Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Reason in its larva and cocoon phase

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Anyone who has read my past articles on ecology and the plight of the Earth, may have been left with an impression of pessimism. Anyone who realizes the real dangers hanging over our destiny cannot be pessimistic. We must always respect reality. But, at the same time, it's necessary to expand our understanding of reality. The latter is greater than what shows, because potential is also part of reality.

There is always a utopic reserve that is present in all events. If we understand reality enriched like this, a closed pessimism isn't justified, but a hopeful realism. This captures the eventual emergence of the new, hidden inside the potential and the utopian. This new then makes history and founds another state of consciousness and inaugurates a different social experiment.

Moreover, if we were to stand at a distance and measure our historical time as cosmic time, we would have even more reasons for hope. If we were to condense the 13.7 billion years -- the presumed age of our universe --into one year of cosmic time, we would note that we humans have existed barely a tiny fraction of time. According to the calculations of cosmologist Brian Swimme, therefore, our pre-human ancestors were born at 5:00 p.m. on December 31st. On December 31st at 10:00 p.m. the primitive human being came on the scene. On December 31st at 23 hours, 58 minutes and 10 seconds, the man we call sapiens today emerged. On December 31st at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 56 seconds, Jesus Christ was born. On December 31st, at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59.2 seconds, Cabral came to Brasil.

As can be seen, we are almost nothing temporally.

Furthermore, if we take into account the 15 major decimations the that have happened on Earth, especially the Cambrian one 570 million years ago, in which between 75-90% of the biotic capital disappeared, we find that life has always resisted and survived. And if we focus only on humans, they always survived the many glaciations. Moreover, there was a highly accelerated encephalization process. Starting 2.2 million years ago, Homo habilis, homo erectus and, in the last hundred thousand years, Homo sapiens sapiens -- now fully human -- emerged successively. Their representatives were social beings; they were cooperative and able to speak, a human characteristic.

Within the range of a million years, the brain of these three types of homo doubled in volume. After the appearance of homo sapiens, who emerged 100,000 years ago, the brain didn't grow any more. There was no need, since the external brain emerged, the artificial intelligence which is the ability to learn, create tools and artifacts to transform the world, and create culture, a unique feature of the homo sapiens sapiens.

Beginning in the Neolithic era, about ten thousand years ago, the first cities emerged that gave rise to elaborate culture, the state, bureaucracy, and also to the war. A systematic use of instrumental reason to dominate nature, to conquer and to subjugate others, also began. Obviously there were also other kinds of reason such as the emotional, the symbolic and the cordial, but they were subject to the regency of instrumental reason that has assumed hegemony since, until its culmination in our time -- reason that is both creative and destructive at the same time.

The butterfly's process offers us a suggestive metaphor. The butterfly isn't born a butterfly. It's at first a simple egg that becomes a larva, insatiable devouring leaves. Then it rolls itself up in the form of a cocoon (chrysalis). Inside it, nature weaves its body and draws its colors. When everything is ready, behold, the cocoon breaks and a splendid butterfly emerges.

We are still at the larva and cocoon stage. Larva because, day and night, we devour nature; cocoon, because we are closed in on ourselves, seeing nothing around us. What is our hope? That reason breaks open the cocoon and emerges as butterfly-reason. Perhaps the current high risk situation will force the birth of butterfly-reason. It flutters around; it isn't destructive but cooperative since it pollinates the flowers.

We are still in genesis. We haven't finished being born. When we are born, we will respect and live with all beings. We will overcome the larva and cocoon stage forever. Like butterflies, we will be bearers of sensible reason that will reward us with a future without threats.

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