What is Life? (Part 2)

Continuing a dialogue in the comments of my last post, particularly the question of whether rocks have agency…

An organic realism would suggest that some processes within rocks do have varying degrees of agency. Crystallization is telic. Atoms are self-organizing ecopoietic agents. The periodic table of elements is a taxonomic hierarchy that sorts different species of living organism.

What turns aggregation into agency? I guess we call that “soul” or “psyche,” “life” or “consciousness.” But what is it and where does it come from? Is it really just an illusion (=Dennett)? Does it somehow “emerge” out of non-living matter (=Deacon)?

Or, is soul active cosmically from the get go? Is space-time/matter-energy intrinsically experiential? Is cosmic becoming concernful? Is the universe aesthetically invested in what comes next?

If not, if no soul holds the cosmos whole, then what are our alternatives for resisting exposure to randomness, that is, to vain meaninglessness? Can we make meaning of a story about the emergence of mind from matter? I mean, can we derive our sense of purpose from the idea that birth was the absolute beginning and death the absolute end of what I call me myself? Can we see the human being as a civilized creature, a rational animal, if we also believe that our mind is ultimately nothing more than an aggregation of cells? Plenty have tried. Here is an excerpt from Nabokov’s poem Pale Fire (recently featured in Blade Runner 2049; http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/palefirepoem.html):

The Crashaw Club had paid me to discuss
Why Poetry Is Meaningful To Us.
I gave my sermon, a full thing but short.
As I was leaving in some haste, to thwart
The so-called “question period” at the end,
One of those peevish people who attend
Such talks only to say they disagree
Stood up and pointed his pipe at me.

And then it happened–the attack, the trance,
Or one of my old fits. There sat by chance
A doctor in the front row. At his feet
Patly I fell. My heart had stopped to beat,
It seems, and several moments passed before
It heaved and went on trudging to a more
Conclusive destination. Give me now
Your full attention.
I can’t tell you how I knew–but I did know that I had crossed
The border. Everything I loved was lost
But no aorta could report regret.
A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;
And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

I realized, of course, that it was made
Not of our atoms; that the sense behind
The scene was not our sense. In life, the mind
Of any man is quick to recognize
Natural shams, and then before his eyes
The reed becomes a bird, the knobby twig
An inchworm, and the cobra head, a big
Wickedly folded moth. But in the case
Of my white fountain what it did replace
Perceptually was something that, I felt,
Could be grasped only by whoever dwelt
In the strange world where I was a mere stray.

And presently I saw it melt away:
Though still unconscious, I was back on earth.
The tale I told provoked my doctor’s mirth.
He doubted very much that in the state
He found me in “one could hallucinate
Or dream in any sense. Later, perhaps,
but not during the actual collapse.
No, Mr. Shade.”
“But, Doctor, I was dead!
He smiled. “Not quite: just half a shade,” he said.

Ecclesiastes tells another story. Yes, from dust we come and to dust we shall return. And yet, so the story goes, those who love God walk a path that leads beyond this world:

“For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.

Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?”

Panpsychism is an alternative to materialism, emergentism, and traditional theism. It sees life running up and down this world from top to bottom. It grants spiritual dignity to all beings, not just humans, not just God, not even just animals, plants, and cells, but to planets, stars, and galaxies, to protons and electrons. It roots meaning-making at a cosmic level, rather than limiting meaning to humanity, or to the sense-making of biological organisms. None of which is to say that panpsychism makes everything everything. It isn’t panpanism. There is a complex hierarchy, a differentiated holarchy (Koestler), a cosmic tree with roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. And all of it is sensitive in degrees.

28 Replies to “What is Life? (Part 2)”

  1. not sure if this comment went through – here is something “Aurobindonian” on consciousness associated with matter – thought it might interest you:

    Karma and the Evolution of Consciousness

    In some way incomprehensible to the ordinary human mind, the karmic process of action and reaction occurs even in the earth, the stone, the subatomic particle. Yogis who have an opening to the inner consciousness are capable of perceiving directly the conscious-energy manifesting in and as matter. They describe the response of this conscious-energy to impacts from the environment as being extremely minute or limited. The material object, in turn, is modified only to a small degree by its reaction. Despite the limitations of both the response and the accompanying inner modification, it is by means of this essential process of action and reaction that material forms grew in complexity – i.e., molecules evolved out of the interaction between atoms.
    Because so little consciousness had evolved to the surface, this process of increasing complexity at the material level was extremely slow, taking billions of years. With the emergence of the vital and mental consciousness in plants and animals, the karmic process picked up speed, becoming more complex. However, the way the karmic process works to further evolution is essentially the same in matter, plants, animals and humans.
    For example, an animal is presented with challenges from the environment. To the extent the surface consciousness of the animal is unable to meet the challenge, more of the hidden consciousness is called forth. With more capacity for knowing, willing and feeling now evolved, the animal has a greater capacity to respond to the demands of its environment. Each response leaves an impression in the subconscient. As consciousness evolves to the surface, there is more freedom to respond, and the reaction becomes more intense. This leaves behind stronger impressions, adding momentum to the karmic process.
    At some point, when the animal’s particular level of consciousness is no longer sufficient to meet its environmental challenges, a heightening of consciousness takes place, manifesting physically as a genetic mutation which gives rise to the birth of a new species. There is thus simultaneously an increase in the complexity of both consciousness and form. When mammals first emerged, for example, there was both an increase in the complexity of knowing, willing and feeling and a parallel increase in the complexity of brain structure.
    In all forms – atom, plant, animal and human – the Soul “behind” is ever aspiring to awaken and manifest more of its latent capacity for knowing, willing and feeling. However, neither the atom nor the animal has evolved a conscious self, and therefore cannot contribute consciously to this process. Prior to the human level, because there is no conscious self and therefore no conscious individual will, karma does not accrue to the individual. Rather than being deposited in an individual subconscient, karmic impressions are collected in the subconscient of the species.
    In human beings, with the full awakening of the thinking mind, a conscious self – and along with it, the individual will – emerge. Richly diverse lines of physical, vital and mental karma now accrue to the individual over many lifetimes lived out in diverse environments, encountering a wide variety of experiences. With the birth of self-consciousness, humans potentially have the capacity to recognize the consequences of their actions. To the extent they realize this capacity, they are responsible for their karma and can consciously participate in their own evolution.
    Behind the individual will of the human being, the Soul continues to aspire for awakening and full expression. But experiencing himself as a separate individual, the human being directs the energy of the Soul’s aspiration – which in his unenlightened surface consciousness takes the form of desire – toward things of the world. He seeks to enlarge himself, not through developing his consciousness, but through the accumulation of things, the search for ever-greater pleasure and increased wealth, power, fame, relationships, knowledge. Having obtained the object of his desire, the human being remains dissatisfied, because the energy behind desire is the “hunger of an infinite being,” which can only be satisfied by the Infinite.
    Through the ongoing quest for the fulfillment of desire, karmic ties binding us to others grow ever more complex, linking all in one inextricable karmic web. As long as the energy of desire is turned outward, oriented toward external fulfillment, the karmic web continues to grow thicker. The endless chain of action and reaction increases the sense of burden and limitation, intensifying the aspiration of the soul to awaken.
    To the extent an individual’s reactions are negative – that is, out of harmony with his environment – the karmic consequence is that he will be more likely to act in negative ways. This makes it more likely his future acts will be in conflict with his environment, further intensifying his sense of separation. When his reactions are positive – more congruent with the needs of the whole – karmic momentum is generated that makes it easier for him to respond harmoniously in the future. However, both negative and positive reactions that arise out of a sense of separation ultimately create further karmic bonds. The soul cannot fully awaken until it rises above both negative and positive reactions by eliminating all sense of separation, thus becoming altogether free from the bondage of karma.
    Though the web we weave is thick and the law of consequences inexorable, the way in which karmic seeds bear fruit is infinitely flexible. They can ripen in infinite ways and within vastly variable time frames. Rather than a mechanical linear process, or a means of reward and punishment, the ripening of karma occurs according to what will be most favorable to the awakening of the individual, and ultimately to the whole of humanity.

    1. HI Joe – can you elaborate a bit on that? I don’t understand how that is essentially different from or opposed to what Matt wrote.

      Are you conceiving of “organization” as some kind of “external” factor and therefore more “fundamental” than experience?

      Isn’t the essence of panpsychism that experience and organization are completely correlated?

      Or am I completely misreading what you (and possibly matt?) are saying?

      1. Matt – just to be clear – you’re agreeing that there is a correlation, but experiential intensity is not “caused” by organizational complexity, yes?

      2. organizational complexity and experiential intensity are two ways of talking about the same process. Causality operates on both levels at once, organizationally as formal and material cause and experientially as efficient and final cause.

  2. Let me try again. here are some lines from the essay:

    An organic realism would suggest that some processes within rocks do have varying degrees of agency. Crystallization is telic. Atoms are self-organizing ecopoietic agents. The periodic table of elements is a taxonomic hierarchy that sorts different species of living organism.

    What turns aggregation into agency? I guess we call that “soul” or “psyche,” “life” or “consciousness.”

    ********

    Matt is saying that consciousness turns aggregation into agency.

    Is your point then, “No, it’s not consciousness that does this, it’s organization?”

    Doesn’t that lead to an endless regress: “Well, then what turns less organization into more organization?” Wouldn’t the answer still be consciousness (or life or psyche or….

    1. Matt *assumes* consciousness, and uses it as an explanation of consciousness. This circularity is not satisfying.

      For example, “What turns aggregation into agency? I guess we call that “soul” or “psyche,” “life” or “consciousness.” ”

      Here, agency is essentially synonymous with consciousness on my read (or a ‘higher degree’ of consciousness). But again, this is circular.

      What is clear that you don’t need much in the way of ‘agency’ for open systems to begin self-organizing into macro-scale patterns. A large variety of these patterns will develop, out of which some will persist, some will not. The organization of these patterns leads to system properties not present in prior systems. Systems that persist undergo elaboration, expanding variety even further.

      Matt gets stuck at ‘how can mechanism turn into consciousness’ (which he is assuming is not mechanistic). A fair place to get stuck, but when one applies primacy to ORGANIZATION rather than SUBSTANCE, the issue becomes slightly less sticky.

      Matt’s approach is to say “psyche is pervasive, so there’s nothing really to get stuck on”. I simply don’t find that satisfying. Again again, it is circular. We have some things that are more ‘mind-full’ than others evidently, and Matt’s explanation for *why* that is the case is ‘because mind is everywhere. OK but that leaves the question unaddressed, in my view.

      One last note, Don. You’re essentially asking me to buy-in wholesale to Matt’s framing and then speak from there. Please recall this began as Matt responding to my blog post, so if anyone is going to buy into a frame to make this discussion productive, it ought to be the other way around.

    1. My read of the term ‘self-organization’ is simply to distinguish it from organized by an external agent, an external ‘builder’, if you will. It does not imply that there is necessarily a ‘Self’ proper as a consequence of any self-organization processes, IMO.

      Yes, sure, process-relational sounds about right. On Whiteheadian phraseology: I haven’t found it to be very useful in my thinking to the degree I’ve been exposed to it, but I haven’t spent enough time in his term-space to come down hard one way or another. Just walking another path is all.

      1. To clarify, not even humans are “builders” in the sense you’re describing. As I suggested in my original reply, I think we have too low a view of matter and too inflated a view of mind. The agency of both is only ever self-organized, where selfhood is always “virtual” in Varela’s sense.

      2. build something. the distinction between organization imposed via external agent (you) and something that assembles itself will become undeniable and plain as day.

    1. there are both continuous and discontinuous aspects to nature. sometimes, a threshold is crossed, and a distinction with a hard boundary can be made.

      I concur consciousness likely exists in ‘degrees’, but this does not imply that some systems are of ‘degree 0’ — in other words, lack the property altogether.

      1. Digging into this a bit more, I wonder what you think about these questions:

        Do ribosomes *build* proteins?

        Do termites *build* mounds?

        Or are these examples of self-organization, with human minds being the only *builders* you know of?

      2. Good questions.

        ribosomes play a crucial role in *synthesizing* proteins, they don’t build them as I intended the term above. They don’t have a pre-conceived plan they impose.

        the emergence of a termite mound I would consider a self-organizational process for the same reason: agents in the system follow local rules and there is no place where a ‘design’ is held, no no central agent who refers to a design in structuring the arrangement

        Humans are constructors most obviously, but other species partake to some degree: apes with tools, dolphins with fishing methodologies, for instance.

        It seems the key to ‘building’ as I intended is a central agent who has responsibility over all of the parts of a system and how they fit together. A ‘design’ of the whole lives somewhere other than the actual embodiment (might be in a brain, might be a drawing, or a combination of the two, etc etc.)

        Interestingly, reaching back to Mason Cash’s course again, the type of design which is distinctly different than organizational processes seems intimately related to a *representational* capacity.

        OF course, at different scales these two things can happily co exist: I can design my house, you can design yours, and a neighborhood may emerge.

  3. Now we’re getting somewhere. Yes it seems that symbolic language (or at least proto-linguistic capacity) has something to do with the shift from self-organization to building/designing. This is what some cognitive scientists refer to as “representation.” I see this not as something endogenous to the brain, but as an emergent capacity involving brains/bodies and their evolved behaviors, culturally learned behaviors, and artifacts (like pen and paper).

    I keep thinking of how Christopher Alexander describes the building process of medieval cathedrals. It seems somewhere between self-organization and design, as we are currently using these terms. (eg, https://books.google.com/books?id=UOxlt8CJX2oC&lpg=PA632&ots=3qzDV-rRG4&dq=christopher%20alexander%20medieval%20cathedral&pg=PA632#v=onepage&q=christopher%20alexander%20medieval%20cathedral&f=false).

    1. Agree on Alexander and using design patterns as being an ‘in-between’ — again, it comes down to scale.

      And yes, the ability to represent certainly is an emergent one that comes out of the interactions of multiple pieces.

  4. Matt, inspired by your thoughts (& Nabokov’s verse), I thought I’d throw in this poem I’ve been tinkering with.

    Selection

    Charles Darwin taught us
    forms of life ceaselessly emerge
    through a kind of natural selection.

    Sociobiology took this insight down
    the reductionistic road
    to the selfish gene, which seeks immortality & so
    dictates our every move
    in order to replicate & proliferate
    itself. All life
    & its every aspect—the cheetah’s spots, the peacock’s feather,
    the cathedral’s stained-glass window—
    all explained somehow, overtly, covertly,
    by this simple proposition. Indeed,
    consciousness is but a useful spinoff
    that evolution stumbled on,
    providing the gene a vaster tactical dimension
    to pursue its mindless strategy.

    Love or at least
    some sort of limbic bonding
    is the gene’s ploy
    to ensure the cow suckles & protects
    her calf. The gene is a polymathic genius,
    not intentionally, but by dint of a great game
    of hit & miss.
    But hold

    the looking glass level to this twisted figure, &
    behold:y
    the gene transformed—
    love’s own double-helixed window to enter an unfeeling world—
    & evolution unveiled—
    the unlikely pilgrimage that consciousness makes
    to awaken the dust & clay.

    Selects who whom?

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