Embodied Human Consciousness, Abrupt Global Climate Change, and Freedom - S. David Stoney, Ph.D.

Feelings - Prehension, the term Whitehead used for the mode of nonsensory perception that underlies our ability to know self and world, has been described by Charles Hartshorne as a "feeling of feelings" by natural individuals (actual occasions, organisms, or experiential events in Whitehead's terminology). This raises the question of just what the proper referents of the terms "feeling" and "feelings" are in the process philosophical approach. This essay and the accompanying quotations - currently a work in progress - attempt to address that issue.

"Our feelings are the most important aspect of our life. When there is no feeling life has lost its value. Feelings are as real as atoms, tables and chairs." (Charles Birch, Feelings, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, pg. 35, 1995)

"The doctrine of sympathy ...is that all feeling feels other feeling, all reaction has an object which itself is reactive, and all meaning means other meaning, as well as reactions and feelings ...that we have objects at all is due entirely to the ...immanent sociality of experience."(Charles Hartshorne, Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature, pg. 185, 1937.)

"The question of the proper description of the species of qualities termed 'sensa' is important. Unfortunately, the learned tradition has missed their main characteristic, which is their enormous emotional significance. The vicious notion has been introduced of mere receptive entertainment, which for no obvious reason by reflection qcquires an affective tone. The very opposite is the true explanation." (Alfred North Whitehead, cited by Charles Hartshorne in The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensations, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934.)

"Of the continuity of intrinsic qualities of feeling we can now form but a feeble conception. The development of the human mind has practically extinguished all feelings, except a few sporadic kinds, sounds, colors, smells, warmth, etc., which now appear to be disconnected and disparate. In the case of colors, there is a tri-dimensional spread of feelings. Originally, all feelings may have been connected in the same way..." (Charles S. Pierce, cited by Charles Hartshorne in The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensations, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934.)

"I was led to my interest in animal emotions by experiences with animals - some traumatic, some deeply touching - as well as by the seeming opacity and inacessibility of human feelings compared with their undiluted purity and clarity, at times, in my animal friends, and especially of animals in the wild." (Jeffrey Maussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, NY: Delacorte Press, pg. xiii, 1995.)

"Given a number of dimensions of feeling, all possible varieties are obtainable by varying the intensities of the different elements." (Charles S. Pierce, ibid, pg. 209, 1934.)

"Consciousness is a sort of public spirit among the nerve cells." (Charles S. Pierce, ibid, pg. 243, 1934.)

"In what terms shall the animal sense the active tendencies of the environment? It cannot form an abstract concept of 'energy' in the lifeless sense of physics. There is only one thing it can do, namely, feel the (real or illusory) feelings and desires of the environment. It primitive man was unable to conceive the physical in abstraction from the psychical, in particular from volitions and emotions, how much less must animals be capable of escaping this panpsychic form of apprehension. And what is each of us in so far as our sensations and affections alone are considered but an animal? ...An inevitable question, therefore, is whether sensation is essentially the meeting-point of self with 'things' - as pure 'not-selves' - or of self with self in the form of social fellow. And, be it not forgotten, that the most immediate contact of sensation, as nearly all admit, is with what are indubitably living organisms, namely, the nerve cells. These are low-grade fellow-animals, but fellow animals they are. This fact has remained wholly external to the orthodox view of sensation." (Charles Hartshorne, The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensations, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pg. 112, 1934.)

"For me sensation has always been... a special form of feeling or intuitive valuation. The sweetness of fruit and other sugars is an organism's sense of 'good to eat.' Even horses have it. The bitterness or sourness of some substances found in nature is a feeling of 'bad to eat,' the saltiness of sea water, a feeling of 'bad to drink.' This is a biologically intelligible view of sensation, which is more that can be said of the way many, but far from all, philosophers and psychologists have viewed the matter. I hold that color and sound qualities are, less obviously but still truly, to be similarly interpreted... Sensory qualities are intrinsically adaptive. Evolution has brought this about.
     Most intellectuals are too far from nature and the primitive modes of human and primate existence (in which sense organs and related parts of brains were much as they are now) to easily see the point... Reality is an ocean of feelings." (Charles Hartshorne, The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, Open Court, pg. 26 & 544, 1991.)

"[To] say that a creature feels is not to say how it feels." (Charles Hartshorne, Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature, pg. 168, 1937.)

"[T]here is in the idea of feeling no definite reason for supposing that only animals with nervous systems feel." (Charles Hartshorne, ibid, pg. 168,1937.)

"[I]t is out of the question that science, in its present state, can furnish any ground against the belief that all [natural] individuals feel." (Charles Hartshorne, ibid,pg. 169.)

"[N]othing can attract and hold the attention in the presence of strong feeling except strong feeling." (Charles Hartshorne, ibid, pg. 180)

"Emotion is the shortest distance between two people." (Unknown, cited in Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, The Subtlety of Emotions, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pg. 77. 2000.)

"If one accepts the importance of consciousness in understanding many psychological issues, the ultimate questions are: How can a brain feel its ancestral emotions and motivations? How are the intrinsic emotional processes generated by brain tissue and intermixed with representations of specific life activities? And how can we construct a third-person consensual science that is intimately linked to first-person subjective experiences?" (Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, NY: Oxford University Press, pg. 303, 1998.)

"Understanding is a special form of feeling." Alfred North Whitehead, Prcess and Reality ((Corrected Edition), David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, Eds., NY: Free Press, pg. 143, 1978.)

"Can mind arise from no mind [i.e., insentience, and an absolute lack of awareness or capacity to feel]? That question is central to the history of feelings in the evolution of the cosmos." (Charles Birch, Feelings, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, pg. 69, 1995)

The perennial problem of panexperientialism is the charge that its followers believe that atoms, rocks, and trees are "conscious" in the same way that human beings are conscious. Such charges, though specious and indicative of a failure to seriously consider the issue, are remarkably resilient and persistent. It is this mistaken notion that gives rise to the idea that Whitehead's philosophy is a variety of idealism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In the panexperiential view of the Whitehead/Hartshorne/Cobb/Nobo/Griffin school of thought, a capacity for awareness of feeling is recognized from top to bottom in the universe. Every actual occasion (experiential event, occasion of experience, actual entity, organism, or natural individual), be it a virtual photon whose duration of existence is too brief to be measured (e.g., see Lawrence W. Fagg, Electromagnetism and the Sacred: At the Frontier of Spirit and Matter, New York: Continuum, 1999) or, perhaps, the universe itself, whose duration of existence is too long to be measured, shares in a primordial capacity for awareness of feeling. There is, if you will, associated with each actual occasion a feeling state that accompanies its physical existence and it is this feeling state that justifies the term panexperiential (pan = everything; experiential = experiencing). However - and this is the point that naive critics of panexperientialism often miss - having a capacity for awareness of feeling, i.e., being able to experience, is quantitatively and, perhaps even, qualitatively different than "being conscious" as we typically imply when we use the word. Although the term consciousness in its everyday usage necessarily implies awareness and feelings, the presence of awareness and feelings do not imply consciousness as the term is ordinarily used. Charles Hartshorne (Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature, pg. 169-70), 1937.) expressed this principle of graded mentality as follows:

"[P]anpsychism, the alternative to dualism, does not insist that 'mind' has no degrees and must be present if at all in unlimited fashion. Quite the contrary, panpsychism insists always upon the graduated or relative character of mentality. It not only admits but emphasizes that a dog's mind is less of a mind than a man's, and that of a moron less than that of a genius. And it points out that this diminution of mentality need not stop at the dog, or the frog, or even the amoeba. Relatively and for many purposes we may say that the dog is mindless; still more that a protozoon, and even more emphatically that a molecule is mindless, unconscious, purposeless. But that such creatures are absolutely without the least degree of that which reaches a high degree in human awareness and purpose - that the panpsychist will not admit. And he further will not admit that the lower degrees of awareness are due to the dilution of mind by its mixture with increasing doses of another something, matter. He points out that when consciousness is lowered, as when one is falling asleep, there is no intrusion of a foreign element but simply the decrease in vividness of the aspects of awareness itself. The limit of this decrease in vividness is not matter but non-existence. The absolute opposite of infinite awareness is simply complete unawareness. What light is cast upon the zero point of mentality by calling it matter?"

Now make no mistake that we are still taking baby steps with regard to understanding the aware universe, so we cannot yet - and, according to the implications of Godel's theorem, may never be able to - give a fully consistent, coherent, and intelligible account of embodied human consciousness from the ground up. Such a quest is likely misguided since it implies a granularity to feeling that may not exist. Feelings are shameless joiners and have no respect for classical boundaries; they readily meld and blend to produce more complicated, intricate feelings

One strong argument against a strictly materialist view of the nature of things, one that accepts the notion of insentient matter, goes, in a nutshell, something like this. Presume, if you will, that you believe that the universe, at its most fundamental level, is mainly stuff like quarks, electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, etc. Very well. You will admit, I'm sure, that our senses work best with regard to macroscopic aggregates of this stuff, allowing us to know about rocks, trees, and other living creatures, but that, unaided by scientific extensions, our senses are very significantly deficient with respect to the molecular or atomic constituents of the things that we have come to know through the ordinary operations of our senses. Now of the things and objects known to each of us, the one each of us knows perhaps best of all (and some, those comfortable with solipsism, would argue, the only thing we know), is ourself in our very own body, our self with with our very own brain, senses, and feelings. So be it? If so, then here is the question which, if intellectual integrity is to be preserved, you must be willing to address: What is the evidence that proves to you that other macroscopic and microscopic entities do not have feelings? Does, for example, the fact of an ion's valence or the spin or charm of a subatomic particle/event establish the absence of any capacity for experience? I think not.

Consciousness, as the term is generally used by panexperientialists, speaks to a body-centered self-awareness that is capable of describing its place and direction in the world. Consciousness is a honed, yet limited state of awareness, awareness with depth field, that has been shaped by eons of human social interaction. Through consciousness and social interaction, culture and civilization have blossomed, and these have served as mirrors for self, mirrors in whose reflection our individuation has occurred and grown. Technological developments in culture have shaped and reinforced our sense of self and our sense of separation from the environment. This, in turn, has led to what many would describe as an under-valuation of feeling, together with an over-valuation of knowing, at some expense of understanding. But, considering the circumstances here in 2003 CE, this is not such a bad thing. The truth is that we need all the knowledge we can get to deal with the real world where abrupt global climate change threatens the fruits of civilization. Wishful thinking, feeling very, very sad about it, or presuming to help Jesus'return by blindly supporting Israel's (not entirely unwarranted) oppression of Palestinians will not, as far as we know interrupt the earth's on-going climate cycle. It is clear that we desperately need leaders who, with compassion and courage, will lead from a base of knowledge and understanding, not just belief and ideology.

William James in Principles of Psychology (1890) speaks of conscious experience always being "fringed" with less certain, vague awareness, including a dimly perceived experience of relatedness. In Varieties of Religious Experience he wrote:

" It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there,' more deep and more general than any of the special and particular 'senses' by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed."

This is nothing more, nothing less than our ability to prehend, at any moment, the feelings of actual occasions that constitute the world. It is the base upon which reality as given by the senses rests and it is prehension of feelings that allows awareness of relations. James addresses this important aspect of things in Principles of Psychology:

"We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use."

As Marcus Ford observed in his chapter about James (Ford in Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy), "Experience includes the experience of the connectedness, the disjointedness, the alongwithness, the hypotheticalness, and the like, just as surely as it includes colors and temperatures."

More to come....

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Last modified January 16, 2003

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