On Wholeness, Life and Awe

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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.


  1. This basic relatedness in reality that you write of so learnedly reminds me of why many theologians in contemporary godspeak, with reference to that relatedness, name as Trinitarian (minus the cultural baggage of the Scholastic Theology) that ultimate reality called God.

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    • Hi Dennis,

      It is interesting to note that the subheading of one of the sections of Barbieri’s paper was The Cell as Trinity. The third something at work is not the DNA, or the proteins created, but the relationship between them. In this case that relationship is a ribosome, a physical artifact, but more generally relationship is all we have of what is. Form merely follows content, right?

      I think this relationship, or this third “something” is one of those universal properties of “universe” and while I chose to avoid the word “God” in this essay in an effort to avoid hewing to a particular vocabulary, you may enjoy this line from A Course of Love Dennis: “Union is impossible without God. God is union. Is this not like saying God is Love? Love is impossible without union. The same is true of relationship. God creates all relationship.”

      A Course of Love goes on to say that it is only through relationship that anything may be known, for to be everything or to be nothing does not allow for knowing. It is only when One divides yet simultaneously remains joined through relationship, that truth is expressed. This clearly involves a trinity… 🙂

      “Reality, the truly real, is relationship.”


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    • Thank you, RC. Glad you found it interesting! This hasn’t historically been a typical post for me, but I do love to explore a variety of topics!


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  2. Gets me gleefully joyful
    dancing across your words, Michael!
    Mysteriously proving a probing deeply
    between theory and holy possibility.
    Expressed results, that
    our essence can be experienced methodologically revealing the kingdom,
    the pure land,
    our collective fish bowl’s water
    at this moment 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, David! Awe does a have a way of getting us up out of our seats! Ha! And I agree we’re all in this fishbowl together; this much is certain. I do enjoy discovering archetypes of holiness at work in the fundamental ferment of the world, and seeing the way timeless principles are written into the fabric of our eminently mysterious reality…


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  3. Hi Michael,

    For me, everything you wrote here comes to this, “Awe, you see, does not require a causal explanation.”

    When “heart” and “mind” are joined together and linkages and relationships are seen and understood, the whole organism keeps itself open to exploring and creating, and the interaction of parts of all organisms end up being more than the sum of their parts or “discreteness,” making wholeness more phenomenal than measurable.

    Appreciating your explorations here, Ka

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    • Love this summation, Ka!

      Awe is an interesting awareness if we let it come I think. It is complete in itself somehow, a cause and effect all at once. It seems to me that when we realize existence as we know it is founded upon relationship, it makes sense that means and ends are joined, for relationship gives life to expressions of truth, which give rise to awe and joy, which give rise to deepening and novel forms of relatedness. And on an on we spin!


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      • Oh I love this. Recently I wrote a poem that had a component of completion – ‘the word,’ “completion,” in it, as well as some seed thoughts and endings. That poem ended up deleted, completely, a technical hiccup ~ and only the title remained. So, I am appreciating the synchronicity with that situation, and how your words highlight relationship (even with non-entities such as computers and networks which are virtually amorphous in certain ways), as it all brings forth depth & life; also contemplating the breath of life through the exchange and dynamic of gas exchange and other such biological processes, codes? Filled with mystery, ❤ spinning on the green and blue marble never felt so wholesome-awesome and compelling to decode. As Hariod said, there's the irony of reductionism to get back to holism. Have a wonderful weekend, Michael.
        In Peace Ka

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        • Thank you, Ka. There is a tragic beauty in the disappearance of your poem about completion. Are we into impermanence now!? Ha!

          It is worthwhile to hold this awe in our hearts I think, for at a minimum it inspires trust in the reality in which we find ourselves. How many times have I wandered from this trust, only to find it is perhaps the most essential ingredient in our well-being? Too often to count… 🙂

          I also like the idea of reductionism leading to holism. I think that’s what we are faced with in many disciplines to be honest. A physicist who may have been shown wrong on some things, but was a fan of Einstein, once showed that by removing some of the classical assertions to which Einstein clung, he could mathematically write the theory of relativity in an expanded manner that reduced to quantum theory under certain approximations. The essence of his idea was that relativity is based upon holism, and that it was fundamental, and that quantum mechanics, whose mathematics is based upon discrete actors and an independent time and space, was only the reality as we would perceive it under certain conditions. That too, inspired awe in me!

          Peace my friend.

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          • Yes! And, this awe you have has opened up more wonder and awe in me, too!

            Contemplating spins and quantum entanglement and opposite spins 50% of the time – how randomness can have an opposite randomness ?! This is all new to me. How the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics could be not-conflicting. Also, I’ve recently discovered how people have discovered that quantum computing (and entanglement?) can lead to undecodable data security in satellite transmissions. I’ve only just begun looking into these things. I wonder what’s next? Will the nature of curiosity take us ever deeper into discernment – rather than reducing, elucidating? Have I left your original inquiry entirely? What about sentient relational systems?

            Looking forward to reading more in general when time permits. It’s a busy workshop-filled weekend here, more experiential than intellectual, but plenty of all of the above. Have a lovely Sunday and a great week ahead!

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            • Entanglement is a good one for sure, Ka! Glad the awe train is rolling across the land… I don’t think you’ve left my original inquiry at all, just expanded it to include a few additional examples… Entanglement to me suggests a non-local unity or accounting process at work in the universe. There are other ways of interpreting it, I think, but when proving the existence of entanglement I think physicists actually showed that a) entangled particles pass through physical filters differently than non-entangled ones, because they are in an indeterminate state, and b) when a measurement is made they always remain equal and opposite to one another (in spin orientation I think). Amazing! Certainly awe-inducing…


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  4. Hi Michael!

    When you refer to ACOL and the concept of Relatedness, with its possible correlations to Buddhism, then we can immediately point to the essence, the philosophical core and pinnacle of Buddhism, which is the doctrine of Anattaatta meaning ‘self’, and hence Anatta meaning ‘non-self’. This doctrine applies to all things, not just to the selves we commonly regard as persons, but to all apparently independent material things, as well as all mental phenomena.

    What the doctrine of Anatta asserts is the interrelatedness of all phenomena, in which no single phenomenon stands independently (i.e. self-sufficiently) without causal origin and without that codependence and interrelatedness. The irony of the teaching, at least in its orthodox form, is that it demands the practise of a reductionist methodology in order to see the unicity, or interrelatedness, of all things.

    I’ve often thought of it as a sort of ‘reversing into’ this realisation, wherein we negate the erroneously believed self-existence of all phenomenon appearing within consciousness until the point may arrive when the mind makes an intuitive leap into realising this relatedness, this non-self, or non-dual, nature of all things. That might feel something like the dissolving of the subject/object dichotomy with which the mind normally apprehends the world.

    With Mettā, Hariod.

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    • Thank you, Hariod. I do think this is quite similar to the assertions of A Course of Love, which suggest that relationship itself is the “reality.” That is not a quote by my own attempt to express what it describes. We mistake the reality as these objects, when in point of fact this obscures our ability to grasp the singular nature of relationship. Further, there are not separate relationships any more than there are separate objects: there is only relationship. Here are a few quotes directly that may add to this idea:

      “Relationship exists apart from particulars. This is what you can’t conceive of and what your heart must newly learn. All truth is generalizable because truth is not concerned with any of the specific details or forms of your world. You think relationship exists between one body and another, and while you think this is so, you will not understand relationship or union or come to recognize love as what it is.”

      “Relationship is what exists between one thing and another. It is not one thing or another thing. It is not a third thing in terms of being a third object, but it is something separate, a third something. You realize that a relationship exists between your hand and a pencil when you go to write something down, but it is a relationship you take so completely for granted that you have forgotten that it exists. All truth lies in relationship, even one so simple as this. The pencil is not real, nor the hand that grasps it. Yet the relationship between the two is quite real. ‘When two or more are joined together’ is not an injunction for bodies to unite. It is a statement that describes the truly real, the only reality that exists. It is the joining that is real and that causes all creation to sing a song of gladness. No one thing exists without another. Cause and effect are one. Thus, one thing cannot cause another without their being one or joined in truth.”

      With Love

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  5. Michael, how nice it is to stop by your place and find some great Friday night reading! You had me sitting in awe with my heart resonating. As a kid, I loved reading Arthur Conan Doyle, and my absolute favorite story was the stick people story on decoding. Now you got me thinking that it was not the stick people or the alphabet that was so fascinating but the relationship between the two, the code. 🙂

    Russians had done many studies on water that you mention. I had friends who very much believed in certain frequencies of water and how that interacts with our bodies, and she would freeze and unfreeze and only use certain parts of unfrozen water.

    In Buddhism, the law of dependent origination perhaps comes close to the interrelatedness you describe. E.g see here:
    The Japanese term “engi” for dependent origination means arising in relation. But like Hariod says, I feel limitations in Buddhist doctrine too and it seems to me you are marrying some teachings including science here and taking that relationship a step further.

    I was recently reading another blogger’s musings on existence or non-existence of free will. He was saying that when scientists reduce all phenomenon to physically finite laws, they claim the impossibility of free will (and they also admit that lay folks should not be let in of that fact for the safety of society, because research shows that when people do not believe in free will they act worse – this is meanwhile another topic). I immediately started thinking of the way you described relations and it felt to me that the whole discussion of free will is irrelevant. Like there is something beyond our logic and analysis that we are not quite grasping. I like that you push into that realm.
    What say you, sir?

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    • Hi Kristina,

      Thank you for your thoughts on dependent origination and our relatedness. I’m not sure if Hariod feels there is any limitation in Buddhist doctrine, but I’ll let Hariod speak to that if so inclined. I think for me neither teaching can be precisely right, and that it provides some guidance to arriving at the insight of it, the actualizing of it in our being.

      I love the question in your last paragraph and this thread has caused me to think of it in a way I never had before, which is this: most often we are asking if these ‘separate bodies’ with which we identify have free will. But the question is a non sequitur if unity and relationship are in fact the fundamental nature of existence. I think this is what you are suggesting and it is a powerful consideration I think.

      In some ways I think this is why accepting the heart’s way of knowing, and resolving inner conflict by unifying it with the mind’s perceptions, is so important. For then we can see and respond in unity and I think it opens up an array of choices and responses not altogether obvious from our conflicted, separately-identified states of mind.


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    • PS – Kristina, I went to an annual meeting of scientists researching water once, and heard a talk from Vladimir Voikov, who was really an interesting person (at least in terms of his research). I have read one or two of his papers and found them really interesting…

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  6. Michael,
    An interesting post.

    I’m glad you stipulated that even if things have a physical explanation, it doesn’t diminish the awe we might feel about it. I’m often called a reductionist, which is a label I accept, but I generally resist the label “eliminative reductionist”, because I think it ignores the relationships, the patterns, the structures and dynamics that come into being from the lower level patterns.

    But it probably won’t shock you that I don’t buy Barbieri’s argument. Semaphores exist in computer science, often as a mechanism to coordinate access to resources by multiple executing threads and processes. While the meaning isn’t in the voltage states of the transistors that transitorily make up their physical instantiation, it still exists physically. It exists first as neural firing patterns in the programmer’s brain, but even after the programmer has forgotten all about it, the meaning exists throughout the rest of the system in the ways it responds to the various states of the semaphore. A new programmer with no documentation could, in principle, observe the rest of the system and deduce the meaning.

    Which of course is what we have to do with biological systems. Observe how the components interact and see if we can see the patterns that are the meanings of each component. Biology being biology, these systems seldom have the clean functional lines of an engineered system. Biology is utterly messy and ad hoc, with any organization being hammered out from the relentless effects of natural selection.

    But the more I understand biology, particularly my poor attempts to understand it at the molecular level, the more I hold it in awe. Accepting that these systems are built on top of molecular chemistry and lower level physics in no way diminishes that awe.

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    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your note and thoughtful reply. I do think that we may/will find mechanisms that would provide insight into the arising of these “natural conventions” as Barbieri terms them, but I have pretty deep roots, as you know, in the idea that the universe as a whole is a singular and dynamically unfolding creative event with qualities science has yet to identify.

      That aside, I think you have keen insight into most any topic that may arise and it is a joy to discuss things with you. You bring up an interesting point here I think that I would like to understand. I know precious little about how computers work, in fact, and so I’m not able to follow your analogy; but if I can I would like to express your thought in a simpler but hopefully equivalent form to see if I am understanding what you are saying. We could watch self-driving cars approaching simple intersections and after a time we could deduce that a red signal means stop and a green signal means go, and I think what you are saying is that the red and green lights, the signals they produce, the photo-receptors that receive the signals, and the physical brain that interprets and acts upon the signal in a “meaningful” way are all physical elements. There is nothing physically irreducible about it. Am I correct?

      I don’t disagree with this myself, and as you say, we deduce the patterns at work in biology through observation. I think what Barbieri is saying; however, is twofold. First, were we to come at this from first principles, we could not explain why red means stop and green means go by studying what is known about the atoms and molecules involved. I think you agree and this is why you wouldn’t call yourself an “eliminative reductionist.” But let me know if you disagree. If this is true, then although the system consists of physical elements, the relationship itself is not physically pre-determined. It represents absolute novelty in the sense that new codes allowed life to increase complexity and degrees of orientation. Once they evolved, they are very plain to see physically.

      As a corollary to the first, these relationships are artifacts. Proteins are built by intermediate molecular machines whose structure relates the world of the genome to the world of the phenome. If life were to cease today, and all the miniscule molecular machines be swallowed whole by the explosion of the sun, there is no valid physical principle we can rely upon to conclude that similar relationships would evolve were life to start over. In some other world then, red may mean go (as it does in power plant electrical systems) and green may mean stop.

      Second, Barbieri feels the theory of evolution is inadequate to explain life without consideration of these relationships that form, and which, once formed, become hard-wired conventions on which life relies. His point is that we cannot ignore them if we wish to explain the evolution of life.

      I will confess that that little heart thing I described inside me doesn’t feel Barbieri has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the codes found in living organisms have not arisen from some physical principle yet to be determined. But where I made a leap in this post, which you may not personally wish to follow, is perhaps in suggesting relationships are novel and perhaps even non-physical quantities, at least as we understand physicality today. I think given our previous exchanges this is a perfectly reasonable position; it is simply one area of thought where we may see things differently.

      I will say that ultimately it will not surprise me in the least if our pursuit of physical principles and our pursuit of spiritual insight resolve into a common perspective. Gravity, for instance, is observed but not explained. We have to accept, for the present time, that gravity is an unexplained relationship between masses giving rise to predictable behaviors. I think “relationship” itself may, like gravity, be a driving force in the behavior of the universe as we know it, but I do not propose this is something everyone should run out and endorse. I simply feel it as true in my heart.

      That aside, this work of Barbieri inspires awe in me because it is the point where present knowledge breaks down. It seems we are witnessing the discovery of a type of spontaneous production of novelty whose arrival within physical systems we cannot presently explain. That, to me, is awesome. I think we will learn much more, and I think we may find there are other physical principles at work able to give rise to the emergence of molecular machines whose operation, like a computer, relies upon the execution of a code upon a set of instructions. Unfortunately in cells we cannot invoke a programmer or engineer to explain how these relationships came into being, so it is a fascinating realm to explore I think.

      What of Barbieri’s approach seems incorrect? The idea that codes are not physically reducible? Do you have thoughts on how these “natural conventions” as he describes them may come into being?


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      • Hi Michael,
        “There is nothing physically irreducible about it. Am I correct?”

        “First, were we to come at this from first principles, we could not explain why red means stop and green means go by studying what is known about the atoms and molecules involved.”

        I think we may be mixing levels of organization here. The meaning of red and green is meaningless at a physics level. Red and green only acquire their stop and go meanings through the actions of the rest of the system. It’s a convention, which as you point out, could easily have been reversed. Although I suspect red gets assigned to the more crucial indicator because it’s more noticeable for humans, probably for evolutionary reasons.

        This reminds me of a conversation I had with my cousin last week, who was worried that property values in his region haven’t settled to their real value yet. I pointed out that there is no “real” value, only what values we all collectively assign to things through market forces. The best we can talk about perhaps is sustainable value.

        Anyway, it shouldn’t surprise us that life has conventions. How many of those conventions would be unique to Earth life and how many would be convergent evolution is an interesting question. But just as red ends up being the most crucial color in our conventions for it, I suspect biological conventions might have something to do with how much energy is involved in creating each signal and reacting to it. But in some cases, it might simply come down to what random mutation happened first and got built around. In other words, totally arbitrary and subject to a different result if evolution were rewound.

        “That aside, this work of Barbieri inspires awe in me because it is the point where present knowledge breaks down.”

        One point I recently made for someone, is that we only understand things in term of their more primitive components. And we only understand those components in terms of *their* more primitives. Eventually we reach primitives we don’t yet understand. Someday we will understand many of those primitives, but when we do, it will likely be in terms of new primitives we don’t understand. I’m sure you’re familiar with the term “turtles all the way down.”

        Incidentally, gravitation isn’t one of those primitives anymore. It was for Newton, but Einstein demonstrated that gravitation is the warping of spacetime. It’s effects on the motion of matter amount to altering the path that the matter is taking through spacetime. Of course, we don’t understand what spacetime itself is, or exactly what mass does to warp it. More turtles to turn over.

        “What of Barbieri’s approach seems incorrect? The idea that codes are not physically reducible? Do you have thoughts on how these “natural conventions” as he describes them may come into being?”

        I commented above about the natural conventions. My issue with Barbieri’s approach is I think he’s positing entities that don’t appear to be necessary, violating Occam’s razor. In some ways, it’s similar to the idea of downward causation, the idea that higher level entities constrain lower ones. But I think downward causation, while often convenient to describe things, is ultimately bad ontology.

        The example usually given is traffic, which only comes into being with large numbers of vehicles. The idea is that once traffic comes into being, it constrains the movement of individual vehicles. But this is wrong at a physical level. The only thing physically constraining the movement of any one vehicle are the vehicles immediately in front and adjacent to it. Of course, those adjacent vehicles are constrained by other vehicles in front of or adjacent to them and so on. We use the “traffic” concept as shorthand for a vast causal chain, but each link in the chain is only physically effected by local links, not the entire chain.

        Likewise, a biological convention comes about from each use that increases reproductive success. Repeated success may lead to other adjacent physical events being more and more compatible with it. We see a pattern of all those uses and use the convention concept as shorthand. Saying that things are so and so because of a convention is a convenient stand in for another vast causal chain. But for each link in the chain, it’s the immediate local interactions that are the actual physical causes, not the whole chain, even if it’s often convenient to think of the entire chain as being causal.

        That’s not to say that traffic, conventions, or the markets I mentioned above don’t exist. They certainly do. But they exist at a higher level of organization, and when strictly talking about physical causation, we have to be careful not to mix our levels of organization.

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        • Hi Mike,

          Reading your reply, I think we agree that a) conventions appear to be a necessary component of living systems, b) that conventions are arbitrary, and c) conventions are not meaningful at the level of physical organization below the system level at which they are expressed, as the system itself. We also agree that there could be heretofore unidentified mechanisms that enable molecular conventions to arise, along with selection pressures that sustain them.

          Given these beginnings, I don’t understand why it is a stretch to suggest that life produces and leverages novel relationships that previously did not exist, and which are called by some researchers codes. In particular I don’t understand the relevance of your discussion on causation and level organization, because we agree there could be some mechanism such as least energy signaling or electromagnetic resonance that could bring a convention into being. I don’t think Barbieri suggested this could not be the case. Where is there downward causation in this? I think there would be downward causation if Barbieri said that a code arose at a higher level of organization and then exerted a downward pressure to select for particular biomolecules, but I don’t recall reading that.

          I think he suggested the biomolecules that obtained in evolutionary history possess a form of relatedness and specificity that was essential to life. He suggested that there is a difference between evolution driven by mutation (natural selection), caused by copying or replication errors, and evolution by convention, caused by the formation of novel and sustained relationships. If we make a typographical error such as typing ‘fowl’ instead of ‘foul’, we have changed the meaning expressed within the context of the language, but we have not changed the language itself. Biological conventions as I understand them are the language itself, e.g. the set of relationships, codified into particular biomolecules, that (for the genetic code) relate codons to amino acids in a specific way.

          An important aspect of this post for me personally was exploration of the idea that relationship itself, in the most general or abstract sense, is what is real, and that we can see artifacts of relationship expressed in physical form. This is important for me because it shifts focus away from a perspective of viewing “things” as discrete and independent entities, and allows one to discover, experientially almost, the underlying unity of phenomena.

          I like to see the world in this way and I find it helpful to do so. I also have a great respect for the scientific method, and very much agree with your reference to “turtles all the way down.” For me, this relates readily to Hariod’s suggestion that underneath all the turtles is the interrelatedness, or unicity. For me this means the underpinning of the whole thing is, in a sense, the whole thing. We reduce until we are left with the whole. For the whole is both everything and nothing, and it is only revealed by the relationships to which it gives rise.

          Thanks for spending time with me here. I could be missing something in my interpretation of Barbieri’s paper, but we have not discussed anything that detracts from my appreciation and wonder at the way his insight enables me to perceive timeless principles etched into the fabric of the natural world.


          Liked by 2 people

        • Mike, as a post script, following a walk outside I think I understand now the key distinction you’ve made. I accepted the phrase “physically irreducible” in Barbieri’s paper at face value, meaning in the context in which it was written I interpreted it to mean physically plausible, but not physically necessary. I interpret your traffic example and some of your discussion now to mean that you felt Barbieri may have meant that codes represent a novelty wholly unrelated to underlying systems, and I can see why this would be disputed.

          It all gets to this point of chance and necessity I suppose. Physical laws permit the arising of codes, but in no way require them. I do think they are a little different than the traffic example, or Benard-Raleigh convection cells, for instance, where local interactions can be used to explain the entire phenomena. I think I read once termites build a mound by following just a handful of simple rules: the know nothing about the structure itself.

          I think a code is a little different because it contains one-to-one correspondences between two classes of molecules, and that information, or relationship, is arbitrary. That is not the same to me as the other examples, which follow necessarily from the properties of the subsystem.

          But I think I have a better understanding of the exception you take to Barbieri’s wording, and would agree that biological codes and conventions certainly cannot be removed from the plausibility they receive from underlying phenomena.


          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael,
            I’m grateful for the postscript. The limitations of language are always a difficulty in philosophical discussions, even when both participants are showing interpretational charity. In this particular type of discussion, there is the additional difficulty of knowing whether someone is speaking in terms of a strategic epistemic strategy versus making an actual ontological assertion. It’s possible Barbieri is doing the former and I’m responding as if it were the latter.

            For example, although I made the point about traffic above, it’s certainly convenient to talk about the traffic preventing me from getting to work on time. This happens in science all the time. We talk about natural selection, but natural selection is another word for a vast causal chain that affects the success of biological agents. We can say natural selection killed a runt bear cub, even when it specifically died because it repeatedly lost in the competition for food with its larger siblings.

            I like your termite example. Daniel Dennett calls this “competence without comprehension”, and it’s a crucial concept for understanding evolution. Nature can design life without comprehending its designs. And codes can comes into being without there being a comprehending coder. We come along later and notice the pattern and its resemblance to something designed, and conveniently talk in terms of the design and the code’s purpose, even when we’re not envisioning a designer.

            Liked by 2 people

  7. Hey Michael,

    We come elemental our particles entangled knowing only Love. There is no division between object or observer, between pencil and hand. All things are seamless extending to infinity and free to be when found bound by one force.

    ‘Awe, you see, does not require a causal explanation’. Agreed.


    DN – 26/02/2017

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said, Dewin! I personally subscribe to the unity with distinctions approach, whereby a fundamental unity, by entering into relationship with itself, yields novelty and distinct elements–all and each of which nevertheless remain wrapped within, surrounded by, composed of, and related to this Unity.

      In Awe

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hey Michael,

        Thank you.

        You are unique
        A hand-made novelty

        ~ Musing ~ By ~ Dewin Nefol ~

        Muse for the Mystical Goddess am I
        She spirals me into a stupor!
        Clay for the Pottering God am I
        She moulds me at Her leisure.


        Vessel for the Spirit of God am I
        She fills me with abundant measure.
        Body for the flesh of God have I
        to fulfil Her every pleasure.


        Heart for the Love of God have I
        Her flame burns my Golden Centre.
        Soul for the rapture of God have I
        to receive Her blissful treasure.


        Psyche for the Musing Goddess have I,
        To dwell on Her sweet fantasy.
        Spirit of Love Light and Life have I,
        For sharing Her timeless reverie.

        ~ + ~

        Happy writing Michael….let it burn! 🙂


        DN – 26/02/2017


  8. A wonderful deep post… my mind thought it was walking in fog but my heart resonates with the simple magic of consciousness expanding and giving us a glimpse of life’s tapestry of interconnectiveness. A most magnificent moment x much love barbara x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Barbara! I’m glad you felt the heart resonance with this piece. There really is magnificence in the world around us!


      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hello Michael!
    Thank you for sharing that paper and for conveying your “awe” and “why this is awesome”. From its abstract and from what you’ve expressed here, it feels resonant with a podcast episode I enjoyed this weekend…featured an Italian physicist. OnBeing is my favorite NPR podcast. You might enjoy Krista Tippett’s conversation with Carlo Rovelli, “All Reality is Interaction”. https://onbeing.org/programs/carlo-rovelli-all-reality-is-interaction/ Happy Spring!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Lanessa! I read some of it and enjoyed it very much, and will go back to finish it shortly. There have been some really interesting Italian scientists in the past few decades, or at least a few that have been interesting to me through whatever synchronicities and patterns have brought them to my awareness. There is Barbieri, Rovelli here, and Del Guidice (who passed away relatively recently). Del Guidice did some really amazing work on solid state physics and water and I think it is fitting that this paper I’ve linked, dedicated to him posthumously, is in part about the awe and passion he felt was so important to science.

      Happy Spring to you also!


  10. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says

    Ah, so many inexplicable things! I just love awe. What an amazing feeling. Just pure awe.
    I think following our intuition is so important, though there is no explanation for it.
    Have you ever read or listened to Bruce Lipton? His “Biology of Belief” is fascinating.
    So interesting, the relationship between heart and mind, and how peaceful when they are working and creating together.
    Love this, Michael. What a thoughtful, interesting piece. Thanks!
    Peace and Love,


    • Hi Mary,

      Nice to see you again here in blogland! I have heard of Lipton’s book, but have never read it. I will have to add it to the list. 🙂

      Yes I think our intuition is important, and I think intuition and instinct have led many scientists to their discoveries. If you take the time to read the article to which I provided a link in my reply to Lanessa, you’ll find Del Guidice discussing Herbert Frohlich’s process of using thought experiments and imagination to try and fathom what was happening in the human body. This led to his pioneering work in the field of biophysics, where he showed the body is (to a large degree) a coherent electrodynamic system–e.g. more of a symphony than a mechanism…

      The heart and mind together is critically important I feel, and also so hard to accomplish at times. We have to have a worldview that the mind can accept that doesn’t preclude or marginalize the heart’s knowing, and as we try to synchronize these two poles of our being I think that is where our difficulties arise… There is some little gap that remains, some belief we hold dear that maybe isn’t so, some trauma or grief, some suffering…

      With Love


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