Energy Transfers, Pheromones, Cultural Gestures, and Initial Aims
Quotes to Get Started
Communication is Everywhere
“Not all communication is human communication. Animals and machines, atoms and the earth, the seas and the stars are themselves full of curious communications, and our efforts to have intelligence with such entities reform our own practices as well. A vision of communication committed to democracy cannot foreclose on entering into intelligence with radical otherness, including the earth, other species, machines, or extraterrestrial life.” (John Durham Peters, “Space, Time, and Communication Theory”)
We live in a Democracy of Fellow Creatures
“We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.” (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality)
A Communicative Cosmos
"Recognizing that humans represent only one of the cosmos’ many forms of communicative being, and that the storage, transmission, and transformation of meaning occur at every scale—from the quantum to the geological to the galactic—new theoretical perspectives on and practical interventions into the study of media as environment and environment as media open up. Becoming conscious of a communicative cosmos has profound technological, ecological, and theological implications." (Matthew Segall, Whitehead and Media Ecology")
I started this page with a desire to write something on Process and Pheromones: invisible chemical signals transmitted within species to influence behavior, especially in insects and mammals.
It occurred to me that what process philosophers call "initial aims" from God are pheromonic in character, although not chemical. They are signals transmitted by the Life of the universe to help guide the world toward differentiation, diversity, and communion; and, in our species, to guide us toward wisdom, compassion, and creativity. We are influenced but not controlled by a pheromonic God.
But then I realized, with help from Matthew Segall, that pheromones are instances of a universal impulse, within the whole of the universe, for entities to communicate with one another in myriad ways: atomically, chemically, psychologically and perhaps spiritually. Communication is at the heart of the cosmos. At least so Segall argues in "Whitehead and Media Ecology: Toward a Communicative Cosmos." This rest of this short note is but a riff on Segall's excellent article.
One of Segall's points in the essay is that communication is not unique to human beings or human language; to the contrary, human language is an elaboration of a kind of transmission and transformation - a kind of communication - that is found among actualities at every level of the universe: submicroscopic, microscopic, macroscopic, galactic, and divine. Wherever there is actuality of any sort, there is a transmission from one entity to another: there is communication.
Information = Energy = Feelings
What is communicated? What is transmitted?
Often people will say "information," and there is truth in this. Information is transmitted from one actual entity to another. Here information need not mean visual, auditory, olfactory, or tactile messaging; it can simply mean influence from elsewhere. The message received by the entity may be simply be "something from elsewhere is affecting what is here." The message has to do with a vector transmission of energy from elsewhere to here.
But from a process perspective, "information" does not capture the fulness of communication as found throughout the universe. What is transmitted is not information alone, it is also energy and feeling. When an actual entity in the present receives communications from a past actual entity, that entity is receiving power and something like emotion. Indeed, thinks Whitehead, energy itself is emotion and emotion is energy. The entity is feeling the feelings of the past, and inwardly affected by what is felt. This means that the entity at issue has something like inwardness, subjectivity, or a perspective of its own, conscious or unconscious. It does not exist independently from the other entity or, more accurately, by a multitude of entities affecting it. Its very nature is partly constituted by an act of reception, an act of feeling the feelings of the past.
Causal Efficacy = Communication
Another word for feeling in Whitehead's philosophy is prehension. To feel the presence of something is to prehend it, consciously or unconsciously. Prehensions are the very glue that holds the universe together, but vast majority of prehensions in the universe are unconscious rather than conscious. They are beneath the surface of conscious experience, but nevertheless influential as causal connections. When entities function as causal influences on others, they are called superjects, exercising their own, in Segall's words, affective influences. Segall puts it this way:
Causal efficacy is prehensional, the presubjective process of inheriting the affective influences of superjects. The former mode implies a conscious mind remaining at a distance from nonconscious things, reflecting on their abstract essence rather than prehending their concrete expressiveness; the latter mode implies the interpenetration of experiential occasions, the transition from the superjective being of the past into the subjective becoming of the present. Whitehead’s alchemical dissolution of consciousness plunges us below the phenomenal surface to reveal a deeper aesthetic relationality, a more primordial mode of experience that is shared in by every actuality in the cosmos.
Causal efficacy, then, is a more primordial mode of experience than, say, detached visual perception of a pencil on a desk. It is experiencing or feeling or prehending something in its concrete expressiveness. Such expressiveness is everywhere. The hills and rivers, the trees and stars, the machines and buildings, the people and penguins - all are expressing themselves. This is their primal act of communication. They are communicating not only their energy but the sheer fact that they exist.
Communication between living organisms, conscious or nonconscious, is the central concern of biosemiotics. Biosemiotics investigates the structure and function of signs and signals used in communication among living organisms, including the ways in which signs and signals are perceived, transmitted, and interpreted.
One example of biosemiotic communication, but only one, is pheromones. The BBC's In Our Times offers a discussion of them below. Pheromones are "invisible chemical signals members of the same species send each other to influence the way they behave. Pheromones are used by species across the animal kingdom in a variety of ways, such as laying trails to be followed, to raise the alarm, to scatter from predators, to signal dominance and to enhance attractiveness and, in honey bees, even direct development into queen or worker."
Still another example of communication between living organisms occurs in culture, both human and more than human. In process philosophy is not the province of humans alone; it is the province of other creatures, too: chimpanzees and bonobos, for example
In process theology the communicative universe has a life of its own. That life is God. God does not stand outside the universe as a separate entity, God is the unity of the universe itself, understood as cosmic life in whose consciousness the countless entities of the universe unfold, each having creativity of its own. God does not create the universe out of nothing, but God guides the universe through lures that are felt, inwardly, by the entities themselves, consciously or unconsciously. God sends "signals." The lures are to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand and often, as present in living beings, they take the form of relevant potentials for adapting to new situations.
These signals do not come from outside the universe, from a divine elsewhere where God is located. God is everywhere and now/here. But this everywhere God is indeed elsewhere in the sense that divine lures are in others as well as in oneself.. God is in the ladybugs, and not just in me and you. The signals of God, the fresh possibilities, emerge from a beyond that is within each creature. This is the distinctive nature of divine semiotics.
Matthew Segall says: "Becoming conscious of a communicative cosmos has profound technological, ecological, and theological implications." The idea that even the sacred whole of the universe, even God, is a signal sender is one of those implications. God is a signal receiver as well. All of our activities affect God causally; all of our feelings are felt by God sympathetically. God is a fellow-sufferer who understands. The communicative universe of which Segall speaks is radically mutual, with messages sent from all sides: creature to creature, creature to God, God to creatures. Interconnectedness is not causal influence alone, it is mutual communication,
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how members of the same species send each other invisible chemical signals to influence the way they behave. Pheromones are used by species across the animal kingdom in a variety of ways, such as laying trails to be followed, to raise the alarm, to scatter from predators, to signal dominance and to enhance attractiveness and, in honey bees, even direct development into queen or worker. The image above is of male and female ladybirds that have clustered together in response to pheromones.
Tristram Wyatt Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford
Jane Hurst William Prescott Professor of Animal Science at the University of Liverpool
Francis Ratnieks Professor of Apiculture and Head of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex Producer: Simon Tillotson
Links and Reading List offered by BBC's In Our Time