The view from trends
in the biological sciences is that life is characterized by networks and
that life is environmentally coupled. Research in the nature of the mind
shows similar trends – prevalence of networks and the coupling of the mind
extended through the body and out among the features of the environment.
This is especially so when we consider all the factors present at any
given moment. Last weekend I was out in the back yard digging a hole for a
fence post so that Leyla (our fox-like rescue dog from Taiwan) could use
the back yard safely. In digging, I am part of a network that includes the
wire to attach to the fence, the completed fence, the purpose of the fence
including its relationships to other structures, the post hole diggers,
the subsoil conditions like roots, the post for the hole, the gate that
will soon be needed, the change to the wandering habits of the
neighborhood racoons, my past training in digging, my desire for physical
exercise, my aesthetic memory of a fence, my desire to match the
neighborhood building standards, the other things on my to-do lists while
I am digging, and a much longer list of mostly less important factors.
Life is multi-causal; networks make this explicit.
Whether we are building a fence or writing or reading, if we look around
and attend to the different parts of the goal, the various challenges to
deal with, the many interrupting details, the many tools and assumptions
that we take for granted, then the shape of our lives as lived resembles
networks distributed across an environment. The shovel might be a
supportive part of the network; the necessity of running an errand or the
interruption of a root in the fence post hole might obstruct parts of the
network. A neighbor can show up and offer advice which might transform the
whole network into a new growth pattern. Or, I might remember that Pamela
is very near the store where I have to do the errand so that I can call
her for help thereby bringing the memory of my wife’s activity into the
current network in a helpful way.
The networks of our daily life have strong relationships and weak
relationships. There are helpful relationships in these networks and
obstructing relationships. Some relationships are constant factors and
others recede into the background with time. It is useful to consider the
episodic relationships of our lives as networks because the factors
combine in multiple ways, because the factors have various relationships
among themselves as well as to us, and because factors from the mind’s own
network of memories, associations, and perceptions can also be included.
Life is multi-causal; networks make this explicit.
But to say that “I am part of a network ...” misses some of the thrust of
what the biological and mind research studies are saying. From that point
of view I should say that I am my environmentally coupled networks. I am
the network that holds together my car, my desk, my wife, my clothes, my
future fence, my job, my memory of reading Camus, my support for my
favorite sports team, and so on. A biological view pictures me, a person,
as an organism that shifts through different states of its environmental
networks like the cloud or bubble being blown across a pond. I, the
environmentally coupled human, am in my hole-digging activity state, my
writing state, my driving-to-work state, etc. Life goes on as I bend to my
networks and as I regrow the tentacled relationships of my networks.
This view of life, then, nudges us to consider ourselves not as geniuses
caught in bags of skin but as organisms extended out and coupled to our
environments. Organisms all have relations with the environment, and we
humans are especially relationally dense. Just as simple organisms might
shift between feeding and sleeping regimes, we shift more quickly through
a larger variety of states. And just as the mind studies found the locus
of mind to be well beyond the body, we are nudged to consider ourselves as
composed of the network of all our relationships.
The redwood tree by the new fence in the yard might be just a redwood tree
in a universalizing frame of reference, but from this bio-inspired point
of view it is part of me as a relationship in my network of relationships.
I move through life as an organism protecting the important relationships
of my existence as I let this redwood tree slide in and out of relevance
to my other relationships while pruning or watering it to the tastes of
our combined being. While not symbiotic, we are coupled. And now the
redwood tree is coupled to this book. In the network that is this book the
redwood tree in my back yard is now a node of meaning, a character.
I am all that I know, love, use, remember, care about, protect, and depend
upon; I am all my relations.
Now, these considerations stemming from biological and mind research are
allowing a picture of a human being that is quite different from the
traditional picture of an individual human with a body and an intellect.
Instead, a new picture has emerged of a human being as a “body” that
includes substantial portions of his or her environment including the
other people of his or her environment. That’s right; this excursion into
academic trends has led to a possible conclusion that each of us is a
combination of our skin and bones, the people we know, the clothes we
wear, the houses and cars we live in, and all the familiar items of our
The difference between this view and the old view is dramatic. The old
view had the human organism-agent on the one side against the environment
where the connection was made by free-will-type “choices” to do activities
or to have and to create possessions. The miracle of deciding joins us as
things to the manipulatable things of the environment. In the new view the
human organism and its activities and possessions are a whole held
together by a network of relationships varying in intensity, emotionality,
and number of linkages to needs and other things. Like the spider
inseparable from its sack, we are joined in various degrees of neediness
and concern to all the accoutrements of our existence. The old view has us
as little masters of the universe in each moment; the new view moves us to
the flow of always changing relationships.
What does this relationally dense and environmentally coupled organism
hypothesis give us? For one thing it portrays human activity with the
living and unliving things around it as a body doing the things that
bodies do like staying healthy, regulating itself, growing, taking in
matter and energy, getting rid of waste, going through developmental
phases, responding to or incorporating external surprises, and so on.
Cleaning the house, keeping the rent paid and the heat running, putting in
a new house addition, bringing in groceries, keeping the sewer line
running, going from new house to mature house, repairing the roof after a
storm – a human-house coupling moves with many of the dynamics as
organisms. The relationally dense and environmentally coupled organism
hypothesis does not portray humans as magical supermen sprung from matter
to pretend to God’s-eye-view observations from whence to be capable of
fully autonomous action.
The human-activity-as-body view emphasizes the concert of interaction, the
constraints of familiar things to our actions, the constraining aspect on
reality of our wants, styles of activity like play or reverence, the
harmonies of all parts of our extended bodies from aesthetics to physical
exercise, and in short, the play of our lives lived in myriad
relationships. The old, traditional human view as knowing agent of free
will emphasizes an exalted arbitrary-like freedom in all actions, a
schizophrenic view where humans are variously completely free of or
completely determined by aspects of their environment, and an illusional
view where actions are always autonomous from everything and everyone
around us. In effect we have inherited a slightly ludicrous but formerly
presumptuous view of ourselves as separate things with the separated
magical powers of observational clarity and independent will. We have
inherited an impossibly naive and irreconcilable view of ourselves as the
action figures of our own lives.
It is this independent, heroic agent view of humans that has long outlived
its simplifying cultural usefulness and that now pulls our increasingly
interconnected world into millions of isolated, annoyed talking heads who
occasionally just go ballistic. It is wrong and confusing. And it prevents
us from fully participating in one of the greatest evolutionary
transitions of all times as the relational perimeters of millions of
humans have multiplied through our media technology to help the
environment itself become a hyperlinked, relational network.
Notes to this essay