Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Phase Transitions: Habit, Novelty, and Emergence

Why are humans so different from the rest of nature? 
Is the progression of the universe just a chaotic march without direction?  
Or does the unfolding of the universe follow a pattern? 
If so, how do humans fit into the pattern?

Life is known for its diversity. Evolution has produced a myriad of organic forms which we call the web of life. Throughout all this variety, there are underlying commonalities which bind everything under the classification of life; these commonalities include things like reproduction, metabolism, death/birth, genetic makeup, etc. But for some, there seems to be an organism unlike the rest. Granted, all organisms are unique in their own right, but this animal is unique in a way that is different from all others. This organism is unique because it has inhabited a space in nature all of its own. This is the space of mind which the human is defined by. The homo sapient means the one who knows or wise one. This act of knowing constitutes a new kind of landscape or territory that no other organism inhabits, filled with symbols, abstractions, meaning, and purpose. However this process of opening up new frontiers is not unique to humans, for that procedure is inherent to the universe, and represents a phase transition between biological life, and teleological mind.

The cosmos, as chaotic as it may seem, has an underlying rhythm or process to it. Since the big bang, the unfolding of the universe has followed a specific pattern: more novelty and less habit over time. That is, at the start of the universe, things being very simple, habit is at its peak; the low organization of matter in the early universe lacks the variety necessary for novel or new things to emerge. As the universe ages and grows in complexity, novelty is allowed to emerge, actualizing the potential of matter. Novelty is then seen as the continuous development of new forms of matter and energy, which add to the totality of existence in the universe. Novelty is that in the present moment which is different from what came prior to it in time. In a nutshell, habit is/are repeated processes, while novelty is/are the new variation on those repeated processes.

Its clear to see how the growth of the universe is one from mostly habit (nothingness) to first a little, then an exponential growth of novelty through new forms and complexity. The novelty as it grows, finds itself nested within the repeated process of habit; an example of novelty nested inside of habit would be a a kind a of variation on a repeated process. This kind of subtle intrusion does grow over time, leading a habitual process to become something different altogether in time. But as novelty grows within habit, habit does not disappear; instead habit acts as the base for variation and novelty to grow upon. Therefore, for every novel form, habit stands as its base providing the stock to alter into new forms. To illustrate novelty nested in habit, one would think of phenomenon like the combining of base parts in DNA, genetic reproduction and mutation, or staple foods and the varied spices/flavors. This means that there is no super-novel state in the future where all habit is atrophied. Rather, novelty will continue to grow, but with habit at its base. The same is for habit: at the start of the universe, the big bang itself was the novel event within the habit of nothingness. This makes sense as the two are defined by contrast with the other. Novelty is always based on or nested within habit, although the former can outweigh the latter.

As the universe progresses to greater and greater novelty, it undoubtedly goes through changes. Things like new chemicals, life forms, elements, etc, all represents changes comprising the leading edge of novelty. Changes happen constantly, but there comes a time when a change is so radically novel, its emergence adds a new layer to existence. That is the novel is so radical, it constitutes the new base habit for all novelty thereafter; this radically novel change we can call emergence, adding a novel tier or level to existence. For example, when the early universe only contained subatomic and atomic particles, any novelty was confined to the domain of pure physics. It was only with the interaction of atoms that the novel layer or tier of chemistry emerged; novelty was then after bootstrapped to the level of chemical interactions. This makes sense as what makes physics and chemistry differ is that the latter is concerned with the interactions of the parts, while the former is only concerned with the parts and their make up. Biology emerging from chemistry brings in a force against natural entropy; this brings a change so radical to the make up of physical chemistry- anti-entropy as metabolism and reproduction- biology becomes a new tier or layer on reality. The emergence of new layers or tiers of reality continue on- from physics to chemistry, from chemistry to biology, and currently, from biology to mind. Each novel layer becomes the base habit in which new novelty emerges.

The concept of emergence comes from systems theory. There are two kinds: strong and weak. Weak emergence refers to any kind of complexity which can be easily reduced to its parts. Strong emergence on the other hand, refers to a whole which is not directly reducible to its parts. This lack of reductionism is what constitutes a new tier or layer to reality. Therefore, each level strongly emerges from the other; this act of emerging novel layers is called a phase transition An example of strong emergence can be seen in the phase transition between physics and chemistry: both the elements hydrogen and oxygen have properties very different from water. Having its own properties, water is made of two elements which do not resemble any of its properties. This fact illustrates how the properties of water can emerge from two elements which have no continuous proprieties between them. Thus every phase transition is a strong emergence in which the prior proprieties do not relate to the novel form on a one to one basis. Simply, the whole is not the sum of its parts.

Some argue that a whole can only be made up of its parts. What they fail to see is that what makes up or organizes a whole is much more then its parts; what a whole leaves out constitutes it's form as much as what it's made of. As things become more complex or novel, they adopt constraints which limit their freedom; that is, the more freedom a system has, the less structured or complex it is. For instance, in order for an engine to work properly, its parts need to be restricted in their movement. The more freedom the parts have to move, the less the engine can work properly. Hence freedom in any system mean less organization, and the lack of freedom helps organize the form. This makes sense as complexity is a restraint on potential freedom. What's missing in turn structures the form as much as any part of it could- this is how something can be made up of more or perhaps less of what its parts are.

When it comes to humans, we represent another novel layer to reality because of our unique kinds of consciousnesses and what it reveals/adds to the environment. Because of our animal drives and bodies, some may forget that they are much more then an animal, or then any biological life form all together. Although its true that the human is an animal, it is also much more. A quick glance at the ecology of the earth shows one species to be the most pervasive, as if it was an invasion. Homo sapiens have controlled the environment in a way unmatched by any other life form. On top of that, humans inhabit a novel space in reality made up of symbols and abstractions inaccessible to the rest of life. It's as if humanity's environmental niche is not anywhere in the physical environment, but rather inside the minds, society, and culture of each person. This gives humans an obvious advantage in the evolutionary game. With the power to abstract and make symbols, a new landscape or territory emerges that is available to all humans. This extra/super space which makes up the new layer or tier of reality for novelty to emerge from, naturally becomes a zone of concern for humans. Because of this, humans have concerns unlike all other life forms. Whereas most organisms only concern is either the fullness of their stomachs or the propagation of their genes, humans have a whole slew of involvements and anxieties altogether removed from the physical environment; their concerns deal with abstracts like time, death, love, honor, justice, etc. In essence, the emergence of human thoughts and cognition in general represents a new direction for novelty; cultural evolution has taken the novelty baton from biological evolution; the human mind deals with multiple realities.

Part of what makes the human more then a biological creature is not only the mind, but the evolving technology it creates and utilizes. Most of what makes humans unique is their tool use. Tools and technology in general are very broad and involve any innovation from language to stone axes. Humans not only create technology, they are shaped by it; that is, if one removes technology from a persons development, they will not come close to behaving or being human. Take for instance the tragic stories of feral children who grow up empty of human language and culture. These individuals are unable to participate in human society or culture. Because of this, they are restricted to lives with concerns of bodily sensation and its immediate feelings, just like many animals. Its plain to see how without culture or language, a person ceases to be just that, and assumes the existence of a sole biological organism: an animal- not a human. Cultural evolution’s is were the emerging novelty is situated at this time. Therefore, if someone is not able to participate in cultural evolution, they cannot be apart of the landscape or territory were the emergence of novelty is taking place. Humans thus represent a interdependence of different process (biological, social, cultural, technological) which facilitate the emergence of a new tier to reality: a teleological or purposeful layer added to existence.

If there was a pivotal moment when the human species first phase transitioned, it was perhaps when a key component was added to the human diet. This aspect is what started to separate the humans from other hominids. This ingredient must have provided the catalyst for the human imagination to grow and move in the direction of novel territory. That is, this food may have been the push in the direction of the novel landscape, territory, layer, or tier of reality for the human mind. Perhaps, before this push, the human mind occupied the same space as other animals. The question remains: why did this ingredient only produce this change in humans and not other hominids or animals? This can be so because of chance: perhaps the human brain or body acted like a puzzle piece, with the food acting as the other fitting piece; both pieces are unique so they only fit each other. This is a possible explanation which leaves it all up to chance and gives a reason for humans exclusive transformation. It seems that this specific kind of food acted as the catalyst which propelled the human mind into novel territory or landscape in reality.

There is good reason to believe that the key ingredient must have been a group of mushrooms which contain a psychoactive chemical called psilocybin; this chemical is a psychoactive one meaning it affects mood. This class of drug/compound is known as a serotonergic psychedelic- works on the serotonin neurotransmitter. First, these kinds of mushrooms are found all over the world, making them very accessible to foraging early humans. Second, they are ready to eat in their natural form, requiring no preparation, making consumption very easy. Third, the chemical is readily metabolized in the body and is virtually non-toxic. Fourth, the compound is very compatible with the brain, working with it to produce the changes. Lastly and most importantly, the psychological effects of the chemical facilitate a feeling of portentousness; this pertains to a feeling of experiencing more then one can comprehend. This creates significance toward things beyond immediate appearances. This feeling lays the seeds for all kinds of cultural and abstract sensibilities to be developed and elaborated. The feeling of portentousness helps open the door for uniquely human concerns by shifting attention from the biological plane, and into the teleological or purposeful plane- the new layer on top of biology. These reasons show how the chemical in these kinds of mushrooms may have provided the catalyst for human thought and behavior to leave the domain of pure biology, and into the novel landscape of symbols, abstractions, meaning, and purpose.

A rough outline of how humans went from biological hominids to teleological humans would start around 200,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans first appeared. Archaeological evidence shows that human uniqueness as culture began around 70,000 years ago. Between these periods, humans must of lived like many other hominids. The encounter with the mushrooms must of happened in different locations at different times during this period. Upon first experiencing the effects of expanded consciousness and feelings of portentousness, people in awe must of rushed to describe their ineffable experiences to each other; this is much like today and through history, people always have painstakingly attempted to convey their mystical or expanded states of mind, despite their ineffability. Because of this drive to share their experiences, people started pushing the power of what language could communicate. The push for new metaphors and phrases created the space for thought to inhabit when concerned with unique human aspects like purpose, meaning, time, justice, morality, religion, etc. Then as people were expanding their use of language, they probably became settled in a single spot to either obverse its significance, or to share their experiences. Another possibility has the psychedelic effect of synthesia-blending of the senses- may have provided the guide to link abstractions with mouth noises- helping develop language. It's important to note that the oldest human settlement was created before the advent of farming (Göbekli Tepe). Therefore the orthodox idea of farming first then settlements may be wrong. People may have been establishing settlements because of their experiences of portentousness and their effort to share their experiences with others. As time went on, people settled in one spot may have encountered others who where still nomadic. These settlements may have been a place to share tips and could have been where the idea of farming was first mentioned and spread from. This shows how cultural evolution emerges from biological evolution as novelty is bootstrapped into realm of memes. The reason human thought and consciousness have emerged into a new landscape of reality is because psilocybin acted as a catalyst, propelling the human mind into new territories of meaning and purpose.

Many evolutionary biologists admit that humans typify an anomaly of natural processes. Factors like the doubling of the brain size, progressive tool use, language and culture, our stark difference relative to other primates, our motor and thinking ability, the rapid development of the changes, etc, support this idea. Using this model of emerging novelty from habit, which adds layers to reality, with humans representing a new tier of reality- a new landscape or territory- the anomaly ceases to be so. Reality has progressed from psychics, to chemistry, to biology, and currently, teleology. The growth of novelty will continue as another novel layer emerges from teleology. Till then, the human species is at the cutting edge of the universe's drive toward greater novelty out of habit.