do we continue to act as if the universe were constructed from nouns
linked by verbs, when we know it is really constructed from verbs linked
My question is to do with materialism, reductionism and the inertia
of intellectual progress. It is also connected with the limitations
of language as a mechanism for thought or, perhaps more accurately,
of thought as a mechanism that defines and constrains language. Above
all it is concerned with a 'process' view of the universe, which, although
frequently espoused by many of us in this group, still somehow manages
to remain trapped inside an older paradigm, like a butterfly that can't
quite break free from its chrysalis skin.
It seems to me that we intuitively, linguistically and historically
divide the world into tangible things, which we think of as real, and
intangible things, to which we usually (or latterly) accord less respect.
This is not really a valid distinction since, on closer inspection,
all supposedly solid, substantial things turn out to be rather more
ephemeral, distributed and transitive than we might like to think. The
whole edifice of the universe, it seems, is constructed from interactions
between smaller, simpler phenomena that are themselves only patterns
of interactions between even simpler phenomena. There are no 'atoms'
in the Greek sense. Our division of the world into objects, properties
and structures is an artifice to help us deal with it, not a true description
of reality. The universe is not divided into hardware and software:
there is only software.
Life and Mind are perhaps the most obvious examples of things that subsist
as pure process, but atoms, electrons, buildings and societies are in
truth no different. To some extent we already know and understand this,
and yet I think we can't stop ourselves from dividing hardware from
software and treating the former as more real and significant than the
latter. Even when we attempt to regard life and mind in a process way
we often end up reifying them again as 'information' (as if information
were a kind of substance) and end up missing the point.
Perhaps the most incapacitating aspect of our implicit reification of
natural phenomena can be seen in a malignant form of reductionism. Benign
reductionism trying to understand something complex by first
identifying the properties of its parts is a valid and powerful
tool, often the only one available to science. On the other hand, it
often leads implicitly to a belief that something complex can be understood
solely in terms of the properties of its parts, without reference to
the relationships between those parts. It can easily be demonstrated
that this is nonsense (perhaps almost the converse of the truth), and
yet much of our present failure to understand nature rests on such a
I believe we are edging towards a new paradigm, in which process and
interaction the verbs are all there is, and material stuff
the nouns are simply placeholders for more verbs.
However, we don't yet have suitable language or mathematics for describing
this new viewpoint, and we never will if we fail to recognise the reasons
why we so easily slip back into our old ways. Before we can construct
something new we must deliberately deconstruct what we have. So the
first question I want to ask is: how is our understanding constrained
by the apparatus we use for gaining that understanding? After that we
can start to discuss what new kinds of language and mathematics might
liberate us from this paradigm trap.
Grand is an aritifical
life researcher and creator of Lucy, a robot babay orangutan. He is
the author of Creation: Life and How to Make It.