As Fritjov Capra, author of The Tao of Physics and The Web of Life, noted in the latter book, the dominant scientific lens through which to understand the nature of the universe may be shifting from physics to biology. Complex dynamical systems, even non-living ones, bear a stronger resemblance to organic models than to mechanical ones. It is, perhaps, a fundamentally animate universe in which we live. And the progressive patterns of that universe are repeated across levels and forms in a fractal geometry of dynamical systems. (The main contender for dominant emerging physical paradigm, meanwhile, is a mathematical model of ”the cosmic symphony.” String Theory postulates that the ultimate and irreducible building blocks of the universe, from which all subatomic particles emanate, are one-dimensional vibrating strings in an 11-dimensional space! Read Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe if that idea resonates with you.)
As I wrote about in The Politics of Consciousness and Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, the evolutionary process of genes reproducing, occasionally mutating, and competing for reproductive success is echoed in the dynamics of human history, in which “memes” (cognitions) also reproduce (more rapidly than genes), mutate (more frequently and affirmatively than genes), and compete for reproductive success. And that pattern may be reproduced (and accelerated) yet again, in a new form, as the spawn of the spawn of Nature, human information technologies, acquire the ability to reproduce algorithmically adaptive packets of digital information that compete among themselves for reproductive success. Just as human cultural evolution is an accelerated version of the biological evolution, human autonomous technological evolution based on the digital transmission and processing of information is a yet more accelerated process. Thus humans are an intermediate ripple of consciousness in a series of accelerating inferior incarnations.
But it is the reintegration of these distinct ecologies and sub-ecologies which is perhaps most fascinating of all. It is clear that we humans will have to adapt our technologies and social institutions to the ecological context of the planet if we want to continue to have a planet on which to live (ignoring for the moment the possibility of extraterrestrial colonization). Not only did the Earth’s evolutionary ecology create us, but it also challenged us to imitate and integrate with it ever more perfectly and completely (like Bellerophon mounted on Pegasis, aspiring to reach Olympian heights, increasingly risking being thrown to our destruction for our hubris).
Both our technologies and our social institutions are bound to develop in directions that more closely mimic nature, not just in underlying dynamics and functions, but also in form, becoming softer and more “biodegradable,” creating more microtechnologies that scavenge the obsolete hulks of larger orga…, uh, “machines,” recycling them into the production processes. Such organic technologies are likely to utilize more flexible and viscous couplings, aspiring to and copying the natural machinery that remains far more sophisticated than human technologies. A computer that is more like a brain with synapses that are as agile as the brain’s can capture the advantages of both. An economy that is more like an ecosystem can produce less waste, utilize more resources, and recycle everything.
It is, at all levels –nature, mind, and machine– forms of consciousness and derivative consciousness we are talking about. “God” did indeed make “man” in “His” image, because the consciousness that is biological evolution created an echo of itself in the form of the human (or mammalian) mind, and that mind created an echo in turn, in the form of computers. So similar is nature’s “mind” to our own, that we use the language and mathematical tools of intentionality, designed for the study of human behavior, to study evolutionary ecology. Species develop “strategies” for reproductive success, that appear to us to be remarkably intentional: Disguises, defenses, weapons, colonies, divisions of labor; technologies and social institutions remarkably like our own.
Biologists are quick to admonish, “though we use the metaphor of intentionality, anatomical and genetically hard-wired adaptive strategies are not intentionally produced. It’s just a function of trial and error. Nature only resembles us in that way.” Remarkably enough, in one way in which religious faith hit the nail more squarely on the head than scientific scepticism, those biologists got it backwards: It is we that resemble Nature, not vice versa. The consciousness of Evolutionary Ecology precedes and produced us, the fact that it is a function of trial and error notwithstanding. While we have pitted God and Darwin at odds with one another, in reality, what Darwin described is simply one of God’s “mysterious ways” (or “avatars,” to be more precise). Just as we refer to what we have created in our own image as “artificial (human) intelligence,” we ourselves are really just “artificial (natural) intelligence.”
Nature had its own “collective consciousness” before humans were here to give it a name. It musn’t be confused with human consciousness, just as human consciousness shouldn’t be confused with whatever computer consciousness might emerge (or already exists). Nature’s consciousness is diffuse, not self-reflective, not imbued with an ego or corporeal integrity. It is not the function of a human brain, and therefore is hard to conceptualize, always reduced to that which is most familiar. But it is the Intelligent Being that designed us, as (or perhaps more) similar to the godless mechanisms of an atheistic scientist as it is to the Judeo-Christian God. And it did indeed “make us in its own image.”
Just as we have now made something in ours. It was inevitable that we would “play god,” because “God” made us in “His” image, not in the superficial sense, but in the substantive sense of being designed to “play God.” We cannot help but to create our own monster, just as “God” created “His.” The story of Frankenstein is the Story of Creation, told from “God’s” perspective, with “God’s” horror at what “He” had done. (You might recall that Dr. Frankenstein didn’t fare well in the end, a fate with which we ourselves threaten Gaia, if not Jehovah).
The concept of “collective consciousness,” and the study of the epidemiology of cognitions, predate the invention of the internet, but they gain new significance in a new age of accelerated, geographically liberated network communications. Before this creation of ours becomes an autonomous evolutionary ecology of its own, it has augmented ours, accelerating the communication and analysis of information, and thus accelerating the cultural evolutionary process.
Collective consciousness, and the human cognition which comprises it, is less about the discovery of an objective reality than about the forging over time of an evolving way of interfacing with it. Our conceptualizations of reality are not reality, but rather representations of reality, nested and overlapping metaphors that we use to map an almost infinitely more complex terrain. We argue over individual or sub-group variations in that map, over whether this representation or that more accurately and usefully describes the elusive reality we are mapping; sometimes, in essence, arguing whether it should be topographic or political, whether it should be more detailed (and thus more difficult to use) or simplified.
The construction of our maps is what has been called “the social construction of reality.” It is a shared reality, but with distributed and punctuated variation, with variation both within and between groups, but group coalescences at various levels around shared aspects of individual cognitive maps (and group coalescences reproducing shared aspects of individual cognitive maps). We have religions and denominations, political ideologies and factions within them, scientific disciplines comprised of competing schools of thought. The field of human consciousness is characterized by a combination of commonality and variation, constantly evolving, with patterns shifting according to extraordinarily complex algoriths that determine the patterns of change.
One model with which to understand this involves a tool called “cellular automata.” Cellular automata are a matrix of cells in which each can trigger changes in the state of neighboring (or otherwise interconnected) cells according to some algorithm. So, for instance, a simple cellular automata model might involve colors as states, with each cell being converted to the color that the majority of cells on which it borders has. Soon, a stable pattern of colors would emerge, perhaps all cells being a single color, or areas of particular colors emerging with sharp borders between them, But cellular automata can be far more complex than that, involving incessantly changing states rippling throughout the matrix, forming constantly shifting patterns.
Consider now cellular automata in which the shifting patterns themselves alter the algorithm by which they shift. Such is the human world. As our technologies and social institutions evolve, the speed of our communications and processing of information accelerates, and the patterns that are formed change at an accelerating rate, and according to shifting algorithms. As our tool (computers and the internet) becomes an autonomous ecology of its own, it both mimics and feeds back into the human ecology.
How these three levels of ecology continue to co-evolve, diverging from, threatening, reinforcing, and reintegrating with one another remains to be seen. Humans will undoubtedly continue the progression of how “plugged in” we are to the technologically enhanced network that binds us together, moving from desk top to lap top computers, to hand held and then handless devices, eventually, perhaps, to implants that can be accessed with a thought, and, beyond that, possibly even some technology that involves genetic engineering which moves our internet technology in a more biological direction. A human far future of organically and remotely interconnected and augmented human consciousness (a technologically accomplished mass telepathic network) is a distinct possibility.
As our technologies become more organic, not only does the process of their integration into the human ecology accelerate, but they also become the medium through which the human ecology reintegrates with the natural ecology. The acceleration of information processing and communication will inevitably be increasingly applied to the challenge of economic sustainability, which means, in effect, reintegration of human and natural technologies, reducing their incompatability and increasing their mutual reinforcement. And the increasing use of more organic technologies and social institutions may well be a major aspect of what that reintegration looks like.
It can even take on an extraterrestrial aspect, if we use genetic engineering to adapt ourselves to extraterrestrial colonization, completing the reintegration loop, our creature altering that which created us. Here on Earth, meanwhile, the reintegration of these three evolutionary ecologies holds a promise for humanity that tantalizes the imagination, as we continue to transcend limitations that we once thought untranscendable, and continue to become an ever-more conscious aspect of a larger consciousness.