Our “group mind” considers a “Ph.D”, a Doctor of Philosophy, to be the height of intellectual achievement, despite the hollowing out and rotting of that degree today. Nothing like getting to know a bunch of contemporary Ph.D’s to dispel that particular indicator of superiority. The “love of wisdom” dates back to a time when the Greeks and Romans thought that — reasoning it out — men were all missing a rib because God removed one to make Eve and women had more teeth than men. Oh, and men are naturally superior to women. Philosophy meant reasoning things out, which is fine except their original evidence was never collected from reality and there was always a strong tilt towards the status quo. “Intellectuals” sat around thinking, ignoring the real world, and imagining categories of things that don’t exist.
The taxonomy of animals (including us) named according to appearance was shaken up when genome research revealed that their category assignments were often mistaken. (Most comprehensively when Euros renamed the North American animals according to their resemblance to Euro equivalents. Including, notoriously, Indians.) A revolution through science and direct experimentation has also challenged our understanding of human thought. Not just the content but also the way humans are in the world, how they form and use their minds. This short post is what I’ve managed to grasp so far, so I’m probably wrong in some ways, but I think my core understanding is reliable.
First of all, this radical anthropology is NOT philosophy, and philosophy is NOT knowledge of reality. (One of the issues is whether there IS reality.) It is a set of assumptions built up mostly in the academic setting, which has given shelter to peoples’ love of sitting around arguing. They’ve used the time to invent categories and then hand them out to a world eager to enforce them, even criminalize them, if not build religious systems on them. First was God, reducing all conversation about religion to focusing on a giant humanoid in the sky or some replacement. Lately it has been defining desire, both sexual and wealth-defined groups. Philosophy is a “holodeck” that makes virtual worlds seem real.
The Star Trek holodeck.
I’ll start with neurology, which has been focused on the brain. Gradually we realize that the brain is only the dashboard for a creature existing as a skin-defined entity in the world. Thinking -- as the accumulation of data, as decision for action, and for storage of memory -- happens all over the body.
The first beginner’s mistake is to privilege the neurons that manage relationship with the out-skin world. Even when I was in college ’57-61, everyone paid more attention to in-coming stimuli of the nerves (tormenting rats with shocks and sounds and isolating them until there was nothing to do but get addicted). No attention to what the nerves told the muscles to do, which wasn't pretty. Scientists tried to control what the rats did (conditioning) instead of observing how rats lived naturally, which was intensely social. They could not see the flesh they themselves “lived in” any more than a fish could see the water it swam in. And they tended to be cold fish.
Though dominated by how we know the world -- the senses -- to the philosophers or even the scientists not long ago were ONLY the five sense organs. They had no suspicion that there were 200 different kinds of cells in the brain capable of sensing things like how close to a wall the person was. The many information systems feeding from cells to the brain (both specialized cells using neurons and regulating molecules that use liquid circulation instead of neurons) — intricate and plentiful as they are — nevertheless are limited compared to an elephant’s feet (which pick up very low sounds from the earth) or the pigeon’s head (magnetic GPS).
The striated muscles of an imaginary (virtual) being.
"Ganesh, is that you?"
Decisions and control over action can be automatic, nearly automatic, or hard-wired like an instinct that says “if-then” — if you lay an egg, sit on it! Consider the diff between smooth and striated muscles. “Smooth muscle is an involuntary non-striated muscle. It is divided into two subgroups; the single-unit (unitary) and multiunit smooth muscle. Within single-unit cells, the whole bundle or sheet contracts as a syncytium (i.e. a multinucleate mass of cytoplasm that is not separated into cells). Multiunit smooth muscle tissues innervate individual cells; as such, they allow for fine control and gradual responses, much like motor unit recruitment in skeletal muscle.” No one works on developing their smooth muscles in the gym.
Which takes me to the most major ignored nervous system in the reflections of philosophers, at least those with Euro-mind sets: the autonomic nervous system with its sympathetic v. parasympathetic reciprocality. They're considered "just" emotional. Many features in the body are paired: one kind of molecule balanced by its antithesis, one muscle working against the skeleton in tandem with a second contracting oppositely. The gut, though smooth muscle, “thinks” because it is a kind of second brain with a neuron sleeve and a high response/production of the same molecules as the brain. We say, accurately, “I have a gut feeling this won’t work.”
A heart/lung casting made from the real organs.
Another crucial and neglected loop is the hydraulic pumping of the blood through the heart/lung so as to re-oxygenate the red blood cells. Using the same tubing plus the interstitial fluid of the inner sea that bathes the cells, are the white blood cells. AIDS has made us crucially conscious of those free-lance identifiers and destroyers of microbial invaders. They recognize, they act. Is that not “thinking” of a sort?
But not to academic philosophers who are obliged like lawyers (a side branch of philosophy, creating categories and dealing with them, forgetting they are invented) to rely on precedent and all the big shot thinkers before them. When the Deconstructionists got to these folks and began to remove the pick-up sticks from their houses built of cards (I love mixed metaphors) they were hair-raising to big shots. We still don’t know whether they were like Sampson pulling down the temple on his own head. (Hair, heads, temples. Such images.) But there are now cracks in the pillars.
Sampson brings down the temple while in it.
The “thinking” systems within the body, those that maintain the homeostasis necessary for survival, are not conscious. To philosophers (who were NOT scientists) they were therefore not interesting because they wanted to think about a certain KIND of consciousness which was enshrined in language and far more prestigious, “higher”. What Ph.D.'s do. That is introspection, reflection about one’s own convictions. Anything less than that was “animal,” just flesh. Subhuman. Therefore they failed to confront the necessary homeostasis issues that kept them alive to think.
In fact, they carefully avoided and denied much, to the point of cruelty and oppression. Physical well-being, unless it is a matter of dominance, doesn’t seem to interest them. And yet experiments reveal that thinking is dependent on attitude and blood supply, which is a matter for the in-skin body and its well-being, so as to produce actions that take it effectively into the out-skin world.
Blackfeet at the beginning of the 20th century
The great survival skill of humans is the ability to create homeostasis out of multiple environments. They can adjust to being peasants living on a lot of hard work and a minimum of high-carbohydrate food. They can adjust (less successfully) to being uber-wealthy, devoted to rich food, alcohol, uncomfortable clothes, and sitting.
In fact, our variousness saves us, weaving back and forth through the genome, annotated by the epigenome, and adjusted to suit the materials at hand, so that someone somewhere can survive whatever the environment throws at us, whether an asteroid or a drought. Sometimes — make that “often” — I think we are most vulnerable because of our thinking in Ph.D. virtual terms instead of relying on our gut impulses. Bodies know valuable things.