Saturday 16 March 2019

Depth in Thought: Cosmological perspectives

Jenny Mackness is writing some great blog posts on Iain McGilchrist at the moment. Her post today is on the dynamic relationship between what composer Pauline Oliveros called "attention" and "awareness", and McGilchrist's take on this. As Jenny points out, this is not an idea unique to McGilchrist, and others - particularly Marion Milner, who she mentions - have had a similar insight. Her previous post was on "depth" ( and this is what I want to focus on.

McGilchrist's argument is based on a kind of updated bicamerality - not the rather crude distinctions about the "rational" left and "artistic" right, but a more sophisticated articulation of the way that attention and awareness work together. More importantly, he has pursued the social implications of his theory, suggesting that as a society we have created an environment within which attention is rewarded - particularly in the form of technology - and awareness and contemplation are confined to the shadows. There's a great RSA animate video of his ideas here:

There's much I agree with here. But something unnerves me in a similar way to previous theories of bicamerality like that of Julian Jaynes. Behind them all is the assumption that human consciousness is exceptional.

The problem is that "human exceptionalism" as biologist John Torday calls it, is a pretty devastating thing for the environment of everything - not just us. We think we're so great, so we have the arrogance to believe we know how to "fix" our problems. So we try to fix our problems - to treat our human problems as if they were technical problems (McGilchrist might say, to render the world in terms of the left hemisphere). And it doesn't work. It makes things worse. As an educational technologist, I see this every day. And I think if there is a "turn" in educational technology, it is that we once believed we could fix our problems with technology. Now we see that we've just made everything more complicated.

What if consciousness is not exceptional? We would first have to decide where it came from. Brains? Can we rule out consciousness in bacteria or plants? Eventually, we arrive at the cell. Brains are made from cells. In fact, recent research (which I know that Antonio Damasio among others, has been heavily involved in) in unpicking neural communication mechanisms has discovered that non-synaptic communication exists alongside communication along what we have always imagined to be a dendritic "neural network".

Cells talk to each other all throughout nature. The way they talk concerns a process which is characterised as transduction: the balancing of messages and protein expression by DNA inside the cell, with the reception to other proteins on the surface of the cell in its environment. I find this fascinating because these transduction processes looks remarkably like the psychodynamics of Freud and Jung. Is there a connection? Does our thinking go to the heart of our cells? (Or the cells of our heart?)

But there's more to this. One of the great mysteries of the cell is how it came to be as it is. Lynne Margulis's endosymbiotic theory suggests that all those mitochondria were once independent elements in the environment. Somehow an earlier version of the cell "decided" that it could organise itself better if it included those mitochrondria within its own structure. At an evolutionary level, cooperation took the place of competition. As a basic principle, Torday argues that cells have always organised themselves according the ambiguity of their environment. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon arising from this process.

Each evolutionary stage moves from one state of homeostasis with the environment to another. Somehow, evolutionists tell us, we were once fish. Something happened to the swim bladder of the fish that turned it into the breathing organ we have in our chests. There must have been some kind of crisis which stimulated a fundamental change to cellular organisation.... and it stuck. Our conscious cells contain a myriad of vestigial fossils, of which the oldest is probably the cholesterol which allows my fingers to do this typing, and allows all of us to move about. In each of us is not only an operational mechanism which responds to immediate changes in its environment to maintain stability. In each cell is a history book, containing in a microcosm the millions of stages of endosymbiotic adaptation which took us to this point, and which we see in the physical and geological evidence around us. We really are stardust.

This isn't something that biologists alone talking about. It coincides with physics. David Bohm talked about the difference between the surface, manifest features of the world as the "explicate order", and the deep coherent structure of the universe as the "implicate order". This implicate order, Bohm imagined, was a kind of hologram - or rather a "holo-movement" (because it is not fixed), which acts as the root of everything. As a hologram, it has a fractal structure (holograms are a fractal encoding of light interference patterns of 3d images). This means that within each cell is a copy of a self-similar pattern of the cosmos, formed through the evolutionary history book that they contain. Each evolutionary stage of the cell, and each organisational configuration it forms (like the bicameral brain, bodies, fingers) is an express of what the physicists call "broken symmetries" of its initial organisation. Our manifest consciousness - the ideas we share (like this one) - are such a manifestation of our cellular broken symmetries.

When we think deeply, we think WE are doing the work. But the work is done by our cells (particularly the calcium pumps). They think deeply. Their behaviour is an attempt to bring coherence to their environment, and the ultimate coherence is to return to their origin and to get closer to the implicate order. Deep thought is time-travel. This is why, I think, a philosopher like John Duns Scotus in the 13th century could have anticipated the logic of quantum mechanics. In our current society, deep thought is not impossible, but the institutional structures we established to help it arise (the universities) have largely been vandalised.

I share many of McGilchrists concerns about the modern mind. But we need to look deeper than the brain. And we need to look deeper than us. I once asked Ernst von Glasersfeld, whose theory of Radical Constructivism has been very influential in education, about where the desire to learn came from. It was all very well, I suggested, to say what we thought the learning process was. But we never say why it is we want to learn in the first place. He didn't have an answer. Now I can tentatively suggest an answer. We don't want to learn. But our cells, and we who are constituted by them, need to organise themselves in relation to an environment so that it is coherent. Our drive to learn is the cell's search for the implicate order at its origin. All we need to do is listen - but in today's world, that is getting hard. 


Jenny Mackness said...

Thanks for the mention. This post is fascinating. I can't really comment, since most of the ideas you write about are completely new to me, although I am familiar with the names of the authors/researchers you reference. I haven't yet explored what McGilchrist has to say about consciousness - so perhaps I should do that at some stage. I will have to think long and hard about your final paragraph :-)

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