Freedom: Haunted by the Idea

(This is the Introduction to a series of posts on Freedom.  The series is not about political freedom, for that would have less to do with Nature and Biology.  I mean “metaphysical” freedom!  How, in a universe of causes discovered by Newton and Einstein in physics, Mendeleev and Linus Pauling in chemistry, Darwin and Mendel in biology, can People, or any other animal, Freely Choose?  There is a way that it ‘kind of’ happens!   They are published for the sake of the clarification of basic philosophical and scientific positions.  Later posts will contain many of these ideas expressed in a different form.  First published 11/04/2018)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, “breaking bad”.

What could you do?  I mean, what might you choose to do?  Are you free enough to just up and tell your boss, “I quit”, no preliminaries, just “see ya!”  Or your husband or wife, “I’m done, I want a change; I’m moving out today!”  Or maybe you decide to become a monk or a mountain-top sage; you pack a bag, buy a ticket to Nepal and off you go.

Seems possible.  You just turn off your practical consideration of consequences and any moral concerns, and just choose to do it.  Of course, you’re not going to do any of these things, especially in the whimsical, abbreviated fashion portrayed above; but theoretically, abstractly, is it possible?  You choose, and then do!  You choose to make some drastic change.

I used to think the answer was “yes;” I used to think we were that ‘free’, and I was actually somewhat spooked by it.  “I could do that,” I ruminated, “fully responsible humans are capable of such radical choice.”  By “radical choice,” I mean a choice not caused by outside forces, not even the context of the rest of a person’s life and times–physically, emotionally and in terms of character.  Not caused, simply chosen

Four of the greatest Existentialist thinkers: Sartre (bottom right) coined phrase “radical choice,”  Dostoyevsky (top right) wrote Crime and Punishment, Nietzsche (bottom left) wrote one of the first explanations for morality,  Kierkegaard (top left) was one of the original founders and predominately concerned with religion.

The famous French Existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, coined this phrase, “radical choice”, and he suggested we should think of many of our choices in theses terms: They are totally up to us; each in reality is a true ‘pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.’  Each choice is your pure and unfettered act of making you who you are and you’re totally responsible!  Wow, no wonder I was freaked by it; it’s really severe!

What’s the basis for this radical ability?  Sartre thought it was ‘the self’, the ‘you’ in “you choose.” In reality, this “self” is disconnected from worldly causes, necessities and influences, he believed, even though it often seems highly connected.  Where you come from, your momentary mood, your upbringing and even peer pressure is not the true basis of any of your choices.  If you think they are, that’s “bad faith,” says Sartre; it’s a denial of “your existential condition.”  The real “self” is above these: It is not an object that is formed in your upbringing, or held by worldly needs, or gravity, or pushed by the wind.  It is not a part of nature, in fact it is characterized by Sartre in contrast to nature!  It is like an other-worldly ‘thing’, it transcends regular objects.  What it can do—choose to do, we often underestimate.*

Maybe the situation is similar to recovering addicts in twelve step programs, they call upon some “higher power” to stay sober.  And, this is freedom: it is not caused but must be made by a “Self” (or some ‘thing’) that transcends causes — a ‘thing’ kinda like God.

Freedom, for these existentialists, is like ‘reasonableness’ which also takes place ‘above the fray’ of causal forces and mundane worldly necessities.  The “self” that is reasonable and free is an unusual ‘object’; it must avoid many worldly distractions.

Often the commission of a “radical choice” is portrayed as a criminal act.  One of the great novels of all time is based on this theme.  Raskolnikov, the main character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, convinces himself that the murder and robbery of a despicable pawnbroker and loan shark would be permissible, and that he will do it.  He is not inclined by his nature or experience to do it, in fact he is a university student.  What he does believe is his freedom to commit the act, and in the logic of it— the reasoning of the Utilitarian Theory of right and wrong.  To kill the scoundrel will rid the world of an evil person whose fortune could then be used for the betterment of all, he calculates.  What is right, is what is good for the majority.

He is also bolstered by the idea, popular then and now, that great people rise above their personal and historical context and act in great and unconventional ways.  Raskolnikov thinks of himself in Napoleonic terms; today we tend to think of some of our great entrepreneurs in this way and shower them with massive wealth.

A more recent example of “radical choice” was the popular television series, Breaking

Image result for pictures of walter white breaking bad
Cancer was the opportunity for Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) to make a “radical choice”.

Bad.  Here, a high school chemistry teacher makes the startling decision to become a crack cocaine “cook” and eventually “kingpin.”  Implausible to the highest degree, the brilliance of the series’ writing and acting is the convincing portrayal of the mild-mannered man and his choices, including homicide.  He makes his decisions, no doubt, and they are radically out of character.

I no longer believe in “radical choice,” or in it in quite the same way.  It has made my life more tranquil.  “I am who I am”, I more often think,and I make decisions along those lines.  I am more embedded in myself than I was as a young man, more connected to an established life.  It’s a good thing.  I’m not the kind of person who becomes a monk much less commits a vile crime; in any realistic sense, I just couldn’t do it!

But, where does that leave the idea of choice and even freedom?  If we think of ourselves as more embedded in our environment and more tied to our past and the world around us, how do we think of the opportunity to do something significantly different, whether good or bad?

I  believe that the Existentialists were not totally wrong.  We can make significant changes. The Self, as it ‘rises above’, as it  gains ‘a vantage point to look back’ and consider itself and its actions, is not a metaphysical ‘thing’, but a biological and human social construction.  The “Self” has this ability because of the way we are raised to be Persons, and take responsibility and hold others to their roles too.  The Self does transcend, but not in the way the Existentialists thought.  More on this in the coming posts in this series!

In the next post, though, I will swing 180 degrees from Sartre’s “radical choice”, to the idea of humans as machines designed to act appropriately in their environment.  This new view brings humans into line with our universe of causes and effects.  We fit in, like clock-work!

3 Panel Canvas Art Clockwork Fine Watch Gears Colored Wall Art Panel Paint : cheap canvas prints wall paintings pictures
courtesy of ASH Wall Art

*Upon further consideration, I am not sure this is an accurate portrayal of Sartre’s position.  It is more of a strawman, an exaggerated portrayal made to make a point and be easily knocked down.




Dose 11: Meaning Originates in Design

The Horseshoe Crab, a well established Design, though granted, “Its World” is probably very limited by comparison to ours.

All meaning starts with “design”, and not just any design but a certain complexity of design. Living Things are the key to a well rounded philosophy of The Universe.

With the origin of Life came a design complex enough to realize a Point of View. For the first time, a form was internally complex enough To Seek To Reproduce itself and To Have Interests of Its Own, To Have “Goals”. This Design of inanimate materials suddenly, and, so far as we yet know, without explanation, had these new kind of abilities. It now “Referred” to ‘the world’ beyond it in its own terms; terms that were not all inclusive, but inclusive enough to serve Its Purposes. To Persist and To Survive, this living design and its perceptions had To Work. It had To Function, and many of them did and did so well.

(THE AMAZING DESIGN OF THE ALBATROSS, it Works very well! Capable of living up to 50 years, it has the widest wing span of any bird, up to 3 meters, or 11ft. It uses the principle of “Dynamic Soaring” and is capable of using wind currents to fly hundreds of kilometers without flapping its wings a single time! It can sleep in the air!)

The above paragraph should be no shock to us; we have very strong intuitions (at the least) of its accuracy. The Terms of Design are all the capitalized words and phrases: “to function”, “to persist”, “to have goals”, etc. Every designed thing is autonomous and the origin of the behaviors it is designed “to perform”. This is the reason, or the basis, for Persons rightly thinking of themselves as Free and Responsible. It is the reason we are confused to think that birds are caused to fly. The flight of a bird, just as much as the behavior of a scientist in her lab, is Informed by the design of that bird, and the acts of the scientist are informed by the standards of good experimental design and good scientific practice. They are not caused.

A great deal of time and effort has been taken on this site to argue for the importance of Causal Explain and its Limitations. Here is that limitation. Designed objects, as stated above, are not caused to behave according to their design, they are Informed in that behavior. A hawk dives to capture its “prey”. It received “signals”, “cues” to do so, which is a form of Communication or meaningful interaction between its parts. A “predator” has its “prey” as a part of it as much as any other of its vital organs. A hawk flies because (but not caused) its entire physical structure is formed to do so. The “air” in which it flies is, again, an externalized organ. In this sense, an animal does not eat atoms; it eats “food”. Designed things function in an environment that is significantly “theirs”. In this series, we have called this “seeing” the world “from the inside” (Doses 5,6). This is where Meaning lies. And this is not a scientific view; it is a well-rounded philosophy.

(The Belief that Causes Explain Our Life)

Now, we do take these kinds of integral functional relations and use them as the Data to be analyzed to find the causal mechanisms that service these purposes. This is to “see” the world from “the outside”(Dose 9). It is ‘to put the cart before the horse’ to then think that causal mechanisms are then ‘more real’ than the purposeful and functional relations they represent. They are simply more scientific, and not ethical or artistic or practical representations. They are one representation among many, but–admittedly– a very good one.

Also, we understand Design well, because we design many functioning things ourselves. These designs often possess marvelous capabilities to achieve things in the world in accordance with their design parameters. This is its Information. A design is a closed system. An aircraft is designed not by reference to the existence of neutrinos and quarks, much less the behavior of a quantum wave; it is designed in relation to the fluid-like qualities of “air” and our practical and engineering knowledge of combustion engines, materials, and even the common kite and a bird’s wing as they played a role in the entire evolution of aircraft design through the History of aviation. Atoms and quantum waves do exist, but their significance to an animal or an aircraft is highly abstract and relegated only to a distant background.

Meaning resides in all the layers of things we find relevant between ourselves as Persons and and The Universe as a quantum wave. For example, Plant Life is relevant to us and as such a meaningful comparison to our life as persons.

Acquilegia, the Columbine
German Breaded Iris
More Columbine with seed pods.

(The backyard sanctuary returning to form. It’s Spring! photos by GWW)

The phrase, “The World”, is an idealization. What we, Persons, always have is Our World in its many Forms. The Ideal of “The World” functions to sort out the Best, the most Useful ( usually for some specific purpose), the most Agreed Upon, and the most Coherent versions of our various “takes on Life”. That can become “The World” as we best understand it now. This is how we are Designed to function “To Know” and “To Believe” TRULY.

An Example of Design at the Level of Persons

Statesman, scientist, philosopher: 1561-1626

Sir Frances Bacon, wrote the first important scientific and philosophical works in English. Once imprisoned in the Tower of London, he is rumored to have authored “Shakespeare’s plays”. Known for his description and advocacy of an Empirical and Inductive Method for gaining “knowledge” of nature. He helped science establish its Information.

As much as we marvel at the laws and objects discovered by Scientists, more so we should recognize science as A Form of Meaning: an agreed upon approach with a set of standards and public review. It is an ethic, and yields one of our highly respected representations of our world.

We secure and advance the Meanings of Life by contributing to the furtherance of Our Most Cherished Forms of Action — kindness, art, science, honesty, family, craftsmanship, politics, ethics and even religion– but with the recognition that Reform is almost always needed in light of Their Values, New Times, and Our Necessary Agreement and Coordination with Others: these are Our Surest Light Forward.

German Bearded Iris: Nurturance is a very Meaningful Relationship to Our World.
Nature Religion at The Connection


——-Andrew, thank you for your appreciation!

——-Dear Mr. Bulls#!+, I don’t know how to take your “Like”. I hope you do like the piece but if not—–Please inform me more specifically from where the stink doth arise. I would love to discuss it, while you held your nose, of course.

Caveat Emptor

You May Need a Lawyer!

Surely a guy or gal proposing to explain “The Meaning of Life, in ten easy doses” should be given a little leeway. Or maybe not. Such a bald and audacious claim should probably be met with little tolerance. I must admit, I have not yet gone back to read these elixirs in their order and in their entirety. Yet here I am, asking for two more Doses.

This is my situation. In working on the Grand Finale, Dose 10, it became too grand. I had promised “short and easy”, not long. So in navigating this Scylla and Charybdis of number or length, I have chosen to head for number and ask your indulgence in this brief extension and your forgiveness for my breach of initial agreement.

After all, “The Meaning of Life, in twelve easy doses” sounds pretty much as outrageous as ten! And I feel it’s coming along rather well, all in all. May God be with me, if only I believed in one in any traditional sense. I think I can get this done.

Caught between the Scylla and the Charybdis (supposedly located between Sicily and the Italian mainland, Scylla is the six-headed monster, Charybdis is the whirlpool).

Dose 10: The Meaning of Life; The Information Relation

As in “arrest” — SHARED MEANING

The “meaning” in life lays in its information. “Meaning” is a strange kind of ‘thing’. It is better to say that meaning is a relationship of things, rather than to say “meaning” is a kind of thing itself. That is a big part of the confusion about “meaning”. Meaning takes up no space and has no mass of its own. We do not “have” meanings like we have kidneys. The firing of Neurons does accompany a meaningful experience, but they are not that experience itself. Yet, all this does not make “meaning” supernatural nor any other kind of superstition. This post –and the following two– seek (yes, “goals” do really exist) to give meaning and information a place in The Universe.

Meaning and Information start as a real kind of Relationship in The Tree of Life. More on this later.

“Meaning” is for living things, but especially for Persons. To us “meaning” is that strange but ever present ‘thing’ that is very individual and private, but also very social and public. It can be trivial or deeply profound; this we seem to agree. “I like broccoli, but you do not” is a good example of this vegetable having a meaning to us that is both trivial and individual. On the topic of broccoli, we do not much care how others find it. A “stop sign” is also a rather trivial example of meaning,

“Stop” sign in Spain, Portugal and Brazil

Russian Cyrillic S-T-O-P sign
Chinese STOP sign following the Western octagonal convention

but it is very public and not the least individual. You do not get a license to drive if you don’t agree that that sign means: “You, STOP!” There is nothing deep or controversial about it, and we insist that we all “get it”.

On the other hand, a religion and a career are often taken to be profoundly meaningful. They serve as a focal point around which an individual organizes their own life but also with significant implications for others. A doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, a priest, a married couple all take oaths or vows to preform their duties according to explicit standards on how they must conduct themselves in relation to others.

Peasant Dance (1568) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. “Meaning” is the arrangement of our life as an individual and a group. It is that Form that expresses itself through us. These “peasants” were very different from us.

The political institutions of a nation have proven themselves, now and in the past, to be highly meaningful. Generally, massive groups of people are coordinated and their lives formed (in-formed) through political, religious and occupational institutions. The life of a peasant is significant to recall in this sense.

Language is probably the best test case for “meaning” as a peculiar but vital kind of ‘thing’. It exemplifies the above claim: Meaning is an organization of things, a form of interaction of them, as much as it is about the things that are so arranged. Take gibberish; we all can distinguish gibberish from meaningful statements at the extreme. “Xriimsqyl” is pretty obvious gibberish; it breaks too many standard forms. But what

“shuttlecock” is a real word for a real thing.
“He took his vorpal sword in hand, long time the manxome foe he sought…” Jabborwocky (1871) by L. Carroll, illustration by John Tenniel.

about “shuttlecock” or even better, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” In this last sentence the poet and mathematician Lewis Carroll preserves all the conventions of language (its forms) and yet it says nothing real, but seems to.

Some will object and say, ‘But language is about training, it’s not about meaning; we are each trained to speak our language and then precede to do so.’ And that is true; we are all trained in the standard forms of language–its grammar, its conventions, its current trends, its jargon—And Then WE GO ON TO SAY THINGS THAT HAVE NEVER BEEN SAID BEFORE, and despite the novelty of these statements, they are often understood by others.

“Meaning” is the consistency of Form that bridges the gap between the old and the new, the traditional and the progressive or regressive. New things arise from the use of Information, and by those standards of meaning, this novelty is also evaluated as to its worthiness by others. Meaning is the mutual occurrence, the essential togetherness, of “the private” and “the public”, “the individual” and “the social” (see Dose 7). Novelty starts individually and privately and then has the opportunity to become available to the group, thus become a “standard form”. For socialized and reasonably responsible humans — Persons — meaning is the “sharing of notes”, so to speak, about what our existence is “like” and is “about”. Meaning is a matter of Reference and Representation; it “looks out on the world” and interprets it as “Our World”! In this way, Persons negotiate “our take” on ourselves and our world, and create shared representations and the meanings for our life.

THE NATURE RELIGION CONNECTION: Trying to stay informed. Drawing by Marty.

We Act According to Our Information: Two Examples

His father was a Physician and so became his sons. Circa 480-400 BCE, the Golden Age of Athens.

Hippocrates, “The Father of Medicine. Removed the treatment of illnesses from the hands of the priests, and directed it to a more beneficial Information. Established naturalized principles for the cause, treatment and description of illnesses. Professionalized medicine with the founding of its first “school” that adopted these principles as a code of conduct for Physicians.

As much as medicine has done, more so it is a way of doing: a way to create a more useful and satisfying meaning for disease, with principles of behavior for its practitioners and participants.. It is an ethic: Primum non nocere: “First do no harm.”

Rock’n Roll Music is an Information.
Some of the Discoverers of “The World” as Rock.
The Rolling Stones along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard (R.I.P) and Elvis. Jimi Hendrix and his band below).
Rock and Roll is an Ethic. It has its musical standards, and does it have its life-style standards, too ?


The Rock Life did not always last long or end well for many of its most noted practitioners.
“I Love that Rock’n Roll!”

Welcome Asia!

(The Flags of The Philippines, China and Japan. See below for the symbolism of each. Here at NatieRel, we believe that symbols are as valid a Representation of Our World as are Atoms.)

I am happy to report to my readers that the Nature Religion Connection has been getting some persistent interest lately from our Asian sisters and brothers. Welcome new readers! Please comment, if you are inclined at all; I would love to hear your thoughts, reactions or questions concerning particular posts.

These are difficult times all over. Times when we, as a Planet, need to pull together around our massive mutual interest and move forward together! Here at the, we believe that All Cultures are of Great Value and each is a rich source of Information about what it is to be a Human Person.

Asian oriented map of the world.


Philippine: The eight rays of the sun stand for its eight provinces. The three stars represent the country’s three main island groups. The triangle stands for liberty, equality and fraternity. The flag is flipped over so that the red bar is at top when the country is at War!

China: The red represents The Revolution. The five stars stand for the unity of the Chinese people with the leadership of the Communist Party. This flag was first hoisted over Tiananmen Square in 1949 to announce the formation of a new Chinese nation.

Japan: This symbol is known as the “circle of the sun”. Its origin is in the saying of the Japanese people concerning their own country, “the land of the rising sun.” In Japanese mythology the House of the Emperor is said to be of direct descent from the the Shinto sun goddess.

As I write this I am becoming acutely aware of the historic rivalries and grave events that have transpired between these three nations. May our modern times and our new enlightenment bring acceptance, responsibility, atonement and forgiveness. May we work together with deep respect to solve our vast world issues and live up to our role as citizens of This One Planet.


Thank you new readers and old!

(Drawing by Marty)

Is This Freedom?

Protesters at the Michigan state capital.

Is it Freedom to to carry military weapons to your state capitol and thus intimidate anyone who disagrees with you?

Is it Freedom to glorify the ownership of guns when your nation is suffering from repeated mass shootings, many of them in schools?

Is it Freedom to drive the biggest pickup truck when the planet is dying from carbon pollution?

Is it Freedom to not wear a mask or social distance when the doctor and nurse who will treat you in the hospital may get sick and die, along with your grandparents and the old lady next door?

Is it Freedom to go to a bar when 75,000 Americans have died of the disease you may be transmitting?

Is it Freedom to be so critically inept and so psychologically needy that you believe that a world-wide pandemic is a hoax and conspiracy?

Is it Freedom to stand next to Nazis and Racists and call for the end to tyranny?

Is it Freedom to pray to a just and loving Christian God after he (not she) has killed by suffocation 270,000 people in 4 month worldwide plague?

Is it Freedom to be an American and vote for a president who purposely ignores experts and leaves our nation seriously unprepared in these crises?                                                                                        

Is it Freedom to turn a worldwide health crisis into a partisan political issue?

Is it Freedom? No, it is more like ignorance and irresponsibility!

Responsible and Intelligent (thelist,com)
Kind (nationalnewswatch,com)
Social Distancing by The Beatles! (thanks to rockcellarmagazine for the image.)
Opps! Even with the best of intentions, Things Happen! (
Logo by Marty

“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.

“Dose 8”: Persons Reflect Each Other. It’s the Way We become Thoughtful.

(The amazing hypothesis that a “Larger SomeThing” — The Human Social Organism — creates human persons, see Dose 7, will be revealed to be composed by a process called “Reflection”.  Persons find themselves ‘reflected’ in the other persons and the living creatures of the world around them.  These results are basic to the Evolutionary Process.  The mechanism of reflection — this feedback loop — will start to be analyzed through a discussion of the codes involved: genetic and linguistic.  “Dose 8”, in “The Meaning of Life, in ten easy doses” series.  REVISED VERSION OF THE EARLIER “Dose 8”.)

John Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus (1903).    Captivated by his Reflection in Nature, Narcissus overlooks his Reflection in the love in the eyes of the Nymph, Echo.

To be Thoughtful

“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 of persons.

“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 and what is this world we are involved in.

*The American philosopher of science, Wilfred Sellars, originated this phrase and its use has been taken up by Dan Dennett.


“The School of Athens” by Raphael (1509)  The dialogue between “persons” is basic to them.  Plato and Aristotle are here depicted “reflecting”.

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 to be.  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; and then gets into the individual’s head, your head, my head, as “me”, talking to myself!

The murmuration of Starlings as highly social animals.  The movement of each is reflected in the movement of the others.



“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; I tried to seriously shift our understanding of a very basic activity — thinking — and a very basic ‘thing’— a personEach of these ‘things’ became much more social, and far less individual, than is often thought.”

So, Reflective Thought starts out as an interpersonal exchange, and then this dialogue gets into each individual’s head.  This is why Thinking is like Talking To Yourself; because it is!  Individual humans have instantiated this social process into the interaction of different patterns of their brain.  Thinking IS Talking to Yourself!  (This is Dan Dennett’s contention, see his From Bacteria to Bach and Back, for example.

(“Talking to Yourself” gets very little ‘cred’, But is Should!  This dialogue is the basic form of Thought.)

Even physical things, ‘things’ we “take” as in the world independently of us, are a product of our reflective processes.  “Things” do not directly ‘push’ Them-Selves on us.  It is, as if, we are in dialogue even with them and that is why and how their “character” and “ours” have changed through history.  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” to us, and exists for us.  (More on this in later Doses, but also see posts on physicist Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture.)

“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“.

“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.  This is the idea we are exploring.

Mind is social.  Self-awareness and thinking are a human social activity as much as the activity of an individual human.  “Kids Special” Washington Post cover by illustrator Eiko Ojala.


Trying to make the most of these Difficult Times.  I pray to “Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love”, as did the Great Poet, Bill Blake, that you and yours are safe, for I believe we can Feel the suffering of others!  Thanks Marty for the piece/peace.