Chemical Automata And The Interrelated Whole

January 2024

Descartes was convinced he existed in a world that may or may not be real. But his speculations stopped short of diving into the cause-and-effect patterns that shape the mind. How certain can we be that the thoughts bouncing around our heads have been conceived, rationalized, and turned over by our own willful intent?

Wouldn’t it be great to coin a phrase so deep in its meaning and so intelligent in its design that pop culture snatches up our collection of words and fires them off at every opportune moment as if there were no better way to showcase a person’s unbounded cleverness and observation skills than to exercise an astute verbal quip? We adore phrases like “Piss or get off the pot”, “Pardon my French”, and “Does the Pope shit in the woods?”, because they leave such a lasting impression on our listeners while also reflecting an unfathomable depth to our own quick sense and keen insight.

We love sounding smart. So, we arm ourselves with crafty phrases, cunning idioms, and shrewd remarks, however vulgar they may be, and thrust them into our verbal exchanges at precisely the right moments, which we have to admit is quite good fun, even in formal business attire. But the one expression that elucidates our ability to notice-and-reply more than any other is, “I think. Therefore, I am,” because it draws upon our situational and environmental self-awareness to a degree that no other colloquial riff can muster.

The words were first pulled from the ether by René Descartes, that famous French philosopher, when he was writing his 1637 treatise, Discourse on Method, in which he contemplated skepticism and defined a series of steps for improving one’s ability to think through difficult problems. But it wasn’t until a few years later when he published Meditations on First Philosophy that he ran the phrase through his thinking apparatus once more.

Quadrate mit konzentrischen Ringen by Wassily Kandinsky

In our mind’s eye, we see each other as being similar and different at the same time, capable of independent thought and conscious will. But is that how it really is?Wassily Kandinsky - Quadrate mit konzentrischen Ringen

Descartes had stayed up late one night, in his pajamas, sitting next to a crackling fire, contemplating if he was dreaming himself sitting next to the fire or if it was actually happening. There were times in the past when he remembered perceiving images so vividly and thoughts so clearly while being asleep that when he awoke later was shocked out of his gourd to discover that it had all been just a dream.

Even now, if we were to sit up straight and look around, there’s really no way to know for certain whether what we see is real, or if we’re sacked out in a dream, or if we’re just a brain, percolating in a liquid vat with wires attached that send electrical impulses across our cerebrum that simulate the world we see and feel.

Naturally, René was intrigued with the legitimacy of his existence. He looked down at the palms of his hands and he pondered the same what-if question that any doobie-smoking, high as fuck, stoned to the bejesus belt, giggling junkie might ask themselves too, “Dude, what if there was some malignant demon, exceedingly potent and deceitful, who was employing his full power to deceive me?” The question was impossible for Descartes to answer as his senses were too easily betrayed than to confirm with any certainty the existence of an external world.

The nighttime meditation left Descartes with so much doubt and anxiety that he awoke the next morning in such a fit of worry that it felt as if he’d been thrown overboard into very deep water. Unable to plant his feet on the bottom or sustain himself by swimming along the surface, he was helplessly drowning—pulled down by the fictions of his mind, his floundering senses, and the burden of fallacious memory.

Sunset painting by the Austrian, Karl Wiener

Our do we know for certain our world is real and not some grand hallucination caused by malevolent demons or computer appliances?Karl Wiener - Sonnenuntergang

Descartes groped around in that dark abyss hoping to latch onto something, anything, any epistemological point of view that might prove firm and immovable. He kicked his legs, waved his arms, and flailed his thoughts in all directions. At first, he found nothing. A pang of terror skittered up his spine and across his temple. The anxious tension twisted his insides and wrung sweat from all his pores. But then after some effort, he found it; a pier, or an idea upon which he climbed.

Descartes persuaded himself that all things could be false—that nothing in the world could be known for certain. But whether he was being deceived or not, it didn’t matter. It was his doubt that counted, his thinking. If he was engulfed in deception, he would never be nothing. So long as Descartes could think, he was something, even if his senses were being deceived. Thus, the proposition, “I am, I exist,” must then be true each and every time he said it, or thought it.

I think. Therefore, I am.René Descartes, that great French thinker

I think, therefore, I am. By simply doubting his senses, René was certain he existed; his consciousness was real, even if everything else was false. This self-evident facet of reason demolished the uncertainty of whether or not he existed. But hold your horses!

Before we pop the champagne bottles and blow our kazoos, we have to double check his work. Pompous speculation is no doubt the life preserver that prevents us from drowning, but it by itself it does not pull us out of the water. Because if all knowledge of an outside world is so easily tore down, why can’t we do the same with the inner workings of the mind? How certain can we be that the thoughts bouncing around our heads have been conceived, rationalized, and turned over by our own willful intent?

The Problem of Balls

In 1991, Little Man Tate was released to theater audiences around the country. The film stars Jodie Foster as Dede Tate, the mother to Fred Tate, a 7-year-old child prodigy who can solve math riddles, write poetry, play the piano, and do biting impersonations of his dull classmates. His faculties are mighty impressive, but they also leave him excluded from kids his own age, and he spends his youth trying to fit into a world that marginalizes people who are seen as different.

During the summer, Fred attends a course on quantum physics at a local university. While there, he gets bopped on the head and knocked unconscious by a globe that a slacker student, Eddie, is throwing around. To make up for his goof, Eddie invites Fred for a ride on his scooter, shows him jazz on the piano, and takes him to a dive bar to shoot pool.

As Fred sucks on a Coke and observes Eddie knocking balls around the table, time appears to slow down. The motion of the balls, their spinning and banging into each other, is dramatized by linear graphics, stretched out audio, and alternating cuts back and forth from the table and Fred’s calculating gaze. To the layman, it might seem like Fred has quickly grasped the game of billiards and instantly knows how to play it. But the film never elaborates on this assumption.

Deformation I by Karl Wiener

Billiard balls crisscross the table in odd patterns that, given the right software and measurements, can easily be predicted. But what if we had a million-million more balls and a trillion-trillion more interactions?Karl Wiener - Deformation I

A higher functioning mind, like Fred’s, will always gravitate towards bigger thoughts and more difficult problems. It’s doubtful he was learning to play the game himself. What Fred was probably thinking about was the interaction of billiard balls on the table being highly coupled patterns of binary-linked events where the reactionary motion of one ball was dependent on the preceding action of another. Fred must have made a comparison between the cause and effect patterns happening on the table as resembling those events unfolding in his life.

Fred was born with a gift, his genius, which allowed him to achieve remarkable test scores in school, which drew the attention of his teacher, who forwarded his results to Jane Grierson’s institute for gifted children, who suggested he take a course on quantum physics, which led him to a local university, which brought him into contact with Eddie, who invited him to play pool, which led to this very moment, sucking on a Coke, watching billiard balls on a pool table in a grimy bar, and having the realization that every event was the end result of the previous one.

You can see kind of see it in Fred’s face. It’s subtle and probably hard to tell, but his pupils dilate and he thinks, “Holy fucking shit! It’s all fucking connected!” Every thing is the result of some other thing. Nothing happens without a reason to. Nothing is the outcome of chance.

Chance is a word void of sense; nothing can exist without a cause.Voltaire, that great French writer

The billiard balls that Fred Tate sees knocking into each other are not unlike the series of events that brought him to the here and now. A different initial pattern of balls would have resulted in a different outcome, in pool and in life. People will refer to this as determinism and will reject it outright for there is nothing more ruinous to the human ego than to acknowledge the total lack of control in one’s life. But the dismissal of an idea does not make it any less true.

Think back to all the decisions you made in your life and to the reasons why you made the choices that you did. If you can think about it objectively, there was only one option you could have chosen in every one of those situations, a single path that led you to today. Had the inputs been different at the onset, had those billiard balls been arranged differently on the table, the output would have been different, and you would be somewhere else today.

Now, let’s take it a step further.

The Answer to an Equation

There are only a handful of variables in a regular game of pool—a fixed-sized table, a few balls, friction, the acceleration of the cue ball, and so on. A computer can easily determine the output of such a game. But what if the complexity was increased?

What if we added a million-million balls, and what if they were not sliding across a table but existed in 3-dimensional space, and what if the balls were different colors, and what if they changed colors when they collided with other balls, and what if the balls sometimes attached to each other and reformed into something like the ball-and-stick models used in chemistry, and what if those models fell apart sometimes when they collided with other balls or other models, and what if each ball represented an idea, a thought, a feeling, an emotion, an urge, a sound, a touch, a taste, and the gobs of other things that float through our minds? And what if we had a trillion-trillion-trillion reactions? What would that look like?

The myriad of patterns that emerge from such an experiment are really no different than what we call consciousness. The process of billiard balls knocking into each other, creating an infinite landscape of possibility, is similar to what happens when people think. Of course, we don’t have balls in our head but neurons, dendrites, and electrochemical processes whose motions are all directed by input from the body’s senses, but the end result is basically the same.

Mind you, this all sounds like bullshit, and maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t. You have to admit, though, that a thought has to come from somewhere or be the end result of some other cause. If thoughts erupted from nothingness, you’d be able to sit there, by yourself, staring at the floor, waiting for answers to pop into your head, answers to questions relating to things you know nothing about, like the names of people who farted in 5000 BCE, the branches of life that exist on the exoplanet Kepler-452b, or the shoe size of the extraterrestrials who abducted Betty and Barney Hill.

Astrale Composition XVI by Wilhelm Morgner

The mind is shaped, molded, and created by the stimulus of life experience captured by our senses and processed by pre-existing thoughts, emotions, and feelings, in which they themselves had also been born.Wilhelm Morgner - Astrale Composition XVI

It’s almost as if the human mind is only capable of responding to stimuli. The brain receives input collected from the various senses, which collide with internal feelings, pre-existing thoughts and opinions, or whatever, each being represented by a ball bouncing around our head. The end result is what we call a thought. But these thoughts have not been conceived of independently from our environment, they are just a product, or a side effect, of our experience.

The Indian philosopher U.G. Krishnamurti didn’t believe the mind was real. In an interview on the TV-series called, Thinking Allowed, U.G. said, “There’s the assumption that the thoughts are self-generating and spontaneous, but actually, the brain is only a reactor, not a creator.” He didn’t believe the mind was separate from the body—meaning there is no spirit, or soul, or even self; we are not even capable of having a thought. There is only the response to something else.

All thought could just be a reaction to experience, mixing with memories or feelings, charged with bias, emotion, and desire, and nothing else; it’s just the stimulus-and-response, stimulus-and-response, stimulus-and-response. In this way, the brain feels like just a delivery conduit for if-this-then-that, receiving input and creating an output. Moment after moment. Day after day.

If we could track the trajectory, and speed, and other metrics for these individual thoughts, as well as all the external variables that an individual encounters in life, we could determine what that person is thinking, what thoughts they’ve had in the past, what thoughts they will have in a year from now. But to track that much data and input over time would require a kind of super quantum computer that has yet to be invented, running an exceptionally difficult equation that has yet to be discovered.

A human life reduced to cause and it’s effects is a very difficult thing to accept because of how we see ourselves in relation to each other and to the world. We are conditioned to believe that there is a self, that there is a mind, that there is a soul. We believe we are free and self-sufficient. We see ourselves as self-governing individuals, independent from each other, independent from our environment, disconnected from the past, free from influence, detached from people two degrees away from us. We feel that our thoughts and actions are the result of free will. But this is an illusion.

People like to say, “I came into this world,” which presupposes they had already existed before the world was graced by their presence. And the most astute verbal quip that comes to mind is to say, “Oh, blow it out your ass!” You did not! Ass! You came out of this world, like a branch from a tree. You are an answer to an equation, a product, a consequence. You are an algorithmic clump of biochemistry derived from the complexity of life that surrounds you, provokes you, and knocks those balls around your head.

What’s more, you are not a single thing, and life another. Life is one unitary movement where every person, place, and thing is intertwined with every other person, place, and thing, where all action creates a cascading series of events that pull the world this way or that, like a cue shot in billiards, but with more balls and a much larger table. The highs and the lows of human drama, the past and the future; every thing is bound, tied, and dependent on every other thing.

Street Carnival, Paris painting by Nikolai Alexandrovich Tarkhov

You are not one thing and life another. Life is but a single, interrelated whole; a melting pot of interconnectedness, dependencies, and if-this-then-that phenomenae that can be reduced to the stimulus and the response.Nikolai Alexandrovich Tarkhov - Street Carnival, Paris

There is no forsaking the emptiness between cause and its effects. We are tied to each other and the world around us—links, chains, ideas, thoughts—all connecting the past to the present, and the present to the future. The cause-and-effect sequences in our brains are just as determining, just as inescapable, just as reducible as everything else in Nature. Every moment of our lives, every thought that crosses our mind, is just an answer to an equation that describes this entanglement of life we are woven into. There is no point to confront life or to stand against it. Life unfolds, and that’s all there is, the world as an interrelated whole.