EVOLUTION VIEWED FROM WITHOUT:[/sc] Seen from the outside, evolutionary process moves forwards backwards, say like a janitor cleaning up while backing out of a room. Thus, evolution advances through time by the endless elaboration of novel forms nearly all of which then get consigned to the evolutionary dustbin by natural selection.
  8. [sc]THE SHAPE OF EVOLUTION VIEWED FROM WITHIN:[/sc] I learn by going where I have to go. This well-known line from the poem The Waking by Theodore Roethke has two very different meanings simultaneously: I learn where to go by going and I learn by going there. This double entendre captures nicely the insight that the evolution of life moves forwards backwards, as outlined above, while at the same time learning to move backwards more effectively, through practice.
  9. [sc]ECOSYSTEM-ORGANISM:[/sc] Ecosystems can helpfully be thought of as diffuse organisms, while organisms, for their part, are compact organisms. Situated half way between ecosystems and organism are lichens and Gaia.
  10. [sc]THE GAIA HYPOTHESIS:[/sc] James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis postulates that life on Earth has sustained itself over 3.8 billion years through the constant creation and thermostatic adjustment of environmental conditions suited to its own thriving.
  11. [sc]THE SHAPE OF GAIA:[/sc] Whereas evolution advances forwards backwards through the combined elaboration and elimination of species, Gaia operates at a higher plane and instead advances forwards forwards. It does so through the elaboration and durable maintenance of evolutionary lineages – an insight discussed in the next Axiom.
  12. [sc]FEEDBACK LOOPS:[/sc] As mentioned later under [sc]IT’S THE SONG, NOT THE SINGER[/sc], life sustains itself by means of feedback loops, wherein cause-as-effect cycles round and round – cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect – that can either amplify a trend (positive feedback) or damp it (negative feedback) More about this under the next axiom.
  13. [sc]RECURSION VIEWED FROM WITHOUT:[/sc] Life systems don’t cycle round in the manner of a bicycle wheel, but more like the threads of a screw narrowly set. Thus, each revolution brings about an all-but-imperceptible readjustment to the perception of change, as expressed, for example, in the following lines by American poet Carl Dennis: Seasons repeat themselves, but the tree / shading the yard keeps growing. This is called recursion.
  14. [sc]RECURSION VIEWED FROM WITHIN:[/sc] But while recursion isn’t hard to conceptualize when viewed from the outside, it’s much more difficult to articulate from within. The following line by the American poet Theodore Roethke is internally recursive: I learn by going where I have to go. So is the definition of a niche: A niche is an ecological space that gets created in the act of being occupied. And so is this statement about the nature of language: Language both reflects and shapes how we see the world. What’s common to all of these examples is the way each of them moves forwards backwards and backwards forwards simultaneously. Such is the syntax of life.

[Incidentally, this little foray into feedback loops and recursion helps explain why physics, which describes inanimate matter, is finally more tractable than biology, which deals with life. For with physics you have to scale way up to the very large (as in the three body problem) or way down to the very small (as in quantum mechanics) before you come to indeterminism, whereas with biology indeterminism lies right on the surface. At the same time, it underscores the fundamental limitations of the scientific worldview at the core of our reductive Enlightenment mindset – a mindset better suited to the so-called hard sciences (physics and chemistry) than to the so-called soft sciences (biology, ecology and earth systems science).]


  3. [sc]THE LICHEN RULE[/sc]

Next up: Enlichenment