Ever Wonder What It’s Like To Be a Mouse?

Ever Wonder What It’s Like To Be a Mouse?

By   |  Jan. 8, 2015

Each Section in the “Seizing an Alternative” conference launches with a plenary lecture focused on one aspect of Whitehead’s thought particularly relevant to the tracks in that Section. Nancy Howell is the plenary speaker for Section III with a lecture titled, “Ever Wonder What It’s Like To Be a Mouse?” and will discuss the topic of this post.  


Modern philosophy began with the understanding that sense experience leads to the only reliable knowledge of the external world.  Most of the reflection focused on sight and touch.  We see patches of color.  We feel solid objects.  We understand that the world is made up of solid objects that have various properties such as color.

This world of solid objects or material substances undergoes change.  Most strikingly they move. The sun draws water from the ocean and rain dumps it on the land.  Water then runs down hill.  It erodes river banks and carries silt, and even rocks and trees with it.  These motions can be explained by attractions and repulsions, pushes and pulls.  Complex machines can be built on these principles.  And indeed the whole of nature can be understood to be a very, very complex machine.

There is another kind of change.   The properties of substantial objects, such as colors, also change, but these changes can be explained by substantial changes.  The fading of a color results from molecular changes.  The substances themselves move, and it is really these motions that are at the root of changes in the properties.  Accordingly this early modern worldview is sometimes described as holding the view that all nature is simply matter in motion.  Although ideas of this sort were widespread in the seventeenth century, they were given clear and convincing formulation especially by Rene Descartes, often called the founder of modern philosophy.  We can call this materialist, mechanistic view of nature “Cartesian.”

Of course, there are always questions of meaning.  Not everyone understands “matter” in exactly the same way.  But at least in its modern usage, “matter” is not a “subject.”  It is not an agent.  If it moves, this means that it is moved by something else.  It does not initiate an action.  Equally it does not have an “inside.”  It does not “feel” or experience.  To understand how matter has been viewed, think of your own idea of a stone.  You do not expect it to move on its own.  On the contrary, if it moves you ask what made it move.  If I answered that it moved itself, you would not take me seriously.  Similarly, when you step on a stone or even break one up into pieces, you are not likely to think that you may be offending it or causing it pain.  The Cartesian worldview as adopted by modern science held that all of nature is to be understood in the way you understand a stone.

Most of us would regard it as nonsensical to ask: What is it like to be a stone?  That implies wrongly attributing subjectivity to the stone.  But many people throughout the years have thought that animals were not like stones.  They seem to move themselves and they act as though they sometimes suffer pain and fear.  Cartesian philosophy and modern science have denied that there is really this kind of difference between animals and other parts of nature.  Animals can also be explained as matter in motion.

Early modern scientists liked to point to the clock on the Strasbourg cathedral.  Every quarter hour figures appeared, and on the hour they performed an elaborate dance.  Clearly the figures were nothing more than machines, but their actions were similar to those of living people.  The conclusion was that the complex behavior of living things does not conflict with the belief that they are machines.

Accordingly, the dominant modern answer to the question in the title of this lecture is that there is nothing to think of.  A lump of matter does not have any experience with which one could exercise empathetic imagination.  To imagine what it would be like to be one of the dancers in the Strasbourg clock would not make any sense either.  The fact that a machine behaves in complex ways does not imply that it is a subject.  In the Cartesian view, the mouse is such a machine.

To attribute feelings to these animals was to commit the “pathetic fallacy.”  In order to break the deep-seated habit of treating animals as if they had feelings, some made a point of treating them  as though their expressions of fear and pain were no more than the sounds sometimes made by a machine that is not well oiled.  Even today, the industrial production of meat takes no account of any subjective experience on the part of cows, pigs, and chickens.

Descartes and most early moderns were quite sure that they themselves, and human beings generally, were not simply matter in motion.  Indeed, Descartes taught that we are immortal souls.  He was convinced that God’s creation of human beings was quite separate from God’s creation of nature.  We are emphatically above nature.  Our task is to subdue nature and make it serve us.  Science learns its secrets in order to manipulate it.  The people who denied any subjectivity to animals, taught that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.”  Obviously the flourishing of slavery shows that they were not fully committed to their own assertions, but that is a different story.

Darwin developed his theory of evolution against this background.  Clearly it was revolutionary.  It showed that human beings are a part of nature.  People are quite sure that they have subjective experience; so it seems that nature includes subjective experience.  In principle this was a dramatic challenge to the Cartesian worldview that had shaped modern science.  It could be interpreted as calling for deep changes in scientific practice as well as theory.

However, the scientific community was deeply wedded to a practice that had been exceedingly successful.  It did not give any serious consideration to change.   Fundamental to science was the view that nature exists only objectively or at least that it should be studied on the assumption that nature is a closed system.  That is, science aims to explain objective nature exclusively in terms of objective nature. To put it negatively, many scientists believe it is unscientific, even anti-scientific, to explain what happens objectively by something subjective.  For example, to say that the intelligent purposes of animals responding to a changing environment played a role in the survival of some rather than others would not be an acceptable explanation.

Instead of modifying this principle when nature was extended to include human beings, scientists increasingly applied the methods they already used in the study of nature to study human beings as well.  In other words, the inclusion of human beings within nature did not lead to the conclusion that nature is richer and more complex than previously thought.  It led instead to the conclusion that human beings can be understood as part of the natural machine.

Once again, this led to great successes.  A great deal about human beings, like other animals, can be learned when we are studied in this way.  On the other hand, the overall results are, to say the least, problematic.  For example, scientists developed new species of living things while teaching that purpose plays no role in evolution.   No one really believes that genetic modification of organisms is a completely purposeless activity.  Nevertheless, faithful adherence to the principles proclaimed in the mainstream of science requires this conclusion.  More broadly professors who teach science officially understand their subjective interests and desires as playing no role in this process.  Again, that any of these professors actually believe that they are zombies is doubtful.

This situation in which what is taught is inconsistent with what the teachers actually believe is far removed from wisdom.  It maintains itself only be excluding discussion of the questions of common sense and of wisdom from the public realm.  These questions are labeled “metaphysics,” and this term is spoken with scorn.  It is vaguely understood to be complex reflection about irrelevant matters.  The proper function of the university, on the other hand, is the expansion of knowledge that enables the increase of human control.  Again questions about “knowledge” and “control” are dismissed as “metaphysical.”

In so far as the reality of human feelings and thought and purposes cannot be flatly denied, they have to be seen as “epiphenomenal.” That means that their occurrence is caused by physical events and makes no difference in what happens in the physical world.  This preserves the central assumption of the Cartesian view of nature:  it is a closed system.  This means that the brain in its physical activities is the cause not only of bodily movements and speech but also of the thoughts and feelings that accompany them.  When you decide to type a word and do so, the decision seems to you to be yours as a conscious, responsible person.  But according to this dominant world view, it is entirely the result of events at the neuronal level.  And, to repeat, the belief system requires that the activities of the brain be explained without reference to subjective experience.  Neuroscience is assigned the task of showing how brain events cause subjective events without being affected by them.

Unfortunately for those committed to this dominant worldview, the close study of the relation between subjective purposes and decisions, on the one side, and neuronal events on the other, shows that they interact.  Subjective experience affects neuronal events just as neuronal events affect subjective experience.  The basic project of showing that, even when human beings are included in nature, objective data constitute a closed system fails.

Scientists like to contrast themselves with others by their faithfulness to evidence.  Sadly, they resist evidence that does not fit their pre-commitments.  Aristotelian scientists at the papal court refused to look through the telescope because they would see what did not fit their philosophical convictions about the heavenly bodies.  Modern scientists have all along ignored a great deal of evidence about mental activities that does not fit their materialist presuppositions.  Their tendency, still, to sideline the evidence that Buddhist meditation, for example, affects the brain shows how powerfully presuppositions dominate over empirical evidence.  The refusal to re-examine metaphysical presuppositions based on the exclusion of metaphysical reflection cannot be sustained indefinitely when so much of the findings of science, from quantum theory to neuroscience, contradicts these presuppositions.

The major defense of moving ahead with assumptions that do not fit either our most basic experience or the evidence produced by empirical investigations is to point to the great and unquestioned achievements of this science.  It is argued that as long as it advances knowledge, now even at an accelerating rate, metaphysical quibbles should be ignored.  Regrettably, however, scientific advances are now contributing far more to making the planet uninhabitable than to guiding us into a secure future.  Unless science subordinates itself to the quest for wisdom, it must accept continuing responsibility for destroying the civilization it claims to advance.  The present situation is unstable.  It is time, and long past time, to give up the commitment to seventeenth-century metaphysics.

Fortunately, at the margins, some thinkers have long argued for a transformation of our understanding of nature and of our way of studying it.  If we are part of nature, then nature has an inside as well as an outside.  Evolutionary thinking does not support the idea that this inside came into being for the first time with the first human.  Humans are living psychophysical beings who gradually became a distinct species with extraordinary capacities.  The nature of which we are a part contains many other species of living psychophysical beings.  To be a chimpanzee is certainly different from being a human being, but there is assuredly much similarity as well.  That similarity is considerably reduced in relation to a mouse, but it is far from gone.  It is not wholly gone in relation to a unicellular organism.

Whitehead was one of those who undertook to re-think nature.  He taught that even the most elementary actual entities are “organisms.”  Strictly, for him, this does not mean that they are “alive,” but it does mean that they are more like living things than like what is imagined as a lump of matter.  They receive from the past and are themselves acts of self-constitution that affect the future.  They are affected by their environment and are what they are only as participants in fields of activity.  He gave lectures on “Nature Lifeless” and “Nature Alive” in which he contrasted his own view with the one that continues to this day to dominate the scientific community.

The alienation from nature that is generated by the dualism of the human and the natural was only exacerbated by the inclusion of human beings in mechanical nature.  Human beings cannot really understand themselves as machines, even though the theories that dominate the modern research university imply this view.  Seeing our own actions as part of the world machine only deepens our alienation.

When we move instead to see how much of what we have prized as unique about ourselves is shared with our fellow creatures, the result is quite the opposite.  We belong to nature.  Our exploitation of other creatures for our supposed benefit no longer seems self-evidently right and wise.  We cannot cease to use others.  They all use one another.  As Whitehead writes: “All life is robbery.”  However, he adds “But the robber requires justification.”  As participants in nature we must reflect about the tragic necessity of using others for our own well-being.  The indifferent exploitation justified by the Cartesian worldview cannot continue.


Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.

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