(As Rome burns, here I am ‘fiddling’ with my metaphysics! If you want a more immediately relevant post, see the “George Floyd” post (below this one in the Various Topics Cat.): it’s pretty good. But for getting BASIC, this post does the job without too much frustration or impatience incurred, I do believe. The idea of “Design”, if understood properly, brings two very different parts of our life into a coordination. That we are all part of one Causally Connected Universe, and we are Free and Creative Persons: yes, those parts. Not a bad effort for about 20 short paragraphs; if I say so myself! It’s like physical therapy, ordered in The Meaning of Life series. Please leave your thoughts.)
Then I Read It Later and Thought…
I recently wrote this — “A Design Designates It’s Environment”— and then I read it later and thought “what a weird thing to say.” Sounds like bu\\sh!#. Is it “philoso-babble”, as biologist Jerry Coyne would call it (see WEIT 5/28/20)?
In fact, I then realized that what I said was “A Design Designs Its Environment”; “design-ates”. A design design-ates. A design makes more designs, is surrounded by them? Is that what I Mean: behind, around, in the past, maybe even ahead in the future of A Designed Thing are more and related Designs, Variations? (The answer is, “Yes!”, I guess.)
How is this possible? “A design designs its environment”: Surely this is backward: An Environment causes or creates a Designed thing. For example, a living thing is a design and it has no super power to create a world, create an environment, even if we call it “its world”. Why would you want to distinguish between “the world” and “its world”? Don’t we all just exist in “The World”? “A bumble bee has its world,” we might want to say. My wife has “her world”, I could say and this would be figurative only to a limited degree. She really does have “the things she focuses on”, and god help me if I get in her way! She is a force of nature.
Our Representations and Our Knowing
But we do start to make this distinction—“the world” and “how the world looks to us”, or “is for us”, or “our world”— because we have an intuition about REPRESENTATION. We feel that sometimes we “Don’t exactly ‘Put Down’ — “depict”—What IS Really There.” What we ‘put down’ — in words, in a drawing, as a map, in a sensation, in a theory, as the Idea of ‘It’ (that we have ‘in our mind’, in our ‘Mind’s Eye’)— what we ‘put down’ is often Not quite right, or, well, at least different. We may say, “Ok, it will do…It’s a fairly good representation Of It.” Curious, how this issue is embedded in the very language we use!
Sometimes we don’t even try to “put ‘it’ down just as ‘it’ is”! Sometimes we want to “embellish” upon ‘it’ because we want ‘to make a point about it’. All things have a Variety of Aspects, and sometimes we wish to focus on one, more so, than others. This must mean it is not a “true” representation of reality, for surely what a thing is, is all the aspects it is, and this all at once. (How ’bout dat for some metaphysics!)
Limited, that is us!
Maybe we just have Our Limitations when it comes to ‘Being in The World’, so we have to Represent different aspects of a thing at diff times and in diff ways. Limited, that is us! Maybe that is Why Representation Is So Important To Us! The more we represent a thing the closer we get to “grasping it”. So, could it be that “The World” is more than what it ‘Actually Is’ at any one moment, or from any One Point Of View?
Like if you look at something from different directions, it looks different. What is The Right Direction from which to look, to really see it as it is? Well, we all know the answer to that, “you have to look at it from all directions at once.” Ya, that is what ‘God’ is capable of, I guess. And what about those new fancy-designed graphics programs; can’t a shape be displayed in all its different dimensions at once? We are getting almost as good as god!
So here we turn the corner. “A Design Designates Its Environment” is about Our Freedom and Our Ability to Initiate, to Create. In this whacker-jawed statement, Representation becomes a Marvelous Reality (a philosophical contention) that counters the equally marvelous reality that We Get Pushed Around a lot in life in this world. “We get Caused.” We are totally a part of a single net of physical events.
But, from a different perspective, not really and not totally —we intuit; and this we feel very strongly: It is NOT all just ‘causal forces’ pounding on us at every angle. As real as all the causes are, we also Interpret Them, Represent Them and Argue About “What is True?” When we do that, when we try to figure out “What is ‘There’ (and point)?”; we are involved in a different ‘ball game’ than “Causation”. Explaining our Sensations, our Ideas, our Reasons for Believing (all these Qualities) in terms of causes is like explaining ‘Apples with Oranges.’
“Design” is an Idea that ‘Splits the Bill’
Designed things both “get caused” and originate “new outcomes”. “Design” is, thus, a philosophical term, and a Great Way To Understand ‘The World’, because it attempts to put together two very prominent parts of our life: that we both get caused and create all at once.
So, I can saw, Designs Represent their environment and their environment Represents them: They are this kind of loop. Designs are a tool. They have proven themselves to be useful and we have no tools that have no use. If they do not Work, Nature (and us as one of its parts) do not Select them: they become extinct. And so, designed things begin to ‘pile up’ on top of each other and exist in an environment of kindred designs; like our Fractal Art and The Tree of Life (as pictured earlier). To them, they are surrounded with Information — as they indeed are all a part of one Formation–— with which to respond. This is how they work. Furthermore, it’s not just humans or persons that are designed and also design things; Great Designs are all over the Natural World and Mother Nature is the best Designer of all. Design, and representation, is bigger than just a human behavior and human subjectivity.
If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.
— George Edgin Pugh, The Biological Origin of Human Values, cited by Dennett.
Well, maybe you see the direction this is going. One of the problems is that once we get The Idea of a Representation, we start to think about where do Our Representations Stop or Start, and where is The Thing as it really is, Un-Represented? The Naked Truth! “The Thing-In-Itself”, as one of the great philoso-babblers of all time put it, Immanuel Kant.
The Golden Caramel Nugget
Scientists, being as ‘hard-nosed’ as they are, ‘know’ that science tells us what is really there. They believe science has cracked through the many layers of ‘sugar-coating’ that is our Ordinary Representations, and made Empirical and Experimental Contact with the golden caramel nugget that is Reality in itself and for really real. It is reality as it exists Without Us viewing it! If “we” are anywhere in this so-called scientific process “of knowing”, we have withdrawn ourselves to a lofty perch beyond the thing studied, beyond The Universe, and ‘see’ it now Rightly. Some philoso-babblers call this perch “The God’s-Eye point of view”, and most of them mean this as a slam.
No doubt, Science have developed very powerful tools of analysis. But the very actions of Persons as Scientist involves reasoning, perception, designing, evidence, argumentation, and none of these involve any discussion of which neurons are firing in their brain or the effects of space-time on their scientific decisions. Not all respected scientist accept the puritanical insistence of Science As Sole or Primary Access to the real. Physicist Sean Carroll in his “The Big Picture” tries to soften the blow with his “Poetic Naturalism”: the world is real in many ways, but not all ways.
Do Empiricism and Experimental Confirmation get to the purity of ‘the thing’? Sure, kind of; but who doesn’t start with the facts as they take them to be, and then work with them, manipulate their arrangement (Design) and then test how this works, if it works? Any Artist does this. Any Social Reformer does this. Any wood-working craftsperson does this. Any Parent does this. Does The New Product satisfy us? Does it meet our need, live up to our standards? Does it seem better to us? Does it work? Empiricism and testing is no monopoly of science.
Granted, good science has a strong tradition of analyzing an occurrence into its pieces as spread out over space and time, asking very specific questions, and looking for very clear indicators of outcome, but still! Other forms of Representation can be variously clear and precise too. Good Science is a great way to represent the world, but a bad Philosophy of Science is not. It is a logical fact deeply embedded in our concepts and our way of life that there is no way to totally eliminate “the subject” from “the object”! They are Designed to be together essentially; they are An Information!
Once you have torn “The World” into pieces, it’s hard to get it back together.
Persons don’t have One Right Way to “get in touch” with reality, a way that leaves all our other Representations as “secondary”, ‘icing on the cake’ or just plain ‘bu//sh!#’. Whether That Right Way be science, or some specific religion, or just plain “religion”, or even “Philosophy” — as some Specific Method— there is no One Right Way that ‘breaches the veil’ and gets Totally Beyond Ourselves. “Objects” do not exist in this way. All “objects’ exist for their appropriate “subjects”, their audience. It’s a bad philosophy of science that thinks that Science has pulled this off, any more than Religious Fundamentalism.
Artists, Scientists, Nurses, Teachers, Journalists, Politicians, Craftspersons all have their discipline’s history, their training, their standards and their goals of practice. They are Designed to do a job —use their tools— and create their product as Representations of “the way the world is.” Representing is very important to us, in this way. This is ‘the other side’ compared to causation. It is Our Agency, Our Responsibility, Our Ability to Know, and it is based in ‘Our World as it is Represented to Us.’
(Jimi Hendrix and Band, geese, mathematician, M.L. King : Creating The World as Musical, Aeronautical, Mathematical and Just.)
Participating in the Universe
So, I wrote “A design designates its environment” because this is a convenient place to start to tell this story about Participating With the Universe and The World in creating increasingly interesting things. Living creatures are Living Designs; they have their way of Representing the world and ‘seeing’ how this works out (Will it be Selected?). We see quite clearly in The Tree of Living Designs not only Various Abilities but Enhanced Abilities. This is the point where we can fairly and more easily Understand Our Representational Abilities to Originate as Part of Nature. We are designed, and we Represent the World. We Design Things that work, and we know we establish their “design parameters” that are Far Short of the entire universe as understood totally or by physics. Mother Nature does that with her designs,too.
So to avoid this quagmire of One Right Way and its attempted rupture of “subject” from “object”, This Blog has chosen to consider all Our Representations as equal, as representations; but with the proviso that None of Them Be Thought of as Getting Beyond Themselves to “Something” Beyond All Representation. For this philosophical position, TRUTH is the coordination and compatibility of our different traditional Forms of Representing. Redefinition and refinement is a vital part of this, as history clearly shows. Our goal it to make our Culture (our representations) work together better, be more coherent, and not so full of tension, contradiction, condescension and dismissal.
This is a Participation View of Reality and of Our World, not a Separation View where Reality exists without us, where “to Know” is to have The One Right Method that strips the thing known of any essential connection to us and our society’s beliefs. These kinds of Reductionism are “The One True God”, “The Universe in Itself“, and even “Tradition” as what must be true because it has always been so.
The Theory of Evolution is a very convenient segue between science and philosophy. It understands the world of designs and their inter-relatedness, and then establishes their Functional Needs and Abilities. This philosophy of Participation is a form of Structuralism and Holism. It Fulfills our lives and our understanding of Ourselves and Nature by Making One Coherent Thing Of It in a way most satisfying and appropriate to our times.
Citing Some Sources
This section is an addendum to the above. I thought it wise, at some point, to cite some sources. If you made it this far, maybe a question you have is “Where Does He Get All This Crap?” Does it just come flying out of my head, full blown and in armor, as was Athena born from the head of Zeus?
No, there are actually other people, and far more reputable than I, who believe and argue for positions similar to mine. Here are a few; the ones that have influenced me.
Of course, Dan Dennett, philosopher and chair of Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies. Most notably, his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) and “Dangerous” because it is so revolutionary, also From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). Dennett is not an easy read, though his Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (2013) is designed for popular consumption, though not one of my favorites. His classic early work, with Douglas Hofstadter, The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1985) is great fun and a very accessible collection of amazing ideas.
But Dennett is not out there alone. He is part of a long tradition (starting around 1900) in American philosophy called Pragmatism. It attempts to establish “middle ground” between Idealism (holism) and Empiricism (the pieces are most real). William James and John Dewey are two of its most prominent members. Dewey’s Experience and Nature (1925) and The Quest for Certainty (1929) are favorites.
In this tradition is a contemporary American philosopher, Richard Rorty. His “Introduction” to Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) may be the best short and accessible intro to these arguments that I know of. His Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) was foundational for me.
In the sciences, Richard Dawkins in evolutionary biology has championed the idea, to my way of thinking, that the world of life is like a gigantic set of nested bowls or Russian dolls; whatever you study opens up to larger and smaller subsets of coordinated holistic communities of parts. His Selfish Gene (1976) is a classic and very readable. The Blind Watchmaker (1986) is a must read. I have read most of what he has written, always fascinating and well written. Also the famous sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson, his The Diversity of Life (1992), most convincingly demonstrates the designs of life thoroughly surrounded by other and related living designs. In psychology (and philosophy), Nicholas Humphrey’s A History of the Mind: Evolution and Birth of Consciousness (1992) is great and one I need to read again. In the hard sciences, my bible is physicist Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Well written and highly informative, but also philosophical with his “Poetic Naturalism” argument—there are many ways we need to see the world is real, but not every way; we can eliminate a lot as highly unreasonable.
One last classic, to me, venerable Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1925). Logician, mathematician, philosopher and marvelously erudite, his early chapters in this book frame the dilemma between science and culture in general as no other.
Thank you so much, for your time and hopefully your support. GregWW