Science, Religion, and Philosophy: Responding to a conversation b/w L. Krauss, D. Dennett, and M. Pigliucci

Above is my response to the recent conversation between Krauss, Dennett, and Pigliucci. If you don’t know the context of their meeting, see the links below. I agree with Dennett that cosmology is an area of natural science where we are not even close to being done with philosophy. My own small contribution to the philosophical underpinnings of cosmology is this essay: Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013).

Krauss’ original interview in The Atlantic

Pigliucci’s response to Krauss’ dismissal of philosophy.

Thinking on a Walk in the Woods: The Ideality of Matter and the Materiality of Ideas

Something of a response to Levi Bryant/LarvalSubjects on “hylephobia.”

See also this post on the Astrality of Materiality.

Old White Guys Ventriloquising Nature

“Scientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.” – A. N. Whitehead

This is a round table discussion called “Moving Naturalism Forward.” So far it is somewhat infuriating. There is no one there to problematize who should speak for nature. All of these dudes have signed the Modern Constitution (Latour) bifurcating culture (which is illusion) from nature (which is real). Couldn’t they have invited one thinker who wasn’t there just to preach to the scientific materialist choir? At the table are big names like Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Steven Weinberg, and Terrence Deacon. Have a look…

And then there is part 2, lead by Alex Rosenberg, where the basic constituents of reality are laid out. When the ontology of mathematics begins to be discussed, suddenly all the hardcore physical reductionists start sounding like mystics! Then there is the lack of teleology in physics and biology, which most of those present deny or radically qualify in some way. In regard to natural purposes, I think their is much these guys could learn from Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. Teleology, as I have learned to think about it, concerns what Whitehead called potentiality (and Deleuze called virtuality). Its not a matter of pre-conceived ideas waiting in the sky to be actualized as poor copies by earthly creatures. Its a matter of the actualization of relevant possibilities, where relevance depends entirely on contingent historical facts. Whitehead’s reaction to 20th century (quantum and relativistic) physics was to see the so-called “laws of nature” as evolved habits still in the process of generating themselves.  By getting rid of purpose outright, as many on the panel want to do, these guys end up undermining their own epistemic position as scientists in pursuit of the truth, or at least probability or approximate knowledge of it.

Part 3 was introduced by Terrence Deacon, who I found myself appreciating even more than I had before because I got to see him in his natural habitat (=”mad dog” greedy physical reductionists). His idea of irreducibly complex hierarchical constraints is not as cosmological and organic and realist as I’d like to see, but in the intellectual community of atheistic scientists that he interacts with on a daily basis, standing up for the intrinsic values of life irreducible to functions of physics can often be met with the same degree of incredulity as intelligent design. He used one of Whitehead’s terms, “causal efficacy,” in his defense of the physical effects of meaning. I doubt he’d ever be willing to talk about the cosmic constraints termed by Whitehead “God/Cosmos” and “Creativity.” Too metaphysical for these positivists. These guys deny the possibility of speculative knowledge right before going on to affirm their own speculative dualism between an inescapable manifest image and a verifiably true scientific reality (that only they the physical scientists have access to). I found the logical v. causal discussion around 1h:15m interesting. And then Dennett’s question about whether alien life emerging through alternative chemical pathways would nonetheless entail sociological, psychological, and economic behaviors obeying the same general laws of our carbon-based path. Its the historical, or causal dimension v. the logical, or mathematical dimension. What is necessary and what is contingent? Deacon nails it when he connects emergence to irreversible historical development. Accident, or Novelty (he used Whitehead the panentheistic metaphysician’s category!) as part of the fundamental dimension of reality.

This section of my essay on Whitehead’s relevance to 20th and 21st century physics clarifies (I hope!) my position on teleology and emergence in nature.

Skipping ahead to day 3 on philosophy and science, Owen Flanagan (@35mins) has some interesting things to say about the history of the reflection upon the nature of time from physical and from psychological and phenomenological perspectives (he mentions Bergson).

(@38mins) The (philosophical) point about the Hard Problem is precisely that naturalistic/physical explanation of consciousness is impossible, that “explaining” consciousness would require changing what scientists think they mean when they explain physics/nature.

Reflections on Physicist Lawrence Krauss and the Consolations of Philosophy

Below is Lawrence Krauss from a recent interview in the Atlantic (Thanks to Jason/Immanent Transcendence for bringing this controversy to my attention):

Krauss: …Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can’t spell the word “philosophy,” aren’t justified in talking about these things, or haven’t thought deeply about them—

Is that really a claim that you see often?

Krauss: It is. Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

Krauss just published A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. In it he attempts to explain cosmogenesis mechanistically using quantum field theory, with the larger goal of explaining away the need for spooky theological or philosophical questions about the creation of the universe, such as”why?” Like Weinberg and Hawking, he thinks physics can now do without philosophy, since all the important philosophical problems have already been solved (by science): Life evolved. Mind is in your skull. And now, if we take Richard Dawkins’ word for it, matter has been explained as a random by-product of the laws of quantum fields. Dawkins writes in the afterword of Krauss’ book:

“Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”

Philosopher of science David Albert wrote this review in the New York Times last weekHere is the last paragraph:

“…it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.”

I have a lot of sympathy for Albert’s perspective here, though I’d not heard of him until now. After a quick google search, I’m feeling more inclined to check out his book on quantum physics and experience.  Here is Albert offering a Bergsonian/process take on the history of time in physics (top video).
As for Krauss, his disparaging comments regarding the discipline of philosophy were so off key that Dan Dennett forced him to offer an apology of sorts in Scientific American. I would have a hard time myself defending the academic discipline of philosophy as it has come to exist in today’s techno-scientifically driven universities. What I do feel a need to defend is the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life. Given my immersion in Schelling lately, what really interests me in this whole controversy is the relationship between philosophy and physics. How is Schelling’s Naturphilosophie relevant here? How would Schelling respond to this comment in Krauss’ recent “apology” piece?:

“When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.  Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant.  In science, there are no authorities, and appeal to quotes from brilliant scholars who lived before we knew the Earth orbited the Sun, or that space can be curved, or that dark matter or dark energy exist do not generally inform our current understanding of nature.  Empirical explorations ultimately change our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not.”

Schelling would probably dismiss Krauss as a prekantian dogmatist who takes objective nature for granted without accounting for the subjective conditions of its appearance. Philosophically, Krauss has made very little progress in this respect. He has left himself, his own subjectivity, not to mention that of nature, out of his world-equation. It seems he is the one living before the Copernican Revolution (Kant’s).
Krauss has framed things this way: science progresses, while philosophy doesn’t, because science is based upon experimental trial in the real physical world. Fair enough. But the aim of philosophy was never to solve scientific problems; of course it isn’t going to “progress” in that respect. Philosophy is the love of eternal wisdom, of what cannot progress because it never changes. Put another way by Socrates (one of those ancient dudes too dumb to know about “dark matter”), philosophy is learning to die. A philosopher’s “progress” in loving wisdom and learning to die can only be measured one life at a time, and only by the one who is doing the dying. Its a personal matter, a concern to be contemplated only in the depths of one’s soul. On the other hand, as Max Planck famously put it, “science progresses funeral by funeral”; which is to say that science progresses generation at a time as individual scientists refusing to give up their cherished but stale paradigms slowly die off. Science is an impersonal process of knowledge accumulation. That is indeed what makes it special and uniquely valuable. It takes the epistemic weaknesses of finite personalities mostly out of the picture. But science doesn’t make the personal (or interpersonal) pursuit of wisdom in the face of death any less important, and certainly can never replace it with some impersonal techno-scientific methodology. Of course, I wouldn’t want to exempt philosophy from inquiring into impersonal matters. The universe has not only a personal, but an impersonal aspect, so philosophy certainly must include it in its cosmologizing. What is more impersonal than death, after all? At least, its impersonal until it happens to a loved one. Or until it happens to me. I’m really just trying to offer a helpful way of thinking about the difference between philosophy and science. As I said already, philosophy (at least as the ancients understood it) is a way of life. Science is a profession, a specialized discipline. As such it deserves high praise for all its accomplishments. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the good life, about how love wisdom despite death.
All that said, I am very interested in what Krauss has to say in his rebuttal to Albert about how quantum field theorists conceive of “nothing.” Krauss writes:

If all possibilities—all universes with all laws—can arise dynamically, and if anything that is not forbidden must arise, then this implies that both nothing and something must both exist, and we will of necessity find ourselves amidst something.  A universe like ours is, in this context, guaranteed to arise dynamically, and we are here because we could not ask the question if our universe weren’t here.   It is in this sense that I argued that the seemingly profound question of why there is something rather than nothing might be actually no more profound than asking why some flowers are red or some are blue.    I was surprised that this very claim was turned around by the reviewer as if it somehow invalidated this possible physical resolution of the something versus nothing conundrum.

Instead, sticking firm to the classical ontological definition of nothing as “the absence of anything”—whatever this means—so essential to theological, and some subset of philosophical intransigence, strikes me as essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying.   If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing’.  It may be that even an eternal multiverse in which all universes and laws of nature arise dynamically will still leave open some ‘why’ questions, and therefore never fully satisfy theologians and some philosophers.   But focusing on that issue and ignoring the remarkable progress we can make toward answering perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the something from nothing question—understanding why there is ‘stuff’ and not empty space, why there is space at all, and how both stuff and space and even the forces we measure could arise from no stuff and no space—is, in my opinion, impotent, and useless.

Krauss’ rejection of Leibniz’s famous question, “why is there something, rather than nothing?” reminds me a lot of Meillassoux in After Finitude. In the end, though, Krauss’ universe is made up of “stuff” and “space.” I don’t think its inconsequential that he fails to mention time (be sure to watch Albert’s video linked above on time if you’ve read this far). It is the false spatialization of time that first sent physics astray from Naturphilosophy. Time is intensity, not extension. Krauss can’t help but picture the pre-big bang quantum vacuum of “no stuff and no space” as some kind of stuff in space. What if we temporalize the question of the nature of the physical universe, relating to it not as a given thing or set of things, but as an evolving community of life, a growing, changing, ensouled creature (ensouled, as in not just stuff in space)? All the sudden, the big bang is no longer an event which happened back then, 13.7 billion years ago. Creation is what the universe is still doing. Plato already intuited the fundamental presupposition of physical cosmology in Timaeus (Krauss’ formulation is but an obscure footnote): something (the limited) and nothing (the unlimited) have always already been mixed. This mixing constitutes the life of the universe as a moving image of eternity.

Related articles

Schelling, Darwin, and the Romantic Conception of Life

I’m not yet midway through a thick tome by Prof. Robert J. Richards at the University of Chicago entitled The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (2002). It is soaked in personal details, the trysts and tears of the friends and lovers responsible for generating a literary and philosophical movement in late 18th and early 19th century Germany. Richards also provides a thorough account of the intellectual development of several figures, including Schelling.

His treatment of the relationship between Schelling’s and Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution has been especially helpful. Despite the mischaracterizations of some scholars, who had it that Schelling denied the physical descent of species in favor of some metaphysical ordering (p. 299), Schelling was an early proponent of the notion of the historical transformation of life through the ages (see On the World Soul). But his conception of evolution was organic, rather than mechanistic. Like Kant, Schelling dismissed the notion that life, either at the species or individual level, could be understood absent some principle of self-organization, or “archetypal creative force” (p. 305). In a well-cited epilogue, “Darwin’s Romantic Biology,” Richards reveals the genesis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a conception of a cosmos “divinized” by archetypal forces. Darwin was an avid reader of the Schellingian biologist, Alexander von Humboldt, of whom he wrote in his diary “like another Sun illumines everything I behold” (Beagle Diary).

Charles Robert Darwin. A copy made by John Col...

Image via Wikipedia

“The sensitive reader of Darwin’s works,” writes Richards,

“a reader not already completely bent to early-twenty-first-century evolutionary constructions, will feel the difference between the nature that Darwin describes and the morally effete nature of modern theory” (p. 553).

After reading On the Origin of Species for myself several years ago, I’d already gotten the sense that Darwin was not the reductionistic mechanist thinkers like Dawkins and Dennett make him out to be. Richards’ research has functioned as a further corrective to their intellectual revisionism.

A personal correspondence about the universe.

The following is an email exchanged with a good friend of mine doing doctoral work on complexity theory as it applies to neuroscience at Florida Atlantic University. My email is in response to this Science Daily article about a measured variance in a specific physical constant: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100909004112.htm

Perhaps I’ll post his response when it comes if he is okay with it.
———————————————————————

Joe,

I think the next shift in human thought into whatever “integral” means will be bigger than the paradigm shifts Kuhn writes about in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. What our civilization needs is more than a new theory around which to structure a research program in enzymology or genetics or astrophysics. That so called “physical laws” do not hold constant everywhere in space and everywhen in time is no surprise to me. I think this article is reflecting a re-engagement between science and philosophy that has been going on really since evolution and thermodynamics, but without a doubt by the time relativity and quantum theories were discovered/invented. Before these revolutions within physics and biology, under the sway of Newtonian mechanism/deism, it was taken for granted by most physicists, and thinking people generally, that created nature was governed by deterministic and eternal laws decreed by a architect of infinite power and intelligence. It was also taken for granted that this same perfect architect had mathematicized the human mind just so as to give it access to the basic laws of nature’s operation, so as to give us dominion and control over it. Newton’s experimental science rests upon or implies a Cartesian cosmology, where mind and matter are separate substances which somehow still interact causally. This metaphysical picture is still the unthought background of the worldview of most scientific specialists and materialist philosophers. Dennett represents the sort of view I’m attacking, so I’ll just pick on him. He claims to be dispelling Descartes dualism, but he just reinvokes it by saying the mental substance is an illusion produced by an echo-chamber in the brain, which is itself really a causally determined physical substance. He leaves unasked how or why an entirely physical system made of inconscient bits of matter should come to experience the illusion of consciousness. Why is it that the ear and auditory cortex hears an illusory echo? He says the notion of epiphenomenalism is a waste and adds nothing to our knowledge, but his position seems to me to be precisely that consciousness is epiphenomenal. Then you have to factor in his schizophrenia, because he is also quite a liberal humanist when it comes to politics, education, and society. He believes strongly that people (who from his theoretical perspective are just very complicated machines) must in practice be treated as free actors with the right to individual expression. How does he deal with the cognitive dissonance produced by the divergence of his theory and his practice? Its as if he finds truth and goodness somehow contradictory (“in truth, the natural universe is a meaningless series of purely accidental relationships, while morally the human universe is a network of intelligible meaning and ethical action”).

To tie this all back into to the article, I’m not surprised that physical laws are not constant because the universe appears to me to be a living, evolving creature. The notion of a “physical law” is an artifact of an obsolete 17th century philosophy of science and theology. There are not and need not be such things as universal deterministic laws for science to be possible. There need only be a relative difference between rates of variance across and between space and time. Habit and regularity in nature are all you need for statistically predictive physical, chemical, biological, or even psychological theories. But when it comes to the science of spirit (call it theosophy/theology), it’s no longer about prediction and control, but about creativity. Spirit cannot be predicted. No sense trying. It can only be actively engaged and communed with.

A technical question for you: when Prof. John Webb is quoted in the article referring to the “magic number” revealing that the strength of electromagnetism “seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe”, what is he talking about?? Is he saying he has detected or can infer that there is a deeper pattern or form of order (an “axis”) that emerges out of the variance in the fine-structure constant across the universe? Is he saying, in other words, that though the universe is a process of change, and so cannot be assumed to obey fixed laws or constants, it nonetheless conforms to certain numerical patterns of order on a higher level? He called it a “dipolar” variation, which evokes in me the same sort of symmetrical asymmetry you find in a developing embryo. I think he is right, that a new theory, a deeper theory, will be discovered to account for not only this variance in the fine-structure, but for the inconsistency of gravitational laws in the context of galaxies and cosmic expansion. I’ve no doubt that a more complete mathematical formula will be discovered/invented. But it still will not be consistent with ALL the data which exists concerning the observable (and unobservable) universe. Because there are more than observable things in the universe. There are also observers.

There are numerical values to represent every physical relationship which may come to exist in the universe, but only because there exists also minds capable of thinking/discovering/inventing them. Whitehead gave up on the idea of the completion of a system, whether mathematical, logical, or metaphysical, and instead focused on a system’s or cosmology’s coherency (internal consistency) and adequacy to actual experience (experimental value). He knew that creativity, or spirit, had a role to play in the ongoing development of the universe. Nature is not a place which might be known once and for all by a disinterested intellect, but a living presence in the process of becoming more like itself (that is, more divine, more true, more beautiful, more good, more just, etc.). In the current phase of evolution, nature is doing this, at least on earth, principally through/as the human being, within whom spirit has taken up immediate residence.

Food for thought. Let me know how you digest it.

blessed be,
Matt

Rupert Sheldrake and Morphic Fields at Schumacher

My time at Schumacher is drawing to a close, and the whole experience has been quite formative for me. Preparing meals, washing dishes, and weeding the garden provided unexpected opportunities to reflect upon the value of simple work with others. This morning I spent about an hour in the kitchen chopping the stems off about 300 gooseberries with Delphine, an older woman whose exuberance seems to have grown with age. We discussed the life of Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), especially the powerful film about his life “Fierce Grace,” and tried to understand the relationship between psychedelic experience and spiritual awakening.

Later in the day, Rupert Sheldrake discussed his theory of morphic resonance. I was already convinced that the proper metaphor for understanding the universe was as an organism, rather than a machine, but hearing Rupert express the specific reasons why he arrived at such a view was fascinating nonetheless. He believes that cosmologists are mistaken in conceiving of nature as being governed by fixed laws that somehow exist beyond space and time. Instead, he posits a radically evolutionary picture of the universe, where supposedly constant laws are actually habits which have, over great spans of time, worked themselves into groove-like patterns. Mathematical formalisms, like Newton’s inverse square law or Einstein’s E=MC2, work because they are good approximations of these habits, which are stable enough for physicists to make reasonably accurate predictions about physical processes. A deeper look, however, reveals that supposed constants like the speed of light, or the melting point of various crystals, have changed over the years, sometimes drastically (Sheldrake gave the example of aspirin, whose melting point has risen 12 degrees celsius since the 19th century).

Sheldrake also discussed the historical significance of the Scientific Revolution which brought about the reigning mechanistic conception of the universe, arguing that many of the more organic Aristotelian ideas that Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton rejected should be reconsidered. Chief among them is the idea of formative causation, which Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields redresses in modern scientific language. Aristotle wrote of various levels of soul which work in nature, including the vegetative, sentient, and intellectual souls. Plants grow with the patterning influence of the vegetative soul, which is at work in all higher forms of life as well. It is the wholeness not reducible to the sum of its parts. Animals have the added influence of the sentient soul, which gives them emotion and a higher degree of purposive mobility. Human beings are distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the intellectual soul, which provides for the ability to think abstactly and to ponder the meaning of existence.

For Aristotle, the soul was not in the body, but the body in the soul. This seemingly counter-intuitive way of thinking about the soul-body relation gets at the elusive nature of Sheldrake’s morphic fields. They are invisible spheres of influence that guide the formation of physical systems. From such a perspective, the genome would not be the cause of an organim’s morphology, but the visible molecular trace of the field’s higher dimensional activity. Sheldrake insists that morphic fields are still spatial phenomena, but speculates that they exist in dimensions not directly captured by our 3D sensory experience.

He also believes that morphic fields have a temporal dimension, a morphic resonance that establishes an influence on future members of the same species (be they atomic, chemical, or animal species). In this way, physical systems are related to a non-local memory bank, so that, for example, when the genome of one member of a species mutates, other members might be simultaneously effected through a kind of subtle resonance. The punctuated evolution of species begins to become more plausible in this context, as a purely Darwinian explanation (where mutation is an isolated event effecting only individuals) seems to require too much time to account for the speed at which entirely new kinds of organism emerge.

Mechanistic materialists will of course reject all of this as unnecessary, claiming that even if molecular biologists don’t understand everything yet, complete knowledge based on reductionistic analysis is just around the corner. Sheldrake says he has lost count of how many times his more holistic biology has been dismissed by such materialistic promissory notes, which amount to nothing more than an act of faith in what is ultimately a metaphysical view. Indeed, if direct observation is supposed to be the basis of science (rather than abstract speculation), then the sort of Aristotelian organicism that Sheldrake proposes seems far more coherent with our actual embodied experience than those views which suggest we are nothing but sophisticated robots.

When it comes to phenomena like consciousness, who is more metaphysical and other worldly: someone like Daniel Dennett, who posits that our immediately felt-sense of being conscious persons with rich inner lives and spiritual longings is but an illusion because, in reality, we are but computers made of many insentient mechanical components, or someone like Sheldrake, who suggests that we are among the more complex manifestations of a living universe whose behavior is orchestated by the nested relationships between sentient spheres of influence? It seems clear to me that the latter view–if only we can overcome the fallacy of misplaced concreteness that has produced the deadened industrial ideology preached in universities–is the more adequate to our actual day to day experience. One only needs to take a walk in the woods to remember that we live upon an animate earth and to feel themselves embedded within the psyche cosmu.

I commented to Sheldrake that perhaps the real tragedy was not that such enchanted views of the universe were dismissed out of hand by the intelligentsia of mainstream culture, but that such dismissmal prevented human beings from futher developing still latent capacities (such as clairvoyance and telepathy). He agreed, but suggested that in his experience, very few reductionistic scientists and philosophers actually carry their metaphysical views over into their personal lives. On the weekdays, while they are researching and writing papers, they say what they need to in order to maintain respectability within their institutions. Our industrial economic system requires that its intellectual leaders continue to re-enforce the reigning mechanistic worldview. But on the weekend, most of these same arch-mechanists become romantic nature lovers amazed by the mystery of existence.

The problem, then, seems to be integrating scientific knowledge and personal experience, so that the two can co-exist harmoniously within a single cosmology. Sheldrake’s new science of life is a step in the right direction. Part of the necessary transformation would seem to me to require re-thinking the current hierarchy of scientific disciplines, where physics currently ranks supreme. Perhaps biology ought to replace physics as the most fundamental science. Of course, Aristotle’s physics (in Greek “φύσις,” or physis, referring to the way plants grow), was already based on a conception of the universe as living. So perhaps we just need a more adequate understanding of the physical, not as dead particles in motion according to eternal laws, but as living tissue developing within a cosmic embryo.

Sheldrake still has one more lecture for us this evening, so I will probably have more to say…

“Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noë


It’s probably not news to most people that philosophers have a tendency to get stuck in their heads. This is especially true in the field of cognitive science, where for several decades the dominant paradigm has lead philosophers (and scientists) to look in the brain for evidence of thought and consciousness. The core metaphor guiding this paradigm is that human cognition is computational—in other words, that the brain is a computer.

While it may still be mainstream, this disciplinary matrix has a growing number of critics. Those philosophers, like David Chalmers, who take consciousness seriously point out that even a complete computational account of brain activity (which is itself still far from feasible) would fail to explain why said activity should be accompanied by experience. If the brain is merely a computer processor—if it is capable of performing all its tasks in a mechanical, algorithmic fashion—why should a world have to show up for it at all?

Proponents of computationalism, like Daniel Dennett, claim that we have too inflated a view of conscious experience. Dennett points to certain visual inadequacies likechange and inattentional blindness as proof that our consciousness of the world is far less complete than we are lead to believe. In fact, Dennett goes so far as to argue that our first-person experience of a richly textured environment is largely an illusion. We don’t see what is there; rather, we see the choppy, low-resolution fantasy the brain clumsily constructs for us.

One might begin by criticizing Dennett for his reduction of consciousness first to perception, and then to visual perception specifically, but even supposing he was right about the over-inflation of consciousness more generally (an insight of Jungiandepth psychology as well as contemporary mind science), the claim that conscious experience is a phantom still hasn’t even begun to explain why we (the brain) should experience such appearances at all. Why can’t the brain perform its functions without “our” having to be aware of the illusion of a world? The computationalist theory of cognition would be true even on an earth populated entirely by zombies or robots. It therefore fails to adequately account for the world we actually live in, that of purposeful projects and meaningful, moral relationships with others.

Dennett’s is one of a family of greedily reductionistic views criticized by Alva Noë in his new book. The book is made not merely of ink, glue, and paper—at least if what he argues for in it is true. If he is right, and consciousness is not lodged in the skull, then his book is literally a piece of his mind. “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness” presents Noë’s case that the dominant paradigm within the cognitive sciences is off the mark.

Rather than looking for consciousness within the confines of the skull by supposing the brain’s job is to internally represent a world it has access to only through the filters of five fallible senses, Noë reminds the forgetful philosopher and scientist alike that thought and perception are tied to action, and that the mind is embodied and embedded in the world. The senses are not windows through which a pre-existing world is mentally reconstructed. Rather, sensory perception is always already motoractivity, always already participating in the appearance and subsequent course of worldly events. We see the horizon not because of “information” encoded by neurons in our visual cortex, but because we are living bodies that can stand upon the earth, turn our heads, and look.

Noë does not believe that Chalmers’ so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is a problem at all. He and Dennett are in agreement about this much, but for entirely different reasons. Dennett believes the word “consciousness” is nothing but a cultural idol that continued neuroscience will soon call down off its pedestal. Eventually, he assures us, the “hard problem” will go away because we simply won’t recognize our conscious experience as anything other than an illusion generated by unconscious neural activity.

Noë is of the opinion that though the brain is necessary for consciousness, it is not sufficient for it. He dismisses the “hard problem” as the product of misplaced concreteness: it asks how brain matter might be in the possession of mind and experience, when really these emerge through the dynamic relationships between brain, body, and world and are never “possessed” (or simply located) in the first place.

I am conscious not merely because my brain is doing something special, but because it is coupled to others and the world via language, various levels of emotiveintentionality, and a series of sensorimotor (or perception-action) loops. From Noë’s point of view, a brain in a vat would not be conscious. Only contact with and access to an actual world is sufficient for conscious experience. Being conscious is something we must do, something we constantly achieve together with others and the help of the world itself. Organisms and their environments can only be studied in the abstract as separate systems. To fully understand the evolutionary process of phylogenic adaptation, or the ontogenic process of skillful coping (learning), one must develop a sense for the dynamics of whole organism-environment systems [my essay, “Unearthing the Earth” investigates what the implications of this approach are for our being-on-the-earth].

Noë writes:

We are, to use Merleau-Ponty’s phrase, empty heads turned to the world. The world is not a construction of the brain, nor is it a product of our own conscious efforts. It is there for us; we are here in it. The conscious mind is not inside us; it is, it would be better to say, a kind of active attunement to the world, an achieved integration. It is the world itself, all around, that fixes the nature of conscious experience. (p. 142).

The computational approach to consciousness assumes that consciousness is equal and reducible to intra-cranial neurochemical processes. Noë’s rejoinder is a refreshing reminder that such solipsistic misplaced concreteness is, ironically, a product of the same Cartesian tradition most mainstream theorists rail against. That consciousness is located in the brain, that it has no direct access to the real world but through some internal language of ideas (or mental representations)… these are thoroughly Cartesian presuppositions. Noë suggests we begin not with the abstract thought experiments of lonely philosophers, but with the lived body and its everyday being-in-the-world among others (life-world).

The Science of Life

Daniel Dennett says biology is engineering. He argues that living organisms are machines, flattening the classical Aristotelian difference between natural and artificial. For Aristotle, natural things had their form and purpose internal to themselves, while artificial things were designed from without for a purpose other than themselves. Of course, the beauty of human art (film, painting, poetry, music, …) is also of itself so, and in this sense participates in the autopoiesis of nature (Plato was suspicious of the muse precisely because it brings the soul back in touch with the body). But can manufactured technologies, like computers, really explain living systems, like us? Is biology engineering, or is Dennett conflating science (i.e., theoretical knowledge) with technology (know-how)?

If my body is the product of a purely mechanical process “as patient as it was mindless” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 188), out of what did this process make the psychological existence that I am? Why was the early earth in such a rush to come to life? How did molecules begin to feel? And why is it that metazoa evolved eyes in at least 40 distinct hereditary lines? It is as though nature’s evolutionary adventure has an aim: seeing clearer in order to feel more intensly. Patient it may be, but now that nature has grown muscles and nerves, innovation has become a regularity.

Darwin wasn’t trying to account for the wholeness of organisms, but for specific differences between them. Dennett has turned this useful heuristic into a “universal acid,” thereby conflating a phylogenetic theory for a theory of ontogeny. In other words, Dennett tries to explain the immanent purposes and holistic form of individual organisms entirely in terms of the differential survival of replicating genetic algorithms. He doesn’t seem to find the question of how a living body continually produces itself particularly relevant to biology, or perhaps assumes Darwin’s anecdotes somehow explain self-organization and production. Certainly, variation and competition are necessary for evolution to occur; but they are not sufficient as an explanation for life. Darwin assumes the existence of autopoietic organisms that can reproduce–they are the underlying momentum powering his theoretical analogy between the domestication of animals via human selection and the entire history of life. The reductionist explanation for living organization cannot come out of a theory that already assumes it exists.

[Also, see my essay On the Matter of Life for the reason the Design paradigm fails from the beginning to approach biology from the proper angle (as physis, rather thantechne -- for more on this distinction, see this essay: Unearthing the Earth). This is true whether we're talking about Supernatural, or Natural selection/design.]

Mechanism and Meaning: Making Room for Consciousness

The following is an exchange I had on YouTube with cosmanthony21 about the nature of “awareness.”

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cosmanthony21’s original message:

Ok, lemme give it a shot. This is an interesting topic for discussion, so if you’ll humor me, Id like to write some thoughts coming to mind on the topic of awareness you had brought up.
Awareness as a recepticle of information-the capacity for containment of sensate data. Embodiment. Throwing around words I think are descriptive enough…Awareness is sensation. Awareness is pain, heat, sunlight, and color. It is heavy and light. Its not these typed words, but what they are pointing to.
If awareness were a container of sensations, it must be a physical, material thing like a cup would be filled with liquid. Are there boundaries to awareness? Just as far as my eyes can see and the lowest tonal threshold my ears can hear. It is the quality and quantity of what an organism can process. It can be measured. Awareness is dull, it is sharp.
I am aware of the pressure the pen between my finger creates. It is the pressure of impression on these living, tactile appendages. Is there a physical location in the brain that is responsible for awareness, thats what you are trying to figure out I think.
You may say awareness is a process, an emergent property of physiological alchemy. Is it located Everywhere? Not bound and confined to the span of my arms and legs, or even a portion or organ of the brain…It still seems that if this were true, awareness being everywhere, I would have no distinct way of experiencing that a part from this condensed packet of information and systems that is me.
Anything within the boundary of my physical body that is alive is subject to awareness, save hair and such. Maybe not so much my toenails or kidneys, but my fingers have sensitive nerve ending so them, yeah. What if awareness was only a product of a nervous system, a system with the capacity to be impacted by pressure, heat, wetness and relay that impression to the brain which does its damnest to recreate and mimick what the actual “external” stimuli is. Perhaps our experience of reality is second hand and lesser than that which is the responsible stimulative.
Its like a painting of a landscape. Although we cant compare the two entirely, we can say that if the artist intended to paint the mountainscape Realistically, the mountainscape he is seeing will always remain superior on this basis because it is the primary, direct source, yet that requires a belief in an objective world. That out there coming in here, in the painters eyes I mean. So the best the painter can do is the best his nervous sytem can recieve, process and recreate the mountainscape reflecting light intowards his eyes.
OK, so what if Whats being seen is no more than a mock up of what is impressing the rods and cones of the retina. The image of the mountainscape has to go through a few medium conduits until he sees the mountainscape. Is what we call seeing just the awareness of this process? Oh wow, thats an interesting thought! Ok, let me finish up my jumble of thoughts. So, what is awareness? My best guess is that awareness is aliveness, sensation, and feeling. Slightly recursive to say feeling feelings, sensing sensation…thinking thought. Awareness is just this? Anyway, I presume this isnt the kind of stuff you Usually respond to as its rough and tumble, but theres some good thoughts in here and make of it what you will.

Taylor

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my (0thouartthat0’s) response:

Hey Taylor,

Great thoughts, let me see what I can unpack here…

The relationship between awareness and information is a good place to start. In standard, mechanistic biology, they talk about the genome containing information. But they do not mean the kind of information that requires “awareness” to be processed. What they mean is mechanical information. Like the digital sequences of computer code, it is all based on the formal structure (syntax) of the symbols (in this case, sequences of nucleic acid bases) and requires no “interpretation” or semantic awareness of their meaning. All that is required is the transfer of energy from one entity (DNA) to another (mRNA, followed by interaction with ribosomes to produce proteins). It can all be described mechanically, one inert molecule interacting with another based solely on their electromagnetic properties, etc. So in this reductionistic sense, “information” really has no meaning. In other words, the syntax can perform a task (transcription and translation of DNA into proteins) without the need for semantic interpretations of each symbol. Now, this all rests on the standard neo-Darwinist understanding of evolution, which has it that “performing a task” (ie, the apparent teleology of biological systems) is accomplished purely by chance as the result of billions of years of random mutation and environmental selection. The corollary of this approach in the cognitive sciences is representationalism, where what we think of as “consciousness” is explained as just the result of the mechanical interaction between syntactical structures in the brain. “Information” comes in from the objective structure of the world through the senses and is processed in much the same way that my computer translates each of my key strokes into a pixelated letter on the screen. Further syntactical processing, based on evolutionarily instincts embedded in brain structure and experiential changes reflected by synaptic connections, then leads to an appropriate motor response. While this may pass as an explanation for animal/human behavior, it isn’t an explanation of consciousness. It makes our subjective awareness completely superfluous at best (if it doesn’t deny that it exists all together!). Now obviously, we all know we are conscious. We feel pain, we see color, we experience emotion and insight, etc. So it can’t be that consciousness simply doesn’t exist (claiming that it doesn’t is absurd, so far as I can tell, though many neuroscientists/cognitive scientists still claim this for theoretical purposes). So we are left with the idea that consciousness is superfluous, like “the whistle on a train,” as T.H. Huxley put it. It serves no mechanical purpose (ie, has no effect on sensation or behavior, which means free will is a complete illusion). Now to my mind this creates a HUGE explanatory problem for the mechanists/reductionists, because how and why would consciousness have evolved if it served no adaptive function (and so could not be selected for like other beneficial traits)? If consciousness has no role to play in the way information is processed in the brain syntactically, then it should not exist at all and we should all be zombies. Of course, we aren’t! So…?

Well, this is why I think panexperientialism (consciousness goes all the way down) might solve a lot of these conceptual difficulties. It requires a complete shift out of the mechanistic paradigm and into an organic paradigm, where semantics (awareness of meaning) is primary and syntax is a later evolutionary advance which human beings have devised (but which also may have already been devised by our cells in the form of DNA, which acts as a kind of digital memory storage adding to the analog capacities of non-genetic cellular dynamics). The molecular biologists who say the DNA contains “information,” even though they see translation and transcription as entirely mechanical processes, have been heavily criticized by semioticians, who point out that the notion of information necessarily implies awareness (meaningful interpretation) of that information. So it appears that even mechanistic/reductionistic science has been unconsciously assuming some form of consciousness exists at the molecular level, because otherwise they never would have been able to conceive of a reliable theory for how the process works. The paradigm shift is a bit easier, then, because all it involves is that science become aware of what has already been implicit in its “Central Dogma” about how organisms use DNA.

So again, the existence of “information” requires more than just syntax. It requires a semantic meaning to an interpreter. So the neo-Darwinists who see DNA translation/transcription as entirely mechanical cannot have it both ways: either molecules are sentient in some fashion, and so can “understand” information exchange, or the notion of “information” in the genome must be scrapped (and as a result, most of what we know about genetics would have to go as well). I think the former option makes more sense : ), but of course it requires a complete reconceptualization of the relation between mind and matter, which makes a lot of materialist scientists uncomfortable for some reason.

The reason your awareness seems restricted to your own body (you can’t feel my pain, at least not directly) has to do with the difference between pantheism and panentheism. For the time being, lets just assume “theism” is equivalent to “sentience.” Pantheists see the whole world as the mind of God, and so we are at somewhat of a loss to explain why it is that I (as God) feel only my body and not yours. If all is equally God, why am I seemingly restricted to awareness of my own body? Pantheism seems to ignore the reality of how material bodies organize and distinguish themselves from others (not separate, just distinguish). Panentheism seems to correct for this oversight, as each material body then becomes the focusing point for God’s mind, such that God is One Mind/Body only transcendentally, while immanently, God is Many Minds/Bodies. God is made far more vulnerable in the panentheist model, as he is fully embodied in each and every one of us (not only humans, but animals, plants, cells, molecules, atoms, electrons, photons, etc). This is not to say that God is truly separated into many pieces, but only that God has devised a way to differentiate aspects of One into Many (by way of involution). The Many are of course compelled to reunite (by way of evolution). If the universe is infinite (circumference is nowhere), then each sentient being is at the center (center is everywhere). The awareness of each organism (whether you or I, or single cells, or atoms, etc) is God’s way of incarnating and experiencing Its own creation. This is certainly a paradigm shift, as no sober-minded materialist scientist is going to accept it easily considering all this mention of God. But I don’t think the concept of “God” can ever be gotten rid of. There simply is no other way to understand consciousness but to admit the existence of such an ultimate principle. It is not that we have to “believe” in God once again. That entirely misses the point. You cannot believe in that which allows you to believe to begin with. We must realize God experientially, not merely believe in the idea of It. Taking the strictly materialistic approach to explaining the universe is a dead end. It makes our own conscious experience obsolete and all but non-existent, just a persistent illusion which for whatever reason colors the otherwise mechanical behavior of our bodies.

Anyways, hope this isn’t too long for ya! Thanks for the message.

Peace,
Matt

Dennett’s Dangerous Idea

I am a little more than half way through Daniel Dennett’s book about how evolutionary biology provides you with the only meaning your life needs (or at least the only meaning it can have, regardless of what you may think otherwise). Thoughts are, after all (after Dennett waves his material wand), just the side effects of your history, which can be reduced without greed to the result of adaptation due to natural selection. That is, the molecular development of the stuff of which you are made has arisen in such a way that absolutely no intentional autonomy on the part of any one was ever required. There are no “thoughts,” no “I’d like it to be sos.” Unless by thought you mean the purely mechanical reaction of one atom colliding with another.

There are only atoms. Or in the case of your body, only macros (Dennett’s word for the molecular algorithms responsible for building you). Macros are what atoms become in spacetime. But that’s the rub.

“Spacetime.”

What could we mean by the “environment” when we say it selects the fittest organisms? What could we mean by the “space and time” in which atoms collide? What is an atom but an act of mental significance upon the stage of life?

Hold on now, I’m going to take off from a discussion of atoms (the figure) and soar up into a discussion about spacetime (the ground). The motion and distance of the empirical world are ephemeral manifestations reflecting off the invisible intensity of time, the spiritual world.

Aristotle saw the world as made up of things. Darwin discovered that it was made of doings. Dennett wants to shift our attention from nouns to verbs. He wants to say that the mind is an emergent property of the brain, the process instead of the product. We are our history.

I want to say that this is not enough. We must go not only from nouns to verbs, but from grammar to nature, to our actual embodiment.

We are process and product, as well as producer, all rolled into one. That is, we are body, mind, and spirit.

Reality is not composed of words, whether they are nouns or verbs. Reality is without space and without time. Words are the world of consciousness, communication, and fabrication. Words are for the actors on the stage, the separate interactions of particles in space. The functions of their waves can be computed and arranged. But in reality, the whole production is but a show. When it’s over, the curtain is drawn as the darkness envelopes the participants. They become as one, as though uncreated. With no conflict, there’s no story to tell.

History does not eliminate essence. It merely swallow it, assume it. Order is derived from the mindless interaction between many “seeds” called atoms. But within what fruit do the seeds grow? Dennett hasn’t eliminated mind from his metaphysics, he’s just turned it into a unit of information (a measure of work done). An algorithm. He wants everything to admit it has a mother except atoms, which are virgin births of transcendental import.

Spellbound: Magic Words and Minds Without Self

Introduction

There was a time when physics, still high on the spirit of the Enlightenment, took seriously the idea that its measurements of the fundamental stuff composing the universe could explain just about everything worth knowing about. Granted, it didn’t have all the necessary measurements compiled just yet, but it assured everyone that it was just a matter of how much time it would take to do the necessary calculating and experimenting. Time passed, and just when they thought they were about to figure it all out, Einstein shook the faith by discovering that the physical laws once thought to have absolute frames of reference were actually relative. Not all was lost, but soon after, quantum mechanics laid to rest the notion that there could even be any fundamental “stuff” to begin with. It turned out the universe wasn’t made of anything but measurements [QQ]. As Alan Watts put it, “[The physical universe] was all form and no matter, or all a matter of form” [LHG]. This lead the renowned physicist Sir Author Eddington to remark, “We have found that where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature” [QQ 179]. In other words, the “objective observer” was a myth-the method one selects for measuring the world has a direct effect on the way the world then appears.

I tell this story because of the many striking parallels it seems to have with the most recent trends in the cognitive sciences. There was a time when these scientists of the mind, still under the spell of a subtle form of Cartesian dualism, believed representation was the fundamental function of the brain. They labored tirelessly for decades searching for a coherent and naturalizable story of representation, but it was to no avail. There is, of course, much debate about what “representation” actually means and how it should be used in reference to certain types of mental processes. Let us therefore be explicit about the meaning of this word “representation” for the purposes of this essay. Representation shall be used to refer to any description that rests on a Cartesian view of the mind. That is, any theory of the mind which posits a sort of inner “I-ness” that receives and interprets recreations of an outer “otherness,” such that that which is outside the skull must be transformed into some inner, mental language before it could be understood. The problem is that any representational approach to the mind this wrapped up in dualism cannot ever be fully naturalized. Just as physicists once believed there was a meaningful distinction between form and substance, cognitive scientists once believed there was a similar distinction between the mind and the world itself (indeed many still do[1]). As Erwin Schrödinger has said, from this dualistic perspective “we do not belong to the material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators. The reason why we believe that we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies belong to it” [QQ 83]. This essay will combine the approaches of theorists like Andy Clark, Daniel Dennett, John Haugeland and Brian Smith, who all seem to be forcing the field in a new direction, one even they themselves feel uneasy about. Like the quantum physicists who came before them, their data has lead them to a strange place indeed. I will begin this essay by fleshing out the collective conclusions of the above philosophers, using Dennett’s notion of minds as user-less bundles of tools and his affinity for evolutionary explanations to lay out the findings they are all so uncomfortable with. I will then attempt to pick up where they left off, using mythological imagery and Buddhist phenomenology to ground their surprising philosophical findings in our own direct experience.

The User-Illusion

In a discussion on Dennett’s ideas, Smith says, “We have a remarkable amount of agreement, such that in fact we may almost be ready to let go of that R-word, and actually make some progress” [PMR 101]. For Dennett, representation becomes a linguistic skill available only to human beings by virtue of their ability to speak and write in a public language [PMR 91]. It is, therefore, not something animals can use to get around the world. He goes on to suggest that “Our kind of consciousness is not anything we are born with, not part of our innate hardwiring, but in surprisingly large measure, an artifact of our immersion in human culture” [PMR 79]. Dennett’s word choice, referring to consciousness as “an artifact,” strikes me as especially significant. It would seem that Dennett is suggesting that the “user-illusion,” as he calls our type of consciousness, is a by-product of our language, especially when written.

Let’s take a step back.

What is consciousness, for Dennett? The short answer is we really shouldn’t phrase the question in quite that way. To ask what consciousness is immediately turns it into something ontologically separate from the body and the world. This is the pre-emptive registration that Smith wants us to avoid [TMR 225]. Dennett, similarly, is everywhere on the look out for this kind of Cartesian dualism. Consciousness, for him, can only be described behaviorally. Therefore, those organisms that act appropriately within their environment are said to be conscious.

When we ask, “What is consciousness,” we are really asking about the self. We want to view consciousness as a distinct kind of thing because we want to view ourselves as individual, undetermined egos. For, if being conscious means merely to behave in a certain way (as part of a normative community), then my inner sense of “I-ness” is secondary-a kind of epiphenomenon-nothing more than a collection of meaningless private thoughts floating away from the “real” world, the world that you can pound with your fist, or at least shout out loud about without fear of seeming crazy to others. Meaning, so this story goes, comes from the community. What is true is what the community has agreed upon. But there is a further force at work, something unconscious constraining the kinds of agreements the community can reach. It is the evolutionary force, and it doesn’t care much about what we want be true. For the same reason Dennett wants to get rid of the homunculus in the skull, he wants to get rid of the self-directed society, that real sense of a collective “we” that freely decides what ought to be [TMR 289]. Dennett wants to continue using the evolutionary metaphor that works so well in biology to show us that people and societies do what they do because of similar pressures. It is here that he disagrees with Smith and Haugeland, as they want to keep that sense of a “we who decides” over and above the impersonal hand of evolution [TMR 263, 289].

So then, choosing Darwin as our guide, let us try and find the evolutionary purpose of the “user-illusion” in the humanity of present. To do so we must first understand the consciousnesses of our ancestry. Plants seem to take an intentional stance toward the Sun, tracking it across the sky in some cases, but it becomes meaningless to ask if they are actually having thoughts about it. Let’s try animals. Animal consciousness is focused on the direct environment in ways we might call conceptual. They can pay attention to, or have intentional states about, certain “targets” in the environment and the patterns they follow over time, both locally and, to a certain extent, distally.[2] Humans, however, can have intentional states not only about the so-called targets themselves (as presented to any of the five senses), but also about the names of those targets as they exist within a language game. The naming of targets transforms them into objects, and we must be careful not to confuse objects with their primordial cousins. When Dennett is asked if animals can represent objects, he responds that they “can behave vis-à-vis [objects] in all sorts of really adroit ways” [TMR 108]. The point is the world does not appear to them as a collection of objects, but rather as a “direct recipe for action” [WBMWC 10].

The human ability to abstract objects from targets leads to what Dennett refers to as florid representation, and without it he feels we are somehow sub-human. In fact, many people alive today are yet to become florid [TMR 107]. Children provide the most obvious example, being “language virtuosos” [TMR 108], but not yet understanding the full implication of their abilities. The discovery that words are symbols for the real thing, and that they can be skillfully arranged to communicate meta-meanings, still awaits them. It is here, however, that the really interesting discovery is made, that words are not used, but instead compose our very being [78]. Our “selves”-our sense of being a self-supporting, well-behaving, rational actor-rest so heavily on language that it is fair to say we are nobody without it.

Language: Verbal and Written

The notion that “I” communicate with those who are “other” than me is the crux of the language game, built into its very grammatical structure. But the kind of “other” met while speaking language, engaging in a direct face-to-face conversation, is quite different from the kind met while writing, when the “other” is at a distance and becomes more objectified. When speaking, people (at least when they truly understand each other) are in communion with one another. They exhibit what Martin Buber calls an “Ich-Du,” or “I-You” relationship to one another (more on this in a moment) [IT 73]. If we view this from an evolutionary perspective, a coherent story begins to emerge. All evidence suggests that the first forms of language were vocal. We can then infer that, prior to the invention of written language, human beings had a type of consciousness far different from the one most of us has today. Buber refers to this kind of archaic consciousness as “I-You,” which means that it doesn’t yet consider the “other” as an object that is encountered. Rather, it views the “other” as a part of itself, something to be reconciled and understood in a participatory way. Buber says those with this kind of consciousness “have not yet recognized themselves as an ‘I'” apart from an “other” [IT 73]. This would make sense, as the subject/object ontology inherent to the grammar of written systems was not yet available to the mind.[3] One might object to this characterization on the grounds that the whole story of natural selection requires at least some sense of self-preservation. Why do animals even try to survive unless they have a sense of “I-ness”? Buber explains that in the case of animals, “What wants to propagate itself is not the ‘I’ but the body that does not yet know of any ‘I.'” Bodies are survival machines. They have no inner sense that “wants” to survive; surviving is just what they do. Evolution has a way of recapitulating itself at ever more complex scales. Organisms first appeared as an emergent property of the physical world, living on top of it as though their bodies were an autopoietic, self-transforming software program running on the hardware of the world. When organisms evolved into more complex animals like ourselves, another emergent property sprang forth, that called the “I,” or ego. The ego seems to float atop the biological brain in the same way that the organism floats atop the physical world. The ego’s relationship to the body is made clearer in the following example: “I” feel responsible for styling my hair, but “I” do not feel responsible for growing it.

It was not until the advent of written language that humanity was able to stake its claim so high above the animal kingdom-to say, “I have a body” instead of “I am a body.” The body and the mind were thus torn apart as humanity began to take on a new kind of consciousness, one Buber calls the “Ich-Es,” or “I-It.” “The I that has emerged,” says Buber, “proclaims itself as the carrier of sensations and the environment as their object” [IT 74].

He continues:

Of course, this happens in a “primitive” and not in an “epistemological” manner; yet once the sentence “I see the tree” has been pronounced in such a way that it no longer relates a relation between a human “I” and a tree “You” [as in "I-You" consciousness] but the perception of the tree object [It] by the human consciousness [I], it has erected the crucial barrier between subject and object… [IT 74].

This barrier was “primitive” and not yet “epistemological” because floridity had not yet fully developed. The kinds of philosophical meta-thinking, for example, that lead Descartes to the Cogito took a bit more evolution[4], but its seeds were sown when the first alphabets were systematized.

Forbidden Fruit

As we’ve seen, “Research into the origins of language is really research into the origins of consciousness,” as William Irwin Thompson has said [TFBTL 84]. But how can we to attempt to grasp such origins when it seems that “Man is man through language alone-but in order to invent language he must have been man already” [TFBTL 85]? Might the search for the origins of language bring us to the limits of our knowledge? It seems so, but for Thompson, “That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth” [TFBTL 87]. Let us then shift our method of investigation from the philosophical to the mythological.

A “myth” is often considered synonymous with a lie, or a fanciful story made up for religious purposes bearing no relation to the actual state of affairs. But let us, for a moment, consider a new use for the myth-let us refer to it as an image or metaphor in terms of which we can attempt to understand our past. This kind of approach may seem a bit too gooey and mystical for modern academic philosophy to take seriously, but in the kind of post-modern philosophical territory that says your job is to figure out what all these scribbles mean using only the same scribbles, you are forced into using tools other than just your rational intellect. “If we try to do without poetry and esoteric mythology to describe precisely and scientifically how language evolved,” says Thompson, “we find that there is no causal explanation” [TFBTL 93]. If we use only our rational intellects-our words-we will never find a purpose or foundation for their use. Trying to do so is a bit like “shining a flashlight in search of darkness” [TFBTL 87].

Let us move on, then, to the question at hand. Where did language (with the rational mind riding on its coat tails) come from? Thompson again: “The scientist looks for a cause inside time; a mystic knows that causality is essentially a process that is outside time-space” [TFBTL 94]. What does it mean for causality to be “outside time-space”? Thompson provides an apt example using the mythical relationship between women and the moon. Numerous studies have shown that women who live in close proximity to one another tend to have menstrual periods at the same time [MSS 171]. Other studies have shown that woman who live near the equator tend to ovulate in synchrony with the full moon [UH 106]. So then, “It is reasonable for us to expect that [prehistoric] women living together in small hunting and gathering bands would all have their menstrual periods at the same time” in synchrony with the moon [TFBTL 96]. The primitive consciousness of early humanity, lacking our more linguistically developed minds, mistook this correlative relationship for a causative one. So, as it were, the moon caused women to menstruate and even to give birth. At this stage in the development of human consciousness, such a belief made very good sense. In fact, we might say it marked the beginning of our understanding of the regularities of nature. It was this kind of understanding, the kind that allowed our ancestors to link the cycles of their bodies to the phases of the moon [TFBTL 97], that, with the help of a more stable form of expression, would mature into our kind of thinking.[5]

That more stable form of expression was written language, born along side the ancient walls built to divide the first human cities from nature. This division of culture from nature occurred in the individual, as well.

Thompson again:

The rise of writing helps to break up the continuum of the sensorium and locates consciousness in the written word. What the written word is to the sensorium, the ego is to the entire consciousness” [TFBTL 196].

We can say then, that the ego gains its strength from words, from the “I.” Using the Biblical myth of the Fall of Man as our metaphor, we can see now that the fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the alphabet. When Adam ate of the fruit offered him by Eve, he gained knowledge of himself. With this knowledge came all the wonderful inventions we now hold in esteem as monuments to our great progress as a species. But this most promising of realizations carried with it a tragic flaw, for even with all the technological power it put in our hands, it left us powerless before the new reality of death. The identification of consciousness with the ego necessitates death, as to be born into this world as an “I” means the eventual death of that “I” is unavoidable.

“Writing, individuation, and civilization are all parts of one larger cultural phenomenology,” says Thompson [TFBTL 196]. And so it was that with the birth of written language[6] came the birth of the ego and the birth of its civilization. But because the ego fears its own death so immensely, it reaps havoc upon all that is other to it in a desperate attempt to make a name for itself that will live forever. We see all around us today the result of this struggle, as the egos of humankind rush toward their own destruction in search of salvation. It is not the brutish and primitive among us that are causing this disaster, but the most advanced, the most civilized, and the most educated. It is the rational ego that wages war, pollutes the environment, and exploits its own kind. The call to transcend this identification with words has become urgent, and Dennett’s philosophical conclusion that the mind is a collection of user-less tools couldn’t have come at a time more desperate for the application of its implications than now.

The Implications of Minds as User-less Tool Kits

Andy Clark, in his essay on Dennett, explains how “language uniquely positions us to create a cascade of new mind-tools that literally transform us into more powerful (but extended) cognitive engines” [TMR 77]. This creates a situation “where you peel away layers of equipment as you would peel away the layers of an onion, ending up with nothing at all in the way of a central core” [TMR 78]. Without a central core, it seems that all notions of personal responsibility become untenable.

Clark disagrees:

None of this forces us to give up on the morally and socially crucial notion of persons and of thinking agents. One potential reconstruction might begin with the phenomenological facts of first-person experience. A tool/user divide might then be motivated by facts about how things seem to an agent… [TMR 78]

The “phenomenological facts of first-person experience” may not be as easily understood as Clark here assumes. The user-illusion is called an illusion for a reason, and its deceptions are powerful indeed. For Dennett, human culture has created a “kind of cognitive organization-a new ‘virtual machine’-that allows us to weave a kind of ongoing narrative that artificially ‘fixes’ our cognitive contents” [TMR 79]. This fixation is artificial because, “underneath the personal-level narrative stream the more fundamental multiple processing streams” that actually make up our cognitive apparatus and allow it to function in the world have no stable locus of control. It is only our cultural upbringing that inculcates a sense of “I-ness,” and therefore, for Clark, “much of the burden is shifted from the notion of consciousness to the notion of personhood.” In other words, we no longer need to worry about finding the self in the mind because “having a self” really means being a person, and being a person means being part of a normative community. But many problems still remain. If being a person means using all kinds of tools to extend cognition, drawing boundaries around what counts as a person and what counts as a tool becomes tricky, if not impossible. If I miss my girlfriend’s call because my cell phone lost signal, am I then responsible for not answering?

Faced with these kinds of problems, Dennett is lead to conclude, “The notion of a person is a forensic notion… It’s not a metaphysical fact about the nature of persons intrinsically in themselves” [TMR 98].

It would seem, then, that the phenomenological experience of most people is in flat contradiction with the actual state of affairs. Most of us feel as though the stories we tell when asked really do represent a stable ego that is responsible and willful. We feel as though we really are separate from everyone else, even though our whole sense of “I-ness” comes directly from our relationship to the community, from that which is “other” than “I.” As Buber has said, the “I” is nothing without the “It.” Smith came to a similar conclusion, showing that subjects cannot exist without objects [TMR 225].

The call to transform our sense of ourselves seems loud and clear. The ego has been made ripe for this transformation by the stress of modern life. Raised by a society that implores it to do that which will only be acceptable if done voluntarily-to love because it must, share because it must, be responsible because it must-the ego is caught in a catch-22. The only remaining way out is awakening to what Buddhists refer to as one’s inherent Buddha Nature.

Awakening

Dennett’s philosophical conclusion that the human mind is made of nothing but a bundle of user-less tools is compelling enough to demand that its implications be extended to our direct experience of life. How, though, can we make such a convincing aspect of our experience transparent while still retaining a sense of moral responsibility? It is clear that the user-illusion once played a huge role in society, allowing it to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But once the truth of its very namesake has been discovered[7], its power becomes rather unconvincing. This is made evident by the characteristically irresponsible behavior of modern society, especially the youngest generations, who are always ready to blame circumstance for their mistakes without remorse. The authority of the community is no longer persuasive enough to convince the populace that its external rules ought to be obeyed. The sense of responsible agency projected onto the individual from without by the society is no longer acceptable. The only solution to this moral crisis is to turn inward for ethical guidance, leaving aside all forms of socially imposed morality. This may at first seem like support for total anarchy, as, if everyone acted out of their own inner selfishness, society would become more chaotic than it already is. But the whole point of awakening to an inner sense of morality is that the ego is transcended. Therefore, with the ego no longer the reigning identification of consciousness, selfishness disappears and one acts out of total benevolence and compassion for all “others.” Attaining such an awakened state is often easier said than done, of course. The real issue, then, is not merely to convince people that this kind of transformation is necessary. Certainly, everyone would probably agree that it sounds great on paper. The issue is how to actually evoke the transformation.

If the evolutionary story told thus far is accurate, we can assume that, in a sense, the transformation will eventually evoke itself. Consciousness has been transcending itself into ever-higher states since the beginning of time, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t do so again. Even so, this in no way takes responsibility away from the individuals that work to bring such a transformation about. How, though, is it to be done?

Buddhism offers a variety of paths, most of which are centered on a meditative practice. What exactly it means to meditate is a matter of much controversy, even within the Buddhist community. But the basic idea is to develop the habit of paying attention to one’s own mind until the sense of “I-ness” is seen for what it is. With enough practice, the “I” becomes a relative truth, a way of speaking. In other words, for all practical purposes of communication and day-to-day interaction, the mask of personhood does just fine. But to mistake this mask for one’s original face-to take seriously the notion that ‘I” am truly separate-is to live in ignorance of one’s actual nature. The very word, “person,” is derived from the Greek “persona,” which refers to the masks worn by stage actors.[8]

It may be asked, though, if the notion of personhood and Buddhahood do not in actuality conflict, why is the inner transformation necessary at all? The goal of Buddhist practice is not merely the belief in this idea of selflessness; it is the direct experience of it. And this direct experience of the lack of self, something Buddhist’s refer to as satori (roughly translated as “enlightenment”), forever changes one’s interpretation of what it means to wear the mask of personhood. The change settles the inner conflict created by the identification with a personal ego, releasing one from the double-bind inherent to this struggle to be that which it is impossible to be. The person who feels themselves to be a skin-encapsulated ego is in search of a stable “I” that never seems to turn up. This leads to all kinds of internal psychosis and fragmentation. Worse, it leads to the projection of inner fear onto others in the form of hatred and hostility. The realization of one’s true state, that which lacks a self, allows the mask to be worn without conflict, as it no longer represents the do all and end all of one’s existence. Instead, one’s consciousness rests in the eternal “now” moment, free from objectification and arbitrary boundary enforcement. One approaches the world with total acceptance, facing other people not as separate entities or objects to be properly understood and mechanically dealt with, but as living presences one can’t help but be in creative and compassionate communion with. The awakened person, having this sense of their true identity, is far freer and far more capable of being truly responsible than is the naïve, ego-identified person.

Conclusion

There is, as Alan Wallace calls it, a “taboo of subjectivity” in our modern day scientific culture. It is this taboo that makes the quantum physicist so uncomfortable with the notion that the observer, the subject, has a role to play in how the observed, the object, appears. In the same way, the cognitive scientist’s “Cartesian anxiety[9]” keeps him or her from realizing that the mind cannot be said to exist as something separate from the body and the world. Just as the physicist cannot ignore the data leading them to their conclusions about what the physical world is (or isn’t), the cognitive scientist cannot ignore their data about what the mind is (or isn’t). All attempts to build truly intelligent machines using a representational model have failed. Descartes conception of the mind as an internal, otherworldly entity that views the outside only as a representation has similarly failed, having been shown to be too supernatural to be taken seriously. We are thus forced to find a new way to understand how the organic mind works, one that doesn’t assume the ontological constructions of our language are built into the real make-up of the world. As members of a community of language speakers, we are prone to make comments like “I have a body.” But our metaphysical microscopes have shown us that such a statement, while not entirely false, is merely true enough. It is truer to say “I am a body.” Of course, if I am a body then I must be just as responsible for beating my heart and growing my bones as I am for tying my shoelaces and brushing my teeth.[10] Trying to make sense of this kind of situation boils down to where we want to draw the arbitrary boundaries that separate what I do from what is done to me. The whole point of this essay, though, is that this “I” is itself an artificial boundary.

Take breathing, for instance. Now that you have been made aware of your breath, it seems that it is a voluntary process. However, just a moment ago, before I mentioned it, your lungs went about their business without you paying them the slightest bit of attention. Trying to figure out which way it really is, whether you breathe or are breathed, amounts to total nonsense. We simply cannot know because our language has here met its maker.

It is here that Buddhism comes to the rescue. Buddhism doesn’t propose to solve the problem by telling you what is going in these kinds of situations. Instead, it makes an attempt to show you by leading you toward the experience of satori. Satori solves the problem by showing that there never was one to begin with, as your ordinary sense of being an ego wrapped in a bag of skin is seen for what it is-a hallucination created by the language game of your society. Only once this realization has occurred can the socially defined “person” become a truly moral being, as only then can real altruism and compassion come about from within. For the person still chasing after an imaginary ego, morality becomes something external that must be obeyed for fear of punishment. For the awakened person, the world and everyone in it ceases to be “other,” instead becoming the one true self, the upper-case Self. “In the language of the sages, only the Buddha Nature, or Brahman, or Allah, or God, sees or hears or experiences anything at all” [MI 30]. All true morality stems from this understanding.

Works Cited

Boulding, Elise. The Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time. Boulder: West View Press. 1976.
Buber, Martin. Translated by William Kaufman. I and Thou. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1970.
Clapin, Hugh. Philosophy of Mental Representation. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 2002.
Clark, Andy. “Where Brain, Body, and World Collide.” Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 127. 1998.
Engel, Andreas. Debener, Stefan. Kranczioch, Camilia. “Coming to Attention.” Scientific American. July 2006.
Harding, D.E. The Mind’s I. New York: Bantam. 1981.
McClintock, Martha. “Menstrual Synchrony and Suppression.” Nature, Jan. 1971. Volume 229.
Reps, Paul. Senzaki, Nyogen. Zen Flesh Zen Bones. Boston: Tuttle Publishing. 1957.
Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. New York: St. Martin Press. 1981.
Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1991.
Wallace, Alan. The Taboo of Subjectivity. Oxford: University Press. 2000.
Watts, Alan. “Learning the Human Game.” Recorded lecture, 1967.
Wilber, Ken. Quantum Questions. Boston: Shambhala. 2001.

[1] This leads neuroscientists to ask questions like, “What happens in our brains when we deliberately concentrate on something?” The answer given is that a “ballet of neurons” becomes active in the brain when objects are focused on. But this explains nothing. It amounts to saying: “I decide because my brain behaves in a certain way.” The neuroscientist has over-emphasized the figure and completely forgotten the ground. The brain is nothing without the body, and the body is nothing without the world. To say, “I decide what to see,” you must neglect the possibility that the world decides for you [CA].

[2] To track non-effective targets for a substantial period of time, animals would need the mnemonic aid of words. As a language-using human, I can talk/think/write about objects that are not present (i.e., represent them) because I use words to stabilize them [PMR 105].

[3] Why can’t a purely verbal language game have a subject/object ontology? -Because it isn’t stable enough to hold such an abstract ontological structure together. It takes the aid of the written word for consciousness to make such a jump.

[4] Evolution, in this sense, is not evolution driven by natural selection alone. It has access to more tools than that. It is only the “I-It” consciousness that projects the “survival of the fittest” metaphor onto nature, after all. This kind of evolution makes leaps to higher and more organized states all at once, as though it knew where it was going before it got there. The study of emergent behaviors in systems theory here becomes very relevant. This may also be how Good Tricks [PMR 113] come about.

[5] The earliest known forms of “writing” are scratches on bone fragments designed to model the phases of the moon (and the cycle of menstruation) [TFBTL 97].

[6] Alphabets and written languages go hand-in-hand, the purpose of the alphabet being to capture vocal utterances in symbolic jars called letters so they can be recorded and standardized by grammaticians.

[7] It is an illusion, after all.

[8] The modern obsession with movie stars and celebrities is a perfect example of the glorification of the ego. They are worshipped because they represent what is usually considered the pinnacle of egohood: fame and recognition.

[9] “The usual response of the cognitive scientist [because of the Cartesian anxiety] is to ignore the experiential aspect when she does science and ignore the scientific discovery when she leads her life” [TEM 239].

[10] Indeed, if “I am a body” is truer, then “I am the All” is truest. If the body reacts to its environment as though it were a “direct recipe for action,” then the body and the world are coupled. I (not the ego but the deeper Self) become equally as responsible for rising the Sun and blowing the wind as I am for growing my bones and brushing my teeth.