Metaconsciousness: Mythology for a Post-Civilized World
II.5 | Contents | II.7
Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay,
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags:
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones,
And deep in the Coralline crags.
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain:
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?
—Langdon Smith, 1858 to 1908
Contents of this section:
"The Edifice of Human Knowledge"
In earlier versions of this work, I have placed considerable emphasis upon the principle of complementarity, first discovered, now approaching almost a century ago, by the early quantum physicists; which fully extended, implies that what we think we know about virtually anything at all is at best a partial description. This is so because every phenomenon we observe or apprehend in the world around us unavoidably obscures other phenomena no less real than those we are actually able to observe under any particular set of circumstances.1 Therefore, I have been claiming with gradually increasing insistence that all our beliefs, being unavoidably partial and incomplete, are effectively myths about a reality which must remain perpetually shrouded in mystery.
Such challenges to what "everybody knows," or think we know, make many among us quite uncomfortable; because many if not most of us believe we depend for our very survival upon accurate intelligence about what the world around us and within us is actually like; and being told that our best intelligence is less than 100% reliable can be a source of significant uneasiness. Someone going about, therefore, claiming that what we think we know about ourselves and our world amounts essentially to a collection of myths is likely in many circles not to find a very warm reception.
Nevertheless, I feel I must persist; for I am daily made more profoundly aware of how vast is the ocean of mysteries, upon which we float and drift on our makeshift raft, composed of accumulated odds and ends we happen to have gathered together during the erratic course of our instantaneously-brief history,2 out of stuff we usually assume we understand at least fairly well. Until, that is, someone hauls some strange new fish aboard that none of us have ever seen before. Then we're off again, on yet another feverish scramble to fit that one into the hodge-podge we've erected on deck, which we proudly proclaim to be "the Edifice of human knowledge."
I mean, this pattern is by now fairly solidly established, is it not? For it has happened frequently enough, especially during our most immediately recent past, that some new realization or discovery has in varying degrees toppled the rickety "Edifice of human knowledge" – sometimes level with the ground upon which it stood – and set us to work yet again, scavenging among the wreckage for the makings of a patched-up or entirely new "Edifice of human knowledge," which incorporates the earlier unknown, overlooked, or no-longer-possible-to-ignore discovery or insight.
Naturally, there is sometimes strong resistance to the implications of new discoveries which threaten to mar the charm and poise of whatever happens to be "known" at any time. Myths gather partisans, who have frequently borne fierce loyalty to prevailing contemporary beliefs, upon which the validity of their own theories rest; and often make rough sledding for the proponents of new discoveries which threaten any part of the existing "Edifice of human knowledge" as it stands, or leans, at any particular moment.
One can see the thing from the orthodox point of view; for reputations, and indeed even the very livelihoods of established "authorities" often depend upon the "correctness" of "knowledge" in which they have invested their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. It often happens that, as the dawn of the Day of the Mammal had to wait upon the sunset of the Day of the Dinosaur, so in our time, the "old guard" must sometimes die off before a new idea can see the light of day. For if some upstart new discovery is able to worm its way into the works, why, who's to say where it may end?
Who's to say indeed? For the spiral of human discovery ceaselessly uncoils, with no end in sight – short of humans carelessly destroying the life-sustainability of their own planet. Doesn't it seem rather self-evidently sensible, therefore, to budget in advance for unanticipated future discoveries, or corrections of current errors, and explicitly acknowledge the Edifice of human discovery to be one of mythology, rather than of "knowledge?" Is this not reasonable?
There are, after all, significant penalties attached to errors and ignorance, either of yet unmade discoveries, or by attachment to false beliefs. As the philosopher Sören Kierkegaard (1813 to 1855) once remarked, "There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true." Errors of both kinds exact their costs.
The tired old debate between so-called "Creationism" and "Darwinism" has been in progress for almost the past 150 years now, and protagonists on both sides with rigidly entrenched mind-sets are arguing about it still. Yet a minor shift in perspective may render the entire argument moot, simply by demonstrating that "evolution by natural selection" itself bears the signature of a mysteriously metaconscious process which some mythologies might interpret as authored by "the very Hand of God," and others might interpret in different terms entirely. In the following subsections we will be exploring recent discoveries which may support such a "minor shift in perspective."
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On Cellular Biology
Since publication in 1953 of the DNA discoveries of Watson and Crick, the Central Dogma of the biological sciences, including allopathic medicine, has been that DNA is the fundamental determinant of cellular biology, and of the characteristics of all biological organisms.5 Every biological trait, it has been, and is still widely believed, is set before birth, controlled by a single gene, encoded within the long molecular strings of inherited DNA, in the vast genetic library that resides in the nucleus of every normal eukaryotic6 cell. Once it became feasible to read and rewrite the genetic code with precision and reliability, the race was on for the "designer genes" that should enable humans to correct the supposed errors of their heritage, the faulty genes that are believed by many biologists to be the ultimate source of most if not all human ailments.
Except there was a bit of a hitch-up. In his little-big book on cellular biology, The Biology of Belief, Dr. Bruce Lipton describes in easily understood layman's terms the major implications of his own and colleagues' research; which unambiguously overturns the validity of the Central Dogma of conventional biology and allopathic medicine. Part of the Central Dogma is that there is a gene which contains the coded specification for every protein, the molecular parts out of which all cells are built; analogous to a library of blueprints specifying every structural and functional part of a building, or an automobile, or a ship. Lipton describes how the Human Genome Project, launched in the late 1980s, endeavored to catalog, map, and describe every gene in the human genetic repertoire (or genome), and establish a one-to-one correspondence between each human gene and the corresponding protein it specifies. It was an ambitious undertaking, for since our bodies are constructed of more than 100,000 different kinds of proteins, plus at least 20,000 additional protein species for regulating the others, it was reasonably expected that the human genome would turn out to consist of at least 120,000 different genes. By the time the project had run its course, however, only about 25,000 genes had been identified in the entire human genome. More than 80% of the anticipated content of the human genome simply isn't there, and the one-gene-one-protein concept went down – or should have gone down – in flames.7
Now that the Human Genome Project has toppled the one-gene for one-protein concept [Lipton writes], our current theories of how life works have to be scrapped. No longer is it possible to believe that genetic engineers can with relative ease fix all our biological dilemmas. There are simply not enough genes to account for the complexity of human life or of human disease.8
Complicating matters even further have been numerous discoveries which demonstrate that cellular biology is not after all actually controlled by DNA at all, as held by the Central Dogma, but by a wide spectrum of subtle and not-so-subtle stimuli from the cellular environment. These include, but are not limited to, molecular agents physically present within and without the cell; as well as energetic factors of diverse character and origin, such as solar radiation, acoustic waves, human emotions, and cellular telephones. Surprisingly, moreover, modern biology and medical science rest firmly upon a foundation of classical Newtonian physics, and completely ignore the often astonishing discoveries that have literally revolutionized other physical sciences. Typical contemporary biological and medical curricula do not include the past 80- or 90-some years' discoveries in the field of quantum physics.9
These errors and oversights may have exacted a fearful tole already upon large numbers of humans who have relied upon the accuracy of the intelligence about what the world around us and within us is actually like, issuing from life sciences research, and applied in practice by the medical and pharmaceutical professions. According to a study published in 2003, based upon analysis of ten years' accumulated government data, the leading causes of death in America are the fatal effects of allopathic medicines prescribed by U.S. physicians; which combine to account for 300,000 deaths every year.10
Further, by means of the simple experiment of removing the cell nucleus – the "cell's brain," according to the Central Dogma – and observing the unimpaired viability of the surgically altered cell, Lipton demonstrates another of the Central Dogma's fundamental flaws. For if the cell nucleus is indeed the cell's brain, enucleation – removal of the nucleus – should certainly kill the cell dead, should it not? But that's not what happens. The cell lives on, and on, eventually expiring from the gradual attrition of proteins it is no longer able to replace.
If the nucleus and its genes are not the cell's brain [Lipton writes], then what exactly is DNA's contribution to cellular life? Enucleated cells die, not because they have lost their brain but because they have lost their reproductive capabilities. Without the ability to reproduce their parts, enucleated cells cannot replace failed protein building blocks, nor replicate themselves. So the nucleus is not the brain of the cell – the nucleus is the cell's gonad! Confusing the gonad with the brain is an understandable error because science has always been and still is a patriarchal endeavor. Males have often been accused of thinking with their gonads, so it's not entirely surprising that science has inadvertently confused the nucleus with the cell's brain!11
So, if the DNA-bearing nucleus is not the cell's brain, but as Lipton has it, its gonad, where is the cell's brain to be found? Where is the mechanism, and how does it work, for actually controlling the cell's complex and observably "purposeful," "intelligent," behavior, whether as a single entity, or in coordination with peers in a multicellular organism?
Here we have a domain of inquiry where I believe that the myth of metaconsciousness might add something genuinely useful. For not only are multicellular organisms vast communities of interactive single cells (fifty million-million of them populate the typical human adult); but each individual cell is itself a sprawling community of interactive molecular components, with the collective capability of sensing and responding appropriately to conditions within and without the cell. An individual cell fulfills the dynamic requirements of all organisms, large and small, living functionally in any habitable environment; which is to say that it receives matter and energy from its environment, and it contributes matter and energy to its environment. How it does this involves a fascinating journey into the molecular microworld of the cell.
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The Molecular Microworld of the Cell
I will begin this exposition somewhat obliquely, by drawing upon an often quoted, or alluded to, observation by Sir Arthur Eddington (1882 to 1944). "If I let my fingers wander idly over the keys of a typewriter," Eddington wrote, "it might happen that my screed made an intelligible sentence. If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum."12
What had prompted Eddington's remark was a discussion of the probability of all the gas molecules in a closed vessel spontaneously congregating at one end of the vessel, leaving the other end occupied by vacuum. The probability of such an event actually occurring is unimaginably slight; which was the basic point of Eddington's analogy of an army of monkeys writing all the books in the British Museum.
Eddington may have had in mind a thought experiment proposed earlier by James Clerk-Maxwell (1831 to 1879), in reference to the second law of thermodynamics;13 in which Maxwell imagined "a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course...."
For we have seen [Maxwell continues] that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics.14
The second law of thermodynamics declares "the tendency for entropy to increase in closed systems;" and entropy is "the measure of randomness and disorder in a system." The typical illustration of the second law in action is a closed jar containing, say, ⅓ salt, ⅓ pepper, and ⅓ empty space, or ambient air. While its contents are carefully laid on top of one another, as a layer of salt, a layer of pepper, and a layer of air, the "closed system" of the jar is said to be in a highly improbable state of order. Moving the jar about, however, even slightly – or shaking it vigorously – tends to mix up the salt and pepper, and entropy is said to increase inside the jar. Because "entropy always increases in a closed system," according to the second law of thermodynamics, never again will conditions within the jar obtain such that its initial state of an ordered layering of unmixed salt and pepper will manifest, no matter how long the jar is shaken; because there are innumerable ways in which the contents of a jar ⅔ filled with salt and pepper may be more or less uniformly mixed, and only two ways (salt on the bottom, or pepper on the bottom) for them to be segregated. Such is the prediction of the second law of thermodynamics, and no conventional scientist yet, to my knowledge, has recorded an exception to it. The imaginary "being" Maxwell proposed in his thought experiment, as a possible conceptual exception to the second law, is sometimes known as Maxwell's demon.
Leaving all that aside for the moment, we may now proceed to examine some of the fascinating details of the molecular microworld of the cell.
The most salient features of every biological cell are a) the cell membrane, and b) the cytoplasm enclosed by the membrane. As already mentioned, these are the sole major components of the primitive prokaryotes, while the more sophisticated eukaryotes contain additional identifiable components as well, including cellular nuclei.15
In this connection, salient may be somewhat misleading, for until individual cells could be examined under the power of the electron microscope, invented after the close of World War II, biologists were not aware that cells have membranes, and most of them presumed cellular integrity was maintained by surface tension, or by the jelly-like consistency of the cytoplasm. All cells do have membranes, however, of extraordinarily refined thinness; and all cell membranes are of the same highly unusual molecular construction.
It is a commonplace that "oil and water do not mix;" which is why the molecular structure of the cell membrane is so unusual. The reason oil and water do not mix is that the kinds of molecules of which they are composed are of two fundamentally different types: polar, and non-polar. Water is polar, and bears positive and negative electrical charges, which interact electrically with other polar molecules. Polar molecules have an affinity for one another, and particularly for water, with which they readily dissolve and blend.
Non-polar molecules, which are electrically neutral and make efficient electrical insulators, also have an affinity for and blend easily with one another, but are repelled by, and repel polar molecules. Typical non-polar molecules in biology are fats and oils, and are collectively designated lipids.
The particularly unusual property of cell membranes is that they are composed of phspholipids, molecules with both polar and non-polar properties, which form a very thin three-layer sheet composed of a non-polar, hydrophobic, lipid layer, sandwiched between two polar, hydrophilic layers. The hydrophilic layers, one exposed to the environment outside the cell, the other to the environment inside, both have an affinity for water; but the hydrophobic lipid layer between them abhors water, and without perforations would allow no polar molecule to penetrate the cell in any direction, either in or out.
The Cell Membrane16
However, as indicated in the modified illustration, there are numerous and varied additional molecular structures penetrating the cell membrane, with numerous and varied functions; and many of these make possible the commerce of information and substance across the membrane that separates the exterior from the interior of all biological cells. Most of these structures are colored blue in the illustration, and are called Integral Membrane Proteins (IMPs). There are many different kinds of IMPs, with many different tasks to perform in keeping the cell alive and functional; but to simplify, it is sufficient to note that most Integral Membrane Proteins fall into two distinct categories: receptors and effectors.
Receptors are the cell's sense organs, for monitoring conditions both inside and outside the cell. Receptor proteins have specialized shapes, which fit like a key in a lock with the molecular structure of the specific molecule they are fitted to sense; or which resonate with a specific energetic frequency, as does a radio antenna with the radio frequency it is tuned to receive. (It is this understanding, by the way, which furnishes the scientific basis for energetic therapy modalities.) When such a match obtains, between a receptor and whatever stimulus it is fitted to sense, the receptor protein changes its electrical properties; which in turn sends a signal to a neighboring effector protein, causing the behavior change the particular chain of information exchange is fitted to effect.
Effectors are the "muscles" in the cell membrane, which change shape in response to changes in the electrical fields with which they interact, specifically the signals broadcast by receptor proteins upon encountering whatever it is they are poised to sense. The transport protein at the left-near corner of the illustration, for instance, opens like a gate, or iris, allowing, say, a molecule of nutritional value sensed by a nearby receptor to pass into the cell from outside; and then closes again, returning that part of the membrane to a state of impermeability. Or, stimulated by a receptor inside the cell membrane, the gate opens to allow a waste product to exit the interior of the cell; then closes.
These receptor-effector complexes, as densely packed as possible without compromising its structural integrity, are dotted throughout the cell membrane by the thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, covering every cell of every biological organism on Earth, and conducting such selective interactions between receptors and effectors at hundreds of cycles per second. And so, what have we here, if not literally innumerable real-life incarnations of Maxwell's proverbial demon, operating constantly and without ceasing, throughout the entire fabric of all biological life?
Not only is this vast army of Maxwell's demons, in the form of innumerable receptor-effector pairs of Integral Membrane Proteins, capable of discriminating if necessary, as Maxwell speculatively described, between fast- and slow-moving molecules; they actually do discriminate on the basis of electric charge, nutritive value, toxicity, and even on the basis of the energetic qualities propagated in the form of electromagnetic, acoustic, and other energy waves – ceaselessly diminishing the entropy within each cell, and throughout all biological systems. This observation is supported at large by the progress of biological evolution itself, through the flux of time; and by the process of learning by experience, or its functional equivalent, exhibited at every scale by all healthy biological systems.
In their aggregate, it seems that the net effect of healthy biological systems is the reduction of entropy, by the very mechanism James Clerk-Maxwell envisioned 136 years ago. Otherwise, entropy only increases under conditions of biological dysfunction, decay, and neglect; yet this is also vital to the balance of the Cosmic – or at least planetary – scheme. If there were no death and decay, but only growth and proliferation, biological evolution on Earth would very swiftly, and long since, have arrived at a state of global gridlock, which would probably have rendered the planet biologically uninhabitable.
These observations are supported by the settled findings of carefully conducted and documented scientific research. As to whether they form the basis for an actual exception to the second law of thermodynamics, the issue may be moot. For it may be argued that, factoring in recent findings in diverse scientific domains, including the accumulated disclosures of quantum physics, the "closed systems," to which the second law exclusively applies, may be more rare in Nature than generally assumed. It may well be that no example of a genuinely "closed system" can actually be found anywhere within the domain of cellular biology.
In any case, it appears to me that, like it or not, the time has come once again to rebuild from the ground up another collapsed section of the amazing leaning tower many still persist in calling "the Edifice of human knowledge;" and I would prefer to call "a (sometimes) plausible myth about an impenetrably mysterious reality." Or short of that, at least to give consideration to making "a minor shift in perspective."
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The Cellular Brain
So, returning to the question we encountered earlier, if the DNA-bearing nucleus is not the cell's brain, but as Lipton has it, its gonad, where is the cell's brain to be found? Lipton's answer is, the cellular membrane; or as he sometimes puts it, "the magical mem-Brain." I would rather call it "the metaconscious membrane;" for as described above, and in Lipton's book, the molecular interactions of the cellular membrane are as ideally prototypical an example as I can imagine of the fundamentally mysterious emergence of what I call metaconsciousness; which manifests when entities of any scale exchange information under conditions of sufficient richness, diversity, variety, complexity, and liberty. That is why I venture to suggest that the myth of metaconsciousness may have something of value to contribute to the illumination of cellular biology, and to many other domains of human inquiry as well.
Lipton describes the epiphany he experienced in 1985 when he first discovered that the membrane, not the nucleus, is in fact effectively the "brain" of all biological cells. Reviewing the properties he had observed in minute scrutiny of the fine details of the cell membrane, Lipton composed in carefully chosen words the following description:
The membrane is a liquid crystal semiconductor with gates and channels.
Reviewing what he had written, Lipton was struck by a sense of déjà vu, because his description of the cell membrane seemed uncannily familiar to him. Casting about, sure enough, he found where he had read essentially the same sentence before. It was in a book he had recently purchased, Understanding Your Microprocessor, and it contained the sentence, "A chip is a crystal semiconductor with gates and channels."
For the first second or two [Lipton writes] I was struck by the fact that the chip and cell membrane shared the same technical definition. I spent several more intense seconds comparing and contrasting biomembranes with silicon semiconductors. I was momentarily stunned when I realized that the identical nature of their definitions was not a coincidence. The cell membrane was indeed a structural and functional equivalent (homologue) of a silicon chip!17
Lipton goes on to cite a paper published in Nature confirming the functional equivalence of cell membranes with computer semiconductors.18
Cells may be said to behave "purposefully," or "intelligently," because they have the ability to sense their external and internal environments, and to respond appropriately to dynamically shifting conditions in ways that improve their circumstances and survivability. This they accomplish at the molecular level by such mechanisms as just described; and what I call the emergent metaconsciousness of a cell seems to be in some way related to the number of receptor-effector pairs of IMPs it is able to pack into its membrane.
Lipton goes on to describe how in the primitive prokaryotic cells that were the exclusive biological inhabitants of the planet during its earliest stages of biological evolution, the number of receptor-effector pairs of IMPs was limited; in part by the minute size of prokaryotes, and in part because the limited surface area of the cell membrane had to be shared not only by receptor and effector IMPs, but by additional IMPs responsible for every other necessary biological function, such as digestion and motility. When the eukaryotes eventually evolved, many of these essential tasks were internalized by the development of organelles that inhabit the cytoplasm, freeing up valuable membrane "acreage" for occupancy by additional receptor-effector IMPs. The more of these the cell could field across its membrane, the greater the cell's "intelligence," or as I prefer to say, its metaconsciousness. Additionally, eukaryotes are a great deal larger than prokaryotes, which expanded the area of available membrane enormously.
There was a limit to that direction of cellular evolution, however, because there is a limit to the volume of cytoplasm the cell membrane is able to contain without rupturing. While surface area increases by the square of a body's dimensions, its volume and mass increase by the cube; so that when the diameter of a cell doubles, its surface area quadruples, and its volume expands by a factor of 8. A point is quickly reached beyond which the thin cellular membrane is no longer structurally able to contain the cell. It is not possible to "beef up" the strength of the cellular membrane proportionately without sacrificing the peculiar polar / non-polar properties vital to its function. Hence, cells may vary in size within liberal limits, but all cell membranes are of the same gossamer thinness, established by the physical dimensions of the phospholipid molecules of which they are composed. Therefore, there is a maximum "metaconsciousness quotient" attainable by a single cell.
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Evolution of Metaconsciousness
After some three thousand million years of cellular evolution, another threshold was reached, and the single cells that had inhabited the planet exclusively up to that time "caught on" to some of the advantages of cooperation. Multi-cellular colonies began to appear – and the evolution of biological metaconsciousness on Earth entered an entirely new phase.
When cells began to cluster and form colonies of at first very simple multicellular organisms, they broke free of the evolutionary barrier imposed by the metaconscious "carrying capacity" of the individual cellular membrane. Now that carrying capacity could be multiplied by the number of cells in the colony – and the evolution of biological life on Earth was "off to the races," so to speak. Now, not only was the surface of each individual cell literally paved with sense organs (receptor-effector IMPs) and the means of effecting appropriate responses to environmental sensations; cooperative clusters of cells were able to vastly amplify and multiply this sensation-responsiveness throughout the cellular community. Individual cells and cellular groups within the community began to refine and specialize in various sensory and effectual functions, improving efficiency even further, by means of a prototypical "division of labor."
All biological organisms, from the most primitive and isolated prokaryotes to the most sophisticated and advanced multi-cellular organisms, such as humans and dolphins – and even including social communities and populations, sometimes called "superorganisms,"19 such as colonies of ants, bees, schools of fish, flocks of birds, and human tribes, nations, and races – must each fulfill the same biological necessities of exchanging matter and energy with Cosmos at large, or perish; which is to say, or dissolve into entropic disorder. The dance of life seems to involve maintenance of a ceaselessly dynamic balance between entropy and syntropy, to coin another term, at all scales and domains.
In scrutinizing the lives of single cells, this process, carried on largely at the molecular scale, seems in some ways almost mechanistic, like a minute fraction of the clockwork universe envisioned by the Newtonian physicists. We can imagine how receptor IMPs evolved molecular structures perfectly complementary to other molecular structures, or perfectly resonant with energetic frequencies of particular value or hazard to cellular functions; and how the most effective of these matches were replicated at the expense of the less effective ones. At the molecular scale of a single Integral Membrane Protein functioning in the relatively vast expanse of a single cell membrane, the process looks almost as mechanical and mindless as that of a ticking watch movement. And yet, when that single IMP is multiplied by hundreds of thousands embedded in the same cell membrane; and when that single cell is multiplied by the literally trillions of cells populating a relatively large organism, such as a human, or a leopard, or a whale, the emergent metaconsciousness manifest in the vast and multi-dimensional exchange of information among such incomprehensible numbers of individual units seems profoundly mysterious, if not downright "spooky" to many of us. What is this "metaconsciousness" – consciousness, intelligence, and creativity – when you come right down to it?
My (provisional) answer to that question is that it is fundamentally mysterious, and we can approach it effectively only with our most well-considered myths. This is not at all the same as throwing up our hands and "admitting defeat" before the inscrutable mysteries of "Life, the Universe, and Everything." It suggests, rather, that however far we advance "the frontier of human discovery," we need never anticipate the eventuality of running out of mysteries beyond our current (at any time) understanding. Meanwhile, there seem to be approaches to the mystery of metaconsciousness which show the potential of advancing the process of discovery yet deeper into the mystery. One of these is the study of networks.
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Forty-some years ago, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment which at first glance appears to have little or nothing to do with biological evolution, the mystery of metaconsciousness, or with anything else we have been discussing so far; yet may have a great deal to do with all of it, at least. Milgram was interested in the structure of the lines of relationship that form among widespread groups of individuals; so he sent duplicate letters to a random selection of addresses in Kansas and Nebraska, requesting the letter be forwarded to a stockbroker living in Boston. Only, Milgram did not include the stockbroker's address. Instead, he requested that the recipient forward the letter to a friend the recipient considered to be "socially nearer" to the letter's specified destination; and request that the letter be handed on in like manner.
The striking outcome of Milgram's experiment was not that most of the letters he sent eventually reached their intended destination, which they did, but how swiftly most of them covered the ground. Most of them were in the Boston stockbroker's hands after having been passed along a chain of individuals consisting of no more than six links. This is intuitively surprising for most of us, because in a nation with a population of around two hundred million,20 one would not expect an arbitrary Great Plains resident to be "within six handshakes" of an arbitrary Boston resident. Would one? Yet follow-up on Milgram's experiment disclosed that it seems to be so – not only among Americans, but among all residents of planet Earth anywhere; and the result has been widely popularized in the phrase, "six degrees of separation." We live, so it seems, in a surprisingly "small-world."21
A few years ago [Buchanan writes] a German newspaper accepted the light-hearted challenge of trying to connect a Turkish kebab-shop owner in Frankfurt to his favorite actor, Marlon Brando. After several months, the staff of Die Ziet discovered that it took no more than six links of personal acquaintance to do so. The kebab-shop owner, an Iraqi immigrant named Salah Ben Ghaln, has a friend living in California. As it happens, this friend works alongside the boyfriend of a woman who is the sorority sister of the daughter of the producer of the film Don Juan de Marco, in which Brando starred. Six-degrees of separation is an undeniably stunning characteristic of our social world, and numerous more careful sociological studies offer convincing evidence that it is true – not only in special cases, but generally. But how can it be true? How can six billion people be so closely linked?22
So maybe the study of networks – the study of the connections among groups of... almost anything, really – is deeply germane after all to the mystery of metaconsciousness; which is said to emerge spontaneously among entities which exchange information. Networks have structures, which are shaped by the circumstances in which they arise. In a village, for instance, or a suburban neighborhood, or a small town, or a university campus..., most residents are acquainted with a number of others, a certain number of whom are also acquainted with each other. In the illustration below – called a graph by the mathematicians and scientists who study them – of a small "neighborhood" in a much larger network, every individual is "personally acquainted" with his, her, or its eight nearest neighbors. A, for instance, is connected to B and B' by red-colored lines in the illustration; to C and C' by green lines; to D and D' by blue lines; and to E and E' by violet lines.
A local "neighborhood" in a larger network.
E' in turn is "personally acquainted" with D', C', B', and A, but not with B, C, D, or E; yet in knowing A, E' is only one link away from each of A's "far-side friends."
Among a fair sized group of individuals, not everyone is acquainted with everyone else, yet it will not seem surprising if most of them turn out to be connected through someone they know, who knows someone else, and so on, to every other individual in the community, by a small number of links. What is surprising is that this seems to be true as well among the entire human population of the planet. How can that be so? Well, investigation has disclosed that among any group of individuals, such as residents of a small town, or a campus, some of them will be acquainted not only with a number of local residents, but also with one or more residents of distant communities as well; in which they in turn are linked to everyone else in such communities by a small number of links. By this means, not only is everyone in any given community linked together; they are also linked with everyone in distant communities by a very few additional links. Similarly, all communities are linked together, somehow – which has the combined effect of linking everybody with everybody else in the whole world, through "six degrees of separation!"
These "small-world networks" emerge spontaneously, yet they are not entirely – or even predominantly – random. An entirely random network would be one in which anyone is as likely to be personally acquainted with someone on the other side of the world as with his or her next-door neighbor, or work-mate; and although random networks also exhibit the "small-world" property, it is simply not so that neighboring and remote individuals are equally likely to be linked. Most of us – and it is probably safe to say all of us – become acquainted mostly with those we encounter frequently in our daily lives; and most of these live their lives not very far away, physically, from where we live ours. Yet we do occasionally cross paths, and become acquainted with individuals from distant realms, either by visiting there ourselves, by being visited by strangers from elsewhere, or through introductions or referrals by individuals we know. And so, links among remote communities are also formed.
In 1983, Mark Granovetter published a paper23 that made it clear it is these very long-haul, mostly tenuous, "weak ties" that are the most vital to the integrity of the small-world network structure. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the strong ties among family and friends in a local community are of little importance to the integrity of the more sprawling network of which the community forms a part; because there are sure to be many alternative links among neighbors to keep everyone connected locally with everyone else, no matter which individual links are actually functional. Rather, it is the few "weak ties" between locals and individuals in remote communities that knit together global networks out of otherwise relatively isolated local communities. Without the long-arm links, local networks among physical neighbors are not able to participate in the larger network of local networks.
Conversely, it takes an amazingly few randomly placed long-arm links to convert a highly clustered network among locally linked neighbors into a small-world network in which every individual is linked to every other individual in every cluster, or "neighborhood," by a small number of "degrees of separation." A couple of additional graphs may make this clearer.
The graphs above, though similar in appearance, are schematic representations of two different kinds of networks. Network A is a completely ordered network consisting of 36 nodes, each of which is directly connected with, and only with, its four nearest neighbors. There is nothing random about it, and such networks seldom if ever evolve organically, or "naturally." Network B is a small-world network identical to Network A, with the minor addition of five links between arbitrary pairs of more remotely located nodes; which introduces a small element of randomness into an otherwise highly ordered network, and transforms it into a small-world network.
Most networks found in nature are not as orderly as the networks graphed here; but are far from being entirely random, either. Both of the networks above, and naturally-occurring networks as well, exhibit the property of clustering – in which every five individuals (in this case; every nine individuals in the network illustrated earlier) are directly linked together into a close-knit cluster; and there is considerable overlap among clusters. In general, entirely random networks exhibit "small-world" properties, but negligible clustering; whereas naturally occurring "small-world" networks are also highly clustered. Highly clustered networks are not difficult to find in Nature, except that natural networks generally exhibit much more variation and less rigid uniformity than, for the sake of simplicity, is illustrated here. In the case of Network A, however, and "A-like" networks of greater scale, there are considerably more than six "degrees of separation" between individuals on opposite sides of the network. Because of course, in the case of Network A, in order to connect with one's opposite number, there is no alternative to passing a message among a minimum of nine successively linked individuals; and a great many more than that in similar networks of larger scale.
In the case of a network the size of the human population of Earth, wired together like Network A such that every individual is directly linked with an average of, say, 50 "neighbors," leapfrogging around the world in roughly 50-member hops would link the remotest two individuals by an order of 60 million "handshakes," instead of six. So the network among human residents of planet Earth is evidently not very much at all like Network A.
Network B, on the other hand, is quite a different kettle of fish; for although each individual is directly linked with four neighbors, as in Network A, a few members of Network B are also linked with someone significantly more remote than their nearest neighbors; and it is these arbitrarily placed long-arm links that knit the network together into a small-world with a maximum of about "six degrees of separation" between any two members of the network. It turns out that about all it takes to convert a highly clustered network into a small-world network is a small handful of randomly placed long-arm links between arbitrary members of clusters remote from each other; and that's about it. Moreover, this effect is not diluted, but is rather enhanced, by the expansion of the global network.
These principles were articulated formally by Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz in a paper published in 1998;24 which had the effect of stirring up quite a buzz among scientists in many different disciplines.
Although small-world architecture has not received much attention [concluded Watts and Strogatz], we suggest that it will probably turn out to be widespread in biological, social and man-made systems, often with important dynamical consequences.25
In retrospect, it may be said that Watts's and Strogatz's conservative prediction in 1998 has been amply corroborated, at least. Here is a picture of a real-world network that has grown explosively, particularly since the inception of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s:
|The Internet, 15 January 200526|
|.net .ca .us .com .org .mil .gov .edu .jp .cn .tw .au .de .uk .it .pl .fr .br .kr .nl unknown|
It doesn't look very much like the networks we've been viewing earlier, does it? You can see right off that there's no Planning Commission for the Internet. Anyone in the world who wants to can set up a domain, and link it to whatever other domains one pleases, without so much as a "by your leave" to anybody else. And anyone who wants to can set up a server anywhere, host one or more domains on it, and tie into the telecommunications infrastructure wherever and however one is able to. So the Net has taken the shape it has on the basis of countless decisions by countless individuals and other entities, in pursuit of their own various and several objectives. Nor does the contemporary Internet bear much resemblance to the conception of it imagined by its first planners.
As discussed in some of the citations mentioned in footnote 26, it was the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik October 4, 1957, that provided the initial impetus behind what eventually became the Internet. Mainly, when it was realized that the Soviets had the ability to boost a 184-lb. package into low Earth orbit, it was also realized that they could just as easily target a nuclear or thermonuclear attack upon the United States across the Arctic Circle, with potentially devastating results to the national telecommunications system. The national telecommunications system was seen as vulnerable because a few well-placed hits on vital hubs could fragment the entire network into effective inoperability. With disabled command, control, and communications, Pentagon planners swiftly appreciated that an effective response to such an attack would be difficult if not impossible. In January, 1958, therefore, President Eisenhower launched ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, in preliminary measures to repair perceived vulnerabilities to the United States, threatened by the Soviet space program – which had meanwhile launched Sputnik II into orbit, weighing in at half a ton.27
In the event, ARPA's original mission was eclipsed within the year by the additional launch in the U.S. of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which obviated much of ARPA's original agenda. Nevertheless, work went quietly forward at the now obscure ARPA, and among other academic and scientific institutions, toward solving the nation's communication vulnerabilities. Out of this research emerged analyses of three different kinds of networks: centralized, decentralized, and distributed.28
Of the three, it was believed at the time that the distributed network, with no central hubs, and a few links among neighboring nodes, would be the most "survivable" architecture for a national communications network.29 By this means, it was reasoned, any node, or even a significant number of nodes, could be taken out without seriously damaging communication among the surviving nodes; for messages that could not be routed to surviving destinations by former paths could still reach them by alternative paths.
Accordingly, by the end of 1969 four computers, at UCLA, Stanford University, UC-Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah, had been linked together in what was called at the time ARPANET – and turned out in retrospect to have been the seed from which the Internet of today has grown, linking 100 million computers in 250 nations.30
However, The Internet did not emerge in the same shape at all that its planners 40 years earlier had anticipated. In fact, it is probably safe to say that 47 years ago, nobody anticipated what has emerged as the Internet today. It came out of the Sun, and has taken virtually everyone on Earth completely by surprise; and it is doubtful even yet that many, or even any, have a thorough grasp of its implications for the future of human evolution. Even if what today we call "civilization" transmogrifies eventually into something entirely else, it looks from here as if the Internet, or its future evolution, is not likely to go away any time soon. Too many individuals and entities have powerful interests in maintaining and expanding it to allow such a thing to occur, short of the complete destruction of the energy / telecommunications infrastructure throughout the planet.
In any case, as chaotic as it appears, the Internet too is a small-world network which like others of its kind is highly clustered and bears a hidden order; which has the practical effect of knitting rapidly expanding populations throughout the world into an extraordinarily efficient and streamlined information net embracing literally every domain of human interest. Moreover, the spontaneously self-propelled Internet displays properties in common with many other kinds of naturally occurring phenomena which would seem to have no connection, or reason for similarity, with the entirely human-engineered Internet. This similarity is the signature of the mathematical relation known as the power law, which makes its appearance in a wide spectrum of domains of mathematics and physical phenomena observable in Nature.31
An example of the power-law relation is the "inverse-square" law of gravitation discovered by Sir Isaac Newton, whereby "the gravitational attraction between two bodies is directly proportional to the sum of their mass, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them." So, as two massive bodies approach each other, their attraction for each other grows by the square, as their separation diminishes by the unit. Thus, the closer they approach, the faster they close, which yields the 32 feet per second per second (32 ft. / sec.2 = 9.8 m / sec.2) gravitational acceleration of falling bodies at or near Earth's surface. Analogous relations are found in such diverse phenomena as the electromagnetic forces exhibited by charged particles; the spiral geometry of seashells, pinecones, sunflowers, cyclonic storms, and galaxies; the frequency of cataclysmic events, such as floods, storms, and earthquakes; maps of the catchment basins of river systems; and in self-similar fractals, such as the Mandelbrot Set illustrating section II.1 of this work.
Initially, there seems to be nothing orderly, or other than random and arbitrary, in the shape of the catchment basins formed by river system networks. Water falls as rain with arbitrary intensity and frequency upon wide panoramas of arbitrarily shaped uneven ground; and runs downhill, finding paths of least resistance, and eroding channels and grooves in ground of varying resistance to erosion. Every large and small river system in the world is unique, and is sculpted by a random collection of circumstances duplicated nowhere else. Yet evidently, all river systems in the world share the power-law relation, whereby the number and size of the catchment basins drained by every tributary, or section of the entire river system, are inversely related.
That is, the catchment basin drained at the mouth of a river where it flows into the sea includes the sum of all catchment basins of every tributary in the system, and there is only one catchment basin of this overarching size. Moving upstream from the mouth of any river, one encounters a number of major tributaries, each of which drains a large, yet smaller subsection of the landmass drained by the entire river system; and the number of these "secondary" tributary systems is inversely proportional to their size. Moving further upstream on any tributary, one encounters smaller tributaries which in turn drain smaller regions of the catchment basin of the larger tributary; and the number of these "tertiary" tributary systems is likewise inversely proportional to their size. And so on. The result is that a map of the catchment basin of any river resembles a self-similar mathematical fractal pattern whereby every subsection of the river system resembles the entire system. Tributary catchment basins are of course not cookie-cutter duplicates of the entire system, yet they duplicate the power-law mathematical relation of the whole, and resemble each other in the same way. This relation has been modeled on computers, yielding maps of entirely imaginary rivers very similar in appearance to maps of actual river systems.32
The map of the human-engineered Internet displays a similar power-law relation, whereby the number of hubs with large numbers of links with other nodes in the Net is inversely proportional to the number of links to that hub. This relation was not planned by anybody, yet emerges with the same inevitability as that of analogously emergent power-law relations in river systems, and innumerable other kinds of networks throughout the "known universe" (which may not after all be a very large fraction of the "unknown universe").
In the case of the Internet, there is no effective limit – or the limit may be very high – to the number of nodes that can have links to a single hub. It can be one, ten, or a hundred-thousand, and it makes no difference, because there is no appreciable congestion in "cyberspace" among nodes with links to a single hub. Therefore, a popular hub can grow in popularity more or less indefinitely, and as Buchanan writes, "The Rich Get Richer."33 That is, popular nodes with many links tend to gather more links more quickly than do nodes with fewer links. The same thing happens in the academic community, in which authors of papers seek collaboration with other popular authors, rather than with obscure authors with few collaborative works to their credit. Hence, in many kinds of networks, "the rich get richer;" or, as Howard Bloom has put it, "To he who hath it shall be given. From he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away."34 Such networks, called "aristocratic networks" by Buchanan,35 tend to develop their small-world properties by means of hierarchical structures with a small number of nodes monopolizing the majority of links in the network.
However; when the network involved consists of physical connections among physical things, the evolution of a small-world architecture often takes an alternative, more "egalitarian" path.
For instance: the network of air traffic terminals in the United States, and throughout the world, looks at first as if it probably falls into the power-law pattern exhibited by many other networks. But it doesn't. The reason it doesn't – although it may at one time have done – is that the continuous addition of links to popular hubs in the network, such as Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, or Atlanta's Hartsfield, eventually creates a saturation of the terminal's physical airspace prohibitive of additional cost-effective links. A point is reached beyond which the attractions of such destinations are overbalanced by their costs, such as delays caused by traffic congestion in the air and on the ground, and flights to smaller, less congested terminals are preferred. In such circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult for "the rich" to continue "getting richer."
In general, in situations, such as the Internet, in which the costs of adding links to indefinitely growing hubs are insignificant, "aristocratic" small-world networks emerge, in which "the rich get richer," and the number of connections within the network is increasingly dominated by a small number of hubs with an overwhelming majority of connections. In the case of "real-world" physical networks, on the other hand, in which the costs of indefinite growth mount because of mounting physical encumbrances to new links, more "egalitarian" small-world networks emerge in which most nodes have a similar number of links to other nodes. In either case, whether "aristocratic" or "egalitarian," small-world architectures spontaneously emerge in growing networks;36 and this seems to me to shed illumination upon the emergence of metaconsciousness at large.
[Return to contents of this section.]
We have been examining a number of naturally occurring phenomena in some detail, and have repeatedly observed in the operations of mechanisms which seem, as mentioned above, "almost as mechanical and mindless as that of a ticking watch movement," the emergence of behaviors which appear "profoundly mysterious, if not downright 'spooky' to many of us." Receptor Integral Membrane Proteins embedded in the cellular membrane mechanically lock onto specific molecular structures, which alter their electrical properties, causing in turn a response in a neighboring effector IMP, which momentarily opens a minute pore in the membrane, admitting the entrance or egress of the selected molecule into or out of the cellular interior – almost exactly as Maxwell had imagined his proverbial "demon" doing, to effect a loss of entropy within a closed vessel. The combined effect of hundreds of thousands of such IMPs embedded throughout the membrane of a single cell give each cell the ability to act "purposefully" and "intelligently" in a dynamic and sometimes hostile environment, in which the cell is nevertheless able to improve its condition, and prolong its survival. Multicellular organisms multiply this capability endlessly, and manifest the astonishingly rich fabric of biological life throughout the planet. Small-world networks among organisms and species emerge spontaneously in circumstances of seemingly limitless variety, yet invariably with the effect of streamlining the exchange of information throughout the network, and likewise enabling it to behave "purposefully" and "intelligently," and to improve its condition and prolong its survival. Through the iteration and reiteration of fundamentally simple mathematical procedures, fractal shapes of unimaginable complexity and richness emerge spontaneously in virtual worlds of entirely artificial manufacture within the labyrinthine circuits of computers. How can all this be?
Minute examination of the particulars of any of these phenomena yields descriptions of relatively simple mechanisms which in themselves seem to hold no insoluble mysteries – and yet, as a whole – is it not wonderful?
Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA, has written a book titled The Astonishing Hypothesis,37 in which he suggests "that '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. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: 'You're nothing but a pack of neurons.' This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing."38
As far as it goes, Crick's Astonishing Hypothesis may be correct; yet I would add the caveat that, yes, but it's not the whole story, is it? Nothing ever is – although I can't "prove" it; and that's not the whole story either! I think in general that a claim about anything that it is essentially "nothing but..." whatever its momentary description happens to be, is fraught with peril, at least in terms of the claim's long-term persuasiveness. That is one reason I prefer myths to "scientific theories" – although in practice they ought to be approximately equivalent. To Crick's credit, he does budget ample "wiggle room" throughout his book to accommodate the many aspects of neural physiology that remain poorly or not at all understood; yet to me, it seems "too little, too late."
In actual practice, when a Nobel Laureate makes a public statement about anything, it carries a disproportionate amount of weight with many or most of those who hear it, and is often accepted irrationally without further examination as "scientific fact." Therefore, I would be much happier if practicing scientists more often reminded humanity at large, as physicist Richard Feynman once did, that "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
From a purely analytical perspective, it seems superficially reasonable to suppose that any mechanism, no matter how complex, may be completely understood by taking it to pieces, and understanding the function and mechanics of each of its parts. And indeed, this reductionist approach has borne rich fruit in yielding penetrating (partial) understanding of many things. Crick devotes considerable attention at the beginning of his book to the virtues and validity of the reductionist approach to problem solving.
After all [Crick writes], "reductionism" is the main theoretical method that has driven the development of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. It is largely responsible for the spectacular developments of modern science. It is the only sensible way to proceed until and unless we are confronted with strong experimental evidence that demands we modify our attitude. General philosophical arguments against reductionism will not do.39
I have no philosophical argument to level against reductionism – aside from including reductionism in my observation about all methods of inquiry into the "mysteries of the universe;" which is simply to note that they all yield at best unavoidably partial descriptions of whatever specific mystery they are attempting to resolve; and so provide plausibility, but not certainty, to a dynamic and variable assortment of myths. To assert or imply otherwise seems to me intellectually dishonest; and to accept the "Edifice of human discovery" as something "absolute," or "final," as implied by such phrases as "a scientifically proven fact," strikes me as intellectually irresponsible.40
Once the mystery has been taken to pieces, and all its parts analyzed and understood – and each of them taken to pieces in turn, if necessary, and similarly analyzed and understood, and so on – there often emerges the still-mysterious synergy of, as Buckminster Fuller was fond of pointing out, "behaviors of whole systems unanticipated by the behaviors of their parts."41 This is a phenomenon that exhibits itself everywhere, and describing it (partially) is not the same as "explaining" it. There may be those who claim to understand these things, but I remain awed and transfixed by what appears to me their inherent mystery. Such, it seems to me, is the emergence of human awareness out of "the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." To me, it is impenetrably mysterious and wonderful, and I have no more idea how to account for it than I imagine a protohuman out of the Pliocene may have had, had s/he ever thought or wondered about such things.
Resorting to myth, however, I am able to extrapolate that if the kind of metaconsciousness I experience as creativity, self-awareness, intellect, intuition, love, fear, sensation of sound, color, shape, texture, taste, smell, touch, etc., are able to emerge from "a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules" – which seems, as far as it goes, plausible enough to me – then it seems no less plausible to imagine that analogous forms of metaconsciousness may just as easily, just as mysteriously, emerge from the interstices amongst the atoms and molecules of the animals and trees, the rocks, the rivers, the mountains, the wind, the Sun, and the stars... and that these other forms of metaconsciousness might blend and mingle with mine, and we may all be one vast "Being" (or network!), without beginning or end, that fills and animates "All That Is" – possibly with something on the order of "six degrees of separation" between anything and anything else in the "known universe!"
Maybe. It is a myth, and I make no more ambitious claim for it than that. It appeals to me and seems plausible, on the basis of the little I "understand" (if anything) of the Cosmos in which I seem to find myself. When I encounter persuasive reasons to modify my myth, I am perfectly able to do so at a moment's notice; for if anything I happen to believe at any moment ceases for any reason to be believable, then I automatically make whatever adjustments are required to habituate myself as comfortably as I may to what I still can believe. It's a constant work in progress, never begun (so far as I can personally remember), never finished, and endlessly filled with "mid-course corrections," and absorbing interest. I like it.
I especially like it because it empowers me with the liberty to accommodate alternative or differently expressed myths, such as Francis Crick's myth that "You're nothing but a pack of neurons," without acrimony or resistance, melding (my (possibly mis-) understanding of) his understanding into further evolution of my own myth. There is something illuminating to be learned from everything and everyone, every moment of every day. Does it get any better than this?
My guess, on the basis of past performance, is, Almost certainly, it gets better! Why wouldn't it? The ceaselessly uncoiling mystery of being / becoming seems to have no beginning or end, and if it doesn't get "better," it must surely get "worse." Plausibly, it seems to me, there is an unavoidable limit to how much "worse" anything can become before ceasing to function altogether. During the endless emergence of being / becoming, this has so far evidently not occurred, at least on a Cosmic, or (as yet) planetary scale – which yields me persuasive basis for believing that things will most probably continue to get "better." The word that sums this up most succinctly is evolution: perhaps the most exemplary prototype, so it seems to me, of all emergent metaconscious phenomena.
[Return to contents of this section.]
We've covered a lot of ground – extremely thinly, I must admit; but then, how else can such boundless ground be covered by anyone; or for that matter, by all of us together? To recapitulate, we began by observing that the so-called "Edifice of human knowledge" of which humans (self-styled Homo sapiens sapiens) have enjoyed so much pride, might more appropriately be thought of as the "Edifice of human discovery," and considered explicitly to consist of myths, instead of "knowledge;" for the reason that "knowledge" is much more apt to harden into dogma than are self-acknowledged myths, which potentially retain the supple flexibility that dogmas universally lack.
Next, we explored with Bruce Lipton a few of the details of the microworld of cellular biology, during which we made the startling discovery that the "control center" for biological life does not reside in DNA, as most contemporary biologists still believe, but in the cellular membrane; and in a vastly distributed network of richly complex molecular-biological interactions out of which mysteriously emerges the multifold signature of what I have been calling metaconsciousness. And we made the equally startling discovery that the very mechanism James Clerk-Maxwell imagined 136 years ago for diminishing entropy in closed systems is actually ubiquitous throughout all biological life, which on Earth seems at least potentially to counterbalance the otherwise inexorable slide into chaos propelled by the second law of thermodynamics.
We then turned our attention to recent discoveries about networks, and discovered that systems of surprising order spontaneously and mysteriously emerge under seemingly arbitrary and chaotic circumstances. Small-world networks in particular spontaneously emerge under an extraordinarily wide variety of circumstances, with the result that the ubiquitous proliferation of information sharing is streamlined and self-organized in systems whose parts seem to hold no insoluble mysteries; and yet in synergistic combination somehow spawn once again the ubiquitous and mysterious emergence of the metaconsciousness that facilitates "purposeful" and "intelligent" behaviors not accountable by reductionist analysis of component parts.
In the subsection, Emergent Behaviors, we paused to contemplate these mysteries; and without attempting to "explain" them, by resorting to myth we were able – or at least I was able – to find ground for believing that we may all be spontaneously linked together in one vast Cosmic network in which, on the basis of past performance, "things will most probably continue to get 'better,'" on Earth, and presumably throughout Cosmos at large. However, as we shall soon begin to see in greater depth in II.7. Integration of Mythologies, this optimistic view is not the whole story, and leaves out vast fields of rich detail.42 Such statements always do, which is why I am no longer able to reach "Conclusions," but only "Inconcoulsions," about anything – which I prefer to call myths.
I don't believe anybody will argue against the proposition that all "normal" humans possess a profound capability for creative thought and purposeful action aimed at intended results – even if some are more gifted in this regard than others. Yet I doubt it is an exaggeration that 999,999 or more out of a million humans living today, or at any period of history or prehistory, if asked how they would like to see their lives improved, as well as the world in which they live, will frame answers involving only minor modifications of existing circumstances. When human inventive genius brought into manifestation, for example, mechanical means of replacing the horsepower of actual horses with engines more compact and efficient than horses, capable of much greater horsepower, that same inventive genius immediately applied itself to turning out a succession of "horseless carriages" very similar in appearance and function to contemporaneous conveyances that were still being hitched to living horses. Nobody built, or even imagined, anything remotely like a 2007-model Toyota, or Cadillac.
This is hardly surprising. The Wright brothers built a motorized box kite; they didn't build a wide-bodied jet airliner, and neither did any of their immediate successors. To the surprise of nobody, countless similar examples may be brought to mind; yet over time, the evolutionary process of human invention has eventually materialized a wealth of astounding inventions through a succession of minutely incremental improvements upon already existing mechanisms.
Today, contemporary biologists seem virtually without exception to agree that the biological process of evolution through natural selection is a "mindless" affair which advances solely by means of fortuitous adaptations to accidentally encountered circumstances. It has no "purpose" or "intent," or sense of "design," and anyone suggesting otherwise is immediately branded an irrational "mystic," or "heretic," or worse. Yet the process of human invention, which is universally acknowledged to be guided by purpose, intent, and creative design, seems to follow exactly the same incremental pattern exhibited by "mindless" evolution at large.
Moreover, as we have seen, patterns of astonishing complexity and functionality emerge spontaneously in endless variety, everywhere we look, once our perceptions are attuned to them, in circumstances in which nothing resembling what we customarily recognize as "mind" is anywhere evident. Examining the membrane of a single cell, we find nothing but a forest of clockwork molecular mechanisms which individually open and close pores in response to comprehensible mechanical stimuli. Yet their aggregate effect is the reduction of entropy throughout the entire fabric of all biological life. Examining a human brain, we find a dense tangle of interconnected neurons whose actions, although not entirely understood, seem at bottom to be no less "mindless" than the mechanical contraptions that populate cell membranes. Yet out of them have sprung the works of Bach and Beethoven, among countless human inventions and sublime creative works.
Conversely, even the entirely human-engineered Internet, which facilitates with high efficiency the swift circulation and proliferation of information throughout the planet, has taken its form not in consequence of deliberate human intent, but in response to countless local individual human decisions which have combined to produce a comprehensive result utterly beyond anyone's conscious imagination.
Such patterns are constantly and spontaneously emerging everywhere, and always have been, with human agency, and without; and I submit that the contemporary declaration, on the basis of unavoidably partial information, that they are the result of "mindless" processes is no less a myth than any other human belief that has ever been held by anyone.
With a "minor shift in perspective," therefore, I would like to propose an alternative, and I think, much more useful myth, viz.: that the process of evolution itself, whether occurring over the span of millions of years among the mountains, glaciers, deserts, and jungles of the planet; or billions of years among the galaxies and stars; or months and years and centuries among humans, is a prototypically metaconscious process, reiterated in countless specific examples, at all times, places, and scales throughout Cosmos. Such is a provisional, and partial articulation of the Myth of Metaconscious Evolution.
[Return to contents of this section.]
1. See Infinity and Complementarity, Again in section II.5 for elaboration.
2. See I.8 Lessons From History for expansion of this theme.
3. See I.4 Metaconsciousness Among the Quantum Fields.
4. Actually, Copernicus had his published work, De Revolutionibus, placed into his hands while on his death bed, where he was safely beyond the reach of the Inquisition. In more recent times, the names, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744 to 1829), and Immanuel Velikovsky (1895 to 1979), spring to mind as individuals whose insights have met with almost universal opprobrium, yet may rise again to make some contribution to a future iteration of "the Edifice of human discovery."
5. Bruce Lipton, Ph.D., The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles, Mountain of Love / Elite Books, Santa Rosa, California, 2005, p. 61.
6. Eukaryotes are cells containing a nucleus; as distinguished from their more primitive counterparts, the prokaryotes, consisting only of cytoplasm enclosed within a cell membrane. [Lipton, 2005, pp. 37, 77.]
7. Ibid., p. 62.
8. Loc. cit.
9. Ibid., pp. 95-6.
10. G. Null, Ph.D., C. Dean, M.D. N.D., et al., Death by Medicine, Nutrition Institute of America, New York, 2003, cited by Lipton, 2005, p. 108.
11. Lipton, 2005, p. 66.
12. A. S. Eddington, M.A., LL.D, D.Sc., F.R.S, The Nature of the Physical World, Gifford Lectures, 1927, Cambridge University Press, 1928, chapter 4, p. 72. Not necessarily typical, but representative of the great many allusions to Eddington's image is a remark made by Arther Dent while being rescued from certain asphyxiation in the vacuum of interstellar space by the unimaginably improbable appearance in his immediate vicinity of the Heart of Gold, a spaceship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive. "Ford!" Arthur said, "there's an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've worked out." [Adams, 1980, p. 85.]
13. See the brief discussion on Metaconsciousness in section II.5 for its first mention as complimentary to the second law of thermodynamics.
14. Quoted in the Wikipedia, citing "Maxwell (1871), reprinted in Leff & Rex (1990) at p.4".
15. See footnote 6.
16. Source: Wikipidia, bearing the following copyright information:
This image has been released into the public domain by its author, LadyofHats. This applies worldwide.
In some countries this may not be legally possible; if so: LadyofHats grants anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.
I have removed the labeling of the original drawing, and replaced it with fewer labels identifying features discussed in this text. I have also enlarged the detail of the phospholipid molecule.
17. Lipton, 2005, p. 91.
18. B.A. Cornell, V.L.B. Braach-Maksvytis, et al., "A biosensor that uses ion-channel switches," Nature 387: 580-583, 1997, cited by Lipton, 2005, p. 91.
19. See The Barnyard Pecking Order in section I.2.
20. The U.S. Census Bureau placed the U.S. resident population at 179,323,175 in 1960, and 203,302,031 in 1970.
21. Mark Buchanan, NEXUS: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2002, p. 13.
22. Loc. cit.
23. Mark Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited," Sociological Theory, 1, 203-233, 1983, cited by Buchanan, 2002, p.46.
24. Duncan J. Watts and Steven H. Strogatz, "Collective Dynamics of 'Small-World' Networks," Nature 393, 440-442, 1998, cited by Buchanan, 2002, p.60.
25. Watts and Strogatz, 1998, p. 442.
26. Source: The Opte Project; image licensed under the Creative Commons License. The birth and growth of the Internet is discussed by Buchanan, 2002, Chapter 5, The Small-World Web, pp. 73-88; and by me in my essay, "The Internet as a New Paradigm Manifestation," 1/4/98; in Grahn, 1/26/00; and in I.6. The Hacker Tribe.
27. Grahn, 1/4/98.
28. Illustrations adapted from Grahn, 1/4/98.
29. Buchanan, 2002, pp. 78-80.
30. Ibid., pp. 75-6.
31. Ibid., pp. 82-6.
32. Ibid., pp. 97-103.
33. Ibid., Chapter 7, pp. 106-120.
34. Bloom, 2000, p. 14; cited in section I.1 of this work.
35. Buchanan, 2002, p. 119.
36. Ibid., pp. 123-7.
37. Francis Crick,The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1994.
38. Ibid., p. 3.
39. Ibid., pp. 8-9.
40. Is this too harsh? Possibly so. If I am so entitled, then everyone else must be similarly entitled to all our myths and ways of looking at things; so it may be quite out of line for me to make pronouncements about how others approach reality. Let's just say that, for myself, I regard statements implying that my personal view is "the way it is," as not fitting my idea of "intellectual honesty;" and that accepting someone else's view of "the way it is" as "authoritative" does not fit my idea of being "intellectually responsible." Therefore, I try to avoid these traps myself, but do not "condemn" others for falling into them.
41. Read practically anything by Fuller, and you're sure to encounter the phrase, or words to that effect, before very long.
42. See the Inconclusion to section II.7 for qualification.
Metaconsciousness: Mythology for a Post-Civilized World
II.5 | Contents | II.7