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From the Nature of Meaning to a Phenomenological Refiguring of Nature

  • David Morris (a1)

I argue that reconciling nature with human experience requires a new ontology in which nature is refigured as being in and of itself meaningful, thus reconfiguring traditional dualisms and the ‘hard problem of consciousness’. But this refiguring of nature entails a method in which nature itself can exhibit its conceptual reconfiguration—otherwise we get caught in various conceptual and methodological problems that surreptitiously reduplicate the problem we are seeking to resolve. I first introduce phenomenology as a methodology fit to this task, then show how life manifests a field in which nature in and of itself exhibits meaningfulness, such that this field can serve as a starting point for this phenomenological project. Finally, I take immunogenesis as an example in which living phenomena can guide insights into the ontology in virtue of which meaning arises in nature.

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1 An example of an ‘easy problem’ is explaining our ability to react differently, on the level of behaviour, to different colours. The ‘hard problem’ in this case is explaining how it is that over and above such discriminative behaviour there is an experiencing of red that is qualitatively different than the experiencing of blue, and how there is, in the first place, an experiencing going on that is felt by and for a subject. The latter is also known as the problem of qualia, the problem of explaining the qualitative aspect of experience. A locus classicus of the ‘hard problem’ is Chalmers, David, ‘Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 2 (1995), 200219. Shear, J., Explaining Consciousness: The “Hard Problem” (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997) provides an excellent collection on this issue.

Note, however, that from a phenomenological perspective a lot is already presumed and embedded in this division between the easy and the hard problem. For example, it can be argued that this way of dividing the problem already presupposes and reduplicates the sort of dualism that it seeks to undo, leading to various conceptual, methodological, and explanatory questions or problems. In part what is at stake in this paper is showing how living phenomena (which are surely integral to the evolved mind!) challenge such a division between easy problems (about how natural systems work) and hard problems (about understanding natural systems as having experiential or meaningful aspects). This is in aid of having this challenge reorient our research and inquiry.

2 E.g. Wheeler, M., Reconstructing the Cognitive World: The Next Step (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), Burwood, S., Gilbert, P. and Lennon, K., Philosophy of Mind (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999).

3 See, e.g. Barbaras, Renaud, ‘The Movement of the Living as the Originary Foundation of Perceptual Intentionality’, in Petitot, J., Varela, F.J., Pachoud, B. and Roy, J.-M. (eds.) Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, J. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

4 Perhaps the best, short introduction to the project, method, and problems of phenomenology is the preface of Merleau-Ponty’s, Phenomenology of Perception. This preface elaborates the challenges of Husserl’s phenomenology as a philosophy that aims to go back to the things themselves. See, e.g. Husserl, E., Cartesian Meditations, trans. Cairns, D. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991). The central challenge is that if phenomenology is radically empirical and guided by continual responsiveness to the things themselves, then even its method cannot be fully settled, and it remains an open research project, vs. a settled technique or doctrine. It is in this spirit that I here pursue phenomenology. Russon, John, ‘On Human Identity: The Intersubjective Path from Body to Mind’, Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 45 (2006), 307–14, helpfully articulates phenomenology as a radical empiricism. Gallagher, S., Phenomenology (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) gives a clear introduction to the tradition of phenomenology and its recent developments vis-à-vis cognitive science, an introduction especially helpful for readers of this volume.

5 The larger project draws on the phenomenological results and strategies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in particular his ways of studying nature and living systems to gain insight into what he calls the institution of meaning, a process wherein novel meaning is (to put it roughly) developmentally generated within and from a system, vs. from pre-established ideas. These issues are explored in Merleau-Ponty, M., Institution and Passivity: Course Notes From the Collège de France (1954–55), trans. Lawlor, L. and Massey, H. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010), Nature: Course Notes from the Collége de France, trans. Vallier, R. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003). Unfortunately, these are notes and sketches for lecture courses, not fully developed ideas.

6 See, e.g., Varela, Francisco J., ‘Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves’ in Tauber, A.I. (ed.) Organism and the Origins of Self, (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991); Thompson, E., Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007); Oyama, S., The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

7 Deacon, T.W., Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2012).

8 Thompson, Evan, ‘Philosophy: Life Emergent’, Nature 480 (2011), but especially Colin McGinn, ‘Can Anything Emerge from Nothing’, New York Review of Books, (2012), challenge Deacon for not acknowledging or sufficiently taking into account the precedents for his view in, e.g. Varela, F.G., Maturana, H.R. and Uribe, R., ‘Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, its Characterization and a Model’, BioSystems 5 (1974), Varela, Francisco J., ‘Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves’ in Tauber, A.I. (ed.) Organism and the Origins of Self,, (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1991), Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 3 (1996); Susan Oyama, The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution; and Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Putting aside issues of attribution, Deacon’s book is frustrating to read because it lacks some of the precision and concepts developed in this prior philosophical and scientific work, and also because, as reviewers have pointed out, its writing is just too sprawling and diffuse. Its central point, which has some insight to it, gets lost, scattered and muddled.

9 See, Galen Strawson, ‘Real Naturalism’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association (Forthcoming).

10 See note 4.

11 See, e.g. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations.

12 Bergson, H., Creative Evolution (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1998) alerts us to a similar issue in showing that durational phenomena challenge our ‘logic of solids’.

13 Keller, E. Fox, Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), The Century of the Gene (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995) are particularly good at tracing such issues. One issue here is that human-made machines are designed to leverage simplifications that we can make with regard to natural systems. For example, when we arrange gears or circuits to do something, we focus on certain kinds of isolated interactions only. So when we produce a machine whose circuitry has a function similar to that of a natural system, we can think that the natural system’s function is reducible to the clear-cut circuitry we have produced, losing sight of the very messy way that natural systems actually work and develop.

14 Here I should say that in pursuing my strategy I am more informed by Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology than Husserl’s, since Merleau-Ponty is always alert, from the start, to the way that phenomenology operates from within the domain that it itself is studying. This is already noted in the Phenomenology of Perception’s preface and its concepts of radical reflection and the phenomenal field as not only the topic of phenomenology, but the transcendental condition of phenomenological analysis. This immanence of phenomenological philosophy in its object of study becomes thematic in his later ontology, e.g., in the concept of reversibility. Put otherwise, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is much more radical in its critique of a Cartesian cogito whose reflections could operate independently of the object of phenomenological reflection. And his critique of what I call the sceptical complex precisely leads him to a study of nature as not outside phenomenology, but as its condition.

15 We might see the erotic in this pre-pubescent behaviour. But the pre-pubescent person her/himself isn’t quite involved in that as such. This is why we can discover and be initiated into the erotic. Behind this example is Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity: Course Notes From the Collège de France (1954–55), 21–25.

16 See Bateson, G., Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton, 1979). Bateson’s formula is in the background of both Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life and Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature.

17 See Bray, D., Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009) for a detailed discussion of the biochemical basis of such chemotaxis. Bray conceptualizes the process in terms of computation, but see Varela’s work for a critique of such an account. Varela insists that the self-organization and maintenance of the living system allows difference detection. My contention is that it is the manifestation of active self-organization that distinguishes between the difference detection that we might find in a machine context, and differences that making a difference. They make a difference in the relevant sense because these differences sustain the operation of a self-organizing system that actively works to maintain its self-organization as difference making.

18 Davidson, E.H., The Regulatory Genome: Gene Regulatory Networks in Development and Evolution (Burlington, MA: Academic Press, 2006); hereafter abbreviated as RG.

19 RG 48.

20 RG 188.

21 RG 54.

22 See Istrail, Sorin and Davidson, Eric H., ‘Logic functions of the genomic cis-regulatory code’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102 (2005), and Istrail, Sorin, De-Leon, Smadar Ben-Tabou and Davidson, Eric H., ‘The Regulatory Genome and the Computer’, Developmental Biology 310 (2007), for notes on how this system is not entirely like a digital compute. This is also noted in RG. Nonetheless, in RG the emphasis on information processing is clear in the preface (x) and conclusion (239–40), and is central in many sections of the book, especially chapter 1. Also see RG 59–68 and 135–144. As Fox Keller astutely observes, when Davidson specifies the ‘program’ that a specific regulatory network would compute ‘as it would be written for simulation on an actual computer’ (which Davidson also specifies in RG 50) ‘this is not a program written to simulate the behavior of a model that has been elsewhere specified’, as when we use a computer program to simulate a set of equations that describe a physical system. The program that Davidson claims to have traced in the operation of the genetics, ‘is itself the model’. I.e., Davidson’s claim is not that the algorithm he has elucidated specifies how to emulate the behavioural effects of the genetic network he is studying. Rather, the genetic network itself computes that algorithm. See Keller, Evelyn Fox, ‘Models Of and Models For: Theory and Practice in Contemporary Biology’, Philosophy of Science 67 (Proceedings) (2000), which is commenting on an earlier article by Yuh, Chiou-Hwa, Bolourie, Hamid and Davidson, Eric H., ‘Genomic Cis-Regulatory Logic: Experimental and Computational Analysis of Sea-Urchin Gene’, Science 279 (1998).

23 For some of these details and for some a more detailed argument for some of my points here, from within the phenomenological context, see my article Merleau-Ponty, Passivity and Science: From Structure, Sense and Expression, to Life as Phenomenal Field, via the Regulatory Genome,’ Chiasmi International: Trilingual Studies Concerning Merleau-Ponty’s Thought 14 (in press).

24 This includes analogue computers, i.e. it should also not be conceptualized as an analogue computer.

25 On the importance of the environment to development, see Weele, C. van der, Images of Development: Environmental Causes in Ontogeny (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), but also Kirschner, M.W. and Gerhart, J.C., The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

26 Merleau-Ponty, M., The Structure of Behaviour, trans. Fisher, A. (London: Methuen, 1965), 129160.

27 Cf. the point in Kirschner and Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma that what evolves in evolution are not so much organisms or blueprints for organisms, but ways of making organisms; correlatively, what the genome specifies are ways of making organisms, and nothing is fully specified by such specifications absent the making.

28 Points such as these are also at stake in the argument in Jablonka, E. and Lamb, M.J., Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005) that living material dynamics of parent organisms are inherited by and shape the development of animal eggs.

29 See note 22 above, on Fox Keller. But I am going farther than Fox Keller here.

30 See Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions.

31 On this point, also see Atlan, Henri and Cohen, Irun R., ‘Immune Information, Self-Organization and MeaningInternational Immunology 10 (1998) on information versus meaning in the immune system. Neumann-Held, E.M. and Rehmann-Sutter, C., Genes in Development: Re-Reading the Molecular Paradigm (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006) contains many chapters urging that there are no genes or genetic codes apart from the living body and development; this also contains a helpful chapter by Fox Keller that complicates discussion of the body and the environment.

32 Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, 60.

33 That is, our experience of sense draws on various layers of sense that are already in operation well before we ourselves try to make sense of things. So we cannot make sense happen (except perhaps in highly specific linguistic or symbolic realms, and even then we are drawing on a given language or symbol system); rather we have to wait for, be oriented by and leverage what already makes sense. This claim stems from Merleau-Ponty’s key point across his lectures on Institution and Passivity, which is that we find in experience a sense that is not bestowed by a wholly active and sovereign constituting consciousness, but is rather instituted through a living process, in which what operates as implicitly meaningful in that process becomes more explicit, articulate and durable, such that the process ends up articulating new dimensions of meaning, even if that new meaning was not already contained in the process at the start. As an example, one could think of accounts wherein deaf children institute their own system of sign language: their spontaneous gestural efforts of communication (which are in play prior to their language) latch onto each, and only thereby do the gestures firm up into stable expressions, engendering a language whose meaning repertoire could not have been envisioned at the start. They are certainly active in instituting this language, but only by also being passive to prior institutions of bodily movement and spontaneous gesture.

34 See Sartre, J.-Paul, Being and Nothingness, trans. Barnes, H.E. (New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 1956).

35 Although he himself does not use this term as such, Merleau-Ponty’s studies of embryology are what alerted me to this issue and to the project I pursue here. See his lecture notes on Nature and Institution and Passivity. What I am doing is updating and deepening Merleau-Ponty’s effort by engaging scientific advances since Merleau-Ponty’s time.

36 Atlan, Henri and Cohen, Irun R., ‘Immune Information, Self-Organization and Meaning’, International Immunology 10 (1998).

37 Cohen, I.R., Tending Adam’s Garden: Evolving the Cognitive Immune Self (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000).

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