(In the previous post, my brother the biologist objected that the environment is an objective structure to which the organism must adapt or pay the consequences. In this post, number nine in the series on “Freedom and Mother Nature”, I will suggest a revision in this orthodoxy based on The Nature of Information. Each Virtuous Circle is like a system of organs that function in relation to each other AND DO SO by referring to their overall purpose, the unity of the organism (a clam, for example), AND each organ refers to the chemical processes and engineering structures that embody its particular purpose (the mechanics of digestion in that clam, for example) — see post six, Virtuous Circles I. In this post I will try to clarify this complex situation by contending that every organism has, actually, two environments, and it is in the least ‘objective’ of these that its information lies. This is the organism’s information environment where it exists as a phenotype and where natural selection operates and learning operates, if possible for that organism. Acting under the influence of Information will turn out to be the key to human freedom!)
The Two Environments
Environments are not static. This revision in biological orthodoxy starts with the recognition by us, scientifically astute persons, that there are actually two environments! Other organisms ‘have’, ‘live in’ (are aware of ) simply one environment and that is the one that is full of information for them. That environs is “home” and full of “competition”, “food”, “enemy”, “mate”, “sleep”, “nurture”, “rain” and an array of other such signals, or lack of, depending on the organism. This is the umwelt from post 5, its “reflective” environment and it is very species’ specific. Imagine the world for a clam — it is not rich in information, and the clam’s structural complexities are correspondingly
simple — by comparison to the world for the family dog. The dog’s ‘world’ is immensely richer in both number and sophistication of objects, contrasts, wants, needs, routines and abilities, and, therefore, its ‘internal’ complexities that utilize this information must be equally rich.
It is in this “reflective” environment that the Virtuous Circles lie. It is here that organisms of various complexity and intelligence live with their environments filled with their signals; the information necessary to make their internal structural complexities ‘gears’ that actually take hold of ‘other gears’ in their environs. This good fit between an organism and its environment is called its umwelt, but it should not be taken as a perfect fit. There are “‘bugs'” in every organism’s structure, and ‘gray areas’ and “‘noise'” in the environs that interfere or make signals ambiguous. Even for the family dog, much — from our point of view — is beyond or below their concern, irrelevant to them. Do they even perceive it?
By contrast to this umwelt,the second kind of environment is far more ‘objective’ and completely universal — it is everywhere and applies to all. It is only we, scientifically sophisticated persons, that acknowledge it, and it can be taken to consist of very few qualities and objects, and that depends on how ‘objective’ one wants to be. Biologists, like my brother, want to hold it to traits as objective as temperature, precipitation, altitude, and basic topography. Chemists like to think of it in terms of the 93 or so basic elements that exist naturally on our planet. Physicists have an even more austere universe.
In fact, for this more ‘objective’ universe, planet or environment, it can be said that nothing much changes. My brother is right; if one wants to be the most severe kind of “Reductionist”*, you will argue that all that changes are positions for
minute objects barren of all but a few very basic and simple qualities. Things just get shuffled around and maybe ‘clumpier’ or less ‘clumpy’! In philosophical lingo, Dennett has called this “Greedy Reductionism”, if this is all that you believe ‘really’ exists. It is legitimate in one way; it’s what he calls “taking the physical stance” toward the world. But other approaches also have their validity as a point of view and are more mindful of some
of the information available in the world. For example, if some one yells, “Run, fire!”, a physical scientist — as scientist — analyzes this as vibrations in the air or vibrating vocal cords and eardrums, or electrical activity in part of the brain. But that scientist, as person, will (also?) get the hell out!
*”Reduction”: the idea that everyday, macro objects are, or are also, the micro objects of physiology, chemistry, physics. Of course, we all know this is true in very important ways, but the devil’s in the details.
Mixing the Two Environments: “Run, fire!”
Now let me jump ahead here, and try to anticipate a common misunderstanding. You
should keep the world as analyzed by the scientist, separate from the world of the scientist as a person. Vibrating vocal cords and waves in the air should NOT be pictured as impinging upon A Person — a fully socialized, responsible, lab coat-wearing, language-using human scientist — causing him/her to run. That is a category mistake! You are illicitly mixing the two environments: our world as analyzed scientifically and our world for persons — our world from the point of view of the Virtuous Circle of person and society.
If you want to think of this fire scenario in terms of the scientifically analyzed world then keep it going all the way through! Waves in the air don’t hit upon A Person, they vibrate a membrane and then are turned into electrical neural signals by very delicate bones riding on this membrane and then, soon, there is a bunch of electrical brain activity and, eventually and very soon, a lot of muscle contractions in the legs. No ‘person’— as a unique kind of social, emotional and political object — involved. No Meaning or Decision or Fear involved. No Linguistic Information at all, or humanly understood “dangerous” situation. Be consistent, it’s a science world (“level”) all the way through, from ‘the exclamation’ to ‘its receiver’! It’s like a line of dominoes tumbling and, maybe, in some areas they are more tightly spaced, and in others less so, but keep it all one kind of thing. On the other hand, from the perspective of a Person, they were “incited” to run by the meaning of the words and their socialization as a language-user and member of that society of persons. Meanings do not cause us to do anything; they are the information upon which we make decisions!
A More Useful Picture of The Relationship between the Environments
If we are going to be “more mindful of information in our environment”, we are back at the necessary and circular relations of the terms embodied in the various Virtuous Circles. So, let us focus on the Reference to a goal or purpose — ‘above’ each Circle — and Reference to various mechanisms and processes — ‘below’ it — that ‘carry it out’, instantiate it. In that sense, organisms and their environs expand not only ‘horizontally’ (as self-referring parts in a Structure: heart, lung, brain…,for example), but ‘vertically’ also. They are a connected package in this sense too. Here at naturereligionconnection, we said, they “Reflect”. They refer to further ‘environs’ of objects, ‘above and below’, BUT are NOT caused by those: They are about them. That is how you remain consistent, by keeping these “levels” or “ways of considering things” separate.
But what does this relation of reference come to, and what is this “above and below” talk? Or, what does this relation of the two environments come to? I fear
that some are thinking that the umwelt, the more species’ specific environment, is illusory. Well, it is true that from the strictly physical point of view (of physics and chemistry) the umvelt does not exist. Dennett contends that Persons do not exist in the world as described by physics, but nor do ‘trees’, ‘electric garage door openers’ and all these other ‘objects’. ‘Persons’, and other macro objects, ‘exist’ as a point of reference for the scientist to distinguish which set of micro interactions to focus on as the analysis of that object. These objects exist “practically”, we can say, and not “theoretically” for the scientist. They are operating procedures for persons but not ‘totally’ there from other points of view.
Persons are as Real as Money
I, also, fear that some will think that I am beginning to show my true colors. All this talk of ‘above’ and ‘below’, of limitations to causal relations, of transcendent purposes and objects and goals is tipping my hand as a SuperNatualist. If “persons” don’t exist at the molecular level of description, then how could they be real at all? Surely, I must be simply asserting some kind of soul, and other such figments.
I am not. The essential point of this blog — naturereligionconnection.org — is to convince you that organizational structures exist on this planet that allow increasing layers of complex interactions to occur between unique objects defined and functioning at each particular level and ‘only’ referring to the different objects at the surrounding layers. This is how biological objects ‘really exist’ in relation to the designs and functions they are about. This is how human artifacts and human freely chosen actions ‘really exist’ but are not totally described by neural interactions, or other causal networks. Their design is real and it works (functions and has purpose) for a world that is, also, chemical, atomic, electromagnetic, etc.
In that sense, Persons are as real as money, for example, says Dennett. Money is only paper or figures in a ledger, but in another important sense it really moves, motivates, organizes, determines the lives of people living in a particular kind of society. It’s a social and interpersonal object. “Person” ,”money”, and also “the game of baseball” is real, “as real as anything”, contends the physicist, Sean Carroll*; it’s a way we structure ourselves in a certain situations. Free Will and Responsibility are parts of the way we Structure persons, too. Each organize us into larger and somewhat more autonomous unit, as Persons in a Society of Persons.
*”The air in a room … we can describe it by listing the properties of each and every molecule, or we can speak in coarse-grained terms about things like temperature and pressure... It would be silly to say that temperature isn’t real because the concept doesn’t appear in some fine-grained vocabulary.” For an excellent short and clear presentation of these issues, see Carroll’s Free Will Is as Real as Baseball.
So, Persons are real, and the world of hard science does not completely describe their character and function. They are real at a different level of organization, the level of person and society. The following posts will describe how Mother Nature has asserted herself and begun ‘to fill the gap’ between the two environments here on the planet Earth with increasing levels of complexity. These levels are necessary for Persons and create a form of Free Will that is vital to our thinking. Free Will and deterministic causes will be found to have some compatibility.