The Owl and the Human engage on the topic of the Foundations of Western Cognitive Understanding


One day, the owl and the man struck up a conversation in which the man was going on about all the improvements that he and his fellow villagers had made to the land.  The owl replied; ‘oh yes, I have heard you humans speak of this concept of ‘improvements’ to the land which becomes the basis for taxing yourselves.  It is a curious thought that you could improve on Nature even though we are all included in nature, … kind of like biting and chewing on one’s own teeth.

The man then spoke proudly of his long tradition of applying his intelligence to the challenge of design and construction to ‘improve’ the land as exemplified by his present village that he and his friends had constructed that was replete with ‘mod cons’ that ‘made their lives a lot easier’.

The owl could not resist reminding the man of his earlier statement in which he spoke of how this verdant valley with its babbling fish-filled brooks, its game-filled forest and grain-filled fields had induced the men and their families to settle and ‘develop’ the land; saying;

“while you speak of your village as something you have constructed, as if fully from your own will and volition or ‘productive nature’, … you also speak of being ‘attracted’ by the beauty and fertility of this valley, which you described as a ‘teat’ that nourishes you, and/or a cornucopia, that in your softer moments you refer to as ‘mother earth’, … a ‘horn of plenty’ that you and your fellow villagers draw nourishment from.  So, were your actions in constructing your village driven by your inside-outward asserting will and intention, … or were they inductively actualized by the outside-inward orchestrating pull of this richly resourced valley environment?”

The man, who was of the Christian faith, replied; “God has created man and has provisioned the earth with plants and animals to provide nourishment to sustain man.  It is man’s intelligence that directs his actions in finding and taking nourishment from the land.  Man’s wanderings over the earth and his patterns of settlement are the result of his intelligent search for dwelling places rich in nourishments.”

Owl blinked a few times, as he had anticipated that the man would give some acknowledgement to the attractive pull of richly provisioned environments in shaping his (man’s) movements and behaviours, rather than attributing them fully and solely to his internal intelligence as the notional sole source of his asserting actions.

The man continued;

“It is the nature of intelligent beings to seek nurturance, … the environment is a passive realm that man forages for food.”

Owl countered;

“But the mother’s milk-filled breast attracts the infant’s sucking and taking nourishment, and is the fertile valley not like a mother’s breast to the grown man?  Does man not ‘pull on’ or ‘draw from’ mother nature’s sources?”

The man replied;

“While it is true that sources of pleasure and nourishment in the environment may inductively animate and shape the infant or child’s actions and behaviour, it is important to educate the child so that by the time he comes of age’ at sixteen years or so, his intellectual reasoning and judgement will be sufficiently well developed to take over as the primary driver and shaper of his behaviour.”

The owl, not convinced that man was any different from owl in being a relational form in the transforming relational continuum of nature, remained curious as to how man’s thinking, wherein he saw himself as an ‘independent being’, would fully play out, and so continued his questioning;

“I understand what you are saying, that the child’s behaviour is initially inductively pulled forth and shaped by the nurturing quality of his environment, but that as his intellectual powers develop and he ‘comes of age’, he must leave behind his early practice of allowing the inductive behaviour shaping pull of ‘nurture’ to prevail over his own self-asserting ‘nature’; … that is, he must employ his internal intelligence as the direct-driving ‘source’ of his behaviour.  In other words, the ‘nurture over nature’ of his childhood inverts to ‘nature over nurture’ wherein his internal intelligence ‘takes over’ as the driver and shaper of his behaviour’, … in place of his behaviour as an infant and youth being inductively actualized and shaped by the dynamics of the environment he is situationally included in”.

The man affirmed the correctness of owl’s capture of his meaning, emphasizing how ‘rationality’ and ‘independent being’ were the basic properties of man and God, whereby the behaviour of the ‘independent being’ is driven and directed by his rational intelligence.  At this point, the man pulled forth a reference book and read a short passage from it;

“Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.

Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.

As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.”

Owl acknowledged his understanding of what the man was saying but without affirming either agreement or disagreement, for he was anxious to move the discussion forward to the man’s concept of ‘being’ which appeared to derive from ‘naming’.

“I understand”, said owl to the man, “that when you settle in the hollow of a valley or some other protected venue that has good access to fresh water, fish, grains and fruit and other sustaining resources, that you give that place a name, like ‘the town of Rumpelstiltskin’, as if a town were a locally existing ‘thing-in-itself’.”

The man replied;

“Yes, that is true. We define the limits of the named region and place with signage on the trails that pass through, inscribed with messages that say ‘Entering Rumpelstiltskin’ and ‘Leaving Rumpelstiltskin’.”

This drew forth the following comment from owl;

“In the fable of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, a ‘name’ has magic power that can spin straw into gold or transform a pauper into a prince.  It seems as if this bears some relation to your notion of having ‘improved the land’ by constructing a ‘town’.  Not only is the ‘town’, … or indeed, a ‘country’, deemed to ‘come into being’ simply by ‘naming’, but there is a sense of ‘magic’ associated with it, as when a pauper is transformed into a prince or a peasant transformed into a knight, by a ‘naming ceremony’, which culminates in an utterance such as ‘arise Sir Galahad’.  Is ‘naming’ not a form of magic in that it can ‘transform a pauper into a prince’ like the magic of Rumpelstiltskin in ‘spinning straw into gold’? “

The man replied by restating what he had earlier said, that ‘man’ is a ‘rational being’ created by God’;

“Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.

… pointing out that there was no ‘magic’ or ‘dark art’ in the sourcing of ‘being/s’ but rather ‘Divine Will’.

While owl felt that a man, like a hurricane, was, in physical reality, a relational form in the world as transforming relational continuum, he suspected that this understanding would not appeal to the Christian man, who saw man as an independently-existing ‘being’, a cognitive notion that comes with the creative power of language to ‘name’ a relational form in the flow and thus to impute ‘being’ or ‘thing-in-itself-existence’ to the flow-form on that basis, within the cognition inducing realm of language-and-grammar, as was exemplified by man’s language based portrayal of ‘Katrina’, the relational form in the flow aka ‘hurricane’, in the objectified terms; ‘Katrina is growing larger and stronger’, .. ‘Katrina is heading towards the Gulf Coast’, … ‘Katrina is ravaging New Orleans’, … ‘Katrina is weakening and dissipating’.

Owl, after pondering this difference in understanding with man, observed;

“I believe your dilemma in trying to decide whether a man’s sinful or benevolent act derives from the innate character of his ‘being’ or ‘intrinsic nature’,  or whether such behaviour is induced by the social-environmental dynamics in which he is situationally included (‘nurture’) will ‘dissolve’ if you were to acknowledge that ‘being’ is an abstraction that we foist on ourselves by way of language and grammar; i.e. ‘being’ is not to be found in the reality of our actual relational living experience.”

The man thought about this for a long time, and then responded to the owl;

“Have you ever heard the terms ‘lock-in’ and ‘switching costs’?  These terms shine some light on whether or not the ‘naming’ that sources the cognitive abstraction of ‘being’ is a ‘dark art’ or a ‘spiritually inspired act’.

That is, names have always, in the Western culture of humans, suggested a hierarchy of existence.  As in St. Augustine’s Christian beliefs in ‘the Great Chain of Being’.  The ‘Great Chain of Being’ is a strict hierarchical structure of all matter and life, thought in medieval Christianity to have been decreed by God. The chain starts with God and progresses downward to angels, demons (fallen/renegade angels), stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, commoners, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals and other minerals.  This ‘scala naturae’ is a concept that draws from the writings of Plato and Aristotle (in his ‘Historia Animalium’), which was further developed in the middle ages and reached full expression in early modern Neoplatonism.”

The man continued;

“After pervasive Western cultural ‘lock-in’ to such beliefs, the ‘switching costs’ became a deterrent that has blocked evolution to more experientially informed understanding.  For example, those that have accrued power and status by the ‘naming’ process tend to use that name-based power to thwart any attempts to undermine their status as would associate with a return to a more natural, experience-based sourcing of values.  The ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ is an expression that alludes to the falseness of ‘dressing someone up’ by ‘naming them’ to ‘magically’ elevate their social status, a process that is not constrained to ‘gilding lilies’ but which is popularly employed to ‘spin straw into gold’.”

The owl acknowledged the man’s honesty and clarity, wherein his reference to ‘switching costs’ explained how such archaic ‘being’ and ‘naming’ based belief systems were sustained beyond the point of cognitive awakening to their evident absurdity.  The owl shared with the man, his own following recollection;

“I recall the observation of a philosopher known as Henri Laborit, who tried to bring forth awareness of the ‘lock-in’ due to high ‘switching costs’ that stands in the way of restoring natural relational understanding where it has been subverted by abstract name-based (‘being’-based) cognition.  What this philosopher said was in regard to how difficult it is, once names that endow the name-holder with exceptional powers have been allocated, to revert to a relational understanding of the person; that is, while ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, … the use of ‘naming’ that transforms a pauper into a prince derives from nowhere else but language and culture as manifests when men bow and women curtsy to acknowledge the pauper who has been named a prince] and what the culture giveth, only the culture can take away.  Thus, the restoring of cultural cognition wherein ‘relational understanding’ is in a natural precedence over name-invoked-being-based understanding, is a non-trivial undertaking that requires cultural transformation.”

‘We’ who explore such topics, cannot easily share them because (a) they do not fit into the typical dinner conversation format of our present culture, since to express them takes a lot of relational connections that can’t fit into a rapid-fire repartee, and (b) because the humanism  implicit in trying to share them is not seen as “a humanism of real worth” since it undermines, besmirches or topples the esteemed icons, pillars of society, founding fathers, and celebrities of the culture-in-place.  – Henri Laborit, ‘La Nouvelle Grille’

While both man and owl in their dialogue recognize that ‘naming’ is being used to impute ‘being’ or ‘thing-in-itselfness’ to relational forms such as humans and landforms that are relational forms in the transforming relational continuum, and also recognize that the higher and lower and beloved and despised status accorded to relational forms abstractly reified as ‘beings’, have become so deeply, psychologically entrenched in Western culture that the ‘switching costs’ to restore ‘sanity’ (i.e. to restore the natural experience based acknowledging of the inherent ‘relationality’ of the natural world) have grown to enormous proportions.

After a long silence, owl once again spoke up, sharing with the man that the words we use can have the psychological impact of ‘connoting being’ (i.e. the ‘existence’ of ‘things-in-themselves’) and that these name-instantiated ‘things-that-be’ manifest as a ‘picture’ in our mind’s-eye wherein the flow-continuum withdraws from our awareness while the ‘whorl’ or relational flow-form takes on a ‘centre-stage-life of its own’ in our language induced cognition.

“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”

The owl moved on to conclude the sharing of his understanding with the man;

“We may sensuously experience inclusion in the world-flow as a purely relational experience wherein we are ‘one with everything’, but once we speak in the ‘being’-based terms of language and grammar that induce a ‘centre-stage’ picture of ourselves in our mind’s eye and use language and grammar to ‘name it’ and impute ‘being’ to it whereupon we can employ language and grammar to re-animate it as an ‘independently-existing being’ or ‘thing-in-itself, it becomes difficult to ’get outside it’; i.e. to break our mind free of such cognitive/psychological capture and recall that, as Heraclitus reminds us, ‘everything is in flux’, including ourselves”.


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If one lives in the ‘Western world’, the common understanding of the world dynamic, that is presented on the television news and in the newspapers and taught in universities in the science-oriented disciplines, is the ‘being-based’ understanding of the world that persists in spite of its obsolescence, such persistence being due to the massive ‘switching costs’ that associate with routine adoption of a relational understanding of the world.  One can get a feeling for the magnitude of these switching costs by reflecting on the following statement by physicist F. David Peat cited in his book; ‘Blackfoot Physics’;

… in modern physics … It is impossible to separate a phenomenon from the context in which it is observed. Categories no longer exist in the absence of contexts.

Within Indigenous science, context is always important. Nothing is abstract since all things happen within a landscape and by virtue of a web of interrelationships. The tendency to collect things into categories does not exist within the thought and language of, for example, Algonquin speakers.

This leads to a profoundly different way of approaching and thinking about the world. For, in the absence of categories, each thing is mentally experienced on its own merits, and for what it actually is. Rather than indulging in comparison or judgment, Indigenous speakers attempt to enter into relationship with them.

What is needed, Bohm argued in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, is a new sort of language, one based on processes and activity, transformation and change, rather than on the interactions of stable objects. Bohm called this hypothetical language the “rheomode.” It is based primarily on verbs and on grammatical structures deriving from verbs. Such a language, Bohm argued, is perfectly adapted to a reality of enfolding and unfolding matter and thought.

David Bohm had not known when he wrote of that concept that such a language is not just a physicist’s hypothesis. It actually exists. The language of the Algonquin peoples was developed by the ancestors specifically to deal with subtle matters of reality, society, thought, and spirituality.

A few months before his death, Bohm met with a number of Algonkian speakers and was struck by the perfect bridge between their language and worldview and his own exploratory philosophy. What to Bohm had been major breakthroughs in human thought — quantum theory, relativity, his implicate order and rheomode – were part of the everyday life and speech of the Blackfoot, Mic Maq, Cree and Ojibwaj.” – F. David Peat, ‘Blackfoot Physics’

The point to be made here is that the common public rhetoric in Western society is not addressing the physical reality of our actual experience;, … it is instead invoking in our Western mainstream cognition, a being-based pseudo-reality inspired by ‘naming’ relational forms in the transforming relational continuum [imputing ‘thing-in-itself being’ to the named relational forms, including human forms].  There is no such thing in the reality of our actual relational experience as a ‘being’ or ‘human being’.  There are only relational forms in the transforming relational continuum.  The relational flow (Tao) that can be told is not the true relational flow.

Poetic inference is the sole means of conveying our relational experience within a transforming relational continuum.  Poetic inference was once esteemed in Western culture but has fallen into the shadow of rising rational intellection, the level 3 cognition in Erich Jantsch’s model of cognition where level 3 is ‘nature’, level 2 is nurture (both level 1 and 2 assume ‘being’) and level 1 is ‘relations’ as in the world as ‘flow’ or Tao.

The everyday talk on the news and in governmental and business proceedings it level 3 or level 2 (being-based) reality talk.  Level 3 talk is the language of Western science.  Insofar as this talk, which predominates in government and business management shapes individual and collective behaviours, it is the source of ‘incoherence’ (Bohm).

We are ‘locked in’ to this pattern of incoherence in the social dynamic because of the ‘lock-in’ phenomenon that perpetuates dysfunction due to ‘high switching costs’ discussed in the essay.  That is, the ‘being-based’ system of rewarding and empowering people is the source of incoherence that derives from assuming a being-based rather than relational source of dynamics (production).

The needed shift from being-based to relational-based cognition is not currently happening because, as with the needed relational nature of the discourse (as is natural in poetic usage and in the indigenous aboriginal languages), it seems too slow and tedious to those accustomed to being-based discourse.  In other words, the high ‘switching costs’ not only leave the glib egotist heroes of the culture-in-place in the lurch, they require far more in-depth relational intercourse in place of the glib rational exchanges that predominate in today’s Western society.


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