“Dose 9”: Persons, I’ve got that; but where do Atoms come in?

Neptune’s Horses, by Walter Crane (1893)  Initially, people ‘saw’ persons and animation in all: a breaking wave as the onrush of a god and his horses.

(“Dose 9” of Ten, in The Meaning of Life, in ten easy doses, series.  How am I ever going to make it?  Well, let’s get right to it by making some important claims clear.)

“Persons” are The Most Real Thing.  Person’s are even more real than atoms, or Mt. Everest.  This is not because we, persons, existed before atoms or the mount — of course, they preceded us historically!— but logically we are prior to them.  The “know how” of being a person has precedence over “knowing that” a great variety of our beliefs are true. Persons are “knowers”, “representers” and “atoms” and “Mt. E”” are some of our representations; they are things we believe we know based on evidence, argumentation and agreement.  They are representations in our world, and our world seems to work pretty well in many, many ways as we set out to accomplish our desires.

Now, I know this makes atoms and Mt. E. sound rather squishy and made-up.  They are not!  They are in the world As Displayed from the point of view of our Design.   They are things that exist relative to us as physical things at our level of complexity, and  to our modern world view and ourselves in it.

These kinds of ‘natural’, physical things, ‘things’ we “take” as in the world independently of us, are a product of our reflective processes, too.  Even these kind of “Things” do not directly ‘push’ themselves on us..  It is, as if, we are in dialogue even with them (things: “them-Selves”) and that is why and how their “character” and “ours” have changed through history.  We keep adjusting and clarifying “our manifest image”, and granted it does now include far more “objectivity” and causal connection than at any other time.

Madame Curie in dialogue with nature. circa 1900

But Compatiblist Philosophies, like this one, argue for a limit to our powers to Objectify the world. Not all “Perspective”,or “Subjectivity”, can, or should, be removed from our ultimate view of things. “Our World” displays to us, not only other persons, but also many other “Levels of Complexity”, many other Levels of Ability and Point of View.

Seemingly paradoxical to some, even Mt. Everest is not a basic reality in the world of physics; it is an emergent phenomena for us, to our point of view!  Even an atom is a little, truncated ‘self’; a point of initiation and an emergent ability that is “useful” at its level of complexity and existent from our perspective.  (More on this in later Doses, but also see posts on physicist Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture.)

Reflection in Nature

We have seen that the rebounded images of person to person is the mechanism for being aware of and thinking of ourselves as “selves”, but now we must consider nature.  Persons are reflected in nature, too!  This is the secondary form of reflection.  Persons reflecting each other socially is a later development in time, but logically is primary to ‘seeing’ persons in nature.  Once having discovered functional inter-personal relations in our social band — through language, gesture, the hunt, dance, the care of fire, etc. — we began to imagine Functioning Objects (Designs) in the world around us.  We achieved a greater awareness of self, a “‘selfier’ self”, quips Dennett, by comparison.  So, especially in living things, persons ‘see’ themselves in a rudimentary or incipient form.

Micky: a mouse as a person in 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.

Taking the Person-ality Out of Some Objects

To us, this seems an obvious, even ridiculously obvious, step;  though it may not have been.  Consider the words of Edith Hamilton concerning the myths of the most ancient of Greeks:

“In all this thought about the past no distinction had as yet been made between places and persons.  Earth was the solid ground, yet vaguely a personality, too.  Heaven was the blue vault on high, but it acted in some ways as a human being would.  To the people who told these stories all the universe was alive with the same kind of life they knew in themselves.”*

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Bottecelli (1485)  Participating with Nature as The Single, Multi-Faceted Being it is: A Depiction.

To recognize this kind of agency is to “see the world from the inside”, as discussed in Doses 5 and 6.  But there are also reasons in our Design, to ‘see’ the world from the outside.”  English psychologist and philosopher, Nicholas Humphrey**, contends these two ways are embodied in our “fundamental distinction between sensation and perception.”  Sensation is “an affect-laden representation of ‘what is happening to me’.”   This is our fundamental experience that things are happening To Me and that ‘I’ contribute back a realization that ‘this one is “good” or “bad” or “unpleasant” or “calming” or even “color” or “cold“.  These are ‘the inside’ of events; how they are to us.

What is it like to be a lion?  Kinda like being one of those cats an old girlfriend of mine used to always have, only much bigger and not as safe.  It is not hard to imagine they have “their way” of seeing things.

On the other hand, Perception is “affect-neutral representations of ‘what is happening out there’.”  This is the world as barren of “me” and “you’ to whom things happen, and barren of our evaluation and classification of them.  Things are not “solid or liquid”, “friend or foe”, “plant or animal” from this external view point.  “Here we learned to  Measure and not Classify,” says Alfred N. Whitehead.*** And this, largely dawned on us, in the 17th century, “The Century of Genius” he calls it.  Our scientific orientation to the world exploded upon the historic scene.  The laws of motion were discovered, and explained much.  “We only consider material objects in a flux of configurations in time and space,” he summarizes and then concludes that this is “a mere abstraction” from  which “it is quite obvious that such objects can tell us only they are where they are.

*Edith Hamilton, Mythology, 1940   **N. Humphrey, A History of the Mind, 1995. Humphrey is a collaborator of Dan Dennerr.  ***A.N.Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, the classic 1925 Lowell Lectures.

“Such objects can tell us only they are where they are”, A.N.Whitehead

Movement and Position are not Everything

It took me a long time to realize this, but this is what I believe “it” comes too.  “Movement” and “Physical Position” can not tell our whole story!  Yet, science has convincingly discovered the movements of all things.  Amazingly, there is a sense in which we can say that all movements are caused and that physical science is capable of knowing these. This is Objectivity In Its Extreme. And still, we can understand that so much in our experience does not even come close to being effectively characterized in terms of this Mass, Velocity and Gravity.  Not characterized fully in terms of the Bonding of Electrons in one Atom to another.  Nor our experience even closely understood in its full functioning, by the Firing of a group of Neurons in some stable pattern in the brain.

Yet, these movements and spacial patterns are Vital.  They are a True Background to our lives and our multifarious experience in it, but not all of it.  Somehow, and this is where it does get Rather Religious and Mysterious, What We Experience is an interpretation of these spacial entities; what they Mean and Seem-Like To Us is a legitimate Representation of Them. 

And that, that interpretation, that representation, that “seeming to us”, is just as real as the atoms and waves we can “take” our interpreting to be about.  Persons represent things. Our modern Representations are significantly different from what the Ancient Greeks felt and thought. My atheistic representations of these configurations of physical entities (“of Life”) is different from what a Fundamentalist Christian or Muslim feels and thinks; and different from what many scientist’s think is ultimately real, too. Even the physicist, who “knows” all movement is physically caused and ideally predictable, Acts as a person and scientist “under the idea of freedom”, choosing and believing according to ‘good reasons and evidence’ and in accordance with our Design.

In the business of making representations of our world.

The point of this “Dose 9” in the Meaning of Life series: Nature, even when very narrowly construed as a configuration of particles or waves whose behavior is lawfully and predictably understood, still leaves Free our Representative Faculties. What atoms and all their configurations mean to us, Is Our Doing. Their Meaning is not forced on us. Meaning is our baby, to have, to raise and to nurture. Even something as obvious as Death, is also obviously open to incredible human interpretation, and so it goes for all.

Persons make meaning, and we make it together. If our world seems meaningless and chaotic, that is on us, not on Nature or Reality!

Logo drawing by Marty.

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