From Evolution to EmergenceThere are a few faiths in which congregants are invited to participate in the creation and interpretation of the underlying narrative. Certain Jewish sects spurn answers in favor of more questions and interpretation; Quakers enjoy a dogma-free, town-meeting-style Sabbath. Most religious traditions, though, simply treat their believers as a “mass” who must depend on priests or ministers for access to the “story.” But just as the Internet has led patients to information about alternative medical treatments (often against doctor’s orders), it has given congregants something in the spiritual realm that is very rare-the ability to find alternative stories about who we are, who made us, and why.
More important than any one story we may have discovered or written, the experience of sifting through them all and writing our own has changed our relationship to religion, perhaps forever. The Internet is anathema to unitary narrative. If you want to understand life only as a story etched in stone, you had better stay away.
Every early culture composed stories-myths-to explain the basic facts of existence. For centuries, we have understood our world-even our sciences-as being somehow authored: that things were set in motion by someone or something. We cling to the belief that our existence proceeds by design. That’s why Darwin’s theory of evolution was such a threat to our narrative understanding of the world, and why creationists resist its implications to this day. But even those of us who believe in evolution have been able to impose a kind of narrative on top of it in which we imagine matter and life to be groping steadily and consciously toward complexity, with evolution itself as the agent of that grand authorial entity we dearly hope exists.
Now our computers are forcing us to entertain new, even less linear models for why things happen. One of these models, described in Steven Johnson’s new book, Emergence, explores the way everything from ant colonies to ancient cities finds its order. It turns out that queen ants issue no decrees, and ancient cities still in existence today had no official planners. The necessary preconditions must exist, but it now appears that life, organisms, communities, and order arise-emerge, in other words-from the bottom up. There is no central story, yet there is radical change and something that, if it isn’t intelligence, has often been mistaken for it.
And what is the chief prerequisite for emergence to occur? You guessed it: networking. Interconnectivity is what allows an “it” to become a “they.” Instead of acting on its own, each atom, molecule, cell, organism, or community can act as part of a larger complex-a networked being.
OK, if it isn’t intelligence, what is it? Is there some sort Chardannian teleology? Is it just nature, bell curves and Bradford’s Law? There is a method in the swarming mobs of a net-work. Emergence looks interesting. How does it relate back to the old classic on this, Engles’ Dialectics of Nature.
McLuhan had a phrase: escape into understanding. My hunch is that the way to know is to not understand. Well, to know certain things, understanding works fine in its own niche. More than a hunch, I know this from being a psychotherapist. I see the escape into understanding all the time. “I want to know WHY she did that to me!” “How could he do that!” There is never a resolution to those questions, they aren’t questions, but while they sound like questions there is no … resolution. Now there is a nice word. A return to a solution? Becoming fluid? Coming into focus? Resolution comes from the WHAT question about experience itself. What am I experiencing? If we can go one beyond seeing the world in a grain of sand, we are a grain of sand.
Experiential learning is at the core of training to do psychotherapy. Once on this path all theory is more or less secondary. Ok, there is no central story, but there is an inner story, and the inner story is a facet, an incidence of something that can’t be understood without a story.
Many people are writing about this networked phenomena, and right from the inside. My hope is to be able to keep hold of the thread that sees beyond the social and technical and political in all of this and to find a story with a resolution.