How can we know so much and yet so little?

Can a cell imagine a brain? Probably not, because a cell’s “senses” relate to the fluid that surrounds it.

The brain, on the other hand, because it consists of millions of cells, that are organized just so, has the capacity for thought. Directed thought at that. Directed though clearly is impossible for individual cells because thinking requires many cells working together in an organized way to gather all the information necessary to make a thought. That is why we say that thinking is an emergent property that results when millions of the right kinds of cells come together in just the right way in just the right kind of body. It is an “emergent property” of multicellular organisms, and it’s a function that can’t be done by one cell alone. If you knew nothing about the brain and everything about individual cells, you could not predict thinking.

The unpredictable nature of emergent properties result from precisely organized complexity, and that is why they use the word emergent. It’s not a good word; sounds too complicated. But there you are. The emergent property of a car is that you can drive around in it, where you can not drive around in an engine. The emergent property of a kidney is urine. Not hard to appreciate when you already know what it does — but impossible to predict.

Emergent properties occur at every level of organization, from molecules to cells to multicellular organisms, and surely also the ecosystem.

One of the biggest unsolvable mysteries of life is to understand the emergent properties that characterize the ecosystem. The whole ecosystem surely must have emergent properties — and they will not be human properties, any more than the brain has exactly the same functions as a cell — but there is no way for any scientist to know precisely what properties of the ecosystem support our lives within it. I mean beyond giving us oxygen, climate and the basic requirements of life — there must be an organizing function that the ecosystem needs to stay alive and us in it. But we can’t think about it because we are just a tiny cell inside the complexity of the ecosystem “brain.” If we could understand what it is, and if we could devise a technology, we still couldn’t change it because it is bigger than we are. Cells can definitely mess up what your brain does, if they go wrong, but they can not make your brain better if they go right. It’s already doing what it is supposed to do to keep you alive.

If we persist in believing that we have the ability to understand all about life; if we demand that our technologies save us from our own atrocities, if we become so great a challenge to the ecosystem — to her life and to her unknown emergent properties — that her own life is in danger, then she will eliminate us. She will do this by the immutable processes of which she is composed — shortage of materials; shortage of energy; the disruption of cultures, so that children cry alone and learn to fear life and grow war; the great sweeping climatological changes that we can not predict, because climate — a self-sustaining climate on earth that supports and interacts with life — may very well be the emergent property of the ecosystem. But we don’t know. And the phenomena of collapsing networks that mathematicians are only beginning to understand.

“The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) distinguished between a problem ‘something met which bars my passage’ and ‘is before me in its entirety,’ and a mystery, ‘something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is not before me in its entirety.’ We have to remove a problem before we can proceed, but we are compelled to participate in a mystery…” (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God)

The ecosystem is a mystery in the same way that love and infinity and God are mysteries. Science and technology can answer almost any short-term factual problem, but the scientific method can not stand between us and the mystery in which we must participate as living parts of the ecosystem. The arts, religion, philosophy, history and sociology, are well suited to explore the ongoing, long-term mystery of life, but they do not do a good job of kicking rocks out of our path. Unless our well meaning humanists choose finally to listen to what science and technology can tell us about the rocks under our feet, rather than permitting politics and technology to use our science to serve short-term human ends, they may very well star-gaze us right into history. Or infinity.

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