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Friday, January 4, 2008

Not Half The Man I Used To Be

Recently in the Advayavada Network, Mike posted the following:
Here's an interesting observation by the physicist and naturalist Steve Grand (naturalist in the sense that he finds no justification for believing in anything supernatural such as a soul, a spirit, or a god):

"Think of something from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there.

After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. What ever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made."

This puts a new and interesting spin on Robin William's classic observation that, "If you remember the sixties you weren't there." It also gives a new point of entry into the question, "What, if anything, is the 'Self'?"
In a sense Mike (and Steve Grand) is perfectly right. It's true that:
(a) Not an atom in my body was present at the event I remember, and

(b) I am not the stuff (atoms) of which I am made.
This is where complex systems theory comes in. In complexity science, there is a process called 'autopoiesis'. This is a process whereby you have a stable complex system that maintains its form, but every particle of which it is constructed switches out over time. Biological life forms are the most obvious example of this, but not the only. Another example of a structure that undergoes autopoiesis is the 'red spot' on Jupiter. In a more abstract sense, we might say that a mathematical formula embodies a structure of relationships whereby the actual variables can be exchanged without the structure being lost. I don't think that counts literally as autopoiesis but it might help communicate the concept.

Of course, all I've done here is given a name to the phenomenon Mike describes, and pointed out that the concept is addressed in science and that it is a very real thing.

Philosophically, this helps to point out that there are many things that are real and actually exist, but which are not particles per se - rather, they are relationships between particles. Other examples of 'relational facts' that are real but not supernatural and not physical would be 'democracy' or 'hive'.

In my essay, "A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma and Rebirth", I use the analogy of a wave to discuss how Karma can be a real thing without being a distinct 'force'. Like a wave, it is a conceptualization of relationships. We treat waves as real entities - even computing mathematical solutions concerning their activities. However, when we see a wave move from left to right, no "stuff" (to use Steve Grand's wording) has in fact moved from left to right. Merely, a relationship of cause and effect has taken place in one position, and the one next to it, the one next to that, and so on.

This is one key to understanding waves, understanding autopoiesis, understanding mind, understanding the Tao, understanding karma, understanding self, and understanding how we can be something other than our atoms without resorting to dualism or supernaturalism.


  1. Fascinating. It's very interesting how a pattern holds while the units comprising it constantly change. I wonder what holds the pattern together? In something relatively simple and cyclical, albeit vast, such as a hurricane or Jupiter's great red spot (he really should see a doctor about that) it is not too difficult to grasp; just cause and effect, really.

    But in something like a human being, that is very complex in both shape and function, what keeps the overall pattern in check? If I assume the ephemeral atoms in my left foot have no knowledge of, or direct connection to, the fleeting atoms in my right earlobe, why do they hold their shape and follow each other around the universe over the years? I guess the DNA of my body acts as a kind of impressment agent; discharging exhausted atoms back into the crowd and conscripting nearby others to take their place. But DO atoms get tired? Perhaps not tired in the physical sense, but perhaps it is in their nature to be always moving about, seeking new employment or experiences, as if afflicted with some kind of quantum attention deficit disorder.

    ...and I guess in the long run, the pattern ISN'T kept in check, of which I am reminded every time I look in the mirror and see what the years are doing to me. *sigh*

  2. I would suspect atoms don't get tired, so much as 'used'. In other words, their activity in the system causes the atom to lose an electron or perhaps a compound gets split and is no longer useful in that form. I'm sure the precise answer is different for different subsystems and here only specific questions can do the trick (such as, why do the atoms making up protein x get pulled apart in this particular process).

    Don't forget about the process of petrification, which is a little different than autopoiesis because it takes place once the system has come to a halt. But even there you have a replacing of the wood with mineral - perhaps one of the processes of nature I find most amazing.

    While the red spot seems a simple structure, these gaseous structures have been notoriously difficult to simulate. Furthermore, there are many more complex structures that are more lifelike without being life. Lastly, we have things like the economy and ecology, which are complex systems every bit as complex as organisms. Even in their case there is a maintenance of structure despite different people and institutions coming and going. The reasons vary but the underlying mathematics of how and why complex systems arise and operate seem remarkably more unified than one would guess. Discovering that shared order and learning about those who do that discovering can almost be a 'spiritual' epiphany.

  3. If this is true, it seems we have to extend our materialist understanding of things to accommodate information, encoded in DNA, as an influence over natural laws that controls the structure of living things. One can object that information is really just an arrangement of matter with no reality of its own, but this concept of basically interchangeable matter flowing through discrete information structures, suggests that the information may have a more persistent reality than the matter it "uses". Shades of Plato's "forms"! But it doesn't seem that there are fixed forms underlying things, but that the forms themselves are evolving so as to produce more functional material structures.

  4. Well put Tom. Seeing that Plato's forms predate the 'supernatural' concept of later period Christianity, when we read Plato today we may often unconsciously do so with Christian-colored glasses. Without them, we can perhaps see that Plato may have been talking about something more down-to-earth than for which he is often given credit.

    This problem of 'just what is information' is a fascinating one and in our current age of computers and simulation it takes on even more profound significance. I'm especially interested to see how hard-nosed empiricists such as myself will end up dealing with these subtleties.

  5. BTW, I really enjoyed this post and Humainism's comments (that damned mirror!), and I just love the wave analogy, which could just as well be a vortex. Then there is Margaret Atwood and "god is not the voice in the whirlwind; god is the whirlwind."

  6. Sorry to blitz you but I've been checking out the original quote source. Looks like it comes from Grand's book "Creation: Life and How to Make It". My library doesn't have it, so perhaps I'll need to buy it. Dang.

  7. Thanks for the comments Tom. If you enjoyed this post and Humainism's comments, you might enjoy these other items on my philosophy sites (I've forgotten exactly how to link in a comment, but the search bar will work):

    Blog posts:
    - Cultural Conceptions of Life
    - The Big Deal About Complexity
    - Consciousness Around Us
    - God and Stoicism
    - Conways Game of Life
    - The Nature of the "Force"

    On the Philosophy Site:
    - A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma and Rebirth

  8. Always a pleasure to chat with you gents! I hope the new year has started off well for you both.

    FYI, I have finally gotten around starting my own blog 'sister site' of my original Humāinism site. I took the liberty of adding links to both of your sites. I hope you don't mind.

    Now I just have to think of something to say! :)

  9. Hi, Im from Melbourne.
    Please check out this reference re the origins & consequences of the perceptual and cultural straight-jacket in which we are all trapped.

  10. Fascinating post.

    I think it was Zeno who said that if something exists as an idea, it still exists in some sense (well we know that to be true because the memories we hold are encoded in patterns of synaptic connection in our brains).

  11. Hi Yvonne, thanks for the comment! :)
    You might be thinking of Plato's ideal forms, but perhaps that's just something I hadn't heard about Zeno!