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What kills all the living does not die. What gives birth to all the living is not born. It is something that sends all beings off and welcomes all beings in, destroys all and completes all. Its name is the Tranquility of Turmoil.— Zhuangzi (tr. Ziporyn 2009, 44)
In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven![next]Her untitled mamafesta memorialising the Mosthighest has gone by many names at disjointed times.— Finnegans Wake 104
How does one self, system or logos differ, and yet agree, with itself? According to Heraclitus, they (the usual “they”) don't comprehend how a thing agrees at variance with itself: οὐ ξυνιᾶσιν ὅκως διαφερόμενον ἑωυτῷ ὁμολογέει· παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη ὅκωσπερ τόξου καὶ λύρης. This fragment featuring the bow and lyre is translated differently in Chapter 3, where palintropos harmonié is ‘an attunement turning back on itself.’ Does that help to explain how something differing with itself agrees with itself [διαφερόμενον ἑωυτῷ ὁμολογέει]? (That last word comes into English as homology.)
Diapheromenon, ‘differing,’ derives from the verb phero, the root sense of which is “carry”; from the Latin equivalent we get words like “transfer,” “defer,” “refer” and so on – also “Lucifer” the light-bearer. With prefix dia-, the Greek verb means “to carry over or across, to carry from one to another.” Moving something elsewhere makes a difference in location, while the something remains the same thing. Or it's a variation on the same theme if it moves elsewhen.
But the verb diaphero can also mean going through one's life or living through a time. Now we imagine a time (such as a lifetime) as a space in which movement represents living itself as changing, so that presence itself continues to change and changes to continue. Your felt sense of living though a time may be of carrying yourself forward (“carrying on”) through the space of time, or of life carrying you along (as a river carries a raft), or even as standing in the river of time (like a rock or a reed) while it streams past or over you. But the primal sense of the difference between today's life and yesterday's, coupled with the continuity of the flow of time, is of one life changing. A living system is changing while continuing to be the same system. There is no living without changing, and no changing without time, though lives differ greatly in the time scales at which they operate.
At any rate, movement in space is an external change from a subject's point of view, but may also be an internal change to the ecosystem inhabited by the subject – or to the sentient being whose world is inside out. For such beings, life is all about synchronizing internal with external changes. We synch as we swim, or we sink. We read the river of the time and the flotsam and jetsam it carries along with us, and the flow of information feeding back and forth in our practiception makes the difference that makes a difference between synching and sinking. Living implies differing with oneself in order to continue; if practiception is fully synchronized with the flow of the time we inhabit, there is only the one self continuing to differ and arraying itself as the form of the entire world. This is what Dogen calls ‘the total experience of a single thing’. Behave yourself: turn out, tune on, drop off. [next]
My uniform experience has convinced me that there is no other God than Truth.— Gandhi, Autobiography
For me the voice of God, of Conscience, of Truth or the Inner Voice or ‘the still small Voice’ mean one and the same thing.— Gandhi, Harijan (1933, July 8)
If intuition is an inner voice— how do I know how I am to obey it? And how do I know that it doesn't mislead me? For if it can guide me right, it can also guide me wrong.— Wittgenstein, PI I.213
Who guides those whom God has led astray?And what good is guidance if you keep it to yourself?— Qur'án 30:29 (Cleary)
Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.[next]— Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
Let us inquire into the role of consciousness in this process. Thomas Metzinger begins here:
First, let’s not forget that evolution is driven by chance, does not pursue a goal, and achieved what we now consider the continuous optimization of nervous systems in a blind process of hereditary variation and selection.But if evolution has achieved ‘what we now consider the continuous optimization of nervous systems,’ why can't we say that this was (and is) an intrinsic ‘goal’ of evolution, a final cause, before anyone considered it? Surely a real tendency (or intention) does not need to be consciously chosen in order to guide a process in a general direction. Why not say that a ‘goal’ of evolution is the development of guidance systems, of what Peirce calls self-control? Wouldn't any real guidance system, no matter how primitive, have a tendency to optimize itself? After all, no process can be driven by ‘chance,’ although chance may contribute to the variation which is necessary in order for selection to operate. Nothing can be driven unless in some direction, and that directedness may itself evolve, from vague tendency to preconscious intention to conscious purpose, from natural selection to ethical inquiry. [next]— Metzinger 2009, 55
Lotman's semiosphere includes all of human culture; Hoffmeyer (1993) uses the term in a way that includes Lotman's but also extends beyond it to include the entire semiotic universe (Deely 2001, 629). [next]
A good guidance system must be simple enough to be decisive, and complex enough to be careful.
Simplicity is required because attention is limited. The fewer decisions you have to make consciously, and the less time it takes to make them, the more well-marked your path. Conscious thinking slows down your response to your situation: its one advantage is that it allows you in the long run to improve your set of habits. Your investment of time and effort – in considering possible courses of action, and turning some of them into habits through actual or anticipated practice, to the point where they become ‘second nature’ – is repaid when your body can handle now-familiar situations on its own, leaving your conscious attention free for more significant things.
Consciousness is the narrow neck of the Klein bottle of mind. Passing through this bottleneck, intention becomes the experience of conscious will, perception becomes the experience of conscious awareness of the world, and the implicit model of the world becomes an explicit description. It is a bottleneck because working memory is so limited, attention so narrowly focused and conscious decision-making so slow that very little “content” flows through it – but its emergy is high in transformity. [next]
The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them.[next]— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 94)
Two dangers never cease threatening the world: order and disorder.— Paul Valéry, ‘Crisis of the Mind’ (1919)
Mere man is mimic: God is jest. The old order changeth and lasts like the first. Every third man has a chink in his conscience and every other woman has a jape in her mind.[next]— The Restored Finnegans Wake, 377
So there you are, trying to imagine a story in which you might be a character who makes a difference – or at least, even if you're only an extra, a story with a plot, one that goes somewhere. [next]
Evolution has speeded itself up before, for instance with the advent of sexual reproduction. That innovation enlarged the space for variation of the genetic code: now each new individual represented a remix of the genotype, consisting of parts drawn from two genetic texts. Space for variation (or polyversity) is a prerequisite for evolution to be guided by selection; the advent of cultural variation, mediated by symbolic coding, entails a leap into hyperspace. But it also entails the challenge of learning to navigate this greatly expanded space.
Navigation, as before, is guided from within the organic system, so an external guidance system has to be partially internalized in order to do its job. To inhabit a cultural universe, or to adapt one's habits to it, takes time. As the technology of producing, transferring and retrieving texts improves, they proliferate far faster than they can be incorporated into our behavior. No wonder we humans are so much more bewildered than our wild cousins, who aren't distracted by symbolic media or inundated by floods of information. But they do suffer, to the point of extinction, from the effects of human bewilderment, proliferation and overconsumption.
We are bewildered because we are still wild at the biological core of our being, and the core process of all learning – including evolution itself – works by trial and error. Cultural evolution through the proliferation of external guidance systems has enormously amplified the possibilities of trial, the polyversity of “success”, and the effects of error. The question now is whether we can learn enough from our trials to avoid being overtaken by the consequences of our errors.
One early attempt to map the urgency of this complex situation onto a simple graphic device was the Doomsday Clock, introduced by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947. On this clock, ‘midnight’ stood for a nuclear holocaust, and the imminence of the danger of such a catastrophe was represented by the position of the minute hand. Starting at 7 minutes to midnight, the Clock (i.e. the minute hand) was moved forward or back every few years to indicate changes in the global situation, as seen by conscientious members of the scientific community. In January 2007 a new dimension was added: the clock was moved up to 5 minutes to midnight (closer to ‘Doomsday’ than it had been since 1988), taking into account this time the threat of a gradual global-heating holocaust along with renewed dangers of a sudden nuclear catastrophe. By 2018 the time had reached 2 minutes to midnight, and on 23 January 2020 the Bulletin reduced the 2 minutes to 100 seconds.
The irony in all this is that the faculty which enables us to reduce such a complex situation to a simple symbol is the same faculty which enables us to make such a mess of the situation in the first place. By learning to map the implicit intricacy of life onto explicit symbols, we set the stage for artificial intervention into complex natural processes. Now we are learning how lethal such intervention can be; yet the control of social media by ‘surveillance capitalism,’ with its extensive data mining and algorithms designed for profit-making, are being used to distract us more than ever from living the time. — 13 September 2020 [next]
As individuals, we all feel the need for some degree of control. It is a component of ‘flow,’ and works as a ‘coping’ mechanism even after real control has ceased to exist. This is part of our biological heritage; a 2006 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health identified a ‘circuitry of resilience’ in the rat brain which functions so that ‘experiencing control over a stressor immunizes a rat from developing a depression-like syndrome when it later encounters stressors that it can't control,’ according to the NIMH news release.
In any case, we have to live with the consequences of our decisions, and with the unpredictability of those consequences, and with the fact that – due to circumstances beyond our control – we have no choice but to make choices. [next]
Heraclitus was quoted as writing, around 600 B.C., that
The wise is one, knowing the plan by which it steers all things through all.The ‘knowing’ verb, ἐπίστασθαι, usually connotes mastery (literally ‘standing over’). But the exact form of the ‘steering’ verb κυϐερνῆσαι being uncertain (see Kahn 1979, 170), we might also translate ‘the thought by which all things steer themselves through all things.’ ‘Steer themselves’ would translate κυβερνᾶται, one of the most plausible readings (according to Kahn): being in the Greek middle voice, neither active nor passive, this reading is compatible with the concepts of autopoiesis, self-organization and enaction.
ἓν τὸ σοφόν· ἐπίστασθαι γνώμην ὅκη κυϐερνῆσαι πάντα διὰ πάντων.Kahn 1979, 54
Various forms of the verb κυβερνάω (Greek root of the English govern) were commonly used in a ‘standard metaphor of cosmic steering’ (Kahn 1979, 272) even before Heraclitus. In the mid-20th century, the same Greek word was used to name the new field of cybernetics.
If Heraclitus did use the middle voice, this would open up a curious connection with another discipline developing in the early 20th century, generally called phenomenology. According to Henry Corbin:
The etymological meaning of the word ‘phenomenon,’ taken in the precise technical sense of phenomenology, is very much the original meaning of the Greek word phainomenon. This is the present participle of a verb in the middle voice; i.e., the subject is manifesting, appearing, and being shown to itself and for itself. It is the middle, the medium, the medial voice of the verb.— Corbin 1948 (1998, 24)
There could be a more-than-verbal connection between the Greek middle voice and the semiotic concept of mediation (Peirce's Thirdness), or the ‘middle way’ of Nagarjuna and Mahayana Buddhism. But English and its close relatives among languages lack a middle voice, so that our notion of ‘appearing’ tends to split into ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ while ‘control’ tends to split into a controller (active) and a controlled (passive). Cybernetics was defined by Norbert Wiener as ‘the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine’ (Ashby 1956, 1). Some outsiders suspected that it was more about control of the animal (and human) by mechanical means, which was not the intention of the early cyberneticists.
Three centuries earlier, Descartes had used the same nautical metaphor, but without the sense that the living body steers itself; for him the body was merely a passive mechanism, and guidance was done by a separate mind or soul, the spiritual captain of the physical ship. This particular dualism has infected our thinking ever since. Intentionally or not, the word control tends to conjure up the dualistic vision of a controlling agency – captain, director, governor, dictator, boss – and a relatively passive subject (subject in the political sense of one who is governed). Once institutionalized, this becomes a domination system (Borg 2001) rather than a self-guidance system. Jean-Pierre Dupuy criticizes ‘the unfortunate choice of the very name “cybernetics”’ as ‘implying a theory of command, governance, and mastery’ (Petitot et al. 1999, 558). We can avoid some of these misconceptions by using the word guidance rather than control because it seems less suggestive of domination.
Even the notion of self-control may seem to split the whole self into two parts, with one imagined as controlling the other – although in Peirce's usage, the continuity of semiosis involved in self-control is never in doubt.
Setting aside word choice, though, it seems that cybernetics (at least in its early days) was working with the same central ideas of closure and circularity that later found their way into autopoiesis theory and into this book.
Cybernetics might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control – systems that are ‘information-tight.’– or to put it another way, systems that are self-informed, ‘autonomous agents’ who are not directly controlled by external agencies.— Ashby 1956, 4
Introducing an article about her father (Gregory Bateson) and mother (Margaret Mead), Mary Catherine Bateson provides this concise retrospective view of cybernetics:
Both my parents played important roles roles in the early development of cybernetics, participating for over a decade in the search for ways of thinking about the behavior of systems, their formal similarities and interactions, that could connect biology and the social sciences and inform various kinds of engineering and design … The way an organism adjusts to circumstances has similarities to the way a ‘smart’ missile stays on course, so by the time of my parents' deaths the term had largely been usurped by engineering and computer science and had become associated in popular usage with mechanical, inhuman constructions.— M.C. Bateson (2004, 44)
Polanyi (1962) was already associating the term with such mechanistic models. Likewise Robert Rosen (2000, Chapter 19) lumps cybernetics with information theory, ‘bionics’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ as developments of the organism-as-machine metaphor which goes back to Descartes. According to Rosen, ‘mechanical constructions’ were of the essence of these disciplines right from the beginning, because they never treated systems as complex in Rosen's sense of the word. They were all simple because they were mechanical, whereas for Rosen ‘organism and machine are different in kind’ (2000, 295).
The difference between Rosen's perspective and Bateson's on this episode in history can serve to remind us that understanding what is meant by ‘complex’ in any given context is anything but simple. Rosen himself says that his own usage of the term ‘is completely different from that employed heretofore. This is unfortunate, but there were no other terms that could be used. In von Neumann's terminology, every system is simple in my sense; what he calls complex I would merely call complicated’ (2000, 292). It was von Neumann who developed methods of quantifying ‘complexity,’ says Rosen (2000, 289), ‘and complexity in this sense became an explanatory principle for the characteristics of life’ – all of which kept ‘life’ firmly within the mechanical domain. But Rosen (2000, 303) also observes that a system controlling the system's response to its environment amounts to a model of the environment – which brings us back to the meaning cycle.
These changing conceptions of ‘control’ and ‘complexity’ have taken yet another turn with the advent of infodynamics, linking information and thermodynamics. Salthe defines infodynamics as
the science of information changes in systems, especially in systems that are informed primarily from within. A combination of nonequilibrium thermodynamics and information theory based on the idea that, just as energy transformations lead to an increase in entropy, so do they, at least when viewed from within a system, lead to increases in information.The term (first used by David Depew and Bruce Weber in the late 1980s) reflects the twin sources of the concept. It differs from Shannon's original information theory by focusing on nonequilibrium thermodynamics, a field not yet developed in Shannon's time. While it remains a mathematical model, the ‘view from within’ or ‘internalist perspective’ embodied in infodynamics (Salthe 1993, 2004) aims to model dimensions of meaning not reflected in Shannon's information theory. [next]— Salthe (1993, 315)
in human as well as nonhuman species, functions seem to be apportioned asymmetrically to the cerebral hemispheres, for reasons which probably have to do with the need for one final controller rather than two, when it comes to choosing an action or a thought. If both sides had equal say on making a movement, you might end up with a conflict – your right hand might interfere with the left, and you would have a lesser chance of producing coordinated patterns of motion involving more than one limb.It does in fact happen to patients whose brains have been surgically split (by cutting the corpus callosum) that the right hand may interfere with or undo what the left is doing, or vice versa. Language functions are dominated by structures in one hemisphere of the brain (for 95% of us, the left hemisphere). On the other hand(!), right-hemisphere dominance is a feature of the somatosensory system, coordinating the various neural ‘maps’ representing the state of the body with reference to touch, temperature, pain, joint position and visceral state. The resulting ‘dynamic map’ is essential to the integrated body-sense required for any whole-body performance. Perception of external space also shows right-hemisphere dominance (Damasio 1994, 66); the body can only perform in some space.— Damasio (1994, 66)
The necessity of dominance is reflected in the gospel statement that one cannot serve two masters at the same time. We find the Thomas version in Saying 47:
(1) Jesus said, “A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. (2) And a servant cannot serve two masters, or that servant will honor the one and offend the other. (3) No person drinks aged wine and immediately desires to drink new wine. (4) New wine is not poured into aged wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil. (5) An old patch is not sewn onto a new garment, for there would be a tear.”The relationships among the various parts of 47 are somewhat vague, though all are related to the general notion of compatibility. The wine metaphor is an interesting choice because new wine is generally considered inferior to the old, whereas new discoveries or revelations seem to be valued above old habits or institutions in this Gospel as a whole. What does this tell us if we apply the wine/wineskin metaphor to the content/form distinction in language? And how does this relate to the clothing metaphor which follows?(NHS)
Those familiar with Chan/Zen Buddhism may connect that final sentence with the frequent references to monastic ‘home-leavers’ as ‘patch-robed monks,’ and with Dogen's injunction: ‘According to the usual practice of buddhas, a robe of discarded cloth is regarded as excellent’ (Tanahashi 2000, 84). The monk determined to liberate all beings takes up (redeems, resurrects?) what others have discarded, just as the stone rejected by the builders becomes the cornerstone of the temple.
Several sayings in Thomas (and other gospels) seem to use clothing to represent “worldly” values as opposed to “spiritual” values. Here are three examples:
Jesus says: ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’— Thomas 78 (5G)
Jesus said, ‘Do not be concerned from morning until evening and from evening until morning about what you will wear.’— Thomas 36 (Lambdin)
(1) His disciples said, “When will you appear to us and when shall we see you?” (2) Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, (3) then [you] will see the child of the living one and you will not be afraid.”One meaning of habit in English is ‘a suit of clothes.’ If home is a habit, disrobing is home-leaving. Both are a matter of starting again with direct experience, or ‘the total experience of a single thing’. If home is where everybody knows you and you know it all, leaving home is living where you are for the first time. [next]— Thomas 37 (NHS)
I believe the common, everyday meaning of the concept of causation is entirely pragmatic. In other words, we use the word cause for events that might be controllable. In the philosophical literature controllable is the equivalent of the idea of power. Bishop Berkeley thought it obvious that cause cannot be thought of apart from the idea of power (e.g., Taylor, 1972). In other words, the value of the concept of causation lies in its identification of where our power and control can be effective. For example, while it is true that bacteria and mosquitos follow the laws of physics, we do not usually say that malaria is caused by the laws of physics (the universal cause). That is because we can hope to control bacteria and mosquitos, but not the laws of physics. When we say that the lack of vitamin C is a cause of scurvy, all we mean is that vitamin C controls scurvy. A fundamental understanding or explanation of malaria or scurvy is an entirely different type of problem.This would explain why a group organized to change the existing social or political order, or gain some control over it, is also called a “cause.” In a similar vein, Karl Popper links the experience of manipulating objects (which begins in infancy) with the notion of determinism:— Pattee (1997)
Our inclination to think deterministically derives from our acts as movers, as pushers of bodies: from our Cartesianism. But today this is no longer science. It has become ideology.The sense of control and the derived concept of ‘cause and effect’ help us to cope with a complex world by reducing the vast interbeing of reality down to a few pragmatic control points. As Wegner (2002) shows, the experience of conscious control is such an expedient, and does not explain our decisions. Erving Goffman, concluding his study on The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, says much the same about the sense of self:— Popper (1990, 24)
In our society the character one performs and one's self are somewhat equated, and this self-as-character is usually seen as something housed within the body of its possessor, especially the upper parts thereof, being a nodule, somehow, in the psychobiology of personality. I suggest that this view is an implied part of what we are all trying to present, but provides, just because of this, a bad analysis of the presentation. In this report the performed self was seen as some kind of image, usually creditable, which the individual on stage and in character effectively attempts to induce others to hold in regard to him. While this image is entertained concerning the individual, so that a self is imputed to him, this self itself does not derive from its possessor, but from the whole scene of his action, being generated by that attribute of local events which renders them interpretable by witnesses. A correctly staged and performed scene leads the audience to impute a self to a performed character, but this imputation – this self – is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not a cause of it. The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited.The belief that microscopic agencies in the brain control or ‘cause’ our conscious experience is an even deeper illusion, introjecting the deterministic ideology. Freeman (1999b) concurs with all this, arguing that our concept of cause and effect is pragmatically useful only within a framework of linear thinking – which cannot accommodate the ‘circular causality’ by which mind and body are reciprocally guided. A fully developed model of living guidance must include a hierarchy of systemic levels, at least those immediately above and below the focal level of the organism.— Goffman (1959, 252-3)
Our attempts to amplify and project the feeling of conscious control often lead to confusion about the relationship between the phenomenal world and the physical world (for instance, the “mind-body problem” and the attempt to explain how experience is “caused” by brain dynamics). They also lead to our tendency to trash the planet, as Gregory Bateson insisted in a provocative lecture called ‘Conscious Purpose Versus Nature’ (Bateson 1972). The trouble with ‘conscious purpose,’ for Bateson, is that the selectivity or partiality of consciousness can give us a distorted view of the whole purposes of whole systems, and this can be disastrous when our attempts to control systems are thus biased. (See M.C. Bateson 2004, 359ff., for a reassessment of this view.)
Guidance, as used here, is a more comprehensive and less deterministic concept than control. The steersman's control of the ship is only one small aspect of what guides it to port, and all of nature has some role in creating the circumstances in which that control can be meaningful. In the same vein, we could say that context guides meaning. This implication may be reflected in other pre-Socratic uses of the cyber- root besides those of Heraclitus (above). For instance, Aristotle says that Anaximander (among other early speculators about nature) held that the apeiron (‘infinite’ or ‘indefinite’) ‘surrounds and steers’ all things (Kirk and Raven 1957, 114). This is clearly what Pattee calls a ‘universal cause’ rather than a control point like the ship's rudder.
If the navigator asks not only how to get to Egypt, but also, as Plato wanted, why go there, and what purposes are worthwhile, naturally that would seem to disorganize the science of navigation. (Or would it get us out of the bind of technological splits between how and why, facts and values, physical and human, and so on? Would it lead to new concepts that could apply across?)[next]— Gendlin (1998, VIII-B)
An ens rationis may be defined as a subject whose being consists in a Secondness, or fact, concerning something else. Its being is thus of the nature of Thirdness, or thought. Any abstraction, such as Truth and Justice, is an ens rationis. That does not prevent truth and Justice from being real powers in the world without any figure of speech.Lowell Lecture 5, 1903 (R 469, CSP 8)
Abstraction, as the logical process or practice which generates entia rationis, is crucial to the development of concepts. Peirce (CP 4.235) called it ‘hypostatic abstraction’ to distinguish it from other kinds (such as ‘prescissive abstraction’).
In order to conceive of a sign's implications for future conduct – that is, of its actual meaning – we objectify its depth. ‘When we speak of the depth, or signification, of a sign we are resorting to hypostatic abstraction, that process whereby we regard a thought as a thing, make an interpretant sign the object of a sign’ (Peirce, EP2:394). ‘That wonderful operation of hypostatic abstraction by which we seem to create entia rationis that are, nevertheless, sometimes real, furnishes us the means of turning predicates from being signs that we think or think through, into being subjects thought of’ (CP 4.549, 1906).
The question of whether apparently mind-created things can be real was the crux of debate between the scholastic realists and the nominalists, and Peirce declared himself (here as elsewhere) on the realist side by saying that entia rationis are ‘sometimes real.’ But why bother to think about thought-signs at all? Because consciousness of semiosis (i.e. semiotic awareness) enables higher grades of self-control.
Abstraction, says Peirce, is ‘the basis of voluntary inhibition, which is the chief characteristic of mankind’ (EP2:394); and ‘self-control of any kind is purely inhibitory’ (EP2:233). This has a psychological aspect, as shown by V.S. Ramachandran in his attempt to explain why ‘mirror’ circuits in the motor system only rarely cause us to imitate the actions of others.
In the case of motor mirror neurons, one answer is that there may be frontal inhibitory circuits that suppress the automatic mimicry when it is inappropriate. In a delicious paradox, this need to inhibit unwanted or impulsive actions may have been a major reason for the evolution of free will. Your left inferior parietal lobe constantly conjures up vivid images of multiple options for action that are available in any given context, and your frontal cortex suppresses all but one of them. Thus it has been suggested that “free won’t” may be a better term than free will. When these frontal inhibitory circuits are damaged, as in frontal lobe syndrome, the patient sometimes mimics gestures uncontrollably, a symptom called echopraxia.— Ramachandran 2011, Kindle Locations 2237-2242
If it seems a bit strange to say that voluntary inhibition (rather than voluntary action) is ‘the chief characteristic of mankind,’ reflect that in practice we cannot choose to do anything unless we can imagine a range of possible actions, or at least some ideal of practice which can be compared to the action contemplated. The person who reacts automatically to any situation, without stopping to think whether another response might be better, is incapable not only of self-control but of any deliberate act. The ability to choose a better course of action implies a more or less conscious comparison with some ideal standard of conduct. The more consciously choices are made, the higher the grade of self-control, as Peirce explains in a 1905 passage (CP 5.533):
To return to self-control … of course there are inhibitions and coördinations that entirely escape consciousness. There are, in the next place, modes of self-control which seem quite instinctive. Next, there is a kind of self-control which results from training. Next, a man can be his own training-master and thus control his self-control. When this point is reached much or all the training may be conducted in imagination. When a man trains himself, thus controlling control, he must have some moral rule in view, however special and irrational it may be. But next he may undertake to improve this rule; that is, to exercise a control over his control of control. To do this he must have in view something higher than an irrational rule. He must have some sort of moral principle. This, in turn, may be controlled by reference to an esthetic ideal of what is fine. There are certainly more grades than I have enumerated. Perhaps their number is indefinite. The brutes are certainly capable of more than one grade of control; but it seems to me that our superiority to them is more due to our greater number of grades of self-control than it is to our versatility.
Logic itself, as a normative science – one which can distinguish between good and bad reasoning, or strong and weak inference – is a means of exercising control over control of self-control. ‘Logic regarded from one instructive, though partial and narrow, point of view, is the theory of deliberate thinking. To say that any thinking is deliberate is to imply that it is controlled with a view to making it conform to a purpose or ideal’ (EP2:376). In Peirce's view, recognition of that ideal is ultimately an esthetic judgment, to which most people (not being philosophers or logicians) give little critical attention. They settle instead for conformity to ‘a particular ideal’ which is ‘nothing but a traditional standard’ (EP2:377), and thus do not rise to the highest grade of self-control. This kind of conformity is often the most reliable guide in practical matters, and certainly stabilizes the community, but doesn't help it adapt to changing circumstances. Social transformation is more likely to emerge from the dynamic tention between individual and society – between internal and external guidance systems.
As for creativity, or “thinking outside the box” (as the usual cliché has it):
In my opinion, it is self-control which makes any other than the normal course of thought possible, just as nothing else makes any other than the normal course of action possible; and just as it is precisely that that gives room for an ought-to-be of conduct, I mean Morality, so it equally gives room for an ought-to-be of thought, which is Right Reason; and where there is no self-control, nothing but the normal is possible.[next]— Peirce, CP 4.540 (1906)
Its “authority” depends not on the ability of its authors to govern the community of speakers of the language, or to prescribe rules of word usage, but on their ability to accurately describe the standard usage prevailing in that community. Part of this task, however, is to recognize that some usage habits are better than others for the coherence of the language and for purposes of communication. Since any instance of such recognition can only be based on the cumulative experience of one language user, and is as fallible as any judgment, the ‘experts‘ may disagree on which observable usages are standard and which are not. They may also be biased in favor of their own social class in setting their standards.
The authors of a dictionary, by making implicit communal standards explicit, and by declaring some actual usage habits to be nonstandard (‘slang,’ ‘archaic,’ ‘rare’ etc.), are in effect prescribing usage habits for those who accept their descriptive authority. But that authority is based on the participation of the authors in the linguistic life of the whole community, not on their taking up a privileged position above it. If the dictionary is influential, the language tends to become what the authors describe – just as any cybernetic system (one self-governed by recursive or ‘feedback’ processes) develops self-control. Self-control (as opposed to remote control) is characteristic of living, semiotic and mental systems. As Gregory Bateson pointed out, ‘no part of such an internally interactive system can have unilateral control over the remainder or over any other part.’
Even in very simple self-corrective systems, this holistic character is evident. In the steam engine with a “governor,” the very word “governor” is a misnomer if it is taken to mean that this part of the system has unilateral control. The governor is, essentially, a sense organ or transducer which receives a transform of the difference between the actual running speed of the engine and some ideal or preferred speed. This sense organ transforms these differences into differences in some efferent message, for example, to fuel supply or to a brake. The behavior of the governor is determined, in other words, by the behavior of the other parts of the system, and indirectly by its behavior at a previous time.The holistic and mental character of the system is most clearly demonstrated by this last fact, that the behavior of the governor (and, indeed, of every part of the causal circuit) is partially determined by its own previous behavior. Message material (i.e., successive transforms of difference) must pass around the total circuit, and the time required for the message material to return to the place from which it started is a basic characteristic of the total system. This behavior of the governor (or any other part of the circuit) is thus in some degree determined not only by its immediate past, but by what it did at a time which precedes the present by the interval necessary for the message to complete the circuit. Thus there is a sort of determinative memory in even the simplest cybernetic circuit.The stability of the system (i.e. whether it will act self-correctively or oscillate or go into runaway) depends upon the relation between the operational product of all the transformations of difference around the circuit and upon this characteristic time. The “governor” has no control over these factors. Even a human governor in a social system is bound by the same limitations. He is controlled by information from the system and must adapt his own actions to its time characteristics and to the effects of his own past action.Thus, in no system which shows mental characteristics can any part have unilateral control over the whole. In other words, the mental characteristics of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole.— Gregory Bateson (1972, 315-16, his italics)
A beehive, for instance, is not ruled by a central authority; to imagine how it works, ‘a better image is the orderly growth of an individual body, brought about by communication between neighbouring cells. Work in the colony is organized by local communication between individuals.… global order can result from local rules’ (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1999, 133). Such ‘local rules’ are legisigns, general enough to govern a recurring series of interactions, and ‘local’ in the sense that each specific interaction is one token of the general type. Similarly, social order results from the implicit ‘rules’ governing local interactions among people, whether they have been legislated or not. [next]
Among this remarkable collection of abilities allowed by extended consciousness, two in particular deserve to be highlighted: first, the ability to rise above the dictates of advantage and disadvantage imposed by survival-related dispositions and, second, the critical detection of discords that leads to a search for truth and a desire to build norms and ideals for behavior and for the analyses of facts. These two abilities are not only my best candidates for the pinnacle of human distinctiveness, but they are also those which permit the truly human function that is so perfectly captured by the single word conscience.— Damasio (1999, 230)
The concept of conscientia is the original root concept from which all later terminologies in Roman languages and in English have developed. It is derived from cum (‘with,’ ‘together’) and scire (‘knowing’) and in classical antiquity, as well as in scholastic philosophy, predominantly referred to moral conscience or a common knowledge of a group of persons, again most commonly of moral facts. It is only since the seventeenth century that the interpretation of conscientia as a higher-order knowledge of mental states begins to dominate. Because cum can also have a purely emphatic function, conscientia also frequently just means to know something with great certainty. What the major Greek precursor concept of συνειδήσις shares with conscientia is the idea of moral conscience.— Metzinger (2003, 171n)
The Greek συνειδήσις, like Latin conscientia, compounds a verb meaning ‘to know’ with a prefix meaning ‘together with.’ The shorter word σύνεσις, literally ‘a coming together,’ could also mean ‘conscience’ as well as ‘sagacity’ (LS). In classical Greek the verbal form of suneidesis was sometimes used with a reflexive pronoun, so a literal translation would say ‘I know with myself’ (that some action is good or bad). This highlights the connection with self-consciousness (often called simply ‘consciousness’ in English).
Julian Jaynes (1976) developed a hypothesis that the Greeks of classical times were the first humans to be conscious – that is, the first to recognize that the guiding ‘voices’ which they heard were coming from themselves. According to Jaynes, humans before this point hallucinated these voices coming from distant or departed authority figures, or from statues of them, when in fact they were generated by the right hemisphere of the brain; thus they had ‘bicameral minds,’ divided between thoughts or ‘voices’ which they took to be their own and voices which they heard as coming from Others. This way of seeing (or rather hearing) things broke down when the Greeks internalized the voice of conscience, and the result was what we now call ‘consciousness.’
According to Damasio,
the nonconscious neural signaling of an individual organism begets the proto-self which permits core self and core consciousness, which allow for an autobiographical self, which permits extended consciousness. At the end of the chain, extended consciousness permits conscience.Damasio remarks that humanity has always been concerned with conscience, but the ‘preoccupation with what we call consciousness is recent – three and a half centuries perhaps – and has only come to the fore late in the twentieth century’ (231). Science is thus working its way from the basic level (conscience) back toward the beginning of this ‘chain’ of developments. For a closely related study focusing on the evolution of morality, see Goodenough and Deacon (2003). [next]— Damasio (1999, 230)
According to the inspiration of the Poetic Genius– and who in Blake is frequently identified with Jesus and with Mercy, as opposed to the vengeful and oppressive ‘moral law’ which is always trying to restrict human impulses and imagination. These views were surprisingly similar to C.S. Peirce's (recall the comparison and contrast of these two in Chapter 7), though their usage of the word ‘conscience’ was quite different.
Who is the eternal all-protecting Divine Humanity
In 1885, Peirce wrote a review of Josiah Royce's Religious Aspect of Philosophy, in which he says that a ‘sentiment’ of ‘christian charity’ is a much better guide to conduct than moral reasoning or ‘conscience’:
The moral stand-point from which every man with a christian training sets out, even if he be a dogmatic atheist, is pretty nearly the same. He has a horror of certain crimes and a disapproval of certain lesser sins. He is also more or less touched with the spirit of christian love, which he believes should be his beacon, and which in point of fact, by its power in his heart, shall and will govern him in all questions of disputed morals. More or less, in all of us, this sentiment replaces and abolishes conscience; like Huckleberry Finn, we act from christian charity without caring very much whether conscience approves of the act or not.Divine humanity? This might have seemed a blasphemous idea to a believer in orthodox Christian theology (could this have been a factor in Peirce's review being rejected by the editor?); but as you can see above, this is a central idea (and a phrase often used) in Blake – who also, like Peirce, criticized the official religious establishment as being indifferent or opposed to genuine ‘christian charity.’ (Maybe Peirce left ‘christian’ uncapitalized in order to distinguish it from official ‘Christianity’?) Of course Blake, in true prophetic style, expressed his aversion to the ‘27 Churches’ more emphatically than Peirce. In Jerusalem (38:19-23), the Christian churches are described asThis is the state of mind of the ordinary man or woman who will open Dr. Royce's book. And now Dr. Royce proposes that this person shall ask himself the question, what validity or truth is there in the distinction of right and wrong. To me, it plainly appears that such a person, if he have a clear head, will at once reply, right and wrong are nothing to me except so far as they are connected with certain rules of living by which I am enabled to satisfy a real impulse which works in my heart; and this impulse is the love of my neighbor elevated into a love of an ideal and divine humanity which I identify with the providence that governs the world.(EP1:238)
Brooding in holy hypocritic lust, drinking the cries of painBlake also used the word ‘providence’ in much the same sense as Peirce, referring to ‘Divine Providence as opposd to & distinct from Divine vengeance’ in A Vision of the Last Judgment. [next]
From howling victims of Law: building Heavens Twenty-seven-fold.
Swelld & bloated General Forms, repugnant to the Divine-
Humanity, who is the Only General and Universal Form
To which all Lineaments tend & seek with love & sympathy
All broad & general principles belong to benevolence
Who protects minute particulars, every one in their own identity.
Autopoesis involves autonomy, “self-governance.” According to Francisco Varela, ‘the key to autonomy is that a living system finds its way into the next moment by acting appropriately out of its own resources’ (Varela 1992, 11). The living system relies on its own guidance system to determine what kind of action is ‘appropriate.’ Social beings like humans are guided by “rules” (Greek nomoi) which depend on recognizing others as other selves who are likewise autopoietic and autonomous agents. Social systems rely on reciprocity – but then so do the genetic systems which guide the growth of agency itself.
Gary Marcus (2004) explains how the genes work to guide the development of the body, and of the brain in particular, so that it can serve as guidance system for the body. He calls the current understanding of how genes work ‘Autonomous Agent Theory’: ‘Every gene is a free agent authorized to act on its own’ (60). But in fact ‘no gene works on its own. Complex biological structures – whether we speak of the brain or of hearts or kidneys – are the products of the concerted actions and interactions of many genes, not just one’ (80).
On top of that there is mutual, reciprocal, interactive guidance going on between gene expression and external events:
The reason that animals can learn is that they can alter their nervous systems on the basis of external experience. And the reason they can do that is that experience itself can modify the expression of genes.‘Experience’ here refers primarily to the effect on an organism of interaction with its environment. But interaction can happen even when the experience is internally generated (Marcus, 108), so the self/other distinction needed to describe how experience happens does not necessarily fall between organism and environment. On the smaller-scale process of brain development, neurons migrate to specific locations, and project their axons to specific targets, as guided by a complex system of chemical signals which modify gene expression (Marcus 2004, Chapter 6).— Marcus (2004, 98)
Because all this goes on in an organism, it can use salient features of its world as a guidance system – as the indigo bunting, for instance, uses the rotation of the stars to guide its migratory flights. Now if only humanity could guide its own collective actions in that way … [next]
‘It is estimated that to support our present Earth population at the level enjoyed in North America would require two or three planets’ (Berry 1999, 114; in 2020, the number has grown to four). The irony is that the ‘level enjoyed in North America’ is not really enjoyed – like any addiction, it simply perpetuates its own craving. Actual enjoyment comes only with living the time free of cravings.
The cure for that addiction lies in the recognition of ‘big mind,’ as Shunryu Suzuki called it. Gregory Bateson said that we need to ‘expand mind outwards.’
Freudian psychology expanded the concept of mind inwards to include the whole communication system within the body – the autonomic, the habitual, and the vast range of unconscious process. What I am saying expands mind outwards. And both of these changes reduce the scope of the conscious self. A certain humility becomes appropriate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being part of something much bigger. A part – if you will – of God.
If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks and conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.
If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.— Bateson (1972, 461)
The unconscious, then, is not a closet full of skeletons in the private house of the individual mind; it is not even, finally, a cave full of dreams and ghosts in which, like Plato's prisoners, most of us spend most of our lives …
The unconscious is rather that immortal sea which brought us hither; intimations of which are given in moments of ‘oceanic feeling’; one sea of energy or instinct; embracing all mankind, without distinctions of race, language, or culture; and embracing all the generations of Adam, past, present, and future, in one phylogenetic heritage; in one mystical or symbolical body.— N.O. Brown (1966, 88-9)
We must recognize that the only effective program available as our primary guide toward a viable human mode of being is the program offered by the Earth itself.— Thomas Berry (1999, 71)
No special set of teachings will save the world. The world is only saved by continuous learning, which in the latter day redeems the former teachings. The savings and the learnings do not accumulate but recycle themselves. [next]
Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.— Albert Einstein, from a speech to the New History Society (14 December 1930)
Opposition always enflames the enthusiast, never converts him.— Friedrich Schiller
Damn braces; bless relaxes.— William Blake
The path to guidance is one of love and compassion, not of force and coercion.[next]— The Báb, Persian Bayan II.16
Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal. It is an educational process, like learning how to read. In fact, it is learning how to read. Following an animal's trail may bring you closer to the animal physically, but more important, it brings you closer to it in perception.… The more intimate we become with other lives, the more aware we are of how those lives connect with and affect our own. There may be only a few obvious connections at first – two animals in the same woods, hearing the same sounds, smelling the same smells – but as we track the animal farther, we find that its trail is our own trail. As it moves, it affects its surroundings. What changes the animal changes its environment, and thus changes us. There is no separation; its fate is our fate. We are tracking ourselves in a sense.— Paul Rezendes (1999, 15)
Was it ystwith wyst or Lukan Yokan or where the hand of man has never set foot?— The Restored Finnegans Wake, 159
Nature's own guidance system must encompass yours and mine. We assume that there is such a universal guidance system because we read the signs of regularities in nature. Science is the attempt to formulate the rules governing the processes we observe. As long as these formulae serve to guide our actions appropriately (that is, to the extent that they enable us to take a next step into a viable future), we continue to use them. Yet in our moments of waking we know there is always more to discover. Carlos Castaneda (or his ‘Toltec’ mentors) encapsulated this in the set of precepts called ‘the rule of stalkers,’ which is necessary for the ‘warrior's’ life but also ‘applies to everyone’:
The first precept of the rule is that everything that surrounds us is an unfathomable mystery.
The second precept of the rule is that we must try to unravel these mysteries, but without ever hoping to accomplish this.
The third, that a warrior, aware of the unfathomable mystery that surrounds him, and aware of his duty to try to unravel it, takes his rightful place among mysteries and regards himself as one. Consequently, for a warrior there is no end to the mystery of being, whether being means being a pebble, or an ant, or oneself. That is a warrior's humbleness.— Castaneda (1981, 281)
A similar spirit pervades the four bodhisattva vows of Mahayana Buddhism, though here compassion comes to the foreground:
Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
The Dharma teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.— Cook (1978, 32)
What is called arousing the thought of enlightenment is the uttering of the vow to emancipate all living beings even while you yourself are not yet emancipated. When one arouses this thought, no matter how humble in appearance one is, one then becomes the guide of all beings.— Dogen (Cook 1978, 43)
Next chapter: Natural Dialogic →
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