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For the United States, The Day the World Ended was only the beginning of the nuclear arms race.
While most countries were winding down their military efforts after the end of WW2, the American military-industrial complex (as it was later called by Eisenhower) chose instead to extend its global reach. One means of doing this was to capitalize on its lead in nuclear-weapons technology – an enterprise which would bring immense power and wealth to those who owned the means of production, as long as the public could be persuaded to subsidize its continual growth. And the means of persuasion were already in place: the advertising and marketing industry was itself exploding, in order to carry out the deliberate policy of promoting unlimited consumption in order to keep the wheels of industry turning (Worldwatch Institute 2010, 11-16).
“Selling” the arms race was somewhat unusual: the “consumer” had to be persuaded to buy into something that was of no use to him personally, and indeed was intended not to be used. The credible threat of using it was supposed to keep everyone safe from the Enemy. Of course if the threat were ever carried out, the consumer himself was likely to be consumed in the nuclear holocaust; so the military-industrial complex was essentially terrorizing the taxpayer into financing the means of his destruction (at worst) or exploitation (at best).
Future generations may find it hard to imagine why the public went along with this program, but it was ideal for the captains of the Complex, because it meant that the nuclear arsenal would have to be constantly updated in order to stay ahead of the opposition. The USSR did its best to provide the mirror image necessary to make the “race” look real. Of course, the American propaganda never spoke of “staying ahead”; the pitch was to “keep up (or even “catch up”) with the Russians.” But the public had no way of knowing what the real situation was, since the information was often ‘classified’ as secret, while the corporate media took on the task of ‘manufacturing consent’ (Herman and Chomsky 1988). The owners of these corporate media, essentially the same elite group who profited from weapons production, “sold” it to the American public under the slogan of “defending freedom”; the media also advertised themselves as the “free press,” meaning in practice that their owners could use them freely to serve their own interests.
This pattern continued into the 21st century, though the media image and identity of “the Enemy” had to be constantly revised and updated after the dissolution of the Soviet Union toward the end of the 20th. But the public media themselves were changing, with the advent of personal computers and the Internet. Then came the rise of the “social media” dominated by the “tech giants” such as Google and Facebook, replacing the old “mainstream media” as the trusted source of public information and guidance. Now the purveyors of deliberate disinformation were even more free to do so, often hiding behind false identities, and the tech giants were neither willing nor able to take responsibility for the content appearing on their platforms.
This transformation was foreshadowed by the military-industrial applications of “information technology.” By the 1980s, the cutting edge of weaponry was shifting from bigger and more destructive bombs to improvements in “delivery systems.” Ballistic missiles (rockets with nuclear warheads) could be aimed and fired at targets halfway around the world, and could get there in a matter of minutes rather than hours. But, like a bullet emerging from a rifle barrel, the missile would follow a path predetermined at launch time, and might miss the bull's eye by a mile. Of course, a weapon that could level an entire city didn't need to be terribly accurate, especially when you had thousands of them, many of which could be launched from submarines at sea.
By 1980 the U.S. arsenal had grown so massively redundant that most of it could serve no purpose in an actual war except to ‘make the rubble bounce,’ as some analysts put it. Something new was needed to keep the wheels of the industry turning at top speed, so the innovators turned their attention to guidance systems. As Martin Luther King remarked, it was an age of guided missiles and misguided men. And ironically, the next advance in lethal technology was achieved by taking a page from the book of life itself.
Unlike its ballistic predecessors, the “cruise” missile developed in the early 1980s resembled a robot airplane on a suicide mission. Though relatively slow, short-range and low-yield, it could deliver its payload to a target as specific as a single building. Thus it represented the first generation of “smart missiles” (later replaced by remote-controlled “drones”). What made them so smart was an internal guidance system. An onboard computer was programmed with a flight plan, an electronic map of its route, and coupled with sensors enabling it to “read” the territory en route and compare that reading with what it “expected” from its reading of the onboard map. If it detected a mismatch along the way, the system could steer the missile to correct its course and realign it with the map.
This amounted to a crude simulation of living systems, which are typically guided from within. This is most obvious with animals like ourselves. Each of us begins life as a single cell, which promptly begins to divide and develop toward its biologically destined state as a specific kind of mature multicellular organism. The development process is guided by a “map” within the original cell and included in each of its descendants. This “map,” the genome, is a single text read by the cell's internal process of chemical analysis and synthesis, typically producing a specific protein as interpretant of a specific section of the DNA molecule, or sometimes regulating other interpretive processes. The genome is thus a sign within the cell, read by an internal process and interpreted in the context of the whole situation in which the cell participates. As the cells differentiate and the body articulates itself, contexts multiply and organize themselves into hierarchies: cells into structures such as organs, and structures into various systems (nervous, circulatory, digestive and so on). As the context organizing the whole process, the body thus becomes more complex.
But the body as a whole has a context as well, which we may call its environment or its medium. As the relations between the body and its context become more complex in the course of development, so does its behavior. This too is guided by an internal “map” – or rather by a continuous mapping process. Since a body's immediate environment is much less predictable than the patient process of growth, its behavioral guidance system needs to be fast and flexible. Every animal needs a nervous system to read the world and respond in real time. “Real time” for us is the time-frame in which feeling, thinking and doing take place. The historical time-line stretching “back” into the past and “forward” into the future (or turning in a circle like the seasons) is an abstract dimension onto which we map our memories and expectations of living through changing situations.
The system which guides your present path into the future couldn't work without some kind of memory, or map of your past experience. The persisting traces of your enactive being-in-the-world are incorporated into the mapping which guides your behavior just as the genome guides your development. The main differences are that synaptically-encoded memory is far more variable and volatile than the genetically-coded, and that some of it can be consciously evoked or “recalled.” The laying down of those traces is called learning, which writes the subtext of memory. I call it a ‘subtext’ because the guidance system consults it behind the scenes, as it were, looking for familiar patterns according to which the scene to which you are attending might make sense. This enables the system to anticipate what might happen next and what sort of move might suit the occasion. The predictable sequence of events is virtually compared with what actually happens: significant differences are noted as new memories, and thus the learning loop continues.
Psychologists distinguish various kinds of memory, including procedural (knowing how to do things) and semantic (knowing facts or features of the world). All animals have both kinds, to varying degrees, and the ‘internal map’ of which we speak here includes both. But compared to most other animals, humans seem to specialize in another layer of mapping, called episodic or autobiographical memory, which enables you to “replay” at will various events in your personal life (and to imagine possible futures). We humans also seem to have more working memory at our disposal, which allows us to temporarily rearrange and recombine selected features of our mental maps. But however special the human mind may be, we can be sure that it has evolved from the same evolutionary process that engendered all the habits, and all the inhabitants, of planet Earth.
The cruise was a far more sophisticated machine than a ballistic missile, but it still couldn't hold a candle to a complex adaptive system such as an animal. Having been endowed with primitive forms of memory, perception and motor control, it could correct its own course, within narrow limits. But it couldn't change its own map. An organism, to the extent that it can learn, is always mapping its world, modifying its map-in-memory as circumstances change. Both the machine and the animal are endowed with an initial map of some kind (neither begins with a “blank slate”), but there the resemblance ends. The machine's map is programmed in a formal language by a human designer to serve an explicit purpose. The organism's internal map is a set of relatively vague propensities which articulate themselves in the course of development.
In every animal capable of learning, anticipation and perception are constantly modifying one another, so that the internal map of memory is updated to remain relevant even when the territory changes. The animal is always renovating some part of itself, you might say, so that its structure stays coupled with that of its changing environment, provided that the latter doesn't change too suddenly and radically. This structural coupling (as Maturana and Varela called it) means that the animal's moves can remain relevant to its situation.
The ability to restructure oneself adaptively must be more general, and more permanent, than any of the specific structures involved in the process. The recipe for its development is encoded in the genome, which the growing structure itself interprets to produce whatever matters at the moment to the self-modifying process. Since structural coupling enables the organism to survive and reproduce, the structural features encoded in the genome have been indirectly shaped over generations by the constant coupling of its ancestors with their ambience. Thus the genetic text, as the memory of that long-term coupling, is a micro-map of ancestral habits. In biology, the lineage continued by the passing on of that genetic text is called the genotype; the actual body of that lineage, living and reproducing itself in the world, is called the phenotype. Individual organisms are instances or tokens of these phenotypes.
Individual lives play variations on the genetically-coded themes in order to synchronize with the larger music of the ecosystems they inhabit. Each organism thus incorporates (embodies) the experience of its ancestors as the possibilities of its own experience. The genetic heritage guides the learning process only in this indirect sense, not in real time. Nor does individual experience directly modify the basic genetic text.
But a new kind of guidance system – indeed, a whole new world – emerges for any lineage that can replicate and share symbols representing its typical experience and guiding its actions into the future. Now we have the beginnings of an external guidance system, a culture which is public rather than private. Find ways to reproduce these symbolic forms in durable media, and you have a system which is relatively permanent and stable like the genome, yet relatively flexible and dynamic like your individual experience of living. Such an external guidance system, and the externalized memory on which it depends, can only be made of symbolic signs.
Charles Peirce classified signs in three-way divisions or trichotomies. The most familiar of these divides sign types into icon, index and symbol according to their relations to their objects. Any map (for instance, a road map) is an iconic sign. It gives you an overview of the territory it maps, representing the arrangement of objects (roads and towns) within that territory by the arrangement of its own parts (lines and dots). Its accuracy, or truth, consists in its resemblance to the territory that it maps, i.e. the correspondence between its own structure and that of its object. But how do you know what its object is? An icon, as such, doesn't tell you what in the world it might represent or correspond to. For that you need an indexical sign.
A pointing finger, or anything that actually directs your attention to an object, is one kind of index. But indicating does not have to be intentional: a symptom is an index of a disease, and thunder is an index of lightning. An index does not have to resemble the form of its object, as an icon does, but must have some real connection to it (Peirce, EP2:163), as opposed to a merely mental or conventional connection.
A symbol does not require either a resemblance or a ‘real’ connection to its object. What it does require is that it will be interpreted, by a mind prepared to do so, as a sign that means something, or conveys information. Fulfillment of that condition depends on common habits formed, or conventions adopted, by the symbol's community of users. This is what endows symbols with far more flexibility (and more polyversity) than icons or indices alone can have.
In semiotic logic, the basic type of symbol capable of conveying information is called the proposition. It becomes informative by connecting an index denoting its object with an icon signifying some quality or characteristic of that object. If the connection becomes familiar through repeated use of the symbol, the original iconic and indexical functions involved in it may be weakened or submerged beneath the symbol's role in the language or habit-system which is its context. Thus a linguistic symbol tends to lose its direct connection to the real world beyond the virtual world of the language itself – unless users of the symbol can recreate the original act of meaning, refreshing the life of the symbol through their use of it.
Suppose someone hands you a map of some territory that you don't recognize. You might ask, ‘Where is this place?’ or ‘What's this a map of?’ You are asking for an index to what this iconic sign represents. But how can anyone point at the territory represented by a typical map? Only by locating it on another map of greater scope, such as a globe; or by indicating its location on a virtual map, such as your background knowledge of geography. This is what the label on the map does, by giving the territory a name.
A name is a symbol which can work as an index in a virtual world. For instance, if the map you're holding is labelled “Manitoulin Island,” that might tell you where the territory in question is, even though you're not there now, even if you've never been there. But if you've never heard of such a place, it's not a feature marked on your mental map of the world. In that case you might have to do an internet search for it, or look it up in the ‘index’ of an atlas, in order to locate it. Then you might be able to point to it on a globe, which is an icon of the earth. But then you'd be pointing to it virtually, mentally mapping one icon to another. This you can only do within the cultural frame we call “geography,” which is part of an external guidance system. You have to know your way around that virtual world (internalize its basic structure) in order to use artifacts such as maps and globes to navigate the real world.
Learning a symbolic system (such as a language) enables you to carry such virtual or “inner” spaces around with you, so that you can refer to people, places and patterns which are not currently perceptible through any of the sensory pathways bringing you the latest news from external reality. It also enables you to observe relations between things, which are never directly perceptible through the senses (Deely 2009). What you gain from this is the ability to imagine other possibilities, alternate universes differing in various ways from the current situation. Some of these other possibilities may be worth realizing (or approaching, or avoiding), and thus have crucial implications for a guidance system. But investing your attention in virtual spaces is also risky, because they tend to proliferate, especially when they can be reproduced externally. Anything that can be used as a medium of dialogue within the cultural universe (or of dialogue with the incomparably greater universe beyond) can also turn into a substitute for the real world which it originally represents. Anyone who gets wrapped up in abstract maps is at risk of losing touch with the territory. Living that way is like trying to eat a menu, or eat money.
It's a peculiarly human predicament to be enveloped in virtual worlds, even addicted to them, because the human is the symbolic species (Deacon 1997). This does not mean that symbol use is exclusive to humans, only that other animals don't use them to construct elaborate external guidance systems as we do, and thus aren't immersed in symbol systems as we are. They don't need to be, since they can inform themselves in simpler ways. The honeybee's dance maps the way to a food source; the warning calls of monkeys, birds and prairie dogs can indicate the presence of specific dangers and trigger standard responses. It's the more abstract relationships that the “non-symbolic” species have a hard time referring to.
Semiosis pervades the biosphere, but only humans do semiotics, because human animals not only use signs but also talk and think about signs (by using more signs, of course). The semiosic practice of some animals is clearly learned rather than “hard-wired,” and the existence of local variations motivates us to speak of animal “languages” and “cultures”; some animals internalize fairly complex communication systems; but only humans have come to rely so much on external artifacts for guidance. In the 21st Century we have reached a turning point in the human journey because we are beginning to notice the unintended consequences of our reliance on artificial systems.
In a sense, then, the burning question is how we can pull our heads out of those virtual clouds and get our feet back on the ground. True-hearted poets and prophets are forever trying by symbolic means to break our addiction to conventional symbols. There's a saying in the Blue Cliff Record: ‘The Path is fundamentally without words. We use words to reveal the Path’ (Cleary and Cleary 1977, 166.) We might liberate ourselves from our own habits by recovering the original iconic and indexical functions of the very symbols we are now using. In the case of this book, it's your role as reader to carry out that mission; the symbols you are now reading are presently out of the author's hands. But this chapter aims to explain how the mission might be carried forward by looking into the biosemiotic roots of our symbolic guidance systems.
To be sentient is to be guided by what i've called an internal ‘map.’ That name refers (symbolically of course) to the part of you which enables your structural coupling with your world by linking experience to behavior. 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.
What we call consciousness is a mental activity specialized for dealing with internal or external matters that require focused attention. The brain's continuous mapping of the body runs deeper than consciousness, but triggers awareness when something unusual shows up, attracting attention to it. This internal ‘map’ is not symbolic in the way that an external map is. It has a direct physical connection to its object, the body – it's a subsystem of the body, actually – so its iconic ‘map’ of the perceived world does not represent it in the same way that a road map does (by visual correspondence). It is an icon, not of the world “out there,” but of the bodymind's intimate relations with it. To an observer who could look into your brain and see your seeing, it would not look anything like what you are seeing.
The more persistent parts of this ‘map’ constitute an “inner world” consisting of your habits, which are functionally coupled with what goes on in the “outer” world. The inner world is related to the outer as lock and key, or hand and glove, or predator and prey are related. The one is not a copy of the other but its complement. The organism's reading of the world, or recognition of patterns in it, is an internal process, and it's the patterns of this process that we refer to as ‘the map.’ Any reference to internal “maps” or “representations” will mislead you if you picture them as pictures.
Part of our external (cultural) guidance system is the formal, scientific study of internal guidance systems. One such science was among the theoretical spinoffs from WW2, though it was not as well known as other sciences with more spectacular (and profitable) applications, such as nuclear physics. Norbert Wiener, a founding practitioner, named it cybernetics after the Greek word for “steersman,” κυβερνήτης (which also referred metaphorically to a “guide” or “governor”).
One of the discoveries of this new science was the feedback loop as an element of simple guidance systems. An example is the thermostat circuit which regulates temperature in a house by turning on the furnace when it's too cold, and then turning it off when it's made the house hot enough. This represents an elementary guidance system: it controls one function of the larger system (the house) by keeping a single variable (temperature) within optimal limits. It controls a process by monitoring the amount of its product and responding accordingly. This is called a negative feedback loop because it responds to increases in the amount of product by decreasing or reversing the process that generates it. A positive feedback loop, on the other hand, is one that always acts to increase the variable which it monitors.
Donella Meadows, in her ‘primer’ on Thinking in Systems, improves on that terminology, calling the ‘negative feedback loop’ a balancing loop and the ‘positive feedback loop’ a reinforcing loop. I will stick with these terms from now on because they are more informative about the effects these loops have on system behavior.
The balancing loop is the one that signals the furnace to shut off when the room is too warm. This kind of homeostatic regulation is also found, in more complex forms, in living systems. But reinforcing loops are also essential to life itself, and probably played a key role in its origin (Loewenstein 1999, 81). Within any dynamic system, they ‘amplify particular variations, leading to the emergence of novelty’ (Granic, in Lewis and Granic 2000, 274). Balancing loops, on the other hand, stabilize a system so that its habits can be consolidated. Lacking this kind of self-regulation, reinforcing loops can produce the explosive growth of a nuclear chain reaction, or a malignant tumor, which is a slower version of the same pattern.
Psychologically, reinforcing loops can take the form of confirmation bias. Algorithms taking advantage of this bias made surveillance capitalism enormously profitable, furthering the “viral” spread of misinformation and disinformation on the internet.
The process of global heating is accelerated by reinforcing loops: higher temperatures increase the likelihood of forest fires and of methane release from frozen swamps, which in turn increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the air; the melting of polar ice increases the amount of heat absorbed by sea water as it reduces the amount of solar radiation reflected back into space by the ice. If you respond to the heat by turning on an air conditioner, you reduce the local temperature in the room, but you increase the global temperature by increasing energy consumption. This pattern, like addiction, is hard to see from the inside.
The nuclear arms race was dominated by a reinforcing loop. Like the guidance system of the cruise missile, it was incapable of learning from its own experience. The cruise had no conscience, and no self, because it couldn't self-modify.
Are we cruising now? Can we start again?
As mentioned above, organic bodies self-organize in hierarchical structures because they are complex systems. Or as Stanley Salthe (1993, 311) put it, ‘complexity is a result of hierarchical structure.’ But here's a good example of the confusion caused by polyversity in a symbolic guidance system. The kind of hierarchy we're talking about here is not a matter of ranking order, as in a social class or command system; it's a matter of scale.
A less ambiguous term for this kind of order is holarchy, derived from holon, Arthur Koestler's term for a system which is both a whole with respect to its parts and a part of a larger system. That larger (higher-scale) system is also a holon, and so on, until we reach the scale beyond which we can't see at all, which we call the cosmos or the universe. Each level is constituted by the relations and interactions among the holons at the next level down in the holarchy. It is also constrained by the level above, which provides the background or boundary conditions for its relations with other holons at its own level. Salthe (1985, 1993) has devised a convenient notation for representing such a holarchy or scalar hierarchy:
Any functioning system must play a part in a larger-scale system. Each cell in your body, through its interactions with other cells and substances in its neighborhood, contributes to the work of some system or organ. Those larger-scale systems in turn interact with others to carry on the processes which constitute the body as a whole. Likewise, you have an identity or “personality” to the extent that you play a role in a social system, interacting with other role-players. If you live in a city, you are like a cell in its body, while your own body can be regarded as a community of cells. Of course such a cross-level comparison would also reveal differences; for instance, some communities are looser than others. It would be harder for one of your living cells to move to another body than for you to move to another city. It's different with some other species, such as honeybees: for them, it makes more sense to think of the beehive rather than the bee as the individual organism (Tautz 2008).
As an organism, you play a role in an ecosystem, and its internal structure constrains what you can do. So does a higher-scale system which is both social and ecological, such as a city. If you live in it, you generally have to play by the city's rules, most of which are implicit rather than explicitly legislated. But your moves within that system consist of interactions with other entities of the same scale as yourself. You don't interact directly with a city or state, although you can interact with people who work for it, or with pieces of its infrastructure. Likewise a tree doesn't interact with a forest, although it does interact with other trees, plants, animals and fungi. Nor does a holon interact directly with the next lower level, since the rate at which events happen there is too different. Indeed, this is definitive of a difference in scale, ‘a difference in size so great that no dynamic interaction is possible, only constraint communication’ (Salthe 1993, 322; see also Pattee 1973). The very existence of a holon depends on the separation of its internal dynamics from those of higher or lower levels.
This is the crucial difference between a holarchy and a social or political hierarchy, which is based on some groups or individuals taking power over others of the same scale. Some of the confusion arises when the higher ranks or “stations” in a social hierarchy are taken (or take themselves) to represent a higher-scale holon such as a community, nation or religion. We see this clearly in Shakespeare when the King of France is called ‘France,’ or the Duke of Albany ‘Albany’. Though it's not always so obvious, some such metonymy pervades political discourse. The only government entirely free of hierarchy would be a pure heterarchy, a network of holons in dialogue, with no one representing a “constituency” or making decisions on behalf of the whole community. A political heterarchy would self-organize and develop as an organism does, without central control (see Thelen and Smith 1994). Commoning (Bollier and Helfrich 2019) is generally a social movement in this direction.
From the perspective of human experience, the basic level in the hierarchy of scales is the scale of things with which the human body can directly interact. Special sciences can map events at much higher and lower scales, but the further our focal level is from this basic level, the more abstract our ideas of what goes on there. We have to use devices such as microscopes, telescopes, statistical calculations and computer models in order to develop and modify the mapping. In our moment-to-moment decision-making and practice, we can ignore what's going on at atomic or subatomic levels, since those events rarely make any detectable difference in our lives.
At higher levels, macroscopic conditions provide the stable setting of the human drama, as it were: ‘all the world's a stage’ which remains relatively constant while the players make their entrances, exits and other moves. From the basic-level perspective, what we can see beyond the biosphere changes too slowly for us to see the changes as events. (That's why an exceptional event such as an eclipse or supernova is so remarkable.)
The constants in our lives provide the predictable context of our being, but it's mostly the variables that attract our attention. Lacking the sciences which extend our comprehension of scales beyond the basic level, we would not notice that a global climate which has been stable for 10,000 years has suddenly been destabilized. We would not “connect the dots” of extreme weather events, mass migrations or political upheavals, but take them as random “news of the day.” Nor would humans realize that their own habits, especially their grasping at political and economic power, are behind the breakdown of ecosystems and social systems, or recognize the situation as a crisis demanding changes in those habits. (Nor would anyone indulge in denial of the real situation, or misdirecting the blame for it.)
You can't tell a truth without using symbols, but symbols also make it possible to lie, and to propagate lies. When external guidance systems are invested with authority and established as institutions (churches, states, corporations and so on), the scope and consequences of deception can be vastly magnified. The propaganda campaign which sold the nuclear arms race to a gullible public, for instance, was only one example of the gospel of growth and consumption incessantly preached through the corporate media.
More recently, thanks to their success at targeted advertising, “social media” have taken over most the propagandizing work from the old “mass media.” The algorithms devised for this purpose act as reinforcing loops, fostering the growth of “echo chambers” in which the conversation is increasingly divorced from reality. All of this follows naturally from the ascendancy of symbolic systems. No wonder the linguist Dwight Bolinger, around the same time that the cruise missile appeared, published a book entitled Language, the Loaded Weapon. But he didn't anticipate how the technology of the internet would escalate the “culture wars” of the 21st Century.
The potential of symbol systems to be weaponized was already hinted at in a 2500-year-old pun by Heraclitus:
The name of the bow [βιός] is life [βίος]; its work is death.One point of such a pun is the relatively arbitrary connection between names (and other symbols) and their objects, which entails all sorts of accidental collisions and collusions of usage as linguistic habits develop and diverge. This opens the way to myriad misunderstandings even without the intent to deceive. But there's also a hint here of deeper relations among life, work and death: for life really is like a bow. Heraclitus hints at this in another fragment:— (Kahn LXXIX)
They do not comprehend how a thing agrees at variance with itself; it is an attunement turning back on itself (παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη), like that of the bow and of the lyre.Bow and lyre alike owe their usefulness to a double tension. Each of them works by pulling the two ends of a string in opposite directions, creating what we might call static tension (the bow bends because the string's length is fixed). Once the string is “tuned” in this way, it can be plucked – bent back and released, increasing the dynamic tension between string and bow to power the work of sending forth a sound-wave or an arrow when it is released. This bending-and-returning or ‘turning back’ (palintropos) is a double tension, a source of creative and destructive power alike. And what does this have to do with life? Living systems maintain a state of dynamic tension, and thus take the double tension embodied in bow and lyre to a higher level. The paradoxes and ambiguities we've seen in symbolic signs, along with the creative tension which drives dialog (as shown in Chapter 2), have deeper roots in the systemic nature of life itself.— (Kahn LXXVII)
The English word system comes down to us from the Greek σύστημα, which meant primarily ‘a whole compounded of parts’ (LSG). Peirce (CP 4.5, 1898) defined a system as ‘a set of objects comprising all that stand to one another in a group of connected relations.’ A more recent definition by Mark Johnson (1987, 87) places more emphasis on the whole made up by this connection of parts: ‘A system is an organization of interconnected, interdependent individuals or elements that work together to form a functional unity.’ Recent systems theory tends to focus on this functional unity, which is completely different from the unity of a mere collection of objects or things or stuff. Unlike a pile of sand or a pool of water, a living system actively defines itself by sustaining an internal process.
A system is a set of things— people, cells, molecules, or whatever— interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.— Donella Meadows (2008, 1)
A machine such as an internal combustion engine may have both functional unity and internal process, but both are predetermined by forces or agencies outside the system. The process going on inside an organic system, on the other hand, actually defines the system: it determines, in the course of its development and self-maintenance, what's inside the system and what isn't. By developing its own identity and reproducing more of its kind, with variations, it becomes capable of evolving. Machines and other artificial constructs are built by others and so limited in their self-maintenance that they play no active role in their own evolution. The difference between organic and mechanical structure is a matter of reciprocal relations within the organism: ‘in an organized body, every part exists for the sake of all the others as all the others exist for its sake’ (Kant 1787, Bxxiii). Neither the parts nor the whole exist for the sake of a purpose intended by some other (separately embodied) system.
In order to develop or evolve, an entity has to change while continuing to be the same entity. A living system or organism, whether individual or species, is a process that persists by changing itself. In other words, it self-organizes in dialogue with its environment. This self-organizing process has been called autopoiesis, another term introduced by Maturana and Varela. An autopoietic (‘self-making’) being is one who ‘becomes distinct from its environment through its own dynamics’ (Maturana and Varela 1992, 47). You might ask how it can have ‘its own dynamics’ before it ‘becomes distinct,’ and indeed it is a deep question in science how such a cyclical process could have self-started. But a precise answer at this point would be premature, and autopoiesis is not an answer to that historical question. Rather it addresses the conceptual question about what kind of system can be alive: ‘the being and doing of an autopoietic unity are inseparable, and this is their specific mode of organization’ (Maturana and Varela 1992, 49).
Not all systems are organized in this way. The solar system, for instance, is not autopoietic. But it does furnish a condition necessary for the emergence of self-organization: an energy gradient, i.e. a difference between the high concentration of matter/energy in the sun and the relatively cold and empty space around it. This creates an energy flow from source (the sun) to sink (other nearby bodies such as planets). In every system containing an energy gradient, the flow from source to sink will continue, as if trying to move the whole system toward a state of equilibrium, which would be static and unchanging, as there would be no more flows of energy or matter within it, unless it were disturbed from the outside.
The sun, as the energy source of the solar system, makes no attempt to maintain its own state; it just radiates in all directions the energy it produces by consuming its own substance. But the planets which happen to lie within range of that energy flow, being of a much cooler disposition, present opportunities for the sun's radiant energy to be harnessed by entities which do self-organize and maintain their structural integrity, for a while. These are the autopoietic unities which, from this thermodynamic point of view, appear as dissipative systems. This name was applied to them by Ilya Prigogine because they are all energy consumers, which entails that they always dissipate energy in the very processes of self-construction and maintenance. On our planet they constitute the biosphere, and thus ‘the entire terrestrial system is maintained at a steady state very far from thermodynamic equilibrium’ (Depew and Weber 1995, 409).
Some dissipative systems, including organisms, develop their own identities: they define themselves, or create and maintain a boundary between internal and external processes. In this sense they are closed systems. However, since they require access to external sources of energy, they must also be open to flows of matter and energy across whatever boundaries they have made. They must be selectively open in order to maintain their operational closure (as Maturana and Varela called it). To the extent that they have autopoietic unity, or definite identities, their actions appear to have “purposes,” special interests to which their internal processes are partial, so that some things or events are more useful to them than others. Energy, to them, is the flow which can be harnessed to do work – a concept built into the word itself, etymologically speaking, since ἔργον is the Greek word for ‘work.’
However, some energy is always “wasted” in any process. Thus the possibility represented by energy is realized in two different forms: exergy, the part which is actually used to do work; and entropy, the part which is useless or wasted. The Second Law of thermodynamics guarantees that in any isolated system (i.e. one lacking any possibility of input or output), entropy is bound to increase. The ultimate limit of that irreversible increase would be the state of thermodynamic equilibrium, in which energy would no longer flow because it is already evenly distributed, with no sources or sinks. It follows that any open system, such as a dissipative structure, exports entropy to the surrounding system to the extent that it uses energy to do work.
Every dissipative system embodies the tension between entropy and order: the more alive it is, the more it clings to its closure and keeps its distance from thermodynamic equilibrium. Its operational closure depends on keeping its internal processes and gradients in homeostatic “balance,” a kind of static tension which is probably the physical basis of our psychological sense of “balance.” But since it has to consume energy and export waste products in order to maintain that inner balance, it also serves the cause of equilibrium in the larger system in which it participates. That's the dynamic tension driving the ongoing exchanges between the dissipative structure and its encompassing ambience. The necessary connection between the static and the dynamic creates the double tension that makes life like a bow or a lyre. All of the complex organization we find in nature and culture alike is rooted in this palintropic ‘bending back.’
The cruise missile, since it can't change its own structure, can't change its behavioral habits. This makes it relatively simple to map, guidance system and all. Also, aside from its artificial nature, the cruise is simpler than any organic system in another respect: it moves only in three-dimensional space. When we speak of its internal ‘map,’ we are tacitly reducing its dimensions to two (since ‘maps’ in our experience are generally flat). But we are making a far more drastic reduction when we speak of the internal ‘map’ of an organism, for the world in which the animal moves is multidimensional (or as Donna Haraway (2016) says, ‘n-dimensional’). Any guidance system, in order to be internalized, has to make such reductions, and any description of a guidance system has to reduce complexity even further. Any map which is useful as a guide has to be simpler than the system it maps and the system reading it. Guidance systems economize by generalizing and ignoring insignificant details.
To develop the familiar path metaphor a bit further, let us refer to the body who is “taking” (or “making”) the path as the subject. In the Latin age of philosophy, this word referred to anything existing independently of any other subject's awareness of it, i.e. any real thing (Deely 2001, 2009). In that older sense a rock is a “subject”; a rolling stone takes its own path down the mountain, but does not move unless some external force moves it, and once in motion (like a ballistic missile) it has no control over its path. More recently (since Kant), the term is usually applied to a living subject, or sentient being, an autonomous agent moving under its own power, acting under its own control, and internally self-regulating (a direct translation of autonomous).
In the modern sense, then, neither a stone nor a computer nor a cruise missile nor a remote-controlled drone is a subject, insofar as its actions are determined by external forces or external designers. A plant or a fungus, which can grow and change its own shape and orientation, could qualify as a subject; but the more predictable a being's behavior on the time scale basic to us, the less we relate to it as another self. If we recognize it as an animal like ourselves, it appears to us as an experiencing subject (though circumstances can sometimes prompt us to ignore its subjectivity). You recognize something as alive only when it can surprise you by doing something unexpected. But that couldn't happen if you weren't expecting.
He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored.— Heraclitus (Kahn VII)
Expecting is what an internal guidance system does, though it doesn't become aware of doing that until some difference appears between the expected course of events and what actually happens. This is how an expecting bodymind (or anticipatory system, as Robert Rosen called it) knows from the inside that it's alive. But the attention is normally directed outward: if something out there appears to be intentionally doing whatever surprises you, it will look alive to you. By recognizing the living, you begin to track and explore the unexpected.
We begin to learn about life when we recognize autonomy in others. We learn to predict that they will behave more or less unpredictably. Invoking the simplifying notion of “cause and effect” often allows us to predict (and thus control) the moves of machines, but this does not work so well with organisms, unless we force them into mechanical roles. The movements of a living being are guided by internal processes and propensities, not solely by the physical forces acting on its body from the outside. It is not passively moved by impact but responds in its own way to perturbations. A tiny “impact” can trigger a massive response if it is significant to the organism, and often the triggering signal results from moves initiated by the organism in the first place – a sign of the difference between the complex and the merely complicated.
The holarchic and self-organizing nature of living systems ensures that their guidance systems cannot be simple, and must be internalized to some degree. Internalized complexity of guidance is what we call intelligence, or sometimes wisdom. At any level, the body's inner guidance system is informed by a running dialogue with its ambience. The behavior of a cell in the human body is constrained by its genetic makeup, but more immediately determined by the situation in which the cell finds itself, for this determines how its genes will be expressed.
Genes are not autonomous agents commanding biological events. Instead, genes are regulated by the environment, with “environment” consisting of everything from events inside the cell to the universe.Likewise the social situation determines how people present themselves (Goffman 1959). This determination however is flexible, not rigidly “deterministic,” to the extent that the being is sentient (alive, awake, conscious, … ).— Sapolsky 2017, 233
If we had to make all of our choices consciously, we'd never get anywhere. A good guidance system simplifies the decision-making process by making most of our decisions for us automatically. In any situation which the guidance system recognizes as requiring a response, it has a default response (a habit) ready to be enacted. The choice only becomes conscious if some mismatch appears between the default and the current situation.
Each mature human has developed an onboard, internal guidance system incorporating threads selected from our biological and cultural heritage, woven on the loom of mindful presence, creating and recreating a unique blend of habits, knowledge, beliefs, principles, motivations and so on – the patterns that make us who we are. The diversity of these patterns arises directly, though paradoxically, from the common ground of human nature: our embodiment as organisms living and moving in, with and through a physical, biological, social and cultural environment. How we live depends on how we read that constantly shifting environment, and how we imagine other places in an n-dimensional behavior space.
This brings us, in our quest for guidance, to the counsellor, the teacher, the healer, the sage, the expert – even to the “self-help” shelf in a bookstore. Seeking beyond ourselves is wise, given the limitations of one's knowledge and our infinite capacity for self-deception. Yet there's a problem here: we can also be deceived by others, even (or especially!) when they only want to help. How can the blind know that their leaders see better? If you can distinguish between good and bad advice, why do you need advice?
You find yourself at the focal level of a hierarchy of levels, each organized at a different scale. So it is with all systems. The life of each level emerges from patterns of dynamic interaction at the level below, shaped and stabilized by the continuity of its role in the level above. Each level maintains itself by imposing some constraints on lower-level interactions. For instance, a cell maintains a membrane which defines (actually creates a boundary around) its component chemical processes. This closure makes meaningful interaction between the cell and other beings possible, by preventing the cell from dissolving in its medium or being lethally disrupted by events in its environment.
But any complex adaptive system must also be open to the flow of energy and matter through it; otherwise it has no means of self-maintenance. It must also be able to sense differences or discontinuities between its inner world of expectation and its actual encounters with the outer world. Experiencing these differences, if it triggers recognition of patterns in their occurrence, makes a difference to the system's habit structure, and thus informs it – otherwise it could not adapt to a changing reality. We can say, then, that it must be open to information as well. We will return to this in a later chapter. In the meantime …
Of what material is your experience woven? You might say it's the nerve cells in your body, but it's really their coordinated systemic activity which constitutes the biological basis of your experience. No one of your neurons could carry your experience, or anything like it. If a neuron is the subject of some experience, in the sense that you are the subject of yours, the form of that experience is likely to be as different from yours as the scale of your body differs from that of the neuron. A cell's “experience” must arise from the conversation among the still smaller entities composing it, each playing a role constrained by the cell's own self-organization. And we are in the same boat with respect to any systems of a higher scale than our own. Whatever consciousness they might have is beyond our direct experience, however we imagine or theorize about their “mentality.” As Peirce observed, ‘None of us can fully realize what the minds of corporations are, any more than one of my brain cells can know what the whole brain is thinking’ (EP1:350). By ‘corporations’ Peirce is referring generally to entities animated by “esprit de corps,” systems constituted by human membership and thus existing at a scale higher than the human body.
The advent of cultural institutions as external guidance systems has put us humans in a peculiar position. Consider the king as a prototype of such institutions. His authority is derived from the higher-scale entity (the “kingdom”) whose will and well-being he symbolizes. As a guidance system, this authority is internal to the larger scale (the community with its cultural extensions), but external to each member of the community, each subject of the king.
The individual who idolizes such an authority figure longs to be guided from without, while life itself calls him to be guided from within. Obedience to authority can relieve this tension by saving the subject the trouble of taking responsibility for his relations to others: he can always say he is “just following orders.” When such obedience becomes a communal habit, the ruler himself can become immune to dialogue with others. Out of touch with the experience of community members, he can ignore the difference between his self-interest and the communal interest. Then we have a bogus (artificial) hierarchy trying to do the work of the communal guidance system, and guidance is replaced by domination.
Consider this advice about advice offered by Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas:
(1) Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. (2) If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. (3) Rather, the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. (4) When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. (5) But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.”— Gospel of Thomas 3 (NHS)
The source of genuine guidance cannot be located either within or without. We humans, being addicted to social hierarchies – class systems, power structures, ranking orders and the like – tend to forget this. When we hear of a “kingdom” we automatically look for a king, and we habitually think of a “father” as a patriarch rather than a progenitor. Thinking along biological lines might help to change these habits, since the ‘kingdoms’ of biological classification have no kings, and the common ancestor of all earthlings is neither power-driven nor male. Guidance is a process, a dialogue between self and other, between inside and out, rooted in the very nature of living systems. In that sense we can say that the fishes and birds have preceded us, as ‘sons of the living father’ which is life itself. Selfhood as we know it has evolved, and our conscious decision-making is a refinement of natural selection itself, played out on a micro-scale in time and space (compared to the evolutionary process).
The technology and practice of corporate enterprises such as the arms race, the 20th-century Cold War, and the 21st-century “War on Terror” become decoupled from their consequences because they cease to be guided from within; and none of the contributing members are supposed to notice this, lest they interfere with the corporate program. A corporation in the legal sense of the term is an artificial person: it has been legislated into existence in order to allow natural persons to invest in an enterprise and profit from it while protecting themselves from some of the social consequences. Corporations are well designed to be invested with unaccountable authority, precisely because they are not human and incapable of intimate communion with humans. With the help of such institutions, the symbolic species is capable of a truly sinister dexterity.
This is a crucial consideration when we look to such larger systems, or their representatives, for guidance. That we should do so is perfectly natural: just as the internal dialogue grows inward from the external for each of us, internal guidance systems develop under the influence of external guidance, from parental authority to peer pressure and beyond. We create social institutions in order to serve human needs and simplify human choices. But as a higher-scale system develops its own identity, every step “up” in the hierarchy is further removed from human interest, from the basic level of embodied human experience. Whether hijacked by privileged people to serve their own ends, or using people as resources to serve its own “bottom line,” the corporate interest is alien to the human interest. In other words, a corporation – like a cruise missile – has no conscience.
The word conscience is derived from Latin con (together) and scire (to know). This ‘suggests the gathering of knowledge’ (Damasio 1999, 232), but knowing together as the root meaning of the word could also imply that it develops through dialogue, intersubjectively. Your conscience guides you by evaluating courses of action, before or after you commit to them, in a more comprehensive way than self-interest alone could manage. Yet it takes a human-scale self, acting independently, in tension with and against the collective interest, to develop a conscience.
Clues to the underlying concept are revealed in the word's history of usage and grammar. According to OED, the Old English term inwit was replaced in Middle English by conscience, both terms having a sense similar to today's consciousness as well as today's conscience. These two concepts are as closely related as the two words; Damasio (1999, 232) points out that some languages use the same word for both. In English, conscience was originally a ‘noun of condition or function’ like intelligence, with no plural – not a ‘count’ noun. We still speak of “the voice of conscience” in this way, but more often we speak as if a person could have a private conscience of his own, so that we can speak of “your conscience,” “my conscience,” “a” conscience. This makes sense because the voice can only be heard by a self, an experiencing subject; but it also conceals the genesis of knowing together in dialogue, which can be internalized but never institutionalized.
Guidance based on implicit recognition of our common humanity transcends any and all external guides. It takes a human being to commit a human act, or commit to a human path, and nothing less than a whole, impartial, fully human judgment is good enough to guide one's choice when it comes to the crossroads. Here at the crux, every judgment is the last judgment, because every deed is irreversible.
For a human, conscience is the ultimate and intimate guidance system.
Next chapter: Here Comes EveryBody →
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