Freedom: Persons Reflect

(This is the sixth post in the Series on Freedom and Mother Nature.The amazing hypothesis, that a “Larger SomeThing” creates human persons (post four),  will be revealed to be composed by a process called “Reflection”.  Further, persons find themselves ‘reflected’ in the other living creatures of the world.  These results are basic to the Evolutionary Process.  The advantages of increased productivity and an environment more human (from post five) is here profoundly supplemented.  The mechanism of reflection — this feedback loop — will start to be analyzed through a discussion of the codes involved: genetic and linguistic.  First published 12/01/2018)

John Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus (1903).    Captivated by his Reflection in Nature, Narcissus overlooks his Reflection in the love of the Nymph, Echo.


The final advantage for us, as the highly connected humans that compose The Human Social Organism, is the most difficult to explain and the most important.  It concerns the ability of persons to “reflect”.

What could we possibly mean by “reflect”?   Eventually, we will see that “to reflect” can mean “to be thoughtful.”  But here, initially, all that has been discussed in previous posts, is Persons share the stories of who they are, and receive feedback from those around them.  This feedback is ‘their reflection’, which they ‘see’ in others. This kind of reflection can contribute to a change of story.  A ‘person’ is just that kind of ‘thing’ that participates in this interchange.

So, personhood is a very unique form of interaction, a kind of ‘hall of mirrors’ and the by-product is not only the formation of self-identities for those involved, but also a collective story, a “manifest image”* of the kind of ‘thing’ a person is.  It should be noted that this reflection is ongoing.  All these individual stories, and the collective story, are constantly under revision.  This is simply to say, we are ‘reflecting ‘ or ‘thinking’ all the time; working on who we are.


“The School of Athens” by Raphael (1509)  The dialogue between “persons” is basic to them.  Plato and Aristotle are here depicted “reflecting”.

I’m not sure why this was hard to say, except that “thinking”, in this description, has been turned into a social process and not the individual, in-your-own-head activity we usually believe it is.  Thinking is a kind of social ‘reflectiveness’, if you will; it takes place within the Human Social Organism.  It’s the way this organism hangs together and coordinates.

The murmuration of Starlings as highly social animals.  The movement of each is reflected in the movement of the others.



In this way, we are like a flock of Starlings, except it’s persons that are the  units in this social process.  Surprisingly,  human animals become human persons by participating in this extremely social way of living!  So, that is why it was difficult to express; we tried to seriously shift our understanding of a very basic activity — thinking — and a very basic ‘thing’— a person.  They each became much more social, and far less individual.  

What we are doing is unpacking our commonly used word, ‘reflection’.  It contains two very diverse elements: an act of ‘thinking’ and the process of ‘a rebounded image’.  It’s an awkward association that cries for explanation!  This is similar to the work of analytic philosophers, Richard Rorty and Daniel Dennett.  The significance of this compound meaning has not been lost in the history of philosophy.  From Socrates to John Locke, the dialogue between persons and the reflection of an object have vied for the meaning of “truth”.

Thinking, self-awareness  are being explored as social and not strictly individual, as has been traditionally thought.  This is now being explored by other philosophers and scientists, and not only those of us at  “We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us…Consciousness is not something that happens to us.  It is something we do”,    contends U.C. Berkeley, philosopher, Alva Noe.

Mind is social.  Self-awareness and thinking are a human social activity as much as the activity of an individual human.  “Kids Special” Washington Post cover by illustrator Eiko Ojala.

A Brain is Not a Mind

A corollary to this position is that a brain is not a mind!  A brain is the ‘hardware’ onto which ‘mind’ can be installed, so to speak.  More precisely, many brains are interconnected through language and other forms of socialization and then become minds, and even a mind, through reflection.  A mind is self-aware, a brain alone is not.  A brain’s activity instantiates a language, but a single brain cannot invent a language.  So, it seems to me and others in this tradition, that “Mind” is the ultimate ‘hold out’ to Scientific Reduction into physical pieces.  This is why Dennett, discusses Mind in terms of sociological arrangements, as I have done in this post series on Freedom.  Mind is not some mysterious metaphysical thing, but it is an arrangement and way of living for persons at their unique level of complexity.  “Mind” is that ‘thing’ that is arranged Holisticly; ‘from the center out’ or in which “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Now, of course, Mind does not just suddenly appear in organized humans, we ‘see’ precursors of it in Nature as we look out from our position in its hierarchy of agency.**   All these are bold assertions that have been explained to some extent in this and previous posts**, and will be further defended in future posts.

*Phrase used by philosopher Wilfred Sellars

**See below and post “God and Evolution” for discussion of ‘The Great Chain of Being’.

***See previous posts on the “Human Social Organism” and “Persons, Large and Small”


Reflection in Nature

We have seen that the rebounded images of persons is the mechanism for being aware of and thinking of ourselves, but now we must consider nature.  Persons are reflected in nature, too!  This is the basic form of reflection.  Persons reflecting each other is a later development in time and its achievement is a greater awareness, a “‘selfier’ self”, quips Dennett.  So, especially in living things, persons ‘see’ themselves in a rudimentary or

Micky: a mouse that is a person.

incipient form.  We all have had this experience: An ant scurrying about reminds us of ourselves with our own goals and aspirations.  Step on it and it does not take much to feel a bit of sympathy.  Looking into the eyes of our pet dog, its person-ality seems clear.  Even the seasonal ebb and flow of plant life seems human:  we too brace for the winter and rejuvenate in spring.  Ants, pets, plants are “quasi-persons”, “semi-persons” and, jokingly, “semi-hemi-demi persons”, says Dennett.  We see in them an agency that becomes more full-blown in us, it seems.

Fight-or-flight: Persons can see themselves in Nature, and for good reasons.

Another example is the “fight-or-flight” response exhibited among all vertebrates.  An increase in heart and breathing rate, skin hair standing on end, a cessation of digestion, the sudden release of various hormones all accompany the presence of danger, fear and aggression for ourselves and numerous other animals.  We know these emotions in us and can feel — and scientifically measure— these physiological responses in us and others.  We are alike, and can see this and feel it; this reflection is hard-wired into us!

Finally, and most pleasing of all, Nature itself is ultimately the primal form of Personhood.*  It is this that legitimately allows our reference to nature as ‘mother’: “Mother Nature”.   This personification is justified philosophically by the character of Natural Selection:  Nature chooses!  Nature establishes a system of preferences and products.  In Dennett’s terms, Mother Nature was the first “intentional system”.  Natural Selection is  ‘about’ her creatures.  It is the first system of reference in which each species refers to and is logically differentiated by all the others.  Each functions.  Each  had ‘interests’.  Each interacts. ‘She wants’ them, through the system of cooperation and competition Mother Nature established, to progress into the future!  This primal process of agency and personality is described as follows.

Image result for pictures of animals in their habitat
The feedback loop of Natural Selection has created a tight fit between every animal and it’s environment.  (Picture of Tarsier courtesy of  Wikipedia)

Every animal and plant is reflected in its environment.  It’s that creature’s home, source for its needs, place of its wants and even ‘fears’.

So, each environment is connected to the living creatures in it, in a necessary way, not accidental or arbitrary.  You don’t find polar bears in the tropics, or fish ‘happy’ to be flopping about on the land!  They are too connected to their environment and the  medium for this necessary connection is a process that, we, persons have come to know as “Life” and “Natural Selection”.   As such, they become connected in their own terms — ‘alive’, ‘functional’, ‘needy’, ‘striving’, ‘self-regulating’ (as in body temperature, in energy consumption and expenditure, in growth and repair) — and thus defy complete reduction into terms of physics and chemistry.  What they would lose in these potential scientific re-descriptions is their agency and uniqueness of existence.  Plants and animals ACT in their own terms and are ’caused’ only in subordination to the Form and Structure of these Actions.

**This is a bold claim, and we at NatieRel should embrace it!  It will need further defense, and Dennett provides that.


The First Intentional System: “Mother Nature”

Natural Selection ties the creature to environment, and vice versa, in a circular or reflective way.  This circular connection is a bit of closure.  All the elements that are in the circle are ‘characterized’ by the living creature, and it by them.  They are ‘food’, ‘mate’, ‘friend’, ‘foe’.  In the back and forth of Natural Selection, the animal and environment ‘create’ each other, and thus there is a bit of autonomy for them as a unit.  It is the origin of our freedom!  We legitimately start to describe biological settings in a very different way.  They are feedback loops, full of information.










(Our environment is not one of atoms, far more immediately it is one of Food, Mate, 
Friend and Foe.  It is a Category Mistake to mix the concepts of “friend”, “food” and “atoms”.  Animals don’t eat atoms, they eat food.)

This intimate relation is called by Dennett, after the German biologist, Jakob von Uexkull (1937), the organism’s Umwelt, or “world as perceived”; or the organism’s affordances, after the psychologist, J. J. Gibson (1979):  affordances are “what the environment offers the animal for good or ill.”  It is the contention of these scientists that there is a significant difference between the umwelt and “the environment” taken in a more ‘objective’ way.  It is only self-conscious humans that have discovered this difference, these ‘two environments.’  “The predicament of the organism” is that “it is floating in an ocean of differences, a scant few of which might make a difference to it”, writes Dennett.  The initially mentioned “environment” (“the ocean of differences”) is the more “objective” environment; the second is its “umwelt”, the differences in the environs that make a difference to it, 


Reflecting through the Medium of a Code

Biologists thought that the Organisms used Genes to Reproduce.  It is now agreed that organisms are temporary “vehicles” that carry the ‘winning’ genes into the future!  Genes use organisms!

In the multicellular organism and in the Human Social Organism  reflection occurs through the medium of a code: the genetic code for each, but then language, in addition, for the Human Social Organism.  It is through these codes that the individual cells and persons are created and organized into a larger and transcending structure.  Each part can reflect the whole.* 

Now this is a peculiar way to think about it because it seems to put the cart before the horse, the whole before the parts, or the code before the objects (cells and persons) involved with the code.

And so it does.  Formerly, biologists thought that organisms use genes to reproduce.  Richard Dawkins, through his book “The Selfish Gene”, has now prevailed in promoting the equally true and, at this point, more fruitful converse insight: genes use organisms for the purpose of their reproduction.  In our human social situation, the same applies to language.  We formerly thought that humans use words, to (merely) express their ideas; for after all, the ideas (or emotions or thoughts) are already there ‘in the head’ and now, through words, simply are made public — “come out”.                                

“words speak humans”

But it is fruitful to see that words use humans, to replicate, to instantiate meanings, to make a new kind of social order.  In philosophy this insight is expressed notably by the following paraphrase of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger: Humans do not speak words; words speak humans.

Preposterous, it may seem, but its shock may be diminished by a less paradoxical

The Gutenberg Bible has been helping to create a kind of person since 1545.  It has been a formative social influence in Europe and the Americas.

phrasing:  all that is being contended is that as much as persons make society (or culture), society (or culture) makes personsIt is that kind of chicken and egg scenario; a kind of circularity of causal interaction is established. We owe ‘who’ and ‘what’ we are as much to our culture and our times, as our culture and our times owe their character to us.  In fact, I would tip the scale to the former over the later, for few of us, ever, really shake things up.  So, persons are a ‘reflection’ of their society and a society is a ‘reflection’ of its individuals.

Similarly in the plants and animals of nature.  They are ‘reflected’ the changing code of DNA passed systematically down and through the branches of the Tree of Life.  This code is then also changed by — a ‘reflection’ of — the successes and failures of these living things.

Important progress has been made in this post.  “Reflection” has been clarified as a process between persons and a process between living creatures and their environment. In each case, reflection is a back and forth, a circular causal influence that is mediated by a code.  DNA and the genetic code store the results of Natural Selection and ‘starts the next round’ of interactions through mutations in the code and the continued interaction of the new environmental mix.  Language does much the same for persons and their actions in society, though this is a much less familiar domain for us to be using these kinds of terms.

Salvador Dali,  The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937). He wrote of it:  “When the clear and divine body of Narcissus leans down to the obscure mirror of the lake…The body of Narcissus flows out and loses itself in the abyss of his reflection”.


In the next post, Freedom through Virtuous Circles, the self-enclosed character of the reflective process will be given credit for the distinctive character of biological creatures and, also, for persons.  It is the basis for what there is of ‘human freedom’ and for the distinctions in description and ‘law’ in biology, physics, chemistry and morality.  That post will have a heavy burden to carry!

In a modern human society, Persons form their identity in relation to each other: They Reflect.  “I Did a Terrible Thing.  I Need an         Apology.”  New York Times Sunday Review illustration by Eiko Ojala.

*But is Human Society this tightly organized?  Does each part reflect the whole?This question may have occurred to the reader.  Further research will be necessary.  Lewis Thomas, in his famous Lives of a Cell, contended that the earth was a “loosely organized, spherical organism.”  But not all creatures that live closely together form a single unit, for example, the clown fish and the sea anemone.  With Humans, we have the additional philosophical/psychological connection of mind, as outlined above.


Persons Reflect: detail of Logo Drawing by Marty

3 thoughts on “Freedom: Persons Reflect

  1. Greg, with the exception that you equate the influence of environment on the organism equally with the organism on the environment, in which only humans can claim such an impact, I found this quite logically written and inciteful. Thanks. Mark


    1. Thanks! and ya, that is the trick, to have it loop back so that organisms are such a large part of the environment that with time they become as significant as the inorganic environment. The other part of this point is the Umwelt idea, that To An Organism the environ is very much theirs. It is only persons as scientists that have distinguished ‘the objective environ’ from this more ‘subjective version’: my home, my food, my mate, my competition….


    2. Dear Mark, just came across a passage in Dennett pertinent to your comment from a while back about feedback loops in biology. And also on the Whole Being More Than The Sum of Its Parts.

      Scientists, like you, must jump in the stream of time and evolutionary occurrences mid-stream: “This is The Environment,” you say, “it is set and objective at this point.” Then, “ What will happen to this animal or this river in that environ?” You do this, regard environ as set, as part of your Control, to discover causal influences. The Static Environment is part of your experimental design.

      But, if you jump in the stream of time at a later point, you will find that whatever happened to that animal or river will have then “circled back” — “Feedback Loop” — on the environment and possibly have changed it, or contributed to its change.

      After all, at one point oxygen was rather scarce and even poisonous here on Earth. Early life and then land plants sure changed that.

      But we should not just think of environment as just Inorganic Environment, but also including plants and other animals. I’m trying to think about Serengeti Plains and the elimination of some virus affecting wildebeest that then shifted whole distribution of large animals there (I should look this up to refresh my memory).

      So, my point is that a loop exists between The Environment as a ‘larger, whole thing’ and any particular species or group of species, in it. I have called this kind of larger thing, “a transcendent object” out of deference to traditional philosophic Idealism, But also because it is the kind of object that you can’t see as easily as the species that make it up. As, in “can’t see the forest for the trees” idea — its too big; you might take days to finally walk around it, and what most sticks out To Us are its individual parts, not the forest as itself an individual thing.


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