[percy-l] Re: animals, order, symbol, self-consciousness, and The Fall of Man

Karey L. Perkins karey at charter.net
Fri Dec 13 17:13:57 EST 2002

To Ken and interested listeners --

First of all, in both the e-mail below and previously, you (Ken D.)are
disagreeing with Percy on the wrong grounds -- it's not important whether
man is better or worse than the animals -- I'm not sure that Percy actually
makes that point, and if he does, it is immaterial to his argument.  He is
trying to describe the nature of man, not to compare man to the animals to
see who is better or worse.  But concepts often can be understood in terms
of contrast (Derrida) therefore the animals come up in his argument but they
really aren't what the argument is all about -- it is about understanding
the nature of language, and hence, the nature of man.

(To digress:  I happen to believe man is more advanced, just as angels and
God are more advanced than man -- but only insofar as say a teenager is
older and more advanced than a toddler...though perhaps that comparison is
misleading as well because the toddler will eventually grow to be a
teenager.  Here I am just speaking for myself, not Percy, so this sidebar
comment is not about my argument for Percy's thought per se.)

Secondly, half of your argument is devoted to evolution and that that's how
man's language capacity arose -- but that's not Percy's topic at all.  He
doesn't posit HOW language arose -- or if he does, I've missed it, so he
certainly doesn't dwell on it, and his real claim is not based in the means
by which man acquired language capacity and man didn't.  His claim is WHAT
language is.

As far as I see it, both you and Percy are saying that animal communication
and human communication differ, you just say it is the (a) ordering of
experience that makes the difference, whereas Percy says it is (b)
symbol-mongering that makes it different.  Ordering of experience is a
subset of symbol-mongering.  In other words, you've got it partially right,
you see part of the picture but it's more that.

To see the whole picture, you must understand Percy's triadic theory.  Of
course, he has three book length non-fiction treatises on this, and I had to
read all three to kind of get this idea, so I'm certainly not going
successfully convey it here.  To attempt a brief summary, a behaviorist and
animal language theory is one that is sign-based -- association-based as you
want to call it -- and looks like this

Object Balloon ---------------> Word "Balloon"

in the animal, it goes like this:  if his master says "Fetch," the pet
(assuming it's a trained dog) will "Fetch."  It also works in reverse, as
in, your cat makes some pawing motion to you for food (stimulus) this
results in him obtaining food (response).  Yes, yes, yes, communication is
taking place, but no, no, no, it does not have to do with SYMBOL-mongering.
Percy's comment that "If you say 'James' to a dog, he will look for James.
If you say James to a human, he will wonder about James" ("Message in the
Bottle") conveys this perfectly.   This wondering is not merely to "order"
the world, but it is to know and understand the world -- not just for mere
survival (avoidance of chaos), as you say.  It has something to do with what
is described in Genesis:  Man ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
and realized he was NAKED.  What is this but self-awareness?  Before he did
not realize that, or anything, about himself.  This is a "META-" ability --
the ability to rise over and above the thing itself (in this case, man
himself) and examine it.  So "Knowledge of Good and Evil" bestowed by eating
the fruit means that man can now examine his actions, his life, himself,
others actions, the human species, and evaluate any of them as good, evil,
or something inbetween -- and he can do far more than that, I think; the
idea of good and evil just barely encompasses this "meta-" ability man has
to perceive and assess his life, the world and his own actions, in a way
that the animals don't.  Self awareness gives us, as Steve says, the ability
to reflect on self which gives us art, theology, history, literature -- all
of that is man reflecting on the nature of man, the world, and everything
else, something he couldn't do before.  Animals don't have that -- they
can't reflect on themselves. (And so, they are at peace with themselves!)
Man also does other things the animals don't -- what animal commits suicide,
unless for a practical reasons such as to save another's life?  Animals
don't get depressed.  They may get frustrated when their needs aren't being
met or their living environemnt is for.  Animals don't "sin."  Percy calls
this a C1 state in "Lost in the Cosmos."  Man is in C2 state.  (Read "Lost
in the Cosmos")

(By the way, by my use of Genesis please understand I am not making an
argument for or against the physcial reality of the Genesis story OR for or
against evolution -- Percy talks about this in "Lost in the Cosmos" and I
really couldn't figure out his stance, just that he kind of made fun of ALL
takes of the Genesis/evolution debate.  I am using Genesis here because I
think it illustrates perfectly what Percy was trying to say (or rather, vice
versa!)  As Pat said, Percy and Chomsky were on to this, just that with
Chomsky, he wasn't conscious of it.)

So ordering is just the ability to interact with the environment and make
sense so things aren't chaotic, as you say and I agree.  But this "meta-"
ability is not only man's ability to order the environment, it also is his
ability to REFLECT on the environment  and wonder why about it -- but even
more than that, it is the ability to reflect on HIMSELF (as an individual
human and a species as a whole).

Seeking meaning, purpose, why am I here, why does this thing/person/animal
do such and such, and as Steve says, creating poetry, art, history --
animals do not do this.  This is not just order -- again the need for order
is a subset of what this is.  This is the human being reflecting on himself
and life.  Art is a reflection on/of life.  Literature is.  History is.
Theology is.  Philosophy REALLY is.  There are no animal philosohers -- no
chicken philosophers as Percy might say.

This ability takes us out of stimulus-response mode, living merely for
survival and need satisfaction, to another level.  Or if you want, you might
say what Susanne Langer says, (with whom Percy agrees on this point) that we
are still satisfying a need, but a new need, the need to "know."  (Again,
the Tree of KNOWLEDGE of Good and Evil.)  For Percy, human language looks
like this:

Object "Balloon"-------------------> Word "Balloon"

                       Human Being

(I can't draw the lines in e-mail, but there is a dotted line between object
and word, and solid between object and human, and human and word.)  That
means there is only an apparent relationship between object and word, but
really, the real relationship is between object and human, human and
word...and the real language event, the uniting of the two external things,
occurs within the human himself...the human is the "coupler" as Percy would
say.)  What happens with language does NOT happen in the environment, but it
happens inside the human -- rather than cause-effect (two events, object and
word, or word and object, following each other in related succession in
time), it is a PAIRING, and a SIMULTANEOUS pairing at that -- in other
words, the two become one in the human being's mind. THAT is where the real
language event is taking place.  It is not about sense perceptions outside
the human.  That is only, as Percy says, a "quasi-relationship".

Of course that's just the basis but there's much more -- the idea of "world"
and meaning and myth and magic that Percy discusses, but let's start there.

A brain and a mind (also: consciousness) are two different things.  (First
principle you learn in Philosophy of Mind courses).  Physicalists
(Eliminative Materialists at the extreme end) will reduce consciousness to
brain matter and brain states, but no other.  But this is not a given; this
is just one theory among many, and can't hold water among those who don't
believe it -- in other words, just because there is a physical brain doesn't
mean that's all there is -- it just means that there IS a physical brain.
However, this "physical brain" has self awareness, the ability to reflect on
itself.  That is Percy's point over and over again -- that those scientists
who say we are nothing but atoms and particles bombarding against each other
are forgetting that they are engaging in the act of self-reflection.

One of the issues in this debate is:  upon whom lies the burden of proof.
There are many arguments, scientifically based, that consciousness is
separate from brain states.  (Almeder's "Death and Personal Survival" for
one.)  However, that's not for me to debate here -- suffice it to say that
the burden of proof is then on you if you use that (consciousness being
equivalent to or a product of brain states or evolution) as the reason for
discounting Percy's theory -- rather than finding flaws within the theory
itself.  The burden of proof is on Percy to convince you that the language
event is different, and that it involves "symbol" which is more than -- far
beyond  -- just "ordering" and is awareness, meaning, myth...that is,
ontological rather than epistemological or biological.  His description of
the language event is not a nature-of-the-brain based argument -- he freely
acknowledges that he doesn't know WHAT the coupler is within man, just that
it occurs.  In your conclusion you ask Percy to come up with something that
is separate from "the brain" (not brain based) and if by brain you mean
human perception, then that is impossible for anyone -- all thought is human


----- Original Message -----
From: ken denney
To: Karey L. Perkins
Sent: Thursday, December 12, 2002 11:35 PM
Subject: Re: animals, order, symbol, self-consciousness, and The Fall of Man

No, Percy FAILS in his argument because it proceeds from a false premise.
Man is not "better" or "worse" than animals  because he has a more sublime
capacity of language. The false premise is that there is a material
difference within human beings that makes them special.

Percy certainly thinks there is, but how does he prove it? He simply comes
up with an argument that fulfills his conclusion. He points to certain
"uniquenesses" in the human ability of language and from that point alone
claims to prove his thesis.  That uniqueness is a desire for "meaning."

But he is wrong about "meaning." The concept of meaning, I maintain, is an
artificial construct of a mind seeking order from chaos, which, I repeat, is
a characteristic of man's mind (not a uniqueness) forged as an essential
tool for survival by the process of evolution.

You ask "Do you (I) ever wonder why you're here?  Or the purpose of an event
or how it affected you (me) and those around you  (me) and the world?" Of
course I have, but the fact that I ask those questions -- indeed am capable
of formulating them, or of seeking such answers -- does NOT mark me as a
separate being touched by a special spiritual connectivity with the essense
of the universe.  The fact that I ask these questions is simply a function
of my very ordinary brain, made up of physical components that are of the

Asking the question "why am I here" is only another way of seeking order
from disorder, but on a more philosophical level reflecting centuries of
human evolution. Like Helen Keller, our primordial ancestors found
themselves in a world of chaos.

Imagine the first human being on earth. He would see a bright light in the
sky and find it warm and comforting. But the light moved and eventually
disappeared, leaving him cold and uncomfortable. In these first hours of
life, when sunlight was steady, he had come to rely on it. Now, for reasons
he could not possibly understand, it was gone. He shivered through the
night, wrapped in the mysteries of the darkness.  Then, some time later, the
sun reappeared. Hosanah!

When man realized that certain physical phenomenon was predictable -- that
there would be seasons, that sharp stones could cut flesh, etc., then he was
able to begin to make order out of chaos. He could build societies with
technology that made life easier and eventually indulge his cognitive skills
in backstabbing people at work or writing philosophical treatises.

Now let's step back once more and look again at that first human being who
first beheld the sun.  At that specific moment in time he was an animal no
different from all the other animals. Yet there was something physically
different about him. His brain had the physical property to remember things
that his senses perceived and TO SEE PATTERNS.  The first time the sun
reappeared after disappearing might have been an accident. The second time
it reappeared, there was basis to believe that it might reappear again. When
it did, then man realized that that he could expect the reappearance of the
sun every day and make plans to wash the wheel or whatever during the day
and sleep soundly at night knowing the sun would bring another day.  From
the incremental discovery of predictable events, man built his civilization.
Eventually it led him to ask such questions as "why am I here?"

So now we get to the crux of the argument: from whence comes that property
in man's brain that allows him to find order from disorder and to eventually
be able to ask "why am I here?"

I say that this ability was a natural progression of evolution. I say that
animals were evolving toward the state of being able to find patterns in
chaos and thus discern order from disorder.

The simple answer to your question of me is this: The human brain asks
philosophical questions about its existence BECAUSE IT CAN.  That's the
answer, no more, no less.

The human brain seeks such answers because it is an organ that has evolved
consciousness (the end result of discerning patterns) because consciousness
gives it an edge over the other animals in the fight for survival.  The
brain is a physical structure, locked within a physical being that is on the
earth and like all other such creatures is trying to survive.

Percy looks at human beings and he feels that there must be some purpose to
them, some reason that they are able to reason and he decides --
arbitrarily -- that there is an external force in the universe that makes it
so. This is false logic. It is equally possible that his brain, seeking
order, creates the anticipation of the external force simply because that
would be an answer that satisfies him.

If you consider an ordinary rock trying to figure out its rockness, then you
would have an idea of what I am trying to say. The human brain is a piece of
matter that behaves according to the physical laws of this earth. It is also
subject to evolution, being a living organism.  Evolution forces organisms
to adapt survival tools. The the ability to cogitate patterns is simply a
tool that the human brain has adopted.  The gift might have gone to some
other animal's brain.

A rock given such a tool might decide that it exists because the tree that
stands over it wished it to exist.  A rock given the need to find reason for
its existence might conceive of any number of reasons for its existence,all
of which would be as valid as the next.  None of them would be real,
however, because the need to find a reason for existence is only the
byproduct of an effective tool for survival produced through evolution.

Ultimately, Percy thinks that man's ability to ask questions that seek
meaning in the universe makes him unique. I believe that only through the
accidents of evolution that human brains developed the ability to ask such
questions. Yet to ask such questions in search of meaning in the universe is
ultimately pointless. The brain, because it needs answers, will create
answers for itself.

In other words, the brain is an unreliable tool for resolving the question
of whether man is more than an organism. The brain, formed of matter,
evolved from nature, has characteristics, one of which is to seek for
patterns in chaos.  When I look at a cloud, my brain my see the shape of a
rabbit. When you look at the very same cloud you may see the shape of a 1938
Buick Roadmaster.  There is neither a flying rabbit or a Buick; it is simply
water vapor condensed into a chaotic shape. It is useless to find meaning in
the shape of a cloud, but our brains are wired to do so.

If you want to prove that man is different from animals in the way Percy
wants, you are going to have to come up with a proof that does not rely on
anything having to do with the brain -- and that includes language and
faith.  KD

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