What is it like to be a bacterium?

I am currently in the process of reading Alva Noë’s new book Out of Our Heads:Why You are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Although I am only a couple chapters into it, I am already confident that the book will stand as an important manifesto for the enactive movement within contemporary philosophy of mind. The book is well-written and lucid, giving a moving picture of the mind as something that is fundamentally no more than a very complicated dance with a meaningful environment. This is one of the themes of the book: Mind is life. The phenomenon of biological consciousness is then a dynamic interaction between a biological organism and the environment for which that organism has been phylo and ontogenetically adapted. Thus, for Noë, all biological organsims, in some manner, possess a world in the ecological sense. Indeed, even bacteria are primitive agents:

The basic fact is that the bacterium itself only comes into focus for biology as an organism, as a living being, once we appreciate its integrity as an individual agent,as a bearer of interests and needs. With the bacterium we find a subject and an environment, an organism and a world. The animal, crucially, has a world; that is to say, it has a relationship with its surroundings.

He even goes so far as to say that this form of biological interaction is a kind of thinking. The bacterium has a world, a primitive consciousness, in virtue of its teleological unity as an organism. To this perspective I am sympathetic. In fact, I emphatically agree with his basic point of “mindedness” being a phenomenon that only shows up on a certain ecological level of analysis, that “to study mind, as with life itself, we need to keep the whole organism in its natural environment setting in focus.”

However, my point of contention – as my title indicates – is phenomenological. Can we really say, as Noë does, that a bacterium has a world? Would it not be better to simply say that bacteria live in a world, but do not “possess” a world? I am struck by the metaphorical abuse in such a phrase. Does saying that a bacterium “has” a world imply that it has the conceptual resources for “I-ness” and “me-ness”? Do you not need a metaphorical “space” within your head to conceptually navigate in for there to be such a thing as “having” a world?

I do not deny that things show up in a certain way to bacteria, that they have their own interests, needs, and wants. I would not even deny that they are “thinking” in some primitive way. I just think we need to be aware of the extent to which we force our narratized self-interpretations onto non-human animals. Perhaps this is why for Heidegger authenticity [Eigentlichkeit] is wrapped up with the vernacular understanding of ownership, something Macquarrie and Robinson point out, but fail to make clear in their translation. To be authentic is to be capable of ownership, to “have” a world. It is not enough to live “in” a world of salient meaning, you have to “have” it in order to count as “Dasein.” I fail to see how this is possible without linguistic scaffolding, without some capacity for the metaphorical generation of a mental space “inside” our heads, “looking out” onto a world.

Bacterium are, on the Heideggerian account, not conscious – not authentic – but teleologically reactive, with primitive desire, interest, motivation, thought, and reasoning. But they are not conscious, not capable of operating with a “mental sketchpad,” working on the introspective level with the abstract constructs of narrative, personality, and true subjectivity, or “ownership.” So yes, we are out of our heads, but we are also the only animals that pretend otherwise.


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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

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