From Plant Morphology to Infinite Issues (including Ken
Wilber and Korzybski)
An autobiographical story
leading from plant morphology to healing logic, wholeness, holiness, non-identity (Korzybski), integral philosophy (Ken Wilber, etc.), health, laughter, silence, and mystery
"If we could but understand a single flower we would know who we are and what the world is" (Tennyson)
Agnes Arber, the
preeminent plant morphologist of the 20th
pointed out that plant morphology “may seem a narrow road,
but rightly conceived, it should, like other biological
paths, lead us to infinite issues” (The Natural Philosophy
of Plant Form, p. 1). In this autobiographical story, I
want to recount how, besides personal experiences, the
morphology, my primary
research area, led me to broader, deeper and infinite
both/and logic, Buddhist logic, Jain
oneness, wholeness, holiness,
dynamics (process philosophy),
(Ken Wilber, etc.),
etc. (see also my web
page on Plant
Morphology that includes
some broader philosophical and spiritual issues and
reference to Ken Wilber and his AQAL map)
As a pupil in school and a student in university, I learned that plants (such as flowering plants) consist of three fundamental kinds of organs: root, stem, leaf (and their homologues). This is the tenet of what has been called classical plant morphology. It is based on Aristotelian either/or logic. Thus, any plant organ of flowering plants that we encounter must be either a root or a stem or a leaf or a homologue of one of the three. The question I asked myself early on in my career as a plant morphologist was whether nature actually followed this kind of logic; and I found that in many cases it does and in others it doesn’t. Hence Aristotelian either/or logic is only of limited usefulness. It needs to be supplemented by both/and logic and fuzzy logic. In addition to plant morphology, these kinds of logic contribute also to a greater sanity in many types of relationships and society. Their application could heal many conflicts and even prevent violence and wars. I therefore refer to them as healthy or healing logic and healthy or healing ways of thinking. Buddhist logic and Jain logic appear healthy and healing in an even deeper sense since they include either/or logic and both/and logic, and then lead us beyond logic to the indescribable, mysterious ground of existence.
According to classical morphology, the three fundamental kinds of organs are distinct. However, a close inspection of a plant (such as a flowering plant) shows that we cannot find a line that separates the root from the stem and the stem from a leaf. Root, stem, and leaves form a continuum (as the colors of the rainbow form a continuum). Upon even closer inspection we also fail to find a line that separates the plant from its environment: the root appears continuous with the soil and the stem and leaves with the air. Hence the notion of the soil-plant-air-continuum (SPAC). Furthermore, through the air, plants are connected with animals, including humans. Through solar radiation plants are connected with the sun, and finally, through cosmic radiation plants are connected with the cosmos. Thus, everything appears interconnected in one all-inclusive whole. As the Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock put it: “ Basically, everything is one.” Interestingly, modern physics arrived at the same conclusion of oneness and wholeness. David Bohm referred to “undivided wholeness.” This conclusion contradicts the way we normally experience the world as consisting of separate objects. As we accept these separate objects such as different plants, animals, or humans as ultimate reality, we create the basis for competition, conflict, and war. If, however, we recognize the wholeness and oneness, the situation changes fundamentally because we realize that by harming another we harm ourselves since we are not separate but an integral part of the all-inclusive whole (for a still more inclusive and comprehensive view and experience of oneness and wholeness see below the section on Ken Wilber).
Wholeness is related to holiness and health. In fact, the three words have the same etymological root. But the relation appears far deeper than just etymology.
An awareness of wholeness can create a feeling of awe that can be an expression of holiness or sacredness. Thus, being aware of the wholeness of the universe can be awe-inspiring and evoke a feeling of sacredness. Even contemplating a flower can call forth a feeling of sacredness because ultimately everything is related and part of the all-encompassing whole. William Bake expressed this poetically in his famous poem: “To see the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower; hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour”.
Health can be seen as being in tune with the whole instead of caught in a fragment. In Chinese medicine health is considered being in balance, which manifests itself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Working in academia convinced me of the importance of balance. Most academics seem to be caught in their favorite theory, paradigm, and worldview. Thus, most classical plant morphologists seem to be enslaved in the belief in the trinity of root, stem, and leaf, ignoring or rejecting other ways of conceiving a plant such as, for example, Agnes Arber’s partial-shoot theory of the leaf, which is based on fuzzy logic and both/and logic instead of the Aristotelian either/or logic of classical plant morphology (for other alternatives to classical plant morphology see Rutishauser, R. and Sattler, R. 1985. Complementarity and heuristic value of contrasting models in structural botany. Bot. Jahrb. Syst. 107: 414-455, and G. Cusset. 1982. The conceptual bases of plant morphology. In: R. Sattler (ed.) Axioms and Principles of Plant Construction. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff/Dr. W. Junk Publishers, pp. 8-87, also published in Acta Biotheoretica, Vol. 31A).
As I became more aware of alternatives in plant morphology, I learned that in general recognizing and embracing alternatives provides a more comprehensive view of reality. Even embracing apparently contradictory tenets can lead to a richer understanding in as much as they present different aspects of reality. Different aspects complement each other – hence the importance of the principle of complementarity. This principle is well known from physics as the complementarity of the wave and particle view of light. However, it can be understood in a very general sense and thus be applied in many ways in science, art, politics, everyday life, etc.
In plant morphology we can recognize the complementarity of structural morphology (morphology in the traditional sense) and process morphology. According to morphology in the traditional sense, plants consist of structures such as leaves, and processes occur within these structures, which implies a structure/process dualism that defines sub- disciplines of biology: morphology as the domain of structure or form, and physiology as the domain of process. However, process morphology transcends this dualism because in process morphology structure is also seen as process: it is a very slow process that can be illustrated through time-lapse photography. On this view, a structure such as a leaf is a process combination: a combination of slow morphogenetic processes with faster physiological processes.
Process morphology can be seen as a special case of a general process philosophy according to which everything in manifest reality is dynamic. As Heraclitus said long ago: “Panta rhei” (Everything flows). Keeping this in mind, it seems foolish to hang on to anything as Alan Watts made it clear in his book “The Wisdom of Insecurity” that had a profound influence on my life.
Through process everything is interconnected, even opposites. In her last book entitled “The Manifold and the One” (1957), Agnes Arber, the preeminent plant morphologist who also had a profound influence on me, dealt with many opposites such as the manifold and the one. She emphasized not only their complementarity, but also their coincidence in a chapter entitled “The Coincidence of Contraries.” This coincidence can happen in mystical union beyond the thinking mind. The thinking mind appears limited because we are more than our thinking mind. After all, who is aware of one’s thinking mind? Ken Wilber and others said ever-present awareness, also referred to as the (transpersonal) witness (see, for example, Ken Wilber. 2001.The Eye of Spirit. Boston & London: Shambhala, Chapter 13: Always Already: The Brilliant Clarity of Ever-Present Awareness).
One very important author I failed to read during my professional life is Alfred Korzybski. But after my retirement I finally read his major opus “Science and Sanity”, and to my great surprise I discovered that as a result of my morphological research and personal experiences I arrived independently and through other authors at many of his conclusions such as the following:
1. infinite-valued logic (fuzzy logic)
2. process thinking (see process morphology and process language)
3. dynamic relativism (complementarity)
4. general uncertainty (of which Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics is a special case)
5. consciousness of abstracting (see Chapter 4 of my Biophilosophy book)
6. undefined terms (also Chapter 4 of my Biophilosophy book)
7. organism-as-a-whole-in-environments (the integration of organism and environment I referred to above)
8. the map is not the territory (referred to as the map analogy in Chapter 4 of my Biophilosophy book)
However, reading Korzybski’s “Science and Sanity” clarified many issues for me. For example, it became very clear that as Korzybski emphasized: “Whatever you might say something "is", it is not” (see also Korzybski Quotes). Thus, when I say: "It is a flower," I know now that it isn’t. Why? Because a flower is defined by a number of properties and the actual object is infinitely more than the number of properties selected (abstracted) in the definition. Even a picture is far less than the actual object. Magritte was well aware of that. He painted an apple and above it he wrote: "Ceci n’est pas une pomme" (This is not an apple). Why not? Because it is only an image of an apple, which is far less than the actual apple. Therefore, instead of saying “This is an apple,” we say “This is a picture of an apple.” And instead of saying “This is a flower,” I say “I call this a flower.” All this seems rather obvious, so obvious that even children can understand it. And yet we confuse so often a name, a definition, or an image of something with the thing itself. The thing itself we cannot know. Our sensory perception abstracts (that is, removes us) from it to some extent due to the limitations of our sense organs and nervous system. For example, some flowers have ultraviolet patters that bees perceive but we cannot, and dogs perceive smells that we cannot. Hence, our perception of an object is not identical with the object, but only an aspect of the object. Now, when we describe our perception, we lose (abstract) again because words cannot completely represent our perception. Just try to describe a sunset and you will realize how much detail you miss in your description. Hence, your description is not identical with your perception. Korzybski was acutely aware of this non-identity of description and perception on the one hand and perception and reality on the other. He illustrated this non-identity by his structural differential. The consequences for the use of language are enormous. For example, if the use of the word ‘is’ implies an identity, then we cannot say: “John is a criminal”, or “John is bad”, because John is infinitely more than just a criminal or just bad. Therefore, Korzybski suggested that we say: “John is a criminal, etc.” and “John is bad, etc.” Some followers of Korzybski have gone further, suggesting to avoid the “is” of identity (as in “John is a criminal”) and the “is” of predication (as in “John is bad”). Korzybski suggested other extensional devices that render our language more appropriate and more in tune with reality. Nonetheless, language cannot capture reality as it is. Reality as it is can only be honored in silence. Hence, the importance of silence. As Korzybski pointed out: "The objective level is not words and cannot be reached by words alone. We must point our finger and be silent" (Korzybski, A. 1958. Science and Sanity. The International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company, p. 399). "Whatever we may say will not be the objective level, which remains fundamentally un-speakable…The objective level is not words…neither can it be understood as ‘non-expressible by words’ or ’not to be described by words’, because the terms ‘expressible’ or ‘described’ already presuppose words and symbols (ibid., p. 34).
I have felt for a long time that language is limited and therefore cannot convey the richness and fullness of reality. As a student I read Kant who emphasized that we cannot know “das Ding an sich” (what a thing really is). Our perception and description of the thing such as a plant removes us from reality. Thus, I have had an inkling of Korzybski’s insights for a long time. However, reading Korzybski has indeed been very helpful in many ways.
Reading Ken Wilber also has had a great impact on me. Already in high school and university I was looking for “the big picture” that presents a comprehensive map of the whole universe including human existence. Therefore, I was delighted when I discovered Ken Wilber’s AQAL map that I found very comprehensive and of great significance for me as a plant morphologist and a human being. This map comprises four dimensions of experience. In a somewhat simplified form, Ken Wilber distinguishes three major dimensions: self (art), nature (science), and culture (morals). Often people want to deny one or two of these dimensions and thus tend to become one-dimensional. Thus, nowadays science is often considered the only road to truth. Even worse, materialistic-mechanistic science often is considered the only true science. According to this dogma, the universe, including human existence, is just a huge material mechanism. It might be seen as a whole, but this whole is just a material whole. The whole and wholeness I presented at the beginning of this article could be seen as such a material whole. Besides matter, it includes energy, but energy (as understood in modern physics) is included in the materialistic worldview of modern mainstream science. However, subtle energies are not recognized in mainstream science. If wholeness includes subtle energies, it transcends mainstream science (see, for example, William A. Tiller. 1997. Science and Human Transformation: Subtle Energies, Intentionality and Consciousness. Walnut Creek, CA: Pavior). Since we have good evidence for the existence of subtle energies, I include subtle energies and even very subtle energies in the whole of existence. But even if the whole of existence includes subtle and very subtle energies, it is only one of Ken Wilber’s three dimensions; it is only nature (science). In an integral vision, we also have to include self and culture. Self means the subjective experience of wholeness as we can experience it or become it in meditation. Such subjective experience or being is different from the objective experience of science. Finally, culture, Ken Wilber’s third dimension, also needs to be included since it may condition both objective and subjective experience. Thus, wholeness may be experienced differently in different cultural settings.
Besides the three or four dimensions, Ken Wilber’s AQAL map consists of different levels. These levels form a hierarchy that Wilber prefers to call a holarchy. In this holarchy, holons are holarchically arranged. Holons are entities such as atoms, molecules, cells, organs, organisms, etc. Classical plant morphology recognizes the holons root, stem, and leaf. However, in continuum morphology these holons dissolve in the continuum of the whole plant (actually they appear non-existent as separate entities from the start). Similarly, organisms dissolve (appear non-existent as separate entities) in the continuum of the organism-environment whole. Hence, a holistic continuum view undermines Ken Wilber’s holarchy that is based on holons. However, to me this does not mean that Ken Wilber’s holarchy is useless. It only means that it represents a view based on the fragmentation of reality into holons, whereas the continuum view is based on continuity. As I see it, these two views complement each other. Although the continuum view appears closer to reality, the fragmentation implied in the holarchical view seems not totally unrealistic. It seems to represent at least an aspect of the differentiation of nature: “roots” are different from “stems”, and “leaves” are different from “stems” and somewhat articulated from “stems.” Thus, classical plant morphology and continuum morphology represent different aspects of plants. They complement each other. Problems arise, however, if one view is taken as the only correct one. Thus, when Ken Wilber claims that manifest reality “is” holarchical, he denies the continuum and other non-holarchical views. But saying that manifest reality can be seen as holarchical does not exclude that it can also be seen as non-holarchical (see Ken Wilber’s AQAL map and Korzybski).
Thinking in terms of a hierarchy or holarchy and entities or holons that compose them is very common in our culture and science, and often it is taken so much for granted that it is seen as the only way one can think about almost anything, even the whole Kosmos (Ken Wilber prefers to write Kosmos with a capital K to indicate that it is not only the physical cosmos). Alternatives to hierarchical (holarchical) thinking include not only the continuum and undivided wholeness, but also Yin-Yang and network thinking. Ken Wilber recognizes these modes of thinking, but not with regard to the most basic structure (the levels) of the Kosmos.
Recognition of alternatives to the hierarchical (holarchical) way of thinking appears liberating and leads to a fuller and richer view of reality. It also changes human relationships and society because it entails a shift from a dogmatic insistence on one view to the tolerance of a plurality of views that can complement each other.
Insistence on only one view to the exclusion of others often leads to exaggerated defensiveness and seriousness that we can witness in many debates from conflicts in personal relationships to ideological, religious and ethnic antagonisms within and between nations. Like Osho, I consider it a dis-ease. We can overcome it not only through the recognition of complementarity but also through a better sense of humour and laughter.
Laughter, often called the best medicine, can be relaxing and liberating because when we laugh we cannot think at the same time and therefore we transcend the thinking mind that often is tensely preoccupied with the defense of its one-sided intolerant way of thinking (such as hierarchy (holarchy) – ha, ha).
Toward the end of my career as a university professor, I sometimes laughed for a few minutes with my students. They were, of course, very surprised that a university professor, who is supposed to be serious, would engage in such wild (non-intellectual) behavior. But most of them realized how relaxing and beneficial it was for them, especially during highly stressful time before exams.
Since then, after my retirement, I have led many laughter sessions, more recently what is called laughter yoga. Again, most participants found these sessions beneficial in many ways, but some of them could not let go of their seriousness, which is not surprising because in our society we have been conditioned not to laugh for too long.
Paradoxically, laughter can lead to silence because it short-circuits and transcends the chatter of the thinking mind. In silence we may perceive and be the mystery of existence that opens beyond the realm of the thinking mind and implies the source of everything. As Albert Einstein put it: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science”.
Many approaches to meditation can lead to silence and the mystery (see, for example, Shinzen Young and Osho: Meditation. The First and the Last Freedom. A Practical Guide to Meditation. The Rebel Publishing House). However, for many people laughing and dancing seem to be more easily approachable doors to mystery. Instead of mystery, one could also refer to suchness or spirit. Spirit and spirituality can be seen as both immanent and transcendent. However, often spirit and spirituality are only seen as transcending matter and the world. This creates a dualism and the potential for conflict between the worldly and otherworldly. According to Ken Wilber and others, spirit both includes and transcends everything and thus it is all embracing. Nature then can be seen as an expression of spirit and sacred, not to be abused and exploited, but to be revered. And plants as part of the wholeness of nature can also be seen as sacred.