Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Living Objects in the Field

Which title might fit well in some naturist post but here is an extension of my last post on Field and Ground as it relates to Objects in Four-Dimensional Space.

To recap we have an object with attributes of extension and duration interacting with forces and other other objects. These forces and object interactions manifest as effects of gravity and momentum transfer and electrical charge and radiation individually or in combination. For example 'heat' can either be the product of direct collisions between objects of differing energies or transfers of energy or by direct input of radiation.

Alright what if we introduce the attribute of Life to that object? Let us say in the form of lichen on a stone. Now both the stone and the lichen are objects, each has extension and duration, and each interacts with the field of forces and objects. What then differentiates them?

First consider the lichen. It is in fact a symbiote, two different lifeforms dependent on each other. In this case it is composed of a fungus and algae with the fungus providing structure, water and nutrients to the algae which then uses photosynthesis to supply food energy to the lichen. Note that both the verbs 'supply' and 'provide' build in agency/intentionality and still with no need to appeal to mystical or metaphysical notions like 'life force' or 'great chain of being'. We have agent, action and intended outcome without any Ghost in the Machine.

We can then oppose this to the stone. Now you can say of a stone that it 'sits' or 'leans' but those are both verbs that denote states and not actions with outcomes. The closest you get to agency would be when you might say "the stone provides shadow" the "stone provides shelter" to some other object but these two are in context states and not outcomes, certainly not outcomes of any action.

To some this may be a distinction without a difference. And frankly it wouldn't detract much from my ultimate object if you attributed intentionality to that stone. The larger point is that it makes sense to discuss intentionality and action without reference to consciousness. That is whatever ideas you have about the existence of minds or self-consciousness in so-called "lower animals" it surely is stretching that to the limits to try to extend that to lichen just in order to enable the use of action and intentionality.

Now using this vocabulary what is the relation of the lichen to the outside world, the relation of THIS object to THAT field. Well clearly the lichen responds to the field. While it has developed in a way that allows it to survive in low light or low water conditions it can't survive forever on a zero supply of either. And at the other extreme an overabundance of radiation will kill it as well, if nothing else by direct heating effects. Few I think would blink at any using a claim that "lichen respond to moisture and light levels".

All of which brings us finally around to the big question: as lifeforms gain in complexity of interaction with the field that surrounds at what point are you impelled to introduce the Ghost into the Machine? At what point do we make the claim that those interactions are 'voluntary'? For the most part the modern Anglo-American thought system would deny that to plants. We might talk about 'Kudzu running wild' or plants 'stretching towards light' or reporting trees that 'turn their leaves to the Sun' but few modern westerners would see that as anything more than a metaphor. But our ancestors might have seen it in a much different light as would many non-western cultures separated from us by both space and time. Nor is it totally unheard of for ostensibly modern westerners to play music for their plants or talk to their rose bushes.

Turning from plant to animals it would seem that it is much easier and more natural to talk about the latter in terms of agency and intentionality. After all an ant dragging some item larger than it back to the nest is clearly 'something' 'acting' on an object with 'intent'. But is there really a need to appeal to something larger working than the fungus partner in the lichen 'providing' water to 'its' algae 'partner'? Or can we just formulate it in the following form: "the interior organization of the object we call an 'ant' is simply responding to forces and objects exterior to it in a way that produces an intended outcome". If not, why not? And if so why should't we apply that same formulation to a lizard as an ant? To a cat as to a lizard? To a cat as to a chimp? Or a chimp as to a human?

Which isn't to say that there is no sort of defensible line here. Just that it might not be as easy as one would think to work from intentional act to voluntary act as one might think.

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