Tag: Paul Taylor

Biodiverse Clusters and Energy Flows


This is an effort to explain how ‘naturally biodiverse clusters’ might be understood. I know I’ve just written a post on entitled ‘NBCs’ but bear with me. There’s more to say before we can get into useful discussion (all writing is information exchange, after all, isn’t it?). Firstly, consider how naturally biodiverse clusters are in constant flux, cells altering and repairing, microbes entering, interacting, air, food, liquid, passing in, through, releasing energy (and toxins), information being exchanged, dissipation of energy through heat, activity, and so on. This is much more accurate than considering ourselves as solid and regularly ordered structures. There is order, in the sense that there are describable laws of nature which give some predictability to events (though this predictability is somewhat thrown to the winds of chance by quantum mechanics) and there is organisation. We could say that this organisation is stable, in the sense that some kind of equilibrium exists, rather in the same vein as, when we are running, we are in an almost permanent state of controlled falling.

Over extended periods of time, NBCs (it’s a poor joke. Forgive me) tip from state to state. Tim Morton claims that living organisms are seeking equilbrium, and this accords with my interpretation: we are driven by thermodynamic laws to seek to return to the relative inertia of non-living existence. (This reminds me of a wonderful passage in the film, Withnail and I, when the incredible Withnail, attempting to dodge young female pedestrians, shouts, “they THROW themselves into the road!” But I digress…).

As the larger situation – the mean temperature, water quality and so on – shifts, foundational organisms – microbes and the like – that have survived so long precisely by being simple and thus adaptable, may manage to survive. Those parts of the cluster that are more complex and that cannot tolerate the shift in number or condition of their codependent microbial community are simply sloughed off. While it is unlikely that our species will become entirely extinct, the directional thrust is for the complex biodiversity that has sustained us to recede again into simplicity. If we choose to conceive of ourselves as the ultimate manipulators, then it is in our interests to consider what kind of manipulation this could be. If we must preserve a certain amount of organisation in order to preserve ourselves, we must discover what aspects of our NBCs benefit us, and what, in turn, benefit them. This is the ultimate update of the golden rule: ensure the continuance of the cluster in order for that our own continuance be sustained by it.

Since NBCs operate along variably stable parameters, some of which (absorption of carbon dioxide, generation of energy systems) benefit humans, it makes sense to protect those systems that are most fundamental to our own survival. We, as complex organisms, are in a precariously fragile position. We are latecomers to a population of living species very few of which are dependent on our survival for their own. Doing as we would be done by in relation to the rest of our NBC is a one-sided bargain, and entirely self-interested. Entirely self-interested acts are rarely describable as moral. This is not an ethic, then, but simple pragmatism.

If, as I have proposed in earlier writings, our degree of autonomy is not what we had thought, then the impact even of the biofeedback systems we generate when self-reflecting are certainly less predictable than we have led ourselves to believe to date. Even if we act to include the interests of naturally biodiverse clusters, there is no reason why humans, or indeed all living existence on the planet, might not nevertheless be shrugged off. If these acts are worth the effort we expend, then it is because we are open to the development of an attitude of respect that relies not on the outcome, but is enlightened practice.

Consciousness, intelligence and decision-making


‘we must decide how to live’ (Taylor: 48)

It is not indisputable either that humans ‘decide’ how to live in a way that is distinctive from other species, or even that humans ‘decide’ how to live in any meaningful way at all. In the first case, strong arguments have been made to show that a broad range of organisms make clear choices, and thus ‘decide’ in a way commensurate with our understanding of human ‘decision-making’.

Of course, it is clearer to us that humans decide than, say, that grass ‘decides’ which way to put out roots or shoots, but that may well be because we are human, and therefore human decisions (conscious as they are) have a particular resonance for us. Matthew Hall, Daniel Fouke and Charles Cockell, in a number of separately published and otherwise unrelated papers, all put forward strong arguments to suggest that organisms as apparently ‘simple’ as microbes (bacteria, fungi, and the like) or as structurally bounded as plants, nevertheless show clear signs of choosing through directional growth and other evidence ‘how to live’. There is evidence to suggest, for example, according to Hall, that a variety of species of plants clearly avoid directional growth which would lead the plant to encounter toxins, for instance, or other obstacles to growth. Hall goes so far as to label this level of agency “intelligence”, given that intelligent behaviour is, by his definition, behaviour which leads an organism to act to avoid certain harms (the definition of a stupid action, so they say, is one that is conducted in the same way repeatedly, with the expectation of different results each time).

In the second case, while it is claimed that human agents are the only entities we know about which have the capacity to rationalise, and to recognise and reflect on their own good, this claim is also open to dispute. All we can legitimately say is that some, perhaps most, humans, reflect on their own actions, while the vast majority, but not all, other natural biological entities, do not. It seems likely that it is difference in degree, and not in kind, which separates our agency from that of other biological entities.

Taylor points out that our ability to deliberate consciously on what kind of life to lead sets us apart as a species. Consciousness might well be considered a part of Nature (see Philos-L 15 March 2010) but, as Berry argues, consciousness is effectively enculturated, and it is within the artifice of culture that consciousness gives us our responsive domain. Conscious humans, more or less alone amongst living agents, “give direction to their lives on the basis of their own values” (Taylor:33). But surely these values are derived from our cultural understandings of ourselves and how these, in the crucible of our individual moments of self-reflection, allow us to locate ourselves in the physical, biological domain? A culture, for instance, that embraces a recognition both of the cultural and of the natural human would consider that in acting harmfully towards natural biodiversity we are acting harmfully towards ourselves. This holistic attitude might be misinterpreted as implying that “harm” is avoidable. But harm is no more avoidable than pain, or suffering, when these are understood as experiences within our self-awareness. Simply to be aware, let alone to move, eat, grow, reproduce or sense, are all replete with opportunities for suffering, even as they are all processes of our own survival which depend, more or less, on limiting or arresting the survival or survivability of other living individual organisms. It is meaningless, surely, to suggest creating a culture that promotes the avoidance of harming Nature, since our own survival depends upon such harm. What is important is to recognise that the self-reflective feature of our own consciousness gives us the potential space to create biofeedback loops that anticipate and extend possible responses to include those which minimise this harm, even as they acknowledge that the excision of such harm, like the excision of pain from life, is impossible.

Moving the golden rule: from anthropocentrism to allocentrism


The view that we consider every living organism by virtue of its having what Paul Taylor called ‘a good of its own’ raises so many questions of practical implication, it is argued, that the view has largely been rejected altogether. Instead, the alternative – anthropocentrism – holds sway. We are self-interested and we can only consider interests that support or, at the very least, don’t undermine our own. This is the basis of the rule, “do as you would be done by,” the so-called Golden Rule that I discussed in yesterday’s post. Today I want to show how we can shift the focus, and shift the golden rule so that it really shines.

If biocentrism is the idea that we consider ourselves and others from the point of view of being living organisms, ecocentrism is the view that we consider the interests of communities of organisms. This is based on the idea that every community of living organisms and even the non living backdrop upon which that community is established and depends, systematically avoids annihilation as a central character of its identity. If human avoidance of annihilation is no different in character from the activity of any and all other systems and processes, then what basis have we to conclude that we take an interest only in our own avoidance strategies?

The crucial question here is, just how connected, and more, just how dependent, is the human process on the larger systems within which it is nested. More, if evolutionary biology has found that the modus of information transfer is exclusively DNA replication, then there is no inherent justification for considering interests beyond the human. Only if we can show that evolution proceeds using other processes than simple DNA transfer can we acknowledge that our evolutionary survival is dependent upon wider consideration of interests, and we need, therefore, to take them into account as a matter of self-interest.

Biocentrism, as I am sure you will recall, proposes that considering the interests of other entities (or, as I have suggested, clusters of, or closely correlated, entities – including information exchange between them) is supervenient upon a recognition that all entities are teleologically driven “ends in themselves”, to use Kant’s famous phrase. From cillia-driven microbes to climate-dependent rainforests, and including forward-planning humans, the common element among all these systems and processes is that they avert annihilation – not all knowingly, of course, but not mechanically, either – by responding and reacting to hold ground, to hold a space through which information can be exchanged. Information, in simple physical terms, is exchanged and energy is dissipated in the process. More complex, human informational exchange also dissipates energy (talk is cheap, but never free). Living systems are dynamic systems of energy that temporarily holds itself in patterns that dissipate and distribute more complex layers, wavelengths, combinations, than would be the case were they not there. Yet this does not imply that there was some grand plan to create life in order that this dissipation came about. Instead, we can imagine the beginning of this process as a chance event. Nothing designed life, yet life, especially as it occupies increasing numbers of niches, as organisms differ and relate in more and more complicated ways, becomes a distribution system for energy. Matter, a form of energy, cycles through processes of replication and reproduction and at every interaction, energy is redistributed from the solar flow, outwards.

If living things can be understood in this way, it is helpful to reconsider the character of avoidance of annihilation, of holding ground. DNA (and RNA) are the ultimate holding grounds, patterns of information that alter only slightly each generation. This stability fluctuates, however. It is dynamic and many factors interact to ensure that there is not only one way that a gene can be expressed. The relationships between organisms are an extremely important stratum of the process of information exchange of which DNA and RNA are elements. So which Dawkins et al are right, to the degree that they argue for the supremacy of the gene in transferring information along a time continuum, to play down other factors (virally derived RNA and its interaction with DNA in its phenotypic expression, for instance) is to lose sight of the complexity of the process.

Arguing for ecocentrism is difficult: there are no features of information exchange that correlate between entire communities of varied species. However, because communities of diverse species have evolved in parallel, and through exchanging information, influencing one another in the process, there are good reasons to believe that whole communities of interacting organisms are at least somewhat inter-reliant. And that, therefore, they need to be considered as wholes, and not just as single species.

James Lovelock famously suggested that communities, including the entire ecosphere, have processes that maintain its integrity. Evidence for this is controversial: reconciling this with evolutionary theory is not easy. However, it makes sense to consider both entities and relationships when deciding what interests are to be weighed in to a picture of how the human agent is to respond. Biocentrism, therefore, is somewhat incorporated within ecocentrism, on this view. We could call this bio-ecocentrism, but the word is ugly. More pleasing, and more accurate, is Ronnie Hawkins’ word: allocentrism. This is the idea that we view interests impartially, using our (humanly exclusive) empathetic imaginations to extend our rational understanding of what ecosystems and the species within them need for their functioning, and nesting human interests within the wider sphere.

I mentioned Stephen Jay Gould’s article on The Golden Rule yesterday. He made the point that we protect and preserve other species on the grounds that we are dependent on their continuing survival for our own, and that therefore we do to others as we would have done to ourselves. This, it seems to me, is inaccurate as a portrayal of the rule in question, because the minute we consider doing unto others what, in their situation, we would have done to ourselves, we require of ourselves that we step out of the values and benefits of being human, to a consideration of the values and benefits that accrue to other species, from their point of view, when particular conditions prevail.

Therefore I have challenged the contention that the golden rule is anthropocentric since it seems allocentric in every regard.

The golden rule has often been cited as the common ground on which is founded every religious system humans have ever invented. Recognising and putting the Other in one’s place is fundamental to acting with due consideration for Other interests. The reciprocal element (‘as you would be done by, if someone or something else was acting on you’) is at the heart of the debate about whether or not we evolved a ‘moral sense’. Yet this is nothing to do with morality, if we look more closely. The reciprocal relationship this rule characterises is entirely self-interested. It is the fundamental element of Game Theory: I act considerately; the Other acts considerately back.

That Other has, for most of human history, been confined to the consideration of members of our own species (a tiger doesn’t act considerately back, does it?) But this is based on the mistaken idea that restricting our thinking to other humans (or, more traditionally still, to humans within our clan or family) will ensure our survival. If we review the golden rule we can see that it must have evolved from conditional thinking: what if? What if the tiger is hungry? I will avoid the tiger, I will find a way of escaping it. Not, do as you would be done by, then, but do what you can to think like a tiger, in order that you maintain your integrity as a human being. There is a pragmatic imperative in shifting perspective. Our recognition that we are not the centre of the universe, that we are not alone in the struggle to avoid annihilation, and that therefore, supervenient upon that fact, we are not alone in meriting consideration when it comes to that avoidance, adds an extra dimension to the onus to view the world allocentrically. When we think like a tiger, we appreciate non-judgmentally the tiger’s motivations. We do not kill unless we have to kill. We appreciate the space that each of us needs to hunt, to maintain life. Where this becomes intolerably close (as in some Indian villages, or the Life of Pi), we think like a tiger in order to destroy it, or reduce it to manageable submission. When this is achieved without judgement, without invoking hatred or fear to justify the action, then we are thinking allocentrically, creating grounds for our own survival while working to minimise the unnecessary cost in energy dissipation to ourselves or the other.

The second reason anthropocentrists sometimes give for protecting the environment is that they see themselves as its custodians, or stewards. We can call this position, Stewardship, and amongst moral reasons for protecting the environment, it is undoubtedly the most accepted position at present. The problem with stewardship is that it assumes a) that we are in a unique position with regard to the environment, in the sense that we alone of all species have the capabilities to shape, manage and protect the rest of the living world. Certainly we have the capabilities, long proven, to shape and manage large tracts of the rest of the living world. However, we have yet to show ourselves adequate custodians – most of our management of the living world has taken the shape of reducing natural biodiversity, destroying natural ecosystems, introducing alien ecosystems, degrading the environment with pollutants and, arguably, changing the entire climate pattern with consequences for the survival of vast numbers and populations of species whose evolutionarily adaptive mechanisms simply are not capable of adjusting to the current rate of change. And b) that we are in a position to ‘know’ what is good for the rest of the living world when we are a mere blip on the surface of life and have very little idea of what, if anything, the meaning of existence, human or otherwise, actually is. To consider ourselves stewards, then, is to give ourselves credit both for a capability we have so far failed to show, and for a knowledge we simply don’t have. This undermines any attempt to shore our position up as something that deserves the label, Ethics. Instead, it is the advocation of humility in the face of our condition, that we are indeed natural clusters of organisms, and that we have, do and will destroy other clusters of organisms and relationships, sometimes consciously, sometimes without awareness. Reflecting on this is the only means we have of stirring different possible reactions to light: we can become conscious of some of the occasions when, before, we were unaware. We can examine the possibility of compassionate activity, of reducing the suffering that is created.

Agency and Responsibility: a shift in perspective


Is human agency, in some qualitative sense, different from the agency of other organisms? If it is, can we view the relationship between humans and other living systems from the perspective of agency? If we can, do we need to take more than one perspective, and also be prepared to view the relationship from the perspective of humans as living things, or even as simple elements (or relationships, energy flows, matter cycles) of a larger, more comprehensive whole (the universe, the planet, the ecosphere)?

Secondly, what kind of degree of agency might we, humans (or rather, persons), be said to have? How might we be said to be able to respond to the situation within which we find ourselves? We can wonder what we might be doing in three weeks’ time (and this seems a capacity unique to the species, or at least some members of it) and we feel as though we might be able to decide, to some degree, what we might do in three weeks time. However, can we really weigh up between plans? In anticipating, can we avoid?

Linked to this degree of agency is the notion that we have a certain amount of responsibility for our situation. If we have avoided the demise of our own species, for instance, it has been at the cost of biodiversity loss, pollution, species extinction, climate change and other human-induced changes to the biosphere. Yet much of this destruction has come about through either ignorance, or through an attitude which justified the exploitation of the environment as ‘other’.

What would it mean to respond from within a different framework to the one we now operate in? What would it mean to act in acknowledgement both of the constraints under which we operate (the realisation that natural laws apply to us just as firmly as they do to all other forms of existence) and of the ability we have to reflectively consider our situation, to the degree that this consideration itself emerges as a feedback process that influences which possibilities open as potential actions?

Paul Taylor’s thesis is a clear example of a fundamental quest for a re-examination1 of the origins of our attitudes. He addresses a major problem that continues to haunt the predominant cultural attitudes of the global North and, by extension, that dominates as an impetus for action globally: the vast majority of the values and beliefs held by human individuals still echo pre-Darwinian understandings of ourselves and our relationships with other living existence. Considering ourselves as agents whose agency lies in our self-awareness requires us radically to expand the framework of the scientific revolution, the ‘paradigm … of discrete, individual events obeying absolute, universal laws.’ (Alexander: 373)

Interestingly, the notion that we are agents in this way is, empirical evidence suggests, more enabling of that concept than the notion that there is no such thing as agency2. Moreover, accepting just this degree of freedom in action implies accepting a corresponding degree of responsibility for that action. The rational argument concludes that this limited level of choice – the choice to actively self-reflect – is free, and therefore that conscious awareness does allow for some deliberation over how to weigh up certain interests. If, in the past, we have, as a species, failed to take into account interests beyond those of our immediate human ‘clans’ or communities, it is because we have not been in a position to realise, or wake up to an awareness of, this degree of choice. Many of the myths that have dominated our cultural thinking have been precisely those that have, by accident or by design, described a different kind of freedom, one that applied, first, only to human activities vis-a-vis other humans, and second, one that required more than any individual could possibly give in terms of autonomy, since no individual is autonomous to the degree required by the former myths.

This work is worth doing precisely because the research suggests a re-examination of who or what is taken into account when interests are being weighed up. If the range of systems that demand our response is much broader than we had previously realised, and yet our own voluntary activity is constrained to self-reflection, or reflection on the process of conscious activity, then it might be argued that we have no freedom to do what needs to be done. However, a little effort will show that this cannot be the right conclusion: all the freedom that we require is contained in the activity of realisation, of self-reflection, of awareness of the state that we are in. It is precisely this activity that loosens the inevitability of our reactions and gives space in which are created other possibilities. Both a recognition of our interconnected interdependence, and an acknowledgement of the role of conscious activity in shaping our responses, is required for us to open up to the altered potential that exists within a meditative awareness. This can then form a highly comprehensive basis for a strategy to tackle our ecological emergency.

1A second problem is that those of us prepared to take Evolutionary Theory seriously are not necessarily in a majority. Even if a reasonable case is made for a change of attitude, those whose beliefs are informed by their faith will still outnumber those who might be prepared to consider a shift in perspective.

2See for instance Robert Kane, who makes a slightly different but nevertheless related point in his Chapter in Gary Watson’s Free Will: ‘Yet if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, I think we can say that you did it and are responsible for doing it even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle to your solving the problem which you nevertheless overcame by your effort.’ (Kane: 308) And Susan Wolf, in the same volume, argues that all that is needed for responsible agency is that our ‘deep self’ be ‘sane’ (see Wolf in Watson, Free Will: 382)

Limitations


There are various obvious limitations to this discussion, some of which I am aware of. Firstly, while I discuss some of the reasons why it is preferable to move the centre of consideration from humans to an ‘allocentric’ or non-anthropocentric perspective, I do not defend this from the point of view of an ethical position. This is because I have moved, recently, from considering the problem as one of environmental ethics – a position that I seek to show creates more problems than it resolves – to a position of pragmatism. I do, of course, give space to a discussion on the move from an ethical to a pragmatic position. In the same vein, there is extensive material relating to the relationship between inherent worth, inherent value, intrinsic worth, intrinsic value or any combination of the above, and moral considerability. when I began this work, I relied largely on the work undertaken in the 1970s by Richard Routely, amongst others. Their position was that the relationship between a locus of value and its moral considerability is, if not a logical, at least a rational one. This has been the focus of the thinking of several writers and I have little to add, except to say that the pragmatic position I take also posits a rational relationship between the act of responding to understanding and information, and the act of understanding from a non-dualistic position.

I don’t defend in any detail the idea that there is an environmental crisis being played out on the planet, nor that human impact is largely responsible for this impact. While these are contested issues for a considerable proportion of the population, I think that empirical evidence can either be accepted or rejected and I am not interested in continuing that particular discussion. The one area I do investigate in detail is the relationship between agents, on the one hand, and what Paul Taylor called “patients”, on the other.

The significance of my own argument is that it continues the attempt, made by several writers (notably Graham Parkes, but going as far back as Arne Naess, and including Callicott and Ames, among others) to consider philosophical foundations for proposing an alteration in the attitude of the human species to its relationship with the non-human world. The first attempt was to reverse some of the standard thinking on locus of value, and to address some of the conceptual and practical issues surrounding the human response to the environmental crisis through approaching the problem as an ethical one. I argued that if the current programme of attempting to resolve the crisis of biodiversity and habitat loss, pollution, and so on, is centred on what is of value to humans alone, then there is no strong reason for considering organisms which are not directly of value to humans and their plans. This means that while an environmental ethic can be developed which will attempt to save the pandas, because they’re pretty, or allow for the reintroduction of sea eagles, because they’re noble, there will be no attempt to analyse the soil and learn about how systems work for their own sakes. More strongly there will be no reason to allow parts of the world to remain completely free of human intervention. There will be no reason to attempt to restore biotic systems because they are rare, or unique (unless scientific curiosity gives a reason). There will be no reason to respect or treat with care biological entities which one comes across. It will not matter, unless it is seen to matter to human interests (in other words there may still be arguments made for not treating some sentient creatures like machines, since the ill-treatment of fellow sentients may have an effect on the moral development and behaviour of human to human interactions, as Jeremy Bentham memorably argued). The approach that centres its justification for how humanity relates to the non-human world on the grounds of what is of interest to the human species will, in the end, backfire as an attitudinal stance, since not enough will be required of the species to mitigate the impact of activities that have been damaging to biosystems to date, and not enough is required, from this point of view, to solve the difficulties that this attitude will continue to create. The difficulty is how to create a strong enough impetus untangle the level at which we treat one another and other species as ends in themselves from the level at which we see ourselves as moral agents, with all the privileges and demands that such a perspective gives us.

Thoughts towards chapter two


IMG_0051

“All conservation of wildness is self-defeating. For to cherish we must see and fondle and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Aldo Leopold

I don’t know if it was Aldo Leopold’s words that first inspired this debate for me: what basis could there possibly be for getting people to curb their actions when those actions were motivated by the urge to see beautiful places, or experience unusual or extreme situations? An image of a line of footprints, then tractors, trailers, concrete laid, spreading across tundra, slicing it into increasingly compressed squares. Perhaps Europeans see it more clearly because we have less room. Particularly those of us living on these islands flung into the Eastern Atlantic, knowing that the edge is very close, that there is not a huge stretch of prarie and beyond that, range upon range of snowcapped peaks.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is the human species, that connaisseur of beauty, that loses most. Most of us will never step on pristine shores that have never felt a human foot. Most of us will come to places that have been marked and emblazoned, even if only virtually, with brandnames, that have been photographed and pawed over in the minds and words of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of eager human others. Does this matter? Many people might say that it makes no difference to them at all. But if you were the first that ever burst into that silent scene, to shift Coleridge’s image marginally, can you even imagine how utterly, extraordinarily humbling and at the same time, stupendous and exhilarating, that would be? It would be like being the exploratory eye at the very forward edge of the wave of curiosity. It would be like going beyond anything anyone had ever been or done before and standing out alone, at the precipice. There would be a sense of loneliness, of course. One can never share these experiences, by definition (unless, of course, one goes in a team, but even then, each sensation is individually felt). Yet there would be a sense of collapsing boundaries, of opening into something utterly new.

Some places will never be fully explored. The heights of the Himalaya will no doubt remain mysterious, at least as long as the climate makes them an arduous adventure (though the climate, we cannot forget, is changing fast). The depths of the sea are hidden to all but a select few. Antarctica now has strictures on it. The Galapagos is expensive – and money is an effective ring-fence for many places that might otherwise attract more populous attention.

Secondly, although we are in an inevitably unsustainable relationship with the world around us (we will all, after all, die, and, in the end, so will the species) nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that we can do something about the kind of relationships we have, both with the world, and, indeed, with one another or even with ourselves. Just because we are going to die does not imply that we make no effort between birth and death to make the experience, whenever possible, marginally less painful for ourselves or, indeed, for those around us (even if most of us usually include in that later only our loved ones).

There might continue to be arguments about the truth or otherwise of climate change for some considerable time to come (make no mistake, I am of the strong opinion that climate change is a fact, and human-engendered), but there is no reasonable way around the notion that the human race is having an exponentially negative effect on biosystems and biodiversity and that a simple mathematical calculation will prove that, given the finite nature of the planet, and our reliance on it in every conceivable way for our survival, continued growth and consumption at increasing levels does not compute.

So, we, humans, are both all in this together, and all in something unsavory together. Can we do anything about it? Determinists or those who deny that we have any degree of freedom can legitimately jump ship at this point: if you don’t believe we have a choice in anything, then you might as well ditch the notion of voluntary action altogether. This is an argument for voluntary action, so it doesn’t apply to you. Everyone else can stay tuned in: we are agents, in a strange sense, but in a sense, nonetheless.

We are not agents in the sense that we conduct and control the flesh within which the mind resides. This is the fallacy that we fell for long ago but against which we must (metaphorically) beat our wings, because metaphors are tricky, dangerous illusions that manipulate and distort our relationship with reality. The best clue to our agency lies in our evolutionary roots. We evolved as survival systems, more or less successfully, along with all the other processes and systems, large and small, that we see either around us or in the fossil record.

We do not choose. We are propelled. Not towards. Away from. Paul Taylor suggests we build our characters and that this makes us virtuous. I think he’s got a point but it is not building – that’s too mechanistic and mechanistic metaphors (as I have said before, and will say again, no doubt) are misleading. Instead, it’s responding, at a very basic level. Our very cells respond to the feedback processes that allow us to watch how we breathe, and to breathe more deeply. This breathing more deeply is itself the result of a series of other strange coincidences and accidents of our personal history and physiology, but it brings about a new direction for us, where we can watch the process of past unfolding into present and into potential futures. So instead of building our characters, perhaps what we do is realise, more and more, and so bring into being a broader, but a looser, set of systematic dynamic connections and relationships, relationships that already exist but which require attention to come into focus. Brought into focus, even metaphorically, they begin to come into the realm, like conscious breathing, of awareness. Imagine an infinite number of infinitely fine threads linking each and every relationship and creating the woven fabric of our own existence. If we cease to think of ourselves as solid constructions in, and separate from, space, this image invites is to see ourselves as holograms through time, gathering and discarding connections as we move, and we are always moving.