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Friday, September 6, 2013

Self-Referencing: The Curse of the Human Species

Referencing: nothing stands alone; everything is either actively or passively understood, categorized, supported or valued in reference to something else.   What that something else is is the most important relationship in the world.  In the living world (the Living System of Order – the LSO) biophysical Reality is the basic reference; it is unavoidable, undeniable, perpetual and integrated into every event and process. Just as an object falls with absolute consistency under the influence of gravity at the earth’s surface, so the simple and complex events of the living organism occur in the consistent and penetrating influence of interwoven biophysical forces; all with an almost uniform immediacy [1].

It is axiomatic that both consistency and accuracy requires standard references.  A system of references that are directly related to the ambient conditions within which the actor and its actions function is essential.

In general it can be assumed that the system of references is the same as or closely associated with the physical (or biophysical) systems that dominate the conditions of the organism’s existence.  So, for example, the biophysical evolution of ecosystem relations responds to the actual physics and chemistry of energy and material flows, the available biophysical processes of genetics and the growth and interdependencies of the phenotypic expression of species to organize the mutualities of ecosystems.  There really is no option in this process since the only information sources are the dominating biophysical conditions of existence.

Thus, in the 4 billion year history of life on earth there has been absolute symmetry between the conditions within which life functions and the referencing system to which living things appealed for the information necessary for life to adapt to environmental detail.  This referencing system was composed of every event that impinged on each and every organism.  From the obvious, like solar flux, to the most obscure quantum probability event, everything that had the potential to influence the living condition and its organization as a sustaining whole was included as reference for response (from individual to evolutionary response).  All referencing was, therefore, to primary conditions.  No such thing as ‘an idea’ or description of these conditions existed; so only the actual presentation of the conditions were available from which to respond.

As well as this worked for billions of years for the sustaining, multiplication and diversity of life, a great adaptive opportunity was missing from this design: the possibility of predicting (correctly or with reasonable probability) conditions not yet occurring; in this way an organism could position itself or otherwise prepare for events to which the rest of life had yet to respond.

Life has evolved 3 ways of predicting events before there is an immediate ambient action or energy that forces a response.  Without going into depth, the first is genetically mediated behavior called instinct: environmental conditions of great consistency can influence the genetic code so that very subtle stimuli presaging full events can trigger responses appropriate to the larger events before they occur.  The second is learning: nervous systems evolved sufficient complexity and form that they could model narrowly selected consistent detail for environmental events.  In this way the organism could fine-tune its behavior in a specific environment to the consistent details and actions of that environment.  In both of these devices, however, the ambient biophysical Reality was still, and had to be, the necessary reference system supplying the informing conditions for genetic change and the details learned [2].

The third method that evolved was built up from instinct, learning and a new emergent activity that those who possess it call consciousness, awareness, freewill and a variety of other things depending on the application; I include all of these together in what I call the Conscious System of Order (CSO) giving it (nearly) equal taxonomic status with the Living System of Order (LSO) and the Physical System of Order (PSO).

Many of the various elements of objective and subjective events that we, possessing language, call consciousness can be found (subjectively inferred) in other creatures, especially the higher primates, great apes and the large social carnivores.  But the fully developed system is only seen in our species.  Much effort, mystical reasoning, philosophy, science and conjecture has gone into the imponderables of awareness, freewill and other seemingly definable consciousness qualities; and while it is obvious to ‘us’ that something is there, it seems to me that the efforts have led to as much confusion as they have to clarity.

Much as biology was mired in the search for the “vital principle,” also something that seems to ‘obviously’ separate the living from the non-living, the search for the “vital principle of consciousness” may be equally misguided.  Biology solved its problem by recognizing the systematic nature of living organization and the purely biophysical ‘motivational force’ of evolution as it was allowed action on the physical universe in the special conditions of earthly stability.  Perhaps consciousness can be conceived as a fully formed system of complex structure, emergent as a new system of order based in, but more than, the living state (details of this argument and larger consideration of the CSO can be found in several essays on this blog and on Keye Commentary) [3].

The CSO, like all designs that respond non-randomly, requires a referencing source.  And it is sensible that the environmental presentation of biophysical Reality is the source just as it is the necessary source for genetic and learning based (LSO based) response designs.  In its early iterations the CSO was as (almost as) dependent on the environment for its informing source as learning based designs, but because the consciousness order’s primary manifestation was the storing (in various forms beyond individual nervous systems) and the transmitting of this information without the limitations of evolutionary genetic storage or the cloistering away of the learning within the brain and lifetime of the learner, CSO processes could respond to greater environmental detail much faster than simple learning and spread with almost instantaneous speed compared to genetic changes.

So long as the biophysical environment supplied the final reference source, the errors in learning and the greater potential errors of the CSO processes were continually redirected toward comportment with Reality; not the reality that we, today, compose within the confines of the CSO, but the Reality rising from all the forces and designs of the matter/energy universe.  But, the CSO had the potential to be a complete system of order with the capacities to select, store and implement information on principles that never before existed in the universe (of our experience).  It had the potential to be referenced by other sources than biophysical Reality; The CSO could reference its own products as guides for future actions.

Of course, the supremacy of biophysical Reality was there to redirect the errors made, but the CSO could move the beliefs and actions of human communities so quickly that behaviors – discoveries made – responsive to the failures to comport with environmental designs seemed not so much as patches for errors as social and technological advancements.  A prey animal species would be reduced to numbers below those needed for effective hunting; some were then gathered up and herded.  Sophistication in gathering methods allowed population to increase to the point that planting and selective adaptations of food plants was necessary.  There are thousands of examples right up to today like the concentration of uranium 235 to critical levels as both weapon and energy source.

The CSO “created” idea, description, past and future, prediction, imagination, agency (as an idea if not as a real process) and ultimately became its own source of reference; its design allowed the selection of its own products and their many combinations to be stored, spread and implemented.  The guiding nature of biophysical Reality ceased to be the essential reference and became, rather, a limiting condition to be overcome.

Without a Reality based reference system the CSO is like a measuring system without a standard meter defined in some absolutely reliable physical form.  It becomes the child’s game of ‘telephone.’  The “meter” lengthens and shortens in response to perceived social, economic or political needs of societies, powerful groups or individuals.  Reference systems are created to replace the biophysical: religions, social values and other belief systems, but these are all self-referenced – built up from the many imaginings that once had some connection to environmental forces long ago lost in the denial of the necessity to comport human life with ecological imperatives.

Every organism, other than humans, “recognizes” the supremacy of biophysical Reality and the absolute necessity of comporting with its designs as part of their integration into their ecosystems.  Their informing structures are continuous with the LSO.  They, therefore, are integrated with the referencing system that is primary in their adaptation to change and survival.

The self-referencing system that humans have evolved, as the most powerful adaptation in the history of life, is ultimately too powerful for the species within which it resides.  It drives our actions from abyss to precipitous cliff, it rides on the back of an animal made up of instincts and biological designs requiring the strict judgments of a Mother Nature as referencing guide and yet it has a power that can defeat that judgment for a time.

There is but one option: recreate, using the CSO, referencing designs that comport with biophysical Reality.  The template for such a system is the philosophy of science and its best application.  Plato saw the dilemma and solved it with philosopher kings.  The great religious prophets solved it by offering belief systems that attempted to comport human behaviors, if not the details of the beliefs that guided them, with aspects of obvious realities.  But self-referencing will always swing from pillar to post, and with the physical powers, and our resulting great numbers, arrived at by our “overcoming” nature, we are endangering ourselves and the rest of life on the earth beyond all reason or reality.

[1] The living state is not immediate in the same way that the PSO is immediate.  It is characteristic of the LSO that events are timed to be sped up or slowed down so that complex biochemical actions function as integrated systems.  It is not stretching the point too much to say that much of the way that we humans respond to time was an “invention” of the living order.

[2] Learning created reference models of the environment from which actions were taken, but the final reference was always the total of all natural forces, i.e., learning, as it functions in earthly nervous systems, is design to avoid error by being positively influenced by consistency and force of consequences.

[3] People like David Baum and Stuart Kauffman have looked for the basis of consciousness in incomprehensible quantum behaviors like the Einstein, Rosen, Podolsky “paradox” (quotes because the paradox is on us – the physical behaviors are perfectly normal for the universe) and the hypothetical cohered and decohered states between quantum and relativity forms of matter/energy.  This pursuit for “the basis” of consciousness is a little like looking for a needle in a hay stack when no one has a clue what the needle looks like or if there is such a thing as a hay stack. 

There is no question, but that the basis of the experience of consciousness and its variations exists in some form possible in the universe.  However, possessing some version of that possibility offers no certainty our species will be able to bring to the CSO the same level of comprehension that we have brought to the LSO.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot treat the CSO as we do other things that are deeply imponderable and understand its qualities even though we have no comprehension of what it is in fact.