Friday, 14 April 2017

Umwelt, Anthropocentrism and Island Universes

“By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.

We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes".

Aldous Huxley – The Doors of Perception



 
Early Cartesian views of the mind/brain distinction implied an ego derived, individualistic separation of the self from the environment and social structures. From this perspective the subject was a production of mind and reason as somehow set aside from the natural environs surrounding it from conception. It followed that all non-human organisms were considered to have absent any actual form of cognitive capability and were reduced to simplistic, non –agentic, stimulus-response machines of reflexive action. This position of human exceptionalism has  maintained itself into the modern era due largely to the perpetuation of the mind/brain, soul/body distinction.
 
“The ideology lies not in the search for differences, but in the unwavering belief that humanity is defined by attributes that have absolutely no precedent in the rest of the biological world” (Radner and Radner, 1989, p.9). This may be readily identified as a Cartesian hangover into current thinking. It may be appropriate to consider the limiting effect of such a position being held for any length of time in so far as the exclusionary consequences of failing to appreciate, and investigate, other organisms from their own distinctive, varied and embodied perspective. In more recent times Barrett (2015) has addressed this sustained anthropocentric thrust into the scientific inquiry and evaluation of non-human species through the lens of 4E embodiment where common engagement is the requirement of skillfully negotiating the environment and the mutual cognitive and agentic traits necessary for doing so.

Much earlier than Radner and Barrett, Jacob Von Uexkull posited the concept of an organisms "Umwelt". This closed phenomenal experience of each living system as constituted by the components and configuration of the individual animal and resulting from which each living system engages with and experiences the world around them. Von Uexkull states that there are as many "Umwelt" as there are organisms in the world and each of which negotiate  with the environment within their own terms and physical make up. He believed that each of these distinct worlds, while beautiful and worthy of appreciation, remained only spiritually, and forever non-physically, accessible to us.

It has previously been posited that there are grounds for allowing for some degree of similarity in sentiment or reason, whatever these ultimately transpire to be, given the shared environment between species be it either human to animal or animal to animal. A consideration which may be appropriate is the "multiple realizability" thesis where mental states, such as cognitions are acknowledged to be  may be found or "realized" within any number of physical, organic systems. From this other researchers have found a high degree of similarity between the human organism and others. In primate research for example, substantially developed social and emotional behaviors and technical capability have been found which readily suggest that  "differences are of degree rather than of kind" (Goodall, 2006, p.188). This stands in stark contrast to earlier views of human exceptionalism.

Is it reasonable to maintain the view that each individual  is ultimately in a type or form of critical isolation from the world, and species, around them or does the 4E perspective now require a more engaged, enacted and mutually shared experience? Huxley framed the position with regard to such ultimate distinction between the individual and the"human group" but perhaps the advancement of embodiment theory will allow for a deeper and more enriched appraisal of each organisms unique role, value and worth within the overall system.
 

For anyone interested here is the full quote from Huxley:


“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”




References:

Barrett, L. (2016) “Why Brains Are Not Computers, Why Behaviorism Is Not Satanism, and Why Dolphins Are Not Aquatic Apes”, The Behavior Analyst, 39 (1), pp. 9-23.

Goodall, J. (2006) We are not alone, The re-enchantment of the cosmos, pp. 187-192.Inner Traditions:USA.

Huxley, A. (1954) The doors of perception. Chatto and Windus:UK

Radner, D. and Radner, M. (1989). Animal consciousness. Prometheus Press:New York.

Von Uexküll, J. (1934) “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”,  Instinctive behavior: The development of a modern concept, translated and edited by Claire H. Schiller, 8-80.  New York:  International Universities Press, Inc.


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