Work in Progress

We live through models. As I write this, for example, I believe I am on the surface of a spinning planet in solar orbit—despite the fact that this belief is immensely counterintuitive. Nothing seems less spinning than the ground I am standing on, and the sun looks exactly like a bright disk in the sky, not a nuclear furnace in outer space. Yet this highly counterintuitive belief seems transparently obvious to most of us.

To Old Spiridon, a Yukhagir hunter in Siberia, it was transparently obvious that the spirit of an elk might be in love with him and seduce him in his dreams, and this allowed him, in the morning, dressed as an elk, to sexually seduce a female of that species to approach him. As she drew near he saw not a large horned animal but a beautiful woman inviting him to her home and bed, and had to make an effort to resist temptation and shoot her for his food.

Most of us would say that Old Spiridon was deluded. What actually happened was x, y and z, even though that was not in fact Old Spiridon’s experience. It actually happened because it accords with our scientific models, just as the earth is actually spinning even though this is not our experience either.

When he was 24 years old the Scottish philosopher David Hume dissected the process by which we make models and left it bleeding on the ground, like Old Spiridon’s elk. Widely seen as a champion of science against the humbug of religion, Hume is more searingly read, I believe, as a champion of nature against the humbug of any models whatever. My next book, On the Moon, or, Hume’s Fork, examines the relationship between Hume and Old Spiridon, and what this tells us about our belief in the spinning earth.

On the Moon is a popular, accessible and engaging work. It is structured in short bites—each chapter no more than a couple of pages—and is marked by humor, anecdote and paradox. It is fun to read. Yet it is also deadly serious. It aims to change the way we look at ourselves, at nature, and at the relationship between us. In this it is allied to such works as David Abram’s Becoming Animal, Jay Griffiths’s Wild, Rane Willerslev’s Soul Hunters, Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men, Charles Eisenstein’s The Ascent of Humanity and even Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. It diverges from all of them, however, in its hunkering down on the essential question of the credibility and status of scientific models per se in descriptions of what we call reality.

With biodiversity plummeting, soil exhausted, and climate in upheaval, it is clear that we need to change the way we treat our planet. I am not an engineer or a lawyer and cannot contribute to change by developing earth-friendly technologies or drafting and enforcing legislation. Yet I believe that technological and political efforts may need a philosophical underpinning in order to effect real transformation. It’s not enough to think that animals and forests are nice, that they provide a welcome balance to our civilized lives, or even that their continued existence is necessary for our survival. We need instead a radically new model for our place in the universe and the universe’s place in us.

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