Wednesday 23 October 2019

Ancestrality and Consciousness

Over the past year, I've been increasingly convinced of the correctness of the evolutionary biological theory of John Torday concerning the connection between consciousness, cellular evolution and "big" evolutionary history (from the deep origins of space and time). Of course, it's hugely ambitious - but we should be hugely ambitious, shouldn't we?

John's work in physiology and medicine (primarily focused on lung physiology and asthma) has presented a number of empirical phenomena that point towards a biological theory that includes evolutionary history, where consciousness is part of a process that explains how cells evolve from lipid bi-layers to sophisticated inter-cellular communication systems. It also addresses what he, and many other biologists see, as a scientific problem within their discipline - that it is not explanatory in the way that physics or chemistry describe causal mechanisms, but descriptive. In our extensive conversations, I have noted that education suffers the same problem: there is no mechanistic explanation for educational phenomena, only description. Since education is also a manifestation of consciousness, I am concerned to make the connection between these different lines of inquiry (biology, physics and evolution).

The central question in evolution is the relationship between diachronic (time-based) process and synchronic structures. What time-based process makes cells absorb parts of their environment (bacteria for example) as mitochondria? What time-based process introduces cholesterol as the critical ingredient to animate life? What time-based process governs the expression of proteins and their transformations in the cell signal-transduction pathways, which despite their complexity, maintain the coherence of the organism?

Time itself introduces further questions. When we look at evolutionary history - maybe at the red-shift of the expanding universe - what are we looking at exactly? "Once upon a time, there was absolutely nothing, and then there was this enormous explosion..." really?

I've been re-reading Quentin Meillassoux's "After Finitude". I have some misgivings about it, but this must surely be one of the greatest philosophical works of the last 20 years. The question of time is one of his central questions, and he calls it "ancestrality". The question is about the nature of reality, and particularly the reality of things like fossils, or electromagnetic radiation from outer-space. We either assume that the world is made by our consciousness, or we assume that the world exists in a pre-existing domain that exists independently of human consciousness and agency (what Bhaskar calls the "intransitive domain"). Meillassoux pursues the Platonist position which denies both (in line with Alain Badiou) arguing that objects are mathematically real to us - logic, in other words, is prior to materiality. At the heart of Meillassoux's (and Badiou's) argument is the contingency of nature. He asks, "Given this contingency, how do things appear stable?"

Pursuing this, the ancestrality of the universe - the big bang, evolutionary history - is (Meillassoux would claim) "logically" real. But this puts the emphasis on the synchronic reality of things - their logical structure out of time - and it assumes that the consciousness that conceives of this logic is similarly structured. Indeed, I'm not convinced that one of Meillassoux's central points - that the Western philosophical position is one of "correlation" between ideas and reality is escaped in his own position. But the care with which he lays out his arguments is nevertheless highly valuable, and his emphasis on contingency seems right to me (but maybe not! - how can anyone say an ontology of contingency is "right"?)

Torday's situating of time in the material and biological evolution of consciousness means that this "logic" has to become a "topo-logic": space and time - the diachronic dimension - are not separable from the "logic" of synchronic structure. What do we get when we have a "topo-logic"? We get contingency, process, uncertainty and the driving necessity for coherence. In essence, we get life.

Somehow, we have to grapple with topology. For a long time, I struggled with the concept of time within cybernetics. After all, you have to have time to have a mechanism, but where did "time" come from? There must be something prior to "mechanism". It turns out that when we think through one of the other key distinctions of cybernetics - difference - we find the answer. A difference results from a distinction. A distinction is a boundary which marks what is inside from what is outside. But distinctions are essentially unstable: whatever mark is made generates a question. It's the same question that Gödel addressed: the distinction demarcates a "formal system", but there are propositions expressible within the formal system which cannot be proved within that system. Uncertainty is inevitable - how is it managed?

Something must be invented in order to mop-up the uncertainty. Time is a powerful invention. By creating past, present and future, ambiguities can be situated in a way where contradictions can be expressed "now it is x" and "now it is not-x". The implications of this are that the topology becomes richer as the distinctions about time must also be negotiated. Part of the richness of this topology may also be the creation of deep symmetries in time and space, including concepts such as "nothingness" or nilpotency, and "dimensionality" - in essence, as my colleague Peter Rowlands would argue, the foundational principles of the material world. The invention of time entails a double management process, where part of it must coordinate with an environment which is also the cause of uncertainty. There are many distinctions in the universe, each creating time, space and matter, and each constraining other distinctions.

So is the "big bang" story a manifestation of a topology? Does the topology pre-exist the consciousness which conceives of it? (what does "pre-" mean in that sentence?) If this is so, what is "evolution"? I feel myself skirting foundationalism while denying the possibility of any "foundation"... and then seeing that process as a foundation... then denying it... then seeing it as a foundation... and so on.

"In the beginning was the word" says St. John's Gospel. That's a distinction - it unfolds a topology. Theologians like Arthur Peacock imagined that "logos" might also mean "information". If there is information, then there is topology, and then the "beginning" is "the word" - the distinction.  And beginnings are everywhere, not least the beginnings created by the distinctions of consciousness. But consciousness's beginnings have their roots in the beginnings of matter - in the "word".

We're very close to Torday's essential point: cells, from which consciousness emerges, are stardust which trace their evolutionary history to the beginning. In the topology of maintaining distinctions, new distinctions must be made as the ambiguity of the environment is dealt with. Indeed, the difference between atoms and organisms may be that atoms in maintaining their distinction, must find a way of organising themselves such that new distinctions may be made. The environment within which atoms organise is the essential driver for new forms of organisation. That way of organising is what life is: a search for new ways of making distinctions which manage the uncertainty generated by those distinctions. It is this, I suspect, which is the mechanism of evolution. It's only about history in the sense that our unstable distinctions require us to invent history to maintain our distinctions about ourselves and our environment.

What we call "homestasis" is the cell's drive for coherence in its distinction-making. What we call "information" or "negentropy" is the cell's interface with its environment. What we call "chemiosmosis" is the disturbance to the cell's equilbrium by forces in its environment and its gaining of energy.

Thought itself is the universe's way of making new distinctions. Since the universe is imprinted in the biology of consciousness, the symmetries of physics, biology and consciousness will contrive to form coherences which enfold both synchronic and diachronic dimensions. This may be why the crazily complex protein dance hangs together - because of the deep coherence between diachronic and synchronic dimensions.

What then of science itself? Of empiricism? In a world produced by thought, something happens within the time we invent to establish coherence between thought and the world. Thought looks closely at what it has made, it discards certain aspects of what it sees, it executes control on what is left, it observes what happens - not just one mind, but many - and then collectively it thinks more deeply. A new level of coherence is arrived at and the topology unfolds once more. 

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