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Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza

An Ecology of Persons

I would like to take this opportunity to delve into Morten Tønnessen‘s essay,  “Umwelt ethics,” [download here] (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003), which I could only afford to mention in passing in my post Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations. I suggested then that Tønnessen had not provided a rigorous connection between Uxeküll’s notion of Umwelt and Næss’s Deep Ecology ethics, but rather gave us a fine juxtaposition. It could be said that Tønnessen gives us a topographical study of the ethical landscape confronting those that want to argue for a moral authority when treating environments and other species. I also suggested that such a landscape could be well-aided by the kinds of ethical arguments provided by Spinoza’s ontology/epistemology (explicitly), and the normative epistemology of Davidson. Here I would like to pursue more of the former rather than the latter, but I do believe that they are well connected, conceptually.

Key to understanding Spinoza’s gift to this question I believe comes from the way that he treats human relations. Much of environmental ethical argument is bent toward shaping moral framing out toward a much broader sphere, thinking about how the reasons why we treat other women/men/children well also apply to ecological questions. Spinoza has an advantage here, for largely we do not have the problem of how to get out of the human-realm (moral reasoning), and into the natural realm (brute forces) – humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom, as he says. In fact, Spinoza’s treatment of ethical questions (and we do need to watch how we move lexically from ethical to moral and back) among human beings is at core an ecological question. Human beings are for Spinoza resources. One does not waste  the possibilities of combining with other persons, and the freedom of other persons is necessarily a contribution towards our own freedom. Because the human realm is shot through with utility reasoning the bridging towards a utility of environments forms a much more natural aptitude for analysis and moral positioning.

But let me step through Spinoza here as an entry point into Tønnessen’s article, for he does a very good job of laying out the priority of questions to be answered. What really is at stake is the ultimate question of how to resolve the islanding tendencies buried in the phenomenological heart of J. von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt.

This difficulty – and I am only now coming to grips with the literature – has largely been attempted to be answered either on the functional, or semiotic level. Some combination of a network of functions (for instance various “functional cycles” between the organism and the environment), and then more, their semiotically distilled expression, serve as a sometimes loosely proposed nexus between what von Uexküll apparently conceived of in much more isolating, organism-bound, apparitional terms. Umwelten  are supposed to give rise to a kind of shared Umwelt, or an interface called a Semiosphere, which is seen to connect up all these treatening-to-be  solipsistic bubbles of informational life. (Previously, here and here, I have proposed an alternate resolution which involved disbanding the phenomenological core of the idea altogether, and redefining the organism in terms of an Exowelt, composed of the very differences that make a difference. These following arguments dovetail with this notion.) Tønnessen feels well the difficulty of von Uexküll’s phenomenology and seeks to give us a platform from which to view these bubbles of experiential outer world, not only their epistemological connections, but also their moral footing. And to do so he turns to the work of Hoffmeyer.

Now I have not read Hoffmeyer’s discussion of bioethics, and rely mainly upon the aspects brought up by Tønnessen himself. So this critique has to be taken as internal to this particular essay, and runs the risk of repeating points that Hoffmeyer may have prodigiously made or rigorously countered. Nonetheless, I want to trace out the ground that is raised in “Umwelt Ethics,” for I sense that Tønnessen turns to Hoffmeyer to alleviate something of the pressure put on by the difficulties of a phenomenological world view.

“Code-duality” and Dual Attributes: Where is the seam?

Tønnessen discusses Hoffmeyer just about at the vital point of clarifying what a moral subject is, via the influence of Jon Wetlesen, himself oriented strongly towards a Spinozist implicit definition of a subject:

Hoffmeyer’s justification of the attribution of moral status is inspired by the Norwegian philosopher Jon Wetlesen, for whom Spinoza’s definition of subjecthood acts as a point of departure. According to Spinoza (1951: Pt. III, Prop. IV), “everything, in so far as it is in itself, endavours to persist in its own being”. Wetlesen (1993) argues that all non-human individual organisms and supra-individual wholes that resembles moral agents by showing self-determination, or striving, can be regarded as subjects with a moral standing. Hoffmeyer’s equivalent of the Spinozean perseverance is his own concept code duality (Hoffmeyer 1993: 165). Organic code-duality, a property common to all living beings, can be understood as the semiotic interplay between the analog (cell) and digital (DNA) versions of a living being (cf. Hoffmeyer 1996: 44).

I’d like to discuss this link to Spinoza with a bit more richness, confronting as directly as possible Hoffmeyer’s guiding principle of code duality in terms of Spinoza’s position. I think we can get something very productive out of this. First of all, as is obvious but perhaps needing to be said, all things, that is, every single body in composition expresses itself with a conatus for Spinoza. If we are to use Spinoza’s notion of the conatus  as an ethical signpost we are going to have to be rather explicit in the justification our claims that distinguish strongly between the animate and the inanimate, or the organic and the inorganic. For Spinoza, in somewhat fine panpsychist fashion resembling Augustine’s best panpsychic moments, conatus  pervades the entirety of Being. Anything that exists exists because it is striving. (Perhaps Wetlesen takes this whole-hog, but it is good to make this point quite explicit.)

More interesting is Hoffmeyer’s notion of  “double coding” which he specifies with reference to analog and digital cell ontologies. We must ask, if we are to make a Spinozist critique, is there an homology in Spinoza to “double coding”? The most obvious connection of course is Spinoza’s assertion of two Attributes, thought and extension, wherein digital coding is taken as Ideational expression, and analogical coding as Extensional. I’ve tried to trace down the fundamental thought in Hoffmeyer’s idea of dual codes, and it seems that he is most interested in the differential between the two, using the DNA code of an organism as placed in relation to the supervenient meta-code of analogical spatiality:

Every single crocodile embodies both the essence of being a crocodile, “crocodileness” (the message handed down to it through the genetic material), and the elements that make it one particular crododile. The second message is a kind of meta-message supervenient to the bloodline’s digital message. The crocodile is an analogue code in the sense that it enters, among other things, into a mating semiosis which, in principle, involves a good many crocodiles (through competition, etc.). Ostensibly, the message is transmitted by the fertilized egg cell the crocodile once was, but it also involves the egg cell’s spatial interpretation of another message, the digitally coded message that, at one time, lay tucked away inside the crocodile egg’s own genome. And, as the mating semiosis runs its course, this message is received – and interpreted – by other members of the same species. Generally speaking an organism convey’s a message about its evolutionary experience (45)

Signs of meaning in the Universe, Hoffmeyer and Haveland

Spinoza distinctly would refuse both supervenience and meta-status for the Attribute of extension, for he argues that Idea and Thing are in strict parallel, each expressing themselves with “the same order and connection”. So, one must question from a Spinozist point of view: by what measure is the spatial said to supervene upon the digital? In fact, I suspect that here Hoffmeyer is constructing a differential between separate layers or registers, for the spatiality of the crocodile (in Spinozist terms, its extensional expression) is not expressive just of its DNA, but rather of the digital state of all its cell structure. And the DNA molecular “code” is not expressed by the crocodile as res, but rather in the very spatial configuration of its very molecules. If I am understanding Hoffmeyer and Haveland correctly, it seems that, in Spinozist terms, they are selecting out the Ideational expression of DNA, and the Extensional expression of a Crocodile, across domains, and putting them in hierarchical relation to each other. One might as well take the molecular spatiality and the digital state of the crocodile and cross-weave them back. In any case, while the double coding that Hoffmeyer suggest is quite revealing, and an interesting take upon the Mind/Body, Meaning/Form dualities, it is but a cross-section of interpretation. A Spinozist would want to see a fuller picture, embracing both Attributes at any particular register.

It is enough to say though that such Double Coding would not select out only organic processes from all other expressions of Nature, for under Spinozist lights, all things are of dual codes, expressed in Thought and Extension.

The “Positioning” of an Imitation of the Affects

Tønnessen continues on with the benefits of a Hoffmeyer approach, careful to note how the ethics being built from dual-coded theorizing differs from Umwelt thinking in that it incorporates species specific, genomic Umwelten of a kind:

In conclusion (Hoffmeyer 1993: 173), “all living systems deserve to be considered as moral subjects, but some of them more so than others”. As a parameter that might eventually be used for grading among moral subjects, he suggests semiotic freedom, i.e., the level of richness or depth of meaning that a being is able to communicate. Hoffmeyer (1993: 172; cf. 1996: 139) attributes true subjectivity, and, consequently, moral status, at the individual level to all animals possessing a complex nervous system. Primitive organisms, on the other hand, such as amoebas or mealworms, are moral subjects only at species level. A premise for this judgment is that human beings are “perfectly capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172). In Hoffmeyer’s interpretation, this means that we are capable of identifying with “umwelt-builders in the broadest sense of this term, i.e. even species of lower level organisms lacking neural systems but which, qua species, nevertheless create a kind of (genomic) umwelt through their evolutionary incorporation of ecological niche conditions into the future” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172) [Footnote: As this passage exemplifies, Hoffmeyer departs from Uexküll’s understanding of the Umwelt concept. In an Uexküllian setting, it makes no sense to talk about “genomic Umwelten”, since each and every Umwelt is in fact the privilege of the subject in question. Consequently, although evidently founded on biosemiotics, Hoffmeyer’s ethics cannot be regarded an Umwelt ethics.]….

This is where it gets very interesting for we enter the realm of Spinozist ethical theorizing that departs from mere conatus claims of moral standing. All animals with complex nervous systems are afforded such a standing due to their ability to “[identify] with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics  of nature” (bolding the important concepts). Here we come right up to the braiding of Spinoza’s principle of the imitation of affects and my own thinking of Exowelten. To repeat the vital Spinozist proposition that we are imaginatively, and affectively connected to all human others through our projection of “sameness”:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

 

 [If one wants an in-depth reading of the sociological and political consequences of this proposition, see Balibar’s treatment of the reasoning behind sociability: Here] But let us remain at the bio-logical level. It is important that the seemingly implicit experiential/ideational sameness within human beings that Spinoza posits, in Hoffmeyer becomes a positional one (with these two positions not being mutually exclusive to each other). What distinguishes the moral subject here, is the ability for the organism to read another organism as positioned as it might be in. I would go further, and more explicitly say: the ability for the read organism to be affected by the same differences in the world, that is, in terms of my thoughts on Exowelten, to share differential nodes, the same points as organs of perception. This capacity is, at the highest levels of human rationality, expressed as Triangulation: the ability to read through the assumed coherence of another’s beliefs and those causal relations, the coherence of states of the world. But this capacity is primarily an affective  capacity, to which the depths of one’s organic coherence read the states of other things, objects, beings in the world, such that the causal powers of the world itself come into greater clarity.

Importantly, by stretching his criteria beyond the mere nervous-system-endowed animal, out to genomic expressions of organisms, the breadth of reflective capacities can be contributed to a far greater number of phenomena, something that Tønnessen notes. But with significance he raises the question of just what importance code-duality plays in this “same position in the bio-logic” definition of moral standing, in particular, why should our identifications be restricted by Hoffmeyer’s description:

…To Hoffmeyer’s credit, his criterion for deciding which entities we are capable of identifying with is so vague that it allows for a certain flexibility. This vagueness, or flexibility, however, is not mirrored in his conclusion. If we are capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature, then why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm? And, more generally: if interpretative processes are to form the basis of attribution of moral status, why should code-duality be considered the relevant property? In what way is organic code duality related to the actual well-being of a creature or a living system, in the same sense as self-determination or perseverance is?

This raises a very important question of just what are the evolutionary and epistemic benefits of reading in two terms, Thought and Extension? This is to say, if we agree with Spinoza and all things express themselves in Thought and Extension, in what manner is the gain of focusing our attention upon one or the other?

Triangulation and the Internal of Cause

Donald Davidson has an elementary answer to this question, but we have to translate out of, and down from, his attempts to parse out the explanatory power of mental causation, (that is, or attribution of causal properties to beliefs and reasons), from physical causation.

[Mental concepts] appeal to causality because they are designed, like the concept of causality itself, to single out from the totality of circumstances which conspire to cause a given event just those factors that satisfy some particular explanatory interest. When we want to explain an action, for example, we want to know the agent’s reasons, so we can see for ourselves what it was about the action that appealed to the agent…The causal element in mental concepts helps make up for the precision they lack; it is part of the concept of an intentional action that it is caused and explained by beliefs and desires…

“Three Varieties of Knowledge”, (216-217)

When reading the behaviours of other persons as behaviours,we necessarily attribute to them all sort of mental predicates such as “he desires, she wants, she fears, he hopes, they think…” which help us isolate the important internal states which allow us to sensibly make use of those behaviors as significant. In fact, as we make these projective attributions, it is not just that the agent we are reading who becomes clear (under a normative framework), but also and more importantly, the world itself. By making mental-causal attributions “within” the agent, events in the world “outside” the agent are also selected out as significant  because the agent and I are regarded as somewhat the “same”. This sameness can be understood as a kind of internal, affective/ideational sameness: I would feel/think the same things if I were like that; or, and more importantly, I would feel/think the same things if I were in the same “position” (Hoffmeyer’s denotative standard for moral subject).

But one must not stop at the rational belief level of attribution to fully understand the pervasiveness of Triangulation, the way in which the internal states of others reveal for us the character of external states of the world. In fact, I would go further and say that the “double code” that Hoffmeyer presents is primarily the heuristic difference that an reader makes upon another organism (or even a field of consistent boundary conditions):

Are the most important events going on Inside the organism/field, or Outside in the world that we share?

Those events when read as internal  are understood as mental, while those read as external are understood as physical, with the understanding that a relevant interal events are signficant in how they confirm or deny pre-existing internal/external orientations the reader has already established with aspects of the world. Ultimately, this is how differences in the world become Organs of Perception.

Why not a Mountain?

So Tønnessen is dead-on when he asks, “why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm”? It is precisely so that a blade of grass might present some significant inside (mental) interpretant, as may an entire field of grass. And yes, a sudden splitting of a mountain face, or the soft curve of its erosion wear might prospectively direct us to its internal coherences to isolate what is causally significant. “Was it a faultline crack, or a meteor that struck?”, just as we might ask, “Was he mentally unstable, or was he coerced?”. These are homologous questions. Mountains too have a semiosis  of internal consistency, and only the acclaimed need for a subject-center Interpretant prevents this from becoming obvious.

The statement will be made: Well, you can project your anthropomorphisms onto mountains and ponds all you like, but they themselves are not Triangulating, not reading states of the world off of the internal states of other things/beings!

To this I would want to assert that these projections are not just anthropomorphic but come from the affective organization of our body plans down to a fair ancestral level. The animism is not just a retarded vestige to be thrown off, but rather makes up some of the most powerful capacities to organize ourselves in the world and to communicate with it. In a sense, it forms the contrapuntal base rhythm of our perceptions and rationalized descriptions, something whose slow, essential musicality must be harmonized with, or quietly, somatically altered, if we are to experience coherence in our views. Secondly though, I am unsure how one would decide upon which external factors a mountain or a pond is responding to when we epistemically project onto its semiotic states of coherence. Sun’s light might be warming a rockface, but just so is the atmospheric condition allowing it. Are bacteria “triangulating” when they quorum sense: some thoughts here: Davidson’s Triangulation and the Swarm. I would say that the internal coherence of any one organism or field registers significant differences out beyond it in the sense that its Exowelt meets with ours, sharing nodes. And which of those nodal features, whether they be primary difference that make a seemingly direct difference between the internal states of the organism/field, and ourselves, or secondary ones, which may be inferred from the former, is something that plays itself out in pragmatic terms. This is to say, the very coherence that is maintained in an organism/field is not composed of one-to-one mappings of internal-event-aspect/external-event-aspect, and that the very causal constellation of external events can be said to be expressed in the internal response coherence.

In this way, human beings are very good at telling us what they are responding to in most circumstances, and in reasoned discourse this results in them telling us what they “know”. But knowing goes very deep into the organism/field, far below what we can say, and “what” we know in our very coherence has no delineated correlate.

The “Ontological Niche”

Tønnessen then, upon returning to a less than satisfying and phenomenologically informed concept of Umwelten, raises the concept of the ontological niche, something approaching my Exowelt correction to the same. By virtue of Uexküll’s criterion of the “function cycle” a division is made between animal and plant, those that have an Umwelt and those that have merely a Wohnhüllen

Phrased in modern terminology, Umwelten can be attributed to protists, bacteria and animals (including the animal that does not want to be an animal, i.e., man), but not to plants and fungi (Uexküll, Kriszat 1956 [1940]: 111). Instead, they have Wohnhüllen, which the objects of Umwelten are replaced by meaning-factors. These must, along with Umwelten, be understood as a category of individual phenomenal worlds.9 While only Umwelt-carriers take part in functional cycles, plants and fungi, as well, partake in contrapuntal relations, i.e., subject-object-relations characterized by a mutual correspondence between the two entities. There are at least two kinds of contrapuntal relations: Relations between two meaning-utilizers (e.g. a flower and a bee, or a predator and its prey), and, more generally, relations between a meaning-utilizer and a meaning-carrier or meaning-factor in its phenomenal world (e.g., an eye and the sun). Functional cycles can be regarded as special cases of contrapuntal relations. The known phenomenal world, therefore, consists of Umwelten and Wohnhüllen that, through the interconnectedness that the various contrapuntal relations result in, comprise what we call nature. In this intricate web — of life, of semiosis, of world — we occupy an ontological niche.

The ontological niche of a being can be defined as the set of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in at a given point of natural history. [Hoffmeyer (1996: 140): “The character of the animal’s defines the spectrum of positions that an animal can occupy in the bio-logical sphere, its semiotic niche”.] The ontological niche of a being delimits the “area” that this being occupies in the phenomenal world. Simultaneously, through its ontological niche, the phenomenal world of a being is intertwined with other phenomenal worlds, thus integrating this being into the society of phenomenal subjects…

As I have argued, there is no way in which to make a categorical distinction between the two contrapuntal “meaning utilizers” and “meaning-carriers,” though we can assume a differential. At times it is best to focus on the binary rhythm between the eye and the sun, but then at other times to see that this binary is expressive of other coherence-field relations (the sun “carriers” its participation in a “utilization”). In any case though, as the contrapuntal rhythm weaves a primary mat of life (including its inorganic forms), it is the Ontological Niche (for me Exowelten) determinations which give life to the very substance of our coherent thoughts and communications, the way in which regularly read and affectively inhabit a diversity of forms whose internal (field) states reflect and express states of the world. And it is our mutually enfleshed  sharing of nodes in the world which privileges any organic or inorganic state, as important. It is because of this that the very musicality of connection between the internal parts of the world to other external parts of the world, is what is at stake in the very maintenance of the coherence of our thought and capacity to speak to each other. The resource is in the very affective and dexterous capacity of others (other things, other beings) to feel and report back upon what condition the world is in.

Total Umwelt and Biosphere Split

In his essay Morten Tønnessen steers somewhat clear from Hoffmeyer’s wider embrace in order to return to the rich heritage of Umwelt-thinking, and he tries to heal any solipsistic phenomenological drag from the concept by postulating various zones of “total Umwelt” expression. These are still phenomenological states, but simply totalized by some measure. Personally, I don’t see the advantage of returning to Idealism’s internal preoccupation and anchoring, something which ever must return to the notion of a subject. Yet, Tønnessen also extracts from von Uexküll the important idea that the animal and its Umwelt are inseparable. While this still leaves us on the wrong side of the ledger, Tønnessen transfers from a terminology of “Tier-Umwelt-monade” to a more comprehensive “bioontological monad,” which he reads as couterpart to the biosphere:

A different type of abstract phenomenal entities can be termed total Umwelten. By a total Umwelt, I understand the sum total of the manifold phenomena appearing in the Umwelten of a particular group of subjects. An example that is mentioned by Uexküll (1928: 181) is the total Umwelt of a species…Noteworthy, according to Uexküll, the subject and its phenomenal world are not separate entities, but, as illustrated by the functional cycle, together make up one unit. One could call this belief ontological holism. To signify this unified entity, Friedrich Brock (1934) introduced the term “Tier-Umwelt-monade”. However, Uexküll’s ontological holism is not restricted to Umwelt-carriers, and I therefore suggest to replace Brock’s term with the more general expression bioontological monad…The phenomenal counterpart to the biosphere, i.e., the sum total of all living beings of Earth, is the known phenomenal world. Taken as a bio-ontological entity, it represents the inseparable whole of life and world. In lack of a better designation, it might be called the bio-phenomenal sphere.

By my thinking the very concept of monad existence must entail the nexus points of differences that make a difference in the world, as those terminus differences become organs of perception for the animal/plant/being/field. It is not enough to simply posit whole internal worlds which grow in size supposedly connected to whole bio-physical states outside of them. Rather, the very connections between organism and world must count as part of that recursive boundary. The bioontological monad is constituted by, and inconceivable as operative without, the differences that make a difference it its terminus limit (and which it shares as terminus limit with other things).

Morten Tønnessen ends his essay with a careful consideration of Deep Ecologist Arne Næss’s eight bio-ethical principles. Only the with first of which will I concern myself:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes…

His response to this first point is worth quoting at some length because it has many of the factors we have discussed:

According to Næss (1993: 198), the first point in the deep ecology platform “refers to the biosphere, […] individuals, species, populations, habitat, as well as human and non-human cultures”. Næss also mentions landscapes and ecosystems. Given an Uexküllian framework, all of these must be understood as bio-ontological entities. A culture, for example, can be defined as a certain common-Umwelt that allows for a certain total Umwelt. The fact that the flourishing of human life rests on the flourishing of concepts should result in political and cultural tolerance. As for ecosystems and inhabited landscapes,one could probably reach a bio-ontological definition by way of the concepts of contrapuntal relations and total Umwelt. A habitat might be regarded as the subjective space, or perhaps Heimat (home), of an individual or population.

The reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents, i.e., bio-ontological monads, as moral subjects, is that in respect to these entities, our actions make a difference. Only for semiotic agents can our actions ultimately appear as signs that influence their well-being. In capacity of meaning-utilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them. As Kull (2001: 361) says: “Everything alive has needs per se, not so the lifeless nor the dead”. Wherever there is semiosis, there are needs, and even though actual moral treatment is also a question of practicability, attribution of moral status is a principal one.

But why regard higher-level bio-ontological entities as moral subjects? Because a living being is not an isolated incident. In a profound sense, a subject is what it relates to. The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about. The individual self branch off into the society of phenomenal subjects and into the phenomenal world, it is already social, already worldly, already more-than-individual. You cannot really value a subject without at the same time valuing the web of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in.

One can guess where my quarrel with this reasoning lies since I read as “semiotic” much further down then the author grants, and this is due to the substance of the last of his three paragraphs: “The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about.” If we follow Spinoza’s notion of conatus with which we began our discussion, Kull’s point at to “needs” evaporates or is at least severely challenged. Sedimentation preserves itself against what is irrelevant or harmful through its very coherence until over come. This is not a mere theoretical side-step. It is the very stabilized contour of avoidance and perseverence that turns a meaning-carrier into a meaning-utilizer. If we accept that even rock sedimentation layers strive to persist, then they too have “needs” (however qualified, however dim), and if rock sedimentation layers form part of the contrapuntal music of our own reading capacities of the world, by what measure do our own defining contrapuntal relations which take part with such rhythm, exclude them from some place of importance? Change the music and change the person. This is not to say that one should not cut into rock formations in order to build train tunnels, but one should do so knowing that one is making a cognitive, resonant, musical change.

Last to end, Næss’s claim in point one, that the values of non-human things are independent from human purposes defies Spinoza’s utility approach to an ecology of persons (and world). In fact, it is the very usefulness of non-human things, not just as appropriations, but as participations, which should drive us towards their care. Only a rich concept of purposes and utility can nurture the epistemic responsibilities and capacities of the human species.

[See Morten Biosemiotic Weblog: Utopian Realism]

Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations

I’ve been reading into the depths of the concept of Umwelt which which I have felt some dissatisfaction. It is a concept that exists in a variety of forms, flowing from the much more phenomenological, Kantian enriched experiential world of its inventor, Jakob Uexküll, all the way to heavily systemic, semiotic-functional interpretations which mark its place in much of contemporary biosemiotics. For those unfamiliar with the variety I present a few of these, and article links which may prove interesting reading

Biosemiotic:

Umwelt

Umwelt is the semiotic world of organism. It includes all the meaningful aspects of the world for a particular organism. Thus, Umwelt is a term uniting all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Indeed, the Umwelt-concept follows naturally due to the connectedness of individual semiotic processes within an organism, which means that any individual semiosis in which an organism is functioning as a subject is continuously connected to any other semiosis of the same organism. At the same time, the Umwelts of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism.

Umwelt is the closed world of organism. The functional closer, or epistemic closer is an important and principal feature of organisms, and of semiotic systems. This has been described by Maturana and Varela (1980) through the notion of autopoiesis.

Semiosphere

The expressions ‘collective Umwelt’, or ‘swarm’s Umwelt’, should also be in accord, since organism can hardly be modeled as a centralized system. However, the relationship between the Umwelt of organism and the Umweltsof its cells requires further explanation and more detailed analysis. The whole becomes seen through functional circles which, for example, includethe body of the (swarm-)organism moving together, in one piece. More generally, there are always at least two aspects (processes) which participate in making a multitude of pieces into a whole in living systems: (1) there are many individual processes which take part as steps in a functional circle, the latter being responsible for the appearance of intentional aspects of behavior, and (2) the functional circle always includes recognition, a matching of forms (the pre- existing with the actual), whereas recognition does not work in an algorithmic way (i.e. bit-to-bit checking) but as a simultaneous compatibility (coherence) of forms (e.g., enzymes recognizing their substrates). Thus, the principle of code duality can be extended to the principle of making wholes, Gestalts.

Semiosphere is the set of all interconnected Umwelts. Any two Umwelts, when communicating, are a part of the same semiosphere.

 “On semiosis, Umwelt, and semiosphere” Kalevi Kull, Semiotica, vol. 120(3/4), 1998, pp. 299-310 [click here].

Biosemiotics/AI:

The Umwelt may be defined as the phenomenal aspect of the parts of the environment of a subject (an animal organism), that is, the parts that it selects with its species-specific sense organs according to its organization and its biological needs (J. von Uexküll 1940; T. von Uexküll 1982a, 1989). In that sense, the subject is the constructor of its own Umwelt, as everything in it is labelled with the perceptual cues and effector cues of the subject. Thus, one must at least distinguish between these concepts: (1) the habitat of the organism as ‘objectively’ (or externally) described by a human scientific observer; (2) the niche of the organism in the traditional ecological sense as the species’ ecological function within the ecosystem, (3) the Umwelt as the experienced self-world of the organism.

Does a robot have an Umwelt?: Reflections on the qualitative biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll [click here], Claus Emmeche

But really the best treatment that I found was from Paul Bains’s informative and provokingly synthetic The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations (2006) [click here]. For those interested in the possibilities of the concept I highly recommend reading at least the chapter on Umwelten (page 56), available on line, and watch Bains skate effortlessly and illuminatingly between Uexküll, Kant, Duns Scotus, Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger, Deely and more. I quote extensively here from the passage in which he explicates the notion via Uxeküll choice of the “tick” (which in well-known fashion Deleuze and Guattari adopts). Here Bains presents the bare essentials of Umwelt  organization, the notion of functional cycle and counterpuntal rhythm.

[Quoting Uexküll] “We are not concerned with the chemical stimulus of butyric acid, any more than with the mechanical stimulus (released by the hairs), or the temperature stimulus of the skin. We are concerned solely with the fact that, out of the hundreds of stimuli radiating from the qualities of the mammal’s body, only three become the bearers of receptor cues for the tick. Why just three and no others?” (J. Uexküll, A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 1957)

The answer for von Uexküll is that living organisms respond to perceptual signs (Merkzeichen) or “meaning” (Bedeutung), not to causal impulses. Physical, chemical, or thermal changes to the receptor organs are interpreted as signs of the (not yet perceptable) “perceptual cues” of an object as counterpart for a specific behaviour. Von Uexküll argues that the “subect” (tick) and the “object” (mammal) dovetail into each other and constitute a systematic whole or functional cycle. The organism or interpreter receives signs from its environment, and these perceptual signs trigger specific action impulses or operation signs (Wirkzeichen). The whole cycle is a process made not of static objects but rather of sign relations – a semiosis. For example, with the tick there are three functional cycles, which follow each other in processual succession…In this functional cycle the mammal (object) is a connecting link between the tick’s effectors and receptors, which metaphorically “grasp” the object like the two jaws of a pair of pinchers. The “perceptual jaw” gives perceptual meaning to the object, and the “operational jaw” gives an effector meaning. For von Uexküll there is a counterpoint or contrapuntal relation between the organism as a “meaning-utilizer” or interpretant, and the perceptual cues or “meaning-factors” of the object – Nature as Music. Living beings develop in a kind of natural counterpuntal “harmony” or refrain, with one another and with their environment. Von Uexküll gives the example of the octopus, designated as the subject in its relation to seawater as the meaning carrier. In this scenario, the fact that water cannot be compressed is the precondition for the construction of the octopus’s muscular swim bag. The pumping movement of the swim bag on the non-compressible water propells the animal backwards. Von Uexku/ll claims that the rule that governs the properties of seawater acts on the protoplasm of the octopus, thereby shaping the melody of the development of the octopus’s form to express the properties of seawater. The rule of meaning that joins point and counterpoint is expressed in the action of swimming – an energetic interpretant.

So the Umwelt is a model of a species’ significantsurroundings. The essential claim is that organisms interpret their environment and are not merely the passive objects of natural selection, as emphasized by much contemporary Darwinian evolutionary biology. The Umwelt/ consists of significant sign relationships. However, von Uexküll, in the prevailing context of Kantian idealism, presented his Umwelt research as a confirmation of a Kantian philosophy of mind

– The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations(2006), Paul Bains, 63-64

I want though to approach the concept from the perspective of a Spinozist understanding, one which necessarily would de-emphasize an phenomenological, or subject-oriented foundational basis. It for this reason that I have been playing with the notion of an Exowelt, under which we conceived of the experiential, but nonetheless epistemic relations between the organism and the world, not as an inner-theatre of apparitional events, but rather necessarily see the organism extended beyond its skin, one in which the Real differences in the world which make up the (semiotic) differences within the organism, may be considered as outlying organs of perception themselves: a running shore of epistemic wholeness.
Part of this can be seen to come out of some of Uexküll’s own images, for instance his appeal the the spider’s web which, spun from its body, literally extends that body, epistemically, physically, out into the world:
As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence” (A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 14)
What if invited by this analogy is, much as how Descartes invoked the Blindman’s cane, it is not immediately clear where the organism itself ends, and the “world” begins. The reason for this I hope to make clear, for at the moment all would still seem contained within the skin-limits of the beast (the treads are merely meant as internal semiotic threads in this case). Let us go further.In that these threads do connect to real things, real difference that make a difference in the organism, we have to deal with exactly how to parse out the internal difference from the external one (a process that Deely marks as essentially ontological univocal). I will suggest that the process takes place just further out than we regularly, and obviously would like to grant.

Essential perhaps is Uexküll notion of the counterpuntal, the musical co-ordination between an “external” stimulus and an “internal” semiotic event. This fundamental binary seems to be the very stuff that presents the internal/external divide at the surface of the body (or thereabouts). Even the simplest of organisms forms a kind of musical echoing of aspect of nature, and does so as a distinction separate entity. We are told by many in Biosemiotics that this minimal exchange is what distinguishes plant and fungus from animal (which are capable of more complex function cycles). The locus of “self” or subject is at most at the internal shore of the semiotic interpretation, where the sign arrives, qua sign, so to speak. And what distinguishes the animal from the human is that humans are able to actually perceive the relationships between counterpuntals, and therefore the very nature of Umwelten themselves.

What I want to suggest is that if indeed what distinguishes counterpunctals is the semiotic interpretation of real events, and that what makes information “Information” are differences that make a difference, it is very difficult to isolate where and/or if the relations between two counterpunctals are experienced or not, since the very structural coherence of the organism is such that the relations are built-in to the very experience of “sense”, the semiotic recursion of the organism. While this event (difference) solicits this kind of reaction, and that event solicits that kind of reaction, we can never deny that the correspondence between the two does not leave some trace on at least higher animals.

To give an example of what I mean by the knowing of connections between differences that make a difference, if my dog and I are walking in a dark, remote part of town and turn down an empty alley, it may very well be the case that in the pit of my stomach I will get “a bad feeling” about the situation. Now this affective response indeed is the semiotic response to Real differences in the world (and perhaps of real events in the past, and/or instinctive reactions), but this is not a “phenomenal” appearance of the world around me (though perhaps shadows now look darker). It is an epistemic judgment that has no location. We could say that my body is undergoing counterpunctal relations (a music) with the entire environment, “reading” it, but from whence is the apprehension of its dangerousness? Which specific differences in the world am I reading as “danger”? The constellation itself presents itself to my organism. Distinct, experiential “awareness” of connections is not locatable as it is largely, if not entirely, unconscious.

Now, my dog who is with me also senses something and the hair on her back is raised. I see this and the hair on my arms goes up. What events in the world colluded to raise my dog’s hair? What variety of counterpuntals speaks to the knowledge of danger? When is it merely the relation between counterpunctals that actually that which is reacted to?

This brings me to my final, determinative point. Morten Tønnessen, in his “Umwelt ethics,” (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003) attempts to bring a ethical joining of Arne Næss’s Deep Ecology and Umwelt theory. It is a wonderful outline of the possibilities of the thought including an informing critique of Uexküll’s actual political views, but it seems to lack a thorough connection between the two streams, presenting more a juxtaposition. Therein he mentions in passing how Næss identifies with a mountain, though in a manner which is strictly “subjective” and not “intersubjective”
Although he admits that mountains are not alive in a strict scientific sense, Næss himself claims that he identifies with Hallingskaret, where he has a cottage. Identification, as Næss conceives of it, has no natural barrier, and is not an inter-subjective, but a subjective phenomenon (5)

The counterpuntals  that form the outer reach and reference to the semiotic events within my skin, become themselves linked and signs for extended other differences in the world. This is to say, just what difference an organism is fully responding it can never be precisely determined. One can make a tick drop from a blade of grass by exposing it to the appropriate chemical stimulus, but what the tick is responding to is not butyric acid in some form of one-to-one correspondence (though you can make the tick drop again and again), but rather the tick is responding to the entire constellation of historical/genetic relations between chemical and mammal presence. When I look to my dog and see that she too is reading the world as dangerous the counterpuntal between her hair raised, and mine becomes expressive of other factors of the world. I am literally reading the world off of my dog’s states. My dog has become an organ of my perception.

The key to this perceptual logic is found in Spinoza’s Ethics:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

But I would like to depart from Spinoza’s rigorous and rather satisfying treatment of imaginative Ethics, and look instead to a semiotic, Exowelten, basis for the powers of this transmission of affects, one which will undermine the distinctly “subjective” character of even mountain-identification. And this way forward is provided if we cease to define the boundary of the subject at the skin, or somewhere there abouts, or at the locus of a phenomenological appearance of “outer world”, and realize that epistemically the limits of the organism exist at the locus of real, signifying events in the world, where the spider’s threads connect. The Exowelt is the manner in which contrapuntals open up to other differences that make a difference. This is to say, the differences that make an immediate difference in our organism themselves express relations which are making differences to the depths of an organism’s structure. The reason why my dog can become an organ of perception for me is that our Exowelten overlap, and to a great extent. The differences that form the outer limit of my epistemic body, out to which awareness reaches as how the blindman literally feels the world at the end of his cane, also compose the outer limits of my dog’s epistemic body, such that we are intimately (affectively) and semiotically linked. Ethics are foundationally experientially epistemic; and the organs of our perception go far beyond our ear and eye tissue.

The reason why Næss’s identification with Mt. Hallingskaret is not merely subjective is that subjectivity is necessarily Exowelt-bound, and the very sharing of Exowelt nexus points determines some degree of an implicit inter-subjectivity. And yes, mountains have Exowelten. If a musculature of an octopus’s swim motions can express the rule that water cannot be compressed, then where – what specific sign – in the octopus is this compressibility difference registered as a difference? Where is it “experienced” and making its appearance? And if not locatable, where not do the forces of gravity, wind and sun register their semiotic differences, reflectant in the mountain?

There is much to be said, for instance, about what a Spinozist/Davidsonian analysis could contribute to Morten Tønnessen’s Deep Ecology ethics, and even more to investigate in terms of just how Exowelten could overlap, and with what consequence. I hope to have opened up an avenue of extra-somatic interpretation of the real way that awareness crosses boudaries and resides in organs of  perception beyond what is well-considered our “body”.

So an animal, a thing is never separable from its relations with the world
– Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (125)