Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Great Triad

The mysterious power of the number three has a long and distinguished history. Among the Classical Greeks, Plato suggested that truth, beauty, and goodness are the primordial values against which all things can be judged. His student Aristotle, speaking on rhetoric, argued for three primary modes of persuasion—logos, pathos, and ethos—appeals to logic, emotions, and the character of the speaker, respectively. I’m convinced that these two Greek triads are interwoven, with modern lessons for a world in crisis.

Aristotle’s rhetorical trio is often linked to body parts: logos to brain, pathos to heart, and ethos to gut. Equivalent linkages can be made to Plato’s “Big Three.” Truth reflects mind, beauty reflects pathos or spirit, and goodness reflects gut or consciousness. More recently, philosophers have sometimes associated Plato’s primal values with the developmental sequence of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; begin with beauty, layer on truth, and synthesize these into a sense of goodness.

Once unified, it seems to me that this “Great Triad” holds immense power because it embodies different kinds of knowing. All of us have experience understanding something intellectually that has minimal bearing on our emotions (street names or geometry, for example). Conversely, knowledge may be rooted in emotions or intuitions, fostering deeply held beliefs with little to no basis in reason (choice of partner, sacredness of a particular place). A third, even deeper kind of knowledge is founded on “gut feelings” that often reflect the marriage of intellect and emotions. Worldviews, I would like to propose, reside in the gut, rooted in a messy mixture of logos and pathos.

I make no assertions about the originality of this claim. I’m a paleontologist, not a philosopher, so my expertise relates more to ancient life than to the nature of reality. Yet, whether empirically accurate or not, it seems to me that this tripartite division of knowledge offers a useful tool for probing our present eco-crisis. Ecological sustainability in any meaningful sense will require not only new technologies, but a new worldview, one that re-inserts humanity inside nature and transforms the nonhuman world (to borrow Thomas Berry’s poignant phrase) from “a collection objects to communion of subjects.”

At present, Western societies rely overwhelmingly on intellect and scientific truth, giving little credit to the role of emotions and spirit. We live too much in our heads, not enough in our hearts. This centuries-old bias results in terribly skewed worldviews, causing our guts to mislead us again and again into decisions devoid of any sense of beauty. Resetting the balance will demand, among other things, a transformation (rather than mere “reform”) of our schooling system, including new approaches to both the delivery and content of education. In particular, learning must spark the heart as well as the mind. Devoid of any sense of what is beautiful, let alone sacred, intellectual knowledge remains sterile, often unable to influence worldviews and behavior (or doing so in dangerous ways).

Let me illustrate by making what may seem an outlandish claim. At heart, most of us in Western societies are a bunch of flat-earthers and creationists.

Intellectually, we know that we live on a spherical world hurtling with a gaggle of other planets around a nearby star. Yet we still speak of sunrise and sunset, and persist in conceiving of ourselves as living on the top of the world. Of course, reality is rather different; the rotation of the Earth causes the sun to appear to rise and fall in our sky, and we live on the side of our rapidly spinning globe, anchored by the mysterious force of gravity. My point is this—we know (in our minds) that we live on a sphere, but live (through our hearts) as if the world was flat.

Similarly, even for those who embrace the notion of evolution, the vast majority of us are effectively creationists. Don’t believe me? Step outside, look at the nearest tree, or dog, or bird, and ask yourself the following question: Do I regard this organism as my relative, part of my extended family tree? If you’re like the vast majority of people, your honest answer is no.

If we truly embraced the notion of common descent through deep time—not just in our minds, but in our hearts—would we put chimpanzees, our closest living evolutionary relatives, in cages for public display? Would we decimate rainforests, overfish oceans, or foul our native bioregions? Perhaps. After all, humans frequently don’t treat members of their own kind with compassion and empathy. Nevertheless, for those of us in the industrialized West, the notion of living in community with the natural world is an alien one. For us, nature isn’t relatives, its resources.

How, then, might we communicate scientific concepts like spherical planets and biological evolution so as to engage emotions, building upon the “knowledge” of pathos so as to influence ethos? I am aware of two principle tools: experience and narrative.

Firsthand experience outdoors has the potential to stir our emotions deeply. As most of us know, smelling wildflowers, holding a slug, and beholding a full moon are all experiences that differ mightily from virtual alternatives. Next time you watch a sunset, hold the image in your mind of sitting on the side of rotating globe; it helps to have a planet like Venus nearby to the sun so that you can picture yourself as part of a solar system of worlds. If you’re lucky, just as the sun disappears below the horizon, you will have a momentary experience of vertigo as you fathom your true relationship to our nearest star. Do this frequently and you may just shift the way you envision your place on Earth.

Now imagine if, in stark contrast to the vast bulk of present day schooling, children learned about evolution largely in natural settings, with appropriate reverence given to the bounty of relatives inhabiting our communities. We might call this “experiential science education,” a strategy worthy of broad application in science teaching. As I see it, without abundant time spent outside in intimate contact with nonhuman nature, some of it guided by adult mentors, we will be unable to move beyond intellectual understanding to form meaningful bonds with the nonhuman world.

With regard to the second tool, narrative, I have written previously in this blog of the importance of the Great Story, the epic of evolution that extends from the Big Bang to the present day. If evolution were taught as the history of the universe (rather than focusing predominantly on obtuse concepts like mutation, natural selection, and adaptation), we would become fully engaged in this astounding story, which just happens to be our story. Beyond the science class, this story could be conveyed through numerous creative arts—from painting and poetry and to drama and dance—with the potential to reach our deepest emotions. Only when the Great Story becomes meaningful in both our minds and hearts, tapping into our sense of truth and beauty, will we begin to truly understand what it means to be part of a single, evolving universe at this pivotal moment in deep time. And only then will we begin to conceive of nature as relatives deserving of our compassion and empathy rather than resources for our exploitation.

In short, the lesson of the Great Triad is this: If we are to foster wisdom and navigate our way into a sustainable future, knowledge must pass through our hearts on the way from the mind to the gut. The roots of service (Goodness) lie in the amalgam of both insight (Truth) and compassion (Beauty). Logos + Pathos = Ethos.

Image Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic:


  1. I really enjoy reading this!

  2. While I agree with you in principle, i would debate the "we are all creationists at heart." Most people would have no problem saying that all humans are related in some fashion. However, it has been well shown that the feeling one has toward others is in general proportionate with the degree of relatedness. Most would cry if their spouse or child died, but few feel deep sorrow if hundreds of nameless people on the other side of the world die. heck, most people don't bat an eye with thousands of deaths. Even with 100s of 1000s of deaths, the vast majority of people say, "How sad," and then go on with their lives with no real effect on them.
    We can't care deeply and personally about everything and still function.
    Now if we extend this to nonhumans, we may fully understand that a butterfly is related to us in the dim reaches of time, we may realize that a chimp is closely related to humans, but it is of even less concern than the human that died on the other side of the globe.
    It doesn't mean we are creationists, it just means that we limit our serious concern for those that are most directly related.
    As far as thinking of nature as resources, most people treat other people as resources. It is no wonder then that we treat everything else as a resource.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. 人生中最重要的是要自尊、自愛、自立、自強、自信。..................................................

  5. Dr. Scott (sorry, just saw you on Dino Train with the kids this morning), I thought I was maybe burned out on being a teacher, but your posts make me feel so excited about new ways of integrating curriculum.
    And the way you talk about viewing the sunset--I am going to try it. Brilliant!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Make $3000-$40000 A Month by Using internet At Home

    The Internet is quickly growing into a world-wide marketplace, which provides

    a unique opportunity for everyday people like you and me to cash in on it and

    start making money online.For Details click here

  9. Earning money online never been this easy and transparent. You would find great tips on how to make that dream amount every month. So go ahead and click here for more details and open floodgates to your online income. All the best.

  10. EARN GLOBAL MONEY gives you instant access to a dynamic, scalable, dedicated and responsible development program - a committed to meeting the highest standards, committed to delivering on promises, and committed to ensuring every program success. make $200 per day

  11. EARN GLOBAL MONEY gives you instant access to a dynamic, scalable, dedicated and responsible development program - a committed to meeting the highest standards, committed to delivering on promises, and committed to ensuring every program success. make $200 per day