It doesn’t seem like we should have forms in the world, unless they are built on purpose, but somehow we do. It doesn’t seem like dead parts should be able to create living wholes, but this is what we observe. It doesn’t seem like all of this could come from the motions of microscopic elements, but this is what the science suggests. How do forms in the world, come to exist, in a formless ocean of particles?
We find ourselves at a certain scale in the universe, a scale that makes parts and wholes particularly meaningful. Curiously, in some sense, around the scale of human experience, give or take a few powers of 10, is the only scale range thus far, where we can even find distinctions between parts and wholes, that are in any sense, intrinsic, or “meaningful” at all.
There is an obvious special case at the human scale, that forces us to consider radically different questions and interpretations of how parts become wholes, and if there is any real distinction, between the two. This, obvious example, is so natural to us that we seldom even question it. That said, it is so baffling and perplexing that we have struggled to account for it fully, let alone create it de novo (from the beginning).
Here we are speaking about life itself, and asking how its dead parts, could possibly become living wholes. In order to have any chance of understanding something about living forms, we must first learn something unexpected, about formless, non-living systems.
Sometimes even dead parts, act as if, they had a mind of their own.
In other writings, we have taken a look at how complex forms are assembled in nature. This line of inquiry directed our focus to the Assembly Theory promoted by Lee Cronin and Sarah Walker. Now, we take a very different look at some of the same issues and mysteries of life.
There is a kind of cliché joke that you hear when researching the topics related to the origin of life, and life on other planets. In response to the standard question, “how will we know if we have found life on another planet?”, you sometimes see a common type of tongue in cheek response. The scientist responding will say, “if it walks over to us and waves hello, I think we’ve found life”. It’s a dry and tired joke, but it surfaces some deep complications about questions regarding life, particularly in relation to the human experience.
For one, it suggests that in some sense we as humans have some kind of innate “life detection” ability, which is questionable at best and laughable in general. It also suggests that our “seat of the pants”, gut level appraisal of whether a system is alive or not, is sufficiently competent regardless of the context.
So, if it is the case that even basic questions about life are so hard to answer, we can start with that sarcastic example. We can actually use it to kick off a discussion about some of the deepest and richest aspects that may be underlying life’s origins and definitions.
Why do we naturally equate stillness with the nonliving, and motion with life? Why would we be confident that if a probe on another planet, captured a video of a blob, hopping (possibly levitating) over to our camera, that this would be life? Why wouldn’t we look at an interesting rock formation, and decide that was more alive instead?
I would argue, that although we certainly have some heavy human centric bias on the importance of motion to the living, there is something quite profound about certain kinds of motion, and more specifically, about certain kinds of change.
Life appears to be inseparable, from some particular kinds of dynamics, that seem to be absent in non-living systems. Why is this so?
When we discuss dynamics, things can get complicated rapidly. In fact, one of the hallmarks of dynamics, is that what looks simple when static, is often much more complicated, when evolving dynamically in time. Look up the “Three Body Problem” sometimes called the “N-Body Problem” for an example. In that case, you have a seemingly dirt simple system, that is so hopelessly chaotic and unpredictable, that you realize just how perplexing and unexpected the dynamics, of even the simplest systems can be. Now consider the implications of this, applied to the operations of the world writ large. Hopefully, you can start to get a sense of why dynamics are so important and so vexing at the same time.
Before diving into the weeds, let's start with a basic sense of what it means for some system to have dynamics. The simplest way to say it might be to say that, to speak of dynamics, is to speak about change over time (at least in the classical regime). That said, we will soon see that dynamics often have the ability not only to quantitatively change a system, but to qualitatively transform the properties and behaviors of systems, often beyond recognition, or expectation.
Dynamic V Static
There is an essential point that needs to be made about this discussion of dynamics, that will help to guide our thinking in the right direction. It’s crucial not to confuse mere movement, with the kinds of dynamics we will be discussing. Here we are not concerned with an individual part moving or changing, but generally speaking, we are only focusing on systems composed of many parts, that are moving and changing in time.
To help illustrate this point, this distinction, between mere movement and dynamics, and also between the static and the dynamic, we will look at a few commonplace phrases. Though they may seem to be mere clichés, they actually can shed some light on why dynamics are so important, and maybe even provide some faint hints, as to how life creates living wholes, from dead parts.
Most of us have heard the phrase “A house is not a home”, uttered in one form or another. An alternative phrase to examine might be “A roster is not a team”. Another might be “Love is not a word”. How about, “An organizational chart, is not a company” or “A business plan is not a business”? All of these phrases share similar characteristics that can help us glean something about the most critical differences, between the static and the dynamic.
When we say “A house is not a home”, what is the suggested meaning? If someone were to read it literally, he or she might be baffled by the sentence. She might say “I say tomato, and you say to-mat-to”, what’s the big deal. On the other hand, if one takes the phrase suggestively, it becomes a poignant statement about the human experience. That is to say, that merely having the matter, the material, the stuff, the wood floors, insulated windows, the couch, and shingled roof, might be sufficient to have a house, but that alone can never make a home. This is where we really need to understand something both about the complexities of the human experience, but also something much more fundamental, about the difference between the static and the dynamic.
We might ask if all the parts of a house can be listed on a spreadsheet, and purchased by a contracting company to build a house, what other parts do you need in order to build a home? Hopefully, you’re starting to get it. There are no “parts” that you order to turn a house into a “home”. The whole point of the phrase, and the reason it resonates with many people, is worth exploring for a moment. The reason is that the phrase captures a somewhat common aspect of the human experience. It acknowledges that for many of us, at some point in life, the place where we eat and sleep, is not always the place, where we feel most “at home”.
So, when we say “A house is not a home”, we are not suggesting that there were other parts on the order list, that would have made it a home, had they been installed. We are not saying that but for the lack of a Viking refrigerator and marble floor, that the house would have been a home. We are instead proposing, that a house is just a name for a number of static parts, that are assembled into a certain form.
In contrast, a “home”, as used in this context, is not about parts, but about dynamics. It’s about what interactions occur in the house, and around the house, etc. It’s about an atmosphere of kindness and care, not how big the swimming pool is by the hot tub.
You can find the same flavor of distinction when we say “A roster is not a team”, or “Love is not a word”, or “A business plan is not a business”. In all cases, the power of the phrase turns on the recognition that the static representation, is not sufficient. No matter how pristine and detailed, the list of static details may be, there is something else required. There is some essence, some “élan vital” or “spirit” (not literally but suggestively), that serves to “abracadabra” the wooden Pinocchio of static parts, into the “real boy” of the dynamic system.
Though these phrase examples are rather removed from the topics we will discuss in the remaining sections, there’s a reason I included them. I wanted to ease into this topic of dynamics, with some examples that are common and familiar to the human experience. Examples that allow for some conceptual scaffolding (what Dan Dennett might call an “intuition pump”), to be built on common ground, before jumping into deeper and murkier waters.
Incomplete Nature by Terrance Deacon
It’s very rare that I come across a book so dense and thought-provoking, that I have to read it about three times just to make sure I understood the main point. There are very few books that fit in to that category in our lives. When we find them, they often stay with us because something about them caused us to rewire the way we look at the world, and to see things from a new perspective. Incomplete Nature by Terrance Deacon is one such book that fits into this rare category for me.
In this brief introduction, I will do my best to convey why I believe that Incomplete Nature, is essential reading for anyone deeply interested in a materialist account, of life’s origin. I say this, regardless of whether or not you accept the implications concerning life and consciousness, suggested by the author of the book, or my own for that matter. Moreover, it does not matter if you fully subscribe to the materialist paradigm. Whichever side you fall on, you will be forced to seriously consider how you view the world. Many of your intuitions will be challenged, if not changed, in the process.
The most basic concept of dynamics, is simply, change in time (at least in terms of classical physics and the human scale)(maybe even change “as time” in thermodynamics). When discussing complex systems, especially the origin of living systems, we are not really concerned with the movement of the highest level form. Instead, we are focused on the change among the elements it is composed of.
As a quick note, the terms “Homeodynamic, Morphodynamic, and Teleodynamic” are words coined by Terrance Deacon. You are very unlikely to have encountered them outside of his work, or that of research programs closely affiliated with his work. That said, the particular names he uses for the various classes of dynamics, aren’t the most indispensable part, and are basically fungible. What is tremendously valuable, I would argue, is the mere fact that Deacon had the insight to notice, something subtle that many had passed over. He saw there was something about the dynamics of complex systems, and life especially, that may not be easily captured or identified with existing frameworks. It may not even be examined, without creating some new terms to direct attention to the aspects of nature in question. Try to keep that in mind going forward. Oftentimes, the names we ascribe to aspects of the world, are far less important, than we think. What really matters is the mere fact, that we noticed there was a distinction worth naming at all. So, it is here, I would suggest.
Equilibrium is a state that is common to classic examples in statistical mechanics. An idealized gas in a box, just allowed to sit unperturbed, is a prototypical example of a system in equilibrium. The basic concept is that the microscopic states of the gas, at any point in time, correspond to our macroscopic view. We “coarse grain” over the trillions of molecules in the microstates of the gas, and instead perceive only bulk statistical properties at human scale.
For example, there is no temperature or pressure at the microscale. There are only the molecules or particles, and their individual properties (mass, spin, charge, kinetic energy etc.). We only attribute temperature and pressure to large collections of microscopic elements.
Going back to the gas in the box, a significant assumption of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics in general, is the ergodic hypothesis. This essentially says that a system will spend equal time, in equal regions of its phase space . To say it another way, the system will occupy various microstates, in proportion to the volume those states occupy in phase space.
The effect of this, at the human scale, is that we lose information about the individual microstates the gas is in. To us, it seems a vast range of microstates are equivalent. So, when we speak of notions such as temperature, pressure, and even the distribution and location of the gas in the box, these are always limited and “lossy” descriptions. We are conflating and coarse graining, over a countless number of microscopic elements, in microstates, and describing them with terms and quantities that describe their bulk statistical properties. We do not have the capacity to exactly describe the precise microstates at any point in time. There are many more microstates that correlate with the macroscopic state of being disordered and spread out, than concentrated. Even less for microstates where, for example, all the molecules are in the upper rear, right corner of the box.
This statistical tendency for a system to become increasingly distributed, disordered, and randomized, is the general idea behind the concept of equilibrium. It is also the basis for a broader kind of thinking, wherein processes evolve as if they were effectively thermal systems. Think of random pedestrians in unconstrained crowds, or low dollar transactions at large street markets, for example.
If we take our idealized gas that has been allowed to sit in a closed box by itself, isolated from the world, it will evolve towards equilibrium overtime, for the reasons previously mentioned. Remember that this means that from the macroscale and in particular the human scale, the gas is essentially uniform from our perspective. It would have a very consistent temperature throughout, a consistent pressure throughout, consistent density throughout the box etc.
Now, if we apply heat to the right side of the box only, we are introducing a gradient. Suddenly, the gas, which was previously uniform and in equilibrium, is now non-uniform and out of equilibrium. This gradient introduces a distinction that not only effects microscale behavior, but crucially, now creates a distinction that matters at the macroscale. This is the basis for all heat engines.
Gradients become constraints on how the gas in the box can change over time. Previously, before heating the right side of the box, the system would occupy many more microstates corresponding to being uniformly distributed throughout the box. It would be uniform in space, but also in terms of average kinetic energy of particles etc. Instead, the heat on the right side of the box has made the uniform microstates unavailable. The systems dynamics are thus forced to change from what they normally would do, which is to move towards equilibrium. This is the basis of thermodynamic work, which powered the industrial age of steam engines. We can observe this in the present day, in any process that uses changes in pressure and temperature, to accomplish mechanical work.
Perhaps the most important point to note here, is what you might think of as the asymmetry of causation, implied by equilibrium and processes that can be described as being thermal in some sense. In other words, we intuitively understand that if we want to heat the right side of the box, we need some source of energy to do that. It could be fire, a hot electrical heating element, a chemical reaction like those disposable hand warmers, or even a nuclear fission reaction like an atomic bomb, or a fusion reaction like the sun. No matter which method we choose, we must apply some source of heat to the right side of the box, to create the gradient which constrains the states, the gas can transition into.
Notice that if we instead have the opposite goal, of eliminating the constraint from the heat gradient, and having the gas become as uniform as possible, we don’t need to create a separate process for that to happen. Notice that we do not need to add extra energy to the box, to undo what we did by adding energy to the box. Instead, we only need to remove that source of energy we applied to the right side of the box, and the system will spontaneously change over time, towards equilibrium.
There is an important reason why Terrance Deacon decided to create the term “Homeodynamic” instead of simply using “thermodynamic”. I believe it is to draw attention to the fact, that there are many processes that have this tendency to spontaneously change towards a more disordered and distributed state, though they are not strictly speaking, “thermodynamic” systems.
The takeaway from this brief introduction to the concept of homeodynamics, is that many kinds of systems will have a statistical asymmetry in their dynamics, such that they will spontaneously and naturally evolve towards being more uniformly distributed and disordered. This will happen unless a source of energy is driven through the system, to constrain it from those “homeodynamic” states.
In the preceding sections, we have started a journey to look at how living systems might come to exist, in a world of otherwise dead parts. Here we started with dynamics, a concept that is so familiar in practice, but can seem quite foreign and remote in principle.
The main thrust of this discussion was to explain why dynamics are so crucial to questions about life’s origins. Further, we also got an introduction to Terrence Deacon and his book “Incomplete Nature”. This book serves as the basis for a unique way of viewing the dynamics of systems, that may shed some light on subtle similarities and differences between systems we consider to be living versus nonliving.
The last section focused on what Terrance Deacon refers to as homeodynamic systems. These are the kinds of systems that behave as if they are effectively random and uniformly distributed at the given scale. We saw how this concept of homeodynamic systems, is very similar in spirit to the equilibrium state of a gas, as described by statistical mechanics. The important difference between thermal equilibrium states and homeodynamic states, was that thermal equilibrium is specifically about the coarse grained property of temperature, as produced by the microstates of the relevant substance. In contrast, homeodynamic systems can be both actual thermal systems, like the gas in the box, but they do not need to be “thermal” systems. Crucially, homeodynamic systems can also be larger scale systems that still retain the general tendency to disperse energy, and to become more or less uniformly distributed, at the relevant scale.
Lastly, we focused on an aspect of homeodynamic systems (which also include equilibrium systems), which is crucial for building up this new way of considering dynamics proposed by Terrance Deacon. The issue of causality, that we perceive and intuit at the human scale, is manifestly broken when we look at systems in homeodynamic states. From the view of everyday human experience, things don’t seem to change without “causes”. Now, we may fully admit that we do not know all the causes, for which events occur at human scale. That said, our general operating assumption is that we act “as if”, there at least could be, a cause attributed to all the change we experience in the world, in principle. This begins to fall apart, perhaps fittingly, when the parts of the system in question, fall apart, ie, become loosely coupled, and effectively change randomly relative to each other.
There is a very technical sense in which a super-intelligence such as “Laplace’s Demon” or in today’s parlance let's say “a super computing cluster”, could, in a way, break the concept of equilibrium, informationally. Such a super intelligent system, might be able to attribute micro causation, to each and every jostle and quiver, in an ocean of particles, undergoing Brownian motion. Such a system might even be able to define gradients and “forms” that would be incomprehensible to us. To be clear, such a system would ultimately have to “pay” for this information, thermodynamically, when it erases its memory. For those who are interested, you can look up “Laplace’s Demon”, “Maxwells’s Demon” and “Bit Erasure”, to learn more about the relation between information and entropy. Putting that aside, even if this super-intelligence could discern causation in equilibrium states, the “story” i.e., the chain of the causal narrative, would not be anything like the world at human scale. The implications of this are profound, but easy to miss, unless your attention is drawn to it specifically.
The essential point, is that in a statistical manner, especially on the human scale, systems can be thought of as spontaneously changing from other states, to homeodynamic states, without the kind of causal narrative that we normally require. It’s important, as always, to call out the limits of the regime we are referring to, and the notable exceptions. Here, I would lay it out the following way. If we limit ourselves to the classical regime, meaning that we consider relations between only timelike separated events (or lightlike in extremely rare cases), only special and general relativity as boundaries, and rely on Newtonian mechanics in non-relativistic speeds and energy scales, then we can use this concept of homeodynamics to refer to systems that change towards being randomized and distributed, as described here.
There are some questions about how to think about homeodynamics beyond the classical limit of GR. Depending on what interpretation of quantum mechanics you favor, all transitions of quantum states could be deterministic or probabilistic, i.e., random, or perhaps something else entirely, in the case of Qbism. For the purposes of our overall discussion, the non-classical aspects of nature did not seem relevant, but I felt it was at least worth mentioning some of those considerations in passing. Though Incomplete Nature presents a thesis for how life and even mind, might emerge from matter alone, it must be noted that in truth, matter itself might contain more mysteries than we have even imagined.
There is at least some possibility that this conundrum of how to unify matter, with life and mind, might not be solvable from a perspective that treats them as separate to begin with. Though Incomplete Nature is among the most compelling accounts of a materialist basis for the origin of life, it is not the end of the story. There are so many questions about the nature of space and time, and the human experience, that we just have no answers to. I would not be entirely surprised if something, like Deacon's idea’s, end up being the classical appearance of phenomena that may have some non-classical or “non-physical” aspects. To be clear, “non-physical” does not mean supernatural. It’s just a placeholder for some aspect of nature that we don’t understand at this time. In this way, it is similar to the terms we use for “dark energy” and “dark matter”. The point is that we truly don’t know about every trick in nature’s bag at this point. Therefore, we should not assume that we have seen the whole kit, or that we know what stunning abilities nature has yet to reveal. Perhaps that discussion is for another day. For now, we stop here.
Next, we transition from looking at systems that become formless, to systems that create form. It is there we may glimpse something approaching a first spark of life. It is there we may discover, why such a spark, ultimately could not ignite the fire of life, with mere form, alone.