Dylan Belton

For the purposes of this chapter, I wish to put aside normative connotations associated with the category of wisdom and focus more on what can be called fundamental philosophical-theological anthropology and on the evocative notion of wisdom’s depth. In other words, I wish to speak of the deep organic rootedness of the capacities that make possible the unique human way of being in the world. This demands an analysis of “the organic,” which, in what follows, I will do with the aid of phenomenological perspectives and of what Hans Jonas called the “philosophy of life,” a discipline aimed at analyzing the unity between the philosophy of the organic and the philosophy of mind.[1] Mind’s roots are in, and remain in, the organic: we may speak then, as the philosopher Mark Johnson does, of the body in the mind.[2] What follows in this chapter remains programmatic and explorative, and at an abstract level of analysis. For scientists and philosophers, the following approach to human evolution and wisdom raises difficult questions about the relation between phenomenology and the life sciences. For theologians, the framework outlined here can be read as one that turns theology again toward a fundamental anthropology of the human being as spirit in the world; that is, it directs attention toward the relation between the categories of matter (or, the organic) and spirit (or, the intellect) within a fundamental anthropology. I will return to this latter issue briefly in the conclusion.

What one claims about the nature and evolution of the organic will determine how one approaches fundamental anthropology and, hence, the nature and evolution of human wisdom. In other words, and to reiterate the obvious, accounts of human wisdom are intrinsically connected with accounts of the organic. An analysis of human wisdom cannot simply concentrate on “mind,” “intellect,” or “reflexive thought” (often with a focus on what takes place in the brain) but must also take account of the body, hence the “organic.” To focus only on higher-level cognitive capacities, such as the capacity for abstract thought and language, runs the risk of forgetting both the body and the soil of perception from which human reflexive thought never extricates itself. Human reflexive thought takes for granted what one might call the wisdom of the organic. Stated as such, I have, however, introduced an inevitable division between reflexive thought and the organic. While I will outline one manner of understanding this division in this chapter, I am simultaneously seeking to emphasize that human wisdom, however refined in its distinctiveness, is always rooted in, or intrinsically bound up with, the organic, something classical theism ought not be troubled by. To put it within a Thomistic idiom: the intellectual soul is the form of the body and the unique human capacity for abstraction and reflexive thought is intrinsically unified with bodily perception. The human is a substantial unity, and there is only one unified activity of knowing that is simultaneously both sensible and intellectual.

What one claims about the organic either unites the organic and the mind, viewing the emergence of human reflexive thought as a seamless expansion of principles already present in, say, other hominid species, or it creates a chasm between the two, requiring either the positing of a novel metaphysical principle or a divine intervention.[3] To demonstrate one way of uniting the two, I will speak briefly about Neo-Darwinism (ND) which, in some circles, has become something akin to a Weltanschauung, extending a certain logic to multiple domains of inquiry. This logic claims to provide the principles of continuity between the human and the rest of the organic realm. If one accepts the logic of ND and the account of the organic as is implied by certain reductive forms of the ND paradigm, then attempts to understand the deep evolution of human wisdom will lead one to the departments of sociobiology and evolutionary cognitive psychology. For ND, it is their proponents, in the final analysis, who have the proper conceptual and explanatory tools to explicate the deep roots of human wisdom.

How then does ND, especially in its more reductive forms, understand the organic? I take ND to be a gene-centered account of the organic. The development of the organism is understood, for the most part, as a reading-off of (or “expression of”) context-free information contained within the genome. ND is, moreover, thoroughly adaptationist in its explanatory orientation, viewing the organism as an individual who is part of a population that has, through a process of random variation and natural selection, evolved various “solutions” to environmentally set challenges. This adaptationism is intrinsically linked to the philosophy of the organism adhered to by Darwin and undergirding ND. From a philosophical standpoint, the organism is reducible to a bundle of adaptive traits each of which, at some point in the past, possessed fitness value and were therefore “selected-for.”[4] As the philosopher Marjorie Grene notes, the organism is here understood as the sum total of means to survival.[5] Such a vision entails that the organism is akin to a “natural artifact,” best explained by a strategy of reverse engineering.

Once this logic is extended to the study of human behavior and cognition, the outcome is inevitably something like the disciplines of sociobiology and evolutionary cognitive psychology. An adaptationist approach to mind and cognition is entirely warranted if contained within certain boundaries. However, once it becomes the dominant model for understanding human behavior and cognitive capacities, then what inevitably emerges is a vision of cognition according to which the mind-brain is divided up into various “modules,” each forged over time through natural selection and operating as an information- or symbolic-processing device. The problem of the unity of such modules and the phenomenological sense of an “I” is sometimes ignored, or their supposed unity is designated illusory.[6] Furthermore, for some traditions of cognitive science, the real causal work takes place in the region of the sub-personal cognitive unconscious. As the philosopher of mind Evan Thompson points out about this form of cognitivism: “Thought corresponds to nonconscious, skull-bound, symbol manipulation. It takes place in a central cognitive module of the brain separate from the systems for perception, emotion, and motor activity. The cognitive unconscious is neither somatic nor affective, and it is lodged firmly within the head.”[7] Such a perspective is, furthermore, often accompanied by a still dominant objectivist model of meaning within contemporary cognitive science and philosophy according to which meaning is essentially bound to language (i.e., is propositional).

Thompson points out a further important relation between certain forms of cognitive science and ND. ND regards the environment as strictly distinct from the organism to which it poses certain selective pressures, and so does the environment, for cognitive science, stand external to mind, serving as the source of informational input and selection pressures that require problem-solving solutions from the cognitive subject. Thought, in turn, consists of symbolic representations inside an organism’s mind-brain that “refer” to an external environment. Cognitive modules that allow for more sophisticated symbolic manipulation and for more accurate representation of the environment would, in turn, possess fitness-enhancing properties. Outlining the evolution of human wisdom is then, one might say, a project that seeks to gain ever greater clarity on these problem-solving and representational devices which constitute human cognition and which served (and perhaps continue to serve) fitness-enhancing functions. To speak of wisdom’s evolution is to speak of an increase both in accurate representation of the environment and cognitive adaptive techniques. Operative here is an adaptationist logic according to which the evolution of human wisdom is simply the extension of instrumental rationality. Within this framework, there can be no ontological leap in the evolutionary emergence of the human being.

The scope of positions within ND and cognitive science as well as the connection between the two, is, of course, far more diverse and complex than what I have outlined here. The aim of this brief account of ND and cognitive science has therefore been only to highlight one example of a specific logic which can be utilized to unite the organic and the mind.[8] However, for many scholars both within and outside of the sciences, standard adaptationist accounts of the human being, while surely part of the “story,” simply will not suffice. Where does one turn if the framework and logic outlined above are no longer sufficient?

I can outline in what follows only one such possibility, namely, one driven by phenomenological analyses. I do not seek to achieve a detailed analysis but rather to develop a certain vocabulary for approaching the organic and hence the notion of wisdom’s depth. For anyone turning to the encounter between the science of the organic and phenomenology, the work of Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana on autopoiesis is of central importance. In the 1970s, both Varela and Maturana shared a dissatisfaction with the then-dominant understanding of mind and the organic in terms of information processing. What is lacking in such accounts is an awareness of cognition as not simply passive, but as actively achieved by the living agent who thereby “fashions a world of meaning from within.”[9] Indeed, in their book The Tree of Knowledge, Maturana and Varela sought to root “knowing” as the “bringing forth of a world” in the very organization of organic being per se.[10] Crucial here is their account of the basic formal pattern of life as autopoietic. Autopoietic systems generate themselves as ontological unities. An organism achieves and sustains its own identity, one that is utterly different from the passive identity of inorganic entities. An autopoeitic system produces its own components and generates a boundary between its inside and outside, a process which Varela and Maturana describe in terms of sense-making and the bringing forth of a world.[11]

This account entails the immediate entrance of inwardness, meaning, and normativity into an account of the organic. As Varela and Maturana suggest, in achieving and sustaining its identity the organism distinguishes itself from what is external to it, and yet in this very process brings about a unique “perspective” on the world. The autopoietic system has as its counterpart what has come to be known as an Umwelt, an environment pulsating with meaning, such that it is impossible for us not to interpret organic life from the “inside,” so to speak. The “environment” as perceived by the lab observer lacks the surplus of meaning that defines an organism’s Umwelt. Some perturbation that disturbs an organism is never mere information for the organism that sets off a linear causal sequence: for any organism, this perturbation is interpreted from a perspective according to certain norms that govern the kind of being that it is. Put succinctly: “to live” is both to construct and sustain an identity over and against the “external” world, a process that is one of sense-making which immediately brings value and meaning into existence. This sense-making as constitutive of the organic per se is the most basic form of intentionality.[12]

Those working within this framework seek to avoid speaking of cognition in terms of information-processing, computation, etc. As Thompson defines it, “cognition is behavior or conduct in relation to meaning and norms that the system itself enacts or brings forth on the basis of its autonomy.”[13] Indeed, Thompson has argued that once one understands the organic in terms of autopoiesis and cognition as defined above then there is justification for speaking of cognition as co-extensive with organic being per se. According to this perspective, the cognitive capacities we associate with the human mind can be viewed as the enrichment of principles present at the origin of organic life. Notice that with this account of life and cognition we have moved out of the gene-centered and adaptationist framework, as well as any sort of computational model of cognition. We are talking about only what is entailed once one adopts an autopoietic account of the organic, irrespective of questions about natural selection, etc.

If we bring Jonas into the discussion, it is possible to find the tools for speaking of the organic in terms of freedom, teleology, and self-transcendence. Jonas’s phenomenological perspective views the evolution of the human being in terms of an enrichment of principles operative from the very origins of life: “The great contradictions that man discovers in himself—freedom and necessity, autonomy and dependence, ego and world, connectedness and isolation, creativity and mortality—are present in nuce in life’s most primitive forms….”[14] Jonas identifies metabolism as the basic process of life, and he characterizes this process as a revolution within the order of being and as the first shimmering of freedom, characterized in this most basic mode as the freedom of form from matter: it is the form or pattern of the metabolizing organism that perdures throughout its life cycle, not its material. This freedom is, moreover, a needful freedom. In its metabolizing activity the organism generates, achieves, and sustains its identity over against an external environment. But the metabolizing organism is, at the same time, utterly dependent upon material exchange with what is external to it. This led Jonas to apply the notion of self-transcendence to the organic per se: in order for the organism to sustain itself, to achieve its identity ever anew, it must be continuously moving beyond itself in engagement with the world. Needful freedom entails self-transcendence as its correlate. It also entails the much maligned and misunderstood notion of teleology: “organic individuality is achieved in the face of otherness, as its own ever challenged goal, and is thus teleological.”[15] Teleology is simply the concomitant of want.

The repertoire of concepts applicable to the organic per se that we have attained in this brief overview is rich: selfhood, agency, identity, cognition, value, normativity, purpose, teleology, freedom, self-transcendence, and Umwelt. Each of these concepts, of course, requires more detailed attention. And the framework I have begun to outline faces difficulties. The likes of Varela and Maturana are emphatic that mind at the human level can be understood as the enrichment of the same pattern that marks “the living as such,” but the details of this enrichment and its relation to evolutionary theory remain unclear. Similarly, mind or cognition are spoken of in a somewhat monistic manner, almost synonymous with perspectival “sense making” or “Umwelt forming.” But what requires further scrutiny is whether and how “mind” at the human level is in fact merely an enrichment of what we find in nuce in life’s origin or whether there is a different pattern involved. This matter does not seem to me to be definitively settled.[16] Finally, the problem of how to develop an account of evolution that is both philosophically and scientifically rigorous and that can complement this phenomenological tradition also requires urgent attention. In other words, can this phenomenological approach be integrated into a theory of evolution in a manner that is not merely an extrinsic embellishment to a scientific explanation? This is, of course, a task for scientists and philosophers, not theologians. Resources, I suspect, exist in the form of Developmental Systems Theory, Evo-Devo, what some have called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, and what Thompson, Varela, and Rosch have called the “enactive” account of evolution, all of which offer new accounts of the organism, genetics, self-organization, and the relation between the organism and the environment, and all of which seek to resist an overtly adaptationist framework. I can only note in passing that working within these evolutionary frameworks with an account of the organic as outlined above opens up the opportunity for reformulations of the notion of cognition and intelligence that steer us away from thinking of them only in terms of adaptive problem-solving. For instance, according to what has come to be called an “enactive” account of evolution, intelligence “shifts from being the capacity to solve a problem to the capacity to enter into a shared world of significance.”[17]

I must narrow down in conclusion and will do so by focusing on one notion discussed above, that of the Umwelt, for it is in relation to this notion that the problematic category of spirit (central to certain fundamental philosophical and theological anthropologies) can be approached anew. The human being always lives in a meaningful environment. Unlike in the case of other animals, however, the human Umwelt is a cultural reality, and the human is not born biologically attuned to a specific environmental niche to which the species was adapted by natural selection. We cannot talk then of a single human Umwelt but can speak only of multiple constructed ones to which we are attuned in different and complex ways. This attunement is, moreover, constituted and sustained not simply by cognitive processes in the brain but by what the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty called the lived-body (i.e., by what I am calling here our organic being). In other words, the Umwelt that the human being stands over against in reflexive thought is one to which we are attuned by means of the lived-body and, as such, is pregnant with pre-reflexive meaning. It is at this point that important questions arise: what is the relation between these reflexive intellectual acts which are distinctive to humans as linguistic beings and the pre-reflexive perception achieved by the lived-body? What is the relation between reflexive thought and the human Umwelt? The human, like all organic life, is an activity of self-transcendence, but this activity in the human case is unique; it is a movement within which a distance is created between the reflexive “I” and the Umwelt. According to the early phenomenologist Max Scheler, the human is, in fact, umweltfrei, and it is this being-Umwelt-free that characterizes spirit as world-openness.[18] To speak then of spirit-in-the-world is, from the phenomenological perspective, to speak of a process in which a strange identity is achieved: the human qua lived-body is attuned to an Umwelt while, simultaneously, a reflexive self is generated that possesses itself and that has the capacity to stand at a distance from its own physiological and psychic states and its Umwelt. And it is this capacity for standing at a distance which allows the human to objectify itself as well as the beings it encounters in its environment and, when necessary, to re-evaluate its world of meaning and alter it according to values that often go against its organic well-being. Such a vision does not necessarily entail a Platonic or Cartesian form of dualism; this reflexive “I” is not a “substance,” and it always remains rooted in perception. But it is this gaining of a distance, this world-openness, that inaugurates and makes possible the unique adventure of human history.[19]

What is at stake here for the theologian? What I have outlined above does, I believe, offer a means for enriching the theological category of “nature” or “matter” that, at least within Catholic theology, is defined as oriented toward spirit but in such a way that the latter (spirit) is in no manner reducible to or simply emergent from “matter” (i.e., the organic per se). The crux of the controversy comes down to the nature and origin of what characterizes spirit as Umwelt-free, world-openness. While the phenomenologist may sit on the explanatory fence, so to speak, the theologian, metaphysician, and scientist cannot. Max Scheler designated spirit a new principle and Catholic magisterial theological statements have tended in this direction as well.[20] As Karl Rahner put it in his text on “hominization:” “[spirit’s] ontological root and ground is different in kind from matter, that is to say, can only come about by the creative positing of a truly new, original and different kind of reality, and not as something derivative.”[21] Stated otherwise: when it comes to the human being’s “spiritual nature,” its origin can in no manner be a simple evolutionary development from what comes temporally before it (i.e., from what I have called the organic in its widest sense). Indeed, Rahner describes the human as embodied spirit in an explicitly Schelerian manner: “We [human beings] stand not only in an environment as a part of it, as determined by it; to be human is to have a world, which we oppose to ourselves, from which we detach ourselves, in thought and in action…we make the environment of our physico-biological life into our ‘object,’ into our world.”[22] Here is the challenge then: a fundamental theological anthropology has to account for not only the deep rootedness of “mind” in the organic but also for this non-reducible emergence of spirit, this “detachment” between the human Umwelt (related to what I have here called the organic and the lived body) and reflexive thought, and it must do so without falling into an ontological dualism and without adopting a framework of arbitrary divine intervention.[23]

Although I cannot develop this further here, I note briefly in closing that accounts of anthropological unity already exist in, for instance, the Thomistic tradition, which has always placed a decisive emphasis on the substantial unity of the human being. As a substantial unity, the human cannot be analyzed into extrinsically related capacities with their own selection history. To reiterate the Thomistic axiom: the intellectual principle is the form of the human body. And what this entails is that “reason” or “intellection” is not a distinct principle that interacts causally with organic-bodily acts but is rather the human form of these acts.[24] From the Thomistic perspective, it is the emergence of this unity that needs to be accounted for. Furthermore, any account of “detachment” or “division” within the human self must be situated within this metaphysical commitment to the substantial unity of the human being.

DYLAN BELTON is a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on the relation(s) between theology, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and anthropology. In his dissertation, he is developing a constructive anthropology that focuses on the relation between the philosophy of the organic, philosophical anthropology, and theological anthropology, with the aim of bringing this work into dialogue with current debates in evolutionary biology and anthropology regarding human nature. He was a Graduate Student Scholar on the Human Distinctiveness project.


[1] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001).
[2] Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
[3] The evolutionary emergence of the human being would then in fact be akin to the sort of “leaps” that mark, for instance, the first emergence of life.
[4] There are of course invariant aspects of an organism, and one problem that Darwinism has always faced is the explanation of these invariant features as well as the “unity of type.” See G. Webster and B.C. Goodwin, “The Origin of Species: A Structuralist Approach,” Journal of Social Biological Structures 5 (1982): 15–47.
[5] Marjorie Grene, Approaches to Philosophical Biology (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 60.
[6] It may of course be ignored simply because the question of unity is one that is answerable only outside of cognitive science itself.
[7] Evan Thompson, Mind in Life (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 6.
[8] With that said, proponents of ND will inevitably approach the human being with what may be called the “Zoological Gaze.” See Philip Sloan, “Questioning the Zoological Gaze: Darwinian Epistemology and Anthropology,” in Darwin in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Philip R. Sloan, Gerald McKenny, and Kathleen Eggleson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015): 232–68.
[9] Andreas Weber and Francisco Varela, “Life after Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuality,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1 (2002): 97–125.
[10] Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1987).
[11] Ibid.
[12] There is a complex debate about whether autopoiesis by itself logically entails “sense-making.” See Ezequiel Di Paolo, “Autopoeisis, Adaptivity, Teleology, Agency,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4 (2005): 429–52.
[13] Thompson, Mind in Life, 126.
[14] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz, edited by Lawrence Vogel (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 60.
[15] Hans Jonas, Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 197.
[16] Although I cannot delve into it here, current work on embodied cognition by the likes of Mark Johnson can provide a crucial supplement to what I have outlined. See Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
[17] Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 207.
[18] Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos, translated by Manfred S. Frings (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009).
[19] How this world-openness is connected to language is a subject that requires further attention.
[20] See, for instance, Pius XII, Humani Generis, encyclical letter, 1950.
[21] Karl Rahner, Hominization: The Evolutionary Origin of Man as a Theological Problem, translated by W.T. O’Hara (Freiburg-im-Breisgau: Herder and Herder, 1965), 20.
[22] Karl Rahner, Hearer of the Word, translated by Joseph Donceel (New York: Continuum, 1994), 42.
[23] In this respect, Rahner’s Hominization text demands more attention.
[24] For a helpful discussion of these issues, see John O’Callaghan, “Aquinas’s Rejection of Mind, Contra Kenny,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 66.1 (2002): 15–59.



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