Alternative Origin Stories
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What is it we most want or lack an origin story of? On approaching my eighties, I've concluded it's the experience of being. I am increasingly aware just of being, of being something. And increasingly this has become the foundation of my sense of well being in general. Because of how I carve nature at its joints (see the introduction to this section) I trace that experience back to us having evolved, first to become living creatures, then to become human, finally to become conscious. From this point of view, the key to finding meaning in life lies in the study of these particular stages of evolution. Yet we're very unlikely to get that kind of wisdom from how science studies evolution, at least not within our lifetimes.
Is that OK, making the human lifespan the standard for what we should study? I think so. Each of us exists no longer than a lifetime, and I've come to think that how evolution and development continue to express themselves throughout our lives is the greatest of all dramas. Science only matters as it features in that drama. After all, if all humans died, science wouldn't exist. In some absolute sense, resources available to us for enriching our experiences in our lifetimes are more important than progress in science. The value of science depends on how it can serve us during our lifetimes, as it always has.
So why are we still living with a pre-Victorian theory of evolution--Darwin, approaching 30, was already two-years back from his Galapagos trip and working on his theory when the 17-year old Victoria ascended the throne. The big issue then was the origin of species. The leading science of the day was making sense of new creatures being discovered on distant continents and as fossils in the ground. The leading technology was the breeding of livestock for which you had to select among the best available species.To solve the big issue of his day Dawin drew on that science, artificial selection by livestock breeders, to come up with his mechanism he called natural selection. But while his theory may account for our inclination to rape and murder each other in order to propel our genes into future generations, that doesn't address the big issues facing us--how, individually, we matter, and how as a species we belong in the world. What does it mean, to us, today, that we evolved?
To answer that question I go back to the five creations I've already proposed. From how different the two are that we know most about, the material world and the quantum world, I'm going to assume the creations of life and consciousness also operate on entirely different principles. I don't know that's true, but it seems a reasonable assumption. In particular, I won't carry over to the creation of life the laws of physics that hold in creation three, the physical world of the elements.
The main problem I face is needing appropriate metaphors in order to imagine anything. For life I do have one or two metaphors. But for consciousness I have none at all. I have nothing but my experiences of it. Here goes.
My main metaphor for life is, patterns of connection. I got this idea from Gregory Bateson, who I expect got it from his father, William Bateson. Examples of patterns of connection are complicated physical systems such as water sheds, where an input you make in one place--the breaking of a dam, for example--will have a complex set of outcomes throughout the system, just through how everything's connected. To create machine intelligence technicians set up a system like that, from scratch, out of banks of switches, each bank of switches processing the signals from the bank preceding it. What's different in this case is, you tell the system what output you want from what you put into it, and let the system arrive at the pattern of connections inside it that "solves the problem." It does this by trying out different patterns of connections throughout the banks of switches, arriving gradually at the solution as it's told how well it's doing.
I think of early life as taking the form of patterns of connection that solved the problem of living and reproducing. I think of the switches as being made of chemicals, like how proteins work in the body to catalyze particular reactions. Then, think of life not as masses of tiny creatures but as growing webs of patterns of connection. Inputs into such a system are what a creature senses, outputs are muscle twitches driving behavior. Behaviors that solve problems become reinforced throughout the pattern of connection.
In those growing webs what we think of as intelligence can be imagined developing to almost any degree of wisdom as the webs spread. Intelligence like this isn't a property of matter, it emerges through forms matter can be fashioned into. From this point on, life operates as directed by its own intelligence on principles alien to the creation of physical matter. The rest of the story of life will consist of how that intelligence learns to monitor its own operation, learns about the conditions around it, and elaborates itself to solve problems of increasing complexity.
That's my account of the origin of intelligence. For the origin of mind I have to employ another metaphor--and it's a very weak one--that I think of as a register in a computer. When in the course of its normal operations a computer needs to carry out some special operation that it's not equipped for, it can offload that operation to a special register that is appropriately equipped. That register does its thing and then passes the outcome back to the computer. Now imagine life, having taken the form of vast webs of patterns of connection, hiving off special webs of connections for special uses. For memory, for example. For mathematical operations. For deciphering "causes"--correlations between earlier and later events. For reason--a logic that can be abstracted from these correlations. And so on. These begin as registers, that any part of the living web can call on. And suppose further that in time these registers join up into their own collossal pattern of connection to form a general intelligence. That's mind.
How does mind come to drive behavior? By applying reason to signals from the outside world the mind can identify new meanings in them, leading it to conclusions that feed back into the existing patterns of connection that influence behavior. In time the greater wisdom in those conclusions may result in mind being given priority within the pattern of connections leading to behavior. Now mind can manipulate matter. Patterns of connection can support mind, but they're made of matter, so they can make changes in matter.
For me, that's an OK explanation for the origin of mind. All I needed to account for is how it could work, what it does, how it could have developed. My metaphors help me "understand" that. Consciousness is something else. Mind is a capability for intelligently directing the behavior of living creatures, but conscious experiences are real, real things with their own distinctive nature. Mind I experience only as something within consciousness but consciousnes I experience directly. I can imagine how it arose, as mind begins to apply reason to its own operations, then to suppose itself the "agent" responsible for those operations. But somehow then this supposing itself an agent becomes consciousness of itself as an agent. And that's a leap into an entirely different creation. I'm totally at a loss for metaphors through which to feel I understand that. All I know is, it happened. I'm conscious.
All this I imagine happening within a billion years or so of the first appearance of life. Self-aware agents within the neural nets of life begin to consciously direct the process of their own evolution, and of the creatures they code for. Increasingly they embed some of their own intelligence in their creatures, until in us they embed some of their own capacity for consciousness.
I say more about this in my book "Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved."
For a more entertaining and graphic account see my video "."
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Plato famously spoke of of natural philosophers carving nature at its joints, likening how they divide nature up to the decisions a butcher must make of which joints in a carcase to sever to best dismember it. If the study of evolution passes from science to the humanities, how can we expect them to carve nature up in order to make more sense of it? Does the agency responsible for evolution consist solely of physical processes acting on elemental matter, or should we include in what evolves a consciousness that's not altogether physically determined, that may be genuinely creative? Are we, as the Stoics believed, minature reproductions of the agency responsible for evolution so what is true of us is likely to be true of that agency as well? Or do the various limbs of nature that lie between its joints bear no relation to one another at all, so what we discover about one limb tells us nothing about any of the others?
This takes us far beyond the reach of the methods of today's science. So what else is there? In this section of the site I explore using methods of the humanities--fiction and armchair speculation. How successful are my confections? I think the test is simply, how good do they taste? Do we recognize ourselves in them? Is that the best we can do? It may be centuries before science, following along behind us, can surge ahead and confirm our speculations. Meanwhile, each of us has a life to live, as best we can, guided by the best principles we know of.
The first three pages in this section, as I write, are linked. The first divides nature into five limbs, characterizing them as five creations. The second is a story involving our relation primarily to the first three of those creations. The third is a consideration of what it is we're most ignorant of--life and mind. The fourth consists of speculation about the sources of our experiences of conscious human being--that is, the experience of being, conditioned by our being human and conscious--and what it "means." Finally, at the time of writing this, comes a time travel fantasy that allows us to compare the potential of a humanities' approach to what science seems likely to deliver, which from its progress over the past century isn't very much.
Does this mean, anything goes? What distinguishes the humanities from art alone, in my opinion, is their ability to combine creativity with discipline. The outcome could be a new religion, but that needn't be so bad. That may be, for our lifetimes at least, the best way available to us of conceiving of our place in nature.
WHY ORIGIN STORIES
From "Come, Tell me How You Live" by Agatha Christie, about her time with her anthropologist husband on a dig in Syria.
A party of women are coming from the distance towards me. By the gaiety of their coloring they are Kurdish women. They are busy digging up roots and picking leaves. They make a beeline for me. Presently they are sitting round me in a circle.
Kurdish women are gay and handsome. They wear bright colors. These women have turbans of bright orange round their heads, their clothes are green and purple and yellow. Their heads are carried erect on their shoulders, they are tall, with a backward stance so they always look proud. They have bronze faces, with regular faces, red cheeks, and usually blue eyes...
In this part of the world Kurdish and Arab villages are about equal in number. They lead the same lives and belong to the same religon, but not for a moment could you mistake a Kurdish woman for an Arab woman. Arab women are invariably modest and retiring; they turn their faces away when you speak to them; if they look at you, they do so from a distance. If they smile, it is shyly, and with half-averted face. They wear mostly black or dark colors. And no Arab woman would ever come up and speak to a man! A Kurdish woman has no doubt that she is as good as a man or better! They come out of their houses and make jokes to any man, passing the time of day with the utmost amiability...
My Kurdish women this morning are examining me with frank interest and exchanging ribald comments with each other. They are very friendly, nod at me, ask questions, then sigh and shake their heads as they tap their lips. They are clearly saying: "What a pity we cannot understand each other!" They take up a fold of my skirt and examine it with interest; they pinch my sleeve. They point at the mound. I am the Khwaja's woman? I nod. They fire off more qiuestions, then laugh at the realization that they cannot get answers. No doubt they want to know all about my children and my miscarriages.
They try to explain to me what they do with the herbs and plants they are picking. Ah, but it is no good! Another great burst of laughter breaks out. They get up, smile, and nod and drift off, talking and laughing. They are like great gay-colored flowers. They live in hovels of mud, with perhaps a few cooking pots as all their possessions, yet their gaiety and laughter are unforced. They find life good, with a Rabelaisian flavor. They are handsome, and full-blooded and gay.
My little Arab girl passes, driving the cows. She smiles at me shyly, then quickly averts her eyes...
[About death and honor.] Accustomed as we are to our Western ideas of the importance of life, it is difficult to adjust one's thoughts to a different scale of values. And yet to the Oriental mind it is simple enough. Death is bound to come--it is as inevitble as birth, whether it comes early or late is entirely at the will of Allah. And that belief, that acquiescence, does away with what has become the curse of our present-day world--anxiety. There may not be freedom from want, but there is certainly freedom from fear.
[In retrospect] I love that gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and enjoy life; who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of huimor, and to whom death is not terrible.
What makes the difference? Largely, origin stories, I say. That is why I care about them, and why I ask you to too. And principal among origin stories in our time is how we evolved.
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This story appears in my "Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved," published in 2017. In it I imagine new methods for studying evolution being applied over future generations, leading to the further development of human nature.
Four hundred years ago new discoveries plunged us into the scientific revolution. Two hundred years ago we made another major discovery—we evolved. Why hasn’t that led to another revolution?
I’m a writer. I don’t have to wait until a revolution happens, I can take us there right now. I flag down a passing time machine promising “Evolution Revolution Tours.” It glides to a halt, the doors open, we step inside. “Jane at your service,” says a cheerful young woman at the controls.
Jane’s hands flutter over the controls. There’s a brief shudder. “That was it,” she says, “the revolution, we’re on the other side.” She turns to face us. “Now, what would you like to know?
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“We’re going to touch down three times,” she says, “to see how differently the revolution made people think about what it meant they evolved.”
“How does time travel work?” I ask.
“The same way history does” she says. “It gets its power from new ideas. To get us to our first landfall we’ll be traversing four ideas laid end to end.”
Once you’re under way, time travel is pretty boring. There’s nothing to look at. “Tell me about these ideas,” I say. She picks them off on her fingers.
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“Conscious experiences don’t have weight or location. You can’t sort them and put them in boxes. They aren’t physical. But we all have them. So here’s something that’s part of our everyday reality, that’s non-physical. Let’s check—if you experience conscious experiences as part of everyday reality, raise your hand.”
I raise my hand.
“You raised your hand, so you’re revolution-ready. What made you raise your hand was something only your consciousness could know—that you experience having conscious experiences. What’s revolutionary is realizing that conscious experiences—thinking or feeling or experiencing something—while they’re not physical, can make something physical happen, like make you raise your hand. Brains that are physical and consciousnesses that are non-physical can tell each other what to do. They can work together.
“So Idea Number One is: Physical processes in brains can interact with non-physical processes in consciousness. We need that idea to connect us to Idea Number Two.
“Idea Number Two: Non-physical processes can be accessed through mind
“Those non-physical processes of consciousness, let’s call where they operate, ‘mind.’ But instead of thinking of it as a place, think of it more as a banking system where, instead of an account giving you access to money, it gives you access to non-physical processes like those in consciousness.
“How do you set up an account in this ‘mind’? You don’t. Your brain does it for you. The way the human brain evolved it can plug in and set up an account for you, automatically. Then you’re conscious. It’s as easy as that. You didn’t ask to become conscious, it just happened, right?
“Idea Number Two is: By setting up accounts in mind that provide access to non-physical processes, brains can establish conscious selves. We need that idea to engage with Idea Number Three.
“Idea Number Three: The genome is a brain
“The genome is a genetic blueprint. It’s all the specifications for a living creature. In us it’s written as a few dozen molecules, called chromosomes, that we’ve a copy of in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies. But, rather than thinking of the genome as molecules think of it instead as ‘one long string of genetic code’ that carries a lot of information.
“Here’s something else about it that’s extraordinary. It’s alive—it’s part of a living creature—but while individual living creatures die, the genome lives on, because it’s copied from each generation to the next. It’s the only part of living creatures that’s existed ever since life first began. And here’s something else about it that’s amazing: As creatures evolved to become more complex the genome has grown longer, able to hold more information.
“So, does that qualify the genome to be a brain? It may not appear to be as complex as our brains but it’s been evolving for 1000 times as long. And it holds a mind-boggling amount of information. There’s nothing else on Earth remotely like it.
“So Idea Number Three is: For all intents and purposes the genome is a brain.”
Jane turns back to the dashboard and fiddles with some controls. “To maintain our speed of travel,” Jane says, “we have to join Ideas Two and Three. Like this:
“Idea Number Four: An entirely new mechanism of evolution
“Remember how I supposed brains, by opening accounts for us in mind, can make us conscious. If the genome is a brain and if it can open accounts for itself in consciousness too, who or what is it that becomes conscious?
“Whatever it is, could that be what drives evolution? I’ll show you why it could.
“If the genome can become conscious then presumably it can think. What happens then? Well, what happens when we think? When we think we make changes to our brains. Take memory for example. To be sure of remembering something you can deliberately, consciously, think it to yourself several times over to make sure it gets imprinted in your brain. What you’re doing is consciously etching a physical change into cells in your brain. Later when you want to recall it you can recall that physical memory into consciousness again.
“Suppose something like that happens when the genome ‘thinks.’ Like us, it will make changes to its ‘brain.’ But its brain consists of chromosomes and the genes along those chromosomes. And genes are what define species of living creatures! So just by thinking, the genome can write changes into genes along the chromosomes it consist of, bringing new species into existence. On this side of the revolution, people think of species as ‘really’ ideas stored in memory. They’re ideas the genome can recall, think changes to, and store back in memory as a new species.
“What I’m supposing for the genome isn’t something unreal. It’s nothing more than what we humans do when we think.
“Idea Number Four is: The genome is conscious and intelligent and creative—it can think new species into existence merely by bringing to mind the idea of an existing species and thinking changes back into its genes.”
Jane turns to the controls. “The first landfall’s coming up.” She turns back to face us. “I’ll give you a few pointers to help you feel at home.
“Even this early in the revolution, the world looks different. I’ll help you see the world the way people here do. Wherever we look we’re aware of not matter but life. In our homes everything we see is made of wood or leather and bone or fabrics made from plants. Outside we don’t see mountains made of rock, we see forests. The ground isn’t rocks and sand, we see the grass and weeds that cover it, we know the soil is rich in bacteria, insects, worms. It’s teeming with life. Even the clouds we know to be mostly water vapor given up by plants, they are a sign of life too. And because we know it evolved, wherever there’s life we see consciousness. Even this early in the revolution, physical matter has become remote. Our primary reality will be consciousness, in ourselves and in the world of evolved creatures all around us.
“That’s a big advance over your time. For you it was consciousness that seemed remote. The only example of it you knew about was locked away in each person’s conscious experience. Your scientists could draw maps of what was going on in people’s brains, but they couldn’t study the experience of consciousness itself. To them, consciousness was more remote than the far side of the moon.
“But once you have two examples of something, as people do now, studying it becomes much easier. Once people realized the genome was conscious they could study consciousness not only in their own conscious experiences but also in the world around them in the form of living creatures.
“So what are those consciousnesses in nature like? Remember I said each genome opens up a consciousness in mind. Now, our consciousnesses can’t communicate with one another directly, there seem to be barriers between them. But the consciousnesses set up by genomes can, they can communicate with one another in mind. The result is a genome consciousness at every level inside our bodies, from individual cells up through each organ and tissue to the individual itself. And beyond the individual there’ll be a genome-consciousness for each species, each order, even each kingdom, up the way up to all of nature itself.” Jane turns away to manage our landfall.
Landfall Number One: Revolution in Biology
We’re coming in to make landfall at a future college campus. It’s vast. What’s that huge building there, right in the center? “That’s the nature study complex,” Jane says. So where are the physical science departments? “They’re in those small buildings scattered around the edge of campus.” So what are all those buildings grouped there, around the nature-study complex? “Those are departments for the humanities. When evolution involves consciousness you can study it much better through the methods of the humanities than through the methods of the physical sciences. The study of evolution has gravitated back from the sciences to the humanities.”
We come in for landfall right next to the nature study complex. Jane leads us inside to take a look.
Inside it’s nothing but a maze of corridors, each one lined with small rooms along both sides.
What are people in these rooms doing? “They’re compiling biographies, one for each node in each level of the genome-intelligences,” Jane says. “Each genome-intelligence has its own personality and capabilities. Some drove the evolution of their species furiously for tens of millions of years then seemed to lose interest and let all their creatures go extinct, as happened to trilobites. Others fashioned creatures of an entirely new kind, like sharks, and then doggedly preserved them almost unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. The true story of evolution, it turns out, is better told in terms of the evolution of genomes, in mind, rather than of their creatures in the physical world.”
First step in our trip—biology has been revolutionized.
Back in the time machine Jane gets us under way. “We’re traveling on post-revolutionary ideas now,” she says.
“Idea Number Five: Evolution is creative.
“Once people accepted the process of evolution was conscious, they accepted it also had free will, it could be creative,” she says. “Non-living matter doesn’t have free will—a volcano can’t decide whether to erupt—and non-living matter can’t be creative—snowflakes still come in the same hundred or so patterns they always have. Consciousness, free will and creativity, on the other hand, all involve non-physical processes special to mind.
“And if the process of evolution was conscious, creative, and had free will, that must be where we got our consciousness, creativity and free will from. Genomes evolved before we did!”
That’s going to be the focus of our next landfall. “Idea Number Five: Evolution is the source of all creativity on Earth.”
Landfall Number Two: Revolutions in Philosophy and Physics
For our second landfall we glide silently through walls and corridors, ending up settling gently in what looks like a laboratory. It’s filled with chairs and desks but all around us are posted graphs telling us that something like experimental science has re-appeared.
Here’s what Jane tells us: The new science is made possible by the invention of a new unit of measurement, the creatron. That’s how much know-how an orb spider comes into the world with. It knows it can drop itself down on a line of silk but must climb back up to return—it knows about gravity. To lay out its web in a flat plane it has to pick its way through the world to the various anchor points; it has to know about space in three dimensions. To spin its web it must know about the production and deployment of five different kinds of silk.
With that unit established, you could measure the creativity of genomes throughout every level of nature—species, orders, entire kingdoms, even all of nature. At each higher level the creatron scores soared. The creativity of all of nature was so enormous you couldn’t distinguish it from complete freedom from determinism by physics. The old philosophical debate about determinism versus free will was finally laid to rest. Evolved creatures, like us, sharing in all of nature’s freedom from determinism, could be creative, we could have free will too. Unlike purely physical things we weren’t bound by the laws of physics, by prior chains of physical events. We could choose to go along with them or strike out on our own.
Those laws of physics? The more creativity people found in nature the less they found to apply those laws to, until it didn’t seem to matter whether those laws applied at all.
Now physics had been made over by the revolution in evolution.
Back into the time machine. “End of the line coming up,” says Jane. “Eventually, worlds reached through time travel would become too strange for you to make any sense of. Our last landfall will be just short of that point. Since your understanding will be as limited as that of a child there, we make landfall in a school classroom.
“Just bear this in mind—everything you’ve learned so far has melted down to become part of the mother tongue these people learn as infants. I have to introduce you to just one more idea before we land.
Idea Number Six: Thinking equals evolving
“The genome ‘evolves’ new kinds of creatures by thinking them into existence. So for the genome, evolving involves thinking. Could that be true for us, too? How about our thinking? Could thinking in us involve something evolving? Could thinking be our thoughts evolving, each one out of the one before, in mind? It could, if we want it to, we’ve no reason or logic for denying it. How simple that makes everything! Anything which isn’t physical, is something evolving. No more mysteries. So idea Number Six is, thinking equals evolving, both take place through non-physical processes operating in mind.”
We make landfall in a classroom.
Landfall Number Three: Revolution in Human Nature
“What makes us humans different from all other living creatures is how we think,” our teacher tells us, “We think by creating thoughts and letting them evolve. What you need to learn now is the various ways living creatures evolve, so your thoughts can evolve like that, too.”
Back in Landfall One, early in the revolution, we saw the genome intelligences being identified. In Landfall Two we saw them being assessed for their creative intelligence. Once they had had their creativity assessed, some stood out as exceptional. Surely, people thought, these genomes must have invented new “engines” to speed evolution up and make it more efficient. Patiently human engineers of the time teased apart the non-physical processes those engines consisted of, until out of those engines they had created an entirely new set of mental tools that gave human thinking access to the creative power of evolution itself.
These are the tools children are being taught in class today. They are the final fruits, as far as we can follow them, of a revolution set in motion centuries ago, when we first asked ourselves what it meant we evolved.
We can understand nothing they are being told. We reboard our vehicle.
“No more, Jane? Can’t you tell us a little more?”
“I can tell you in outline. In your day you’d already taken a big step; in just a century you’d already begun removing yourself from competition with other living species, doubling your life expectancy. Instead you’d begun putting your thoughts in your place, to evolve for you. Now, by adopting the genome’s tools, humans are on track to elevate their own intelligence to genome-intelligence levels. Humans will then be able to direct their own evolution. Human nature will become both technology and the ultimate art.
“Already people like the teacher in that classroom look back to the evolution revolution in your time as the crucial hinge in history.”
That’s as far as Jane can take us. She scoots us back to our own time. Say goodbye to Jane. “Goodbye Jane.”
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This story appears in my books "Father, in a Far Distant Past I Find You," and "Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved." It's an example of origin stories written primarily to satisfy our craving for meaning--it gives us a role in a cosmic drama. In terms of my essay, "An origin story of five creations," it refers mainly to the first three creations, while my essay "Creation of life and mind" refers to the latter two.
It is mid-morning on a hazy summer day. We are part of a sea of people sitting on a grassy slope just outside the Empire’s second-largest city. We are listening to a professional storyteller. His disciples sit beside him, but he is standing. How he’s dressed tells us he’s a newcomer to the empire. He’s telling us a story.
He begins by describing a person—a very strange person. This person is neither a human being nor any kind of material thing, is indeed nothing at all but just a person, one of immense scale, though also no bigger than a pin point. The speaker’s signs, which he pantomimes eloquently, show that this person is without process of any kind, is completely unchanging, involved in no transactions since there’s no other person to transact with. And this person is old, older than anyone or anything else.
The speaker is in no hurry. For half an hour, while he hams and jokes with his audience, he maintains an unchanging core sign while he details it further through gestures. What he’s describing, we slowly discover, is a single intelligence preceding the entire universe.
This first person exists free of processes and transactions, our speaker continues, but is not without ideas. After thinking at length what to do, it decides to invent time. Now it can initiate process. Since processes can take place only through transactions, the first person then decides to divide into two new persons. The speaker has some fun here by acting out the creation of two new signs.
The storyteller now has two persons to narrate. He describes, in agile pantomime, how first one, then the other, on divining its own nature, recognizes what it has to do and in turn divides.
In our speaker’s tale, the process of division continues. For each new person created, a new branch of mathematics has to be created, and new universal constants instituted. His signs become increasingly elaborate as the tally of persons increases and as he acts out the decision of each one to continue the division. One person gets separated from the others (this allows the speaker to suggest that, somewhere along the line, space has come into existence) and gets completely lost. He comes to believe he is the first, original being, and solemnly reenacts all the deliberations and ditherings of the original person at the story’s beginning before he, too, divides.
By this time it is early afternoon. At every division the motive given is the same: “I must transform myself into further persons, passing on the mission I inherited. That mission is; to create a sufficient wealth of persons for there to be abundant process, enough for all these persons to recombine and by degrees to create a new, single, supreme intelligence.”
As the speaker develops the later stages of division he gives increasingly detailed descriptions of the newly created persons and how they fall into families. As the pace of division slows down he starts recombining some of these persons into more complex entities, filling in certain gaps that he himself has pointed out, until he is naming one by one the ultimate units of matter discovered by Modern World scientists—we’ll call them the “quantum beings.” Finally the pantheon is complete. The final products of Modern World quantum science have all been fully represented.
“And once space and time had become fully expanded, from a spot no bigger than a dimple on a baby’s cheek to the Universe as we know it today,” he continues solemnly, “the persons stopped dividing. Why look, here’s...” and he reintroduces three of the quantum beings he had spoken of earlier and has them sing a song in which they consider various transactions they could enter into, and in a rush he fuses them into one new combination after another, then these combinations themselves combine. . . .
As he traces how the elementary quantum beings combine into first electrons and nuclear particles, then the atoms of elements, and then molecules, and the molecules combine in turn to form larger, shadowy creatures of ever-greater scale, his compatriots scattered through the crowd release lighter-than-air balloons that soar into the deep blue sky above us. As the speaker concludes, declaring the nature of the universe to be an endless cycle of single unchanging intelligences dissolving themselves into multiple intelligences, quantum beings like the quarks, and the immensely slow recombining of these separate intelligences back through a long series of steps into a new single supreme intelligence—as he completes these remarks a final torrent of balloons is released and sails off above us, lifting our spirits, whirling together into a single bright cloud of lively creatures that soars up, seeking union with thinner air at the edge of the atmosphere.
We remain seated, deeply moved. Then a figure near the speaker calls out, “But why do the divided intelligences recombine?” The speaker’s reply, not fully translatable into our language, means something like, “Because we must.”
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Here’s a framework for a humanities’ study of human origins—we’re the product of five separate creations, each of which has left its mark on us. To understand our origins, let us acknowledge all five.
The five creations are: an original existence of energy; creation from that energy of quantum entities that through their mutual repulsion created time and space; aggregation of those quantum particles into the elements of physical matter: the creation of life out of physical matter; the creation of consciousness through the evolution of living creatures.
This is a very modern origin story. We’ve only recently learned enough about the first three of these creations to imagine what must be true of the other two. I confess, my knowledge of those first three is very shaky, and the only thing I know about them is, how different they were from one another. That’s all I’m going to focus on.
19th century scientists took an abstract notion, energy, and characterized it in terms of limits it had to observe, within which it could do work. We’re an example of that work. Part of our nature is how those limits limit us, and what kind of work we in turn can turn energy into. Part of our nature is how what we can and cannot do is defined by what energy is like. The first creation is however energy got made in the first place.
20th century scientists recognized in energy a creative power for forming physical stuff in the form of elementary particles. And what makes this amazing, to me anyway, is how different they are, energy and these particles. Experts say, if you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t. It’s not understandable by humans. Energy converting itself into elementary particles is the second creation. As far as I know, we’ve only hunches about how that contributes to our nature.
The third creation is those elementary particles turning into atoms and molecules, what to us is physical matter. Some of them, making up hydrogen and helium I believe, happen spontaneously. Others are formed in the course of star formation and collapse. It’s astonishing to me that knowledge of the chemical elements, and how they could be arranged by their properties in the periodic table of those elements, was almost entirely the work of the 19th century. The end of that century saw the spread of the belief that everything in the universe consisted of only energy, elemental matter and physical forces, and since these all followed invariable physical laws, everything that would happen in the future followed from what had happened in the past. Everything about us--our behaviors, our thoughts--were, like everything else in the universe, determined by the chemicals we were made of and the operation on us of physical laws.
The fourth creation is the emergence on Earth of living creatures. Generally, we refer to that emergence as living creatures evolving. Scientists think of that as another kind of chemical reaction, and refer to it as a process, like water boiling off to form steam. Since we’re living creatures you’d think we’d know what they’re like. What’s amazing to me is how little we know about them, as what makes them distinctively alive.
The fifth creation is the emergence from life of consciousness. And this we do know about because we experience it in consciousness itself. Try meditating, stilling thoughts about anything else, and you can become conscious of being conscious. Being aware of being conscious is a thing, with a separate existence and a distinct quality.
I suggest we aim to come up with origin stories for human nature that involve all five stages of creation. Surely at least these five must have a hand in making us what we are.
Such an attitude to our origins may not bear fruit for a long time. But something it can do immediately, in the present moment, is disabuse us of any one creation being regarded as special, able to over-rule the other four. I’m referring to the privileged place given by science to the what distinguishes the third stage in creation, the properties of elemental matter and the laws of physics. I suggest we regard each creation as differing from any of the others as much as elemental matter differs from the world of quanta, or from pure energy. I want us to accept that life has properties that bear as little relation to matter as matter does to quarks, and consciousness bears as little relation to life as life does to energy itself.
Who can do this? Scientists can’t, they’re totally invested by profession and temperament in the primacy of matter and physical laws. Philosophers? I think they’re worked themselves out of this field, they no longer trade in natural philosophy. Artists? We’re talking about thermodynamics and quantum chromodynamics. Psychologists?
What we need are more people like Julian Jaynes, who define their efforts only by what question is to be solved, no matter where it leads them. I note here how doggedly he pursued his study of the origins of consciousness, no matter into what academic specialty he had to venture.