Biologists consistently observe a certain inwardness and agency in all organisms, from the simplest to the most complex. Whether at the molecular level or that of the whole, the organism follows directed pathways — “directed” not in some linear or physical-law sense, but rather in the judicious pursuit of ends. This pursuit entails the ability to coordinate means in relation to ends, and to do so under never fully predictable circumstances. We can recognize in the organism something like reason, intention, purposiveness, learning, liking and disliking, memory, and instinct, as well as a power of judgment and appropriate response to environmental contingencies. The organism is always telling a story and always “staying in character” despite the often dramatic transformations of its life cycle and the radical internal differentiation of parts.
Given the various forms of reason, agency, and purposiveness we observe in all organisms, how can we understand the relations between the bacterium, the salmon, and the human being? The salmon does not reason or intend in anything like the way humans do, so how are we to understand its obvious biological wisdom? In Part 1 the question is merely raised and made vivid.
From humans to bacteria, every organism is a cognitive creature, carrying out mind-like functions in every aspect of its life. All biologists know this, even if they are strongly encouraged by the reigning intellectual climate to forget it. You can think of this article simply as my way of helping to keep the truth within sight — to begin with, by focusing on the human being. (See Part 3 of the series for a broader perspective across the kingdoms of life.)
It is essential, however, not to pre-judge the term “mind-like”, whose meaning should become clearer in the following text. Be aware that one might speak of the mind-like aspects of simpler organisms (1) without suggesting that these organisms have minds in anything like the familiar human sense, and (2) while recognizing that the effective wisdom playing through the simplest, one-celled organism — and the cells of our own bodies — far transcends any mental achievements we humans are consciously capable of.
Every cell of our bodies behaves such that, if we knew it to be conscious, we would naturally assume that its behavior issued from thoughts and intentions.
Of course, no one would attribute consciousness to cells, unless perhaps at an unimaginably primitive level. But the distinction between inanimate and mind-like (intended, reasoned) behavior is already given in the character of the behavior itself, quite apart from the assumption of conscious awareness. As we will see, we needn’t remain blind, even in ourselves, to thoughts and intentions operating beneath the level of consciousness.
And we shouldn’t forget that while the bacterium may have no conscious awareness of what it is doing, the scientist is fully capable of raising its behavior to full consciousness, and in doing so cannot help experiencing that behavior, if not actually acknowledging it, as an expression of mind-like intent and reason.
Yes, biologists, whatever creature they are studying, implicitly recognize its psychic and volitional character. But, seemingly embarrassed to admit mindlikeness in the context of their physical investigations, they take every opportunity to avoid using such terms1.
Here we will not try to avoid them. Better to look the issues straight in the face. And a good place to begin is with the spectrum running from the fully conscious to the fully unconscious.
Varieties of (un)consciousness. There is something paradoxical about “unconscious”, a word apparently referring to “consciousness that is not conscious”. The term is therefore open to easy ridicule. Yet we require only minimal attention to our own selves to become aware that we are subject to thoughts, feelings, and intentions that influence us despite our not (at the time, anyway) being conscious of them. “Why did I make that remark at last night’s gathering? I didn’t really mean it, and it may have insulted X. It was an unconsidered, impulsive response that contributed nothing good and now I can see that my reasons for saying it were not ones I would have thought well of, if I had noticed them at the time”.
There is no doubt that we can be manipulated by psychic contents we are unaware of — and that we may eventually become aware of them as psychic contents (thereby gaining at least a degree of freedom with respect to them). We also have good reason for believing that, the more coercive and unavailable to us such contents may be, the more deeply and organically we will discover them to have penetrated our lives. The child systematically and cruelly abused by a parent may grow into adulthood with, for example, obsessive anxieties, disturbing thoughts, or compulsive urges that, however “ridiculous”, prove almost miraculously resistant to conscious alteration, even over the course of many years of hard work by extraordinarily intelligent sufferers.
In such cases it is difficult not to believe that the ideational, emotional, and volitional “complexes” have partly rooted themselves in some aspect of the growing child’s corporeal being, forming a kind of psychosomatic organ. And the medical profession’s inability to stabilize a historically oscillating consensus about the best treatment — it is, of course, pharmacological ... or, no, is it psychological instead? — testifies to the seemingly inextricable psyche-soma nexus.
In any case, it’s clear enough that many conditions we might naturally think of as purely bodily often rise into conscious experience, whether it be the position, balance, and motion of our bodies and limbs, or the movements of stomach, heart, or bowels, or physical pain or hunger.
More broadly within the animal world, we find instinctual (“innate”) behavior. The dance of honeybees; the newly hatched leatherback turtle’s race toward the ocean; the gaping of young birds being fed by a parent; a great variety of courtship behaviors; the building of nests, burrows, and every imaginable sort of habitation or protective barrier — all this and much more is commonly counted as instinctual and “biologically based”. Yet it is accomplished with a present and active knowing of some sort. The organism always responds more or less improvisationally — which is to say, intelligently — to encountered circumstances.
Even at the molecular and cellular level, biologists routinely employ a language connoting a psychic element, but without any suggestion of consciousness. Indeed, sensing and responding, communication, information, signal, and message have become part of the core terminology of biologists and are sometimes cited as the terms that make biology a science distinct from physics and chemistry2.
From psyche to soma. The preceding remarks illustrate that there’s a range of consciousness extending all the way from full awareness down to the bodily-unconscious where we still require an inward descriptive language — a language at least partly derived from the psyche. Whatever the nature of the “unconscious consciousness” at work in cells, instinctual processes, and pathological complexes, it manifests in directed, intelligent (even if perversely so) behavior that shapes much of our lives. And, as I have intimated above, what we count as “unconscious” does not always stay that way; there are many instances where unconscious bodily-psychic processes breech the surface of our consciousness, so that we become aware of them.
Moreover, it’s obvious enough that, in the other direction, our conscious states influence the unconscious physical processes of our own bodies, whether in our blushing or growing pale, in blood pressure and pulse, or in the development of cancers, heart disease, back pain, peptic ulcers, colitis, and other ailments that correlate in one degree or another with stress, personality type, or psychosocial circumstances. The authors of a reasonably objective article in Wikipedia on “Psychosomatic Medicine” write that the effort to distinguish purely physical from psychosomatic disorders
is increasingly obsolete as almost all physical illnesses have mental factors that determine their onset, presentation, maintenance, susceptibility to treatment, and resolution.
It is, for example, no longer seriously disputed that conscious states can powerfully influence the immune system. The field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) has grown rapidly, “with medical schools worldwide boasting their departments of mind-body medicine, of which PNI is just one component” (Marchant 2013*). It is remarkable to reflect that only several decades ago the idea that conscious states could affect our bodily well-being was considered unwelcome in reputable science — and this by scientists who spent their lives consciously directing various performances of their own bodies.
As for the latter point, perhaps the fact is so close to us that its significance tends to disappear from view: our bodies move when we intend them to do so. (How easily the biologist lets this most mysterious of mysteries slide off to the far fringes of biological inquiry!) Whether my intention is to lift a finger or set out on a ten-mile jog, I casually, if ignorantly, set myriad molecules and physiological processes in motion, all of which cooperate in acting out a reflection of my conscious intention.
We can also learn to exercise control over various semi-voluntary bodily processes, and even over some normally involuntary ones — a possibility giving rise to the biofeedback industry.
Or consider physical reflexes — those “knee-jerk” responses we take to be among the most automatic and unintentional performances of our bodies. In reality, they are inseparable from our intentions. Assessing reflexes in humans and animals, the eminent neurosurgeon, Kurt Goldstein (1995*) showed in exhaustive detail that reflex “mechanisms” don’t exist as rigidly fixed forms. For example, slight changes in the intensity of a stimulus can often reverse a reflex; a reflex in one part of the body can be altered by the position of other parts; an organism’s exposure to certain chemicals can reverse a reflex; other chemicals can completely change the nature of a reflex; fatigue can have the same effect; consciously trying to repress a reflex can accentuate it; and so on without end.
The reflex in its pure form, Goldstein maintained, is an artifact of our own stance as researchers, whereby we conceptually and experimentally isolate one part of an organism, cutting the part off from its whole. He even contends that higher organisms, including human beings, are much more likely to show approximations of reflexes, because it is we who can consciously allow parts of ourselves to become isolated and de-centered. That’s what many procedures of medical assessment are all about:
Human beings are able, by assuming a special attitude, to surrender single parts of their organism to the environment for isolated reaction. Usually, this is the condition under which we examine a patient’s “reflexes”. ... But [for example, regarding the pupillary reflex] it certainly is not true that the same light intensity will produce the same contraction when it affects the organ in isolation (as in the reflex examination) and when it acts on the eye of the person who deliberately regards an object ... one only needs to contrast the pupillary reaction of a man looking interestedly at a brightly illuminated object with the reaction of an eye that has been exposed “in isolation” to the same light intensity. The difference in pupillary reaction is immediately manifest. (p. 144)
No absolute dividing line between physical and psychological. In sum: within individual human beings there is no sharp line separating our most intensely self-aware, conscious inwardness from the most objectified physical performances of our bodily organisms.
And if we cannot survey anything like the entire realm of our own subconscious and unconscious interiority, or strictly separate it from our physical organism, far less can we survey the landscape of an animal’s interiority. But, with the foregoing discussion in mind, suppose we shift our attention to the chimpanzee, observing as best we can everything from its more or less “conscious”, purposive behaviors (however we choose to interpret them) all the way down to the directed activities of its organs, cells, and molecules. I do not know of any evidence to suggest that this range of meaningful performances exhibits any less continuity than in the human being — the crucial difference being that, at the higher end, consciousness in the chimpanzee certainly does not achieve anything like the self-awareness, power of abstraction, or general sophistication of human consciousness.
As for less complex organisms: while there is clearly a dramatic difference between the chimpanzee and an amoeba regarding any sort of conscious awareness, do we find a clear or absolute dividing line anywhere along the “spectrum” from chimpanzees to mice to frogs to eels to sponges to amoebae?
Certainly we can say that in no animal does intention and apprehended meaning extend as far upward toward the bright clarity of a focused consciousness, and even less toward self-awareness, as does our own. But, nevertheless, we still confront a huge range of organic activity that possesses a kind of inwardness that biologists naturally describe in terms of mind-like reasons and intentions rather than physical causes. In fact, as I have often remarked, we are doing biology as opposed to physics and chemistry only insofar as we are recognizing story and reason, and this is true even at the molecular level.
Word and gesture. Humans speak. We do so, you might say, psychosomatically: we never speak without a physical gesturing, starting with the gesturing of the vocal organs themselves. But there is always a gesturing of other parts of the body, whether slight or great — most prominently, perhaps, the face and the hands.
Words themselves are not just words themselves. We can say they are physical phenomena of sound bearing an inner meaning, which is true enough, and centrally important. But this sound can be infinitely varied, and all such variation is meaningful. Elements, some of which we might call “musical” — loudness, emphasis, rhythm, inflection, timbre, accent, and no doubt many subtleties that may elude awareness — all contribute to our conscious recognition when we say, for example, “He’s using that tone of voice again”. The slightest expressive shift may prove as decisive in its meaning as changing the word “is” to “is not”.
All these elements are simultaneously physical performances and expressions of an inner meaning, which is only possible because the physical by its nature is a bearer of meaning. We can distinguish the two aspects of speech — the physical features of sound and the meaning — but they are inseparable. And can we not say the same thing of every outward physical performance of our bodies? What can we do that is not meaningful gesturing? Our walking may suggest heaviness or lightness (in a psychological sense), it may be graceful or awkward, purposeful or ambling, workmanlike or clumsy. If you stamp your foot in any particular context, you are making a statement. Even if you intentionally move so as to suggest random, meaningless activity, then your movement will indeed suggest exactly that intent and meaning.
I wrote briefly about this in How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life. There is nothing we can do that is not a gesture — is not a speaking, in the broad sense of that word. The psychiatrist, the stage director, and, indeed, every human being as an attentive conversationalist, knows that the slightest shadow of change flitting across a face carries meaning.
Even our listening is simultaneously a gesturing — a gesturing by which we “speak” in sympathy with the speaker. William Condon, a Boston University Medical Center professor of psychiatry, pioneered the use of sound films to micro-analyze human interaction during speaking and listening. He described as “surprising and unsuspected” the observation that “listeners move in precise synchrony with the articulatory structure of the speaker’s speech” — and do so “almost as well as the speaker does”:
This is an incredibly precise and delicate tracking process. Metaphorically, it is as if the listener’s whole body were dancing in precise and fluid accompaniment to the speech (Condon 1988*).
Well, not so metaphorical; it’s a literal performance through which the speaker’s expressive gesturing is reflected in the comprehending listener. And this illustrates that our gesturing, too, can vary from a fully conscious expression of meaning — say, when we are playing a game of charades — to the partly conscious hand and arm movements accompanying our own speech, to many forms of which we are scarcely or not at all conscious. I’m not aware of any grounds for claiming a clear demarcation or absolute difference in principle between our speech-related gesturing and the gesturing we can observe at the organ, tissue, cellular or subcellular levels — for example, the change in heart movement that seems itself to be part of our experience of a moment of deep compassion, or (far beneath any conscious awareness) the dramatic gestures of our DNA during cell division, or the mediating movements of the millions of nucleosomal protein cores around which our DNA is wrapped.
Of course, our large-scale gesturing already includes — stirs up and brings in its train — massive amounts of activity at lower scales. It’s all part of the same coherent movement, and it extends, for example, to dramatic changes in gene expression. Molecular biologists are right now excitedly documenting how such expression is a well-organized function of the many ways the cell choreographs the “dance” of DNA within the cell nucleus — a dance that brings complex and changing match-ups between vast numbers of partners among the countless significant stretches along the length of our DNA molecules. These movements — and a thousand other sorts of movement — are how the cell tells its own share of the organism’s larger story.
And that’s what all gesture and all speech are: outer forms with an inner, expressive content, outer forms that speak meaningfully (Talbott 2012b*). There is nothing in the organism, at any scale, that does not speak as part of a larger context — does not participate in the story of the organism as a whole. Unfortunately, biologists are not trained to attend much to this speaking, so it passes them by largely unheard. They are more interested in isolating imagined “causes”, which (as opposed to lawful performances) do not even exist in the organism in any strict or clearly definable sense.
Whether in fully conscious thought, or in speaking, or in gesturing, the human individual is a being of speech in the broadest sense — a being of meaningful expression, a logos-being (to use an older term). Our bodies are, at every level of their activity, a gesture; we gesture our life, speak our life. We live in outward forms expressing an inner content.
But there is something I haven’t yet mentioned — namely, the tension in our thinking between the free and the unfree, which we may also see as a tension between the fully conscious and the fully unconscious poles. The more intense, alert, and self-aware our consciousness becomes — which is to say, the more it is guided by nothing but the demands of its own content and is therefore free — the less bodily rooted it seems to be.
If we wish to make thinking truly our own free act rather than than something that just happens in us, we must (in that act) gain a certain independence from our bodily condition. We may have to work especially hard to think profoundly when bothered by a nagging toothache, and it may be difficult to think fairly when we are possessed of a temperament that tends to prejudice our judgments. Likewise, a brain lesion — or merely old and dead and now corporealized thought-habits that have condensed into rigid traces amounting to a kind of self-inflicted equivalent of a brain lesion — may compromise our attempts at fresh thinking, as may also the organic complexes mentioned above.
But quite aside from such pathologies, our most unconscious contents, though psyche-like, are most deeply grounded in our bodies. This is not in itself a negative thing. It is just that here we would be least likely to call the thoughts or other contents “our own”. We are not free with respect to them, being more possessed by the biological wisdom at work in our bodies than possessors of it. If molecular biology is telling us anything at all, it is that we are breathed through by a logos that is far more profound than anything we are yet capable of raising to full consciousness3.
But this is already to anticipate Part 3 of the series.Next installment (Part 3): Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside. Previous installment (Part 1): The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology.
1. Readers familiar with the technical literature will realize that a reference to intelligence in the mechanistically comforting context of computer operation is one of the ways biologists make the mind-like more palatable. The trick is a neat one, shifting attention from the mind of the programmer to the device upon which that mind has imprinted its intentions. The assumption, of course, is that organisms are computers of some sort — a grotesquely misleading assumption (Talbott 2012a*; 2014*).
2. It is commonly said that such language is only metaphorical. This claim, untenable upon the slightest inspection, is possible only because the education of scientists today leaves them sadly uninterested and unpracticed in noticing the very real intentions and meanings underlying their own use of language.
3. Our incapacity is no doubt a good thing. For the conscious knowledge we do gain always seems to tempt us beyond our powers of resistance. And so, given a few remote inklings of the truth, the genetic engineer and synthetic biologist, heedless of the consequences, rush in to manipulate and control that of which they have almost no understanding. Finding nothing mechanistic in the organism, they are determined to realize their own image of the organism by reducing it as best they can to mechanism. It appears that the brakes upon such reckless ambition are rapidly falling away, so that humanity’s future may indeed depend upon how quickly we can find our way toward a biology worthy of life.
Condon, William S. (1988). “An Analysis of Behavioral Organization”, Sign Language Studies vol. 58 (spring), pp. 55-88. doi:10.1353/sls.1988.0007
Goldstein, Kurt (1995). The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man, with a foreword by Oliver Sacks. New York: Zone Books. Originally published in German in 1934, and in English in 1963.
Marchant, Jo (2013). “The Pursuit of Happiness”, Nature vol. 503 (Nov. 28), pp. 458-60. doi:10.1038/503458a
Nakagaki, Toshiyuki, Hiroyasu Yamada and Ágota Tóth (2000a). “Maze-Solving by an Amoeboid Organism”, Nature vol. 407 (Sep. 28), p. 470. doi:10.1038/35035159
Talbott, Stephen L. (2012a). “The Poverty of the Instructed Organism: Are You and Your Cells Programmed?”. Latest version is available at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/genome_9.htm.
Talbott, Stephen L. (2012b). “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life — And Are Now Staring It in the Face”. Latest version is available at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/genome_8.htm.
Talbott, Stephen L. (2014). “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism”. Latest version is available at http://RediscoveringLife.org/ar/2014/machines_18.htm
This document: BiologyWorthyofLife.org/bodily-wisdom2_20.htm
Steve Talbott :: Psyche, Soma, and the Unity of Gesture