Saturday, June 21, 2008

emergence and scale


As many of you know, I have contended for some years that Gurdjieff’s System of cosmology is best understood using two relatively new ideas in science theory.

One of them is fractals; Gurdjieff’s universe, as modeled in the enneagram, portrays the universe composed of multiple levels, where each level exactly mirrors the levels both above it and below it. The enneagram is, in fact, a true fractal structure, although one has to delve into it a bit in order to understand that.

The second idea is the idea of emergence; admittedly, this idea does not appear as such in Gurdjieff’s system, but he would have readily understood it. (Readers not familiar with the idea should click on the link and refer to the Wikipedia explanation.) Gurdjieff’s universe, which from top to bottom is one gargantuan machine, fits well with science’s view of reality. God is an emergent property of the universe, dependent upon it for His own existence.

The July issue of Scientific American—recommended reading!—presents almost identical arguments drawn from the cutting edge of physics in the article entitled, "The Self-Organizing Quantum Universe", by Jan Ambjorn, Jerzy Jurkiewicz and Renate Loll.

It turns out Gurdjieff had it right all along. It has only taken the rest of the world almost 80 years to catch up with him.

Readers interested in possible broader overall implications of this development might check out my essay, “light and the resolution of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle,” which not only predates the scientific American article by some five years, but also proposes some unique possibilities in regard to the nature of light and matter, which relate to the idea of an emergent universe and the emergent nature of consciousness itself.

Central to the arguments in the Scientific American article, the only way to invoke a self-assembling universe from a simple group of quantum constituents with relatively straightforward properties is to invoke cause-and-effect at the root of the organization. That is to say, the laws of cause-and-effect run everything, and the linear development of time itself is what makes the emergence of classical reality from the quantum state possible.

There are intriguing parallels here to Gurdjieff’s contention that God created the universe in order to counteract the effects of time. The physicists are essentially arguing that without time as we understand it, there could be no universe. In Gurdjieff’s cosmology, without time, there would be no need for the universe: cause-and-effect are linked at the root of time and space.

The central nature of cause-and-effect in the understanding of both the cosmos and personal practice is repeatedly emphasized in Dogen’s work. As he points out in his Shobogenzo, the famous lesson in the koan about the red fox underscores the fact that there can be no escape from the laws of cause-and-effect. Transcendence is not about escaping the universe; it is about inhabiting it.

All of this is a rather roundabout way of getting me to the subject that I have been planning to write about for the past few days, which is the question of scale.

To put the number of stars in the known universe in perspective, consider this: there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of this planet combined. If that sounds staggering, let me go further and say that that is a very conservative estimate. It could be double or triple; it could be quadruple. No one is quite sure. Taken from that point of view, man is an incredibly tiny organism.

We are, in fact, infinitesimally small, so small that we’re much closer to atoms in scale than to any galactic structures. One might say that we are the atoms of sentient life-the very tiniest of constituent elements. We stand in relationship to higher levels of sentient life (which, as Carlos Castaneda points out, may well be inorganic) as our cells stand to us.

I bring this question of smallness up because our illusion is that we are large. We constantly believe that we are important, that what we do affects things in a dramatic and meaningful way, that our art, our sciences, our technology, our cultures and our civilizations have a weight, a gravity, a grandeur that somehow reaches out into the universe.

This idea is anthropomorphic narcissim. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. The organic life on the skin of this planet taken as a whole affects only the immediate vicinity of the planet itself, and perhaps – if we want to agree with Gurdjieff –has some effect on some of the planetary bodies around us. Beyond that, we mean almost nothing. If this planet was immolated in a supernova tomorrow morning, the overall effect on the galaxy – let alone the universe –would be completely negligible. Constituents on our scale are expendable. It’s no different with cells. If one of our cells dies, we don’t notice it. It’s true, if a billion of them die, we‘ll notice it. But individual cells are almost insignificant.

All of this brings me to a point that I realized a few nights ago. Man tries to construct his understanding from facts.

It’s true that there are facts. Ouspensky was obsessed with the idea of facts, and all but demanded that Gurdjieff deliver them. Gurdjieff, of course, promised him there would be facts. And there are.

Nonetheless, the law of cause-and-effect renders attention to facts irrelevant.

Facts can be assembled in any number of ways to prove anything you like. They’re like Lego blocks. Each one of them is a reality in itself, but you can make different structures out of them over and over. All of the elements within the structure are true, but that does not mean that the structure itself is true. It is a moving entity within time, subject to change.

We can believe anything we want to; things always take care of themselves regardless. The law of cause-and-effect guarantees that the universe proceeds according to law regardless of man’s opinions or subjectivity. This is why the suspension of judgment and the effort to simply inhabit what is leads us closer to the heart of what is true.

Truth incorporates all facts, but it is not assembled from them.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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