Mind and Nature, by Gregory Bateson

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
By Gregory Bateson

Appears s an article in our Non-Darwinian Evolution section. Please take link above.

Holism in Evolution: Peter Corning & Robert Reid

I recently supposed (www.takeondarwin.com/index.php?option=co...modern&Itemid=14) one learns more about a theory of evolution by noting which partisan group a theorist belongs to than from the supposed theme of his or her theory. I'm going to illustrate my supposition by comparing treatments of the concept "holism" by Peter Corning and Robert Reid, particularly with reference to "Holistic Darwinism" by Corning and "Biological Emergencies" by Reid. Both contain 450 pages of text followed by another 100 or so pages of scholarly apparatus. Both were published within a couple of years of each other in the mid-2000s. Both are written in scholarly-article style. Both are clearly intent on establishing their scholarly bona-fides and impressing a point of view on their academic peers.

From their tables of contents both sound as if they've aiming for a similar high ground. In "Biological Emergencies" Reid's holism finds expression in detailed treatments of three forms of innovation that "are often sudden, and have new properties arising from new internal and external relationships. They are emergent." They are symbioses and other kinds of biological association; physiology and behavior; developmental or epigenetic evolution. Corning titles his introduction "The New Evolutionary Paradigm," his Part-themes are synergy, bioeconomics, thermoeconomics and control information, and evolution and ethics.

Compare how much that tells you in comparison to clues to their partisanship. Here's Corning defining holism: "The term [holistic Darwinism] was coined as a way of highlighting the paradox that selfish genes are, without exception, selected in the context of their functional consequences (if any) for various wholes. Holistic Darwinism is strictly Darwinian in its underlying assumptions about natural selection and the evolutionary process."

For Reid's definition of holism I go to a chapter titled "Holism and Biology" in his 1985 "Evolutionary Theory: The Unfinished Synthesis." "There have been as many versions of [holism's] history as there have been interested scholars." One aspect is "the ontological aspect: the unitary view of the self and cosmos that Leibnitz called the perennial philosophy.... One of the common aspects of such experience is a sense of the unity of nature and fusion of the observer with nature... A number of biologists and psychologists have taken the view that the sense of oneness and other aspects of religious experience have a materialistic basis, much in the way that Scrooge took Marley's ghost to be the manifestation of a piece of undigested cheese.... I am bound to ask if reductionism, as a view of reality, is not simply a refuge from a sense of terror or loathing that to holistic minds is mystery and wonder."

From "Biological Emergencies": "... emergentism proffers a holistic emphasis on the importance and connectedness of every aspect of life. For this a metaphysical yearning existed long before Darwin, and far beyond biology. Deeming it irrelevant, analytical selection theory has failed to satisfy that need."

For Corning holism means restructuring on neo-darwinian principles all the fields, such as symbiosis and altruism, from which objections to those principles tend to bubble up. Despite its apparent boldness Corning's work is part of a campaign to preserve Darwinism through a Procrustean approach to human nature. "The first and most important generalization about human nature is that each of us is defined, in considerable measure, by an array of basic needs elucidated in chapter 11. These needs are essential to our survival and reproductive success.... The performance of an organized society can be evaluated in terms of how it relates to, or impacts upon, the package of basic needs that define the parameters of the ongoing problems of survival and reproduction." For Corning the ultimate goals of human enterprise are sex and survival, as defined for us by our neo-Darwinian origin.

Corning and Reid clearly represent two very different partisan groups intent on embedding very different impulses within the evolutionary-theory community. In my terms Corning is a Positivist of a neo-darwinism persuasion, Reid is a Vitalist for psychological considerations. Where they most profoundly differ is in the visions of human nature their theories celebrate. To me that, not the supposed themes of their theories, is what matters. If writers on evolution would declare their partisanship upfront we would all be spared a lot of trouble.

Biological Emergencies - Holistic Darwinism

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Evolution for the Humanities
Holism in Evolution evolution

Susan Blackmore: Zen and the Art of Consciousness

Because I am trying to account for the evolution of our volitional consciousness I approached Susan's ruminations on ten zen questions wanting to see if they'd reveal obstacles in my path I was unaware of. Instead her book confirmed for me that zen koans are not so much about consciousness as they are pedagogic tools zen masters employ to train their disciples in switching at will between various mental capabilities. I finished the book relieved that my task appeared no more difficult that I already assumed.

Susan starts out assuming that consciousness is very difficult for people brought up like her to understand, and only a practice as alien to the Western intellectual tradition as zen could conceivably make it comprehensible. She concludes of her ruminations on ten koans that "The very thing that the science of consciousness is trying to explain, disintegrated on closer examination." One cannot doubt that she finds her experience of consciousness immune to intellectual analysis, but her ruminations convinced me only that zen koans are not an appropriate way to study consciousness, in fact they are explicity designed to make the subject seem more intractable. My belief that consciousness is as simple and accessible as it seems remained unshaken.

Here is a sampling of the koans Susan meditates on: Am I conscious now? What was I conscious of a moment ago? Who is asking the question? Where is this? How does thought arise? Are you here now?

I agree there is a huge difference between understanding consciousness and free will, and using science to explain them. In so far as contemporary science is still based on 19th century Positivism it is comanded to banish from its practices "volition, natural or supernatural" (to quote John Stuart Mill's translation of August Comte). Small wonder that after excluding consciousness from its subject material for a century science concludes consciousness is inaccessible to scientific study and therefore cannot exist. For those of us who are not scientists, however, consciousness surely does exist, and is not veiled in mystery.

Example: On waking I recall a dream. I remember experiencing anxiety. I wondered at things. I observed qualia: objects being red, sounds appearing musical, and so on. In other words, I remember being conscious in my dream. Who was conscious in the dream? Me, lying in bed. And who is conscious now, recalling the dream? Me. And if someone else tells me about a dream they had, in which they had conscious experiences, who was conscious in that dream? Them. They have conscious experiences too. Where's the mystery?

Is consciousness continuous? Maybe not, but who said it had to be? Is it any particular place? Not necessarily, but who said it had to be? Projection onto consciousness of the categories of physical science is unneccessary and I think misguided. Your problems when you do so impose no obligation on me to find the study of consciousness problematic. You're just looking at it with the wrong tools.

Susan Blackmore is influential in the world of the study of consciousness. She has authored numerous books on consciousness including "Consciousness: an Introduction," and is editor of "Conversations on Consciousness." In Cris Evat's book "The Myth of Free Will" Susan says “It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in freewill…. As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether–-this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it, I think it’s true that I don’t.”

I believe we need not be ashamed of being conscious and having free will, nor need we make an effort to purge ourselves of them. Even the arch physicalist Edward O. Willson in his "Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge" warns of the danger of a denial of free will turning into fatalism, which he obviously appreciates as a calamity.

In "Zen and the Art of Consciousness" Susan exposes the roots of her anguish over failing to understand consciousness. Reading it may provide us with clues to the motivations behind that failure to understand wherever it appears. This could help in discussions between defenders and denyers of consciousness and free will.

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Evolution for the Humanities
Zen and the Art of Consciousness consciousness

Creating Consilience: Slingerland, Collard. Review

This will open by being not a review of the book as a whole but an analysis of the motivation behind physicalism as presented in an article," Mind-Body Dualism and the Two Cultures" by one of the editors, Ed Slingerland. This expands my analysis in my review of his book "What Science Offers the Humanities."

In summary, Slingerland does not give adequate reasons for abandoning what he concedes is the default position, dualism, so I explore what other reasons he may have for opting for physicalism.

Slingerland provides context for considering the issue:

The humanities-science divide, then, is fundamentally based upon mind -body dualism.... the other primary barrier to embracing physicalism: the feeling that there is something so special to consciousness that it simply has to constitute an entirely new order of reality

The reasons he gives for denying consciousness such a role confuse consciousness with mere cognition and intelligence, as:

As Daniel Dennet has argued, a crucial and vivid bit of evidence tipping things in favor of the physicalist view of consciousness was the development of artificial intelligence, which finally put to rest the "boggled" argument that no amount of physical complexity could produce creative intelligence.

Must we assume Slingerland is not aware of consciousness as a capability in itself, but only of it having such content as acts of cognition and operations of intelligence that it shares with machines? Does he not experience any difference between experience and matter that he could appreciate others wanting to account for?

Yes, evolution has embedded in us illusions associated with conscious phenomena. But Slingerland assumes the existence of these illusions means there are no such phenomena.

What this [the illusions] means is that the move from physical explanation to human explanation will always feel different to us than the move from physical chemistry to organic chemistry -- though, of course, they are no different in principle.

Not only are physical and human explanation not different in principle, they are to be regarded as different only for heuristic purposes:

It would be foolish to try to replace organic chemistry with physics, or to dismiss the explanatory usefulness of concepts and entities unique to organic chemistry . However, this emergence is clearly understood by everyone involved as merely heuristic.

His proof for why physical and human explanation are not significantly different is, we're equally ignorant about both so they must be the same!

It is exceedingly likely that... it will remain impossible... to accurately predict the future behavior of even a single human being...It is equally likely that... it will never be possible to pick out a single molecule of water ...and predict where that molecule will be one year from now. However, we never doubt that the molecules future movements will be fully determined by the laws of physics... . we have no more reason to believe that the cascades of neural impulses in our brains are any less determined and governed by physical causation than the water molecule.

He gives empty logic priority over conscious experience. Here's another example. He must know that negative scientific findings cannot prove whether or not we are free, yet he gives the findings of science more weight than our healthy conviction that we are free.

As neuroscientists, we might believe that the brain is a determinist, physical system like everything else in the universe, and recognize that the weight of empirical evidence suggest that free will is a cognitive illusion. Nonetheless, no cognitively undamaged human beings can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free.

Engaging with arguments as weak as these is beside the point. The more important issue is what lies behind his passion to banish from mind awareness of itself.

When I look for those passions I am disturbed by how dark they appear. However, he is pressing a program for changes in how the humanities should train and instruct:

The physicalist position is that the study of consciousness and its products - -that is, the traditional domain of the humanities -- should be brought info alignment with the manner in which we study other complex (or differently complex) material structures...

So I think the implications of such a program must be explored.

In the following quote, for "daughter" I read "self":

At an important and ineradicable level, the idea of my daughter as merely a complex robot carrying my genes into the next generation is both bizarre and repugnant to me.

Here for "people" I again read "self":

Seeing people as, in essence, very complicated things, however, inspires in us a kind of emotional resistance and even revulsion... that must, I would argue, be felt at some level by any thoughtful and psychologically healthy human being.

And, again, for "individuals" I read "self":

There may well be individuals who lack this sense, and who can quite easily and thoroughly conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental, mechanistic terms, but we label such people "psychopaths," and quite rightly try to identify them and put them away somewhere to protect the rest of us.

Slingerland is urging the humanities to embrace and propagate a self concept that he cannot provide good reasons for adopting, that he admits is bizarre and repugnant, that would inspire revulsion in any thoughtful and psychologically healthy human being, that would justify us in labeling people "psychopaths," and putting them away somewhere to protect the rest of us. What could possibly induce someone to recommend that the humanities adopt such a gospel of self-hate?

Is Slingerland tapping into a society-wide self loathing, against which the best defense is denial of one's own consciousness?

What evidence are we challenged to produce to refute his position?

If we had an accumulation of a critical man of replicable evidence for the existence of some non-physical, causally efficacious, intention-bearing substance, it would be unscientific not to be a dualist...

For the dualist this could be the daily writing of a journal detailing one's awareness of intentions hinging on thoughts and feelings in consciousness having been executed in the outside world. It could even be as immediate as being aware of directing one's attention to serve content associated with qualia, to which matter is not privy. To me, merely experiencing being conscious is proof of dualism, no matter how much of its contents owes its origin to physical stimuli. Are physicalists open to evidence in the form of the contents of their own consciousness? If not, dualists could just ignore them.
They could, but they can't. There is an alien and repugnant monster stalking the physicalism/dualism battleground, lending its support to the physicalist cause:

The Darwinian model of the origin of human being and other animals, and its formulation of the ultimate reasons for many of our abilities and behaviors, while appearing alien and often repugnant, from any sort of normal human perspective, is thus theoretically powerful and satisfying.

Is it the looming presence of this monster that's been breeding self loathing in us, as we see ourselves reflected in its shiny scales as mere fodder for mutation and selection, our highest aspiration being to reproduce and see our genes passed on?

Whatever its role in feeding a passion to deny consciousness, I think its main role now is to give physicalists the courage of their convictions. I see Slingerland's endorsement of Darwinism as lending support to this web site's mission.

Creating Consilience

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Evolution for the Humanities
Creating Consilience evolution

Suzan Mazur: The Alternberg 16

Suzan Mazur is a journalist with a mission. Her mission is to promote a new paradigm in evolutionary theory. In a transcript included in this book of an interview with the billionaire David H. Koch she tells him, “There’s been a huge debate this past year particularly. I’m not referring to evolution vs. creationism. What I’ve been covering involves other mechanisms of evolutionary change aside from Charles Darwin’s natural selection…. I’ve written an expose of the evolution industry.” (She uses that phrase, “An Expose of the Evolution Industry,” as the subtitle of her book.) She goes on: “Most sophisticated evolutionary thinkers are now saying natural selection is not the most important mechanism of evolutionary change. It’s reached a crescendo and a lot of people are saying there’s a sea change happening. This is a big debate which the media is not covering.”

Why is Suzan intent on educating David H. Koch about a gap in media coverage of evolutionary theory? Koch is a major supporter of NPR’s NOVA program. She asks him, point blank, “What I’m asking is, should the media, and in particular, PBS, focus on these better ideas of how evolution occurred and by enlightening the public, help stop the fighting about ‘old science’?” And for good measure, since Koch is financing the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History in Washington, she asks, “Do you have any interest in supporting an evolution conference in America along the lines of what the Vatican or the Austrians have done? Also, do you have any interest in creating a foundation specifically for the investigation of these other mechanisms of evolution?”

For now, David Koch is holding out, believing his fortune is better spent developing cures for cancer, but I doubt Suzan is finished with him. If we see a NOVA series announced on the new paradigm in evolution we may have Suzan to thank.

The new paradigm she’s referring to addresses all the major mysteries of life: how the first living creatures originated, what drives the process of evolution, and how individual living creatures develop and self-repair. The answers are, through self assembly and self organization.

Self assembly is the process by which organic molecules and components can come together to form more complex entities, without the need for energy input. This could account for the formation of life from non-living molecules and structures. Self organization is the process by which living organisms develop from simpler living components such as individual cells and cell fragments, sometimes requiring additional energy input provided by the living components driving the self organizing process.

Suzan’s book takes the form primarily of transcripts of interviews she set up with the primary movers and shakers in the field of evolutionary theory, which makes her book an invaluable glimpse into current thinking in the field. Her choice of thinkers was guided primarily by the invitation lists to two meetings, one held at Alternberg in Austria in 2009, hence the title of her book, the other by the Vatican in preparation for a meeting held in 2010. Suzan herself was not permitted to attend these meetings, but she interviewed people on both lists about what they expected to see covered and what they each had to communicate.

What’s the backstory? Any coherence in the new paradigm seems to have originated as a backlash against the tide of adulation accorded Charles Darwin in 2009, his bicentennial year. Enormous credit lies for the taking in whoever can knock him from his perch. Also, the rise of creationism makes natural selection seem too vulnerable a gatekeeper of the sanctum of evolution. The new paradigm has venerable roots: Stuart Kauffman has for decades been polishing theories of chaos theory and self organization. And why self organization? I can identify only three possible sources of the information manifested in the living world: the environment, the genome, and individual living creatures. Darwin commandeered the first, Erasmus Darwin (“A living filament”) and Jean Baptiste Lamarck commandeered the second, only individual living organisms was left. What more natural than to suppose they self-organize?

Among Suzan’s interviewees are Richard Dawkins, Stuart Kauffman, Richard Lewontin, Lynn Margulis and Nyles Eldredge. Altogether she assembled a very impressive line-up.


I am upset to recognize sarcasm and some hostility in the above review. I know the source: ignorant of the science behind it, I view "self organization" as a banal truism. How does a 6-foot-long baby blue whale become a perfectly proportioned 100-foot-long adult? It "self-organizes"? I don't think so! That sounds like accounting for animal behaviors by tracing them to "instincts."

I doubt I'll be the only one to think this. Perhaps a better term is needed, something less resembling a simple restatement of the phenomenon to be accounted for.

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Evolution for the Humanities
The Alternberg 16 evolution