As of late 2022, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary had 9 definition categories, almost all of which with subcategories, to define the various conditions in which we use the word “thing”. A word with so many uses might be considered versatile but versatility comes at the risk of being vague and easy to misunderstand. Words with such wide ranges of meaning can become tokens of confusion, not clarity. Context is one of the ways we fortify the meaning of ambiguous words but even this has limited reach. Verbal language only has so much carrying capacity even in the best of conditions.
It’s important to understand what our abstract tokens refer to as precisely as possible if the goal is to effectively communicate and or understand concepts. This is especially critical because we use these abstract maps to render and navigate various environments from physical to social. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of a thing is “an object or entity not precisely designated or capable of being designated. So we use “thing” to refer to something ill-defined but also something well-defined. As in; “Is this a thing?”, “What’s that thing?” and “Use this thing”. We use it to refer to objective forms that we classify as inanimate objects, to distinguish these things from what we call living things.1 Ironically we use the word for the reverse too. We call biological organisms living things to distinguish them from what we classify as non-living things. As in; “Not a living thing in sight.”
Thing is also used to refer to separate and distinct individual qualities, facts, ideas, or entities. As in; “The essence of the thing.”, ”Love is a thing.” It can be used to refer to a concrete entity as distinguished from its appearances. “The substance of the thing.” Spatial entities are also referred to as things. “Space is a thing.” It can refer to a quality like; “The most important thing.” It can be requirements as in “Things to do.”, the state of affairs, as in; “How are things?” or “Things are improving.” and “This thing can be looked at another way.” A thing can refer to an event. It can be possessions, articles of clothing, equipment, utensils, or associated items like; “Bring things for the party.” It can be actions, a reference to purpose, or entire sets of behaviors. “Doing your own thing.” It can refer to an emphasis, a personality quirk, or the object of the quirk. “It’s his thing.” It can be a detail, a material, a substance, an idea, a bit of information, and the proper or fashionable way of behaving, talking, or dressing.
Two young fish are swimming together when an older fish swims by, nods, and says; “Good morning. How’s the water?” The two fish nod back and swim on for a while when one looks at the other and says; “What’s water?” Deeper truths about nature’s architecture and the profound value hidden inside these truths are easily missed when the gateway to explore these domains is heavily disguised in plain sight. The following is an attempt to uncover some of these treasures hidden in plain sight and unlock the value waiting there to be discovered.
Nature is a canvas of space, time, matter, and energy that forges the patterned dance between energies that we experience as objective forms. In addition, nature defines the relationships between these forms. This relational dance also tells a story that flows from conception through a developmental journey toward greater maturity over time. In this sense; nature is the archetypal mother of mothers – the environmental womb that not only conceives and gives birth to all objective forms but also guides their development through space and time to their fully realized state.
Every object born of nature’s defining matrix is the archetypal child. Concentrated patterns of relationship are forged from nature’s inherent grammatical forces that influence energy to condense into what we experience as objective forms. The structural membranes that form from this process are nature’s children. As children, objects depend on nourishment and protection from the environmental womb to continue forward through time. The necessary relationships objects must have with the environment to remain coherent is the mother’s milk of “being”. The archetypal mother and child begin to define each other as the process unfolds. Parent and child is the primal relationship type – it is the essence of “being”.
Nature tells a story. The unfolding arc of the story told by nature through objects in relationship with each other1 is a tale of the journey toward increasingly coherent expressions of form over time. The dynamic complex adaptive relationship patterns that define biology are part of this story of movement toward higher resolution expressions of coherence. The elements of structure begin forming a nested architecture of mutually nourishing and protective relationships that serve the purpose of remaining coherent in the context of the environment. This developmental process is an expression of increasingly refined forms of coherence. This blend of form and function is also the birthplace of meaning.
As a whole, the biological relationship economy produces expressions of the value of coherence. This collection of structures and activities we call biology communicates that there are certain “necessities of being” that are defined by nature. Specific structures and relationship behaviors must happen to nourish and protect coherence. These are “valued” for their contribution to coherence. Biology is built around this hunger for coherence theme. What emerges from this value proposition is an expression that separates constructive from destructive. Certain structures and relationship behaviors have value toward coherence and certain others do not. Nature states that it favors certain structures and behaviors that produce a coherence value. Objects that remain coherent over time are expressions of this value.
An object born in the defining specifics of an environmental womb begins to develop patterns of structure and behavior that facilitate its continuing existence in the context of that environment.2 These structures and behaviors that have value toward coherence are selected over those that do not. Nature defines which structures and behaviors, in which contexts, result in higher forms of coherence. Ultimately that which is useful toward coherence survives. That which does not produce coherence goes extinct. In this way, nature determines what relational forms will have greater permanence and which will pass away.
The objects born of the interplay of the selective values inherent in nature generate the emergent language of “being”. The statement made by way of nature as a process can be translated into meaningful statements like; “Nature is telling us what can and cannot exist. She tells us that what contributes to a sustained state of coherence over time is valuable, what does not, is not.”
The increasingly complex expressions of information that spring from the fundamental grammar of defining forces establish the patterns of relationships we experience as objects.3 This process also communicates a meaningful story of the journey toward increasing coherence. A journey that composes the symphony of relationships we experience as us. Nature speaks, and we are but one of the many expressions of thought. By nature we are defined, but also like nature, we can become definers. If we carefully listen and constructively apply these lessons spoken through the structures and behaviors expressed by nature we also become a more resonant and coherent voice in this choir of living fire.
1Objects in relationship with each other is the grammatical foundation of the communication of meaning – the origin of language.
2This natural relationship dynamic is the origin of the abstract map tokens we see as a global property of human cultural conceptualization in the form of notions such as good and evil – attraction and disgust as well as the more complex abstract architectures that stem from these more direct sources. Structural and behavioral activities that have adaptive value in the context of the environment are repeated are duplicated as a function of the hunger for and the refining of processes that lead to coherence. This natural expression of form is the source of abstract concepts like replication.
3Nature as a language situates objects as nouns and relationships between them as the verbs. This relationship economy tells a story with a developmental arc over time – from infancy to a point of maturity. A story of emergence that renders more than the sum of its parts.
Biology has the fantastic capacity to self assemble an intricate orchestra of structures that “dance” in concert by the trillions in such a way as to both nourish and protect the whole community of relationships as a coherent whole. It does this amazing feat in the context of an environment that is partially nourishing and partially antagonistic.
The implied mission set forth by nature is that each biological organism must adaptively recognize and dynamically negotiate the acquisition of nourishment, apply that nourishment to a continual rebuilding process through strategically choreographed activities involving the processing and distribution of modified parts, while proportionally avoiding and-or dealing with antagonistic agents in order to remain coherent. This complex negotiation process is continual and shifts dynamically according to the changing demands of the environment.
Collections of interdependent relationships assemble into a self-sustaining coherent whole based on an economy of adaptive value. This economy of values is based on things that contribute to nourishing and or defending continuing coherency. There are many expressions of this adaptive value that come in many forms, from perception faculties like eyes and ears to perceive the environment, to hands and feet to move within it – to the tiny cilia that wisp mucus and dust away from the lungs to protect them, find nourishment. Nested systems aligned around this theme of “perceive and respond” to “nourish and defend” the community can be seen on many scales.
Nested layers of relationship are seated within each and among others, like the many ripples in a pond – intersecting and influencing each other – also like turbulent circular patterns that emerge as coherent expressions in the wake of dynamic fluid flows under pressure. We express a coordinated sophistication that is centered on a singular goal: To nourish and protect the community of relationships in the context of an environment that would dissipate that coherence. This “nourish and protect” goal is meaningfully expressed through the many biological relationship chains and the corresponding behaviors that demonstrate a behavioral pull in this goal-oriented direction.
What we see as order and organization comes from the constellation of relationship behaviors that are born of an inherent value proposition embedded throughout the fabric of nature.
Nature in effect “calls” coherent structures into higher states of order by inherently “valuing” or “selecting” only those relationship behaviors that contribute to coherency over time. The more a behavior, or string of interconnected behaviors contributes to coherency, the more likely it will be incorporated and repeated in a renewal process. This is the essence of what we call natural selection.
Selection itself implies that nature values some things over others. The fact that one relationship structure exists over another one is an expression of this underlying value structure. Of all the things that exist, only those that serve the purpose of nourishing and defending coherency remain. Nature values coherency over decoherence but also demands specific behaviors in service of this coherency over time.
As our capacity for self-awareness awakens, we find ourselves living expressions of this adaptive wonder. When we make the effort to look into the sophisticated processes that conspire to keep us moving forward in time, the level of sophistication can appear astounding. If we transcend the many scales of self-similarity we begin to see themes. Repeating patterns in the process are expressed in many forms. We see the coordinated community of relationship bonds aligned around the utility of continuing existence. We see rhymes and a certain dissonance, a certain pattern infused with some novelty, that is both aligned around the goal. We must maintain the pattern but have enough novelty to deal with the unexpected, and this blend forms the adaptive range with which we negotiate the environment over time. If the environment overwhelms that combination of self-similar and novel adaptive capacities, we lose coherence and go extinct. We watch as biology pays the existential debt required to go forward in time through an environment that sometimes reluctantly provides fruit, or looks for weaknesses to devour the community that it also gave rise to.
The further we peer into the intricacies of this relationship landscape that is biology, and the environment in which it is continually baptized, the more profound and informed we see its capacity to stitch together responses that adaptively negotiate the chaos, continuously calling it to order and making the occasional discovery that adds to the adaptive repertoire. We see this capacity to dynamically call chaos to order expressed through the relational connections between the various organic structures that serve this ongoing concern – to nourish and protect, humming away in an orchestrated song emerging against a cacophony of chaos. Order from chaos. Awareness from sleep.
At the smallest of scales examples like; motor proteins, which are molecular motors inside cells that are able to carry protein cargo along a tubular highway network called microtubules and deliver them to their appropriate destination, or, in the case of a particular variety called myosin, these motor proteins can work in concert with millions of other like motor proteins to do things like contract muscles. Here’s a video detailing in story form, a small glimpse into the fantastic world that is biology. Enjoy!:
Embedded in our physical structure as well as our nature is the necessity to consume in order to sustain our coherence – we hunger and grow our presence as long as the environment sustains the process. This fire aspect of being is embedded in our myths as well with consuming food and things like hell, suffering and so as important parts of how we map our concept of the world. We also act out this primal pattern in many ways, both constructively and destructively; sometimes consuming each other for the sake of some elevated stature, sometimes sacrificing ourselves for the sake of the larger body we live in and depend on. We are a community of living fire. The question of our future prospects depends on whether we tend the necessities to continue to nourish the fire that sustains and strengthens us or do we consume that necessity to the point of our own consumption?
Interestingly, bacterial communities’ (called biofilms) and the communication networks that coordinate their actions as a group body (called quorum sensing) have a human social analog. The form and function we know of as human sociality have roots deep within the relationship economy of biology itself. The deeper we dig, the more it appears that what we experience as life is built on a nested architecture of self-similar communication networks.
Bacterial communication and group behavior
“…The past decade has seen the emergence of a new field in basic microbiology… Scientists had long held the view that bacterial cells behaved as self-sufficient individuals, unable to organize themselves into groups or communicate… The idea that bacteria could function as groups and that individuals within the group could respond to the group as a whole seemed almost ludicrous… [It is] now… generally accepted that bacteria produce, and respond as groups… This phenomenon has become known as quorum sensing.”
Looking at biological systems as collections of organisms that work together is a far more useful and revealing lens than is assuming organisms are defined by nucleic DNA and the epigenetic relationships that orbit that core. For instance, our microbiome is a collection of organisms that live in and on us. They are a necessary part of what we need to function. Some of these specialize in acting as part of an immune response, destroying or keeping in check pathogens that might disrupt the community of relationships we depend on. With this larger “biological relationship economy” lens in mind, we can see that viral and bacterial organisms can act as part of our metabolism process, bringing nourishment, and as part of an immune response.
If this wider relationship economy lens is unpacked further, we can see that some forms of cancer may be the result of another collection of organisms that is attempting to defend its integrity. To illustrate, certain strains of the flu are caused by a virus that naturally grows in duck’s throats and is part of their microbiome. This virus attacks us by way of those who butcher ducks getting infected. This may be a type of cross-species immune response where the bacteria is attempting to act as a defender of the biological ecosystem system that it is part of.
Ecosystems can be thought of as biological bodies that extend beyond species and include groups of species and the environment they interact with. There are plenty of these cross-species integrated systems that are collectively aligned around the principle of both establishing mutual coherent integrity and the defense of that integrity by various means. This “nourish and or defend coherence in the context of the environment” behavioral economy is the axiom on which every coherent organism within and entire ecosystems are based. The behavioral tax that must be paid toward defense is part of the process of coherent biological systems and happens on many levels. When humans are at the receiving end of defensive acts we experience it as a disease.
The array of behaviors in cancer, when taken as a whole, looks like something is deliberately trying to destroy our biological systems in a number of ways with a certain “understanding” or behavioral inclinations aimed at how to make that destruction happen. This principle is no different than when our natural killer cells, which are part of our native immune system, seek out harmful cells in our body and destroy them.
In other words; cancer may be due to our biological system being perceived as a pathogen in relation to another biological system – a collection of organisms that forms a collective body of nourishment and defense – that has sent out destructive agents the same way we produce various defensive immune response agents. Perhaps these defense vectors are in the form of transposons or viral packets, or bacteria suited with certain mechanisms, etc. which turn our native systems against themselves in order to protect the integrity of the system in which those defensive vectors (organisms, viruses, etc.) natively participate.
There are many kinds of cancer. Some may be a result of reversion theory, where our cells are thought to revert to unicellular forms when under prolonged attack but some other forms take on a far more sinister strategic approach to disrupting the systems we depend on for coherence that it makes me wonder if something is recognizing us as a pathogen and taking active defensive action to mitigate that destructive agency.
Of course, this is all speculation. I do know that biological systems are aligned around two foundational strategies, one, to establish coherence, and two, to defend that integrity against antagonists. If we were not blinded by looking at individual organisms and viral elements as separate biological entities, rather than parts of an integrated ecological network of interconnected organisms and environments that are collectively parts of the same body, we would be able to see the sources of disease. In other words, we may be the cause of our own disease because we fail to recognize how to play mutualistically in the broader social biological community.
Here’s an example of interspecies transmission of destructive agents that may be constructive in another biological relationship system context:
After the arrival of the printing press on the human cultural scene, ideas were much less able to be contained and controlled by what was, in effect, a priest class of idea manufacturers. Before this technology, ideas were printed as social currency from the central authority that consisted of the government and church. This set of ideas was consumed as the map of reality by the population at large. With the printing press ideas became far more distributed and less contained by the mandates and hegemony of a robust social institutional base. The institutions had a stranglehold on the narrative map with which the culture navigated and therefore largely defined the culture were now under threat.
A whole new economy of influencers entered the scene, unleashed by the technology. Turmoil followed as the former centers of influence saw their ecological niche threatened and fought to retain their relevancy. Enlightenment ideas such as deism, liberalism, toleration, and scientific progress eroded the supremacy of these former undisputed champions of culture. These new narratives were harshly crushed with physical and ideological warfare because they threatened the now weakened institutions.
After the printing press, it took some time to get the reins back from the effects that “ideas in the wild” had. A time of chaos ensued until a new equilibrium was forged – until these new ideas developed into cultural institutions themselves – until they became well entrenched in the culture with formal institutions of their own – complete with a priest class of “experts” and the attending flocks of faithful followers along with those who get caught in the currents of influence produced by whatever ideological coin of the realm happens to be popular at the time – the “zeitgeist du jour” The organs of influence that emerged in this new climate fitfully found a place of equilibrium among the traditional forces once the boundaries of influence were sufficiently defined. Books, newspapers and later, radio and television were the new centers of power that coexisted with government and church. They now controlled the narrative and defined the culture.
This newfound expansion of the narrative territory didn’t mean that society transformed into a place of justice or any other high virtue. In fact; exploitation, or what could be called social farming (where a small group that holds control of the narrative entices larger groups to act in unison under the banner of a set of ideas that serves the interests of that small group) reemerged after some time. The former concentrated seats of power were disrupted for a time but not the principles on which the human social economy operates. Grifters and those who ride on waves of authority rather than the much harder work of authentic contribution to the human condition dressed up in lofty ideas like freedom and justice while they reestablished the reins of influence. Once again the influence was leveraged to parasitic and predatory effect on the many to serve the few. In other words, the new boss was the same as the old boss.
This same period of chaos and fight for control of the narrative is happening again with the advent of the internet. Like the printing press, this technology unlocked the ability for one person to reach thousands and millions with a keyboard and a camera. This has once again disrupted the institutional layer of society – the few that control the narrative for the many. The same painful and bloody birthing process that happened in the wake of the printing press is once again unfolding. I suspect that a new equilibrium will form over time. I’m not sure we have the maturity as a species just yet to redefine the principles on which our new social contracts will operate. Will we generate the emergent fruits that result from a commitment to the realization of each other’s full potential, or will we reestablish the poverty inducing climate produced by the image so well defined in George Orwell’s book Animal farm, where the creatures used the ideas of freedom and equality to reestablish exactly what they claimed to be fighting against?
Freedom and justice cannot be expected to flow from untended soil, it has to be continuously and carefully cultivated by what we do for each other, not by what we can get from each other. I hope we can develop the insight and discipline to choose the former because the latter is a recipe to author our continued poverty.
There is a difference between spending time and investing time. One requires sacrifice but pays dividends greater than the investment cost, in the long run. The other wastes that opportunity on the altar of immediate payoffs and increases dependency and instability. There is any number of organizations whose existence is based on encouraging the wasting of time. Seth Godin argues in this video that we have built cultural practices and various monuments and institutions to reinforce this waste of the many for the benefit of the few to such a degree that we now willingly defend the very systems that cheapen our life. His alternative is what he calls “Impact Theory”.
Why You’ve Been Lied to About Where to Put Your Time, Energy, & Focus | Seth Godin on Impact Theory
“Let’s say I had a secret committee and I came to the government to the United States, or any place in the west, in 1850 and said; “Here’s what I want to do. I want to spend over a trillion dollars a year in time and money and I want every single child from the age of five to spend six to eight hours a day with me for 10 to 15 years in a row. Then I want to build into the culture a mindset of consumption and compliance. Okay?” No one would go for that plan and that’s exactly what we did.”
Title: The Difference Between a Defined Life and a Defining Life
Description: We grow up in a social womb that has a powerful defining influence. How do we find our voice in that powerful defining current?
Some words have meanings that are more directly tied to objects or properties in our world than others. Words like water and flowing, for instance. These abstract tokens we use for the object (water) and a property of (flowing) have a direct connection to the physical expressions with which the words correspond. Other words are less directly tied to well defined objects or properties in nature. Some are highly complex and not easily defined depending on context. Words like truth, honor, beauty, justice, love, equality, morality, and so on. These words can refer to multiple object and-or property roots, shift based on context, as well as be related to other abstractions. This makes them harder to identify, agree on and share without signal loss in comprehension and in the transfer of the idea one to another.
When complex ideas are embedded in communication we can easily talk past each other. Tracing certain abstract tokens back to a clear source is not always easy and may not be possible in some cases. The increased difficulty of communicating with harder to define words results in misunderstandings, as well as increased debate about the definition, validity and the utility of ideas. This can make them less a point of agreement and more a point of contention. Our inability (and sometimes unwillingness) to share common definitions for certain words makes using them as a social currency more risky if agreement is the goal. Mud wrestling about meanings is a common pastime in certain human social circles.
Ideas play many roles in our lives. Among the more prominent roles is that the image rendered through the ideas we hold as true influences how we relate to ourselves and the world. Our maps of meaning can be adaptive or maladaptive. Some ideas that were once valid as a means of nourishing survival can become maladaptive as the context changes. The verbal map of ideas we inherit from the social womb we’re born into is infused with preexisting assumptions that our local group also largely inherited. Tracing the foundation of these ideas to their source to verify their validity and examine their usefulness in the current context can be a virtual impossibility in some cases. Our mental capabilities are not up to the challenge understanding, much less having the discipline to proportionally apply certain ideas even if we could fully understand them.
As children we receive the current version of the map of meaning. This defines our developmental social womb. We receive this map unquestioningly. The ideas supplied to us through the umbilical cord of our caretakers and the environment tunes us to local experiences but is also influenced by the broader culture’s historic relationship with the environment over time. Influencing factors on the shape of the map of meaning include things like the climate and geography, natural events like storms or famine, disease, the nature of the local life forms (each ecosystem having different object and property expressions), and the necessities of the culture to navigate these variables. The local maps of meaning held by a group are shaped by a long history. We inherit these predetermined maps in our own matrix of biological algorithms – these things we experience as emotions and behavioral drives like eating, social bonding and sex drives… all the necessities of navigating the ecosystem over time become embedded in our cultural maps of meaning in ways we’re consciously aware of, in fact, this is what this thing we call consciousness is built on, but this does not mean we are self-aware of the maps of meaning that govern us.
We embody the story told by nature, including our own, in ways we may not have captured visibly through our maps. The presence of this defining process that renders our conscious vision does not necessarily translate to an understanding of the entire set of influences, communicated by the whole of nature, that define our experience. We inherit a low resolution map that might be useful in some cases but that doe s not mean it’s accurate. We can live a life defined by the influences we inherited but in order to participate in the defining process we need to have more than awareness, we need to have some degree of self-awareness.
Because of the difficulty in comprehending ourselves at a self aware level, many of us ride on the currents of ideas and actions set in motion unconsciously in the group body of our culture. In other words; we play a role in a script we didn’t write and we don’t understand. The ideas that govern our vision and actions are deeply steeped in the darkness of time. Many are etched there as scars forged by traumas long forgotten. These influences morph over time into cultural myths, stories and rituals that we simply express as social currency. It does not occur to us to question whether or not they still serve us as a useful map to help us navigate on a path to greater maturity in the current context. We become defined expressions of these necessities of being without understanding our place and role, the reasons we think and behave the way we do. Uncovering these depths of our being is not easy but it’s necessary if the goal is to steer with a measure of intention and effectiveness toward specific ends – to participate in defining our experience rather than being totally defined by it. To become more like the natural world that gave rise to us – as mature self-aware creatures; to also play a defining role.
Is there a purpose written into the way our biological structures are formed? If we use complex biological organisms such as ourselves as a model, we see proteins, fluids, cells, organs, and various signaling and behavior systems are all organized around a central theme: The behavioral aim among all the “members” of our body is oriented toward providing some nourishing and-or defense value to the community each member is both a part of and depends on. This mutual exchange of value throughout the community is the engine that adapts to remain coherent in the context of the variables of the environment.
At the center of the networked relationship economy is a certain vital relationship core. Relationships that must be present for the system to remain coherent. Without a certain set of vital organs relating to each other under the shared banner of nourishment and protection such as our heart or lungs, we could not function. Extending outward from this central relationship core are rings of contributory relationships that offer adaptive value but are not necessarily vital. The theme of this extended relational network is based on the same currency of adaptive value in the context of the environment.
This principle of relational bonding by way of mutual contributory value is what defines us as individuals and as functional cohesive social groups. The same principle is expressed through the ecosystem our species is part of, where the cooperative bonds aimed at nourishing and defending the vital fruits that sustain the community must be present in sufficient measure for the community to exist and grow to its mature potential.
Nature is not ambiguous about this message. Threaded throughout any healthy dynamic adaptive relationship system are intricate patterns of mutually nourishing and protective feedback loops that are tuned to function in equilibrium with the environment. Bottom line; we must ultimately cultivate the fruit that feeds us to remain coherent and develop to our full potential.
We see this mutualistic relationship network model expressed in many forms. The ants in this video relate to the acacia tree under the same principle as the vital organs in our body. This expression of the sustainable exchange of adaptive value offers us a useful model for the way we can realize the full measure of opportunity we have to cultivate our greatest realization of potential here on this common ground of Earth we share.