Sunday, August 16, 2015

Wheels within wheels

To set the mood, a Rush song:

My favorite science is biology.  I just think it's massively cool to look at my arm and realize it's not just a part of me -- it's a collection of further parts: muscles, bones, skin, and so forth.  And those have parts of their own--the different tissues that make up a muscle, the different cells that make up each kind of tissue, and the molecular reactions between the cells that cause them to pull toward each other.  From my perspective it may seem that I reach out my arm and grab something, nothing more complicated than that.  But from deep inside my arm, there's a fascinating chemical reaction going on.

I think I got into this idea from Madeline L'Engel, where she talks about mitochondria being tiny cities full of conscious creatures.  I thought--if there really were little beings in there, would they know they were part of a human body?  Would they think of themselves as just serving the benefit of the whole (as I certainly think of them) or would they mind their own business, completely unaware of me?

That's the thing of it.  They would do their job either way.  The teeny-tiny biological functions of the body don't rely on any part of the body knowing what the whole is up to.  They just rely on the cells in my body responding to chemical signals.  My ovaries don't wake up in the morning and say, "Hey, let's mature an egg."  But my brain doesn't tell them either.  They start a follicle maturing in response to follicle stimulating hormone, which is released in response to decreasing progesterone because last month's corpus luteum died.  It's all its own little system, which I (as a conscious actor) have nothing to do with.

My brain is an emergent system -- it is something entirely new, created by the organization of smaller parts.  Another example of an emergent system is an ant colony.  Individual ants aren't very smart, but in response to chemical signals from one another, they coordinate their actions to create achievements none of them could do alone -- building an anthill, fighting off invaders, or even enslaving another colony of ants.

Now I don't think of myself as a collection of parts, nor do identify myself with a certain brain cell.  "I" am the level of organization which encompasses my whole body.  But there are levels of organization below me -- and further levels above me!

Take, for instance, my family.  We have organized ourselves into something greater than the sum of the people who went into it -- through specialization, we make an income, clean the house, raise children, and create our own family culture.  Expanding outward, you could look at the local economy.  Economics is a very cool sort of emergent system, where individual actions -- choosing to buy or not buy, sell or not sell, at a certain price -- coordinate to work out the ideal price for an item, based on supply and demand.  No individual human is behind the price of gasoline -- it wavers up and down depending on how much of it there is, how many people want it, and how the human actors involved feel about how much oil there is and will be in the future.

Or take Western literature.  I've written a few poems in my life.  But none of these poems are entirely mine, because they're inspired by the rest of the Western tradition.  I have some doubts that I could have invented rhythm and meter on my own.  Perhaps I would not even have thought of expressing myself in a poem in the first place, if I hadn't read the poems of others.  Then I borrowed the techniques I liked best, each the invention of an individual sometime in the span of history, but all together the creation of the super-being called Western literature.  The same goes for all the inventions of medicine, engineering, computer technology, and philosophy.  They aren't the creations of a single person, they're something built up over time by many people.  The person who does the final invention always "stands on the shoulders of giants."

At the end, we can take all humans together as a single vast, emergent system.  It's been slowly developing throughout history, but you can see it especially well in the internet age.  It's like watching the thought process of the World-Soul.  (I call it that--didn't invent the term, but I am not sure who did.  If it sounds too woo-woo to you, you could call it something else.)  Thoughts occur to the World-Soul as someone writes an article or creates a meme.  Some are so boring as never to get any traction; others go viral and are absorbed into the whole for a brief period.  Some are so exciting as to hang on for years or generations.  Sometimes the initial idea comes from one "neuron" and mutates on contact with others -- as "feminism" mutated from "votes for women" to "fighting rape culture" or whatever.  Or on a small scale, when suddenly the internet is all abuzz with an idea -- first a news article, then Matt Walsh's inevitable response, then a lot of outraged responses to Matt Walsh, then a spate of articles calling for levelheadedness and a more balanced viewpoint.  In a week or two the topic is worn out, but the general thoughts the World-Soul has on the topic have shifted somewhat, affected by the train of thought that went on earlier.  The next time it comes up, people will say, "Remember this from last year?  We learned something."

The World-Soul's feelings on any given issue tend to be conflicted.  But then again, my own feelings are conflicted too.  Even when I finally do come to a decision, there's often a part of me that lingers, still dissatisfied with the direction I'm taking.  And when conditions shift, that part leaps forward, saying, "See?  We had doubts about this!  Let's go back and make a different decision."  My family, the United States government, and the scientific community can do the same sort of thing.  Decisions are still possible, even without unanimity.  The World-Soul doesn't make many decisions, because it's too fragmented, but increasing globalization leads to a greater level of coordination.

Of course I realize that the World-Soul does not actually have a soul.  It's just a way of talking about humanity as an interconnected whole.  Intersubjective concepts like "goodness," "beauty," "math," are all thoughts the World-Soul is thinking about.

To some extent, the whole universe is an emergent system.  It's interconnected and the pattern of it is greater than the sum of its parts.  And what part of this system is the brain, the the conscious fraction?  Why, us, of course.  As my toe, which possesses no consciousness, lands on a sandy beach, my brain perceives it and generates thoughts.  And as a star goes nova in a distant part of the galaxy, we perceive it and contemplate what that might mean.  We are the consciousness of the universe, its perceiver.

When I feel small, I think of this.  That although my life is short, and my size in the scale of the universe is minuscule, I am part of something much bigger than myself, something which I am contributing to with every word I say, post I publish, even every purchase I make.  I can choose a small bit of the direction that this vast superorganism goes.  And when I die, some of my thoughts -- those thoughts that I sent into the minds of others -- will live on; just as when a neuron in my brain dies, I still survive.

Perhaps this is what a blood cell of mine might feel when it sacrifices its nucleus to make room for it to carry more oxygen.  But probably not.


Enbrethiliel said...


Did you notice that what you wrote about the natural world could be said about the Communion of Saints? =) From my memories of A Wind in the Door, I feel safe saying that L'Engle would extend this Communion to include everything in nature.

Madeleine L'Engle was the author of my teenage years: I devoured all of her novels that I could find! I've since become a bit more critical of her (though mostly in reaction to fans who have awarded her sacred cow status), but I don't think I could ever erase her influence on my imagination. My favourite novel by her is A Swiftly Tilting Planet. And I guess my favourite science is theoretical physics. Surprise, surprise? ;-)

Sheila said...

I do love L'Engle. She was my number one favorite (that was C. S. Lewis) but I think she was definitely number two. I'd like to reread all her books now that I'm a more aware reader.

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