“All things change,” wrote the philosopher Heraclitus about 2500 years ago, an idea that comes to us essentially unchanged. A corollary of this is that “you cannot step in the same river twice.” The river is in a state of constant change and so is the self that attempts to step in it. And yet I grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River, and this morning I walked along the banks of the same river. It seems entirely reasonable to me that the child and the person I am today are the same person; the river I grew up by and the river that continues to flow from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico is the same river.
Yes, the waters of the river have changed and change constantly. Yes, the waters that flowed through my veins as a child as well as most of the other material of my body has changed. My looks have changed, my ideas have changed, yet I still feel a connection with that child who loved to sit on the banks of the Mississippi. Can a river really be reduced to its waters, or a self to the particular material of which it is comprised?
“Mississippi River” is a set of words. Words seem to be more enduring than the phenomena they refer to. Is this impression of an enduring river nothing more than a trick played by words? Perhaps, but I think it is less simple than that. The words “Mississippi River” stand for a process. That process began at the end of the last Ice Age and continues unbroken. The shape of the river has changed as its banks have eroded, but erosion, like the flowing of water, is a part of the process of the river. The process is mediated by natural laws that we can understand under the concept of geology. To say that you can’t step in the same river twice because its waters are constantly changing is perhaps paying too much attention to one part of that geological process and ignoring the rest. The process itself has endurance.
But it seems Heraclitus understood that. He recognized that there was a constancy, an orderliness, to change, and it appears that he used the word “logos” to refer to this constancy. And of course, this is the same idea that we have when we add the suffix “ology” to the prefix “geo” to designate the science of geology. Sciences like geology are the systematic study of that which appears enduring amidst that which appears fleeting. To account for this enduring element we refer to the “laws of nature.”
Process and Information
Like a river, a human life is also a process. The me that sat on the banks of the Mississippi as a child and the me that walked beside it this morning form a continuous process. This process, a biological one, apparently began with the union of a sperm and egg (1). A biological process is like a geological process, but with at least one major difference. All biological processes are mediated by information encoded in genes. This information is enduring like the writings of Heraclitus, but a good deal more so. Genetic information outlast the ephemeral bodies that carry it by reproducing itself in the form of new bodies. Reproduction is an ability that biological processes possess and geological processes lack.
In addition to genetic information, the process of certain biological beings, most obviously the higher animals, is mediated by a different kind of information. This is information that is gained through the senses and stored as memory in a neurological system. An animal using this type of information is a process that can change rapidly to adapt to new environments.
With humans, Nature added at least one more potent innovation to this use of information. In addition to storage in a neurological system, humans store information in a vast reservoir that we call “culture”; we can access and share this information through language. Through culture we have become the natural process that can harness other natural processes to its will.
The Continuity of Goals
When I was a lad, the President of the United States, John Kennedy, set a goal for the country: put a human being on the moon before the end of the decade. This goal, this thing made of words and ideas, organized a far-flung set of physical, biological and social forces. And voila, less than a decade after setting the goal, Neil Armstrong walked upon the moon. That is the power of a goal. A goal is powerful because, like the laws of nature, it can endure through time.
So in a certain sense, goals are to human activity what laws of nature are to the Cosmos. This idea was prevalent in the ancient world, but in a way that many of us now find incorrect. Then the idea was that some God or other intends the activities of the world much like humans intend activities such as the building of a temple or getting to the moon. (To intend means essentially the same thing as to set a goal.) The modern notion of mechanically regular laws of nature had to battle this notion of an intentional God, a battle still going on today.
If, however, we turn things around and start from laws of physical nature and move toward the human mind, comparing laws of nature to goals is more apt. In this view, the processes studied by biologists emerge from the processes studied by physicists, and the processes studied by the human sciences emerge from the biological. Exactly what happens at these junctures where new processes emerge is still rather mysterious, but there is no reason to introduce dualisms to account for them. The processes that lead to culture and intentionality are fully nested in the processes of life and the processes of life are fully nested in the processes of physics (and just what the processes of physics are nested in is also a mystery, a great mystery).
From this perspective, when we conscientiously set goals, we are engaged in an activity that has its roots in the processes that shaped galaxies from the raw material of the Big Bang and that shaped oak trees from chemical information in the nucleus of a seed. A well chosen goal provides a continuity to our activities as physical principles of geology provide continuity to a river or genetics provides continuity to a tree. In terms of matter “we are stardust,” but in terms of our conscious intentions we are of the very thing that shaped stars out of the primordial nebulae — we are an intentional part of the great process of the World. That Thou Art.
Think on this when you set your goals this coming New Year!
Note 1: Though I speak here of a process beginning, processes never really begin and end; smaller processes emerge from and dissolve back into larger processes.)
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