Anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s book, Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge, which I referred to two weeks ago, reminded me of the role of contemplation in the scientific quest.
I’ve written before about Einstein’s famous “thought experiments” by which he developed explanations for natural phenomena, comparing them to the imagination Saint Ignatius felt was needed in the contemplative life.
In a chapter entitled “Plants as Brains,” Narby reports the work of Anthony Trewavas, a biologist at the University of Edinburgh, which he summarizes:
Plants have intentions, make decisions, and compute complex aspects of their environment. … When attacked by herbivores, some plants signal for help, releasing chemicals that attract their assailants’ predators. … When a plant is damaged, its cells send one another electrical signals just like our own pain messages [p 83-4].
Trewavas prefers to use the word “compute” to “think” when applied to plants [p87] and disputes the long held scientific position that plants are passive because they do not move, explaining “it requires an equating of movement with intelligence. Movement is an expression of intelligence [p85]” speculating that “plant communication is likely to be as complex as within a brain [p93].”
I will leave all of that for scientists to hash out. What interests me as a contemplative wannabe is Trewavas’s process developing such thoughts, “I find it’s only by long periods of doing nothing but think that suddenly facts start coming into your mind [p90].”
Half of Narby’s book consists of detailed footnotes that undergirds or sometimes questions his text. I find these details occasionally hard to understand, as I am clearly not a scientist, but I can appreciate their gist. I’m not a footnote kind of guy, but I find these footnotes awesome and well worth the read. It’s there that I found these thoughts from W. I. B. Beveridge, written in 1950 under the title The Art of Scientific Investigation:
The most important prerequisite is prolonged contemplation of the problem and the data until the mind is saturated with it. … The mind must work consciously on the problem for days in order to get the subconscious mind working on it [p 206].
Diversions and distractions are to be avoided, but idle time can be useful and fertile. This made me think of Vincent van Gogh’s idle time after being dismissed from his pastoral position by church hierarchy dismayed at his lack of social distance from his parishioners. It was then van Gogh thought he might take up drawing and painting, hoping his paintings would have the same consoling effect the Christian faith once offered.
Most people find intuitions are more likely to come during a period of apparent idleness and temporary abandonment of the problem following periods of intensive work. Light occupations requiring no mental effort, such as walking in the country, bathing, shaving, traveling to and from work, are said by some to be when intuitions most often appear… [p207].
That’s the way I work, by spending a little “idle” time that allows thoughts or feelings, patterns or analyses to “bubble up.” In college I read process philosopher Henri Bergson, who suggested that along with rational thought we needed intuitive thinking. Intuition may simply be the subconscious mind offering an insight or solution from its hidden depths.
To me, that’s the gift of contemplation in the spiritual life as well.
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