Falling From Trees
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Mike Fiorito writes about Falling From Trees from Apprentice House.
As an undergraduate in the mid-eighties at NYU, I had the privilege to study with Derek Parfit who is widely considered one of the most important and influential moral philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Parfit, who died in 2017, taught Philosophy of Mind at NYU as a visiting professor from Oxford University. He was a tall, lanky man and very clumsy. I remember Parfit once discussing John Locke’s writings on personal identity. As he tried to guide his backside, without looking, to sit on the desk behind him, he nearly slipped off. It was an awkward moment. As he was not an intimidating personality, the class chuckled lightly. Then, gathering himself, he continued his lecture, masterfully navigating heady concepts in Philosophy of Mind. He once asked the class “what’s four plus four?” saying that he could not do math on the fly easily. And yet his first book, Persons and Reasons (1984), had a profound influence on Anglo-American Pragmatism. Persons and Reasons has been described as the most significant work of moral philosophy since the 1800s. Along with NYU Professor Thomas Nagle, who wrote the classic essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” these two thinkers shaped current issues in Anglo-American philosophy. And they certainly shaped my thinking to the present.
In an essay I wrote for Parfit’s class “Reflections on Tele-transportation” I pondered what would happen if you should be able to tele-transport someone from one location to another. Do you break them down into particles (I called this “particle relay” in my essay) and transport their entire being, bit by bit, across space? Or do you destroy that person’s body and transmit only the blueprint (information relay) and reconstitute them on the other side? What if the machine breaks and now there are two of you? The following is an excerpt from the essay I wrote for Parfit’s class in 1986:
As I look at the blazing red sphere of Mars from a porthole in the lounge on Space Station XI, imagining its vast valleys, its glazed mountain slopes, I must understand for myself the implications of tele-transportation, and what it means to me as a person. If I decide to step into the tele-pod, I might be handing my life over to the black seas of death, or it just might be a routine commune en route to Mars. The questions are certainly important, and only a thorough examination of the problem will suffice to give us answers.
It pains me to read that now. But it shows just how long I’ve been thinking about these things. I think he gave me an A minus. That was just enough to go on.
Although I majored in philosophy and went on to study John Searle, Thomas Kuhn, John Dewey, and the postmodernists, I did not become a philosophy professor. However, I have continued to read philosophy into the present. Instead, I became a writer of fiction (and an IT specialist) and obtained an M.A. in English Literature. But I owe a great debt to my time in Parfit’s class at NYU.
As a writer of stories, I go back to the thought experiments I learned in Parfit’s class. I begin with a sentence, a thought, and the story develops from there. Can I create a scenario in which I can test out an idea? It starts with an inchoate notion in my head. Then I start to build on these nuggets as I develop a story injecting human emotions like love, fear, and loneliness.
In a sense, I’ve been working on my book Falling from Trees ever since I wrote my first essay for Parfit’s class. Why the title Falling from Trees? Newton’s apple fell from the tree to demonstrate gravity. Humans came down from the trees and walked on two feet and into the savannas. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree. The title Falling from Trees seemed to ring in the English language.
Being a huge fan of Italo Calvino and Jorges Borges, I attempted to write short pieces, zooming in on an idea, narrowing in on a slice of life, imitating their styles. My stories explore the limits of science. While science is important and invaluable, science is not the only source of knowledge. Some trends in science and philosophy intend to dispense with the subjective, as if the subjective is merely a user illusion. What about things like intuition, inspiration, love, dreams, things you hold dear, that are not hinged in logical thinking? The very phenomena which make up our human lives. Having been inspired by the writings of Jeffrey J. Kripal, Bernardo Kastrup and Anthony Peake, I’m interested in bringing subjectivity back into the fold.
Not only are our impressions and emotions sources of knowledge, but the fact is also we don’t know the answers to the big questions. Where did the universe come from? What came before that? Are we the only sentient beings in the universe?
In Falling from Trees, there’s a story about a primitive being chased by a tiger. He’s patting the beginning formations of thinking. Looking at the sun he tries to formulate his “thoughts”. His reflections are more like dreams, however. They run around in circles. But he has feelings; he has subjectivity, imagination. In another story, I write about a contemporary engineer who’s unable to express his feelings to his wife. He is a master of logic but can’t fathom his subjectivity. In this story, the engineer has an epiphany when he’s about to die. He sees the earth as one blue object as everything in the world happens. He equates his wife’s blue eyes with the blue of the earth’s oceans. He has an awakening of emotion, a vision, that transcends scientific logic.
In another story, “The Perfect Rain,” the earth is experiencing climate change upheaval. The main character travels light-years away on a spaceship, signing up for this mission assuming he’s going to die in space. The nearest galaxy is so far the journey will take generations. During their journey, he and the other scientists discover ways to extend their lives, making artificial organs, for instance. Now hundreds of years hence, the travelers begin to experience a collective mind. This phenomenon occurs spontaneously. Their individual minds become one mind. They feel, think and experience as one being. Their hopes, joys and shame are all visible to each other. Then, miraculously, the spaceship slips off them like a nightgown. They are freed from the encapsulation of their bodies.
As mentioned, some of my writing deals with impending challenges that we’re seeing on the news, such as climate change. And although some of them are fantastic, they are very personal and are drawn from real experiences. For instance, one of the stories is based on conversations I’ve had with my then nine-year-old son about cosmology, physics and climate change. I captured one of our discussions on interstellar travel and climate change. During that conversation, my son didn’t know it, but I had tears welling in my eyes. It was that important for me to convey the little knowledge I have about the vastness and mystery of the universe to him. If I can inspire my son to use his technical wizardry to help solve climate change or innovate other green technologies, I will have achieved something. My life will have had purpose.
In my investigation to understand the urgency of climate change, I’ve come upon the writings of Indigenous American scholars and thinkers. For instance, I’ve been tremendously inspired by the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is both a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She brings her unique perspective of how science can benefit from wisdom traditions. In fact, she writes that there is scientific credence in some of the Indigenous ecological practices. What’s even more interesting and relevant is the Indigenous relationship with nature. How humans aren’t perceived as being the center of nature but are a part of it. How damaging nature is akin to damaging ourselves. Interestingly, in some Native languages the term plant translates to “those who take care of us.” In the Apache language, the root word for land is the same as the word for mind.
Indigenous philosophies of mind have implications that could be beneficial for humanity and for the planet. I think about the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) notion of The Seventh Generation Principle. The Seventh Generation Principle is based on an ancient philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.
While Parfit’s philosophy taught me to think in an inquisitive way and inspired me to become a writer of fiction, I did not stop there. I have kept reading, learning, and questioning my own thinking. And I try to feed this into my writing process. In my work, my hope is that I can stir people to ask questions. I do not purport to have the answers but continue to be gripped by the basic questions that have been asked by thinking humans since time immemorial.