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Tallis in Wonderland

An Unholy Trinity

Raymond Tallis reflects on the man in the mirror.

Philosophy has many things going for it. Not the least is that it doesn’t require expensive equipment. Even the armchair – that iconic piece of furniture invoked by those who denigrate philosophy – is dispensable. Philosophers worth their salt can do it standing up or while walking the dog. This said, the rewards for mobilizing even a modest amount of equipment are disproportionate to the outlay. Consider what can be unpacked about our nature with the aid of a humble mirror.

I have recently spent a lot of time looking at myself in the mirror. This is not out of vanity on my part – which would be best served by banning all mirrors from my vicinity. While my gaze has been directed at a bald-headed, grey-bearded individual, it is not a particular entity that I seek in the mirror, but a general type. Or rather types, in the plural. More precisely, a generic three-in-one, an Unholy Trinity, in which are united a Thing, a Beast, and (in my case) a Bloke.

The Thing

Thing? There is no doubt that what I see before me, apparently as far behind the mirror as I am in front of it, is a material object. This object obstructs the light and bounces some of it onto the mirror, where it heads for my eyes, so that I can see what I usually call myself.

There is much else that is thing-like about this humblest member of the Trinity. Those lower limbs sheathed in black corduroy leave depressions in the carpet just like the chairs and tables and other solid objects that surround him. Further evidence of the physicality of the figure in the mirror is to be found in the pressure marks imprinted on chairs and cushions and other items to which he has recourse when he wishes to take the weight off the aforementioned legs. His massive participation in the gravitational field is also evident to those who carry him to a place of safety after they have found him in a state of collapse. When he walks to the shops or squeezes a dishcloth, Newton’s Third Law of Motion (‘Action and reaction are equal and opposite’), is applied to both parties to the action without fear or favour. And the interchange of heat is equally democratic: when he deposits his hindquarters on a cool surface, they donate some of their warmth to said surface strictly in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The Beast

Next up, the Beast. It has properties not seen in the inanimate part of the universe (which is most of it). The most arresting is that, by interacting with part of nature, the Beast has, from its beginning in the maternal womb, assembled itself by appropriating its environment. To this extraordinary achievement Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela gave the term ‘ autopoiesis’.

The processes by which organisms put themselves together and subsequently curate what they have assembled, are extraordinarily complex in any living organism; but in specimens of exotic megafauna such as your columnist they’re even more mind-boggling. They operate at the level of the cell, the organ, the system, and the whole body. And in addition to the visible activities – such as eating and defaecating, drinking and urinating, shivering and sweating, self-propulsion towards this and away from that – there are innumerable goings on, most of which are unknown to either Beast or Bloke. His beating heart, gurgling gut, breathing chest, and creaking joints give away little of the events beneath and within his skin. Countless micro-agents – enzymes, first- and second-messengers, hormones, to name but a few – regulate every aspect of his bodily chemistry in the battle to maintain the precisely coordinated functions exercised through a variety of structures established to resist the universal tendency to head towards the ultimate disorder of thermodynamic equilibrium – or become dust, as I elaborated upon in a recent column (Issue 147).

The Bloke

However, the most mysterious characteristic of certain beasts is the consciousness that somehow arises in the exquisitely regulated soupy scaffolding and scaffolded soup of living tissue. Which brings us to the third member of the Trinity: the Bloke. What’s most striking about him is the extent to which he is aware of the environment from which the Beast forged itself, of the world beyond that environment, and of himself. If there is nothing in a self-constructed organism that accounts for even elementary sentience – and there isn’t – there is less than nothing that explains the extraordinary consciousness of the Thing that is the Beast that is the Bloke.

The varieties of his consciousness and the extent to which they are unique to the species to which he belongs are topics suitable for a fat book. Indeed, he’s written several of them. It is, however, worth reminding ourselves that he is blessed (or cursed) with many modes of sensory perception of his body and the world around it; with several types of memory (including habitual, factual, episodic, and autobiographical); and with different kinds of knowledge (including of facts, of concepts, of himself…). What’s more, his consciousness is interwoven with that of a boundless constituency of other people – a community of minds to which he belongs as a paid-up member of a culture or cultures, as an inheritor of shared pasts, an anticipator of a multitude of collective futures, and a native of a landscape of technologies.

The Man in the Mirror

Most of this is hidden from the gaze of the Man in the Mirror. And there could be no better (and certainly no cheaper) way of closing in on this fact than by gazing at that gaze.

As I look at my gaze, I trace it to the eyes I can see in the image that appears to be looking out of the mirror at me. The eyes have Thing-like physical properties. If I examine them carefully, a spark of reflected light in the cornea – reflecting light just as do other material objects – reminds me that that in virtue of which I see myself is a material object. I watch the eyes moving, seemingly of their own accord, thus demonstrating to me that they belong to an instinctively self-moving Beast. And then I see the eyes’ gaze that tells me that these organs belong to a self-conscious being – in this case, a Bloke.

Not so fast. See the gaze? I do not literally, or in any other sense, see the gaze. At best, I infer it. For instance, I can’t observe anything coming out of my reflected eyes, even less see that what’s coming out of those eyes is the gaze in virtue of which the eyes, the head and body to which they belong are visible.

Should the Bloke be surprised at this? Perhaps not. Why should we expect that that which makes things visible should itself be visible? Nevertheless, when I am asked what I see in the mirror, I say that I see myself, the one who gazes, the one whose gaze makes me visible to myself. And so we start getting closer to the mystery of consciousness, most evident or perhaps only fully evident in human beings, in blokes who, in this respect at least, are more than beasts.

So much for the Thing, the Beast, and the Bloke. Matter is universal; animate matter is rather localized and relatively recent; and self-conscious matter that identifies itself as ‘this thing here’ and ‘that thing (in the mirror)’ is very much a parvenu in the order of things. How are they related to, and how do they arise out of, one another?

Many philosophers respond to this problem with a lot of hand-waving, and the hand-waver’s current favourite term is ‘emergence’. Beasts, they say, emerge out of Things because the Things develop a certain complex structure which facilitates organic activity. And Blokes emerge from Beasthood when their complex structures include sufficiently complex nervous systems. It is, however, becoming increasingly obvious that ‘emergence’ doesn’t reduce the puzzle of the origin of life, even less the puzzle of conscious intelligent life. Emergence looks more like a description than an explanation. If emergence seems to have explanatory power, it is because it sounds gradual, and gradual changes arising out of business-as-usual seem less surprising and to require less explanation than sudden discontinuities. But this is deceptive, if only because gradualness and suddenness are matters of judgement. The Unholy Trinity is even more challenging to emergence as explanation because the sequence ‘Beasts emerge from Things and Blokes emerge from Beasts’ presupposes that Things require no explanation other than the fact that they exist (existence is no small mystery itself, but that’s for another day). But is it true that my being a Thing requires no explanation?

Tallis in mirror
Illustration © Simon Ellinas 2022. Please visit www.simonillustrations.com

It is generally accepted that everything physical is made of atoms, and that the truth about atoms is revealed by quantum physics. This is a reasonable assumption given the unparalleled predictive power of quantum mechanics and its successful application in technologies that create the landscape of our daily lives. Courtesy of quantum theory, we have lasers, and thus optical fibre communications, and thus I can speak to a friend in Australia without raising my voice. Unfortunately, the properties of matter seen at the microphysical, quantum level are utterly different from the properties observed at the level of the Thing in the mirror seeing his own body. The entangled, uncertain, non-local, indeterministic, probabilistic nature of quantum particles makes ordinary bodies seem quite difficult to explain. In an early expression of the disjunction between the world of ordinary objects experienced in daily life and those same objects seen through the eyes of physics, the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington gave the example of a seemingly substantial table: “Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself” (The Nature of the Physical World, 1928). The same would apply to the body of the Bloke in the mirror, and the mirror he is using to catch sight of himself.

So, while nothing could be seemingly more straightforward than looking at oneself in the mirror, there could be no deeper mysteries than those deftly excavated by a gaze that unpeels the gazer as a material object, a living organism, and a person. And while the Thing might seem easier to explain than the Beast or the Bloke, this overlooks the apparent fact that the Bloke is implicated in the construction of the macroscopic Thing – in the transformation of the insubstantial buzz of quantum probabilities into an item that can block and reflect light, sense it, and translate it into a revelation of a solid object. This is before we address the mystery of the gaze, itself invisible, turning what is into that-it-is, inanimate stuff into a world faced by a conscious subject.

Confession time: I haven’t actually been looking in the mirror while writing this. Rather, I have been reflecting on the idea of looking in the mirror. No equipment was needed for the Bloke to imagine looking at himself and seeing a Thing, a Beast, and a Bloke. Philosophy is even cheaper than I claimed at the outset.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2022

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality was published recently, and reviewed in last issue’s review section.

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