Thursday 28 January 2021

Why "Physiology First" has become important to me

Often I find that the ideas which really change my life are not "new" ideas to me, but things which are revealed through reading and interacting with others which in fact I have always felt. When I encountered cybernetics through Oleg Liber in my early 30s, I encountered a way of thinking which I had alway felt - particularly through thinking about music. At the same time, when I encountered cybernetics, I already knew where the problems were. I just had a new name, and a lot of new intellectual friends, with whom I could explore those problems. But after a few years, I knew I couldn't ignore the thing that was missing in cybernetics (I tried to fill it with philosophy - particularly Critical Realism - but that just introduced a whole load of new problems!)

What I always felt was that all this logical stuff - mathematics, technology, programming - alongside all the artistic stuff - music, etc - was physiological. When I was about 18, I wrote a lot of tortuous prose about this (which I've still got) - although not understanding that it was physiological, I called it "emotional" - very much the kind of thing a hormonal teenager would write! The closest I could get to biology and physiology at this stage was Piaget, whose work I had been introduced to by a school friend (amazing how those peer conversations have such a profound impact - I remember him saying "that sounds like Piaget" and I said "who's that?")

Now, over 30 years later, I have a different vocabulary and a different theory for saying exactly the same thing. "We shall not cease from exploration, until at the end of all our exploring..." as Eliot said. This is thanks to the cellular biology of John Torday. Only now, perhaps, do I have a secure footing to say with more precision and evidence what I had been thinking as a teenager. 

The experience of rediscovering teenage thoughts is a process of unlocking a map which resituates lots of discarded elements that have been accumulated over the years. About 10 years ago in Bolton, a rather crazy academic visited us and talked endlessly about Husserl and his "Origins of Geometry". I tried to read it. But it didn't make any sense to me.

Now I read it, and it is a different story altogether. It's as if Husserl was Torday - or he saw almost exactly the same thing. What's he saying? Well, basically, he's saying that geometry (and by extension, logic, maths, etc) is not part of a mind-independent reality (so cyberneticians will be happy), but it does have a genealogy. Geometry has a beginning, and it continues to live in our consciousness. Where is this beginning? For that Torday makes more sense than Husserl: it's origins are tied up with the evolutionary origins of the cells which comprise us, and our consciousness in which triangles, lines and squares live. To think of the logical and apparently eternal geometric forms of triangles or squares is to dig into the deepest primordial origins of our physiology. 

Maybe this sounds too abstract or fanciful. But this is precisely the thought that I had as a teenager about music, computer programming and mathematics. In other words, it is an idea which resonates with my own physiological history. More to the point, Torday's ideas map out a fractal pattern of cellular development from simple single cell organisms, to you and me, and consciousness. If geometry does feel fundamental it is because it is embedded in this fractal structure in the deepest way - which, by what we understand of fractals - it must be (I think). This is basically what Husserl is saying - except that he didn't have the science of cells or fractals with which to say it.  

But if this is right, then the way we think about technology, which ontologises logic, mathematics, structure and reason, is a deep mistake. But, of course, we know it's a mistake, and have known for centuries. But we have not had a physiological science which could sufficiently challenge the rationalist impulse and the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics as Wigner put it. But mathematics and logic are "unreasonably effective" not because they represent eternal truths about the universe, but because their origins lie at the origins of our physiology which is the ultimate measure of any effectiveness we can judge. 

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