Archives for posts with tag: inertia

Existence takes place ‘inside’ while things happen in-between.

Survival is a matter of preserving, ‘as is’, what already exists while evolution is about change and might involve ‘dismissal’.

Everything may survive while only ‘living’ things are capable of evolving on their own.

At some point, evolving organisms became complex enough to ‘feel’.
Not only complicated enough to react in an orderly – a.k.a. pre-programmed, manner but also to generate emotional reactions – which can be remembered, when certain things happen in their vicinity. Things which are important for the survival of the feeling organisms. As a consequence of the ‘feeling’ process, data regarding the happened occurrences are stored by the feeling organisms as information. Which information may help the organism in its struggle to survive. Using that information, that organism might become a ‘better version’ of itself.

At a further point in the evolution of ‘things’, organisms have added another layer of complexity.
They have become complex enough to ‘think’. As in complex enough to attempt to maximize the effects of the information they have at their disposal.

That was when ‘facts’ had been identified as being ‘things’ which had had consequences, when data had been identified as being information and when the thinkers had discovered that thinking was driven by sentiment.

Which sentiment is nothing but an evolution of the ‘survival instinct’.
Present in any living organism.
Which survival instinct is nothing but the living equivalent of something the physicists have identified as inertia.

Go figure….

We need to breathe.
We absolutely need to breathe. Just as we absolutely need to drink and to eat, only not so often.

Yet we seldom think about breathing, we remember to think about drinking only when we’ve forgotten to take along a bottle of water for that two hour drive and we somewhat constantly keep warm in the back of our heads the nagging ‘what’s in for dinner?’.

What makes us so indifferent to breathing – as long as our lungs remain OK, anyway, and so choosy when it comes to our ‘daily bread’? After-all, both are equally important…
And how come we almost never think about the air we breathe but equally almost never forget to dream about our precious car? The future one, of course, not the present! Or about a beach holiday, a diamond ring, Jimmy Choo shoes …

So.
There are some things that we actually need, some we actively want and things which belong to both categories.

Then why don’t we actively keep tabs on all the things we actually need and why do we bother so much with those which are more or less superfluous?

Maybe because we are not machines? And because life is neither simple nor forthright?

Let me start from the beginning.

We belong to the realm of the living things.
The difference between living things and inanimate matter being that all individual organisms eventually die while inanimate matter might, theoretically at least, remain unchanged for ever.

Otherwise put, inanimate matter has only ‘inertia’ and living things have both inertia and an innate ‘will to survive’.
Another difference between the two being that all kinds of inanimate matter are ‘isotropic’ while ‘life’ is almost synonymous with ‘individual organisms.’
It’s just as impossible to differentiate between two water molecules as it is to find two identical organisms – even if they belong to the same species. N.B., not even clones are identical to each other.

As an aside, sometimes it is possible to differentiate between two water molecules. For instance, heavy water is slightly different from regular water. Also, there are some differences between the water molecules which have in their composition different Oxygen isotopes. But if you know what an isotope is… you get my drift.

Coming back to the difference between inanimate and living, the inanimate does not change in time.
A molecule of water remains the same until something happens to it and water, as a substance, has never changed since….
On the other hand, each individual living organism changes, however minutely, with ‘every breath it takes’ while species are undergoing a constant evolutionary process.

Furthermore, we can draw a parallel between inanimate substances and animate species. Both of them, substances and species,  are ‘organized’ along some common ‘information’.
‘Water’ has a certain ‘blue print’, ‘vinegar’ has it’s own – different from that of ‘water’, and ‘wolves’ have yet another one – which is different from that of ‘poplar’.
Only the parallel can be drawn only so far.
All molecules ‘belonging’ to the same substance share the same ‘constitutive information’.
All individuals belonging to the same species do have a lot of ‘constitutive information’ in common yet each of them is different from all of the rest.

Hey, wait a minute!
– You promised us something about needs and wants and now you’re lecturing us about the difference between life and death? What next?
– Bear with me. I’m getting there!

One last difference and we’re almost done.

I told you a little earlier that life is about change while inanimate is… boringly stable!
Actually life is also about exchange, not only about change.
No inanimate molecule ever exchanges anything material with anybody, lest it becomes something else.
No individual living organism can survive for any sizeable amount of time without exchanging substance and information, in an ‘organized’ manner, with it’s surrounding medium.

In my ‘original terms’, each individual living organism has needs while individual molecules have none – except for the ‘need’ to be ‘left alone’ in order to ‘survive’.

I’m not going to enter into details. For now, all I’m going to say is that the above mentioned ‘organized exchange’ is regulated by a ‘membrane’ according to information passed along from generation to generation.
Each individual living organism has it’s own set of information, coded in its DNA (RNA for the more ‘primitive’ ones). Which set of information has a lot in common with but is slightly different from that which has belonged to the previous generation.

For instance, each E.coli bacteria has a membrane – which separates the interior of the ‘organism’ from it’s surrounding medium, a nucleus which contains its ‘constitutive information’ and some other things which are of no importance for this discussion.
For as long as that individual bacteria is alive, the membrane plays two roles. It keeps the bacteria together and mediates the exchanges between the individual organism and its medium. It lets food and oxygen in. It makes it so that ‘excrement’ and CO2 are purged out.
And all these are happening according to the information contained in the genetic material passed over from the previous generation.

In a sense, exactly because each individual organism somehow manages to remain – for a while, at least – in one piece while constantly exchanging substance with the surrounding medium, one may say that each individual bacteria has a form of (proto?) conscience. Remember that it does ‘survive’ on its own, ‘guided’ exclusively by information contained in it’s own DNA. As long as its surrounding medium remains in certain parameters, of course, but this is another issue.

Let’s jump now directly to us, human beings.

OK, we are multi-cellular organisms hence we are provided with a second ‘membrane’ – which is usually referred to as  ‘skin’.
The rest is basically the same. The ‘skin’ keeps us together, breathes in, breathes out, excretes the by products of our metabolism…
Well, not exactly the same! We have yet another layer of ‘membrane’. Using a very modern word, I’ll describe this third layer as being “virtual”.

I’m speaking about our infinitely more complex conscience.

The proto-conscience of the E.coli is  similar to a ‘mechanical’ function.
‘Mechanical’ in the sense that the information contained in the nucleus is more or less directly expressed. The bacteria is not able to asses the results of its actions, to watch itself ‘doing things’ or to learn anything from what’s happening to it.

Time for another aside. Recent scientific research strongly suggests that even unicellular organisms are capable of learning. Something. This is very important, and very helpful towards increasing the ability of any given organism to survive, but doesn’t change much of what I have to say here.

Our conscience is anything but mechanical.
OK, it very much depends on our brains. Hence on our DNA.
It also depends on everything that has happened to us from the moment each of us has been conceived till the very present moment. A single minute spent without being able to breathe during birth can wreak havoc with out brains. Hence with our ability to develop a full fledged conscience.
Furthermore, being born into a relatively well off family during a peaceful era leads to being exposed to a completely different set of stimuli than if born into a poor family during a war.

Coming back to my initial example – very few of us really think about breathing, simply because most of us are accustomed to air being freely available, people exposed to those two different sets of ‘initial inputs’ will have a different attitude towards ‘normal daily needs’.
The first kid will grow with an innate sentiment that having enough to eat is comme il faut and nothing to worry about while the second…
Also, the first kid will grow accustomed to people around him ‘parading’ a host of satisfied ‘wants’ almost incomprehensible for the other kid.

Don’t tell me these two kids will develop the same kind of conscience.
Equivalent? Maybe.
Geared towards the same goal? Survival of the individual AND that of the social norms into which the individual has been socialized? Certainly! Only the social norms I’ve just mentioned will never be exactly the same in those two cases… regardless of those two children belonging to the same broad culture.

As a consequence of their different fortunes, each of them will maintain a different balance between needs and wants. Even if their fortunes will change in time.

The ‘conscious membrane’ can change, and it usually will, following the changes in the surrounding medium. But those changes cannot fundamentally alter the ‘initial orientation’ – that forged during the early childhood.

nlm_o2_graphic10

 

“When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.” (Newton’s third law of motion)

For me, the most interesting side of this phenomenon being that the ‘reaction’ is innate in the nature of things. None of the two objects that interact need to do anything in order for Newton’s law to be obeyed.

paramecium-diagram

Google Paramoecium – the unicelular organism depicted here, and you’ll get a lot of pictures resembling this one. None of them even mentions ‘membrane’. That’s an eloquent enough proof about the fact that membranes are, unreasonably, taken for granted.

The next level of this is the ‘membrane’. That thing that separates the ‘inside’ of an living organism from its ‘outside’ and which not only distinguishes between these two spaces but also controls whatever enters and exists the organism – as long as all goes in a regular manner. If something irregular happens to that particular organism its membrane might be overpowered and the organism dies.
At this level also things happen according to some innate laws, without outside intervention and without any need for deliberation on the part of the organism itself. Even when we speak of evolved animals and even with us, humans, most of the inner workings that take place inside our bodies happen ‘under the radar’.

And it seems that what we call ‘deliberation’ isn’t that important after all. Newton’s laws have organized the Universe ever since mass has been around while membranes have made life possible on Earth for the last billion years or so.

The third level, what we call human conscience, has started to develop some 200,000 years ago. Approximately, of course. Humberto Maturana has proposed a very interesting explanation about how it came to be and you can read about it here. For what I have in mind, it is enough for me to mention that Maturana says that we are not only conscious but also aware of our consciousness.

And it is this awareness that has the most important consequences.

I started this post by quoting Newton’s third law of motion. I’ll go back to him and remind you of the first two:
“An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a net force” Meaning that things have a tendency to keep doing whatever they are doing at any given moment until something from outside messes with them and
The vector sum of the forces F on an object is equal to the mass m of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector a of the object: F = m Meaning that the end result of an interaction is not commensurate only with the amount of energy spent during that interaction but also with the manner in which that interaction has taken place. The ensuing ‘vector sum of the forces on an object’ depends essentially on two things. How big are the individual forces at play and in which direction are each of them pulling at the object.

I’ve been speaking about ‘three levels’.
At the first two levels the amount of force that was messing with our objects and its orientation relative to the objects (Vector sum) depends only on ‘chance’. The objects themselves – who have no say on the matter, the interactions following blindly some innate rules – can not influence in any way the outcome of the interaction. The results have already been settled at the moment when ‘chance’ had met with the individual characteristics of each object involved in the interaction.

The third level, though, has a very interesting characteristic. At least one of the objects involved – the human individual – is, at least somewhat, aware of its own existence and of its ability to interfere in the development of the interaction. To influence the outcome of  interactions that take place within his reach.

This very awareness, how ever partial, explains why most individuals do their best to survive: they are aware of their mortal nature so they do everything in their power to stay alive, in fact to respect Newton’s first law.
Also it is the same awareness that is responsible for our ‘rational’ behaviour. We have discovered that the results depend heavily not only on the amount of effort spent on the occasion but also on how that effort was applied to the task. Hence the conscientious manner in which we try to get as much bang for our buck.

And the same awareness makes me wonder how come so few people understand the difference between ‘reactive’ and ‘constructive’.
Why so many people, when confronted by a new situation, tend not only to fall back on the ‘tried and trusted’ but also to defend them as ‘the only valid option’. Not taking into account that it is the very novelty of the entire situation that is the most challenging aspect of the whole thing.

So instead of putting all the cards on the table in an attempt to find out a mutually acceptable solution for all – or at least for as many as possible – participants in a given interaction tend to jealously keep their cards close to their chests, negating any chance of cooperation.

 

rocket1

The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin, 2007  A good lesson about how to overcome this tendency.

 

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