Life the pandemic

It seems that everyone has something to say about the COVID-19 pandemic. Still i can hope to say something you haven’t heard before.

The coronavirus is a life form which exploits the internal resources of its host for its own purposes. All it wants to do is proliferate; destroying the health of its individual host is a side effect. If it mutated into a form that killed all of its hosts, it would destroy itself as well. If it mutates into a form we can live with, like the common cold or something more benign, it will live as long as we live to host it. But it has no control over how it mutates; it is not aware of the effects it has or even of what it ‘wants to do.’

Humanity too is a life form which exploits the resources of its host (the Earth) for its own purposes, and is busily destroying the health of its own support system. The present pandemic has slowed down our busyness, which we are pleased to call “the economy,” and this slowdown has given some of us a rare opportunity to step back and reflect on the whole situation. We might even mutate into a more benign and less destructive presence on the Earth. Unlike that of a virus, though, our self-mutation could be consciously chosen – if humanity as a species can achieve something like a collective consciousness.

No matter what conscious choices we make, either as individuals or as a species, they are motivated by values that we are hardly able to question while we live. Living makes us partial to life. All life forms are held in the ruthless grip of life itself, compelled to seek out forms of energy that they can transform into their own activities, embodiments and infrastructures. Every living body is driven to survive and reproduce, to crowd out a place for itself and its kin. Every life form is dedicated to continuing its existence; even a life form that realizes its kinship with all living beings is partial to life itself. Life not only determines our needs but tells us what to want.

There is no force in the universe more creative, or more destructive, than the life force. If it has any purpose other than persisting, it must be to diversify its embodiments. Over the course of evolution on earth, both biological and cultural, it produces ever more baroque and bizarre complexities of body type and behavior, often at the expense of other types, other species. Since every one of them wants to go on living, Life imbues us all with a horror of death, making us forget that death is an essential feature of it, and extinction an essential feature of evolution. Life does its best to hide that side of its nature by distracting us with all sorts of motivations, pleasures and predilections, interests and intentions, celebrations and cerebrations. Even now it inspires this writer with the illusion that life is coming to know itself through me.

Yet there are moments when life seems to loosen its death grip on us, when we let go of conscious intentions and allow time, which is even deeper than life, to carry us along. After working on Turning Signs for 20 years, or perhaps all my life, it now occurs to me that living the time is what it was all about. All i have to do now is let go of it, and be ready for what’s coming next. Can humanity do that?

Specially general

It is of the very essence of thought and purpose that it should be special, just as truly as it is of the essence of either that it should be general.

This statement by Charles S. Peirce is from his Lowell Lecture 8 of 1903 – and more specifically, from a little meditation on ethics and esthetics within that lecture:

The question is what theories and conceptions we ought to entertain. Now the word “ought” has no meaning except relatively to an end. That ought to be done which is conducive to a certain end. The inquiry therefore should begin with searching for the end of thinking. What do we think for? What is the physiological function of thought? If we say it is action, we must mean the government of action to some end. To what end? It must be something good or admirable, regardless of any ulterior reason. This can only be the esthetically good. But what is esthetically good? Perhaps we may say the full expression of an idea? Thought, however, is in itself essentially of the nature of a sign. But a sign is not a sign unless it translates itself into another sign in which it is more fully developed. Thought requires achievement for its own development, and without this development it is nothing. Thought must live and grow in incessant new and higher translations, or it proves itself not to be genuine thought.

But the mind loses itself in such general questions and seems to be floating in a limitless vacuity. It is of the very essence of thought and purpose that it should be special, just as truly as it is of the essence of either that it should be general. Some writers have called the circle beautiful: but it has no features: it is expressionless. No curve can be very beautiful, because the thought it embodies is too meagre. But as curves go, bicyclic quartics are as a matter of fact pleasing; and I think the reason is that they have something of the perfect regularity of the circle, with a continuity of a kind which developes special features. Hogarth’s line of beauty is the simplest case of a special feature, a singularity, as it is called by geometers, which the law of the continuity itself engenders, without destroying the continuity. All this may seem to be very foreign to logic, and perhaps it is so. Yet it illustrates the point that the valuable idea must be eminently fruitful in special applications, while at the same time it is always growing to wider and wider alliances.

This appears to be one more example of Peirce’s recurring idea that ‘symbols grow.’ It also serves as an application of the creative tension (or tention) which is found to be a core attibute of both life and semiosis in Turning Signs. In this case, the tension is between the generality and the specificity of thought.

Big Currents

The ancient Greeks of Homeric times imagined the earth as a flat surface surrounded by the river Okeanos, the source of all waters – also described, in a few passages, as the source of all the gods, and even of all things (Turning Signs, Chapter 10.) “Okeanos” was not only a precursor of the meaning cycle but also of current models of the circulation of water in the planet Earth’s oceans.

image from Wikipedia
While warm-water currents such as the Gulf Stream flow near the surface of the oceans toward the poles, cold-water currents are flowing in roughly the opposite direction close to the sea floor. Near the poles, water brought by the warm currents cools and sinks, and the water brought close to the equator by the cold currents rises and begins the poleward flow again. This circulation helps to moderate the planetary climate and maintain oxygen levels in the deep oceans. Its breakdown during a period of global warming about 250 million years ago contributed to the greatest extinction event in the planet’s history. This three-dimensional manifestation of the Big Current is purely physical, but its effects on ocean chemistry are intimately related to all life on Earth. We can think of it as part of Gaia’s circulatory system.


Actual psychological closure in everyday life is a matter of minding what you are doing: in that condition, the practiception circuit is closed and the current flows freely. But human minds tend to wander.

According to a recent study published in Science by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, almost half our waking thoughts have little relation to what we’re currently doing. Although in general it’s clearly useful to be able to think about things that aren’t present here and now, and although mind wandering in particular can facilitate creative problem solving, it is also linked to negative emotions and unhappiness. As psychologist Jonathan Smallwood and his colleagues have shown, negative moods lead the mind to wander. As Killingsworth and Gilbert discovered, people are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re focusing on what they’re doing. Furthermore, although people are more likely to mind wander to pleasant topics than to unpleasant or neutral ones, people are no happier when thinking about pleasant topics than when they focus on the task at hand, and they’re less happy when they mind wander to neutral topics than when they focus on their current activity. As Killingsworth and Gilbert conclude, “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

— Evan Thompson (2014, Kindle Locations 7177-7190)

Even when you think about what you are doing, instead of focusing on doing it, your mind is beginning to wander … unless you focus philosophically, becoming a beginner.

Is that so?

Essential as closure is to life itself, closure in models can be lethal to lives guided by them. For instance, the conventional economic model which represents the flow of exchange value as a closed circle is

totally abstracted from the “environment” within which the money economy is actually embedded – there are no connections between the money flows and biophysical reality.… Worse, the implied simple, reversible, mechanistic behavior of the economy is inconsistent with the connectivity, irreversibility, and positive feedback dynamics of complex energy, information, and eco-systems, the systems with which the economy interacts in the real world.

— William E. Rees (2002)

When such a simplistically closed model operates in collusion with imperious demands for ‘growth,’ the result is accelerated degradation of the planet – a result neither predicted by the model nor intended by its users.

Likewise, a belief system that is not open to alternatives is closed to learning.

Two diverse descriptions are always better than one.

Bateson (1979, 157)

We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it. What is seen with one eye has no depth.

— Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 29

Certainty closes down one’s mind and heart.

— Robert Theobald (1992, 60)

Certainty is immunity to dialogue, just as death is immunity to experience.

— gnox

Stay us wherefore in our search for righteousness, O Sustainer, what time we rise and when we take up to toothpick and before we lump down upown our leatherbed and in the night and at the fading of the stars! For a nod to the nabir is better than a wink to the wabsanti.

FW2, 4-5