Our Perceptions of Purpose in Nature

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Our Perceptions of Purpose in Nature

Student Contributor

"It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface
of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any..for my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces- in fact they alone seem to be of much importance." -Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

The primary distinction between humans and the rest of the natural world is our sense of consciousness and self-consciousness. We have very different perceptions and filters than any other organism on the planet. Language, for example, enables "story tellers" to communicate and interpret their surroundings. However, there are limitations to relying on language as a primary tool for both internal and external dialogue- the verbal definition of things can often differ vastly from how they actually are. Words have cultural connotations and if the story teller is not careful, a meaning or significance that he did not intend will be assigned to the subject. Equally dangerous is the instance where a story teller actively searches for meaning in the natural world and uses language to clarify and articulate it.

The roots of self-consciousness go as far back as the origin of humankind. Choice, morality, altruism, and a sense of purpose do not exist in a vacuum, they are as much the products of an evolutionary process as our physiological features. Until approximately 10,000 years ago, the only organisms to exist could be classified as "model builders," meaning they are able to anticipate external change but do not have language or a sense of self. "The Game of Life" is a good example of the factors which determine the behavior of model builders, and nature in general. There are certain biological constants which limit the possible outcomes, but there is, in fact, no purpose or intentionality to the patterns which emerge. Edward Abbey explains this phenomenon in his novel Desert Solitaire- "I am not attributing human motives to my snake and bird acquaintances. I recognize that when and where they serve purposes of mine they do so for beautifully selfish reasons of their own." (25)

"Story tellers," on the other hand, though part of nature as well, have much more complex factors to guide their actions- including emotions, consciousness, and language. Although these characteristics have enormous advantages, there is a tendency among story tellers to ascribe the same purpose to their surroundings as they find in their own lives. Is it possible for them to step around the boundaries of consciousness and language to arrive at a completely pure, unfiltered account of the natural world?

One story teller who spent much of her life in pursuit of this state of un-consciousness is Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She was fascinated by a book called Space and Sight, by Marius von Senden, which chronicled the experiences of people who had undergone cataract surgery and were newly-sighted. For these people, "vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning." (302) They do not associate images with their verbal counterparts immediately because they only know how a tree, for example, feels, not how it looks. In a sense, these people are experiencing the world without the constraints of language.

Dillard wanted to share this experience. "I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present," she says, "When I see this way I analyze and pry...But there is another kind of seeing, which involves letting go...When I see this way I see truly." (306-307) There are two instances described in her novel during which she sees truly. In these moments, she exists only in the present and is not restricted by translating the moment into words, or interpreting it, or discovering its purpose. Dillard is aware of the constraints imposed on her by self-consciousness and believed that it is possible to overcome them.

"Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all. Even a certain amount of interior verbalization is helpful to enforce the memory of whatever it is that is taking place. The gas station beagle puppy, after all, may have experienced those same moments more purely than I did, but he brought fewer instruments to bear on the same material, he had no data for comparison, and he profited in only the grossest of ways...Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest." (327)

For Dillard, the key to experiencing and understanding the natural world is to condition oneself to abandon our evolved self-consciousness for brief flashes of time.

Although she may have discovered a way to remove the linguistic filter for herself, it is virtually impossible for Dillard to do the same for her readers. We can partially assume her perceptions of the world though the text, but that's exactly what they are- her perceptions. There is no way for Dillard to allow us to see without filters when she is using language to communicate in the first place. She may be able to advise others and provide a means to live in the present, but the only way for someone reading her novel to really understand what she is talking about is to experience it for himself. Even Abbey cannot escape personifying his "snake and bird acquaintances" from time to time in order to enhance his description. The only way to view them in their natural state is to employ Dillard's un-consciousness and see for yourself.

It is probably impossible for humans to stop interpreting patterns and projecting meaning onto the natural world. In fact, it is our imperative as story tellers to do so. We believe that there is purpose and intent, despite all evidence to the contrary. Counter to Abbey's assertion, humans cannot be satisfied with only the surface of things, even if we never will discover "the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence."

1.) Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.
2.) Dillard, Annie. The Annie Dillard Reader. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.

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