Are Bacteria Capable of Caring?

At a conference on consciousness I went to recently, I suggested that bacteria are capable of care, but that rocks aren’t. Several people disagreed with me vehemently on this point. They said that it’s an obvious anthropomorphization to say that bacteria care. Their argument was that bacteria are just fully mechanical biochemical systems. To say a bacteria is capable of care is to speak metaphorically or something, but it can’t be literally true.

I don’t know about this. It seems to me true that bacteria are capable of caring but rocks aren’t. And you can’t just say bacteria are biochemical machines, because under the right description, so are humans. And moreover, seen through the lens of physics, humans are really no different from any other physical system, including rocks and bacteria. It’s all just fermions and bosons at the bottom anyway. So the argument that bacteria can’t care because they are mechanical or fully physical doesn’t work because under the right description humans look the same as bacteria and we all agree it’s appropriate to say humans care.

So the difference between the bacteria and the rock is not going to be a matter of being a physical system obeying physical law. Where I think the difference lies is in the way in which the bacteria’s physical matter is organized. It is at the level of organization that we see differences between rocks and bacteria. Bacteria, like all lifeforms, are balanced at the edge of thermodynamic disequilibrium. They are unstable in their organization, always ready to break down, but somehow they keep going (until death at least). Their unstability is characteristically stable, like a whirlpool in a river.

Moreover, there is something unique about the activities of the bacteria compared to other mechanical systems. The activities of the bacteria are continuously involved in producing the physical structures that constitute the bacteria. When the bacteria digests nutrients, it takes that matter and processes it in order to rebuild the membrane which distinguishes it from the environment. So the bacteria is continuously self-producing itself by always taking in nutrients to maintain the construction of the membrane which defines it against the environment. Theorists have called this kind of dynamic organization autopoietic. Whether or not autopoiesis alone is sufficient to define life against nonlife (some think you will need to also add notions of adaptivity), it is uncontroversial that organic lifeforms have a unique kind of organizational structure in virtue of something like autopoiesis.

But why should we think such an organizational structure warrants the claim that bacteria care about things? Well, I admit that such a gloss is taking advantage of metaphors to some extent, and all metaphors are in some sense literally false. But I still think it’s true to say bacteria care about things but rocks and other inorganic entities don’t. Imagine that you take some sugar and you place it in front of a rolling boulder or a moving bacteria. On one level of description, we could talk about the rock encountering the sugar in its pathway in input/output computational terms. The lump of sugar is an input into the system, the rock “computes” its response, and then generates an output, which is a slightly different change in behavior.

Similarly, we could use the same input/output description to talk about the bacteria encountering the lump. The sugar is an input into the system, the bacteria “computes” its response, and the output is a new set of behaviors. But just because we can apply this abstract characterization to both systems, that doesn’t mean that the rock and the bacteria are doing the same thing when they encounter the sugar. The difference, I think, is in the way the two entities “experience” the sugar. I don’t think the rock is really quite experiencing the sugar in the same way because I think the bacteria is on the look out for sugar. It is attuned for sugar, as opposed to other nutrients. It desires sugar. It seeks out sugar. It’s perception is valenced. It lives in a small lifeworld where all that matters is finding nutrients. None of this is true of the rock.  If the rock sees the world through a valence at all, it valences everything equally. It has no preferences. No affectivity. As Heidegger said,

A stone never finds itself but is simply present-at-hand. A very primitive unicellular form of life, on the contrary, will already find itself, where this affectivity can be the greatest and darkest dullness, but for all that it is in its structure of being essentially distinct from merely being present-at-hand like a thing. (History of the Concept of Time, p. 255)

I think this is a very insightful remark from Heidegger. He recognizes that there is something unique about the organizational structure of a bacteria when compared to a rock. When I say a rock “cares” about the world, I am really referencing Heidegger’s technical notion of “affectivity”. I talked about this a lot in my Master’s Thesis. The key idea is about the bacteria “finding itself”. This kind of self-reflexive organizational structure is I think a nontechnical precursor to the concept of autopoiesis. Pretty speculative, but bear with me. The idea is that rocks and stones don’t see the world as ready-to-hand. That is, they don’t see the world in terms of what it affords the possibility of doing. In other words, it is appropriate to think of bacteria as organized with respect to the future. This is a potentially mystifying claim, but it’s not that complex. From the perspective of physics, it’s still all just fermions and bosons obeying the laws of physics. But when dealing with lifeforms, the concept of valence is necessarily tied into the concept of a creature lacking something. The bacteria lacks the nutrients necessary to construct its membrane, so it seeks it out. Lack in organisms is always defined with respect to the future, what some ecological psychogists have called prospectivity. This type of absential, future-oriented organization is what Terrence Deacon has called ententional phenomena in his new book Incomplete Nature. I haven’t finished the book yet, but what I have read so far is quite brilliant.


Filed under Consciousness, Heidegger, Philosophy

6 responses to “Are Bacteria Capable of Caring?

  1. M Benesi

    Maybe a rock isn’t aware of itself as a rock, or a chip off a rock, but certainly its components are aware of one another through their various senses: electromagnetism, gravitation, strong, weak, and the quintessential force named imagination.

    And perhaps, like certain groups seeing themselves as members of a nation, or part of the body of some larger being, the imagination of these components allows them to perceive themselves as part of a rock.

  2. To say a bacteria cares is to say (in Monod’s terminology) that it has teleonomy. Or it seems so to me. I can see why there would be objection to such a statement, as it rather undercuts the notion of human attribute specialness. To me the real power of such a teleonomic claim about life systems is that it does separate life systems from non-life systems whilst still allowing for the underlying similarities at the particle and chemical levels of organization. Where real difficulty lies (i.e. not the specious difficulty of holding fast to a specific origin narrative) is in the nature of the morpheme “care”. It carries not only the notion of valence, but also the awareness of how valence “feels”. This last leaks unhappily into the realm of self-awareness as a limited life-system quality or property, and as such does seem something one cannot say about bacteria. My interest adheres to what (if any) clear distinction can be made between (the experience of ) valence and desire.

  3. Hi Gary-

    As it happens, I was at that conference, and I was one of those vehement disagreers. I want to survive, I care about my survival. This is an emotional and cognitive stance on my part, and as such, it itself is a survival mechanism, one that evolved relatively late in the game, after such survival mechanisms as teeth, eyeballs, and toes. Bacteria do not have this emotional and cognitive capacity. So OK, you are not talking about wanting to survive in this sense. But here we must tread carefully. The bacteria wants the sugar in exactly the same way that the rock wants to go downhill. A rock held in place by a chock block won’t roll downhill, but when I pull the chock block away, it rolls. The rock responded to my signal by rolling. In a bacteria, the causal chain is longer and more complex, but it is still a deterministic mechanism. “Wanting” and “caring” about survival play no explanatory role.

    You mention that this argument scales up to humans as well, and you are right until we run up against that first sense of wanting/caring, the one with cognitive/emotional components. In this case we get into issues of qualia and the Hard Problem, and it is at best controversial to say that humans are nothing but physical mechanisms, or at least there is no agreement about what that means.

    For me, one of the biggest take-home messages from Darwin was the banishment of teleology from scientific discourse. Survivors survive. Autopoetic mechanisms are around today because over eons, they stuck around, while other kinds of things dissapate, erode, break down, etc. Things that seem like they exhibit final causation are really, upon examination, just complex bundles of efficient causation. Speaking loosely, colloquially, we say the acorn wants to be an oak tree, or bacteria want the sugar, but this is just shorthand on our part. It carries no explanatory weight, and is a bad habit to get into in philosophical discussions. After a while we start to believe our own turns of phrase.

    A long time ago Dave Chalmers said that emergence is a psychological concept, not a philosophical one. It is a measure of our surprise that wet water “emerges” from the H2O molecules, or the flock “emerges” from the individual birds. As such, it is a function of our cognitive and perceptual limitations. It is in this same sense that we infer wanting or caring on the part of bacteria but not the rock rolling downhill.

    -John Gregg

    • Gary Williams

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment. Im skeptical about your claim that “The bacteria wants the sugar in exactly the same way that the rock wants to go downhill.” Is this really true? Is it *exactly* the same kind of wanting? One of the hallmarks of life is what’s called animacy. Animacy means self-moving, basically. So you put that rock behind a chock, and it “wants” to go down hill, but does it take any active movements on its own to get around that chock? No. It just sits there until an outside force compels it to roll down the hill. Now, let’s place a barrier between a bacteria and a pile of sugar. Is that bacteria just going to stay in place until an external force compels it to run into the pile? No. It’s going to start moving on its own accord in virtue of its powers of locomotion.

      And I agree with you that the rock and the bacteria are both deterministic systems. But so is the human brain. How could it not be? It operates under complete causal closure. Now, as for zombies and qualia, this is where I must disagree in fundamental intuitions. I flat out deny the conceivability of zombies. When I try to conceive in my mind a being similar to me atom-by-atom but lacks some kind of mental state that I have, this is inconceivable to me. I can’t imagine this because I don’t in the first place conceive of mental states like consciousness as being epiphenomenal and nonfunctional and therefore easily subtractable from the physical world.

      And yeah, it’s hard to give a noncircular definition of what “physical” means. But I think we have a kind of intuitive sense of it in the context of our religious history. To say it’s all physical is to say that the world runs on its own without any kind of supernatural force intervening. It doesn’t have to be identified with the posits of some future physics or anything. Many people think to define physical negatively is circular. But Im not so troubled by this issue of circularity. To say it’s all physical is to say that the world consists of objects and their causal powers and nothing else. There is no mode of objects that includes a nonphysical, epiphenomenal, noncausal property called “qualia”. I’ve argued several times that such notions of qualia are vaguely defined and ambiguous. If all we mean basically by qualia is just something like sensation, then it clearly begs the question against physicalism to say that there is something essentially nonphysical about sensation.

      As for it all just being “efficient causation”, I’m not so sure. Im reading Terrence Deacons new book Incomplete Nature and he argues convincingly that the organizational structure of life requires a different set of explanatory tools than pure efficient causation provides. We need some kind of notion of what he calls absential or ententional to account for the organization of life. I haven’t read the whole book, so I don’t know his entire story, but I think he’s right. One of the mistakes of Descartes was to compare the organization of a cat to the organization of a clock. On some complete physics, they look the same. But it’s just wrong to say that a cat is organized exactly like a clock. So the mechanism metaphor kind of breaks down when we get to lifeforms.

      And I wouldn’t necessarily say that claiming “the bacteria wants sugar” has any explanatory weight. I think it would have to be something like “the bacteria is organized autopoietically”. I think that statement does have explanatory weight because it recognizes a difference in how a bacteria is organized versus how a rock is organized. This comes back to the animate vs inanimate distinction again. Rocks have no such animate impulse. This stems from differences in how rocks are physically organized. But when you organized matter like bacteria, you get animacy. You also get valenced perception, the origin of lifeworlds in the Husserlian sense, and affectivity.

  4. Gary-

    I don’t want to fall down a rathole of arguing about terms, so let me say right off that I think our fundamental ideas of what is going on with the bacteria are similar. Physical process, nothing more. That’s what I meant when I said the bacteria is like a rock. The only difference is complexity, but it is basically a causal machine, all of whose parts function deterministically according to the well understood laws of physics. That is it, that is all that is going on with the bacteria. My understanding of words like “animacy”, “autopoesis”, and even “of its own accord” is that they are higher level concepts, sort of shorthand ways of talking about aggregates of low-level stuff.

    That is fine, but I think we have to be wary of reifying these things and falling into the trap of thinking of them as whole new forces, powers, or properties in their own right. This is why I bang the “efficient causation” drum. I have not read Deacon’s book, but you just can’t get new causal powers out of the universe. Maybe, given our cognitive and perceptual limitations, it is vastly more useful to us to think in terms of the absential or ententional, but at bottom it must be still a mesh of efficient, billiard ball causation.

    As for the circularity of physics, I agree that it is not necessarily a problem, as long as we don’t make more of physics than can possibly be. Physics is great and accurate, but it is, in principle, incomplete as a description of the universe. It is circularly defined, which means it is multiply realizable. What realizes or implements it in our universe?

    Finally, zombies. Frankly, my eyes glaze over when people start splitting hairs over the different varieties of conceivability. For me, the take-home is the explanatory gap. What’s up with what it is like to see red? We have no good way of accounting for it. You show a kind of conservatism in your question “How could it not be?” about the brain being a determinstic causal machine. Indeed. We are philosophers. That question should be the beginning of our inquiry, not the end.

    -John Gregg

    P.S. I tried to comment on an older post (“Counterfactuals as Commands”), but the site seemed to take the comment then it never showed up. Is this a glitch, or are comments closed?

  5. The answer here is not arbitrary, It is related to the emergence of “longer interval realities” that I have already mentioned on your research blog. There is a particular “nesting organization” that is operating in life systems that couples complexity and “slower time”. In order for non-trivial “caring” to happen, this nesting order must extend to the society, which it does for the human species. If bacteria can organize to the point of issuing “social mandates” to members of its population, this would be a good indicator of some analog of Sorge at the amoeba level.

    Caring cannot just be an affect — it must be focused upon an enduring target and evoke a response-gradient. This requires a “society”.

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