Every Blade of Grass Has Its Own Angel

Okay, this one started off as a letter to a friend. Though in a merciful moment, I decided to spare the recipient, and never dropped it in the mail. It's my fractured take on the topic of evolution. Don't worry, there's plenty in here to offend evolutionist and creationist alike. You notice, like a naughty child I refuse to color inside the lines.

The short version: I believe in God. I've also always taken evolution for granted. And as usual, I manage to tie it all in with signs and symbols. And even with paradigms.

You feel like arguing about it? Well, that makes one of us.

Yeah, I heard about that evolution/creationist situation in Kansas, in fact I saw it on the evening news. Lord! You're right, you never know, many a person out there is convinced that the jig is up for religion, unless God got down on his knees and performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a gingerbread-man mudpie on the banks of the River Euphrates in 4004 BC.

Why is it that somehow this reminds me of a high school friend of mine, a strict Lutheran, who used to agonize over a passage in Proverbs where it says, "Three things are too wonderful for me, four I do not understand," on the grounds that mathematically speaking, 3 is not equal to 4, and so this constitutes a contradiction in God's Word? It came to me as no surprise when, three months after graduating and enlisting in the Air Force, this friend declared himself an atheist and a logical positivist.

I dunno, maybe I am handicapped on this whole "Scopes Monkey Trial" gig by the fact that I never in my life suspected there could be any tension between theology and evolution, until I was in seventh grade and one day found a written report on the question, which somebody had left behind in a desk at school. I had grown up reading Genesis, I had grown up with a beautifully illustrated book about dinosaurs, and (junior semiotician that I was) I took it for granted that language refers to reality on many mutually irreducible levels at once. By the time I was in high school, I was reading books on linguistics, semantics, etc., and also (on the theological side) Anselm's ontological argument and the like.

Given the Anselm, I did not have much patience with people who could not see their way past a mudpie-maker God, who to my way of thinking (and Anselm's, and Deutero-Isaiah's) is distinctly less than "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." And given the linguistics, I did not have much patience with people (evolutionist or creationist, logical positivist or fundamentalist) who bought into some variation on the assumption that either language is literal, or else it is non-referential and merely emotive. Even at age 17 or 18, I could see that this stance on language was a non-starter, and also that it was a tacit assumption shared by believing literalist and nonbelieving literalist alike.

What's more, this unspoken agreement on language seemed to me to point toward a deeper intellectual and temperamental kinship between superficial opposites: William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow had much more in common with each other than either could ever have in common with a believer like Reinhold Niebuhr, or a nonbeliever like Albert Camus.

In short, the real dividing line here is the distinction which Pascal drew between l'esprit de géometrie and l'esprit de finèsse. To put it another way, deny the tacit assumption that the only referential language is literal language-- equivalently, embrace the assumption that signs and symbols refer in their own way to objective realities-- and the whole evolution-versus-creation debate collapses like a house of cards.

I guess one of my assumptions, from early years on up-- at first tacit, and then more and more explicit-- is that any symbol refers, and not only can refer but always does refer, to realities above and beyond itself. There is no possible statement, utterance, expression, performance, motion, sign, symbol, yelp, grunt, grimace, or gesture that does not refer to some reality or other, beyond itself. It is never a question of whether a sign is referential. Any possible sign always refers. It is only a question of what it refers to, and whether it refers to what we think it refers to, or whether it refers to something else instead.

Significat, ergo aliquid significatum est.

Imagine being 18 years old, and thinking in precisely this way, immersed in a sea of collegiate positivists, empiricists, and truth-is-relativists! No wonder I got in more than my share of 3:00 AM dorm-lounge arguments. No wonder, too, that I became a math major who read theology and philosophy as an avocation.

As I only gradually learned from my reading, I was not alone in this way of thinking about language and referentiality. Every possible sign not only can but always does refer? Well, I gather Plato would agree. Plotinus would certainly agree. So (in certain of his writings) would Augustine. So would Charles Peirce, father of modern semiotics. So would Edmund Husserl, father of modern phenomenology.

Of course, as I also was to learn only many years later, the peculiar emphasis on literalism, and the restriction of referentiality to literal language, arose only in the 17th century with the dawn of modern science, and thence it passed into the common cultural atmosphere, and from there eventually to cultural currents as diverse as scientism and fundamentalism. Moreover, I came to see how these choices made in the time of Descartes and Newton are closely bound up with whatever it is that has gone badly awry with Western thinking in the modern era.

And if you think that by this time I've brought you right back around to Goethe's doorstep... well, you're right!

By the way, I recently found an interesting philosophy-of-science article on Goethe, on the Internet-- written by some fellow in a philosophy department over in Norway. His take on Goethe concurs at length with my offhand impression that Goethe's approach to science resonates with the old mediæval notion of "reading the book of Nature." He also draws some interesting correlations between Goethe and phenomenology.

Speaking of which, there is one point where I think it might be interesting to engage an evolutionary theorist in conversation. My understanding is that, according to orthodox Darwinian biology, evolution is driven by random variation and negative feedback, sporting and culling, alone. Just looking at it in terms of cybernetic theory, it always used to strike me as peculiar to posit a system which involved negative feedback, but not positive feedback. No doubt it is good science to start with as parsimonious a set of assumptions as you can. But nonetheless, my sense of structure was piqued.

Then I began studying Peirce, and realized that "positive feedback" is a concept closely akin to such as teleology, goal, purpose, intentionality, and so on. Which, of course, sound uncomfortably close to mind, design, or even Designer.

And then I happened across various writings on the history of science, and began to discover that many of the heterodoxies within the history of evolutionary theory involved smuggling in various assumptions more or less equivalent to positive feedback structures. Each of them posited one sort of positive feedback structure or another, some more gross, some on a more subtle level.

Lamarckian biology, "inheritance of acquired characteristics," amounts to introducing a positive feedback mechanism directly on the level of inherited characteristics-- as we would say since Watson & Crick, on the genetic level. (Apart from the lack of experimental support, one interesting thought-experiment refutation of Lamarck proposed by Gregory Bateson is that adaptive flexibility is lost to the species, to the precise degree that it is gained by the individual organism. Thus even if a strain of organisms with Lamarckian capabilities somehow did arise, it would be at an evolutionary disadvantage compared to its non-Lamarckian cousins.)

Samuel Butler, an eccentric nineteenth-century scientific critic of Darwin, proposed what I understand to amount to the introduction of positive feedback to the evolutionary process. He argued that heredity is in some ways analogous to memory, and that survival of the fittest is in some ways analogous to creativity-- that it involves not just luck but also "a deep cunning."

In the 1960's Arthur Koestler, the last notable secular intellectual to reject Darwin, proposed instead a complex hierarchy of negative and positive feedback interactions among various structural levels within the organism, genes interacting with hormones interacting with tissues interacting with organs interacting with organ systems interacting with the whole organism, etc. For Koestler "the devil is in the details," i.e. precisely in the whole dizzying web of "mezzanine" transactions between level and meta-level. Survival might depend in some small measure on "survival of the fittest" as traditionally understood, but would depend on many other densely interwoven factors as well.

Ecology as it was originally and briefly conceived-- that is, as an interdisciplinary science, rather than as a tendentious political movement known for its bad science-- also involved notions of positive feedback, though here the positive feedback structures were restricted to the level of interaction between species and species, or between species and environment. (Another interpretation for which I am indebted to Gregory Bateson.) Thus each species considered in itself evolves in a Darwinian fashion. But looking at the "larger picture" brings in other structural elements, dissimilar in logical type from the kind of structural elements met with on the level of the individual organism or species.

This Norwegian fellow I was reading tries to appropriate Goethe to argue, by way of phenomenology, for an Aristotelian (i.e., purely immanent) teleology which resides on the level of the animal humanly perceived as a Gestalt. That is, on a genetic or molecular-biology level, Darwinian evolution obtains, and on that biomolecular level it is explanatory, but such an account, even though quite true as far as it goes, is simply nonexplanatory on the level of the whole animal as Gestalt. In other words, evolutionary biology explains quite correctly how and why the horse came to be, with the genes it has come to have; but it does not, nor even in principle can it, explain how or why the horse is familiar old straw-hatted Dobbin, who the children are feeding sugar cubes. So this Norskie is not at all, like the creationist, disagreeing with the biologist on any empirical facts. Rather, he is pointing out that modern science involves a paradigm which reductively excludes the animal as Gestalt, and he is proposing an alternative paradigm which includes both Darwinism in toto, and the horse as old Dobbin.

Where does all this lead? I don't exactly know. You notice each of these accounts involves not only some sort of positive feedback structure, but also the anti-reductive claim that the whole is not simply the sum of its parts. The sum is not atomistic but pointillistic; the whole is not photographic but holographic.

Also, you notice these heterodoxies are arranged in historical order, but it also just happens that they run in order from "grosser" to "more subtle" ways of incorporating positive feedback structures into one's account of evolution. Under Lamarck's account, these structures ought to show up in the laboratory, directly, on some biochemical level. Even under Koestler's account, these structures should in principle prove empirically accessible-- even if to sort that out might take a Cray supercomputer programmed for chaos-theoretic pattern recognition! Whereas under Dr. Norwegian's account, the difference does not lie on the "laboratory" level at all, but rather on the phenomenological level of one's overall "take" on the world.

Why has biology since Darwin so tenaciously excluded what I call "positive feedback structures"? Well, as I noted, parsimony is good scientific method. Also, the grosser accounts of positive feedback mentioned do not hold up experimentally. But certainly, historically speaking, part of the reason for excluding positive feedback has been philosophical and even "anti-theological": positive feedback structures are cousin to goal, purpose, teleology, intentionality. And that starts sounding rather like mind, design, God.

One might argue that the subtler accounts given do not differ empirically from their non-teleological counterparts, and that a difference which makes no measurable difference is not a difference. But that will hold water only if pure empiricism rules; only if some signs and symbols signify nothing beyond themselves; only if the whole can, without loss, be reduced to the sum of its parts, Dobbin to the sum of his biomolecular components; only if referentiality can be restricted to some fairly narrow and "hard" category such as literal language.

But these are themselves all philosophical and not empirical positions, and moreover positions which correlate strongly with the denial of philosophical realism and the espousal of nominalism. Remember, parsimony is good science, but parsimony honed to a cutting edge is Occam's Razor, and Occam was the father of nominalism.

As Charles Peirce averred, science needs some way of finding the needle of truth in the haystack of raw data; but Occam's Razor is not the only such way. Another way is some kind of Pragmatist Principle, such as, "The meaning of a sign is the totality of the possible future interpretations to which it would, under appropriate conditions, give rise." Nor, for Peirce, is such a totality free-floating: for interpretive meaning is driven-- over time, is more and more strongly conditioned-- in an infinite long run of interpretation, would be completely determined-- by what the sign truly and objectively refers to.

By that standard, there are indeed grounds on which to choose between two scientific paradigms which agree empirically, and differ only in their overall "take" on the world: "By their fruits ye shall know them." A paradigm which leads to a dysfunctional culture, dysfunctional technology, and dysfunctional knowing is not to be preferred to an empirically equivalent paradigm which however refuses to endorse dysfunctions, refuses to throw out the baby with the bathwater, refuses to send Dobbin to the glue factory.

And please note! The difference between two such paradigms is rooted in real albeit "transempirical" differences, differences to which nonliteral signs and symbols may objectively and truthfully refer.

Or as a five-year-old might put it, "You can look and look, but you can't see my soul." At least, not unless you've got eyes to see.

By this point, we are very close to saying that a painting of a horse, a tree, a landscape, is inspired by the subject it depicts, in something very like the original, ancient, etymological meaning of the word "inspired." The spirit of the subject enters, really and objectively, into the symbol in which it is depicted.

As Plato (or Tillich) might say, the symbol participates-- "methectically"-- in the reality to which it refers. Or as the ancient Romans said of the Aventine Grove, "Numen inest."

Well, by this time you can see that I am very close to a mediæval-cum-neoplatonic view of the world, in which (as an old rabbinic saying puts it) "Every blade of grass has its own angel." In which every (Darwinianly evolved) Dobbin participates, really and ontically, in the Platonic archetype of the Horse. And in which, for that matter, every planet is moved in its (elliptical, Keplerian) orbit by its tutelary angel. And that such a view of things differs from modern scientific and/or evolutionary views, only insofar as these modern views systemically filter out this level of real though empirically indiscernible, nonliteral but objectively referential signs and symbols.

The irony is, what I'm getting at here is nothing new. The mediæval schoolmen were getting at all this on more or less the same wavelength when they talked about signs & symbols, angelology, tutelary spirits, etc.-- a fact one would never gather from the calumnious caricatures presented in most popularized histories of science! The astronomer adds to our store of knowledge about the sun and moon-- but so does the poet: a notion which would have been unexceptional as recently as Coleridge, who argued (I think correctly) that philosophically speaking there is no way to unite concept and percept, subject and object, unless we introduce the tertium aliquid of imagination...

Gee, it seems back in my teenage years I was on the right track! The fundies, with their focus on empirical 6000-year timelines, are missing the point altogether. So are the acolytes of scientism, who strain at gnats and then are blind to old Dobbin. The real crux of the creation/evolution debate lies on the level of how language, how signs and symbols, manage always to be referential.