Explanation and experience in Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’

Seasonal change and a mountain-longing has me turning back again to Nan Shepherd’s now-legendary The Living Mountain, a phenomenology of the Cairngorm mountain range in Scotland, and her experience of walking it in all seasons. My essay The Living Mind was published three years ago this month in Irish arts magazine Bloomers, for a special issue in tribute to Shepherd’s book. In the essay (reprinted below), I follow Shepherd’s reflections on the relationship between mind and environment, the tensions between epistemology and phenomenology, and the difference between experience and empirical knowledge, by introducing some contemporary philosophical theories of mind and questioning the scope and purpose of explanations of conscious experience.

Reading time: approximately 6-15 minutes

“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent…

I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.”

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (1977)

Late in The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd describes a feeling of transparency which may be familiar to others who wander long in the wilds. It is an experience where the boundary between the mind and the landscape seems porous, or even vanishes completely. Is it possible that the boundary was only ever imagined, and these trance-like moments of dissolution show us the true nature of the world? Like Shepherd, I have been hit by these moments most often after hours of silent and virtually mindless walking in hills and mountains. The experience is unsolicited, vivid, and uncoerced. The body’s encasement in its own skin seems irrelevant, as the body seems entirely continuous with the landscape. And the mind is dispersed – not confined to the brain, or contained in the body, but extended throughout the body and the landscape itself.

Where is the mind? Is it a thing we have, or a thing we are? It seems at least to be the thing that thinks: the capacity to remember and reflect, to learn and consider and decide. Or perhaps more purely, the mind is the conscious awareness of our own existence – that peculiar knowledge that I am a self, here, thinking. This reflexive self-identity is the capacity we typically assume separates us from other life forms. It is the difference between having a brain and having a mind. Yet even this self-identity seems to be entirely dependent on the brain. As the decades of research in the brain sciences have progressed, yet more aspects of our precious and distinct identities seem merely to be the result of predetermined structures inside the skull. The mind, on the current evidence, is skull bound. It is not a special or separate thing, but an effect caused by the brain; just a concept we use to understand the experience of being conscious functioning creatures.

Our living experiences of conscious life point to other theories. Functions we associate with the mind seem to be dependent on the body, beyond the confines of the brain. There are many times when, as Shepherd claims, the body can be said to think. When a body becomes accustomed to hiking barefoot it does not need to be aware of every step. Feet seem to find their own way, shifting to avoid shards and picking out the best path with a minimum (or even an absence) of conscious direction. You may find, as Shepherd did, that feet can avoid snakes without your telling them to do so; just as dancers can execute entire routines while thinking of their gardens or their children or their taxes. The body seems to know. Knowledge, a crucial aspect of the mind, is held in limb and digit, in step and gesture, in pulse and posture. Consciousness, on this account, is not housed only in the skull. It is fully embodied. Does it go further? The body does not float in a vacuum. Perhaps the mind is not just embodied, but also functionally embedded in an environment. What a mind can be or do is surely dependent on the world in which it is situated – bare feet can only learn to walk the mountain if they are taken to the mountain’s foot and set in motion. In very real ways, self and identity and consciousness may be shaped and structured by the landscape, be it mountain or suburb, technological or wild. A mind is not self-constructing.

Shepherd, pre-empting psychology and cognitive science by decades, says that “place and a mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both is altered”. It seems clear that place can alter the nature of the mind. Can a mind really alter the nature of a place? This might be the case if we move beyond embodiedness and embeddedness, and try to see the mind as more literally extended. The mind, then, is not just housed in the body and shaped by its environment – the mind is extended into the environment, dispersed across the rest of the physical world. The interpenetration of place and mind which Shepherd describes is not metaphorical but literal. Capacities of mind like identity, cognition, mood, and memory, are all dispersed throughout the body and extend out into the landscape itself. This idea of the mind as literally extended (known in philosophy as the constitutive account of extended mind theory) is the one which most closely resembles the feeling of transparency with which we started. Perhaps that experience, familiar to Shepherd and to me and to many others, provides a rare glimpse of a natural external reality. It suggests that the boundary between the self and the world is only imagined; the mind is a property of physical matter, and all matter interpenetrates. My feet are guided on their path from all directions – the mind aware, the mind embodied, and the mind in the landscape. The mind is not a pilot in my skull looking outward at the world. The mind is in me and in the world, extending across the imagined boundary between body and landscape.

We are closely bound to a picture of ourselves as distinct identities, occupying distinct bodies which are separate from the world we inhabit. Is it truly so? These bodies were formed from other bodies. They will be buried or burned and will disintegrate and reintegrate with the ground. These bodies shed skin, weep water, bleed, breathe in and out, sweat, piss, absorb, eat; they ingest, digest, excrete. Why would the mind sit discretely in the skull when the living, thinking body extends into and merges with the world around it? The experience of a dissolved boundary between the self and the landscape, and the feeling that the mind is dispersed outside the limits of the body, point to an explanation of the mind which reaches beyond the limits of the human skull. If the experience of consciousness dispersed is a reflection of external reality, it is telling us something important about what and where the mind is. Experiences which deviate from our everyday mental lives – anomalous or breakthrough mental experiences, such as trance states, out-of-body experiences, and temporarily altered realities – test our previously satisfying explanations for the natural world. This of course is the gift of deviance; it draws into question things which we had thought to be settled, or universal.

But we should not be too quick to draw explanations for the natural world out of our deviant, transient experiences, when we know that our experience of the world is not necessarily a reliable indicator of how the world really is. In these trance-like moments, I may feel that in walking myself transparent I have discovered a fact about the nature of the mind. But this feeling of transparency may well be illusory. It may just be a serene semi-meditative state, induced by exertion and silence and the hypnotic monotony of long-distance walking. It may be a psychological shift – that profound sideways move, from perceiving oneself as an observer moving through an external world, to perceiving the unified world only. It is still a memorable experience, but it is entirely internal – it reveals no truths about the nature of the wider world. Our sensory and cognitive experience of the world is informative, but it is not in itself explanatory. As much as we take for granted the information from our senses, our own cognitive errors and illusions remind us just how misleading those senses can be. Shepherd returns again and again to these ‘illusions’, relishing the experiences and savouring the lessons they provide; the hill which seems close enough to touch but which lies a valley distant; the way the plateau shape-shifts wildly in different weather and from different angles; the tricks the mist plays with her knowledge of the land. For Shepherd, these illusions “drive home the truth that our own habitual vision of things is not necessarily right”.

In the terminology of consciousness studies, it would be fairer to describe Shepherd’s experiences as illusory, rather than as illusions. The experience itself is not an illusion; I really did perceive a mountain, solid and real, lying in the distant west where I knew no mountain existed. My senses swore the mountain was real even as my knowledge of the land insisted it could not be. The experience was real, but illusory. What I saw was, in reality, a hulking mass of raincloud and evening shadow, not a mountain. Our experiences of many constant natural phenomena are illusory in a similar way, but we can easily accept the truth of the scientific explanation, even when it conflicts with our own experience. The Earth doesn’t feel like it is spinning, but who on earth denies that it spins? A scientific explanation of the mind raises the same conflict, but we are understandably slower to accept the gap between explanation and experience. The conscious mind is not like other natural phenomena. It is a phenomenon which we are, which we embody, which we occupy; it is the phenomenon through which we understand all others. Attempting to reconcile our experience of consciousness with scientific evidence about consciousness is perhaps the greatest sticking point in theories of mind. It sticks because no matter how complete a physical explanation of the mind may become, it doesn’t seem able to explain how a mind feels.

But then why should it? Explanation is not the same as description. Again and again in The Living Mountain Shepherd points out the difference. Other books are already full of the empirical details of the Cairngorms, recounting their geology, botany, weather systems, water channels, wildlife, and history. Her account has a different aim: it is descriptive, not explanatory. Hers is a phenomenology of a living mountain, an experiential account of what it’s like to be part of that mountain – not an observer’s empirical explanation of what the mountain is made of and how it behaves. A simple diagram explains how mountain perspectives change as you ascend and descend, but no diagram can describe the effect those panoramas have on the mind. The means by which water rises in the mountains and flows downward toward the sea can be explained to a child, but the adult may still watch the river in awe. Shepherd dismisses empirical explanations as a “pallid simulacrum” of the world they explain, yet she revels in empirical knowledge. Her understanding of the vagaries of sensory experience and the value of scientific learning is carefully balanced: raw experience cannot be relied upon to provide empirical truths about the world, and empirical learning cannot provide the kind of knowledge earned through experience.

An explanation of what water is will not describe how it feels to plunge into a winter lake. Your knowledge of water in terms of atoms and velocity will not dampen your amazement or fear when caught in a torrent. An explanation of water does not describe water, and it cannot tame water. There remains fear that an empirical scientific explanation for the mind will somehow demean it, or rob it of its glory. But an explanation of the self in terms of physical matter will not describe how it feels to be a self. Explanations and descriptions coexist and feed each other. An explanation of the human mind in which flesh and neuron, oxygen and blood, time and sex, genes and landscapes all combine to form a living, conscious animal inextricably bound to its environment may explain what a mind is and how a mind works. Understanding that empirical explanation will not diminish the sense of blank wonderment felt by this animal, of this species, at this evolutionary time when it reflects on its own reality. Minds are used to work out that very explanation, and minds will experience awe at their own existence, no matter how thoroughly their materiality is explained.

We hear many things without listening to them, Shepherd points out, just as we breathe without thinking. The senses can be tuned, refined, disciplined; in doing so, our landscape seems altered. The nature of place and mind interpenetrate. Mind and body and place may interact to breed knowledge, but they may also produce illusions, visions, and trances. It can be hard to separate our experience of the world from our knowledge of it. What should we learn from anomalous experiences which trouble our understanding of the natural world? What can I do with the vivid experience of transparency? This is all: I approach the mind as Nan Shepherd approached the Cairngorms; not as a single summit to be conquered, but as a living landscape to be explored. The extension of the mind into the world may be literal. The mind may be contained within the body but dispersed around it, or it may be entirely bound up within the brain. Or the mind itself may be nothing more than an idea we have of ourselves. It may be an elaborate shadow play; one which proves endlessly useful for these thinking, bleeding, eating, weeping, breathing, pulsing animals, inextricably interwound with the living world.

Copyright R.J. Flynn (2018)

Originally published in Bloomers: The Living Mountain (2018)

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