The wind was flapping a temple flag. Two monks were arguing about it. One said the flag was moving; the other said the wind was moving. Arguing back and forth they could come to no agreement. The Sixth Patriarch said, “It is neither the wind nor the flag that is moving. It is your mind that is moving.” — Zen Koan
“The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.” — Albert Einstein
Does a whirlpool exist in the same way that a rock exists or that energy from the sun exists? For something to exist it either has to have always existed, or there must have been a time prior to its existence. Leaving for a moment the possibility that everything which exists today has always existed, let’s consider that it came into being at some point.
If something came into being, then not only must there have been a point in time prior to its existence, but there must have been a point after which it begins to exist. These two points don’t necessarily need to be the same. If I make dinner — a rare occasion to be sure — then there is a period of time during which I’m in the process of making dinner. Before that period started, my dinner did not exist. After I fished making it, my dinner existed. We could argue over whether existence is therefore better understood as a continuum (does dinner exist while I’m in the process of making it?) but let’s assume for a moment that it’s not. That dinner either exists or it doesn’t. Certainly it’s the case that the rock I am sitting on right now either exists or it doesn’t. I’m going to assume the latter for now.
Let’s talk about creation for a moment. When we say that something was created we often times are implying that there was a creator of some sort. Maybe not a human or deity, but that there was an entity of some sort that had the intention of bringing that thing into existence. Clearly there are things that get created that don’t have an intentional creator. Take for example an oil spill or a planet.
So to recap, we will be talking about the existence (or not) of various things, and we will use the terms “creation” and “created” simply to refer to the notion that for something to exist, there needs to have been a creation process of some sort: human, devine or otherwise.
Consider for a moment a particular pattern in a Persian rug. Or the pattern of the Statue of Liberty. Both have been replicated many times, but there is still the question of whether the pattern itself has existence independent of the physical manifestations that it takes. Let’s not attempt to answer that right now, but rather let’s assume that patterns exist as first class citizens in the universe, and see what that assumption implies.
For a particular pattern to exist, it either always existed, or it was created at some point in time (or during some time period). I think we can all agree that the pattern of the Statue of Liberty was created (that is, it did not always exist). The notion that it has always existed (while ultimately it may have some merit) is too philosophical for our current purposes.
What about ceasing to exist? Is it possible that a pattern, once created, can cease to exist? Again, quite philosophical, but let’s take the harder path and assume that if all instances of a pattern cease to exist in the universe, then the pattern ceases to exist as well. It may come back into existence sometime in the future; it may not.
Now back to that whirlpool. It’s fair to say that there exists a pattern for it that we notice from time to time instantiated elsewhere: other whirlpools of course, but also tornados, hurricanes, eddies in streams, even gravity wells created by stars. We have a technical name for this pattern, we call it a vortex.
Vortices belong to a class of patterns that, once initiated are self-sustaining. They need a flow of energy (such as the pull of gravity) to sustain indefinitely, but the structure of the pattern is such that less energy is required to sustain it than to create it in the first place. The energy is channeled by the pattern in a cycle so that only a fraction is lost during one orbit. The cyclical structure is the key to a self-sustaining pattern.
Not all patterns are self-sustaining of course. Clouds form and dissipate without much in the way of a sustained, coherent pattern. The fact that we can identify individual clouds suggests that there is some degree of self-sustenance. But it’s fair to say that if there were a measure of self-sustenance, clouds would rank lower than vortices.
And if there is a pattern to life, then certainly self-sustenance is one of its properties. And certainly life forms would measure higher on that scale than either clouds or vortices.
Living things have other, related properties as well: self-repair, self-defense, self-replication, self-representation…. This latter property is interesting because it is the basis for (among other things) genes and cognition. Somewhere on the spectrum of self-* properties lies self-awareness and self-consciousness. Maybe not all living things exhibit these higher order self-* properties, but some of us do.
Are there certain patterns that, in addition to being self-sustaining are also self-creating? It’s an interesting question because how would we distinguish self-creation from random chance? Given a long enough time period and random fluctuations of energy and matter, there are bound to appear patterns that just so happen (by pure chance) to be self-sustaining. And if you view the universe as a place where matter and energy interplay in an increasingly random way — which is to say that entropy increases as time goes on — then you could rationally assert that within the universe there are patterns that self-create.
But even if you didn’t want to go that far, there is something very important about self-sustaining patterns no matter how they were created. Namely, that they define a boundary between self and environment that simpler patterns do not. I need to unpack that statement a bit for it to make sense.
How do we know that a pattern is indeed a pattern? Simply because we observe a sameness about some aspect of our reality that persists for some noticeable time. This is a basic definition of pattern. But for us to observe the pattern there must be something doing the observing, namely us. But what if there were nothing doing the observing, would the pattern exist just the same?
Robert Lanza makes a good case against existence without observation. Talking about of the proverbial tree falling in the forrest, he observes,
If someone is nearby, the air puffs physically cause the ear’s tympanic membrane (eardrum) to vibrate, which then stimulates nerves only if the air is pulsing between 20 and 20,000 times a second…. Air that puffs 15 times a second is not intrinsically different from air that pulses 30 times, the the former will never result in a human perception of sound…. [N]erves stimulated by the moving eardrum send electrical signals to a section of the brain, resulting in the cognition of a noise. This experience, then, is inarguably symbiotic. The pulses of air by themselves do not constitute any sort of sound…. [A]n observer, an ear, and a brain are every bit as necessary for the experience of a sound as are the air pulses.
You might be tempted to say that there’s a pattern to the air puffs that are intrinsic, that doesn’t require observation to exist. But that is not so clear if you start digging into the physiology:
…neither electricity nor magnetism have visual properties…. there is nothing inherently visual, nothing bright or colored about that candle flame. Now let these same invisible electromagnetic waves strike a human retina, and if (and only if) the waves each happen to measure between 400 and 700 nanometers in length from crest, then their energy is just right to deliver a stimulus to the 8 million cone-shaped cells in the retina. Each in turn sends an electrical pulse to a neighbor neuron, and up the line this goes, at 250 mph, until it reaches the warm, wet occipital lobe of the brain, in the back of the head. There, a cascading complex of neurons fire from the incoming stimuli, and we subjectively perceive this experience as yellow brightness occurring in a place we have been conditioned to call “the external world.” Other creatures receiving the identical stimulus will experience something altogether different, such as a perception of gray, or even have an entirely dissimilar sensation.
Or none at all, I might add. Lanza goes on….
What about if you touch something? Isn’t it solid? Push on the trunk of the fallen tree and you feel pressure. But this too is a sensation strictly inside your brain and only “projected” to your fingers, whose existence also lies within the mind. Moreover, that sensation of pressure is caused not by any contact with a solid, but by the fact that every atom has negatively charged electrons in its outer shells. As we all know, charges of the same type repel each other, so the bark’s electrons repel yours, and you feel this electrical repulsive force stopping your fingers from penetrating any further. Nothing solid ever meets any other solids when you push on a tree. The atoms in your fingers are each as empty as a vacant football stadium in which a single fly sits on the fifty-yard line. If we needed solids to stop us (rather than energy fields), our fingers could easily penetrate the tree as if we were swiping at fog.
What Lanza is saying, in other words, is that the pattern isn’t somewhere “out there”, rather it exists in our minds. To be sure, the pattern is “symbiotic” requiring both observer and observed. But it’s fair to question how much of the pattern is in our mind verses out there in the world. After all, the pattern of solidity seems pretty discordant with the stadium sized gaps and electrical impulses that physical reality holds.
Probing further still, let’s assume we are talking only about the part of the pattern that is “out there” in the universe, not in our minds. We can ask the question, in the physical manifestation of the pattern, where does it begin and where does it end? What’s not included in the pattern? What can be considered considered external environment or noise?
Let’s take for example a particular rock. That rock is made up of many molecules that have bonded together and remain so for a long period of time. Long enough that we recognize the pattern in nature and say to one another, “rock” without much ambiguity or miscommunication. But it’s also true that the rock was once part of a larger physical structure (a mountain perhaps) in which it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for any observer to distinguish it from its environment. This is problematic because that very same pattern of molecules that we called “rock” existed when the rock was part of the mountain. And at some time in the future our rock will erode and break apart to the point where we all would agree that it’s no longer a rock, let alone our same rock.
It’s a natural human tendency to want to believe that there is something fishy about observer-dependence. We all have this intuitive sense that whether or not there is an observer to notice the rock cleave from the mountain and persist for some millions of years before becoming so much sand, that the rock does indeed exist. That the pattern is real, independent of an observer.
If this intuitive sense is true, then I propose the reason it is true is because of the odd property of patterns that they can be self-sustaining. In the case of the whirlpool, the matter and energy flow in a spiral, which has a large cyclical component to it. This cycle divides the world between the matter/energy that is part of the pattern and that which is outside the pattern.
If you are not convinced then try to come up with a pattern that doesn’t have a cycle of some sort. I think you will come to see that the very essence of a pattern is that which is cyclical about it, that which repeats. After all, without repetition, there is no pattern, there’s just randomness. Randomness. Randomness.
The Anthropic Principle suggests that randomness is inherent in the universe, and through randomness (and natural selection) there eventually appear observers (namely us) who notice patterns.
But what if in reality, patterns comes first.
Maybe randomness is the fiction, a model of reality that allows us to get on with things, but isn’t ever purely manifested in the universe.
Maybe everything — even quantum particles and forces — is interconnected in some way, if only indirectly.
And if that were the case, then the way in which everything interconnects might form a pattern.
There are a growing number of scientists who believe this to be the case. That the universe is fundamentally different than we’ve supposed for a while. That rather than being comprised of energy and matter, that the universe at its most basic level is a pattern. And the pattern is… Life.
In this biocentric worldview, the universe and everything in it is a living process, a pattern if you will. Even atoms and molecules are manifestations of this pattern. That which was once considered inert and lifeless, according to biocentrism, is in fact just as alive as you and I are. The trick to seeing the pattern is to view what’s going on at a high enough level of abstraction.
The trick is to forget the idea that there is a distinction between that which exists in the universe and that which we observe.
The trick is to start with the idea that all matter and energy is self-creating.
In a subsequent post I will review the evidence put forth by a couple of biocentric thinkers. If you are with me this far, I think you will be persuaded to look for the pattern.