If thou shouldst plant these things in thy firm understanding and contemplate them with good will and unclouded attention, they will stand by thee for ever every one, and thou shalt gain many other things from them; . . . for know that all things have wisdom and a portion of thought.
The first instalment of this two-part blog speculated that an alternative understanding, and worldly engagement, could be inspired by projects such as Stafford Beer’s experimentation in harnessing pond brains, a form of intelligence inherent to natural systems. This, it held, could counter in some way the human chauvinistic projects of modern thought, which culminate in quixotic transhumanism, aspiring towards fulfilling our supposedly god-like potential and creating Humanity 2.0™. I concluded with the intuition that “the world is not a closed jar, but an open ecosystem of intelligence” and this second instalment tries to unfurl and expand that statement a bit, moving from critique to a more positive project.
Use of the term ‘pond brain’ across the two titles is, of course, intentionally provocative and metaphorical, but I stand by it in something of a stronger sense, for reasons hopefully made clear below. While the use of the term brain automatically implies something akin to that much-vaunted pinnacle of evolution – the human cerebral cortex – these ecosystems certainly do process complex information, and thus bring up a sticky question: what exactly it is that is unique about the computer which is said to be housed within the human skull?
The traditional answer of course, is, everything. The human mind is commonly referred to as the most complex instrument in the universe, with E.O. Wilson recently putting forward that ‘Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world’.
As humans, the question of uniqueness is impossible to answer impartially, of course, and it’s perhaps no surprise that psychology, the traditional ‘objective’ science of cognition, is in the throes of a pretty tumultuous crisis of identity. Recent writings by a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oslo, Jan Smedslund, for one, have highlighted a fundamental mismatch ‘between current research methods and the nature of psychological phenomena.’ Rather than being ruled by stable laws of cognition, as a classically ‘scientific’ approach would prefer, Smedslund posits that psychologists ‘avoid thinking about [the] problem’ that many, perhaps even most, psychological findings are not even nearly replicable. Inconveniently for psychology in general, not everyone is avoiding the problem, and the media recently picked up widely on the finding that over half of psychological studies appear to fail basic tests of replication.
Rather than being a unique supercomputer running according to set algorithms, Smedslund pictures the human psyche in a much less mechanistic way, more ‘like whirls in a stream which are stable only as long as the total flow of water does not vary and the stones on the bottom maintain their positions.’ This is powerful imagery, which we shall return to.
The shortcomings of dominant conceptions of human mind were also echoed recently in a remarkable paper in Biological Theory which highlighted the troubling questions raised by certain sufferers of hydrocephaly. These individuals lead normal lives and boast generally average IQs despite their skulls being found to be filled with liquid, containing only about 5% of the volume of normal brain tissue (see image). This situation, though not without its own heated debates and controversies, raises some profound questions, leading the author to speculate that perhaps:
Information relating to long-term memory is held within the brain in some extremely minute, subatomic, form, as yet unknown to biochemists and physiologists. Those who have witnessed in recent decades the vast increase in the power of computers to store large quantities of information in progressively smaller spaces should not be surprised if evidence for this alternative eventually emerges.
This idea of some subatomic nature of mind is speculative, of course, yet hints towards one powerful answer to the question posed by environmental philosopher Freya Matthews (author of The Ecological Self), ‘How can we sing back to life a world that has been so brutally silenced?’
Panpsychism is the consideration put forward by both Matthews and Professor David Skrbina at the University of Michigan (and contributor to Dark Mountain: Issue 8 [Techne]), an ancient concept in which mind, rather than being something exclusive to the brains of humans and higher animals, something emergent from dead matter, becomes instead distributed throughout the world, as a fundamental aspect of matter. This is not to say that any part of the world has mind, but rather that the universe is, at least in some rudimentary way, mind.
In the traditional language of panpsychism, mind has still been framed as a sort of hierarchy, with the consciousness of humans and great apes at the top, the sentience of other animals slightly below that, and so on until we have a kind of proto-mind in the basic constituents of matter. Keeping an unfortunate anthropocentrism, however, it would be more consistent to perhaps say that the aspects of mind are not superior or inferior, above or below, in any hierarchical sense, but merely different, and forever evolving.
As Skrbina has clarified:
Compare mind and another fundamental entity: gravity. Gravity is “everywhere,” and it has always existed (at least, under most interpretations). Yet new gravitational fields emerge every time there is a new configuration of matter. The gravitational field of the Earth is a function of the planet’s total mass and its distribution. Clearly a cubic Earth would produce a different gravitational field than a spherical one. Furthermore, technically speaking, even the present actual field of the Earth is continuously changing as the molten core circulates, continental plates shift, and human activity moves matter around. Thus, one could reasonably claim that the Earth’s field, even now, is continuously emerging, continuously becoming in a sense new, while staying within certain rough bounds.
Despite eerie implications that there may be some aspect of mind in the wooden table on which I write this, or the glass out of which I drink, this is perhaps not as absurd as it sounds. Instead, it posits one elegant solution to many of the intractable problems set up in Enlightenment thought, and especially by Cartesian dualisms, with regard to how matter and mind ‘interact’. Further reorienting panpsychism’s seeming marginality, Alexander Wendt, a leading German scholar, has recently turned his attention to the issue in a book called Quantum Mind and Social Science, in which he puts forward the possibility that mind – or proto-subjectivity in the form of cognition, experience and will – is inherent in each proton and electron.
Wendt posits a quantum basis for human thought, arguing that consciousness (much of which is embodied and therefore cannot simply be reduced to the ‘brain’ as is often taken for granted in neuroscientific approaches) may be a quantum process. No longer is mind conceived of as some mechanistic binary computer, as it traditionally has been, but instead shows up as something closer to a quantum computer.
So let’s return to Smedslund’s whirlpool metaphor. The idea of consciousness as temporary whirlpools of mind in the flux of life maps beautifully onto work which sees humans and other organisms as similar temporary constructions in a universe mostly characterised by disorder and entropy. As Tim Requarth recently put it in Aeon, life is really just just an ‘oasis of order’ in a restless flux, and perhaps, so too is consciousness:
After the Big Bang, the Universe could have, in principle, expanded into an even distribution of matter and energy. If that were the case, nothing could have ever happened, and nothing – including life – could have ever formed. But instead, something happened. Quantum fluctuations in the structure of space, perhaps, disrupted the balanced distribution of matter and energy, and set into motion a cosmic accumulation of structure and organisation.
Requarth uses the example of a whirlpool in a bathtub to demonstrate this, noting that ‘driven by gravity, the water molecules spontaneously swirl into a pattern that is more ordered than their previous haphazard collection…When energy can continuously flow through a system, interesting things begin to happen.’
So could mind be a whirlpool in a greater panpsychic whole? And where does such far out speculation on a mind-pervaded universe get us? Perhaps, in its abstractness, it takes us further away from humble groundedness in, and awareness of, an immersive present (a topic grappled with in the forthcoming Dark Mountain: Issue 9). Or, as my gut senses, it may set us down the road of, as Mathews puts it, ‘singing life back into the world’, considering our place in a more modest way than the theoteknotic peddlers of humanity 2.0 and humans-as-gods, of everlasting life and transcendence of the flesh, would like us to.
Philosopher Charles Bennett put this well when he wrote, ‘put me in a world where all is in some sense (however obscure) spirit, and you embarrass me strangely. Now I no longer feel free to treat any part of the material world merely as means. The coal for the furnace, the stone that goes into our houses, the steel that goes into our machines—these are now, after some mysterious fashion, my own kith and kin. I must treat them differently now. But how?’
‘How?’ is indeed the vital question. Maybe, with this, we reflect on ourselves a little differently, as the world thinking itself; as an interesting, creative, but mostly unimportant, part of a minded infinite. Whirlpools of matter-mind in a larger pond brain, gravitating and falling apart, assembling and disassembling; surely this is a more continuous, more satisfying starting point than man-as-god, or homo sapiens as an angelic and distinctly divine being. Just maybe, we can begin the process of sensing the world a little differently.
Tom Smith is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of St Andrews, where he focuses on topics including craft, technology, sustainability, non-representational theory, anarchism and objects. He has co-edited that last two Dark Mountain books, and is also the co-founder of a low-impact smallholding and ecological teaching hub in the west of Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House). http://st-andrews.academia.edu/TSmith