Friday, November 23, 2012

Unity of Being 2: Choosing Life Ways

I ended my previous post on unity of being by suggesting:
In terms of the pluralist metaphysics I have been proposing and exploring, we each live our lives in various Realms of Being. Each society affords its members various Realms of Being, various ways of acting in the world, whether alone or through interacting with others. Unity of Being is the capacity to move fluidly among these realms...In this sense Unity of Being is NOT that all Realms are one and the same, but rather that we can move among them and ourselves remain one and the same.
I now want to elaborate on that suggestion.

I want to start with human biology, thus setting foot into the den of evolutionary psychology. My standard analogy is that of a game such as chess. Biology provides the pieces, the game board, and the rules. Human culture dictates the larger strategy of playing the game.

The constraints of biology are as real as those of chess. Bishops can’t move rectilinearly, rooks can’t move diagonally, and pawns can only move one or two spaces at a time. Similarly, reproduction requires two, death is inevitable, and oxygen is a requirement of life. Unyielding though these constraints are, there is much freedom in playing chess and there is much freedom in organizing human society.

At the end of this post I will offer, in a provisional and somewhat parabolic mode, the suggestion that, while none of us can choose the culture into which we are born and in which we are raised, at some point in our lives we are free to choose the culture in which we will live out our lives and in the context of which we will die. Such a choice, while it is not new, it has been rare in most times and places. In the so-called post-modern world it is becoming almost routine. Indeed, in the face of global warming we may not be able to avoid such a choice.

And THAT is the ethical edge of the pluralism I have been sketching, the capacity, the imperative, to choose, in a non-trivial way, the fundamental armature of our lives. We must choose how we would seek unity of being.

Behavioral Modes and Inner Speech

As I have argued in many posts on this blog (some of which I’ve collected in this working paper), vertebrate life ways are structured by a set of fundamental behavioral modes. These modes are biochemically regulated in the most primitive structures of the brain. At any given moment an animal will be in one of these modes: eating, exploring, care giving, courting, fighting, etc.

The mode “configures” the animal’s coupling with the environment. For an animal that is hungry, the environment becomes a source of food; foodstuffs become salient while everything else recedes into the background. For an animal that’s exploring novelty becomes salient and the familiar is avoided. And so forth.

Each behavioral mode thus configures the world as a different realm of being (notice the lower case). But, just as, in Derrida’s formulation (which we’ll get to in a bit), the animal does not know it is naked, so it does not know it is IN this or that behavioral mode or that it WAS in this or that mode just a moment ago. It moves from one mode to another, from one realm of being to another, living its life.

Humans are different; during the long transition from clever ape to proto-human we became so. And we became so through language. As I noted in an earlier post, there is a line of thinking that goes back through Vygotsky that regards language as the tool through which we manipulate and explore our own mind. Just as others talk to us and thereby direct our attention and even command, or at least cajole, our will, so we can, and sometimes do, talk aloud to ourselves. But we can also simply drop physical speech and roam in our minds using inner speech.

It is inner speech that we use to summon and assemble memories of past events. It is inner speech that we use to plan for an anticipate the future, and to think and reason explicitly about whatever. And it is inner speech that presents us with the recalcitrance of our own body.

If I may quote St. Augustine (The City of God, Book 14, Chapter 17):
Justly is shame very specially connected with this lust; justly, too, these members themselves, being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called "shameful." Their condition was different before sin. . . . because not yet did lust move those members without the will's consent; not yet did the flesh by its disobedience testify against the disobedience of man. For they were not created blind, as the unenlightened vulgar fancy; . . . Their eyes, therefore were open, but were not open to this, that is to say, were not observant so as to recognize what was conferred upon them by the garment of grace, for they had no consciousness of their members warring against their will. But when they were stripped of this grace, that their disobedience might be punished by fit retribution, there began in the movement of their bodily members a shameless novelty which made nakedness indecent.
Those shameless “members,” parts of our body and thus inextricably yoked to us, go about their way without consulting us.

Now we have a problem. We can use language to direct the movements of our skeletal muscles, but it is impotent in directing the sex organs, or more generally, in directing emotion and desire. Language presents us with the problem of the animal within.

We can now explicate that problem, as I have done, in neural terms. The modal system is the most primitive part of the brain. It affects everything, including language and the will, but it is not directly subject to them. We can manipulate the modal system indirectly through stories, pictures, music, ritual and so forth but we do not have direct control over it.

It is thus language that presents us with the problem of unity of being, of personal coherence and continuity. It is language that forces on us the realization that we live in multiple Realms of Being and thereby forces us to understand and rationalize that multiplicity.

Let us continue where Augustine left us, but in a more contemporary vein.

Shame, Death, and Dreams

There is a passage early in The Animal That Therefore I Am where Derrida notes the he has “trouble repressing a reflex of shame” while standing “naked, one’s sex exposed, stark naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just so see” (p. 4). A bit later he observes (trans. David Wills 2008, p. 5):
There is no nudity “in nature.” There is only the sentiment, the affect, the (conscious or unconscious) experience of existing in nakedness. Because it is naked, without existing in nakedness, the animal neither feels nor sees itself naked. And therefore it isn’t naked. At least that is what is thought. For man it would be the opposite, and clothing derives from technics. We would therefore have to think shame and technicity together, as the same “subject.” And evil and history, and work, and so many other things that go along with it. Man would be the only one to have invented a garment to cover his sex.
That we humans feel shame and cover our nakedness, that is so. But why? And is it our sex that we cover, as Derrida says, following in a long tradition?

I note that, in males, the sexual organ is also the organ of urination; the same channel carries both urine and sperm. In women the organ of urination is only in proximity to that of urination. In both, of course, the organ of defecation is right behind.

So in covering the organ of sex we also cover the organs of elimination. Perhaps they are the REAL target? Or are the all the real targets, taken together in their complicity and their ambiguity. Is it that we cannot comprehend or tolerate that reproduction and elimination, life and death, use the same channels and it is that commingling of vital opposites that we seek to cover? Is that confusion our shame?

And then there is death. We now know, as if there was every any doubt, that animals (chimpanzees for example) mourn the deaths of their fellows. How could they not? When a companion dies no longer can you turn to them for comfort and companionship. You turn but are greeted only with an emptiness. It is in that emptiness that you mourn.

That is one thing. But does an animal know the it will dies. When mourning the death of a companion—a friend, or for that matter, an enemy, a child, a parent—does the animal know that it too will die? How could it? How could it construct that knowledge? With what tools?

Humans construct such knowledge through the tools given by inner speech. It is inner speech that allows one to assemble the narrative of one’s life and it is inner speech that confronts the fact that there are no memories of one’s earliest days. Inner speech, however, can do more than thread the beads of one’s own past experience in order. It allows one to do so with events in the lives of others, even the events of birth and death. For one can witness those things as they happen to others. Finally, language allows one to explicitly note that one is like those others and therefore to infer that, as they were once born, so too oneself, though one lacks a memory of that birth. And so with death as well. One day you will die.

That body that you cannot control will cease to function. It will die. And you with it.

Just when emerging humans first were able, individually, to conceive of their own death, of that we do not know, for we cannot ask them. But grave goods appear in the archeological record over 100,000 years ago. I am willing to take these signs of intentional burial as evidence the people know that they too would die.

And death has consumed the human imagination. We conduct rituals around and about it, we structure stories by it. It is a cardinal point of human culture.

And then we have dreams. Consider an observation that Weston La Barre made in The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion (p. 60):
... the Australian Bushman themselves equate dream-time with the myth-time that is mysteriously brought back in ritual; myth is as timeless as the unconscious mind. It is the delectability of dreams that makes them desirable, and it is their desirability that (along with lowered critical threshold) that gives them their intense “reality” and conviction. The fact that he dreams first force on man the need to epistemology.
Though I don’t have a citation at hand, I believe there is evidence that animals dream; that is, they exhibit REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which marks dreaming in humans. But, without language, how can they recall their dreams? And without recall, dreams cannot pose a problem: Where was I when THAT happened?

Dreams self-evidently ARE another Realm of Being. Yes, our bodies do not obey our will. Yes, we know that we will die. But dreams, is there really this other world in which we live, or even other worlds? And when dreams become myth and ritual they are shared in a group and so become the matrix of cultural forms.

The Self in the Group

We’re now in the realm of the Trickster, whose mythology I discussed in my previous post in this series: Unity of Being. People set around in a group and listen to the Trickster grapple with all the behavioral modes—sleep, eating, defecation, sex, foraging—and thereby affirm that diversity they all share and, as I argued in that post, forge the neurocognitive tools which language needs in order to weave narratives of their lives, their real lives and not just mythological culture heroes.

Before moving forward, however, let us step back. So far I have, for the most part, been posing these issues as if they are issues of and for individuals. But we do not live alone. We live among others. These issues all extend through society, hence shared myths and rituals.

Let us recall our evolutionary precursors, the animals. Animals live among their fellows. In particular, primates are very social creatures. Many of our behavioral modes link us with our fellows, among them those concerned with courtship and child-rearing and those concerned with group defense. Emotional expression communicates our inner state to others, with facial expression and vocalization being particularly important (cf. this interview with neuroscientist Steven Porges).

The Cartesian self may well be a lone individual in search of a world and of other minds. But that Cartesian self is a philosophical myth, a myth that has run long past its expiration date. The selves that are constructed are always selves in society, face to expressive face. While individuals must forge their individual identities as they live their lives in various Realms of Being, they do so with the help of the larger society, which authorizes those various Realms of Being.

If I may leap from human prehistory to the recent past, the counter cultures of the 1960s in the United States and Europe reflected a desire for social authorization of new Realms of Being, Realms revealed through drugs and meditation. Even as those struggles continue we have questions about whether cyberspace is/can be/will be the site of new Realms. But these cultural evolutionary struggles are hardly new in kind. There was a time when science and the novel had to establish themselves. And before that Plato cast doubt on written text even as he was a virtuoso within that Realm.

That’s what culture does. In the large and over the long haul it throw up realms for consideration and consolidation into Realms of Cultural Being. Today’s digital media simply multiply the possibilities even as environmental distress forces decisions that will restructure life ways from top to bottom around the globe.

Ethics: Choosing Among Patterns of Unity

And so we are back to the point in my introduction where I suggested that “while none of us can choose the culture into which we are born and in which we are raised, at some point in our lives we are free to choose the culture in which we will live out our lives and in the context of which we will die. Such a choice, while it is not new, it has been rare in most times and places. In the so-called post-modern world it is becoming almost routine.”

The so-called culture wars in American politics have been about that kind of choice. Human societies can be and have been organized in many different ways. Biology places constraints, but they are loose, just as the rules of chess, while hard-edged, can accommodate many different styles of play.

Do we permit abortion or not? That single issue is a thread connecting many issues. Societies can be organized to accommodate different configurations and patterns on these issues, but not all configurations will be mutually tolerable. What of animal rights?

* * * * *

I note that three-quarters of a century ago Ruth Benedict wrote Patterns of Culture. It now seems to me that to have described and named the phenomenon in THAT is is to have begun the process of dismantling it in one sense and reconstructing it in another. It becomes an object of thought, of contemplation, and thereby ceases to be the unconscious shaper of thought. Benedict hadn’t gotten that far in 1934, but we deconstructive post-moderns have.

And so we must face the choices with which our intellectual adventuring has confronted us. We’re now in the territory Latour explored in Politics of Nature. These are matters of values and they do not have resolutions in matters of fact. They are about how we choose to live our lives. For we CAN and we MUST choose. Our choices have consequences, though we cannot foresee all of them.

Let us for a moment imitate the logicians. Let us define a Life Way as consisting of a plurality of beings, of Realms of Being, and of patterns over those beings and those Realms.

Given a specific Life Way that pattern will have an ethics inherent in it. But the choice OF a pattern, that is a different kind of choice. It is not a matter of deciding whether or this or that course of action is ethically justified, but a matter of choosing the principles of ethical justification.

What kinds of beings will we admit into our life ways? What rights, obligations, and powers inhere in those beings? In figuring out what those questions mean and how one goes about answering, there’s where you will find a pluralistic ethics.

* * * * *

And once again, as I have done at various times in this project, I must ask: Do I actually believe this? And I must give the ritual response: How would I know, I just made it up?


  1. your description of the behavioral modes reminds me of Merlin Donald's demons and Rodolfo Llinás's FAPs (or fixed action patterns)... variations, perhaps, on a common theme?

    1. I've not read Donald in awhile so I can't comment. But FAPs are a common notion in ethology and, yes, the biological modes will be associated with FAPs that guide the animal in achieving the goal state that satisfies the mode.