“There is nothing that can be called independent, solitary, self-originating primary nature” (D. T. Suzuki, quoted by McFarlane 2002: 108)
“Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves” (Siddha Nagarjuna, quoted ibid., p. 122).
Contents: Context-Dependence – A Joke - Verbal Communication - Isolation - Medicinal Drugs - Genes, Genes, Genes - Widening the Context in Forest Ecology - Widening the Context in Medicine - Contextualism – A Meditation: Circulation of the Light – Summary - References
Isolation in this chapter means isolation from the context in contrast to context-dependence. The context can be physical, emotional, mental, linguistic, social, environmental, etc.
Literally, the context is the background that weaves together with the text. In very general terms, the text may be anything. For example, I am the text for the context that surrounds me. What we call the environment is the context for an organism. The organism is the context for a cell within it. The cell is the context for molecular events within it.
Context is relative. It may be understood in a narrower or wider sense. In a narrower sense, the cell is the context for molecular events within it. But in a wider sense, the organism and its environment are also the context for these molecular events. Ultimately, the whole universe is the context for any thing or event within it.
As the text is dependent on its surrounding context, so the context is also dependent on the text. Therefore, there is an interdependence of text and context. In this chapter, I want to focus on how the context influences the text, but I do not want to lose sight of the interdependence of text and context (see below the section on contextualism).
As an introduction to context-dependence, let me take an example from everyday life. Imagine yourself in very different contexts, very different surroundings: at a wild dancing party where you are totally absorbed by the dancing; at a stiff dinner where a few people who have only trivial banalities to share dominate the conversation; in bed with your sensual lover; in a war zone where you are overwhelmed by brutality and heart-breaking suffering; or snorkeling in warm tropical waters surrounded by the most exquisite shapes of corals and brilliantly coloured fishes. Are you the same person in such different contexts? From my own experience I can only say that I feel different in these different contexts. I could almost say that I feel like being a different person in these different contexts. If you can relate to this, then you have a feeling of what I mean by context-dependence. If you cannot relate to this, then verbal communication and scientific examples may elucidate context-dependence. But first a joke.
Ernie asks his father to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity. His father finds it difficult but then uses the following analogy. When you sit with a beautiful woman for an hour, it seems like one minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for one minute, it seems like an hour.
Some people think that verbal communication, that is, communication through spoken language, is unambiguous. They point out that words have a specific meaning. Therefore, they say, whenever we use these words, it is clear what we want to communicate. Perhaps there are special cases where this may be possible. However, usually the meaning of words, phrases and sentences appears context-dependent: it depends on the structure of the language, the speaker, his or her body gestures, feelings, mood and mind-set, up-bringing, culture or subculture, the concrete situation, the way the speaker is perceived, etc. For example, the word ‘no’ can have different meanings depending on the context, the situation in which it is uttered. Assume you ask stranger ”Would you like to have dinner with me?” and the person says ‘no’, this ‘no’ can mean “no” or anything ranging from “no” to “yes”. Only the context can tell you what the person really means.
The words ‘love’ and ‘God’ are also highly context-dependent. They can have a variety of meanings as many other things that are verbally communicated. But there are also communications in which the influence of the context can be minimized. For example, when someone says, “It is raining," it seems pretty clear what is meant. Thus, we find the whole range from relatively clear to very ambiguous verbal communication due to the influence of context.
Because of the context-dependence of verbal communication, many misunderstandings can happen. It seems to me that the majority of problems that arise in relationships are partly or totally the result of misunderstandings. Often we think we know what the other means, but in fact he or she means something more or less different. I uttered a word that is insulting to her, but it turns out that I did not mean what she thought I meant. However, once the insult has happened, it may be difficult to reverse even if the misunderstanding has been clarified. Misunderstandings seem especially common between men and women. Books have been written on this topic such as the book by Deborah Tannen (1990), appropriately entitled “You just don’t understand. Women and men in conversation”. Obviously, awareness of context is of great importance. Before I turn to more scientific aspects of context-dependence, a few remarks on isolation.
By isolation I mean isolation from context: considering the text without its context, ignoring the context either consciously or subconsciously.
Although we all seem more or less aware of context-dependence, there seems to be tendency even in science, especially in mainstream science to ignore the wider context more or less. Most phenomena that are studied scientifically appear already complex in themselves; adding the narrower and especially the wider context seems to complicate matters too much. Here is an example that to many scientists may appear far-fetched, but that illustrates the situation. While studying cellular phenomena, a biologist might take into consideration the immediate surroundings of the cells. However, normally (s)he would not consider a wider context such as the moon, the sun or cosmic influences. Nonetheless, it is known that the moon, the sun and the cosmos may influence biological phenomena. For some phenomena this influence might be negligible. This would have to be shown through experimentation. However, such experimentation seems almost completely absent in mainstream biology. In many cases, isolation from the context is even the goal of research, as the following section will show.
Plants or parts of plants have been used for a long time to heal a great variety of ailments. How did people find out which plants should be used for which ailments? I guess originally through Intuition and simple experimentation. More recently, increasingly sophisticated methodology that is used in mainstream medicine and pharmacology has confirmed the efficacy of many herbal medicines (see, for example, Mowrey 1986). Nonetheless, medical researchers and the pharmaceutical industry do not seem satisfied. Once a plant or part of a plant has been shown to have healing power, they spend enormous amounts of time and money to isolate the so-called active ingredient and possibly even produce it synthetically. Thus, the goal is total isolation and purification of the active ingredient and then synthetics. It seems that we live in an increasingly plastic, synthetic society.
Apart from the enormous cost of this research, the results seem dubious. An isolated ingredient or a synthetic drug is not the same as the ingredient in its natural context. The isolated ingredient or synthetic drug often has a stronger effect, but they may also have stronger negative side effects. In general they may be more taxing for the organism and more disturbing to its natural balance than whole plant medicines. On the other hand, whole plant medicines occasionally may also have negative side effects, especially if they are administered inappropriately. However, most of these side effects can be eliminated by relatively simple means. In some cases one may have to remove a toxic or undesirable component of the plant. For example, licorice has been shown to be effective in the treatment of excessive stomach acid and gastric ulcers. It may, however, contribute to high blood pressure. This negative side effect can be avoided if the glycyrrhinic acid is removed and therefore nowadays licorice is often taken in the form of deglycyrrhizinated licorice. It seems unnecessary to develop a synthetic drug.
We have to keep in mind that the pharmaceutical industry reaps enormous profits from the development of synthetic drugs. Thus, isolation, purification, and synthesis of drugs are not only sought for its own questionable sake, but also for commercial reasons in our predominantly capitalist society. As a result the patient who takes these drugs may be exposed to more negative side effects than necessary, side effects that could be avoided through the use of alternative medicines (see Chapter 5).
Science and technology that are profit oriented and ignore, neglect or devalue context have been called bad science and technology. Another area in which much bad - but also some good - science and technology are practiced is genetics.
Genes, Genes, Genes…
We live in a genocentric (gene-centric) age: to a great extent the life sciences and society appear dominated by genetics and genes. The news keeps bombarding us with sensational stories on genes and the alteration of the genetic make-up of plants, animals and humans. We read and hear about genes for this and that, for this disease and that disease: a gene for alcoholism and another for sexual behaviour. The list seems almost endless: genes, genes, genes...
Obviously, genes play an important role in the development and functioning of organisms. But many of the claims that are made in the popular media and even in the scientific literature seem exaggerated and untenable. For example, the common statement “a gene for a particular trait” seems inappropriate and misleading. It gives the impression that a gene controls particular traits and is therefore very powerful. However, a gene alone cannot do anything; it cannot produce an eye colour, hair colour, or behavioural traits such as homosexuality. A gene can do something only together with other molecules in an organism and the environment. Thus, traits of an organism are produced through the cooperation of genes and the organism with its environment.
“Genes are not independent units of information… but elements of complex networks [which include the environment]” (Goodwin 2010: 333). Therefore, to understand gene action one has to study the whole organism and its environment. Many geneticists are aware of this, but nonetheless use misleading expressions such as “a gene for this trait." However, once it is admitted that traits are the coproduction of genes, organism and environment, it becomes clear that genes are not as powerful as it is often thought. A change within the organism or the environment may turn them off or change the way in which they are normally expressed. For example, some diseases that have a genetic basis can be prevented or reversed by non-genetic means such as a change in diet (see, for example, Berkowitz 1996). In general we can regulate gene expression to a great extent by changes in the organism and its environment. We do not have to believe that because we inherited a gene that has been said to “cause” a particular disease, we will end up developing this disease. In fact, having such a misguided belief may be a more influential factor in developing this disease than the gene.
Schizophrenia and many other diseases have been attributed to genes by some geneticists (see, for example, Berkowitz 1996: 43). Those geneticists have even referred to genes for schizophrenia. According to this view, it should follow that if one of two identical twins (who have the same genes) develops schizophrenia, the other one should also come down with this disease. However, studies have shown that if one of the twins develops schizophrenia, the likelihood that the other will develop it too is only about 30% (Hubbard and Wald 1993:103). Even if both twins would become schizophrenic, this would not “prove” that therefore schizophrenia is completely controlled by genes. It would only mean that the organism and environment of the twins are sufficiently similar to allow the same gene expression. Also keep in mind that proof is generally unattainable in science (see Chapter 5 and Science: its Power and Limitations).
The misuse of genetics has been well demonstrated in a number of classic books such as Holdrege’s Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context, Lewontin’s Biology and Ideology, Rose, Kamin and Lewontin’s Not in our Genes. Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, and Hubbard and Wald’s Exploding the Gene Myth. How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers. These books and many others show how genocentrism (gene-centeredness) and the misuse of genetics have infected our society including education, medicine, agriculture, business and law. Unless the information contained in these and other books will become more common knowledge, we risk remaining caught in a society that worships the god of genes oblivious of context (see also Chapter 6: The gospel according to sociobiology).
Fortunately, the field of epigenetics that emphasizes the context-dependence of genes is gradually gaining more recognition.
Widening the Context in Forest Ecology
Ignoring the context or not paying sufficient attention to it is, of course, not limited to genetics; it happens also in may other fields including ecology. However, as in genetics, in other fields context may be included at least to some extent. The following example from forest ecology illustrates how context can be increasingly widened. The example concerns the spruce budworm (larvae of a moth), a major defoliator of softwood species such as spruce and fir in northeastern North America. In periodic epidemics it damages extensively spruce and fir, which are used by the pulp and paper industry. Miller (1984/85) examined the psychological and philosophical roots of the problem and showed that both the perception of the problem and its solution depends on the general viewpoint, intellectual style and type of thinking of the investigator. One could also say that it depends on how much the context of the problem is extended.
Miller distinguished the following four ways of perceiving and dealing with the problem: reductionist, holist, humanist, and mystic. These four ways can be seen as increasingly widening the context.
1. Reductionist. To the reductionist the problem is the budworm. It destroys the trees. Therefore, the solution is to destroy the budworm, for example, through pesticides. The context of the interaction between the budworm and the trees is ignored or overlooked by the reductionist.
2. Holist. To the holist, the problem is a budworm-forest problem: that is, the forest is sick. Therefore, the solution requires the healing of the forest, for example, through integrated pest control, which might involve support for insects that feed on the budworm. Obviously the holist considers the context of the interaction between the budworm and the trees. Note that Miller uses the term ‘holist’ in a narrow sense as it is used in systems ecology. In a wider sense, as I use the term in this book, ‘holist’ would also include ‘humanist’.
3. Humanist. To the humanist the problem is a budworm-forest-people problem. The humanist can see the problems of society in the forest. Therefore, society is included as a still wider context. And then it becomes apparent that the solution of the problem requires healing of society and the forest. This may involve, for example, a reduction in the use of paper, recycling of paper and wood. Avoiding monoculture also would be helpful.
4. Mystic. To the mystic the problem is also in each of us, in our consciousness. For example, it may reside in our work ethic, competitive mind-set, and the way we relate to nature. Therefore, for the mystic the solution of the problem requires also self-transformation. Talking about the problem and then dealing with it as proposed in the three preceding strategies will not be sufficient. We have to go beyond talking, which means that we have to enter the centre of the mandala of this book and the mandala as a whole.
Widening the Context in Medicine
Replace “spruce budworm” in the preceding discussion with infectious agents such as viruses associated with the common cold, or HIV associated with AIDS, and you can go through the same four stages:
1. For the reductionist it is only the infectious agents that matter. They harm or destroy the organism. Therefore, they have to be killed. The context of the body is ignored or neglected.
2. The holist sees the organism as the context in which the infectious agents are embedded. Therefore, much attention is given to the organism. Strengthening the organism and its immune system is of paramount importance. Then the infectious agents can do less harm or no harm at all. Here we enter holistic medicine (see Chapter 5).
3. For the humanist the context of society including the medical establishment is also important. To improve our health, we have to change society. For example, we have to reduce stress, pollution and increase organic farming.
4. For the mystic self-transformation, that is, transformation of our consciousness, is also necessary, which means entering the centre of the mandala of this book and the mandala as a whole.
Besides essentialism, mechanism, and organicism, contextualism has been considered one of the major world views (see Sattler 1986). In contextualism the emphasis is on events, on processes. And events are not considered in isolation, but in their context.
“According to contextualism only events exist and since they are totally interwoven with their context (which includes the observer), they cannot be completely analyzed. Hence one cannot get to the bottom of things. The world is bottomless and there is no ultimate nature of things [as in essentialism] because there is no-thing. There is only oneness... in this oneness every so-called event is interconnected with the whole cosmos” (Sattler 1986: 245).
Contextualism is related to organicism. For this reason, one might consider contextualism and organicism as two aspects of the same worldview. In any case, both contextualism and organicism are characteristic of the inner circle of the mandala of this book.
A Meditation: Circulation of the Light
Normally we look out into the world that surrounds us. It is a one-way process from us to the world. We are not aware or less aware that the world also “looks” at us, which creates a two-way process, an interaction. As we become aware of this interaction, we become integrated with the world.
Looking out into the world means that consciousness and energy are flowing outward. If energy moves only in this direction away from us, then we are depleting ourselves energetically. But when the world “looks back” at us, energy is returned to us. You can experience this in a simple experiment suggested by Osho (1974: 180). Stand in front of a mirror and look at yourself in the mirror. Then reverse the process: feel that your mirror image looks at you. After a few minutes you will feel more alive, more energetic because energy comes back to you. If you look at your mirror image as you breathe out, and let your mirror image look back at you as you breathe in, you create a circle of energy going out and coming back. In this circle you feel more powerful and more complete, more whole.
Then you can circulate energy also with other objects such as a flower, a tree, the moon, the stars, another person, or your lover. First look at the other, and then feel the other returning energy to you. This completes the circle. Synchronize it with your breathing as in the mirror exercise. It will transform you. Lu-tsu, the Daoist sage, called it the circulation of the light: “When the light is made to move in a circle, all the energies of heaven and earth, of the light and the dark, are crystallized” (quoted by Osho 1974: 178). As Osho explains, heaven means inner, unmanifest; earth means outer, manifest. Heaven is represented by the centre of the mandala of this book; earth by its periphery, that is, the two circles. Heaven and earth become one when the circulation is complete. Then we partake in the whole mandala, the namable (the two circles) and the unnamable (the centre).
Light symbolizes man, darkness woman. When you circulate energy, your male and female side, your inner man and inner woman merge and you will become whole and holy. This merger is called crystallization. When this happens, you no longer need an exterior man or woman, Osho says. To advance in this practice one may need a Daoist Master (for more details see Osho 1974, Chapter 7).
Although the importance of context seems to be widely recognized, it is often overlooked or devalued. Especially the wider context that may include the whole universe is often excluded, and even the narrower context is not sufficiently taken into consideration. The exclusion of the non-verbal context in verbal communication may lead to many misunderstands that may have grave consequences. Even in science context tends to be often ignored or devalued. For example, in genetics enormous importance is given to genes and one can often read how genes control healthy development and disease. However, a gene by itself cannot do anything, and what it does depends on the context, which includes the whole organism and its environment. The growing field of epigenetics emphasizes the context of genes. This leads to a holistic view that can be further extended by the inclusion of humanism. Finally the whole universe needs to be included in mystical experience in which the experiencer of the universe and the universe become one. Forest ecology and medicine are used as examples to illustrate the extension or widening of the context from the reductionist to the holistic and humanist viewpoints and finally to the mystical.
Besides essentialism, mechanism, and organicism, contextualism has been considered one of the major worldviews. Contextualism is related to organicism (see Chapter 5). For this reason, one might consider contextualism and organicism as two aspects of the same worldview. In any case, both contextualism and organicism are characteristic of the inner circle of the mandala of this book. "According to contextualism only events exist and since they are totally interwoven with their context (which includes the observer), they cannot be completely analyzed. Hence one cannot get to the bottom of things. The world is bottomless and there is no ultimate nature of things [as in essentialism] because there is no-thing. There is only oneness... in this oneness every so-called event is interconnected with the whole cosmos” (Sattler 1986: 245). A meditation called “Circulation of the Light” may help to achieve this oneness.
Berkowitz, A. 1996. Our genes, ourselves? BioScience 49: 42-51.
Goodwin, B. 2010. The organism as the emergent meaning. In: Brockman, J. (ed.) 2010. This Changes Everything. New York: Harper Perennial, pp. 333-334.
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