in the self-willed places beyond the pale of human control.
I don’t idealize this sense—or I try not to—and I don’t see it
as necessarily comforting. I realize that what I call “nature” (an imperfect word, but I can never seem to find a better one) is really
just another word for life; an ever-turning wheel of blood and shit
and death and rebirth. Nature is fatal as often as it is beautiful, and
sometimes it is both at once. But for me, that’s the point: it is the
fear and the violence inherent in wild nature, as much as the beauty
and the peace, that inspires in me the impulses that religions ask
me to direct toward their human-shaped gods: humility, a sense of
smallness, sometimes a fear, usually a desire to be part of something bigger than me and my kind. To lose myself; to lose my Self.
Here, perhaps, is one reason I remain
haunted by what I experienced in the Black
Chamber. I imagine — I can never know, and I
am glad about that — that the people who created those works of art experienced the same
feeling. I imagine that they saw something
more than meat and sinew in the creatures
that moved around them — creatures in which
god, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call
this great, nameless thing, was immanent.
In much of the world, even today, and certainly for the decisive majority of our human
past, this sense of other-than-human nature
as something thoroughly alive and intimately
interwoven with human existence is and was
the mainstream perception. A world without
electric lights, a world without engines, is a different world entirely. It is a world that is alive. Our world of science
and industry, of monocultures and monotheisms, marks a decisive
shift in human seeing.
Our world is not alive; it is machine, not animal, and we have
become starkly desensitized to the reality beyond the asphalt and
the street lights. There are no mammoths outside the entrance
to Niaux today, only a car park and a gift shop. We are here now,
above the ground, and above the ground is where we must live.
IN HIS BOOK The Righteous Mind, the psychologist Jonathan
Haidt does a convincing job of demonstrating that every one of
us, however much we might protest to the contrary, is a fundamentally irrational being. Much of what we believe to be objective,
rational thought, based on an examination of evidence and an assessment of verifiable facts, is in reality the result of our conscious
minds fabricating ex post facto justifications for what our intuition
has already decided to do.
Over the course of his long book, Haidt builds up a case file
of evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and other fields to
demonstrate that the objective, rational mind, magically divorced
from the clumsy, emotional physical body, is a fiction. One of the
founding myths of modernity has no basis in reality. Haidt com-
pares the relationship between intuition and reason to the rela-
tionship between the U.S. president and his press spokesman.
The spokesman’s job is to explain to the world what the president
has already decided to do; to rationalize it and to justify it, however
unjustifiable it may sometimes be.
Our rational mind, he suggests, works in much the same way.
It doesn’t make the decisions: our decisions are mostly made by
what we call our intuition, an embodied emotional response to the
world around us, which itself is conditioned by millions of years of
animal evolution. Our old animal minds are
still in control; the role of our conscious, reasoning brains is to provide the arguments to
justify what they choose to do.
Part of Haidt’s book builds on the earlier
work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who
described in his own book, Descartes’ Error, the
fate of a number of his patients in whom the
brain centers that governed emotional connection were destroyed or damaged in accidents,
but whose reasoning faculties remained intact. According to Enlightenment mythology,
this ought to have made them perfectly rational beings, unclouded by bias or passion,
able to act in accordance with evidence alone
and make judgements on that basis. In reality,
Damasio discovered that in every case studied,
In our civilization, so attached to the concept of objective rational thought, the idea that emotion and intuition may be the real
basis for our actions will in many quarters be strongly rejected. We
regard ourselves as “progressing” away from emotion and toward
reason, and we regard intuition as something primitive and
therefore suspect; something to be vanquished. This, after all, is
what the Enlightenment was supposed to be about: with God dispatched, human reason would remold the world in its own image.
Haidt calls this “the rationalist delusion”:
the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one
that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us
If anything is
sacred, I have
thought since I
it is this thing we