“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

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.



31 responses to “What is Life? (Part 2)”

  1. donsalmon Avatar

    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. John Bryant Avatar
      John Bryant

      That’s Sri “Aurobindonian”. Sri.

      1. donsalmon Avatar

        The source of the term “Aurobindonian” (without the Sri) is Sri Aurobindo himself. But K D Sethna used the term dozens, if not hundreds of times. So, I doubt that many would find it lacking.

      2. donsalmon Avatar

        In any case, if you’re still interested, John (sorry for the length of this, Matt), here’s an interesting comment on “Aurobindonian”

        Dear Sri Gupta,

        I fail to understand what made you conclude that the word “Aurobindonian” is “graceless”. Allow me to inform you that the term “Aurobindonian” was used even in the 1940s when Sri Aurobindo was in his body. For instance, in a letter written on 27 March 1945, K. D . Sethna alias Amal Kiran had written: ‘Poetry of the sort I write—seeking to be in tune with the Aurobindonian Muse—is not always easy to enjoy immediately…’ (“Life—Poetry—Yoga”, Volume 3, p. 345). Nobody had objected to it for the sole reason that it was not derogatory or “graceless” to quote the term used by you. Eminent writers like K. D. Sethna, Georges Van Vrekhem and others have used the term “Aurobindonian” quite frequently in their published works.

        Due to insufficient time I am unable to give you the list of books in which the word “Aurobindonian” has been used but what follows are some excerpts from Amal Kiran’s letters in which the said word has been freely used.

        ‘To get to this richness we have to practise assiduously the Aurobindonian command: “All life is Yoga.”’ (“Life—Poetry—Yoga”, Volume 1, p. 18)

        But even the aesthete character can have a contribution to make to the complete ideal we as Aurobindonians should keep before us.’ (Ibid., p. 69)

        ‘Or else the converse may be visualised as a complementary truth to the full Aurobindonian:…” (Ibid., p. 106)

        ‘From this passage and from all else I can reach out to the centre of your Aurobindonian life:…” (Ibid., p. 137)

        ‘The Mother too has declared that the best thing in this Yoga is for the sadhak not to stand in her way but allow her to work towards making him a true Aurobindonian.’ (Ibid., p. 169)

        ‘An Aurobindonian can understand such an outlook whereas the conventional religious or spiritual world-visions would think it absurd and shocking.’ (Ibid., p. 171)

        ‘If there is an Aurobindonian who is sufficiently immersed in the Integral Yoga, you may seek his help and advice.’ (Ibid., p. 214)
        ‘Now to my point about us as Aurobindonians.’ (Ibid., p. 284)

        ‘… if one learns from Sri Aurobindo what plane is at work, one can absorb more livingly its atmosphere through the rhythm and the vision, and let not only the spiritually-turned aesthetic sense but also the very substance of the soul feel the impact and grow more Aurobindonian.’ (Ibid., p. 288)

        ‘…I think, we have what I may dub an indirect and undefined fore-glimpse of the Aurobindonian Age’s adventure to awake the earth to its own secret heavenliness…’ (“Life—Poetry—Yoga”, Volume 2, p. 2)

        ‘Change of consciousness as a consequence of inner union with the Divine is the radiant core of the Aurobindonian life…’ (Ibid., p. 32)

        ‘The Aurobindonian evolution implies that at the base of matter, in the very heart of the Inconscient, the Supermind lies “involved”’. (Ibid., p. 51)

        ‘And when we go to the supra-rational, we approach the Aurobindonian “logic of the infinite”’. (Ibid., p. 75)

        ‘…first there is the Aurobindonian crown of luminous calm to be won for ourselves.’ (Ibid., p. 90)

        ‘Mother India was being edited and published from there [Bombay] every fortnight as a cultural newspaper covering all fields, even politics, from the Aurobindonian viewpoint.’ (Ibid., p. 97)

        ‘Channelling the Aurobindonian inspiration in various lines of literary activity is surely my nature’s bent…’ (Ibid., p. 130)

        ‘The outer personality with its petty and egoistic habits of thought, feeling and action has to be irradiated if the Aurobindonian Yoga is to be truly done.’ (Ibid., p. 151)

        ‘…the Ashram has a special spiritual virtue, it is the central power-house of the Aurobindonian Yoga…’ (Ibid., p. 205)

        ‘Only two figures from the long train of past sages, saints, yogis, prophets, avatars are in my view most affined to the Aurobindonian Era of the Integral Yoga.’ (Ibid., p. 213)

        ‘You have hit upon a side of the Aurobindonian Yoga of self-surrender which divulges the key to its success.’ (“Life—Poetry—Yoga, Volume 3, p. 36)

        ‘It must have provided to the soul parted from the body a new body of subtle vibrations building, as it were, an Aurobindonian embrace shielding it from whatever adversary would come out of the unknown.” (Ibid., p. 71)

        ‘We Aurobindonians have to essay the difficulties.’ (Ibid., p. 910)

        ‘If we pierce through the diversity and particularity to the basic Eternal and Infinite and Divine shining through them, we need have no sense of differing or sidetracking from the Aurobindonian Presence.’ (Ibid., p. 148)

        ‘In any case the Aurobindonian equanimity demands that I should look on them with peaceful if not also gentle eyes.’ (Ibid., p. 168)

        ‘I know of several cases in which the Mother has asked aspiring Aurobindonians to keep working outside and help the Ashram in any capacity open to them.’ (Ibid., p. 212)

        If the term “Aurobindonian” had been criticized for any reason, no writer would certainly have used it. Surely you would not claim that by using the term “Aurobindonian” Amal Kiran and Georges Van Vrekhem have disrespected Sri Aurobindo. I do appreciate your feelings but I would like to add that it is good to be a genuine devotee and a follower (which you certainly are) but it is unwise to become a fanatic. We must all try to become a genuine “Aurobindonian” the definition of which has been clearly given by Amal Kiran in the following words:

        ‘… an “Aurobindonian“ is essentially one who constantly carries on the practice of the presence of Sri Aurobindo and aspires to catch as much as possible the traits which we discern as typical of him. What are, in brief, the “Aurobindonian” traits?

        A poised serenity of tranquil strength,
        A wide unshaken look on time’s unrest,

        an immense patience allied to an untiring pursuit of perfection, a deep faith in an omnipotent guidance leading us through all, an up-gaze towards a plenary Truth by which every side of life can be transformed, a universal light in the out-looking eyes, a compassionate insight into human frailties, a joyous imaginative response to Nature, both living and inanimate, a lordly sense of the supreme Self of selves, a simple heart ever adoring the Divine Mother and with profound humility facing always an Infinite still to be realised.’ (“Life—Poetry—Yoga”, Volume 2, pp. 272-273)

        With warm regards,
        Anurag Banerjee

  2. Joe Avatar

    What determines those degrees?

    Try as you might, if you are honest you will not be able to avoid the clear answer: organization

    1. donsalmon Avatar

      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?

    2. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      Can’t disagree with that. Yes, organizational complexity would appear to correlate with experiential intensity.

      1. donsalmon Avatar

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

      2. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        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.

  3. donsalmon Avatar

    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. Joe Avatar

      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. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        Joe, how would you define agency? I am going with the idea that self-organization is already agential in some sense, otherwise why the reference to a “self”?

      2. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        To bring it back to your premises: what would be the most primitive example you can imagine of a self-organizing open system crafting its exposure?

  4. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

    And I am totally on board with making organization rather than substance primary. A process-relational ontology is where we end up after taking this primacy seriously, I think.

    1. Joe Avatar

      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. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        Thanks, this is helpful. From my perspective, there are no external agents. All agents are inside the universe, part of the same relational nexus.

      2. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        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.

      3. Joe Avatar

        internal / external distinctions are relational

      4. Joe Avatar

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

      5. Joe Avatar

        a ‘builder’ can also create conditions for self-organization. see how these concepts increase clarity?

      6. Joe Avatar

        Importantly, these distinctions are not merely theoretical but PRACTICAL

  5. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

    Again, I grant the distinction you are making, but I see it as a matter of degrees, rather than two ontologically distinct kinds of systems.

    1. Joe Avatar

      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. Joe Avatar

        *not imply that some systems are NOT of ‘degree 0’

      2. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        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?

      3. Joe Avatar

        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.

  6. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

    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. Joseph Norman Avatar

      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.

      1. Joe Avatar

        Actually I changed my mind, design patterns are not an in between, but a synthesis. More on that later

  7. Jim Racobs Avatar
    Jim Racobs

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


    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, &
    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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