Where Does It All Come From? A Conversation
Benjamin Olshin is assistant professor of Philosophy, History, and History of Science at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Paul Grobstein is professor of Biology at Bryn Mawr College. The two met and discovered common interests, like this one, at a meeting on "Building the Scientific Mind" in Vancouver in May 2007 (for another common interest see Reality and Virtual Reality). Their ongoing exchange is provided here to encourage further conversation. Your thoughts are welcome in the forum area below.
Olshin - 30 November 2008
As Grobstein and I have waded through various questions concerning how human beings perceive, narrate, or even create the universe, we have kept stumbling upon a persistent puzzle: Where does it all come from? That is, we both agree that the brain somehow takes all the input from the world around us, and through some kind of “fuzzy” interface, puts together a “story” that makes sense of it all, allowing a person to navigate their way through life. But we left with the question of what’s “out there”, on the other side of the interface. I think that Grobstein and I agree at this point that there is something out there, perhaps. Grobstein talks about an order emerging out of chaos, I think...
One of the issues that this brings up is an old one: Where does order come from? We all learned in school that systems go from order to chaos, not vice-versa. Certainly, there seem to be contrary examples — a recent article in Scientific American notes: “In seeming defiance of the second law of thermodynamics, nature is filled with examples of order emerging from chaos.” But such “examples of order” are usually small-scale. And Wolfram’s examples of emerging patterns also sidesteps the main question of, again, “Where did it all come from in the first place?” In mythological constructs, such as those of the ancient Greeks, order emerges out of some initial chaos — and it emerges spontaneously, from nowhere. This led the conundrum of a “First Cause”, puzzled over by the early Greek philosophers.
Most Western conceptions of “origins” — such as the origin of order and pattern, or the origin of sub-atomic particles — drift towards a supposition of some kind of “substrate”. In physics, there are quarks, “quantum foam”, and so on. But of course, with anything like that, even with the infinitesimally small “origin” of the “Big Bang”, we are back to the Greek problem of the “First Cause”. To have a start to anything, it implies that there was something before it that started it, that ordered it. or at the very least gave it physical properties and laws.
As I was ruminating over this question of “First Cause”, I started reading, by chance, about the Ouroborus, the serpent, snake, or dragon that is depicted biting its own tail. The image has several meanings, but typically it is interpreted as representing the cyclic nature of existence, of the universe. This includes ideas such as disintegration and re-integration, creation out of destruction, and so on. But another less-understood symbolism inherent in the image is what is known as “self-fecundation”. More particularly, the Ouroborus can be seen not as eating its tail, but rather disgorging itself into existence: the mouth is spewing forth the tail, the whole body. Indeed, as Jung notes in his Mysterium Coniunctionis, “the ouroboros... brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself”. Fine, yes, but what does this mean for our present discussion? In short, I think that as usual the ancients — whoever it was that first devised the Ouroborus symbolism — were onto something here; instead of positing an original substrate, or even an original chaos out of which order (or even matter) emerged, they shifted the question entirely. The only thing that can create is that which is already created; in other words, we created ourselves, and always have been creating ourselves.
My final comment here is this: I don’t want us to think that I’m just talking mystically here, or metaphysically. I think this idea of us creating ourselves can be taken all the way to physics. In fact, I am pretty sure that David Bohm, in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, was articulating the idea in such a context. His work with the neuroscientist Karl Pribram on a holonomic model of the brain — an idea that has been grossly misinterpreted in the popular press — is also suggestive. In fact, one might argue that such a model suggests that the origins of physical phenomena may be found in consciousness. We spin out from ourselves the world around us.
Grobstein - 12 January 2009
"Chaos" is a bit of a problematic term these days. In common and literary usage it means disorder. In contemporary scientific jargon, however, it means things that look unpredictable but actually follow well-defined rules ("orderly but ill-mannered", for more on the distinction between deterministic and non-deterministic unpredictability see The Magic Serpinski Triangle). So, to be clear, Grobstein "talks about an order emerging out of ... " randomness, unpredictability of the non-deterministic sort.
Yes, Wolfram's "New Kind of Science" sidesteps the "First Cause" question, because it depends on deterministic processes (to generate both order and chaos (of the deterministic sort)). One of the appealing things about starting with randomness is that it doesn't. As discussed in Serendip's new Ways of Making Sense of the World, one can think of randomness not as something caused by something else but rather as .... what has been and always will be, as what underlies all order ... which indeed "emerges spontaneously, from ... " nothing more than randomness.
As Westerner's we are indeed inclined to look for some kind of order as a cause for order and to think of randomness as the antithesis of order rather than its origin. Maybe though, as per Ways of Making Sense of the World and Inverting the Relationship Between Randomness and Meaning its time to question that particular presumption (or form of mediation)?
Along these lines, the ouroboros image is a particularly interesting one. Randomness is transformed by itself into transient order which is in turn altered by randomness into disorder. So randomness gives birth to itself? Over and over again?
"The only thing that can create is that which is already created", ie randomness? That makes sense to me, and may in fact be a better way to think about the "order" that we (think we) perceive around us. See Chance in Life and the World for an illustration of how the world might look if we weren't imposing order on it (weren't dealing with it in a mediated way). So, yes, in an important sense, we certainly "create ourselves" as well as "the world around us." Neither would appear as we see them without our seeing them. Does that mean that "the origins of physical phenomena maybe found in consciousness"? Clearly yes, if one means "the origins of physical phenomena as we currently see them." It doesn't though necessarily mean that nothing exists without consciousness. My bet is that the universe has a long history of existing without their being in it any consciousness whatsoever and that, indeed, it is out of that history, driven largely by randomness, that consciousness itself emerged (see From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond (Soundings, 2007, as a Word file)).