In the summer of 2004, I visited a friend in Michigan. It was my first time in the United States and I was thrilled to be there, and was soon dreaming up plans and schemes to go live out there (I didn’t). I’d taken a book with me: Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents. This was latter Freud, when ideas around the Death Drive had captured his imagination and which he seemed to believe stood above and beyond his earlier brilliant discoveries as a kind of unifying principle. I was particularly impressed by the way the Death Drive suggested at something like a law of physics – a psychology of entropy. There was one moment I remember, sat out on a wooden porch, surrounded by trees, with weird bugs chirruping and screeching around us in the North American summer heat, that I had a thought that felt like an epiphany. It went something like this: what if there were a purpose to consciousness, that could be accounted for almost like a physical law? That thought, and many variations of it, has continued to circulate around my mind for the last seventeen years. I had a go at trying to get those thoughts ‘on paper’ in a series of blogs I wrote last year (2020). However as I turn 40 this December, I would like to produce a distilled version of this thesis, which perhaps offers an answer to that original question, as a settlement to my 22 year-old self.
There are several ideas I need to introduce and explain. First of all I need to tell you about holograms. I guess most of us have some familiarity with holograms – I think particularly of the cards we used to get in the eighties/nineties - you tilted them or moved around them and the character in the hologram appeared to move. I seem to remember having one of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II. What seemed magical about them was the way in which you could look ‘into’ a two dimension surface and apparently perceive three dimensional form. We don’t need holograms to do that. You can draw a square onto a piece of paper, but then by adding parallel diagonals down from each of the four corners, you can make the square into a cube: an apparently three dimensional shape rendered onto a two dimensional surface. When I wrote On Time Travel last year, I conveyed thoughts around extending this idea further: that patterns in four dimensions (the fourth dimension being time) could be rendered onto one or more of the first three dimensions.
Examples of 4D into 3D (or 4D into 2D) transposition are relatively easy to come by: when we write words on a page left to right, it is implicitly understood that there is a timeline: we begin reading from the left and the top of the page and the words follow chronologically; the story unfolds thus. Likewise when a musician performs a piece of sheet manuscript the entire timeline, including the beat and rhythm, are very clearly mapped out. In both of these examples a four dimensional pattern is mapped onto a two dimensional surface. It takes a human being to transpose a four dimensional pattern onto a two dimensional surface, through writing down the words on the page or the notes onto the manuscript. It takes another human being to transpose those renderings back: to read out the words and experience them as a story, or pick up a cello and perform the melody so that it becomes an event in time. In those cases information conveyed on a 2D surface is transposed back into 4D. But I think this process has been going on for longer than people have been around. In cellular protein synthesis, as DNA unravels to reveal a sequence of bases coding for amino acids, protein production begins at the start codon and progresses to the stop codon. In this way too DNA is a transposition of a four dimensional pattern onto a three dimensional surface.
The process by which four dimensional patterns are rendered onto surfaces in the first three dimensions I’m calling hologramisation: the production of holograms. Examples of holograms as ventured here include: DNA; human memory (as ‘held’ in the central nervous system); skills, stories and songs that people pass between themselves; books, paintings; architectural blueprints, scripts and musical manuscripts; sound recordings, film; websites, computer software; shrines.
Whether chemically or culturally, even the most fundamental rules in the universe such as A=πr2 or E=mc2 are hologramised. When a physical pattern is hologramised in this way it has a spatiotemporal mobility: it can be applied again and again in different places and times. Once we know the formula for the area of a circle, we can apply this in all manner of contexts. The manufacture of glucose, encoded for in the genotype of countless photosynthetic creatures, or the passing on of skills such as making fire or of cultivating crops, are examples of forms in the material world being hologramised, and being applied repeatedly throughout the Earth. Whilst different versions of a pattern can be stored (e.g. different farmers passing on their own methods for how corn should be sown), over time the purest, most transferrable versions survive – and these purest versions I call ‘ideal types’. If you fly over the landscape of these British islands, and even if you travel anywhere in the world, you see the same basic patterns – architectural features – repeating themselves in terms of how we make our homes and societies, even as local contexts mean things can feel different. Likewise if we were able to travel through time – through decades and centuries, many architectural features - the ways in which we organise our lives - would continue to be recognisable.
OK, holograms - so what? Well what I want to argue here is that the event of human beings transposing hologramised form back into four dimensions is the birth of consciousness; that these four dimensional patterns provide a scaffolding and structure around which we orient our (apparently spontaneous) thoughts, feelings, words, and actions; and indeed our experience of the flow of time. To clarify this point further, I need to introduce another idea which I’m calling incompleteness.
To help explain the concept of incompleteness, I need to invoke some further examples of holograms: consider for example the account of a swinging pendulum such as you might find in a high school physics book, or a little pocket book of tide times which might be useful to a fisher or a coastguard, or a piece of sheet music, or our common knowledge of the human reproductive cycle. Each of these are examples of temporal patterns (patterns in four dimensions) which have the quality of incompleteness at any one particular moment:
- At what point in the cycle of a swinging pendulum is the cycle complete? Gravitational potential energy is converted into kinetic energy, and back again: any point in the cycle is ‘on its way’ to the next point.
- Similarly high tide and low tide never resolve, in the same way that the Moon’s orbit around the Earth just goes on and on.
- A single musical note in a piano piece only takes on beauty (I’m hearing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata just now) in relation to the whole train of melody and its complete resolution. We cannot ‘hear’ Moonlight Sonata in a moment. Moonlight Sonata can only be experienced over a stretch of time. (Even when the song is finished we can only appreciate its goodness by remembering the temporal relationship between the notes).
- And at what point does the human reproductive cycle begin or end? Diagrams of pregnancy and gestation track a timeline from conception to birth, but there are infinite and cyclical events which necessarily precede conception, and infinite and cyclical events which succeed birth.
This last one I’m calling biological incompleteness and I think it’s important because of all the temporal patterns that we ourselves find ourselves immersed within, this one perhaps provides a primary scaffolding and structure for our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Whilst none of us can predict our future, temporal forms such as our knowledge of the human life cycle and the reproductive cycle help us to anticipate and to map out onto four dimensions the flow of events in our lives.
But one of the cool things about being human is that we’re not just determined by biology in this way. We also find ourselves immersed in temporal patterns which transcend our biology and perhaps even our own lifespan. Secondary temporal maps are concerned with what I’m calling generational incompleteness – such as the endeavours of society, civilisation, art and science. When Isaac Newton first envisaged a cannonball that, fired into the sky fast enough, would remain in perpetual freefall around the Earth, he anticipated the orbital path of manmade satellites by several centuries. When Antonio Gaudí first envisaged the Sagrada Família, the life of this project continued way beyond his own lifecycle and indeed those of the many generations who have worked on this magnificent building since.
Locating oneself temporally within all forms of incompleteness mean that every single moment is ‘on its way’ to another moment. This not only creates a general experience of the flowingness of time, but also gives us a sense in which we can see through time, in the way that a builder may look on an architectural blueprint and envisage the house that will become on the plot of land yet undeveloped.
The information cycle
So if there is any purchase in the two ideas described above, what would that mean existentially for us? How does a person live such an idea? I see us in a state of immersion within what I’m calling here the information cycle. Simply put, the information cycle is fuelled by human beings and other sentient creatures discovering new patterns in the universe, hologramising these as described above (stored as Memory); then successive generations re-accessing these hologramised forms, and mapping these onto their own temporal experience.
Within the information cycle I envisage four domains:
• Memory: Reservoirs of information (such as genotypes, oral histories, libraries, museums etc.); the various media through which ideal types are hologramised; the ‘store’ of holograms, and the source of consciousness
• Consciousness: Human beings and other sentient creatures ‘standing on the shoulders’ of everything that came before – the ideal types give our lives and minds structure and purpose
• The hologramised world: The world as civilised (or as colonised by life); known and shaped in the image of received ideal types, and as such yielder of new ideal types (the concern of science)
• The non-hologramised world: The wilderness, bearing as yet undiscovered information, because we don’t yet have the knowledge or instruments to access it (the concern of spirituality and wonder).
Each successive generation is contributing new forms to Memory but there remains a vastness of the natural world still to be beheld and understood. We all then experience, to some degree, a sense of generational incompleteness – the work remains undone. But what also feels important here is to observe a relative decentring of consciousness. Whilst we experience consciousness as in our heads, what I’m arguing here is that most of what gives rise to consciousness is not in our heads, but rather is derived from transpersonal reservoirs of information – named here Memory. In the same way that there can be no fire without fuel, there can be no consciousness without memory; as fire has no independent existence from fuel, consciousness has no independent existence from memory.
Hence all reservoirs of information: whether DNA in cells, or conversations by the campfire, libraries and cinemas, schools and universities, churches and temples etc. should be regarded with reverence because they hold our generational memory. Whilst our conscious experience is relatively flimsy and transient, Memory as stored through these media is substantial and tangible. Whilst we are impermanent and live with the knowledge of our own mortality; Memory is transgenerational and thus has a kind of immortality.
According to this thesis, we’re born into generational incompleteness, and we die into generational incompleteness. We dwell within a state of perpetual discovery.
I hope the idea is clear enough as distilled here. In future blogs I’ll try highlight particularly beautiful examples of the phenomena described above and expand on some of these ideas through application.
‘I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’
‘Philosophy is written in this vast book, which lies continually open before our eyes (I mean the universe).’
‘The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.’
‘I am still learning’
Lucius Annaeus Seneca