A PDF version of this essay can be found here. (Will post zine-formatted version asap)
The main purpose of the essay before you is to make a case for the truth of three sentences, and each of the three sections of the text is primarily a commentary on, and illustration of, its corresponding sentence:
1. A system is complete if, in its description, every possible phenomenon that might occur within it has a prescribed set of actions for the system to react with.
2. Humans, as a general rule, have a fundamental desire to create, participate in, and optimize a universally complete system that serves them.
3. Human consciousness is an emergent property of the entire nervous system of one human body, taken together.
The main theoretical backing for all this is my research into the new field of systems science and the practice of systems thinking that it has introduced, combined with some prior knowledge of formal logic and physics. The main inspiration has been my personal journey practicing mindfulness meditation to overcome a panic disorder, combined with my frequent musings on the state of the world in this early part of the 21st century and the urgent problems we face. Each section spends some time fleshing out a different example of a complete system––Soccer, Modern Warfare, and Buddhism––to strengthen the reader’s notion of systems thinking and provide a wide range of systematic phenomena for them to chew on. I should note, the way I am applying systems thinking here is unconventional. The only people who currently use this new method of thinking extensively are “Systems Engineers,” a tiny niche of specialists employed by organizations such as NASA, CERN, or private corporations to streamline the activities of large groups of people handling large amounts of resources, in fields that require high levels of technical skill and attention to detail. Other scientific disciplines have begun to stumble upon it in their study of natural, self-organizing systems, but even this, to me, does not do justice to the clarity and explanatory power that systems thinking provides.
I am by no means an expert in any of this, and I began writing this essay only as an attempt to formulate and unify, concretely, a few scattered ideas that I became intrigued by over a year ago. The hope was that, once articulated in writing, these ideas would come together as a cohesive whole, moving from the realm of armchair philosophy into the realm of proper science, in the process. I believe the ideas here are true and hold up to rational critiques, but, my official field of study being mathematical physics, I understand there is a high degree of uncertainty in ideas without an extensive body of empirical evidence to draw from; claims to certain knowledge are hard-won. So I use my own experience of the world as a source of evidence, for the moment, and believe that the reader will have ample evidence from their own experience to draw similar conclusions from.
In all this, I hope at the very least to entice the reader into believing that humans should not divorce themselves from the scientific endeavors they undertake. Being objective does not have to mean being robot-like. It means constantly pursuing the truth in our thoughts, and letting that be the guiding force, rather than pleasant feelings.
An Introduction to Basic Systems Thinking
I have always hated sports. Well, not all sports, but the kind that involve two teams and a ball (and often multimillion dollar paychecks). Never could understand what the point was, every game seeming laboriously repetitious–– the ball goes up the field, it goes down the field; up the court, down the court; the ball gets passed, it gets intercepted; the ball hits the goal, or it misses. Over and over, year after year, and yet millions of fans keep crowding like sardines into stadiums and going apeshit about it. But one night, I was taking a walk through a quiet college campus, neck-deep in anxious and depressive thoughts of my own construction, and sat down on some bleachers, letting my eyes follow a pick-up soccer game. Oddly, my thoughts subsided. It’s not that the game was that interesting. It played out exactly like every other soccer game I’d ever seen. But my eyes were drawn to it, and my brain quieted so it could focus on it. Like a moth to a lightbulb. The men playing the game were very casual about it, obviously all friends, for whom the outcome of the bout mattered far less than the playing itself. But there was a soothing rhythm to it––watching them felt like a less majestic version of sitting on a beach watching the waves. There was constant variation in the positions and velocities of all the players, and the trajectory of the ball, all of whom periodically stopped for either a goal or an out-of-bounds, and yet the variations were all constantly aiming for an unchanging purpose: to put the ball in the literal goal. Not knowing when the game would end, it seemed timeless and eternal; and in a sense, it was.
I am a scientist by trade, and it is common for scientists to introduce a concept by saying things like “suppose we have an infinitely long conducting wire,” or, “imagine we have an infinite crystal lattice of graphite,” and to many people this seems like a strange and esoteric place to begin explaining something. I mean, it’s impossible to gather an infinite amount of anything in real life, and science is supposed to describe reality, so why are we imagining things that don’t exist? But, as counterintuitive as it seems, ideas often become simpler when we think of them this way. It gives your brain room to stretch. In real life, everything contaminates everything else. You have colonies of mites and bacteria living all over your body. A rotting tree in the woods has a thousand different critters occupying it. If I wanted to teach someone about the crystal structure of graphite, the story is the same: I could start by showing them an actual piece of graphite under an electron microscope, but there would inevitably be holes in it, little cracks, inconsistencies, or bits of moisture from the atmosphere, or oil from people’s hands, and artifacts of the imaging instrument would further obscure things––it can be a very messy business to isolate the actual structure I’m interested in. It’s like trying to decipher Shakespeare from a book that a kid has scribbled in with crayon. In the mind’s eye, however, we can quickly take care of all that. We just imagine being in a universe that contains only one endless, uniform piece of graphite, its crystal structure perfectly arranged (and further suppose we are tiny ghost-like entities that can zoom around and look at atomic-sized organizational structures without interacting). It would be extremely easy to study graphite in such a universe, wouldn’t you agree? This simplified version of things in our minds is called a model. The model can be thought of as a map. A lot of information is left out, translating from one to the other, but that is good, at least for the purpose of thinking, because the information that is important becomes more obvious and less cluttered.
So, sitting there and feeling a sense of “timelessness” surrounding the soccer game, I started thinking: Suppose I were watching a soccer game of infinite length. I.e., the clock just keeps ticking, and the humans (who we suppose have infinite energy and immortality) continue to run around the field, score goals, block passes, etc. It occurred to me that there would be no contradiction in this. Soccer is a complete system, I thought. The rules of the game take care of everything the players might do. Everything that happens on the field has its place, a purpose that moves the game forward. It is contained, but it is endlessly dynamic within its confines. It occupies a limited amount of space, one giant white rectangle, and yet within that rectangle an infinite amount of variations are allowed, and the game can go on for an arbitrary amount of time. I believe there is something humans crave about such an arrangement.
A system is any phenomenon that has multiple identifiable parts, with well-defined relationships between them, and a well-defined boundary (for a more mathematically rigorous outline, see chapter 3 of General Systems Theory, by Ludwig von Bertalanffy). Some are designed by humans to fulfill some purpose or attain some goal, others arise naturally from the underlying structures of physics. The identifiable parts are referred to as elements of the system. If a smaller system lies fully within the boundary of a larger system, then the smaller one is called a subsystem. If something is outside the boundary, we say it is part of the surroundings, also known as the environment. The typical workings of the elements with each other are called processes. If there are limits on what the elements can do, we say these are the system’s rules. Since the 1960’s, an entire new field of study called systems science has begun to emerge, which seeks a cross-disciplinary methodology for studying complex phenomena. It turns out that even just the utterly simple practice of naming the elements, relationships, and boundaries of a complex system––whether it be a colony of bees, a rocket launch, a political movement, an organic molecule, a spiral galaxy––can give us insights into its true nature. I should say, utterly simple in principle, but often difficult in practice. When applying these concepts to a given situation, we are engaging in what is called “systems thinking.” Systems thinking is an alternative to reductionism; rather than isolate the parts of a thing and study them individually, as scientists sought to do in most of the 19th and 20th centuries, systems thinking simply identifies the parts, then studies the relationships between all of the parts, allowing for all natural complexity to play itself out. This way of thinking has so far been primarily focused on scientific and technological systems, but its principles are so general that they can easily be applied to spheres of human experience not ordinarily thought of as scientific. The study of general systems is still in its infancy, however, and has not yet reached mainstream awareness; it has not even yet caught the attention of most of the scientific community. But to those who have studied it, the power and scope of its principles is obvious, and I believe it will be one of the most important contributions of 21st century thought, as it develops in the coming years.
So I sat there, and the phrase “soccer is a complete system” crossed my mind, and it seemed accurate. But what did I mean by completeness? Mathematics and formal logic have each established their own definition, but as far as I know, there isn’t yet a well-defined notion of “completeness” when it comes to dynamic systems. I will now propose one:
(1.) A system is complete if, in its description, every possible phenomenon that might occur within it has a prescribed set of actions for the system to react with.
What does this mean? Well, let’s try to fully describe the soccer game system:
• Elements: Between 4 and 22 humans; ball; goals; large rectangular field.
• Subsystems: The two teams
• Relationships: Each team wants to keep the ball and put it in the proper goal, stealing it back if they lose it
• Rules: No hands on the ball, except for the goalie
• Processes: Dribbling; passing; shooting; stealing; intercepting; blocking shots; throw-ins; kick-offs
• Boundary: The white line that defines the rectangular field
• Surroundings: The rest of the universe––which, for the purposes of the model, might as well be thought of as an endless off-white-colored homogeneous area containing all “non-soccer-ness,” it doesn’t matter
Notice how, every action within the soccer game has another action to reciprocate it. If someone scores, then the players go back to their starting positions and kick off, continuing the game. If someone kicks the ball out of bounds, then someone else throws it back in, continuing the game. Etc. This is what I mean by completeness. The term “description,” in statement (1.), is the term I have given for any explanation of a real-world system, but there are many different particular forms that a description can take. It doesn’t necessarily have to be written or verbal, it can be a mental picture, a computer program, or simply a reliable intuition of how the thing works. There is also a subtle distinction (in my estimation) between “model” and “description.” A description goes one layer deeper than a model. A model is a strict analog of the real-world system, a mental or sensory phenomenon that mimics the real-world system as best it can. A description goes on from that to give reasons as to why all the parts are behaving the way they are. If we consider that a map is the model of a geographical area, with symbols roughly indicating where we’d see mountains, rivers, and forests when viewing the territory from the sky, a description of that same geographical area might go on to provide, say, geological information about how the mountains formed and why the river follows the path that it does, or biological information about which particular species thrive in this particular forest. Describing a system involves naming the principles that must govern all the interactions in it, which might only be implicit in the operations of the system or its model.
In some sense, we have left something out of our description. The boundary above the field is undefined, but that is because humans are incapable of kicking a ball with the escape velocity required to leave Earth’s gravitational field. We can perhaps alter the description to include this, by saying the upper boundary is “as high as a player can kick.” This may seem like a pedantic point, but it’s rather important: some boundaries are set by humans, others are consequences of the laws of physics. Of the boundaries set by physics, some can be bent or broken by human actions and some can not. Before 1900, we might say that a physical limitation on humans was that they couldn’t leave the ground for longer than they could jump. All of our activity was restricted to ground level, until the invention of the airplane. Tragically, most people do not see the difference between these types of boundaries, and so many of the boundaries set by human civilization are placed on a pedestal as if they were laws of nature, even when nature is practically screaming at us that they are needlessly restrictive and causing us harm. More on that later.
The phrase “all possible phenomena” in definition (1.) might set the bar for completeness too high for any system to attain it without some qualifiers. In formal logic, statements of language are said to have a “domain of validity,” meaning a spectrum of experience in which the statement can be considered true. A statement that is true in one situation may be false or inconsistent in another. To use a simple example, consider the statement “I am in Canada.” The domain of validity of that statement is obviously the geographical region within the borders of Canada. For the statement “today is Tuesday,” the domain is not a location but a time period, that occurs once every seven days. We can just as easily assign a domain of validity to the completeness of a system. This is quite necessary, actually, and a counter-example will make this obvious: imagine that, instead of a quiet college campus, we are watching a particular soccer game taking place in a war zone. The players are combatants, taking a break from their posts. Now imagine that a nearby enemy sniper picks off one of the players––just as he is about to receive a pass and shoot the winning goal, he drops dead, blood spurting from his left temple. How complete is our soccer game in such a scenario? What reciprocal action does our system provide to the action of “gunshot to the head”? The question has almost no meaning. The players all run for cover, fearing for their lives. The system has been broken. Suddenly, we find that we are completely outside of the game’s domain of validity. In other words, the environment that we considered a simple homogeneous zone of non-soccer-ness, in our model, suddenly becomes nontrivial, and forces the game to confront a phenomenon for which there are no prescribed actions in the rules; thus, the system is rendered incomplete by our definition. For the game to remain complete, its boundaries must take place within the larger domain of “a relatively safe local environment,” because there are no rules in soccer for killings. Instead of thinking about completeness as an either/or, we can think of it as a spectrum: the more phenomena a system can handle, without completely breaking down, the more complete it is. We can alter statement (1.) slightly to account for this, by either saying “all plausible phenomena” or “all possible phenomena (within the proper domain of validity).” As soon as we start naming these domains, we move from the abstract realm of system models, to the real world––the real world which most of us know all too well is chaotic and unpredictable, with many free agents roaming about, seeking their own ends, oblivious to yours, or even working actively against yours. It is not enough to define the boundaries of a system, one must also specify the required environmental conditions in the immediate vicinity of the boundary.
At this point, the boundary definition itself might start to seem like a very grey area; in my own mind, at least, it is hard not to continue spiraling outward: why not simply incorporate this domain into the boundaries of the system, or make it part of the rules? (e.g. “Rules: No hands on the ball, except for the goalie, and no soccer-playing in an active war zone”) But then we have the same problem, because, if the local environment is now placed within the system boundaries, there are now requirements of the immediate vicinity of those boundaries, and so on. In other words, wherever we set the boundary, and whatever environmental considerations we address explicitly in the system description, there will always be more phenomena out there that threaten the balance of the system in some way or another. At a certain point the level of detail included in the description has to drop off and we have to just wrap it all up in a more-vague and thus more-succinct way by describing the domain of validity. We can get quite ridiculous about system boundaries if we keep expanding them ad infinitum. We could say that our soccer system now requires armed soldiers guarding a 10-mile radius of the field, in order to be truly complete. But then who would manufacture the weapons, and the uniforms, and who would provide combat training? Is the supply line part of the system too? But now, are we really talking about a soccer game anymore, or a different system entirely? The point here is that system models are defined by human beings, and the boundaries of systems can be drawn however we like, for our own human purposes. But, in almost all real-world systems, there are relevant processes taking place just outside the boundary which must also be considered, by defining a domain of validity. These are just names that help to clarify things. The ultimate goal of systems science is to simplify and understand phenomena that are inherently complex, and toward this end it is better to pick a useful boundary and stick with it, rather than spend all day trying to figure out where it “actually” is. In this real world, we never observe any system in isolation. We can shift our focus toward one particular system that we are interested in, but we must understand that the one we are interested in is a subsystem nestled within an uncountable number of “higher” systems, and has an uncountable number of “lower” subsystems nestled within it.
I will not explicitly name all of the components of the systems I talk about in this essay, but it may be helpful to make mental models and descriptions for yourself similar to the soccer description above, as we proceed.
II. Modern Warfare
A Consequence of Human Motivation Toward Complete System
Conceiving of soccer through the lens of systems thinking seemed to provide an answer to my original question: why are humans so crazy about sports? All intelligent mammals engage in some sort of play, but, whereas most animals play freely and spontaneously, humans love a particular form of organization to their play. Noticing that every sport is a complete system, I began to wonder whether completeness might be the reason for humans’ love of sports, and whether there were any lessons about human “nature” and socialization to be drawn from this observation of completeness. Stepping back from sports in particular, one quickly notices that humans have the tendency to design all sorts of systems with various purposes, some more complete, others less so. Children are sent to a school system, people go to work in an economic system, people cast ballots for their political system, and so forth. Each of these systems consisting of certain elements with certain relationships, certain boundaries and certain rules. Much has been said about how different humans are from other animals, and many philosophers have put humans on a pedestal as more intelligent, but what is the fundamental difference between our intelligence and that of animals? A certain amount of knowledge as to how the world works is required for survival, but what is it that allows humans to, you know, build cities, computers, cell phones, space ships, and the like? Evolution only works through tiny accidental variations over millions of years, not through total overhauls, so I began to wonder what variation could possibly be small enough for nature to stumble upon, but yet powerful enough to make humans go from living in simple, cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer camps to complex, large-scale civilizations, in such a relatively short period of time. Pondering this, I arrived at a speculative hypothesis:
(2.) Humans, as a general rule, have a fundamental desire to create, participate in, and optimize a universally complete system that serves them.
I believe this statement is falsifiable. A universally complete system is one whose domain of validity is unlimited, as opposed to a locally complete system, like our soccer game. System is sufficiently well-defined, and psychological study methods are sufficiently well-developed, that I believe an experimental study into this hypothesis could be conducted in the near future to support or deny it. I presently do not have the resources to conduct it myself, but we can reinforce the hypothesis with some degree of confidence by simply observing the world around us.
Not all systems are as innocent as a sporting event. In fact, many of the most complete human-made systems have been created to achieve goals that are actually quite heinous. Military-industrial complexes, like the one hinted at earlier, have the sole purpose of death, destruction, domination and control, and almost invariably aim at completeness. Historically, we can see that, once humans are immersed into a particular social-political-economic system, they will go to incredibly great lengths to ensure that their chosen system survives. I am not placing any sort of moral judgement on this desire in-itself, in fact I think the desire for systemization is just as prominent in our highest aspirations and achievements as it is in our species’ worst ideological blunders. That is all the more reason why we ought to identify the urge. For most people, who are only semi-conscious of their underlying intentions, it does not so much matter what the purpose of their complete system of choice is, so long as it is complete. I contend that this is a powerful unifying factor to almost all human motivation beyond biological needs. I also believe that applying this systems thinking method explicitly to real-world situations is one of the most efficient ways to generate a truly logical course of action, that is, a useful ethics. I have been looking at the world through this lens for some time now, and the sheer amount of phenomena it explains is very large; and this way of thinking, guided by the basic knowledge of systems terminology outlined above, has been quite useful in navigating through the problems and dramas of the world, on both personal and macro levels.
The American military-industrial complex is one example of a complete system par excellence. Most people, including most Americans, have no idea how thoroughly the armed forces are organized. Most people know that the president is “Commander-in-Chief,” but don’t ever study the rest of the chain-of-command. The president gives his general orders to the Secretary of Defense, who discusses ideas for specific operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each of whom heads one branch of the armed forces and has intimate knowledge of their capabilities. The Secretary then summons the proper Combatant Command, a bunch of lower-than-joint-chiefs-but-still-really-high-ranking groups of officers who are in charge of particular regions of the world. If the president’s having a Middle East problem, they call Central; if it’s the Somalians, they call AFRICOM. This is what I want to draw your attention to: At the Combatant Command level, the entire earth is divided into large swaths of territory, including the oceans, and, more recently, including cyberspace. The full list of Combatant Commands consists of: Africa Command, Central Command, European Command, Northern Command (for N. America), Southern Command (for S. America), Pacific Command, Special Operations Command, Transportation Command (the transportation command is responsible for moving troops and supplies to and from different regions of the world), and Strategic Command (which oversees the aforementioned Cyber Command). Each of the first six of these has a headquarters, located close to its region of interest, and maintains a full-time commitment to gathering information on the geography, demographics, politics, and military might of all the nations within its scope. When it sees a country with the stirrings of something like representative democracy, or a place with emerging economies that it would like to protect and trade with, the U.S. offers aid and training from military-to-military, using these Commands, and so acts as a guiding force to all politically-aligned governments, which allows the U.S. to maintain control without necessarily having any troops on the ground, except for a few officers who are there to oversee things and give advice. So, even in times of peace, the military-industrial complex is working at full tilt, on a multi-national level, preparing for the next war, not through overt aggression but by building strong networks of supply and support wherever it can and meanwhile crafting its image of being the “good guys,” by simultaneously doing things like setting up medical tents in villages to help with Ebola outbreaks, and the like. So, when people speak these days about the “American empire” they are being quite literal. The U.S. military is a complete system, whose only boundary is outer space. The entire globe lies explicitly within its description. Each human, citizen or foreigner, is taken into consideration by its watchful eye. We still have many times more nuclear weapons than required to end the world, you know. Funny how this is a cliché thing to draw attention to now, like, it’s been going on for so long that the horror of it loses its luster. The U.S. has 7,100 nuclear weapons and Russia has 7,500, and computer models show that detonating even 100 of these would cause the unleashing of enough black soot to block out the sun, cutting the Earth off from the one energy source that all surface organisms require for survival. Every human would be dead, or given a certain death sentence by the soot, in much fewer than 24 hours. At the moment you are reading, the president may have already pushed the button. But, as possible as that statement is, you have no way of assessing its truth-value, so ideas like that just fade into the background after a while. A cultural trauma, it is everywhere, and so it is nowhere. It is water to the fish.
So it is clear that, if we accept definition (1.), and if we consider the military’s own stated organizational structure, capabilities, and typical operations outlined in the last paragraph, then we must accept that the system of American armed forces is complete. Now that we have outlined a large, complete, real-world system, whose model and description were conceived by human beings, and whose actual processes are carried out by human beings, we have a rich example with which to illustrate the truth of statement (2.). For the American military specifically, the connection to human motivation is even more clear, because it is made up entirely of volunteers. Now, watch any video you like on YouTube about the experience of new recruits at boot camp, and this will seem crazy: the drill sergeant, who is trained to be exactly as hard as every caricature depicts him, spends all day every day telling new recruits that they’re pieces of shit, that they’ll never amount to anything, and ordering them to do all sorts of relentless exercises that are meant to break both their body and their spirit. In the process, they are actively told over and over that they are no longer individuals, but members of a unit, i.e. each human is now one element of a subsystem that answers to a larger system that ultimately connects them to the whole army (this is made quite explicit, this is not my cynical interpretation of what they do). But, again, all of these people are volunteers. Even after initial recruitment, they are not bound to service until after the training is complete. Any of the recruits could leave at any time, but they rarely do. Because, if they have gone to the trouble of enlisting, chances are they have been dreaming and preparing for this moment for years, perhaps their whole lives. They are being entirely submissive to a system of total authority––they are not even allowed to speak without being spoken to, if the sergeant is in the room. And yet, becoming a soldier is seen as an act of personal courage and willpower. What is it they’re seeking? The Navy SEALs, a special operations unit heralded by most people as the most elite and effective fighting unit ever constructed, make this even more clear. Their additional training is so strenuous, that anybody who has a shred of doubt does end up quitting, and all SEALs will tell you that only inner personal willpower will get you through the training. So, we can not easily reduce the maintenance of the American armed forces to systems of control or coercion. Every soldier actively chooses army life for his own reasons, so the fact that the U.S. military holds such a strong dominance over other world powers indicates that there must be some sort of deep human desire that is fulfilled by total obedience to a drill sergeant who dishes out unending verbal abuse. To them, that’s a fair price to pay to be a part of something bigger. They now have something for their minds and bodies to do, all the time. They don’t have to worry and wonder about what to do, their higher-up will just tell them. So, for every possible event that might happen to a soldier during his service, he knows exactly what action he is supposed to perform, and this knowledge is reinforced by the hierarchical social network of the army. So, it satiates the desire of statement (2.). And hey, you get to be a heroic figure to boot! People will tell you they support you all the time, how proud they are of you, that you’re doing something truly amazing. There is never a moment when the army system is apart from you, and in almost every way, it is already optimized to “serve” you. You get three hots and a cot, plus some other benefits, guaranteed, and that’s more than a lot of people can say.
Now, in my personal assessment, I would say this completeness of the American military-industrial complex, which we might as well broaden to include police officers––that is, the system of all state-sanctioned armed personnel and their material support––provides ample reason to explain the failure of most anti-establishment movements to actualize any latent revolutionary potential they might have. There has simply never been a push to systematize any efforts, or else not one that the state could not squash. People often think only in vague imagery and emotional impressions, and have formed such an aversion to “The System,” that they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, by not allowing the idea of a better system to emerge; most anti-establishment activists confuse the wrongdoings of the current system with the idea of systems in general, even though we can easily think up models of non-oppressive systems with genuinely noble goals and processes. Instead of domination, instead of a command and control policy, we can imagine (at least at the model level) a large-scale system whose stated objective is to allow everyone to live in a state of equality and personal autonomy, without coercion. The social-media-echo-chamber dialectic of most far-left radicals, however (whatever the -isms are, for the interlocking “movements” whose shared goal is to decentralize power), has never provided a complete alternative method of interacting with the state’s execution of power. That is, the state has a clear and explicit structure, a method of living that ostensibly guarantees the basic necessities of life as a reward for playing by its rules, and has a well-trained, insanely-well-organized armed force that makes you play by its rules: but, there is no other place to go to, no other group of people to take refuge in, because nobody has put forth an equally complete system of tactics and strategies that would allow us to not play by the state’s rules, while simultaneously securing the basic necessities of life and (most importantly) ensuring that nobody is imprisoned, maimed, or killed by the state’s armed personnel. The armed agents of the state are trained to put you in a cage against your will, and to use every means necessary to secure their dominance, up to and including the maiming and killing of civilians. They are at work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
And the only radical breaks from systems of domination, towards a truly egalitarian world, that American history has yet offered, have been singular moments of glory, highly romanticized events, from the peace movements of the 1960’s to the Occupy campers. Everyone talks about it, it gets very exciting, but ultimately the people with helmets and guns simply move all the unarmed people along using slow escalation of tactics and everyone goes back to work the following Monday. Or, at most, there is a riot, like the ones in Ferguson, and Baltimore, and New Orleans––windows break and trashcans burn, a few stores are looted––but the businesses just reallocate some of their profits to repair the windows, while the cops lock up a few people, scare off the rest, and everyone goes back to work the following Monday. Okay now we’ve witnessed one incident of actual political violence against police in Dallas, and, after sending out a robot armed with a bomb to kill the guy, the state turns around and declares that the police officers’ deaths were a national historic tragedy, flying the flags at half mast, issuing condemnations and condolences, the prescribed reciprocal actions of their complete system. Hmm, let’s take a body count, shall we? The dead black kids in this country outnumber the dead cops, the cops fired first, and the state did not fly the flags at half-mast for the black kids. If that’s not a declaration of war then I don’t know what is. Culture asserts that it’s more complicated than that though: we’re not even allowed to think in those terms, because it’s the cops’ job to kill people, which means their judgement of the proper time for killing is to be trusted without question, and no one else is allowed to make that judgement. The point is that eventually, the state tells us in no uncertain terms that, even while condemning the violence of riots, it is simultaneously outdoing its dissenters on the violence front, and further asserts that this is not two-faced or corrupt, but rather that this view is the universally proper moral stance that we all must take. I am not necessarily advocating the use of violence, but through a systems lens it is clear that the state has such a robust system in place, with such strong networks of relationships on so many levels, that only something at a comparable level of scope and structure could possibly replace it, whatever the particular tactics are. Referring back to definition (1.), activist movements do not yet have any prescribed or even strongly suggested actions to use against all of the plausible phenomena that can occur within the scope of their campaigns (“plausible phenomena” meaning in this case the set of all counter-actions that the state is able and willing to deploy at a moment’s notice). They run away and disband any semblance of a system by default––just like our soccer players did in the presence of sniper fire––when confronted by an armed, uniformed, trained, and fully systematized force.
Toward a Complete Study of the Emergent Phenomena of Consciousness
The application of systems thinking is not a strictly political discipline, at all. That example was to wake you up. I will discuss one more system of a different nature, and that is the complete system of phenomenology, epistemology and ethics that is Buddhism. Buddhism places the locus of its complete system at an entirely different starting point––namely, at the existence of subjective human consciousness. Bear with me if you are a materialist or an objectivist––I am too––but consider the fact that you, yes you, person-reading-text, are a conscious agent. You must be, and you have never not been. And, further, you can not step outside of this consciousness for as long as you live, and you can never access anything, not even objective ways of thinking, except through this consciousness that follows you everywhere. So, noticing that you are the intersection of all the systems in your awareness, why not try to place the origin at that weird sentient thing behind your eyes? That thing that you feel that you are? And why not measure the elements and processes and boundaries from there, to figure out how best to optimize them? What the historical Buddha did, which you can verify if you peruse the scriptures and take note of all the numbered lists of things, is attempt to categorize each type of experience that is possible for a human to have, tried to name all of them just like 19th-century biologists began to organize the animal kingdom into various classes of different levels of detail. Instead of animals, Buddha chose to dissect inner experience. He did not do this arbitrarily, or for the sake of pure research, but with the stated goal of ending suffering. The goal of ending suffering altogether, when taken seriously and applied to oneself continuously, is prescriptive. In any situation, one could almost say it gives you an explicit mental flowchart to follow, though few humans could ever stick to it for any considerable length of time: You are confronted by a harsh situation––who is suffering? Am I suffering? Is there something I can do about that right now? Who in my visual-auditory field is suffering? Is there something I can do to help them? Do they mean me harm? If they mean me harm, can they be reasoned with?––Etc. In the land of models, it seems very simple. Almost hunky-dory. But as you know, the reality is different.
Because, the thing is, it’s hard for the human mind to stick to one thing for very long, at all. Our thoughts generally bounce around in our brains quite haphazardly. Many of our thoughts, combined with the feelings, muscle tension and blood pressure they induce, cause us considerable disturbance. So a goal of “ending suffering” is bound to fail unless we make some direct observations of how our thoughts behave, when fully aware of them. Buddhist meditation is an aim to examine the precise dimensions of inner experience by simply noticing each inner experience as it occurs. People start out by doing cross-legged-sitting-very-still type meditation, because, with low levels of sensory stimulation, the mind inevitably reflects on itself, needing something to do. And learning the nature of thoughts left to their own devices, independent of outer stimuli, is helpful in learning how to sway them one way or another as we move about in the world. Buddhism is difficult to practice. It is not comparable to other religions, because it requires you to actually do a type of training that is mentally and emotionally challenging, but the reason people do it is because it produces an almost calculable effect. In fact, a few Buddhist monks have participated in neurological experiments and have actually helped scientists to expand their ideas about what possible effects the brain can produce by simply feeding back on itself for longer periods. So, as a complete system of thinking and behaving, it totally works. It is so general that it can be applied to any situation: pay more attention, notice every detail about what you are experiencing; if there is suffering, do something about it, but let the situation dictate what that something is. From a full awareness of all factors in a situation, the best course of action will simply emerge as an idea in your head or an action in your body. And the result that most people report back from their first few months of serious meditation practice, is a feeling of peace, an inner strength, a calmness, a serenity.
It is probably because of these feelings that Buddhism is regarded as a religion, along with the fact that his teaching attracted so many followers. Other philosophers throughout history, such as Hegel (in “Phenomenology of Mind”), have also tried to map human consciousness, but their work has not been read by a wide audience, and their work is quite different from the Buddha’s in tone and in spirit. Buddhism, on the other hand, has attracted millions of people for two thousand years, so what did Buddha do differently? It seems to me that Buddhism’s attractiveness, as a philosophy, comes from three factors: (a) esthetically pleasing language, such as naming his core doctrine “The Four Noble Truths” rather than just “Four Conjectures” or something; (b) a clear, and constantly-reiterated purpose to the whole philosophy––unlike the pure objective reason that Western philosophy sought, Buddha’s goal of ending suffering is one that humans are emotionally pulled towards, having a vested interest in it; and (c) extensive use of mythology, analogy, and metaphor to explain its principles. This last point (c) is probably Buddhism’s biggest drawback, and yet another reason people see it as a religion. The gods and demons used to illustrate Buddhism’s teachings have lead some practitioners into magical thinking. But, at its root, Buddhism’s doctrine really is just a constant reminder to focus on everything that happens to you, to figure out how to end suffering by studying all the parts of suffering in detail. All this is to say, Buddha did a pretty singular thing: he came up with a method of living based on empirical observation, the same basis of science, at a time when other mystic wanderers were coming up with all sorts of crazy ideas, and, unlike Socrates and Galileo, Buddha was able to actually convince many people that his philosophy was correct while he was alive, because of how he presented it, including decorating it with the trappings of religion that people seem to crave. When speaking to people, he would appeal to their personal likes and dislikes to get them to listen, or, if speaking to a large group, he would use metaphors that had significant meaning to their culture, such as referencing the gods and demons they already believed in. After the Buddha’s death, as his ideas spread from India to other parts of Asia, his core teachings were further obfuscated by mixing in with the pre-existing folk religions of each region; so for example, in Tibetan Buddhism they talk about the “six realms of existence” that include two heavens, a hell, and a “realm of hungry ghosts.” Many people take these realms as metaphors for human experience, but there are also many people who take them literally. So, for all of his insights, the historical Buddha must have left something out. There is a great deal of truth in what he said about how to navigate our subjective experience, but his teachings still lead many people into folly, allowing them to continue believing in ideas like hungry ghosts that are pretty obviously false.
And I believe what he was missing was a knowledge of physics. He did live in 500 B.C.E., after all. Physics is another human attempt at a complete system, one that consistently describes all outer phenomena as interactions of fundamental particles in spacetime. I believe that these two approaches to universal completeness––one following axiomatically from the existence of consciousness (and suffering), the other following from the existence of particles, forces, and spacetime––are not only compatible, but must necessarily inform each other in the coming years, for us to evolve as a species. And I believe systems science provides a proper framework by which to merge these two schools of thought. Although I am a scientist and an atheist, I am pissed off about how flippantly most scientists and atheists seem to brush off the question of consciousness, saying with condescension that “it’s just nerves and electrochemistry” as if it’s all been explained. We’ve only recently scratched the surface, at all. There is no proposed mechanism for consciousness yet. Or sentience, if you prefer to call it that. There just isn’t. We see strong and undeniable correlations between the EKG images and our reported emotional states, between the location of brain damage and the type of altered behavior it produces, and in fact we can even now produce rudimentary images of a person’s thoughts on a screen outside their body; but we have to admit, there is still, somehow, a huge difference between seeing the hazy image of a person’s thought on a screen, and actually being that person having that thought. Put a different way, there is a fundamental difference between the way a subjective agent experiences itself and how others experience that agent’s existence. A subjectivity experiences a set of phenomena that it shares with others––i.e. the objects of the five senses––and a set of phenomena that it does not share with others: the pseudo-images and pseudo-sounds of our thoughts. All of these five senses plus the two (or possibly more?) pseudo-senses work together, influencing each other in rapid, subtle and intricate ways, to produce what we call consciousness. At this point in our evolution, we can not share the pseudo-senses, at least not in the same way that we experience them. We can create an analog of some of them, through art or language, but the work that sits here objectively in the world is an altogether different entity from the thoughts that led to it. It’s not like the text of this essay emerged fully formed in my head, and I simply transferred it onto the computer screen (occasionally people have flashes of genius where they report that happening but it is definitely not the norm). Thoughts move extremely fast compared to muscles and are prone to completely irrelevant tangents, and so the actual text before you is the end result of a bunch of teeny-tiny decisions about which thoughts I should send over to my typing fingers and which not to, as the thoughts appear to me. And this is not to speak of the even subtler phenomena of consciousness, like the act of “free writing.” When free writing, there is not necessarily concrete thought of any kind, in the usual sense, your thoughts just appear there on the paper, through your fingers, already in the world. I believe that we can begin walking down the path of resolving these mysteries by considering the following conjecture:
(3.) Human consciousness is an emergent property of the entire nervous system of one human body, taken together.
The term emergent property describes an aspect of a system that can not be reduced to any of the individual elements, subsystems, or processes, but arises naturally across the entire system as a result of all the elements following their local rules. For example, the stripes on a zebra are an emergent property of the zebra’s genes. Looking at the genes themselves, there is nothing that indicates to us, “this is a zebra and all zebras must have stripes.” There is nothing that remotely resembles a zebra, anywhere in any microscope image of that zebra’s DNA. In isolation, one DNA molecule could never even produce a zebra, it would just sit there. And yet, left to their own devices, under certain conditions, groups of these DNA will participate in certain chemical processes with the cells that contain them, and if a few tens of trillions of these cells are generated from an initial fertilized egg, then presto-change-o! A living, breathing, striped zebra appears.
If we take this sort of thinking up one more level, we can put forth a working model of consciousness that does not reduce it in any way, but unifies all the information we know about it, from any source. Just as a biologist might look at zebra DNA under a microscope, then scale up and look at the cells and tissues, then scale up and look with her own eyes at an actual zebra, in order to understand it better––we can study consciousness more scientifically, by staying up-to-date on all current neurology and psychology and by frequently comparing their discoveries with our own experience of being conscious. If there is a correlation between their studies and my experience, what does that mean? If there is an apparent contradiction, is there a way to resolve it? Consciousness is often taken as a given, and not honored for the intrinsic weirdness that it has, and in our present era it ought to be held up to scrutiny, on every front. In what sense do we freely choose our actions in the world? Or do we not freely choose? If that’s the case then why do we feel free? Etc. Not only do we finally live in an era where these questions might actually start to become answerable, we are also at a point where humanity and all of our collective day-to-day decisions are leading to global-ecosystem-scale deterioration; that is, the stakes of not questioning the basis of our subjectivity are now quite high, because this subjectivity is the basis for all of our decision-making. How are we going to stop humans from wantonly killing each other on a regular basis? How will we stop the sea levels from rising? How will we stop poaching endangered animals to extinction? It is obvious that nobody understands exactly what part they play in this whole ordeal, and thus nobody considers themselves responsible. But, of course, each day we wake up and go around making a number of (apparently) free choices. Some might only be choosing between which stores to go into at the shopping mall, some might be deciding who gets food stamps and who doesn’t, some might be dressed up and deciding which countries to bomb and which not to, some might be deciding which route to take on a dangerous journey through the mountains so their families can escape the war. Add all 7 billion of these up, every day, and you have the current global state of things. So how are we to resolve any issues of human conflict, if we don’t even understand the connection between human bodies and their will? Why is this not the most pressing issue, in global affairs? Put more bluntly: who the fuck are we and why do we all keep acting so objectively stupid?
To this, the neurologists would reply, “we’re tackling this question already––the technology behind the mapping of neural processes onto screens is going to get much better in the coming years, we’ll be able to see and hear all of a persons thoughts, at the same time. Then we’ll know for certain,” but even then we would not have created a subject, but an object in the world that we all can see. Even if we had a theater with surround sound blaring all of the pseudo-visions and pseudo-sounds from another person’s brain, there is no way we could convey their experience of a phenomenon like free writing, because such an event involves elements of the entire human organism, including things like the muscle memory of their arms and fingers. The reason this is problematic is because, if we observe an outer stimulus in the theatre that is an analog of the inner subjectivity of someone else, we can still obviously tell the difference between our subjectivity and theirs, just as we can all tell the difference between our own inner experience of a song passing through our head and the actual hearing of a song through our ears. So if, for example, we use technology to listen in on the chattering monologue of someone else’s mind as they’re deliberating over a decision, we still might not necessarily make the same decision that they would, because we can not feel how they feel about the thoughts they’re having. Without being that person, there is no way to experience their consciousness as consciousness, I can only experience it as an outside object that my own consciousness perceives.
Nowadays, though, we are starting to see the beginnings of the study of brain-to-brain interfacing. We of course don’t know if this will resolve the issue (the issue being, again: What is the connection between human bodies and their will? Between human bodies and their subjectivity? Their sentience?––however you prefer to phrase it), but the exciting part is that it may, and it may be the first thing that can. We haven’t gone full Vulcan yet, but, in humans, we have already demonstrated that two people can play a simple video game involving brain interfacing and teamwork, using current technology: one player has the screen, the other has a button, and they sit in different rooms. When the screen-watcher sees an enemy, the button-pusher, whose brain is electrically connected to the screen-watcher’s, feels a spontaneous urge to press the button. Strong and decisive, as if he had seen the stimulus. We do not know where this kind of research will lead, but you must admit, whatever we learn about these interfacing capabilities will probably lead to revolutionary changes in how we see ourselves and each other. We can definitely foresee a time when couples might actually be able to resolve conflicts by each strapping on a headset and seeing all sides of the story laid bare, unfiltered and unfettered by spoken language. Honestly, the effects might be horrifying. Or, it might be that all our current ideas about inter-brain capabilities are totally naïve at this point. Perhaps there is another emergent phenomenon that can arise between brains, something that we have absolutely no way of predicting. Science certainly has a long history of doing things like that. We’ve had to expand our notions of distance scales many times over the past few hundred years, from geocentrism, to the solar system, to the galaxy, to the network of galaxy superclusters extending for 14 billion lightyears in every direction we look. We may similarly discover that this human consciousness, so long revered as either a gift from God or the ultimate pinnacle of biological evolution, may still be a trifle compared with consciousness in general; it may very well be that, a millennium from now, everyone will look back at us like flat-earthers, seeing all the ideologies we proliferate that are based on identities, on senses of self, on the idea that there is a fundamental, indivisible me, which there is only one of, residing inside my one body. All I am saying is, we have definitely not yet mapped the limits of human consciousness from an objective point of view. In fact, we are only beginning to think about the question in this way. That is why talking about this seems more like philosophy than science, at the moment. Philosophies often become sciences once they’re fully fleshed out.
So I propose that we actively take up this analysis, in our daily lives. Spend some time looking at our thoughts from other angles. Ask, and then actually answer, questions about the nature of our thoughts, by finding their correlation to things in the world and to the information you read. What’s the connection between my thoughts and emotions, and the environment I’m in? What’s the connection between my thoughts and emotions, and the physical sensation of my body? What’s the connection between my current mental state and the facts I’ve read about the brain and the body’s physiological functions? Because I am telling you, these questions have answers, and they are revealing, if my own experience is any indicator. Why do people generally seem more agreeable (all other factors held constant) on a warm, sunny day, than on a cold, rainy night? In a sense, you can actually narrow it down to some function of the light and sound frequencies that are present, the human body’s ideal living conditions and evolutionary adaptations that respond to potentially-harmful stimuli, combined with learned responses of the humans in the situation. All of these mediated by neural processes. The neural processes are an explanation. However, they are not quite equal to the experience of “sadness” or “happiness.” Nor are they a negation or debunking of experience; if sadness is said to be an emergent property, though, this is not contradictory. Thinking about emergence implies redefining your system of interest by zooming out to one at a higher order of magnitude. In our experience, sadness and happiness are really felt, and in other parts of our experience, we read scientific studies which demonstrate that feelings have biological processes associated with them. So we can say, a feeling emerges in the entire human (a system on the order of meters) as a broad pattern of all neural processes taking place at that time (consisting of trillions of interactions happening on a length scale of millionths-of-a-meter). “Pattern” feels like an insufficient word, but it will do. From the inside, my sentience feels the way I feel, and thinks the way I think, and my experience of those feelings and thoughts is just there, plain as day––and we are able to name feelings and thoughts because they have categorizable attributes, as do all patterns. So, “pattern” in my use just means any particular phenomenon that is organized enough to be given a name, and be delineated from different organizations of the same elements. The contents of this emergent consciousness, the sight of this text you are reading, your thoughts on it, the comfort or discomfort in your body, the ambient sounds of where you are sitting, are not incoherent. They can be studied with rigor, if we have some consistent terminology by which to name these contents and sort them. The reason why this has been difficult, in centuries past, has been because we could not find, or reasonably talk about, the connection between the “outer” world and the “inner” world. I have attempted to establish that emergence is a consistent way to connect outer and inner. Using systems thinking, we can now draw more specific connections between the elements of the system at the bottom (the neurons and all their electrochemistry) and the emergent phenomena at the top (you and your experience). This conception, if correct, does suggest a kind of determinism, but it is a soft determinism that leaves ample room for free will to exist. Emergent phenomena of systems in general can easily affect the actions of the elements that cause them, and the elements can obviously give rise to a different emergent state. World War II emerged across the globe as a pattern of local interactions between individual people––whose actions determined the state of the war––but you can’t say these people weren’t also affected, in their day-to-day decisions, by the war itself. The decisions that individuals were able to make were dictated by the large-scale coordinated actions of all the armies and nations involved, as a whole. Similarly, attributing the cause of consciousness to the neurons does not, in itself, debunk free will, because in the model of emergent consciousness the cells and the will operate on two different levels. Free will would be a large-scale, dynamic reordering of neuronal activity based on the macro-state of the neurons at the previous instant. Say you are the goalie on our soccer team, who has decided to block a shot. Could any single neuron coordinate such an effort? No, because it requires the entire eye-brain-arm-hand-fingers subsystem to work together. Consciousness is able to witness all of the neural activity in this subsystem from the top, though, and thus can redirect the electrochemistry of the neurons in order to catch the ball. Or redirect them toward the goal of dropping bombs. Or going shopping. Or fleeing the war. Or sitting under a tree in meditation. Just as a zebra’s body exists if and only if a lot of zebra DNA is arranged in a self-reproducing system of cells––the large-scale behavior of the neural network implies an emergent conscious agent, and is implied by it.
A great number of people today distrust science because of its “coldness,” that is, because of its constant rejection of anything human as a taint on objectivity, its greatest strength. This conception is exaggerated, but not unwarranted. Many who study the “hard” sciences try to deny any connection to ethics or philosophy, and think of themselves as simple retrievers of brute facts, nothing more. But it is high time that this conceptual restriction came to an end. If it does not come to an end, then physicists will continue to graciously accept funding from the arms industry, wearing cultural blinders to the fact that the “pure research” of today can and will be used by governments to kill children a few years down the line. However, Buddhism, the only systematic internal theory and practice of human behavior that I have yet come across, has picked up too much fluff, over the past 2500 years, to be effective. But, to be blunt, why the fuck should we try to preserve the exact doctrine of some dead guy, without significant modification? Science got some good ideas from the Greeks, who came up with atoms, but they did not worship them; they took the good ideas as a seed, which they then grew by replacing inconsistencies, revising the parts that didn’t make any sense given their observations. So, we can take a few hints from the Buddha if we so choose, but we ought to modify that system given what we know now. Or, perhaps if you look to your own experience, you might find that he was all wrong. That would be progress too. The point is, this internal consciousness is important to keep track of, just as important as anything outer. Because really, “inner” is only an illustrative descriptor: we are an emergent aspect of physics that is embedded in a world made of physics. A mysterious aspect at present, but nonetheless perfectly embedded in and consistent with physics. We have been in denial of this point for far too long. In fact, with this conception of consciousness, it seems perfectly appropriate that intelligent humans would want to seek out a complete system for themselves. If we accept the idea of statement (3.), that consciousness emerges out of a system of neurons and is dependent on them, and if we look at the environment of these neurons (Earth’s ecosystem), then it is clear that the human is an incomplete system, which must connect itself to a larger one in order to be prepared for the plausible phenomena that will occur within its experience––using definition (1.). Recall how we tested the game of soccer for completeness, by imagining a game of infinite length, and showing that the rules allowed the game to go on indefinitely. Consciousness does not pass this same test. The simple passage of time destroys consciousness: by following the very rules of physics on which it depends, it will either die of dehydration, starvation, disease, injury or old age. We can’t imagine a human life of infinite duration without significant modifications to this body. Through this lens, we can say that from the moment humans developed agriculture, we have been trying to correct this deficiency. And why shouldn’t we?
So, phrasing statement (2.) differently, humans as a general rule must seek out a complete system that serves them, or they will die––and they don’t just need a system that provides them food and water, but also social systems that provide them with things like fulfillment, acceptance, and happiness (without which, the neural network starts wanting to die). But the attempted complete systems of the past have been unsuccessful, because they left out lots of relevant information, excluding vast groups of people, pitting themselves against other valid systems, and not being prepared for everything. The Roman Empire was meant to be a complete system, was intended to last for all time. But, it subjugated a vast number of people as slaves, conquered other lands by force, and it couldn’t handle the rise of Christianity, or the unrest of the barbarians to the north. Nazi Germany was meant to be a complete system, but convinced its members that the only way to completeness was to conquer other lands by force and slaughter 11 million innocent men, women, and children, and ultimately couldn’t fight off the rest of the world to maintain itself. The present American system, to the middle and upper classes, appears complete, but it is only able to maintain this appearance through the harsh oppression of the lower classes; its whole economy now relies on the unseen overseas violations of its own labor laws.
Clearly and obviously, this is not the best we can do. Seeing that we must eventually subscribe to some system, one that is more complete than our bodies, why not try and seek out one that is truly and universally complete? One that accounts for all information, every last thing that can be called truth? One that includes optimizing things like the subjective experiences of ourselves and others? One that leaves room for new information, one that values finding that new information, revealing unknowns, and expanding boundaries? A system that naturally grows and changes? And, like Buddha, why should I not place my own experience at the heart of everything? Why should I neglect what my consciousness tells me? And why should my internal consciousness be opposed to the scientific enterprise? If I am conscious, and if I am conscious of my own lack of completeness, and if I am conscious of the fact that even the best human-made systems are inadequate for us humans outside of their domains of validity, and if we see that we, as humans, have a knack for designing really amazing systems to do just about everything we’ve set our minds to, then we are naturally lead to conclude that our goal should be to complete each and every system we are a part of, merging them into a unified whole. Because the thing is, remember how I said that you can always expand the boundary of a system? Well, there is exactly one case in which that is not true. The universe, as it is, here and now, either contains the final uncrossable boundary, or else it is boundless. It is the only system that is entirely complete, with no qualifiers, with an infinite domain of validity. So why set an arbitrary boundary for ourselves? Until that day when we actually know everything, why not, instead, set ourselves the task of identifying and optimizing the working systems we are already a part of, while dismantling the ones that do harm to ourselves and to others, expanding the scope of our systems as we go? This task, in-itself, is a reason to live, and a reason to fight. History has shown us the horrors of so-called complete systems that allow themselves to abuse, imprison, maim, torture and kill those it sees as outside the boundaries. With no boundaries, this is no longer a problem. The world I am proposing is one that leaves nothing out. A way of thinking, living, and being that we can truthfully believe in. A complete universe, forged through the tireless and heroic efforts of all, for all.