Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Great Chain of Being revisited

Western thinking from Plato through The Elizabethan Age conceived of Creation as structured hierarchically in the form of a "Great Chain of Being." The chain ascended from the smallest germ up through the plants and creatures to humankind and ultimately through the spheres of the firmament to reach the throne of God. The extraterrestrial links in the chain were, within Catholicism, detailed in the form of the Orders of Angels.

Few thinkers today would regard such metaphors as more than anachronisms, a primitive conception of the natural (and supernatural) order. But in the context of the star larvae hypothesis, the Chain of Being presents a more complete picture of evolution than does the standard scientific view. What the Chain lacks, and science provides, is the temporal, dynamic dimension—the process.

The Chain of Being is a cross-section of a temporal progression—a developmental sequence that leads from the terrestrial to the extraterrestrial. The Chain was conceived of at a time when Creation was regarded as static (a place for everything, etc.). Once we assign phylogeny (the evolution of species) a subordinate position within an overarching ontogeny (the stellar life cycle) we effectively resurrect the Chain of Being, but in an ecological context. Evolution is the metamorphosis of stages in the life cycle of a genus of organism—the stellar organism. The apparent directionlessness of evolution (Gould, Dawkins) is replaced by a processional sequence that, when viewed in cross section, takes the form of a Great Chain of Being. The historical intuition was essentially right; it just failed to take into account the underlying dynamic process.


  1. It seems there is a tendency for the human mind to seek for and find patterns in nature. Whether or not those patterns are really there, as perceived, humans depend on their belief in them in order to "make sense of the world (of life, of the universe, etc.)" Huxley took from Blake the passage about opening the doors of perception so that one might see the universe as it is--infinite.
    How can infinity (if such is the case) be squared with the Great Chain of Being? Buddhism, as I have read, teaches that apparent reality is an illusion. Very unconvincing doctrine to a living being. But I digress. My reason for commenting was to say, you must have a very flexible or elastic definition of what an "organism" is. I suppose I cannot overcome a lifetime of linear habits of thinking.

  2. I don't think you can take references to infinity literally if you're talking about the physical universe. If the universe began at some point long ago and is expanding at some rate, even if that rate is variable, then it must be finite. But even as a metaphor for immensity, infinity need not conflict with any particular notion of organization. I don't know why infinity per se would have to be chaotic (lacking organization).

    And I have a hard time believing that you need help overcoming a lifetime of linear habits of thinking. Anyway, one suggestion is to study the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead. Another is to, well . . . , you know.

    I think we define organism too narrowly in the natural context. But consider the challenge from technology. In the Renaissance, pneumatically and hydraulically controlled "robots" got philosophers thinking about what makes us different from machines. Some concluded that we are no different in principle, only in complexity. Others said we have souls that set us apart. Now the artificial-intelligence people are telling us that someday computers will possess true minds. Postmodern philosophers tell us that "self" is psychological trick, a social construct. So how do we distinguish organisms from machines? Should we think of creatures as being machines, or machines as creatures? If the former, then we invite Intelligent Design arguments. If the latter, then we elevate ourselves to divine status.

    Given that we probably don't want to define organism too narrowly by limiting it as carbon-based, protoplasmic, biological, etc. That is, we probably want to leave open the logical possibility that somewhere in the vastness of the universe there might dwell creatures constituted in other ways of other materials. The star larvae hypothesis suggests, rather than a rigid definition, an open set of criteria for creaturehood that reflects general tendencies in the way nature organizes herself:

    Metabolism: Anabolic (building up) and catabolic(tearing down) processes linked in feedback loops.

    Internal complexity: A "division of labor" among interdependent internal systems and subsystems.

    Catalysis: Catalytic reactions facilitate metabolic processes. .

    Cyclical processes: Internal processes are cyclical and rhythmic.

    Life cycle: A multi-generational developmental cycle (birth-reproduction-death).

    Social behavior: A tendency to flock with others of one's kind.

    I suggest that if you have a candidate for creaturehood, evaluate it by these criteria. Maybe five out of six suffices?

  3. oliversteinberg wrote: "Whether or not those patterns are really there, as perceived, humans depend on their belief in them in order to "make sense of the world (of life, of the universe, etc.)" Huxley took from Blake the passage about opening the doors of perception so that one might see the universe as it is--infinite.
    How can infinity (if such is the case) be squared with the Great Chain of Being?"

    The problem I see with this is that, as moderns we identify ourselves with our thinking, which has quite the differennt relationship to infinity than when we idntify ourselves as psycho-somatic beings. At a recent conversation elsewhere, I wrote:

    "Also, do we understand each other about the whole body politic thing? Are you seeing where I'm coming from, that A) the Athenians had a sensible and bodily relationship to their city, thus giving a different notion of 'polity' from the one to which we are accustomed, in which the term 'politics' refers only to the ways in which humans organize and/or govern themselves, and B) that man - like the "singulars" to which man's intellect attends 'by reflection only' - IS himself a singular being, thus making him at home in a finite place with which he has a sensible relatinship rather than an indefinite place (in that sense, a non-place) whose limits extend to an open frontier.

    When I say 'finite place,' then, in light of point and/or illustration (A) about the Athenian's bodily and sensible relationship to their city, I mean it in the sense of a 'body politic' having a scale that gives it some real and sensible relationship to the human body and its sensory perceptions. When I refer to 'limits [that] extend to an open frontier,' then, I am referring to a 'place' whose scale is beyond what might give that place some sensible and bodily relationship to human perception and experience. Are you mowing what I'm growing - not necessarily agreeing, but seeing?

    Was I understanding your point - that a man in solitude or in contemporary America is obviously still a 'human being' - to be in relation to man's belonging to his particular species - and also by extension, I suppose, having a particular "nature" that properly relates to his form? BTW, then, the relation of man's 'having a particular 'nature' that properly relates to his form' to my argument is that man has a finite and bodily form."

    Also, interestingly:



  4. As for "Life cycle: A multi-generational developmental cycle (birth-reproduction-death)...Social behavior: A tendency to flock with others of one's kind." as criteria for being the same conversation I just referenced, I wrote:

    ----------------------------------- was all of that back and forth about necessity that lead me to my musings on "necessity" and death, in which necessity actually means "that which is inevitable," which is death (if we go back to the Latin roots). In particular, it lead me to my musings on man's orignal state in the Garden. There I was questioning whether man's garden condition involved an inevitable "natural" death, or rather a deathless existence. In my musings, in passing I actually stated that this was a "key issue." I meant to imply that it was a key issue to our conversation on Girand. I will re-quote myself, and then explain more of why I think it is a key issue, especially in light of our conversation so far.


    "HERE I have a question. Something about which I've been wondering for a while, now, becomes a key issue. What is the traditional Christian - or Thomist - reading of Genesis 1-3 in regard to 'literal,' physical death? I've read somewhere recently - from a non-Christian blog, actually - that Genesis 1-3 seems to posit that man's original state in the garden did not involve an enventual and inevitable death of the physical body (I don't see how he came up with that, the text seems to indicate otherwise; see my next paragraph). I wonder which way it actually is...according to where this conversation is heading (if nature and necessity must be connected to God's design for things), it sounds as if Aquinas would agree with the non-Christian man who wrote that hermeneutical blog exploration in that regard.

    In all my years, though, of living in the chuch, and even in academia too (and after), in which I pursued my education further (my whole life so far), I've never been directly exposed to this particular discourse in a particularly Christian setting, in such a way that the various answers given to the question were layed out! Through various blog dialogues of late (last couple years), I've become very aware of the issue, but that doesn't mean I found any answers.

    In my own speculative adventures I've managed to imagine Garden conditions, involving both a natural death and a deathless existence, in which both could seem to support the gospel. The text speaks of a tree of life; that man might NOT EAT from it and be stuck forever in his state of sin is why he was removed from the garden. This to me implies an original garden condition, before man ever did not eat from tree of life, of a natural and inevitable death. And if the garden involved a natural death, then the resurrection gives back more than what was ever originally given in the first place! If the conditions of the garden involved a deathless existence, however, then, well, reconciliation with the God of the living was, in that sense as well as in a purely moral sense, a restoration to an original state of union that was lost in sin."


    As I stated, then, I think that this is actually a key issue in reading Girand. I mean, T.G., your reading of Girand obviously hinges largely on your reading of the term "necessity." Your whole point is that if mimetic rivalry and the scapegoating mechanism "necessarily" arises from the "natural" neurological design of man, then God created something from which man must be saved, making God into the author of evil. You are coming from the standpoint of "Original Justice," in which God's original design for man involved "BODILY IMMORTALITY, habitual infused SCIENCE, and the NON-NECESSITY of suffering."

    As I stated in my above musing, though, I don't know where that reading comes from. I don't know where that reading comes from for a number of reasons, I think: A) As I stated, no one has ever laid out the various traditional readings of Genesis 1-3 for me in this regard, B) The text itself seems to indicate an inevitable and "natural" death, since the whole reason man got kicked out of the Garden was so he wouldn't eat from the tree of life, and thus be stuck in a state of sin forever, and C) I didn't grow up Catholic, and nor am I in Fresno with you guys studying Aquinas, unfortunately.

    To clearly summarize, then, how this relates to Girand. If man's Garden condition involved a "natural" and inevitable physical death, then God's original design - particuarly in regards to Girand's notion of mimetic rivalry and the scapegoating mechanism as "necessary" - could not have been evil. In other words, if man's orignal condition was one of "natural" death in the first place, then it becomes much easier to read Girand's concept of "mimetic rivalry" and scapegoating specifically as an unjust and false means for the survival of a community - a comunity that would, excluding Original Sin, simply work together to survive. Here I am reminded of Girand's own words: "Satan is a liar and a murderer from the first." To be very explicit, if God originally designed a physical and "natural" being who inevitably died anyway, then the "necessity" for survival is not inherently evil, but only its unjust twist involving mimetic rivalry and scapegoating.

    If, however, "Original Justice" is true - and the correct way of reading Genesis 1-3 - then God originally designed a man who, originally, did not "naturally" and "inevitably" die. In that case, then, a properly theolgoical reading of Girand becomes much more difficult, if not impossible. If man's original "nature" did not in any way include death, then, quite simply, Girand's notion of a neurological makeup that "necessarily" and "naturally" leads to scapegoating simply does not jive with proper theology, in which life rather than death actually becomes what is "natural."

    In this case, I don't think you can really say that mimetic rivalry and scapegoating - which Girand posited as a "necessary" part of his neurological makeup - are a specifically sinful lie about man's means of survival which would otherwise involve peace and cooperation, because man "necessarily" and "naturally" survives anyway. Also in this case, scapegoating - rather than also being a means of survival founded upon a lie from Satan that that's how a community "must" survive - is only a form of moral deception...e.g. Adam's "She made me do it!"

    In the case of Original Justice, cooperation or rivalry simply become the two differing means of living (which is properly restored by Christ). In the case of an original design for man that involves a natural and inevitable death, cooperation and rivalry become differing means of trying to overcome death (which is only truly possible through God).

    At the same time, though, I suppose you could posit Original Justice and still find coherence with Girand's text. In this case, the way man was originally made was for life. Then sin brought death. With death comes either cooperation or rivalry as the differing means - of a being originally meant for life - of trying to overcome it.

    I think I just gave myself a headache! I'm going to bed. I'm curious to hear where Original Justice has a foundation in the text of Genesis 1-3.

    Good night, and God bless,



    Anyway, that conversation has been occuring here, just in case:



  5. Jason, I don't know enough about Christian apologetics to participate in your discussion, but if you've resolved the issue of theodicy, let me know what you came up with.