Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
By Gregory Bateson
I experienced this as a report on a profound source of wisdom delivered by someone who had never fully understood it and at the time of writing recalled nothing more than scattered phrases. On my first reading I ploughed through, enduring what I assumed was the incoherence of an aging intellectual, egged on only by his identification of thinking with evolving, an association dear to me. To gather more reflections on this theme I read the book a second time, this time picking up his phrase “patterns of connection.” It has haunted me since. In what follows I cannot distinguish between what came from him and what I’ve devised myself.
Patterns of connection are what distinguishes life from non-life. Chemical phenomena may exhibit scattered patterns of connection, but they are seldom embedded in other patterns of connection as is typical of life. Patterns of connection are found in both human minds and evolution. Patterns of connection are the very substance of life. Life consists of matter, and patterns of connection. That came to seem the essence of what life consists of.
Bateson is not a pantheist, he does not believe these patterns of connection lie inherent in matter. They are forms matter can be given. They arise de novo in life. Evolution is the creation of these patterns. A theory of evolution must first of all account for how they arise.
I tried to come up with a pithier alternative to “patterns of connection,” but couldn’t find one. It seems to express a concept we’re poorly equipped to operate. Essentially it’s a pattern of channels that connect two contexts. Here are examples: a switchboard connecting telephone customers; a dashboard providing a driver with control over the operation of a car; a model, such as a computer model, that maps the patterns of connection between other contexts on the basis of which a dashboard could be made; metaphor, or more elaborately a form of discourse connecting a familiar context with another to be explored; a story that models connections as events happening over time; theories about evolution. More: the Krebs cycle, that connects oxygen-rich and energy-poor environments through a brew of catalysts and chemical flows; the mental apparatus by which the imagination of a dancer gets turned into precisely-corresponding bodily movements; whatever connects epigenetic management of genome function to the outside world. These can be satisfactorily accounted for only through a definition of the pattern of connections between two contexts.
The rest of Bateson’s text can be looked at as descriptions of the habits of thought required for seeing the world in these terms. It is quite possible that young students might gain enormously from these—I found them inscrutable.
He makes a great deal of stochastic processes. From his glossary: “…a sequence of events that combines a random component with a selective process so that only certain outcomes of the random are allowed to endure…” He sees both human thought and evolution as being driven by this kind of process--the combination of mutation and natural selection would be an example. Here we differ. I see patterns of connection providing scope for probes and tests within which randomness is severely channeled, and failure being detected within the pattern of connection before it can take effect in the destination context. Such a process amounts to intelligent trial and error.
“I shall assume that thought resembles evolution in being a stochastic process.” “We face, then, two great stochastic systems that are partly in interaction and partly isolated from each other. One system is within the individual and is called learning, the other is imminent in heredity and in populations and is called evolution. One is a matter of the single lifetime, the other is a matter of multiple generations or many individuals.” “If you want to understand mental process, look at biological evolution and conversely if you want to understand biological evolution, go look at mental process.”
After listing properties of mind: “I shall argue that the phenomena which we call thought, evolution, ecology, life, learning, and the like occur only in systems that satisfy these criteria…. I do not believe that single subatomic particles are ‘minds’ in my sense because I do believe that mental process is always a sequence of interactions between parts…. The theory of mind presented here is holistic and, like all serious holisms, is premised upon the differentiation and interaction of parts.”
“…the sort of system I call mind is capable of purpose and choice by way of its self-corrective possibilities…. It is influenced by ‘maps,’ never by territory, and is therefore limited by the generalization that its receipt of information will never prove anything about the world or about itself.”
“In sum, I shall assume that evolutionary change and somatic change (including learning and thought) are fundamentally similar, that both are stochastic in nature, although surely the ideas (injunctions, descriptive propositions, and so on) on which each process works are of totally different logical typing from the typing of ideas in the other process.”
“In any case, there are no doubt many ways of looking at animal forms. And because we are embarked on a Platonic study of the parallelism between creative thinking and that vast mental processes called biological evolution, it is worthwhile to ask in every instance: Is this way of looking at the phenomena somehow represented or paralleled within the organizational system of the phenomena themselves? Do any of the genetic messages and static signs that determine the phenotype have any sort of syntax (for lack of a better word) which would divide ‘typological’ from ‘syntactic’ thinking. Can we recognize, among the very messages which create and shape animal forms, some messages more typological and some more synthetic?” [He is distinguishing between a world of pattern and number, and a world of quantities. I didn’t understand.]