Sentience of Trees

Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees — to name one example — with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.



— Barbara Kingsolver, writing in the NYTimes,
reviewing The Overstory by Richard Powers



Inquire within

Inside each of us is a fount of knowledge, an intuitive sense of what is real.  It is there when we quiet our minds’ flow of words and focus on open-ended questions.  But we are given to know only so much as we can assimilate and use in our lives. As we step into a wider scope of action and take on larger challenges, the knowledge we need will be available.

— Josh Mitteldorf

A century before Bach

A fountain of gardens, a cascade of living waters, streams from Lebanon.  Awake, O north wind, and come, thou, south!  Blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat partake of its gifts.

Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice: cause me to hear it.  Make haste, my beloved, to this mountains of spices.

In 1584, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina set the entire Latin text of the Song of Songs to music.

William James on Immortality

Immortality is one of the great spiritual needs of man.— William James

A generation before Freud and on the other side of the Atlantic, William James laid foundations for an empirical science of psychology.  Compared to Freud, James was less theoretical, more open-minded.  He styled himself a radical empiricist, and led a philosophic movement away from religion and dogma, rooted in what we can see and hear and measure in nature.

In this essay, James argued famously that there is no such thing as consciousness, which would align him with the most extreme materialist views of Daniel Dennett.

How delightfully surprising, then, to discover that James found support for the belief that the human experience does not end with the death of our physical bodies.  As always, he is balanced and open-minded, presenting arguments on both sides.  He (130 years ago) leans toward a view which I had considered rather modern: that our brains are not the source of conscious awareness, but rather a translator, a transceiver, an intermediating device for conducting awareness into and out of the physical realm from its natural home in a world that knows no space and time.

In 1893, Caroline Haskell Ingersoll bequeathed an endowment to Harvard University, for the purpose of sponsoring annual lectures on the subject of human immortality.  This  lecture series included Alfred North Whitehead, Robert J. Lifton, Marian Wright Edelman, and (recently) Toni Morrison.  The second Ingersoll Lecture was delivered in 1887 by William James of Harvard’s own philosophy department.  Excerpts below:

The first of these difficulties is relative to the absolute dependence of our spiritual life, as we know it here, upon the brain…How can we believe in life hereafter when Science has once for all attained to proving, beyond possibility of escape, that our inner life is a function of that famous material, the so-called ’gray matter’ of our cerebral convolutions? How can the function possibly persist after its organ has undergone decay? Thus physiological psychology is what is supposed to bar the way to the old faith. And it is now a physiological psychologist that I ask you to look at the question with me a little more closely.

Thought is a function of the brainThe question is, then, Does this doctrine logically compel us to disbelieve in immortality?…Most persons imbued with what one may call the puritanism of science would feel themselves bound to answer this question with a yes.

[E]ven though our soul’s life…may be in literal strictness the function of a brain that perishes, yet it is…quite possible, that the life may still continue when the brain itself is dead.  The supposed impossibility of its continuing comes from too superficial a look at the admitted fact of functional dependence.

Suppose, for example, that the whole universe of material things—the furniture of earth and choir of heaven—should turn out to be a mere surface-veil of phenomena, hiding and keeping back the world of genuine realities. Such a supposition is foreign neither to common sense nor to philosophy. Common sense believes in realities behind the veil even too superstitiously; and idealistic philosophy declares the whole world of natural experience, as we get it, to be but a time-mask, shattering or refracting the one infinite Thought, which is the sole reality, into those millions of finite streams of consciousness known to us as our private selves.

[W]hether we care or not for immortality in itself, we ought, as mere critics doing police duty among the vagaries of mankind, to insist on the illogicality of a denial based on the flat ignoring of a palpable alternative. How much more ought we to insist, as lovers of truth, when the denial is that of such a vital hope of mankind!

In strict logic, then, the fangs of cerebralistic materialism are drawn. My words ought consequently already to exert a releasing function on your hopes. You may believe henceforward, whether you care to profit by the permission or not.

James goes on at length (conciseness not being among his abundant virtues) to state the hard problem that David Chalmers made famous a century later: there is no theory that offers us any inkling of how physical processes in the brain might give rise to our subjective experience of awareness—“Sense, pleasure, pain—what are they but a shifting otherness, phantasmal flux of moments?” [George Eliot]  Thus the “transmission” theory is no worse than the “production” theory in this regard.  In favor of the “transmission” theory, James cites experiments in parapsychology and describes (already in the 19th Century) a prejudice against them from established scientists.

A medium, for example, will show knowledge of his sitter’s private affairs which it seems impossible he should have acquired through sight or hearing, or inference therefrom. Or you will have an apparition of some one who is now dying hundreds of miles away.

He ends by arguing that not just human life but all life is immortal.

For my own part, then, so far as logic goes, I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world’s forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal. It is purely a question: are the leaves so, or not?… If we feel a significance in our own life which would lead us spontaneously to claim its perpetuity, let us be at least tolerant of like claims made by other lives, however numerous, however unideal they may seem to us to be. Let us at any rate not decide adversely on our own claim, whose grounds we feel directly, because we cannot decide favorably on the alien claims, whose grounds we cannot feel at all. That would be letting blindness lay down the law to sight.

Link to full text


I only walk on water when I need to

There is the story of an Indian peasant, known to those in his village as a pious, humble, simple soul.  He had a son with vision and ambition who went far away to Tibet, and came home after many years of study, a man of many talents.  Among other things, he had learned to walk on water. Proudly he started to show his simple, ignorant father how he could walk across the foaming river which passed near the village.  He was halfway across when the swirling water frightened him. He fell and would have drowned, but his father calmly walked out, picked him out of the water and carried him to shore.


“Father!”, the young man exclaimed, “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“My son, that is the difference between us.  You know many things and I know nothing at all except what is required of me.”  

— as told by Shamcher Bryn Beorse



I AM the tender voice calling ‘Away,’
Whispering between the beatings of the heart,
And inaccessible in dewy eyes
I dwell, and all unkissed on lovely lips,
Lingering between white breasts inviolate,
And fleeting ever from the passionate touch,
I shine afar, till men may not divine
Whether it is the stars or the beloved
They follow with wrapt spirit. And I weave
My spells at evening, folding with dim caress,
Aerial arms and twilight dropping hair,
The lonely wanderer by wood or shore,
Till, filled with some deep tenderness, he yields,
Feeling in dreams for the dear mother heart
He knew, ere he forsook the starry way,
And clings there, pillowed far above the smoke
And the dim murmur from the duns of men.
I can enchant the trees and rocks, and fill
The dumb brown lips of earth with mystery,
Make them reveal or hide the god. I breathe
A deeper pity than all love, myself
Mother of all, but without hands to heal:
Too vast and vague, they know me not. But yet
I am the heartbreak over fallen things,
The sudden gentleness that stays the blow,
And I am in the kiss that foemen give
Pausing in battle, and in the tears that fall
Over the vanquished foe, and in the highest;
Among the Danaan gods, I am the last
Council of mercy in their hearts where they
Mete justice from a thousand starry thrones.

— AE
George William Russell was born 10 April 1867.



George William Russell (1867-1935), better known by his spiritual name “AE” (short for Aeon; simultaneously the mortal incarnation of the Logos and the representation of the immortal self). AE was a great man of a great many talents: poet, painter, novelist, economist, editor, critic, mystic, pacifist, patriot, literary facilitator, visionary.

Bacteria can Learn

Bacteria have individual lives, and also collective lives. They can form films that support a communal existence, protecting one another at a cost in individual autonomy.

UCLA press release

In this study published last month, bacteria remember the surface they were attached to and pass this information along to their offspring. This is learning, combined with inter-generational memory. Bacteria are the smaller kind of one-celled orgnisms, and science has no understanding of how memory is stored. The article doesn’t describe a mechanism. The most likely candidate would be epigenetic. In other words, markers on the DNA that tell what genes to turn on and off are persistent, and can be passed to offsring when the DNA is copied.

James Shapiro has written a book describing how bacteria modify their own DNA. This is full Lamarckian adaptation.