Greta Thunberg, who started it all

Today is the day of the Global Climate Strike, in which young students all over the world will present strong arguments that the global Powers That Be had better pay attention to climate change and do something about it – something far more drastic than the piddling measures taken by most governments so far. We owe these youth our best efforts to support and follow up on their demands. To do that, or even to live responsibly in the Anthropocene, we need to appreciate what a genuine argument is.

Don’t argue with me!

That’s how the boss asserts his authority. What he really means is:

Follow my orders! Don’t argue against me!

Can you argue with people without arguing against them?

Not if an argument is just a verbal dispute, a “fight.” But when we talk about “having an argument”, that’s what we mean, isn’t it?

The Oxford English Dictionary says that an “argument” is ‘A statement or fact advanced for the purpose of influencing the mind; a reason urged in support of a proposition’; or, ‘A connected series of statements or reasons intended to establish a position (and, hence, to refute the opposite); a process of reasoning; argumentation.’ As Peirce puts it, ‘An “Argument” is any process of thought reasonably tending to produce a definite belief. An “Argumentation” is an Argument proceeding upon definitely formulated premisses’ (EP2:435). A single statement may be called an “argument” if and only if it forms part of a process of reasoning, but not all parts of the process need to be explicitly stated or ‘definitely formulated.’ The element of conflict may enter into the process if one argues for or against a ‘position’ or proposition, while facing opposition. But as we all know, when two people “have an argument,” the element of conflict often overwhelms the element of reasoning – especially when the feeling of being right matters more (to one or both people) than the truth of the matter being argued about.

In Turning Signs – with a few exceptions, such as Humpty Dumpty’s “nice knock-down argument” in Chapter 2 – the word ‘argument’ refers to a sign which embodies a process of reasoning. In a nutshell, it says that ‘if you believe A, you ought to believe C, because C logically follows from A.’ A here, which may consist of more than one statement, is called the antecedent (“going before”), while C is called the consequent (“following with,” according to the Latin roots). The “following” relation itself should be called the consequence, according to Peirce.

But also according to Peirce, the reasoning process goes much deeper than anything humans do “on purpose,” as we say. We know that our actions have unintended consequences (as well as intended ones) because nature itself has tendencies leading some things or events to follow from others, just as the consequent follows from the antecedent in an argument. Indeed Peirce claimed that the Universe itself is a vast argument (EP2:193-4), of which all human argumentations, and even our greatest works of art, are nothing but dim reflections.

No matter how strongly the youth of the Global Climate Strike fight for their cause, the inhabitants of Earth will all be the losers if we humans fail to see the truth of their argument, and act accordingly.

The real economy

Food, shelter, clothing, fuels, minerals, forests, fisheries, land, buildings, art, music and information are real wealth. Money by itself is not. Money is circulated among people who use it to buy real wealth.

— Odum and Odum (2001, 91)

Unfortunately, almost everything we hear about “the economy” through the media reflects an obsession with “growth,” as defined by increasing circulation of money. Meanwhile the planet continues to grow more impoverished.

Mary Catherine Bateson

One of the key concepts in Turning Signs is that of the guidance system. It’s rooted in systems theory and cybernetics, which are introduced in Chapter 3. I’ve just discovered that anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, from whose works I’ve gleaned some deep insights into complex interactive systems, has a very recent talk on the Edge website called “How to Be a Systems Thinker”.

It’s a profound reflection on the current state of the world and how systems thinking could help humanity correct its course. It’s also a lament for the lost legacy of the early cybernetics movement, as its deeper wisdom has been mostly drowned out by the industry’s flood of “devices.” On the website you can read it or screen the live interview (about 42 minutes). I highly recommend it – especially for those who might have found Chapter 3 of Turning Signs something of a struggle.

Gut feelings

In animals with brains, it is primarily the brain’s map of the body that monitors (through the nervous system) the state of the various subsystems that keep the body functioning (Damasio 2010). Since the body’s well-being often requires responses to events in its environment, parts of it (eyes, ears, etc.) are specialized to bring us news of what’s going on out there. Thus the brain’s map of the body includes an indirect mapping of the environment, or rather of the body’s relations with relevant aspects of it.

Turning Signs, Chapter 3

But the most direct mapping of the body, and the primal index of its well-being (or ill-being), comes to consciousness in the form of visceral feelings – gut feelings in the true sense of the term. These arise from inside the body, not through the sensors in the eyes, ears, nose or skin but through the ‘enteric nervous system – the complicated mesh of nerves that is present in our gastrointestinal tracts’ (Damasio 2018, 60). In evolutionary terms, this is the oldest part of the nervous system, and the most intimately connected with the body it serves and regulates. Yet the digestive system is also inhabited by far more primal beings, single-cell life forms that vastly outnumber the human cells with which they live in symbiotic partnership.

In the human gut alone, there are usually around 100 trillion bacteria, while in one entire human being there are only about 10 trillion cells, counting all types.

— Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things (2018), 53

These bacterial cells are inside us but not of us in the way that the 10 trillion cells ‘in one human being’ are. However, all these lives share one basic tendency called homeostasis: they self-regulate to maintain a chemical balance within their bodies that is conducive to their well-being and flourishing. That tendency, much older than brains or nervous systems, is the core of whatever intelligence any life form has.

Bacteria are very intelligent creatures; that is the only way of saying it, even if their intelligence is not being guided by a mind with feelings and intentions and a conscious point of view. They can sense the conditions of their environment and react in ways advantageous to the continuation of their lives. Those reactions include elaborate social behaviors. They can communicate among themselves – no words, it is true, but the molecules with which they signal speak volumes. The computations they perform permit them to assess their situation and, accordingly, afford to live independently or gather together if need be. There is no nervous system inside these single-celled organisms and no mind in the sense that we have. Yet they have varieties of perception, memory, communication, and social governance. The functional operations that support all this “intelligence without a brain or mind” rely on chemical and electrical networks of the sort nervous systems eventually came to possess, advance, and explore later in evolution.

— Damasio 2018, 53-4

Bodyminds with brains carry on the ancient homeostatic tradition by monitoring the state of the body’s interior, and representing that state in the form of feelings. Interoception is deeper than perception; our feelings about things and events around us are rooted in their relations to the state of the body, as represented to the mind by the images we call “feelings.”

Feelings are the mental expressions of homeostasis, while homeostasis, acting under the cover of feeling, is the functional thread that links early life-forms to the extraordinary partnership of bodies and nervous systems. That partnership is responsible for the emergence of conscious, feeling minds that are, in turn, responsible for what is most distinctive about humanity: cultures and civilizations. Feelings are at the center of the book, but they draw their powers from homeostasis.

— Damasio 2018, 6

Damasio’s book proceeds to explain how feelings, ‘the most fundamental of mental states,’ give rise to subjectivity, consciousness, imagination, reasoning and cultural invention.

When feelings, which describe the inner state of life now, are “placed” or even “located” within the current perspective of the whole organism, subjectivity emerges. And from there on, the events that surround us, the events in which we participate, and the memories we recall are given a novel possibility: they can actually matter to us; they can affect the course of our lives.

— Damasio 2018, 158

So, by Damasio’s account at least, gut feelings not only matter, they are the primal source of meaning for beings like us.


A person can do what he wants, but not want what he wants. Der Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will.

— Schopenhauer, On The Freedom Of The Will (1839)

In the last of his 1903 Harvard lectures, Peirce pointed out that ‘self-control of any kind is purely inhibitory. It originates nothing’ (EP2:233). What then is the ground of the guidance system governing the practice of a bodymind? Ultimately, says Peirce, ‘it must come from the uncontrolled part of the mind, because a series of controlled acts must have a first’ (EP2:233).

The same goes for acts of meaning. All of our reasoning, including the very form of the process, originates in what is “given” to us in perceptual judgments. Every such judgment is ‘the result of a process’ which is ‘not controllable and therefore not fully conscious’ (EP2:227). Consciousness takes up the task of controlling the process, domesticating it, harnessing a ‘logical energy’ which is originally wild. In its Firstness it is spontaneous and free, and yet the very origin of self-control. Logic as the ethic of inquiry is the heart of self-control in the use of symbols, but is grounded in a process continuous with direct perception, even with creation.

A consciousness for which the world is “self-evident,” that finds the world “already constituted” and present even within consciousness itself, absolutely chooses neither its being nor its manner of being.

What then is freedom? To be born is to be simultaneously born of the world and to be born into the world. The world is always already constituted, but also never completely constituted. In the first relation we are solicited, in the second we are open to an infinity of possibilities.…

We choose our world and the world chooses us.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 527)

There’s a split in the infinitive from to have to have been to will be.

The Guide

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?

Qur’án 30:29 (Cleary)

And what good is guidance if you keep it to yourself?

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.

— Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar