The Rebirth of Nature and the Climate Crisis
The Rebirth of Nature and the Climate Crisis
A Sydney Ideas Lecture
University of Sydney, 7th July 2009
The failure of humanity to respond to the threat of global warming with anything like
the urgency demanded by climate science is deeply puzzling. Undoubtedly, our
preoccupation with economic growth, and the way it cedes enormous power to the
‘wealth creators’, is at the heart of it. The counterpart of growth fetishism—
consumerism and the way in which we increasingly derive our personal identities
from what we consume—must also figure in the explanation. Nor should we ignore
the capacity of humans to avoid uncomfortable truths that may require us to change
However, I want to reflect on what is perhaps a more deeply rooted explanation for
our inertia. I will suggest that our modern disconnection from Nature structures our
consciousness in a way that works against a proportionate response to the powerful
signals Nature is now sending us. If this is so then only a reconnection with Nature
can save us from the climate disruption now unfolding before our eyes. So this lecture
will attempt to trace the origins of the disconnection with a view to understanding
what it would take to bring about a reconnection, which is nothing less than a new
form of consciousness.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the possibilities for a shift to a new consciousness
is to study the last major revolution in consciousness, the advent of the so-called
mechanical philosophy at the end of the 17th century. In other words, if we can
understand how we became radically disconnected from Nature, this should help us
understand what it would take for us to become reconnected with Nature.
The intellectual and social history is intricate and subtle, and the subject of continuing
scholarly debate. A full account would take a book, so the argument I am giving here
should be understood as a summary and stylised version of a much more complex
intellectual history (reflected in a longer version of this paper).
The great transformation
Prior to the second half of the 17th century the dominant philosophy of nature outside
of the Church, where Scholasticism prevailed, was Hermeticism.2 In the Hermetic
philosophy Nature was understood organically, that is, as akin to a living organism.
The modern distinction between animate and inanimate objects was not recognised;
rocks, metals and the elements were not seen as passive but animated by an internal
principle.3 So metals grow in the earth according to their own principle rather than
due to the influence of external force. The original conception is often attributed to
Plato who wrote in the 4th century BCE:
Therefore, we may consequently state that: this world is indeed a living being
endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity
containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.4
In the Hermetic view, the material world was infused with the spiritual and its secrets
could be divined by alchemy, astrology and other esoteric practices.
To separate the spiritual and the physical was the central objective of the new
mechanical philosophy of the 17th century. Natural philosophers were drawn to the
new worldview most closely associated with the name of René Descartes.5 Descartes
saw the world as comprising no more than matter and motion, with matter itself
defined solely by the quality of its extension, ruling out any inner essence or form. By
taking the machine as a metaphor for the cosmos he denied it any essence, life force
or inner motive. In the mechanical philosophy, the progressive dissection of the
material world yielded only finer particles, an atomistic conception from which the
spirit was banished. The Earth was rendered dead. Today we take a dead Earth as
given yet, as Mircea Eliade has pointed out, experience of a radically desacralised
nature is a recent discovery.6
It is usual to view Descartes’ famous Cogito, “I think, therefore I am”, as the decisive
moment inaugurating the break from the dominant Scholastic tradition of Thomas
Aquinas and the emergence of the mechanical philosophy. In recent years, however,
scholars have established that it is more accurate to view Descartes’ intervention (and
that of Immanuel Kant) as the culmination of a philosophical-theological
discontinuity within Scholasticism that occurred some centuries earlier. A number of theologians were part of this movement towards the end of the High Middle Ages but
historians of philosophy have devoted most attention to the 13th century Scottish
Franciscan priest Duns Scotus.7
Duns Scotus denied that there is a qualitative distinction between the divine and the
mundane; the difference between God and the rest of creation is one of degree only.8
There is nothing essentially ineffable about the divine, or the inner essence of things,
and we can talk about God in the same way we can talk about other beings. So there is
nothing inherently mysterious and the human intellect can attain certainty about all
things. Cambridge scholar Catherine Pickstock observes that it was this decision to
privilege ‘clarity and distinctness as the most fundamental criteria for the existence of
a thing’ that made possible Descartes’ reduction of the physical world to matter and
To the modern mind the presumption that existence can only be conceived as clear
and intelligible seems obvious, almost banal, yet Scotus’ argument that existence or
being must be graspable by the human mind was a momentous shift. It turned being
into an object, so that reality became understood simply as that which is given to the
perceiving subject, without any transcendent quality.
The link with Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is immediate as is the link with
Kant’s idea of no object without a subject. The new conception of reality, of the
nature of existence, redefined knowledge too, because if knowledge is knowing about
what is, then the objectification of being confines knowledge to that which is certain
and distinct. So knowledge becomes that which is thinkable. Being itself became
subordinated to the knowing human subject. Thus there is no deeper quality to reality,
nothing that might transcend the objectivity of things, nothing mysterious that might
fall outside of the subject-object relation. As Pickstock writes, ‘a new model of truth
as transparently available and immanent began to emerge’, one that contrasted with
Thomas Aquinas’ notion of being as ‘something with unknowable and unanalysable
The significance for us of Scotus’ break with the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas is
that before the Earth could be subordinated to human needs, it first had to be subordinated to human knowledge. Consummating Scotus, Descartes made ‘being’ a
product of the human subject through the Cogito. That is, the nature of reality became
determined by what we can know.
So, against Aquinas, being was no longer a ‘divine gift’ known only by participation
in its infinite or mysterious nature; being became an abstraction, a concept, or
collection of concepts applied to a thing that had no existence outside how it appeared
to those concepts. Being had become mere knowledge, but knowledge derived from
concepts, from thinking, and never from participation.
The imposition of a radical distance between the knower and the known—which Max
Weber was to describe as the disenchantment of the world—was the price of
Descartes’ project of ‘securing’ being. In the Cartesian world the knower becomes a
self-constituting perceiver, an isolated subject existing inside a body but capable of
thought. For Descartes this ego is the sole indubitable fact; it alone qualifies as true.
That which cannot be conceived in thought as clear and distinct is deemed beyond
knowledge and non-existent.
Unlike his contemporary Saint Francis of Assisi, Aquinas did not see the world as
alive, but he did understand it to be pervaded by a divine mystery. Duns Scotus’ break
was the beginning of the end of both a sacralised Earth and a living Earth because
knowledge of the Earth becomes confined to the rational, conceptual and empirical.
All existence is merely phenomenal so there can be no hidden depth or symbolic
meaning in the Earth that points to eternal truths, and no ‘force’ that could vivify it.11
With the human subject as master, the unknowable becomes merely that which is not
yet known. The mysterious is simply a gap, a negative to be filled, whereas for
Aquinas the mystery was a positive category, a necessary and eternal feature of the
world, indeed, its source. For Aquinas, argues Pickstock, the mysterious ‘is not that
which belies actuality, but that from which actuality derives its fulfilment’.12
Descartes’ reimagining of reality as corporeal and self-contained, with no depths and
unlinked to any transcendent force, meant that the Earth and the cosmos were emptied
of any powers other than those identified by mechanism.<sup>13</sup> The repudiation of
participating knowledge was a blow to all ideas of a living Earth, for it meant a
reconceptualisation of the notion of life, away from something at its heart mysterious to something graspable in biological terms. We will return to the implications of the
abolition of the mysterious when we consider what ‘life’ means in James Lovelock’s
conception of a living Earth.
Boyle and the dead earth
The idea that existence is marked by clarity and graspability is the epistemological
stance that underpins modern scientific practice, a practice entrenched especially by
the father of modern chemistry, Robert Boyle, in the rules he laid down for
experimentation and endorsed by the Royal Society in the 17th century.14But it was a
conception of reality that had to be actively promoted. In 1686 Boyle made a
powerful intervention in the antagonism that divided the Hermetic and mechanical
philosophies with his book, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of
For Boyle the Aristotelian view (from which, surprisingly, Hermeticism grew16)
imagines the world to be like a puppet moved by a divine force that can overrule any
mechanical processes that may be present. In the new conception the world is like ‘a
rare clock’ which, once constructed, is set ticking so that ‘all things proceed according
to the artificer’s first design’ without any subsequent intervention by God, the clockmaker.
17 The new conception, according to Boyle, complied with the church’s
teaching on the sovereign and supernatural role of the divine being. If at any time God
should decide to overrule the operations of the clockwork mechanism, which knows
nothing more than matter and motion, then the result is properly understood as a
Far from being the means by which science was disconnected from and elevated
above theology, for Boyle and most of his contemporaries the mechanical conception
of the world could be used to rescue God, that is, the official Christian God, from the
animism and pantheism that had become associated with political radicals after the
restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s. Boyle could not foresee that by so
effectively isolating God from the world it was only a matter of time before the
Almighty was killed off altogether by humanism, leaving the world of matter and
motion with no spirit to enliven it from within or deity to oversee it from without.
In a remark that lends early weight to the contention that the mechanical philosophy
helped release the forces that have given us the environmental crisis, Boyle observed
that one of the lamentable consequences of the philosophy that venerates a living
natural world is that it deters men from exercising their rule over it; piety towards
nature, he wrote, is ‘a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior
creatures of God’.18 William Derham, who in 1711 delivered the prestigious Boyle
Lecture, put it more bluntly:
We can, if need be, ransack the whole globe, penetrate into the bowels of the
earth, descend to the bottom of the deep, travel to the farthest regions of this
world, to acquire wealth, to increase our knowledge, or even only to please our
eye and fancy.19
Along with Descartes, the seminal intellectual figure in the transition from the old to
the new natural philosophy was Isaac Newton whose work, particularly the 1687
Principia, contributed more than any other to the revolution in consciousness. Indeed
the mechanical philosophy is known interchangeably as the Newtonian or the
Cartesian worldview. In his early years as a student at Cambridge Newton absorbed
the mechanical philosophy, including the conceptualisation of matter as inert or
inactive, unless, of course, acted upon by an external force. Yet at the same time from
his earliest days until late in life Newton was heavily engaged in the ideas and
practices of alchemy, the foremost esoteric practice of those steeped in Hermetic
The emblematic principle of Hermetic wisdom is ‘As above, so below’, which
provided the rationale for alchemical endeavour: the divine can be found by working
with the natural, telluric processes of the Earth. Spiritual truth can be found in the
essence of matter. For years Newton collected and pored over alchemical
manuscripts, transcribing, translating and absorbing them. In the tradition of adepts he
immersed himself in experiments, building his own laboratory in the garden outside
his rooms at Trinity College and sometimes keeping the furnace alight for days at a
time while he worked on his chemical transformations. He was perhaps the most
theoretically knowledgeable and experimentally proficient alchemist of all time.
While it is easy today to mock Newton’s efforts—one experiment optimistically
began ‘Take of Urin one Barrel’21—in fact he went about his alchemical labours with
the same concentrated application of systematic, rational and careful thought and
testing that marked all his work. It would be wrong to think of Newton in his
laboratory as engaged in a mystical process of transforming base metals into gold,
which was certainly the mark of some forms of alchemy22; but nor would it be
accurate to ignore his desire to explore the truth of the most fundamental principles of
the Hermetic wisdom.
Throughout his scientific career Newton never abandoned the intuition that lies at the
core of Hermeticism, that the Earth is always engaged in incessant and purposeful
activity. In some respects, the idea is not too far from the truth, for modern geology
tells us that the Earth’s crust is being constantly overturned by the process of
subduction, the under-thrusting or downwelling of tectonic plates into the earth’s
mantle. ‘For nature is a perpetuall circulatory worker’, Newton wrote,23 and in texts
such as the Principia he forever sought to capture the Earth’s ceaseless transformation
with the use of verbs like condensing, fermenting, coagulating, precipitating,
exhaling, vegetating, circulating and generating.24 God is the origin of the active
principle that animates matter and explains its existence. ‘In Him are all things
contained and moved’,25 he wrote in material intended for a revised edition of the
Principia. He understood gravity as the divine force that animates and orders the
universe; it is caused by ‘the direct action of God’.
One biographer, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, wrote: ‘Newton’s alchemical thoughts were
so securely established on their basic foundations that he never came to deny their
general validity, and in a sense the whole of his career after 1675 may be seen as one
long attempt to integrate alchemy and the mechanical philosophy.’26 In a manuscript
dating from the first half of the 1670s, Newton seemed to summarise his alchemical
views, affirming that metals and minerals ‘vegetate’ or grow in the earth, enlivened
by a ‘vegetative spirit’ which diffuses through matter, and which is distinguished
from the processes identified by vulgar chemistry.27,28 The more subtle and secret way
of working with the processes of vegetation, including the growth of minerals,
operates not on the common substance of matter but on its finest part — the ‘subtile &
inimaginably small portion of matter diffused through the masse’. It is this subtle element that vivifies the world, for in its absence, Newton wrote, ‘there would remain
but a dead & inactive earth’. This idea of a subtle part of matter can be found at the
centre of the ontology set out in the great Hindu text known as the Upanishads.
However antagonistic the two worldviews seem today, the mechanistic view in
Newton’s hands became permeated from the outset with Hermetic conceptions of a
living Earth. He infused the mechanical philosophy with a dynamic force, which led
some at the time to criticise the Principia for occultism.29 As Dobbs observes, his
critics were right in a sense because his forces were like the hidden sympathies and
antipathies found in the Hermetic literature. But he had given these forces an
ontological status on a par with those of matter and motion. After Descartes had
immobilised the world with his ‘passive Laws’, Newton returned to it the active
principles, so that ‘the universe lived again’, if only briefly.30
The story of Newton’s intellectual development suggests that the essential Hermetic
insight of a living Earth and the rigorous practice of modern science are not, at heart,
incompatible. Conceiving of the world as alive or dead is not a decision that can be
taken on the basis of scientific evidence but is due to either habit or metaphysical
intuition. To be sure, alchemical practice—which made the mistake of interpreting the
metaphysical in physical terms—could not withstand the withering force of scientific
experimentation. But mechanism was never more than a metaphor, although it did not
take long for the metaphor to be mistaken for the thing it represented. In her historical
study of the impact of the scientific revolution on the exploitation of nature and the
subjugation of women, Carolyn Merchant observes that, among the strengths of
mechanism, ‘it served not only as an answer to the problem of social and cosmic
order, but it also functioned as a justification for power and domination over nature’.31
The victory of mechanism
Thus contrary to the common view, Newton did not deploy the new insights of
science to purge the world of esoteric ideas; on the contrary, he embraced the old and
the new, holding and reconciling the apparently irreconcilable. The difficulty for
Newton was that Hermeticism had become closely associated with political radicalism
and religious enthusiasm, both of which presented a threat to the established political
order and church authority in the late 17th century.32
In the 1660s and 1670s several fellows at Cambridge were expelled for expressing
heretical views, including the repudiation of the Trinity. The vast collection of
alchemical and other esoteric papers Newton generated at Cambridge revealed not
only his alchemical work but his anti-trinitarian belief. John Maynard Keynes, who
collected together many of Newton’s esoteric papers after they were auctioned off in
1936, described his Unitarian heresy as a ‘dreadful secret which Newton was at
desperate pains to conceal all his life’.33 Newton’s fears were real: his successor in the
Lucasian Chair at Cambridge, William Whiston, was expelled from the University for
uttering views Newton had held for 50 years.
Newton’s dilemma became acute in the 1690s when radical and free-thinker John
Toland linked demands for social change with the implications of Newton’s natural
philosophy.34 If Nature is in a constant state of transformation there is no
philosophical justification for a stable human order. That revolution is natural was a
dangerous idea, one Newton worked hard to distance himself from. In truth, Toland’s
pantheistic interpretation was consistent with the one secretly held by Newton
himself; even late in life he described the world as ‘the sensorium, or organ of sense,
of the all-pervasive and immanent God’.35
Whatever its intellectual force, the mechanical philosophy could not succeed on the
basis of evidence or logic alone. In addition to the Church, it found its advocate in the
emerging bourgeoisie whose accumulation of pecuniary and political influence
depended on a stable social order. The growth of commerce and industry also needed
to overcome resistance to exploiting the Earth’s resources. As I have argued, in
Renaissance thinking the modern division between animate and inanimate was
blurred. Since minerals had some form of vegetative life, mining had to be treated
cautiously, and miners often performed propitiatory rituals.36 As Merchant observed:
‘The image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother had served as a
cultural constraint restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a
mother …’.37 Yet there was mounting commercial pressure to expand mining. David
Kubrin reports that in the 90 years to 1680 the amount of coal dug from English soil
increased tenfold.38 The cloth industry and large-scale farming were other sectors
growing rapidly along capitalist lines so that ‘for the first time in England the earth
was seen primarily as a source of profits by an increasingly powerful sector of the
Max Weber, the founder of sociology, began his great work, The Protestant Ethic and
the Spirit of Capitalism, with the observation that the development of certain types of
practical rational conduct may encounter serious inner resistance from spiritual
obstacles. ‘The magical and religious forces, and the ethical ideas of duty based upon
them, have in the past always been among the most important formative influences on
conduct’.40 The development of the ethos of modern capitalism first had to overcome
these obstacles and it was the Protestant ethic that brought to capitalism ‘the change in
moral standards which converted a natural frailty [acquisitiveness] into an ornament
of the spirit, and canonized as the economic virtues habits which in earlier ages had
been denounced as vices’.41 Casting off all Roman magic and Hermetic spirits,
Calvinists and Puritans believed God had given man dominion over the earth and it
was his duty to exploit it.
If the natural world can be expunged of immanent purpose and intrinsic value, the
world has value only to the extent of its contribution to human welfare. Weber coined
the phrase ‘the disenchantment of the world’ to refer to the way the modern mind
began to see the earth as an inert realm ‘out there’, ripe for exploitation. The notion
that the world is alive and in which we are intimately involved came to be seen as
superstitious and disreputable. The scientific attitude of dispassionate withdrawal and
non-participatory deliberation found favour with the official Church as well as the
rising bourgeoisie and it was this combination that saw European industrial power
come to dominate the world.
It was not just a change in our beliefs about the world, but a radical transformation of
our ‘inner landscape’, our consciousness, one that severed or suppressed the
connection with the natural world in order to allow us to exploit it without faltering.
The mechanical philosophy provided the basis for the extraordinary advances of
industrial society, but it also imposed a pattern on human behaviour that alienated us
from nature. It is the foundation of the big ideas on which the modern world has been
constructed—economics, industrial organisation, technological optimism, the medical
model of human health and the idea of sustainable development.
Humanity is now forced to confront the question of whether a consciousness rooted in
a dead earth subjugated to our material needs can respond adequately to the climate
crisis or whether we need to rediscover some form of participating consciousness in a
way that is scientifically credible. Clearly a return to pre-scientific animism or
Hermeticism is out of the question; we know too much.
The development of the science of ecology has helped to point out the intricate
interconnectedness of natural systems and our reliance on them for survival. Although
the ecologists themselves may be motivated by some deeper intuition, as a science,
ecology remains within the confines of the mechanical philosophy. Yet in recent
times an idea has emerged that promises to combine the best scientific understanding
with a conception of the living earth—James Lovelock’s Gaia theory.
While working for NASA on how to detect life on Mars, Lovelock had the intuition
that the Earth is a large living organism sustained by energy from the Sun.42 He
hypothesised that ‘the evolution of the species and the evolution of the environment
are tightly coupled together as a single and inseparable process’.43 Gaia theory
maintains that the Earth is a living system in which the biosphere interacts with other
physical components of the Earth—the atmosphere, the cryosphere (the frozen parts
of the earth), the hydrosphere and the lithosphere (the earth’s crust)—to maintain
conditions suitable for life. ‘We live in a world that has been built by our ancestors,
ancient and modern, and which is continuously maintained by all things alive
Life does not simply respond and adapt to the environment around it but modifies that
environment for its own ends. In particular, the composition of the atmosphere, the
temperature at the Earth’s surface and the salinity of the oceans are influenced by the
biota so that they are maintained in a stable state suited to life. In the case of
temperature, Lovelock argues that the ability of life to unconsciously regulate the
Earth has allowed it to maintain a fairly stable temperature even though the energy
provided to the Earth by the Sun has increased 25-30 per cent since life forms
emerged. There is now a body of science that lends weight to the Gaia theory by
identifying and measuring various feedback mechanisms.
So has Lovelock solved Newton’s conundrum of how to marry a conception of a
living Earth with the methods of modern science? Although Hermetic philosophy and
Gaia theory both maintain that the Earth is alive, this only provokes the question of
what is meant by ‘alive’. An adequate definition of life is notoriously elusive.45
Biochemical definitions centre on the observations that living entities grow,
metabolise, respond to stimuli, possess DNA, reproduce, die and evolve across
generations. Yet these definitions reduce life to certain of its properties and seem to
miss something essential. And they don’t work for the idea of a living Earth.
An alternative definition arises from the observation that life forms seem to resist, as
long as they are alive, the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that the
universe always moves from a state of order to a state of disorder, a process known as
entropy. Living things can forestall the effects of entropy through metabolic processes
that create order and organisation within living entities; they generate order from
disorder. Life then is a process that for a time resists the relentless dissipation of
energy and matter in the universe. However, while directing flows of matter and
energy through themselves to defer their own decay, life forms also put waste into the
outside environment thereby accelerating entropy beyond their boundaries.
Lovelock is attracted to this explanation, writing: ‘If life is defined as a selforganizing
system characterized by an actively sustained low-entropy, then, viewed
from outside each of these boundaries [of the living entity or system], what lies within
is alive.’46 It’s a conception that seems to work for Lovelock’s purposes because it fits
with the claim that the Earth is a living organism. Yet on closer inspection this notion
of life in Gaia theory becomes a stepping stone to rendering the Earth less than alive.
In the early years of the Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock was criticised by fellow scientists
for implicitly adopting a teleological explanation, that is, the view that the Earth is
evolving purposively towards some goal. Lovelock was keen to distance himself from
such a heretical belief. ‘True knowledge can never be gained by attributing “purpose”
to phenomena’, he wrote.47 To prove that Gaia is not a teleological theory Lovelock
developed a simple computer model consisting of a world dominated by one plant
species, daisies. They come in two varieties, white and black, which can reflect a lot
of or a little incoming solar radiation. If the planet becomes too warm more white daisies grow. The white surfaces reflect more solar radiation and the planet cools.
When it cools too much more black daises flourish.
The Daisyworld model can be used to show that a planet can be self-regulating with
the goal of maintaining the conditions for life. It’s a feedback system that has an
objective without having a purpose, just like a machine with an automatic governor.
Lovelock describes it in cybernetic terms as an unconscious self-regulating system
that is constantly brought back to a homoeostatic point (although that point can jump
to a new equilibrium), a circulatory system that replaces the usual sequential thinking
of the sciences.48
On the face of it, this conception is reminiscent of Newton’s description of nature as
‘a perpetuall circulatory worker’, yet it is apparent that in disowning all teleology
Lovelock has returned to a mechanical world in which a ‘living Earth’ can be no more
than a metaphor. In the end Lovelock defines Gaia as a ‘control system’ that ‘has the
capacity to regulate the temperature and the composition of the Earth’s surface and to
keep it comfortable for living organisms’.49 Gaia is in truth a mechanical system into
which Lovelock has smuggled life. Although at various points Lovelock talks of Gaia
being ‘woken’ by the emergence of living organisms, it is only the emergence of life
forms that enlivens Gaia. He contrasts the idea of a living Earth with the common one
of ‘a dead planet bearing life as a mere passenger’,50 but Lovelock’s Gaia is a dead
planet with some organisms living on it, ones that unconsciously modify the lifeless
components of the system.
In the end, Lovelock concedes that he talks of the Earth being alive only in a
metaphorical sense, arguing that we should ‘imagine it as the largest living thing in
the solar system … Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive,
at least to the extent of regulating its climate and chemistry, we will lack the will to
change our way of life …’.51 Unfortunately, this can never do; pretending something
to be true cannot provide the will to change.
Although innocent of philosophy, Lovelock is an intellectual descendent of Duns
Scotus and Descartes rather than Plato and Newton. For him Gaia had to conform to
the Scotist universe of clarity, distinctness and knowability. If life is in any sense
indefinable then Lovelock’s Gaia cannot be alive; but liberated from scientism perhaps Gaia can be brought to life. Lovelock admits that after the publication of The
Ages of Gaia he was mystified by the large number of letters he received from readers
who saw his vision in essentially religious or transcendental terms. It’s not surprising
that many people should have read the book from a different ontological standpoint,
one that recognises that being is deeper than how it appears to us, and intuits a
mysterious quality in life and the cosmos.
In their notions of a living Earth both Newton and Lovelock were guilty of a category
error because they thought of the life of the Earth as being like the life that defines us.
It is misleading even as a metaphor because it confuses the physical with the
metaphysical. Yet they share a deeper insight: we do not just live on the Earth but are
connected to it; Gaia is not a passive victim but a dynamic force that must be
respected. Instead of ‘life’, others have called this dynamic force mind or soul or, in
the East, the subtle essence or, even better, ch’i.
From Hermes to Gaia
Revolutions in thinking are never clear-cut; they are messy affairs with elements of
the old shaping and persisting in the new. It is the subsequent generations of thinkers
who purge the new of vestiges of the old. Newton and Lovelock are each critical
transitional figures, ushering in the new while held back by the old—Newton by
Hermeticism, Lovelock by mechanism
Publicly, Newton had to embrace the methods of mechanism in order to defend the
orthodox notion of God. Privately, he always worried that Descartes’ conception was
paving the way for atheism.52 He never abandoned a powerful sense of the vitality of
the Earth, driven by processes that were mysterious not because science had yet to
reveal their secrets but because they were an expression of divine ineffability.
Although not the rebirth of Nature, Lovelock’s Gaia perhaps provides a scientific
frame in which Nature can be reborn. The missing element cannot be uncovered by
mechanical science yet it finds empirical affirmation in the experience of humans at
all times in all places. Lovelock’s Gaia was inspired by the stunning and numinous
pictures of the blue planet sent back to Earth by the Apollo mission in December
1968. For the first time humans could see their world as a bounded whole floating in
inky space. It looked delicate, serene and in some sense alive. Like the astronauts themselves we noticed the thinness and fragility of the Earth’s atmosphere. Bill
Anders, an Apollo 8 astronaut, prophetically observed: ‘We came all this way to
explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth’.53
What does this brief history of ideas tell us about the prospects for a new
consciousness? It should be apparent that our ideas about the world, including our
values, are built on much deeper conceptions concerning the nature of reality and of
knowledge. These in turn shape the conception of the self from which we act. The
modern conception of self as an isolated ego that exists inside a body acting on an
inert outside world is not ‘just how the world is’, but reflects a recent evolution of
consciousness, the product of the mechanical philosophy and the scientific revolution.
Now embodied in our institutions, this form of consciousness is constantly reinforced
by economic thinking, technological mesmerism, consumer practice and the culture of
A new consciousness cannot be built solely on a better scientific understanding of the
world; it must be rooted in a different ontology, a different conception of reality, one
that allows for participatory knowledge as well as scientific knowledge, one that
allows for the mystery of being as well as the certainty of its manifestations. Such an
understanding of the world requires a transformation of our attitudes, our values and
our institutions; but above all it requires an expansion of our selves.
1This paper has been improved enormously as a result of comments from my colleagues Wayne
Hudson, Scott Cowdell and James Haire, as well from participants in seminars at the Australian
National University and Yale University. All errors and misinterpretations remain mine.
2Named after the fabled alchemist Hermes Trismegistus whose name means the thrice-great Hermes.
In Greek mythology, Hermes was the messenger of the gods, the crosser of boundaries.
3 See Richard Westfall,Never At Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press,Cambridge, 1980, p. 184.
4Plato, Timaeus. Plato’s views on this may have changed over his life-time; this quotation seems to
reflect his mature position. See David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, MIT Press, Cambridge,
Massachusetts, 2005, pp. 34-45
5Descartes was assisted by Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi, but their roles cannot be detailed
here. For a discussion see especially Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and
the Scientific Revolution, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1980, Chapter 8.
6Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The nature of religion, Harper & Row, New York, 1961
p. 151. Eliade goes on: ‘For others, nature still exhibits a charm, a mystery, a majesty in which it is
possible to decipher traces of ancient religious values. No modern man, however irreligious, is entirely
insensible to the charms of nature’.
7Here I rely largely on the work of Catherine Pickstock, acknowledging that the interpretation she
gives is the subject of debate among scholars. Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical
Consummation of Philosophy, Blackwell, Oxford, 1998; Catherine Pickstock, ‘Duns Scotus: His
historical and contemporary significance’, Modern Theology, vol. 21, no. 4, October 2005.
8See, for example, the entry on Duns Scotus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
9Pickstock, After Writing, p. 61
10Pickstock, After Writing, pp. 62 & 63
11Pickstock, ‘Duns Scotus: His historical and contemporary significance’, p. 545
12Pickstock, After Writing, p. 128
13Pickstock notes that experimental philosophers like Boyle did recognize force in matter, but
identified it as a direct presence of a divine causality, as if a remote God had decided to inject his own
influences into a universe that is also controlled by mechanical forces (Pickstock, After Writing 1998,
14Pickstock, After Writing, pp. 74 ff. Also Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-
Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey,
15Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, edited by Edward B.
Davis and Michael Hunter, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996 .
16Skrbina (Panpsychism in the West, pp. 45-51) argues that, despite his rationalism and materialism,
Aristotle also believed that all things have ‘a sort of life’ or soul-like presence.
17Boyle, A Free Enquiry, p. 13. In 1605 Kepler had written that his aim was ‘to show that the celestial
machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but to a clockwork’. (Quoted by Merchant, The
Death of Nature, p. 128-9)
18Boyle, A Free Enquiry, p. 15
19Quoted by Merchant, The Death of Nature, p. 249
20There is now an extensive literature on Newton’s alchemy. See especially Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs,
The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, or “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon”, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1975; P. M. Rattansi, ‘Newton’s Alchemical Studies’ in Allen G. Debus (ed.),
Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance, Heinemann, London, 1972; Richard Westfall, Never
At Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980; Richard S.
Westfall, ‘Newton and the Hermetic Tradition’, in Allen G. Debus (ed.), Science, Medicine and Society
in the Renaissance, Heinemann, London, 1972; David Kubrin, ‘Newton’s Inside Out! Magic, Class
Struggle, and the Rise of Mechanism in the West’ in Harry Woolf (ed.), The Analytic Spirit: Essays in
the history of science, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1981.
21Quoted by Westfall, Never At Rest, p. 285
22Although, as Carl Jung established, for the more sophisticated practitioners, the transmutation of
metals was in truth a process of transformation of the self, a form of psychotherapy on the path to
individuation. Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, 2nd edition, Princeton University Press, 1980
23Newton, The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press, for The Royal Society,
London 1959, Vol. I, p. 366.
24A point made by Rattansi, ‘Newton’s Alchemical Studies’, p. 176. Newton distinguished carefully
between ‘vegetable’ actions and ‘purely mechanical’ ones, with the reactions of ordinary chemistry
falling into the latter category. Vegetation was a process by which the seeds of things, interacting with
the aether or spirit, mature. The alchemists seemed to combine the two in the notion of the ‘vegetation
of metals’, a process of change involving purification which ultimately could reveal the universal spirit.
25Quoted in Rattansi, ‘Newton’s Alchemical Studies’, p. 122
26Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, p. 230
27The document is usually referred to as Of Natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation and is
published online by Indiana University’s The Chymistry of Isaac Newton project —
28At a physical level, this belief may not be as far-fetched as it appears, for it has recently been
discovered that gold nuggets are formed by the action of bacteria. Soil bacteria pull together dissolved
gold from their subterranean environment and deposit it on grains of gold where they live. For some
time it has been known that certain microbes can precipitate heavy metals from solution in the lab.
Frank Reith et al., ‘Biomineralization of Gold: Biofilms on Bacterioform Gold’, Science Vol. 33, No.
5784, p. 159, July 2006.
29Westfall, Never At Rest, pp. 185-6, 194
30Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, pp. 211, 212
31Merchant, The Death of Nature, p. 215.
32The following relies heavily on Kubrin, ‘Newton’s Inside Out!’, pp. 96-121.
33John Maynard Keynes, “Newton, the Man”, paper delivered to The Royal Society as part of the
Newton Tercentenary Celebrations, 1947. The paper was delivered posthumously by Keynes’ brother.
34Kubrin, ‘Newton’s Inside Out!’, p. 115-6. See also Margaret Candee Jacob, ‘John Toland and the
Newtonian Ideology’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 32 (1969), pp. 307-331.
35Kubrin, ‘Newton’s Inside Out!’, p. 116. Sensitive to the political implications, Newton changed these
words as his Opticks went to press so that the world become ‘like’ God’s sensorium. Later in life,
argues Kubrin, Newton changed his views so that matter, while changeable in its secondary qualities, is
inert and permanent in its essence.
36Merchant, The Death of Nature, p. 29ff
37Merchant, The Death of Nature, p.3
38Kubrin, ‘Newton’s Inside Out!’, p. 100
39Kubrin, ‘Newton’s Inside Out!’, p. 100
40Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism, Unwin University Books, 1930, p.
26-7. He argued that economic self-interest is not unique to modern capitalism and can be found in all
ages. After all, it was Jesus who cast the money-lenders from the temple steps.
41The words are those of R. H. Tawney in his foreword to Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit
of Capitalism, p. 2
42James Lovelock,The Ages of Gaia: A biography of our living Earth, Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 1989; James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia, Penguin, London, 2007; James Lovelock, The
Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, Penguin, London, 2009.
43Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, p. 12.
44Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, p. 33. Humans are the great exception because we are undoing the
process of maintaining the Earth as a living system that supports life. This makes us special. It is
attributable on the surface to our capacity to expand across the earth and suck in massive amounts of
resources and therefore create massive amounts of waste – hastening entropy
45See, for example, the discussion of ‘Life’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
46Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, p. 27
47Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, p. 214-15
48It might be thought that the capacity to reproduce must be included in the definition of ‘life’.
Lovelock suggests that life on a planetary scale regulates itself so effectively it is ‘near immortal’ and
so does not need to reproduce. Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, p. 63.
49Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, p. 31
50Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, p. 79
51Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia, pp. 21-2. Emphasis added.
52J. E. McGuire and P. M. Rattansi, ‘Newton and the “Pipes of Pan”’, Notes and Records of the Royal
Society of London, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Dec., 1966), p. 132