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Evolution As It Was Meant To Be
A book in progress by
Stephen L. Talbott

Chapter 23

Some Principles of Biological Understanding

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This is a preliminary draft of one chapter of a book-in-progress tentatively entitled, “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — And the Living Narratives That Tell Its Story”. This material is part of the Biology Worthy of Life Project. Copyright 2017-2022 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved. Original publication of this chapter: December 30, 2022. Last revision: December 30, 2022.

Tags: epistemology; evolution/as mindless process; explanation; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)

Please note: This chapter, a companion to Chapter 13 (“All Science Must Be Rooted in Experience”), is still in draft form. Together, the two chapters describe the approach to scientific understanding that is foundational to this entire book.

All physical scientists, in an effort to understand reality, take their stand upon a tiny island of knowledge, surrounded by an immense, fathomless sea of ignorance. The island is forever threatened and re-shaped by revelatory eruptions from the surrounding deep.

According to the celebrated physicist, Richard Feynman, "we have no knowledge of what energy is" (Feynman et al. 1963). Nor, for that matter, do we know what a force is. And the same is true of all the foundational terms of physics. Matter, the supposedly solid ground of material reality, remains an enigma that has only grown more perplexing along with advances in quantum physics. Other basic terms such as “space”, “time”, and “field” — while perfectly workable as conceptual black boxes in the context of the physicist’s narrow mathematical aspirations — are not themselves so much elements of adequate explanation as they are perplexities in need of explanation.

The general fact of chemical transformation, by which, for example, hydrogen and oxygen gases can be made (in the right proportions and in the presence of a flame) to “explode” into water, remains for our present understanding something like a miracle. The supposedly explanatory “particles” involved — which we know only as theoretical constructs altogether lacking sensible qualities — are said to rearrange themselves in an instant. According to the standard picture, the rearrangement of the qualityless particles somehow yields a radical transformation in the qualities of the reacting gases, releasing in the process a great amount of Feynman’s unknown energy. And so, gaseous elements of the atmosphere, flown through by birds, transmute before our uncomprehending eyes into a fluid element of the sea, swum through by fishes.

The mysteries we confront are as great as the universe itself. Physical laws — and, in general, the rational coherence and order of the world — remain puzzles for us at least as profound as they were for Galileo and Newton. And so also with the ever-growing conundrum of human thought — that “unnatural quirk” in the universe through which, it just so happens, the universe invites understanding of itself. As for the “Big Bang”, it brings no more lucidity to the question of origins than “God made it so”.

It would be a stretch to think that any of our “settled” science is immune to serious reconsideration, depending on whatever revelations eventually illuminate these fundamental questions. I am not talking about a need to recalculate, say, the numerical value of the gravitational constant, but rather our understanding of the character of the physical cosmos and the manner of our participation in it as knowers. Or the significance of the scientist’s paradoxical commitment to a materialist dogma in which no one can define “material” while all do consider themselves thinkers who take their own scientific descriptions to be both meaningful and true to the world’s reality.

In sum: our accumulating grasp of (mostly technological) know-how, stunning as it is in practical terms, is nevertheless a power enveloped by profound ignorance. What little understanding we have of the world we so skillfully manipulate is at every moment subject to modification by whatever unimagined realities may eventually bring clarity to this or that enigmatic term at the root of our science.

And yet — isn’t it odd? — we find it so natural and easy to forget all this! In our primary cognitive enterprises — science, education, religion — training for the young focuses on what we already know, or think we know, rather than on our ignorance and the corresponding promise of new understanding. On my own part, I feel an obligation at least to acknowledge the largely unaddressed mysteries shadowing our understanding.

Getting to know the
world of experience

We begin with the material universe, because every organism is a materially embodied being, seamlessly embedded in, and sustained by, its surrounding environment. The environment shapes the organism, while at the same time the organism responds to and shapes its environment. Perhaps more critically, every organism makes of its material environment a world of its own meanings.

So biology weaves together the animate and inanimate. We have every reason to think that biology is more fundamental than the inorganic sciences, providing the fullest revelation we have of the world’s character and range of potentials. How could the universe as a whole be comprehended by a science less all-embracing than biology?

And how could biology, including evolution, be comprehended at all, except in the light of those beings, ourselves, who possess powers of comprehension? We are beings in whom evolution has brought to conscious flower some part of the wisdom and agency that was already at work in the simplest one-celled organisms. Can we fully understand any process of becoming except in the light of its fullest development? In any case, it seems elementary that we cannot comprehend evolution without being one of those organisms who, alone upon earth, can see evolution, and who can recognize it as having led naturally and step by step to our seeing.

In attempting to formulate some principles of biological understanding, our first question is this: How do we see anything at all? Or, switching the question around a little: How does the world lend itself to our knowing?

Apart from qualities we have no world

Stand anywhere in nature and observe the scene. It can be a mountain or meadow, sea or sky, lake or desert — or a city street. Then ask yourself: what would remain of the scene if you were to remove every quality from your surroundings?

To ask about qualities is not merely to inquire into our aesthetic sensibilities. Rather, it has to do with the bedrock character of the world we perceive, bearing on everything from the luxuriant Amazon rain forest to the barren surface of the moon. Wherever we are, what would exist for us if there were no qualities? Does any material thing in the known cosmos present itself other than through qualities?

It is not a difficult question. Would that tree be there in what we consider a material sense if there were no color of the leaves, no felt hardness of the trunk, no color and texture of the bark, no whispering of the breeze among the leaves, no smell of sap, wood, or flower, no possibility of song from birds flitting among the branches? Do we see, hear, touch, smell, or otherwise sense anything in the world apart from its qualities? Could we speak of a thing’s form, substance, or even its existence if it did not present a qualitative, sense-perceptible face to us?

The hardest part of all this talk about qualities for most people lies in their feeling that the solid external reality of things is being denied. But to point to the qualitative nature of the sensed world is not to question its reality, or its solidity, or its otherness. It is merely to acknowledge that real solidity — the only solidity we are given in experience and can collectively verify as an objective aspect of reality — is felt solidity. The sensed hardness of things is no less a perceptible quality than the taste, color, or sound of things.

What tends to be missed here is that the qualities of nature are not the private individual’s subjective contribution, but rather belong to the world’s objective reality that we collectively share. We do not need to invent an additional reality — minuscule bits of mindless stuff somehow behind what we experience — in order to account for the trans-individual objectivity (otherness) of the world’s expressive qualities. We will gain a fuller perspective upon this as we move along.1

To say that the world we know is qualitative is not to doubt its substantial reality. It is only to say that this reality is irreducibly qualitative. Qualities are not features that exist only “in our heads”. So we come back to the perfectly straightforward question: “Does anything exist materially, available to an empirical (experience-based) science, except as a presentation of qualities?” Would we have quantities to play with if there were no qualities from which to abstract them? And would we know what our mathematical formulae were about — what they meant — if we could not restore to our thinking the qualitative contexts from which they were abstracted? It is hard to believe that numbers alone can give us a world.

I think the conclusion you will come to is inescapable: whatever knowledge of the world we manage to gain is rooted in qualitative appearances, and the world would lose its reality for us — it would no longer be there for scientific investigation — were its qualities to vanish.

Given the more or less determined, yet never fulfilled resolve among scientists from Galileo onward to have a science without qualities, it would seem that the integrity of science as a respectable knowledge enterprise rather than an empty pretense hangs on our answer to the question, “Would anything be left to investigate if we were true to our ideals and really did remove qualities from our science?”

Because the answer is that nothing would be left, we never do in fact succeed in having a science without qualities. In Chapter 13 I pointed out how nonsensical, if not also humorous, are the ways in which otherwise serious thinkers end up falsely projecting qualities into their non-perceived, purely theoretical constructs — all so that they can seem to have something, rather than nothing, to talk about.2

We know the world through thinking as well as sensing

There are two primary portals for our experiential knowledge of the world: first our senses, and then the thinking that conceptually orders the diverse contents of the senses, bringing them to meaningful and coherent appearance. If we could not perceive qualities through our senses, as I suggested in the previous section, we would not have a world. But it is equally true that without a conceptual ordering of what we receive through the senses, we again would have no world.

If we are truly to recognize something — a this as opposed to a that of a particular sort — we must be able to form some conception of what we are beholding. Which is to say: we must grasp the ideas that inform and are inherent in what we are beholding. The phenomenon can present itself to us as a given reality only so far as its real and inherent thought-content becomes at the same time our thought-content. To see a soaring hawk while having no idea of organism, bird, wing, flight, raptor, predation, air, gravity, matter (or material thing), and so on, would not be able to see a hawk.

The appropriate concepts are our power of recognition and explanation, and without them we have no such power. This is true whether we are apprehending ideal (idea-like) laws governing material interactions, or the ideal coherence of a single leaf or grain of sand.

We would not recognize a tree if, in looking up toward a cluster of green leaves, we had no ideas to tell us that the relation of the leaves to branch, trunk, and roots is very different from their relation to the visually adjacent patch of sky-blue color. We could in general recognize nothing of the tree at all if we had no idea of the thought-relations constituting a tree as what it is.

To stare in absolute, thought-less incomprehension at the scene around us would be to stare at a meaningless blur — or not even that, since, in our thoughtlessness, we would not even have the concept of a “blur”. Things come to meaningful appearance only by virtue of their distinct and interwoven meanings; we recognize them by means of the ideas lending them specific form and significance, through which we can identify them as being the kind of things they are. (“Oh, that’s what I’m seeing!”)

In only slightly different words: we could have no idea of things that, in their own nature, were entirely non-ideational. “A reality completely independent of the mind which conceives it, sees or feels it,” wrote the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré, “is an impossibility” (Poincaré 1913, Introduction). And the traditionalist thinker, René Guénon, distilled the matter to its essence when he wrote: “If the idea, to the extent that it is true and adequate, shares in the nature of the thing, it is because, conversely, the thing itself also shares in the nature of the idea” (quoted in Burckhardt 1987, p. 14n).

The main point here — that ideas belong to the innermost nature of the world — seems extraordinarily difficult for us moderns to take hold of. Perhaps we await only an emphatic snap of the fingers to awaken us from our trance and enable us to see what is painfully obvious: if we, with our human thinking, can make sense of the world, it can only be because the world itself is in the business of making sense. Ask yourself: how could it be otherwise? And yet the fact that thoughts are not merely the private property of individuals, but also come to manifestation within the world around us, is virtually unapproachable for most of us today.3

I don’t suppose there could be a more startling disconnect than when knowledge seekers aim to articulate a conceptual understanding of a world they consider inherently meaningless. A conceptual articulation, after all, is nothing other than the working out of a pattern of interwoven meanings. A truly meaningless world would offer no purchase for this effort. My repetition has been intentional, because the truth so easily escapes us. Let this be the sum of the matter:

Anything whose objective and true nature we can apprehend only through revealing description, including scientific description, can hardly be said to possess a nature independent of mind, thought, language, or meaning.

Two other notes. First, we commonly assume that our perception gives us “things” directly and mindlessly, about which we then think and form theories. But a truth widely recognized by those who study cognition is that we do not even have “things” except through an activity of thinking — not necessarily a conscious thinking, but rather a thinking that, ever since childhood, has increasingly informed our senses. This thinking often shapes what we perceive without our being aware of the role of thought.

But, with proper attention, it is rather easy to catch this thoughtful, formative activity of perception “in the act” so as to become aware of it.4

Finally, whatever the processes of human cognition, we should not think that the world itself has distinct “parts”, the sensible and the thoughtful. We can no more imagine something sensible without thought than we can imagine substance without form. We can, of course, distinguish between the two aspects. But as soon as we ask “what it is” that meets our senses quite apart from its thoughtful coherence, we have a problem. To say anything at all about what it is would be to characterize it with thought, so we would no longer be talking about a sensible content apart from thought.

I don’t think there is any way around this, nor need there be. The world is a unity. It resists every rigid dualism. But surely we can say — as a matter of distinction rather than pulling apart — that whatever meets our senses must be inherently bound up with thinking, much as substance is inherently bound up with form.

Is the world a dualism of
appearance and reality?

We have seen that the only world we could ever know is known interiorly, through sense perception and thinking. It is a “marriage of sense and thought” (Edelglass et al. 1997). Of course, our knowing of the world requires other interior capacities as well, such as those of imagination and will. But the main point at the moment is the rather obvious one that all our knowing calls upon interior capacities — powers of inner activity that presuppose consciousness.

(By “consciousness” I include everything on the spectrum running from the unconscious to those contents of which we are most fully aware. What unites everything along this spectrum is its potential for being an interior content we are aware of. Which is to say rather paradoxically that the unconscious shares in the nature of consciousness. We do in fact find ourselves often raising to consciousness interior contents that had been unconscious — Principle #8 below.)

Since both our perceiving and thinking are functions of consciousness, the manifest world is a world consciously experienced. And since we all share the practical, day-to-day conviction that the world of our conscious experience is, in a direct and unmediated sense, the real world — a world with which we routinely, fully, materially, and consequentially engage in the immediate terms of our experience — the most straightforward and consistent conclusion is that the world itself, in its own nature, is phenomenal. It is a world whose true substance lies in its power of appearing — that is, in its having the character of a content of experience. Qualitative and thought-full, it comes to its own characteristic expression — achieves phenomenal reality, or existence — only within what we might call the interior dimension.5

But this straightforward conclusion collides with a centuries-long mental habit that tells us we look out upon a world of mindless objects utterly independent of, and unlike, our cognizing selves — objects wholly alien to our own inner being. In fact, these objects are imagined to be so alien that our perception of them cannot be trusted. Who has not heard the subjectivity of human perception contrasted with the solid reality of mindless physical objects?

The common suggestion, then, is that we have two different worlds: the subjective world of appearances — appearances not only mediated by, but also unknowably transformed by, our nervous systems — and a world of real things somehow hidden behind the terms of our experience. This gives us a secondary dualism — one of appearance and reality — descended from the primary “Cartesian dualism” of mind and matter.6 From this point of view, untrustworthy appearances are all we have, at least in any direct sense. Objective reality, on the other hand, is — well, it is presumably out there somewhere.

Our cognition places us in the world, not a mere representation of it

One rather sticky problem with the appearance/reality dualism is that this would seem to make reality unavailable to an experience-based (empirical) science. But a more immediate issue is that the supposed second reality hidden behind the appearances contradicts our natural, seemingly irrepressible, and well-supported conviction that we directly experience the real world.

Regarding this last point: nothing in our perception hints at the existence of a second world — a real world contrasting with appearances. A perceived tree appears itself to be the tree. So also the stream I sometimes sit alongside. If I pick up a small stone and toss it into the water, I perceive both the object and my own arm in picking up the stone and throwing it, and I likewise perceive the trajectory of the stone in relation to earthly gravity, the wind, and the energy at work in my muscles. I can be sure that, exactly as observed — and exactly where observed — the stone and all the other elements of the scene, from my arm to the water, are fully “respecting” the laws of nature. That is, these elements are lawful in their own immediate, experiential terms — without my needing to refer to some hidden, non-qualitative, non-experienceable reality behind the appearances.7

So the world I perceive shows no sign of actually being inside my head either literally, or as a reduced representation, or as an illusion, nor any sign of somehow referring to an unknown substratum lying behind the appearances. Rather, perceived objects testify with overwhelming force to their occurrence, in their full-bodied presence and reality, right where and as they are given in qualitative, thought-full experience. In other words, when you and I try to picture the “interior” space of our consciousness, we must image a space substantially (but not wholly) shared with others; and within this shared space of consciousness we find the reality of the material world.

We can put this in either of two complementary ways. We can say, in the first place, that our experience of the world occurs not merely “in here”, in some purely private space, but rather occurs in the world itself. Or we can say: the world itself naturally occurs within the interior dimension of experience in which we all (along with other creatures) participate.

The private aspects of the experience stem in part from the fact that it comes to us via our personal sense organs, located in space and giving us, for example, a particular angle of view upon a tree. Subjective aspects may also stem from, among other things, defects in our sense organs, such as the severe tinnitus I experience. But we do not find these subjective aspects of our experience bringing into question the objective character of the world we share with others. The English philologist and philosopher, Owen Barfield, has put it this way:

I am hit violently on the head and, in the same moment, perceive a bright light to be there. Later on I reflect that the light was “not really there.” Even if I had lived all my life on a desert island where there was no-one to compare notes with, I might do as much. No doubt I should learn by experience to distinguish the first kind of light from the more practicable light of day or the thunderbolt, and should soon give up hitting myself on the head at sunset when I needed light to go on working by (Barfield 1965, pp. 19-20).

We have no ability even to conceive how an objective thing might exist outside the possibilities of experience. To conceive its supposedly alien character in order to announce our belief in it would be to realize it in the only place it could be realized — within consciousness. So it wouldn’t be alien after all.

I have already mentioned that, in the daily routine of our lives, we are all convinced that our experience as knowers presents us with the actual contents of the real world. We are given within consciousness things we know at the same time to be objectively out there. But we do not succeed very well, intellectually, in holding on to this double aspect of our experience. The effort to do so, therefore, can be an excellent exercise. We can try to grasp simultaneously both of the following truths, each of which by itself seems a self-evident aspect of our experience, whereas the two conjoined do violence to our most entrenched habits of thought. Looking out upon a natural scene (preferably one with movement, as of clouds or a stream or wind-blown trees), we can think:

•  This presentation of nature, with its objective and collectively verifiable aspects, is itself the real material world in which I and others live, write poetry, and do scientific experiments.

But also:

•  This presentation of nature is occurring within my consciousness.

The ultimate demonstration of the compatibility of these two truths is up to those individuals who actually make them a matter of experience. The exercise is best done briefly and repeatedly, but with thoughtful concentration, over a long period. But be assured: at the point where you have deeply taken in both truths and have been able to hold them together in harmony, you will have overcome much of the pathology in modern human experience.

All this is extraordinarily important. But it is also extraordinarily difficult for contemporary minds to accept. Nevertheless, allow me to state the matter once more: the “view” of the world we are given through our thought-informed senses is not just a view, or representation, of the world. It actually is the world — the world in which we are present and from which our own bodies are made. Or perhaps it would be even better to say (with a view toward the following section): it is our direct participation in the creative activity giving rise to a world possessing the character of contents of experience — a world that is from the beginning an expression of interior activity and that can be creatively participated in by means of our own interior, expressive activity.

We cognize the world by
participating in its creation

There can be no overstating how dramatic and unexpected is the view set forth above. It is one thing to imagine that our eyes are little camera-like devices producing an image that someone, somewhere, somehow, manages to view and interpret as a representation of a mind-independent world. But it is quite another to recognize that, through our eyes and other senses together with our thinking, the world itself takes up its existence in the only place it can — within living experience.

During the first third of the nineteenth century Samuel Taylor Coleridge had to have come to terms with the difference between reality and a representation of it when he suggested that our power of perceiving and knowing the natural world is a repetition in our own minds of the very same creative activity through which the world came to exist and is sustained.8

In other words, so far as we truly and imaginatively perceive the world, we do not merely encounter it from outside. With our cognitional faculties, we stand within it, as in some sense our own creation. After all — as I have been suggesting above — it is not that we “snap a picture” of an independently existing world. We have the very world itself through our cognitional activity. This suggests that, through the creative aspect of our perception, we may “do our own bit” in shaping the world’s coming to reality, just as each of us plays his own role in making human society what it is. For more on this, see Chapter 24, “The Evolution of Consciousness”.

How much we have had to pay for the anemic belief that our senses give us mere picture-like representations of an alien world! But everything changes when we realize that, just as a boulder on a mountainside is fully and seamlessly embedded in the surrounding world of wind, water, light, and gravity, so, too, our own cognition and expressive powers embed us as knowing participants within a reality of universal expressiveness, and do not confront us with a mere representation of it.

We can notice in general that everything we make into a content of our own experience requires a re-enacting of something like the interior activity that first produced that content. This re-enacting is, for example, the way one human being experiences the content of another’s mind. If we attend a lecture (and are paying attention), we follow along by bringing the speaker’s thought-content alive as the content of our own minds. So far as we do this faithfully, we live within the same thought-world as the speaker, not a copy of it.9

But something like this must also be true of the qualities and thought that constitute the interior dimension of the world as a whole. Here, too, our possibility of seeing and understanding depends on our ability to re-enliven the one world’s interior by participating directly in it through the activity of our own interior — in particular, our sensing and thinking.

Coleridge’s remark can help us keep in mind just how radical all this is. If we, in bringing the contents of the world alive within our own experience, must participate in the creative activity through which these contents are originated and sustained, and if this does not mean creating some kind of private copy, but rather being active in the one world’s original and ever-evolving manifestation of itself — well, then, this places us in a position of high responsibility indeed.

The world as a
form of speech

Human language gives us our most immediately accessible picture of the marriage of sense and thought. The outer, sense-perceptible sounds of speech are shone through by an inner meaning. Only when we receive the words as informed by their meaning do we have the sensible phenomenon of language at all. And the point of all I have said earlier is that this marriage of sense and thought, so easily recognizable in speech, reflects the general character of the world into which we were born.

We might say, then, that the world has the character of language. It is meaningful expression. Or, in more ancient terminology, it has the character of the Logos. The whole universe, in its essential nature, is a continual coming into being, which is also to say, a continual expression or unfolding of meaning, and we are children of this meaning. Our being born is our being spoken into earthly existence.

Numerous creation stories from around the globe have pictured the genesis of the world and all its creatures as occurring through the spoken word (or song). As we saw in the chapter on “The Evolution of Consciousness”, this is how the ancients experienced the world — as thought-full expression — and the experience was lost only in relatively recent history.

Language, then, is not a mere tool we somehow invented. Our minds and our speech precipitated out of language — a language of nature in itself too profound for words. We were spoken into being so that we might eventually learn to speak for ourselves, however crudely. All along the way, the meanings inherent in the world nurtured us toward this end. It would be a useful exercise to trace how, in so many naive discussions of the supposed origin of language — that is, in discussions about how language is thought somehow to have arisen in creatures initially lacking any form of it — we find a hidden assumption that language already existed before its supposed origin.

For example, a grunt or a finger-pointing or an “excited” state of jumping up and down is often assumed (quite rightly) to have some initial, unaccounted-for meaning, rather than being merely part of a chain of physical causes and effects. So these actions are, from the very beginning, taken to be significant gestures, and therefore are already being imagined as language.

This is fine as long as we realize what we are doing. The grunt or finger-pointing are not the means whereby by the non-meaningful becomes meaningful, or non-language becomes language, but rather stages upon the path by which language comes to ever greater clarity and consciousness.

This is why Owen Barfield, the student of the evolution of consciousness, once remarked that to ask about the origin of language “is like asking for the origin of origin”. We had first to be spoken in the deepest and most meaningful language before we could internalize that creative speech and make it our own.

A similar understanding shines through remarks by the German philosopher and linguist, Wilhelm von Humboldt, a contemporary of Coleridge:

It is my overwhelming conviction that language must be viewed as having been placed in man: For as a product of his reason in the clarity of consciousness it is not explicable. It does not help to grant thousands upon thousands of years for the purpose of its invention … For man to truly understand even a single word, not as a mere physical outburst, but as sound articulating a concept, language must already exist as a whole within him. There is nothing isolated in language, each of its elements only appears as part of a whole. As natural as it may seem to assume that languages develop, if they were also thus to be invented, this could only happen all at once. Man is only man through language; in order to invent language he would have to have already been man (Humboldt 1963, pp. 2-3, translation by Norman Skillen).

The unity and indivisibility of language ultimately extends to all languages, human or otherwise, and even to the entire cosmos as “the book of nature”. Language, or the Logos, is One. On such unity, see this footnote and also this one.

Does it matter that we
can know the world?

I have noted above the ancient traditions according to which the world was spoken (or sung) into existence. We might consider along with this the fact that, until historically recent times, the universal experience of our ancestors was that they lived in a universe of beings rather than things. Of course, convictions such as these could hardly sound more alien to modern ears. Yet everyone should at least be able to acknowledge the weight of the truth that our forebears (more or less up until the Scientific Revolution) possessed a seemingly ineradicable sense of the world’s interior dimension.

Surprising as it may seem, the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution never subjected this ancient experience to any rigorous sort of scientific assessment. They tried to determine neither what was wrong with it nor what might have been right. Instead, they simply turned their attention in other directions — away from both the human and cosmic interior — and the entire issue was “kicked down the road” for later generations to come to terms with (Jonas 1966).

Meanwhile, science increasingly fixated upon a world viewed as consisting of quantitatively understood, mechanically manipulable exteriors. The practical wonders enabled by this shift so entranced our forebears that they lost all interest in going back and taking up the ignored issue of their own and the world’s interior. This was not a matter of reason or evidence, but rather of choice and attention. Whatever they could regard in a thing-like way took precedence over their awareness of the inner character of their own regarding, so that the latter fell out of view, rather as the physical eye disappears from the visual panoramas it mediates.

And so, as far as science was concerned, the world lost its interior. Eventually, the loss became “accepted wisdom” and could even be aggressively defended without any historical awareness of, or present attention to, the real issues. You might say that materialism is just a pretended certification, contrary to all evidence, of the loss.

But nothing prevents us from at least acknowledging the relevant questions today. We have already seen (Chapter 22) that, before we became highly individuated selves, our language and meanings were first given to us from the surrounding world. In other words, we gained our own interior voice from the interior of the world. We have also seen that there has been an evolutionary reversal in the “directionality” of this intimate exchange between ourselves and the world. Whereas we were at first being slowly “spoken” into existence as increasingly individuated selves, we have now come to a place where we find ourselves uttering the world around us into the peculiar forms of being characteristic of our own age.

At least, in our current stage of evolution, this is true in the secondary sense that we can either healthily cultivate our natural surroundings, or despoil and desecrate them. Thankfully for the sake of the earth, we have not (yet, anyway) gained the capacity to act at the primary level of “speaking” the material world into form at the deepest root of its manifestation.

In any case, the creative words originally given to us livingly “from outside” are, as it were, taking on an ever more intense life within us so that, as we make them our own, we can freely speak them back out into the world from our own centers. You might say, then, that we have become a place where the world’s interior is “awakening” to itself in a distinctively human way. Our self-transformation looks as though it possesses cosmic significance.

One way to particularize this last idea is by noticing how our self-awakening has placed upon us a burden of responsibility for the evolution of life on earth. Like it or not, our “coming to ourselves” has given us such a responsibility, if only through our role in the extinction of species. But there is also our ability to engage in the laboratory modification of organisms.

If humanity itself is now on the way to becoming the prime agent of evolution on earth, then it is easy to see that the evolution of our own consciousness — the evolution of the evolutionary agent — raises far more profound questions about the future of the earth than any particular manipulatory techniques (such as those for juggling gene sequences) we have so far developed. Certainly, how we choose to use those techniques is important for the future. But even more important is how we are willing to work on ourselves as creative agents along the way.

On reading the book of nature and conversing with the world’s interior

But human destiny is only one side of the understanding we have been exploring. The other side is the world to which we owe our existence. If that world possesses an interior dimension — if its nature is to manifest within experience, and if all interior or experiential contents must be interior-originated, which is to say, must originate from living activity — then we can hardly help asking: “With whom are we in conversation as we engage with the world around us?” (Principle #10).

But here it is crucial to distinguish between interior contents and the interior activity originating those contents. (On this, see Principle #6.) In the human case, when we express ourselves materially, as in gesturing or speaking, we do not confuse that expression with its originator. The speech, including its interior meaning, is not the person speaking. I may play a role in producing, for example, my own thoughts and mental pictures, but these are not the person producing them.

But we nevertheless do gain a kind of access to another person through the interior-originated contents he produces. I might find myself reading a book written by a pseudonymous author of whom I know absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, in sensitively taking in the book’s text, I know I am dealing with the interior of another person. And I may feel I am making some progress toward getting to know him. But I would never think that the meaningful text itself just is the person.

So, too, when we confront what is sometimes called the “book of nature”. We can (as all the foregoing is meant to demonstrate) recognize natural phenomena as meaningful, interior-originated expressions. This remains true even though we would no more take a leaf or cloud or mountain as if they were themselves speaking beings than we would the words of a lecturer. To talk about the natural world as expressive, or as possessing (or occurring within) an interior dimension, is not to mistake expressions for their creative source, or appearances (phenomena) for beings.10

And yet it is our routine human experience that our normal approach to the actual being of other persons is through their material means of expression, understood as language — not only their verbal expressions, but also their facial expressions, bodily gestures, works of their hands, and, in general, patterns of meaningful activity.

When someone demands, “Show us the originators of the world’s so-called ‘interior’”, it would be quite appropriate to respond with “The only way to know that is to read the “book of nature” for yourself and form your own judgments, just as you get to know a human author”. Unfortunately, the very idea of reading the book of nature as qualitative, interior expression has been met with long-running and vehement refusal on the part of science. So that’s where we stand at the present time. It’s not that someone or some thing is refusing to show itself, but that we have refused, or grown unable, to read nature as expression.

The entire cosmos so far as we can know it — and I repeat that we all believe we do know it — has the character of mind-like, interior-originated contents. It presents itself, as I tried to show above, as a marriage of sense and thought. To leave this out of our efforts to understand the world — to try, for example, to theorize about a world without qualities and therefore without an interior — could there possibly be a more fundamental distortion of the truth? It looks like an effort to retreat from science altogether.

Indeed, in their flight from qualities, certain branches of theoretical physics today have become so detached from sense-perceptible reality that some scientists have been mounting arguments in favor of simply abandoning the requirement for empirical verification of theories. (A paper critical of this tendency, written by the noted physicist, George Ellis, was published in the journal Science under the title, “Theories Beyond Testability?”) Who, after all, needs quality-laden experience, when one can engage in medieval flights of fancy, with sophisticated mathematics replacing the sophisticated logic of the scholastic doctors?


The reality of the world’s interior dimension is the central fact underlying virtually all the limitations, illusions, and distortions of today’s science. And the ignoring of this reality is the root of all the examples of “blindsight I have cited in this book. You might say that the twelve principles whose statement comprises the rest of this chapter represent my effort to unpack some of the consequences of acknowledging the interior dimension of the world.

Here are the principles we will look at:

Principle 1: The world manifests itself, by nature, as a content of experience.

Principle 2: Organisms are focal centers of agency.

Principle 3: Biology, as a science of organized wholes, cannot be understood in terms of mechanized parts.

Principle 4: Every organism is, first of all, a becoming, not a material structure.

Principle 5: Biology requires portraits of specific character, not applications of universal law.

Principle 6: Understanding the human self requires us to distinguish our own inner activity from its products.

Principle 7: Organisms in general lack human-like selfhood.

Principle 8: There exists a wide spectrum of consciousness in organisms.

Principle 9: An organism has its own sort of Interior Dimension.

Principle 10: A healthy science acknowledges the mystery implied by its own ignorance.

Principle 11: The mystery of time is central to the life of organisms.

Principle 12: Humans are a key to evolution.

A brief elaboration of
some principles of
biological understanding

Everything that distinguishes biology from the physical sciences derives in one way or another from the inner life of organisms. This remains true, I think, despite our difficulty in even beginning to imagine or characterize that inner life, and despite the fact that it must vary almost beyond all possibility of recognition between a one-celled organism and a human being.

Still, even those complex features commonly treated as definitive of life, such as the capacities for reproduction and self-maintenance (which I do not deal with here) are obvious manifestations of a well-directed wisdom, all the way down to the molecular level. This word “wisdom” needs to be understood, not as an occasional and foolish eruption of empty sentiment in some biological writing, but rather as a pointer to a reasoned sort of life that is different from, and yet evolutionarily continuous with, conscious human intention and reason. What I mean by this will, I hope, become clear in the discussion of the various principles given below.

We have, in the preceding sections, already articulated our first principle of biological understanding — one that applies to the entire world that has given rise to organisms, and which I summarize here:

Principle #1: Empiricism

The world manifests itself, by nature, as a content of experience. We perceive things through the appearance of their qualities upon the “stage” of our consciousness. The thinking with which we order our perceptions and render them coherent likewise occurs upon the stage of consciousness. And so our understanding of the world consists of experiential contents, available to the knower within a self-aware consciousness. In the routine practice of our lives, we are all convinced that these experiential contents — however much they reflect our separate vantage points — are mutually consistent and constitute the reality of the world. The simplest assumption is that, whatever else we may say about it, the world itself has the character of experience. It occurs within an Interior Dimension. To deny this would be to render ourselves speechless about the world’s character. We were given our birth and our cognitive capacities by such a world, and an experiential participation in this world is our birthright.

I tried to show in Chapter 13 how naturally we are led to suppose that the world available to science possesses the character of experiential content. This content may vary, depending on one’s experiential capacity. It is not that different organisms exist in different worlds, but rather that the world’s potential for manifestation is realized according to the character and capacity of each kind of being, just as two different humans — one of whom may be blind or deaf or lacking an education — can experience the same world differently, yet still find their worlds mutually consistent. We call “objective” that which can be reliably experienced and collectively verified by those with the requisite capacities. Pink elephants don’t count.

Perhaps the truth has simply been too close to us for proper recognition. After all, to seek understanding is already to acknowledge something interior, accessible as a content of consciousness — something meaningful that can take the form of human comprehension while at the same time being a recognition of the truth of natural phenomena.

Then, too, virtually all scientists have long honored, at least in word, the ideal according to which science must be empirical — experience-based and grounded in observation and experiment. Such an ideal could have arisen only from a deep-seated confidence that our experience of the world is indeed an experience of the world. The founders of modern science presumably found the principle too self-evident to require much explicit defense.

And, again, it’s obvious enough that the mathematically expressed regularities of physics are not only ideas (conceived in analogy to human laws by Francis Bacon during the Scientific Revolution) — but ideas we discover in nature. These regularities were the kind of thing that led the twentieth-century physicist, Sir James Jeans, to remark that “the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine”.

Strangely, though, however obvious the fact of the objective world’s collectively verifiable experiential character may seem from some vantage points, the “experiential” and “interior” side of it strikes many as impossibly wrong-headed. And there is no denying its power to disrupt conventional thinking. Just consider its significance for biology. Suddenly endless discussions about the relation between organisms and the inanimate realm — between biology and physics — and, more particularly, discussions about the origin of our own cognitive faculties (how does one get mind from that which is utterly incommensurable with mind?), begin to look hopelessly askew in their materialist starting points.

Similarly, as discussed above: the fact of the world’s nature as a content of experience undercuts the insistent and nearly universal habit of contrasting appearance with reality. What are we to make of this contrast if in fact it lies in the world’s nature to be a world of appearances to experience — if the very substance and reality of the world is the substance and reality of appearances?

Principle #2: Agency

Organisms are focal centers of agency. An organism is a more or less focused center of its own causal agency within a larger world of lawful regularity. This agency is an active, wise, and purposive power of activity reflecting the organism’s needs, interests, and distinctive way of being, which in turn reflect the organism’s unity of intention and its wholeness. We could also speak of the organism as a focused center of self-realization — a telos-realizing being. An organism is a center of its own experience, inseparable from the larger world yet distinguishable from it, with it its own way of experiencing and responding to the inner meaning of its world-surroundings. Not one of the key terms here — “agency”, “purposive”, “needs”, “interests”, “way of being”, “intention”, “self-realization” “experience” — is opaque to routine understanding, but neither can any of them be wholly reduced to the conventional terms of physical explanation.

The physicist is always looking for laws that are universal — the same everywhere. Viewing the world solely through the lens of such lawfulness, we certainly cannot expect to find local centers of agency possessing a unique lawfulness. Geological strata, rivers, and solar systems are not actively engaged in sustaining their own existence and do not have anything we would call their own local “need” or “interest” in the sense of an organism. No inanimate object flexibly coordinates physical causes in order to realize its own ends in the face of obstacles and unavoidable detours.

Much of this book consists of descriptions of organisms as agents and centers of their own activity, and these descriptions are presumably enough to give substance to the principle discussed here. We have also seen that many local contexts, including cells, can also be considered as relatively independent agents and centers of activity, while yet subordinate to the organism as a whole. Similarly, populations of organisms, including evolving organisms, may be seen as possessing their own, more broadly focused agency.

It is easy to see the difference between the universal and lawful regularity (mathematical or otherwise) of the inorganic world, on one hand, and the various foci of organic agency, on the other. This difference is exactly what is required by the agency. Without a background of lawful regularity, the agency of organisms, including our own human agency, could not exist in any meaningful sense. If the results of our willed activity in the world were chaotic or unpredictable, then we could never coherently aim at achieving anything in particular. Our actions would make no sense.

Many have argued that the regularities of the universe rule out human freedom or any meaningful agency in organisms generally. But this is based on elaborate and tendential theoretical surmises about the world and its character, and about our relation to the world. Wouldn’t it be much better to stick with the obvious and immediately experienced fact of effective agency, and then recognize that the world’s regularities admirably serve this agency?11

The compatibility of lawful regularity and meaningful agency is displayed right before our eyes in the fact of speech. Speech, as a material phenomenon, arises from perfectly lawful bodily functioning, yet the intended meanings of the speech that employs the physical vocal apparatus cannot possibly be explained in terms of this apparatus.

The principle of agency is at the same time a principle of holism. The primary “unit” of agency is the organism as a whole. No activity of a part of an organism can be given a full or adequate explanation except through reference to this unit — reference, that is, to the purposive, meaningful activity of the whole. One aspect of this activity lies in the fact that parts are very often coordinated in the interest of the persistence of the whole.

This necessity to explain the part by reference to an encompassing unit of agency is absent in the physical sciences. The latter fully accept that the whole and its parts are intimately related, but the prevailing aim (or at least the aim that biologists are primarily aware of) is to reduce the whole to parts that can then be employed to explain the whole. In the kinetic theory of gases, for example, the pressure of the gas inside a bottle is said to be explained by the “impacts” of molecules against molecules. Our understanding of the gas pressure is supposed to derive from our understanding of the molecules and impacts. But we would never try to explain the molecules and impacts by citing the inherent drive of the gas to maintain itself (persist) at a particular pressure. Nor would we try to explain changes in the impacts by citing the gas’ need to achieve a different state.

And this already carries us to our third principle.

Principle #3: Non-mechanism

Biology, as a science of organized wholes, cannot be understood in terms of mechanized parts. “Mechanism treats every whole as resulting, by aggregation, from its parts; organicism treats the parts as resulting, by progressive development and individuation, from an antecedent whole” (Barfield 1977, p. 183). The agency of organisms, and their inner character generally, is intrinsic. We might think of this agency as a local outcropping, or increasingly individuated intensification, of the world’s Interior Dimension. A machine, as a machine, has no intrinsic meaning or agency. Such agency as it manifests lies in the idea and intention of its designer, imposed from outside through an arrangement of parts — parts lacking any inherent or natural ability to grow meaningfully together in that way. As soon as human maintenance and repair of any machine is ended, the machine progressively deteriorates toward dysfunction.12

Numerous biologists, philosophers, and others have enunciated this “organicist” principle, or something like it, over the past few hundred years. Not many biologists can have escaped hearing something like it on one occasion or another — and almost none will have heard the principle flatly disputed, simply because the effort of disputing it appears scarcely credible. And yet the main biological enterprise seems to roll on and on as if such an idea had never been given voice.13

The central problem here is not obscure or difficult to comprehend. Everything we know about living processes is missing in the machine. The parts of a machine show none of the character of an organ, cell, or organelle. They do not come into being organically from the progressive differentiation of an original whole, and do not result from the immanent formative power inherent in that whole. They are assembled by (human) activity external to the machine itself.

For many people, the computer seems to have played a major role in making the mechanical model of the organism more persuasive. Computers make the machine appear more “flexible” and “life-like”. But what we are really looking at in a computer is the remarkably detailed and intricate power of the human mind to structure its own thinking in a machine-like and logically precise way, so as to yield a program.

An inherent requirement of such a programmatic thought structure is matching hardware of the most rigid, precisely fabricated, unlifelike sort ever contrived by humankind. There is a reason why chip manufacturers must achieve extreme levels of cleanliness and air purity. The slightest contamination by an invisible particle of dust or smoke can render a chip — and the massive computer it may be part of — disastrously non-functional.

In a cell, molecules move with a high degree of freedom through a fluid medium. At that scale a computer designer, by contrast, needs to “freeze” movement, eliminating flexibility and free flow to the greatest degree possible. A cell or organism lives by means of the freedom of movement at the smaller scales, which allows it to be continually “caught up” in, and serve, the agency of the larger context — an agency reflecting the organism’s current needs, interests, and way of being.

For more on the fluid, rhythmic, pulsing dynamism of living processes, see for example Chapter 5, “Our Bodies Are Formed Streams”. That chapter, along with the foregoing discussion, suggests that, in organisms, more or less fixed structures take second place to processes of becoming — which brings us to our next principle.

Principle #4: Becoming

Every organism is, first of all, a becoming, not a material structure. Its life is a continual activity through which form becomes embodied in material substance and behavioral pattern. The mature falcon is not already there, materially, in the fertilized egg cell, but comes into being through an activity of development and differentiation. This power to form a body — a power to materialize the form of an organism — is not itself a material thing. Its intelligible and functional (purposive) working testifies to the Interior Dimension of the organism. Material substance, once originated, may both constrain and enable further activity, but is not the source of that activity.

I have mentioned several times elsewhere in this book how researchers can rearrange clumps of cells in many kinds of young embryo, and even insert the clumps in new places within the embryo, and then, through the ongoing developmental activity, those clumps adapt to their new places and new roles. The process of development clearly takes precedence over existing substance in the origination of the material structures of the organism. Once an organ (or limb or whatever) reaches sufficient maturity, it becomes a constraint on further development, which is a very different matter from the origination of organic structures.

Or consider the heart. Embryological development shows that

the body does not behave like a plumber, first connecting the water pipes in a house and then turning the water on … the first blood-like liquid … simply trickles through gaps in the tissues … Preferred channels develop only very gradually as blood cells are deposited along the edges and eventually merge into the beginnings of vessel walls (Schad 2002, p. 80).

The situation loosely reminds one of college campuses when new lawn is laid down. Landscapers typically wait to see where human traffic creates clear pathways through the grass before “solidifying” the paths with concrete.

Moreover, “when blood vessels first start to form, the heart does not yet exist … early blood flow stimulates the development of the heart” (Schad 2002, pp. 82-83). Again, form arises from movement. Thus, the spiraling fibers of the heart muscle that help to direct the blood in its flow are themselves a congealed image of the swirling vortex of blood within. This kind of mutuality holds even for the heart’s basic structural divisions:

Before the heart has developed walls (septa) separating the four chambers from each other, the blood already flows in two distinct “currents” through the heart. The blood flowing through the right and left sides of the heart do not mix, but stream and loop by each other, just as two currents in a body of water. In the “still water zone” between the two currents, the septum dividing the two chambers forms. Thus the movement of the blood gives the parameters for the inner differentiation of the heart, just as the looping heart redirects the flow of blood14 (Holdrege 2002, p. 12).

For further examples, see Chapter 5, “Our Bodies Are Formed Streams”.

Principle #5: Character

Biology requires portraits of specific character, not applications of universal law. We have seen that an organism, as a focal center of its own unique way of being (Principle #2), cannot be understood biologically by means of the kind of universal law or causality we currently look for in the inanimate realm. It depends, rather, on principles that stand above physical cause and effect in the hierarchy of explanation and understanding — principles of organization and coordination, of intention and purposive direction, of meaning and self-realization. So how do we understand an organism? Through a kind of portrait. Just as we gain our deeper understandings of an individual human being by means of insightful biographies, not notions of physical determination, so we must try to understand any species or other group of organisms by building up an insightful picture of its character. A portrait, of course, is always aimed at bringing out the Interior Dimension of a more or less individuated subject, whether that subject is a species or an individual human being.

An organism’s nature is all about qualitative performances testifying to its own, specific way of being. It is about a distinctive character. It requires from us a recognition we can only describe as “holistic”. During the last century the Cambridge University zoologist and member of the Royal Society, C. F. A. Pantin, offered examples from his own experience as a basis for understanding what sort of reality we are trying to apprehend when we are attempting to identify an organism — that is, when we want to recognize it for what it is. He said that recognition in the field “seems to depend on the whole available impression”:

Even a statement such as "The spines of the sea-urchin I am looking for have something of Chippendale about them — whilst that one looks Hepplewhite" may be significant. And if, when we are collecting [the planarian flatworm] Rhynchodemus bilineatus together, I say, “Bring me any worms that sneer at you,” the probability of your collecting the right species becomes high.

A naturalist who is intimately familiar with a given species will recognize it using very different cognitive faculties compared to the novice who is using an identification “key” consisting of a set of yes-or-no questions relating to isolated features. Because the whole impression is an impression of the whole, it does not arbitrarily force us to discard the greater part of what we can recognize in the organism. By contrast, as Pantin observed, once we have run through a key’s list of yes-or-no features, “a very great deal of the impression which the organism makes upon us still remains ‘unused’. This residue is undoubtedly important in our recognition of species even though it cannot be analyzed in just this [yes-or-no] way” (Pantin 1954).

To use an example given by the philosopher Ronald Brady: you find yourself engaging in one sort of activity when trying to recognize an old friend in a crowd, and quite a different activity when struggling to identify a stranger in the same crowd by proceeding through a list of discrete features (Brady 2002). You already have an overall impression of your friend — one perhaps sufficiently rich in its expressive potential to enable nearly instantaneous recognition of him even in postures or activities you have never witnessed before. As you scan the crowd, there are countless possible gestures of form or movement that might tip you off to the presence of the person you are looking for. Each one of them bears, not some literal and specific, easily definable feature, but rather the expressive signature of the friend. That is, they are all shone through by the same qualities, the same unifying character — a fact demonstrated by your ability to recognize numerous outward, novel manifestations as expressing the way of being of one individual.

In the analytical approach, by contrast, you are reduced to identifying, one by one, a set of low-level features described in unexpressive and rather more literal terms. Given a set of successful recognitions, you say, "This must be the person" — but you still do not recognize him in the way you would a friend. Time and familiarity are required before you can experience the inner, expressive unity that raises the particulars into a coherent and multi-dimensioned whole.

It’s also worth noting that an error in qualitative recognition ("For a moment I thought you were your brother") is less clear-cut than an error in applying an identification key. In general, Pantin suggests, there is truth in qualitative misjudgments. We were not altogether wrong. The mistaken impression was more or less like the thing we were after. "You really do look a little like your brother. In taking you for him, I was truly recognizing in you certain aspects of him". We do not have neat, yes-or-no judgments so long as we are reckoning with the qualities of living things.

So it is hard to be altogether and absolutely wrong when assessing the character of an organism. It is more a question of the depth or superficiality of insight, the fullness or vagueness of the depiction, the artistic adequacy or obscurity of the sketch. This truth has come to the fore today in genetics, where movements, rhythms, and contextual “portraits” of the overall current cellular state turn out to be essential to our understanding of the function of specific DNA sequences.

For some wonderful examples of scientifically informative “portraiture” in biology, consult the whole-organism studies in Holdrege 2021, and also the various articles at Whole-Organism Biology: A Goethean Approach on the Nature Institute’s website.

Principle #6: Selfhood

Understanding the human self requires us to distinguish our own inner activity from its products. We observe in ourselves a distinction between all our interior contents, on one hand, and the activity of our own selves from which some of those contents originate, on the other. For example, we can distinguish between thoughts already achieved (which we may recall from memory without having to repeat the original thinking), and the acts of thinking that first gave rise to those thoughts. Our ability, as subjects, to undertake an inner activity as our own and to make its products into subsequent objects of our attention is a mark of our selfhood and our individuation as human beings.

Owen Barfield was making precisely this distinction when he remarked that the break between the human self and the not-self does not occur at the physical boundary of the skin. It is, rather, “the break between the act of thinking and the product of thought … The more, therefore, my thinking is my own act and the less it is mere ‘externally’ induced, passive reverie, by that the more am I an independent and responsible self” (Barfield 1977, p. 163).

Our thinking as self-conscious individuals — when we are truly thinking and not merely free-associating or rearranging old thoughts out of habit — is our own act. We can also say of our perceptions (so far as they are informed by thinking) that they are, in part anyway, our own acts. But most of our perception is informed by thoughts we first had as children, or as students, or in any case prior to the present perceiving. This is a practical necessity; we could hardly function effectively in life if we had to produce afresh, moment by moment, the thinking appropriate for bringing to meaningful appearance every detail of our raw “sense data”. (See in Chapter 13 the discussion of persons born blind who had their sight restored later in life.)

So the greatest portion of our perception, at this stage of our evolution anyway, is unavoidably governed by habit. Beyond perception, we can ask how much of all our interior contents are “things already become” rather than expressions of our currently willed, originative activity. Not only things passively perceived, but also mental pictures, fancies, memories, dreams, reveries, automatic associations, old trains of thought — these fill our minds, and often serve for most of our interior life, quite without any genuine creative activity.

How much of our inner life comes from “outside”, so to speak — for example, from our immediate family environment or the wider culture? Whether I am approaching a red light while driving a car, sitting in a corporate work environment, attending a baseball game, or casting a vote in a public election — in each case I orient myself by means of entire worlds of thought and habit constituting elaborate contexts of meaning I scarcely need to take conscious note of. Within each different context I find myself in a markedly different “mental place”, ready to fit myself into the interior shape of the context — and this without any need for much of a fresh effort of thinking.

And yet — crucially — even the conscious or unconscious contents we “soak up” from our environment — contents we cannot claim as products of our own activity — have an interior-originated character. The most tiresome cliché of speech and thought we rather mindlessly toss off was once, in someone else if not in ourselves, a fresh and perhaps deeply insightful turn of phrase. Whatever can live in us as an inner content must have originated from inner activity. And, as I have been pointing out all along, this includes the material world as an expression of the Interior Dimension.

Quite apart from old habit, we are always at least potentially capable of those lucid moments of inner (“spiritual”) activity we can call our own. And, among the range of organisms on earth, we seem to be alone in this. How much grief comes from trying to understand the awareness of simple organisms as if it were like our own creative activity of thinking!

At the same time: how much grief comes from refusing altogether to see the play of meaning, thinking, and intention through the organism — through the perhaps dream-like and “enchanted” flow of its awareness!15 But this is a matter for us to consider only alongside the principles to follow.

Principle #7: Nonselfhood

Organisms in general lack human-like selfhood. Given our powerful tendency toward anthropomorphic thinking, it may be that we can best understand earlier-arriving species, to begin with, in terms of what they lack. They lack anything seriously resembling a human self. We cannot assume that they have anything very much like our own sort of self-awareness or ability consciously to plan, organize, and pursue goals. In terms of Principle #6, they do not make thinking their own act. As we will acknowledge, however (Principle #9), this does not prevent them from living thought-full lives. It remains true that their Interior Dimension is the primary basis for our understanding of their lives.

Once we have distinguished between an activity of a self-conscious being and the products of that activity (Principle #6) — a distinction we can easily observe within ourselves — we can see how an organism might possess a non-self-aware form of inner life. It can be a vessel for thought and thinking that is not its own as an individual organism, and without being an original thinker in the human manner. And we can imagine this to be true in a yet deeper sense of all inorganic phenomena. It is for us, as humans, to investigate what we can do to bring the thinking in all phenomena, organic and inorganic, to conscious, active, and creative reality within our own experience, which is our participation in the creative activity through which the world is sustained. (See the section, “We cognize the world by re-enacting it” above.)

So we can say that some of the obvious differences between ourselves and other organisms are accounted for by what they don’t have — namely, a human-like capacity, as self-aware individuals, to carry out acts of thinking, imagination, and willing that are fully and intentionally their own. For example, they do not formulate well thought-out goals and then exercise a conscious resolve to achieve them. This is true despite the fact that their lives, too, are thoroughly end-directed, often in creative and persistent ways. But as for conscious planning capacities the individual organism can call its own, virtually all biologists would rightly say that non-human organisms do not come close to equaling our own abilities in this regard.

Yet the relation between humans and other organisms seems to be a tortured topic for many biologists. For example, they see humans as close relatives of certain primates, and are fond of referring to “humans and other animals” — as if to curb any unfortunate tendencies we might have to claim a high or special destiny for ourselves.

But in other contexts those same biologists are often tempted to “wall off” our human interior capacities — perceiving, cognizing, thinking, willing, imagining — as if they were alien to the larger story of evolution and irrelevant to the functioning of all those nearer or more distant relatives of ours. So humans become both “mere” animals on one hand, and bearers of high, “unnatural” capacities threatening science with dreaded incursions of Spirit, on the other.

The problem here is that many researchers find it impossible to make a proper distinction between human interior capacities and those of other organisms without denying the interior — the thought, intention, and intelligence — of other organisms altogether.

There is a rapidly growing literature today on the role of agency in the life and evolution of organisms. In this literature, a disavowal of anything like human agency, as if it would automatically introduce an unnatural element, is almost a cliché. So it is that, in an otherwise valuable article on “What We Can Learn from a Biological Agency Perspective”, three of our most insightful commentators on evolutionary and developmental biology offer the obligatory disclaimer that agency in non-human organisms is not “an ‘intellectual’ phenomenon”:

Ascribing agency to a system in no way imputes to it intentions or desires. The association of agency with mindedness is understandable, but nevertheless misguided. To be sure, the cognitive and conative [volitional] capacities of humans are paradigms of agency. But thinking is an extremely sophisticated, rarefied form of agency. Genuine agency is manifest in any living system that is capable of responding adaptively to its conditions, including unicellular organisms (Sultan et al. 2022).

That is well and good as far as it goes — and sounds like much of what I have been saying above. But there is no discussion in the paper of what is required for those adaptive responses (which rocks certainly don’t have) or for the agency of organisms in general. More particularly, there is no mention of the non-self-aware ways in which something rather like human mindedness, cognition, and intention must operate in non-human organisms capable of exercising a profoundly wise and competent agency. This is a startling omission if indeed, as the authors claim, the “capacities of humans are paradigms of agency”.

Certainly the thinking self (Principle #6) does display, as the authors say, an especially sophsticated agency. But we can distinguish humans in this way without introducing unjustified assumptions into the distinction. I mean, for example, the assumption that no thoughtful wisdom — no significant and guiding imagery resulting from cognitive perception — can play through non-human organisms. Or the assumption that an empirically accessible, material cosmos lacks the elements of thought and meaning present in all experience (Principle #1).

Not even those who set human inner capacities apart as “unnatural” and an infectious threat to the truth of other organisms are relieved of the responsibility to conceive the agency of those organisms somehow. And the quarantining of our own conscious capacities makes it no easier to understand that agency apart from some form of intention, willful striving, perceiving, and an apprehension of meaning in the surrounding world.

When our pet dogs and cats are looking at something and assessing how to respond, what are they actually doing in their perceiving and assessing? The question deserves a frank attempt at an answer from biologists. And there is no answer in the often implied assumption that organisms are like machines (Principle #3).

We need to distinguish other organisms from ourselves with care, and without drawing absolute lines for which the evolutionary record gives no justification. Our own “paradigmatic” lives would have provided an easy starting point, since only part of our inner activity belongs to our true and innermost self. The rest, in all its organic unconsciousness and with all its relevance for other organisms, also needs to be accounted for by biologists.

Principle #8: Consciousness

There exists a wide spectrum of consciousness in organisms. We must think of the unconscious, rather paradoxically, as “consciousness that is not conscious”. That is, the unconscious lies along a large and varied spectrum of consciousness. In humans, unconscious contents can potentially rise to consciousness, just as conscious contents can fall into the unconscious. The boundary is extremely porous. No one who is reasonably self-aware can doubt that a good part of the very real meaning and motivation of his behavior is less than fully conscious. Yet the unconscious contents nevertheless reflect volitional and thoughtful activity, despite the (possibly transitory) lack of self-awareness.
When a pianist plays a Beethoven sonata, the infinitely complex movements of her fingers, arms, and whole body must somehow express her intentions. On any particular occasion — say, a funeral or wedding — she may inflect her interpretation so as to yield a slight shift of character and mood. This means she will modify all those complex movements in an almost unthinkably nuanced manner, appropriate to the meanings of a particular context.

The result is an utterly refined physiological realization of her intentions, all the way down to the finest details of gene expression. These must vary, for the sake of the performance, from one cell to the next over trillions of cells. And, as I have documented in the preceding chapters, there are countless other cellular activities that must proceed in harmony with the performer’s intentions — activities that include those 300 or so cooperating molecules in each of the many spliceosomes per cell, carrying out the intricately end-directed work of RNA splicing (Chapter 8 “The Mystery of an Unexpected Coherence”). That is, all those molecular processes must themselves become expressions of the meanings of the context, whether it be a wedding or funeral.

It’s hard to deny the recognizable character of thought, will, and intention along the entire spectrum of consciousness, and we have no reason to think the continuity disrupted anywhere between our fully conscious intentions and the cellular processes that yield with absolute seamlessness to our higher activity. In particular, we do not find any break between the pianist’s conscious effort to realize her expressive intentions, and the unconscious expression of those intentions at the molecular level. Every cell of her body is informed by her thoughts, feelings, and intentions — this despite the fact that no cell thinks, feels, or intends in any way we would want to call “self-aware”.

Quite evidently, then, our cells possess their own, meaningful sort of inner life. Whether they are replicating their DNA, or dividing, or dealing with a viral infection, they show themselves to be capable of end-directed, purposive behavior. This is consistent with their lending themselves so naturally to being informed by the pianist’s intentions. And yet nothing in this picture requires us to imagine our cells thinking and willing as their own act (Principle #6).

The widely embraced “psychosomatic” view of the human being is relevant here. It’s not only that cancers, heart disease, peptic ulcers, and other ailments correlate to one degree or another with stress, personality type, or psychosocial circumstances. The effort to distinguish purely physical from psychosomatic disorders is widely viewed as obsolete, since it is now difficult to find any physical illness whose onset, course, and treatment (think of the placebo effect) are not influenced by interior, or psychic, factors. And many of these factors are a long way from being our own self-aware, conscious acts.

There is another approach to the spectrum of consciousness. Whatever process it was by which the original communal consciousness of our ancestors became individuated — by which it gave way to the modern self-consciousness of the human individual — we can be quite sure it was indeed a process, perhaps a long and slow one. Would anyone want to suggest that there was some boundary in time, clear-cut or otherwise, before which individual authorship of our own inner activity was wholly absent, and after which it did exist? Did the individuated human being, possessed of self-awareness, just appear “out of nowhere”? But if the emergence of selfhood was in fact a gradual evolution, we can most easily imagine it as involving a slowly changing balance between those contents lying in the subconscious and those accessible to the self-aware individual.

Non-individuated communal consciousness, pretty much by definition, is a consciousness in which one lives without its being one’s individual act, and without its being something one attends to in self-awareness. In other words, seen from the stance of our current self-awareness, non-individuated consciousness would have been more like a form of unconsciousness, or dreaming. And it wouldn’t take an overly vivid imagination to extrapolate such primitive human communal consciousness backward in time, and through presumably radical qualitative changes, until one arrived at still less individuated instances of communal wisdom and intention — a wolf pack, a flock of birds, a school of fish, a beehive, a bacterial biofilm, or the way of being exhibited by a single species.

Thinking and intention in general, especially in their less conscious forms, seem to have an irreducibly collective aspect — or, at least, we can say that thinking and intention, in their immateriality, are not respecters of physical boundaries such as the skin of bodies or the membranes of cells. Just as the intentions of the pianist can orchestrate trillions of cells, each with their own, relatively independent life, so also the intentions making a unity of a wolf pack take appropriate form in each individual member of the pack during the subtle interactions of the hunt. The pack as a whole becomes an effective agent.

We have every reason to believe that the distinctive ways of being we recognize in every population, species, genus, family, and so on, are rooted in the (unconscious) thinking and intention playing through such groups. Whether it is one cell or many cells, a single organism or a community of organisms, wherever we see a distinctive interior character of living performance, we must ask what living powers are giving expression to that character.

We are in this way brought to our ninth principle.

Principle #9: Inner Life

An organism has its own sort of Interior Dimension. Despite its lack of a human-like self, every organism makes of its life a wise and purposeful narrative reflecting its own, more or less centered needs, interests, and way of being (Principle #2). This implies, among other things, a power of perceiving and of responding intelligently to what is perceived. So, difficult as it may seem in terms of contemporary biological thought, we must consider an organism as having an inner (interior) life, however unself-conscious and different from our conscious human selfhood. It is hardly a truth difficult to observe: interior activities involved in perception, intention, intelligence, and purposiveness play through every organism all the way down to the cellular and molecular level, even if that organism is incapable of self-awareness or reflection upon its own interior contents. We can think of it this way: simpler organisms are more possessed by, than in possession of, the meanings of their lives — more caught up in them than originating them. Every organism, even the simplest one, is informed by the thoughts and intentions that define its character as a member of this or that species.

In cutting down trees and building dams and homes, beavers perform work as elaborately intentional and purposive as one could ever hope to see. Similarly with termites constructing their intricately crafted mounds. But citing such examples almost seems foolish, since all growth, development, and behavior, so far as it is understood biologically rather than physically or chemically, is pursued in a vividly end-directed, or (as I have sometimes called it) telos-realizing, manner.

The bird building a nest is not consciously preparing for its unborn offspring. Yet obviously it is preparing for its unborn offspring, and I do not know how we can avoid accepting both statements. The first step to such acceptance may be to see that the bird is possessed by the wisdom that plays through it, rather than possessing it. It’s as if its life is sustained by the voices of a larger wisdom — a wisdom originating from we know not where and communicated upon the eloquent currents of wind and sunlight, the ruling powers of day and night, and the compelling, because unreflective, meaning of songs, drumbeats, and alarm calls.

But this is hardly acceptable language in biology, and many readers, I suspect, will by now have focused their attention on what will seem to them a decisive problem. Any sort of perceiving seems to imply a perceiver, and thinking a thinker. If an organism is not perceiving and thinking as an act of its own self, then who is responsible for the activity of perceiving and thinking that I have suggested “plays through” or “informs” the organism from its larger environment?

We will take up the problem while considering a further principle:

Principle #10: Mystery

A healthy science acknowledges the mysteries bordering its own understanding. This is especially true when things we very well know insistently point us to gaps in our understanding. It is not wise to try to force our way into a mystery, whether by intellectual violence or by appeal to an authority we ourselves cannot fully underwrite, such as that of a person, philosophy, or religious tradition. But even without fully penetrating the mystery, we may find that the mere knowledge of its existence can have a wholesome and liberating effect on our understanding of nearby things.

I do not have any clear or definitive answer to offer in response to the question, “Who is doing the thinking that plays out in the life of an earthworm or clam?” What I do want to offer is some indication of why I remain comfortable with the perfectly knowable things that (1) tell us this is a necessary question, and (2) give us some reassuring context for it.

There have been suggestions more or less aimed at our question. For example, there is the idea that spiritual beings act as “group souls” for different kinds of animals. But the first rule for our inquiry seems to me simple enough: don’t pretend to know about things of which you are ignorant. And the fact is, I have neither knowledge nor experience of spiritual beings acting as group souls of animals, and I never expect to have any such experience. So I am not particularly interested in even addressing the idea.

And that is just as well, since my main interest at the moment lies in illustrating the value of thinking around a difficult question in order to establish related things that one does know and to see whether this knowledge begins to make the question less mysterious. Then it can feel okay to leave the mystery alone and proceed further with what one actually knows, expecting that every additional insight will make a little clearer what kind of thing might possibly fill any remaining gaps of understanding.

So, anyway, drawing on much of what has already been said, here are a few brief suggestions about how we might move “around” the question, “If an organism is possessed by its thinking rather than being a self capable of making thinking its own act, how might we understand the thinking so clearly manifest in its life?”

This question, by the way, applies not only to animals, but also to humans before they became self-aware individuals — perhaps, for example, those humans living in the primary age of mythic consciousness (as best we can understand their minds based on the much later and no doubt distorted records that have come down to us either through literate cultures or through millennia of oral tradition).

* First of all, the idea that organisms are informed by a larger wisdom in which they are caught up is hardly a strange one in today’s biology. For nearly a century now biologists have demonstrated the need for some such idea by clinging to the severely problematic notion of the DNA sequence as a unique bearer of information that single-handedly accounts for the development, character, intelligence, and life of the organism. This is an attempt to reconceive the intelligence manifested in the organism as a whole, as if it could be said to have originated in a particular bit of well-structured material substance. Such a view is possible only when one forgets that material structure always arises from thoughtful activity rather than the other way around (Principle #4).

It is their forgetfulness of this truth that has enabled biologists to shift subtly and unconsciously between two completely different and incompatible views of the molecule: it is, on one hand, a mystical or animistic source of life, often seen as condensed into a still largely secret code; and, on the other hand, it is (in a materialistically comforting way), really just little, sequential bits of physical stuff — nucleic acids. Neither view comes close to working by itself, and neither is compatible with the other. It will require a recognition of the “marriage of sense and thought” — the material/interior unity of the organism — to correct and reconcile these two distorted points of view.

* More generally, the inner being of organisms is a fact biologists are increasingly finding it hard to escape. The focus by a growing number of researchers on intelligence and consciousness even in single-celled organisms and plants may, we can hope, become more discriminating, but it is not likely to go away, as opposed to becoming more insistent. Countless biologists, including many of the most prominent figures in the field, have conceded that organisms certainly appear to carry out lives full of perceptive, thoughtful, intentional, end-directed, meaningful performances — and yet are not selves in anything like a human sense.

Even a look backward through human history reveals an ever less individuated, ever more collective sort of mental condition (Chapter 22). So our question about the nature of a more collective and less self-possessed conscousness does not seem to be a crazy one. It seems to demand our consideration. We should feel at ease with the question rather than bristle at it.

* We today have no grounds for ignoring the distinction between what is more conscious and what is less conscious, or unconscious (Principle #8). This distinction enables us to begin thinking about the inner lives of beings other than humans. These are beings who have not achieved self-awareness or selfhood, but nevertheless show clearly that their lives are a manifestation of interior processes that cannot be described in physical terms, as opposed to the terms of consciousness.

* In the example of the pianist (Principle #8), we noted the continuity between the actively exercised intelligence of a self-conscious human being and the “organic” consciousness (or unconscious powers) at work in her body and cells. Here we have an example where the trillions of relatively independent but non-self-possessed cellular “organisms” constituting the pianist’s body participate harmoniously and collectively, and in a perfectly natural way, in her inner life — in her thoughtful and intentional activity.

Surely there is a great difference between this and the wise intelligence through which the countless bacteria within a biofilm achieve a purposive unity. But we also have to ask: what is similar in the two cases?

* We do not consciously experience, at its source, our power to move our own bodies, and we have no idea how this actually happens. So, even in explaining our own conscious performances we must appeal to a working of inner powers other than what we can call “our own”. Whatever active wisdom ultimately thinks and moves in our own cells (and the bodies of other organisms, including single-celled ones) must operate at the roots of material causation and manifestation — as we, in our conscious selves, do not.

So we cannot in any case escape an unanswered question about the Interior Dimension of our own lives — one closely akin to our question about the earthworm and clam. Where does the inner activity come from through which we gesture with our own limbs?

* Further, all this gains a richer coloring when we take seriously the fact that the material universe already manifests its own sort of Interior Dimension (Principle #1). The question “Who acts?” or “Who thinks?” then becomes unavoidable and natural (if also sometimes perplexing) in almost every context of inquiry, including inanimate ones where the origin of conceptual order and ideal law remains a complete mystery to science.

* This coloring is deepened when we consider that our own language and thought, and therefore our self-consciousess and selfhood, represent a kind of in-gathering of some part of the world’s thoughtful aspect, so that it has come to a bright, wakeful focus in the human individual (Chapter 22, “The Evolution of Consciousness”).

* Given the previous point, we may perhaps be forgiven for imagining that the thinking at play in an amoeba derives from some part of that same thought-content of the world that has also come to an individuated self-conscious focus in ourselves. But in the amoeba’s case, this content is not remotely near lighting up as a human-like self-awareness. As I put it in this footnote, every organism is a local blossoming of thought, even if not yet a thinking self.

In sum: the routine biological fact is that a single, unified, organizing intention can play through numerous physical entities, as it does through all our cells during the highly coordinated activity of development. This fact already covers much of the ground necessary for an answer to our question regarding collective intelligence and intention. One thing, at least, seems clear enough: there is in none of this any solace for materialist-minded biologists who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the interior life that every organism so vividly presents us with. This interior life — and the taboo it lies under — seems to be the root problem for most biologists. Once the taboo is lifted, releasing the protected dogma of materialism into the free air of scientific conversation, the things we have been talking about here will not seem particularly remarkable.

Principle #11: Time

The mystery of time is central to the life of organisms. We clearly have little understanding of the nature of time, and this creates many difficulties in our efforts to comprehend the life of organisms. The study of embryology and development shows every organism to be a unity, not only because every part is informed by the coherent reality of the whole spatial organization, but also because every moment is informed by the pattern and character of the whole life cycle. We seem to have few intellectual resources for reckoning with this fact, which threatens to collapse — or transform — all our thinking about organisms.

That bird I have spoken of, in its nest-building, clearly relates to time differently from us. It lives a “well-planned” life without planning anything, as if its future is somehow integral to its present. We humans occasionally have a bare hint of this overcoming of separate moments of time. We have it, for example, in the experience of “flow” when an athlete, musician, or speaker “goes unconscious”, as we say, and becomes so intensely present in the moment that she seems to transcend it without conscious calculation or planning. Things just happen — and in an unusually effective way.

I believe that many Eastern and other wisdom traditions suggest the possibility of deepening this sort of experience by “entering into the moment” with such intensity that it becomes a kind of “eternal now”, bringing with it an ability to act out of a larger, trans-temporal unity. But whatever we make of all that, for the bird it’s as if it needn’t consciously plan for its offspring because the temporal unity of its life and way of being was never fragmented into separate moments in the first place.

It’s not difficult to see the unreality of the common idea of the present as an infinitesimally thin (and therefore effectively content-free) moving line dividing the past from the future. A comment I’ve seen attributed to the physicist David Bohm, but that I find it impossible to verify, is in any case significant: If the present is the point between a past that no longer exists and a future that doesn’t yet exist, it means that the present is a point separating two unrealities. It’s hard to make much sense of this.

Examination of our experience at any particular moment shows that our life in the present is not balanced precariously on an impossibly thin and insubstantial knife edge, but rather transpires within a broader, well-blended temporal context, with an emphasis (but hardly a sole emphasis) on the recent past and the prospect of the near future. Without such a present context of potentially unlimited breadth backward and forward, we would be “lost in time”, never knowing where we were amid the connections of events. We would never be able to relate meaningfully either to what has happened or to the possibilities for guiding events toward fruitful outcomes.

So, if only to a modest extent compared to the bird, our experience shows us living within a holistic, temporal tableau. Moreover, we can always try to expand the “presence” that holds together the near-past and near-future in our common experience. Perhaps there is nothing in principle to prevent this presence from being expanded more and more, until it embraces the remote past and the distant future. What would it be like to live in such a context? Perhaps very hard to imagine — but also very suggestive and fruitful. After all, we’re not talking about a possibility fundamentally disconnected either from our own current experience or from the life we observe in the bird.

There is another way we can recognize a necessity for overcoming the limitations of our current human experience of time. I have in mind our observation of movement in all its forms. For if we manage to see white clouds drifting across the blue sky, it can only be because we have experienced successive moments as a unity — as a single, unfragmented phenomenon. No collection of instants, each cut off from its “before” and “after”, would give us movement.

The same holds true for embryology, as suggested in the statement of Principle #11 immediately above. To talk about any process of organismal development is to recognize a meaningful whole unfolding in time. We can reflect upon such a whole only because the earlier moments are informed by the same larger meaning (which some might reasonably prefer to call an “archetype”) as the later moments. That is, the same meaning, the same lawfulness, playing through time, lends to the entire developmental process a single identity that we have no difficulty recognizing.

This does not imply a conscious “aiming at” a goal, but only a unity of meaning. Biologists have had a great difficulty distinguishing between these two possibilities. The meaning, or archetype, at work in development might be understood as a “muscular organism of thought”, a dynamic, generative idea capable of unfolding in time as the form of material substance.16

Strange things happen when we start dividing time into discrete moments. The unity and meaning of things is lost, the seamless fabric of reality is torn.17 And yet we must also recognize that the tear in reality between past and future is where our nascent freedom comes alive. This is where we are given an opportunity to pause, learn from the past, and apply that learning to our shaping of the future. We can insist on our own way, for good or ill and in truth or error, rather than be carried along by unconscious currents of life.

In our present stage of evolution, we have mostly fallen out of the time-unity of that bird’s life. We have little choice but to consciously plan things. And so we assemble the disconnected moments of our lives in a pattern of our own choosing, rather as we spatially assemble the parts of a machine according to our conscious purposes. In both cases, our capacities might seem dreadfully artificial compared to the unmechanical life of a bird living each moment as an expression of the governing unity of its life. This artificiality no doubt helps to explain our ability to play the role of Destroyers on earth.

But there is real hope if only we can, in our freedom, recognize the unity from which we have been torn and the contrived nature of our current creations. Might we, in our freedom, eventually move beyond tinkering with things from without? And might we move beyond our isolation in the current moment, where we must plan our future while cut off from the wider intelligence that has nurtured all life on earth?

Whatever our answer to such questions, we must wonder how biologists can possibly pursue their science without at least acknowledging the doubt thrown over all their thinking by the problematic character of the human experience of time in relation to the living kingdoms as a whole.

Principle #12: A Key

Humans are a key to evolution. Given that our bodies comprise vast and diverse populations of single cells, ranging from amoeba-like macrophages (white blood cells) to the various cells forming hard bone; given that our lives are deeply integrated with symbiotic microbes whose numbers match or exceed the number of our own cells; given the sophisticated developmental processes that carry us, in one lifetime, from a single-celled zygote to an exceedingly complex and balanced adult form; given the unique evolutionary achievement of our nascent selfhood (Principle #6), along with our consequent ability consciously to take hold of the thought-full and intentional interior of the evolutionary process and not merely be possessed by it; and given a human culture upon which all life and evolution on earth now depends, we are, you might say, the alpha and omega of the evolutionary story. What seems incontrovertible is that we represent the highest and furthest reach18 of the thinking — which is to say, the ideas and meaning — taking form in evolving earthly life.

There came a time in evolutionary history when life awakened, became self-aware, gained a voice, and began testifying to its own inner nature. The voice it gained was … human speech. Speech and thought. It is strange and ironic that we should step gingerly around these realities as if they were somehow spooky and unnatural. If they really were spooky and unnatural, it would be particularly remarkable that they are the very capacities through which responsibility for the overall meaning and direction of evolution is passing over into humans.

In reviewing a book about the evolution of minds, Philip Ball, the always stimulating columnist for Nature, wrote that the book’s authors placed an unfortunate emphasis on human minds. “The structure of a progression from the seemingly simple minds of bacteria and amoebas to the complex ones of primates”, he said, “makes narrative sense, but recalls the outdated image of evolution with humans at the apex” (Ball 2022).

But perhaps we can be more interested in the truth than in what seems outdated (or trendy). And the truth is that the idea of residing “at the apex” gains a very different coloring when you consider that (1) we humans alone can empathetically recognize, somewhere within our own lives, the definitive way of being of every other form of life; and (2) we alone, among organisms on earth, are able to give full and explicit voice to the needs and interests of all the others.

Further, it is widely accepted that in our day we are witnessing an evolutionary transition whereby the human mind is becoming the primary agent of evolution. This suggests not only a need to recognize the “apex” nature of our minds, but also to accept the ethical responsibility for all life on earth that this implies. And, moreover, the transition tells us that the ongoing evolution, or self-transformation, of the human mind (that is, the evolutionary agent’s work upon itself) is now the primary task and achievement of evolution. The burden lying upon us is a heavy one.

If our own interior capacities constitute a growing power consciously to direct evolution toward the future, then we have every reason to suspect that the interior capacities so clearly manifest in every unself-aware organism likewise gave expression — albeit unconscious expression — to the driving agency at work during earlier stages of evolution.

The inner life of nature that comes alive in our self-awareness can hardly be fundamentally different in kind from the wisdom that streams to and through the cells of our bodies (Principle #8). Actually, it’s not clear how we might even speak coherently about the presence of fundamentally disconnected wisdoms (or intelligences, or thought-worlds) at play within the unity of an organism or, for that matter, the unity of the cosmos. There is no idea or thought-complex that is absolutely alien to, or cut off from, any of the meanings finding expression in the entire realm of ideas.19

Yet we still need to hold on to the distinction between thinking as my act, which becomes the basis for my human-like selfhood and consciousness (Principle #6), and the thinking that works on and through me (Principles #7, #8, and #9), but is not “my own”.20 Here it is important to acknowledge the limits of our own powers of selfhood. Our creative thinking has not evolved to the point where it can consciously take hold at the root of material manifestation. Of course, we do move our own bodies. But we don’t know how we do so, or with the aid of what unconscious processes. At the same time, we know of no limit upon our evolutionary potential to continue expanding our sphere of intentional activity by raising unconscious processes to consciousness, where they become our own responsibility.

As far as it goes, our distinctive human consciousness can be seen as the highest achievement of consciousness on earth to date. But it is also, in another sense, a form of interior life not yet equal to the unconscious wisdom possessing the simplest one-celled organism. We humans certainly have room for a further evolution of consciousness!

What is certain is that we have been given the miracle of our own self-aware understanding, through which we can begin to understand other organisms — their inner life, their embodied way of being, and their evolution. And so we have the privilege of discovering ever more fully the connections, not only between our highest functioning and the intelligence of the cells in our bodies, but also between our own minds and the entire, far-from-mindless creative drama of life on this planet.

Where are we now?


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1. For the moment I will add this. There are two possibilities. We could simply stay with experience. That is, we could be content to say that what the world gives us in the wood of a tree trunk is, among all its other qualities, a sense of pressure or felt solidity. If we are of a certain inclination, we might imagine the pressure or “force” involved as being an activity of will associated with whatever creative power of becoming constitutes the world’s material substance. Since “force” has long been a troublesome concept in physics — and given that the material world is of such a nature that it presents itself to us “interiorly”, through qualities — it seems reasonable to investigate whether forces can best be thought of as another sort of interior expression.

But the second possibility is the nearly universal one: we gratuitously invent an addition to our actual experience. We want something there to buttress our experience — something mindless and therefore utterly unlike mind, with its qualitative experience. But, of course, we also want it to be “hard bits of stuff” ... like what? Well, of course, like the only hardness we ever know or could know, such as that of the solid trunk of the tree presented in experience. And so we invent the notional realm of “particles”, assumed to be like tiny bits of the actual, felt world, while at the same time being conceived as non-qualitative and completely unlike the actual, felt world. And the world itself (about which we are correspondingly ambiguous, sometimes referring to the felt or sensible world, and at other times referring to a second world hidden behind the sensible one) is supposed to be “built up” from these self-conflicted bits.

A tall order. Physicists, depending on the conversational context, know well enough to disown these notional particles. Biologists, it seems, haven’t gotten there yet. And so they project their “particles” (modeled after our sensible experience of solid matter yet assumed to be mind-independent) into a realm where we can have no sensible experience. This reinforces their conviction that organisms, at bottom, are beings altogether without interiors — without agency and therefore without an ability to sense and respond to the real qualities of the world.

We certainly can, for example, use an atomic force microscope to measure forces far beneath our powers of sight. But what is the machine doing, if not giving us an extraordinarily tiny measure of the resistance we feel when we press our hand against the tree trunk?

Forces, although they can have centers of activity, are certainly not particles, as we commonly imagine particles.

2. “But science works — nearly miraculously!” This is emphatically true. It works because (speaking very generally about a huge variety of scientific disciplines) working is the central intent of its methods. But technological savvy — making things that work — is a very different matter from a fundamental understanding of the character of the world we live in. Finding ways to manipulate the world successfully is not at all the same as understanding what sort of things you are manipulating and how you might relate to them beyond your capacity for manipulation. In many situations mere trial and error is sufficient for successful manipulation. So, too, are scientific models that are known to falsify reality in one way or another.

3. The philologist and historian of consciousness, Owen Barfield, in the second lecture of his little book, Speaker’s Meaning, pointed out that, up until the Scientific Revolution, the conviction that ideas were the private property of individuals would have been fully as unapproachable as is the conviction, for us, that ideas belong to the objective world. The “common sense” of every age can be remarkably difficult to come to terms with, or even to recognize as such. So we tend to be trapped within our own cultural era. The best escape from the trap is to become literate about how earlier eras differed from our own. And that literacy is not achieved merely by spinning childish tales about our own triumphs over the universal ignorance of our forebears. See Chapter 24, “The Evolution of Consciousness”.

4. See in particular the section, “How do things around us become what they are?” in Chapter 13 (“All Science Must Be Rooted in Experience”). If anyone should remain skeptical of this, I would strongly suggest reading Chapter 4 (“Intentionality”) by philosopher Ronald Brady in the online, freely accessible book, Being on Earth: Practice in Tending the Appearances (Maier et al. 2006).

5. It is certainly true that a person who is blind or deaf or who has had traumatic encounters in nature might have experiences of the world differing from those of a healthy person whose senses are functioning properly. Mozart would have experienced the world of sound and music to a depth I cannot imagine, just as Picasso would have experienced the world of visual form in ways incomprehensible to me. I do not have a bat’s sonar-like sense, nor an insect’s infrared sense. The world lends its potentials of experience to all creatures according to their capacity. But we all find ourselves living side-by-side in one world — a consistent and shared world with diverse yet harmonious potentials of experience. This interior character of the world would make no sense — would find no realization — in a universe that was not fundamentally a universe of beings rather than things (which is, of course, the way the universe has been understood throughout almost all of history). Not many are interested in at least inquiring whether there might be something pathological in our own strong inclination to imagine a world of things rather than beings.

6. During the first half of the 1600s, the French philosopher René Descartes distinguished between “extended stuff” and “thinking stuff” — and did so as if they were separable and disconnected substances having little or nothing in common. This is said to be the source of the “dualism” that so many today, for good reason, would like to disown. Having echoed down through the last several centuries, dualistic thinking has crystallized especially in what we think of as the mind/body problem and, more generally, the mental/physical dichotomy.

Nearly all scientists today disavow “Cartesian dualism”, yet nearly all live intellectually by means of it. There is a very real sense in which Descartes’ cleaving stroke through the heart of reality has been almost universally accepted — perhaps most of all among materialist-minded biologists. That is, they seem to have felt they must accept the stroke as a kind of fait accompli and then try to live with the violence thereby done to the unity and harmony of the world. They merely choose: which half of this improbably fractured whole shall they accept and which half reject? And so the “material” they embrace is dualistic material, bequeathed to them by the Cartesian sundering of mind from matter. Likewise, the mind they reject is dualistic mind.

Materialists they may be, but their materialism is defined by the dualism that has been drilled into our habits of thought and perception. Instead of going back and searching for a different, non-dualistic way forward, they have accepted the original, dualistic fractionation of a living, unified reality, and been content merely to carry a torch for just one of its mutually estranged aspects.

A way forward has already been indicated in the foregoing. Instead of a dualism of mind and matter, we could acknowledge the actual process of our knowing, with its intimate marriage of thought and sense. Our own experience presents us with nothing incompatible or problematic about this marriage. The only problem is that we have been trained by our dualistic habits to think of substance as inert, mindlessly solid “stuff” whose inherent, well-formed powers of lawful (ideal) interaction can be conveniently ignored whenever we are considering the nature of material reality.

But, contrary to this prejudice, we find it impossible even to conceive a substance, or interaction of substances, that is not already an expression of meaningful form. This is the point made in the previous sections — that we perceive nothing without the aid of form-giving thought. We should ask ourselves: “Where do we ever encounter substance that is not a manifestation of specific, intelligible form?”

The obstacle for our understanding of all this lies in the unconsidered presupposition that the problem of knowing is the problem of how our “minds in here” can apprehend “mindless substance out there”. But this is a dualistic assumption made before one looks at the actual process of knowing. The dualistic stance is imposed on the analysis in advance, defining the entire shape of the philosophical problem.

The philosopher Ronald Brady, in a posthumous treatise titled “How We Make Sense of the World” (Brady 2016), succinctly summarized the issue this way:

* “If the question is: ‘how can we know the world?’ or ‘how does the act of cognition take place?’ we cannot begin with the very ‘knowledge’ that this investigation should justify, or we investigate no more than the logical implications of our presuppositions. Epistemology … cannot begin from any positive knowledge of the world, but must suspend all such ‘knowing’ in order to examine the act of knowing itself … if we do begin from such ‘knowledge’ our epistemology will necessarily validate present sciences, and deny the possibility of any other form of science.”

* “Most modern approaches, for example, take their starting-point from the apparent distinction between the thinking subject and the world external to that subject, and thus formulate epistemology after a Cartesian or Neo-Kantian framework. In this formulation … the basic question of epistemology becomes: ‘what is the relation of thinking to being?’ or ‘what is the relation of subjective consciousness to external or objective reality?’ These questions arise from the assumed separation of the two — that is, thinking attempts to know the world of objective reality, which world is itself totally independent of thinking. In such a formulation, however, we [assume that we] already know something of that world (such as its difference from thinking), and the problem is created by what we know — that is, the distance between the thinking and its object.”

* “Since we cannot take the results of previous cognition for granted when we attempt to grasp cognition itself, another formulation of the problem is necessary. If we simply propose that knowledge is immanent in human consciousness (if it is not, then we are not speaking about anything), the basic question of epistemology could be simply: How? What is the act of knowing? Thus we face toward our own act of cognition, and the investigation turns on the self-observation of thinking.”

7. We are free to theorize in terms of non-experienceable constructs. But we typically do so by at least implicitly making models out of them, as if they were experienceable things (such as the “particles” of particle physics). And such models — because they are based on non-experienced constructs abstracted from appearances and falsely conceived as if they were themselves actual appearances (phenomena) — always turn out in one way or another to be false to reality. (See Chapter 13.) They also vex us to no end, as in quantum physics.

There is no reason we should not investigate the appearances in all directions available to us, without limit. We can, for example, use instruments to explore the structure of forces at a level beneath the possibility of actual sight or touch. But the physics of the past century has taught us very well that we run into crippling trouble when we try to clothe unsensed theoretical constructs with sensible qualities, as we typically do when we talk about “particles” and then assume that these must be capable of traveling through space, like sense-perceptible things, from point A to point B.

If the world is by nature an appearing world, then we abandon reality when we talk about non-appearing things as if they were real phenomena.

8. Coleridge wrote: “The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am(Coleridge 1906, Chapter 13). Coleridge was speaking from a deep Christian faith. I do not know any grounds for disparaging his way of stating the matter, but for the sake both of simplicity and of remaining as far as possible within the terms of our contemporary powers of scientific observation and analysis, I have paraphrased his remark in the main text. Coleridge also wrote that

the productive power, which is in nature as nature, is essentially one (i.e. of one kind) with the intelligence, which is in the human mind above nature (Coleridge 1969, p. 497-98).

Coleridge (quite rightly!) considered this statement rather obscure. Fortunately, we can expand the remark in line with his own written annotation of it: the productive power of becoming which we discover in (or above) the finished products (phenomena) of nature is a power we can call “Nature”, or “Agency”. And this Agency above nature is akin to the intelligent Agency of the human being, which also stands above nature. And to this we might add: it is because of this kinship that our own imaginative, perceptual, knowledgeable apprehension of the phenomena (appearances) of nature reflects our nascent creative powers participating along with “the productive power of becoming which we discover in (or above) the phenomena of nature”.

9. Regarding our attention to a lecture: it is also well known that we tend to mimic the lecturer’s physical speech subliminally within our own vocal apparatus. As for copies of thoughts, it is well to realize that the conceptual elements are not material structures, and we cannot create multiple copies of them. What would be the “thing” we are copying? If we are paying attention to our own thinking and not theoretical brain states or whatever, we can hardly help realizing that, no matter how many times we return to the same concept, we are not multiplying copies of it, and the same is true when different people take up the same concept. We may accompany a concept with varying mental imagery, but the images are no more the concept than our pictures of a straight line are the concept of a straight line. All instances of the concept, as pure concept, are the same instance; they are numerically one, not many. Through our thinking we share, as it were, in “one spirit”. It is a useful exercise to think of a pure concept (say, that of a straight line) while asking yourself, “How might this concept, as a concept, not as a mental picture, be multiplied?” It is difficult to imagine even what this might mean — or, at least, it is, so long as one stands within the actual experience of thinking, and not in some materialized image of it.

10. This is the problem I have with panpsychism — or, at least, with my rather vague impression of it. So far as I can tell, panpsychism is commonly taken to ascribe some degree of originating power to stone and leaf, rather than seeing them as expressions of an originating power. Such expressions always do have an interior and meaningful dimension, like all expressions of our own originating power. But we know very well in our case that, say, a painting or a song — truly meaningful as it may be — must not be equated to the person creating the work of art.

There is much more to be said, since it seems clear enough that the creative powers behind the manifest world must be far superior to our own artistic efforts. This becomes important when we consider living organisms. But I am convinced that the distinction between act and product of the act is fundamental. And it seems to me that it is downplayed or lost in discussions of panpsychism.

11. If the essence of science is the resolve to stick close to facts, then an acknowledgment of human agency — and, by extension, the agency of all organisms — is much closer to the spirit of science than the denial of any meaningful agency. That is, it sticks closer to the reality of experience. The old idea, still in force within the reigning scientific imagination, that we need to start our analyses with little (falsely) imagined billiard balls and then build up from there, rather than starting with direct experience, is where the trouble arises. The influential, early twentieth-century French philosopher, Émile Boutroux, expressed the key idea in a 1911 address to the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy in Bologna, Italy, in which he defended the claims of philosophy relative to science:

Can we not, giving up to science everything in the nature of explanation, the reduction of this to that, fix ourselves resolutely on the ground of pure experience, and endeavour to show that, like science herself, philosophy aims at unravelling real facts: facts, moreover, which only differ from those which science studies to the extent that they are more primitive, less mingled with explanatory concepts and hypotheses, more strictly conformable to the idea of fact — of immediately given reality? Philosophy [presents] in a high degree, the essential characteristic of every science: belief in fact, in experience. Philosophy would then be an original and immediate experience, while science would be the systematisation of that common experience which is secondary and indirect (Boutroux 1912, p. 109).

12. On problems with the machine model of organisms, see Chapter 10 (“What Is the Problem of Form?”).

13. Consideration of the distinctive nature of organisms often brings one back to Immanuel Kant and his Critique of Judgment, written toward the end of the eighteenth century. In this work Kant spoke of organisms as “natural purposes”, because they are “organized and self-organizing” beings. An organism’s parts, he observed, “so combine in the unity of a whole that they are reciprocally cause and effect of each other’s form” — that is, an organism’s parts (or organs) are always “reciprocally producing each other”, and doing so within the dynamic unity of a whole (Kant 2000, II.1.65; italics in original).

Kant, as a child of the Enlightenment, had a hard time taking his own words about natural purposes in a straightforward manner, and his peculiar way of approaching the entire subject lent support to the ambiguous modern habit among biologists of thinking that organisms somehow behave only as if they were purposive beings. But it has never been particularly clear how organisms in general — apart from human beings in their more deceitful mode — can behave as if they had certain capacities without actually having those capacities.

14. The twentieth-century American philosopher, Susanne Langer, clearly grasped the essence of the matter in her own discussion of the heart’s development and functioning. The heart, she said,

begins to form early in embryonic life, apparently serving no purpose until the incipient vascular system is ready to act with it. In the earliest phases, however, a characteristic function of periodic contraction, the so-called ‘pulse,’ appears in many evolving tissues, some of which will cease to exhibit it later, while others will join the cardiac development, so their rhythms will become entrained by larger ones and finally by the [entire] circulatory pulse.

This preliminary beating, which comes early in the heart’s formation, “illustrates a basic characteristic of organic function, namely, that its integated activities are often detectable before their special mechanisms have even begun to appear”. This is a powerful reminder that, in an organism’s development, the part “descends from”, or is differentiated within, its larger context, which is ultimately the whole organism. Speaking further of the heart’s development, Langer wrote:

Nothing could demonstrate more aptly the primacy of acts in biological existence, and their gradual concentration in those regions of an organism where they can expand, dominate and integrate most fully. This order of development, from differentiating function to specialized location (tissue determination) and finally specialized form (cell determination), has been noted many times by embryologists. [American zoologist] Charles Manning Child remarked, fifty years ago, that “differences in reaction or in capacity to react very commonly exist in different parts even before visible differentiation occurs, or in cases where it never occurs.”

Langer reinforces these remarks by citing the embryologist and author of Form and Causality in Early Development, Albert M. Dalcq, to the effect that, to begin with, the unity of the nervous system “is not so much spatial as functional … The nervous system does not really originate from a unique and continuous layer of cells.” And the American developmental biologist, Clifford Grobstein, whose life spanned much of the twentieth century, concluded from his experimental studies of development in young embryos that “when nervous tissue ‘self-differentiates’ … the cells themselves have not yet acquired fixity of type as nerve cells. … some stabilization at the tissue level seems to precede stabilization at the cell level”. Langer 1967, pp. 200, 401-2.

For a more recent discussion of the heart, see the impressive evidences and analysis in Branko Furst’s technical treatise on The Heart and Circulation: An Integrative Model (Furst 2020).

15. We might think of this awareness — say, in a bison or alligator — as less a matter of clear concepts than of significant, directive (and sometimes compelling) feeling and image. But such a “dream life” can presumably vary without limit in vividness and distinctness, and we are hardly in a position to imagine its reality in organisms other than ourselves.

16. The common conviction among biologists that a term such as “archetype” is somehow mystical or tinged with the occult seems to result from forgetting that all scientific understanding takes the form of ideas. When one forgets this, then any explicit mention of ideas as playing a causal role in nature makes one think that some sort of occult force is being invoked. But in fact the “archetypal” nature of an organism is no more occult or mystical than the laws of physics, even if organic and inorganic ideas both require a method of recognition appropriate to their character.

17. Our fragmented notions of time, whereby each discrete moment of time is thought to contain the cause of what happens in the following moment, may be a serious obstacle to finding our way to holistic clarity regarding matters of causation. Barfield (1963, p. 175) once tried to provoke reflection about the puzzle of time and causation by means of a fictional dialogue between a school teacher (‘A’ in the following) and a particularly open-minded physicist (‘B’):

A:  Does an effect follow its cause in time, or is it simultaneous with it?

B:  It follows; otherwise it wouldn’t be an effect.

A:  I know it wouldn’t. Is time infinitely divisible?

B:  We must assume so.

A:  I know we must. Then what happens in the instant of time that elapses between cause and effect? Alternatively, if we say they are simultaneous, how do we distinguish an effect from a cause?

B:  Aha!

The usual idea of scientific explanation by means of an appeal to causes and their effects has long been recognized as problematic by philosophers of science. And yet simplistic causal notions, not only within the general public but also among scientists, seem extremely resistant to change in any fundamental way.

18. There is something that grates on many people in words such as “highest” and “furthest” when applied to ourselves as humans. And it is indeed hard to be insensitive to the potential for an unseemly arrogance in these words. Yet we can also wonder whether some of the irritation the words arouse is driven, at least in part, by an uneasiness in the face of the burden of responsibility they would impose on us — responsibility, in the first place, for all our fellow beings on this planet who do not possess their own thinking, and whose welfare therefore hinges on our thinking. In any case, it is hard to bear well a high responsibility without first recognizing and accepting just how high it is.

19. Even thoughts that we think of as “absolute opposites” cannot be truly inharmonious or disconnected from each other, as shown by the fact that we routinely bring them into perfectly satisfactory relationship by means of unifying concepts such as opposites or contraries.

One way to approach the unity and interconnectedness of language is to consider the interplay between our hearing of particular words as we listen to speech, and our progressive apprehension of the overall meaning that more and more shines through those words, modifies their identity, and subordinates them to the developing direction of thought. Without the plasticity of words — without the “willingness” of every word to be brought into relation to any other word — coherent speech would be impossible. We could not understand speech without hearing individual words, but neither could we understand the individual words in their current meaning without grasping the overall import of what is being said — an import capable of informing all the words and uniting them in the larger meaning (Bortoft 2012).

The realm of language and thought is remarkably life-like. In any profound speech or text the words (or thoughts) exist in complex, organic, dynamic, and meaningful relations with each other. All possible words (or thoughts) are as if straining in this way toward living interaction with any and all other possible words or thoughts. It requires only a spark of imagination on our part for the relations between particular words to catch fire and throw unaccustomed light in new directions (Barfield 1973).

20. The thinking that is not “my own”, one might say, illumines my cells “from outside”. This, however, does not suggest anything machine-like, as if the thinking were coming to bear on cells like the thought of an external designer. Rather it is a wisdom that expresses itself, as I have already suggested, at the very root of material manifestation. It works immanently within, rather than externally upon, the organism. It constitutes every organism as a local blossoming of thought, even if not yet a thinking self.


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Steve Talbott :: Some Principles of Biological Understanding