Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

"Independent Agents Acting to Find a New Pattern":
Re-Writing Descartes From an Emergent Perspective

Story Evolution

A dialogue following on Grobstein's
Writing Descartes ...

Wendell Berry, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer"

Anne Dalke (who co-ordinates the Bryn Mawr Feminist and Gender Studies Program and has, not incidentally, been married for 32 years), and Wil Franklin (a Bryn Mawr Biology Lab Instructor who, not incidentally, just got married) have been talking a lot this summer about....

marriage (a.k.a. embeddedness, separateness, closing doors, opening them...) and--
somewhat surprisingly to them both (but clear extensions of three Center Working Groups
in which they've both participated)--Emergence, Information and Diversity....

Perhaps others would care to listen in?
And join the conversation?

It all started when Wil arrived at an Information meeting one morning, and--in response to Anne's questions about his tan--said that he'd just returned from his honeymoon, and was very happy to be married: "It was like finally closing some doors, which probably had nothing behind them anyway...."

This response amused Anne, who's been repeatedly on public record as being heavily invested in open fields/open systems (see, for instance, one discussion about Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and another about the tensions between private systems and public interests in The Political Practice of the Sys-Admin). So she offered Wil, as response and commentary to his observation, a poem called "Air and Fire," by the poet-farmer Wendell Berry:

From my wife and household and fields
that I have so carefully come to in my time
I enter the craziness of travel,
the reckless elements of air and fire.
Having risen up from my native land,
I find myself smiled at by beautiful women,
making me long for a whole life
to devote to each one, making love to her
in some house, in some way of sleeping
and waking I would make only for her.
And all over the country I find myself
falling in love with houses, woods, and farms
that I will never set foot in.
My eyes go wandering through America,
two wayfaring brothers, resting in silence
against the forbidden gates. O what if
an angel came to me, and said,
'Go free from what you have done. Take
what you want.' The atoms of the blood
and brain and bone strain apart
at the thought. What I am is the way home.
Like rest after a sleepless night
my old love comes on me in midair.

From Wendell Berry. Farming: A Handbook.
New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970.
Reproduced at Doug Pierce,
Freedom and the Claims of Significance
(April 30, 1991).

Anne also referred/invited Wil into two dialogues about marriage (among other things...) already in progress: Traveling Beyond Fusion and Embeddedness and The Dancing Bear Will Dance No More. Wil responded in kind, with another passage by Wendell Berry, which was read @ his wedding, and the commentary,

Thanks Anne. It seems this poem could be "embedded" directly into the linked dialogues. I am very interested in the idea of: one, but separate. Seems to me a little "emergent" too - many independent agents interacting to form a new pattern .... a marriage? (Just as a side note, if I ever leave Bryn Mawr, it's because my wife decided to take her "dancing bear" out of the suburbs.)

The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words. We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word. And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to one another we join ourselves to the unknown. We can join one another only by joining the unknown. We must not be misled by the procedures of experimental thought: in life, in the world, we are never given two known results to choose between, but only one result: that we choose without knowing what it is.

Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you and marriage, time, life, history, and the world will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.

Wendell Barry, from Poetry and Marriage.

This is where, in Anne's view, things started to get really interesting: Berry's claim--that in life, we are never given two known results to choose between, but only one, that of chosing without knowing--put her strongly in mind of both of long-running conversations in the Graduate Idea Forum about the practice of pragmatism (making a decision without having--because one can never have--all the relevant/complete information) and more recent conversations in the Working Group on Information, where the limits of formal axiomatic systems--of classical logic in general, with its emphasis on either/or, yes/no, off/on, 0/1 choices--had run head-long into probability theory....

...and where acknowledging the complexities of life which do not admit of "either/or" choices had (among other things, but certainly for her) challenged the usefulness of those sorts of very clarifying systems where the only options are binary. Rather than turning, as Berry does above, to the reality "of one result," the Information Group went exploring (most insistently in the most recent exchange between Alan Baker and Paul Grobstein) into those areas where the more interesting questions lie, where neither one or two will do...

...and where information is best understood as relational: not a PROPERTY, but an ACTION; not something that IS, but something that DOES. (Hm: wonder what Descartes would say to that notion? That what is not doubtable is not the thing that thinks, the self, but that something happens when selves interact....?) When Al gave his talk in the Information group earlier this summer, he recommended a book by H. Stapp called The Mindful Universe (2004). In her usual vacuuming manner, Anne gulped it up:

The claim, basically is that the "peculiar sundering of nature" accomplished by René Descartes, who conceived "nature to be built out of two sorts of substances: 'matter,' which was located in and occupied space, and the 'mental stuff' that our ideas, thoughts, sensations, feelings and efforts are made of, was abandoned by physicists during the twentieth century." Stapp reviews both the Copenhagen interpretation (the fundamental and revolutionary way in which the founders of quantum mechanics brought conscious human experiences into basic physical theory--per Bohr, recognizing that "in the drama of existence, we ourselves are both actors and spectators") --and Einstein's struggle, til the end of his life, to "get the observer's knowlege back out of physics."

I would posit that information is a process of recording and decoding (see Franklin/Grobstein on Writing Descartes), but in and of itself is not "real", in the sense that information does not interact with other agents. Rather, it is what I would call an emergent property of the interactions between agents that can record and decode. An agent being any form of matter/energy that "IS", and capital "IS" means any "thing" outside of self that can affect change. And self is because it can affect change in itself. (See below and again the dialogue between Franklin/Grobstein). In short, the concept "I" other than "non-I," is possible through interactions with "non-I" agents and the ability to record/code changes within "me". In other words, I am (a starting point for knowing) because I interact and can record those interactions--I exist, because other agents affect change within me. Hence, agents DO and information is what I would call the currency that is exchanged among agents engaged in coding and decoding.

A puzzling question just occurred to me. Are all interactions an exchange of information? An interaction would have to be defined as a phenomenon between two agents that results in a change in one or more of the agents, and thus, information is what drives the change? In this sense, information is similar to a force?...but only a force that works on a coding/decoding agent. Is an interaction an interaction if it does not affect change? I think not under my current understanding of interaction.

I'm hearing again strong echoes of the current understanding of the Information Group: that information, to a human story-teller, is something that changes in a story the degree of uncertainty about something .... There is no "information" unless there is such a change (information is not an intrinsic property of anything; it is fundamentally relational).

It follows then, if I interact with a rock, information in unidirectional. However, if I climb a tree, it codes and decode (senses) oils I have left behind and I have changed (not the least because I was "thinking" about the tree). What about the idea of a tree? What if I am mentally climbing a tree? That too is causing a change in me. It seems by my definition, I have passed information to myself, I have interacted with myself and I have changed myself. Yes, I am OK with all this so far and I suppose I agree with the Copenhagen interpretation (quantum interpretation) of the physicality of thought. Furthermore, I would have to agree with your pontifications that "That what is not doubtable is not the thing that thinks, the self, but that something happens when selves interact....?"

I speak with humble questioning, and....am heard as pontificating. There IS a problem with the process of "interaction" (=tone/translation/reception) here....

So, Wil, armed with (or: in the company of? stepping off from?) Stapp, and Bohr, and Einstein...I've got a couple of more questions for you, if you want to bite. I'm wondering

1) if you see a connection/disjunction/interesting relation between Berry's observations about committing "your life to a way...not knowing what it is we choose," and what you talk about in Inquiry Based Approaches to Science Education: Theory and Practice: beginning with open-ended questions, taking a risk with expected outcomes...

Let me have a go...

One connection I see in both is the relinquishing of power, the trusting in your partner (spouse or students), and the risk that follows from relinquishing power and giving over to trust. In addition, both seem to be a healthy practice in skepticism and if achieved lead to continual discovery and growth.

2) if you see a connection/disjunction/interesting relation between Berry's observations about committing "your life to a way...not knowing what it is we choose," and what you talked about in the Discussion about Religious Diversity last spring: about how an atheist (who takes as certain 3 laws about the preservation of energy, the increase of entropy, and the equal and opposite reaction to every action) derives therefrom a (very compelling, to me @ least) morality that encompasses both forgiveness and responsibility....

I see a link in so far as by choosing a way/process of marriage, rather than a specific set of goals/tenets/vows one is more open to discovery and growth just as the mystics know that morality is contextual, not written in stone (the ten commandments not withstanding).

3) and how you think this all fits with (what you know of/what you find useful in) Descartes' legacy? (I've got a little more fuel, here, for this particular grist mill, from reading something Descartes said when he "spoke for himself" in the forum on "I am, and I think, therefore...."):

I bethought me to inquire whence I had learnt to think of something more perfect than myself; and it was clear to me that this must come from some nature which was in fact more perfect. For other things I could regard as dependencies of my nature if they were real, and if they were not real they might proceed from nothing--that is to say, they might exist in me by way of defect.

But it could not be the same with the idea of a being more perfect than my own; for to derive it from nothing was manifestly impossible; and because it is no less repugnant that the more perfect should follow and depend upon the less perfect than that something should come forth out of nothing. I could not derive it from myself.

I thought, reading this (what I expect you are thinking right now?): that this guy was NOT an emergent thinker a'tall. He was looking for "top-down" explanations, didn't believe/wouldn't trust in anything complex emerging from the interactions of simple agents who didn't understand the larger picture.

Most of my answer to this question is addressed above in my response to information. To clarify, I think you intimated correctly that Descartes falls short because he does not see how small interacting agents can engender complex properties and patterns on a new scale. If he did, he would be fine with the notion of God as everywhere, in everything and not require the "top-down" rationalization of human conscious as a subset of the Perfect GOD. If he believed in emergence, than it is perfectly congruent to believe human consciousness "emerges" from the interactions of tiny independent pieces of GOD.

What I'm unsure about is which way Berry, with his "unconditional giving," is swinging....

What exactly is unconditional giving? I like the sound of it. Unconditional LOVE--tomes and tomes, but my favorite is Neruda, Love and Erotica. But giving seems to be more manageable.

Last summer, I read a collection of essays called The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity, edited by Alan Schrift. The central idea I picked up was from Marcel Mauss's landmark 1925 essay, "The Gift," which looks @ it as a social phenomenon governed by norms and obligations. Jacques Derrida steps off from this in "Given Time: 'Counterfeit Money,'" to say, provocatively, that "the gift is impossible": from the moment the transaction is recognized, it becomes weighted with obligation, and so no longer qualifies as [a] pure present....

So I've been thinking about whether an unconditional gift/unconditional giving is actually possible--an act has NO expectation of return (even of gratitude): a gift that you give freely, that you don't resent (how often do we resent it, that someone else has enough excess bounty to give us a gift...?)

And whether these forums--where you write, not knowing whether there will be any return (I've heard lots of complaints from students who post, get discouraged because no one responds)--could be that sort of unconditional gift?

As for unconditional giving - maybe my pain comes from the sad truth that we cannot give unconditionally. Maybe I would feel hopeful if I could give unconditionally? Maybe I should not expect my values to be given back in return.

But now a question for you. As I have much less familiarity with Wendell Berry, I pose your question back to you. Which way does he swing? I would like to think that all of what I have posed follows directly from his "your life to a way."

I like Wendell Berry because (I think, and to answer my own question) he actually swings both ways, covers the spectrum, speaks to the two poles of my own desires: a known place (a place of safety), an unknown place (a place of exploration). On the one hand, he upholds The Agrarian Standard, in the tradition of the Old South, the tradition in which I was raised: he thinks folks should still be making bread, tilling the land, not using computers (as per my low blow in the top right-hand of this page....).

I said "no" to much of that thirty-some years ago, when I crossed the Mason-Dixon line, left the rural south for the urban north. But some of what I learned as a child is still very powerful for me: the cussed individualism of the rural farmer, the refusal to turn a quick profit, the belief that it is wise to (as Berry says in Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front),

Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest....

Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

All of that sounds exploratory/emergent to me. Berry's vision is often dismissed as a kind of nostalgic longing for a rural 19th century ideal; but as he explains in Field Observations, he's envisioning NOT the sort of community I grew up in (xenophobic, stranger-hating), but rather one that hasn't existed yet: "a good community has to imagine the strangers that come to it; it has to imagine its misfits and its enemies...."

It hurts me to think of the good community. If we can change, because we think, as per Grobstein, why is there only fomenting, and no engendering? Too few of us thinking, I suppose, but am happier to live in denial than accept that.

I don't get it...what's the hurt? Why no engendering?

The idea of a "good community" pains me, because WE seem so far from it. There are islands of it, but they are so strangled and overwhelmed amid the tide of the valueless hordes that the "good" is mostly potential, not action. I know that sounds very cynical, borderline anti-social, but when I stop to think about what our current destructive values are doing to our planet and future I am saddened. Is this not the call of skeptics throughout the ages? Maybe I am just afraid of change? ...God forbid that's the case.

What I like about Wendell Berry is that he's got strong roots AND he's open to possibility. There are a number of wonderful spots where his poetry evokes this openness. See, for instance, this bit from Testament (in which he speaks to those who may mourn his death):

Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure

Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves.

So, Wil, of course I'm quite curious about your responses to this "re-reading" (-writing?)....which way do you swing?

Just for the record, my closed doors or
"...beautiful women,
making me long for a whole life
to devote to each one,"
is a metaphor for alternative careers and places to live or so I would like to think.

Just for the record? I don't know what mine are.
Nor (for the record) what the open ones are, either....

Thank you for all this. Tons of fun.

You said it. And where (in all these webbed pages) are the words about the important role that a sense of humor plays in "Thinking and Being"....? (From Berry's Manifesto again):

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.

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