There was a time when humans thought they could count the entire universe.
You see, humans have always liked to make order, they liked to name and they later learned how to count. Counting gave them confidence and strength. They could name the observations they made with numbers and then move those numbers around using rules. This made them feel as though they knew something. Yet what they really were learning most was that they do not know.
From our vantage point here comfortably beyond the 23rd century we look back on our ancestors with a mix of reverence and hatred. How could they have been at war with their own communal body? How could they have nearly destroyed their only home? Why did they always differentiate each other? This post is an attempt to explain that our ancestors simply did not know any better. They had accepted a vision of the world and made machinery from it. Their movement from a counting race to a being race is one that is mirrored expressly in the way they arranged the universe to compute for them.
In the past some human societies who enjoyed enlightenment ideas taught their children that atoms make up the universe and that they look like this:
This is both a useful and totally misleading diagram. It allowed much clarity in understanding chemistry and engineering, and it helped the humans in those enlightenment cultures better understand the complex nature of their world; it helped them see beyond surfaces and into essences.
Yet this diagram also screwed up their entire society and worldview until the end of the 21st century and almost cost them their world. How? Because it is a 2D abstraction of a 4D reality. Because it paints a picture of a world where form is knowable and symbolic: the world, from this diagrammatic understanding, is made up of nested solar systems. In this diagram, from the electron one could imagine “seeing” the orbits of the others and watch oneself rotate around the nucleus. From this diagram the humans got a very wrong impression that the world is made up of “real” things.
Some of the humans had moved beyond this simplified understanding to see that atoms are not “things” as much as they are clouds of probability, yet they were specialists and thus their clearer sight was not mainstream.
Every time one goes looking for the electron one always finds it as a probability. There is not “an electron” that you can “find” there is instead the peak of a surrounding electron field that you can touch with energy.
Matter, it was appearing to them, was not made of discrete things, but of continuous fields. The universe is not made of parts, it is made of probability. What was being learned is that, at its deepest level, the universe is unknowable; but it can be gambled on.
The fascinating thing about these diagrams trying to explain the deeper nature of reality is that they were made in the time when humans only had digital computers. The digital computer was the pinnacle of our ancestor’s crisis and the mechanism by which they birthed the solution to their short-sightedness.
Digital computers were a pinnacle achievement for the counting and naming- obsessed humans, for they worked by counting extremely fast.
The digital computer functioned via a series of billions of switches that could be on or off.
times a few billion
The funny part is that our ancestors had invented this distinction, between “on” and “off.” It was a category they mapped to a much more nuanced reality. So that the transistors were never actually totally “on” or “off”, but actually a floating point value.
This made their digital computers a hugely powerful and yet very narrowly human tool. The digital computers could easily manipulate all the things that humans had been counting, especially their precious and beloved money. Yet when it came time to use them to explore the structure of the world, the computers were slow, far below real time. Couldn’t the humans use digitalia to simulate particles? They could.
Yet they could not easily simulate fields. You see, hard as it may be to believe, our ancestors had built a system where everything is broken apart into things called “bits”. Inside of the digital realm where the data is, all fields are made of points, but inside the analog realm where the computer itself is, all points are made of fields.
The humans of the early 21st century were learning that relationships are the true power in the universe. They were beginning to study networks and field effects and epigenetics. Yet they were waiting months for their computers to return answers. For their digital arrays of values had correspondingly large arrays of the possible mappings of relationships. So that the scale of their ambition to know only grew the scale of the complexity of their register entries exponentially!
They had realized the limits of their bounded world of the digital where nothing interacts unless explicitly told to interact, and had begun to enter into the world of the quantum where everything interacts in subtly analog ways.
They had to create a new kind of computation: one made of quantum bits, one where discrete values are all tied together in a coherent field.
They married their ability to count with the universe’s ability to nest infinite complexity inside of probability and relationship. They had finally begun to think with fields instead of points. This was the beginning of their second renaissance, when they saw the beauty in relationship more than the beauty in individualism.
Why recount this history? Because it is important to understand why the humans once behaved the way they did, subjugating differences and denying new forms of expression in their fellow beings.
The enlightenment-fueled humans that built the globalized society of the 18th through mid 21st centuries were obsessed with form, and it almost destroyed them through the ossification of a worldview ignorant of externalities and devoid of harmony with the natural affordances of the universe.
With a worldview that focused on surfaces and forms our ancestors got a place where change is strange and should be protected against.
Their digital computers represented their worldview: one thing is one way, another another, and the two should be isolated to create a difference that is only then meaningful. In their minds and in their machines they believed that they were engineers beyond evolution. They built brittle binary societies with their brittle binary machinery. They believed that they knew best about to make and describe things and were thus always startled when the fitness landscape of their environment changed around them. They would react violently to new forms expressed in people and technologies. And they could not tolerate new processes, since their machinery of thought and execution was set in its ways.
Now of course we do not obsess over form and difference the way we once did. For us now the constant evolution of all form is explained and delighted in. In a universe such as the one we live in, the important thing to focus on is not form, but process. Form is important, but process gives rise to all form in the universe. Process is more fundamental than form.
Thankfully we learned. Thankfully now we do not worry so much about counting and categorizing, we care more for being and expression. Now we do not limit connection, we harness it and multiply it. Now we do not seek the “end of history” but embrace its flow. We do not seek the perfect form, for we know that the only perfect form is endless process.