Is a principle underlying the increasing complexity of the universe. At a critical point of massing component parts together, a new WHOLE pops into existence that isn’t like the parts. By itself that would be a party trick, but this pattern constantly builds, it goes on and on. More = Different.
If the title is confusing, I apologize. Emergence is a huge focus of my writing and explained in depth elsewhere in the site. A short version is: Emergence is when a new and surprising result emerges from grouping enough of almost anything together. The effect doesn’t resemble the individuals it emerges from. The things being grouped in this video are individual Starlings, the grouping is their seasonal flocking behavior. The emergent effect is the murmuration, the huge, shapeshifting display of their collective flight. No bird is in charge, the effect is bottom up as the individual birds react to each other yet we see what feels very much like a huge excited individual playing in the sky.
Humans naturally gather together and pool like a liquid to form communities. Culture is the connecting skin that automatically grows over groups of people that live together.
All day, every day we send out signals, respond to cues, and we check for acceptance. We tune and adjust our behavioral frequencies person by person and place by place. We calibrate in real time with regard to any person we exchange signals with. We are walking encyclopedias of cultural standards and sub-routines. We don’t need to consult a book because the book is internal and automatic. The most important thing about the book is that it is automatic. It is the operating system for all the diverse players and situations inside the skin that grew around them as they lived together. The skin defines the boundaries of the self that they have all agreed to mutually be. Inside the skin is the kin: sharing common interests, goals, and loyalty. This is about hearth, home, reality, normality, and self. Culture is the cohesive force that defines any people as one people. It binds and unifies. It is deep within us to protect it if threatened. That desire to preserve the culture is a survival instinct because the community would collapse without it.
We all want to look like a good person: Sane, appropriate and lawful. Every single one of us is doing this all day in every encounter. So the community as a whole is expressing this trait. All communities do. It’s a ubiquitous bottom-up human behavior and therefore a defining trait. In each community patterns of behavior form, woven and endlessly reinforced. Memes of many kinds emerge, in every area of life: Clothing, food, music, sexuality, morality, and then they replicate or die, crystallizing as signature cultural styles. Every stereotype cultural image we have is just an iconic meme of OUR culture imaging that other culture. It’s just a shorthand and shallow summary of that culture we all carry with us. I haven’t mentioned a single example but I bet you can summon up 2 or 3 effortlessly. Those are your copies of that meme. And everyone in every culture has their own version of these things. Coin of the human realm. We tag people with a “You’re Bad!” sticker if they speak these stereotypes aloud and unfiltered. Of course, that doesn’t change anything because the Human Operating System (HOS) has supplied every living soul with this trait, including the next generation and so on. When we use group shaming to enforce cultural sensitivity we are using one trait of the HOS (social pressure) to alter another (identifying outsiders). The HOS is the innate battery of automatic and mostly unconscious behaviors humans display wherever we show up. Culture is the one-off expression of those underlying rules by a local community. Any culture is a SELF, an individual being composed of us, ourselves. We are tiny agents emitting the same-self frequency of belonging together. E Pluribus Unum.
Every organism has a survival strategy. Survival strategies are species and subspecies templates for living. They describe a specialized role within an ecological niche. Their roles are defined by exploiting a particular angle on making a living and by the adaptations of their bodies toward this goal. The amazing anteater for example makes a living…anyone? Anyone? Correct, eating ants. And has adapted in an amusingly specialized way with powerful claws for ripping into nests and long sticky tongue.
That is a deep, deep commitment to eating ants. But not really any deeper a commitment than most other species: The overall species strategy is a highly specialized job with a body increasingly adapted as a tool to do that job.
But not us. We are constantly looking for new angles to play and new ways to play them. In pursuit of that goal we may vary our focus, lifestyle, and ecological niche. But except for phenotypic variations based on local weather our bodies don’t adapt. We don’t specialize via our bodies, we specialize via technology: A spear is a 7 foot long claw that can fly. Well sewn clothing is a thick warm pelt, opening our way toward the ice caps. Horses turn us into ten foot tall monsters moving at the speed of antelopes. Farming is a “Game of Life” survival cheat code the levels us up. Sufficient change in technology equals a virtual shift of species with an altered template for life.
Our technology transforms us personally and as social animals. The rules for hunter gatherers are not the rules for farming villages. We reorganize ourselves in a bottom up that unpacks itself through the individual daily actions of each human playing the new game. Pyramids and kings pop into being from the right tools and population sizes. Each shift redefines the group size that we consider to be: Us. Ourselves. Are we 50 people, a thousand people, a million people? Ask the tools, they make the rules.
When the human community becomes large enough and complex enough it becomes a virtual ecosystem unto itself. The specialized work of individuals mirrors the variety of organisms in a wild ecosystem. Enough complexity makes a self sustaining virtual ecology. AT least until the robots throw us all out of work.
Cultural Variation as a strategy
Every human group that can define as “US” creates culture. That culture expresses local traits with one unique voice. Varieties of approaches to mating, religious dogma, openness to outsiders, etc. equals a real time experiment in how successful these traits are as a human survival strategy. The values for these different traits emerge from the tension force within the community. Authoritarianism is a strategy, so is liberal democracy, so is theocracy. Winning could mean stability or expansion. I call this expansionist trait “Virality”. One culture may make it’s people happy and healthy but virally dominant cultures can take them over.
(That’s draft one. As usual, if you found this intriguing check back once in awhile. I do update and re-write.)
It’s hilarious how much cultural “values”, the dos and don’ts, are exactly like the preferences and peccadilloes of a particular person. These Japanese “no-no”s sound like a description of things that one random person might have very strong feelings about… but in fact, a whole country is ready to be very disappointed in you.
You have your likes and dislikes; your quirks and peccadillos. Put enough of them together in a somebody and you have a personality. You and your love have a relationship, with predominating moods and flavors, things you both love and hate, as recognizable to both of you as each others faces. That is the personality of your relationship and you could almost call it a culture of two. You and your family have a kind of extended self, absolutely made of individuals, but having a corporate nature. Again, moods, styles, activities, and traditions: The personality of your family: The culture of us, ourselves.
Your town and state have cliches and classic types, local foods, music, religions, sports, and jokes. Your area may even have unique social faux pas. You have your classic regional moods, so well defined that Hollywood can set a story in your area as shorthand for the tone of the movie. Your country likewise has these same locally famous traits but pulled from many distant points and due to this diversity, the warmth of these traits is much more diffuse. Americans from Maine might enjoy funny Florida cliches but they don’t evoke the tenderness of good old home-cooked cliches. These taste of home because they are the personality of your region: The self that you are actually a piece of even when parted. If you have been away a long time from the place that is unquestionably your home, odds are that the sight of some hideous local billboard or despised local celebrity might well thrill you and soften your heart. This is you, a tiny particle of that place sensing the correct SELF of belonging and yearning toward it.
Culture is personality flowing bottom-up from a community. It’s the basket holding that composite soul together and in place. It is also the background that makes outsiders visible against it. It’s the recognizable border between us and them. Humans produce culture as naturally as spiders weave webs. The tension force within the culture creates the tone of inclusion tempering exclusion and vice versa. Tension force determines the “temperature” of how cold or warm the welcome is to outsiders.
I don’t associate warm with progressives and cold with conservatives as a political bias, but in this context, conservatism means suspicion, standoffishness or even hostility. Conservatives play the role in the cultural ecosystem of tightening the borders while progressives loosen them. And it isn’t always about a literal border, the border can be about how purely insiders display their cultural loyalty. It can be about disapproving of behaviors becoming less hidebound to cultural authority (often acted out by grumpy old people). Either wing, without the other, is dangerously out of balance. Either wing, deprived of this balancing opposing force, becomes a runaway monster seeking enemies within when it can’t find them without. That’s how desperately important opposition really is. When deprived of it the isolated wing has a panic attack and seeks everywhere for enemies to counter itself. The steady opposition between a healthy left and right results in a cooperative outcome: A tension force that protects the community from the weaknesses of each. This is the community organism as a healthy individual with a well-balanced nature.
Donald Trump is the perfect president for this moment, in fact, it’s uncanny.
Obviously not in a good way.
I talk a lot about complexity on this blog. Complexity changes things in incremental ways until there comes a POP of some new emergent thing which is categorically different than all the things it is made of. You can not look at any organism without seeing just such a result. As usual, I’m asking you to put up with me talking about things that appear crushingly obvious.
But listen, single-celled organisms lived, I’m guessing contentedly, for a multiple BILLION years without once feeling the desire to fuck. Suddenly fucking became a fad, a craze. Everybody was sharing genetic material and things got WEIRD. Suddenly there were strangers moving in all around with a bunch of different characteristics. The good old simple ways were gone. Sex was the first sacrifice of autonomy and the first cooperation of individuals making something new and sharing risks and benefits. That’s right. They were cells with benefits.
And then more complex cooperations in the form of more and more complex organisms began to cover the world. But each new multicell organism and lifestyle was a gamble and a loss of autonomy. And there were cells that said “Hell No!” They stuck to the good old proven ways as they have to this day.
Cooperating to build something more complex is the story of evolution. Human beings in their journey to now have reinvented their understanding of “My Group” over and over. This redefining requires flexibility toward the borders of self. If someone creepy and unattractive asks you to share life’s journey you pull away, securing your borders. You might say “no thank you” or “back the hell off!”. Because (in many ways) you don’t want any sharing or blending with them. But even a new friend who perhaps takes too much for granted about how good friends you are will elicit at least a bit of the same response. Who we are with is who we are…at least as it feels inside us.
And for people in times of change when the community is being redefined, and always becoming larger and more complex, there is a similar issue triggering acceptance or rejection. At such times there have always been people who balked and rejected the change as not only wrong for them, but wrong for everyone. Their gut tells them it’s crazy and wrong. These are conservatives, basically. The tides of human change are strong enough that conservatives are mostly pulled into these new arrangements despite their concerns. Then within a generation, the new situation will be the one they are defending from change and radical new relationships that redefine that SELF.
I do have a belief system weirder than this: That communities of people actually ARE some sort of organism, certainly in the sense that bees are. I believe a couple or a family or a town and beyond exist at some level as an autonomous being brought into existence literally by the interaction of the parts. And that AS parts we have great difficulty perceiving whatever truth there is to this.
And I have a belief system weirder than that. I will admit shamefully that I call it reality weather.
Even I am agnostic about this but it’s something I perceive. It is the shifting and scaling up and scaling down of issues and moods and events in the human world. It was visible in the new nations rush to world war one. It’s visible in the wildfire of fascism (and other isms) in the 1920s and 30s. It’s there somehow visible around the sixties and seventies. I think it’s there in mild times as well, but we don’t notice a quiet sunny day. Yep, it sounds dangerously close to astrology but it’s not. I have no dogma around it and I assert no understandable cause. But there’s something there. And we’re in some heavy damn reality weather right now in case you hadn’t noticed.
So why is Trump the perfect president for right now? Because he is absurdly unaware of anyone other than himself. Because he would never have any relationship where he blended and shared with another person. His wives are things. Other people are things. He can’t even hold the concept of what our government and nation mean as a collective and why he shouldn’t just rewrite everything to please himself. He’s that selfish.
Every country chooses leaders in a semi-conscious way that mixes the issues of the day with a tribal totem. Trump was chosen to represent the part of America doesn’t want to blend, or share or care or change. As such, he is an embodiment of not letting ourselves synchronize with others at higher levels of complexity. He symbolizes pure self-assertion and rejection of relationship and cooperation. Any place beyond the borders of our nation has become a rejected OTHERNESS. Just as it also has in England, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere. And all just about simultaneously. As a country enters this kind of period of self-assertion and push-back it reaches into a bag of domineering regressive nationalistic bastards and places the biggest one on its head like a horrible tiara. It doesn’t last forever and it can unfold in surprising ways. The United Nations and the European Union owe their existence to the 360-degree horror of WWII. That’s probably not a comforting thought right now but don’t assume the worst. To some degree optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as long as we back it up with action. Stay cool and take a reality umbrella, it’s really coming down out there.
“It darkles, (tinct, tint) all this our funnaminal world.” ― James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
In 1994 three researchers wandered the Ardèche valley in southern France beside the river of the same name. Their work would look odd and delicate to us. They were hoping to discover hidden caves and their method was to feel for small drafts of air rising through piles of rock. Some explorers do this by literally sniffing about, hoping to scent the smell of a cave. That day, these three discovered a near miracle. It was a huge cave full of ancient human art perfectly sealed by a landslide for around 20 thousand years. This is the Chauvet cave, named for the lead explorer.
Abundant charcoal on the site allowed good carbon dating. The primary use of the cave by humans dated from 32 thousand years ago. This placed the art at 10 thousand years older than the oldest art we knew of. I want to write that age as a number.
32,000 years ago. 30,000 BCE. This time is the upper paleolithic or “old stone age”. Something strange happened in the neolithic. About 9000 years ago an emergent rush of lifestyle change transformed humanity from small tribes of wandering hunters to villages of farmers. As a group we abandoned what we had always done for something new.
The long paleolithic period in southern Europe leaves little to tell us who we were, but what we do find is vivid and strange. The paintings in Chauvet cave are amazing. Like most cave paintings they are of animals rendered with smooth confident lines and subtle shading. What isn’t so obvious is what the paintings meant to the artists. When it was in use, Chauvet cave had a large opening that would have allowed sunlight into the first chamber. There are no paintings in the first chamber. Well, only one… just at the point the sunlight could not reach.
Paintings are for darkness.
The painters used all the features of the cave as part of the art. A horse appears to be running out of an alcove. Bumpy cave walls become 3d anatomy; a bison shoulder, a lion’s hip. Looked at from different angles things transform and shift identity. This part of a horse turns into that part of a wolf. Some animals might be a group standing together, or a single animal moving through space, as if we paused an animation with multiple frames visible at once.
The world surrounding this canvas is worth considering. Europe was in an ice age, there were glaciers 9000 feet thick. It was cold, but dry and sunny. The people would have dressed as traditional inuit indians do, with reindeer leather and furs. They carved bone flutes on the pentatonic scale. The sea level was 3oo feet lower and a determined hunter could have walked from Paris to London (or you know, those geographical locations). The world was crammed with animals familiar and strange: Cave bears, lions, hyenas, mammoths, hairy rhinoceros, horses, bison, leopards, wolves, ibex, reindeer. In the same area lived a distinctly separate species of humanity; Neanderthals. Neanderthals left no paintings. Why did we paint and why didn’t neanderthals paint?
Humans didn’t live in the cave. They went down into the dark with their torches to conduct some kind of passionate business they had with this wild world they lived in. Continue reading
This graphic reads upward from the bottom. Remember that Emergence works like this: “More is different”. What causes the emergent thing? Critical mass. The famous tipping point. That each of the steps here did happen is almost self evident. But science backs me up that far. Calling them revolutions is sort arbitrary and brings some unwanted imagination baggage along. A revolution returns to its starting point. Since each of these developments is emergent and leads to the next one it might be more appropriate to call them Evolutions and imagine a spiral rather than parallel circles. The time taken for each level is also way smaller than the previous level so our spiral should have a wide bottom and thin as it rises.
Every one of these steps produced the next through arrival at its own critical mass. At that point, each was in effect, a solid platform for the next one to grow on. This little graphic shows unequivocally the growing complexity of whatever this system is that we are a part of.
Entropy is the dirge-like background music that we are always reminded is the true story about the universe. Everything is cooling off and falling apart and randomizing (certainly in my personal life, anyway).
But the people who tell the story about entropy and the people being told are each creations of anti-entropy. Syntropy.
Syntropy is “the tendency towards energy concentration, order, organization and life”
Maybe entropy is the 9 to 5 job of the Universe – but syntopy is the beloved hobby it hurries home to putter around with.
Argentine super hive (scary)
Every living thing uses chemistry for communication.
Cells communicate through their own language of chemical signals. Different compounds, such as hormones and neurotransmitters, act like command instructions, telling a cell about the environment around it and communicating instructions.
Insects and animals communicate with chemicals and pheromones, lightly spiced with templated physical signals, in simpler words, body language.
Ants for example (I like talking about ants!) have a smell language that includes the following common phrases:
- I found food, follow me
- Danger (even what KIND of danger in some ants)
- I am your relative (I belong here, and this is my job)
- I am the queen (and here is an evaluation of my health and whether we need princesses, drones, etc)
- I’ve been squashed! Danger!
- I am dead, haul my body out. (Funny article about spraying a living ant with dead ant smell.)
Ants are territorial and maintain borders. The borders are defined with pheromones. They generally steer clear of other territories, but sometimes ants have to fight other ants over food access, invasion,etc. Imagine an ant hive invaded, it’s WAR! But how do they know it? Ants are pretty dumb and they can’t hear a general announcement. An alarm pheromone “goes viral” and the hive goes into an aggressive posture. And then…
In their book, The Ants, Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson says (pages 219 & 220):
These colonies conduct ritualized tournaments as a part of the defense of their foraging territories. Opposing colonies summon their worker forces to the tournament area, where hundreds of ants perform highly stereotyped display of fights (italics mine). When one colony is considerably stronger than the other, in other words able to summon a larger worker force, the tournaments end quickly and the weaker colony is sacked. During the final incursions, the queen is killed or driven off and the larvae, pupae, callow and honeypot workers are transported to the raiders nest.
The behavior is mysterious, for ants. Why don’t they simply attack each other? Why is it “highly stereotyped”? The ultimate battle won’t be. They are learning something that affects the outcome. This behavior is symbolic signaling. These are very simple creatures but their scope of communication is roughly parallel to even very complex mammals like wolves. Chemistry is the powerful, swelling music, and body language (stereotyped display) is the lyrics.
Scent is fundamental. Continue reading
Humans are born according to an algorithm allowing a wide curve of features and preferences such as:
- Self asserting (extreme archetype: Psychopathic self involvement) | Self transcending (extreme archetype: Saintly generosity and sacrifice)
- Follow the pack (instinctively flows with peer pressure) | Follow my own path (instinctively flows their own way)
- Past loving (keep the familiar = “conservative”) | Future loving (allow for change = “progressive”)
- Preference for small groups (town) | Preference for large groups (city)
- Submissive (naturally accept leadership) | Dominant (naturally take charge)
- Cautious (“Wouldn’t be prudent”) | Daring (risk taking adventurers)
- Wandering (Viking approach) | Homebound (Bushman approach)
- Standard Sexuality | Alternate Sexuality
- Xenophobic | Xenophophilic
One reason we can conclude “It takes all kinds” is because life MAKES all kinds.
Elsewhere I’ve discussed my theory that people who live in big cities and people who live in small towns have become operationally different species. There’s nothing biological here except perhaps if there’s some genetic component concerning which lifestyle you prefer. When humans adapt to a new technology or a new living arrangement (in the community sense) they have altered their strategy of life significantly enough that if some other animal could make an equivalent change they would be deemed a subspecies of the wild type. So from nomad tribes to tiny farming villages to cities of millions is a tremendous change …of script. If you could time travel to the neolithic, scoop up one of an infant pair of twins and return to the present, that baby would grow up embracing a level of complexity and social energy that would make his brother or sister go catatonic if they encountered it.
We are a meta adaptor species. We are an evolutionary cyborg embracing technological transformation. While we embrace the techno change our fundamental species script full of animal reactions hasn’t changed a jot. If a baby from modern times was whisked back to replace that other neolithic baby he wouldn’t grow up puzzled at the technology or the social rules. On this level we have a “just go with it” rule letting us imprint culture like baby ducks imprint Momma.
Well there’s another interesting thing about virtual speciation, we might think of it as a second level of adaptation. Within every human community division of labor is key to operation..we might almost call it the reason for community. Metaphorically if we imagine the village as an animal made up of the different functions performed by the people we can start to see what’s going on. This is almost like organ and tissue differentiation. The village is a virtual organism (as was the wandering tribe) if it’s script fails the organism dies, as do it’s human components. By always embracing ANY technology that excites us we are finding pathways out of a dead end script. We are opening up pathways to new versions of what human means. Continue reading
If we are a super-organism species there must be a mechanism that causes us to behave that way. There must be things that make us create and maintain that structure.
There must be glue that holds it all together, there must be a motivation driving the business of the hive endlessly forward.
I’m going to call these forces the Hive Protection Program
Most of our basic reactions to the world around us rise from the messages of this program. If you find people from very different cultures make you uncomfortable, and your own culture makes you stand and salute. If you believe strongly in your own religion and feel others are deeply wrong. If you have an instinct to help the rich and scorn the poor. You are voicing the hive protection program.
- The hive protection program wants: A broad base
- Most people should be poor, suspicious of “outsiders”, loyal believers in the correctness of the local reality map. It wants these poor people to be a bit hapless and passive and to accept and respect (up to a point) the authority of the local hierarchy of power. It expects this majority of poor to self select to become an army and go and fight and die when directed to.
- The hive protection program wants: a tapering upward middle
- A variable but smallish percentage of the hive the be a buffer zone between the rich and the poor. These people should be pulling up and away from poverty, frightened and striving upward but with reasonable limits of ambition. Happy to let the big sharks strive for the very top but happy to be very powerful toward the minnows below.
- The hive protection program wants: a small pointy top
- A minority of people to be that local hierarchy of power. These people will include an inordinate number of what could be called sociopaths. They should have mild “farmer toward livestock” compassion toward the mass of poor. They shouldn’t drift into “killing fields” ruthlessness toward them but complete disinterest in their well being is generally acceptable. These rich and powerful should have high self regard and feel comfortable being extremely selfish. For them to be entirely motivated by personal well being is the CORRECT setting. Pulling themselves toward the highest point of the pyramid should be their goal.
- (if interested, here is a post I made about some of the innate psychological mechanics involved. The luckier someone is the more they believe it was deserved and they are entitled to it. The more successful a person is the more we kiss up to them..Etc. Click to read. )
There are patterns in humanity that are so obvious that they become invisible. The animal nature of humans becomes invisible as we live it. As our eyes let in light they simultaneously spray “humanity paint” over everything we see. Living as an animal means following your nature seamlessly with no coloring outside the lines. This isn’t forced. We don’t obey our natures, we ARE one with our natures. When you were a teenager, exploring new feelings and experiences at high levels of intensity, there were no breaks to do something else. At the end of the day you didn’t hang up your teenage skin and settle into a hot bath to relax. At every age you have done as you wished AS THOUGH it was free will when it was really a human animal living its nature.
We don’t see what we are a part of …and this is our fundamental blindness. The blindness of the part towards the whole. We don’t see our human nature just as the fish famously doesn’t see the water. And this is a small part of what we don’t see. If we focus hard we can feel our animal natures, we can see them informing our actions…maybe we can even see them around the world echoed billions of times: The same general patterns of adorable babies and cute kids and teenagers, young marrieds, middle aged and elderly. And we can see the castes of humanity as well, the poor and rich, craftsmen, warriors, scholars, politicians, clergy. And the styles of humanity, modest, canny, rude, sexy, moralistic, secretive, shy or outrageous. In the interests of brevity I’m not cataloging all the details, there are many more varieties but far from infinite. We are the jumble of humanity, each one the center of the universe, and each a tiny widget in a cosmic machine.
The earth is covered in all its livable zones with humans acting EXACTLY like humans. We snap into the arrangements humans make like we were crystals forming. Trying to understand the way our sacred absolutely personal lives arise from templated scripting and that both are equally real is like holding your hand in flame or your head underwater. Do you know why you can’t think long and hard about your animal nature? It’s because you are not supposed to. And it’s your own animal nature that stops you.
Whoa, there partner, what about sex and cookies?
No matter what sort of creature you are, you are supposed to stay on task and not start addressing the fourth wall.
That is the first level of blindness. “I am not an animal, I am a human and free to be anything I can conceive.” But certain restrictions may apply. The basic human response is: “I meant to do that”. There is a story in every species. There are parameters, and do’s and don’ts: A “script bible” if you will. Each is a strategy, scripted and programmed. Each is given an allotment of free will and sentience encased within the borders of that strategy. Microbes less than insects, insects less than mice, mice less than wolves, wolves less than man, man less than…less than something that man can’t really imagine because that’s where the damn walls are.
I told you all that to tell you this: There are levels of blindness above that level and there are patterns and meanings above that level. And if you think it’s hard to really grasp your animal nature and your free/not free existence, this next level is something almost no one perceives. What could that be? What body or pattern are we molecules or cells of?
The part we can see from where we are standing is the human hive. It is the millions of people forming an organism without knowing it. We say city, or we say nation, we make those distinctions but we can’t really feel the emergent thing we help to make. We cannot really relate to an autonomous oceanic organism with ourselves cast in the part of kidney cells.
Do you think your cells perceive you, as you know yourself? Do they comprehend your loneliness or your love of being by the ocean? And yet they are the fundamental parts from which THAT you emerges. They are you, but they don’t know it. They go about your business but they don’t know it. And you go about their business but YOU don’t know it. And you are a cell in a non-perceived organism that doesn’t know you, but you work for each other. Both blind and both presumably part of something larger that neither of you suspects.
At the level of cells in the human body everything is playing a part. They aren’t random meaningless “creatures” in an absurd universe, they are simple diligent agents working in a complex bureaucracy that they cannot conceive of. They also can’t know the highly specific role they are playing. What matters is that they do it and they do. And the parallel on our level is that you play a part (or perhaps many) in keeping the organism you are part of healthy and guiding its course. Your politics, spirituality and even sense of humor play a part. Be you all the way, and…imagine the larger world.
If you have an agonizingly hard time finding meaning in the universe remember your nature has you boxed in with an airtight seal. Information that is not about being your animal self is kept from you. The fact that the lens you get to look through doesn’t show the meaning and value in life the way you hope to see them only tells you about the limits of the resolving power of that one lens. It might be that with this vacuum bottle open the whole goddamn universe is out there singing.
Trees in a forest have a network of communications through their roots and a web of fungus. The trees share information and nutrients. They nurture young trees and even direct toxins at plants they “want” to suppress.
Years ago, when he was little I was explaining the word sentient to my son as “being aware of being aware”. I asked him if dogs were sentient. “Yes” he said. “Are rocks sentient?” I asked “No” he replied. “How about trees?” I said. He paused, then: “I’m not sure about that.”
Honestly, I’m not either.
Some trees exude that strange feeling of presence, but that’s a soulful, poetic way of thinking. There isn’t anywhere to go with that idea scientifically. The behaviors described above are so complex that to say that no mind is involved highlights a gap in our understanding of biology and evolution and minds. If not a gap, at least an area stretched to the breaking point. Evolutionary biology would say that the trees are mechanically behaving as their fit ancestors did, said ancestors being lucky recipients of random chance mutations. Yet the trees in the stories I put at the top are aware, somehow of each other, which implies also aware of themselves. They assist some, basically the young and the needy (charity or care or generosity?) and attack others meaning they have friends and enemies? Preferences at least? Even a sort of strategy. And the “Wood wide web” connecting them is obviously a complex symbiotic partnership.
You could take the reductionist point of view that the way I described this was too human-centric. They are helping those they share genes with and suppressing invaders. Perhaps they help “needy” trees because diseased trees represent a health threat to the whole forest. But as cold as we may say it, these trees are active participants and they are AWARE of those young relatives, sick neighbors and enemies. There is a communicating, receiving, evaluating and responding going on here and that if does not require a mind, it then requires some alternative to mind that we do not have a scientific model for.
Giant stands of Broccoli they are not. But the “mind” here is what exactly? Aware of conditions and correct responses but not aware of itself? Is it an individual, or a kind of community mind? A swarm entity?
Around us and in us are living systems by the millions handling virtually everything without the benefit of a conscious mind. In fact a number of studies have shown that our conscious mind is given prompts about what to do, being informed milliseconds before becoming aware of the impulse or decision. Who is this shadowy internal decider, this Dick Cheney within? And how does it not make consciousness itself a subsystem of larger, unconscious system? Does it not force us to imagine how the hell an unconscious actor truly operates, prioritizes and decides?
Consciousness itself, unwitting and bordered by shadows needs to be reimagined as well. Consciousness is like a balloon with a story in it. This fretful, monologuing self seems like it’s stuck with the job of rationalizing our actions and representing a human social unit to all the other human social units. It may be that consciousness, which we tend to think of as the highest evolution of nature is more like a jail cell where each of us keep our separated, parceled out selves. It may be that something extraordinary is going on right outside but we can’t hear it, because we are sealed in.
It might be the voice of the forest.
In the last few generations of video games an interesting change has taken place. Games were once wholly hard scripted: Landscapes had invisible walls you could not pass beyond and possible actions were a limited decision tree of if/then statements.
A number of relatively recent games like Minecraft and Diablo have broken out of this box and approached level creation in a whole new way. Procedural generation of levels means that each new map is one of a kind flowing from a range of controlling factors; things like sea level, atmosphere height, a range of different biomes and all the flora and fauna that go them, including the surface materials and even deep subterranean composition. From forested mountains to swamp, to ocean there are ranges of likelihood and possibility for everything. For example, there are rules about things like how a shore line has a range of possible grades, a sheer drop off would be silly. A canyon will have a certain raggedy unevenness to it as well as a range of possible depths. Biomes will flow into each other at the edges in a way that crossfades each rulebase into a blended compromise.
These are algorithms. They are sets of rules and probabilities and variables for each of these issues. There is a possible range of randomness to all of them and of course limiting HOW MUCH randomness can happen. In most such games you have an option to set some preferences but you won’t really know what that world looks like till you walk around in it.
In more than an abstract way, the universe around us has these algorithms shaping events all the time. Newtonian physics is a catalog of algorithms measuring the variables of gravity, momentum, etc. The periodic table outlines the rules for the materials around us. The weather expresses another set of algorithms about atmospheric variables like warm moist air hitting a high pressure cold front, how hurricanes and tornadoes form, etc. And of course the plants in the various ecosystems have a range of likelihood of thriving and reproducing under different conditions. Animals have a range of possible behaviors in response to various situations determined by species and personality. They also have a range of possible “personality” based upon nature and nurture. For every organism, physical homeostasis is an interrelated cascade of algorithms that dovetail at the borders of all the others I just mentioned.
Natural laws are physical information. They are machine code. They are modules of the programing language of reality.
It’s fascinating to me that the question “are we living in a simulation?” has become a serious scientific and philosophical focus just as we begin to manipulate a technology where we could soon create exactly such a thing in miniature for some unsuspecting AIs. In fact, the word miniature would be illusory because to those AIs the universe would fade off in one direction into impossible vastness and in the other direction telescope down to impossible tininess with themselves stranded on the beach in between.
Exactly like us.
I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels bless’d; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones,
To Him we shall return.
‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’
Imagine having a secret life… that is secret even from you. Well, you do. You have one normal, sunlit life and two fun-house mirror lives framing it like bookends.
1. You the colony, You the hive.
Imagine yourself as a towering robot of staggering complexity. You are a city on stilts. Your head parts the clouds. As you look closer you see organised systems processing virtual cataracts of information, maintaining homeostasis, making repairs and patrolling for enemies. Looking still closer you realize that these systems are made of tiny individuals, the citizens of you. They labor autonomously and harmoniously in coordination with billions of others. They die and are replaced by the next generation. Their ancestors joined forces from smaller and simpler associations to create ever more complex and diverse systems. Each of these deals involved risk and compromise. These bargains succeeded and prospered in the likes of you. Most of these citizens swear allegiance to you and the republic for which you stand. Most are on your side. But there are neutral, disinterested characters along for the ride because it suits them, they aren’t against you, but they have no loyalty to you. Their work serves your interests or you’d kick them out. Now and then there are criminals and revolutionaries bent on damage or worse. Sometimes they attack openly but other times they drift through, casing the joint, hats pulled low over their eyes, watching for the cops.
2. The Middle Life.
You as you already know you. What can I add, except that this is the only life you are supposed to notice. This is our “Matrix”: It isn’t evil, it’s simply that every nesting doll level of reality is blinkered so as to pour all their energy into the task at hand for that part of the infrastructure. It is almost impossible to think about things outside the middle life for more than moments at a time.
3. Tiny, Particulate You…
This is the hardest level to see and understand. The problem is that when you are a cell in a body or an atom in an element, you aren’t supposed to be bothering about the larger thing you are a component of. You do your job alongside untold others and a new level of organization emerges. Gravity masses atoms and matter emerges, cells cooperate and organisms emerge. When people gather and cooperate what emerges? Friends, lovers, families, tribes, towns, city states, nations, and unified nations…but just barely. This is our current ceiling. Right now we labor to construct a human network that unites nations and we stumble like a toddler again and again. This threshold is the battlefield now. It won’t be forever, almost every social construct in our lives was a controversial invention once. But ever more complex human molecules form naturally, building their own foundation till it holds the weight. If you doubt me, remember nations are a modern history invention. Through most of our cultural history there was no Italy or France, there were just territories and city states and local languages and dialects measured by the mile. But remember, the cells in our bodies once struggled to join forces, I believe that struggle and our own are contiguous. the struggle is this: Will a new self exist or not? We will blend at a higher level or will we not? There are fascinating similarities between hives and minds and cities. The “from the ground up”organization. The voting or deciding by swarm behavior. The individual self-organizing components and the amazing result that only emerges from their day to day actions. A self made of many. E pluribus unum, people: It’s on the damn money.
As I’ve written elsewhere, a “third mind” emerges from two close people. It is the thing you love or hate about being with them. And on up through human groupings by size the same thing repeats, the generation of a group mind. A mind with perceivable traits, even a sort of “personality”. But as the group size increases, it is harder and harder to perceive the part of this mind that is us. This is why people are all locked into the sense of being separate, isolated beings. Our experience is the human version of a single cell trying to comprehend the body it serves. That difficulty must not stop us from trying to make sense of this arrangement. If I’m right about this, some of the implications are cosmic.
- There are natural algorithms running human groups.
- These rules generate human castes such a shaman, head-man, warrior, worker
- There are rules in place for the general well being of the “hive” such as the balance between conservative and progressive. Protecting the inside but not going so far as attacking self (ie: cultural autoimmune disorders such as Hitler or Pol Pot)
- The length of human life span is the time tick the hive uses to maintain continuity but allow for change. Young people are open to change, old people are not. Change is allowed with a governor.
- There may be forces beyond our ken that cause hives to behave in ways we think are random.
- We do the bidding of these hive mind rules without knowing it
- Etc, etc.
If we can begin to see and understand the rules, there is some chance of not always robotically expressing them. There are times when the rules that generate our behavior may be horrible or promote continued injustice. Robotic hive rules could easily lead us toward self destruction in an age of high technology. This was perfectly stated by Einstein in 1945:
“The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind…”
Recognizing the rules for what they are might give us a critical bit traction resisting them, or going around them. Hive rules drive ethnic hatreds and the kind of structural oppression of women we see almost everywhere. Getting mad at racists helps a bit to balance them, seeking equality for women is always the right thing to do, but these acts are like pushing against gravity; it will be there when you stop pushing. It’s time to learn the rules and stand a chance to fight the bad ones with real knowledge.
The basic question of the universe is whether you will join with something to form a greater level of complexity.
Matter is the greater complexity of atoms.
Life is the greater complexity of chemistry.
Sexual reproduction is the greater complexity of life. Species are the greater complexity of sexual reproduction. Humanity is the greater complexity of species. Tribes are the greater complexity of humanity. City states are the greater complexity of tribes. Nations are the greater complexity of city states. Did you think it would stop there?
A single microbe is a negotiated community; deals were struck, some individuality was sacrificed, a brand new cooperation of diverse elements was necessary. A single human being is a negotiated community cubed, cubed and cubed. We are massive mobile towers of cooperative complexity. When a new stage of complexity is forming, all who don’t want to join see the new form as crazy and unreliable: A cockeyed, unstable monstrosity.
At every stage some will bond higher and some will hold back. Not because they are bad or wrong, but because they are holding the line of what they were. Life doesn’t saw off the branch it’s climbed out onto. Every simpler established level of complexity is a safe fallback.
The force driving “Brexit” and “American fascism” is the same force driving Islamic fundamentalism and all the other retro-reality movements. There is a terror of a new level of complexity that isn’t comforting and recognizable through that lens. There is a sense that borders are out of control, that floodgates are open which will dissolve the recognizable and wash away what we love.
Don’t be discouraged, friends. Bond higher. Or don’t, but do what you love.
- some recognizable “racial” traits?
- a leadership structure?
- a standard of beauty?
- a spiritual / religious framework? And some sort of representative (priest, shaman) role?
- stories they like to tell?
- unique styles of clothing?
- an attitude towards outsiders?
- some sort of roles for men and women?
- a story about death?
- richer and poorer? Or higher and lower caste?
- a warrior/defense group?
Fast travel to farthest space and deepest inner space by factoring each distance. Science has advanced since this was made but it still does a brilliant job of mind stretching. Balanced between quantum foam and infinite space our lives are utterly mysterious. This is very nice way of FEELING the Holon levels that stack to make the world. See my posts on Holons if that is a baffling sentence. Right here.
1977 POWERS OF TEN © 1977 EAMES OFFICE LLC
Tension Force: Cohesion from Opposition
The tension force is the force that is transmitted through a string, rope, cable or wire when it is pulled tight by forces acting from opposite ends. The tension force is directed along the length of the wire and pulls equally on the objects on the opposite ends of the wire. –Physics Classroom
Imagine American politics. Not just the official representatives, but all the voices contributing viewpoints: From right wing 1% super-PACs down to organic coops. Now assign all those people to one of two categories: Conservative or Progressive. Imagine the sum total of conservative opinion vs the sum total of progressive opinion. As they struggle against each other imagine the area between them vibrating with the force of their resistance.
That area is expressing the Tension Force of their opposition to each other. It describes the range of political reality for this community, in this time and place. The issues of the day are all in this area: Immigration, economic policy, male/female roles, war, etc. Now, imagine some quick snapshots of other countries contending against each other in the same way. Picture Sweden, Mexico, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Each has their version of these opposing forces. The area of tension force (TF) contains the questions that are being struggled over and the possible policies that might result. Economic equality and justice TF in Sweden and Mexico are wildly different. Sexual politics TF in America and Saudi Arabia also have a stark contrast. TF = the local reality that is up for discussion. Progressive and conservative are the internal states of the ones pulling the rope. In all these cultures the issues are radically different but those pulling the rope are the same.
- Extremely sharp spear points
- Long spears that let the holder stay well back from danger
- Throwing spears with atlatl, a flexible extension that gave the throw far more power and accuracy by using a snap motion just before release
- Bows and arrows
- Cutting and scraping tools for butchering
Continuing my theme of the hybrid SELF that forms when people interact: The third mind. I’m not trying to create the idea of some kind of mystical entity. The third mind is simply a lens or filter for understanding ourselves.
There really is no “You”.
“Um, But I’m right here.”
Friendship: Every person you know and love has a bond with you like a chemical signature. You think you visit them but you don’t. You visit US. You are a different you with Tom and Petra and Janine. When you visit Janine you think you are seeing her, but you are seeing US.
You know that great way you have fun with her, cooking together and joking around? It isn’t exactly like that with anyone else. That isn’t you and it isn’t her. That’s the third mind. The US. The thing is, your friendship isn’t you and her. It’s what she brings out in you and what you bring out in her. Your friendship is the magic spot where those unique things overlap. This is really reminiscent of the Observer Effect in physics. You can’t study the thing without influencing and effecting it. There is no abstract, pure Janine. You can only know her the way she is when you are looking at her. She can only know you the way you are when she looks at you.
You get together with Janine and your mutual friend Petra. You don’t really know the way Janine is with Petra. You know how Janine is with YOU and Petra. You are standing there with Janine before Petra comes inside. You make a funny literary reference and she laughs and reminds you to keep thinking about that thing you talked about earlier. Why? Because when Petra is part of this molecule the sense of humor is different, maybe earthier, and you’d never really bring up that sort of serious thing for discussion because it would be the wrong kind of discussion. You guys LOVE Petra, you love being together. It’s wonderful, but it’s wonderful in a different way. So you tidied up business with the You and Janine molecule before the well understood transition into the 3 of you molecule.
The personality “You” was evoked in a unique way with one other person and then in another unique way only possible with that exact combination of the three of you. And if you leave, Petra and Janine have a different relationship. If you let yourself ride this idea it’s a hoot because there is no real you, there’s just what can be brought out of you by different people. And since the same is true for them there’s no real anybody anywhere. There are only the unique creations of relationships. In “The Four Loves” C.S. Lewis wrote a beautiful thought on our subject which I have to paraphrase here. Talking about the death of a friend: “If Jim dies I don’t just lose my unique friendship with Jim, I lose the way Jim used to laugh at Robert’s jokes.”
Friendship can be a lovely, lifetime thing in many cases because there is this enjoyable facet of you that you only get be in their company and they evidently have their own version of that joy. One note and another note being played at the same time are not those notes. They are a chord. And the easy, warm cruising of friendships across time is helped by its episodic nature, you don’t ALWAYS have to be that expression of yourself but you can return to it…like an old friend.
You might argue that the real you is when you are alone but you are wrong, and stop being so argumentative!
That is the you evoked by being alone. By being in relationship to no other. And it’s actually rather limited. You can’t be that warm, loving guy or the funny guy or the good listening guy. In some ways being alone is all the things you can’t be. Now for creative types (and introverts) there can be a special and productive relationship to being alone but it’s still a selective filter that isn’t real in any other situation.
The principles of the third mind are laid out simply above and they don’t change with strangers or those closest to us. What changes is the impact or “side effects”.
Romantic love adds an element that only happens in its domain. Limerence. That dazzling infatuation which when reciprocated turns the third mind into a nearly visible glittering ball between the two people. This is where the third mind transforms into a different entity, almost literally an entity pulling intense emotions and hormones to the surface from the couple. It grows larger and practically seals the lovers inside. Of course this is the human mating dance. This is the REAL honeymoon, a time of being swept up in something huge and electric and magical. When people look back on this phase, the third mind can seem like anything from a horrible deception to a lost golden age. If it does the job nature intends, a family follows.
Family: With family relationships we are playing with forces that help to define us. Mom and Dad are together in a tight pair bond, founded in romantic love. When baby makes three there’s a deep change in the orientation of the parents. Very much a team but a team that doesn’t have a lot of hot sex anymore and a team embarked on a shakedown cruise with a new person. Before the baby is old enough to a political player in the family there’s this period of adjustment to the altered definition of the pair bond. “We are now people who discuss what poop looked like.” This can also be a time where new facets of self come up in Mom and Dad because parenting builds a new floor onto the edifice of YOU. Your way of relating to the kid becomes a bit of new wild card. It’s natural and fine for Mom and Dad to be on somewhat different pages about parenting. But what it does here can be an alteration of the third mind in a way that adds stressors and subtly distances them. It only deepens when the child is a distinct personality, becoming triangulated and heating up any of those parenting issues. At times each feel parent will feel double teamed or manipulated and new kinks in the flow develop. Whatever the couple’s third mind started as it has morphed and tilted. Not necessarily in a terrible way, but forever. There is no going back. And something strange starts to happen here. It can feel like the power of this mind exerts such pressure that you begin to actually possess the characteristics projected onto you. As if the third begins to alter and edit you often in ways that are not pleasant. If people have a common complaint about family it’s probably this: The weird way you can’t help either becoming a certain person around them or putting all your energy into resisting it.
Children grow up with the family mind, a sort of interactive group sense of self: A growth medium made up of ourselves and a variety of subjective, overlapping reactions to us.
Marriage: God knows there are lovely, happy and vital marriages out there. And where they exist they probably have a rare relationship where the couple feels a great ongoing enjoyment with what gets brought out of them into the world by the other. This mutual bringing forth: “I love her and I love who I am when I’m with her.”
It’s easy to imagine the reasons things that can become stultifying and even miserable in some marriages. First, unlike friendship, this relationship has no easy come and go. It is your default and almost fulltime existence So it’s more serious from the start but also, people change. Especially as they grow up through their 20s and 30s and 40s. You could hardly help and nor should you, being different after all that. But that means that the unique signature of your personalities as they evoked each other when you married is gone. Perhaps not wholly but substantially. Even without inner change over time, the signature shifts as people reveal their more intransigent sides, as issues become wearisome and people become resigned.
But finally there’s this: It becomes deadening when you only get to be one version of you year after year. Especially if that version of you is largely defined by a long history of ups and downs, tensions and compromises. Inside ourselves we know we are a 360 degree personality and this arrangement lets you express only a familiar, comforting, reliable constellation of all the possible YOUs for the sake of another person’s security and happiness.
It’s no wonder people struggle. There’s this tremendous investment in a situation that feels gradually less like home because you aren’t really getting to be yourself there or at least the version of you that you’d like to be. And fixing a marriage that feels very stuck is so challenging because even the medium for discussion can only be within the petrified and weary third mind.
There is no one real YOU, there are thousands.
“A colony of honeybees is, then, far more than an aggregation of individuals, it is a composite being that functions as an integrated whole. Indeed, one can accurately think of a honeybee colony as a single living entity, weighing as much as 5 kilograms (10 pounds) and performing all of the basic physiological processes that support life: ingesting and digesting food, maintaining nutritional balance, circulating resources, exchanging respiratory gases, regulating water content, controlling body temperature, sensing the environment, deciding how to behave, and achieving locomotion.”
There is an idea gaining credibility that just as hives behave as individuals made up of the independently moving “cells”, that primate brains are almost like hives unto themselves…vast collectives of caste system individuals handling tasks that cumulatively produce the neurological reality experienced by the individual. This can’t be described as a final proven fact, but the model holds up, right down to the notion of specific cells that are needed being produced. algorithmically to changing needs. This extends to decision-making, which is the main subject of Honeybee Democracy. The bees exercise a collective intelligence that mimics not just small-group decision-making but the cognitive deliberations of our own brains:
“We will see that the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of bees in a honeybee swarm, just like the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of neurons in a human brain, achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective.”
Like many biologists, Seeley sees a bee colony as not just a collection of individuals but as a sort of super-organism. He continues:
Every human blends a wide range of psychological variables. Each variable in this list is a spectrum and everyone is somewhere on each spectrum in this list. I don’t think this is some complete list, just some that I was mulling over. And they don’t follow some meaningful rule concerning their position to the left or right. I mean for example that “daring” and “submissive” are not in any sense related because they are both on the right. There may be some overlap between some of these characteristics that could justify a connection but it’s imperfect and I’m not intending that meaning. I also don’t think that good is on one side and bad on the other.
It seems human groups naturally create a spread of these traits because I can’t think of any culture outside of science fiction where there is a real uniformity of these characteristics.
The old sci-fi tradition often portrayed a trait as a species. Remember Star Trek? Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans, Ferengi? Each of these takes all the variables for a self and mashes them through a single psychological template.
Imagine how profound (and awful) the effect would be on a culture if they exclusively doubled down on the most extreme range of the traits above. In theory, you could have an entire population very unbalanced in a certain direction. But it never seems to work out that way, does it? Perhaps the whole thing is absolutely random but there could be within us a sort of community algorithm to keep a healthy range of steady but flexible groups. Some flexibility in the system would allow different tribes to investigate the effects of leaning more this way or more that way as a group. I don’t mean the tribe would look at it that way, just that cultural differences would naturally emphasize different traits and there could be an impact on survival as a result.
There are also structural, age-based ranges for a number of important psychological factors concerning the community’s ability to preserve it’s form but also change if it needs to.
- The very young imprint the culture, taking it at face value.
- The young adult/teenager range is the most progressive, the most likely to question things being this way. It’s a cultural version of questioning your own parents.
- Families, mated and settled are the meat in the sandwich. They essentially express and live the culture in a moderate conservative way. Naturally, they tend to embrace it but the cracks and stressors show up here too. In worrying about their own children they worry about all children and what world they will live in. Again, this tends toward conservatism but enough worry can turn this.
- The old of course tend to be convinced that everything is going terribly wrong and we ought to back the hell up. They are the paragons of cultural retention.
These behaviors are emergent from the developmental moment of each but across a culture the impact is factorial.
I think this is rather like the age-based division of labor in insect hives. We have a non-random, predictable political range (“tension force” if you read my other stuff on conservative/progressive). I suspect evolution is a little bottom heavy with more people in the conservative mode but always with enough wild-ass adventurous and rebellious types to keep stirring the pot.
I have a half-assed thought that neuro-atypicals such as Autism spectrum and ADHD people may figure in population dynamics as a necessary element. Autistic people famously helping to advance technology with their obsessive interests and keen observations and ADHD people (I like to think) because their restless love of novelty may contribute in its own way.
I also believe that high functioning psychopaths and narcissists have a place. Their utter lack of concern with others and cold desire to get all the goodies CAN act as an organizing mechanism creating political or religious movements or starting big businesses, etc. Someone sufficiently convinced of their right to rule over others can collect followers like a magnet collects iron filings.
When I’m teaching I can feel a change take place when a magic number of students is present. Before that, I am just talking to individuals one on one. When that critical mass is reached I can become a different person, the teacher, rather than just myself. 3 is apparently too few, it doesn’t make the change occur. 4 is at the edge, as is five. but somewhere in there, I can enter a state other than my normal mind. It is a remembering, performing, adapting and extemporizing mind. It’s a flow state for me and it is inaccessible when I am alone. And I enjoy it very much. But a similar effect happens to the class itself. With enough people and with a basic level of receptivity there is a tipping point for them as well where they become somehow attuned to a common frequency and it is as if we are a kind of energy flow machine where I give them energy in the form of confidence, good organization and information and their attention and enthusiasm gives energy back to me that absolutely heightens my delivery. There is a magic to the internal feeling for the exchange which is basic to its success. If students come to class with the idea that this is all drudgery, they pull me down with them. They hold onto my ankles and prevent take off. I can feel the lifeless lack of response and my job becomes harder. I am doing all the lifting and at the end I am not happy and energized, I am drained and flat.
This highly specific sort of exchange has a thousand parallels in the rest of our lives. Every two people when they meet have an exchange somewhat similar to this one. The magic of interpersonal chemistry obviously decides much of what happens next but the receiving of energy and flowing it back is basic to every encounter. I have certainly noticed that the sweetness and energy of other people seem to have a great deal to do with how I offer them energy and bounce back theirs. Some days the world seems harsh and grubby and no love or friendship seems able to jump the gap but then, on a sweet high energy day when I am open to people and taking them in with an open spirit, incredible things seem possible and on these days it seems obvious and easy. Obviously, something like my teaching experience seems to happen at shows and concerts and speeches. It seems to me that this is one of the points that we never properly own and take responsibility for: How much we determine the tone of everything that happens, how much energy and engagement really matter. We may be just one charged particle but if we are near a few others, amazing things can happen.
A third mind is created when any two meet; this mind talks to itself, finds a mood, an energy, a temperament, a personality; a self. This mind if excitement and energy are present, can consider amazing things, can tinker with subtleties and complexity. As the two-part, this mind disintegrates though it can be remembered with love or disgust or disinterest by its agents. It is a social molecule. As the number of people meeting rises, the new mind comes into being with different energies possible. Certain kinds of projects and tasks can be energized by small groups in a way that feels supernatural. Complexity is still possible with small groups. The excitement of an ensemble working to put on a show or start a business can be electric. There is often a feeling of “organizing” of becoming limbs and organs specializing and working in concert with the virtual body. Of course, many meetings create minds which are inert or dull or suspicious and sour. It’s simply that SOME mind will emerge at the moment of engagement. The energy that happens when motivated minds meet, this third mind, or these “virtual creature” minds can be enormously powerful but the power is essentially amoral. The power will flow if the “batteries” are present. If the mind is engineering reform or art or charity or terrorism…the energy is there.
Emergent human social behavior is not all good and positive. This energy can go dark and bloody in any mob. Hutus and Tutsis would not have massacred each other without this electric build up and overflow. The Nazis couldn’t have existed without it. When a demonstration becomes a riot it is this.
One of the scariest days of my life was in San Francisco after the 49ers won the Superbowl. The streets were full of people celebrating and in a moment that felt strangely like clouds covering the sun, the mood twisted. There were transitional moments: people shouting words of happiness that sounded oddly angry, people looking a little too hard to see if you were celebrating too. At this moment it was like they were looking for outsiders, looking for something to push back against. Soon things tipped and it was like wild animals except that wild animals do nothing like this. It was like a torrent of human craziness and anger, feeding on itself and igniting like flammable gas. And all because “We won!”. Except not really. I don’t think it had anything specific to do with the winning, except that there was a kind of build-up of a charge. A critical mass of charged up, energized humans bumped into each other like pressurized molecules. This is why large gatherings of people always have a risk component and why well planned large events feature effective guidance of group energy, logistics management, and at least a skeleton of police exuding the “remain orderly” pheromone. It’s just a guess but I bet losing teams have way fewer fan riots than winning teams.
“For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything.” Pascal – Pensees, Section II.72
Lots of posts on this blog have referenced this concept but not explicitly by name. (for example see Everything is at least 3 things)
Introducing the Holon. This gem was created by the wonderful Arthur Koestler, one of the very under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century. Once you have this beautiful lens in place so many things snap into delightful clarity.
It is time for common sense Human Ethology. We need to start learning more about ourselves as a species and develop an understanding of our ways and our place in nature. We need it to navigate the path ahead. Many people are frightened and offended by any serious discussion of it but it’s time for us to have a little “facts of life” talk. If a disease is misdiagnosed, the prescription won’t help: If you don’t understand the machine your hand is caught in how can you escape? A great deal is riding on us. And we begin, in the dark.
I suspect that our minds contain a built in blind spot against recognizing ourselves in this light.
Imagine being a bird in one of those huge dark clouds of starlings swarming; our perspective is constantly eyes forward, keeping up, and so involved in doing that we don’t look around and say: “What are we doing?” Henri Bergson, an early 20th century neurologist believed that the brain had as much to do with limiting and filtering out reality as with perceiving and understanding it.
It’s understandable for many good reasons. First, your dominant preoccupation here on earth is SUPPOSED to be your own life. If you aren’t going to mind that store, who will? It must be contra-survival for any creature to spend its time marveling at another level of existence, I know it is for ME. And many people are disturbed by the notion that they really are an animal and that some of their own motivations are unconscious. And when you place that animal that they are in the context of a huge hive where they are a speck in the background it’s understandable that it seems disturbing and diminishing. But you could make the case that seeing the larger story and blending it with your own reveals something stunning and elegant. The foreground AND the background. The story of our life as hive animals is not the truer story, it is simply a different true story at a different factor of magnification. We exist at several levels as radically different things.
From one perspective each of us is a gigantic amalgam of self organizing cells and microbes who go about their business with no idea how unhappy we are in our current job and how much we love cake and have always wanted to learn the cello. One level up from the bits and pieces that make us up, we are recognizably ourselves, the HUB: The eyes and ears of the universe. But one more level up and we are the “tiny” self organizing cells of a system that generally speaking, we have no conception of. What are we even doing? Continue reading
(Warning: Spitballing ahead. Sometimes I pose myself a problem and publish my half assed thoughts about it because the pressure of having it up where someone might see it inspires me to develop my thinking about it.)
The “binding problem” is how our various senses blend and synthesize. Nobody knows how right now. Francis Crick came up with the 40 hertz synchronization theory to explain the biological causes of consciousness but it seems very empty and thin. And unlikely.
All neurons process. So at some level each neuron is an experience and in a tiny way, an experiencer. We know different areas of the brain specialize in areas of processing but those areas are not simple lumps of processing material, they are massed armies of neurons …gigantic rock concert crowds talking to each other and responding to the show on stage in front of them. When the band yells out “Hello Cleveland!” and the crowd roars back…it has become like a single entity.
The mistake we make in imagining neurons is seeing them as essentially passive wiring that signals are flowing along like an old telegraph or telephone system with a caller at one end and a receiver at the other. In reality that level of transmission doesn’t require anything like the amount neuronal population and activity we have going on. The information coming into the system has to be batch processed, blended with information from other “departments” to derive the basic picture/sound/smell combination and this has to be “redrawn” at a rate that feels instantaneous and flowing to the observer. But that’s just organizing the core feed into coherent sensory information. That raw feed has to be examined for context, meaning and nuance constantly while not flooding and overwhelming the human thinking their thoughts, doing their chores, socializing and planning. This is an astounding feat and lets not forget that the same brain is also the one thinking those thoughts, doing those chores, planning and socializing. Continue reading
Stories are integral to humans, they are essential and innate.
Stories as fiction, of course, but also the way of saying anything where a subject once verbed a noun. A person born without innate language behavior, the talking and the understanding, would be as isolated from the rest of us as another species. “Talking and understanding” oversimplify the matter. Language is our medium of remembering long term, considering the future and artfully creating a new copy of that idea in those listening. Oh yes, and imagining the minds of the listeners so well, including personality, rank, bias, and weaknesses that a story can be tailored to precisely sway a single individual, then instantly repackaged in broad strokes to move a horde.
All of these complex abilities are grey matter functions. The neo-cortex REQUIRES stories to do business. Grey matter is the apartment in the human brain where “we” are allowed to live. There once was a princess, trapped in a high tower… and she is us. The neo-cortex comes supplied with libraries of story “legos”. Every hero’s journey and every fairy tale can be assembled from precursors that exist in every brain. To qualify as truly human you must be full of monsters and lost children.
What language and stories tell us is that humans are a madly, overwhelmingly social species, that nature “imagined” us as communities of extremely complex individuals. Any picture we hold of the role of stories is like imaging a little kit we take out when needed and find very useful. The reality is we are aquatic creatures in an ocean of endlessly replenished overlapping narratives. They are the enveloping atmosphere. Consider the individual and her story as the smallest discernible level, connecting to the family story, to the extended family story and the tribe story. In larger civilizations, in big cities, there are thousands of separate story communities we belong to. We have a work story, a church story, a political story, a sex and age story. And so does everyone else. A person can even be imprisoned by their own story, repeating grievances and hurts in a litany designed to preserve them perfectly.
Language is innate to humans because stories are innate to humans. Because we have to teach and apologize and convince and amuse and explain and plan, stories are innate. Because we have to imagine our own lives…Because we have to hold onto the past and anticipate the future… stories are innate. We could not be human without stories and stories do not exist without humans.
Stories are the currency of human exchange. Anything more complex than a “Hello” either IS a story or an invitation to one. These tiny proto-story beginnings: Beautiful day, isn’t it? | How are you? | Have you seen Bob?” are human equivalents to respect gestures, grooming, butt sniffing etc. and may be finished in a moment but each one can carry the participants far from the humble start and into laughter, tears, murder or sympathy.
Stories are the bridges we build to connect our lonely asteroids. At the end of a hard day of building story bridges, at last, you go to relax. What would you prefer, would you rather watch tv or read a book? Stories are food. They even open a door to escape the stories we’re fucking tired of.
Imagine campfires surrounded by the first modern humans. Humans just like us but without infrastructure or history. We know who these people are. They are us! We know the storytellers, the funny ones, the creative ones, the ones that just like attention or the sound of their own voice. And we can imagine the audience having their say, shaping and guiding the story with their responses. Imagine the comfort of safe adventures and harmless surprises. Imagine the comfort of the retold story, the listeners touching each landmark twist with pleasure.
It is also a natural process for stories to become so deeply a part of the people listening to them that they identify their stories as reality itself; the stories and life itself are one. This is an amazing jump but it is the foundation of group identity and group identity is where us versus them appears. A little tribe of humans could not exist for long without knitting a cozy story around themselves to keep out the chill. Stories are identity; I am a part of this story and this story is a part of me. What is religious fundamentalism really, but people fixated on the particular rightness of one story in opposition to all others? Think of the Islamic phrase grouping together themselves, Jews and Christians: People of the book.
Each of us began this way “You wake up and you have no idea where you are or how you got there”. In time people began filling you in on the details. You asked questions exactly as ancient children did and someone older said: “Let me tell you a story about that.”
This is a half-baked theory. It doesn’t suggest any particular role for neurons or other physical aspects of the brain. It is about the workings of the mind. It is primarily concerned with the things we learn how to do.
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, scene ii
An Odd Revelation
When I was a college boy many, many years ago I saw a cat.
I saw a cat and the cat was acting like a cat.
The cat was catlike and there was nothing about it that was anything BUT catlike.
This was a revelation and like most revelations it loses practically everything in the translation from shimmering vision to paragraph in black and white.
He was stalking and playing and being curious and easily startled and all sorts of catty things that anyone could predict. What filled me with awe was the fact that this cat had a nature and that he could do nothing that was not of a piece with that nature. The word nature comes from the Greek natura meaning “essential qualities, innate disposition” and that is the sense in which I mean this. I saw that cat as an expression of the essence of “catness” but not as some platonic ideal, I saw it as an instance of a running program. The program “Cat” existed in millions of instances all over the surface of the earth and I was watching a single instance of it having a nice moment in the Florida sunshine. Continue reading
- Mice were trained to be afraid of the smell of cherry blossoms (I don’t even want to know HOW).
- These mice later had litters which had never been exposed to cherry blossom and when they were, they were afraid of it.
- These second generation mice later had litters and their children…were afraid of the same smell.
This is obviously not direct alteration of the genetic code, it’s a methylation change called epigenetics. What it amounts to though is a much more powerful means of shaping evolution than sheer randomness, but one that doesn’t rely on some variety of intelligent design.
The next level of complexity is something you are a part of and something you can’t see.
There is no “idea” or blueprint of a hive. No ant works or dies “for the hive” No ant is sentient though there is a localized being with some flexibility of response. Scientists have observed a range of “personality” types or at least behavioral types. Some ants are lazy. Some are even by ant standards, dumb. No ant thinks of the past or future.
In 100 million years no ant has ever imagined or thought of a hive. There is no hive except through the combined actions of essentially unconscious operators. And yet, operational responses to various situations flow naturally with seemingly coordinated group efforts to collect food, care for larva, fight off enemies and rebuild walls. What the hell is the model in the brain of a worker ant rebuilding a broken wall that says: “OK, I’m done.” ?
The hive is the emergent whole of its tiny individual parts. It doesn’t exist without them and they don’t exist without it.
What are you a tiny constituent of? What emerges from variations of YOU multiplied a million times? Can you see it? Can you think of it?