Saturday, February 12, 2011

The hardest part of getting what you want -- part 3

When I was a kid I went through a new-agey period where I "realized" that the boundaries between "me" and "the rest of the universe" were not as clearly delineated as I had thought, and I spent a few months feeling as one with the Universe. But that is, of course, wrong, Just because the boundaries aren't crisp doesn't mean they aren't there. It is in fact one of the hallmarks of life is to draw the line between itself and its environment. The invention of the cell wall arguably marked the beginning of life as we know it. Separating itself from its environment is essential to -- perhaps even the essence of -- life. You cannot be alive without distinguishing (even if not explicitly) between "myself" and "the other."

We humans have multiple layers of boundaries. We are eukaryotes. We draw boundaries even within the confines of our own cells, which glom together to make higher-order boundaries between organs, which glom together to make individual humans.

Because our human consciousness resides as an (apparently) unified whole within a body that is also a physically unified whole with more or less clearly defined boundaries it is tempting to think that the hierarchy ends with those bodies. But this is not necessarily the case. The idea that physically distinct entities ought to be considered logically distinct individual life forms is a prejudice. Ants and honeybees, for example, glom together to form colonies which have more of a claim to the title of "individual living entity" than do individual ants or honeybees. Most individual ants and bees are sterile and cannot reproduce when separated from the colony or hive, just as most of the organs in our bodies exist under similar constraints. So it is a not unreasonable point of view to look at an ant colony as a living individual whose component parts just happen not to be rigidly attached to each other.

Most "higher" life forms cannot reproduce as single individuals. It takes at least two to tango, as it were. And in the case of humans, it takes, as they say, a village. It is an extremely rare human who can survive for more than a few days without the support structure of at least some kind of society. This is why we are social creatures and being alone for too long drives us mad.

This is another thing that the rationalists get wrong. Discussion of rational behavior is invariably predicated on the assumption that the quality metric is bound to an individual human. We speak of rational people but never of rational groups whose group interests may or may not coincide with the interests of the individuals making up those groups. Indeed, self-proclaimed rationalists seem to actively resist even considering such quality metrics, and take it as axiomatic that, for example, having individual humans whose minds believe in objective truth is a good thing. There is no rational justification for this, which makes it all the more ironic.

So you get Lisp programmers who spend all their time honing the arguments for why Lisp is the best programming language, and C programmers who ignore those arguments, write a bunch of ugly code, and take over the world. You get evolutionists who spend all their time honing the arguments for why evolution is true, and creationists who ignore those arguments, tell people that they are special because they are created in the image of God, and take over the world, not because they were correct but simply because the "you are special" meme reproduces better in the mind of a social creature than the "you are alone in a hostile universe" meme does.

1 comment:

Don Geddis said...

But, but ... lisp is the best programming language!

More seriously: I like the idea of associating ants and bees with organs, and colonies with "individuals", rather than the usual analogy. Very interesting!