Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Presence of the Past and the Future of Education

I've been in Berkeley for the last few days at the Biosemiotics gathering ( It's a long story as to how an educational technologist becomes interested in cell to cell signalling, but basically it involves cybernetics, philosophy, music and technology. In fact, all the things that this blog is about.

In addition to the biosemiotics conference, I went to Los Angeles to meet with Prof. John Torday of UCLA whose work on cell signalling (see follows a different path to that of the biosemioticians like Terry Deacon. Deacon's work on the role of constraint in epigenesis (see impressed me hugely because he was basically saying something that philosophers had been arguing for a long time: absence is causal. Actually, Bateson got there first (also at the conference was Bateson scholar Peter Harries-Jones, whose work on bio-entropy is very important), but Bateson made a fundamental distinction between the Jungian Pleroma and Creatura - between the non-living inanimate world which obeys the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and the living world, which works against entropy, producing "neg-entropy", or "information".

Torday goes beyond Bateson, and suggests a deep connection between pleroma and creatura, between matter and consciousness. To do this, he cites the quantum mechanics of David Bohm whose hidden variables, or pilot waves, presents a fundamental originating mechanism for what Bohm calls an "implicate order". Going beyond Bateson is no mean feat. I'm convinced that this is right.

Torday has been steadily producing empirical evidence in his work on the physiology of the lung and the treatment of asthma. There have been significant medical breakthroughs which can only be explained through his new perspective on cell signalling.

Put most basically, cells organise themselves according to the ambiguity in their environment. Since the environment is central to cellular organisation, changes to the environment become imprinted in cell structures, where environmental stress causes fundamental functional changes to organisms. This helps to explain Stephen Jay Gould's exaptation, or pre-adaptation, by which the swim bladder of the fish evolves into a lung.

But its not just lungs and swim bladders. Consciousness itself may also be the result of a similar process. The primeval past of evolutionary development, from the big bang (or whatever was at the beginning) to the present is enfolded in our being.

Torday and I talked a lot about education. The pursuit of truth is really a pursuit of the fundamental ground state - of what Bohm calls the implicate order. The truth resonates, and Bohm himself argued that through music we could glimpse something of the implicate order which we lose sight of in other aspects of intellectual life. But we also see it in love, justice, and mathematics.

I'm optimistic because I think that in the end we have the truth on a spring. Right now, it's stretched almost to breaking point... I'm experiencing some of the direct consequences of this myself at the moment. But truth will return - although springs, like cells, have hysteresis, so everything which has been remains present in everything that comes after. This should serve as a warning to those who pursue self-interest, greed and oppression.

At the biosemiotics conference at Berkeley I got everyone to make music. They loved it, partly because they had to engage with each other in making sounds and listening to each other. The implicate order is in our communicative practice - it can't be abstracted away. In the end, when things right themselves again, we will teach our students differently, and we will use our technology to transform the ways we organise deep conversations into what Bohm called "dialogue". Fundamentally, we will dance again, because conversation is dancing - it is, as I mentioned at Anthony Seldon's excellent HE Festival the other week, "con-versare"... to "turn together". 

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