The Spirit of The Earth

October 8, 2010

I am always fascinated when Restoration scriptures make odd connections with modern science, probably because I am acutely aware of how embedded ancient “science” is in our usual interpretations of ancient scriptures. Modern approaches to scripture recognize obvious scientific errors in ancient writings, and have done so since the time of Galileo.

Yet often the response to the recognition is to default to a metaphorical interpretation of the scripture and ignore the scientific error entirely. I will readily concede that this is often the best approach. However, in a phenomenon related to the “evolving personal narrative” noted by Bored in Vernal, any single approach to reconciling new understandings with old can result in losing important aspects of divine experience. After all, when ancient writers spoke of the “four corners of the earth”, they may have been dead wrong, but they didn’t think they were speaking metaphorically.

So (if someone hasn’t already grabbed the term for something else), I sometimes like to play “neo-literalist”; I like to plug modern science into ancient accounts and see if I learn something new. It’s something like modifying an assumption at the beginning of a long math derivation. Sometimes startling new implications pop out by the end.

The goal of such an approach is not to prove, as a scriptural literalist might, that the scripture is “true just like they said”, but, rather, it is to look for meanings that neither ancient nor metaphorical approaches might recognize. Mormon scripture is particularly fruitful to study in this way, I think, because science has changed dramatically enough since the 19th Century for scientific errors to be glaring, but the 19th Century American mind and language have not changed so much that the world view in which the scriptures are written has become totally unrecognizable. I’ve previously posted an example here and another here.

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So, what does someone like me make of the following uniquely Mormon scripture:

“And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: ‘Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face?’ And when Enoch heard the earth mourn, he wept, and cried unto the Lord, saying: ‘O Lord, wilt thou not have compassion upon the earth’? ” (Moses 7:48-49; CofChrist JST equivalent Genesis 7:55-56)

There’s no way that can have anything other than a symbolic interpretation. Right? The earth can not be an entity capable of mourning, can it?

Scientific American has a companion magazine, Scientific American MIND, that focuses on behavioral sciences and includes articles on modern theories of the nature of consciousness. The July 2009 issue (available online only by purchase from SciAm) featured an article “A Theory of Consciousness” by Christof Koch on the work of Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Tononi relates consciousness to an increasingly fundamental basis of our view of the physical universe: information theory.

“The universal lingua franca of our age is information. We are used to the idea that stock and bond prices, books, photographs, movies, music and our genetic makeup can all be turned into data streams of zeros and ones. These bits are the elemental atoms of information that are transmitted over an Ethernet cable or via wireless, that are stored, replayed, copied and assembled into gigantic repositories of knowledge.  Information does not depend on the substrate [emphasis added]. The same information can be represented as lines on paper, as electrical charges inside a PC’s memory banks or as the strength of the synaptic connections among nerve cells.”

Tononi calls his ideas the “integrated information theory” (ITT) of consciousness. Koch notes that Tononi’s approach  focuses on two aspects of consciousness.

“First, conscious states are highly differentiated; they are informationally very rich. You can be conscious of an uncountable number of things: you can watch your son’s piano recital, for instance; you can see the flowers in the garden outside or the Gauguin painting on the wall. Think of all the frames from all the movies you have ever seen or that have ever been filmed or that will be filmed! Each frame, each view, is a specific conscious percept.

“Second, this information is highly integrated. No matter how hard you try, you cannot force yourself to see the world in black-and-white, nor can you see only the left half of your field of view and not the right…. Whatever information you are conscious of is wholly and completely presented to your mind; it cannot be subdivided.

“If areas of the brain start to disconnect or become fragmented and balkanized, as occurs in deep sleep or in anesthesia, consciousness fades and might cease altogether. Consider split-brain patients, whose corpus callosum … has been cut to alleviate severe epileptic seizures. The surgery literally splits the person’s consciousness in two, with one conscious mind associated with the left hemisphere and seeing the right half of the visual field and the other mind arising from the right hemisphere and seeing the left half of the visual field.

“To be conscious, then, you need to be a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states.”

In fact, Tononi is suggesting that to be conscious you only need to be a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states.

Much of the article discusses how various abnormalities in the human brain influence consciousness in ways that do seem to correlate with things that information theory about networks would oredict. And here’s where the argument becomes somewhat less hand-wavy and more theologically interesting, because Tononi can give a quantitative meaning to “integrated”, “large repertoire”, and “highly differentiated”. As Koch puts it:

“These ideas can be precisely expressed in the language of mathematics using notions from information theory such as entropy [and the geometry of interconnections]…. Measured in bits, [a computable-in-principle quantity] Φ denotes the size of the conscious repertoire associated with any network of causally interacting parts.”

The bold phrase in the quotation above relates to a great deal of Restoration theology, not just in Genesis but in Sections of the D&C.

If ITT is a correct theory of consciousness — and there are, admittedly  many competing theories I can’t discuss here — then in a very real sense, “intelligence” is at the root of all things. Consciousness would a property of all things causally processing information, as fundamental to our description of our physical universe as mass, electric charge, or location. Consciousness would exist on a quantitative scale rather than pass-fail.

“Indeed, the theory is blind to synapses and to all-or-none pulses of nervous systems. At least in principle, the incredibly complex molecular interactions within a single cell have nonzero Φ. In the limit, a single hydrogen ion, a proton made up of three quarks, will have a tiny amount of synergy, of Φ. In this sense, IIT is a scientific version of “panpsychism”, the ancient and widespread belief that all matter, all things, animate or not, are conscious to some extent.

“…The theory does not [even] discriminate between squishy brains inside skulls and silicon circuits encased in titanium.”

And so it is also unclear why the theory would distinguish among any other possible templates. In particular, why would the theory differentiate between the causal processing of information within an ecology or a socio-economic system in comparison to a human brain?

Which leads us back to JST Genesis: just how conscious might the Earth itself be — or might it be in process of becoming — as human society becomes ever more global, ever more integrated, and simultaneously, ever more differentiated? Might Zion be more than a place on earth? Might it be, in fact, a new, planetary consciousness awaiting awakening when we can make all of the proper connectivity between people and things?

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5 Responses to The Spirit of The Earth

  1. Mike S on October 8, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    I think there is a lot to be said for this, as information circles the earth. This concept, however, is also very ancient, as you also alluded to.

    In Buddhist thinking, which predates Christ’s mortal life, we are all truly one. We see ourselves as different, but it’s much like waves on the ocean. Each wave is unique from another wave, but each wave is really just a part of the same ocean. There is a vast interconnectedness between all of us.

    It also has to do with our intentions and actions. Literally everything we do affects literally everything else in the universe and vica versa. Like a wave function, the effects are more pronounced nearby and my grown infinitesimally small further away, but they are still present. We all therefore affect and are affected by each other.

    No man is an island.

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  2. FireTag on October 8, 2010 at 11:21 AM

    I think the Buddhist connections you make here are generally sound as well, but I want to add a wrinkle as soon as I figure out how to illustrate the wrinkle graphically. In a wave function, the one-way nature of time matters a lot. I think consciousness ties to preexistence and lineage and a lot of other things in early Restoration theology in ways we haven’t considered.

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  3. Mike S on October 8, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    I also think preexistance and lineage have a part to play. We are a sum of everything that came before, and out actions now affect everything that comes after.

    Additionally, I have a post on time that perhaps I could someday send in, but I think time could be 2 directional. Mortality is basically just a constraint in the direction of time and a condition of the universe.

    A glass breaks, shards spread outward, we don’t see the converse.

    On a human example, JS was born. He had experiences. He had a vision in 1820. Many thing have affected millions of people spreading outward from then. What if his being born also “affected” the past as well, in kind of a “backwards” spreading out. Perhaps it influenced his parents coming together, and so on.

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  4. FireTag on October 8, 2010 at 11:48 AM

    There is at least one version of quantum mechanics in which quantum waves do spread backward in time.

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  5. Stephen Marsh on October 8, 2010 at 9:11 PM

    Nicely said.

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