“My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

-J.B.S. Haldane, geneticist and evolutionary biologist

Let’s imagine a world very different from our own. The only thing on this world are tiny curves and tiny straight lines. These tiny curves and straight lines get tossed around by the wind a lot, and so they often bump into each other. Sometimes, when they bump into each other, they connect. So, for example, amidst all the many possible shapes that may arise from that happening, you sometimes get alphabet shapes, such as “f” or “S”. Now, imagine that for some reason, there is something about the makeup of this world that selects for alphabet shapes; in other words, there is some advantage to the 52 letters of the alphabet (lower and upper case), the digits 0 to 9, and all the punctuation marks of the English language, over the other myriad of shapes that form. Therefore, when these selected shapes form, they reproduce. The other shapes do not; they quickly become extinct. Keep in mind that none of these letters that are forming and reproducing are the slightest bit aware that they even exist, much less that they are reproducing. There is just something about this planet I am describing that promotes their existence.

After a very long time, the 70-odd selected shapes are the only forms left on the planet, and they flourish. Naturally, the same wind that caused the tiny curves and straight lines to bump into each other causes the letters to bump into each other as well. All sorts of combinations follow. “cY”, “tIw”, etc. Inevitably, combinations that we recognize as words also come together. “And”, “so”, “on”, and so on. As before, there is some property of this world that selects for the word-combinations, and not the meaningless ones. Eventually, after a very long period of time, all the words in the dictionary exist on the planet.

The next progression, also by process of selection, is short sentences. “I am”, “It is hot”, “Today I will go”, and so forth. Combinations such as “wood to shabby” and “door bag never” are de-selected. They have no advantages which would enable them to survive on this world, so they go extinct.

You get the idea. The key thing to keep in mind is that when a sentence forms, even a really beautiful one such as, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, it has no idea that it even exists, far less that it is beautiful. It’s just selected for. There is some advantage to being exactly like it is, so it gets to make more of itself. From sentences we go to paragraphs, and so on. If we were to take the case of the line from Shakespeare’s famous sonnet quoted above, it won’t select for that one line to just keep repeating itself, the way the mad writer in The Shining kept writing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. It also won’t select for this:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May

Thou art more lovely and more temperate

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

That, after all, is backwards. Of course the idea of “backwards” would only have any meaning if the lines above were aware that they were composing something meaningful. They aren’t aware of this. They just keep on blindly reproducing, but they only manage to survive and propagate by being in the right order. This world offers advantages, the greatest of which being survival, to passages of prose and poetry that have meaning.

After long, long periods of time, and the same processes going on blindly and mechanically, we move from paragraphs, to short stories, to novellas, to novels, ultimately to “War and Peace”. No author, just the natural selection of meaning over meaningless-ness. “War and Peace” doesn’t know it’s a novel, or a work of brilliance, or even that it is very long, as novels go. It just is. A work of art, unknown to itself, equally unknown to the blind processes that brought it into being.

Until eventually a being from another world comes upon it. This person is a scientist, and so he begins to study it. He can see that it is exquisitely organized. However, he is a little confused about some parts of it. On his world, there are no such things as names. So every time he comes upon a name in “War and Peace”, he doesn’t know what to make of it. Moreover, the names don’t help him understand the story; i.e., who is doing what to whom, etc. So he calls the names “junk”, and just tries to make the most of understanding the novel as best he can.

The other problem is that on his world, the concept of philosophy doesn’t exist in prose, only narrative. As you may know, “War and Peace” contains long sections of philosophy interspersed throughout its narrative. The scientist from another world is not able to recognize these very long passages as having any meaning whatsoever. Again, he calls them “junk”, and concludes that, taking into account the names, and the philosophy, somewhere between a third and a half of the novel is nonsense. To him, it has no meaning (although to us of course it does). Let’s say that  another, more intuitive and less analytical member of his species (let’s say a female!), were to suggest to him that perhaps the novel did not come about by purely mechanical processes, but was actually composed. He would scoff and ask her, “If it were composed, why would it contain so much junk?”

On this world, short sentences become longer sentences, and onward and upward, by a series of mutations. These happen for no other reason that that they just do, because the duplication process is not 100% accurate. However, each mutation, for it to survive, has to conform to the same selective criteria, the “laws” of this planet; it must mean something. So let’s take an example of a very common error, both in our own writing, and on this hypothetical planet. Let’s say a comma accidentally reproduces as a period, in the sentence, “When I left the office, I was very tired.” Due to the error, we now have two new, shorter, “sentences”:

When I left the office. I was very tired.

You can easily see the problem. The first sentence does not obey the rules of grammar. It doesn’t make sense. Therefore, it is rejected. We are left with the much shorter, and less informative sentence, “I was very tired”. This represents a loss of information, hardly unusual on this world. Loss of information is, as you may guess, by far the most common result when a mutation occurs, since they are random.

On the other hand, it may happen that two mistakes can occur at the same time, which effectively cancel each other out so that no information is lost, or even that new information is added. For example, the capital W at the beginning of the word sequence could erroneously reproduce as a capital T, at exactly the same time that the period subs in for the comma. In that case, you’d have:

Then I left the office. I was very tired.

This is new information, and because it makes sense, it reproduces. We have now added to the pool of available sentences on this planet. Still, to be truthful, the information has changed only slightly. To get from really simple sentences all the way to stunning prose – to “War and Peace” –  these positive mutations have to occur millions upon millions of times, and only the mutations that make sense, each step of the way, can go on to reproduce and be a part of the evolution chain from sentence to paragraph, and so on.

In other words, if we want to go from a sentence in a child’s reader, such as “See Jack and Spot run”, to this line from “War and Peace”:

“Gazing into Napoleon’s eyes, Prince Andrei mused on the unimportance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.”,

we can’t have something like: See Gazing into Jack Spot, eyes Prince run mused, etc.

That may be considered a crude link between the two, but it can’t survive, because it doesn’t meet the fitness requirement of this planet. It makes no sense. We would need to have something like this:

See Jack gazing into Napoleon’s eyes, musing on the unimportance of greatness, which Spot can not understand.

Hardly beautiful prose, but it does make sense. Remember that beauty is entirely irrelevant on this world, as nothing is even aware that it is doing anything. The natural laws of the planet are simply operating, and the only thing they require is meaning.To make it even more complicated, even to the precise step before we see the longer sentence emerge, long after Jack and Spot have been abandoned, we can’t have the sentence go haywire at the end, and finish with, “….which no one alive could understand on explain”. If that happens, the entire sequence may end up being rejected. Clearly, moving from a simple sentence to a very complex, and more meaningful one, is a very, very, very, very iffy business.

 

Now you know how “War and Peace” can write itself! You also have a fairly workable analogy for how Leo Tolstoy himself, in all his genius, came to exist without any “creator”, in the absence of even the tiniest iota of consciousness;  with nothing more than natural laws playing out over a few billion years and trillions of mutations, beginning with a chemical reaction that took place in the distant past that resulted in a self-duplicating piece of matter. All things, from a grizzly bear’s biceps to Leo Tolstoy’s incomparable mind, in fact every living thing and every part of every living thing, are merely variations on that first chemical reaction.

You are forgiven for finding that hard to believe. You are forgiven for thinking that no matter how many monkeys you have banging on typewriters, and being rewarded with bananas only when they type something that makes sense, you are never going to get “War and Peace”. Personally, I don’t think the universe has that many bananas! However, those who are convinced that the emergence and evolution of life on Earth can be fully explained as a result of natural selection by random mutation will adamantly disagree with you. They may even call you deluded, for imagining that if there’s a novel, there must be a novelist.

Oh, how could I forget? “War and Peace” is a Russian, not English novel. Not to worry. On my imaginary world, novels have even learned to translate themselves! You now have a glimpse of the incredible world of the genetic code. But that, my friends, is another story.

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Questinia
Member

Such an intuitive and elegant way to illustrate the conundrum of evolutionary existence ‘tusie. You magnificently bring it all together.

We know by quantum mechanics that we must place the human as part of the system and not separate from it. Evolution is just one example of a scientific system which has been devised by humans as they exist as the impartial observers. There is a danger in this thinking because it not only continues the hubris that is wont in humanity but is closed-min­ded.

We may have traditiona­lly seen evolution as having a beginning, an origin back in time, but in fact it may be looked at from the opposite end: that the end result is influencin­g how things progress. An analogy might be how cells organize into tissues and organs and ultimately the body. For that matter, it could be seen as having no origin OR end.

Furthermore, some of the “instantaneous” meaningful phrases of life can be due to quantum evolution, where transitional phrases like “See Gazing into Jack Spot, eyes Prince run mused” are unstable and don’t last long.

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escribacat
Member

Q, your post reminds me of the film, “What the Bleep Do We Know?” Have you seen that? I’ve watched it quite a few times I’m so fascinated by it. I’m not sure I buy everything in the film but much of it rings true to me.

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Questinia
Member

e-cat, no I’ve never seen it. I’ll see whether it is streamed on netflix. Thanks!

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escribacat
Member

Fantastic post, WTS. It’s a perfect description of the magic that we and our world are. For all the people who are bored and dissatisfied with life, if they would only stop and ponder such things for a moment and remember we ARE Oz and the end of the rainbow and Shangri La and all those other magical places people yearn for. It’s here, inside us! I’ve always considered myself a searcher and have studied several “belief systems” at some length. I have finally just concluded to live in the mystery and celebrate its mysteriousness. I figure if I had the answers, that would make me god. (I do suspect that WE are God and have collective powers we don’t realize).

War and Peace happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, too. And by the way, that drawing is my favorite of all yours I’ve seen. It’s stunning.

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Kalima
Admin

Absolutely fabulous concept, both the drawing and essay. Won’t spoil it with my 5 pence worth today though, stuffy nose and cloudy head over here, almost like navel-gazing, just about remember my name. Loved it wts!

Have to be honest and say that if kes hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t have spotted the words written in the drawing. I used my iPod to zoom in. One of my favourites so far, and I have many.

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AdLib
Admin

BRILLIANT! Fucking brilliant!

WTS, you set my imagination a-wandering with your fantastic and lyrical exploration of creation.

We can’t even conceive of something that science proves exists in the physical plane, an infinite universe (how does one create a mental image of infinity?). So of course it’s difficult for some to admit that there are actually things that human beings just can’t fully comprehend or fit neatly into a definable, explanatory box.

Wonderful post, WTS!

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Chernynkaya
Member

I can’t stop myself, What’s– I gotta riff on this.

In Judaism, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are believed the building blocks of creation. The Kabbalah teaches that in every letter of the alphabet are Worlds, Souls, and Divinity. “Worlds” refer to the physical, material, human and personal; “Souls” mean religious/spiritual dimensions; and “Divinity” is the godly. Each of these dimensions is further reflected in the letter’s shape, name, and numerical value—thus, there are nine separate categories of meaning for each letter.

Tons and TONS of books have been written on this. It is not something I studied much though, because, to me— while intriguing —it seems a bit reductionist. I just bring it up because your illustration reminded me of it.

If anyone is casually interested (Khirad?), this shows the basics:
http://tiltyourhead.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/words-words-words/

And here is one of thousands of pieces of art that reflects it:

[img]http://www.mazaltovpages.com/images/Art%20Gallery/Susan%2012%20%28Atlantis%29.jpg[/img]

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Khirad
Member

One might also say it read like the casting of runes. 😉

(they are far less complex than the multiple meanings of Hebrew letters, too!)

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kesmarn
Admin

Cher, now I have to return the compliment. You are good! This is so enlightening.

There’s a really cool lenten service (Tenebrae)in Catholicism, in which the book of “Lamentations” is sung. Before each sung section, a letter of the Hebrew alphabet is chanted. After each section a part of the church’s lights are extinguished, until at the very end there is total darkness. Out of the darkness comes a clap of thunder (always have to warn the little ones in advance so they don’t freak at the combination of loud noise/total darkness). It’s very moving.

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Khirad
Member

That’s a full-fledged psychodrama!

Post tenebras spero lucem…

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kesmarn
Admin

Exactly, Khirad!

(And,of course, there’s incense, too. We wouldn’t want to overlook any of the senses.)

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Chernynkaya
Member

That is fascinating! Sooo cool! Wow.

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Chernynkaya
Member

Oh! And I meant to say that the illustration is fabulous too!

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Chernynkaya
Member

Oh, What’s. I have so many thoughts, I can’t say anything; it’s overwhelming. As you may know, I have studied wisdom traditions (religions, spirituality, whatever you want to call them) most of my life. I came to the conclusion that the more I learned, the more questions and the less sure I was of anything. But here’s where all that study and searching left me: I don’t NEED to know any answers. I am completely content to live in the mystery. I don’t know; I can’t know, and I don’t (in the deepest part of me) really want to know.

But what you wrote so stunningly encapsulates my essential belief. And science proves it to me the more it looks into the universe.

For me, this is the bottom line: When you meditate, and watch your mind, WHO is watching? Who is the entity watching oneself? That seems so simple and so big, don’t you think?

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escribacat
Member

Great comment, Cher. Who indeed!!!

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kesmarn
Admin

Ahhh…WTS, on behalf of every other person who suspects that there might…just might…be a wonderful, immanent/transcendent, creative, intelligent, and (one hopes) loving intelligence guiding this whole amazing show, may I thank you?

Of course we’re not talking grumpy, bearded, punitive old white guy in the sky. That would be so boring, while we still have John McCain in the world.

To go from the sublime to the sublimely silly. I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago. Two gloves were engaged in animated conversation, when one of them morosely observed: “I don’t know… Sometimes I wonder if there really is a Hand.”

Food for thought: will the alphabetical inhabitants of your imaginary planet have to go back to square one when they discover that the opening words of “War and Peace” aren’t really: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times”? 😉

PS It took me a moment, and a second glance, to realize that your wonderful portrait illustration is composed of…words! Delightful.

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Chernynkaya
Member

KES!!

…when they discover that the opening words of “War and Peace” aren’t really: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times”?

Damn, you’re good!

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kesmarn
Admin

If you keep giving me compliments, Cher, you will only encourage me.

And then this living room carpet will never get vacuumed!

(Thank you. 😉 )

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bito
Member

What, did some of the staff have the day off today, Buff?

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kesmarn
Admin

Far from it, Biff, dear. But when I am typing, my slapping hand is occupied. And then I have no way to “motivate” my Sri Lankan maid.

You know how it is. You can’t threaten to dock their wages when you’re not paying them anything. The only thing left is to go B. F. Skinner on them. Dahling.

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Mightywoof
Member

It took me a moment, and a second glance, to realize that your wonderful portrait illustration is composed of…words

Good grief – good eyes Kes!! I had to zoom in my browser to see them.

Is there no end to your talent wts?

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Mightywoof
Member

I’m totally gob-smacked wts ……… how do you live in your mind? It is filled with so many beautiful thoughts and images and imagery that, if I were you, I would be in tears at all that beauty!

I have to echo Cher – an exquisite piece!! I love the thought of lines and curves reproducing randomly and coming up with War and Peace

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Chernynkaya
Member

What’s– simply an amazing, exquisite piece. I just got up, but I will have more to say later. But whatever I say, it won’t do it justice.

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