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


Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.

— Albert Einstein, from a speech to the New History Society (14 December 1930)

Opposition always enflames the enthusiast, never converts him.

— Friedrich Schiller

Damn braces; bless relaxes.

— William Blake

The path to guidance is one of love and compassion, not of force and coercion.

The Báb, Persian Bayan II.16

Reading the wild

Perhaps the prototype of all the reading humans do is tracking.

Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal. It is an educational process, like learning how to read. In fact, it is learning how to read. Following an animal’s trail may bring you closer to the animal physically, but more important, it brings you closer to it in perception.… The more intimate we become with other lives, the more aware we are of how those lives connect with and affect our own. There may be only a few obvious connections at first – two animals in the same woods, hearing the same sounds, smelling the same smells – but as we track the animal farther, we find that its trail is our own trail. As it moves, it affects its surroundings. What changes the animal changes its environment, and thus changes us. There is no separation; its fate is our fate. We are tracking ourselves in a sense.

— Paul Rezendes (1999, 15)

You can read the signs. You’ve been on this road before.

— Laurie Anderson, United States

Was it ystwith wyst or Lukan Yokan or where the hand of man has never set foot?

The Restored Finnegans Wake, 159

Nature’s own guidance system must encompass yours and mine. We assume that there is such a universal guidance system because we read the signs of regularities in nature. Science is the attempt to formulate the rules governing the processes we observe. As long as these formulae serve to guide our actions appropriately (that is, to the extent that they enable us to take a next step on the path), we continue to use them. Yet in our moments of waking we know there is always more to discover. Carlos Castaneda (or his ‘Toltec’ mentors) encapsulated this in the set of precepts called ‘the rule of stalkers,’ which is necessary for the ‘warrior’s’ life but also ‘applies to everyone’:

The first precept of the rule is that everything that surrounds us is an unfathomable mystery.

The second precept of the rule is that we must try to unravel these mysteries, but without ever hoping to accomplish this.

The third, that a warrior, aware of the unfathomable mystery that surrounds him, and aware of his duty to try to unravel it, takes his rightful place among mysteries and regards himself as one. Consequently, for a warrior there is no end to the mystery of being, whether being means being a pebble, or an ant, or oneself. That is a warrior’s humbleness.

— Castaneda (1981, 281)

A similar spirit pervades the four bodhisattva vows of Mahayana Buddhism, though here compassion comes to the foreground:

Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
The Dharma teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

— Cook (1978, 32)

What is called arousing the thought of enlightenment is the uttering of the vow to emancipate all living beings even while you yourself are not yet emancipated. When one arouses this thought, no matter how humble in appearance one is, one then becomes the guide of all beings.

— Dogen (Cook 1978, 43)


An American who thinks you are conceited might tell you that you’re ‘too big for your britches.’ Ecologically speaking, the trouble with the human race is that it’s too big for its niches. Our niche is our ‘house’ (Greek oikos, source of both economy and ecology).

‘It is estimated that to support our present Earth population at the level enjoyed in North America would require two or three planets’ (Berry 1999, 114). The irony is that the ‘level enjoyed in North America’ is not really enjoyed – like any addiction, it simply perpetuates its own craving. Actual enjoyment comes only with mindful experience, with the cessation of craving.

The cure for that addiction lies in the recognition of ‘big mind,’ as Shunryu Suzuki called it, or ‘expanding mind outwards’ as Bateson did.

Freudian psychology expanded the concept of mind inwards to include the whole communication system within the body – the autonomic, the habitual, and the vast range of unconscious process. What I am saying expands mind outwards. And both of these changes reduce the scope of the conscious self. A certain humility becomes appropriate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being part of something much bigger. A part – if you will – of God.

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks and conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.

— Bateson (1972, 461)

The unconscious, then, is not a closet full of skeletons in the private house of the individual mind; it is not even, finally, a cave full of dreams and ghosts in which, like Plato’s prisoners, most of us spend most of our lives …

The unconscious is rather that immortal sea which brought us hither; intimations of which are given in moments of ‘oceanic feeling’; one sea of energy or instinct; embracing all mankind, without distinctions of race, language, or culture; and embracing all the generations of Adam, past, present, and future, in one phylogenetic heritage; in one mystical or symbolical body.

— N.O. Brown (1966, 88-9)

We must recognize that the only effective program available as our primary guide toward a viable human mode of being is the program offered by the Earth itself.

— Thomas Berry (1999, 71)

No special set of teachings will save the world. The world is only saved by continuous learning, which in the latter day redeems the former teachings. The savings and the learnings do not accumulate but recycle themselves.