Where Do We Belong in the Scheme of Things?
On planet Earth, we can identify three distinct and qualitatively different levels of reality. For example, if we think about Bugs Bunny falling off a cliff, we can look at the reality of the rabbit in three very different ways:
1) As a Physical Object with a given mass and velocity
2) As a Life Form, with an increased heart rate and adrenalin output
3) As a Cartoon Figure, hitting the ground, to then walk away unscathed
Perhaps not surprisingly, these three ways of looking at the world are reflected in the way the Sciences themselves are divided into three levels. Namely, those of the ‘Physical, Biological and Social Sciences‘. So the ‘Physical Sciences’ consist of Physics, Chemistry, Geology, Climatology and Astronomy; the ‘Life or Biological Sciences’ consist of Botany, Zoology, Medicine and Agriculture; and the ‘Social or Human Sciences’, including such disciplines as Psychology, Sociology, Linguistics and Anthropology.
The way that we divide up the many sciences into just three groups suggests that the difference between life, non life and human life is fundamental to our understanding of the world. Indeed, it is conceivable that the reason we organise the sciences into just these three areas is precisely because of this underlying human perception. Or is it the other way around? That is, does our subjective perception of reality coincide with that of the sciences, for the very good reason that the sciences have got it right in the first place? After all, it does make sense that our subjective reality is based on the same essential divisions as we see in the sciences for the very good reason that intelligent life cannot survive without at least some serious degree of basis in hard objective fact.
Well, whether the three levels of reality are the result of subjective or objective assessment, what we can see is that there is clear qualitative difference between, for example, the following three planets.
1) a planet without any form of life, where only the three states of matter are evident, or
2) a planet that is rich in organic life (such as ours used to be before the advent of humans), or
3) a planet like our Earth, as it is now, with a race of intelligent beings (rather too) much in evidence.
Certainly this is a very simple form of classification, yet it seems the only sensible way of looking at the history of our own planet, given the clear differences in the three planetary types shown above. Suggesting that perhaps as far as the sciences are concerned, this triplet might be definitive. In which case, we have very good reason to organise our objective understanding of the world into these three levels of reality. But there is also another reason to take this triplet seriously, and it is one based on what our subjective landscape of human meaning might itself be based upon. Because what if we find that the subjective values that form the key contours of our topography are ultimately based on this fundamental distinction as well?
Well, such a coincidence between the objective view of science, and the subjective view of human meaning would, in some ways, be less than surprising. Because although it is true that the imagination can take flights of fancy in some pretty strange metaphysical directions, it must always use the physical reality of the earth it jumps off from as its starting point. That is, every such flight of the imagination must have the Earth as its ground zero, because any such departure from reality makes sense only when understood in those terms. As if the power of the earth’s gravitational field has a parallel but semantic force deep in the inner core that makes it impossible for the human imagination to depart far from earthly matters. A deep pulling force that explains why it is that no superhero or god figure beggars the imagination, and why it is that no imagination beggars physical reality. So heaven is above us (like the sky), superman flies through the air (like a bird), and god reacts to our behaviour (like a human). Whilst aliens travel faster than light (again like a human, because our imaginations cannot propose an ultimate limit to thought – or in this case light – without then instantly picturing a far side to that limit). All of which suggests that we should take this ‘base triplet’ about the reality on our planet seriously. Which is why this investigation into meaning pursues this particular line of enquiry in some depth, as we proceed through the material.
Now let us look at this tripartite division in more detail, and under the heading of ‘The Three Great Ages of Planet Earth’. In particular, I have in mind three great tablets of stone, standing at the entrance to three great galleries that might together comprise the ultimate Science Museum for this planet.
And inscribed on these 3 tablets, we find the following 3 inscriptions:
There, that was fun, and more to the point, we now have three dramatic declarations about the different levels of reality to be found here on planet Earth. But just how seriously should we take this idea? Surely this observation – that the sciences are divided up into these three areas of the Physical, Biological, and Social Sciences – is just an administrative convenience, and nothing more? Or maybe we should divide our reality into rather more than three levels because, after all, the reality on this planet describes what is surely a continous line that can be divided into as many divisions as we like? Well, to answer these, and other questions, we must look more deeply into what these three areas are about, and this involves looking at how the three are nested into each other, in terms of both time and space.
On the Nature of Physical Space
‘Physical Space’ is what we see when we gaze up at the night sky, or watch lava pouring out of an underwater fissure, deep under the ocean. It is what we see when we elucidate the atomic nature of matter, or look at the destruction wrought by an earthquake. It includes everything from comets, to star systems to galaxies and, on its way back to our home planet, sweeps past our moon, and ends deep in the Large Hadron Collider, where the smallest of elementary particles declare their existence for the tiniest fraction of a nanosecond. Which is to say that ‘Physical Space’ stretches from the unimaginably vast to the unimaginably small. A scale that applies to the temporal dimension, just as much as it does to the spatial one. For Physical Space has already been with us for an unimaginably long time (and before that right back to the Big Bang), and the future also stretches out before us into an unknown and untold number of millennia. In short, Physical Space is nothing less than Everything.
Against this totally huge backdrop of the universe, the identity of our own particular planet is just a minuscule detail. A mere pixel on the vast cosmic canvas of space. But it is our home, and it is the area of Physical Space that we know best (though we only occupy a very narrow surface band around its outer edge). Even so, when we look around for a ‘pure’ sample of Physical Space on our planet, uncluttered by organic nature and unobscured by human culture, we encounter difficulties. For example, even the moon, which is surely a prime bit of physical real estate if ever there was one, turns out to have bits and pieces of human debris left lying around on its surface. Or take the following shot of a beach in Costa Rica where, if nothing else, we might reasonably assume that at least the sky must represent a purely physical condition (when in reality, there is a major measure of ‘pollution’ by both humans and organic nature in its composition).
Generally though, beaches are a good place to imagine the planet before organic life came on the scene, if only because they make a nice graphic of the three states of matter, displayed as they are to us in a neat horizontal set of three level stripes – gas, liquid, solid. That is, as long as a ghost crab doesn’t scuttle across our field of view, and the seabirds stay out of frame. Whilst another good place to go for examples of pure physical reality are the newly thrown up virgin islands occurring in the sea, particularly if they have cauterised any organic life that dares to land on them with the intense heat of a molten lava flow. Deserts and polar regions too are hostile enough to be largely empty of life, and caves underground also serve as good exemplars of Physical Space (though it is always hard to avoid life signs when we really look closely).
Interestingly, it was quite hard to find a lava shot from my photo collection that didn’t show some sign of colonisation by life, and the same applied to the desert shots as well. Caves make for an easier study, but there is plenty of life down there too. And as mentioned already, even the moon and the planet Mars are slightly ‘contaminated’ by another reality (American in this case), so we really have to go further off planet if we are to find pure unadulterated Physical Space. (The lava is from the Galapagos, the desert is in Oman, and the cave is in France).
So what does Physical Space consist of, in a nutshell? The answer must surely be Space, Time, Matter and Energy, because everything we see on our planet and in the cosmos seems to come from this. For example, we can subdivide Matter into Dark Matter and ‘Visible’ Matter. Visible matter then divides into a range of fundamental particles, which then create a range of elements, which then combine to make all the known compounds and indeed the rocks studied by both Chemistry and Geology, and then, greater still, the planets and solar bodies that make up the galaxies studied in Astronomy. Energy is also divisable into the many forms of radiant, thermal, chemical, electric, nuclear, magnetic, elastic, mechanical, sound, luminous and so on. Whilst both matter and energy play their part in the ultimate theatre of the Space/Time continuum, where Space tells Matter how to move, and Matter tells Space how to curve.
But all of this just exists, with no purpose, and no aim. Which is to say that our planet, and its solar system, and all the stars in all the galaxies have no sense or reason for their existence other than the physical laws that define their logic. A logic that gives ample cause for their being there, but absolutely no basis for a higher reason or purpose. Or, to put this another way, there is not a shred of scientific evidence that the universe was made by an entity from some higher level of reality. Which means that the principles and the values most central to our lives as human beings have no basis outside of ourselves. So although a large number of creation stories put man as the centre of everything, we now know better. Well, some of us do…
How then does the ‘Everything’ of Physical Space match up to the ‘Everything’ of human meaning (the reality referred to as ‘Social Space’)? Well, in physical terms, our virtual world of everything exists in a very small place indeed – the tiny locale of the human head. True there are more than 7 billion examples of such heads on the planet these days, but this is still next to nothing in the scale of things physical. Because that makes 7 billion pin pricks on a planet that is itself a tiny pinprick in our galaxy. Yet, strangely, and from the human point of view, the reverse can also be true. Because the manifestly vast space of the physical universe actually takes up very little space in the human world. Partly because the rest of the cosmos is almost entirely unknown to us, and partly because our lives are so fleeting that they amount to just a tiny flicker in the overall timescale of the history and future of the universe. Which is why most of us barely know anything of our own home planet: life is too short to see much of the world around us.
But there is a more profound reason why the universe is barely in our thoughts. For example, when we look up at the night sky, we may and surely do find it amazing. But the truth is that we are gazing at an inhuman and purposeless void that is entirely beyond what matters to us in real life. So although we may gaze in wonder at the night sky from time to time (at best, urban man sees a black strip between buildings), it is generally an option we ignore. Along with a very great deal of the physical reality around us, that is. A choice that is hardly suprising in that we are bound to put our own virtual world first. Because although we can be objective about Physical Space to an appreciable degree, the physical world will always be just a small part of the normal, lived in reality that is Social Space. Though having said that, it still seems as if there are somehow two equal sides to this situation. So perhaps an objective view of Social Space may drive us to recognise this symmetry as the only true representation of the state of affairs that intelligent life finds itself in. But on to level two, which is the result of forces of selection, at first physical, and then organic as well.
On the Nature of Genetic Space
‘Genetic space’ was born entirely out of the substance of Physical Space. It is therefore an example of the principle that the whole may amount to something greater than the sum of its individual parts. For although organic life is entirely composed of inorganic components, its fauna and flora represents something genuinely new in the history of the planet. Almost as if a discontinuity in the fabric of physical reality had occurred on our planet three thousand million years ago – but not actually, because in truth we are looking at a continuum through time. But to follow and understand the results of this jump, a whole new body of ideas and principles had to be created – in what we now recognise as the language, theories and extensive findings of the Biological Sciences.
A word about the title of this level is appropriate here. Because although is it easy to accept the term ‘Physical Space’ as the obvious candidate title for level one, it is not so easy to find a clear candidate title for level two. Various possibilities spring to mind, such as ‘Organic Space’ or ‘Life Space’, but ‘Organic’ fails to capture the vibrancy of life, and ‘Life’ is too easily confused with the third level occupied by us. However, the term ‘Genetic’ captures something of the new scientific understanding of life, where we have learnt that the body is ‘just’ the genes way of producing more genes. An idea famously paraphrased in the expression: ‘the chicken is the eggs way of making more eggs’ where the egg is used as a convenient icon for the genome. But in addition to this, it is also the case that the term ‘genesis’ has the two different and rather appropriate meanings of firstly, a ‘beginning’, and secondly, a ‘propagation’ (or indeed ‘evolution’), all of which makes the choice of ‘Genetic Space’ an effective term in this context.
Whilst on the subject of terminology, we should ask if the collective term ‘Space’ is an appropriate label to use for these three levels as well? The quick answer is yes, simply because it puts the three levels together under one general title, and creates the impression of a sequence, which is what the three levels amount to in practice. A sequence that is not just a chronological but a spatial progression. That is, each ‘Space’ is nested inside another, so that Physical Space is the ultimate set of all things, and therefore contains within it the next level, which then contains the next within that (thus, the Universe, with some Life on some planets, some of which have, in turn, a species that shows Intelligence). Finally, the term ‘Space’ is appropriate for the whole range of scale in the physical universe, from the greatest to the very smallest, and it also seems to work well for the idea of a virtual space inside our heads. But it is particularly in the way that the term ‘Space’ works for the spatial and temporal ordering of the levels that we find it to be an ideal collective title for the purpose of this analysis.
Genetic Space is possibly quite rare in the cosmos, and is clearly very different to Physical Space in terms of its scale. Physical Space reaches as wide as the universe, and goes as small as a fundamental particle, with events ranging from periods smaller than a nanosecond, to epochs much larger than a millenium of geological time. Genetic Space on the other hand, and here we must think particularly of the animal and plant life on planet Earth, is far more restricted, occurring within what are, by contrast, very narrow limits. Indeed, in terms of the universe at large, Genetic Space amounts to what is a relatively small set of pigmented blots, scattered here and there on a limited number of planets within the overall vastness of space (for life is a local thing).
Yet within these restrictions of scale, organic life ranges through an impressive number of levels of organisation:
Now it is true that the units in each level are never as small, nor indeed ever as large as the ultimate components of Physical Space. But within those limits, we can see that the organic world displays a fantastic variety of structures and behaviours, and what it loses in scale, it makes up for in levels of complexity and rates of change. For the beings that populate this particular level of reality have notched up the pace and diversity of physical existence by a furious margin, leading us to consider them as part of a whole new dimension in the history of the planet, based on a whole new standard of measurement: the timescale of biological evolution.
If we were to summarise what is important about Genetic Space in a few words, just as we did with Physical Space, then we would likely opt for an immediate reference to the Plant and Animal kingdoms, these being the two main bodies of life as far as humans are concerned. Or we might point at the two main events in the life of a plant or animal – which are Growth and Reproduction. Because all of life seems to come down to these two features, once the complexities of how that is actually achieved are put to one side… Animals and plants grow, then they reproduce, to make offspring that grow and then reproduce, repeating again and again down the generations till they either change, or go extinct.
Again, we have to be clear about the absence; the total absence, of purpose in this living realm. Life can be there one moment, and gone the next, at the drop of a cosmic hat, or a new tectonic shift. All it takes is for a star to explode in the vicinity, or perhaps a large meteor to hit the planet full on, and all life may be extinguished. That is, animals and plants are not important in their own right, and simply do not matter in the grand scheme of things because there is no grand scheme. They have no meaning outside the natural logic of the biosphere in which they happen to occur. They just exist, and either continue to do so, or not.
If Genetic Space is just a small specialised part of Physical Space, then does that mean its nature can be explained using the specialised terms and understandings of the physical sciences? For example, if we challenge a physicist or chemist to explain a Heliconiid butterfly, or say a biochemical event, like non cyclic photophosphorylation, and solely in their own physical terms, how far would their explanations reach?
The problem here might be that if these scientists are obliged to keep within their own physical and chemical boundaries of explanation, then their answers are, by definition, bound to remain within the realm of physics and chemistry. But can a description of a butterfly in terms of its mass and density, velocity or chemical composition, really tell us very much about the living thing itself?
For a biologist, a butterfly has a particular niche, within a particular habitat within an ecosystem, and it occupies a place in the taxonomy of the animal kingdom, and a position in the food chain. It has an identity in terms of its particular combination of genes, and it serves as an exemplar of a particular form of life cycle, with a specialised physiology, and a species-specific type of nuptial behaviour pattern. Or, to mix and match the words of William Blake’s poetry a little, the biologist can see the whole world of organic nature detailed across the intricate wings of a butterfly, and can effectively hold in the palm of his hand an entity that reaches out to every aspect of every other living thing on this planet. And the key to all of this is the evolutionary theory that connects all life together – a theory which describes the emergent property of life using the emergent science of biology as its champion.
The point here is that to understand a butterfly, we have to look at its ‘Bio Logic’, which is about how it evolved, where it belongs in the ecosystem, how it maintains itself physiologically, how it makes new and slightly different versions of itself, how it avoids capture, how it moves and so on. And none of these explanations are possible within the parameters set by the physical sciences, which is why the biological sciences had to be established as a new way of looking at organic nature before it all started to make sense. Or, to put it another way, Genetic Space is qualitatively different to Physical Space and so requires a qualitatively different level of explanation.
It is through autotrophic nutrition, and particularly the process of photosynthesis, that certain components of the physical world become the something different that is life. The key elements of hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen join with a number of lesser elements around the all important carbon atom to make qualitatively new materials in the world. Replicating molecules control the synthesis of new materials mediated by the use of chemical energy, captured particularly from the sun to make a whole new level of reality. Yet it all comes from just the specific combinations of a relatively few components of Physical Space. Which is also how Social Space evolved out of Genetic Space – a few features and behaviours combined to create something brand new in the history of evolution, and this new combination of features beget the third level of reality that is Social Space.
On the Nature of Social Space
‘Social Space’ emerged much more recently in the history of our planet, and the big question is about how all that might have occurred. For at some point in the recent evolution of that part of Genetic Space that we call the Animal Kingdom, a particular combination of structural and behavioural possiblities came together to make a new, and tertiary level of reality. And again, the combination derived entirely from the components of the previous level, and again, this created a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. So just as Genetic Space was the result of a very specific combination of physical components (a small set of elements, based around the carbon atom, resulting in self replicating macromolecules), so Social Space emerged out of a very specific combination of biological components (a particular set of anatomical features and behaviours that evolved together in a particular species of social ape).
It seems likely that a primary component in this change from animal to man was the evolution of the capacity to imagine, and we examine this in more detail in the next section (along with the importance of language). And clearly, there were other critical components in this radical change to a new reality, such as the evolution of the upright position, the opposable thumb, the large brain, and the voice box to name only a few. But here the important point is that just as Genetic Space was the result of a new combination of a few particular features of Physical Space, so too is Social Space just the result of a new combination of just a few elements of its originating reality, Genetic Space.
So how ‘big’ is Social Space (if indeed we can refer to size in what is effectively a virtual reality)? The answer has to be that in physical terms, it is rather small. Because if we stand back, and look at Social Space in proportion to the two levels below it, we see just how tiny it really is in terms of space and time. A point that may seem academic given that we would never try to measure the totality of the information and diversity of a culture by the amount of physical space that it occupies in the real world. But to initially define Social Space in the overall context of Physical Space, both time and space are directly relevant.
So whereas Genetic Space is just the patches of green and brown that we see on the planets surface, and perhaps in other colours on a limited number of other planets, Social Space is even more restricted. Because it amounts to a relatively few populations within the ecosystems of a very small number of those pigmented blobs, on what is possibly a very small number of planets, all within the vastness of space. Meaning that although ‘Intelligent Life’ is more complex than anything else that precedes it, it is, to use that increasingly popular catchphrase, likely to be ‘vanishingly small’ in terms of its spread throughout space and time.
In fact, on planet Earth, Social Space exists in just one species. To be more precise, it is found only within the circumference of the human skull of that species, and nowhere else. Nor should we be misled by the extensive bodies of information and material culture that Social Space has set up in the domains of Physical and Genetic Space around it. For although the environment of our homes, gardens, transport and media is basic to our emergence from Genetic Space, and an essential part of our existence in Social Space, it is not ‘living’ in the special sense that this term has for a level three reality. Rather, it is the physical outer shell of our mental life just as the coral reef is the physical home to the polyp that creates it. So the reef of material wealth is not, in itself, the living intelligent wreath of consciousness that so characterises Social Space, but rather the purpose built shell by which it pursues its physical needs and aims.
The fundamental unit of Social Space is the self. But because the self is housed in a body, it can relate to both other selves, and to other phenomena in the great outside through its senses and through its movements. In particular then, it is by means of the twin agency of the hand and the mouth that the self has its physical effect on the world outside. It is through the agency of the hand that the self sets up the extensive material culture within which it exercises its sense of purpose in physical form. And it is through the mouth that the self sets up a network of communication that makes up the speech community within which it lives. Indeed, it is through the agency of the hand and mouth, and within this dual world of materials and information, that we make our home.
The hand and mouth make a useful pair of symbols for the use of tools, and language. For example, we might think of our eyes and ears as being just as important, but they are not because they represent nothing radically new in animal evolution. However, the human hand and mouth are rightfully iconic because they are new and vital to the human shift in behaviour. Thus the mouth, whilst being a normal feature in the face of many animals, carries with it the complex physiology that enables us to articulate a sophisticated language. So it is a good symbol for language because it is popularly seen to be the maker of speech (although other body parts are also a vital part of that activity). At the same time, although the hands are by no means the only part of our body that we use for movement, they are nevertheless the primary agent in the manipulation of the physical world. Reminding us of the idea that dolphins might have ruled the earth if they had themselves evolved hands (though living in the sea would block the use of fire, which is another major obstacle surely).
All of which suggests that the hand and mouth are such good symbols precisely because they do actually constitute the two visible physical agencies by which we largely maintain our tool use and communication. That is, they really are the two places in the body where these two major new behaviours are made possible (because they are the vehicles of delivery). And to echo this, we only have to look at the famous Homunculus in the British Natural History Museum in London:
The homunculus shows what a man would look like if his appearance were proportional to the area allotted by the somatosensory cortex to his various body parts. In fact there are two homunculi, with the second showing the motor cortex allocation rather than the sensory cortex, and the point is that both confirm the great importance of the hand and mouth. (Note that the model makers have deliberately ignored the volume of the visual cortex, which is so considerable that it would swamp the other details of the body altogether).
Both figures boast huge hands and mouths, giving us a conclusive visual demonstration of the sensory and motor emphasis within the human body. All of which supports the idea that ‘the twin agency of the hand and mouth’ it is not so much an image as a physiological fact. So the homunculus bears witness to the twin worlds of human action: the physical dimension that we see in our buildings, tools, clothing, technology and art, and the language based dimension that we see in our stories, laws, myths, conversations, poetry, drama, games, ideals, jokes and cosmologies. And just as the hand and mouth are joined in the one body, and coordinated into the one self by the imagination and its biological drives, so these two worlds are integrated seamlessly into each other to make the world of meaning that we live in.
But what about the idea that it is the eyes that are the window of the mind? Well, it is common to think of the eyes in this way it is true and, as with many other animals, the visual sense is also of huge importance to our physical life, but it does not define us in the way that our manipulative action and our language does. That being said, it is nevertheless useful to think about Social Space as being like an invisible field of meaning, hanging at around about eye level, within and between the group of human faces to which it belongs. But then it is also useful to imagine this reality in other ways. For example, in ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’, the landscape, (which is probably based on the checked pattern of fields in Beckley, just outside Oxford, where the author lived) is in the pattern of a chessboard, and of course Alice starts out as a pawn. So the image of a chessboard give us both a fantasy landscape and a map that sometimes makes a useful metaphor for the world of human meaning. An image that is especially effective in the way that it superimposes a fantasy world directly on top of the real world of Physical Space.
The chessboard is certainly a classic ‘landscape of the imagination’. A landscape that is, in addition, separate from the normal world outside, and reached through a special entry point, which in the case of Wonderland’, takes Alice down a rabbit hole, and in the second book sees her enter through a ‘Looking Glass’. And, like the Bugs Bunny world of cartoons, it is a good example of an inner world of fantasy that takes what it needs from Physical Space, and then goes down a rabbit hole, or through a mirror, or a wardrobe or a hobbit hole, or a tear in the fabric of reality to get to a Wonderland, Narnia, Middle Earth, or the worlds created by Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials trilogy. (All of these new worlds were ‘Made in Oxford’ by the way). So the world famous Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross railway station in London, which Harry Potter and his friends use to get to Hogwarts school, is just the latest in these ‘special entry points’. Meaning that, as with the other examples above, it features an access gate that leads to a different and metaphysical reality. A place where the rules of Physical Space are superseded by a new set of rules, and where the new rule book is dictated by the needs and logic of Social Space.
Having established that the unit of Social Space is the self; that the engine of Social Space is the imagination; and that this engine works through the twin agency of the hand and mouth; it is worth looking at the nature of Social Space from the opposite and more collective direction of the group. A view that reveals the self as merely a flickering light, one amongst many, that lasts for a brief moment, and is gone. A flicker that is almost hidden within the much larger continuity of tiny lights, constantly winking into being, and flickering back out again. The only true reality being this much greater one; namely, the continuing presence, through time, of this luminous collective that we call society and culture. In other words, the one reality that we find to be the most important in our world, namely, our self, and the other selves directly around us, is actually just a temporary and very minor part of the true reality that is Social Space. Because level three is a world consisting of a long line of beings, continuously replaced by other beings. So an alien (one that had overcome the problem of mortality perhaps) would look down on us, and on our cities, and see them as this luminous grouping of faint lights, winking in and out of being, like a cloud of phosphorescence. Because after all, the only significant reality to look at here is the continuity of the city and its culture, whilst the individuals that make up the stream of its intelligent life are just the tiny and transient parts of this much greater reality that is Social Space.
Coming back to the self for a moment though, one thing that is particularly interesting about our existence in Social Space is the fact that we spend so much of our time looking inwards, rather than outwards. This is surprising because we are oriented by our senses to face the outside, and indeed have to be alert to the outside all the time, so that when things change, we can spot those changes immediately, and react accordingly. Nevertheless, and despite this biological imperative, it turns out that we spend a great deal of our time ignoring what is going on outside, and instead focus our attention on what is inside, and going on in our heads. To wit, here is a piece of anecdotal evidence from my own personal experience. An experience that was the result of trying out a new piece of equipment with Peter Collett and his team, who were planning to use it in the Oxford Psychology labs for various experiments on pedestrian navigation through crowds.
The initial task was to walk along the Cornmarket in Oxford with a somewhat alien looking piece of technology attached to my head – on a busy shopping day. The headset was designed to video everything that I looked at, and outside of my vision, a dancing arrow would show the continual and precise focus of my eyes for the duration of the walk, once the data had been analysed in the lab. It was an interesting experience for a number of reasons, but the point here is that at some point I spied an old English motorbike parked up by a college wall, and being a keen motorcyclist, my attention was pulled to it like an iron filing to a magnet, and for what I clearly imagined was an undue period of time. Except that it wasn’t. Because although I certainly examined the bike for some time in my head, I actually gave it only a mere moment of attention as far as my eyes were concerned. A surprising and undeniable fact that became clear from watching the video an hour later. In fact, I was really astonished by this clear cut piece of visual evidence. The thing is, I had been absolutely certain that I had spent a disproportionately large amount of attention on the motorbike, and that this would be obvious enough in the video, and yet the opposite proved to be the case. As if my focus was so, as it were, internal, that I was even imagining that my focus was on the outside, when in fact it was already back inside, with my eyes roving ahead automatically, and ready for the next important stimulus.
Being anecdotal evidence, this cannot be used on its own to say very much at all. But in fact it does seem quite easy to verify this experience on a personal basis, and the result is ultimately not that surprising. The thing is, we only watch what is happening outside to the extent that we need to, and a quick glance around us is all we normally need for the necessary update to register in our heads. Meanwhile, we continue our internal mental life, and keep it going, even when we are supposedly focusing all our attention outside, because the outside is rather predictable, and most of the time can be ignored. All of which means that any definition of Social Space should probably recognise that a surprisingly large amount of its day to day activity is focussed on the virtual world inside our heads, rather than pointing outwards, through the senses, at the physical world outside.
In the next section, we look at the defining force of that engine of Social Space, the human imagination. But before that, and below, we look at the whole issue of the three levels of reality on planet Earth in more detail, and consider a few more questions about its nature and importance.
So. By all means skip this follow up if the evolution of the imagination in the next section is what beckons most… Or duck that as well, and go straight to the section on humour, where the real analysis of meaning starts, with ‘Take the Jester’, leading off with a look at the pun.
Here then is the list of questions that this footnote section tries to answer.
1) Firstly, do the 3 levels of the physical, biological and social sciences really represent something real in our world? Or are they just an administrative convenience? So does this idea that the history of our planet divides into 3 distinctive levels have objective worth in this case, or are these divisions ‘merely man made’?
2) Secondly, if this ‘reality triplet’ is so important, why is it not commonly recognised as such? Because, despite serving as the basis of how we organise our basic thinking within the sciences, it is taken very much for granted. So why has it not achieved a more general currency in both the language of the hard sciences, and in mainstream thought?
3) Why is it taking so long for the social sciences to come of age with their elder brothers, the physical and biological sciences? Is the tangle of human meaning just too complex for its creators to understand rationally? Or is it perhaps too hard for us to free ourselves from our subjectivity? Or would the result remove the very meaning that we seek for in our everyday lives?
4) Do the initial and creative conditions that define and cause the emergence of a new level of reality, then maintain their influence indefinitely? For example, there come a point where the evolution of organic life seems to depend as much on itself as it does on the inorganic level that gave birth to it, so does this apply to the level three reality of meaning as well? In which case, does this have consequences for the mapping of that meaning?
5) How then might this question about initial conditions apply to the genesis and continuance of Social Space? For example, at what point might the raw ingredients provided by the physical and organic world lose their defining role in the continuing development of level three activity? Or is human thought for ever tied to the gravity well of physical logic?
6) Religious belief proposes the idea of a fourth level of reality, from whence the other three levels have their origin and governance. So how and where do Faith and Religious Belief fit into the context of the 3 levels, given that the metaphysical claims they make are spurious in real life?
1) Do the 3 levels of the physical, biological and social sciences really represent something real in our world, or are they merely an administrative convenience?
It is easy to imagine a planet without any life at all. Indeed, some of our neighbours in our own solar system are certainly devoid of all life. It is also easy to imagine a planet with plenty of organic life, yet no intelligent life. Such was our own planet in the pre human past. Most of all, it is easy to imagine a planet that has all three levels of life and non life on it. Because our own Earth is such an entirely familiar version of just such a place. In short, there are three distinctive phases that a planet can find itself in. What then is so especially interesting about this dividing line between non life, life and intelligent life? Well, as soon as life and then later intelligent life, evolve, they change what has gone before, as we say, ‘bigtime’. (‘Bigtime’, because the jump between one level and the next is one that involves both scale and speed). A scale that changes radically and a speed that increases markedly with each level, as biological time notches up the pace of change, to then notch it up once again, when human development takes matters far beyond the process of mere human evolution.
In fact, as we are looking at three quite different qualities of change here, it is worth choosing a few specific terms to identify them. So the best term to use for the process of Physical Space is surely ‘change’ itself. Whilst the best, and in fact the only term for the process in Genetic Space is ‘evolution’. So what about the changes that occur in Social Space? Are they also a form of evolution? The answer to this question quickly becomes clear once we recognise the nature of the substance affected by these changes. For the substance is nothing less than the substrate of all Social Space, which is to say, meaning. So what term should we use to describe changes in meaning? ‘Progress’ would be wrong as the human race is perfectly capable of going back to the dark ages (and just as appallingly, some would actually call that progress). However, we might use the term ‘develops’. That is, we can say that ideas may ‘develop’, and we can talk about the ‘latest developments’ in human activity. But these ‘developments’ are not about advance or progress. They are simply about change, because, as the point about the dark ages makes clear, there is no guarantee about the direction of the change, and no objectively verifiable evaluation about the relative worth of that direction. All we can say therefore is that meaning develops, and that it gets pushed around by the forces from all three of these realities to create the complicated dance of acceptance and denial that gives us both the human condition and the history of our species.
We can also suggest that Physical Space is about Laws, that Genetic Space is about Principles, and that Social Space is about Patterns. The idea being that laws are relatively unequivocal when compared with principles, and that perhaps patterns are the least restrictive of all three. Because in theory at least, this gives us a range of freedoms appropriate to the relative complexity of the three realities. On the other hand, in practice, this is a classification that does not always hold up in practice, so really this is just a provisonal set of distinctions, set up to air what is an important question about terminology. All we can say therefore is that it makes a good starting point, and that it looks like this:
Anyway, now that we have set up a lexical field of reference, let us play devils advocate to our lead-off question, and argue that the reality triplet is ‘merely man made’. Meaning that it just happens to be the case that when humans try to objectify the world around them, they end up with these three major divisions. That is, the triplet is totally subjective, and has no serious bearing on the nature of reality. Or to put it another way, the categories of what we might call ‘the non-living, the living, and the really living’ are just a human imposition. Analogous, perhaps, to the way that the human eye tends to look at the continuum of the visible spectrum with, as it happens, just three different kinds of cone cell in the retina, when in fact the visible part of the spectrum is actually continuous in terms of the wavelengths of light.
So, if the reality triplet is really just a subjective distinction, where does that leave us? Bereft and disorientated? Far from it. Because the answer is that it puts us in a very interesting place. Interesting because for a cartographer of Social Space, the idea that the reality triplet is an important (and yes, subjective) organising category has to be a really important and significant finding. Important because if the division is not an objective distinction, but merely a man made category, then it may still have just as profound a bearing on the nature of level three as if it were genuinely and scientifically valid. Why? Well, because if the triplet is somehow basic to how we see things, then it is likely to be a fundamental organising principle. A distinction indeed that would be much needed if we are to cut a path through what is otherwise the massive and entangled jungle that is human meaning. Which is to say that if the three states of reality are a fundamentally subjective construct then that, in itself, gives us a useful key to our mapping of the virtual world that is Social Space.
Either way then, fact or fiction, and objectively or subjectively based, the reality triplet is likely to be of some considerable moment. But whether it offers us a valid and objective division of the universe is still a question worth pursuing. So, again, are we right in our subjective apprehension of the world around us, and is the reason that the sciences are organised into three main bodies of explanation simply the objective confirmation of this perception that reality divides into three levels? Well, it seems safe to assume that the sciences, which are the proven example of objective thinking par excellence, do actually know what they are doing, and have therefore got the reality triplet right. Which would mean it is not just an administrative convenience, but a very real conceptual tool. A very real tool not just for the analysis of Physical and Genetic Space, but also for the mapping of Social Space. So how, in this case, might the sciences, organised as they are around the reality triplet, help guide us through the landscape of meaning?
1) First of all, science tells us what is objectively real. An advance that is easy to take for granted until, that is, it becomes necessary to draw the line between religious belief and objective reality. Because it is only by having an objective appreciation of our universe that we can properly understand how metaphysical belief is at variance with that appreciation. Which in turn means that for that variance to be mapped, progress in the social sciences depends very much on prior progress in the hard sciences.
2) Secondly, the physical and biological sciences tell us about everything that precedes the emergence of Social Space. This is useful because it clears the way for us to proceed into the landscape of meaning without distraction – the subject line is clear – meaning is not about Physical and Genetic Space (for that is science), but about how we see those realities in a subjective way.
3) Thirdly, it is clear that biology gives us a real understanding of how level two evolved ‘out of thin air’ from level one (indeed, if we add a bit of water and some minerals, this is no longer an expression but a fact). Equally, it shows us how level three then evolved out of level two by giving us a proper and increasing understanding of how we evolved from ancestral apes.
4) Finally, the Physical and Biological sciences provide us with an objectively classified list of the ‘raw ingredients’ available to the human imagination. This makes for a useful starting point, because it gives us an objective way to assess and identify such ingredients. And given that a major part of Social Space consists of our reaction to these physical and biological ingredients, this is a necessary and indeed vital first step.
So, can we conclude that the proposed comparison between the three classes of planet (‘dead’, living and intelligent) are real, and not just a figment of our perception? Well, given the undisputed power of scientific thought, and the fact that the three levels are so well established within that domain, the answer has to be yes. Yes, that is, with one important reservation. Because in reality we know that the history of our planet is one continuous story. A story that we humans must break up into a number of chapters so that we can understand it, yes certainly. But in reality, a story that is actually a continuous stream of events, whatever our claim to there being important qualitative steps and emergent properties along the way. In any case, for us humans (and surely for other forms of intelligence as well), this story consists of just three major plot changes (albeit with numerous chapters) that together add up to the whole history of our planet thus far, but what about the idea of a fourth level, emerging in the future from our own level three reality of Social Space?
In fact it is fairly easy to imagine a fourth level of reality, based on a cyber world of augmented humans, or robots or both. Indeed, this is an idea that is now coming in for some serious attention due to its possible existential threat to the human species, as outlined for example in the book by James Barrat (‘Our Final Invention’). For it does seems possible that if ever this fourth level did emerge, then it would wreak an even greater ‘bigtime’ change on the previous level, which is to say on us humans. A change that would increase the pace of action, and possibly narrow the command centre of the super intelligence behind it to an even tighter locale that we see in the level that precedes it. A change that may also see the end of the human race, and the start of a level of science and technology never imagined by its initial creators. Because level four is likely to seed itself far across space to the very limits of physics and artificial intelligence. Beyond which any speculations about a level five reality are likely impossible for us humans to make.
2) If the reality triplet is so important, why is it not more commonly recognised, both within the hard sciences, and indeed more generally?
It is strange that neither the biological nor the physical sciences make a big thing of the fact that there are three levels of reality on our planet. In fact, these two older brothers of the social sciences seem more like a pair of twins on their own, which is not the case given that they are just the first two members out of a family of three. But then the hard sciences did come first, and it is not surprising that the social sciences have yet to come of age. The interesting result of this persistent hard science double act is that the physical sciences propose the distinction between ‘Inorganic and Organic’, and the biological sciences propose the distinction between ‘Abiotic and Biotic’, as if no third category existed. That is, they both make a significant distinction between Physical and Living nature, but then ignore the third level either by subsuming it under the latter category of life, or by simply leaving it out altogether. Almost as if both the sciences are happy to recognise the principal difference between Life and Non Life, yet effectively ignore the major human reality that has emerged out of them. An absence that is perhaps not so remarkable when we stop to consider that the human condition is traditionally seen as the natural, and indeed inalienable subject of the arts, politics and religion. In which case, why bother to consider human life as the legitimate subject of a science in its own right? After all, these distinguished parents of the sciences have the human condition covered, and in a way that we all know and understand perfectly well…
It is also interesting to see how these three fundamental oppositions (of ‘Organic/Inorganic’, ‘Biotic/Abiotic’ and ‘Life/Non Life’) make the level two reality of living things their primary point of departure. Note that it is the living that has become the point of reference here, as if the physical side of things was just a form of secondary reality (explicit in the terms: In organic, A biotic and Non living). So it seems that Physical Space does not get first billing, despite its level one historical status, and instead gives way to the primacy of Life, which is odd given that the physical world is its primogenitor. But of course, this is not strange at all. Because when we look at the world from our own point of view, our attention extends outwards, past the other life forms, and only latterly to the non living physical side of the universe. This being the only sensible direction to take, because this is simply the position of the observer. All of which gives the impression that the world in front of our eyes consists of the physical and organic world, and that this, and only this, is the legitimate subject of science. Meanwhile, the virtual world behind our eyes, is clearly the observer of this real world, and therefore not its subject. Which leaves the social sciences out in the cold as, at best, an afterthought.
So as things stand at the moment, the only triplet in the scientific establishment is that of the division between Physics, Chemistry and Biology. A veritable triumvirate that completely sidelines the reality of Social Space in favour of the two hard sciences. But then it may well be that the reality triplet of Physical, Genetic and Social Space will only come into its own when the social sciences finally come of age. Because only then will the importance of this triplet become obvious. The importance being that it is a vital organising principle, not just for our scientific appreciation of the universe, but also for our objective appreciation of the meaning by which we lead our lives. A point borne out in the examination of humour that is to follow, where the distinction between what I sometimes refer to as ‘non-living’, ‘living’ and ‘really living’ turns out to be absolutely crucial to the primary purpose of this quest (which is mapping meaning). So, we must wait until the social sciences grasp the nettle, and make meaning their principal focus, because only then can real progress be made (and perhaps this is not going to happen with any great speed).
The question at the head of this subsection is about why the reality triplet is not yet generally recognised. In particular, the wording starts off with: ‘If the reality triplet is so important…’ A phrase that begs the question that this point that there are three principal realities on planet Earth is really a significant idea. So does this claim have any substance to it? That is, are we really entitled to claim that the reality triplet is ‘so important’, and then follow that up with further claims about its special and specific significance to our understanding of meaning?
G. K. Chesterton once said that: ‘Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.’ A harmless quip that says little about art or morality, but relies on the two meanings of ‘drawing’ (either, to lay down a line, or to set a limit) for its effect. But if we consider for a moment that the quality of both art and morality does in fact depend precisely on where the line is drawn, then there is possibly more to this than the use of the pun suggests. Namely, that all human thought and action depends, first and foremost, on ‘drawing the line somewhere’. For without that line, there can be no picture, and no moral code; no framework of laws, and no system of ideas. Or to put this another way, geography starts with that first line in the sand.
Applied then to the special case of the geography of absolutely everything, this means putting our first line in the sand between, on the one side, us humans (as a circle), with everything outside that circle representing all that is non human. The second line would then describe a much larger circle around our first, representing the range of non human life forms, from domesticated to wild animals, and from animals to plants. The outside of which would then represent the non living world of inanimate rocks, lakes, clouds, moon, sun and stars. As in the following image…
The setting out these first lines is the vital first step in the imaginative creation of a picture of the world around us. An enterprise that began at the dawn of human thought, and resulted in the many subjective distinctions and creation stories that we still see around us in the world today. An enterprise that more recently moved forward in a veritable surge of imaginative power, with a wave of creativity that would ultimately give us the sophisticated set of lines drawn in the sand by modern science (or, for that matter, by our increasingly complicated legal systems). Except that these ‘lines in the sand’ have now become minute patterns inside the tiny slivers of silica that form the basis of our ever developing move away from the finger graphics of the past.
The interesting question here is this: How do the lines drawn by objective science square with the lines drawn by our subjective thinking? For example, do humorous or moral frames of reference start off with the same initial lines in the sand, or are they at variance with its generative pattern, choosing different frames of reference for their extension? Because this question has just become even more interesting, now that we have this special vantage point given to us by the sciences. A vantage point that allows us to see the lines drawn by human meaning simply by giving us a position well outside those lines, and thus free of the dominant and twisted pictures drawn up in the past by religious belief. So what do see from this privileged position?
What we see is a subjective world completely anchored in the real world that it is trying so hard to reinterpret or deny. So, for example, if we look at ideas about heaven, hell and purgatory, we find that they are set against such earthly realities as the space/time continuum, and human physiology. This because, together, these ideas claim to describe a reality that is beyond space and time, transcends human mortality, and promises a dreadful descent into pain and agony as the alternative. That is, the nature of this believed reality has to be defined in earthly terms, because these are the only terms available, meaning that the human imagination cannot reach beyond them. So it looks as if the raw ingredients for Social Space are those that are drawn from the physical realities present on planet Earth. A fact that is impossible for any creation story to ignore, however much it may try to do otherwise.
In fact, whatever the hubris we may choose to commit to in our lives, we still have to maintain a working understanding of those parts of the physical world that particularly effect us. Because if we ignore the reality of Physical and Genetic Space, we do so at the risk of our survival. On the other hand, it is also true that we have become very successful at dealing with the practical challenges posed by our physical and animal condition. Indeed our talent in dominating Nature is so marked that it has led us to a completely new set of freedoms. For we have got to the stage where we can survive on this planet whilst believing ‘as many as six impossible things before breakfast’ (the famous claim made by the Queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland’). An ability that offers us the chance to luxuriate in great freedoms of fantasy and make believe. And a profound freedom that nourishes both the worlds of literature and religious belief, but with an important proviso. For whilst a film or a novel only asks for a temporary ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ from its audience, the story that is religion seeks a permanent and unwavering faith from its membership, and is therefore totally hostile to the idea that its story might also be a fiction. This despite the fact that it is often impossible to tell the difference between the claims made by both kinds of story, because both deal with the selfsame physical world that we all live in, and from which we cannot escape.
What we see here then is a picture of two worlds. One, the internal world of meaning, based on the neural net inside our heads, and the other the ‘Real World’ of things and beings, such as rocks, and trees (including such familiar physical and biological conditions as light, gravity, sex and death). The point being that if we have successfully mapped the geography of the real world through the hard sciences, then it should become much easier to map this other third level of reality: the world of meaning. Why easier? Well, because so much of our internal world depends on this outside physical domain for its continued creation and definition, and because much of our meaning derives from an explicit denial of the physical parameters set up by this reality in the first place.
A world of meaning based, that is, not so much on the three states of matter, as on the three states of ‘what matters’ (as in Humans, Life and Non Life). Because the line that divides us from other life, and then all life from the rest of the world, is what matters most in our understanding of the human condition. No wonder then that so many aspects of Social Space consist of values that attempt to deny our connection and emergence from the level two reality of the animal kingdom. Nor should it come as any surprise that in the attempt to free ourselves of our animality, we may also, and paradoxically, end up enjoying our physicality too. Because there is always further value to be gained in going against the mainstream of meaning. So aspects of the body may be censured, or exalted, depending on what has gone before, in a way that seems to deny the pattern of denial referred to above, but actually all we are seeing is a well established theme within the meaning of meaning. Namely, that humans really do make a habit of ‘having their cake and eat it’ or ‘having it both ways’, and on a regular basis, because nothing has such semantic power as an about-face on what was an established pattern of meaning. Especially when it concerns our own biology, where the gravitational pull exerted by the drives of our physiology are always ready to pull things in their own physical direction, and with considerable force. A force that is so powerful, that no religious belief can ignore it, and indeed must try its hardest to tame it for its own success to be guaranteed.
So does this arguement that the denial of our primary denial of physicality actually confirms the basic patterns of our response to our own physical nature hold any water? Or are we, like the observation about our approach to the eating of cake, having it both ways? Well, the answer is perfectly clear. Humans are just as alert to the established contours of meaning in their virtual landscape as they are to the topography of their home and surroundings in physical space. Neither are easily changed. But when they are upset, or switched round, or dug out, they can cause a massive move in the sense of how things are, and there is great power and fascination to be found in such changes. So they do happen, and in the process, they may revitalise or shock the lives of some of those who experience them. But what such changes and reversals do not do, is make a nonsense of meaning. For they are no more a contradiction of the basic pattern we see underlying human values than is the reverse transcription practiced by certain viruses a denial of the central dogma of molecular biology. But enough of this, at least for the moment, and let us simply note that this whole discussion is firmly based on the concept of the reality triplet. So either way, and whether our values are based on the acceptance or denial of human animality, it is this very distinction between Genetic versus Social Space that informs the discussion at its most fundamental level.
In fact, if these three levels constitute the total of everything in existence on our planet, then it seems appropriate that our term of reference should reflect this importance. Accordingly, let us refer to the division of the three levels of reality as the ‘Reality Base Triplet’. Thereby, and in this case quite deliberately, making it comparable with the famous ‘base triplet’ that makes up the primary coding unit of the DNA molecule. And if such a parallel summons up the controversial idea that there might be a ‘DNA of Meaning’ underlying the human condition, then so be it. Because that sets up an interesting challenge, that is addressed later on in this site.
3) Why is it taking so long for the social sciences to come of age with their two elder brothers, the Physical and Biological sciences?
We now find ourselves at an important and interesting point in human history. Important because the progress made by the collective endeavour we call the ‘Natural Sciences’ has reached such a state that we are now empowered to directly challenge the metaphysical claims of religious belief. Interesting because the natural sciences have now cleared the way for an objective understanding of human meaning by removing the metaphysical on the one side, and by defining the physical world that precedes the emergence of meaning on the other. And it is only by defining the ingredients of the physical world, that we see how meaning has attempted to transform and transcend it. In addition, it is only by removing our belief in the mystical worlds of religious belief that we can see how the meaning of this faith comes about in the first place. In fact it is only by comparing metaphysical beliefs with what we now know and understand through science, that we can see them clearly at all. Because to look out at the world from inside their cloistered viewpoint is to see little of the real world, and even less of the other faiths that also occupy it.
So here is a prediction for the future. If we ever discover an intelligent race from another planet, the prediction is that these aliens will have gone through their scientific revolutions in the same order as ourselves. (Physical sciences first; Biological sciences next, and finally the Social sciences). An order that would surely strike these aliens as bizarre (just as it should strike us as strange), given that the relative familiarity of these three subject areas is in inverse relation to its order of discovery. After all, whilst our human world is an open book to us, the world of physics and chemistry, with its maths, equations, and strange-to-grasp ideas, is a rather hard story to read and understand. So why on earth should our own nature be the last bastion to give up its secrets to the power of science when it is the area we know best of all? Well, there are several possible answers to this puzzle, and together they make a list of obstacles that do indeed seem to explain why the social sciences are likely to be the last science to come of age, rather than the very first, whatever the planet, and whatever the intelligent life form we are looking at.
1) The first explanation as to why things are the wrong way round concerns the issue of complexity. There is a well known Oxford Entrance Biology question about which is more complicated: the history of a mouse, or the history of a mountain. The candidate has to recognise that though mountains are huge, and include a legion of different rock types, strata and topographical features, yet the humble mouse is the more complicated of the two (especially when we factor in the origins of each representative). Which is to say that Physical Space is actually, for all its fundamental nature and size, less complex that Genetic Space. A point that then applies even more to us humans. Because both as individuals and cultures, we humans are vastly more complex than anything else in the animal kingdom. All of which helps to explain why the physical sciences are likely to precede the biological sciences, and so on. Because however alien the forces and materials of Physical Space might seem to us, the strange fact is that they are easier to understand. Indeed, it is only by going up, and through the world of Physical and then Genetic Space, that our place in the third reality even starts to become clear. After all, a science of Social Space could not emerge without an in depth and prior knowledge of the two realities preceding it. Because what the physical and biological sciences effectively do is to clear the ground for the social scientist, whilst at the same time explaining our origins in the animal kingdom, so that what is left can only be the human side of things, and nothing else.
2) A second point that might help to explain the curious reverse-order of our scientific history concerns the question of a general theory. Because in the other two branches of the sciences, such overall theories do exist, and these give us not only a veritable tsunami of explanatory powers, but also lead us to amazing discoveries and technologies. But as long as the social sciences fail to address the central task of mapping human meaning, no general theory will see the light of day. But this represents a huge challenge to the sciences because the issue of meaning is the most complex and controversial matter that any intelligent life form can tackle. Much better left to the age old domains of religion and folk wisdom perhaps? Or the newer domains of political theory, and modern literature? Because it does seem the case that the seeker after insight into meaning is better off looking into, for example, literature and literary criticism for insight, than into the scholarly and often obscure writings of the social sciences. So why is this? Why have the social sciences fallen short of such a fundamental goal? Could it be that human meaning is hard to explain precisely because it is so easy to understand? Or could it be that the complexity of our hugely detailed and nuanced lives does actually defy any attempt at a rational exposition for the moment, and that it must wait for our IT to improve before we have a chance to properly plumb its depths?
In fact B.F.Skinner, in his seminal work ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’, writes about the problem of tackling the complexity of human behaviour by comparing the situation of the physical scientist with that of the social scientist. In one sense, the physical scientist is quite fortunate, because it is relatively easy to start an investigation by making simple observations, whilst in blissful ignorance of just how complicated the truth really is. The principle here being that the practical way to start such an investigation is to start as simply as possible, and put off the complexities until later (on the basis that you can’t run before you can walk). So Skinner then points out that:
‘If Gilbert or Faraday or Maxwell had had even a quick glimpse of what is now known about electricity, they would have had much more trouble in finding starting points and in formulating principles which did not seem ‘oversimplified’.
The point being that the scientists investigating meaning face a real dilemma. Because their intuitive expertise in the very subject they are trying to explore makes it hard for them to forge ahead in a simple, step by step fashion. So whereas the ‘hard’ scientists can start off their quest in grand style, happy in their ignorance, the geographer of meaning cannot. And by the time the simple minded approach of the physical scientist has become obvious, their beginning is justified by the progress they have made, and everybody is much the wiser for it. But the audience of the social scientist is likely to be completely unimpressed by the obvious inadequacy and oversimplified nature of any first results offered up for critical scrutiny. So the paradox seems to be that the better we know something, the more difficult it is to be objective about it. Which is why the creation story ‘Once upon a time, there was a Big Bang’, must always logically precede the (notionally) later story of ‘Once upon a time, there was a Pensive Primate’. (‘Notionally’ to cover the obvious fact that in this particular case, Darwin preceded the Big Bang theory, so some artistic license is needed here to make the point about the historical primacy of the physical sciences).
3) A third obstacle to progress in the social sciences is the religious belief in a metaphysical reality that is plainly at odds with the atheism of a science of meaning. Because our huge human investment in religious belief has already and frequently put itself in the way of progress in the physical and biological sciences, and is now about to discover an enemy of even greater moment in its path. The problem being that, for the social sciences to succeed in their objective, they have to make it absolutely clear that all claims of mystical belief are groundless. Indeed, if the social sciences fail to meet this challenge, they must forever give up their claim to being an objective force on a par with the other two great domains of science. Which is to say that for the social sciences to move forward, they must take on the hubris of religious faith, and expose its underlying logic as part of a much greater picture of the human condition. Because only then does a science of meaning stand even the slightest chance of telling its own objective story of creation as it must surely be told. But the challenge a science of meaning faces in this context is truly colossal. Not least because, as we have already touched on in the introduction, although ‘Religion Sucks (because it doesn’t tell us the truth) the problem is that Science Sucks too (precisely because it does tell the truth, and that truth is one that strips away the meaning attached to the natural world by replacing purpose and plan with cause and effect)’.
So the three problems of complexity, familiarity and religious loyalty are perhaps what stand in the way of the social sciences when it comes to their coming of age with the other two sciences.
4) Do the initial conditions that define and cause the emergence of a new level, maintain their influence indefinitely?
This is a question about how a level progresses after its initial emergence from the level of reality below it. For example, if we look at a locale in Physical Space, such as an island consisting of a solidified lava field, then we can immediately see that it offers only a very limited range of possible habitats for the life that arrives there from across the sea. But once this barren place has been colonised by the plant kingdom, to the point where it is now a mature forest, then we can see that the number of possible places to live, along with things to eat and be eaten by, increases markedly. An increase caused not by the lava of Physical Space, but rather by the trees and other denizens of Genetic Space. So where there had been just simple cracks and crevices in the lava, there are now all sorts of different locales for life to occupy, from the ground to the upper canopy, from the roots to the leaves and branches, and from inside the bark to the soft interior of the soil.
What has happened is that this new and organic reality has greatly modified the forcefield within which its inhabitants live. That is, the physical forces on this exposed island have given way to the biotic forces of the forest, creating many new organic conditions that were not available on the original lava field. So we might well say that although life has emerged out of the physical nursery of the lava field, and still feeds off that source for energy, materials, and space, it has now begun to feed off itself as well. Which is basically what a food chain comes down to: life feeding off itself. And not just feeding, but also providing shelter and materials too (so a bird might use a hole in a tree, and put moss inside it for a nest). In fact we might go so far as to say that there comes a point where the evolution of life depends as much on itself, as on the level that gave birth to it in the first place.
So, once a new reality reaches a certain threshold of activity, it creates a situation where further changes are as much influenced by the new reality as they are by the original one. Which is not to say that the initial conditions that caused the emergence of the new level do not continue to play a part in the new order, because clearly they must. For example, hurricanes, floods, droughts or ice ages, can all have a major effect on our forest, and this potential for influence never disappears. But if the physical conditions remain stable and optimum, then it will be the biotic conditions of life that play the major part in the subsequent evolution of this ecosystem, and there is an interesting difference between these two sets of forces. Because abiotic factors, such as temperature and wind and light, do not have a two way relationship with life – they don’t, as it were, ‘care’ how well life adapts to them. But biotic factors, such as diseases and predators, actively pursue the adaptations of their host or prey, so that their relationship is never static, and always dynamic. All of which means that the biotic factors rise up, like the forest itself, to become an important part of this story, driving the plot further through evolutionary time every bit as much as the initial physical conditions from which the story first began.
5) How might this question about initial conditions apply to the genesis and continuance of Social Space? In particular, to what extent do the raw ingredients provided by the physical and organic world lose their defining role in the further development of meaning? Or is human thought for ever tied to the gravity well of physical logic?
Social Space is based on a number of physical and organic raw ingredients. Many of these ingredients are close to hand because they directly concern us, such as our natural diet, sexual needs, and the fact that we don’t run around on all fours, but stand proudly upright. Some are more abstract, physical events, such as the sunset that leads to darkness, and the changes in the weather and the seasons. Some are based on topography and organic nature, such as the sea, the mountains, the trees and the animals that live in and around them. Some are invisible, or so remote that they have only been discovered through the proactivity of exploration and science. But most come from that level of reality so fundamentally important to us all – the human world of our own actions, and the actions of those others around us.
Everything perceived by the human race becomes a part of the huge table of ingredients used in the creation of Social Space. Providing a vast tableau of materials, conditions and situations that can be selected from, and played around with to the very limits of our imagination. The result? A vast confection of meaning that today amounts to an ever increasing multi cultural experience based on a spiralling number of semantic geysers, such as Hollywood, the BBC, and YouTube. Because the mind uses the stuff it finds in the ‘Big Outside’ not only as a practical source of food and material for tools and building, but also as a source of information and values. A fount from which it can create such virtual entities as stories, beliefs, styles, values, songs, jokes and legal systems. So Physical and Genetic Space are not just a source of materials, but a critically important source of food for the mind. Or as Levi-Strauss liked to say, things that were good to eat could also be things that were good to think with. (‘Les espèces sont choisies non commes bonnes à manger, mais comme bonnes à penser.’ The Savage Mind (1962), [La Pensée sauvage, by Claude Levi Strauss as translated by Edmund Leach]. Which is perhaps to say that the Human Conditon is defined as much by our intellect as by our bodily needs, and that once those bodily needs are easy to satisfy, the intellect is free to seek further, create more, and grow in importance until we have the highly complex cultural entity that we see today. A vast bustling struggling world of beliefs and values (in the form of competing political, economic and religious factions), alongside a massive archive of ideas and compositions (in the form of the sciences, entertainment, and the arts) that together make up all of human culture.
All of which makes it time for another T-shirt. One that makes the point that meaning comes about more as a result of what we make of our animal nature, than about what that animal nature has made of us. A point as controversial as it is compelling…
For example, if we look at sex or death as examples, then the question is as much about how we see and use these drives as it is about the part those drives play in our basic physical lives. Or to put it another way, our intellectual position on nature does not allow us to simply accept basic biological facts as inalienable, because so much more can be done by playing around with them. That is, our thoughts on our condition are to some significant extent independent of our organic nature, however inevitable our desire for sex, and our eventual death must be. With the result that these supposedly undeniable forces may be channelled into such generally unlikely biological outcomes as birth control and suicide.
At the same time, it may also be true that the creation of meaning is dependent on a different set of forces, intrinsic and probably exclusive to the reality of Social Space. A set of parameters that may well apply to other forms of intelligent life (just as it hard to see how evolution cannot but apply to other forms of life elsewhere). Which is to say that because level three really is a new reality, it likely develops its own and perhaps inevitable systems of meaning, that are only explicable in the new terms and understandings of a level three science of meaning. Which is certainly where such human aspects as faith, pride, humour, hope, purpose, and just plain silliness all belong.
6) Religious belief proposes the idea of a fourth level of reality, from whence the other three levels have their origin and governance. So how and where do Faith and Religious Belief fit into the context of the 3 levels?
The difference between a religious story and an imaginative story can be as little as zero, at least as far as actual content is concerned. For example, a legend from the past can be told as a modern story without any of the listeners believing, even for one moment, that the story is true. The astute reader will immediately, and quite rightly, insist that the time difference may have changed the content to some degree, so making this a controversial claim. But to move on, the essential point here is that the difference between a work of fiction and a work of religious belief is that the latter claims to be true, probably for all time, whilst the novel, play or movie only claims to be true during the relatively brief time of its beguilement. ‘Beguilement’ both in the sense of passing the time in a pleasant manner, but also in the sense of a light handed and transient period of trickery.
So the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is the basis of all drama and fiction is one thing, and the ‘willing fixation of belief’ that seems to be the basis of religious affiliation and loyalty is quite another. But both of these mental positions are the consequence of the brain holding, in its convolutions, a separate virtual reality, where the objective reality outside has no direct dominion. Because although the landscape of the imagination is based on what is outside, so that we tend for example to keep well clear of the edge of the cliff face in real life, it nevertheless has plenty of scope for digression and speculation once safe inside inner Social Space. Indeed, the power of the imagination derives from this selfsame freedom, as we shall see in the next section. So the brain is naturally empowered to go down the various possible paths of fantasy and make-believe in its search for meaning. And as long as that path does not end up driving its owner over the edge of that cliff, then it is usually possible to maintain both the fantasy and the objective requirements for survival in parallel, moving along together, and without too much friction between them.
However, once intelligent life has achieved objective mastery over the two levels of reality that precede it, the potential for real friction is dramatically increased. Because with the authority that comes from such mastery comes, in addition, the potential for a huge conflict with those beliefs that make false claims about the world outside. Setting, that is, the stage for the denial of all metaphysical belief through the advancement of the revolution we now know as science. And this is a stage where the social sciences then have a leading part to play, because although the arena of conflict is widely based across all three levels of reality, it is in the area of meaning itself that the real changes are going to take place. Because to remove the claims made by the world religions means to remove a large part of the fabric of meaning that protects most of the world’s population from the void. The void being the many problems that we cannot help but face once we realise that the human condition has its base in a series of biological facts that become increasingly annoying and uncomfortable as we grow older. And that human meaning is indeed man made, and that religious hope and destiny are written out of the equation. To be replaced by a fight against loss and certainty requiring a quality of existential fortitude that perhaps few of us can rise to.
Which is not to say that living a meaningful life is impossible without religion (far from it indeed). But it is to say that replacing our faith with an existential philosophy is going to leave people with a large hole to fill. And it is to say that such an alternative may turn out to be far more challenging, given its emphasis on the difficult and complex stories told by science, which are in many ways as alien as the worlds they describe. However, at least as far as progress in the social sciences is concerned, it is of singular importance that the metaphysical ideas of all religious faith are wholly repudiated. Because an acceptance of anything less than that would not just be dishonest; it would also be completely disruptive and damaging to any general theory of meaning.