ART AND ORGANISM
“The connectedness of things is what the educator contemplates to the limit of his capacity. No human capacity is great enough to permit a vision of the world as simple, but if the educator does not aim at the vision no one else will, and the consequences are dire when no one does. . . . The student who can begin early in life to think of things as connected, even if he revises his view with every succeeding year, has begun the life of learning.” –Mark Van Doren
All things seem connected. John Muir’s observation epitpmizes this view: “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911:110) (read about Muir).
In an extreme view, the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else. We think of a dictionary as the repository of meaning, but it defines words only in terms of other words. I liked the idea that a piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected. –Tim Berners-Lee, in Weaving The Web : The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web (1999), p. 14
“The connectedness of things” seems to validate HOLISM, the view that systems function as wholes and that their functioning cannot be fully understood solely in terms of their component parts (Wikipedia link). This is “the idea that natural systems of all kinds and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts.” Is this true or is the continual experience of connectedness an artifact of how the mind works, which as David Hume says, “connects things that are experienced together or that look alike, and generalizes to new objects according to their resemblance to known ones” (David Hume, from his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748). Dreams are no different: arguably the tiny spontaneous flickers of activations within the cortex of the sleeping brain are connected—often in fantastic ways—as we wake by the brain’s efforts to create the best possible narrative whole of the random fragments, to make this interior experience coherent. In other words, are connections the “true nature” of things or an order that is imposed upon things because it is highly adaptive in enabling us to meet our biological and psychological needs. Holism may reflect an intrinsic tendency or bias for simplifying the world. see also systems thinking.
The idea complementary to holism is reductionism, and indeed, as a reflection or projection of the processes that enable our being in the world, the complementarity of holism and reductionism may best reflect the “true” state of affairs—or at least the state that has evolved because of its effectiveness in meeting needs. We tend to think that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon or state of affairs is the simplest one.. This tendency, guided by the venerable heuristic of Occam’s Razor, lies behind the search for a grand unified theory of the universe (A&O NOTES on THEORY of EVERYTHING)
BUT WAIT! What things are not connected to each other?
HOW DEEPLY CAN YOU DIG? Or the paleopsychology of consciousness. Dig deeply enough into any phenomenon and the connections, hidden and unsuspected, must be revealed: shared fundamentals emerge. This is also the reasoning behind the “we are stardust” philosophies of Carl Sagon, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Joni Mitchel, and The Highwaymen. The deeper we dig, the more we feel encouraged by the evidence that supports the holistic bias.
It is useful to remember here that we seem wired to find maximal satisfaction in “the best story we can tell with the best evidence we have.” BUT the evidence is always at best a fragment of what likely exists. For example, all our theories of the physical universe from quantum through cosmic are based on about 5% of the evidence that is theoretically available—the rest is termed “dark matter” or “dark energy”.
So perhaps we are wired to dig deeply (=have a congenital disposition”): curiosity and exploration provide us with information that is adaptive: enhances our biological fitness.
- But how deep can we go? How deep is the ocean–a metaphor for unmeasurable. [note 1]
- What is beneath whatever is beneath us? It’s turtles all the way down! [note 2]
There may be no end of difficulties in thinking through connections because AMONGST the properties any pair of connected phenomenon manifests, there are simultaneous connections between different levels of organization. CONNECTIONS ARE MANIFEST WITHIN AND BETWEEN EVERY LEVEL OF ORGANIZATION. CONNECTEDNESS is so pervasive in our thinking and understanding … that it may even emerge as a candidate for “the meaning of life” –the source and the destiny. (or is this assertion an artifact of my holistic bias?)
COMMUNICATIONS: Implicit in connectedness is communications …
- RESONANCE. Originally conceptualized in acoustics, “resonance phenomena occur with all types of vibrations or waves: there is mechanical resonance, acoustic resonance, electromagnetic resonance, nuclear magnetic resonance(NMR), electron spin resonance (ESR) and resonance of quantum wave functions. Resonant systems can be used to generate vibrations of a specific frequency (e.g., musical instruments), or pick out specific frequencies from a complex vibration containing many frequencies (e.g., filters).” (Wikipedia on resonance)
- The Music of the Spheres incorporates the metaphysical principle that mathematical relationships express qualities or “tones” of energy which manifest in numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds – all connected within a pattern of proportion. Pythagoras first identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of the string that produces it, and that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple numerical ratios. In a theory known as the Harmony of the Spheres, Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum (orbital resonance) based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear. Subsequently, Plato described astronomy and music as “twinned” studies of sensual recognition: astronomy for the eyes, music for the ears, and both requiring knowledge of numerical proportions. (Wikipedia on the music of the spheres)
Collecting and connecting are related. In our pursuit of connections, collecting may provide unexpected clues. Whatever is collected, they are connected by some shared attribute, if only in the mind of the collector –but that, of course, teaches as much about minds as it does about what is being collected. (See A&O notes on COLLECTING)
Connections at the molecular scale bring us close
to the definition of life itself!
“researchers increasingly are trying to map protein-protein interactions throughout the cell. This map of the C. elegans interaction network, or “interactome,” links 2,898 proteins (nodes) by 5,460 interactions (edges).” (reprinted by The Scientist 21 June 2004 with permission from Science, 303:540-3, 2004.) [more]
Cell communication is the bedrock of function for all levels of organization above (visit). Arguably the most extraordinary function is that of consciousness, seemingly dependent upon connections between the almost incomprehensible number of neurons in our brains and their connections to the body (embodied cognition) outside world and our actions (situated cognition) . Now that cell morphology and the anatomy of brain is within reach, research is now applying major resources to the connections between neurons and seeking correlations with function.
The Human Connectome Project aims to provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data, an interface to graphically navigate this data and the opportunity to achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.
“The NIH Human Connectome Project is an ambitious effort to map the neural pathways that underlie human brain function. The overarching purpose of the Project is to acquire and share data about the structural and functional connectivity of the human brain. It will greatly advance the capabilities for imaging and analyzing brain connections, resulting in improved sensitivity, resolution, and utility, thereby accelerating progress in the emerging field of human connectomics.
Altogether, the Human Connectome Project will lead to major advances in our understanding of what makes us uniquely human and will set the stage for future studies of abnormal brain circuits in many neurological and psychiatric disorders.” — NIH BLUEPRINT for NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH
BUT WAIT! It is not just neurons!
Connections between neurons are products of evolution and of development: organisms have evolved a basic plan but it is more or less trimmed or embellished by experience. BUT neurons do not do this all by themselves—glial cells, once relegated to a minor supporting role in brain function are crucial. For example, “Astrocytes are vital for conscious thought, because they help to strengthen the connections between neurons, called synapses. Their tendrils (see image) are involved in coordinating the transmission of electrical signals across synapses.” (from New Scientist)
“Information is transmitted at synapses between neurons in the nervous system. Beyond the importance of neurons, evidence indicates that astrocytes, a type of glial cell, also contribute to information processing in the brain. Indeed, astrocytes detect neurotransmitters released during intense and sustained neuronal network activity (Fellin et al., 2004, Latour et al., 2001 and Pasti et al., 1997) and, in turn, modulate synaptic transmission (Fellin et al., 2004, Henneberger et al., 2010, Panatier et al., 2006, Pascual et al., 2005, Pasti et al., 1997, Perea and Araque, 2005 and Serrano et al., 2006) by releasing neuroactive substances termed gliotransmitters (e.g., purines, d-serine, and glutamate) (Halassa and Haydon, 2010 and Volterra and Meldolesi, 2005). The regulation of synapses by astrocytes is largely based on intracellular Ca2+-dependent processes and results from receptor activation, in particular, group I metabotropic glutamatergic receptors (mGluR) (Cai et al., 2000, D’Ascenzo et al., 2007, Fellin et al., 2004, Honsek et al., 2010 and Porter and McCarthy, 1996). From this emerged the concept of the “tripartite synapse,” which proposes that glial cells are functional components of synapses (Araque et al., 1999).” (Panetier et al 2011)
Arguably, an individual’s consciousness is the nexus of all connections
We can look for connections, or connections can find us — we create them just as they create us: we look around and see how things are put together, we tinker & tweak … a little reverse engineering to see if we really understand how something is put together (and thereby take to ourselves the power of creation)