Awakening from Our Cartesian Sleep: Intimate and Satisfactory Relations

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William James, the grandfather of American psychology, was also one of the grandfathers of what he called “panpsychist pluralism.” In his 1909 Hibbert Lectures, he suggested,

“Not to demand intimate relations with the universe, and not to wish them satisfactory, should be accounted signs of something wrong.” (James, 1909/2016, p. 33)

As humans awaken from modernity’s utopian dream (what I call our “Cartesian sleep”), we realize that something is terribly wrong. I call this a Cartesian sleep because philosopher Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) formulation of cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) increased an already present emphasis on the human thinking mind as the seat of Earthly consciousness. This emphasis on human consciousness as the only seat of sentience magnified an already increasing imagined separation between humans and the more-than-human world. From Descartes’ time forward, an ontological chasm opened between man and nature, and culture and nature; this is often called by some philosophers a bifurcation, because it split the world of humans off from the rest of the cosmos. Eventually humans perceived of nature (and all nonhumans) as a static backdrop to a dominant human culture. Humans in this supposedly separate and exceptional culture fell into a sort of slumber, not perceiving of the dazzling animate universe around us, full of interactive, intersubjective selves. Descartes was in fact so convinced that humans were the only center of consciousness, sentience and agency in an insentient world, that he invented the practice of vivisection: invasive experiments on living animals. He attributed nonhuman screams and struggles to mechanical reactions. Anyone who thinks we have transcended this kind of Cartesian thinking need only observe what goes on in laboratories, factory farms and fur farms to understand that this attitude continues to pervade our human societal systems.

Cartesian solipsism and the myth of separation tore some humans away from their intrinsic empathic connection with the more-than-human world.  Insensitive to the plight of this animate planet with its many subjective selves on many scales, humans failed to recognize the early warnings systems of nonhuman kin that there was something deeply wrong. Failure to demand intimate and satisfactory relations with the more-than-human world has led to what many now call the Anthropocene, an age characterized by the cumulative impact of human behaviors that have permanently altered Earth’s dynamic and complex systems of regeneration.

The Anthropocene’s many alarm bells blare and awaken humans rather abruptly from Cartesian sleep. The Anthropocene compels us to respond, as highly volatile and less predictable systems demand our attention. Human behaviors have sped an irreversible cascade of systemic disruptions in the biospheric disequilibrium that has created and regenerates our world and all that we are, and all that we have known up until now. Nature is not, as it turns out, a static backdrop for human culture, but rather a complex creative process in which all beings and systems of beings participate. The way in which we participate impacts other beings and systems by way of recursivity; the “to and fro” between systems. The alteration of regenerative recursivity has disrupted cascades of subsystems (human and nonhuman) on many scales.

The Anthropocene interrupts our delusions of the primacy of progress, unbridled extraction and unlimited growth, as the many cascades of systemic dysfunction engender pervasive nihilism and no sense of futurity among many human populations. Mass extinction events increase, desertification looms, acidification of oceans speeds the death of coral reefs, glacial melt threatens to unleash dormant microbes, plastic pollution pervades even ecosystems remote from human populations. Massive migrations uproot both human and nonhuman societies; those populations of humans and nonhumans without refuge increase. Both humans and nonhumans—all planetary societies at many scales—share this sense of uncertainty. Especially palpable is the sense of urgency for those who are the most vulnerable to these changes. From migrating humans to migrating birds, Earthlings continue to lose their dwellings to ecological and political upheavals; these upheavals are intrinsically intertwined.

Why this catastrophic cascade of troubles? I would suggest, though the answer is undeniably complex, that perhaps a subtler underlying answer on the level of consciousness might be found in that Jamesian articulation of a cautionary tale: humanity’s failure to demand that their individual and collective systems sustain intimate and satisfactory relations with the universe at many scales. A truly pluralist planetary society (one that works for diverse humans and nonhumans) cannot emerge from worldviews of domination, mastery, opposition and separation. Rather, humans need a new understanding of the world as full of other sentient beings with their own needs, desires and agency. Supporting those more-than-human needs, desires and expressions of agency, it turns out, recursively benefits humans. This is the dawning realization of awakening from a Cartesian sleep into the reality of entanglement; life's regeneration inevitably depends upon diverse interspecies collaborations. 

How might we develop intimate and satisfactory relations? Developing intimacy with the universe could mean becoming available to experiences of the more-than-human world. This could be as simple as planting and caring for a tree, or connecting with a nonhuman friend deeply with care, or even becoming curious about the thoughts and feelings of diverse beings. Developing satisfactory relations could mean becoming committed to engaging in compassionate interspecies kinships and unexpected caring creative alliances with diverse humans and nonhumans at a tenuous time that compels us to recognize how inescapably entangled we are in this mess, and how profoundly we need each other.