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A World Alive

by Bill Meacham on August 30th, 2011

Akule avoiding predatorOff the western coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i in Kealakekua Bay lives a remarkable fish, known as Akule or, less colorfully, Big-Eye Scad. It is remarkable, not because of the fish itself (which is said to be quite tasty), but because of its behavior. The fish clump together in very tight schools, which form arresting three-dimensional shapes in the water. They move in unison in the form of quivering clouds. When a predator comes near, the Akule formation shape-shifts, confusing the assailant. It makes a hole, through which the predator passes harmlessly. Or it becomes a tornado-like column, twisting and writhing to evade the enemy. Or perhaps sometimes it writhes just for fun. It is impossible to escape the intuition that the school as a whole is acting as one organism.

We think so because of the way our minds work. Cognitive psychologists have found that we have two ways of thinking, two distinct mental modules – sets of cognitive apparatus similar to software modules – for thinking about and dealing with the world, both engrained in us over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution: thinking in terms of objects and thinking in terms of agents. We might call these Folk Physics and Folk Psychology. They are “folk” because we don’t have to study physics or psychology to figure out how to think in these ways. They are built in.

Akule swirlingResearch with very young infants(1) reveals that people have innate ideas – ideas formed in advance of experience and through which experience is interpreted – about how the world of objects works. We know intuitively that an object cannot pass through another object, that objects move along continuous trajectories, that objects are cohesive (their parts move together), that they move each other by contact only, and so forth.

We also have innate ideas about agents: “Agents are recognized by their ability to violate intuitive physics by starting, stopping, swerving, or speeding up without an external nudge, especially when they persistently approach or avoid some other object. The agents are thought to have an internal and renewable source of energy … which they use to propel themselves, usually in service of a goal.”(2) This cognitive domain is adapted to understanding and dealing with animals, including humans. Agents have minds, and we interpret their behavior in terms of beliefs and desires.

Both forms of thinking are built into the machinery of our minds, presumably for very good evolutionary reasons: our ancestors who thought in these ways had more offspring than their contemporaries who didn’t. And the reason these ways of thinking work is that they reflect how the world actually is. But what if we have, at times, misapplied them, thinking in one category when the other would be more appropriate?

For centuries Western thought has tried to reduce life and consciousness to the non-living, interpreting the world as a mechanism, as nothing but matter, inert and lifeless. We have gotten very, very good at understanding the world of physical objects and manipulating it to produce unparalleled wealth and physical well-being for millions of people. Nobody would want to lose the advantages of objective, reality-based science and engineering.

But we have lost the other way of approaching the world, the way that interprets confluences of things and events as agential, as the result of beings that take note of what is happening around them and respond to further their own goals. We have no trouble with interpreting individuals, animal and human, as agents. But we tend to dismiss the idea that larger patterns, involving more than one individual, may also reasonably be taken as agential.

Schools of fish, such as the Akule, belie that attitude, as do flocks of birds and herds of animals. They seem, at times, to act as if they have one mind. Take ants traveling back and forth along a trail between food and the colony. Purely physically, we know that they communicate chemically via pheromones with a sort of enhanced sense of smell. But functionally the ant colony appears to act with a collective intelligence, as if each ant is more like a ganglion with legs in an extended nervous system than an individual organism itself.(3) The colony sends out tendrils, which both sense what is out there and carry it back.

So we find in nature instances where disparate physical elements act as one, embodying one mind, one locus of consciousness, one coherence of internality.

And if flocks and herds and colonies act as one, why not other types of beings as well? All human cultures have ideas of gods (with a lower-case G), spirits, angels, demons and other such disembodied entities. Some say that these ideas are just cognitive mistakes, a sort of misfiring of our folk psychology, applying agential concepts where they don’t fit. But perhaps there really are such beings, only they are not truly disembodied. Instead, their bodies consist of many discrete physical elements, like the individual Akule, only not so obviously choreographed. Think of a sacred place in nature or a shrine, a place where people go to find inspiration and renewal. At such a place you find a certain mood of peacefulness and acceptance, and a sense that somebody or something is watching benevolently, listening to your prayers. Or, if that is too anthropomorphic, you have a sense at least that a being is somehow aware of you and is open and receptive to your needs. Sometimes you receive answers or guidance, a sense of knowing what to do or a vision of what needs to take place or even words in your mind, as if the spirit of the place is speaking to you. If disparate physical elements can embody a single mind, then there really is a spirit there, and its body is all the physical stuff, the plants, rocks, trees, animals, insects, water, sky and human structures that make up the place.

This idea might even explain the mystical intuition that all is one. There is a Sanskrit term, Paramatman, which means Supreme Self. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the Over-soul. If it is possible for physical elements that are separated in space to act as if animated by a single intelligence, a single locus of consciousness or interiority, then perhaps the entire world can be viewed as such. If so, we are all part of a vast organism, and what we call “God” is the interiority of the whole thing. Native American traditions speak of the spirit-that-moves-in-all-things. The world is that spirit’s body. Panpsychism, which I discussed in an earlier blog post, is pantheism.

I admit that is a bit of stretch, from the behavior of herd animals to mystical speculation about the ultimate nature of reality. It might seem more plausible if there were other examples of physically-separate objects that seem to act as one. There are, and I will talk about one of them next time.


(1) The methodology is fascinating. Babies can’t talk, but they exhibit interest and boredom by looking at something intently or by looking away. Researchers set up a screen that hides part of the baby’s visual field and allows the baby to see things on either side, such as something sticking out from the left and something sticking out from the right. “It’s especially informative when a screen first blocks part of the infant’s view and then falls away, for we can try to tell what the babies were thinking about the invisible part of their world. If the baby’s eyes are only momentarily attracted and then wander off, we can infer that the scene was in the baby’s mind’s eye all along. If the baby stares longer, we can infer that the scene came as a surprise.” (Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 317.)

(2) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 322.

(3) Thomas, The Lives of a Cell, p. 12.


Audubon Magazine website. “Gallery: Fish’s Friend” (Photos of Akule). Online publication, URL = as of 25 July 2011.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Essays, First Series [1841]: The Over-Soul.” Online publication, URl = as of 22 August 2011.

Leibach, Julie. “One Picture: Art School”. Audubon Magazine, Volume 113 Number 4 (July-August 2011), page 68. Also available as an online publication, URL = as of 25 July 2011.

Pardeau, Bo. “Schooling Behavior” (Photos of Akule). Online publication, URL = as of 27 July 2011.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Thomas, Lewis. The Lives of a Cell. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Underwater Photography Guide. “Huge School of Fish Loved by Photographers Almost Captured by Fishermen near Kona.” Online publication, URL = as of 25 July 2011.

Wikipedia. “Ant.” Online publication, URL = as of 28 July 2011.

Wikipedia. “Bigeye Scad.” Online publication, URL = as of 27 July 2011.


From → Philosophy

  1. Steve permalink

    As ever, well done, Bill. I think you would find the book “Bozo Sapiens” By Kaplan and Kaplan of interest. It explores some of the material alluded to here.


  2. Patricia permalink

    A beautiful and inspiring analogy!


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