Symbiotic Reality

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Letter and Article written before the Esalen Evolution and Consciousness Conference of November 2004 to the Participants

Hopefully you remember me from our Evolution and Consciousness Conference at the Esalen Institute last October. I remember you and the Conference themes well. And despite various distances including my falling short in writing and speaking last fall, I would like to try to articulate some points for your dialogue.

The vitality of your dialogue really inspired me. You are well placed in a potentially epoch-marking turn in our understanding of evolution. Jay, you expressed it the strongest towards the end of the conference when you noted how large the question was, how laden the potential was for effecting cultural awareness and how bright and poised the Esalen working group is for considerably advancing theory.

At the same time and given the challenge of thinking outside the current paradigm in order to move beyond it, I think that I could offer you an imaginative voice in this dialogue. I propose a shift of focus and a conjecture. The conjecture is that reality is an inseparable symbiosis between physical environment and biological processes.

The focus is on reality, as a phenomenon. The focus is a shift away from the split formulation of objective reality sprinkled with points of consciousness. The old assumption of objective reality as a given non-phenomenon is a dangerous assumption. Like consciousness with qualia, why is the viewspace of reality not an existent deserving of an explanation? Taking reality as a phenomenon that emerged along with consciousness has grounds for justification and offers a way to sidestep the endless contradictions and dead ends of dualism.

Here is the main argument, in brief. Reality itself as we know and experience it should be considered a phenomenon that also merits our exploration. This leads immediately to the observation that reality the phenomenon is a compact between matter and knowing organisms. Of this supposed partnership, it is knowledge that is the more weakly understood and idealized phenomenon. There are two things that can currently and confidently be said about knowledge as a phenomenon: 1) knowledge shows biological roots as behaviors and adaptations and 2) knowledge has two aspects depending on whether seen from the knower or the known–a constructivist side and an objectivist side. Both of these aspects of knowledge as mutuality reinforce the previous observation that reality is a compact between matter and knowing organisms. Viewed from this perspective, a case is made that the character of knowledge is best described as a symbiosis–an ongoing if opportunistic, mutual effect and maintenance relationship.

The second principal argument is the logic that niche construction plus adaptable behavior plus social integration plus cultural learning is a description of an iterative, emergent process that has the potential to adapt-to/construct what can only be described as an expanding niche. The construction of features of a niche and the adaptation of behavior to that constructed feature can set up a reciprocity loop between organism and environmental feature where both evolve. We are inseparable from this grand, coevolving niche.

Four other arguments are made in parallel. The first is along the lines of the American Pragmatists who point out the staggering wealth of individual opinions, perceptions, patterns, habits, motivations, dependencies, intentions, memories, traditions, associations, stories and so forth. This readily observable phenomenon implies a very diverse ecology of human-environment relationships that belie the independence of observer and objective reality.

The second is that such a description of reality squarely avoids the old logical impasse of dualism and presents a biological candidate for a monistic ontology.

The third is that symbiotic reality extrapolates firmly within the trend in biology that continues to discover how processes inside the organism are continuous with processes outside it.

The fourth line of argument is from the Human Potential Movement such as in evidence here at Esalen. It draws on the insight that thinking has lost touch with the body and with the emotions. The inference is then made that this severing of thinking and the body is the casualty of a world view that stresses the independence between knower and known. This, I must confess, is my favorite in that it has been my personal motivation for this inquiry to bridge the intractable gap between the spiritual/emotional sanity of embedded life and critical thinking.

Beyond the usual ontological formulation these days of objective reality and consciousness, I am asking you to imagine a third thing in between them–a commons of knowledge, community intentions, maps, joint attention, material flows, imaginations, memories–that is a biological, especially human addition to the physical matter in the environment and that is an extension of consciousness. When our environment is so massively modified, when each of us shepherds many representations symbiotically linking us with so many objects and others and when public or media arenas link millions in joint awareness, it is justifiable to pose this field as worthy of explanation. I want to show how such a terra cogitans enmeshing organisms and environment is plausible. I list below additional suggestive reasons why symbiotic reality as incorporating material reality and composed of but greater than individual consciousnesses is a plausible concept to describe the orb of our existence:

• The cultural sphere, the commons of awareness exists and deserves its own explanation.
• Knowledge is a phenomenon with the property that it joins organisms and things.
• Representations have the properties of symbiotic relationships–maintaining links.
• The concept of noosphere as a new aspect of the biosphere illustrates reality as its own sphere.
• Domesticated species reveal its effects.
• Some 200 species exhibit cultures of behavior that vary among groups.
• Knowledge, cognition, learning & memory are shown to be externally distributed.
• Memory reveals time and distance relationships in ecology.
• Humans have a unique capability: joint attentional scenes, e.g., pointing with another.
• Symbioses, synergies and multilevel evolution are increasingly seen as widespread in nature.
• Instead of the presumptive territory vs. map, humans can always only know maps or better maps.
• It is a non-dualistic frame that is both objectivistic and constructivistic.
• Social organizations and technology are growing and hybridizing so fast that superorganism and global brain views are spreading which highlights the synthetic quality of reality.

Moreover, symbiotic reality as a framework offers openings in some of our deepest problems:

• Alienation is met by switching from the human operator on a backdrop to embeddedness.
• Major spiritual issues like attachment, emotional poverty and lack of embodiment are addressed as each of us is a center of our connections.
• Communication can go past substitution chasing to embrace the fine movement of whole contexts.
• The medium is the message; each medium is its own basin of symbiotic reality.
• It resolves the science studies debate that opposes messy working reality with ideal construals.
• It facilitates a politics with non-totalizing wholes and non-fragmented facts (e.g., think of a Bush-type leader as a totalizing whole and a Kerry-type as fragmented facts).
• It allows a fully naturalized epistemology where expert discourse basins can hybridize methods.
• It provides a philosophical basis for a more developed ecological economics.

The early Twentieth Century concept noosphere, named after that portion of the biosphere that captures the mental activity reshaping the planetary movement of materials and species, can be evoked in various ways. If consciousness is the culmination of evolution, then the concept of noosphere is just an irrelevant acknowledgment of brains on the planet. If consciousness is a necessary plateau of evolution in a series that still looks like a parade of species, then the concept of noosphere is a demarcation of before and after this event. If consciousness is a breach into a qualitatively different type of evolution with a new, globalized ecology including machines, synthetic materials, computers, space probes, harnessed external energy sources, widespread domesticated species and joined economic channels, then the concept of noosphere does denote a phase change into a new type of sphere. It is this last version of noosphere that the symbiotic-reality framework invokes to talk about a qualitative change in evolution’s domain.

There are innumerable examples of biological processes that are inseparable partners in geophysical processes (e.g., reef building, the long term carbon cycle through sea floor sedimentation and through the earth’s mantle, the former widespread damming of North American creeks by beavers), but the process that places ourselves as observers within an inseparable symbiosis is the wildly promiscuous partnership of knowledge. Now that consciousness has become legitimate as a research subject it is time to move its step-sister, knowledge, into direct study. Whereas consciousness is mysterious precisely because it is a glaring experience at the heart of whatever mind is, knowledge has the astounding property that it joins ostensibly independent knower and known. The very fact that knowledge exists and joins people and objects and even abstract complexes of these is a phenomenon worth noting. Returning to the concept of noosphere I could say that the noosphere is that portion of the biosphere that is the sum total of knowledge joinings and its dynamics and effects. Equally, we might want to frame consciousness as the experience of existing in a field of knowledge joinings. But, as imaginative challenge the question is where and what is this knowledge property of joining?

Almost as soon as knowledge is approached as an object of study then a link can be given from it to biology and to evolution–behavior. To know a chair is to have a “chair-behavior.” For a bird to “know” branches and nests is to have “branch-behavior” or “nest-behavior.” In all cases the organism and the object are joined in the behavior in a type of commensalism. In all cases there is no reference to the purity of the truth of the object but only to its successful, opportunistic exploitation. If it is usable as a branch, then it is a branch in the joined behavior. The crab that appropriates an old shell for its home has a “shell behavior” or “knows” what shells are or finds the niche it needs or can be said to have an extended phenotype that must include a shell or can be said to have a commensalism with “its” shell. Regardless of the language the crab organism has a boundary that arguably includes the shell from many points of view including from crab predators.

The case for knowledge as behavior has been put as a special type of behavior that is an adaptation to something. For example:

“How, then, can we make that connection between adaptation and knowledge? We do so through a two-track argument. The first is that the human capacity to gain and impart knowledge is itself an adaptation, or a set of adaptations. To the scientifically literate this may not seem to be a startling claim. But it does have specific and interesting implications. We simply will not understand human rationality and intelligence, or human communication and culture, until we understand how these seemingly unnatural attributes are deeply rooted in human biology. They are, I will argue, the special adaptations that make us special. What is unarguable is that they are the products of human evolution, whether adaptations or not. There really are no substantive alternative ways of understanding our extraordinary capacity for knowledge....”

“The second track of the argument is the one that many find strange and difficult, and one which has already been partially given in the Preface. It is that adaptations are themselves knowledge, themselves forms of ‘incorporation’ of the world into the structure and organization of living things. Because this seems to misappropriate a word, ‘knowledge’, with a widely accepted meaning - knowledge usually just being something that only humans have somewhere in their heads - it makes the argument easier if the statement reads ‘adaptations are biological knowledge, and knowledge as we commonly understand the word is a special case of biological knowledge’.” Plotkin, Henry. Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge. Harvard University Press. 1994. pps. xiv-xv.

It is here, Jay, where I might borrow your quote from Kant to justify a shift from knowledge’s focusing on the object for its source of alleged purity to knowledge’s focus on the subject and the adaptive webs we weave. You quote Kant from the Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, on page 25-6 of your “Coming Together” article for last year’s conference as saying:

“We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects. If intuition must conform to the constitution of the objects, I do not see how we could know anything of the latter a priori; but if the object (as object of the senses) must conform to the constitution of our faculty of intuition, I have no difficulty in conceiving such a possibility.”

You make the quote in the context of Copernicus with the implicit shift from geocentric to heliocentric and in the context that “life binds time” so that “Once the future replaces objectivity as the horizon of validation, then care and hope become constitutive of reality.” From this I feel justified in taking Kant’s reverse validation of the subject over the object as grounds to propose switching from an object-centered view to an object/subject symbiotic-centered view that also exposes the binding relations as constitutive of reality.

The case then is that knowledge is an important, naturalistic element that joins organisms in commensalisms with objects by behaviors and adaptations. In order to help us visualize what knowledge as an adaptation looks like, imagine an object and the circuits of usage, relevance and association that join you to it. Include the mediums such as light and friction and include muscular-neural circuitry. Knowing, say, an axe per Gregory Bateson is to have a circuit of tree-eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree. As a Bateson commentator has it:

"The self-evident quality of the boundary that divides organism and environment becomes less and less obvious the closer we approach it. Bateson, in his classic example of the man-axe-tree circuit, suggests that only the total system of tree-eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree has the quality of immanent mind. What occurs in this system is a series of transforms and what happens in the environment is as essential to the circuit as the sensory-muscular processes in the human participant. There is danger in separating meaning and context, or participant and setting, of falling into the trap of viewing one as independent variable and the other as dependent variable.” Bateson, Gregory et al. Rigor and Imagination: Essays from the Legacy of Gregory Bateson. Barnlund, Richard. "Toward an Ecology of Communication." 1981. p. 95.

From the viewpoint of cognitive science the distributed feature of cognition appears as:

"The view we advocate here is reflected by a growing body of research in cognitive science. In areas as diverse as the theory of situated cognition (Suchman 1987), studies of real-world-robotics (Beer 1989), dynamical approaches to child development (Thelen and Smith 1994), and research on the cognitive properties of collectives of agents (Hutchins 1995), cognition is often taken to be continuous with processes in the environment." Clark, Andy & Chalmers, David. "The Extended Mind." Analysis 58.1 January 1998. p. 10.

Another way to imagine the symbiotic aspect of knowledge is to consider how traditional representations can be considered as symbioses. My sense is that today the concept of representation is used less in the archaic sense of a photographic image in our brains ready for viewing and more as a shorthand for an unknown grouping of brain activity correlated with some referential aspect like an object. The continuity, the tracking, the investment in maintaining, the uses of the reference in different situations, the projective quality of our interpretation, some effects for the referent, are all analogous to a symbiotic relationship. That wheat, the grain, is in symbiotic relationship with humans is not surprising; that wheat, the idea, is in symbiotic relationship with most of us is hardly different except that the latter relationship is more fertile for further combinations. A sense of how representations can be construed as symbioses comes from the following:

“I have defended the idea that cognitive representation requires more than complex response to a single specific proximal stimulus. Ant hygiene, for example, is switched on by a specific proximal stimulus, oleic acid. Contrast the ant with the anti-predation responses of ravens, who recognize both different dangers, and the same danger through different cues. An organism that genuinely represents a given feature of its world must have several informational routes to that feature. There must be multiple channels between mind and world; organisms so equipped get behavioural feedback.” Sterelny, Kim. The Evolution of Agency and Other Essays. Cambridge University Press. 2001. pp. 191-2.

A representation is an indication of the ongoing dependent relationship to the represented for the knower. This relationship has its costs and benefits for the knower.

"(1) The economics of knowledge is an important but underdeveloped branch of epistemology. It is–or should be–evident that knowledge has its economic aspect of benefits and costs. (2) The benefits of information are both theoretical and applied. (3) Moreover, the management of information is always a matter of costs. (4) Rationality itself has a characteristically economic dimension in its insistence on a proper proportioning of expenditures and benefits." Rescher, Nicholas. Cognitive Economy: the Economic Dimension of the Theory of Knowledge. U. of Pittsburgh Press. 1989. P. 3.

And on the object’s side there are costs and benefits. Some objects are exploited and some are preserved and protected; most are diverted at least slightly to suit the knower’s needs. Wooly mammoths disappeared; barley was protected and enhanced; animal trails became thoroughfares; house walls depend on us to stay house walls.

When the mutuality of humans with reality as a phenomenon is fully appreciated then the interlocking behavioral adaptation of subject and object are seen as inseparable:

“Contrary to popular opinion and many philosophical epistemologies, knowledge does not involve the union or synthesis of an already existing subject and an independent object. To the contrary, knowing is an ongoing adaptive process in and through which subjectivity and objectivity actually emerge and continue to evolve. Knowledge is constituted when subject and object fit together.” Taylor, Mark C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. University of Chicago. 2001. p. 208.

Yet, symbiotic reality has deeper roots. It is worthwhile to consider reality (the phenomenon formed by humans) from the more primitive concept of niche (the ecological concept of “occupation” of an organism in its environment). The niche is not always fixed but is often changed or constructed in ways that can benefit the organism.

“... to varying degrees, organisms choose their own habitats, choose and consume resources, generate detritus, construct important components of their own environments (such as nests, holes, burrows, paths, webs, pupal cases, dams, and chemical environments), and destroy other components.”

“Niche construction is not the exclusive prerogative of large populations, keystone species or clever animals; it is a fact of life. All living organisms take in materials for growth and maintenance, and excrete waste products. It follows that, merely by existing, organisms must change their local environments to some degree.” Oyama, Susan, Paul Griffiths, and Russell Gray, editors. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. MIT Press. 2001. Laland, Kevin, John Odling-Smee, and Marcus Feldman. “Niche Construction, Ecological Inheritance, and Cycles of Contingency in Evolution.” P. 117.

These authors go on to attempt to show how niche construction alters genetic selection both of present organisms and of future generations in what is called “ecological inheritance” and which can set up “... an evolutionary inertia, where unusually strong selection is required to move a population away from an equilibrium, and a momentum, such that populations continue to evolve in a particular direction even if selection pressures change or reverse (ibid. p. 122).” This reciprocity between niche construction and genetic selection pressure already has the potential for generating an emergent phenomenon. This reciprocity is increased when adaptable behaviors or learning behaviors are present within the organism. “This allows learned knowledge to guide niche construction in many animal species (ibid. p. 123).”

From the above description of the way that niche construction functions in evolution there is only one more aspect needed, cultural learning over generations, to see how logically a huge emergence could develop from one organism’s niche construction and adaptable behavior. Part of niche construction is moving to or adding new elements to the niche such as an omnivore or a migrating organism might do. Such a combination and iteration of niche construction, adaptable behavior and cultural learning has the logical potential to convert one species’ niche into a large and growing “niche.” And the reciprocal relationships of this emergence would also change that organism, humans, genetically from self-induced selection pressure as well as culturally from developmental pressure to match the niche:

"Though man remains a nourishing being, we now see clearly that his being-in-the-world is oriented not solely or even primarily as eater. He is, by natural attitude, a being whose eyes are encouraged to be bigger than his stomach.

'Animals move in the direction of their digestive axis. Their bodies are expanded between mouth and anus as between an entrance and an exit, a beginning and an ending. The spatial orientation of the human body is different throughout. The mouth is still an inlet but no longer a beginning, the anus, an outlet but no longer the tail end. Man in upright posture, his feet on the ground and his head uplifted, does not move in the line of his digestive axis; he moves in the direction of his vision. He is surrounded by a world panorama, by a space divided into world regions joined together in the totality of the universe. Around him, the horizons retreat in an ever growing radius. Galaxy and diluvium, the infinite and the eternal, enter into the orbit of human interests.'

"As with upright posture itself, the contemplative gaze–or the transformation of seeing into beholding–requires maturation, and especially inner or psychic growth; small children do not have it and remain largely interested only in things that lie within their grasp. Eventually, as adults, we are able to organize the visible world into things near and far or, alternatively, into those visible and even remote things we are interested in prehending (by bringing them near) and those we are content to let be and to comprehend, at a distance and in their place, against a background totality, a world." Kass, Leon. The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature. University of Chicago Press. 1999. Pps. 71-72 (The subquote is from Erwin Straus, "The Upright Posture," in Phenomenological Psychology, 1966)

And the environment of humans itself probably coevolved:

“Instead we maintain that niche-constructed components of the environment are both products of the prior evolution of organisms and, in the form of modified natural selection pressures, causes of the subsequent evolution of organisms, and that as both products and causes of evolution, these environmental components need to be incorporated in evolutionary theory more fully than they are at present. It is in this sense that we see organisms and their environments as comprising coevolving systems.” Oyama, Susan, Paul Griffiths, and Russell Gray, editors. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. MIT Press. 2001. Laland, Kevin, John Odling-Smee, and Marcus Feldman. “Niche Construction, Ecological Inheritance, and Cycles of Contingency in Evolution.” P. 125.

Now, claiming that a large emergence occurred does not imply that the changes to the environment were insignificant nor that humans did most of the adapting. We know that there were certain effects. We know that there are no sloths or large tigers around now probably because early hunters pushed them to extinction. We know that many other species were domesticated and dramatically altered from their non-domesticated, pre-human state. We know that, as Jared Diamond says, cultures put together many “packets” of combinations of crops, domesticated animals and technology. We know now that there currently exists a bubble of technological creativity that changes even old human technologies as well as remaining portions of the imagined ur-environment. We know that everywhere we go the “environment” is prepared for us in ubiquitous “Do” and “Don’t” signs. As the great human niche has widened into many versions of maps of reality, it has also had tremendous material effects. Much of what exists came into being through us.

It is here that it would be wise to guard against our old dualistic heritage where human actors do things to objects and to think that “Yes, humans made those changes” in a way that denies the coevolutionary character of the emergence just described. To emphasize the reciprocity of humans adapting to niches they constructed I will argue that it is helpful to characterize the relationships to features as symbiotic. Even when symbioses are recognized by a seeming standard of being two, or more, species interacting supportively and primarily with each other over a long co-evolutionary period, their occurrence is recognized as widespread:

“The biosphere’s evolution is unimaginable without symbioses. We see them in the very formation of eukaryotic cells, in the intricate coevolutionary patterns in coral reefs–where about fifty fish and shrimp species act as cleaners of ectoparasites, often entering even into the gill chambers and mouth of the host fish–and in flowering plants and their pollinators. Without endosymbioses there would be no cattle husbandry and beef empires, and termites, those miniature tropical cows, could not process a large share of the biosphere’s litter fall.” Smil, Vaclav. The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change. MIT Press. 2002. P. 225

It is also considered appropriate, I believe, to claim that the behavior of monkeys and primates to fruit trees is symbiotic because the fruit trees coevolved with primates for the mutual benefit of both–food and seed dispersal. In contrast one would not usually assert that root foods were symbiotic to early primates since food sources are considered as an independent variable in their niche (until later agricultural times when tubers certainly did evolve under human influence). Likewise tool use and tool making are not considered symbiotic but for another reason. Tool use does not drop out of mutuality and potential emergence considerations because it is passive like the root foods but because it is an active effect of the retrospective dualistic mindset. We say that “humans made tools.” This is the point where the cultural anthropologists take over from the physical anthropologists, and this is the point where the human niche is divided into the dualistic frames of determinism (the root foods) and autonomy (human agents). It is of course at the center of our consciousness conundrum as the following quote succinctly captures in speaking of this division where dualism gave us science which found a deterministic nature:

"The division of labour has endowed cognition with autonomy; autonomous cognition has engendered a nature within which no activity can be autonomous. That is the problem." Gellner, Ernest. Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History. University of Chicago Press. 1988. p. 136.

Of course to the early primates roots, fruits and “tool use” blurred into a continuous occupation of their niche. It is here that there is a choice to continue telling the story of this emergence as active humans leaving a passive niche or to instead note the heavy interdependence of humans and our coevolving niche. The reasons that I argue for the latter are 1) that an object behavior is itself a reciprocal and distributed pattern dependent on the “object,” 2) that object behaviors can and do become interdependent among themselves (e.g. stick use becomes associated with tuber eating with their own synergies–what is the stick here, a catalyst?) and 3) that niche elements are always effected or changed even if the “construction” is not of the enhancement variety. This view is buttressed by the steady rise in sociality among early primates which could show not only the cultural learning aspect of the construction-learning-adaptable behavior emergence but also evidence for the interdependence factor of the niche construction. What I am arguing is that we humans are our constructed niche; we have never left our old niche bequeathed to us as a species enmeshed in nature; we have only constructed or grown it into a very large niche which while trying to approximate the whole environment we have equated with the environment and called it “reality.” Practically, we live and react to life; we do not “know” what we are doing as if a type of omniscience precedes our mere execution.

Let me break the above down into the elements that make the interdependent aspects of the big emergence. I have argued earlier that object behaviors such as we today think of as knowledge is a mutual and multiple-channel relationship. The interdependence of object behaviors such as stones with scraping meat from carcasses is used as evidence that interdependence spread. This implies that a synergy of interdependence was available among features of that environment. And it suggests that the spread of interdependence between object behaviors would in turn strengthen the constituent object relations themselves. Using stones to scrape carcasses would raise the value and scrutiny of stones themselves as well as of carcasses, for example. It is arguable that this adaptable interdependence between various object behaviors stumbled into an evolutionary goldmine of potential synergy. Synergy, analogous to symbiosis, is increasingly recognized as a ubiquitous phenomenon:

“... synergy is of central importance in virtually every scientific discipline, though it very often travels incognito under various aliases (mutualism, cooperativity, symbiosis, win-win, emergent effects, a critical mass, coevolution, interactions, threshold effects, even non-zero-sumness).” Corning, Peter. Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Mankind. Cambridge University Press. 2003. P. 5.

The possibility that the environment “allowed” synergy between object behaviors which would reinforce adapting behaviors means that the human niche was not completely passive but was shifting to reward those behaviors. The expanding niche was the powerful, seemingly receptive yet growth-supplying partner in the human-environment emergence. What ensued then was a positive feedback loop where categories of objects cross-fertilized each other to the point where environmental objects became densely co-opted into hominid behaviors. Or, adaptive circuits coopted new elements which bred new adaptive circuits and reinforced old ones. Biological reactions and relations had become dense within biology’s environment–physical reality.

Although many of our relationships with features of reality are not, strictly speaking, symbiotic (some are exploitive or heavily one-sided in our favor even amongst ourselves) I have chosen “symbiosis” as the best characterization of our external relationships. What is significant about human environmental relationships is the large number which are mutually tolerant and not simply food or fight type vectors. Even mutual tolerance and occasional use-taking could be considered a weak form of symbiosis. On the other hand the massive use-taking of human culture plus the enormous modifications made to objects as well as the fact that most species now have human culture as part of their selection criterion reveals the stupendous traffic of mutuality undergirding our activities in reality. Such a mutuality is best described and better understood by the term “symbiotic.”

Looking again at the expanding niche that humans were creating, I want to again consider its interdependence with humans. As I argued with representations as symbioses above, I want to emphasize how each object behavior is a highly coordinated “circuit” of perception, musculature, neural circuits, object qualities and needs satisfactions. Additionally, these circuits are regrown continually by usage and by each generation of humans.

“The notion that culture is transmissible from one generation to the next as a corpus of knowledge, independently of its application in the world, is untenable for the simple reason that it rests on the impossible precondition of a ready-made cognitive architecture. In fact, I maintain, nothing is really transmitted at all. The growth of knowledge in the life history of a person is a result not of information transmission but of guided rediscovery, where what each generation contributes to the next are not rules and representations for the production of appropriate behavior but the specific conditions of development under which successors, growing up in a social world, can build up their own aptitudes and dispositions.” Oyama, Susan, Paul Griffiths, and Russell Gray, editors. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. MIT Press. 2001. Ingold, Tim. “From Complementarity to Obviation.” P. 272.

“Aptitudes and dispositions,” circuits joining objects and behaviors by myriad factors, intentions, interdependence of object behaviors are among the many ways stressing the two-way traffic between objects and humans. The picture that I am drawing is of a niche that is woven from the intense traffic of relations tied in circuits of usage and relevance. It is of a niche that offers highly non-linear problems and solutions in a way that can be described as “active.” The density of relations, their mutuality, their active generativity, their continuity as memory even when not in use and their co-evolution bespeak a relationship between humans and their co-emergent niche as symbiotic. They also bespeak an extremely relationally rich niche-human interface. The symbiosis is maintained and grown through this huge traffic of individual and idiosyncratic perceptions, imaginations, habits, tolerances, associations, serendipitous mistakes, memories and their further spread through imitations and intentional sharing.

The fallacy of looking back at our niche as a passive vessel for our active intellect continues today. If the environment is passive to our knowing, we humans are the active and therefore separated autonomous agents in the passive and unimportant niche. This traffic went both ways in prehistory with active gods or forces in the environment and careful activity on humans’ part. Now, in a stunning reversal during the modern turn to the object, we humans live confidently in our own active autonomy while giving an independence to objects so that it is they that determine the truth about themselves. The current independence of objects gives them an “active” nature to determine new facts while we know that they are completely passive to our control. It’s a perverse aspect of dualism–exalting the power of the observer by letting the “facts speak for themselves.” The postmodern current has spawned a perverse reversal of this perversion by switching dualistically back to saying that the observer is the active determiner of truth. However, if both environment and ourselves are active as in a mutual relation of co-creativity, then answers to the silly question of which came first, ourselves or our discoveries, seem silly (Here “idealism” can be understood as constructivism while the “Yalta pact” fills in for dualism):

“... it was impossible to answer no to the question ‘Did the ferments (or the microbes) exist before Pasteur’ without falling into some sort of idealism. The subject-object dichotomy distributed activity and passivity in such a way that whatever was taken by one was lost to the other. If Pasteur makes up the microbes, that is, invents them, then the microbes are passive. If the microbes ‘lead Pasteur in his thinking’ then it is he who is the passive observer of their activity. We have begun to understand, however, that the pair human-nonhuman does not involve a tug-of-war between two opposite forces. On the contrary, the more activity there is from one, the more activity there is from the other. The more Pasteur works in his laboratory, the more autonomous his ferment becomes. Idealism was the impossible effort to give activity back to the humans, without dismantling the Yalta pact which had made activity a zero-sum game–and without redefining the very notion of action, as we will see in Chapter 9. In all its various forms–including of course social constructivism–idealism had a nice polemical virtue against those who granted too much independence to the empirical world. But polemics are fun to watch for only so long. If we cease to treat activity as a rare commodity of which only one team can have possession, it stops being fun to watch people trying to deprive one another of what all the players could have aplenty.” Latour, Bruno. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Harvard University Press. 1999. p. 147.

The conjecture of symbiotic reality breaks the active-passive game in the reality-humans relationship.

This co-created grand niche became further emergent by linking it to the social arena. To live in humans’ dense set of symbiotic relations with dependencies, uses, relevances, roles and so forth is to be born into a cultural milieu, an achievement of generations, and to be born with a capacity for awareness in common with others. Being in this milieu involves a heavy investment in group interests. The simple ability to gaze together at a star is probably not in the ability of other creatures.

“In their natural habitats, nonhuman primates:
• do not point or gesture to outside objects for others;
• do not hold objects up to show them to others;
• do not try to bring others to locations so that they can observe things there;
• do not actively offer objects to other individuals by holding them out;
• do not intentionally teach other individuals new behaviors.

“They do not do these things, in my view, because they do not understand that the conspecific has intentional and mental states that can potentially be affected. The most plausible hypothesis is thus that nonhuman primates understand conspecifics as animate beings capable of spontaneous self-movement–indeed, this is the basis for their social understanding in general and their understanding of third-party social relationships in particular–but do not understand others as intentional agents in the process of pursuing goals or mental agents in the process of thinking about the world.” Tomasello, Michael. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press. 1999. p. 21.

This author goes on to speak of “joint attentional scenes” as unique-to-humans, shared mixes of intentional and perceptual relationships.

“On the one hand, joint attentional scenes are not perceptual events; they include only a subset of things in the child’s perceptual world. On the other hand, joint attentional scenes are also not linguistic events; they contain more things than those explicitly indicated in any set of linguistic symbols. Joint attentional scenes thus occupy a kind of middle ground–an essential middle ground of socially shared reality–between the larger perceptual world and smaller linguistic world.” Tomasello, Michael. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press. 1999. p. 97-8.

My claim is that these “joint attentional scenes” and their joinings into more widespread intentionally and perceptually monitoring panoramas form the patchwork of a new, strongly interdependent ecology with humans in the center of their web. And it is this patchwork in which we live that we call reality even as we, as diligent farmers to this web but with faux modesty, insist that it is the objects in our symbiotic garden that deserve the praise. We should be reminded that the territory of matter outside our reality has been found to be but light, molecules and vibrations. As Alfred North Whitehead is reputed to have said:

"Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent, the nightingale for its song, and the sun for its radiance... Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless, merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly."

Yet, we here, readers and myself, address each other now in an abstract paper full of common assumptions (yes, I can claim symbioses here too) as each of us gazes down a row of words, about a room or around a landscape known to have a common understanding with our fellow creatures. It is this very viewspace that I am saying cannot be taken for granted. Just as it has become clear that there is logically no homunculus, or little viewer guy in our heads to view some alleged contents in our brains, so there is no given screen presented free of charge outside our brains for our viewing. Perceptually, intentionally, usedly, adaptively, memorably, sharedly we have built this labyrinth of relationships in which all the citizens of life, of the earth’s crust and of the sky who have continuity and discrete magnitudes have become ensnarled. To a greater or lesser extent they are at our call or at our tolerance in a way that is not always mutually beneficial but that can best be described as symbiotic. This prodigious linking of ecology into the web of a single species and its expansion of the reach of life into new realms–the abiotic, the logical, the possibility of new energy sources–is a tremendous qualitative change in the domain of life that we are pretending has not happened by assuming that reality has always been here waiting for the victors of evolution, ourselves, to arrive at.

My case is that we arrived together–we knowers and our woven reality nest built into the environment. This reality of which our consciousness forms a node is a mutually supporting or tolerating society. And the contrary, current conception that we are separate from the backdrop called objective reality is an historic phase as well as achievement that has attempted to move from a conjectured participation mystique of embeddedness to an unequivocal array of particular facts tied together by natural forces. Our home of reality is exceedingly well mapped now if we can but live in it. Facts are separate today and are supposed to stand or fall on their own without clustering for protection in ideological formations. This historic attempt to break the symbiotic clustering of ideas and facts has been hugely productive in assimilating new material into cultural purview. The cost, however, has been the loss of this healthy connectionism of human social life. The aesthetic, the relational, the ecological aspects of social life have all suffered. I am reminded here of, I believe, John Donne’s poem lamenting the loss of a participation in life owing to the cultural cleansing owing to something like “Newton’s sleep” as the advance of science purged the local from the universal. As Francis Bacon hoped, all the various idols of the mind and of the market have been pushed away so that facts could stand on their own. Reality as unique frame was cleansed of all the messy chains of connection.

The last paragraph reveals a corollary of the conjecture of symbiotic reality which is that cultures throughout history have adopted simplifying world views to cope with the dizzying idiosyncracies of constantly adapting knowledge webs. “Reality” in each of these times and places has been a simplifying public arena where each individual has had to confine her specific richness of adaptations. The story of knowledge is still essentially the Biblical story of the Fall where the gift of knowledge drove humans out of paradise. Retold here humans sacrificed the immersion of hodge podge adaptations in a now of an “entrancing surround” for an over-reaching panorama formed from a surfeit of remembered adaptations. A lot of us have stumbled with confusion and doubt as we have tried to keep up with the rapid construction of reality in the sense of having lost touch with the tacit knowledge of our bodies or with out emotions. Yet, the reliance of civilizations on tight-knit packages of reality–well constructed, socially unified niches–gave many strong cultural survival systems. In our time what has been called the “obsessional monotheism” of the later Middle Age birthed the scientific miracle with the systematic exploitation of our grand niche by excluding human investments in the environment and with the pushing of symbiotic relationships heavily towards the objects’ side.

“The medieval sense of God’s symbolic presence in his creation, and the sense of a universe replete with transcendent meanings and hints, had to recede if not to give way totally to the postulates of univocation and homogeneity in the seventeenth century....

“All of them [seventeenth century philosophers and scientists] and most of the others believed that the subjects of theology and science alike can be absolutely de-metaphorized and de-symbolized.” Funkenstein, Amos. Theology and the Scientific Imagination From the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century. Princeton University Press. 1986. p. 116.

This turn away from the huge symbiotic traffic enlacing humans and non-humans has obscured knowledge’s naturalist roots–its origins as behavior and as adaptations. And, it has rendered those of us living in that part of modern culture bathed in cognitive purity oddly out of place in our bodies and our emotional connections to others or “in our heads.”

Now, it is time to reclaim the wealth of connections enlacing the objects of the world if we are to be able to understand the milieu in which our consciousness works. On this level my suggestion to you is to simply note, as did John Dewey and the Pragmatists (Terry, I hesitate to say that Peirce should be included here), that reality includes not only material objects but also a tremendous panoply of opinions, perceptions, patterns, habits, motivations, dependencies, memories, traditions and so forth. Rightness or wrongness are irrelevant in the context of existence and effects. No one speaks of adaptations as “wrong.” If anything, “rightness” is an invitation to a better adaptation. This web of adaptations simply is, and its existence has effects. Being known has effects. This should be obvious long before quantum theory proved it. One’s favorite vacation getaway destination is this year’s tourist mecca and next year’s ripoff.

Many disparate, simple categories such as social status, culture, spin doctoring, sociability, reputation, ideology or beliefs could better be understood as aspects or effects of symbiotic relationships or at least could be translated into one medium. The following make a suggestive list. Attachments or beliefs are strongly held symbioses while truth has attained the status of a very successful fit. Many attachments together or love, passion and emotionality reveal deep or flowing connections in the web of relationships. Culture, ideology or myth show pockets or clusters of preferred symbioses. Identity is a pattern of cooperation while status and authority give a sense of the strength of someone’s pattern of cooperation. Sign, word or association is a symbiosis between two other symbioses, usually a part for a whole such as a gesture to mimic digging; it is the same interdependent relationship as the stick for digging tubers. Translating, double speak and spin doctoring are the placing of events in different symbiotic clusters.

On the negative side, continued belief in an unequivocal objective reality is generating more problems today than solutions which is clear to any modern Rip Van Winkle who drowsily awakes from an education to turn on a television. With new media, huge informational transfer capabilities, dispersed and widespread research, travel and the dispersion of control of graphics the effects pulling “facts” into new symbiotic clusters are growing. Naively or manipulatively claiming the truth authority of facts is more often only an addition to the cacophony of new clusters of beliefs. As hybridized collections of ideologies, facts, power and media continue to grow into a hypertext-type ecology, civil society’s ability to have discourse will continue to decay under the old rules of an unequivocal, materialist-grounded reality. It’s a mad garden of information with balkanized discourses, quickly discarded facts, fiefdoms of expertise and power-disguised-as-truth political charades out there.

“General knowledge, I argue, is a dubious ideal even for specialists inside their own fields. As subject matters grow in complexity, their literatures grow unmanageable; too big and too interdependent with further literatures. Organizational complexity precludes breadth of vision. Complex fields aren’t single conversations to which one can rationally acquiesce; their innards aren’t fully transparent. Competence comes with focus. It waxes in microcosm and wanes in macrocosm. It multiplies specialties and narrows their focus. And general knowledge is doubly dubious seen as a field-spanning wisdom. It ignores the division of labor needed for decision-making in a complex society. There are too many knowledge claims in the world. No rational person would try to evaluate each one comprehensively. Public problems cross many field boundaries, but individual expertise can cross only a few, and so complex decision-making is surrounded by a penumbra of unintelligible communication.” Willard, Charles Arthur. Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy. University of Chicago Press. 1996. p. 19.

The current debate in epistemology features a strong wave of constructivism showing how minds irreducibly enlist perceptual evidence to think how they want in distinction to objectivism which holds that we must fight our innate fantastical proclivities to observe pure evidence. In the current climate this insight only weakens knowledge claims as relativists joust ever more haphazardly with dogmatists. It is fairly clear that our minds are both/and–both constructive and objective. The framework of symbiotic reality clearly acknowledges the constructive-objective dual aspect and gives a way to begin rebuilding our personal and intellectual knowledge commons. Like other emergences that are wholes from one angle and parts from another, reality is constructivist from above and objectivist from below. But never is there a pure separation of these poles. Another way to put it is that the old adage of “the map is not the territory” (allegedly from the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski) is illogical and outdated. We have nothing but maps; pure “territory” will never be seen. The statement only makes sense if one person says that her map is better than another’s. The naivete of the existence of a “territory” beyond our interactiveness is well put here in ridiculing how truth is presumed to be non-social:

"The widespread assumption is that truth is determined by reality; a statement is true because it meets the criteria of truth, not because of any other reason. If truth is socially determined, then it cannot be determined by truth itself. This is like saying that one sees things accurately only if one sees without eyeballs, as if knowing must take place without any human apparatus for knowing."

"If a brain flickers and brightens with statements which are true, this happens only because that brain is pulsing in connection with the past and anticipated future of a social network. Truth arises in social networks; it could not possibly arise anywhere else." Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1998. p. 877.

There is no choice but to learn to live and think within our knowledge ecology. And this brings us back to Esalen and to cultural currents like the Human Potential Movement. One easy characterization of these trends is a movement away from being lost in intellect, “in the head.” Individuals are turning to the body, to the emotions and to Eastern practices to attempt an experiential release from overload. People are recognizing the Buddhist concept of attachments within their every thought. Groups are relearning relationships based on feelings, adaptable roles and identity fluidity. Beliefs and language are examined from how they serve relationships or do not. The body, its relaxation and its expression are used to shape living rather than abstract beliefs. Therapy is largely the experience of closeting off “outside reality” temporarily in order to experience one’s own emotional sense. Reframed, one could make the claim that the knowledge symbiosis is out of balance to the objective side. All this is happening in a proliferation of ad hoc experiential therapies without any intellectual umbrella. In fact there is probably an aversion and a distrust of intellectual umbrellas. Sadly, the reaction is against all external mental life. This is no doubt reflected in the chasm between the community of Esalen and our Conference dialogue. What the symbiotic reality conjecture offers practically is that it switches our frames from action on reality (“Be sure and get it right.”) to movement within one’s own actual field while paying attention to agreements. It’s the dream of meeting in embedded bodies while taking excursions in heavenly ideas; the Socrates-inspired dream of omniscience is finally untenable. As Aristotle cautioned long ago about thought independent of body:

"A further problem presented by the affections of soul is this: are they all affections of the complex of body and soul, or is there any one among them peculiar to the soul by itself? To determine this is indispensable but difficult. If we consider the majority of them, there seems to be no case in which the soul can act or be acted upon without involving the body, e.g., anger, courage, appetite, and sensation generally. Thinking seems the most probable exception; but if this too proves to be a form of imagination or to be impossible without imagination, it too requires a body as a condition of its existence." Aristotle. Psychology. c. 350 B.C., translated by J.A. Smith, from Book I, The Pocket Aristotle. Washington Square Press. 1958. pp. 50, 52.

Each of us comes to the Conference with cognitive autonomy in a tradition in which there is only determinism. The study of consciousness can only flip chaotically between the first person and the third person point of view. Without a concept like symbiotic reality either the first person (autonomy) or the third person (determinism) view is consistent only within its respective attractor basin. We at Esalen and the Human Potential movement explore healthy living in a first person way while we at the Conference speak from the observational, third person side of the hall. The conjecture of symbiotic reality cuts this chasm between first and third person views by stating that all of the following are true: 1) all knowing is a first person adaptation 2) best adaptive fits to external conditions are possible, i.e. one can speak hypothetically in the third person and 3) multiple agreement of first person adaptations are evidence that the best fit hypothetical third person view has been approximately found.

This brings me to my own motivation for trying to come to terms with knowledge and reality. Simply put, I experience an ongoing disjunction between the emotional ecology of engaging with others and the removed purity of the house of intellect. My coming-of-age values were inspired from Africa where dancing with emotions sculpted all activities. I am loathe to give up either intellect or bringing intelligent therapeutic values into society–which should better be called by one of the old names, rhetoric, soul or love. To give up intellect and choose only the soul of emotional health is to support a lazy, careless, anything-goes relativism. To give up expanding into soul and rhetoric is to become a dispirited “expert” whining into increasing irrelevance.

A concept of reality infused with interests offers to me the prospect of cutting this bind opposing embodied living and critical thinking. An appreciation of the external effects of interdependence with the world is a direction to pursue which cuts the current mad proliferation into cultural confusion while upholding a well-etched objective reality. To make the simple statement to others that I believe that we co-create our worlds in adaptable arrangements with others is to neither claim authority nor irresponsible construction but to own the specific attachments with which I can enter into dialogue. It invites accountability as well as learning from our bodies, from our intuitive hunches and prejudices. And this, Terry, is what brings life–speaking from within our convictions and our experience. It is said that Native Americans only have the epistemological categories of different kinds of experience such as personal or hearsay. Abstractness is a powerful but dangerous god.

Dualism is another (dangerous god). In painting a picture for your imagination of reality as an inseparable bio-physical symbiosis it would be helpful to show how this framework goes far enough to take our concepts into an intellectual attractor basin that escapes the continually problematic attractor basin of dualism. My claim is that if consciousness frames our search towards a post-Darwinian synthesis, then this search is still couched in dualism. The separation of knower from known, the heroic agency of humans on the grand plain of a well defined environment, the use of the concepts of representation and language as substitutions for something separate, a biology still framed in individuals such as organisms and species placed discretely in environments with an immature ecology, a bias to figure over ground–these are all parts of a dualistic mindset, an intellectual ecology of humans as superior beings with our privileged object and natural allies within a relatively passive sphere of nature.

This dualistic intellectual attractor is a roadblock to a new synthesis. Separateness and irreconcilability remain the order of the day. The framework of symbiotic reality moves with the zeitgeist of interactive processes and coevolution to jump ahead and explore whether reality itself is an interactive process. Throwing away the separation of knower and known with the gratuitous assumption that the space between the two is a philosophical viewer’s paradise, symbiotic reality claims that myriad object behaviors by organisms have woven a manifold of relevance in which both space and objects are continually recruited. Consciousness is the experience of being present in our woven portion of the manifold of relationships. There is no imaginary and separate “self” here, no self that is contradictorily ubiquitous in its knowing and nowhere in its location as in its dualistic inheritance. Instead we can speak of a self that is finitely distributed and uniquely composed with the specific relationships, cares, memories, predilections for each one of us at some specific time. This is the kind of self that is moving into what William Thompson describes as the era of “planetization” with its hypertext culture and its “emergent ecology of selves.” (Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness. St. Martin’s. 1998.) It is also the kind of self that is prepared to choose direct experience in going back and forth from the subjective to the objective:

“In this view the subjective and objective poles of the continuum are vacuous. There is no way to justify the assertion that anything posited is purely objective or purely subjective. The world of human experience consists of a fusion of both elements, or better said, a primordial nonduality of those elements. Similarly, the ‘fact that a truth is toward the ‘conventional’ end of the convention-fact continuum does not mean that it is absolutely conventional–a truth by stipulation, free of every element of fact.’ This assertion by no means implies that such dualistic notions as subject and object are useless. On the contrary, they point out a practical distinction that is of great importance; but this distinction is only functional, not ontological as understood by the traditional dualism of scientific materialism.” B. Alan Wallace. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford University Press. 2000. p. 64. [subquote is Hilary Putnam, Representation and Reality. MIT Press. 1988. p. 113]

My contentions are that reality as a biological-physical symbiosis or as a subject-object symbiosis is a monistic ontology and that we as bodies and as subjects are built into these webs of relevance that we have spun.

My imaginative challenge to you to entertain the notion of reality as itself a biological creation might seem extreme. Surely you might think, it is easier to go along either accepting a whiff of subjective “corruption” in our knowing or continue to try to minimize it. It is worth reminding you (even if dangerously grandiosely) that analogously space itself was originally considered by physics to be absolutely given as a frame until it was proved to be a relative phenomenon dependent on the distribution of mass-energy. Like the curvature of space the web-framed partnerships that frame the society of real categories cannot always be idealized away as givens independent of ourselves. Physics had to realize that space was a relativistic feature of mass-energy; cognition will probably have to realize that reality is a feature of relationships.

Hopefully, my suggestive idea offers some imaginative food to you. In this information-rich intellectual ecology of ours that is in search of a robust new paradigm, new clusters of ideas or even sparks can come from completely surprising sources. That reality is a phenomenon formed from biology with its own environment is the bold way to understand the continuity of cognitive evolution, to thoroughly leave dualism, to have a non-simplistic cultural environment where “true reality” is incommensurate with our actual relational richness and to end the absurdly non-ending constructivist-objectivist debate. It’s both.

In framing this argument to you fellow participants at the Evolution and Consciousness Conference where the focus is on the symbiotic mechanism between us and reality, I would like to end with a wider suggestion to those at Esalen and in the wider Human Potential Movement. It is that, regardless of how these largely scientific arguments about the nature of reality and consciousness turn out, the focus on the meaning in our environments and between us is a powerful source of understanding all sorts of spiritual, emotional, cultural and even “paranormal” aspects. The meaning layer formed as the total of everyone’s and every creature’s meanings, needs, connections and so on is a large, unexamined arena that is neither external objective reality nor internal psychological reality and that is neither transcendent spirituality outside space-time nor some odd quantum field effect. The meaning ecology, Bateson’s “ecology of mind,” is huge, is all around us, is an all pervasive overlay on the matter world and is the locus of most of our interpersonal world such as expectations and projections. And this meaning ecology is not at all just mental; the emotional and bodily relations are completely intermixed. Coming to understand life in the meaning ecology offers a strong alternative to Western conquest and Eastern retreat–I believe.

There has never been any separation in the world; we have only stormed the heavenly vistas too strongly so that we forgot our humble, embedded ties to our local ecologies. I now let go of this symbiotic, creative activity, breathing and desirous to give this paper to enter into deeper relationship with you.

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