Visit the companion blog, Keye Commentary, devoted to more general topics.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Life is a Gas!

When we think about human action the first and most important mistake we make is to equate what we do with agency – with intention and especially conscious awareness of motive.  While it is true that in most cases, but noticeably not all, individuals can assign or claim a motive for what they do, such assignment has more to do with the Story that they have assumed about their society, community and themselves.  The Story is a complex metaphor often taken to be the very essence of reality; more real than Reality, but this is grist for another mill.

A better metaphor for understanding human action is to see it, in the broadest terms, as the behavior of a liquid or, perhaps better, as a gas.  A gas expands to fill the space within which it is contained. A tiny few atoms or molecules (most common gasses are molecules) of the gas are almost motionless, except for vibrating in place, others are moving at high speed at random in all possible directions and most are flying around at “average” speeds bumping into each other and distributing momentum (the average effect is to fill the space).  The concentration of the gas per volume determines the number of molecules that strike the bounding surface in a given unit of time.  The total energy contained in the gas (a common measure of which is temperature) determines the average velocity/force with which the molecules strike the boundary and thus the pressure attributed to the gas in the space.  If the boundary conditions change (expand, contract, have an opening or hole) the gas’s regular behavior responds immediately since there are always some molecules striking some surface or the other molecules throughout the contained volume [1].

It is especially, in this last case, that we make errors when thinking of human action, errors that we do not make when thinking of gasses.  When humans expand out, once a boundary is moved, we assign motive, attach special significance, to individual humans and make all manner of valuing judgments based on the Story we are telling each other about who we are and what we are doing.  This is even more confused when the boundaries are ones of ideas and imaginings. With a gas it is obvious that the speed and direction of a particular molecule that flies through a hole in a boundary (a puncture in a bicycle tube for example) are not the sole property of that molecule, but result from all the other molecules colliding and distributing the energies and motions to all the contained volume.  There is nothing special about a particular molecule that “escapes” through the hole other than that its motion moved it through the hole and other molecules struck the boundary.

The reader might, at this point, remark that humans have many more complex parts than a molecule; several of which, importantly, are intention, talent, ambition, various capacities for work, imagination and prescience.  But, the ways in which we see all of these are based on the Story that we tell ourselves about them.

Is the molecule in motion superior to the one standing still? Does the molecule passing through a hole show the qualities of risk-taking and curiosity?  We can certainly tell a Story that would attach such meanings to molecular motion.

We could play God to a tube and piston, pushing in the piston with increasing force and increasing the velocity with which the gas escapes from a hole in the tube.  We could tell the Story that we have motivated the gas to greater exertion.  How is this different than manifest destiny, on the one hand, or terrorism as a response to oppression, on the other?

Just like a gas, human action will fill all available spaces.  There is no point in “telling” humans not to make or do what they imagine – imagining is a hole in the tube, they will always go through it.  Only the Stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves can function as boundaries for our imaginings… and imagining a hole is always possible.

The Stories that we tell ourselves may be about real things, just not about them as they are but as we have come to see them as part of the adaptive process of our time. Human capacities are not evolved to see the world of Reality, only to act in the world in ways that eventually lead to biological, bio-social and, further on in our history, economic success.  Our Stories (politics, religions and social constructions) are fairytales, comprehensible by the human bio-brain, that guide us through the unfathomable complexities of Reality.  The Consciousness System of Order is the organizing system for the adaptation of Story, bringing its consequences-in-action closer to fit with Reality without any needful regard for the details of Story being Reality.  Like a gas we expand out to fill the space even when that space is purely the result of the imagination.

As long as we think in terms of agency and motive, the sophist will have the upper hand in determining the Stories that we tell about why and how we do things; and the focus of our attention will be easily misdirected.  The metaphor of a gas is, of course, also just a Story, but it just might help attach our imaginings more closely to the physical and living systems within which we, finally, must function.

[1]  At one point any particular molecule might be vibrating in place having transferred its momentum in a collision to another which is then flying at high velocity.  The distribution of velocities is a characteristic of the system, not a quality of individual molecules.  The easy attribution of human Story to the probabilistic motion of molecules should, though will not, be a great caution.

No comments:

Post a Comment