biological machines or mechanistic life?

So periodically I read something that refers to us, i.e., living beings, as machines.  More often than that I read about our brains as machines, i.e., computing machines, hard-wired, programmable, etc., and I have written here my thoughts about using that metaphor to capture neurological functioning (see posts 2/12/15: “dried neurons?” & 7/28/14: oh me, oh my!).  But considering biological entities, e.g., organisms, to be machines is something different and a bit more complicated because there is some literal truth to it.  Essentially I see two issues here:  1) how are we to understand the biochemical activity composing life given that such chemistry is governed by laws which operate mechanistically and we consider life to be vitally free from such constraints, and 2) what are the critical differences between organic and inorganic forms?  Read on with the understanding that I do not have the answer to those questions.

I am reading an old essay (1995?) by Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical biologist at Cambridge U., entitled “The Uses of Consciousness”.  Spoiler alert: the primary use is to understand the subjective musings of another by examining our own—a fairly apt answer, that one.  He brings up several interesting ideas, one of which is this notion that organisms are machines.  I was interested in his several referrals to Denis Diderot, a French writer of some renown of whom I know little.  He refuted Descartes idea of humans having two ‘substances’, body and soul, in classic fashion, i.e., there is no evidence for soul and no ideas about how spirit and matter could interact and fuse into one.

Now over my years I have read about Descartes repeatedly, especially his “Cogito ergo sum” business, and not until now (or in 1995 if I had been paying better attention) did I learn that his learned contemporary found his formulation “deplorable”.  This confirms my worry that our intellectual heritage and educational system has grown thin, emaciated even, as we focus on the catchy phrases and ‘stars’ and leave out contrary views, even when those views are more in line with our modern truths. Oh well, at least I was lucky enough to learn about Spinoza awhile back.

Back to mechanistic life.  Humphrey takes a practical, everyday approach to such issues.  I follow the great Jacques Monod in this from his landmark book, Chance and Necessity: yes, biochemical activity is mechanistic and yet biological processes are not “deducible from first principles”.  Monod gives a beautiful exposition that life evolves by chance and replicates its structure by necessity, and indeed, any feature of life would seem amenable to this analysis.  As I understand it, modern chaos theory follows along here—chaotic systems slowly organize in an unpredictable manner but that organization bespeaks future developments.

Humphrey refers to stalwart philosopher Daniel Dennett as one proponent that life is a machine, and further, that our consciousness is mechanical.  Dennett (per Humphrey) believes that in principle a machine could be constructed that would mimic us closely enough so that we would be ‘fooled’ into thinking that the machine is conscious.  Indeed, Dennett thinks that is what we already do with one another—we believe others are conscious based on our inferences from their behaviors but without any direct, real knowledge of their subjective domain, i.e., we are fooled into thinking others have minds.  Humphrey counters that this ‘problem’ of another’s private subjectivity is actually overblown and that philosophers would do well to read more biology on this matter.  Subjectivity is a natural consequence of being an organism, i.e., it is a fact to be understood and does not present a barrier to knowledge of each other.  I do like a common sense approach.

Go back, though, to the thought experiment of how to tell if an object is a living organism or an artifact mimicking life.  Monod addresses this early on in Chance and Necessity. An organism comes about through autonomous morphogenesis; it is a self-constructing machine that owes next to nothing to anything outside itself to its own creation.  Further, an organism comes with its own purpose; it projects that purpose through its genesis and life span.  Life is not teleological, i.e., growing to some endpoint as Teilhard de Chardin believed, but it is teleonomic, per Monod:  this ‘thing’ with its internal autonomous determinism carries forward its project of invariant reproduction.

So how to tell machine from organism?  Study “its origin, its history, and for a start, how it has been put together” (Monod, p. 13) and you cannot fail to notice that the machine was assembled from and by forces outside itself and the organism by forces internal to its own somatic creation.  And that seems to me the incipient quality necessary for subjectivity.  Yes, we are assembled through biochemical, mechanically governed processes, and yes, we do it ourselves, autonomously.  While we could theoretically construct a machine that mimics that closely, its history betrays its lack of autonomy and thus its lack of subjective integrity.

Biology also fosters the notion that subjectivity is no great decider of our success.  Rather, it is the linking of subjectivities that contributes evolutionary force to our lineage.  Remember that mammals are especially remarkable for our sociability and that we humans are amongst the most social of all.  Do I know that you have a subjective domain?  Yes, I do; I can sense it through our empathic relatedness. Do I know what is in your subjective domain?  Only by reading your signals and comprehending your symbolic communication. Humphrey clearly understands this as a primary function of consciousness, and to give him credit, he knew this before we had any good understanding of our neurological mirroring systems.

This view supports the notion that our consciousness derives from social interaction and that our identity, our self, comes about as we differentiate and integrate our early relationships.  It also supports the notion that other animals have some form of consciousness to the degree that they are sociable.  Again, this seems to accord with Humphrey’s common sense approach to these issues.  For a different approach, read about a panpsychical approach at ( where two psychologists speculate that consciousness is based upon the vibrational resonance between particles, so that everything in the universe can be seen as conscious because everything vibrates at times resonantly and there is little difference between vital and inert forms.  Amusing, perhaps, and curious, but not very nutritious.  Humphrey cites Diderot (was this man ahead of his time or what?) as saying, “One day it will be shown that consciousness is a characteristic of all beings”.  That is ‘beings’, you know, living things.  Though Humphrey disagrees with this statement, I think it is closer to the truth than some other views like panpsychism.

I will conclude with two thoughts.  One is my old idea that we should distinguish between sentience as life assaying the ambient, which is a property necessary at some level for adaptive success, and consciousness as the organism’s autonomous contribution to its apprehension of its own experience, including the ambient yet still independent of external stimulation.  Thus, I would say all life is sentient and any life that is social may develop consciousness.  I have written several posts about this before; see for example 4/21/16: “conscious or not?”.

The second idea is the importance of grounding our ideas in our biological nature. The guiding principle here is that our minds are embodied. Even at the highest levels of our intellectual production our minds rely on somatic experience for reference points.  This seems to me to be quite remarkable and important.  We might be machines of a special sort but we use our physical presence as a way to understand ourselves and our universe, and we do this with the power of metaphor, which is not exactly a mechanical  process.  I refer you to two books by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live Byand Philosophy in the Flesh, both of which but especially the latter explain very clearly cognitive processes by which our embodied minds build upon somatic experience to conceptualize and abstract through metaphor as we seek greater understanding, you know like comparing life to a machine. Travel on.

Revisionist History? Of course.

Here’s story from our family Thanksgiving.  I was discussing travel and tourism with a cousin when the topic turned to the renewed interest in some episodes of history. One was the incredible increase in tourism for Scotland associated with the Outlander books and TV series. People go see sites associated with Outlander and also many other historical sites.  The park at Culloden Battlefield has seen a big increase in visitors, for example.

My cousin brought up the increased interest in Alexander Hamilton engendered by the Broadway play, such as the site in New Jersey where Hamilton and Burr had their famous and tragic duel.  Then I asked him if he had seen the play and what he thought of it.  Here is where it gets interesting.

He had seen the play and generally liked it.  He did not like its portrayal of Thomas Jefferson because he (the cousin) did not like revisionist history.  Oh my!  Here we go again.  As I have said before virtually all history is revisionist, the exceptions being eye-witness accounts of events, people, etc.  I asked him what he meant by ‘revisionist’ and he said that the play portrayed Jefferson as a hypocrite, writing about freedom and having slaves, including children with his slave, Sally Hemings.  Given that this information is historically accurate, I wondered what had been ‘revised’?  His complaint generally centered around criticizing someone for actions that were normal and acceptable in his time, i.e., judging them with modern day standards.  Well, I thought, here we go again.

Though it seemed to make little difference in our discussion, I asserted that many people back then were against slavery, not least the slaves themselves but also many people around the world in the US, England and elsewhere.   I cited examples from a marvelous book, The Half Has Never Been Told,including the perspective that Santa Ana marched into Texas to throw out the American usurpers not just because they were taking land and forming their own government but also because Sam Houston and company wanted to establish a slave economy to grow more cotton.  As it turns out, Mexico had abolished slavery some 20 years earlier.  Oops!

Yes, this was another historical revision, but it comes about by adding critical details that the Alamo story ‘conveniently’ leaves out.  Is revisionism wrong when it corrects misinformation or adds a fuller context that enables us to understand the events better? Alas, my cousin retreated, saying he had never heard that (wonder why?) and that in the play Hamilton Jefferson had been treated poorly.  Oh, well, I went on to ask about the portrayal in the context of the overall dramatic structure, and yada yada yada.

Back home I picked up my nightly reading, which happened to be These Truths by Jill Lepore, a new history of these United States (oh boy, more revision). What did I read about?  Men in the early 1700s who criticized slavery as immoral and destructive.  George Mason wrote a letter to George Washington in 1765 warning that slavery had destroyed the Roman republic and would destroy the British Empire as well (they may have saved themselves when they abolished slavery in 1833.  Much previously though, Lepore writes that English courts refused to recognize slave ownership when Americans brought slaves with them who then escaped).

Lepore tells the wonderful story of Benjamin Lay who vehemently denounced slavery, the people who practiced enslavement of others as well as those who accepted that, writing in 1732 “What a parcel of hypocrites and deceivers we are”. In 1733, frustrated by even many Quakers’ acceptance of slavery, Lay went to a prayer meeting and told the parishioners that they would meet justice from the Almighty, who respects all “colours of men with equal regard.”  He then pulled out a Bible, which he had hollowed out and stuffed with a pig’s bladder filled with crimson pokeberry juice and stabbed it with a sword, splattering all with the staining red juice, shouting “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures”.  Wicked cool, huh?  He wrote a book condemning slave keepers as great sinners, which Benjamin Franklin printed and sold.  Lay gave out copies for free and then retreated to a cave he had dug and became a hermit there with a 200 book library and refusing to eat or use anything produced by slavery.  I have to say I am very glad to have learned about Benjamin Lay who opposed slavery early on in our history and invented (perhaps?) performance art/guerilla theater as a political/moral action.  Can’t wait to tell my cousin about this revision.

Now I follow an ethic of knowledge, so my goal is to see the object whole.  As a clinical psychologist I thought it very important to work with my patients through understanding them as best and completely as I could.  I use the analogy of a gem with many facets.  I can only view some of the facets and only some of these at any one time, but due diligence requires me to see the gem whole, not just this facet or that. I apply this to knowing anything. Deep understanding depends upon gathering all available information from diverse perspectives.  This includes, by the way, the context of such information, which I find all too many neglect.  Does this require revisionism?  Why, yes, it damn well does.  Does this mean rejecting versions edited to support fanciful images some have of the past?  Yes, indeed it does.  When you hear someone criticize some idea as revisionism, look closely and I bet you see that they are attempting to hold on to a fantasy.  That’s okay for fiction but not for history.  Travel on.

P.S.  As it happened very late last night, up with some chamomile tea, I watched some of Gone with the Wind, a great movie and novel shining some light on various fantasies.  Then I read this morning that as a young girl Margaret Mitchell listened to stories told by Confederate veterans at her family gatherings.  She reportedly was very surprised to learn at age 10 that the Union had won the war; evidently her family members had neglected to include that detail.  Ms. Mitchell reports that initially she had difficulty accepting this revision, though she certainly got over that little problem (unlike some white folk today).

Push our timeline back some more

NYT has a good story about archeologists finding the earliest figural art found so far.  A few things stand out in this report.  First, the findings are based upon a new technique for analyzing mineral deposits in caves using radioactive isotopes.  Next, the scientists had an arduous journey through the jungles of Borneo to get to this cave.  Next, did I mention this cave is in Borneo?  While most Paleolithic art has been found in Europe and northern and southern Africa, these paintings have been found nearly halfway around the world—the humans had migrated a long way to live on this island.  Lastly, these paintings are also done with red ochre and include the hand silhouettes formed by blowing the pigment through a tube and figurative art of animals, similar to what has been found in Europe dated back 15-30,000 years ago, but these are much older, dating back to at least 40,000 years ago, possibly to 65,000.  (Let me not neglect figurines and a bone flute in Europe going back maybe 40,000 years ago).  All told, these new findings are really remarkable.  Read the article here (I hope):

Of course, cave art has a better chance of being preserved than art on stones and wood out in the landscape, and maybe that figured in to the decision to paint in the caves.  Some of this cave art, however, is way back in a cave.  I visited a cave in SW France where animal paintings were a mile in—talk about needing a long lasting torch and a way to find your way back out.  So why there?  Some speculate that paintings were a means of communicating about the locale, but this was not an especially effective way to spread the news.  Some speculate that the paintings were an early manifestation of cultural glue, e.g., providing a mythic identity and place of spiritual gathering.  This makes some sense to me.  Some say the animal paintings were a means to empower their hunting through early magic; maybe but this leads back to the cultural handling of life and death, of habitus, and of dealing with both the limits of human efficacy and of conserving any and all animals’ life force, e.g., spirit.  Given Langer’s supposition that art is a symbolic rendering of one’s experience, the hand silhouettes could be a form of Dissayanke’s making special (art expressed by the self of the self/identity—“oh look, Hugo has been here”) and the animals would be a form expressive of experience, perhaps from some identification with the animal’s power (consider Moby Dick).  I do not recall any little animals in all of these paintings; they are buffalo, horses, mammoths, etc., and not rodents or rabbits.


Altamira bison from Spain from about 30,000 years ago. No bunnies here.

So this art, like all art, is symbolic, its surface structure conveying some deep import about life and vitality.  This Borneo art was done about the same time modern humans spread into Europe to then displace Neandertals, indicating that the early humans from 350,000 years ago traveled far and wide, and then somehow, say around 80-90,000 years ago, developed a penchant for visual art at the same time in various widespread populations.  Other art forms, e.g., music, dance, tool decorations, body art, etc., are lost in the past.  I think early art was an intimate action, probably restricted at first to a close-knit group, e.g., family or tribe, and part of the reason for painting in caves was to protect this intimate aspect.  From this beginning, humans began to revel in artistic expression and find common ground by sharing art forms that carried, following the great Susanne Langer here, import luminous with the artistic individual’s vital experience.  Travel on back and forward to the timeless land of aesthetic forms.


Another interesting read

I am reading a fairly delightful book, When Einstein Walked with Godel: Excursions to the edge of thought, a collection of essays by Jim Holt on various topics mathematical and physical scientific.  He addresses many somewhat arcane topics with intellectual rigor combined with biographical details of various figures and some historical context about the topics.  (He does less well later in the book when discussing biological issues).  Mostly a light read but very interesting and provocative.  Today I focus on Chapter 6: A Mathematical Romance, in which he discusses the idea of mathematical and theoretical beauty and I must to say he does an admirable job doing so.  And of course, for someone like me whose creed ends with “I seek the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind” and who has written several times here about aesthetics and beauty as a major facet of our mind, I read this chapter with just a wee bit more interest.

Consider the opening:  “Mathematical beauty, like the beauty of, say, a late Beethoven quartet, arises from a combination of strangeness and inevitability.”  The rather wonderful feature of music is that its flow follows along within certain constraints, the notes following according to some aesthetic syntax, and though unpredictable (if never heard before) still makes ‘sense’. In this way music is a way of feeling the flow into the future—you have a sense of what is coming next–and that is especially true with your own golden oldies.  Remember that Susanne Langer in Feeling and Form considers music to be virtual time, complex, flowing but not linear (unless it is crummy music), and full of import.  So yes, that mathematical beauty arises from strangeness and inevitability makes good sense.

Holt tells us about a great mathematician, G.H. Hardy, who said, “The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful. . . . Beauty is the first test: there is not permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”  Of course, other mathematicians see a place for ugly, or more accurately, for mathematics enjoyed for solutions but not aesthetics.  Holt takes us to some other interesting terrain.  Is the beauty of mathematics an apprehension of a Platonic form, i.e., the mathematician has found some feature of objective nature that conforms to or presents with the equation, or is mathematics constructed by the human mind and so we find beauty in our own compositions?  Is beauty in the eye of the beholder (subjective) or is beauty seen (objective) by those appreciative eyes? (I will save for later some other thoughts about this subjective-objective distinction).

This is not a new debate.  Well, that is, if you consider the ideas of Pythagoras and his followers as ‘not new’, because they proposed the idea that mathematical forms were real, i.e., out there to be discovered, ethereal presences perhaps but as real as the stars (or atoms).  Holt later on frames the difference between Plato and Aristotle with this debate, Plato proposing that we apprehend these noumenal forms and Aristotle saying we formulate them through empirical investigation.  It’s the old idealist vs realist debate, never to be resolved, eh?

Whether ideal or real, it takes a biological form to realize it, and that means our embodied brains are truly remarkable in their appreciation of our world. One of my favorite metaphors is the estuary, a muddy, vital, organic chaotic place where fresh and salt water mingle to the benefit of life.  I see an embodied brain as existing in an estuary and finding sense and order in the welter; some of the forms found through sense and order shine—they are beautiful because their luminance comes both from within and between minds.  Phenomenal? For sure.  Noumenal?  Remember Chris Hitchens’ wish for the noumenal to be conceptualized as distinct from the supernatural (see post 4/13/17).  I would say he was a realist, as was Jacques Monod (see post 3/25/17), and so I just follow along here with them.

I remember, though, Fibonacci numbers, that pattern of numbers where every number after the first two is the sum of the preceding two and that manifests repeatedly in organic forms.  This pattern was discovered/formulated repeatedly in India from 200 BCE to 700 CE and then Fibonacci wrote about them in Italy around 1200 CE.  Apart from many extensions in mathematics, this number pattern also shows up in how plants branch or construct flowers.  Ideal or real?  Maybe both?  This goes a bit above my pay grade.

Consider, finally, three everyday sorts of beauty: that found in nature (see the clouds at the end here), making special (conceptualized by Dissanayake & see post 5/16/16, that I say is an expression by the self of the self, i.e., identity) and fine (for lack of a better term) art, e.g., painting, literature, music, sculpture, etc. (an expression by the self of the self’s experience).  Add to that now the beauty of mathematics, indeed, the beauty of any intellectual form not derived from aesthetic import but from discursive patterns apprehended through our cognitive operations as we seek to understand the estuarine place of life’s birth.  Travel on.


Dusk over the Ionian sea, beautiful in itself, and inspiring Odysseus to travel and Homer to compose. Also, Remember Jack Bruce’s lyric “With tales of brave Ulysses, whose naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing.” Any and all beauty does have its allure.


3rd annual Mammalian Heritage Day

Today, November 2, is Mammalian Heritage Day. Mammals might be the newest branch on the tree of life but their warm-blooded, live bearing, family bonding have somehow prompted the ongoing evolution of brains. Bacteria, insects, reptiles, and birds have been around longer, much longer, than mammals but the newest kid on the block has produced an increasingly powerful intelligence over the past 300 million years. We are not the crown but the beneficiary, so take today and give thanks by, for example, taking a mammal to lunch or out for a walk.

We humans in our evolution find ourselves benefitting fully from our mammalian heritage. Mammals appeared on the scene around 500 million years ago and have diversified into many different forms since. Consider their (our) primary characteristics. Being warm blooded confers a crucial independence from ambient conditions, an independence humans have taken to an ultimate degree. It is not just that mammals have adapted to many different environments around Gaia, including returning to the ocean, but we have further enhanced our independence by controlling and changing these ambient conditions, perhaps to own detriment but then no species continues forever.

Consider another characteristic: live births. This is especially important for three reasons. First, infants born viably but immaturely permit an incredible amount of post-partum growth. The benefits of this are astounding: increased brain growth and size and critical periods of maturation where experience affects brain development in deep ways. Second, parenting becomes a lot more than regurgitating food into infant mouths and then kicking them out of the nest. Oxytocin, a most important hormone for parenting energy and prosocial behaviors, has been around, according to some estimates, for over 530 million years. Over the course of evolution mammalian brains developed the capacity to respond more powerfully to this hormone—parenting and family life became more prominent in any adaptive success, and that leads us to the third reason: If you want to raise more intelligent children and pass on to them the benefits of prior generations’ experience, birth them live and immature, maintain a nurturing family structure, and extend their juvenile period so that they do not begin to reproduce until they are a decade or so old, and then watch them surpass their education. The discovery of controlling fire was not really that big of a deal; the passing on of this technique, however, was; just ask Prometheus.

Our immediate (relatively speaking) ancestors who showed the culmination of these characteristics are the primates who appeared around 53 million years ago. That means mammals evolved for 450 million years before our large brained, visually oriented, socially engaged, and quick intelligence kinfolk appeared and then simians appeared a few million years after that. Our line split off from the great apes around 8 million years ago and our partners, the dogs, appeared around 3 million years ago. Fire was important because it furthered this trend. Cooking food releases more calories, making digestion more efficient, and more energy from food powers increased brain capacity. Fire warms us and draws the family group to the hearth. Civilization began at the hearth (and it looks like it will die in committee).

So this November 2 take a moment to reflect on our genetic heritage and thank a mammal, any mammal, all mammals for continuing this genetic stream and tend to your hearth.

I have been on vacation, cruising the Mediterranean.  Here is storm at dusk on the Ionian Sea, the home waters of intrepid Odysseus.


Travel on.