I’ve been thinking a lot about emergence lately. Maybe it’s the online cryptography class I recently completed, the ideas in Godel’s Proof still fresh in my mind, or recently diving deeper into trying to understand quaternions, but I’ve been dwelling on thoughts about the emergence of meaning from seeming meaningless-ness.
What do I mean by this? Well, I’m not really interested in getting into a philosophical debate about strong emergence or the specifics of reductionism. I want to explore some anecdotes, and possibly a thought experiment or two on that peculiar thing we call the mind and a strange thing it seems to be concerned with: meaning. I’m more specifically speaking of emergence in the sense that emergent properties are those that seem to exist outside of the raw sum of the parts themselves. Be warned: this is a layman’s exploration of this topic. These are some ideas I’ve scrounged together and that I’ve had fun thinking about. I’m sure there are holes in the logic, and I’m making no claim to how the universe actually works.
So, if you’re still with me, I’m about to be getting into some odd and abstract territory, so bear with me. Under this sort of layman’s view, I’m talking about things like the emergence of the mind. I’m going to start with the fundamental assumption that the mind requires the brain, and more broadly the body, to exist. In a reductive sense: smash the brain; the mind is gone. And yet, our concept of the mind isn’t really bound by the body. Our perception of the mind exists in its own way. It has its own sort of meaning. We can imagine things like “the mind living on after we are dead” even if there isn’t the slightest ounce of evidence for this to be true. I think this is why the religions of the world, in their many forms, can be so intoxicating. Each one, in its own way, seems to try to deal with the mind/soul/essence living on in some eternal or immortal way. I am personally of the belief that my experience after my death will mirror my experience before my birth: I won’t have one. But that doesn’t change the fact that we can imagine it. An immortal mind, or soul, or consciousness: these are powerful ideas that are deeply bound into our history and mythology.
What’s interesting to me is that this seemingly odd fixation the mind has on thinking of itself outside of the bounds of its physical reality is linked deeply into how we think and interpret the world around us. To put it bluntly: I think that meaning itself is a figment of our imaginations. I think that any meaning in the universe may come from some sort of emergent system that we’ve cooked up in our heads.
Take cryptography for instance. We dance around these beautiful concepts of randomness. The dance being that a cipher can encrypt a message in such a way that its output is reasonably indiscernible from randomly generated output. And yet, if you plug in the right key and turn the dials just right, a perfectly preserved message emerges from the seeming randomness on the other side.
Take a moment to really think about that. We took a chunk of something we deemed meaningful, folded it into something that seemed meaningless, and then unfolded the hidden meaning on the other side into something meaningful again.
Now take a step back and think about what we’re actually working with here. We’re playing parlour tricks with combinations of elementary particles bound to the causal limits of space-time. Our message, encrypted and decrypted, is meaningless in all forms to the particles holding the state of the information we care about.
In an odd way, meaning seems to be a strange projection of the inner workings of the mind on the universe around us. And it doesn’t appear to really play a role in the function of the universe itself outside of serving the mind. It’s sort of this strange game we play, projecting all sorts of thought, intent, and purpose to everything around us, when in fact, none of it exists outside of the collective experience of the human condition.
So, what if I’m dead wrong? What if our mind is a manifestation of a Universal Mind? I have my doubts. I think our need to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves is a strange artifact of the mind. I think it’s fascinating to think about the big questions that have been explored in religion and philosophy. I’m also not writing off the fact that consciousness may or may not be an inevitable part of complex biological systems, much like nuclear fusion is an inevitable part of the sheer gravitational mass of stars, or chemical reactions are an inevitable part of the byproduct of the output of exploded stars.
But, I’m skeptical that any of this points to a deeper meaning of the universe baked into the fabric of the universe. Instead, I think the idea of a meta-mind or god-head are most likely projections of our own minds’ need to process our sensory data and to connect to other minds.
What I find elegant about this model of thinking is that it doesn’t require an authority figure for the universe. It doesn’t require any sort of “hidden truth” about our minds given to us by a creator. Instead, the universe seems to be a complex system that’s built from fundamental parts. In a strange way, it frees us up to derive meaning from nothing, which I find beautiful.