steve_grand's picture
Founder, Cyberlife Research; author, Creation: Life and How to Make It
Why 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 by nouns?

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 fallacy.

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.