March 17, 2010

“Punctuated equilibria” as a special case of emergence in complex systems

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Emergence in self-organized systems, Language and Myth, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , at 5:00 pm by Jeremy

I’ve just completed my first draft of an academic paper I’ve been working on entitled: “Punctuated Equilibria” as Emergence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Change in Social Systems.

Readers of either of my two blogs will know that I think recent advances in thinking about complex adaptive systems can offer a tremendous amount to disciplines outside the traditional ones of physics and systems biology.

In this paper, I propose that Stephen Jay Gould’s famous theory of punctuated equilibria may be seen as a special case of emergence in complex adaptive systems, and the same approach can be used to gain a better understanding of major changes in human social systems: in pre-history, in historical times, and in our present day.

Here’s the abstract to the paper:

The theory of “punctuated equilibria” proposed by Eldredge and Gould is conceived as a special case applied to the field of paleobiology of the more general dynamic of emergence in self-organized adaptive systems.  “Punctuated equilibria” has been sporadically applied as a descriptor of change in social systems, and elsewhere the underlying methodological linkage to emergence has been noted.   However, it is proposed that a more formal application of emergence theory to changes in human social systems offers the potential for new insight.  The distinction between “epistemological” and “ontological” emergence is discussed and the key concept of “reciprocal causality” introduced.  Documented examples of ontological emergence in animal and ecological self-organization are reviewed.  A theoretical framework is then applied, for illustrative purposes, to three cases of pre-historical and historical emergence in human social systems – language, agriculture and the scientific/industrial revolution.  The framework is then applied to potential phase transitions in the current human system.

Here’s a link to a pdf version of the working draft of the paper.  Anyone with an academic interest in this subject is invited to read and comment, either in the comments section below or by e-mail.

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February 22, 2010

Stages in the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex: an overview

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Language and Myth, Monotheism, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:26 pm by Jeremy

[Click here to open pdf file: “Stages in the Tyranny of the Pfc” and view the table that accompanies this post.]

In this blog, I propose that the prefrontal cortex has created an imbalance within our human consciousness, gaining power over other aspects of our cognition.  I’ve called this situation a “tyranny.”  That’s a pretty dramatic word, and I’ve offered a detailed review of why I think it’s appropriate.

In this post, I’m going to trace a high-level overview of the historical stages I see in the pfc’s rise to power.  It will be much easier to follow this post if you click here to open a pdf file in another window, containing a table that summarizes what I’m describing.  If you can keep both windows open, you can follow what I’m describing more easily.

For each stage of the pfc’s rise to power, I’ll briefly describe the main human accomplishments and primary new values arising from that stage.  Also, I’ll touch on the changing view of the natural world.   Whenever you want to drill a little deeper, click on the section’s title (or the links in the pdf file) to get you to a blog post that describes the pfc-stage in some more detail.  I’ll be continually adding more detail on this blog, so keep posted.

Pfc1: Stirrings of Power

Stirrings of symbolic expression: female figurine from over 30,000 years ago

The pfc’s stirrings of power began with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago.  These ancestors of ours were all hunter-gatherers.  Basic tools and fire had already been mastered by previous Homo species (such as Homo erectus).  But Homo sapiens began a symbolic revolution which erupted around 30,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.[1] The prevailing metaphor of Nature was probably something like a “generous parent.”  Uniquely human values began developing, such as “parochial altruism” (defend your own tribe but fight others), “reciprocal generosity” and fairness.[2]

Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power

Specialization of skills: writing tablet from Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the Near East, some foragers stumbled on a new way of getting sustenance from the natural world and occasionally began to settle in one place.  Animals and plants began to be domesticated, evolving into forms that were more advantageous for humans and relied on human management for their survival.  Notions of property and land ownership arose.  Hierarchies and inequalities developed within a society, along with specialization of skills (including writing).  Massive organized projects, such as irrigation, began to take place.  Cities and empires soon followed.

New sets of values arose with these sweeping changes in human behavior.  Property ownership and hierarchies elevated the social values of wealth and power.  Patriarchy became a driving force, leading to increased gender inequality and the commoditization of women.  People’s identity began expanding beyond kin and tribe, to incorporate national identity.

The natural world was increasingly seen through the metaphor of an ancestor/divinity that needed to be worshipped and propitiated.  Nature could cause devastation as well as benefits to society.  Human activity was seen as integral to maintaining the order of the natural world.

Pfc3: The Coup

Saint Paul: Early Christianity merged Platonic and Judaic themes

In the Eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, a unique notion first appeared: the idea of a completely abstract and eternal dimension in the universe and in each human psyche, which was utterly separate from the material world of normal experience.  Humans had always posited other-worldly spirits and gods with different physical dynamics than the mundane world.  But these spirits were conceived along a continuum of materiality.  Now, for the first time, the idea of a universal, eternal God with infinite powers arose, along with the parallel idea of an immaterial human soul existing utterly apart from the body.

Christianity merged the Platonic ideal of a soul with the Judaic notion of an infinite God to create the first coherent dualistic cosmology.  Islam absorbed both of these ideas into its doctrines.  Together, Christianity and Islam conquered large portions of the world and brought their dualism along with their military power.

For the first time, people identified themselves with universal values (such as salvation of the soul), which were seen as applying even to other groups who had no notion of these values.  Increasingly, mankind was viewed as separate from the natural world.  Following Genesis, Man was seen as having a God-given dominion over the rest of creation.

Pfc4: The Tyranny

Descartes: the natural world was increasingly seen as a soulless machine

In the 17th century, a Scientific Revolution erupted in Europe, leading to a closely linked Industrial Revolution, beginning a cycle of exponentially increasing technological change that continues to the present day.  Although the seeds of scientific thinking could be traced back to the 12th century (and even to ancient Greece), a radically different view of mankind’s relationship to the natural world caused a uniquely powerful positive feedback cycle in social and technological change.

Nature was increasingly seen as a soulless, material resource available for humanity’s consumption.  The natural world and the human being were both seen through the prism of a “machine” metaphor.

Multiple new values arose, that were seen to be universally applicable, derived from newly developed intellectual constructs, such as: liberty, reason, democracy, fascism, communism, capitalism.  These values all shared the underlying assumption that natural resources were freely available for human consumption, and differed in their proposed division of power and resources within human society.


[1] The precise timing of these developments continues to be fiercely debated.  The biggest open issue of all is the timing of language (anywhere from one million to one hundred thousand years ago), and whether a proto-language existed for a long time before modern language developed.

[2] Some of these values have been seen in modern chimpanzees and bonobos, but they are far more developed in humans.

February 19, 2010

Animals Suffer? Lobotomize Them!

Posted in consciousness, Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , at 4:20 pm by Jeremy

Adam Shriver, no doubt driven by kindness and goodwill towards other animals, has written an op-ed piece in the New York Times today that is chilling in its implications.  Shriver notes the unnecessary and often cruel suffering that farm animals undergo as they’re being prepared for our supermarket freezers.  But then he offers hope of salvation from their suffering in a bizarre and frightening direction: apply genetic engineering to create new breeds of animals that don’t experience suffering all.  They would continue to experience pain, but a crucial part of their brain – the anterior cingulate cortex – would be genetically modified to stop functioning, and as a result they would no longer suffer from the consciousness of that pain.

At first sight, this might seem like a humane research direction, and I’m sure Shriver has nothing but the best intentions.  But this approach carries with it some sinister implications and augurs threateningly for a new and disturbing potential outcome of the intersection of neuroscience and genetic engineering.

Like so many stories on the subject of animal feelings, this one begins with René Descartes (1596-1650), the guy most famous for his declaration of “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes applied the same logic to animals.  In his view, they didn’t think, therefore they weren’t.  Or, to be more precise, only humans, with their immortal souls, have the capability to think and feel.  By contrast, animals are mere instinctual machines, with no more capacity for feelings than vegetables.  “We should have no doubt at all,” he wrote, “that the irrational animals are automata.”[1]

Descartes’ view of animals as automata justified vivisection.

Strange as we may now view this, it was taken seriously at the time… to the great detriment of animals.  An observer at the time wrote of the gruesome torture administered to animals through vivisection, in the name of Descartes:

The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain.  They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling.  They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood, which was a great subject of controversy.”[2]

Descartes had kicked off a long and powerful tradition which remains influential to this day.  It enjoyed its heyday in the behaviorism predominant in psychology throughout much of the 20th century, where the metaphor of “animal as machine” continued to be taken literally.  “Behaviorists tested the capacities of animals not through naturalistic observation but through highly controlled stimulus response experiments. Speculation about the subjective experiences or thought processes of animals seemed unscientific: animals didn’t think, they reacted.”[3]

Turns out, though, Descartes and the behaviorists were wrong.  Animals do suffer.  And over the past couple of decades, neuroscientists and ethologists have discovered multiple pathways of experience shared by both humans and other mammals.  Hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin, which play crucial roles in our experience of love and bonding, turn out to have similar impacts in rodents and other mammals.[4] Evolutionary research shows that we share with other mammals “perhaps the most momentous achievement of evolution,”[5] the subjective experience of core consciousness.  This core consciousness is tied directly with a sense of self and of feelings.  As neuroscientist LeDoux puts it, “I will say that capacity to have feelings is directly tied to the capacity to be consciously aware of one’s self and the relation of oneself to the rest of the world.”[6]

As Shriver is no doubt well aware, the anterior cingulate cortex (“ACC”) plays a central part in this glorious process.  The ACC, in the words of one research team, “is primarily involved in assessing the salience of emotional and motivational information.”[7] The ACC acts like a super-sensitive, multi-faceted feedback mechanism for a creature’s moment-to-moment existence.  It monitors competing demands, detects unexpected changes in the environment and within the creature, funneling this information to the appropriate parts of the brain to prime a response.[8] In short, it has a key role in monitoring the self and directing attention.[9] In fact, it’s likely that without a fully functioning ACC, a creature would no longer have a self.  That’s probably why, in the experiments that Shriver discusses, rats without a functioning ACC withdraw their paws from a painfully hot area, but they don’t learn to avoid that area like normal rats.  Because they’ve lost a self to perceive the salience of an experience.

So Shriver’s proposed genetic engineering program would breed something never before seen on this earth: a mammal without a self.  Descartes, in his dualistic speculations, bizarrely proposed that the pineal gland might be the seat of the human soul.[10] Based on current neuroscience, if the soul of a creature has any one locus in the body that is an absolute prerequisite for its existence, that would be the ACC.

We now know that lobotomies destroy an individual’s sense of self.

We’ve gone down this path before, only with humans rather than animals.  In the first half of the twentieth century, neuroscientists found that frontal lobotomies seemed to miraculously cure symptoms of agitation and mental suffering.  Neurologist Walter Freeman promoted this procedure in the 1940’s and 1950’s, to the extent that by 1951, nearly 20,000 individuals had been lobotomized in the United States.[11] As we now know, as a tragic consequence of these procedures, these unfortunate victims lost not only their anxieties, but their sense of self.

I suggest that Shriver is proposing a 21st century, sanitized version of a lobotomy.  Only in this case, the lobotomy is already prefabricated through genetic engineering, and the zombie creatures formed would never even have had a self to lose.  In a ghastly irony, Shriver’s program would put Descartes right back in the driver’s seat.  Descartes said animals had no soul, no feelings.  He was proved wrong.  Now, Shriver wants to create a breed of animals that would make Descartes’ grotesque fantasy of “automata animals” come true.

I agree with Shriver that unnecessary farm animal suffering is a grievous aspect of our modern world, and that much more needs to be done to alleviate it.  But his proposal threatens an inner sanctum of nature which even we humans have not yet ventured to desecrate: a creature’s subjective sense of self.  We’ve trained, tormented, killed and eaten other animals from time immemorial; but we’ve never genetically engineered a creature to be a zombie.  Along with the powers brought to us by the discoveries of neuroscience and genetic engineering, we must establish a set of principles that incorporate a sense of what is sacred in the natural world… before we create a true Cartesian nightmare where all that’s left are we humans and our own artificially constructed environment, engineered for our consumption.


[1] Letter to Marin Mersenne, 13 July 1640, cited by Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley: University of California Press, 37-8.

[2] Quoted by Masson, J. M., and McCarthy, S. (1995). When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, New York: Delta, 18.

[3] Talbot, M. (2008). “Birdbrain: The woman behind the world’s chattiest parrots.” The New Yorker(May 12, 2008).

[4] de Waal, F. B. M. (2009). “Darwin’s last laugh.” Nature, 460(9 July 2009), 175.

[5] Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 211-12.

[6] LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 125.

[7] Bush, G., Luu, P., and Posner, M. I. (2000). “Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(6: June 2000), 215-222.

[8] Kerns, J. G., Cohen, J. D., MacDonald, A. W. I., Cho, R. Y., Stenger, V. A., and Carter, C. S. (2004). “Anterior Cingulate Conflict Monitoring and Adjustments in Control.” Science, 303(13 February 2004), 1023-1026.

[9] Gallagher, H. L., and Frith, C. D. (2003). “Functional imaging of ‘theory of mind’.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(2: February 2003), 77-83.  Note: while this study focuses on ACC’s role in the human sense of self, (including “secondary self,”) the role of the ACC in forming a mammalian sense of core self would appear to homologous.

[10] For a detailed discussion, see “Descartes and the Pineal Gland,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[11] Wikipedia entry on “Lobotomy.”

November 18, 2009

A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism

Posted in Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , at 4:18 pm by Jeremy

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato fired the first shot across the bow in the debate that – to this very day – structures how we view our world.  He was arguing against the earliest known thinkers of the classical Greek world called the Presocratic philosophers, some of whom had come up with notions that we would regard as quite modern even today: for example, that the whole cosmos can be broken down to tiny particles of atoms, colliding mechanically with each other.

Plato hated this so much that he proposed five years of solitary confinement for people who held these opinions, followed by death if they hadn’t reformed.  What got Plato so riled up?  It was, in his own words, the notion that:

By nature and by chance, they say, fire and water and earth and air all exist – none of them exist by art – and … the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars were generated by these totally soulless means… not by intelligence, they say, nor by a god, nor by art, but … by nature and by chance.[1]

Plato was railing against the mindset that’s currently known as “reductionism” – the notion that everything in the universe, no matter how complex, mysterious or spiritual it might seem – can be theoretically reduced into a series of “nothing but” descriptions: nothing but atoms, nothing but neurons, nothing but genes.  And Plato’s response to this was, again, something very familiar to us: he posited another dimension, a dimension of the soul, a dimension of eternal ideals, which existed apart from the material, everyday world, and somehow infused it with meaning and spirit.  This is the Platonic dualism which underlies our Western tradition of thought (discussed in another post).

Science scans the universe but doesn't find God

Many people still accept the prevailing dualism and lock into the construct of an external God and an immortal soul within us which will join Him in heaven some day.  But this belief structure is under ever increasing empirical pressure from a scientific methodology that scans the brain and finds no place for the immortal soul, that scans the universe and finds no place for God.

Consequently, many others in today’s world have switched to the reductionism of science, summarized so clearly by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.[2]

But this approach delivers a world devoid of meaning, as described by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.”[3]

No wonder that so many of us would empathize with the deeply felt existential longing of biologist Ursula Goodenough, as she confides her inner fears:

… all of us, and scientists are no exception, are vulnerable to the existential shudder that leaves us wishing that the foundations of life were something other than just so much biochemistry and biophysics…  My body is some 10 trillion cells.  Period.  My thoughts are a lot of electricity flowing along a lot of membrane.  My emotions are the result of neurotransmitters squirting on my brain cells.  I look in the mirror and see the mortality and I find myself fearful, yearning for less knowledge, yearning to believe that I have a soul that will go to heaven and soar with the angels.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  I believe that the choice between reductionism and dualism is a false choice.  I propose that it’s perfectly possible to embrace both science and spirituality.  The premise underlying this proposal is that the coldly mechanical universe offered by reductionist science is plain wrong: it’s a simplifying metaphor that’s proven very powerful as a way to analyze and predict elements of the natural world.  But it’s no more than a metaphor and its simplifying assumptions are beginning to limit what science can offer us in the 21st century and beyond.

In order to understand reductionism a little better, I’m going to look at the three leading versions of it in today’s world, which I call genetic reductionism, neurological reductionism, and spiritual reductionism.[4]

The great popularizer of genetic reductionism is biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the best-seller The Selfish Gene.  As Dawkins describes it, genes are the irreducible unit of biological replication.  Genes are virtually immortal, and they use our bodies as the vehicle for their “selfish” purpose of replication:

… they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world… manipulating it by remote control.  They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.[5]

DNA: the housing for the “selfish gene.”

For Dawkins and his followers, all evolution can be explained by the underlying power of the “selfish gene.”  But a growing number of biologists are showing that the selfish gene is, in fact, nothing more than a simplifying assumption, and an increasingly erroneous one, at that.  “We have taken,” says biologist Richard Strohman, “a successful and extremely useful theory and paradigm of the gene and have illegitimately extended it as a paradigm of life.”  “The mistaken idea,” he explains, is “that complex behavior may be traced solely to genetic agents and their surrogate proteins without recourse to the properties originating from the complex and nonlinear interactions of these agents.”[6]

Ultimately, as philosopher Evan Thompson points out, the obsessive focus on the selfish gene is such bad science, it doesn’t even deserve the name:

This notion of information as something that preexists its own expression in the cell, and that is not affected by the developmental matrix of the organism and environment, is a reification that has no explanatory value.  It is informational idolatry and superstition, not science.[7]

Neurons: Crick’s view of the building blocks of our humanity.

What about neurological reductionism, the view summarized so well by Francis Crick, that “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”[8]?  The problem with this approach is that it ignores the most salient aspect of our consciousness: its dynamic, ongoing self-organization.  Even if you could map out every neuron in the brain and analyze each one, molecule by molecule, you wouldn’t even come close to explaining consciousness, because it’s the complex, dynamic patterns formed  by their interactions that cause us to be who we are.  “In cognitive neuroscience,” writes neurobiologist A.K. Engel, “we are witnessing a fundamental paradigm shift.”  Classical views of the mind as a passively programmed computer are inconsistent with modern findings.  “Current approaches emphasize the intimate relationship between cognition and action that is apparent in the real-world interactions of the brain and the rich dynamics of neuronal networks.”[9]

Mind is not the “pack of neurons” described by Crick and others.  It’s only when we try to understand it for what it is, “a spatiotemporal pattern that molds the … dynamic patterns of the brain,”[10] that we can make real progress.  As neuroscientist Scott Kelso puts it: “Instead of trying to reduce biology and psychology to chemistry and physics, the task now is to extend our physical understanding of the organization of living things.”[11]

Which takes us to spiritual reductionism, the dead-end view described by Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry that “man is nothing but a material object, having none but physical properties” and therefore “Science can give a complete account of man in purely physicochemical terms.”[12] What this view misses is the same principle that the other two forms of reductionism also miss: that we can only begin to understand the nature of complex systems – cells, organisms, even consciousness – when we focus on the ongoing, dynamic patterns of interactivity formed by these systems, rather than just the molecules, neurons and genes of which these systems are composed.

And when you begin looking at these interactions, something transformative happens: the emergent patterns caused by these complex systems affect the very system itself, causing an even greater spiraling of complexity.  This is known as “circular causality” or “downward causation.”  Biologist Brian Goodwin summarizes this dynamic as follows:

The important properties of these complex systems are found less in what they are made of than in the way the parts are related to one another and the dynamic organization of the whole – their relational order… To understand these complex nonlinear dynamic systems it is necessary to study both the whole and its parts, and to be prepared for surprises due to the emergence of unexpected behavior…  In this sense the study of complex systems goes beyond reductionism, which focuses on the analysis of the components out of which a system is made.[13]

There are still many scientists, grounded in reductionist thinking, who like to dismiss these approaches as somehow unscientific or even “mystical”.  That’s getting to be an increasingly difficult position to hold, as more and more scientific fields embrace the approaches of dynamical complexity theory to make inroads into their thorniest problems.  Solé & Goodwin describe the current situation:

The concept of emergence, once regarded by many biologists as a vague and mystical concept with dangerous vitalist connotations, is now the central focus of the sciences of complexity.  Here the question is, How can systems made up of components whose properties we understand well give rise to phenomena that are quite unexpected?  Life is the most dramatic manifestation of this process, the domain of emergence par excellence.  But the new sciences unite biology with physics in a manner that allows us to see the creative fabric of natural process as a single dynamic unfolding.

-Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry: an early proponent of emergence theory.

Reductionism, in its falsely compelling rigor, tells us “we’re all just nothing but… and that’s all there is.”  Dualism, in contrast, posits an entirely different dimension of divinity and soul, and gives us the choice of taking it on faith, or falling back to the hard, cold ground of reductionism.  However, when the full implications of the dynamics of complexity and emergence are understood, then, in the words of Roger Sperry, “the very nature of science itself is changed.”  Science no longer needs to be the voice of spiritual despair.  When science embraces dynamic complexity, as Sperry elaborates:

In the eyes of science… man’s creator becomes the vast interwoven fabric of all evolving nature, a tremendously complex concept that includes all the immutable and emergent forces of cosmic causation that control everything from high-energy subnuclear particles to galaxies, not forgetting the causal properties that govern brain function and behavior at individual and social levels.[14]

“Thus we have,” says complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman, “the first glimmerings of a new scientific worldview, beyond reductionism.  In our universe emergence is real, and there is ceaseless, stunning creativity that has given rise to our biosphere, our humanity, and our history.  We are partial co-creators of this emergent creativity.”[15]

I’m going to explore this theme, which I think will be central to the search for authentic meaning in the 21st century, in the sister blog to this one, called Finding the Li.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a thought from Heraclitus, perhaps the first Western complexity theorist and ironically one of those Presocratic philosophers that Plato wanted to throw in jail:

For wisdom consists in one thing, to know the principle by which all things are steered through all things.[16]


[1] Cited in Vlastos, G. (1975/2005). Plato’s Universe, Canada: Parmenides Publishing, pp. 23-4

[2] Crick, F., (1995), Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.  Scribner.

[3] Quoted by Kauffman, S., (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

[4] Ironically, the original form of reductionism from physics, “we’re all nothing but atoms”, has dissolved in the quagmire of “spooky” quantum mechanics and string theory, only to re-emerge in the biological sciences.  For a history of this shift, see Woese, C. R. (2004). “A New Biology for a New Century”.  Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews,  pp. 173-186.

[5] Dawkins, R. (1976/2006).  The Selfish Gene.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[6] Strohman, R. C. (1997). “The coming Kuhnian revolution in biology.” Nature Biotechnology, 15(March 1997), 194-200.

[7] Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[8] Crick, F., (1995) op. cit.

[9] Engel, A. K., Fries, P., and Singer, W. (2001). “Dynamic Predictions: Oscillations and Synchrony in Top-Down Processing.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 2(October 2001), 704-716.

[10] Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[11] Kelso, op. cit.

[12] Sperry, R. W. (1980). “Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.” Neuroscience, 5(1980), 195-206.

[13] Goodwin, B. (2001). How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[14] Sperry, R. W. (1981). “Changing Priorities.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1981(4), 1-15.

[15] Kauffman, S. (2007). “Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred.” Zygon, 903-14.

[16] Cited by Marlow, A. N. (1954). “Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, 4(1:April 1954), 35-45.

November 4, 2009

Infinition: Our acceleration to the infinite

Posted in Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , at 6:07 pm by Jeremy

“Our existence resembles the course of a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on.”[1] So said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer over a hundred years ago.  He’d be amazed how his prediction has played out.  By now, the human race is taking off from that mountain.  But the underlying dynamic remains the same: we have to keep going faster and faster to avoid crashing.

Atlantis_taking_off_on_STS-27

Infinition: our prefrontal cortex-driven conceptual consciousness is taking off

What this means in global terms is only too apparent: the impact of our technology-driven civilization threatens the world’s climate stability – and any eventual solution is likely to require even more technology.  But the ever accelerating speed of human existence applies equally to our individual humanity.  Our conceptual consciousness (that unique attribute of our prefrontal cortex) is forging its own path away from our animate consciousness at an ever increasing speed.  I call this dynamic the acceleration to the infinite, or infinition.

In Western culture, the drive towards the infinite has been inextricably linked with our dualistic sense of a  soul or mind[2], that abstraction of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) perceived to have a separate existence from our “miserable” material bodies, which have a habit of getting old, dying, and wasting away.  It’s amazing to see how the idea of the eternal soul (the evolution of which I discuss in another post,)  is morphing in the 21st century into the notion of an eternal mind/computer interface.

Futurists write breathlessly of the fast approaching moment when computers become more intelligent than humans.  With their religious-like zeal, people who call themselves “transhumanists” are taking the pfc’s idea of its own immortality to a new dimension, blending metaphor with reality as they speak longingly of the merger of man and machine.  In the words of technologist Ramez Naam,

Playing God’ is actually the highest expression of human nature.  The urges to improve ourselves, to master our environment, and to set our children on the best path possible have been the fundamental driving forces of all of human history.  Without these urges to ‘play God’, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist today.[3]

the rapture

"The Rapture" as envisaged in the Christian tradition

I’m certainly not the first person to see this linkage of Western body/soul dualism and modern transhumanism.  In an interesting 2008 article entitled Waiting for the Rapture, Glenn Zorpette compares modern “singularitarians”[4] believing in a future when you can “upload your consciousness”, with those who, over the ages, have “yearned to transcend death.”  In his words, we’re witnessing the “rapture of the geeks.”

And in a prophetic article over twenty years ago, The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century, Morris Berman saw the home computer as “the modern fulfillment of the Gnostic vision,” warning that our culture is acquiring a “computer consciousness… disembodied, a form of pure mental process.” [5]

These observations are not just metaphors.  Our human brains really are, bit by bit, becoming more like the computers they created.  In a 2008 study, Small & Vorgan report how Internet usage causes increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the pfc that mediates abstract concepts, while “the pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one people skills atrophy.”[6]

Cultured neurons

Cultured neurons placed onto a multi-electrode array (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Reading)

And at the other end of the spectrum, we can already see the first traces of a future merger of man and machine.  A 2008 article in Science Daily reports on a robot developed in England “which is controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured neurons.”  It’s early days yet, but the borders between silicon-based artificial intelligence and cellular-based human intelligence are beginning to get a little blurry.

There are some who just can’t wait for this moment when mind and machine become one – the so-called “singularity.”  Perhaps the most mystical of these is the technologist, Raymond Kurzweil.  For Kurzweil, the mind/body dualism is clear.  Bodies die.  That’s bad.  If you want to live forever, get moving to that singularity as fast as you possibly can.   As he sees it:

Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace aging gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view.  It may be ‘natural’, but I don’t see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability.  I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome.[7]

Kurzweil continues the age-old Platonic tradition as purely as if he were Plato himself.  For him,

…the purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.  Our human intelligence and our technology form the cutting edge of this expanding intelligence.[8]

In Kurzweil’s Platonism, intelligence will one day literally make us God, as our computer/mind interface pervades the universe.  “In my view,” he says, “the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”[9]

It might be easy to dismiss Kurzweil as a quixotic figure, tilting at the windmills of time, but there are plenty of other transhumanists following the same path, if a little less mystically.  And even within the Christian tradition, there have been influential modern thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, who held the belief that “the destiny of humans and human culture is to transcend the natural world and natural processes… as a way of liberating humans from Nature’s constraints.”[10]

This transcending of natural processes is the acceleration towards the infinite – or infinition – that I’m talking about.  And once we’ve taken off, there’s no going back.  English cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick warns ominously of the “slippery slope”:

There is a clear incentive to go down this path.  Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, their life systems strong and vital.  Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotechnology-enhanced bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling.  It is another one of those slippery slopes – there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.”[11]

I would argue that, in fact, we’ve been going along this path for hundreds of years, since the birth of the scientific mindset and its foundational ethic of exercising power over nature (described in another post.)  It’s an ethic described by nuclear scientist Freeman Dyson as “irresistible… an illusion of illimitable power… what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”[12]

So why complain about infinition if it really is capable of transcending our natural constraints?  It really depends on how you define your own humanity.  If you see yourself, deep down, as a mind inhabiting your body, then jump on board the Infinition Express.  But if you see your humanity as embodied, as part of the natural world, intertwined through 4 billion years of evolution with everything else around you, then there’s every reason to be concerned.  In the words of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas,

Surely it is our animal nature that recognizes the divinity of the natural world in all its mystery and beauty, despite the distressing habits and limited perception that afflict our species.  So perhaps our hope of redemption lies in the fact that we are animals, not that we are people.[13]

the organic worldview

The natural world: cornerstone of the "organic" worldview

There’s a profound conflict here, between an “organic” worldview and the worldview of infinition.  The organic view embraces the wonder of life, from the smallest microbe to humankind, seeing the same life force, the same “spirit”, the connectivity of all the living parts, integrating in complexity and harmony.  The force of infinition, by contrast, comes from the pfc.  Its very nature is non-organic.  Its view of the organic world is something apart, something to conquer, to control.  It’s the cause of the destruction we’ve wrought on the organic world.  And it will destroy our own organic existence unless we find a way to harness its power.  This is the true dualistic struggle: not between good and evil, not between body and soul, but between the organism and the abstraction, between our own organic existence and the power of our own pfc.  It’s the ultimate epic struggle of humanity.  And it’s a struggle in which each of us is one of the warriors.  We are all on the front line.

Is there a middle path, a way to reconcile this struggle, or are we destined on the one hand to take off into the stratosphere of infinition leaving our earthly home behind, or on the other hand to experience a dire collapse of civilization through overreaching?  I believe there may be a trajectory that, in effect, keeps us in earthly orbit, but in order to reach that trajectory, we have to find the path within ourselves that mediates between our conceptual and animate consciousness.  Each of us – as individuals – has to begin to define our own humanity not in terms of “pure mind living in a body” nor “pure animal afflicted by mind.”  Instead, we need to work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness”, where our attention harmonizes with the never-ending dynamic between bodily impulses, abstract thoughts, and the vast realm in between.  Only if we re-integrate our own minds do we have any hope of bridging the chasm that has developed in our society between science and the spirit, between the “cybernetic dreams” of technology and the precarious beauty of our natural world.


[1] Quoted by Batchelor, S., (1994). The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley Parallax Press.

 

[2] What was viewed as the soul in Platonic and early Christian thought was largely transformed by Descartes into the modern view of the mind. See Macdonald, P. S. (2003). The History of the Concept of the Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

[3] Quoted by Kurzweil, R., (2005). The Singularity Is Near. New York: Penguin Books.

[4] Called such because they believe in a future event called “the Singularity” when computers will transcend the human mind.

[5] Berman, M. (Spring 1986). “The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 24-51.

[6] Small, G., and Vorgan, G. (2008). “Meet Your iBrain: How the technologies that have become part of our daily lives are changing the way we think.” Scientific American Mind(October/November 2008), 43-49.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[9] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[10] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications, pp. 292-4.

[11] Cited by Greenfield, S. (2003). Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, London: Penguin Books, p. 4.

[12] Cited by Joy, B. (2004). “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Wired Magazine(August 2004).

[13] Quoted by Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart, New York: Oxford University Press.

October 23, 2009

The Tyranny – Scientific Revolution

Posted in Scientific Revolution tagged at 10:56 pm by Jeremy

In our modern era, there’s a common view that Christianity and science are opposed to each other.  But, in terms of the pfc, they’re really part of the same dynamic: the domination by the pfc over other aspects of our consciousness.

Science couldn’t have emerged in the West without the dualistic view that nature was something separate from Man, something to be conquered.  In earlier posts, I’ve touched on how Plato and his followers were responsible for embedding dualism in Western thought, and how the Christian fathers integrated Platonic dualism into Christianity.

13th. Century picture showing God as “architect of the universe”.  Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

13th. Century picture showing God as “architect of the universe”. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

What is less generally known is the direct link between Platonism, Christianity and the scientific method.   From as early as the 12th century, well before the Renaissance, there was a powerful tradition in European thought of God as the great geometer, the great machine-maker in the heavens, and Man’s role was to use his Reason for the greater glory of God.

Beginning with Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), there was a new desire to join reason and intellectual enquiry with Christianity, rather than to merely accept the authority of the Bible.  Anselm believed that, rather than relying on the Scripture itself, you should believe “whatever the conclusion of independent investigation should declare to be true.”[1]

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

This approach found full force with Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who achieved a linkage between Reason, Divine Law and Natural Law that served as a template for future scientific innovators.  In Aquinas’ words:

There is a certain Eternal Law, to wit, Reason, existing in the mind of God, and governing the whole universe… And so this Reason, thus ruling all things, and existing in God the governor of the universe, has the nature of Law.. And accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the reason of the divine wisdom regarded as directive of all actions and motions.[2]

Therefore, it made sense that, by expanding his own knowledge of these laws of nature through the application of reason, man was becoming closer to God.

In fact, during the centuries following Anselm and Aquinas, European thinkers gradually began to develop some of the fundamental concepts that we take for granted, such as “reason”, “truth”, “scientific laws.”  These ideas have their roots in classical Greek thought, but have only emerged in their current form since the days of Aquinas.

There was, however, a missing element in the integration of God’s laws, reason and the search for truth that was necessary for the scientific revolution to really take off.  That was the notion of “power.”  The idea that mankind has – and should have – the power to change the course of Nature at will.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

The ascendancy of this idea can be traced to Francis Bacon, (1561-1626), one of the founders of modern scientific thinking, who believed the aim of the scientist was to ‘torture nature’s secrets from her’[3] – and that of course is what we’ve done so well in the past three centuries.  The huge significance of this view is often underestimated, but is in fact one of the underlying causes of the massive global imbalances we’re currently experiencing.  In the words of historian Lynn White:

The emergence in widespread practice of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature can scarcely be dated before about 1850…  Its acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well.[4]

In my view, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions were as much about power as science or industry: they were driven not just by an increased understanding of nature but by using that knowledge to exercise power over nature… and consequently power over other societies.

In other posts, I’ll explore why this unique Western view of humanity’s separation from – and power over – Nature was perhaps the reason why the scientific revolution could only have happened in Europe, rather than any other of the advanced civilizations of the past two thousand years.

The dramatic increase in humanity’s power over nature has brought tremendous benefits to us over the past three hundred years, which none of us would want to do without.  But they’ve come with the price of a terrible dislocation, both within the consciousness of each and every one of us, and in our global environment.

Each day, we’re bombarded with the news of the effects of our approach to nature as a soulless resource there for our benefit: global warming, deforestation, overpopulation, massive extinctions, loss of biodiversity… the list gets ever bigger and ever more threatening.  As environmental biologist Paul Ehrlich puts it: “Our evolving human natures may be heading us toward the worst catastrophe in the history of Homo sapiens.”[5]

I’ll try in future posts to understand our current global environmental crisis in terms of the pfc’s tyranny of human consciousness.  Something that we need to understand is that this dislocation within ourselves and in our relationship to the natural world is continually increasing at a faster and faster pace.  This dynamic affects not only our relationship to our planet, but even our relationship to our own humanity.  That’s a topic I’ll begin exploring in my next post.


[1] Cited by Grant, E. (2004). Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus, pp. 153-4.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[2] Quoted by Needham, J. ([1956] 1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, p. 538 London: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Quoted by Capra, F., (1982/1988). The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture. New York: Bantam Books.

[4] White, L., Jr. (1967). “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”Science. City, pp. Volume 155, Issue 3767, pp. 1203-1207.

[5] Ehrlich, P.R., (2000/2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin.