Sunday, May 13, 2012


A recent class I taught left me with residues of discontent. What I was not able to resolve, to my own satisfaction, at least, was how to reconcile modern science—especially physics—with the root mystery of life: how life originates, how human consciousness can arise from “meat” or neurons in the brain, how, or if, meaning arises at all. To hear many physicists talk about it, it’s all very straightforward. Everything proceeds by inexorable laws of motion, gravity, quantum mechanics, and mathematics. Particles appear out of something (or nothing) called quantum foam, or quantum jitters, or simply empty space, and once they appear, the whole shebang moves in quite orderly and predictable ways to clouds of expanding gas, galaxies, suns, planets, and, over billions of years, cells, multicellulars, and us.

            Of course not everyone is buying this determinism, and increasingly some scientists—mostly in the biological sciences—are raising objections. Stuart Kauffman, for example, wrote a book recently called Reinventing the Sacred. Appearing at lots of conferences to present his theory, Kauffman suggests that, though no creator God is needed, humans may need to attribute the mystery of being to something like a god, so why not name the immense “creativity” in the universe “God.” But it’s not just a renaming that Kauffman is after; it’s proving that the reductionism of physics—that all proceeds deterministically according to physical laws—simply can no longer be sustained. His reasons are complex, and I’ll cite some below, but basically what he says is that in order for a physical law to be applicable, one needs to know the state of the space in which it applies. Once life enters the picture, however, and even well before, the space is simply not predictable. Especially in biology is this true. Evolution proceeds by mutation and natural selection, yes; but the space or niche that any organism will be selected to fill can never be known ahead of time. Therefore, no law can predict what will be created (or selected to fill a niche that is unknowable beforehand). Equally important, life and matter seem to organize themselves in unpredictable ways, in Kauffman’s view, by something he calls “autocatalyis”:

            …the basis of life…rests in some way on catalysis, the speeding up of chemical reactions by enzymes. My second intuition is that life is based on some form of autocatalysis, in which the molecules in a set catalyze one another’s formation. (p. 55).

Kauffman then cites experiments by Gunter von Kiedrowski where DNA strands with 6 nucleotides (a hexamer) were able to bind with a DNA strand with 3 nucleotides (a trimer), to make the first “reproducing molecular system.” That is, the hexamer proved to be autocatalytic: “it builds a second copy of itself by ‘ligating’ the two trimers into a new hexamer.” Further experiments showed that this same “self-organization” could be achieved by peptide fragments, each fragment catalyzing the other in a kind of feedback loop.

            What interests me is that other scientists have focused on this same idea of self-organization or emergence to rethink how life works. Kauffman, for example, says flat out that “consciousness is emergent” and that not just conscious humans but a huge portion of living beings are “agents.” This means that they act in a purposeful way (not as deterministic automatons), and that those scientifically-forbidden concepts of value and meaning spring naturally from this. As Kauffman says: “you and I are agents; we act on our own behalf; we do things. In physics, there are only happenings, not doings” (p. 4). Other scientists, like Nobel chemist Ilya Prigogine, have also contested the alleged “passivity” of matter by pointing out how molecules, such as those in chemical suspensions, or, on a larger scale, in whirlpools, can organize themselves. As explained by Brian Swimme,

            Prigogine’s experiments demonstrated that under certain conditions, chemicals could organize themselves into complex patterns requiring the coordination of trillions of molecules. And they did this with no instructions. No humans organized them. Nor did they have a genetic blueprint that guided their actions. Instead, their own intrinsic self-organizing dynamics directed these complex interactions. (Swimme, Journey of the Universe, p. 106).

The late Francisco Varela took this idea of self-organization or emergence up to cell formation. Varela coined the term “autopoesis,” or self-creation. The term referred specifically to how, evolutionarily, groups of molecules were somehow able to bootstrap themselves into making a boundary, a membrane, that created a primary cell (i.e., by holding all together, the boundary literally creates the cell,):

            This is a logical bootstrap, a loop: a network produces entities that create a boundary, which constrains the network that produced the boundary. This bootstrap is precisely what’s unique about cells. A self-distinguishing entity exists when the bootstrap is completed. This entity has produced its own boundary. (Swimme, p. 49)

            Here is where it gets fascinating for me, for I begin to think of the self-referential implications in all of this. In a way, it almost defies our imaginations. Something creates that which is still “itself” but which changes the very nature of what it is. Our consciousness—or rather our self-consciousness—is like that. We see ourselves being ourselves. We are not only conscious—which is magical enough (especially if we take neuroscientists at their word that the brain, “meat”, somehow creates an immaterial entity like the mind)—but we are conscious of being conscious. It gets a bit dizzying, especially when, as in meditation, one is advised to focus on that which is the observer of, say, one’s thoughts. Who is that observer? Is it (he? she?), too, created by the “meat” of neurons? Very hard to say. What seems clear to me is that we are here in the realm of the emergent “self-organization” that seems to run through virtually all creation.

            There was a Pulitzer-prize winning book written around 1979 by Douglas Hofstadter called Godel, Escher, Bach. Hofstadter’s reason for putting these three geniuses together had to do with the link between them, the link of self-reference. Bach’s fugues, Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, and Escher’s prints all referred, each in their own ways, to the idea of self-reference. Escher’s prints provide the most graphic way to think of this: in one iconic drawing, the hands of the artist are depicted in a way that makes it seem that each drawn hand is drawing the other hand, drawing the drawing itself. It is a logical impossibility, but we know instantly what it means. We have a sense of its “rightness,” somehow. The same goes for Bach’s fugues and the Godel theorem—the latter deriving its logic from the fact that one can never see (or mathematically represent) a whole situation. The see-er can never include his seeing in what he sees, and thus never takes in the whole. And yet, there are these representations.

            My own take on this comes from an Italian folk tale collected by Italo Calvino in his classic Italian Folktales (1956). In Giovannin Senza Paura (Little John without fear), the main character has a reputation for being fearless. But one day, he goes into battle with a fearsome adversary, who cuts off our hero’s head. Calmly, Giovannin stoops and puts his head back on, confident of continuing the battle. But alas, he puts his head on backwards, looks at his backside, and dies of fright. What is it that frightens the fearless one to death? It is not explained, but we can guess it’s something like ‘the sight which is not to be seen.’ The sight of oneself whole, perhaps. The sight of the whole. And it reminds us of other sights, in mythology, that are not permitted to humans, and thereby to what we’ve been discussing:
            Tiresias sees snakes copulating (or Athena naked) and, transformed into a woman for 7 years, is then asked by Hera to judge who gets the greater pleasure in sex, man or woman. Tiresias claims it is woman, and Hera strikes him blind. He has seen what is not to be seen (so he becomes a blind ‘seer’). Similarly, Actaeon sees the Goddess Artemis naked, whereupon she turns him into a stag, to then be devoured by his own hounds who do not recognize him. All these tales—and there are many more—refer to the idea of humans seeing what is prohibited—seeing into the mystery. Notably, the seeing is always the normal kind of seeing, sensory seeing, seeing from a specific, objectifying point of view. I have written about this in my Mal Occhio book, but here the question becomes, ‘what is that which cannot be seen by the naked eye?’ by the normal human, rational, objectifying eye? From a Godelian point of view, completeness, perhaps, or wholeness. We cannot reduce the whole to a consistent formula. In many evil eye traditions, that which is at risk of harm from eyes is any hint of perfection. Perfection, including the fundamental mysteries of nature, cannot be seen. Thoreau referred to this in one of his Notebooks: he wrote something like, ‘Man cannot afford to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye.’ In other words, there is something inherently forbidden or un-seeable (it may be that physicists have already reached this level, for none has ever seen a quark or a “string” and no one ever will apparently—photons of light interfere with entities this small), and it clusters around ideas of wholeness, perfection, the mystery of life self-organizing, perhaps, improbably bootstrapping itself from one level of organization to another, as in consciousness.

            And yet we know it. Bach knew it. Escher knew it. And I think this knowing is symbolized by the ancient symbol of the ouroboros: the snake eating its own tail. This is an ancient symbol of deep mystery: a creature nourishing itself on itself. Eating not another, but itself in an act of incomprehensible self-creation (and self-sacrifice), of leaping improbably to another level. And depicted not as acquisitive or destructive, but as a self-renewing, infinite circle. In a way, we do this daily. For if we are all constructed of the same basic ingredients, which we are—all living cells being constructed on the same basic plan of the same basic elements, so we are related to every one of the bacteria whose numbers and creativity overwhelm our imaginations—then each time we eat a frog or a pig or a chicken or a fish or any vegetable or grain, we are eating ourselves. We are the ouroboros. We are the mystery whose most recent bootstrap miracle is consciousness. 

            And given that we do not know, cannot know what might be the next phase space for the next emergence, it may be that bootstrapping ourselves to another more global form of consciousness is right around the corner. I am comforted by that. Because if we are ever to get out of the current mess our celebrated, rational brains have got us into, it will have to be via a leap to something more, a more inclusive, less intrusive level of seeing and knowing and, most of all, accepting that from which we have come, that which we truly are.

            Perhaps the words of another cell biologist, Ursula Goodenough, provide a fitting end here, for Goodenough also places emergence at the center of her meditations on what she calls The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford U Press: 1998). And that she, too, makes use of the “snake eating its tail” metaphor here strikes me as, well, uncanny:

            For me, the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to apprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value. The continuation of life reaches around, grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle that requires no further justification, no Creator, no superordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than that the continuation continue until the sun collapses or the final meteor collides. 

Lawrence DiStasi

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