(This is the sixth post in the Series on Freedom. 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.)
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.
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.
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, and even consciousness 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 naturereligionconnection.org. “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.
*Phrase used by philosopher Wilfred Sellars
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 but its achievement is a greater awareness, a “‘selfier’ self”, quips Dennett. So, especially in living things, persons ‘see’ themselves in a rudimentary or
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.
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. They had ‘interests’; ‘she wanted’ them, through the system she established, to progress into the future! This primal process of agency and personality is described as follows.
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 “Natural Selection”.
The First Intentional System
Natural Selection ties the creature to environment, and vice versa, in a circular or reflective way. This circular connection is very important. It’s a bit of closure. All the elements that are in the circle are ‘characterized’ by the living creature “in its own terms”, in a sense. They are ‘food’, ‘mate’, ‘friend’, ‘foe’, insofar as animals (other than human socialized animals) have terms at all. In this 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 than the settings of physics and chemistry. They are feedback loops, full of information.
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” is the more “objective” environment; the second is its “umwelt”, the differences in the environs that make a difference to ii.
*This is a bold claim, and we at NatieRel should embrace it! It will need further defense, and Dennett provides that.
Reflecting through the Medium of a Code
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. Dawkins 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
phrasing: all that is being contended is that as much as persons make society (or culture), society (or culture) makes persons. It 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.
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!
*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.