Of Pond Brains and Humanity 2.0

Part II: Whirlpools

has edited and contributed to numerous Dark Mountain books. In 2013, he co-founded An Teach Saor, a land-based community in the west of Ireland. He currently researches economic alternatives in the Department of Environmental Studies at Masaryk University.

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.

Source: http://bit.do/tiny-brain
Source: http://bit.do/tiny-brain

 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.

  1. (Ok-I found myself laughing at parts of this, especially the spiel on the Big Bang), but I am absolutely certain there are deeper studies to be done on energy models and interactive intelligence. The idea that nature can be of one great intuitive ‘mind’ working in concert feels undeniably true- There appears much here advancing notions of psychology including the salvivic brain of ‘the body’- So much metaphor lending model for positive notion of group interaction, too.

    ‘How can we sing back to life a world that has been so brutally silenced?’ -That is the question, isn’t it.

  2. I found this very thought-provoking. May I share what came to me after first read?

    I think to a recent trip to the mountain side in Oregon with some mates, where some of us took acid and, in many moments, felt overwhelmingly and remarkably unified with the surrounding life and organic matter, from hail to lichen to trees fallen months or maybe years ago to rushing water. The chatter from this matter *felt* *audible*……. and full of meaning that my own body understood without translation.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings and research.


  3. I am inspired by your writing and insights Tom, and thank you for stimulating my own musings below.

    Your metaphoric “whirlpools” in “pond brains” as “open ecosystems of intelligence,” remind me of strange attractors hidden within the seeming chaos described in complexity theory. We might also view these whirlpools to be beautifully represented by the infinite seas of swirling patterns generated by fractals (which structure strange attractors).

    The idea of brains as receiving filters for a form of consciousness which exists beyond brains, takes on new meaning when we consider the hypothesis that everything we experience in life is generated within a virtual reality simulation.

    What if our brains can only experience sensory structure function flows that are generated through a naturally evolved growing process? What if we view experience as a garden of consciousness that is cultivated by collaborating communities of more “advanced” or “evolved” sapient beings?

    What if virtual realities are not primarily generated by computers? Dreams are not generated by computers, and what of the “Dream Time” of aboriginal Australian cultures?

    That life might be a computer simulation is not a new idea, but Nick Bostrom (Oxford) has made a serious effort to demonstrate its probability, depending on one’s starting premises. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” Nick likes mechanical computers, but I much prefer higher order, naturally evolved “pond brains,” “hive minds” and “Gaian souls” as simulators of experience.

    What implications does this “Gaia-Sim” idea have for the values and ethics by which we live? What of our seeming relation to an objective world? What purpose might an avatar, soul, or spirit have for wholly entering into a body-mind host in such a simulation (only to forget having done so)?

    Might this be a freely chosen initiatory test of some skill or degree of wisdom? Might one be captured and imprisoned in such a simulation unwittingly or unwillingly? By what methods or psycho-spiritual technologies might one escape such a predicament?

    How might this reframing of our experience on Earth alter our perspective on the premises of “Dark Mountain” and its “Manifesto”? How can we bring synergy to the outer community of ecosystems if we haven’t first developed this synergy inside our own self?

    This “as within, so without” idea invites some serious psychological digesting, composting, and recycling for psychic permaculture. It also invites a deep understanding of predator and parasite relationships within the ecosystems of our own psyche, as well as the capacity to grow and develop an immune system to stay some steps ahead of our own inherited “mind viruses”.

    If all of this is a simulation, or even concentric layers of simulations, everything we experience is made out of the same fundamental stuff. This would probably be generated by communities of higher consciousness within some substrate we can’t perceive or conceive except metaphorically.

    What if all we experience is made out of that unknowable not-thing? Might there then be some equivalent of dark matter and dark energy in consciousness that invisibly herds the stars of our thoughts and feelings into vast structures of whirling galaxies of gnostic vision and insight?

    If we are totally immersed in a simulation, the idea that everything we experience might be grown from a single conscious, connected, and synchronous substrate no longer seems far fetched. This also simplifies the non-locality and non- temporality concepts of quantum physics, since relative space and time would be simulated abstractions within a substrate that transcends both space and time as we know it.

    On the more subjective side of simulation, I am reminded of three early films, all from 1999: “eXistenZ” (Cronenberg), “The Thirteenth Floor” (Rusnak), and “The Matrix” (Wachowskis). I am also reminded of my own surprising degree of absorbed immersion upon donning early virtual reality goggles over twenty years ago, and in my first experiences with military and private flight simulators in the fifties and sixties.

    This also suggests that all we can experience is our subjective experience itself, and that our notions of an objective reality are generated abstractions rather than substantially real. This in turn reminds me of Ervin Laszlo’s work linking the quantum vacuum to the Hindu Akashic Field in his book: “Science and the Akashic Field.”

    Might this “field” be the substrate and memory of the simulation we live within? How could each pixel of all of this not be in its own way responsive and therefore “conscious” as myth-musing “panpsyche” herself?

    Finally, what might we make of our relationship with the diversity of “higher” species who may well have generated this simulation? How do our hypotheses about them guide our ethics, values, purpose, and the meanings we give our life?

    Do we take these beings as benevolent, malevolent, or a mixture of both? Might we reside within some artfully designed dramatic struggle between benevolence, indifference and malevolence to create our own path of discernment, purification, karmic completion, and evolving gnosis? Is this not the core teaching of each of the ancient traditions of spiritual practice?

    Row row row your boat, gently down the stream,
    Merrily merrily ferrying, this life as a sacred dream.

    William Andrew


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