OMG. God stuff.

Look down after rain and you'll often see this, leaves and other plant material arranged neatly into long arcs, with silt banked up on the concave side. Sometimes there are many rows of these arcs. This is the way that bare ground is often re-vegetated, the wall of plant debris traps silt, which builds up new soil behind the wall. Grass and other plants then grow in this soil, and what was previously bare ground is now covered.

What's wonderful about this is that it happens all by itself. Looking down at these soil traps, in their regular rows, it would be tempting to assume somebody had organised the whole thing. But the water and plant material and soil do all of this by themselves. 

In the debates between atheists and those in traditional religions, there is a lot these little walls of leaves have to teach people. Most of these debates revolve around the nature of design and purpose in the world, about whether somebody or something (God) is behind the scenes pulling strings and giving purpose and design to things. In rough general terms, the traditionally religious think there is some supernatural God, giving purpose to things and being the creative force behind how something exists, rather than nothing. The traditional atheists on the other hand don't think there is a divine creator, that the world is meaningless and without purpose, with order appearing by chance and then (for living things) sustaining itself by evolution. 

I would like to argue that these are symmetrical vanities. That both sides of this debate are actually on the same side of the court. Go back to the picture. The world isn't just a random, meaningless jumble of blind atoms, it has order and design and purpose, but without anybody putting it there. It gives the finger to both sides of the atheism debate. Atoms (matter or stuff) aren't individual, separate, meaningless lumps, waiting for some supernatural creator to assemble them into things, and nor are they the same meaningless lumps occasionally and accidentally bumping into each other and making things. The big mistake both sides of this debate make is to assume the world is dumb and stupid, and that only humans or chance or Gods can add order and meaning and purpose to things. Look at the picture again, this sophisticated set up did itself. And how, and why? The how is the same as the why, and to put it in bold:

The fundamental principle at the heart of all reality is relations, or relationship. 

This doesn't mean you have separate things, like atoms, rocks, people etc., and then they form relations between themselves. Every single thing is made up of relations, right down to its atoms. Atoms, rocks, people, grass, these soil-building walls - everything - is like a knot of relations. An example might make this a little clearer. 

Lynn Margulis argued for years that evolution was only half about natural selection, and that its theory of how the variations which get selected come about was wildly unrealistic and flawed. (I did a post about this here: Margulis showed conclusively that new life forms and variations are often, and maybe exclusively, the result of a symbiosis of other existing life forms, such as bacteria. Bacteria will form relations with other bacteria, so that the symbiotic outcome has properties of the original bacteria, but now as part of the one organism. You can see that in the way our own guts are full of bacterial colonies, processing our food in a variety of ways, these colonies are ancient symbiotic communities. Margulis went further, explaining how living things themselves, such as humans, may be nothing but colonies of symbiotic bacteria. 

To go back to the picture above, this little dam wall of debris that spreads new growth across bare ground would be almost impossible if it was just a chance encounter between all of the bits of plant and other debris. But viewed as a set of relations between rain, plants, dirt, the properties of flowing water, seeds etc., it becomes much more understandable. Over time a dynamic, symbiotic relationship has developed between all of these players, so that this little dam wall mutually benefits all of them in different ways - it is a new entity, made up of the relations between them. Without the wall the grass won't survive, and without the grass the wall itself will eventually break down. The silt and soil will be blown or washed away without the wall, and the gradual build up of soil and new vegetation allows more of the water to be retained, rather than it running away. Just as a human being doesn't resemble the bacterial colonies which make it up, this little dam wall and the extension of vegetation its makes possible are new creations, deriving from the relationships within and then between the grass and dirt and gravity and water etc. No grand designer or luck, or even unexplained 'emergence' - to use atheistic complex systems theory, which sits halfway between the atheists and the materialists - is needed for change to happen and for new wonders to emerge. 

How this works shouldn't be confused with some form of committee meeting between all of these players, planning what each needs. No 'anthropomorphism' here (another look at that term in a minute). Rather each of these players - the water, soil, grass etc. - have properties, such as weight and density and ability to germinate, which don't belong to them but rather express their capacity to interact with other entities. That's what a property is, an interaction. The weight or density or colour, or whatever, of something, can only be defined from the outside - you need scales, and measuring containers, and other instruments, each of which interacts with the object in some way, producing this property. The property is the outcome of that relationship. What's important is that, to go back to our example, grass and soil and water etc. have very many properties, only a handful of which are directly involved in this little dam wall of debris. That's what I mean about things being made of relations, there are potentially infinite numbers of ways the grass and soil and debris could interact with other things, each would behave differently if in combination with fire, different kids of light, heat, cold, chemicals, physical blows etc. etc. But for this little dam wall, they interact in this one specific way, with all those other possible relations sitting dormant or potential. 

The smaller you go inside any material, the more complex it gets. The more relations it potentially has. I talked about this when looking at the ancient atomists here:
These older atomists have long been caracicatured as simpletons, restricting everything to earth, air, fire and water and nowhere near as clever as us with our periodic table of 100+ elements. But they knew a whole lot more than us in ways we've mostly forgotten. They knew that the smaller you go - the more you get towards atoms - the more complex and variable things become. Rather than more simple, like our Lego-block theories of atomism, where each element is an indivisible and simple part, and which can be combined in various ways with other elements to make apparently more complex things. In reality atoms combine not as simple bits, but as enormously, almost infinitely complex singularities that set up relations between only a small number of their almost infinite number of potential properties, with other atoms. It's all relations, within them and between them.

So to go back to our original picture again. You don't need God to build that little dam. And you don't need it to appear out of luck or chance. The different properties of the grass and dirt and debris and water etc. relate to one another, automatically, to produce something very new. As the ancient atomists saw, everything in existence is a web of relations, constantly on the lookout for new relations with other things. Matter itself is a teeming, writhing soup of inter-relationship, at every scale, from atoms through to rocks and us and grass. That's why things grow and decay, all by themselves. This means profound things for the atheism debate.

Atheism, anthropomorphism

I suggested earlier that both sides in the atheism debate are symmetrical vanities. But why vanity? Both of the main parties to this debate agree on the same thing - that the world is basically meaningless and dumb and uncreative on its own, and any design or purpose must be either imposed on it, or emerge from chance. Without a God or some lucky emergent chance, the world would just be simple, dumb, unconnected atoms. This is vanity because it makes all creativity and change either accidental or supernatural (whether that supernatural is a God, or some version of spiritualism or even emergence), and in the process humans in particular end up defining all creation and change in their own image. You can hear many criticisms of 'anthropomorphism', the supposed projection of human-like qualities on non-human things, as if humanity sat at the apex of all creation and sometimes makes the mistake of projecting its superiority onto other things! Or, and maybe even worse, humanity revels in its feeling of superiority to the extent that it claims the entire universe outside its own head is dead and meaningless and without purpose, and what's more this is considered hard-nosed realism and actually evidence of real moral worth. Outrageous stupidity and vanity, all rolled into one. No wonder we lay waste to so much of the planet, treating it like a dumb, dead resource. 

All unnecessary. We humans are just big colonies of bacteria, part of a movement in matter itself at every scale, of endless creative relationship building. The world is teeming with singularities, of potentially new relationships and therefore new, unexpected, often miraculous things. It's all built right into the substance of the world itself. So be equally as suspicious of those who want to impose supernatural Gods or spirits on top of this wondrous creation, and those who want to claim it's all meaningless and dead and inert. Both lay waste to the world, which is full of wonders, in their stupendous vanity. 


Popular posts from this blog

The Morality of a Speed Bump. Latour.

Reductio Ad Hitlerum, or what's wrong with Godwin's Law

Posture. The Great Big Rump.