Are We Living in an Existential Vacuum?

The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century.” said Viktor Frankl.

I am living in an existential vacuum. We pay a price for our relative freedom. Animals are rooted in being governed by instincts which they are obliged to follow. Humans are set free from this obligation. We escaped from a life of instinct only to have tradition curtailing individual freedom. Modern society has allowed us the opportunity to wrestle free from these bonds, but, like a child thrown into a swimming pool by a parent eager to teach it to swim, we tend to flail about having been left to our own devices. A feeling of abandonment may lie deep within my soul. My reliance on instinct and tradition has been pulled from under my feet. What should I do? Follow the crowd, or look for an authority that is going to tell me what to do and think? Or stand on my own two feet and find my own path?

These are questions that Viktor Frankl asked himself, and through which, in the midst of physical captivity and ill-treatment, he found spiritual freedom. Even in the midst of despair it is possible to discover that life has a meaning. It is the idea of the meaningless of life that prompts people to give up.

Frankl never gave up. He proposed four keys to grasping life’s meaning, leading to “the self-transcendence of human existence”. The first is synchronicity, meaningful coincidences according to Karl Jung. There are spiritual connections where no physical connections can be found. The second is in carrying out fulfilling work. He provides the following example: His only possession in the concentration camp was a manuscript he had written that was ready to be published. He asked his captors if he could keep it, but it was taken from him. He understood how important it was so set himself the task of rewriting it. I know what it feels like to spend ages writing a long post here and losing it before it gets posted and having to start again from scratch. I can’t imagine how I would feel if I had lost a complete manuscript. The real enduring love shared amongst people holds the third key. We can only find true meaning through love. The fourth key lies in facing suffering with equanimity. He survived the concentration camp because he bore his suffering and never lost hope. His suffering became, for him, a great teacher.

It is up to me to find my way out of this existential bubble I find myself trapped in. I ask myself, do I have the will to break free.

Who wouldn’t be inspired by Viktor Frankl? They could take away all of his physical possessions but they had no power to take away one thing he possessed, spiritual freedom.

I would appreciate the thoughts of others on life’s meaning, and how their views affect the way they live their lives.

78 thoughts on “Are We Living in an Existential Vacuum?

  1. Kantian Naturalist: I want to say, on the one hand, with the philosophers, that there really is something metaphysically unique about human minds, contrasted with the minds of non-human animals.

    We talk to ourselves.

    Most of what goes on in our brains is either outside consciousness, or happens before we become aware of it.

    Verbal behavior is veneer.

    Talking is quite useful, but verbal reasoning is seldom the driver.

  2. Kantian Naturalist:
    CharlieM: Compare this with the lower animals that, from birth or hatching, act instinctively in decisively purposeful ways without any parental guidance.

    Kantian Naturalist: I only quoted this sentence to underscore my fundamental opposition to the very idea of “lower animals.”

    The notions of “lower” and “higher,” or “more evolved” and “less evolved”, are human metaphors only. They do not correspond to anything in biological or physical reality. These metaphors probably have their origin in human social and religious hierarchies — the one with power and authority is “higher”, more “elevated”, over the others.

    Even so, the fact is that social and religious hierarchies probably did not exist prior to the rise of agriculture and permanent settlements. Those go back a mere 13,000 years. By contrast, human beings been around for at least 100,000 years and probably longer. During most of that time, we probably lived in small relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribes. We’ve had hierarchies for about 10% of the time we’ve existed.

    Of course, lower and higher can also make sense relative to a peak or summit: one point of a mountain is higher or lower than another, one branch of a tree is higher or lower than another. But evolution is not a mountain: it has no top, no goal. There are no “lower” or “higher” animals.

    In my use of lower and higher with regard to animals I am comparing their evolutionary trajectories since the split from their purported common ancestor.

    Eukaryotes and prokaryotes presumably were both single-celled organisms in their evolutionary beginnings. Prokaryotes have remained as single-cellular organisms while eukaryotes have grown beyond that stage. This is an example of what I see as a higher level of development. After all, who wouldn’t regard a zygote as being at a lower level of development compared to the adult?

    Compared to individual mammals individual bacteria have lower complexity, lower individual awareness, and more restricted motility. One area where they can be said to be higher is in reproduction. They have a vastly higher reproduction rate than mammals.

    If we mean by evolution, counting the number of generations, then bacteria are vastly more evolved that mammals. But if we mean change over time, then mammals are vastly more evolved than bacteria.

    In opposing the very idea of “lower animals”, a person puts a restriction on their willingness to think about these things, which in my opinion is a mistake.

    A little discussion is all it takes to clarify the reasons as to why certain terms may or may not be suitable.

    You talk about social hierarchies in the very short time that humans have existed in societies. But this is just an instant compared to the evolutionary line which led to humans in our current form. Can we not talk about our progression over the span of life on earth? Can this progression not be seen as an ascent to a more advanced stage? I’m sure most people would have no problem putting in hierarchical order, a zygote, a fetus, a baby, a teenager and a mature adult. Why would this not hold also for the human evolutionary line from the beginnings of earthly life to the present anthropocene age?

  3. Kantian Naturalist:
    “CharlieM: Don’t you think there is a difference between judging people and judging their actions?”

    Kantian Naturalist: No, not really. All there is of a person, once they’ve died, is the sum total of their actions, their consequences, and how those actions and consequences are interpreted by others.

    Thanks for sharing your belief. There are a good many of the world’s population don’t share this belief.

    If you are going to judge a person purely on their actions then you are failing to take motives into account. In order to judge a person because of some wrongdoing you would need to know what drove them to act as they did. This could involve all sorts of motives that you may be unaware of stretching back into their past. It could easily be a case of, “there but for the grace of God, or different circumstances, go I”. We are on much safer ground when we judge the deed and not the person.

    “CharlieM: One of Frankl’s keys to a meaningful life is the giving of unconditional love between people. Would you judge that as the wrong thing to aspire to?”

    Kantian Naturalist: No, I wouldn’t. But I don’t see that as some grand profound truth. It seems pretty obviously true.

    Why would it need to be profound? But believing it to be obviously true and actually living by this truth are two different things.

    “CharlieM: Are you judging him for trying to give others hope?”

    Kantian Naturalist: I think that hope is morally neutral. Hitler gave lots of people hope. So did Reagan and Trump. Just giving people hope is not in itself morally praiseworthy. What matters is whether what is hoped for is something that is morally good. (One may hope for the painful death of one’s enemies.)

    What you say is true. And that is why Frankl qualified his method of helping others towards a meaningful life. He proposed four vital keys in achieving this and one of those keys was in the giving of unconditional love.

    Hitler’s idea of hope involved hatred of the other whereas Frankl’s idea stressed love.

  4. Kantian Naturalist: ..On top of that, there is a huge amount of ecological information that we need to know: what materials are good for making which kinds of tools, what kinds of wood are good for making fires, and how to make them — how to notice where nutritious tubers are growing underground, how to detoxify lots of plants and sometimes animals, how to make clothing, how to trap and hunt different kinds of animals and detect hidden food caches (e.g. eggs in nests, grubs under rocks, etc.) — likewise how to find water in difficult to find places (e.g. cacti) — how to track, observe, and kill prey animals, which includes knowing which ones, under what conditions, which ones are more or less dangerous, and how many to kill without lowering population levels to the point where your children won’t have enough to eat.

    So, our evolved niche involves massive amounts of local ecological knowledge and massive amounts of social information — far more than the ways of life of any other animal, that we know of.

    Who is this “we” you are talking about?

    Old Mr Smith has carved out a niche for himself living somewhere in an English inner city managing to get by without having to know any of these things. Could we be witnessing a speciation event? 🙂

  5. CharlieM: Can we not talk about our progression over the span of life on earth? Can this progression not be seen as an ascent to a more advanced stage? I’m sure most people would have no problem putting in hierarchical order, a zygote, a fetus, a baby, a teenager and a mature adult. Why would this not hold also for the human evolutionary line from the beginnings of earthly life to the present anthropocene age?

    We can talk about increases in complexity, as long as we are clear on how we are defining complexity and how we are measuring it.

    I like how Stuart Kaufman defines complexity in terms of a ratio between the number of discrete elements in a system and the number of possible relationships or combinations of those elements.

    A complex system is one that has internal differentiation — lots of parts with functional specialization — that are integrated or coordinated in order to allow whole to interact with its environment in flexible and adaptive ways.

    So I certainly have no objection to saying that eukaryotes are more complex than prokaryotes, or that eumetazoa are more complex than protists.

    But I would hesitate to say that a giraffe is more complex than a redwood, unless we had some clear grasp of the criteria that being used to determine what counts as “more complex than.”

    Stuart Kaufman suggests that the number of cell types in eumetazoa could be used as a metric of complexity. That seems promising to me, though I’d want to know more about how different cell types are determined.

    Is a zygote less complex than a sexually mature organism of that species? I guess my short answer is, “I don’t know”. It would depend on what the criteria are for determining more or less complexity and what implications are taken to follow from judging it to be less complex.

    I would be perfectly willing to say that over the course of the last few billion years, the ecoystems on this planet have become more complex: there are more ecological niches, more nodes in trophic webs, with ecosystems found in every biome on the planet. And there are some dramatic transitions in the history of life that could be considered increases in complexity, such as the transition from sea to land, in fungi, plants, and in animals.

    But I do not think that organismal development (ontogeny) is all that similar to evolutionary pathways (phylogeny). The relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny is vastly more complicated than any simplistic mapping.

  6. Kantian Naturalist:
    “CharlieM: With talk of a spiritual plane I can understand why someone with a materialist worldview would be put off from accepting what Frankl has to say.

    Kantian Naturalist: I don’t know what you think you’re trying to say here.

    But just in case you are trying to suggest that I am someone with a “materialist worldview” and that is why I am “put off” by what Frankl says to say: that is not at all true.

    Firstly, I do not have a “materialist worldview”; secondly, I object to Frankl because I think his text presents a badly distorted understanding of the Shoah. That has nothing to do with my “worldview” (“materialist” or otherwise) and everything to do with my understanding of the historical significance of the Shoah.

    (I use the term “the Shoah” instead of “the Holocaust” because the word “holocaust” comes from a Greek phrase that connotes ritual sacrifice. The systemic ruthless dehumanization and murder of twelve million people was not a ritual sacrifice. Hence I use the modern Hebrew term “the Shoah,” meaning “catastrophic destruction”.)

    I was referring in general to people with materialist worldviews. Sorry if I might have given the impression that it was aimed at you.

    I see no problem in using either “Shoah” or “Holocaust” depending on the context. I think it’s only right that Jews would prefer to use the former term. But the meanings of words and how they are used tend to change over time. I would think that if I was to ask a selection of people what the word “holocaust” meant to them, it would be the atrocities committed by the Nazis and not burnt offering to God. I know what that word means to me when I hear it.

    For myself, I would not feel comfortable criticizing the writings of someone who had experienced the Shoah/Holocaust first hand by accusing them of either not understanding what had happened or distorting the facts to further his or her own ends.

    As I see it Frankl’s aim before, during and after WW2 was to save lives. Not necessarily to save lives from death, but more importantly to save lives from a meaningless existence.

  7. Kantian Naturalist: The main point from Pytell’s article is here:

    Pytell: “Lawrence Langer, however, has criticized Frankl for failing to recognize that Auschwitz represented a rupture in the values of Western civilization. Frankl, Langer wrote, relied upon Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and others “to transform his ordeal in Auschwitz into a renewed encounter with the literary and philosophical giants” and thus to preserve “the intellectual and spiritual traditions they championed, and his own legacy as an heir to their minds.” More specifically, Frankl’s testimony “avoids the difficulty of altering the reader’s consciousness so that it can contend with the moral uncertainties of the Holocaust.” Frankl’s notion of meaningful suffering, Langer argued, lessened the horror by making the Holocaust seem survivable. Langer also pointed out contradictions between Frankl’s myth of heroic survival and his descriptions of atrocity. It is “as if Frankl himself were unconsciously committed to a dual vision, torn between how it really was and how, retrospectively, he would like to believe it had been.” Reflecting on the pervasive Christian vocabulary in Frankl’s testimony, Langer suggested that “Frankl secretly yearned for a transfiguration of Auschwitz into nothing more than a test of the religious sensibility.”

    Kantian Naturalist: A detailed historical investigation of Frankl’s life supports Langer’s critique. The following overview, which examines both his camp experience and the way in which he subsequently “worked through” his trauma, illuminates the way in which he came to his peculiar version of survival.”

    Kantian Naturalist: Notice: Pytell claims that a close examination of the actual details of Frankl’s life supports Langer’s critique of Frankl: that Frankl fails to reckon with the Holocaust as a epochal break in the fabric of Western consciousness, that he fails to acknowledge the full extent of its evil, and that he constructs a basically self-serving narrative about his own experience. In short: Man’s Search for Meaning is a monument to Frankl’s own ego.

    There is also this: regarding Frankl’s attempts to prevent Jews from committing suicide, he injected amphetamines directly into their brains.

    From the article, The Lie of Viktor Frankl, by David Mikics:

    “In 1941 Dr. Viktor Frankl was director of neurology at the Rothschild Hospital for Jews in Vienna. Austrian Jews were killing themselves at the rate of about 10 a day, and Frankl was determined to save them. Frankl tried to bring the suicidal patients back by injecting them with amphetamines, but it didn’t work.”

    You give the impression that Frankl injected patients as a preventative procedure before the event. From what Mikics writes it would seem that the injections were administered to those who were already dead or just about to die. This would have been a last ditch attempt at resuscitation.

    In my opinion, in most cases it would have been kinder to leave those people to their fate, but I think Frankl did it with the best of intentions. However unwise we think his actions, wherever he thought lives could be saved he acted.

    Frankl’s account is just one individual’s story and reading it has not lessened my abhorrence of the holocaust and the horrific examples of man’s inhumanity to man throughout history.

    No matter what happens within any given society, if we feel the need to judge individuals within that society, we should do so through that individual’s actions and motives and not through the combined activities or the group.

    Frankl had been developing logotherapy before the war and he saw it as a method that helped to give people a chance of leading fulfilling lives. Lives in which they would not be led astray by the inevitable disappointment that seeking pleasure or seeking power would bring. Finding meaning counts over self-gratification through pleasure or power.

    Kantian Naturalist:
    Pytell: “These ethically questionable experiments could be viewed as bordering on collaboration with the Nazis. Not only was Frankl’s research supported by the Nazis, but his actions stood outside a vision of Jewish communal solidarity.”

    Kantian Naturalist: If Frankl had not been Jewish, I am confident that his “height psychology” would have been co-opted as effortlessly by the Nazis as Jung’s pseudo-psychology was. Perhaps Frankl was aware of that, at some level.

    The Nazis would use whatever they could to further their cause. They had no problem using Darwin’s theories to justify their actions.

  8. Kantian Naturalist: If Frankl had not been Jewish, I am confident that his “height psychology” would have been co-opted as effortlessly by the Nazis as Jung’s pseudo-psychology was. Perhaps Frankl was aware of that, at some level.

    For those who are unfamiliar with the term, here is a very short introduction to Frankl’s “height psychology”, which is distinguished from Freud’s “depth psychology”.

  9. Kantian Naturalist: My objection to Frankl is how his text works as a literary transformation of the greatest crime against humanity into a mere backdrop to the heroic myth of himself.

    About the book, https://ct.counseling.org/2021/06/celebrating-mans-search-for-meaning/>”Man’s Search for Meaning”

    The first version of Man’s Search for Meaning, the book for which Frankl is most widely known, was also published in 1946, after Medical Ministry/The Doctor and the Soul. Frankl later explained that the book detailing his experiences in the concentration camps seemed to pour out of him. Originally, it was meant to be published anonymously. Only after much urging from his friends did he allow his name to be associated with it, and then he added an explanation of logotherapy.

    I see the book as an account of one man’s attempt at helping others to find meaning in their lives. Frankl himself found it remarkable that out of all the books he had written, this one was so successful.

  10. We started talking about Frankl because of this quote:

    The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century. This is understandable; it may be due to a twofold loss which man has had to undergo since he became a truly human being. At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is embedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people tell him to do (totalitarianism).”

    Frankl is making two claims:

    (1) a claim of general philosophical anthropology: unlike all other animals, human beings must make choices; their way of life is not given to them by “instinct”

    (2) a claim of specific historicity: unlike all other human societies, Western modern societies lack “traditions” that offer existential orientation and guidance.

    I think the first claim is just silly. Maybe it made sense at the time for someone like Frankl to think this, but I cannot see any reason why anyone today should think this is true. This is not to say that there aren’t interesting differences between us and other animals — of course there are, and I’ve discussed those extensively — but it’s just not true that the lives of all other animals are dominated by instinct and that the life of human beings is not.

    I see this claim as clearly indicates that Frankl’s whole philosophical anthropology — his account of what it is to be a human being — is antiquated. It is not informed by even the 19th century revolutionary developments in biology and psychology, let alone those of the 20th century.

    I think the second claim is not silly, but it needs major re-articulation in order to be considered plausible. And I think it would need to be balanced against considerations as to how traditions are often ethically problematic.

    What seems basically right in the second claim is that Western modernity is a distinct form of human culture that does pose unique problems, challenges, and opportunities. The hyper individualism promoted by secularization and by capitalism really does make it challenging for people to feel any secure existential orientation in the universe.

    Where I think I most deeply disagree with Frankl is this: the problem is not that people feel that their lives are meaningless. The problem is that people don’t have sufficient control over their own lives. The problem with Frankl’s patients wasn’t that they had given up on life — the problem was that they were being denied their basic political and civil rights.

    In other words: if society were organized such that people’s basic biological needs and true human needs were satisfied, they would have what they need to in order to figure out the meaning of their lives for themselves.

  11. Kantian Naturalist: In other words: if society were organized such that people’s basic biological needs and true human needs were satisfied, they would have what they need to in order to figure out the meaning of their lives for themselves.

    If only we had a government that could make the trains run on time.

  12. Kantian Naturalist:
    “CharlieM: And that is a perfectly reasonable proposal for anyone to make if they start from a prior assumption. That assumption being that the orthodox view of evolution holds. That there is no intrinsic direction to evolution. It blindly builds on what went before it.”

    Kantian Naturalist: Except that this is not, contrary to what is suggested here, a mere “assumption”, let alone one that is “orthodox”: the absence of a direction to evolution is directly entailed by our best empirical knowledge, as grounded in the dialectical process of conjecture and refutation.

    That is not say that I deny all teleology: on the contrary, I take teleology seriously with regard to organismal development and behavior. (Not that it matters, but I’ve published two peer-reviewed papers in academic journals defending this view.) What I deny specifically is that there’s any teleology at the evolutionary level.

    And the reason why I think there’s teleology in organismal development and behavior, but not in evolution, is because there’s compelling evidence of organismal teleology and no evidence of evolutionary teleology.

    I can sympathize with your stance of not attributing teleology to evolution. Organisms could be said to be self-expressing and do not exist to fulfill the purpose of others. Rather than viewing evolution as teleological I think a better way of looking is to consider it as having occurred in a way that has produced directions which can be distinguished and which the development of form made practically inevitable and was generally preordained.

    If the tree, of even bush metaphor is to be continually used in discussions of evolution, then then this implies having a direction. Trees and bushes expand in two directions, one upwards towards the encircling light, the other downwards towards the gravitational centre.

    Plant evolution is an expansion of form alone while attachment to the earth remains strong. Animal evolution is an expansion of form, but with the addition of increasing individual consciousness accompanied by more freedom from the earthly attachment we see in plants.

    I see the spiritual as comprising two elements, spiritual “substance” and spiritual forces. Spiritual “substance” is indicated by inner movement and physical form building, spiritual forces are mind and consciousness forces. Plants have advanced spiritual “substance”, but no individual spiritual forces to speak of. The individual organisms with the most advanced spiritual forces are humans. This is evident through human communication, creativity, awareness of the concept of time, etc. This requires minds. It is common to speak of higher animals and what is meant by this is higher awareness. Higher awareness in animals is indicated by the ability to feel pain and emotions; and to be able to express these feelings and thoughts to others; and to be able to understand these expressions in others.

    The direction taken by evolution is there if we care to look for it. In order to become a self-conscious thinking being an organism must take on a very specific form which involves freeing itself from dependence on any one-sided, narrow niche. The line of development must transcend Darwinian evolution and not be restricted thereby.

  13. CharlieM: If the tree, of even bush metaphor is to be continually used in discussions of evolution, then then this implies having a direction. Trees and bushes expand in two directions, one upwards towards the encircling light, the other downwards towards the gravitational centre.

    It implies a “direction” only if the metaphor is taken literally.

    While the history of life on this planet is a proliferation from very simple organisms to increasingly complex organisms and increasingly complex relationships between them, i.e. increasing complexity in ecosystems, this does not entail a specific direction. It would imply that if the “tree” metaphor were taken literally.

    That’s clearly a mistake.

    And while the emergence of sentient animals is one trend in the history of life, there are many others — such as the emergence of flowers and grasses amongst plants, or the emergence of flight, or echolocation.

    You seem to want to say that animals are in some sense more “advanced” or have some kind of “spiritual freedom” relative to plants, because (most) animals can move and (most) plants cannot. But it seems to me that one could say, with equal justice, that since plants can produce their own food, and animals must get their food from what they eat, plants are more independent and hence more “free” than animals.

    Of course, one could say that animals are more “free” or more “advanced” because they are more similar to us, but that’s just relying on our own human chauvinism.

    CharlieM: The direction taken by evolution is there if we care to look for it.

    It’s there if one ignores everything that conflicts with it, which is all that you’re doing.

    In order to become a self-conscious thinking being an organism must take on a very specific form which involves freeing itself from dependence on any one-sided, narrow niche.

    No organism is capable of freeing itself from dependence on its niche, and certainly not human beings.

    The line of development must transcend Darwinian evolution and not be restricted thereby.

    I’ll give you credit for recognizing that “spiritual” evolution in your sense is distinct from Darwinian evolution.

    This at least brings into view one of the crucial differences between our views: in your view, human evolution involves a transcendence of biology. In my view it does not.

    I regard human beings as a very interesting, quite unique kind of animal, but not as something other than animal: we are animals, shaped by natural selection acting on multiply caused phenotypic diversity, in our minds and cultures just as much as in our bodies and brains.

  14. Kantian Naturalist: And while the emergence of sentient animals is one trend in the history of life, there are many others — such as the emergence of flowers and grasses amongst plants, or the emergence of flight, or echolocation.

    Angiosperms are very advanced in terms of Darwinian evolution. It is surely an advantage to be able to reproduce both by vegetative and by sexual means. Flowers are the reproductive organs of plants and they demonstrate the diversity of evolution. However plants expend so much of their resources in producing organs of growth and reproduction there is little left for the development of sentience. In general animals display a more of a balanced share of their resources between growth/reproduction and sentience.

    Animal flight has developed within groups by adaptation. The exception here is in the way it has been developed by humans. This has been achieved through the cooperative, creative minds of individuals, not as a species wide attribute. The wisdom inherent in animal flight is far superior to the efforts of humans to achieve flight and we still have much to learn from nature.

    The same goes for echolocation. Radar, radio communications and ultrasonic technology has been achieved by a learning process which builds on the thinking processes of individual minds.

    Human reproduction, mastery of flight, and the use of echolocation are things that are coming under increasingly conscious control in ways that don’t restrict human individuals in the same way that other individual organisms are restricted. I can make use of the technology of flight without having to sacrifice the freedom of use of my forelimbs. The birds that have mastered the art of flight have dome so at the expense of severely restricting further adaptation of their forelimbs.

  15. CharlieM: Human reproduction, mastery of flight, and the use of echolocation are things that are coming under increasingly conscious control in ways that don’t restrict human individuals in the same way that other individual organisms are restricted. I can make use of the technology of flight without having to sacrifice the freedom of use of my forelimbs. The birds that have mastered the art of flight have dome so at the expense of severely restricting further adaptation of their forelimbs.

    Whenever you raise this point, I observe that humans are in fact quite thoroughly dependent upon language, culture, technology, and society. I don’t quite understand why this seems irrelevant to you.

    As I see it, our dependence upon language, culture, technology, and society is a fact about the kind of ecological niche that we are adapted to. It’s not that we are somehow free from our ecological niche in a way that other animals aren’t. It’s that we have evolved an ecological niche that we must take with us wherever we go.

  16. Kantian Naturalist:
    “CharlieM: I think we should be making a distinction between the conscious intelligence of individual organisms and the intelligence of the higher group, be that species, genera or whatever. The collective, instinctive intelligence of the group is in many ways superior to the conscious intelligence of the individual.

    Kantian Naturalist: I am skeptical about whether it makes sense to talk about “the intelligence of the higher group” if those groups include “species, genera, or whatever”. The kinds of macro-level intelligence that we observe in social insects is surely fascinating. I think that Huebner is right about what group minds would require, if there are any. But I have no idea if group minds in Huebner’s sense are anything close to what you have in mind here.

    I’m not familiar with Huebner, maybe I should take a look at what he has to say.

    Group intelligence is something we can witness in other species and use to our advantage. There is no need to theorize or speculate about minds and what form they may take in non-human nature, the innate intelligence can be witnessed simply by studying the products of the natural world.

    From the article: “Why we are living in an era of unnatural selection”

    “We are surrounded by genius,” says biologist Janine Benyus, who popularised the term biomimicry, “a new discipline that tries to learn from those geniuses”. Termite mounds have inspired more efficient air conditioning design. One of the world’s fastest trains achieves speeds of 186mph (299km/h) by mimicking the shape of kingfisher beaks. We have created finer surgical needles based on mosquito proboscis, black box recorders modelled on the shock-absorbing properties of woodpecker’s skulls, better wetsuits after sea otter pelts, and difficult-to-counterfeit banknotes that imitate the iridescence of butterfly wings.

    What is genius if not exceptionally intelligent creativity. We don’t need to think about the properties of any mind behind these natural inventions, we only need to study these systems to understand how intelligently designed they are.

    We can see from the various groups of organisms that these clever designs reveal a very narrowly focused intelligence specific to the needs of the creature. But the breadth of human intelligence allows us to make use of the prior designs of any organism we see fit to use in whatever way we choose. What is an ingenious way of allowing an animal such as a mosquito to exist within its specific narrow niche can be adapted by humans. We can apply to a small area of activities what has been discovered in mosquitos. And this mimicry can be repeated in applying other discoveries to the vast range of activities that humans are engaged in.

    The field of human intelligence is shallow and broad whereas the fields of animal intelligence is deep and narrow.

    Kantian Naturalist:

    “CharlieM: Human reproduction, mastery of flight, and the use of echolocation are things that are coming under increasingly conscious control in ways that don’t restrict human individuals in the same way that other individual organisms are restricted. I can make use of the technology of flight without having to sacrifice the freedom of use of my forelimbs. The birds that have mastered the art of flight have dome so at the expense of severely restricting further adaptation of their forelimbs.”

    Kantian Naturalist: Whenever you raise this point, I observe that humans are in fact quite thoroughly dependent upon language, culture, technology, and society. I don’t quite understand why this seems irrelevant to you.

    It isn’t irrelevant. Niche dynamics and niche-building are interesting topics to study. I think it’s a good idea to have a close look at the subjects you mention above and how they relate to niches.

    The example of dragonflies from here is a case in point.

    Dragonflies, which belong to the order Odonata, are one of the oldest insects still around today and they have not changed much from their ancestors. All Odonata share some similar characteristics in vision, life cycle, habitat, morphology flight, hunting prey and mating.

    Compare extant dragonfly niches with those of their ancient ancestors. Note the essential changes, if any.

    Now look at the factors you mention concerning human ‘niches’. You give as examples; language, culture, technology, and society. In what way have these niche factors changed during human evolution? Here are a few specifics.

    Language and technology – In earlier times someone who lived in an area which is now China and someone from Europe could not communicate directly through language. Nowadays technology allow for translations so that the listener or reading can understand what is being said or written in a language which is unfamiliar.

    Culture and society – We are living ever more increasingly in multicultural societies. I remember a time about 40 years ago a friend lived in a farm cottage and there was an old woman living alone in the adjoining cottage. This woman spoke with a local dialect which even I, who was brought up less than one hundred miles away, found it very difficult to understand. She only ventured out to the local town a few miles away once a year on average. And she had paid a visit to the nearest city around 20 miles away only once in her lifetime. All her needs were met without her having to leave her immediate location. This is a way of life that is becoming increasingly rare in this area.

    If we can be said to be living in niches, then humans have experienced far more dynamic, and broadening niches that other animals which can be very static over long periods of evolutionary history. These niches you mention can be seen to have expanded greatly during human evolution.

  17. CharlieM: These niches you mention can be seen to have expanded greatly during human evolution.

    Social or cultural “evolution” perhaps, but homo sapiens sapiens hasn’t changed biologically for perhaps 100,000 years. Restricted gene flow has resulted in regional physical variation to some degree, but not nearly enough to influence interbreeding in any way. Technology has reduced that restriction, at an accelerating rate. Evidence indicates that interbreeding was quite fertile between our species and Neandertal or Denisovan people. So don’t forget that among large, slow-breeding organisms real physical evolution (identifiable branching events) don’t happen in an evolutionary overnight, like 100,000 years.

  18. CharlieM,

    My point wasn’t that language or technology haven’t changed in the past few thousand years — of course they have.

    My point was that we today are as dependent on language and technology today as our ancestors were hundreds of thousands of years ago, because language and technology are major components of the specific econiche that makes us the specific kind of animals that we are.

    So while you seem to think that evolution has taken us beyond the confines of our evolved econiche, I think that this is a mistake: it is a mistake because it doesn’t appreciate that language and technology, on which we are dependent, are part of our evolved econiche.

  19. Kantian Naturalist:
    “CharlieM: Comparing groups whose members consist of organisms capable of individual learning (such as any species of octopus, some of which do seem to demonstrate social learning) with groups whose members show no such abilities (such as Escherichia coli), which of these would appear to be the most successful in terms of orthodox evolutionary understanding?”

    Kantian Naturalist: This question makes no sense, since evolutionary theory does not provide us with a metric for “more successful” or “less successful”. I would have assumed you understood that, so I don’t know why you asked a question that doesn’t make any sense to begin with.

    Apart from the fact that the E. coli reproduction rate and world population level is vastly greater than that of octopuses, you make a fair point. Understanding what we mean by success and making comparisons between these two groups leads to all sorts of confusions. Better to look at the broader picture.

    Going by orthodox evolutionary understanding and beliefs Escherichia coli and octopuses both evolved from a common ancestor at some point in the very distant past. That ancestor was believed to be a prokaryote. And as prokaryotes have given rise to all extant prokaryotes and to all multicellular organisms they are responsible for all the diversity of extant life. Eukaryote ancestors are only responsible for a subset of extant life. The latest trend is the belief that we are all archaea. Prokaryotes have successfully produced much more diverse forms of life than eukaryotes have.

    “CharlieM: If evolution is blind why haven’t the prokaryotes consumed all the eukaryotes before they had a chance to even establish themselves? I am tempted to think that with such a concentrated food source as any budding eukaryote, the geometric expansion of any group of predatory prokaryotes would continue unabated until they had consumed all the available supply.”

    Kantian Naturalist: I would recommend acquainting yourself with what is actually known about eukaryote evolution before speculating about what those accounts fail to explain.

    I think that the reason why evolution has given rise to complex multicellular life is because cooperation far outweighs competition. The balance of nature is such that the emergence and diversification of eukaryotes could only come about because their continued existence has been assured by the actions of prokaryotes. This could not have happened if the motto of prokaryotes was, “every ‘man’ for himself”. Instead of the opposition between “us and them” implied by “survival of the fittest”, it involved a joint effort. Coordinated cooperation has given rise to sentient beings. Sentient beings are sustained by photosynthesizing plants providing the nourishment and prokaryotes converting the plant material into a form that multicellular organisms can use to provide growth and energy.

    “CharlieM: Like a salmon overcoming all obstacles to reach its upstream spawning grounds, individual sentient consciousness of organisms has appeared against all the odds. Against all the obstacles to be overcome on the evolutionary path. That is the miracle of life.”

    Kantian Naturalist: A pretty metaphor, but a misleading one.

    Was the appearance of individual sentience organisms unlikely? I don’t know — based on what prior probabilities? Is the emergence of sentience “against all odds” in a way that the emergence of photosynthesis was not? If there’s a difference, what’s the basis?

    In my opinion both sentience and photosynthesis have emerged against all the odds only if the current theories of blind evolution are clung to. If not so blind forces are posited, then what seems “against all odds” becomes inevitable.

  20. Flint to Kantian Naturalist: Charlie seems mired in the conception of evolution as being a mighty uphill battle resulting in himself and a lot of failures.

    I need only imagine it being a mighty uphill battle if the orthodox evolutionary forces are all that are assumed to come into play. But I believe that we are much more than selfish, survival machines and so what would seem to be conflict turns out to be beneficial from the perspective of the whole.

    In my opinion there are other forces at work that aren’t taken into account by those who follow the orthodox view.

  21. Corneel:
    “CharlieM: If evolution is blind why haven’t the prokaryotes consumed all the eukaryotes before they had a chance to even establish themselves? I am tempted to think that with such a concentrated food source as any budding eukaryote, the geometric expansion of any group of predatory prokaryotes would continue unabated until they had consumed all the available supply.”

    Corneel: As I understand it, one major hypothesis for the capture of mitochondria and plastids as eukaryotic endosymbionts is that the possession of a complex actin-based cytoskeleton allowed proto-eukaryotes to engulf prokaryote prey. Regardless of whether that scenario is correct, it has been established that several early eukaryotes were in fact, bacteriovore (and eukaryovore) predators.

    Hence, to the surprise of nobody, you got things completely backwards again.

    However we envision the origin of organelles such as mitochondria or chloroplasts they are essential to the survival and function of the organism to which they belong. At a higher level gut flora and fauna are essential to the organism to which they belong. At a still higher level plants are essential to the survival and function of animal life.

    Mutualistic symbiosis ensures the continued survival of living forms. How would life on earth have faired if parasitic symbiosis was the dominant form of interaction between organisms? Without proposing some form of teleology, how do those who hold the orthodox view account for this dominance of mutualism?

  22. petrushka to Kantian Naturalist: Most of what goes on in our brains is either outside consciousness, or happens before we become aware of it.

    The vast majority of what goes on in our physical bodies, including our brains is outside of our consciousness. We usually only become aware of internal organs when things start to go wrong and they begin to cause us discomfort.

    In my opinion self-consciousness is very rudimentary at this stage of our evolution.

  23. Kantian Naturalist: Is a zygote less complex than a sexually mature organism of that species? I guess my short answer is, “I don’t know”. It would depend on what the criteria are for determining more or less complexity and what implications are taken to follow from judging it to be less complex.

    When I was a zygote I consisted of one cell type, now I consist of hundreds of cell types. What would you call this diversification if not an increase in complexity.

    Kantian Naturalist: I would be perfectly willing to say that over the course of the last few billion years, the ecoystems on this planet have become more complex: there are more ecological niches, more nodes in trophic webs, with ecosystems found in every biome on the planet. And there are some dramatic transitions in the history of life that could be considered increases in complexity, such as the transition from sea to land, in fungi, plants, and in animals.

    But I do not think that organismal development (ontogeny) is all that similar to evolutionary pathways (phylogeny). The relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny is vastly more complicated than any simplistic mapping.

    Of course when we zoom in to the finer details the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny is a very complicated matter. But this does not mean that general similarities cannot be seen between both processes. When I compare my personal ontogeny to the phylogeny of the evolutionary line leading to humans I can detect parallels. Single cell to multicellularity compares to prokaryote to multicellular eukaryote. And I would not disagree with the proposal that both I and the human line progressed from unconscious existence towards self-consciousness.

  24. CharlieM: In my opinion both sentience and photosynthesis have emerged against all the odds only if the current theories of blind evolution are clung to. If not so blind forces are posited, then what seems “against all odds” becomes inevitable.

    I don’t know what you mean by “blind” evolution, or “blind forces”. If the idea of a “blind” force is something that produces effects simply by transferring kinetic energy, then I’m quite happy to say that not all causation is of that kind. Scientific metaphysics should be based on a solid understanding of different kinds of constraints and how constraints produce effects other than by transferring kinetic energy. (I’m currently reading Context Changes Everything and it’s a complete game-changer for me!)

    Likewise, I don’t know what you mean by the “orthodox” view of evolution. But if “orthodox” means something like the mid 20th century Modern Synthesis, then I’m quite happy to position myself against it. Critics of the MS range from moderate to extreme.

    I’m definitely on the most extreme end of contemporary critics of the MS within philosophy of biology, because I agree with Denis Walsh, Matteo Mossio, and others that evolution as Darwin understood it cannot explain biological agency, because it logically and ontologically presupposes agency. There’s a nice recent paper on this here (PDF, online access only).

  25. CharlieM: However we envision the origin of organelles such as mitochondria or chloroplasts they are essential to the survival and function of the organism to which they belong. At a higher level gut flora and fauna are essential to the organism to which they belong. At a still higher level plants are essential to the survival and function of animal life.

    Before I react to the new nonsense, could you at the very least acknowledge that when you wrote…

    “If evolution is blind why haven’t the prokaryotes consumed all the eukaryotes before they had a chance to even establish themselves? I am tempted to think that with such a concentrated food source as any budding eukaryote, the geometric expansion of any group of predatory prokaryotes would continue unabated until they had consumed all the available supply.”

    .. you were in fact speculating from a misguided view on early eukaryote evolution? Thanks!

    CharlieM: Mutualistic symbiosis ensures the continued survival of living forms. How would life on earth have faired if parasitic symbiosis was the dominant form of interaction between organisms?

    Sorry, I missed the part where you demonstrated that mutualistic symbiosis is absolutely required for the continued survival of living forms. Or where you presented your evidence that parasitism is not “the dominant form of interaction between organisms”. I am guessing this is just more of the stuff that you make up as you go, do not bother to fact-check and are completely unable to support.

    CharlieM: Without proposing some form of teleology, how do those who hold the orthodox view account for this dominance of mutualism?

    “Those who hold the orthodox view” can account for mutualism just fine, thanks for asking. Not seeing any problem actually. Maybe you could help us orthodox dinosaurs by describing what you think is the “orthodox view” and why on earth you imagine it to be inadequate to account for the evolution of mutualism.

    Wrt teleology, there may actuallly be some genuinely interesting discussion here, provided that you will actually take an interest in other people’s opinion on this. I recommend you follow one of KN’s book tips and read D.M. Walsh’s “Organisms, Agency and Evolution”. The author strongly argues for a revaluation of teleology in biological explanations which he calls “situated Darwinism” and which is based on the agency of organisms. Not my cup of tea and I do not immediately see its use (sorry KN), but he argues his case well enough and I believe it is right up your alley.

  26. Corneel: Wrt teleology, there may actuallly be some genuinely interesting discussion here, provided that you will actually take an interest in other people’s opinion on this. I recommend you follow one of KN’s book tips and read D.M. Walsh’s “Organisms, Agency and Evolution”. The author strongly argues for a revaluation of teleology in biological explanations which he calls “situated Darwinism” and which is based on the agency of organisms. Not my cup of tea and I do not immediately see its use (sorry KN), but he argues his case well enough and I believe it is right up your alley.

    I’m glad you found my recommendation interesting! I can accept that Walsh’s proposal doesn’t seem to have any specific immediate use, at least not with regard to conducting scientific research. I think it is more useful for philosophers and others who would otherwise be inclined to take their understanding of evolution from Dawkins and use that as a basis for a whole slew of non-scientific or extra-scientific claims.

    For one thing, I think that the whole intelligent design movement would be dead if Walsh’s view of evolution were commonly accepted. For another, I’m currently writing an article on why we need to begin with something like Walsh’s situated Darwinism in order to refute Plantinga’s EAAN (Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism). That argument has done much mischief in the hands of Nancy Pearce and the people over at Evolution News and Views

  27. Kantian Naturalist,

    I am always on the look-out for good book recommendations, and I have read some enjoyable ones you mentioned. So thanks for that.

    Kantian Naturalist: I can accept that Walsh’s proposal doesn’t seem to have any specific immediate use, at least not with regard to conducting scientific research. I think it is more useful for philosophers and others who would otherwise be inclined to take their understanding of evolution from Dawkins and use that as a basis for a whole slew of non-scientific or extra-scientific claims.

    The lack of practical applications bothered me, but there were other things at play as well. Denis Walsh appears to be enamored by several supporters of the “extended synthesis”, such as Eva Jablonka, Mary Jane West-Eberhard and John Odling-Smee. I myself am skeptical of their claims that the contribution of non-genetic sources of heritable variation to evolutionary change is as important as they like us to believe. Also, I found the emphasis on the role of development in guiding evolutionary change somewhat restrictive as it applies only to multicellular organisms (in particular metazoans). Therefore the arguments that Walsh put forth which lean on those views didn’t appeal to me.

    Kantian Naturalist: For one thing, I think that the whole intelligent design movement would be dead if Walsh’s view of evolution were commonly accepted. For another, I’m currently writing an article on why we need to begin with something like Walsh’s situated Darwinism in order to refute Plantinga’s EAAN (Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism). That argument has done much mischief in the hands of Nancy Pearce and the people over at Evolution News and Views

    The concept of teleology and purpose in evolutionary theory still intrigues me and it is clear biologists are already occasionally thinking this way, e.g. whenever they are talking about the function of organs or of biological molecules. However, I found it hard to relate to this purpose that is divorced from intention. I wish Walsh had included some more examples that demonstrated in what way situated Darwinism can give us insights that we would not get if we stuck with the perspective from the modern synthesis.

    I do not share your optimism that acceptance of situated Darwinism will vanquish intelligent Design creationism or any of its intellectual successors, since I doubt that many of its proponents have the slightest interest in the biology. Though unspoken, they clearly have a different agenda. But I guess you are saying that it may help garnering some more enthusiasm for evolutionary explanations, which now are commonly described as blind and uncaring. If that’s not it, then why do you think adopting this perspective would help refutations of creationist ideas or the EAAN?

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