(“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.
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 functionalinter-personalrelations 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.
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.”*
To recognize this kind of agency isto “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.
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.
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 WeExperience 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 “seemingto 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.
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!
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” 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,
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.
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
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.
We Act According to Our Information: Two Examples
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.”
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.
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.
Now, we do take these kinds of integral functional relations and use them as the Datato 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.
(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 ishow we are Designed to function “To Know” and “To Believe” TRULY.
An Example of Design at the Level of Persons
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.
——-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.
(As Rome burns, here I am ‘fiddling’ with my metaphysics! If you want a more immediately relevant post, see the “George Floyd” post (below this one in the Various Topics Cat.): it’s pretty good. But for getting BASIC, this post does the job without too much frustration or impatience incurred, I do believe. The idea of “Design”, if understood properly, brings two very different parts of our life into a coordination. That we are all part of one Causally Connected Universe, and we are Free and Creative Persons: yes, those parts. Not a bad effort for about 20 short paragraphs; if I say so myself! It’s like physical therapy, ordered in The Meaning of Life series. Please leave your thoughts.)
Then I Read It Later and Thought…
I recently wrote this — “A Design Designates It’s Environment”— and then I read it later and thought “what a weird thing to say.” Sounds like bu\\sh!#. Is it “philoso-babble”, as biologist Jerry Coyne would call it (see WEIT 5/28/20)?
In fact, I then realized that what I said was “A Design Designs Its Environment”; “design-ates”. A design design-ates. A design makes more designs, is surrounded by them? Is that what I Mean: behind, around, in the past, maybe even ahead in the future of A Designed Thing are more and related Designs, Variations? (The answer is, “Yes!”, I guess.)
How is this possible? “A design designs its environment”: Surely this is backward:An Environment causes or creates a Designed thing. For example, a living thing is a design and it has no super power to create a world, create an environment, even if we call it “its world”. Why would you want to distinguish between “the world” and “its world”? Don’t we all just exist in “The World”? “A bumble bee has its world,” we might want to say. My wife has “her world”, I could say and this would be figurative only to a limited degree. She really does have “the things she focuses on”, and god help me if I get in her way! She is a force of nature.
Our Representations and Our Knowing
But we do start to make this distinction—“the world” and “how the world looks to us”, or “is for us”, or “our world”— because we have an intuition about REPRESENTATION. We feel that sometimes we “Don’t exactly ‘Put Down’ — “depict”—What IS Really There.” What we ‘put down’ — in words, in a drawing, as a map, in a sensation, in a theory, as the Idea of ‘It’ (that we have ‘in our mind’, in our ‘Mind’s Eye’)— what we ‘put down’ is often Not quite right, or, well, at least different. We may say, “Ok, it will do…It’s a fairly good representation Of It.” Curious, how this issue is embedded in the very language we use!
Sometimes we don’t even try to “put ‘it’ down just as ‘it’ is”! Sometimes we want to “embellish” upon ‘it’ because we want ‘to make a point about it’. All things have a Variety of Aspects, and sometimes we wish to focus on one, more so, than others. This must mean it is not a “true” representation of reality, for surely what a thing is, is all the aspects it is, and this all at once. (How ’bout dat for some metaphysics!)
Limited, that is us!
Maybe we just have Our Limitations when it comes to ‘Being in The World’, so we have to Represent different aspects of a thing at diff times and in diff ways. Limited, that is us! Maybe that is Why Representation Is So Important To Us! The more we represent a thing the closer we get to “grasping it”. So, could it be that “The World” is more than what it ‘Actually Is’ at any one moment, or from any One Point Of View?
Like if you look at something from different directions, it looks different. What is The Right Direction from which to look, to really see it as it is? Well, we all know the answer to that, “you have to look at it from all directions at once.” Ya, that is what ‘God’ is capable of, I guess. And what about those new fancy-designed graphics programs; can’t a shape be displayed in all its different dimensions at once? We are getting almost as good as god!
So here we turn the corner. “A Design Designates Its Environment” is about Our Freedom and Our Ability to Initiate, to Create. In this whacker-jawed statement, Representation becomes a Marvelous Reality (a philosophical contention) that counters the equally marvelous reality that We Get Pushed Around a lot in life in this world. “We getCaused.” We are totally a part of a single net of physical events.
But, from a different perspective, not really and not totally —we intuit; and this we feel very strongly: It is NOT all just ‘causal forces’ pounding on us at every angle. As real as all the causes are, we also Interpret Them, Represent Them and Argue About “What is True?” When we do that, when we try to figure out “What is ‘There’ (and point)?”; we are involved in a different ‘ball game’ than “Causation”. Explaining our Sensations, our Ideas, our Reasons for Believing (all these Qualities) in terms of causes is like explaining ‘Apples with Oranges.’
“Design” is an Idea that ‘Splits the Bill’
Designed things both “get caused” and originate “new outcomes”. “Design” is, thus, a philosophical term, and a Great Way To Understand ‘The World’, because it attempts to put together two very prominent parts of our life: that we both get caused and create all at once.
So, I can saw, Designs Represent their environment andtheir environment Represents them: They are this kind of loop. Designs are a tool. They have proven themselves to be useful and we have no tools that have no use. If they do notWork, Nature (and us as one of its parts) do not Select them: they become extinct. And so, designed things begin to ‘pile up’ on top of each other and exist in an environment of kindred designs; like our Fractal Art and The Tree of Life (as pictured earlier). To them, they are surrounded with Information — as they indeed areall a part of one Formation–— with which to respond. This is how they work. Furthermore, it’s not just humans or persons that are designed and also design things; Great Designs are all over the Natural World and Mother Nature is the best Designer of all. Design, and representation, is bigger than just a human behavior and human subjectivity.
If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.
— George Edgin Pugh, The Biological Origin of Human Values, cited by Dennett.
Well, maybe you see the direction this is going. One of the problems is that once we get The Idea of a Representation, we start to think about where do Our Representations Stop or Start, and where is The Thing as it really is, Un-Represented? The Naked Truth! “The Thing-In-Itself”, as one of the great philoso-babblers of all time put it, Immanuel Kant.
The Golden Caramel Nugget
Scientists, being as ‘hard-nosed’ as they are, ‘know’ that science tells us what is really there. They believe science has cracked through the many layers of ‘sugar-coating’ that is our Ordinary Representations, and made Empirical and Experimental Contact with the golden caramel nugget that is Reality in itself and for really real. It is reality as it exists Without Us viewing it! If “we” are anywhere in this so-called scientific process “of knowing”, we have withdrawn ourselves to a lofty perch beyond the thing studied, beyond The Universe, and ‘see’ it now Rightly. Some philoso-babblers call this perch “The God’s-Eye pointof view”, and most of them mean this as a slam.
No doubt, Science have developed very powerful tools of analysis. But the very actions of Persons as Scientist involves reasoning, perception, designing, evidence, argumentation, and none of these involve any discussion of which neurons are firing in their brain or the effects of space-time on their scientific decisions. Not all respected scientist accept the puritanical insistence of Science As Sole or Primary Access to the real. Physicist Sean Carroll in his “The Big Picture” tries to soften the blow with his “Poetic Naturalism”: the world is real in many ways, but not all ways.
Do Empiricism and Experimental Confirmation get to the purity of ‘the thing’? Sure, kind of; but who doesn’t start with the facts as they take them to be, and then work with them, manipulate their arrangement (Design) and then test how this works, if it works? Any Artist does this. Any Social Reformer does this. Any wood-working craftsperson does this. Any Parent does this. Does The New Product satisfy us? Does it meet our need, live up to our standards? Does it seem better to us? Does it work? Empiricism and testing is no monopoly of science.
Granted, good science has a strong tradition of analyzing an occurrence into its pieces as spread out over space and time, asking very specific questions, and looking for very clear indicators of outcome, but still! Other forms of Representation can be variously clear and precise too. Good Science is a great way to represent the world, but a bad Philosophy of Science is not.It is a logical fact deeply embedded in our concepts and our way of life that there is no way to totally eliminate “the subject” from “the object”! They are Designed to be together essentially; they are An Information!
Once you have torn “The World” into pieces, it’s hard to get it back together.
Persons don’t have One Right Way to “get in touch” with reality, a way that leaves all our other Representations as “secondary”, ‘icing on the cake’ or just plain ‘bu//sh!#’. Whether That Right Way be science, or some specific religion, or just plain “religion”, or even “Philosophy” — as some Specific Method— there is no One Right Way that ‘breaches the veil’ and gets Totally Beyond Ourselves. “Objects” do not exist in this way. All “objects’ exist for their appropriate “subjects”, their audience. It’s a bad philosophy of science that thinks that Science has pulled this off, any more than Religious Fundamentalism.
Artists, Scientists, Nurses, Teachers, Journalists, Politicians, Craftspersons all have their discipline’s history, their training, their standards and their goals of practice. They are Designed to do a job —use their tools— and create their product as Representations of “the way the world is.” Representing is very important to us, in this way. This is ‘the other side’ compared to causation. It is Our Agency, Our Responsibility, Our Ability to Know,and it is based in ‘Our World as it is Represented to Us.’
(Jimi Hendrix and Band, geese, mathematician, M.L. King : Creating The World as Musical, Aeronautical, Mathematical and Just.)
Participating in the Universe
So, I wrote “A design designates its environment” because this is a convenient place to start to tell this story about Participating With the Universe and The Worldin creating increasingly interesting things. Living creatures are Living Designs; they have their way of Representing the world and ‘seeing’ how this works out (Will it be Selected?). We see quite clearly in The Tree of Living Designs not only Various Abilities but Enhanced Abilities. This is the point where we can fairly and more easily Understand Our Representational Abilities to Originate as Part of Nature. We are designed, and we Represent the World. We Design Things that work, and we know we establish their “design parameters” that are Far Short of the entire universe as understood totally or by physics. Mother Nature does that with her designs,too.
So to avoid this quagmire of One Right Way and its attempted rupture of “subject” from “object”, This Blog has chosen to consider all Our Representations as equal, as representations; but with the proviso that None of Them Be Thought of as Getting Beyond Themselves to “Something” Beyond All Representation. For this philosophical position, TRUTH is the coordination and compatibility of our different traditional Forms of Representing. Redefinition and refinement is a vital part of this, as history clearly shows. Our goal it to make our Culture (our representations) work together better, be more coherent, and not so full of tension, contradiction, condescension and dismissal.
This isa Participation View of Reality and of Our World,not a Separation View where Reality exists without us, where “to Know” is to have The One Right Method that strips the thing known of any essential connection to us and our society’s beliefs. These kinds of Reductionism are “The One True God”, “The Universe in Itself“, and even “Tradition” as what must be true because it has always been so.
The Theory of Evolution is a very convenient segue between science and philosophy. It understands the world of designs and their inter-relatedness, and then establishes their Functional Needs and Abilities. This philosophy of Participation is a form of Structuralism and Holism. It Fulfills our lives and our understanding of Ourselves and Nature by Making One Coherent Thing Of It in a way most satisfying and appropriate to our times.
Citing Some Sources
This section is an addendum to the above. I thought it wise, at some point, to cite some sources. If you made it this far, maybe a question you have is “Where Does He Get All This Crap?” Does it just come flying out of my head, full blown and in armor, as was Athena born from the head of Zeus?
No, there are actually other people, and far more reputable than I, who believe and argue for positions similar to mine. Here are a few; the ones that have influenced me.
Of course, Dan Dennett, philosopher and chair of Tufts University’s Center forCognitive Studies. Most notably, his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) and “Dangerous” because it is so revolutionary, also From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). Dennett is not an easy read, though his Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (2013) is designed for popular consumption, though not one of my favorites. His classic early work, with Douglas Hofstadter, The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1985) is great fun and a very accessible collection of amazing ideas.
But Dennett is not out there alone. He is part of a long tradition (starting around 1900) in American philosophy called Pragmatism. It attempts to establish “middle ground” between Idealism (holism) and Empiricism (the pieces are most real). William James and John Dewey are two of its most prominent members. Dewey’s Experience and Nature (1925) and The Quest for Certainty (1929) are favorites.
In this tradition is a contemporary American philosopher, Richard Rorty. His “Introduction” to Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) may be the best short and accessible intro to these arguments that I know of. His Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) was foundational for me.
In the sciences, Richard Dawkins in evolutionary biology has championed the idea, to my way of thinking, that the world of life is like a gigantic set of nested bowls or Russian dolls; whatever you study opens up to larger and smaller subsets of coordinated holistic communities of parts. His Selfish Gene (1976) is a classic and very readable. The Blind Watchmaker (1986) is a must read. I have read most of what he has written, always fascinating and well written. Also the famous sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson, his TheDiversity of Life (1992), most convincingly demonstrates the designs of life thoroughly surrounded by other and related living designs. In psychology (and philosophy), Nicholas Humphrey’s A History of the Mind: Evolution and Birth of Consciousness (1992) is great and one I need to read again. In the hard sciences, my bible is physicist Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Well written and highly informative, but also philosophical with his “Poetic Naturalism” argument—there are many ways we need to see the world is real,but not every way; we can eliminate a lot as highly unreasonable.
One last classic, to me, venerable Alfred North Whitehead’sScience and the Modern World (1925). Logician, mathematician, philosopher and marvelously erudite, his early chapters in this book frame the dilemma between science and culture in general as no other.
Thank you so much, for your time and hopefully your support. GregWW
(On a roll here today at the Nature Religion Connection. High on yesterday’s Social Solidarity: “Black Lives Matter”, as do all. Upon reading “the added Therapy to my 12 Dose Regimen” (the previous post), I felt it needed to return to its main points in the end. But it was already long, so here is a Summary as an addendum. Start where ever you like, here or there. I do believe I’m refining my message! Thanks for your patience.
This post has been added to In The Garden category. For surely, plants are Designs and they Designate — Design-Ate — their immediate environment into the Forms of Kindred Plants, and needed animals natural material substance. Every plant ‘reaches out’ into The World and makes it Its World,in this way. It Design-Ates.)
A design does “designate its environment.” Like Fractal Art, and The Tree of Life, Mother Nature and Human Persons have filled Our Environment with kindred designs and products. ‘The World’ has now become “Our World” in this way.
As such, we can say, and in a way we do say, “Our world is an In-Formation.” All these designs share a common origin and great commonalities of structure. So, in addition, we share an “out look”. We are not primarily Caused to behave when we interact in “our world”; we act Freely and Creatively based on our Communication with our kindred designs. We pick up on All The Information and act upon that! I have argued this is how “to know” by Participating with them, and not by removing ourselves to some supposed lofty outside perch.
For this Participation View of Reality, designed things Represent Their World, and this is a constant feed-back loop. We create and test new approaches. We are very much familiar with this in our own lives, and we intuit it in the other designs around us. It is a mistaken philosophical position to think that we will ever ‘escape’ our representations and get to “the thing-in-itself”. This is not attaining “naked Truth” but a delusion that has held us captive and is no longer of good use. It has torn our world apart, pitting one ‘True Belief’ against another: Christian vs. Muslim, science vs. religion, subjectivity vs. objectivity, value vs. fact.
What is true is what allows us to act more coherently with other members of our culture —politically and morally— and the other cultures we communicate with. What is true is to attain greater compatibility betweenour different forms of Representation. Religious Fundamentalists are mistaken because their antiquated and literal interpretations clash with the very Cell phones in their pocket and jet aircraft they board to travel at near supersonic speeds. Scientists are often wrong because they think art and morals are simply matters of opinion. The “Far Left” and the “Far Right” are wrong because they believe the other side is simply evil. Our various representations of the world can and need to be modified and refined in light of The Value of Solidarity. Is this not what much of history has been about? In this way, we will achieve lives that are more fulfilled, on the whole.
From the Backyard Sanctuary: Two kinds of Columbine, a Sunflower, a white German Bearded Iris, and a Water Hyacinth in bloom. Living Design creates more Design! Photos by GWW.
Nature and Religion, THERE IS A CONNECTION. (Drawing by Marty)
(The 12th And Final Dose in “The Meaning of Life” series. “Hold on to your hats”, I hope it is a good one! And only about 16 paragraphs long—well, that is a blessing in itself! )
So “meaning” exits within a design: each is an Information. The design’s parts are meaningfully connected and its relation beyond itself to, what we may figuratively call, “the world” is just as legitimately called “its world”. This is to say, Designs designate “their environment”. An environment is as much a part of a living thing as is any of its bodily parts. What is a “fin” without its water, or a “wing” with no air? Each of these Function in a Coherent Level of Vocabulary. The design and it environment are “internally connected”, connected by “definition”, necessarily connected and not continently connected. It makes as little sense to say, an animal has “wings” and no “air”to “fly” in, as to say it has “blood” but no “heart” to pump it. An animal and its environment are Reflections of each other. They are Representations of each other.
And to Persons, Meaning exists as the relationship of the parts —Persons— that compose “the Human Social Organism“ and as our representations of our environment and ourselves that we constantly seek to affirm and revise according to our needs. A meaningful relation, or an information relation, is a relation between things connected by definition, like “hunger-food”,”nurse-patient”,“teacher-student”, “car-highway”, “owner-worker”,”politician-constituency”, scientist-scientific community, parent-child, wife-husband, but also relationships—as are the former— based in Principle and Standard: The Law meaningfully or internally relates Lawyers, Judges, Police, Criminals and Citizens. These are Informed Relations, and we are always trying to Refine, Reform and Redefine these relationships of design. Many, many, actions and reactions must and will then take place between these parts but not primarily as Causal Interactions. Parts “inform” each other; they communicate through meaning. Just as you and I are trying to do now. I am not trying to cause you, I am trying to convince you, to believe this. That is A huge Distinction!
Between Designs, like a hammer and a nail
But this is not the only place that Meaning and its attendant Information exists. Not only within a design, but between Designs do meaningful and informed relations exist. For example, the original birds (like our original aircraft) were clumsy flyers, barely able to get off the ground for just long enough or high enough to escape the grasp of a predator, or attain some kind of advantage. But through the language and communication of DNA, trail and error, and the natural selection of the group of designs around it (Mother Nature), the abilities of birds has blossomed; consider them now!
These improvements are an enhanced valuation.Reasons and Values do lie in Nature, and “flight” has been rather thoroughly exploited (see Dose 1), but not by causal forces, but by the enhancement of meaningful information. The design of birds has flourished; they have built off the successes and failures of their predecessors. “Information is design worth getting,” contends philosopher and theorist Dan Dennett.
The Transcendental Whole
The Tree of Life is a real and gigantic web of interconnected designs and their behaviors. As a Person makes a statement, a bird makes a “call” or embarks on some other behavior. Within that bird’s Community of Related Designs, a response is almost inevitable. A potential “mate” or “mating rival” signals back. A “predator” takes notice, and moves in that direction. The human being in whose backyard this is occurring, complains to his wife, “That noisy Wren just never stops yapping.”
A Person, also, acts. The Community of Persons who are their audience respond to that Meaning. Similar to the Wren, each person is Communicating based on their shared Information. This is the concept of Meaning as both for the individual and for a community or society (Dose 10). Here we come headlong into politics, religion, philosophy, and practical necessity. The Human Social Organism is best Designed to Act in coordination and agreement. IN THE PAST, WE HAVE ESCAPED THIS ACCURATE UNDERSTANDING OF OUR DESIGN— our desire for consensus and unified action-–by designating some groups “Non-Persons”. We did this by standards we now, almost universally, agree were misguided and ignorant due to limitation and misguided ‘self’-interest.
The Tree of Life as a massive Community of Shared and Essential Information!
And , now, the million dollar question: Does The Tree of Life have a direction? Is it “growing toward the sun” in some figurative sense, like a plant does literally? Can we understand a Meaning to it, in this sense?
We have already argued for the improvement in the ability to fly in animals including humans. Biologist Richard Dawkins cites a common natural feedback loop he calls “An Arms Race.” Closely associated animals and plants compete for survival and in this way Improve their designs and abilities. Improving degrees of camouflage is one example; the defensive benefits of herds and schools is another. For predators, group hunting techniques are more effective for many animals.
In Dose 1, I started this entire series with the contention that “There are Reasons in Nature.” There are reasons “to fly”, “to swim”, “to grow tall”,“to hunt”, “to hide”, “to become poisonous” and many animals (and plants) have done so and done so with increasing capacity.
We have become Self-Aware
“Design” is embodied Reasons; it is “know-how”, argues Dennett. Living creatures “know how” to do things —it is “built in”— but do not“know that” they do them. Human Persons are the animal that not only “knows how” to do many things but also “knows that” we do them (Dose 2). We not only ‘stand under’ our Related Designs, so to speak, but we have come to “understand” many of them. We “know how” scientists have Reasons for what they do; they follow agreed upon standards and traditions, as do parents, doctors, artists, teachers and crafts persons. We have become aware of our Reasons for action –our “know how”– as no other living thing has become aware of theirs.
So, yes, we can justifiably “see”, “intuit”, “feel” a Direction In Our Living World. From our Informed Point of View, this is a legitimate meaning for us. And many have professed this before but generally in the language of what we now can call “superstition”. It was a misrepresentation that can be replaced by a the more convincing and coherent Naturalistic Language of Transcendencepresented in these blogs.* Human action and Nature can be understood “to fit together” through this new and well-rounded, grand philosophical representation.
Our Grandest Intuition
So, for thoughtful modern Persons, “The Meaning of Life” lies in much of what we already do, but now we can understand it better and feel more confidence in it. Meaning is not some fluffy and idiosyncratic “subjectivity” by comparison to hard and certain ‘objective’ facts. Meaning is the “Design” and “Direction” we sense about us; it is the Unified Action of Nature and “Human Nature” in the creation of increasingly complex and interesting Objects.
When we act according to the naturally and historically tested and proven Standards and Principles of Various Ethics —art, science, nurturance (parenting, teaching, healing, ecology), craftsmanship, and even politics — life does have Meaning. Our coherence of belief and action is a Value often achieved in these Human Practices,but one still too far in abeyance in many situations. It is these nagging short-falls that rob us of the satisfaction of our grandest intuition:a more complete Unity of Persons and a more complete Unity with Nature. That would make for A MODERN NATURE RELIGION CONNECTION !
We can create a more Meaningful Human and Natural Existence! It is a Coming Together.
The 12th and Final ‘Dose’ in “The Meaning of Life, in twelve easy doses” series.
(Time to climb off my soapbox or, should I say, climb down from my pulpit. Thanks for having the patience to stick with me. I really had a good time. I hope you picked up on at least acouple of ideas for your effort. It is important to add, I have been thinking and reading about these ideas for a long, long, time. It is wonderful to finally ‘get them down’, regardless of what this may come to. I feel very lucky. Thanks to my wife for having the grace to put up with me.)
On a Biographical Note: I guess the moral of the story is, Once a Catholic, Always a Catholic (or at least kind of). Actually, I am an atheist, but something or other sure did stick from my religious up-bringing. My mother, rest her ‘soul’, always told me she named me after this guy, Pope St Gregory the Great (painting by Joseph Marie Vien). I surely do not claim any Inspiration as depicted here, nor any of the “greatness” or “saintliness” of this earlier Gregory, though I have been writing a lot lately, and he is said to have been prolific. He was Pope from the year 590 to his death in 604 ‘ad domino ‘. He is considered “a Doctor of the Church” and thought of favorably by even John Calvin, who considered him the last of the good popes. Well, make of this what you will! It is rather humorous, at least. He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students and teachers, and I love music and became a teacher, and I am always studying. I guess we Gregory’s just stick together. “Do Do Do Do!” (Theme from Twilight Zone for younger readers or those from a different culture). Thanks again, GregWW