I’m a bit of an animist. An animist is someone who believes that everything is alive and has its own soul or spirit.
My animism comes from a rather strange place, which is the rarified realm of physics.
I was thinking about this just last night in a different context. One of the issues with intelligence is that it necessarily violates conservation laws, including conservation of energy and momentum.
Consider a ball that someone has thrown. It describes a perfect parabolic trajectory under the (almost) constant, homogeneous gravitational influence of the earth. Conservation of momentum keeps it moving forward. Gravitational potential energy converts to kinetic energy as the parabola steepens, conserving energy. You can even compute the frictional influence of the air it passes through, accounting for laminar flow using elegant (if difficult) differential equations, and turbulent flow using a number of successive approximations. The mathematics are elegant, the predictions as precise as you care to make them.
“That’s not fair!” the physicist complains. “You introduced energy into the system from the outside.”
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what “intelligence” does.
The seventeenth-century scientists viewed the universe as a vast clock, an intricate whole made up of fitted parts, crafted and wound-up once a long time ago by the Great Clockmaker — God. They pushed the question of intelligence into the distant past and called it a Mystery.
Modern theorists have settled on a more specific event, the Big Bang, which they posit occurred some sixteen billion years ago, give or take. This is their version of the bat striking the ball, and what caused the Big Bang remains a Mystery.
I think the Mystery is much more present than either the seventeenth century scientists or the modern theorists claim.
I can demonstrate a completely different outcome for every laboratory experiment ever performed with nothing more sophisticated than a big hammer and a little free time. One friend had a PhD project where simply standing up and walking across the room would have given him different results, so sensitive was the equipment. No hammer required.
Acts of intelligence aren’t rare or elusive. To the contrary, scientists have to work very, very hard to remove the pervasive and disruptive interference of intelligence from their experiments. Random interference can be filtered out of the results; acts of intelligence cannot. Acts of intelligence tip over the entire applecart, then set fire to it.
Intelligence redirects vast amounts of energy. It does so all the time. How it does so is a Mystery.
If people exhibit intelligence, what about dogs? Parakeets? Paramecia? Elementary particles? What about forests, groves, caves, rivers, mountains?
People have long observed — not theorized, but observed — that some places are special. They have a “feel” to them, and most people who visit those places pick up on the feeling and tell similar stories. They sense a presence, an intelligence.
A spirit of place.
I’ve always been fascinated by the energy — as most of us Pagans call it in casual conversation — in various churches. We call it “energy” because that’s our first impression of it — something moving, vibrating, humming — and because we’ve just encountered it, usually, and haven’t taken the time to get to know it.
We have a lovely Episcopal church here in town with a sweet pipe organ, good architecture, nice acoustics — and the place is as energetically dead as a Best Buy or Wal-Mart. I’ve not visited a lot of churches here in town, but I’ve not found any nor heard of any here that resonate strongly with a spirit of place.
By contrast, there is the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Boston. I visited Boston in 1998, and simply walking through the front doors was almost overwhelming. When we left, it was like pushing through the surface of a bubble — the energy inside the church stretched around us into the street for just a brief instant, then snapped back.
I don’t know a lot about Boston or the Cathedral Church, but I do know that most Christian Churches in Europe are built atop old Pagan sites of worship, which were most likely there because the spirit of place was already present.
When you sit with the energy of a place, come to know it and love it, you find your love returned. This is something that every person who has ever had a love-of-place knows.
As a pragmatist, I think a little bit of animism is a good thing. Humans are rude and abusive of their environment. They are positively cruel to strangers. They are quite a bit better to their friends.
Those who make friends with the spirits of place will be, I think, a little better to and for those places.
At least, I hope so.