Freedom 5: Reasons in Persons

(The Cartoon Special!  In this post, reasons in nature can become reasons in persons.  In fact, we might say the whole idea of a “person” gets invented at about this point in nature’s evolution.  It’s a good post, as the narrative of our enhanced abilities continues and nears its end, in this series, “Freedom and the Environment”.  Our freedom lies in our ability to do more.  Caaaave Maaannn Cartooooons!  Ya gotta love’m. )


(Reasons in Nature are then taken a step or two further by Persons.  Natural Selection designed the Flying Javanese Cucumber and Northrop Grumman designed the B-2 Spirit bomber.  Both are “flying wings” that use their entire body to provide lift.  The seeds of the Java Cucumber are grown in gourds — seed pods — the size of a football.  When released they can glide hundreds of meters in the rain forest.  Photos and info from BU Bio-Aerial engineering course.)

Reasons in Humans

Humans have taken the Reasons in Nature and gone a step or two or three further.  Of course, we started in much the same place as the plants and fishes, and still do, as children.  Much of what children do well, is still “competence without comprehension”, says Dan Dennett.  A child may use many words in simple situations — saying “doggie”, then  pointing and go to pet it — but still not ‘get’ the bigger and more subtle distinctions and elaborations necessary for broad and  accurate use of that term.  They may “take” a cat for a dog, and that is to “mistake”.  It’s our order of language pointing out and being misapplied, but heart-warmingly so.

Dennett calls these competencies “know-how”.  They are “a way”, a way of doing or behaving.  They are “an informational structure”— some “relatively simple” such as a single word, others very complex such as a language — and in this sense they are similar to “a software app”, and what biologist Richard Dawkins has called “a meme”.  They are organized around a Reason in Nature, and they “cut nature at the joint”*, or at least cut into the more stripped-down and objective side of nature, in the way we do, to ‘see’ ourselves emerging from it.  It’s the way we ‘see’ and understand “lion”, for example, as existing as part of a world composed only of subatomic particles and laws of physics.  It’s like a complicated game of connecting the dots.




(Leo the lion, or better Leona the lion, Emerging from the background.  It’s the particular way we humans—with the help of Mother Nature and Natural Selection — have come to cut up the more objective background of the world into more Person-like objects.  Of course, creatures from some other world will have somewhat their own way of doing it.  This astrological map is only an early attempt at connecting the dots of life by humans, an effort that continues today with more reasonable attempts.)

“Being of One Mind”

Memes start simple, as something Persons can copy and transmit relatively easily from one person to another, and then grow in complexity.  What this eventually comes to is that when a group of persons share the same memes, we can say these memes inhabit their brains and these people are now of one Mind.  These people now operate on many of the same presuppositions and in many of the same ways.  They function together and exhibit a design.   This is an explanation of Mind and Consciousness not as some new and mysterious kind of thing, but as a sociological and social psychological emergent property of groups of humans: “A Design for Enhanced Human Togetherness!”  

An interesting example of A Mind: a football team Functioning together according to a Design.  “There is no “I” in TEAM” but a little improvisation sometimes helps.

This “Know-How” is very different from scientific knowledge, which would be better to call “knowing that” in this case.  We know how to speak our language, but that is not scientific knowledge of language, not knowledge “that” certain parts of the brain are active or that certain neural patterns exist or certain neural signals are sent.  That is more Theoretical Reasoning; this is more Practical Reasoning or the knowledge of how to be a person and function with other persons.  Picasso certainly knew how to paint but was not in the least interested (I assume) in knowing that painting is associated with various neural processes and even must have some obscure relation to the laws of physics.

“Know-How” and Practical Reasoning are the knowledge of how to be a Person and function in coordination with other persons in their various traditions of acting (memes).

(The Providential Environments: settings in which we pass on the traditions — or Know-How — of Personhood.  Korean folk dance, elementary school, family fishing, music concert, Philippine folk dance, mother and daughter cooking.  All require Knowing-How, personal interaction and instruction, not Scientific Knowledge of Causes! )

Humans have honed providential environments (my phrase) to aide in the transmission, creation, acquisition and development of memes or know-how.  These environments are “providential” because being in sync with them is constructive of us as complex things—persons.

A school or a university –a place for education and creativity– is one of these “enhanced” environments.  A family should be an environment that initiates the transmission of these memes of personhood: language, appropriate role playing, responsibility, common goals and  coordinated behaviors.  The arts, the crafts, sport — cooking — are all “know-how” and not primarily “knowing that”.  “Knowing how” involves understanding and acting by the rules and traditions of a procedure.  “Knowing that” is more objective; it can attempt to separate the doer from the object that is being worked on, and in that way can become what we call scientific knowledge.  So, “Science” is itself a human “know-how” that seeks “knowledge that.”   In that way, scientists can get philosophically confused about what comes first!

“Noticing That We Are Noticing”: Reasons in Persons

Language is possibly the primary form of meme.  “Doggie”, “cat’, “Ma Ma” and quite a few other words,  when a child points and says these, the child eventually begins to ‘notice’ that ‘all things have a name’, and language acquisition really picks up. They are now ‘getting the point of language’, as a Directed Order.  Now, is that a fact, or is that a rule, that “all things have a name”?  That is kind of a silly question, akin to asking about the chicken and the egg. Silly because it’s both.  It is a higher level fact and a rule that only leads to more facts, more questions and more designations.  It is one of the rules and facts of language-doing, that know-how.  We have now “gone meta“.  It is akin to asking, “What is the way to fly?”

Hang Gliding, another way to fly!  Flight: a “free-floating rationale”, “a way of doing”, “a meme”, “a know-how” whose logic has been thoroughly explored and exploited.

Dennett has a fascinating section on what it must have been like for early humans just acquiring language.  Early on, they noticed “words” or proto-words, “song” and proto-song, “gesture” and proto-gestures, scrawled ‘drawings’ or even proto-maps, but they did not have the word “word”, the word “song”…the word “map”.   They used and responded to these, but they did not notice words, gestures, songs…as “things” themselves.  Communication, here, like bird flight, was something done but not realized it was done.  Language use, here, was a Reason in Nature and it was a Reason that was not Represented in any Mind.  It was a “free-floating rationale” says Dennett.  What survived among these early words, gestures, songs, pictures, maps and the groups that were using them, were Naturally Selected.  The ones that worked continued and even spread, and that is true for even the groups using them.

Dennett speculates that some of these early memes “infecting the brains” of these early humans may have been destructive, like very attractive bad habits.  A group captivated by the idea of ‘dance’, danced in a frenzy and to the detriment of their need to hunt and gather, possibly.  Maybe such communication — through this ‘gesture’, ‘dance’, proto-language — started and died out in many different human groups until some group got the mix right, enough beneficial memes to outweigh the non-adaptive ones.  It’s a cool story, this story of the dawn of storytelling, itself.

(CAVEMAN JOKES!  Ya gotta love ’em.  How ironic, to think of these Proto-Persons as being sophisticated and a lot like us.  Of course, they weren’t, but they got the ball of human culture rolling!)

Rules of Communication

A huge step is this next one.  Like in a child, at some point in this growing sophistication of communication, the early kinda-persons not only noticed these devices, but “noticed that they noticed them”, argues Dennett.  Now, some of their attention went not only to the immediacy of the communication (noticing ‘words’) but to the devices being used to do it (noticing that they noticed these new ‘things’), that know-how.  ‘Soon’, came not only words, but a word for “word”, a word for “gesture”, for “song”…and with that … what?

It was hugely important to have objectified this process, this know-how of communication and being together.  It was when these “unwitting communicators” (Dennett) probably ‘discovered’ or noticed and named that I was an “I”, you a “you”, and we a “we”.  Of course, these concepts of “I” “you” and “we” were already “implicit” in the initial communication situation, but without our “explicit” recognition of them.

Just like ‘the logic’ of flight was implicit in nature and eventually discovered by natural selection, so modern day philosophers have tackled this other problem: the structure or design of “communication” or “the communicative situation”.  Like any good design, it certainly has one.

(True and Honest Communication is the Basis of All Communication.  Deception, lies, misinformation are all parasitic upon Honest Communication.  If everyone lied and lied all the time, communication would fizzle out.  An Astounding Contention! But true! Ritualized in   the human practice of Oath-Giving.)

A large quantity of literature has grown up around the contentions of H.P. Grice and his Theory of Meaning, starting in the late 1950s to late 80s, explains Dennett.  The core of his ‘discovery’ is that Communication necessarily involves a Three-Way Sharing of Attention, Goal, and Act, a sharing of presupposition and intention.  One, the speaker must intend to invoke a certain response in her audience.  Two, the audience must recognize that intention in the speaker.  Three, the audience’s appropriate response to the speaker is at least partly prompted by their recognition of the speaker’s intention and their willingness to go along with it.  It’s like telling a joke; the teller and the audience must all get that it is a joke and want “to go along with it”.

This Three-Way Sharing closes the circle on itself!  And, as Dennett points out, it is a “virtuous circle” as opposed to an uninformative one.  Like every good design, it defines its parts and their functions in relation to each other and their goal.  In this way, they establish a bit of isolation from ‘outside’ influence and establish the Freedom to define themselves and an environment in their terms, to an important degree.  It is what the aqueduct bridge, mentioned in earlier posts, Does as an Agent.  It is what every plant and animal and forest Does; it Functions within its defined limits.  It is not only an Order, but a Directed Order within the emergent domain of Life!

Every Design is a “Virtuous Circle”, a feedback loop that has enclosed itself to a significant degree and, thus, operates on a Goal to be achieved.

These early persons ‘noticed’ the dynamics of this form of know-how, and began to work as, and be, not only individuals but “our kind of individual”.  Somewhere in this early history, somewhere as far back as the dawn of group hunting, or the domestication of fire, this process of human coordination became a necessity to these new humans; it was an adaptation that worked.  And natural selection began to select for it, and even select for adaptations that facilitated it, like lengthening infancy and the white’s of our eyes that aide gaze-monitoring as opposed to the dark eyes of other primates.  Communication was now a necessary “good trick” for successful human groups.

Talking to Your Self, as a Good Thing

This was now a more self-conscious communication than anything else in the animal kingdom.  With practice, it began to ‘thicken’, to become more complex.  The art of persuasion was eventually realized, and even the art of deceptionMorality, as a growing awareness of the fundamental agreement necessary to communicate, began to appear.  An awareness and refinement of Thought occurred.  Talking to others suggested and provided an opportunity to talk to oneself!  The fluidity of the “I–you–we” situation — sometimes I am an “I”, other times a “you”… — stimulated the coordination of our different parts of the brain. 

(Talking To Yourself: Good Thing or Bad?  Good!  It’s the reasonable reduction of Thought and Mind into a Social Psychological Form.)

Dennett, and some other theorist, speculate that the brain is not some permanent hierarchical organization among neurons that makes decisions, like in a standard computer, but varying competing structures of neurons, as in some more experimental forms of Artificial Intelligence.  At some point, these early humans asked a question and no one was there to answer it, but that asking helped prompt their own “concentration” and focus, and they then came to their own answer, possibly by an enhanced cooperation among parts of the brain, something like a conversation.

CONCENTRATION: The Arrow of Intentionality seeking its mark.

This refined way of Thinking is then a Conversation with yourself, a Self-Monitoring, and hence a Self-Consciousness.  It is interesting, and revealing, that we use the word “concentration” to describe this focus as we attempt to think. It is well suited for the reality of thought as Directed Order.  When we concentrate, we ‘look out’ from some place in our system of memes.   We ‘look out’ from some “practice” or “know-how” in our culture — some “doing” in the art of science or literature or carpentry — and we wait for In-Put!  We hope for the right idea to come ‘bubbling up, bubbling from deep down.’ We then ask ourselves, “Will that one work, or that one?”  We concentrate again, and a decision is made. 



“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”      ——Einstein



Being “In Touch” with the Levels ‘Below’

The settings for “concentration” are rather well defined in human culture.  Even something a innocent as standing in front of your closet and choosing your outfit for the day, qualifies —as suggested by the physicist Sean Carroll.  As you read this post, you have placed yourself in such an enhanced and providential environment.  These seem to be the places where, for us —persons — our level of complexity graciously glides into contact with the levels below.  It is the spot where Persons, as Thoughtful Social Creatures, willingly open the door to the rhythms and energies of the levels below.  Inspirations “bubble up”; Ideas appear like “a light bulb switched on”; Words “come to mind”.  It is how We are Free by Coordination with our Environment and not in struggle against it.  Freedom is the input of impulse ‘from below’ reflected upon and then decided upon, once again, in a process that seems to ‘bubble’ forth.  In this way, we have been able to do more, and have more.



In an important sense, the above is the conclusion of this series, but we have not faced the final and biggest hurdle, Freedom and the Ultimate Physical Background.  That will be the title of post 6 of this series, Freedom and the Environment.  Here, the science of physics will take a few shots at this high flying idea of Human Freedom.



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