The Universal Lens: Basic Logic of Any Self Organizing System 

(of which so far constitutes only life, but this logic applies to any and all future robot overlords[1]).

All systems tend towards the inevitability of entropy. A drop of ink placed in a glass of water quickly and with statistical necessity will become a glass of tinted water. A rock placed in the water would sit there and, over geologic time scales, slowly dissolve and break apart. Life differs in that instead of only moving in the direction of increased entropy. It grows, changes and perpetuates itself. Imagine placing a drop of ink in water, and instead of dispersing, it grows and shrinks and grows and shrinks and moves. Wouldn’t that look alive? [2]

Self-organized systems ‘purposely’ [3] take energy from their environment and use it to grow and replicate. If they didn’t, they would, by necessity, break down. 

This logic is unfalsifiable. It is tautological and, therefore, necessarily true. If you want to avoid entropic decay when every move increases it, your only choice is to grab some energy from the environment. But from this, we can then get a few more necessarily true corollaries. 

-There has to be some boundary between the self and the not-self(environment).  

-This boundary needs to be semi-permeable(to get energy). 

-Given the environment has some level of flux, there needs to be some means of ‘observing’ and interfacing with said environment.[4]

If there was no boundary, there could be no self(self becomes environment). If the boundary is too rigid, then no energy can be gained. There needs to be the ability to respond to some changes in the environment, which means some manner of taking information from the environment. Now that we have the basic theory down let’s apply it to a few cases[5]

Why do Blue Whales Have the Same Size Cells as Mice?

For understanding life, there are few tools more important than that of the square-cube law. Though Hollywood might be excused for ignoring it anytime they throw mammoth monsters on the screen, nature has no such luxury. Briefly, it is as an object gets larger, the surface area shrinks relative to the volume. A linear increase in surface area leads to an exponential increase in volume. Double the sides of a cube, and you will increase the surface area four times and the volume by eight times. As you continue to scale up, this becomes very significant indeed. Cells might sometimes be part of a larger organism, but there is a reason that they are the basic unit of life. Because of the square-cube law, for a biological (i.e chemical) system to maintain enough interaction with its environment, they are necessarily small. Each component of you represents a stack of many cells with their own self/not-self/semi-permeable boundary, which together make up a higher layer, such as a particular part of an organ which acts much the same, to an entire organ, and eventually ‘you’. Your blood cells are part of you. Their environment is your blood. When placed in a very different environment, say a glass of water, the result is their death. In this way, even single cells have expectations about their environments, which end the ability to self-organize if they aren’t met. This logic applies to every part of every layer of you and every other living thing. Once again, by necessity.

For the ‘self’ to stay organized, it needs to

-prevent the environment from destroying its internal order

-get energy from its environment through interacting with it

A corollary to this is that the self must respond correctly to the environment if it wishes to continue existing. In nature, there are many different eco-niches, that is, places where the energy may be harvested in order to stay running. For plants, this might be the particular sun and soil, as well as the other plants that grow around it. These plants themselves become a convenient chemical store of sun energy which provide another source of energy for fungi, as well as moving creatures such as bugs and animals. In this way, all the creatures existing in a given eco-niche are also part of each other’s environment.

Hopefully, you can see that this gets rather complicated rather fast. So how then can everything from bacteria to humans accomplish this feat? In a sense, every self-organized system must be a statistical model of its environment. To respond correctly, you must have the machinery that predicts correctly. Your blood cells can cope with some variance (for instance, the amount of oxygen your lungs bring in) on things that normally vary. Still, anything too far outside what typically varies in the environment(like a sudden change in blood salt concentrations) will lead it to act in a way that would be counter to the general drive of self-organization. Everything has a cost, even flexibility. Adaptations are easier when they happen gradually rather than suddenly, but for a given organism, there are always limits to the extent of this flexibility. An infinitely flexible model would be one that was, by nature, generally ill-suited. 

This is why in established, relatively unchanging biomes, we tend to see far more specialists relative to generalists. If gathering energy can be done in the same way year after year, generation after generation, the ability to cope with change would just be a waste of energy. This can be seen on remote islands, where changes in the once stable set of eco-niches (introducing cats/rats/changing global temperatures) can lead to the catastrophic destruction of the previous order. Humans bring with them much change, absurdly rapid change akin to a falling asteroid in some cases. We also produce so much more chemical energy than we consume that new eco-niches spring up around us to be filled with those animals previously evolved as generalists that can take advantage of such. Vermin we mostly call these rats/mice/cockroaches. However, many of these created a new eco-niche for cats. In general, humans, masters of all the generalists, have been instrumental in forwarding the general generalists’ cause(not that we mean to). 

When faced with an environment that does not well match the model there are only four logical outcomes, reduce interaction(evade), change the model (adapt), change the environment (alter), or be mismatched and continue using and gathering energy inefficiently (though over longer time scales this tends to get weeded out).  

Source of Complexity

For all our science, we could not create a single leaf ex nihilo, that is, without relying on existing organisms. It took hundreds of millions of years for self-replicating proteins to come about. Then, several billion years for them to become what they are today. There is no purpose and no design. There is only selection and iteration. Almost anything complex in our world, not just life itself, but the products of it, economy, culture, and language are all the result primarily if not wholly of this mechanism. Take a slime mold and give it the right incentives. It will outperform a team of highly trained experts in designing a subway system. Take a man who himself is ignorant of viruses, infect him, and his body will soon produce antibodies of the right shape for dealing with that particular virus in less than a week. Putting all the PhDs you want crammed into a massive research center would have no luck in years. Vaccines, in some way or another, merely take from the viruses and use their information to train your immune system with relative safety. Modern AI works on the same general principles, creating systems that serve what they were designed for, though often in ways we cannot understand even after the fact.

Change is necessary. Most change is bad[6]. Knowing which changes are good and which are bad for anything complicated is agonizingly difficult. So, instead, create change, and the selection process does the work of reward and punishment. Even the rate of change must be selected for. We only walk among the successful outcomes of this process, unbroken from the very first cells. All else is lost to obscurity.  

Sexual selection itself, a tool used by nearly all of the more complicated forms of life, is but a way to take in information from the environment in order to update the model with more flexibility than an individual organism could manage[7].

What is the Human Environment?

Ask yourself the question and see if you can come up with the answer first. 

Even humans with fairly primitive technology managed to live in hot places, in cold place, in wet places, in dry places, in high places, and in low places. Humans are a hearty weed. The natural world around us is, of course, part of our environment but is it the most important part? Looking at the built-in reactive hardware of people who spent a long time in different places, some small changes exist. Those living at great heights, for instance, might have a more efficient ability to use the scarcer oxygen (though even a human bereft of these genes can slowly acclimate fairly well), genes that allow for larger spleens for those people who rely on diving, skin with more melanin to shield us from the sun, skin with less melanin to allow us the ability to make more vitamin D where there is less sun. But when you get down to it, all these changes are fairly superficial, humans are humans, and it is other humans that our environment largely consists.

Though we live everywhere, we can’t do so alone. If you were dropped off on a fairly advantageous biome, naked, you likely wouldn’t last long, and you very likely might go insane before then[8]. There is a TV show called Alone that, for 9 seasons, takes survival experts with modern equipment they did not make and modern knowledge they did not discover. They are set in the wilderness alone with the simple task of surviving longer than the other contestants. Only one ever managed to last a full 100 days, and the vast majority failed to make it a full month. Without cooperation between humans, we can hardly survive, let alone take over the world.

Face facts, at the end of the day, you are a statistical model of other humans[9].

What Can this Tell Us About Human Politics?

First, let it be stated humans are not ants, humans are not bees, nor could they ever be. For those u-social species, it makes no sense to view the organism from the perspective of only one of its members. It is much more instructive to view them as a meta-organism, with each ant or bee similar to a cell or organ of the greater whole.

For humans, instead of no sense, it makes little sense. Though it is individual humans that think and act and do so in a somewhat selfish manner, individuals could not go far without groups. So in a real sense, the group of humans is the necessary meta-organism that comes about and is responsible for individual success and wellbeing. This is, of course, fraught with mass complications that are well beyond the scope of this short essay. Once again, to reiterate, this does not mean only groups matter, or that the future of humankind is another sort of beehive, we are too complex and individualistic for that. But in understanding this, we can better understand humans.  

Still, humans are sculpted as group animals. Complicated group animals, political animals. 

There is an inherent conservative/liberal dichotomy in our model in the question of how to interact with our environment. Borders need to be semi-permeable. Too permeable is bad. Too rigid is also bad. It’s a balance. The exact nature of the correct balance has to do with how dangerous the environment is, how much energy is available, how much change the environment has undergone.

Political conservatism means something different in every culture. If you look at the basket of beliefs of an American and Chinese conservative, there is little overlap. This is because conservatism is predicated on the past. Different groups have different pasts. Liberals vary as well.

“Hey, the past stuff worked. We don’t know if new stuff will work. Let’s stick to what we have been doing. The model is functioning” vs. “hey, let’s risk it. Maybe things could work better”. Maybe things have changed, maybe the old model no longer functions, maybe things have changed, and we don’t understand them, so caution is the order of the day. All of these are true, depending on the situation. Maybe with a scientific understanding, we can forge a better way forward, or maybe our current understanding still has disastrous holes. Neither is right or wrong in general, but it is true that in any specific case, one or the other is more correct. We can try our best to figure this out, but once again, it’s hard. So selection and iteration happen within groups. Most people tend conservative, especially in matters of practicality, but when positive change does go through, is somewhat successful, and lasts a long enough time, it becomes a new part of conservative orthodoxy.

In experiments, you can fairly easily influence people to become more politically conservative or liberal.

Put in a room smelling of garbage (activating disgust which is a built-in receptor telling us the environment is unsafe in some way), people will suddenly be more anti-immigration (not liking foreigners is one fairly universal conservative trait, for what I hope by now are obvious reasons) as well as generally more conservative.

Have someone spend time imagining they were invulnerable, that their environment can’t hurt them, and their responses will skew towards the liberal side of things.

Open or close, change or repeat. Very often, logic (which may be flawed) or tradition (which is definitely flawed but also filled with many functional rules that logic may not understand the use of). 

This will likely be the subject of a much more in-depth article at a later date, just a sample of what can be seen through the lens of this very simple and tautological theory (that was almost solely devised by Karl Friston if you skipped the long footnote). 


[1] Genes are the current mechanism but not the only theoretical medium

[2] This example is taken from where this general idea is taken, the free energy principle of Karl Friston. Though I will not have the arrogance to claim I am exactly presenting his ideas, as perhaps no one knows what Friston really means but Friston himself. I think, however, if this article differs from the free energy principle, it is most likely in fairly small ways as there are only so many self-consistent lenses with which to view the universal logic of life that are generally tautological in nature. I do not use his terminology Markov blankets, surprise, free energy etc, as I think from what I have read of others reading, they are massively confusing and lead to much misinterpretation. “Minimizing surprise,” for instance, is often met with the rather absurd counter of why is it then we don’t seek dark rooms with no change. For those interested in looking into Friston’s original work, here is probably the best starting place, and here is a good resource to test your understanding and misconceptions. I have also attached a PDF on all his work related to the Free Energy Principle in an order I think should maximize the chance of understanding. Another reason I dare not build too much of a parallel between my essays and his is that though he extends the theory to many realms such as mental health and culture, in future posts, I will extend this logic in ways he has not. 

[3] By purposely, I don’t mean to give things such as bacteria consciousness. What I mean is merely that the way they gather energy from their environment is nonrandom in nature.

[4] We can imagine that there isn’t any flux and essentially infinite energy from the perspective of an individual organism. This will lead this organism or another to replicate until there is once again a scarcity.

[5] This might sound cheesy but in the next post I will be using this framework to make a logical “proof” that love is real.

[6] There are many ways to do things wrong and few ways to do them right

[7] Especially in tournament species where males compete for reproductive rights over several females, this can be the only reason why males exist as their parentage ends at the moment of conception. Simpler systems are easier to replicate so the process of iteration and selection occurs much faster, meaning such sexual selection would not be the most efficient way of updating to the environment.

[8] A future post will cover how and why we outsource much of our sanity.

[9] As a dedicated introvert, this was hard for me to come to terms with as well.

4 thoughts on “The Universal Lens: Basic Logic of Any Self Organizing System ”

  1. Very well. Assuming the widest possible scope that the term “consciousness” is able to encompass, the proposed view seems to be an interesting fusion of 1) enactivism, in that it takes any systems is necessarily self-organized through its dynamic interaction with its environment, and 2) the predictive processing theory, in that it treats the way in which a self-organized system interacts with its environment as a constant attempt of matching models in accordance with detected changes, and 3) panpsychism, since all things exists both as themselves and as other’s environment, with which they interact with some level of consciousness (arguable indeed, but I am assuming a loose notion of consciousness), and thus finally 4) substance monism, i.e. everything is consciousness.

    Now, it looks like a slippery slope, and things must start to go wrong somewhere. It starts with the proposal that there has to be some boundary (though a semi-permeable one) between the self and non-self, and ends with the radical claim that everything is but one substance, namely, consciousness* (I don’t think terminology should be a problem here, since the term “consciousness” could be replaced by anything that can suggest something like “being able to purposefully interact with environment”). So, the question arises: does there need to be a boundary at all, if everything could be viewed as just one single consciousness, in which the self just is its environment and in which no free energy exists? Although substance monism does not completely rule out the possibility of any self/non-self boundary, I think there is at least some nontrivial tension here.

    Perhaps the boundary could be retrieved by appealing to perennial idealism, a variant of panpsychism that recently proposed by Miri Albahari. It holds that a subject essentially is cognisensorily imagery to a conscious perspective, which strongly suggests the presence of an external (spatiotemporal) world that is distinct from the subject herself. The cognisensory imagery is what inwardly and directly frames the perspective of the subject as herself. Perhaps Kant’s notion of the necessary unity of consciousness is also helpful here: the mind’s being able to cognize at all is due to its capacity to become self-aware, which would distinguish itself from other things that it cognizes. I am not sure. Perhaps being self-organized in an environment just is being able to getting closer and closer to the environment such that it could be eventually indistinguishable from the self.

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    1. Thanks for commenting. It isn’t that there is a drive to nature it is that only certain things are observable which naturally creates a selection mechanism (anything that functions in a way that does not lead to replication is forgotten). So there isn’t a goal in any meaningful sense to the universe (though given humans’ complex evolutionary past there can be goals for us). Every living thing eventually becomes part of its environment, it’s called death. Life requires internal self-organization which necessitates some semi-permeable barrier between it and its environment. Nietzsche’s will to power, which even plants possess is essentially this observation about the nature of life.
      I mean all of this in a literal sense, of course. I think it is very useful for us humans to be able to take a broader view and realize in a certain way that we could have been anything or anyone and in a way we are but that is fairly separate from the general point I was trying to make in this article.

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