Lately I’ve been discussing emergence and self-organization. Turns out the BBC created an entire hour-long program on the subject. It’s entitled The Secret Life Of Chaos. Nice! You can watch it below.
In a recent post entitled All Attractive Men Are Scum?, I complained about a news article’s claim that a man’s capability to commit to a relationship is genetically determined. I argued that the studies in the article fail to take into account the environment, and that a person’s character shouldn’t be judged until you actually get to know them. But to tell the truth, I was a bit disingenuous and didn’t state that there’s also some interesting evidence building up indicating a large degree of truth to what was being said. Unfortunately, my own personal bias was getting in the way. I don’t personally like the conclusions some of this evidence seems to suggest, as it doesn’t line up with my view of the world. As a man, I like to believe it’s my choice whether or not I commit to a relationship, and I can choose my own values. But considering I try to be intellectually honest at all times, I found myself lying in bed with a deep sense of guilt. I stared up at my bookshelf at all my neuroscience books and thought to myself, “Do I tell them about the prairie and meadow voles?” After a fifteen minute deliberation while eating a bowl of Raisin Bran, I decided I would share with you the evidence I was previous withholding. So, here goes.
If you travel to the heartland of the United States and walk through the grasslands, you’ll come across two species of adorable creatures – prairie and meadow voles.
Aren’t they cute? I think so. So, why in the world are we talking about voles? Scientists noticed that while both species of voles are very closely related genetically, prairie voles are monogamous, completely dedicated to one partner, while meadow voles are not. Prairie voles live with their spouses in the same nest, are both actively involved in raising their young, and the males will passionately defend their spouse and children from harm. Meadow voles on the other hand, their males live in their own bachelor pads. They knock up the women and then run off, and even the women only care for their young briefly before letting them fend for themselves in the world. How could two closely related species exhibit such different reproductive and parenting behaviors?
The scientists captured the little guys and took a close look at their brains. They eventually found out that the only real difference between them was the concentrations of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. It’s experiment time! First they injected the faithful, loving prairie voles with drugs which inhibited the vasopressin receptors. The once devout husbands soon lost interest in their wives and exhibited the promiscuous behavior of meadow voles. If the unfaithful meadow voles were injected with extra doses of vasopressin, they quickly bonded with their sexual partners and became monogamous family men, like the prairie voles. You can also turn the flighty meadow vole females into good caring mothers by injecting them with oxytocin.
Wow. I don’t think I really need to say much else. We all want to believe we can choose who we are, and the values which we hold, but do we really? Quite a question, isn’t it? Could it be that us human men are driven by the same factors? Are some men born with more vasopressin receptors in their brains, causing their level of commitment to their partners? Is the same true for females? Is a woman’s dedication to her spouse and children dictated by the number of oxytocin receptors in her brain? The neuroscience textbook I’m reading concludes with the following:
The vole story is a fascinating example of how brain chemicals can regulate critical behaviors. However, by now you are undoubtedly wondering: Does this have anything to do with human relationships, faithfulness, and love? We have only incomplete facts. There is some evidence from primates that vasopressin and oxytocin levels vary with sexual arousal, and that oxytocin facilitates nurturing behavior in females and sexual assertiveness in some males. It has also been found in human fMRI experiments that regions of the brain dense with oxytocin and vasopressin receptors are activated when mothers look at photographs of their own children but not when they look at photographs of the children of their friends.
Are oxytocin and vasopressin important for romantic and parental love in people? Maybe. It’s too soon to tell.
I think we can all safely conclude that this is an important issue which needs to be investigated further. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we humans are more complex than the voles, so it’s not all about just vasopressin and oxytocin, though they’re both critical.
To further illustrate this concept of brain chemistry determining our morality, think about the drug ecstasy. If you take it, your conscious state is sent into euphoria, you develop a very strong feeling of intimacy with others, everything becomes “one”, and all fears and anxieties go away. Isn’t it interesting that these are the same factors spiritual gurus talk about? Letting go of fear, seeing the interconnectedness of everything, self-acceptance, forgiving others, developing emotional intimacy, and so on. Before ecstasy was made illegal, research was done on it and neuroscientists summarized its therapeutic effects.
“Three neurobiological mechanisms for the therapeutic effects of MDMA have been suggested: “1) MDMA increases oxytocin levels, which may strengthen the therapeutic alliance; 2) MDMA increases ventromedial prefrontal activity and decreases amygdala activity, which may improve emotional regulation and decrease avoidance, and 3) MDMA increases norepinephrine release and circulating cortisol levels, which may facilitate emotional engagement and enhance extinction of learned fear associations.”
– Source, Wikipedia
Studying what drugs do to people’s brains is one of the most fascinating things things to research. Now don’t go off and start taking ecstasy; it’s a dangerous drug and has some nasty side effects. I think that meditation, focusing on various peaceful ideas, and other mental imagery causes various vibrations in our neural networks, which stimulate and activate these chemicals, altering our conscious states. It’s not random that all these things correlate with one another – forgiveness, oneness, intimacy, and so forth.
Along this same idea, one evening I was having dinner with a Christian financial planner because we were working together on a software project. He started sharing his religious ideas and told me how he believed that when he went to heaven and stood before God, all of his fears would be washed away, he’d become one with everything, his sins would be forgiven, and that he’d be surrounded by love and goodness. Does that sound familiar? It’s the same thing! Give him some ecstasy and he’d have the same experience. What’s he’s really wanting is a different state of brain chemicals. There’s no need for anything supernatural, only a deeper awareness of science and how his brain works.
This is a good place to bring up the environment. Notice that ecstasy decreases amygdala activity, which is our center for fear. The world is a rough place, and we form mental associations which fire off those fear centers, ruining our conscious state of peace and security. We all know that if a person has suffered one traumatic experience after another, it has strong effects on their personality. We also know that some people are able to more easily bounce back from such experiences. I think it’s ultimately the combination of native brain chemistry and the associations we develop throughout our lives, which dictate our conscious states. Some people’s brains are more inclined to kindness, intimacy, oneness, and so forth, than others, probably based on the density of vasopressin, oxytocin, and some other types of receptors and chemicals.
I’ve had those types of questions on my mind for years now. One question I’ve been deeply wondering about is whether or not these sorts of receptors can atrophy from lack of use, or become disconnected from other brain areas. Everything else in my body seems to wither away if it’s not used. If I don’t exercise, my muscles deteriorate. Knowledge I don’t use, I forget. The brain can also rewire itself, reallocating neurons to different functions. Can you become more emotional and loving by actively taking part in those sorts of activities, and less so if you rarely have the experiences? Or is it hard wired?
We’re now rapidly moving beyond my level of neuroscience knowledge. I would have to dedicate myself more fully to neuroscience if I was to more deeply understand the interplay of all these brain chemicals, so I better stop now.
Society’s beliefs about personal responsibility, values, and what dictates our behavior are being overturned by this sort of science. Our greatest moral teachers tell us to love one another, as if it’s something we do by willpower alone. We praise a person who has been married for a lifetime, and condemn those who have never deeply committed themselves. But let me ask you this: What if that inner empathy to love your spouse (or anyone else for that matter), which is so passionately espoused by gurus and sages, is really dictated by brain chemistry? What if the degree of passion a person is capable of exhibiting is dictated by these same chemical receptors? What then? And even more intriguing, will we later be able to alter ourselves with targeted drugs, and nanobots, and make ourselves into perfectly loving human beings? I like the idea that it’s just chemicals and brain receptors because if that’s the case, we can always invent devices to change our brains.
Don’t ask me why, but today I was in the mood to search Youtube for clips of some of my favorite games from my childhood. Where shall we begin?
Day of the Tentacle:
Now there’s a classic for you. You play the role of Bernard, an intrepid computer nerd who is forced by dire circumstances to save the world from the evil disembodied purple tentacle, who, after drinking industrial waste from Dr. Ed’s basement laboratory, turns into an evil genius bent on world domination. The mad professor builds you a time machine out of three porta potties, sending you and your friends to different eras in time to save the world. This is one of the most creative games you’ll ever play. It’s old school, but if you ask me, the graphics still look great. Laverne’s face is priceless! Look into those eyes! Hay Baby! I remember buying it right when it came out and playing it on my old 486 66 computer. *pushes up nerd glasses* This was back in 1993, so it’s been quite a while. I was only ten years old at the time so I wasn’t old enough to drive, but my older brother took me to Walmart to get it. This game came out on MS-DOS! This was before Windows ladies and gentleman. You had to type in commands to get a game going. That’s hardcore!
Or how about Sam & Max Hit The Road? This was another puzzle game. I don’t even know how to describe this game. You play the role of a freelance detective who gets involved in a rather bizarre plot. You’re accompanied by your sidekick, Max, who is a deranged rabbit prone to violence and wild swearing.
That cat at the end is spectacular. “Hey there little fella!” *Scratchy voice*, “You talking to me!” And do you notice the pigeons boozing it up on the ledge of the liquor store? When I was with my brother the other day, I saw that they offered new Sam & Max games on the PS3 and also PC. I just figured out about them a few days ago, and plan to buy them.
It’s hard for me to say which Final Fantasy is my favorite, but Final Fantasy VI is way up there. Does anyone remember Shadow, the mysterious ninja who joins your group several times throughout the storyline? He rarely spoke, and seemed to live in his own world. You only begin to learn about his tragic past when he suffers from nightmares as you sleep in the inns.
You can see he’s a man with some inner demons. He’s forced to leave his best friend on the ground, on the verge of death, and is haunted by it the rest of his life. At some point he was involved with an unnamed woman, but leaves her, wondering when his past life might catch up to him. He doesn’t want to get her involved. He’s is one of the deepest characters in the entire series.
Even at the game’s closing, you can see that he hasn’t come to terms with his friend’s death. He feels such a deep guilt for everything that happened, and hopes for the day he reunites with Baram once again.
Or take Final Fantasy VIII. This scene has to bring back some memories?
Rinoa was really something. Playing this game as a teenager, I always thought she was dreamy.
I don’t want to get too much into this, but the Final Fantasy series has gone downhill. I’ve been a huge fan since my early childhood, so I buy every new release, but I’ve been rather disappointed over the past years. I remember buying Final Fantasy X-2 from the store one evening and there was a cute girl at the register. I thought, “Oh great. Figures.” Imagine being a guy and having to buy a game with this cover.
The girl giggled, rung it up, and then told me how her roommate had bought this game, hated it, and left the DVD on the floor to be mangled by her dog and eventually scratched into inoperability. Now it was nothing more than a soda holder. I said, “It’s that bad?” She laughed, “Oh, I’ve never played it.” It was humiliating and I left thinking, “This better be good.” I fired up my PS2 and saw this for the game’s opening.
“What can I do for you. What can I do for you. I … can’t… hear… you…” Oh God, what had I gotten myself into? What had happened to my series? I wept to myself, quietly, all alone in my living room. The series used to have epic characters, such as Shadow, Cloud, and Auron. Now I was to play through the game as three scantily clad teenage babes. “Look at me, I’m cute and fun! Weeeeee! Let’s save the world and my boyfriend!” My older brother walked in on me playing this game one afternoon and said, “What the hell is this? The babe trio?” To go through this game, I had to endure losing my brother’s respect.
Imagine hanging out with the guys and they’re like,
The Guys: “Dude, is that the new Final Fantasy?”
Me: “Uh, yeah, I guess.”
The Guys: “Let’s play it. How far are you?”
Me: “Suit yourself.”
Then we play for an hour or so and come to this scene.
Look at those alien thingies waving their arms in the background like, “Wooohooo. Cuuuttteeee giiirrrlllsss!” I still can’t believe I played this game for like eighty hours to beat it. Was it dedication to the series? Was it so I can proudly say, “Yeah man, I’ve beaten every Final Fantasy.” I don’t know. Was it worth it? I don’t know. Just listen to that music in the hot spring scene.
Do you ever find yourself thinking that the world is set on some course? I often reflect on my life and feel that I’m sailing on a small raft down a rapidly flowing river. While I can somewhat steer the raft to the left and to the right, avoiding major obstacles downstream, overall I feel like I’m being carried someplace completely outside of my own control.
To give you a few examples, I think about aging. I’m getting older each and every day, and I have no control over it. I see myself in the mirror each morning and am noticing aging setting in. I think about society at large and how I’m subject to forces far beyond my control. Forces in Washington D.C., Wall Street, the educational system, the corporations, and so on, largely dictate what my life is and what struggles I experience. That’s not to say I can’t fight it, but if everyone around me is voting in stupid politicians, who are implementing stupid policies, I have to endure the consequences. If they waste all of our money on wars and bailing out fat cats on Wall Street, I have to live with the fact that our infrastructure is falling apart. I have to pay my share of taxes which go toward interest payments on a debt which was run up on fruitless endeavors. I have to drive down the road filled with pot-holes and make the best of whatever situation I’m in. I have to suffer as I watch more and more families fall into poverty, whether it’s from medical bills, job loss, or rampant inflation. Though I have some power, I’m almost entirely dependent on this “flow” which we call society.
I’ve always been fascinated by this “flow”. Take the economy for instance. It is pretty much a free for all — unkind and unforgiving, with every man and woman for themselves. Everyone’s competing for everything. They compete for homes. They compete for cars. They compete for jobs. They compete for mates. Everyone’s trying to advance and often beat one another senseless in the process. I see so much pain and suffering that I find myself deeply depressed reflecting on it.
But reflecting on this chaotic conflict, I notice that society isn’t random. The world isn’t anarchic, which is what you’d initially guess. There are patterns to the madness. There’s a flow pattern. There’s trends. There’s cycles. There’s ups and downs. You’d never guess that such a system would lead to any sort of structure, but it does. And even stranger, nobody ever designed it. Everybody else is just like me, immersed in this system, competing with everyone else, primarily concerned with self-interest, and amazingly a social order emerges. It’s incredible.
But what is this emergent order, looking at it from a deeper perspective? Here’s where things get really interesting. This concept of “emergence” runs very deep. It’s much deeper than human society. This same sort of process is happening at every level of reality, from elementary particles to the deepest depths of the cosmos.
Let’s begin by defining what emergence is. We can quickly summarize it by saying that when dealing with emergent properties, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This is a very profound idea so let’s take a bit of time to explain it with an example.
Many thinkers believe consciousness is an emergent process. What does that mean? Imagine Pierre-Simon Laplace’s demon. If you’re not aware of his demon, it was a thought experiment he performed in 1814. It involves a hypothetical entity that knows the position and momentum of each and every particle of the universe, and can therefore fully predict all of time, past, present, and future by using the laws of physics. Now imagine Laplace’s demon and the neurons in your brain. If consciousness is an emergent process created by the organization of neurons in your brain, even if the demon could predict every little electrical pulse, and the position and firing of each and every neuron, that does not mean it could predict you eventually becoming conscious. Consciousness is a new thing which comes into existence when the neurons organize into that pattern, but it’s above and beyond the neurons themselves. It’s more than the sum of the neurons. A new property emerges — that brain is conscious. This form of emergence is called “strong” emergence.
Let’s go even deeper. All the matter in the universe is an emergent process, though this is a case of “weak” emergence. You start with random quantum fluctuations, you have inflation, and you get the universe. This process organizes into elementary particles, which then come together into atoms. The atoms then spread off into space, are compressed into stars by gravity, which then manufacture the higher elements up to iron, and even heavier elements are created when the star explodes in a supernova. Then the star guts float off into space and gravity pulls them together into new stars and solar systems. There is no designer or organizer. All the matter of our universe was “created” by a self-organized, emergent process. What physicists call classical mechanics is just the limiting case of quantum mechanics applied to to large enough masses. When you look at matter at a small scale, it’s different stuff than the “macroscopic” world we live in. It’s this fuzzy, cloud-like indeterminate stuff governed by the uncertainty principle, but it clumps together into matter and becomes the stuff of our observable universe.
Now these atoms start self-organizing, first into planets, and then into life. The laws of chemistry, which is the science behind how the atoms combine together, leads us to a new emergent property — living cells. For example, we have the spontaneous folding of proteins. We have the formation of lipid membranes, and so on. This is a new emergent property unlike the atoms by themselves. They self-organize into cellular components and then into individuals cells and more complex living creatures.
Next we get into the field of biology. We start to have ecosystems and all sorts of life-forms which are evolving based on natural selection and random mutations. Predators evolve hunting the prey and both evolve nervous systems which give them an awareness of the world around them in order to survive and reproduce. This evolution of nervous systems eventually leads to a new emergent property, consciousness, which we have already discussed.
Now us conscious sentient beings, including many animals, are all living together on the Earth. If you examine the life of these organisms in detail, you see all sorts of emergent behaviors and patterns. Whether it be an colony of termites building a giant mound, a flock of birds flying in harmony, or a school of fish moving as one, they all behave as if they have a leader, but no one ant, bird, or fish knows the big picture! There’s no orchestrator leading them, yet they all combine together, following their instincts, flowing in organized patterns.
In the case of us humans, we start organizing into tribes and communities, and as everyone knows, the individual behaves much different when placed in the context of society. The world starts to change as we organize into larger and larger communities. A new emergent thing comes into existence — society and culture.
This is one of the central themes behind Friedrich Hayek’s work. If you don’t know, he was a nobel laureate economist. He researched societies and cultures, and he saw that their organization evolved and that these changes take place by ordered processes. These observations are what drew me to his work because he ties them with all aspects of society, our morals, our language, their roots in nature and our instincts, how money, trade, and economic markets function, etc. That’s not to say this order is beautiful. It’s ultimately rooted in the same bases as nature and the animal kingdom. Everything is eating everything else, chewing on one another while they’re still alive, poisoning each other, deceiving one another, and impaling one another with razor sharp claws. There’s starvation, parasites, tape-worms, and more misery than I care to mention. About the only real virtue nature’s “invisible hand” seems to have is it’s efficient with resources. It has a brutal garbage collection system, weeding out the weak and unnecessary by letting them starve, bleed to death, or be eaten alive if they’re born with any defects. In nature, there’s random mutations and variation in each new generation, and if they have what it takes to survive in their environment, they’re able to survive, find food, and reproduce. As for the rest, they die of starvation, disease, and so on.
As society evolves, we begin to change our ways, going from wandering hunters/gatherers to farmers. As trade develops, we have the division of labor and people skilled in all kinds of different fields. New variations of existence are being created and new things are emerging which didn’t exist before. Today, the changes taking place are primarily ideas. These ideas had to be stored outside of our human mind, so we invented writing. Originally we wrote in clay, but later we moved to paper, and now computers.
It’s also important to note an interesting trend. More and more of our cognition is being outsourced into the external environment. The “dead” stuff of our world is becoming intelligent and alive. That’s what nanotechnology will eventually lead to.
It seems that a new sort of thing is emerging as our societies around the world connect — a global mind. This “mind” is now in its rudimentary stages, and we refer to it as the internet. It’s storing our thoughts and broadcasting them to various areas of the new extended “body”. It will also likely later control our machine intelligence systems and control robotic sentinels and all the technology embedded around us. I refer to it like it’s a single entity, but it will be a tightly connected network of machines serving collective goals.
If you read all the newspapers, they’re telling us we’re moving into the age of intelligent machines. Computer chips are going to be embedded in everything and AI is going to be everywhere. Your toothbrush will warn you if you’re brushing too hard, aisles in shopping centers will be able to create holographic guides to walk you through the store, and your car will drive itself. There’s fierce debate concerning what this all means for the future of human species and our place in the world. Will we eventually displaced entirely by the machines? Will we have to integrate with them? And if so, what does that mean? If you seriously think about it, it almost seems as if we are evolving into something new, but I have no idea what it is. Some of my previous posts speculated into this transition.
I posed a thought experiment where a trans-human takes over the world and starts to restructure it. When I wrote that, my main concern was what intelligence is, how that related to the individual, and what happens when we integrate with the machines. I don’t understand what happens to individuality and I think we’ll need to rethink it. All of those who integrate together will emerge into a new organism of some sort, which I don’t understand. Many brilliant men around the world speculate that these machines will take over the Earth and be in some sense conscious. A new super-species will emerge which will be completely connected with one another, all wired into a super-brain with all knowledge. The Earth’s materials may be converted into some sort of nano-technology, the planet itself becoming a new sort of emergent organism.
Everything has been self-organizing into more complex structures. Maybe the Earth will organize into a new structure, and then later the entire galaxy. I say the Earth will become a new organism because our technology will reach a point where we preserve it. If an asteroid is coming in, our technology will shoot it down before it strikes the surface. Our cities are like a skin for the planet, which self-repair if damaged. Our roads, subways, and trains are like veins transporting materials to and fro. I recently watched a video on the Edge website where a professor was talking about research he was doing related to urban development. Their research was showing how cities resemble living creatures. It was fascinating.
Hopefully now you guys understand what I’m talking about when I refer to being immersed in a “flow”. This is the river I was talking about. This self-organization of society and the world is taking place and I don’t know how to think about it. I feel it’s inevitable. The more I fight it, I’ll just die in poverty and misery. If I go with it, building the technology which makes it happen, and contribute toward a society which flows in this direction, things go well for me, and for all of us, it seems. We get better technology for healthcare, better homes, more living opportunities, neater technologies, cool video games, and so on and so forth. But ultimately, just look at the technology and think of its implications. Something is evolving before our very eyes. What do you guys think?