I like ideas that change the room completely and clap me numb as a board, and I have found that in both scientific and spiritual domains—in all encounters with genuine discovery—moments arise producing a sense of awe. This awe is like a resonance of my heart. I think conventional knowledge would suggest that the heart’s ways of knowing and intellectual ways of coming to understanding are unrelated, but I have to confess I don’t see it this way at all. In my work as an engineer for instance, when evaluating a problem, I get a sense that something is incorrect long before I can identify the reason why, and likewise, often a statement that is logically correct just feels wrong, and if I trust this intuition I am able to follow the thread to the reason why I feel that way.
The fallacy of most argument is that it treats an isolated portion of the story, and never the whole.
Recently I had one of these moments of awe reading a paper written by the Italian scientist Marcello Barbieri. I have this feeling often when I read about the rambunctious whirly-gigs of life that fill a cell, and in this case it was the notion in Barbieri’s work that the process of life relies upon conventions that are not reducible to physical laws. Barbieri’s work is at the frontier of biosemiotics, a field which endeavors to apply principles of semiotics in general to biological systems.
One example of semiotics is semaphore, where waving flags around allows people who are able to interpret the symbols to send messages back and forth. Nothing about the process of waving flags around, or watching them wave around, violates physical laws, but nothing about the meanings exchanged may be derived from physical laws either. The meanings could be anything.
The process involves three components: a sign or symbol (the various flag-waving maneuvers), the meaning (the letters of the alphabet assigned to those maneuvers), and a code, which is the relationship between the two. It is this relationship between symbols and meanings that is not reducible to physical laws. The relationship, in other words, is not predicated upon a physical necessity.
In the body the most famous code is the genetic code, but in relatively recent history many other codes have been found in biological systems. Barbieri identifies approximately twenty in his paper, all of which were discovered between 1996 and 2008—the year his paper was written. So this is a relatively recent line of theoretical pursuit. What is amazing to me is this: life produces novelty through the production of novel and sustained relationships (codes) not driven by physical necessity. The operation of these codes conforms in every way to physical laws, but the relationships themselves are arbitrary in some sense. Or at least, that is the supposition.
As scientists the difficult task that Barbieri and his colleagues face is that they wish to avoid resorting to mysticism or spiritualism or the like to justify this, and I support them in their desire to do so. I have a mystical propensity myself, but I don’t believe a quick leap into positing an external codemaker—e.g. an invisible writer of codes, such as a God—is merited. You see, it doesn’t sit well with me to reduce these moments of awe to something that I can hold in my hand by saying, “Oh, it is the hand of God.” I would rather sit in awe for a moment and just let that feeling be what it is…
Why is this awesome, though? What does it mean about the nature of things? Well the spiritual teachings with which I resonate most describe reality as relatedness. A Course of Love is quite clear on this, and I see certain Buddhist teachings suggesting this as well, though I am not a scholar and could find myself in a quandary were I to try and elucidate that quickly here. What is awesome to me is that we see the very nature of life, and of the world in which we live, as being the spontaneous production of non-physical, novel quantities called “codes” that never existed before in the history of the universe. This is sublime. You will not find codes by manipulating natural laws or the equations that express them any more than you will produce a legal system by recording the sounds produced in the vocal cords of prehistoric hominids. Now this is not to say that Barbieri believes the cellular codes are the product or vehicle of any conscious codes, like a modern language for instance; to be clear that is not his intent at all. But it is his intent to demonstrate that life as we know it could not exist or have evolved as it has, without the promulgation of the absolute novelty produced by the development of codes in the very heart of biological process.
If I think about the resistance to physicalism that I have in my heart, it would be this: physicalism tends to assert that all things are explainable, ultimately, by the basic physical properties of matter. This is certainly the case for the creation of the elements in stars, for instance, where the given properties of atoms and the forces of nature necessarily give rise to heavier elements. This process is no different, qualitatively, than water flowing down a hill. It is fully explained by the given nature of things. The implication of codes at work in living processes is that life is not reducible to the given nature of things. It is something more.
I am willing to make a leap Barbieri and other scientists may not be permitted to take, and that would be to suggest that it is the very nature of this universe to explore relatedness—to suggest, in other words, that the universe as it exists is not reducible to physical necessity alone. There are additional propensities in its very fabric that compel the spontaneous production of novelty through the exploration of relatedness. We might say, for instance, that this universe has some sort of innate facility to promote, or bring into being, relationship itself. These relationships are not necessarily physical, or reducible to physical necessity, but nonetheless they are developed and sustained. And they are certainly physically expressed.
It would be remiss scientifically to propose an external conscious agency orchestrating these events, and that is not what I wish to suggest. That is too simplistic an approach in my opinion. It misses the mark because it suggests there is something outside of this universe acting upon it, and that does not ring my heart like a bell. It feels more a projection of anthropomorphic reasoning than a viewpoint from this moment of awe. Awe, you see, does not require a causal explanation.
I do think, for instance, that we may discover additional physical means by which these relationships are forged. One little known piece of scientific research, for instance, has found that proteins and other biological molecules related to a common process in living organisms share common resonant frequencies. Water has also been shown to be a medium capable of receiving, storing, and transmitting those (or similar) frequencies in recent scientific research as well. We may well find that—(I’m rushing heedless into the unknown here)—a missing element to our story of life’s origins is that some sort of selection process occurred between primordial biomolecules due to shared resonance that facilitated repeated interactions, which led to novel relationships. The elements to such a theory exist in various disciplines right now so I’m not sure how great a stretch this really is. I have no idea what we will find, but I think we’ll find a great deal more by way of explanatory mechanisms as we dig.
That said, it would not take away from this sensation of awe for me, or from the idea that the universe has its origins in the promulgation of relationship, which is never identifiable in one physical entity or another, but in the wholeness between them that is greater than any part. It is wholeness that we too often discard as having any active validity in my opinion. It is wholeness that we cannot measure. We think both scientifically and culturally in terms of discrete entities, discrete beings, discrete forces, when in fact there are few fields of knowledge where self-existing independence remains viable as a path to knowledge.
And when we confront the ineffable link that lies between things, holding them each to each and giving them a path to expression, I think awe is a perfectly reasonable response. For it is what we cannot measure that is the most essential quality of what is.