MIND IS PART OF THE ECOSYSTEM
(a talk delivered at a conference on “Evolution, the Environment and Responsible Knowledge,” January 2009, University of Central Florida)
By way of introduction, let me start by giving you a sense of how I got to this point of giving a talk called “Mind Is Part of the Ecosystem.” I’m an English professor at Simmons College, in Boston. I had a sabbatical in 07-08, and on my sabbatical I proposed to work on a book about water, which is an impossibly enormous topic, like trying to write about air, but after a few months it kind of sorted itself out and I turned out to be writing about our relationship with nature. I started reading books about contemporary biology and ecology, and trying to understand how people in that field imagine our relationship with nature.
This talk, really, is about different understandings of causation and the difference that these understandings make. In a way it’s about a sort of culture war between physics and biology.
What I’m presenting here is an effort at synthesis; to be honest, I don’t know if any of my ideas are new ideas or not. This is not expert discourse; this is what happens when an educated amateur tries to pull together ideas from outside his specialty. (My specialty, by the way, is writing, especially novels, and teaching writing.) In my opinion, when a subject is as important as our relationship with nature, we get to think about it even if we’re not experts.
Laplace’s Demon is the name of an idea that dates from the early 19th century. It was conceived by a mathematician named Pierre Laplace. It’s the Newtonian vision to the max: if some superhuman intelligence –which would be the so-called “demon” – could know the position of every particle in the universe at a given moment, and all the forces acting upon them, then by applying Newton’s physics this super-intellect could predict all their interactions, and therefore it could predict every event in the future. Not that Laplace actually believed this would happen – it was just a hypothetical endpoint of scientific progress. But the vision of having that kind of knowledge was sufficiently compelling that it acquired a name and it’s still known to us almost two centuries later.
The real issue here is this: What is so riveting about Laplace’s Demon that people should still talk about it?
It seems to me that the notion of Laplace’s Demon reflects the idea that we can have total mastery – total control. It invites us to identify with a godlike knower that stands apart from the universe and can see all the way to the end of time.
How do you get this kind of confidence, to believe in having knowledge like that? Two ways:
By taking for granted that all causation in the universe is mechanistic.
And second, by assuming that there can be one master explanation – a Theory of Everything.
I believe we live in a mash-up of different eras of knowledge, and in this particular sense we haven’t left the 19th century. It’s not that science hasn’t gone beyond Newton – it has, but it seems to me the wider culture has not.
The triumph of engineering and technology, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the present, has kept alive a vision that I think is not too different from Laplace’s Demon. Even though physics has gone from Newton to quantum mechanics, it still aspires to a Theory of Everything, and most other fields of science still have physics envy. I think many non-scientists still believe in what I would call the secular religion of scientism: that Science with a capital S possesses superhuman intelligence, that everything in nature is knowable or should be, and that therefore, in principle, everything in the world around us can be predicted and controlled. This of course has little to do with how science is actually conducted.
One version of this doctrine is proselytized by Ray Kurzweil, who believes that the ever-accelerating advance of computing and nanotechnology will lead to artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence about four decades from now, virtual reality indistinguishable from “real” reality, uploading of human minds into computers, human body 3.0 which can alter its shape at will through nanotechnology, and on top of all that, the really big one, immortality.
In other words, Kurzweil’s vision totally denies death, and assumes that human beings can float completely free of their context, namely, the environment of planet Earth. To say the least, I’m not buying it.
What I want to talk about here is a very different vision that is in the process of emerging. It’s coming from biologists and ecologists who not only don’t have physics envy, they totally dismiss mechanistic and reductionistic explanations of life. This new outlook includes a very different vision of the kind of knowledge we have or can have about the natural world. I think it subsumes the Newtonian world-view and assigns it a niche within a larger and more complex reality.
Besides trying to outline this different vision, I’m arguing that what we believe we can know, and what we believe about how we can know anything, has consequences for our relationship with nature.
Since the Enlightenment, the Western world has operated on the fiction that our knowledge of the natural world could be absolutely reliable and complete. It appeared that thanks to our knowledge, we were fully equipped for mastery and control of nature itself.
We felt we had the standing to make radical decisions like reversing the flow of the Chicago River or constructing Hoover Dam. You see the effects of this world-view in the water history of the American West. The West is defined geographically by its aridity, with only a few major rivers flowing through it. We have basically succeeded in engineering the water regime of a large part of the continent with dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts, to the point where millions of people can now live in L.A., Phoenix, Las Vegas, and so forth, only because major water projects have caused water to show up where we want it, when we want it. Because of state and federal water projects, the central valley of California has become a colossal agricultural empire, and people in Boston can eat salads in the wintertime.
Our re-shaping of the rivers in the American West has produced a lot of desirable effects, but at the same time it has set up the conditions for failure. In my opinion, anybody who moves to Las Vegas today is making a seriously bad decision.
What I’ve gotten out of thinking about water in the West is that for a long time we Americans have operated on 3 unexamined assumptions that turn out to be mistaken. The first two of them are supported by overconfidence in the completeness of our knowledge:
1. Humans can and should absolutely dominate nature.
2. There’s a technical fix for every problem.
3. The ultimate goal is ceaseless and unlimited economic growth.
So, that’s one way to think about our relationship with nature,
and over time, it eventually catches up with you.
Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean by that.
One: land that is intensively irrigated inexorably becomes more and more saline, to the point where you can’t use it for agriculture anymore. It’s no secret – it’s happened many times before. It’s thought to have caused the collapse of some ancient civilizations. Salinization of agricultural land is happening now in the West, for example in California. An elaborate system of drains has been constructed underneath much of the Central Valley in order to draw down the water table which has been raised by irrigation, so that the salty irrigation runoff won’t come in contact with the roots of plants and kill them. Which is a prime example of the rule that every technical fix – in this case, irrigation – will require another technical fix. But then, where do you put that salty water? That requires a third technical fix, and so on.
Two: a vast part of the West, including the majority of its population, is basically dependent on one river, the Colorado, and the Colorado, besides becoming more saline because of irrigation water being put back into it, is no longer enough. It’s running out. We want more water out of it than there is in it. There is no technical fix for that problem. States in the West are in a perpetual tug-of-war with each other over the size of their share of Colorado River water. The snowpack in the mountains is decreasing, the long-term predictions are for drier conditions than the ones that exist today, drought has been officially declared in California, and meanwhile more people keep moving to Las Vegas, L.A. and Phoenix.
This can’t work, with the level of per capita water consumption we’re accustomed to. Something will have to give.
In trying to learn more about what nature is from a scientific point of view, I’ve found myself focusing on what is called “complexity” or “systems science.” “Complexity” in this sense has a very specific definition. A complex system has, as they say, no single largest model: no one way of representing it suffices. The only way to come at it intellectually is by looking at it from multiple perspectives and making use of multiple ways of accounting for it, simultaneously. So the notion of complexity categorically rules out the possibility of a Master Explanation of Everything.
Thinking about complexity and self-organizing systems led me to the theoretical biologist Robert Rosen, who died in 1998. His lifetime mission was to answer the question “What is life?” or more specifically, as he came to ask it, “How is an organism different from a machine?” He answered that question by describing the kinds of causation at work in an organism and in a machine. And if a focus on causation as the key element was good enough for Rosen, who was apparently smarter than 99% of all human beings, it’s good enough for me.
In the Newtonian paradigm, causation is above all linear. A causes B, and by definition B cannot simultaneously cause A – that would be so-called “circular reasoning.” The doer is always separate from the thing done. A series of particle interactions unfolds in linear fashion, no matter how complicated it may become.
Rosen’s fundamental argument with Newton, in his book Life Itself, is that in a Newtonian world there is only this one little bit of causation: the state of a particle at time T entails its state an instant later, at time T+1. If you know all the parameters of a particle’s state now (velocity, momentum, and so on), Newton’s laws of motion will tell you what its state necessarily must be an instant from now. By keeping track of an unbroken succession of instants, each one entailing the next one, you can account for what happens to that particle in a world of mechanistic interactions.
The intellectual technique supporting our mastery of the physical world has been to break down complicated phenomena into small enough interactions that they can be analyzed in this mechanistic fashion, so therefore they can be predicted and controlled.
Laplace’s Demon captures the power of this approach, and it also reflects the fact that a Newtonian world is deterministic. Though an infinite number of simultaneous calculations could never be done, which means the predicted future could never actually be known, still in principle that future remains determined if Newton’s physics is the explanation of everything.
Now, we know this explanation works incredibly well for machines. But Rosen’s most fundamental point is that we cannot possibly understand life in terms of mechanical interactions alone. Life is not a pinball game. There is not enough causation in the Newtonian world-view to account for what happens in an organism.
Moreover, as Robert Ulanowicz argues in Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective, life itself would not be possible in a deterministic universe.
Why isn’t there enough causation in Newton?
What’s the crucial difference?
Living things, according to Rosen, possess attributes or capabilities which he calls “functional components,” that exist because of the organism’s structure, because of its organization. Not because of a linear, mechanistic, colliding-particle sort of causation. A functional component, as defined by Rosen, cannot be isolated in one location within the organism, or separated out from the organism as a whole. These functional components are as real as the organism’s physical parts.
One example of a functional component might be the human body’s system of regulating blood pressure so that it never gets too high or too low to sustain life. This system is complex and it’s redundant. It works by multiple pathways, both neural and chemical, in which multiple variables are sensed by different organs and multiple adjustments happen simultaneously, constantly influencing each other.
One of the essential functional components of any organism is its capacity for self-repair. Cells replace their enzymes, the organism replaces its cells, it constantly rebuilds itself, and furthermore – this is the key attribute – it constantly regenerates its ability to rebuild itself. The repair function, like other functional components, is self-replicating. The basic aliveness of the organism depends on closed causal loops, on circularity of causation.
Unlike the Newtonian particle, an organism is not only subject to cause from outside, it is also, crucially, the cause of itself.
Similarly, an ecosystem depends on causal loops for its continued existence. It consists of many organisms, both macro- and microscopic; they can be totally different in kind, like algae and striped bass. But they have mutual simultaneous effects on each other, catalyzing each other’s activity. An ecosystem is a positive-sum game in which all the organisms involved thrive better than they could on their own. There is no prime mover, there is no starting point; the whole process is simply underway. The causation involved is anything but linear. On top of this, the ecosystem itself evolves; organic processes don’t acquire a structure and then maintain it forever. The environment is not changeless and neither are the ecosystems within it, even when we might like them to be. If life and life systems could not evolve, they would not be sustainable over the long term.
A crucial piece of this argument with Newton, or with physics, harks back to something from Aristotle. Aristotle posits that there are four kinds of causes: material, efficient, formal, and final.
Material cause: physical stuff something is made of.
Efficient cause: the agency that takes the stuff and makes something from it.
Formal cause: pattern, organization, structure, design.
Final cause: the reason something exists at all.]
The canonical example of the four causes is to ask, What causes a house?
The material cause of a house is lumber, shingles, windowpanes, electrical wire, fixtures, water pipes, etc. – all the physical stuff it’s made out of.
The efficient cause of a house is carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, etc. – the doers who take the stuff and make it into a building. Or one could say the ultimate efficient cause is their know-how.
The formal cause of a house is the notion of its structure, the design, that becomes the architect’s plans.
The final cause of a house is that someone intended to have a place to live. The final cause is like the answer to the question “Why is there a house at all?” whereas the other causes are more like answers to “How is there a house?”
In a Newtonian world you only have material and efficient cause: particles (material) and forces (efficient causes) acting upon them. In a biological, ecological world, you have formal and final cause as well, according to Rosen and Ulanowicz, and plenty of others. Formal and final cause have been ruled out of Western science for a long time, but the argument is that without them you can’t understand how life works.
That’s what it means to say there isn’t enough causation in the Newtonian world-view.
An ecosystem can’t be described by just listing all the organisms that live in it (even if one could). The roster of organisms is not what makes it an ecosystem. What makes it a system is the relationships among them.
The material cause of an ecosystem is the nutrients and other inputs, like solar energy, that come from its environment.
The efficient cause of it is the organisms within it, doing all the very different things they do with those nutrients.
But the ecosystem persists and thrives because of formal cause, in other words because of its structure, which is not linear but depends on causal loops.
Furthermore, an ecosystem is self-organizing. It’s a prime example of spontaneously arising order. Ulanowicz would agree with the statement that creativity is an ongoing attribute of what’s all around us. Though there are material and efficient causes working upon organisms and ecosystems from outside, there is some irreducible extent to which living systems cause themselves. It doesn’t make sense to ignore this. If life is that which causes itself, then we will never truly control it.
Because this property of self-causation operates through formal cause, the colliding-particle version of agency does not suffice to explain what goes on in an organism or an ecosystem. It is the structure or organization of the system that brings about its aliveness.
I think the failure to recognize this is what gets us in trouble when we try to control nature. We think, OK, I’ll be the prime mover, I’ll be the efficient cause. I’ll find the handle and then I will turn this thing in the direction I intend. It’s not that we can’t do this to some remarkable extent, like engineering water in the West. We can. The problem is that when we start changing the relationship, say of water to the land around it, all sorts of causal relationships that we don’t even know about start changing as a result. Because the ecosystem is a self-organizing structure, we inevitably bring about things we don’t intend, and that is where we get in over our heads.
The idea that life is a system property, a certain form of organization that is self-causing and self-organizing, has a name in biology: “autopoiesis.” That word was invented in the 1970’s by two Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who have been very influential in systems thinking. In 1987 they published a book called The Tree of Knowledge, in which they have this amazingly ambitious project: to start from rudimentary single-celled life, apply evolution, and work their way up to human cognition and the self – biologically.
Maturana and Varela are absolutely committed to the autonomy of the organism as a fundamental principle. An organism is its own little world that runs by its own rules, which are dictated by its own structure. It has to maintain its separateness because that equals its integrity as a creature. On the most concrete level, any organism has to have a membrane, like our skin, that separates it from the environment, because without that, what’s on the inside would spill out into the outside, and the organism wouldn’t exist anymore.
But if it’s so separate from its environment, how does it survive? The Chilean biologists are adamant about saying that the organism does not “know” or “internalize” the environment. It functions successfully because it has evolved in and along with its environment, so that it simultaneously possesses both viable adaptation to the world it’s in, and the radical separateness of what they call its “operational closure.”
All this applies to human beings as much as it does to amoebas.
Then they apply these biological principles to human cognition. Maturana and Varela argue that there is no representation of the outer world within a person’s head; rather, the environment causes perturbations of our nervous system, which lead to internal neural processes. The nervous system has operational closure, dictated by its own structure and that of the body, and its operation is always aimed at restoring internal harmony within that system. It is operating autonomously on its own terms.
And more recent neuroscience says the same things.
But even though our nervous system doesn’t directly or transparently translate the world around us, even though no copy of the outside world exists within us, this doesn’t mean we operate in a solipsistic, arbitrary world where anything is possible. There is a world out there, and we function successfully in it because of the whole history of our evolution that made us what we are today: autonomous beings, but congruent with the way life works on this planet. Varela puts it this way: “animal and environment are two sides of the same coin, knower and known are mutually specified.”
I think this connects directly to the topic of this conference: evolution, environment, and responsible knowledge. What is a responsible approach to knowing? I would say at a minimum, it means accepting the task of trying not to be ignorant, and trying not to act on a basis of ignorance. We don’t seem to have any difficulty at all believing in our autonomy, which often translates into a notion that we have absolute sovereignty. But I think if we also understand that because of evolution, we are totally folded in with this environment and not able to float free from it, then this understanding is what makes us responsible to the environment.
To continue with Maturana and Varela’s view of the biology of human understanding: the structure of the human organism has made us capable of language, and language is crucial to our adaptation. Our particular humanness is that we use language together, to create shared meanings, otherwise known as culture. In their view, this creation of shared meaning is what makes awareness possible, rather than the other way around.
Part of what’s interesting here is the direction these thoughts are coming from. These guys are not philosophers, they’re a couple of hard-headed, ferociously logical biologists.
They don’t believe we have awareness first, then talk about it and realize we share the same awareness; as they see it, we talk together about the world around us and this creates our awareness. We don’t “pick up information” from the world around us and then cobble it together into meanings; instead, this thing we call “the world” that we perceive around us is that which we bring forth in language with others.
Our reality rests on a consensus – which is something shamans would say as well. Maturana and Varela would say that even our own self, our private inwardness, our experience of consciousness, is created as part of that consensus and would not exist without that consensus, as for example in the rare case of feral children. They are saying it is a biological fact that the activity of language creates the self.
They argue that to “observe,” biologically speaking, is to create what we think of as the world around us. “To observe” is an action which consists, for us, in generating a structure of words.
So, to loop back to the beginning of this talk, what happens if we say that the Newtonian vision of particles, propelled by forces, interacting in a linear, mechanistic way, “is” the way the world works? What if we say this not only about the mechanical parts of the world, but all of it, including the living beings? If we forget that it’s a metaphor and believe that it’s literally the universal explanation?
If we start taking it to be a statement of fact, now we’re doing what Maturana and Varela talked about: we’re bringing forth a world. We use language to create the world we find ourselves facing. Then the consequences become drastic. Because if Rosen, Ulanowicz and so forth are right, a mechanistic world denies the possibility of the very qualities that constitute aliveness. If we adopt a mechanistic quote-unquote “reality,” this blocks the possibility of even perceiving the role of formal cause, and it presents nature to us as something we can dominate and control.
BUT: if what we call the “world” is constantly being brought forth (because we humans are always using language), if it’s constantly beginning, then a margin of play always exists. Possibility is never extinguished. Each of us is not free to bring it forth on our own, but we are forever bringing it forth together. If we understand that, then every action has an ethical dimension. We are always constituting a “reality” that we then find ourselves living in, and this isn’t a metaphor or an exaggeration. Maturana and Varela’s point is that this is actually, biologically, how it is.
The key problem, then, from their point of view, is epistemological. By not understanding how our world is constituted, by not understanding our own cognition, we act on the basis of ignorance, and fail to grasp the ethical imperative inherent in the way we are structured as organisms. This is the imperative as they state it: “without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness.”
My shorthand way of putting what I’m saying here is the title of this talk: “mind is part of the ecosystem.” Now I want to move to an idea that comes from Gregory Bateson, which goes way beyond that: he asserts that ecosystem is mind.
In his book Mind and Nature, Bateson talks about “how we can know anything” and then says: “In the pronoun we, I of course included the starfish and the redwood forest, the segmenting egg, and the Senate of the United States.”
Later, in the same vein, he talks about “that wider knowing which is the glue holding together the starfishes and sea anemones and redwood forests and human committees.”
So how are redwood forests “knowing” things on an equal basis with Senate committees?
Bateson has six criteria for mind, the first of which is this: mind is “made of parts which are not themselves mental. ‘Mind’ is immanent in certain sorts of organization of parts.” Now, this may sound overly abstract at first, but it actually is a description of how our own minds work. Somehow the organization of billions of neurons – which individually are not mental – into an astronomically complex, self-organizing system brings about mind. Mind is the product of formal cause, the relationships of all those neurons to each other, not of efficient cause.
If mind were brought about by efficient cause, there would have to be some thinking-agent within us, which could take us right back to the homunculus theory of cognition; or one might have to posit that neurons and neurotransmitters are thinking. But a synapse is not “having a thought” when a neurotransmitter is released. Likewise there is no miniature me at the controls within me, like Captain Kirk on Star Trek, watching the video screen, hearing the radio transmissions coming from outside the spaceship, and giving orders.
If I remember that my mind is brought about by formal cause, this makes it easier to entertain the idea of mind existing through formal cause outside me, in some network, like a redwood forest, that is made up, like my own mind, of parts that are not themselves mental.
I don’t bring this up merely as a curiosity. I am suggesting that by using language together, in a way which I am trying to do in this talk, we might bring forth a world in which there is what Bateson calls a “wider intelligence” present around us in whatever ecosystem we are a part of.
I’m not saying the ecosystem possesses consciousness; I’m implying that consciousness is not required as the foundation of intelligence. I know this may sound like an outlandish assertion, and I’ll try to make a few arguments for it as briefly as possible.
1. When we assume that consciousness is the sine qua non of intelligence, it’s as though we make this syllogism:
We are conscious.
We are intelligent.
Therefore, intelligence is found only where there is consciousness.
But that doesn’t follow. It would only follow if we assume that humans are the measure of all things.
2. I’ve written seven novels, over a period of about 25 years, and at some point as I’m trying to finish a novel I usually say that I’m just barely smart enough to do this. In fact my conscious intelligence is not able to think out the full complexity of a novel’s structure; I have to depend on unconscious abilities to do that. I believe that when I finish a novel I have to work from an awareness of the whole network of connections and echoes within it, the resonances among all its parts. I make use of a subtle structural intuition which encompasses more simultaneous specifics than the conscious mind can possibly think about at once.
3. To use an analogy coined by Julian Jaynes, asking consciousness if anything is outside consciousness is like asking a flashlight to look around a dark room and find something that’s not lit up. Anything the flashlight’s beam falls on is lit up, so from the flashlight’s point of view, there’s nothing that isn’t. Consciousness is always telling us that it is everything, that without it we wouldn’t exist, because that is the only thing it can tell us. That doesn’t make it right.
4. We frequently act based on some kind of awareness of things beyond the circle of consciousness, without its intervention. An example would be when somebody stares at me from behind. I turn to look behind me, and I always turn before I know why I’m turning. I don’t know what’s at work there, but it definitely isn’t conscious.
So this is where Bateson’s idea takes me.
I’m quite certain that there is unconscious intelligence within me.
I acknowledge the possibility of unconscious intelligence outside of me.
If Bateson’s right and organisms existing in a network of relationships are an intelligence, and I am one of those organisms, then I am inescapably a part of that intelligence. Human intelligence, seen this way, is not a sort of watchtower sticking up out of nature, overlooking it, supervising it. Rather it’s one piece of the ongoing action, in a relationship of equality with that action.
The question is whether we can see it this way or not. Or to say it in the way Maturana and Varela would, whether we can bring forth a world in which this is so.
To say that we are surrounded by intelligence is not really to say anything new. It’s basic Taoism, which is 2500 years old. Tao (which means the “way”) is the word the Tao Te Ching uses for something that has no name. It’s invisible, it’s silent, it has no flavor, and it’s the inexhaustible source of all things; it can’t be known, but it can be lived. The Tao is a fundamental harmony — which makes me think it might be a formal cause — that is firmly rooted in nature and the practicalities of life, as well as being entirely mysterious.
Again and again the Tao Te Ching talks about the power of non-action, the futility of trying to dominate. This is section 37:
Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
What the Tao Te Ching means by “non-action,” if you ask me, is not that human beings should be passive or fatalistic, but that the way to live in this world is not by stubbornly trying to wrench it into some desired shape. “Non-action” doesn’t mean no action at all, it means not that kind of action.
Is the mysteriousness of this Tao really so foreign to our experience? The truth (my truth) is that we are always depending, at least in part, on things the workings of which we don’t fully understand.
But this is not merely a reflection of our ignorance. It’s a recognition of the autonomy of living beings and living systems.
If we forget this, if we ignore the fundamental distinction between an organism and a machine, then we fail to respect the aliveness of the living. When people work in concert with the aliveness, there must be some crucial element of non-action, in the sense of lightness of touch.
One must know when to rely on natural processes to do their part.
It must be true collaboration, not an attempt at unilateral control.
We’re part of a self-organizing system, and if we’re going to succeed and survive, some of the time we have to be willing to let the system organize us.
I strongly suspect that the only way we can comprehend a world of formal causes, like ecosystems, is by giving up the fantasy that we can be totally in control of it. The way to enlarge the mental horizon is to recognize that we’re not superior to, and not smarter than, the world we live in. Thinking this way gets us off the top of the hierarchy, creates a situation of greater equality between humans and the other life around us,
and restores the aliveness that gets drained out of the world when we imagine it as mechanism. We need to respect that the aliveness around us is not less than our own, and to acknowledge that we are not the only intelligence at work here, even though the intelligence of the ecosystem takes a form that doesn’t use language and thinks by doing.
If we do that, if we imagine nature in such a way, then we have a shot at collaborating with it instead of trying to dominate it. And this I believe is our only good option.