A World of Beings

Professor Ralph Rowbottom

This paper develops and extends the concept of beings which forms an important part of the comprehensive presentation in the paper ‘A Philosophy For Living’. It rehearses the proposition that it is only through our interaction with other beings that we learn and grow, and that it is such intense and full interaction with both human and other beings that constitutes the true definition of love.

holism philosophy, physics and philosophy, on physics and philosophy

(This paper follows on from the section ‘A World of Beings’ in the paper ‘A Philosophy for Living’)

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me; for that I came.’
Gerard Manley Hopkins

How do we view the world around us? Whichever way it is inevitably affects the way we relate to it, the way we deal with it. It affects our whole lives.

The image projected by the main body of Western science and philosophy is something like this. The world is filled with a variety of material objects, some of which possess a mysterious and un-measurable quality called ‘consciousness’. Basically, each is composed of a fantastic system of atomic and sub-atomic particles all whirling around in space. It is doubtful however, if we can know the essential reality of any object before us, since all we can be certain about ultimately, are the various signals, visual, auditory, and so on, received by our sense organs and transmitted to our brains.

It is perhaps significant that when philosophers start talking about the reality and limits of perception, they so often invite us to think of things like chairs or tables (the common furnishings perhaps, of the seminar room). Rarely if ever are we asked to consider such objects as animals or human beings, and never in fact what constitute the most important things in our worlds from birth onwards, namely, people such as our mothers, fathers, partners, and children. To suggest that any of these must be seen basically as material objects, is a very curious idea. What is happening is that the philosophic approach (like the scientific one) is simply concentrating on what may be called the outerness of things, but ignoring their innerness, or at least, casting strong doubt on the possibility of having any reliable knowledge of it (see the paper ‘Outerness & Innerness: The Two Sides of Life‘).

In practice however, we would get nowhere in life if we did not find it as easy to know with considerable certainty, things about the inner state of others, as to observe their outerness. On innumerable occasions, we act with complete confidence based on what people think and feel, as well as what they look like or sound like. Moreover we all, I suggest, when faced with other people who we know well, share the common experience of knowing them as integral beings in the round, not just of continually having to make a series of interpretive guesses as to what hidden stuff lies behind the obvious and only-real physical presence.

Such thoughts lead to a rather different picture of things from the conventional one described above. In this alternative view the prime constituents of our world are not just physical objects  but what may be best described as beings of one sort or another; things which in general are as equally endowed with innerness of some kind as with outerness. A being is a thing that exists in its own right. It has its own particular character and behaviour. It can be explored, touched, tasted, or heard. The outerness of the being is its objectivity, its particular shape, colour, or timbre, its dimensions and duration, its position, or characteristic sequence in space and time. Its innerness is its subjectivity, its essence.

We come to recognise beings from our earliest infancy.  ‘Mother’ is probably the first separate being to be recognised. Other family members follow. Then there are cats and dogs, worms and butterflies, flowers and trees, tables and chairs, bricks and dolls… and so on, in an ever-extending experience.

The beings in our world are of huge variety. The most important beings in our lives, generally speaking, are the human ones. But animals, birds, insects, trees, plants, and even individual rocks and stones, can all be experienced in this way too, if we are willing to let ourselves do so. (Look at them, feel them; the vivid simplicities of the dog; the slow, patient life of the oak tree; the absolute is-ness of the boulder.)

Human artifacts constitute another important category. Machines and tools have their own particular quality of being. So do buildings, sculptures, and paintings. So too do plays, films, novels, symphonies, and songs. (In these last cases we need to distinguish two different levels of beings. First, there are individual performances or readings, which, though intangible and transient, are what these latter works of art are all about. Then there are the lasting media in which they are usually based – the books, the musical scores, the tapes, the digital discs, and so on.)

Nor finally, should we fail to take account of what can best be described as  ‘composite beings’. Individual households, with their rich mixture of particular human occupants, rooms, furnishings, pets, and plants, all have their own distinct character. So, on a larger scale, do separate villages and towns. So do complete terrains, with their different assemblages of animal, vegetable, and mineral elements, their complex combinations of the natural and the artificial.

Beyond all such is a whole variety of other things that have some of the characteristics of individual beings but not all: landscapes, banks of vegetation, clouds, winds, scents, noises…. Each may well be unique and capable of arousing some degree of feeling, but some cannot be either touched, seen, or heard, and most have quite indeterminate boundaries. So I am not proffering a picture of a world composed wholly and solely of distinct, individual, beings; but rather, one in which it is such beings, of various types, that provide the main significance and drama; playing out their roles against a continuous background of more primal and less determinate physical reality. What I am saying in effect, is that it is individual beings (of whatever variety or stage of evolution) that constitute the important structure of our world, and offer the main possibility of meaningful interaction and the growth of learning and love.

Beings are things that can be touched, seen, or heard.. They can elicit liking or disliking. Things like atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, and so on, often pictured as the ultimate realities, are not beings as here conceived. They are images invented, quite appropriately, by physicists, in order to help explain their observations. But even physicists cannot actually touch, see, or hear them. Nor are they objects of potential love or hate. Real beings are things you can relate to individually: atoms, and so on, are simply not like that. (See the third section in the paperThe Hubris of Physics.)

For each type of real being there is an appropriate relationship. Although for example we may often be tempted to treat pet dogs as though they were human, in doing so we impose the mask of make-believe people between ourselves and them, and so fail to experience the essence of dog-ness. All animals have things to teach us but they are not the same as those that people have to offer. Again, such an activity as hugging trees (a frequently-recommended New Age exercise) is fine, so long as we do not expect a human, or even animal, response, but are content to sense as best we can the infinitely-muted life which lurks in their solid trunks.

The different sorts of beings in our world can be seen as lying at different points in a long evolutionary chain. At the highest point are humans; each one unique, clearly-bounded to sight, highly complex, and apparent to all five senses. In the middle are various manifestations of animal and vegetable being: simpler, and less individual. At or beyond the other extreme are things like lakes, clouds, winds, scents, noises: much simpler again in structure, by no means clearly-bounded, and not always apparent to all the senses. Along this chain there is no definite point where vague, unbounded, beings end, and individual, clearly-bounded ones start. It seems that beings of the latter kind have gradually evolved over the aeons from those of the former kind: out of the original cloud of gases and spread of water has gradually emerged a line of creatures ever more individual, ever more complex. So the world does not consist wholly of separate, clearly-bounded beings. Nevertheless, it is these, and particularly the more evolved and complex amongst them, which provide the main significance and drama in our lives, playing out their roles against a primal, unformed, background.

As already noted, academic philosophy often seems to view the human situation as that of a series of isolated individuals each of whom faces a bombardment of sensations from some essentially-unknowable external reality. (No wonder that feelings of alienation are so common amongst intellectuals!) In the alternative view offered here, the world is seen as a forum in which beings of many kinds are in constant interaction. No one being is, or ever could be, in isolation from others. ( The psychologist Donald Winnicot pointed out that no infant can exist in the world all alone; the basic unit for survival is that of mother-cum-child.)

It is only through interaction with other beings that we learn. Interacting with our mothers (or mother-substitutes) we start to learn, simultaneously, how they operate and how we operate, how they feel just as how we feel. We start to learn how to communicate our thoughts to them, and how to listen to what they in turn are communicating to us. From other family members and first friends, we start to learn how human beings vary. Confronted with household pets or other animals, we learn just what is possible by way of interaction with beings of this sort, what they will tolerate, and what they will not. By playing with stones or pieces of wood we learn about inanimate beings, their properties, their limitations, their dangers. Later, we learn from the many delights offered by books, sound-recordings, and video-recordings. We learn how to use various tools and machines, what each can do, and what each needs by way of looking after.

Of course, we do not like or get on with all the different beings that we meet or come in contact with. Some, we positively hate. (Think not only of your attitude to different people, but also to various books, films, or pieces of music.) But if personal development for each of us proceeds as it should through life, we come gradually to establish strong and deep relationships with an increasingly wide and varied range of beings – people, animals, plants, works of art, and so on. And deeply relating to another being – which is the best and most comprehensive definition of loving – is not just having a wash of warm emotion towards it. It requires being fully aware of all aspects of this being, outer and inner, and considering fully all its different needs and potentials.

Inanimate things can be properly related to, according to their different natures, just as animate ones can. Motorcycles can be repaired and cleaned with loving attention (to choose the well-known example expounded in Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘.) Kitchens and bathrooms, offices and factories, can all be turned into temples of different sorts (to follow Zen ideas in another direction). It seems now possible that even vegetables and plants grow better if given tender loving care. And as all good craftsmen know, each specimen of timber, masonry, or metal, needs to be handled with respect for its own particular characteristics if it is to give of its best. (You might say, that the better we love other beings, the better they, according to their different types, love us in return – that there is a reciprocity at work.)

The image of the world as essentially material, as some sort of immense billiard table of mechanical interactions, is both inadequate and stultifying. The alternative view of the world as a theatre or forum in which a variety of different beings of greater or lesser consciousness and vitality are in constant interplay, is not only a more comprehensive one, but one which positively stimulates development. For as we have seen, it is only through recognising and relating to other beings that human development occurs.

Relating deeply and fully is loving. The ideal of the growth of love is one that threads through all great religious teaching. Ultimately perhaps, it is the love of Being itself, Being in its totality (whatever name we may choose to give it), that we may come to. But this is just the crowning stage. It does not replace, but only adds to, recognition of the myriad individual manifestations of Being which make up our familiar world, and the work of learning to relate to each as fully as we can.


All readers are welcome to use this material for what ever purposes they may have. When doing so, please attribute authorship to Professor Ralph Rowbottom.

holism philosophy, physics and philosophy, on physics and philosophy

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