In The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio has done it again. The brilliant UCLA-based neuroscientist who dreamed up the Somatic Marker Hypothesis manages to bring us one step closer to understanding what consciousness is and why. Rather than wading through the muck of the philosophical literature about free will, as Robert Sapolsky has done, among many others, Damasio uses his deft comprehension of the discipline of philosophy to refine his thinking in and around his lab.
From this lab have come many exciting breakthroughs, but The Strange Order of Things is a level higher than any that has come before. In addition to providing an account of consciousness that is largely responsible for inspiring my own view, Damasio shows us the power of cognitive science by building layers of understanding that reach all the way from microorganisms to cultures and societies of human beings - first, metabolism in individual cells; then cooperation between these, then feelings, and by now we have an incentive for evolution to develop a central nervous system with a virtual “screen” upon which consciousness features. Nervous systems solve the same basic problem set that individual microorganisms solve, but at a much higher level, depending upon the type of organism and nervous system. This review will provide the reader with a closer look at the deep cognitive perspective into consciousness that Damasio has painstakingly made available to us.
In the review immediately before this one, and the Notes piece that followed it, we encountered a substantial amount of uncertainty about the nature of consciousness even though we didn’t really manage to get anywhere worth being within the FWD (free will/determinism dialectic). As a result, my review argues that the FWD is an ineffective dialectical framework for investigating consciousness, (Daniel, 2023). The issue is that the question of free will seems to provide less and less relevant insight as cognitive science grinds away the unknown portions of the mental processes underlying consciousness.
Instead of wondering “Do I have free will?” as the FWD encourages us to do, Damasio’s approach is to start at a more fundamental level. The questions we’ll frame here extend from the base level of “What is an organism?” and on up to nervous systems, and finally, our selves and cultures at the highest level. In the end, we realize that feelings are the special piece of the puzzle that is missing in the FWD. After centuries of Enlightenment-inspired dualism and rationalism, the boundary between self and world is falling down, alongside the partition between feeling and reasoning. The power of the cognitivist perspective is evident in the success with which Damasio has managed to reshape the language of consciousness science to blur the formerly sharp lines between these concepts.
The salience with which The Strange Order of Things conveys its meaning is enabled by two major boundary zones, assumed to be far stronger in the past, between reason and feeling, and between the individual self and its surroundings. We’ll focus upon these boundaries to produce a compelling yet concise review of the text.
Boundary Zone #1: Reason & Feeling
If we pay close attention to Varela & Maturana’s reasoning in their claim that cognition and metabolism are the same process, we will find ourselves in good position to receive the wisdom in The Strange Order of Things. In these reviews, I don’t always have a reason to recommend books outside the purview of the direct subject, but in this case, the curious reader will benefit greatly by picking up a copy of Descartes’ Error to get a deep understanding of the blurriness of the line between thinking and feeling. Even if you don’t have time for that, you’ll get a sense of this blurriness via The Strange Order of Things.
The need for the weakening of this distinction is not trivial, either: feelings are the point of origin for the types of systems which end up enabling us to think in the first place. Have you ever arrived at a profound insight while bone weary? What about while vomiting? It seems clear that our best thinking happens at times when it may come as something of a surprise, but this generally involves doing things with our hands or being partially occupied by something else that doesn’t possess a strong valence. Instead, we tend to receive even our most remarkable and unexpected insights when our body’s needs are met, and when our valence-awareness is more neutral.
The revelation that valence provides, with respect to consciousness, is that feeling comes before reason. If feeling is not okay, almost nothing else can happen until the problem being detected has been resolved.
In Damasio’s work, there is a partition between the highest order of conscious thinking, which is still difficult to understand, and the increasingly well-studied relationship between neural activity and conscious action, feeling, and capacity to implement higher order strategies. For a Dualist, this partition is between soul and body; for Damasio, it has been reduced to subjectivity and body, and for myself, it largely resides between the virtual and the real aspects of the body. The body part of the equation grows continually from the 1990s to the present though the works of Dr. Damasio, and the less-understood mind or soul or personality component that seems to give rise to subjectivity shrinks and shrinks as neuroscientists explain more and more of the physiological substrate which underlies the mental aspect of living organisms. If my own view ends up being right, we’ll see a real body which is ultimately quite deterministic and which will respond to our inputs, but there will also be a virtual component which defies attempts at prediction.
In either case, this basic fact of insight relates much of what we need to know about feelings: the thoughts we have are guided by our emotional disposition, by our inclination to pay attention to some things and not others, and by the presence or absence of stress. It might make the FWD better if we discussed whether someone was free under various circumstances, but this would lessen the degree of abstraction of the dialectic to a point where it collapses anyway. What good does it do to be free if and only if you’re well-fed, well-rested, and generally happy with life? These may not be the only conditions in which one is most free, but there’s another problem even if we assume they are great: freedom is far less useful to the study of biology as a biomarker than more concrete aspects of health.
Again and again, we discover that the brain malfunctions when it is injured. If you suffer a lesion in your prefrontal cortex, you will likely make worse decisions until it heals. Knowing this, perhaps you could take it into account and compensate for it, and if you did, your consciousness is doing as it should and assisting you in adapting to your environment. The way this works is simple enough, provided we have a good enough teacher: self-consciousness is a higher-order process that our brains are able to participate in faithfully when most things are going well. It enables us to make plans and carry out actions in the world.
If, on the other hand, a body is sleep-deprived, unable to support itself due to diabetes or starvation or any of the other things that can go wrong on the metabolic front, or if things just simply will not go according to plan, cognition can be impaired. Emotions may be dysregulated and dysfunctional as a result, which can limit the complexity of the thoughts that occur or even cause them to go askew in other ways we think of as “irrational.” For Damasio, feelings are the ground upon which the foundation of rational thought is built, as well as a major source of the subject matter that we think about. Feelings guide our attention, inform us about state changes in our bodies, and deeply interact with our health.
Boundary Zone #2: Self & External World
Though our feelings can provide us with a great deal of information about our bodies, and do so, the process by which we feel them also provides us with a continuous stream of information about the world around us. We smell, see, hear, feel, and taste our way through life precisely because by doing so, we’re able to understand the world we live in and better decide what to do to ensure our survival. The multi-layered conscious thought processes our selves are made out of involve feedback mechanisms that tie different sorts of information in at different points, such that hunger may escape us for a time if we’re busily writing an essay or otherwise deeply engrossed in a task at hand. What we think of as rationality is a high-level thought process in which abstracted information is recombined in different ways to enable a predictive comparison process which does not directly or immediately change the world. In a way, this sandboxing effect makes for a safer environment in which to test our beliefs before we act upon them, but in another way the necessity of metabolic resources attaches a cost and establishes a set of limits from which we cannot ever escape completely.
Though the word ‘enactivism’ has perhaps evolved in the time since The Strange Order of Things was first published in 2018, the concepts in Damasio’s work rather directly line up with what we look for when we seek to understand the relationship between the organism and its environment as denoted by the term ‘enactive’ complex. Essentially, the cognitive apparatus is in constant contact with the external environment to such a degree that the easiest way to approach the task of comprehending both of them is through a refined process of abstraction. Instead of demarcating systems in terms of their most immediate boundaries and studying them with intense scrutiny, we maintain a double focus. In return for this effort, we reap the benefits of a more precise and more definite understanding of the phenomena we aim to study in the brain.
Returning to the topic of the FWD for perhaps the last time for awhile, we find that the issue is now clarified in stark relief: it’s just simply not a very good way of speaking about things. Yes, there are perhaps unquantifiably many influences on any particular person’s conscious thought and decisionmaking processes; however, we still don’t have a great reason to reject the arbitrary virtual cognitive layer hypothesis I cursorily referred to above. In a sense, almost everything about us is determined by factors external to us; yet in another way our cognitive faculties provide us with everything we need to exert our own influence upon this multifaceted environmental backdrop. The failure of FWD to approach this antinomy with clear vision is, once again, the ultimate grounds for its dismissal in favor of the cognitive approach we gain access to via the skillful writings of Dr. Damasio.
We could go a bit deeper into more traditional philosophical fodder such as the “hard problem” of consciousness, but Damasio’s reorganization of the facts here makes it unnecessary. On page 160, he states “experience is itself partly generated from feelings, so it is not really a matter of accompaniment,” in response to the question of why experience is accompanied by feelings. In short, experience is itself something like a living record of what is felt at any particular moment - so really, the “hard problem” is in fact only a problem at all because the dualist view persisted as long as it did!
If we were earnestly attempting to make headway with respect to an understanding of what minds, bodies, and brains are, we should simply begin at the beginning and watch as our reconstitutive efforts sidestepped the vast majority of core problems of consciousness. This is so not because philosophers are silly and irrelevant, but because the past half-century of cognitive science has upended our understanding of our minds, bodies, and brains. To make progress, then, what is needed is not to dwell upon the deep-rooted problems of the troubled dualistic point of view, but rather to discard it alongside all of its baggage and move forward with the scientists into a future that is better because the primary conception of what it means to be human has begun to include the body alongside the mind and brain, understanding that these three words refer to one and the same thing or parts thereof.
For decades, now, the unknown component of consciousness has retreated under the careful and disciplined study of Antonio Damasio. The Strange Order of Things is an extraordinary book, bridging the gap between single-celled organisms and conscious complexes of extremely large numbers of these with higher order cognitive capabilities. There are many components of the work which we did not touch upon, here, but it is my strong belief that the book simply must be read cover to cover, and hence the incompleteness of the review is by design.
- Damasio, A. R. (2018). The strange order of things: life, feeling, and the making of the cultures. New York, Pantheon Books.
- Damasio, Antonio R. (1994). Descartes' error : emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York : G.P. Putnam.
- Daniel, T. Dylan. (November 1, 2023). Determined, or Not? Friends Who Write. https://app.t2.world/article/clog8ea1z626131xmc7kewu4uk