- Alicia Juarrero - Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System
- Eric Perl - Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition
- Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch, and Evan Thompson - The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience
- “Part of what makes your life meaningful is that you have cultivated a character that allows you to actualize your potential. Your purpose. Your capacity to overcome self-deception and to enhance your contact with reality. This is wisdom.”
- Most modern forms of self-improvement are vacuous because they have no depth.
Welcome back to awakening from the meaning crisis. So last time we discussed the important and foundational work of Plato. The grammar of Western civilization is basically made up of the Bible and Plato. We’ll keep coming back to both of those repeatedly in certain ways. And we talked about Plato’s notion of wisdom and how it involved this process of aligning the psyche so as to reduce inner-conflict and reduce self-deception by bullshitting ourselves and how that enabled us to also achieve one of our meta-desires – the desire for inner peace, but how we could also align that reduction in self-deception with getting more in contact with what’s real. And that as we practice tracking real patterns in the world we could then reflectively internalize that back on ourselves. And there was an intimate connection between how we knew the world and knew ourselves. And as we increased our ability to pick up on real patterns we could increase our self knowledge, reduce our self deception increase our contact with reality and that would flow in the process of Anagoge. And that would bring about the satisfaction of our second meta-desire which is to be in contact with wellness.
And so Plato has this idea of wisdom as this Anagogic process, and we talked about that in connection with his great parable, “The parable of the cave”. I then pointed out that he had – just as Socrates was lucky to have a great disciple in Plato – Plato was lucky to have a great disciple in Aristotle. Aristotle is pivotal for us because he lays the foundation for further aspects of a scientific approach to wisdom and meaning and also for an important formulation of one of the ways in which we deeply connect the self to reality that we’re going to talk about when we talk about world view.
So as I mentioned, Aristotle was a student of Plato. He studies with Plato for about 20 years and then at some point he breaks away from Plato, famously claiming “that while I love Plato, I love the truth more”. Aristotle remained, and many people would argue this (Gerson for example and others), that Aristotle remains in some very important senses a Platonist. But there was an aspect of Plato’s work that Aristotle thought was lacking. Plato did not really, adequately, account for change. So Aristotle was deeply influenced by Plato’s account of what made something real for us. But he thought that Plato could not really explain change very well and he was going to invent some very important concepts that are going to become integral to our understanding of what it is to be meaningfully connected to reality.
Now Aristotle is very influenced by his father who is a physician. He’s much more of a biologist than a mathematician so while Plato is much more prone to using mathematical analogies, Aristotle is much more used to using biological analogies and the word that Aristotle uses for change is actually better translated as “growth” or “develope”. Aristotle was really interested in how living things grow; how they develop. And that should pick up your ears right away because part of, I take it, what we often mean when we say we have a “meaningful life” is that we are “growing” or “developing”. in fact people will often use the word growth as a way of indicating an improvement in the meaning of their life and in some sense the developing of wisdom. So Aristotle picks up on Plato’s notion of the ‘idos’. So if you remember last time we talked about this. We talked about, that a bird is much more than a set of its features. It’s not just a beak. It’s not just some feathers. It’s this “gestalt”. It’s that structural functional organization such that all the parts function together as a whole and so what you have is something that acts as a bird.
And that pattern, that “logos”, that “Idos” is very hard, actually, to put into words. But it’s very much what does two things for us: It’s what makes a bird a bird. And it’s also the pattern by which we come to know what a bird is – when we can grasp the structural functional organization (that Idos), then we understand what a bird is. Now Aristotle was very impressed by that, but he wanted to give it a more dynamical approach. He wanted to talk about it in terms of development. And so he was very interested, as I said, in how things grow. And he noted the role that form had in growth and development. So what he did was he first started with an analogy. So he would use the analogy of artifacts – human made things – and then use that to try and understand biological things. So, for example, I can have a block of wood and I can make it into a chair, or perhaps a table or if it’s big enough amount of wood I can make it into a ship or a boat. And Aristotle asked “what makes the wood behave like a chair, as opposed to a table. Or to a ship?”. And this is where we get the notion of “actuality” from. We often use the word actuality, in fact, as a way of talking about realness: “It’s an ‘actual’ something” is way of saying “it’s a ‘real’ something” as opposed to a fraud or a simulation. So, what makes a chair act like a chair? Why does the wood act like a chair here, act like a table here, and act like a ship here? And so Aristotle said “Well first of all this is important change, and it’s a good analogy for development.” When I’m making a chair, that’s somehow analogous for how an organism is growing.
So what is it? What makes the wood act like a chair here and act like a table here? And his argument was “well it’s the ‘form’!” Again where this means “idos”, not “shape”; although you can use shape as an analogy. This is the Structural Functional Organization. The wood is Structurally Functionally Organized in such a way that it will act like a chair. Whereas here it will act like a table and here it will act like a ship. Now, Aristotle’s point is that it’s not that “this” (THE WOOD ITSELF) doesn’t play any role! But he invents this really important idea. He invents the idea that the wood is “Potential”. These terms “actual” and “potential” actually come from Aristotle. We use them every day. We think they are just part of our natural grammar, but they’re actually an invention of Aristotle. We’re gonna see how important they are.
So the idea is that wood is potentially a chair. Wood is potentially a table. Wood is potentially a ship. Now when that potential has a particular form given to it, then it starts acting like a chair. It starts acting like a table and acting like a ship and this is where we get the notion of “information” from. You put a form into something and you will actualize its potential, namely you will give it a Structural Functional Organization so it will start to act in a particular manner. Now that’s really important!
And then what Aristotle argued is “well what you see in living things is that they are basically doing this for themselves. I just mean this is an analogy: a living thing is like a chair that is making itself. A chair – imagine that a chair could somehow start to impose a structural functional organization on wood so that it started to turn itself into a chair…? That’s what a living thing does! Food! Food is potential you. You put food into you, you inform it, there’s a code in your DNA that ultimately puts a particular form in it that gives it a structural functional organization that becomes you. Now of course this unfolds across time. That doesn’t happen like that (clicking fingers to demonstrate happening instantly) and that’s why we see it as change and development. Now this is really important as we’ll see because it’s going to be foundational to understanding a lot about how you connect to the world.
So, how are we going to make use of this in talking about the way human beings are connected to reality? The way they develop and grow as cognitive agents? So what I want to do first is to step aside from Aristotle in the axial age and move into current cognitive science and talk about an important way of thinking about development and change. Especially the work of Alicia Juarrero that was directly and explicitly inspired by this Aristotleian framework. So when we talk about how things change, we often have a model that we inherited from the scientific revolution. A model we get from Newton. And this is a model that change occurs because of causal impact. So the standard thing is: “here is this marker… I press it…. Why did it move? It moved because I pushed it!”. Seems so obvious and non-controversial. Right? So we give an explanation: “what causes it to be, BECAUSE it was pushed.” …and the idea of “All change and development is: there is an event A and it somehow causes event B, causes event C. Event A precedes B makes B happen and then B precedes C, and B makes C happen. So as Newton was engaging in the scientific revolution this notion of how things happen was becoming prominent in him. And for the people that were going to take up the Newtonian world view. Now what was very interesting about that is that this (A->B->C) seemed to solve a lot of problems. And this was brought out by a famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who Alicia Jurado talks about. Kant was interested in “why was this Newtonian model becoming so successful?”. The Aristotelian model had been around for thousands of years – why was Newton’s model overtaking it so rapidly?
And what Kant said as well… This does something very wonderful for us because what it does is gives us a very simple account of how we explain things. I explain C by showing you how it was preceded by an event B that caused it, and how B was preceded by an event A that caused it. Very nice, linear, clean we’re like “it seems that… Isn’t that what’s happening?” …So obvious, right? And again remember, again and again, I’ve tried to show you that things that seem so obvious, so natural, are actually historical creations. You have to pay attention to how we got where we are. Now, why does this matter? Well, because this (A->B->C) prevents a kind of vacuous explanation that can occur. This prevents what are called “Circular Explanations”. This line (causality) prevents circular explanations.A circular explanation is when you assume the very thing you’re trying to explain in your explanation.
Here’s a standard kind of model – people often use this without realizing – there’s a triangle out here in the world (draws on board). The light comes in into my eye, it goes to nerve pulses, that goes into my consciousness, it’s somehow projected onto an inner screen and then there’s a triangle there and then there’s a little man inside and he goes “triangle!”. And we have updated versions of this, like the central executive and such. This is called a homuncular theory. Homunculus means “a little man”. When you present it like that (diagramatic form drawn on board) I hope you can all see why this is obviously useless because what you should then ask is Well how does a little man see the little triangle inside. And then what you go is “well inside the little man’s head there is an even smaller screen with a littler man Golden ‘Triangle!!’”. But how does he see? “Triangle, Triangle…!” You see what this is? It’s an infinite regress because you’re actually using vision to try and explain vision. Please remember this notion of a homuncular fallacy, because that’s what this is, because while it’s easy to explain I need you to understand that we fall into it very often when we try and understand and explain ourselves.
That (homuncular illustration) is a circular explanation because you’re using the very thing you’re trying to explain in order to explain it. Kant said this Newtonian scheme (A->B->C) is wonderful because if you stick to its grammar, if you stick to its rules, the cause has to be an independent event that precedes… then you don’t fall into circular explanations. That’s amazing.
Now, you’ve got some problems here (before/preceding “A->”): what started it all? Maybe God…? and then Kant says “no!” and he’s got all his arguments, and I’m not going to get into that right now. Suffice it to say that this (A->B->C) became a predominant way of trying to explain how things work. But then Kant encountered a very significant problem. And it’s not a coincidence that it has to do with the kinds of things we were talking about with Aristotle. The kinds of things that can grow. Living things. Because Kant went out and he saw a tree! And this was very problematic for him because trees don’t follow this model readily. Becuse… He was looking at it and he was saying “okay, well what’s making the tree?” Well it’s the sunlight! “Well how does the sunlight get in?” Through the leaves! “So… what’s making the leaves?”. Well, the tree! “So, the tree makes the leaves and the leaves make the tree! So the tree is making the tree!!” And he coined the term “Self-Organizing”. The tree is Self-Organizing. Now the problem with that is living things make use of “Feedback Cycles”. In a feedback cycle the output from the system feeds back into the system. The tree makes the leaves, that gathers energy that goes into the processes that makes the leaves. Living things are self organizing. They use feedback cycles but when I try and give an explanation of a feedback cycle, I fall into a circular explanation.
I fall into a circular explanation! So Kant came to a rather startling conclusion. He came to the conclusion that there could not be a science of living things! That biology was impossible. No Kant is a towering intellect, he’s a genius. A philosophical genius. And so you can’t just sort of dismiss that. “Well there obviously is biology. What an idiot Kant is!” ..No no!! You’re the one who needs to step back and think: “Where’s the mistake in the argument?”! Because if there is biology (and it’s true that there is, and I agree that there is), and that living things use feedback cycles (which they necessarily do) they’re self-organizing (which they necessarily are) and when I try and trace out the causation I get into circular explanation (which seems like a necessary thing) and circular explanations are vacuous and empty… Then where is Kant going wrong?
This is what Alisha Juarrero takes up and she said “actually for a very long time we had no way of solving this problem”. And so there was a huge gap between our biology and our physics. Now again, why are we caring about this? Because we need to… If we’re going to understand Aristotle, if we’re going to deeply understand what we mean when we talk about that we are living things that grow and develop and that growth and development is integral to our meaning and our sense of who and what we are – our ‘personal identity’ – that if we cannot give an answer to this problem (issues / question on the board!), we can not understand, fundamentally, who and what ‘we’ are and what the hell we are talking about when we talk about how important growth and development are to us… Because that language will forever be separate from any kind of scientific understanding! So where’s this going wrong? This (feedback cycle diagram) seems, just… “Living things are feedback cycles, self-organizing: they grow, they develop, they make themselves!
So, what has to go? Well, this (A->B->C)!!! Now, before you jump and say “But that’s just… That’s just what causation is!”, think about the fact that we know, we actually know, that Newton was ultimately wrong! Newton doesn’t work with relativity. Newton doesn’t work at the quantum level. So we know that we shouldn’t be absolutely committed to this view. Juarrero actually makes use of an important idea from Aristotle to solve this problem. She’s going use Aristotle in order to explain a new and powerful way of talking about growth and development and self organizing processes which is known as “Dynamical Systems Theory”.
So Juarrero first of all makes a distinction between “causes” and “constraints”. So to get at that distinction, let’s go back to what seems so obvious. OK…. Here’s the marker… I push it! Why did it move? And immediately the Newtonian grammar just comes into place: “It moved because you pushed it!” And then you might step outside of physics and say “well, I wanted to push it!”, but that’s not what I’m asking! Because it could also just be that some other object bumped into this and it moved! Why else did it move? Okay, so think about what has to also be true in order for this to move. There has to be empty space. Relatively empty space in front of the marker. This (the surface – table) has to have a particular shape to it. This (the pen) has to have a particular shape to it. Those aren’t events. Those are conditions. Causes are events that make things happen. Constraints aren’t events, they’re conditions! They don’t make things happen, they make things possible. There’s a big difference between a condition and an event. The Newtonian way of thinking has us so fixated on this (causes -> event -> happen), so fore-grounded on this that we’re not seeing this (constraints -> conditions -> possible) anymore! But Aristotle, because of his Platonic view, actually considers this (Constraints flow) more important. Why? Because when I talk about a Structural, Functional Organization, when I talk about a pattern, I’m talking about this (Constraints flow). This is where you will find form. It is sometimes called the “Formal Cause”. This is where you will find the Structural Functional Organization. Conditions are structurally, functionally organized such that motion for this is possible. Now this is important because this is, of course, actuality (“causes flow”) and this is where we get potentiality when I shape possibility (“constraints flow”. That’s what I mean when I say something is potential. I mean that possibility has been shaped. by constraints so that these events are more possible than these events.
Okay so we’re going to do more but let’s stop here and let’s see how this is already starting to solve the problem of talking about the tree and itself organization. So in a tree you’ve got a bunch of events happening. Biochemical events. What they’re doing is they’re actually causing a particular form, or formula, or structural functional organization. Now think about it… Why do trees grow the way they do? Why do they grow like ‘this’? Why do they spread out their branches? Why do their leaves spread out? Because what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to change the possibility of a photon hitting a chlorophyll molecule. The structure of the tree shapes the possibility of the events. So the events cause this structure. They cause it. But this (form) then constrains the events. So look at me I’m a living thing. I’ve got a bunch of events happening in me. And that creates a structural functional organization. That organization creates an internal environment in which the probability of events is dramatically altered. So events that have very low probability of happening out there have a high probability of happening in here. And events that have a very high probability of happening out there have a very low probability of happening in here. And that’s what it is to be a living thing. The events cause a structure – a structural functional organization, an idos, a form – and then that constrains the events. Now this is not a circular explanation because I’m talking about two very different kinds of things. I’m talking about actuality and potentiality.
Now, it’s important to realize that the discussion of possibility – many of you were saying “oh this is so abstract!” and “what does this…” – this is actually integral to science! Science depends on there being real potential; the potentiality is a real thing. So, here’s the object moving around (back to demonstrations with the pen)… it’s on the ground… Look at all this kinetic energy. Look at it moving (lifting the pen above head). Oh! It stopped. Did I destroy all that energy? Where did the kinetic energy go? You can’t destroy energy! Well, the kinetic energy has become potential energy. If the principle of the conservation of mass and energy is real, then potentiality is real. Look at this… Look at something from Newton: force equals mass times acceleration (F = MA). Is that an event? Is it: “Oh! That’s happening over there right now… does it happen every Tuesday at 4 o’clock? This isn’t an event. This is how things are shaped. It puts a limit on what’s possible in the world. Talking about real potentiality is not talking fictional or abstract it’s a way of talking that’s integral to our current science.
OK, we’re still not done though because Juarrero points out that there are two kinds of constraints. So our explanations can become even more refined. There are constraints that make a form of event, a type of event more possible. She calls those “Enabling Constraints. And then there are constraints that reduce the possibilities, reduce the options for a system. These are the selected or “Selective Constraints”. Now this is going give us a very powerful way of understanding development. Let’s use it the way Juarrero does to talk about one of the most significant theories of development and change, one of the great hallmarks of science. In fact it’s a foundational theory for the science of biology which of course is the theory of Natural Selection, the Theory of Darwinian Evolution. Because the theory of Darwinian Evolution is probably the first dynamical systems theory in science and it is a theory that is designed precisely to account for growth and development. Obviously not within an individual but across speciation.
Okay so let’s take a look at the theory. So what you’re looking for first of all is that there has to be a feedback cycle for any dynamical system theory because we’re talking about a process that is self organizing. So what’s the feedback cycle that evolution talks about? Of course, well it’s sexual reproduction (writes this on the board). Where do goats come from? Other goats! Goats are produced. There’s the product and then it feeds back into the system and becomes the producer. …Makes more goats that make more goats that makes more goat. That’s why we call it “re-“production. It’s a feedback cycle. So what did Darwin realize? Well he realized that there were selective constraints operating on that. There were conditions in the environment that reduced the options for organisms. So what are those conditions? Scarcity of resources. So, I’ve been looking at some of the theories of early life and there’s an argument by several biologists that there’s no evolution for about, probably, 800 000 years or so because there’s no scarcity of resources when life first evolves. So life is static because there’s no scarcity of resources. Scarcity of resources means there’s competition. Scarcity of resources means not everything can live. And so that reduces the options for the system.
OK. So selection reducing options (writes this on the board). But that’s not all that’s going on. If that was the case, everything would just die!! Evolution would end and that can happen – Extinction events. But there’s something else. There’s enabling constraints that open up the system (writes this on the board). Open up the options. So, look around… Look at me, look at other people. There’s variation (writes this on the board with enabling constraints). There’s considerable variation. Variation increases the options (adds this to the board with the last). So look what’s going on here. You’ve got this feedback cycle. As it’s as it’s cycling through, you’ve got the selective conditions reducing the options that are available and then the variation opening them up. You can think of it almost like an accordion model: the variation opens it up and then as it cycles, the selective constraint pushes it down. And then from there it opens up again and then it gets pushed back down and then it opens up again it gets pushed back down and as its cycles like this it’s constantly changing, in a way, to be better fitted to the environment. That’s evolution. It’s a kind of circular… “Evolve” is related to words like revolve… This revolution with change.
Now notice… what I’m trying to get you to see is – first all this is important! I mean I wish I was Charles Darwin! This is one of the great great theories! He gets to sail around the world and… What a life! He gets to sail around the world, go to some amazing places and then he comes back and makes a world changing theory! It’s just, it’s amazing! But notice how much this Darwinian theory that is at the foundation of biology, how much it is beholden to Aristotle. How much it depends on Aristotelian ideas. Now, Juarrero talks about this as a “Virtual Governor”.
A governor is any device that limits what you can do on a system, like if you have a governor on a steam engine it sets the range, it limits the range at which you can cycle. She calls it a virtual Governor because it’s not an actual machine. It’s the shaping of possibility. She stops there and work that I’ve done with Leo Ferraro and Anderson Todd and Richard Wu, we think she should continue to finish the metaphor. This is a virtual generator (“enabling constraings” part of the cycle; written on the board there) because it’s a set of conditions that are generating options for a self-organizing system. And here’s the idea: when you put a virtual governor systematically together with a virtual generator, such that you are systematically regulating a feedback cycle, this whole thing is a virtual engine because when you attach a governor to a generator you get a “virtual engine” (diagram with terms drawn on board).
So this is what a Dynamical System Theory is. A dynamical system theory is basically a theory that lays out the virtual engine. It shows you how there’s a feedback cycle – and why that’s not just random and chaotic – why it produces growth and development precisely because there’s a systematic relationship between a set of enabling and selective constraints. Now all of this is very very Aristotelian.
So let’s now take it back to Aristotle because Aristotle was interested… now, he doesn’t use this (points out both diagrams on the board), he doesn’t use the dynamical systems language. That’s our language. But this language was directly inspired by, powered by, Aristotle so using it backwards to try and connect Aristotle to our current understanding, I do not think is anachronistic. So Aristotle is interested in our development. He’s going to add something that was missing from the Socratic notion of wisdom. Remember the Socratic notion was trying to overcome self-deception. And then Plato adds a whole structural theory of the psyche to explain how we overcome self-deception – how we become wise and achieve wisdom. But what’s missing, in the account of wisdom and meaning, according to Aristotle – if I can use this (board) language – is what’s missing is an account of growth and development. How does wisdom develop? How does meaning develop? Well this is where we get something that we talk about and we use in our language, but we don’t, I think, get the depth of what Aristotle is talking about…
There’s an aspect of who and what you are that’s fundamentally connected to your projects of meaning and your project of wisdom. You often might have used this term, or related terms, but do you really know what you’re talking about? And this is the notion of your “character”. And first or your character isn’t your personality. Because if we’re going to use these terms strictly, you’re born with your personality. Personality is part of your, just your general constitution. It’s what’s given to you by the biology and the environment that you have no choice over. But your character is that aspect of you that you can cultivate. Now you can either cultivate it unconsciously, surreptitiously, indirectly, or you can cultivate it more explicitly.
But what is your character? When we say that somebody is acting out of character. We’re usually making – and this is important – we’re usually making either an existential or moral criticism of them. When we say “Peter’s acting out of character”, we often will mean something like he’s normally honest. He’s normally honest, he normally has the virtue of honest. (Notice the connection here by the way: “Virtue”. And we’ve been talking about a “virtual” engine! That is NOT happenstance!) When you’re talking about a virtue you’re not talking about an event. You’re talking about, again, a set of conditions that have been cultivated systematically in somebody. Now that points to something and when we’re talking about character I’m going to suggest that what we’re talking about is “what is the virtual engine on a person’s development”.
What system of constraints have you identified with, and what system of constraints have you internalized, that regulate your development? Let’s ask a Socratic question: Let’s do something that Socrates would do. We spend a lot of time on our appearance. We spend a lot of time on our status. How much time did you spend today on your character? How much? If it is the virtual engine that is regulating your growth and development, you should be, of course, spending a lot of time on your character! But are you? Now, Aristotle proposed ways of trying to cultivate your character. I would argue that his method, his famous method, of the Golden Mean is a way of trying to get you to set up conditions to cultivate your character.
So for example, what is courage (written on board)? We would all like to be more courageous, I take it! Well Aristotle proposed that it’s the golden mean – not the ‘average’, that’s a misunderstanding, because it’s “golden” mean – between two things. Of course you can be a coward (written to the left of Courage), you can somehow be defective by having a deficiency. But you can also be foolhardy (written to the right of courage), just running into traffic doesn’t make you courageous. What you’re always trying to do is you’re trying to set up a system where you’re paying attention to when you lack the enabling constraints – when you don’t have enough generation. And also to conditions when you lack the selective constraints – when you’re too broadly… you have too many options, that you’re identifying as courage. What you have to do is you have to train yourself to cultivate your character by engaging in practices that will slowly, over time, create a virtual engine because you ARE a self organizing process. You are the source of your actions that modify the environment that then feeds back into you. And changes you. And then you produce your actions and then the environment feeds back and changes you. Here’s the question I ask you: Are you just letting that run? Or are you trying to rationally and reflectively cultivate your character, structure a virtual engine, so that that self-organizing process is growing and developing in an optimal fashion?
Living Up to Potential Aristotle takes the question… and we use this! We even use – and I’m not saying we use it trivially, but we don’t get the depth of what we’re saying – one of the most trenchant criticisms we can make of ourselves, of other people is this (listen to my language. Listen to it!): “He’s not living UP, “living up to” his potential.” Part of what makes your life meaningful Is that you have cultivated character that allows you to actualize your potential. You’ve created a virtual engine that regulates your development in a way in which you grow up. It’s a constantly improving… it’s… in which self organization has been regulated and shaped into self improvement so that your potential is fully realized. So Aristotle brings in this notion, then, of development and growth as part of what it means to have a meaningful life. He brings in a new aspect to the notion of wisdom. Wisdom is gaining the ability to cultivate virtues to create your “virtual engine”, a set of virtues, that basically is regulating your growth and development so that you actualize your potential.
Again, think about it. What are you doing to cultivate your character? Because Aristotle points out there’s a deep form of foolishness that comes from a lack of character. He calls it “Akrasia” which we poorly translate as ‘weakness of the will’ because we’re all post Protestants and we think the will is our central thing even though, increasingly, there’s scientific evidence that the notion of will or willpower is a defunct idea, we should give it up! So what’s Akrasia? Akrasia is when you know what the right thing to do is – you KNOW what the right thing to do is – and we talked about this, remember, with the chocolate cake. But you don’t do the right thing. And here’s where we can sort of put Aristotle and Plato together. Plato gives us the story about how we have to structure the psyche. But Aristotle gives us a much more penetrating analysis of what that structural functional organization is. Here is what Aristotle would say; why you’re behaving foolishly: “Ignorance is when you do the wrong thing because you don’t know. Part of what foolishness is, is when you know what the right thing is and you still do the wrong thing.”
Here’s Aristotle’s answer: “you do the wrong thing because, although you have the right beliefs…” ( notice, again, the impotence of belief here.) “…you don’t have the right… you don’t have sufficient character”. You have not trained things. You’ve not trained skills. You’ve not trained sensitivities. You have not created a virtual engine that is regulating your development and growth such that you will live up to your potential; you will actualize yourself and do the right thing. So, we’re starting to see, again, the deep grammar of what we talk about when we talk about “meaning”. And we notice now that there’s this developmental aspect to it.
What is it to ‘live up to your potential’? I mean, that’s a phrase we use! What is it you’re saying when you say that about somebody? Why does it matter so much? So Aristotle would say…/.
Let’s go back to the analogy – please always remember this analogy – let’s go back to the analogy of a man-made thing. OK? How is it when we know when something has been well made? What makes something a good knife? Well, when it has a structural Functional Organization, that allows it to fulfill its “purpose”. Knives are for cutting, if I’ve taken the potential in the metal and organized it the right way, structure the right way, it will actually function to cut very well! And noticed that this is a word (Purpose) that’s also deeply associated with our sense of what it is to have meaning.
… So, Aristotle asks “Well what can we do with this analogy?” Human beings aren’t made the way knives are made. We’re self making. And here’s an important idea: We’re self making. We’re not just self organizing! The term that Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson have generated to talk about this is we are “Autopoetic”, we are self-making things. So you’re different from a tornado. A tornado is self organizing. But a tornado will move… Its behavior… It can be rapidly self-destructive. It will move into conditions that destroy it. You’re self organized in such a way that you have a structural functional organization that allows you to seek out conditions. So the tornado does not seek out the conditions that will protect and promote its own self organization. It’s not self making. You are self making.
So here’s the interesting thing – and this is a brilliant idea that Eric Perl brings out in his book Thinking being: “in living things, the purpose of the thing is it’s structural functional organization. It’s a it’s a self making thing”. So what your purpose, your function is, is to enhance your structural functional organization. It’s like “Oh waw, that’s… that’s just the problem…”, you’ll say “…with philosophy! It is all so abstract!!! What does that mean specifically?” Well, for Aristotle it means ‘paying attention to the fact that you are a rational, reflective, creature!’ You’re unlike a plant. A plant has this but all it basically does is actualize its ability to digest!
The “In-Formed” Hierarchy So let’s take a look at this (proceeds to write this on the board)… We have inorganic matter… And then it gets a particular shape; it’s “informed”. And that makes a living thing. And that… Living things can get a more complex structure that make them self-moving. That’s what an animal is. An animal isn’t a mammal. An animal is a self moving thing. And then some of those self-moving things have structural functional organizations – in here for example (tapping his head) – that take that self moving and really actualize it. Remember we talked about that the word “psyche” – where we get our word “psychology”/mind – originally met your capacity for self moving and we came to apply to the mind because the mind is that part of you that is the most self moving, the most self making. You’re a mental thing, a psychological thing!
But, is that enough?. No! We’re getting from Socrates and Plato and Aristotle that you can optimize that. You can take charge of that. You, unlike other organisms, you can do the Axial revolution on yourself. You’re capable of cultivating your own character, rationally and deliberately. You can become a rational thing. To live up to your potential, is to make sure you have cultivated a character that takes you as high up this hierarchy (drawn on the board with all these terms ascending) as you can go. That’s how you live up to your potential. Somebody who lived only as a plant would be a debauched, failed, degraded human being. Somebody that lived only as an animal un-reflectively, impulsively would be a debauched, failed human being.
But the argument continues! You say “Of course, of course (working up the board).” But all the way up here (top)? You must cultivate your character so that you, as much as possible, actualize your potential for being a rational, moral, human being. That’s the hallmark for Aristotle. You become a good person if you actualize, if you inform your being, with a virtual engine that realizes those things that are distinctive of our humanity. What makes us different from the plants? The animals? The other creatures that just have minds? What makes us different? We understand that we have always, and still do understand ourselves, in contrast to the other things we find around ourselves. Why am I more valuable than this table? What is it? Why do I matter more? Because there are things that can be found in rational beings – things that we find intrinsically valuable and important – that cannot be found in merely mental things, and all the way down.
What are those characteristics that are unique to us? Well here is where Aristotle gives the Axial revolution answer: Your capacity for overcoming self-deception. Your capacity for cultivating your character. For realizing wisdom and for enhancing the structure of your psyche and your contact with reality. That’s what “rational” means.
This sounds – if I hadn’t said all of this – what I’m gonna say now would sound trite. Your purpose is to become as fully human as Possible! How are you cultivating your character to do so? This is what Aristotle is going to ask you again and again. How much of your life is dedicated to creating a virtual engine that realizes your rational capacities. Those things that make you most human in contrast to all the other things around you.
So Aristotle has developed this very impressive theory of wisdom, of character, growth and development. One of the things we could use today is to go back and make use of this so we can reanimate, rejuvenate these terms that have become tired and superficial! We have no alternative terms for describing our lives… For the meaning in our life. We talk about purpose and living up to our potential and growth and development and we it’s just “BLAA BLAA BLAA BLAAA”, because we don’t have any depth to these terms. One of the things we can use Aristotle to do, is to go back and deepen what those terms mean for us; rejuvenate what they mean for us.
But, I want to continue on and to talk about this development that’s occurring in the axial revolution and I want to talk about how Aristotle helped further the historical process by which he contributed to our cultural grammar of what it is when we’re talking about meaning, purpose, wisdom, self-transcendence and so what I want to look at next time when we’re together is I want to look at Aristotle’s account of a world view. And what a world view is. And why it matters so deeply to our self understanding and our existential meaning. Thank you very much for your time.