< Back to all posts
  • Beyond Reason – leaps and gestalts

    There is much more to Kierkegaardian leaps than arguing with vegan absolutists. Our minds make non-rational leaps far more than we might think. Stories circulate about people from primitive societies that initially cannot process what a photograph represents. Having no prior experience with two dimensional objects representing three dimensions in such detail, they initially see random lines and shapes even if the photograph is of completely familiar objects or of their own faces. I had the parallel experience when I first saw the computer-generated 3-D pictures made with dots. It took a good long while before my eyes sort of blurred and suddenly an eagle or a boat or whatever seemed to emerge from the picture. We think nothing of interpreting a photograph, but every time we see a picture our brain has to see the pattern and make the leap from the second dimension to the third. In philosophical circles this is called a gestalt. Gestalt literally means ‘pattern’ but is typically explained by saying the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    Gestalt patterns and leaps are not solely functions of the mind. I have already written about supersaturated solutions that need a catalyst to provoke the leap from a liquid state to the solid crystallization. Quantum physics understands that electrons leap from one state of energy to another pretty much instantaneously. Biologically, science now understands that our bodies are more pattern than an aggregate of limbs, organs, blood and chemicals. In fact, our bodies are many different patterns interconnected into a larger pattern. I have heard that it takes about 7 years for all our cells to have been completely replaced with new ones. Whether it is the skin exfoliating or the more dramatic case of liver re-growing itself, our DNA holds the patterns of the different parts. We literally are not the same physical person we were as kids. All our cells have been replaced numerous times. What is continuous is the pattern, the gestalt. It is noteworthy that cancer occurs when old or damaged cells that would normally be replaced do not die. They mutate instead. They can also begin trying to change the existing pattern and start reproducing other cells based on their deformed pattern thus creating tumors and such. I believe this is a good reminder for a culture (not just the vegan) that is abnormally fearful of pain and death.

    Understanding the world as intricate and interwoven patterns is in stark contrast to the enlightenment, mechanistic worldview that reduces and fragments everything into individual, atomistic parts. As Wendell Berry says, it is the exploitive mind that divides and conquers. This is the context in which Berry criticizes specialization so harshly. The factory mentality is structured on fragmentation where the work is divided into individual, repetitive, and separate acts. Only such a reductionist mentality could conceive of monocrops and massive feedlots, as if plants and animals grow in a vacuum separate from any pattern or system. This is the worldview that speaks in terms of yield, mechanical efficiency, energy consumption, and waste. The language of gestalts is chiefly concerned with how things are interrelated. And when things relate to each other within their proper niches, suddenly we have language that speaks of synergy and emergence. A creative process where you are never quite sure what will leap or emerge out of the patterns. This is also why diversification is not just an economical strategy of mitigating risk—it is the strength and health of synergistic systems. A multi-species farm recognizes that animal species interact with one another, that interact with many different vegetation species, that interacts with a soil, that, when healthy, is as complex and diversified as anything above ground. The skill and challenge for the farmer is how best to organize these patterns for optimal health and sustainable productivity.

    I want to end with one more everyday example of gestalt that I find very encouraging:

    Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a  toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.


    This is a testimony to the power of gestalt that still works when things are not perfect. If you can get some basic principles right, analogous to the first and last letters, even if you screw up so many of the details in between, good things can still happen. These last thirteen years on the farm have been full of learning curve after learning curve. The complexity and the numerous professional hats we have to don to keep astride the system quickly shines a light on all that we don’t know. We will always be learning and trying to spell out ‘words’ more and more correctly, but it is nice to know we can still do some good even if we don’t get all the details quite right.