Tag Archives: Emergence

The Spirit, Networks, and Emergence Part 2

(My neck of the woods, from space. NASA composite image)

Hello again folks!

When I originally wrote this post, I didn’t expect this to have a second part, nor did I expect it to warrant a response; especially a three part one. As such, I give a hat tip to my friend Sarenth over at his blog, and his response from the first article I used in my original piece here.

I wanted to address a few of the points he raised, and add on a lot more to the original piece. There would appear a lot more to say on this matter. First off I will start with a couple of points, as a response to Sarenth. This is to clarify my own position, more than it is to argue with his.

Overall, Sarenth is very critical of the ideas of the first article, and the ideas within. That is within his right to be so, and you are welcome to check out his thoughts for yourself. For the record of this series, neurology, science, specific definitions of the soul, and transhumanism are outside the content of this series.  That is not what I am here to talk about, as this series is more philosophy than anything. But there is one point I do wish to address. Sarenth says;

“Certainly, if we consider the the soul “as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?” then my hugr,my munr (memory) and possibly my lich, my body, would be all that I am.  It denies the other parts of the Northern Tradition and Heathen Soul Matrix.  

This boils down the soul itself to a purely materialist concept, dispensing entirely with the numenous.  It may make the concept of the soul more palatable to ‘modern’ people, but it is poor theology.  It is like saying “All I am is my cells.”  While strictly true in a physical, materialist sense, it belies the creativity with which I write, the life I lead.  “What of my mind and my individual will?” for example, is a concept poorly explained in such a system.  If indeed we have any notion that we are other than living in a mechanical, purely material universe, then this notion ignores our will, and the mind itself.  If the concept of the soul merely boils down to “You being you is merely the result of your genetics, and the way your brain is formed and wired”, then it not only neuters the understanding of the soul, it outright destroys it.”

I do want to make clear, that in no way am I personally suggesting that the sum-total of our material bodies is all that we are. Nor is redefining what “soul” means of any real interest to me (with the exception being the immortal part.) All I am is not my cells, or my material and energy cycles. That is nearly precisely the opposite of what I want to talk about here.

In fact, per the original NPR article, what I really want to frame is this quote here from Gleiser;

“Just as we have unique fingerprints, our brains, their “connectome,” are also unique. Surely, all brains are made of the same stuff, but wired in very individual ways. Recall that our brains are plastic, and mold themselves according to environmental and emotional inputs — the stories of our lives. To this, we must add our bodies and their relation to our brains. For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration as mapped through the complex highways of nerves interlocking all of you” 

The real point I want to make is not the brain, or its neurology; but of emergent properties. The mind, all that we think and feel, emerges from the connections in our brains. The (human) soul, as I currently like to think of it, is an emergent property of the sum total of the connections between the cells and material in our bodies. Trillions and trillions and trillions of connections of matter, energy,  and complex systems interacting.

As I imagine the soul, it is what emerges when all those connections are considered. Like trillions of little “spiritual filaments” connecting everything in our mind and body, and which is greater than our individual material selves. I envision it like a really complex mesh of trillions of little glowing filaments it a more or less human shape. That is my essence, my spirit, my soul. Without those connections, all I am would cease to be. (Which is more or less what happens at death, but now is not the time.)

All in all, drawing from Sarenth’s post, Soul Matrix is a great word for this. A complex network from which something else develops. Meshing, Matrix, Network, Wiring; all of which I will use to describe the emergent property I currently think of as the soul.

As far as terms like Hugr and Munr are concerned, they can be used as a “spiritual shorthand.” Frankly, smaller numbers of “parts” are a lot easier to communicate than “a matrix of a trillion trillion light filaments.” Both have their place, I think.

However, moving beyond the individual, we are connected to pretty much everything else on this planet. Some of these connections are tangible, like matter relationships with our food. Some are not nearly as tangible, like the words we exchange with one another. When we extend these connections, these “filaments” beyond ourselves; things start to get really interesting.

As I have said before, I am a big fan of the concept of emergent properties. As you network and connect a greater number of parts, synergies start to happen. Synergy here is defined as “the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts”, and not as some bad corporate propaganda. Two oxygen atoms connect with a hydrogen, and water happens; which has characteristics of neither. You get enough water together with other molecules and some self-replicating proteins, single celled life happens. When evolution experiments with enough arrangements of different forms of life over the long flow of time; humans happen.

In short, the sum is greater than the sum of the parts. At each new level of organization, new properties emerge that are not predicated by the lower levels. This has fascinating implications from an animistic point of view, which is all about creating relationships.

Enough plants, animals, rocks and rivers together and you get an ecosystem. You get enough humans together together and you get a society. When you experiment with enough societies, you get more complex and larger forms of networked humans.

(Note, both evolution and social development are non-linear processes. There are failures, successes, stops and starts.)

Yet, what happens when you get a “critical mass” of human societies networked with other systems on a planetary scale? Something interesting may be emerging indeed… Here I turned to an article from the BBC;

“In Ancient Greek mythology, the Earth Goddess Gaia had nine titan sons, who attempted to control not just the Earth, but the entire Universe. I’d like to introduce another. It’s a new creature who emerged only in recent decades. But it’s a creature who is already as influential over life on the planet as the phytoplankton or forests that regulate global temperature, the weather and the air we breathe.

That new creature is us, or more precisely, what humanity is becoming. The entirety of our species, Homo sapiens, is evolving into a superorganism; I’ll call this new life force Homo omnis, or ‘Homni’.

We have now become the dominant force shaping our planet. Some say that because of our actions we have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, or the age of man. Homni is a product of this age, a product of human industrialisation, population expansion, globalisation and the revolution in communications technology, and he is immensely powerful.”

The idea of the superorganism is an old one, and here it is used more as an analogy than as a literal truth. Herbert Spencer was one of the first to propose the idea in the social theory. Here is a excerpt from Wikipedia;

“Spencer explored the holistic nature of society as a social organism… For Spencer, the super-organic was an emergent property of interacting organisms, that is, human beings. ”     

Still, the idea has gone through many thinkers, and many different variations. When thinking about an increasingly networked world, the superorganism becomes an interesting analogy. If the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; we might want to think about looking a lot harder at the parts we each play. Such a worldview would favor greater collaboration, greater integration and networking, and a life centered approach. The whole of it all would be one part humanity, one part technology, and one part ecology.

We would need to look at the world through a much more holistic lens.

I give the last word here to the BBC;

“And here lies an interesting paradox. Humans may have evolved through a process of natural selection – essentially outcompeting rivals to death – but as palaeontologist Tim Flannery says, this has led not to a “dog-eat-dog world”, but to a cooperative society. He believes we are in the process of forming an interdependent global society with a set of shared beliefs – a “civilisation of ideas” – that will transform Earth into a more equitable and ecologically curated planet. It’s an optimistic view of Homni, based on the fact that most people want to get on with each other and look after their neighbourhood environment. Whether, or to what degree, Flannery’s altruistic view of humanity bears out is the big question.”

 Thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

BBC – Superorganism

Collective Intelligence

Superorganism

The Technium

The Hobbesian


The Spirit, Networks, and Emergence

Hello again folks, hope you are all doing well!

Today I want to talk some about some recent pieces that I have read recently. The two pieces in question are really fascinating to think about in the context of an animistic practice.

Both of these pieces come from NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. If you are not familiar with it, I would highly recommend checking it out. There are some great writers over there.

The first piece is by Marcelo Gleiser, and is entitled Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul? To frame this discussion, I start out with a quote from the article;

“The idea that neuroscience is rediscovering the soul is, to most scientists and philosophers, nothing short of outrageous. Of course it is not.

But the widespread, adverse, knee-jerk attitude presupposes the old-fashioned definition of the soul — the ethereal, immaterial entity that somehow encapsulates your essence. Surely, this kind of supernatural mumbo-jumbo has no place in modern science. And I agree. The Cartesian separation of body and soul, the res extensa (matter stuff) vs. res cogitans (mind stuff) has long been discarded as untenable in a strictly materialistic description of natural phenomena.”

I have to admit, I had the same kind of reaction when I first read the title. The world really is a fantastic mix of matter and energy, but these things are interchangeably and so far science has not found what might be called a “spirit particle” or anything of the sort. From what we know of this world, everything is pretty much matter or energy.

Still, as an animist there is definitely a spiritual component to all the work that I do. I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

I take a similar view; but on a much more biological scale. My body is the collective of countless numbers of individual cells, individual spiritual persons. Together, they make something much greater than the sum of the parts. (We will come back to this later in this piece.) Yet there is something in there, a sum collective of all my energies and processes that is distinctly me. My body and my spirit are so deeply integrated and networked, that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.

Gleiser says it this way;

“But what if we revisit the definition of soul, abandoning its canonical meaning as the “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” for something more modern? What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?

Just as we have unique fingerprints, our brains, their “connectome,” are also unique. Surely, all brains are made of the same stuff, but wired in very individual ways. Recall that our brains are plastic, and mold themselves according to environmental and emotional inputs — the stories of our lives. To this, we must add our bodies and their relation to our brains. For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration as mapped through the complex highways of nerves interlocking all of you.”

Reading that made my skin crawl in a rather wonderful way. I especially love the bit where he says “For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium, but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration…”

Remember that part about emergent properties and integration, we will be coming back to that.

The thing I refer to as my “self” is really more of a collective of individuals than a single being. All the trillions of cells in my brain and body working in conjunction across masses of networks. That is my body as well as my soul. The Norse concept of hugr, a form of the spiritual “self” is a rather nice fit here. The hugr is considered to be the sum total of the mental life of an individual, and that is exactly what I think Gleiser is talking about.

Our stories, our environment, and our own makeup interacting and coming up with this thing we might call the spirit. That is just wonderful in so many ways.

Before I harp too much on that, I want to turn to the other article that I read recently. It is by David Haskell, and is titled Life is the Network, not the Self.

In talking about a maple leaf, Haskell says;

“By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. “

I told you we would come back to emergent properties and networked integration. When we consider our own bodies, we see huge networked complexes working together in both conflict and cooperation. Bacteria in our guts are working to help us digest our food, networked neurons are working to process the information from our senses, our heart muscles are working in a constant beat to keep the blood, nutrients and oxygen moving through our bodies.

As Haskell points out, this kind of integration expands well beyond the individual human, but to maple trees, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere of the planet. Every collective being on this planet is networked, and from that networking new and fascinating forms emerge. Over the long course of evolution, individual cells have been experimenting with different collective networks, and that has given rise to every single living thing on this planet.

As Haskell says;

“Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. Many of the first fossilized cells of life on Earth lived in integrated bacterial stacks called stromatolites. Today, all major ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, grasslands, ocean plankton — are built on conversations between interdependent partners. Cut these conversations and the ecosystems fall apart. The first artificial cells also have a networked character. When scientists organize chemical reactions into arrays of tiny, interconnected compartments, life-like properties emerge: cycles of protein production, gradients of signaling chemicals, and the ability to maintain a steady internal state. Without the network, the homogeneous chemical soup lacks any tang of life.

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.”

If we consider the soul to be the sum total of all these connections, in our bodies and with our environment, something rather fascinating and terrifying starts to emerge. As I have explained many times before, animism is concerned with life living in relationships with each other.

Consider our relationships well beyond ourselves. Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

[Credit: NASA/Suomi NPP VIIRS/Miguel Román/Joshua Stevens]

Thanks for reading!

References/Sources;

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/05/522738015/is-neuroscience-rediscovering-the-soul

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/04/522011396/the-key-to-life-is-the-network