New Ideas, Old Ideas
- Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson
Wildwood, 238 pp, £7.50, ISBN 0 00 000097 3
At the end of his life, the distinguished biologist C.H. Waddington took part in a discussion about the nature of mind. The circumstances were unusual. Waddington lay flat on his back, and his words were read from a prepared text by a friend. The discussion between him and the other two participants was lively: until, that is, there came a point when Waddington, having momentarily silenced his colleagues, abruptly left the room. The platform on which he was resting sank beneath him and his body was committed to the flames.
Vol. 2 No. 1 · 24 January 1980
From Gregory Bateson
SIR: Nick Humphrey’s review of ray Mind and Nature (LRB, 6 December 1979) touches on matters which are more important than his or my personal opinions. May I try to illuminate the contrast between his philosophy and mine? As I see it, this, contrast is fundamental to the old controversies between churchmen and scientists and between C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’. This is the rift, the resolution of which William Blake called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
I will try (as a scientist)to anatomise that rift even while I hear old Blake’s voice rumbling in the wings: ‘It is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.’
Humphrey says that my recognition or assertion that evolution and mental process are the same sort of thing – members of the class which I call mental phenomena – is a piece of ‘logical sleight of hand … which rests fair and square on the fallacy logicians know as affirming the consequent’ (my italics). I agree that I am indeed affirming the consequent – and proud of it. There are other names for this pattern of thought, indeed the whole of science is (or claims to be) knit together by assertions of the general type: ‘This set of phenomena is an example under the same rule as that set of phenomena.’ I believe C.S. Peirce called the building of this type of argument abduction. In any case, the unity of science depends upon it. When Humphrey asserts that it is wrong to affirm the consequent, he (and Logic) reduce the human race (and all our fellow organisms) to the level of silly computing machinery.
Consider two syllogisms. Humphrey’s quite orthodox scientific syllogism is called ‘Barbara’:
Socrates is a man.
Socrates will die.
In contrast, mine is the syllogism which Von Domarus long ago called ‘schizophrenic’ (in an essay entitled ‘The Specific Laws of Logic in Schizophrenia’ and published in Language and Thought in Schizophrenia, edited by J.S. Kasanin, University of California Press, 1944). It goes like this:
Men are grass.
Humphrey’s syllogism depends upon identification of subjects and their assignment to classes; mine depends upon the equating of predicates and the creation of a class from the equated predicates.
Von Domarus was right in recognising that indeed the talk of schizophrenics exemplifies this latter mode of thought. But I think he did not quite see that this mode is profoundly human. It is fundamental to the natural history of Man. Freudian psychoanalysts call the same mode ‘primary process’ and recognise it in the coherence of dreams. They know it to be the universal base of all thought. Other common names for it are poetry and metaphor and sacrament. (‘This is my body … This is my blood.’)
It seems to me that the long and silly battles with the Church have left the biologists a little punch-drunk and, as a result, there is an accumulation of ‘consequents’ within biology which badly need affirming, even though to affirm will not be to utter anything new. What is required is to see that what is claimed by theologians as due to transcendental interference is also due to immanent mind. Of course this will not detract from the religious importance of the generalisations (e.g. that evolution and thinking are formally similar processes). It will simply convert biology into a religion. But let us not fall into the error of thinking that the syllogism in ‘grass’ has the same species of cogency as the syllogism in ‘Barbara’. That would be to commit the error of fundamentalism. The error ot scientism is to deny the syllogisms in grass. That of fundamentalism is to assert that these have the same sort of cogency as Barbara.
When some A and some B meet and interact, we talk as though the events of the interaction were somehow an expression of abstractions (‘.courage’, ‘humour’, ‘hostility’, ‘greed’, ‘ego’, ‘instinct’, and even ‘mass’ and ‘viscosity’). Opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle. To avoid this false reification, we resort to narrative. We tell each other stories and then we try (because we are religious and therefore scientists) to link our stories together. The result is metaphors and parables – syllogisms in grass.
We talk as though we had direct knowledge of a man’s ‘character’ but indeed our knowledge even of the colour of his shirt is only indirect. We tend to believe the images that our eyes and brains somehow create and from these we build a materialistic prison. Between one experiment and the next our physicists sneak around the corner to consult mediums. We long to believe in the miracles of professional tricksters and fear to recognise the miraculous nature of our own perception and imagination.
Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California
Vol. 2 No. 2 · 7 February 1980
From Nick Humphrey
SIR: I see that, in Blake’s words, I have ‘thrown the sand against the wind, and the wind has thrown it back again’.
I had not realised Gregory Bateson (Letters, 24 January) was such a master at affirming the consequent. He can even use it as a method of disparaging a critic:
Humphrey did not think much of my book.
A dreary pedant would not think much of my book.
Humphrey is a dreary pedant.
Not only is the conclusion false, but it is not even particularly poetical.
And that is just the trouble. Bateson presents an example of false logic which does have the ring of poetry to it:
Men are grass.
And thereby he tries to establish that all such examples of false logic are poetical:
My argument is illogical.
Poetry is illogical.
My argument is poetry.
But it will not wash. One has only to choose other examples to show so:
Men are turnips.
A synthetic falsehood, but not poetry. Or:
Men are women.
An analytic falsehood, but not poetry.
Blake wrote in his poem Milton: ‘There is a land where contrarieties are equally true.’ Much of that land is barren, and the oases of true poetic insight are few and far between. Neither a theologian, a dreamer, a schizophrenic nor Gregory Bateson can expect us to follow them into the wilderness merely because they themselves have been brave enough to turn their backs on the ancestral gardens of rationality. Creative genius may require bravery, but it also requires that the poet carry Moses’ rod.
I do not think that Bateson does carry Moses’ rod. ‘Logical sleight of hand’ … well, maybe that was unfair when Bateson performs his trick so openly (and, as he now says, proudly) in front of us. But it is not a trick which I myself want to emulate, or would encourage others to. In rejecting the call of Bateson’s book I perhaps share some of the feelings of Hesse’s Siddhartha: ‘On the way back, Govinda said: “Siddhartha … if you had stayed there, you would have soon learned to walk on water.” “I have no desire to walk on water,” said Siddhartha.’
Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, Cambridge University