A Theology of Microbes in
An Inter-Communicative Universe
A World of Inter-Communication:
A Whiteheadian Appreciation of Microbial Life
Bacteria are agents in their own right, whose lives matter to themselves and to others. They can talk to each other. They have worlds of their own. We are made of them.
Bonnie Bassler is a microbiologist from Princeton University. In the TED talk she explains that at any given moment there are about ten trillion cells in or on our body, and only ten percent are human. The rest are single-celled bacteria, helping us digest our food, educate our immune system, and create the vitamins which keep us going. They also cover our bodies with an invisible armor which keeps harmful substances away.
Of course there are harmful bacteria, too. When they invade our bodies they cause terrible diseases: lyme disease, toxic shock, food poising, ulcers, and cholera. Bonnie Bassler and others work hard to help us protect ourselves from them. Most of the bacteria within us are quite friendly and we could not live without them.
Bacteria represent the earliest forms of life on earth and much of what we can do today is indebted to their gifts and talents. One of those gifts is communication. In the words of Bonnie Blasser:
So now we understand that all bacteria can talk to each other. They make chemical words, they recognize those words, and they turn on group behaviors that are only successful when all of the cells participate in unison. We have a fancy name for this: we call it quorum sensing. They vote with these chemical votes, the votes get counted, and everyone responds to the votes.
Indeed, adds Bassler, they are multilingual. They communicate between different species of bacteria and they have a kind of language, a chemical Esperanto, by which they know what is going on in other bacteria.
Bacteria Have Subjective Points of View
If you listen to Bassler's talk and are simultaneously influenced by the philosophy of Whitehead, you are informed and inspired. She supports and confirms your belief that all forms of life -- even small forms -- have something like subjectivity.
Here "subjectivity" does not mean isolated. It refers to the activity of being alive in the moment by prehending other actual entities. Prehending is act of taking other actual entities into account, of feeling their presence from a particular point of view and being affected by them.
Bacteria Prehend Their Surroundings
Prehending is at the heart of what scientists mean by causation. To be causally influenced by something other than oneself is to prehend that something. Whitehead speaks of this kind of prehending as experience in the mode of causal efficacy. There's a lot of prehending going on at the bacterial level. Some of it is what Bassler calls quorum sensing: bacteria talking to one another.
This bacterial prehending need not be conscious. In Whitehead's philosophy consciousness is a rare kind of prehending, amid which the other actual entities are felt with a special kind of clarity. Consciousness occurs, for example, when we humans see see an object in our visual field such that it is in the foreground compared to other things in the background. We are aware of the object being present and also of the possibility that it could not be present. Whitehead calls this experience in the mode of presentational immediacy. Most human experience is not conscious in this sense. Instead it is dim and vague, but powerful.
Bacteria have Subjective Aims
Conscious or otherwise, the bacteria do indeed seem to be prehending other bacteria. And in so doing they have what Whitehead calls subjective aims and subjective purposes. Most fundamentally they are seeking to survive with satisfaction in the moment at hand and in community with other bacteria.
Here, too, the aims and purposes -- the seeking to survive with satisfaction -- need not be conscious. Still, they are part of what makes the bacteria do what they do.
Bacteria Make Decisions
Bacteria are not simply machines with predetermined ends established by the past or by a divine engineer, they are agents in their own right, making decisions moment-by-moment.
In Whitehead's philosophy a decision is an act of actualizing some possibilities for behaving in the world and, in the process, cutting off others. It may not be conscious, and in fact most of our own decisions are not conscious.
Consider driving a car. While we drive we are making decisions at every moment about when to step on the brakes, when to step on the accelerator, when to stop, when to move -- but we do not "think" about them. They are preconscious decisions. The vast majority of decisions we make in our daily lives, moment by moment, occur in our brains at levels that are not conscious to us. But they are activities amid which certain possibilities for behaving are actualized and others not.
A Whiteheadian will likewise find it natural, not surprising, that bacteria communicate with one another. In a Whiteheadian context every moment of subjectivity is an act of prehending or feeling the presence of other things, and thus taking them into account from a subjective point of view. Qorum sensing described by Bassler would be one form of communication. It's an ancient form of democracy. Sharing ideas on a webpage is still another. The universe is not simply inter-dependent, it is inter-communicative.
A Whiteheadian will add that communication occurs even in the depths of atoms, at a quantum level. Energy events within the depths of atoms transfer information from one event to another through various kinds of dynamic interchanges. Inter-being is also inter-communication.
An Inter-Communicative Universe
Thus we live in an inter-communicative universe. What science calls causation is another name for the transmission of energy and information from one entity to another and the transmission of information is communication. Indeed it is a form of education, because it involves one entity educating another about its surroundings.
Does this inter-communicative and inter-educative universe have a Soul of its own. Just as we ourselves are composed of bacterial and human cells, is the universe gathered into a prehensive activity, with subjective aims and purposes, who makes decisions from moment moment, responding to the situation at hand? Who listens to the bacteria beside the bacteria? Who listens to prayers? The column on the right offers one possibility.
Theology with Microbes in Mind
A letter to God
Written by a process theologian
Who believes in a God of love
And who has just listened to
Bonnie Bassler's lecture.
Followed by an imaginary
Response from God
Illustrating the divine relation
To the world of microbes.
How many people am I?
I know that my friends and family members are inside my heart even as they are outside my body, and that I would be nothing without them. Even the people who irritate me are under my skin. I am a social self.
I know that that my mind is shaped by landscapes and waterways, by hills and rivers, by animals and plants. I know they are in me, too. I am an ecological self.
I know that when I sleep at night images and sounds emerge from my brain which are part of me, too, even though they can be very strange. I am a dream self.
And from Bonnie Bassler in the TED talk I learn that my own body is ten percent human and ninety percent bacterial. I am a bacterial self.
I am beginning to think of myself a walking ecosystem inhabited by many different kinds of creatures. I feel like many people not one person.
Or perhaps I am a concrescing subject: a many becoming one. That's what process theologians say. I think they are right. Always there are worlds around me and within me. And always they are becoming one in my experience.
How about you? Are you a many becoming one, too?
A Response from God
I am a many becoming one, too.
I have read Whitehead and I like what he says.
In Process and Reality he writes that I am "composed of a multiplicity of elements with individual self-realization" and adds that all of these elements enrich my life. It's almost as if the whole universe is my body. I think he's got it right.
In that book he adds that I love each element on its own terms and for its own sake,with a tender care that nothing be lost. And he says that I am also present within each element as its own innermost lure to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand.
I think he's right here, too. I don't just stand outside the world watching it like a clockmaker. I am always within the world as a guiding lure.
I just want to add that the bacteria are among the multiplicity of elements that compose my life. And you are, too. I know that the bacteria seem very small to you, but trust that I have things in perspective. In my own thinking there is no big or small. There is just the immediacy of what happens in your life and in the lives of bacteria. These events become part of my life, too.
I know that there are some people who believe that humans and only humans are worthy of my love. But they are wrong. I love every creature. There's more beauty in the multiplicity itself, with all its diversity, than in any single unit of actuality.
This beauty is not always happy. The units of actuality have creativity in their own right. I do not control everything. I cannot control everything.
But please know that whatever happens in your life, I will be with you sharing in your suffering and your joy, and I will provide fresh possibilities for moving forward, relative to each situation. I am a source of novelty in the universe.
Let's talk again very soon. Maybe tonight. I'm always listening. You live in a universe that is filled with communication. Bassler is right to say that bacteria talk to one another. They talk by means of chemicals. You are talking to me by means of prayer. Both are immensely beautiful.
For more information on Bonnie Bassler see the profile above. A full biography can be found on the TEDTalk site featuring her presentation (GO).