Friday, March 09, 2007

The Vital Situation

Jonas' review of the ontological implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory leads him to the position, hedged but clearly proposed, that inwardness is coexstensive with life (The Phenomenon of Life, p. 58). This notion that subjectivity begins with the membrane again raises the question of whether my philodendron in any way experiences its life, whether it has a soul or whether only animals have something that can be called be a soul. In either case, it appears that life on earth has generated a wide variety of forms of psychophysical unity, and the belief that subjectivity is something that belongs to humanity alone cannot be sustained.

If inwardness is merely coexstensive with Animalia, what's the difference between inwardness and fins, or opposable thumbs? We'll for one thing in inwardness we're looking at something far more primitive. The flagellates, more primitive than Animalia, are heterotrophic and motile–but how could a flagellate possibly feel its own motility? And yet how could it not know where it is going? This is puzzling. Only animals, with the exception of Phylum Porifera, have nerve tissues, giving them a means to feel that we can clearly understand. I don't know how much this matters to Jonas. If it were true that only "higher" mammals had subjective experiences of living, I think he would still argue that inwardness is a reality that belongs to life. Given the huge variety of eukaryotes that never evolved into animals, I'm hesitant to see things that way. Perhaps inwardness truly is freakish, the flowering of a single improbable mutation. Once inwardness exists, though, can it be understood mechanistically? Jonas thinks not, and this is for him is an essential difference between inwardness and other, anatomical features that have evolved over the aeons.

If inwardness cannot be understood mechanistically, it may still be understood evolutionarily, or in a way that's at least consistent with evolutionary theory. Jonas calls evolutionism the "apocryphal ancestor" of modern existentialism (p. 47) because it did away with the notion of the immutable species and introduced the idea that the condition is constituitive of the existent. Life doesn't occur simply within the boundaries of the organism, but in its habitat, in the organism's specific relations to its environment (p. 46). Inwardness was in no way forseen by the amoeba, Jonas argues, but it was elicited over the aeons in the flux of the vital situation (pp. 46-47). In other words, natural selection is the agency responsible for the emergence of inwardness, and inasmuchas natural selection belongs to the whole of life and not to the internal dynamics of particular organisms, which merely produces variations but does not select which will thrive, the outcomes of natural selection belong to the whole of life. If I've understood Jonas correctly, the vital situation is not simply something that bears on how an organism makes a living, to use the popular metaphor, but rather how it comes to exist at all in nature.

Labels: , , , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:53 PM.


Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page