Monday, December 14, 2009

Spontaneous Organization

The market economy is a self-organizing system because it is made up of countless people who act out of their own self interest to buy and sell to other people. It is not designed and not made by a designer.

A language system such as the english language, is a self-organizing system. Each speaker of english uses english words in conversation with other english speakers. The language itself is shaped and evolves through the sum total of individual conversations and at the same time the language system as a whole shapes the way that each individual speaker uses it in conversation.

Although laws are made by governments and moral codes are often passed on from one generation to the next through formal and informal education, moral systems can also be seen as self-organizing. Our interpretation of values, social norms and rules helps to shape our everyday conduct with others. Each person's conduct in turn, is interpreted by and influences other's value systems and conduct in a vast circle of social networks. Some people's behaviour is exemplary and very influential, other's behaviour is despicable and serves as an example to be shunned.

All these human systems I am describing have emergent properties that are not reducible to a simple description of physical causes. Being an english speaker I can choose to speak eloquently or massacre the language. Either way, I am part of the english language system without being determined by it.

Consciousness is another system, in this case neurological, where the state of consciousness is an emergent property, not reducible to a physical chain of neurons firing.

The parts of consciousness interact together with the other parts: The mid-brain systems that keep us alert and awake and that help us to pay attention, the sensory systems, the motivational system that helps us to focus and prioritize, the memory systems of the cerebral cortex that help in making associations with past experience, and make experiencing into a continuous flow, the parts of the cortex dealing with language, and meaning that help to put ideas into words, the parts that allow us to visualize ideas, and the prefrontal areas of the cortex that assist us in judging and and decision-making.

Our thoughts, sensations, feelings and judgement get organized into coherent ideas and narratives spontaneously without being planned or designed. For any planning, necessarily already involves ideas and narratives, so it can't be primary.

We tend to model reality after ourselves. This is called “anthropomorphism”. At first we attribute human qualities to natural phenomena such as the weather, the sea, volcanoes, the sun and moon, and the stars. We invent mythologies to explain how these things act, as if they were people and acted according to their own purposes.

Determinism can be seen as just another form of anthropomorphism. Just as all humans make things and do things for a reason, determinism sees everything that happens as determined by previous causes. Determinism equates living things with machines as if they were designed for a reason.

According to determinism there is no free will because everything that happens is determined by antecedant causes. But does causation explain everything, and does it really determine behaviour?

Think back to the flock of sandpipers that I talked about in a previous article. The flock flies in unison, quickly manoevering around obstacles as one, and lands on the beach in unison. Where was the cause of that flock's behaviour? Was it the sum total of all the individual sandpipers' behaviour?

But didn't the behaviour of the flock as a whole influence the behaviour of each individual bird? The behaviour of the flock influenced the behaviour of the individual birds, and the individual birds influenced the behaviour of the flock. In which direction was the cause?

We're talking in circles here. If causation happens in both directions or is “circular” in what sense is it determinate?

Everything can influence us at once, and if so what is it that causes us to do what we do? Everything? Then the concept of causation and determinism itself are both meaningless.

It seems to me that self-organization can generate free will because the influence and interaction of a self-organized system can be omnidirectional.

Think of the brain. Interactions between many different parts of the brain contribute to each moment of consciousness. At the same time our conscious experience influences those interactions. What causes the experience then?

That's why we say that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon and not reducible to the firing of nerve cells. And we can say the same thing about “purpose” and “meaning”. These emerge out of living and self-organizing systems.

Purpose is more basic than meaning because it does not require consciousness. The purpose of maintaining life appears to be already part of every life-form. Meaning emerges from consciousness so it requires consciousness.

It may seem rather abstract, what I'm talking about but these are all things that science has a problem dealing with but are in the province of religion. Consciousness emerges from physical phenomena but cannot be reduced to them because it influences those phenomena. Purpose emerges from life and influences life, meaning emerges from consciousness and influences consciousness.

The key to all these phenomena is that they appear to emerge spontaneously from the bottom up in self-organizing systems, without being designed or planned. This has obvious implications for religion. But that's not my department.

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