Noösphere: “The sphere of human consciousness and mental activity especially in regard to its influence on the biosphere and in relation to evolution.”1
1. Information is a fundamental property of the universe;
it’s a concrete property of matter and energy
that can be quantified and measured.2
2. The consciousness of something can be quantified
by measuring its integrated information.3
3. Uncertainty is an attribute of information.4
4. “Intelligence is a force that acts so as to maximize
future freedom of action.” It ‘wants’ to keep options open.5
The above axioms are based on the works of Seth Lloyd, Giulio Tononi, Lotfi A. Zadeh, and Alex Wissner-Gross, respectively.
It’s next to impossible for scientific knowledge to evolve without the expression of ideas: mutations in the pleckstrin homology domain of dynamin 2 cause dominant intermediate Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease;6 do nasturtium leaves smell like cocaine?; the infinite monkey theorem.7 Science needs memes — the good, the bad, the ugly, and beautiful — in order to progress. Yes, even the bad and ugly. For even if the arrangement of these morphemes and memes contributes nothing novel that moves us forth, perhaps a mind scanning these pixels will be sparked by an idea or word that does, ultimately, advance us. And an error could cause a reader to propose some other idea that has utility. You get the meme.
This commentary is what Susan Blackmore might call a memeplex8— and what I call a memesome.9 It’s a mine of memes for minds to potentially chew, ingest, transform, replicate, and/or digest. It’s a memetic lottery.
In 2006 or so, I declared (mostly for fun) that I was an evolutionary teleologist and explained my sense of my neologism, evolutionary teleology, thusly:
I think there are basic chemical and physical (as in particle physics) building blocks within the cosmos. My understanding is that O, N, C, H and other elements can be found throughout the cosmos. I suspect that these building blocks tend toward a direction —to build ever more complex systems when given the ideal ecology. Perhaps consciousness arises (emergently) from this non-random organizing complexity. And I would argue that if you started on another planet with similar building blocks, and if you set it into motion with the same conditions of elements that started here ~4 billion years ago, you’d eventually, perhaps, get consciousness again — similar to the concept of Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return.’ I don’t believe the universe has a purpose in its typical use/sense, though. An evolutionary teleological view would be that no matter where you are in the cosmos, that there is, under the right conditions, a direction toward more complex, organized structures (both physical and non-physical). I think being/existence ‘wants’ to know. There is an organizing principle with a direction.
I hadn’t read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin back then and knew nothing of his law of complexity consciousness,10 which I’ve only recently learned of. Yet it seems likely that my ideas must have come from reading and listening to others who had been influenced by Teilhard de Chardin. It was clearly in the ether/noösphere. It’s worth noting that Thomas Nagel coined a similar phrase I hadn’t heard of when I came up with mine: teleological naturalism.11
This is a hardy meme. A dandelion of a meme, actually. For some, i.e., religious fundamentalists or scientists who distrust anything that has a scent of order and nonrandomness, it may seem like an invasive weed, worthy of eradicating; while others may see its beauty, utility, and naturalness. The strength of this meme, it seems to me, is due to the fact it’s as appealing affectively as it is rationally: it feels right intuitively, but it’s also, ultimately, falsifiable. In fact, a recent scientific experiment hints at this cosmic view, what could also be called conscious evolution. A software program called Entropica was developed using the principles of thermodynamics to maximize its future freedom of action. Without specific goals given to the program, tool use, social cooperation, and walking upright were generated. As the creator of Entropica, Alex Wissner-Gross, says: “In cosmology, for example, there have been a variety of different threads of evidence that our universe appears to be finely tuned for the development of intelligence, and, in particular, for the development of universal states that maximize the diversity of possible futures.”12 This also aligns well with the grander, larger view of conscious evolution that Kenneth R. Pelletier wrote about it in 197813 and Barbara Marx Hubbard expounded on twenty years later in her book Conscious Evolution:
The purpose of this metadiscipline is to learn how to be responsible for the ethical guidance of our evolution. It is a quest to understand our developmental change, to identify inherent values for the purpose of learning how to cooperate with the processes toward chosen and positive futures.14
Currently, scientists don’t fully agree on how biological evolution works. One useful way to understand it, before all the messy details, is as an evolutionary epistemologist. W.W. Bartley III, for example, sees evolution as “a knowledge process . . . in which information regarding the environment is literally incorporated, incarnated, in surviving organisms . . . “15 I love this — especially in light of one of the axioms of this commentary: that information is a physical, fundamental property of the universe.
Apart from the fascinating and scientifically heretical idea that mutations might not be random, there are two major memes/theories/stories/ideas of evolution battling for epistemic survival: inclusive fitness theory (of which kin selection is one instance)16 and group selection theory. Crudely, inclusive fitness theory says that the unit of selection for evolution is the gene; it measures the reproductive success of individuals and their kin. Group selection theory, however, looks at a different level (the group); it measures indirect, longer-term effects on fitness, such as those achieved when groups of individual organisms cooperate and out-compete groups of non-cooperators. As David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson affirm: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups17. . . . [and] traits with public benefits and private costs do evolve by natural selection.”18
Such debates seem unanswerable and impossible to reconcile, but that’s only because we’re using reductive, bifurcating reasoning. What we need with many of the important philosophical and scientific debates of the day is a quantum leap and lens — a recognition that there may not be one answer, but many answers depending on the context (i.e., the question being asked and the level of analysis). I think this applies, for example, to regular-old consciousness, and it’s why I think Dan Dennett and Galen Strawson are both correct, depending on the context.19, 20 We need a multilevel theory for consciousness. God is dead and so is Descartes.
But back to evolution.
Evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and Eliot Sober reconciled the either-or problem with their multilevel selection theory (MLS).21 Essentially, does natural selection work on cells, or genes, or individuals, or groups of individuals, or ideas? The answer is yes! Selection seems to work on different levels of information. As Einstein wrote (about light):
It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do. 22
This is important for many reasons, but the fact that group selection theory is likely as true as other theories (such as inclusive fitness) depending on the question being asked, is reassuring. It reminds us that we are many things: patterns of information (DNA) competing, surviving, reproducing, but also, too, that we are deeply connected to people who don’t share our DNA, to large social groups, the species, and to all living things. As Charles Eisenstein says:
The emerging science that seeks to explain [the desire to serve something transcending the separate self and the pain we feel from the suffering of others], whether it invokes mirror neurons, . . . group evolution, . . . or something further out, doesn’t explain them away, but merely illustrates a general principle of connection, or dare I say it, oneness. The science is beginning to confirm what we have intuitively known all along: we are greater than what we have been told. We are not just a skin-encapsulated ego, a soul encased in flesh. We are each other and we are the world.23
Read the entire “Conscious Evolution” series:
- Can Evolution Be Conscious? Introducing a Collection of Commentaries Published on This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson, Mel Andrews, and Maximus Thaler
- Cultural Evolution, Insight, and Fundamental Theories of Consciousness by Liane Gabora
- Conscious Evolution is a Category Mistake by Massimo Pigliucci
- The Origins and Evolutionary Effects of Consciousness by Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg
- The Evolution of Consciousness Enables Conscious Evolution by Steve Hayes
- Welcome to the Noösphere by Alice Andrews
- The Consciousness of Detachment and the Detachment of Consciousness by Lenny Moss
- Can Evolution Be Conscious of Itself? Yes, It Can! by Joe Brewer
- One Culture, Two Cultures? How Many Cultures, How Long? by Kurt Johnson
- Can Evolution be Understood as a Conscious Process? by Stanley N. Salthe
1. Noöpshere (n.d). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/noosphere
2. Lloyd, S. Quantum Information Science [PDF document]. Retrieved from: http://web.mit.edu/2.111/www/notes09/spring.pdf
3. Oizumi, M.; Albantakis, L.; Tononi, G. (2014). From the phenomenology to the mechanisms of consciousness: integrated information theory 3.0. PLoS Computational Biology, 10 (5). https://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003588
4. Zadeh, L.A. (2006). Generalized theory of uncertainty (GTU)-principal concepts and ideas. Computational Statistics & Data Analysis, 51(1), 15-46. doi:10.1016/j.csda.2006.04.029
5. Wissner-Gross, A. (2013, November). A New Equation for Intelligence [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/alex_wissner_gross_a_new_equation_for_intelligence
6. Zuchner S., Noureddine M., Kennerson M., Verhoeven K., Claeys K., De Jonghe P., Merory J., Oliveira S.A., Speer M.C., Stenger J.E., et al. (2005). Mutations in the pleckstrin homology domain of dynamin 2 cause dominant intermediate charcot-marie-tooth disease. Nature Genetics, 37:289–294 doi: 10.1038/ng1514
7. Infinite monkey theorem. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 18, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem
8. Blackmore, S. J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
9. Andrews, A. (2002). Trine Erotic. New York: Vivisphere Press.
10. Teilhard, C. P., Huxley, J., & Wall, B. (1959). The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper.
11. Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.Oxford: Oxford University Press.
12. Wissner-Gross, A. (2013, November). A New Equation for Intelligence [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/alex_wissner_gross_a_new_equation_for_intelligence
13. Pelletier, K.R. (1978). Toward a Science of Consciousness. New York: Delta.
14. Hubbard, B. M. (1998). Conscious Evolution: Awakening the Power of our Social Potential. California: New World Library.
15 Bartley, W.W. III (1987). Philosophy of Biology versus Philosophy of Physics. In Radnitzky, G. & Bartley, W.W. III (Eds.), Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge (pp. 7-40). Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing.
16. Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behaviour II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 17-52.
17 Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2007). Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(4), 327-348. Retrieved from
18. Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2008). Evolution “for the good of the group.” American Scientist, 96(5), 380-389. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240968781_Evolution_for_the_Good_of_the_Group
19. Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.
20. Strawson, G. (2018). The consciousness deniers. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/13/the-consciousness-deniers
21. Wilson, D.W. & Sober, E. (1994). Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 17 (4), 585-608. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00036104
22. Einstein, A. & Infeld, L. (1938).The Evolution of Physics: The Growth of Ideas From Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
23. Eisenstein, C. (2013). The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. California: North Atlantic Books.