(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)
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!
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 notthe 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
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!
*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.
(This is the Second Post in a series on Freedom and Mother Nature. In the first post of this series, Haunted by the Idea, the “self” was given an exulted status by the famous Existentialists; it “transcended” ordinary causes and mundane formative powers, so that ‘it’ could freely —“radically” — choose. In this piece, choice will be brought back down to earth, and eventually Mother Nature will be accorded a proper role in this central but baffling (at least to a few of us) human activity of choosing. What is it to Choose, and how can Nature help us do so? Spoiler: the baseball game example is highly suggestive! First published 11/06/2018)
“Free Will or Free Won’t?” This question was recently asked by a leading neuroscientist. His preference was the latter, “free won’t”. So, Free Choice? It’s an illusion, he believes!
This scientist’s conclusions are not only plausible but maybe even preferable, and modern technology, the latest science and some highly innovative philosophy are moving in that direction. Theories, such as these, embed us in our environment and our brain’s neurological organization.* The following is an example of what a Naturalistic Theory of the Mind (and brain) might look like and how it would be an improvement over our current ideas of The Self which are often infected with mythical elements.
The role of the brain is to measure the largest and most powerful impositions of
impulse and stimuli (data), and then ‘decide’: react as programmed to the dominant input. The illusion of choice is created by the rejection of lesser input. So, its “free won’t: I won’t do this or that or that…”, but not “free will” because my brain, or “I”, just goes along with the largest impulse or most prominent data. I’m caused to do it! Free choice is an illusion.
This illusion is amplified by the really close cases, where our brain may be designed to pause and wait for tie-breaking input, or with the necessity to act rapidly, our brain just randomly chooses one or the other option, as if flipping a coin. “Science takes us inside things, and the inner, detailed view of our brains that science provides is not likely to reveal to us any recognizable…res cogitans or ’thinking thing’ we know so well by introspection,” contends Daniel Dennett, one of today’s leading philosophers and cognitive theorists.
This kind of theory thoroughly embeds us in our environment and our brain’s behavioral design. We are like a computer ready to run a variety of programs. So, maybethe crux of the issue of freedom should not lie in choosing between this or thatrelativelyordinary act. Choosing one out of several standard possibilities is a kind of freedom, but no more complex or sophisticated than the ‘freedom’ of a bird to ‘choose’ to fly from this tree to that, to sing now or in ten seconds from now. Consider, further, the following example.
* “Our mind and its underlying infrastructure (the brain) has an inherited structure provided by the history of our species interaction with the environment. The idea of a ‘blank slate’ — our mind having no initial structure, a tabula rosa— is no longer an accepted theory.” (D. Dennett, Elbow Room, 1984)
“I was Going to Be Hit, but then I Ducked”
You are at a baseball game* and a foul ball comes screeching off the bat. You are not at the moment looking, you are sipping your beer, but with your peripheral vision you see a glimpse of the ball coming at you, and duck. You say, “I would have been hit, but I ducked.” You changed what was going to happen, you think. You feel free and effective.
But you were designed to duck, it’s automatic. You were never “going to be hit;” that was a determined outcome, says Dennett. You changed nothing. You incorrectly attributed to yourself a history-changing freedom. We tend to give ourselves too much credit, as if it were an option to duck. In reality, you were never going to be hit because even the seeing “a glimpse of the ball” was part of the reflex; its heightened sensitivity to rapid movements that would endanger your head. And this new way of looking at it is not a bad thing. After all, you still didn’t get plunked on the head even if you don’t feel as free, ‘free’ in the sense of “I chose to do it” and “I could have done otherwise.”
This new way of considering this situation more deeply embeds us in Nature: we are Her designed machines. Our behavior and its outcome are determined and predictable, though a little more convoluted than many other objects in nature. We are truly a part of Nature and the universe, with no mystical power of “radical choice.”
What other behaviors of ours might be similar? The ducking reflex is a very clear example, but research and theorizing have now advanced and include suchcomplex behaviors as language acquisition and pattern recognition as significantly instinctive — designed-in — behavior. We tend to take great pride in these abilities and often tend to think of them as setting us apart from the rest of Nature not identifying us with Nature, as seems to be the case!
Biological sources of altruistic choices?
In Haunted by the Idea, we considered freedom and choice to be extraordinary abilities. They derive from a mysterious condition in which our ‘true selves’ exist very independently, as if floating free of wants and necessities. An example, would be the choice of a mother, in the midst of famine, declining to eat so that her children could. She rose above, and did what was right and noble!
Could that same example be explained naturally? Traditionally, this behavior would have been thought of as a kind of divine intervention, an act “selfless” in its denial of the mother’s own individual interests. But now, biologists have an explanation in terms of self-interest for at least some of these altruistic acts. From the point of view of Mother Nature and Her interest in the preservation of genes in a lineage, the famous British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, once quipped, when asked if he would give up his life to save a brother, “No, but I would save two brothers or eight cousins.” And Nature is inventive enough to have discovered mechanisms to assure such brotherly (and motherly) good behavior and thereby assure the greatest number of family genes move into the future!
Now you may think, “That doesn’t get us very far! What about ‘just’ one brother, or saving ‘only’ one child or ‘just’ seven cousins! Well, scientific Game Theory can be
suggestive concerning further “ethical ” issues. It explains how some animals have come to establish territories, mark them, and generally respect the boundary territories of their competitors and thus avoid violence. To be constantly fighting over territory with neighbors who are closely matched physically, is mutually destructive. Mother Nature’s evolutionary process has hit upon this “territories” solution. In World War I, the same explanation has been applied to the short-term impromptu cease-fires that occurred along the stalemated Western Front. Soldiers in the trenches on each side stopped fighting, ritually maintained their opposition, and even celebrated Christmas together, much to the frustration of their generals.**
A cat rubbing against you is more than a sign of affection. With its scent glands in the face, it is marking you as part of its territory or group.
So, maybe, we are ‘just’ fancy, designed, biological machines; and, maybe, that isn’t so bad. The universe, and our world in it, just might be set up to assure us some significant successes!
Can a Machine be Designed to be Free?
If a computer is designed to consider, and reconsider, its own program and behavior, why could it not be considered free? Dennett shows us that computers are now designed “to learn.” They write new music and play new games of chess based on being given the basic rules of music and chess, some paradigmatic examples and the ability to accumulate the experiences of their past attempts. This lays out the route to understand our own ‘Freedom’!
In the next posts on freedom, we will find that Nature has discovered incredibly complex, even “advanced” (implying ‘qualitatively’ improved) forms of cooperation. In that post, Persons, ‘Large’ and ‘Small’, we will start to try to understand the transition from humans as animals to humans as Persons. It’s by understanding this difference that we may come to understand more about altruistic and cooperative behavior, and that our freedom is based more on working together, than in making dramatic individual decisions. Also, a sociological door will be opened to envision our ability to reflect on our own behavior.
**See the noted book: The Evolution of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod
(Header Photo: Robin Williams as robot in Bicentennial Man)
(This is the third in the series on human Freedom and its connection to Nature. —This post has been Revised, 9/2019– In the first in the series, Haunted by the Idea, freedom and free choices were implausibly explained by positing “the self” as some metaphysically aloof ‘object.’ In Humans as Machines, the second post, it is proposed that humans are like programmed computers: given the stimuli, the appropriate program is triggered and runs, resulting in behavior that has been sanctioned by Evolution. This idea rightfully conjures up some questions about how innovative can behaviors be. To bridge this gap, the current post will start to characterize, not only humans, but humans as Persons. Persons exist in a culture which is an adaptive mechanism not available to other animals. First published 11/11/2018)
We humans are complex creatures. We are especially entangled in our relations to each other.
Each person has a story to tell about themselves to others and to themselves, contends Daniel Dennett, one of the intellectual guiding light for naturereligionconnection.We evolved into “an us, a communicating community of organisms that can compare notes,” he says. These stories are ongoing narratives, and part of a process that goes as follows.
We tell a story about ourselves. We tell this story to ourselves and to others. Others formulate their own story about us; it is somewhat based on the story we tell them, but also on what our various comments and behaviors suggest to them, about us. They tell their story of us back to us, usually not directly but implied in their behaviors and comments to us. We find this feedback very, very important. It can influence our story. We can ‘see’ ourselves from their point of view and consider changing our behaviors, wittingly or unwittingly. We tell them: They tell us. It’s reflective.
Of course, this happens the other way around, also. Other people have their story and we formulate a story of them too. They tell us: We tell them. It’s a circle.
So, we are not totally in control of this story, even though it is ours. As we grow up and especially in the early years, ‘our’ story is the story those around us— parents, siblings, television, peers — tell us about us. It is another instance of “socialization before individualization,” to quote the noted humanist, Richard Rorty. As we get older, we can — and should— take more control and responsibility for our story, and that’s what this post is about: it hopes to be a clarification of this process.
When I first met my wife, she soon started to suggest to me that I was unduly negative. Eventually she just said it, straight up. She helped me work on my story. She helped me see more of the opportunities in life, less its limitations and misfortunes. She helped me ‘see’ myself “larger”, not “smaller.”
Making yourself Large
You are at a baseball game once again, this time as the batter. Your reflexes are primed; your
swing is ready to explode. You are a well oiled baseball-playing machine. You are ready to step into the pitch or step away, even to ‘bail out’ if it is thrown in too close. Your team is rallying and they need you to get a hit. Suddenly, your coach calls timeout. It’s time to reflect!
Change of strategy; the coach has considered the situation from the point of view of the opposing team and expects an inside pitch, in fact a ‘brush-back’ pitch, in an effort to slow the comeback. He asks you to allow it to hit you and thus gain first base.
As the batter, you now have a new perspective — a broader, larger story than previously. It is added foresight and insight, and now you prepare to override your designed reflexes to swing, or in this case, avoid being hit by the inside pitch, and allow it to graze you. Interestingly, if the pitch is thrown in too high and toward your head, all your new precognitions will vanish and you will automatically duck to save your noggin.
The batter and the coach have made themselves “larger”, as persons.* They have redefined the situation from a ‘higher’— more expansive — vantage point. They hold themselves responsible for additional contingencies and use this ‘view’ to allow a modicum of adjustment in their behavior to take better advantage of nature’s (the pitcher’s) offering.Persons have this abilitythat Dennett calls “making yourself large”, and is based in the circular and reflective network of stories and feedback outlined above. It allows persons some room to consider themselves and others (and various ‘situations’ in general) from different vantage points and thus to alter their story (their program) and to consider different input, react with different output. It provides some “elbow room,” to be free. **
*What is a “person”? This important concept will be further clarified in the following post.
**Elbow Room, the title of Dennett’s initial book (1984) on human freedom.
Making yourself Small
We can also “make ourselves small.”A drug addicthas become “very small” as a person. She is extremely reactant to her physical and psychological need. Her ability and desire to see and consider real options is severely diminished. She is addicted, and thus we may question her responsibility for her condition and see any recovery as a dramatic rupture in her story, heretofore.
A person in the midst of an auto crash is “very small.” They are almost no person at all; their connection to the story-exchanging network of persons does them little good. They are simply a physical object buffeted by overwhelming forces. Defense attorneys may use this as a tactic, they may attempt to portray (or accurately describe) their client as very “small.” They use the client’s deprived or abusive upbringing to win sympathy (or insight) from the jury that the client really had little chance to turn out other than the miscreant they did, little ability to take control of their story and change it for the good.
In each case, making a person “small” places them in a context in which they—as persons— are ineffective. They are little more than an object. They have little self-control or responsibility because either they are unable to shift their point of view and effectively reflect upon their condition (the drug addict), or their condition is simply beyond reflective intervention (the auto crash, and also the addiction — until redemption). Their connection to the story-exchanging network of persons does them little good.
The Objectivity of Persons
In this post, I hope we have gained some insight into our situation and into our ability to be free. When we “make ourselves large,” we are using our position from within the matrix of stories to objectify ourselves, and examine ourselves and our situations from an outside position. We are “objective” in several senses. In ‘looking at ourselves’ and in ‘looking at a scenario’ from outside it, we are being a new kind of object, a person. We are “above” and free from (to a significant degree) the situation being looked at, though not in any metaphysical sense as the Existentialists proposed. This ability of persons to shift their point of view is the basis for Scientific Objectivity, Scientific Knowledge, and the tremendous technological advances we now enjoy; but also, the bit of freedom that we do seem to enjoy.
Though nothing has been solved in this post to make us more free, the dilemma of our freedom has been clarified. Satisfying (especially for my wife), the theme of many an
episode of Law and Order has been justified. Should we hold that person responsible? What was their capacity to control their own life and make their own story? What is our capacity to do the same? Dennett suggests that these tensions are well founded and lie in the give and take of persons. We have also discovered that our ability to be scientists and engineers — including our ability to ‘engineer’ our own lives and selves — is based in thisPerson-hood: our participation in the social network of story creation and exchange!
In the next post, the biological and scientific basis for personhood will be explored, and we will find that this foundation descends deep into Nature and that our freedom is a product of far more than just us, humans.
Paintings: “We evolved into ‘an us’.”
Christina’s World (1948) painting by American artist Andrew Wyeth. “We tell a story about ourselves. We tell this story to ourselves and others”NatieRel.
(This is the fourth post —- a revised version in 9/2019 of original — in the series on Freedom and Mother Nature. A dramatic contention is made about the closeness of human interconnection. This post tries to tell an amazing story! The series, in general, is a clarification of The Connection’s intellectual foundations. The ideas in this series will be presented again in future posts. Please feel free to skim and obtain a sense of its content. I would love to hear your comments!
In the initial post in the series , each person, or “self”, was thought to be like a ‘soul’, a ‘thing’ beyond the normal world and totally responsible for its actions; but this idea was then rejected. In great contrast to ‘souls’, “Humans as Machines”, considered our brains (and selves) to be computers that make decisions as programmed, but this calls for some added explanation of our innovative abilities. In the third post, “Persons Large and Small,” we discussed “persons” as forming a system of points of view and an exchange of stories. It is from within this system that persons are able to shift their vantage point and consider a part of the world “objectively” — from the ‘outside’ — and potentially ratchet in some change. Here, we will consider the biological and sociological foundations of Personhood, and then some startling implications!)
We, persons, have a unique position. We are one of Nature’s evolved creatures but more than as, simply, human beings, animals. We are responsible, socialized humans. The other persons around us hold us to standards, as we do they. We communicate. These standards of behavior are set and sometimes revised on a daily basis, but they also contain themes that have evolved through our history.
“Socialization precedes individualization,” Richard Rorty, noted humanist philosopher.
Responsible, socialized humans have common experiences and seek to tell, and hear, what is different in the experience of others. They seek to gain additional perspective. Each person has a story to tell and our individual stories explain our individual “person-alities.” The overwhelming bulk of our story—the story of modern human persons, in general *— is held, more or less, in common and is generally not spoken about but simply assumed. In that sense,“we are all on the same page” and mostly just share our varied individual perspectives on what is common.
When humans work and live with this kind of intimacy and cooperation, we become different and eventually call ourselves “Persons”;it is an acknowledgement that we have become functioning components ina new social order. In some ways, we are like ants in a colony or bees in a hive. And our advanced form of sociability does create a newthing; literally, like the solar system is a thing, composed of its component planets. Persons are a part of a new, enlarged organism: The Human Social Organism.
*Our goal at The naturereligionconnection.org is to help make clear and more reasonable this “story of modern human persons, in general.” That is the topic of this post, specifically. It is a self-reflection on our story which is currently cluttered with non-sense and antiquated ideas. A very interesting and profoundly revolutionary tale is starting to emerge. The innovative philosopher, Wilfred Sellars, called this story we hold in common, “our manifest image.” Persons need a “manifest image” to function.
The Human Social Organism Evolved in Nature
This kind of social organism is not unknown in nature, though ours is, maybe, the latest. Many of the greatest milestones in evolutionary history are of this character: Formerly independently living creatures come togetherand (as if by agreement, like The Constitution of the United States) live together in such close cooperation, for their mutual benefit, that they are now necessarily social, and no longer individually independent.
Nucleated cells (“good yoked” cells) formed when a single-celled creature consumed another but, in this case, did not disassemble it and use it up. The one now lived inside the other (it gained a new environment) and each provided the parts forthe new, more complex creature that now had enhanced abilities: The Eukaryotic Cell. These enhanced abilities are additional forms of freedom.
Other such leaps of cooperation are the presence in each animal cell of mitochondria: formerly independent single-celled creatures that now dedicate themselves to extracting energy for the new, more complex cell but still retain their own DNA!. So, in each of our cells live the remnants of a separate creature; it is totally dedicated to our welfare, but still reproduces separately and has its own genes. Interestingly, it is only passed from generation to generation through the mother; each mother provides the mitochondria for the baby. In plant cells, chloroplasts are much like mitochondria: they, too, extract energy for the new unit and retain their own genes.
Another closely related case of necessary sociability is the development of the multicellular organism from a single cell, the fertilized embryo. From an undifferentiated medium, the role of DNA is to differentiate the parts of a whole in a ‘top-down’, instructive, and ‘organic’ manner. In this role, DNA
foretells the use of language in the Human Social Organism where individual, immature ‘units’ —children— grow to become functioning parts of the social complex. In the multi-cellular organism each cell is surrounded by other cells, but they are not formerly independently living; their origin, interaction and physical structures are now coordinated by a universal code, the genetic code. This form of necessary living-together is more tightly coordinated than the previous examples and more tightly coordinated than the Human Social Organism.
Another example and, surely, one of the most commonly recognized forms of necessary sociabilityis sexualreproduction.
Formerly independently reproducing creatures (asexuals) now discovered the advantage of reproducing with the use of a partner.How this evolved is one of the toughest questions in modern biology. Seemingly it started with the evolution of different kinds of sex cells (first, all sex cells were same size and moved with a tail, then some were different sized but still motile, finally, some larger and not motile —egg— and some small and motile — sperm; of course, at all these points sex cells had only half the number of chromosomes necessary to create an individual). From this initial differentiation in sex cells, the process continued into further variation in the bodies of those —males and females— that produced the different kinds.
From the “gene’s-eye point of view,” (biologist Richard Dawkin’s famous phrase) sex seems an incredible long shot. If passing your genes into the next generation is the basic motivation of all biologic creatures, how would passing merely 50% of yours to your offspring be an advantage in comparison to the 100% passage in asexual reproduction? Yet, a huge advantage there was and is in sex. Biology is full of amazing “emergence”!
All these great evolutionary advances—nucleated cells, chloroplasts and mitochondria, multi-cellular organisms, sexual reproduction — were probably necessary for the development of our form of Necessary, Designed-In Sociability. The role of herds,
packs, schools, flocks, colonies and hives will make for additional discussion (and research) in the future! Some readers may be objecting: ‘But is modern, large-scale society really a necessity for persons?’
No, but some minimal form of group is, and it would need to be larger than the family. Whether pack — as in small-scale hunter and gatherers — or larger scale ‘tribes’, A PERSON CANNOT COME INTO EXISTENCE ALONE! Initially in history, Personhood was a state achieved by a group of humans, together, bootstrapped in stages. Today, this flame of culture must be tended and children must be brought into the fold through socialization.
A person, once achieving the state of personhood, can choose to live alone, or can be forced into isolation. But, no individual human can become socialized —learn a language or invent one, understand gesture and facial expression, or even point at an object— without the help of other persons or incipient persons.
What can This Connection offer Us?
A huge leap forward was attempted in this post. One of the founding hypotheses for the naturereligionconnection is that humans are part of ‘Some Thing Larger’ and this participation can help guide us, explain us, maybe even console us. That assertion has now taken a more concrete form; the larger something is The Human Social Organism. Often, religions have asserted some form of more basic or higher unity and found, or sought, great solace there; whether Buddhism’s Nirvana, Christianity’s “God’s Plan,” and especially the ‘mystical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ movements of various religions—-Pentecostalism and its “speaking in tongues,” The Dervishes of Islam with their whirling or the followers of the Kabbalah in Judaism. This idea of a scientifically based “Large SomeThing” — The Social Organism — needs further exploration and clarification. Is it true? What does it demand of us, offer us? Is it the basis for freedom? These will be topics for the following posts in this series on “Freedom.”
(This is the fifth post in the series on “Freedom.” In the first post it was contended by Existentialist thinkers that freedom originated in a “self” that was free from causal influences, therefore free to choose. But that seemed rather ‘religious’, like having a soul; so in the third post, “Humans as Machines”, ‘selves’, and brains, are considered to be programmed machines that respond to stimuli. In “Persons Large and Small,” we found that persons are a network of vantage points, each composing a story by interaction with others. This allows for a shift of perspective and the ability to ‘see’ ourselves and other things more ‘objectively’. This collection of selves is a heightened interconnection, so tight, it forms a new compound creature: The Human Social Organism; contended post four, “Persons in the Social Organism.” In the current post, we will consider some benefits of this ‘new’ togetherness. ALL IS ONE, BAAABYYYYY! Originally published 11/26/2018)
Persons reap large gains due to their enhanced connections in The Human Social Organism. But, let it here be made clear, this connection, this participation, has been largely unwitting. It is something that “we,” our ancestors, stumbled into. Nonetheless and very much to the point, it has allowed us to do more.
One of the obvious gains is a huge advance in productivity. Our labor is individual, but
now organized and unified into a massive and worldwide economic system. We now have persons in charge of supplying energy, locomotion, waste removal, housing and communication. Disregarding the questions concerning the fairness of the eventual distribution of individual shares of this growing productivity; none question the increase in its overall abundance. This new organism is tremendously productive.
But less obvious gain, and one that is more nuanced, is the fact that in these higher forms of aggregation, persons —for example— have other persons as the most prominent component of their environment. In the multi-cellular organism, cells have other cells as their most immediate and important environment. The creature that became the first cellular nucleus now had the other cell as its most immediate (and more cooperative) environment. These larger aggregations are a form of reaching out; it is
good diplomacy among these components of Nature; they have gained more control and predictability in their environment through the creation of alliances. *
When combined with the productivity that has resulted from this new level of human interconnection, we can say that our environment has become more ‘person-able’! It is full of other persons and our products. Roads run to all humanly desired
destinations; streets are lined with human dwellings often with gardens full of domesticated flowers. Farms cultivate humanly bred crops and animals, and for companionship humans have domesticated dogs and cats. The internet connects persons to information and other persons worldwide and is tending to create a single world culture. The result is an environment that we are as familiar with as the spider is to its web!
In the following post, a huge and final benefit will be considered. The ability of personsto reflectis more than a benefit, it is the formative act of The Human Social Organism. No other organism in Nature is connected in this particular way; all others are organized genetically. A description of this most difficult concept of Reflection will be attempted.
(This is the sixth post in the Series on Freedom and Mother Nature.The amazing hypothesis, that a “Larger SomeThing” creates human persons (post four), will be revealed to be composed by a process called “Reflection”. Further, persons find themselves ‘reflected’ in the other living creatures of the world. These results are basic to the Evolutionary Process. The advantages of increased productivity and an environment more human (from post five) is here profoundly supplemented. The mechanism of reflection — this feedback loop — will start to be analyzed through a discussion of the codes involved: genetic and linguistic. First published 12/01/2018)
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.
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.
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 is. 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.
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; we tried to seriously shift our understanding of a very basic activity — thinking — and a very basic ‘thing’— a person. They each became much more social, and far less individual.
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”.
Thinking, self-awareness are being explored as social and not strictly individual, as has been traditionally thought. This is now being explored by other philosophers and scientists, and not only those of us at naturereligionconnection.org. “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.
A Brain is Not a Mind
A corollary to this position is that a brain is not a mind! A brain is the ‘hardware’ onto which ‘mind’ can be installed, so to speak. More precisely, many brains are interconnected through language and other forms of socialization and then become minds, and even a mind, through reflection. A mind is self-aware, a brain alone is not. A brain’s activity instantiates a language, but a single brain cannot invent a language. So, it seems to me and others in this tradition, that “Mind” is the ultimate ‘hold out’ to Scientific Reduction into physical pieces. This is why Dennett, discusses Mind in terms of sociological arrangements, as I have done in this post series on Freedom. Mind is not some mysterious metaphysical thing, but it is an arrangement and way of living for persons at their unique level of complexity. “Mind” is that ‘thing’ that is arranged Holisticly; ‘from the center out’ or in which “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Now, of course, Mind does not just suddenly appear in organized humans, we ‘see’ precursors of it in Nature as we look out from our position in its hierarchy of agency.** All these are bold assertions that have been explained to some extent in this and previous posts**, and will be further defended in future posts.
*Phrase used by philosopher Wilfred Sellars
**See below and post “God and Evolution” for discussion of ‘The Great Chain of Being’.
***See previous posts on the “Human Social Organism” and “Persons, Large and Small”
Reflection in Nature
We have seen that the rebounded images of persons is the mechanism for being aware of and thinking of ourselves, but now we must consider nature. Persons are reflected in nature, too! This is the basic form of reflection. Persons reflecting each other is a later development in time and its achievement is a greater awareness, a “‘selfier’ self”, quips Dennett. So, especially in living things, persons ‘see’ themselves in a rudimentary or
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.
Another example is the “fight-or-flight” response exhibited among all vertebrates. An increase in heart and breathing rate, skin hair standing on end, a cessation of digestion, the sudden release of various hormones all accompany the presence of danger, fear and aggression for ourselves and numerous other animals. We know these emotions in us and can feel — and scientifically measure— these physiological responses in us and others. We are alike, and can see this and feel it; this reflection is hard-wired into us!
Finally, and most pleasing of all, Nature itself is ultimately the primal form of Personhood.* It is this that legitimately allows our reference to nature as ‘mother’: “Mother Nature”. This personification is justified philosophically by the character of Natural Selection: Nature chooses! Nature establishes a system of preferences and products. In Dennett’s terms, Mother Nature was the first “intentional system”. Natural Selection is ‘about’ her creatures. It is the first system of reference in which each species refers to and is logically differentiated by all the others. Each functions. Each had ‘interests’. Each interacts. ‘She wants’ them, through the system of cooperation and competition Mother Nature established, to progress into the future! This primal process of agency and personality is described as follows.
Every animal and plant is reflected in its environment. It’s that creature’s home, source for its needs, place of its wants and even ‘fears’.
So, each environment is connected to the living creatures in it, ina necessary way, not accidental or arbitrary. You don’t find polar bears in the tropics, or fish ‘happy’ to be flopping about on the land! They are too connected to their environment and the medium for this necessary connection is a process that, we, persons have come to know as “Life” and “Natural Selection”. As such, they become connected in their own terms — ‘alive’, ‘functional’, ‘needy’, ‘striving’, ‘self-regulating’ (as in body temperature, in energy consumption and expenditure, in growth and repair) — and thus defy complete reduction into terms of physics and chemistry. What they would lose in these potential scientific re-descriptions is their agency and uniqueness of existence. Plants and animals ACT in their own terms and are ’caused’ only in subordination to the Form and Structure of these Actions.
**This is a bold claim, and we at NatieRel should embrace it! It will need further defense, and Dennett provides that.
The First Intentional System: “Mother Nature”
Natural Selection ties the creature to environment, and vice versa, in a circular or reflective way. This circular connection is a bit of closure. All the elements that are in the circle are ‘characterized’ by the living creature, and it by them. They are ‘food’, ‘mate’, ‘friend’, ‘foe’. In the back and forth of Natural Selection, the animal and environment ‘create’ each other, and thus there is a bit of autonomy for them as a unit. It is the origin of our freedom! We legitimately start to describe biological settings in a very different way. They are feedback loops, full of information.
(Our environment is not one of atoms, far more immediately it is one of Food, Mate, Friend and Foe. It is a Category Mistake to mix the concepts of “friend”, “food” and “atoms”. Animals don’t eat atoms, they eat food.)
This intimate relation is called by Dennett, after the German biologist, Jakob von Uexkull (1937), the organism’s Umwelt, or “world as perceived”; or the organism’s affordances, after the psychologist, J. J. Gibson (1979): affordances are “what the environment offers the animal for good or ill.” It is the contention of these scientists that there is a significant difference between the umwelt and “the environment” taken in a more ‘objective’ way. It is only self-conscious humans that have discovered this difference, these ‘two environments.’ “The predicament of the organism” is that “it is floating in an ocean of differences, a scant few of which might make a difference to it”, writes Dennett. The initially mentioned “environment” (“the ocean of differences”) is the more “objective” environment; the second is its “umwelt”, the differences in the environs that make a difference to it,
Reflecting through the Medium of a Code
In the multicellular organism and in the Human Social Organism reflection occurs through the medium of a code: the genetic code for each, but then language, in addition, for the Human Social Organism.It is through these codes that the individual cells and persons are created and organized into a larger and transcending structure. Each part can reflect the whole.*
Now this is a peculiar way to think about it because it seems to put the cart before the horse, the whole before the parts, or the code before the objects (cells and persons) involved with the code.
And so it does. Formerly, biologists thought that organisms use genes to reproduce. Richard Dawkins, through his book “The Selfish Gene”, has now prevailed in promoting the equally true and, at this point, more fruitful converse insight: genes use organisms for the purpose of their reproduction. In our human social situation, the same applies to language. We formerly thought that humans use words, to (merely) express their ideas; for after all, the ideas (or emotions or thoughts) are already there ‘in the head’ and now, through words, simply are made public — “come out”.
“words speak humans”
But it is fruitful to see that words use humans, to replicate, to instantiate meanings, to make a new kind of social order. In philosophy this insight is expressed notably by the following paraphrase of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger: Humans do not speak words; words speak humans.
Preposterous, it may seem, but its shock may be diminished by a less paradoxical
phrasing: all that is being contended is that as much aspersons make society(or culture),society (or culture) makes persons. It is that kind of chicken and egg scenario; a kind of circularity of causal interaction is established. We owe ‘who’ and ‘what’ we are as much to our culture and our times, as our culture and our times owe their character to us. In fact, I would tip the scale to the former over the later, for few of us, ever, really shake things up. So, persons are a ‘reflection’ of their society and a society is a ‘reflection’ of its individuals.
Similarly in the plants and animals of nature. They are ‘reflected’ the changing code of DNA passed systematically down and through the branches of the Tree of Life. This code is then also changed by — a ‘reflection’ of — the successes and failures of these living things.
Important progress has been made in this post. “Reflection” has been clarified as a process between persons and a process between living creatures and their environment. In each case, reflection is a back and forth, a circular causal influence that is mediated by a code. DNA and the genetic code store the results of Natural Selection and ‘starts the next round’ of interactions through mutations in the code and the continued interaction of the new environmental mix. Language does much the same for persons and their actions in society, though this is a much less familiar domain for us to be using these kinds of terms.
In the next post, Freedom through Virtuous Circles, the self-enclosed character of the reflective process will be given credit for the distinctive character of biological creatures and, also, for persons. It is the basis for what there is of ‘human freedom’ and for the distinctions in description and ‘law’ in biology, physics, chemistry and morality. That post will have a heavy burden to carry!
*But is Human Society this tightly organized? Does each part reflect the whole?This question may have occurred to the reader. Further research will be necessary. Lewis Thomas, in his famous Lives of a Cell, contended that the earth was a “loosely organized, spherical organism.” But not all creatures that live closely together form a single unit, for example, the clown fish and the sea anemone. With Humans, we have the additional philosophical/psychological connection of mind, as outlined above.
(This is the seventh post in the Series on Freedom. In the previous post the process of Reflection was described. That description continues here by introducing the idea of The Virtuous Circle. It is only through these circles that we, human persons, have the freedom that we have. Post four, Persons in the Human Social Organism, explained the biological history of the increasing complexity (the preceding circles) and Our Social Organism from which our freedom derives. Post three, Persons Large and Small, introduced a circle, the feedback loop of human, language-based, interaction. There, we ‘see’ ourselves ‘reflected’ in the feedback we get from other persons. In post six, Persons Reflect, I attempted to expand this process of Reflection beyond persons and into its base in evolution. In a sense difficult to defend intellectually, but maybe not so hard to intuit, Mother Nature was contended to be The First Person, all be it, in a qualified and incipient form. A sense of reverence is starting to arise in this Series for the processes that create us. This current post, hopes to continue that, and also our scientific understanding, through the seminal concept of “Virtuous Circles”. First published 12/19/2018)
The relationship of an organism to its environment, the relation of organs to organism, and the relation of a person to their society of persons are all, what I will call, a “Virtuous Circle”. The concept is derived from a comment by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Discussing the basic idea of “information”, he contended that “information” is circularly connected to the concept of “design”. They are defined in relation to each other, he says, “but it’s a virtuous, not a vicious, circle.”
“Information is design worth getting”, he argues. In each of the Circles above, information and overall design connect their component parts — organism, environment; organs, organism; person, society — into a necessary and mutually interactive dependence. This interactive dependence runs in two ‘directions’: ‘horizontally’ and ‘vertically’, so to speak.
By ‘horizontally’, I mean structurally.At every given moment their parts are understood and function in relation to each other. The organs of an organism operate in this classic manner. Heart pumps blood through veins. Lungs aerate blood and release carbon dioxide. Liver and kidneys remove other waste. Stomach provides nutrients. Intestines process and eliminate waste. Bones provide shape and space, while muscles move bones for locomotion and other organs in their functioning. And so on. Human artifactsare also similarly designed structures. An automobile has wheels, motor, transmission, brakes, lights, seats all existing and functioning side by side for the given purpose of transporting people.
In each case, auto and organism, it is difficult to think of any of their component pieces existing alone and in isolation from their functions in relation to the other components of these systems. These parts are in an “interactive dependence”; they are circularly defined and designed. Hearts do not exist (for long) severed from their bodies, though pumps do operate similarly in other systems with many analogous parts and purposes.
“For the given purpose” and “with analogous purposes”, these are important phrases and
they lead me to the second ‘direction’ of mutual interaction for a Virtuous Circle. ‘Vertically’, systems of highly related parts refer to theirover all purpose. Telling phrase, “over all purpose”!
Here is an old point in philosophy. The 17th century philosopher and simultaneous creator/discoverer — with Newton — of calculus, Gottfried Leibniz, stated it well. Any purpose or function ‘lies above’ (transcends) the parts that carry it out. He once observed this while walking on the shop floor of the factory of a master craftsman. The point of all the busy piece-work of the apprentices at their separate stations was not readily discernible; nowhere was the purpose of it all, itself, stationed on that floor. Further, no apprentice doing his specific job had the whole plan; each did just his own part and did it as told. But, Leibniz, rising to the platform above the floor on which the master stood, saw the function of it all, the point of each station, from that transcendent position.
And that is information. Circularly designed functions create a system that has a form, astructure, as if, “informed” from above; their over all purpose is beyond them. This “in-formation” runs not only between the component parts but, also, beyond these parts,beyondtheir level, so to speak, to structures or objects, goals or purposes beyond them. Virtuous Circles ‘point’ beyond themselves!
Two important points should be made, or referred to, concerning this point.
First, some will think I am tipping my hand, that my true mystical and supernatural colors are here beginning to show, but that is not so. It is true that this is where the argument for god from design is used by theists, but not by me, nor Darwin, nor Dennett (I’ve placed myself in illustrious company). Instead, this is where the Theory of Evolution enters, and it refers to these well designed systems but explains them differently.
The second point, in reference to these Virtuous Circles and their pointing beyond themselves, is this is what REFERENCE is, and how it happens. In this discussion of human freedom, we will find two important ways objects interact in our world: causally and referentially.
How does the word, “red”, or the collection of letters, “r-e-d”, indicate/point to/refer to an instance of the color, red, in the world? Because, the system of contrasting color termsand their place in our system of language — this information system, points beyond itself and toward non-linguistic objects. We do not think of this as a causal relationship. It will be important that this distinction stand — designation is not causation — for humans to have some freedom!
Let’s see how this may work.
An organism, a society, an environment each inform their parts — organs, persons, organisms. Please recall post four, The Human Social Organism. Persons are functioning units that act with their goals in mind and they form a society; and yet, persons are formed by that society — that “transcendent object” — just as much as they form it!
We readily accept this view when discussing a society’s economic system. Doctor,
lawyer, teacher, construction worker, farmer all have their job to do and this functions only if their counterparts do their job. This is not supernaturalism, though it is a reference to objects more abstract than some others. We can point at the totality of a person but it is harder to point at the society to which they belong. We can point at an organism, but it is harder to point at its environment in totality and all at once.
Additionally, when we talk about an organism we do not talk about its atoms. We talk about organs, and their worth. “Do they function well?” we ask. Mother Nature asks through her process of Selection. The master craftsman asks the same question of his factory and its apprentices, and so do we, persons, ask of our efforts that compose our lives: “Do they function well? Do they serve the purpose? What is their goal?”
The organs’ worth is in their purpose and how well they achieve it: Not a surprising statement! But in light of our modern skepticism about value and purpose in the universe, maybe this statement is surprising. To Dennett, it should not be; it is, and should be, essential to our self-image. We are agents; we ‘rise above’; we act; we do things for purpose. We do things and not just have things done to us. Like the master craftsman, we are out of the loop of causes on the floor below. These are our components.We are their ’cause’, or at least, the point to which they strive!
When we think of ourselves as actors/ agents, somewhere we must be able to attain a bit of separation. Utilizing the Virtuous Circle of Person and Society, persons can “take the place of the other (person)” and figuratively look at ourselves from outside. It is from this vantage that freely chosen changes to our habits of behavior can be initiated.
These points about purpose and worth, made about an organ and its organism, must equally apply to the other Virtuous circles: organism and environment, person and society. It is becoming obvious that, herein, freedom lies. From the “transcendent position”, more causal connections occur between the components below.
The unity of an object, and the point of an action, always stands aloof of its analysis into parts and pieces.
In the following post these points will be specified.
One further characteristic of great significance must be attributed. Virtuous Circles are “from a particular point of view.” It was meant as no mere analogy that the master craftsman stood above the shop floor. His point of view is decisive, and an aspect of all purpose or function is that they occur for a particular point of view. It is a way of ‘seeing’ the situation, and interacting with it, in relation to the important information it contains or offers. It is Dennett’s position that with the first functioning objects in the world, the foundation was laid for the possibility of the evolution of objects with conscious and self-conscious points of view.