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Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolving systems: origin and significance of love and suffering?

I certainly agree that connection, affiliation, love, and even "prom dates" are features of evolving systems in the most general sense, and need to be both accounted for and treated as causally significant.  My guess though is that  at least the last three of these terms are quite late products/constructions of a particular quite restricted branch of a more general evolving system, of principal interest/concern in a contemporary human context.  That's not to say at all that they are unimportant either to humans or more generally,  but only that they can probably be best made sense of in the context of previous things from which they emerged and their continuing bidirectional interactions with such things.

To put it differently, I share Alice's wish to "create a meaningful zone of human existence in between an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality," but am not optimistic that that can be done by appeal to particular subjective human feelings like "affiliation" or "love" as fundamental starting points ("Love is the first motion."). There is, in trying to do so, a bit of a "glassy mirror" reliance on the primacy of inner feelings, and indeed on particular inner feelings (would one make the same argument for "hate"?).  In addition, appeals to the importance of "love" have a long history in human affairs and that history suggests (to me at least) that feelings of affiliation and love are not a fully effective antidote either to singularity or to an indifferent objectivity.

I do think though that Alice's sense of something "missing" in our thinking about evolving systems in general (or at least in mine),  something having to do with both "love" and "suffering," is both persistant (see her Challenge, difficulty, joy, and disappointment) and important.  Let me take a crack at fixing that, both for myself and anyone else interested, in a way that might both advance the general discussion and contribute to thinking about both "love" and "suffering" in the more specifically human context (my thanks to not only Alice but also Anne and Bharath for conversations that helped me with this).

Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to think of evolving systems as beginning with one or more kinds of singular entities with relationships emerging subsequently from their interactions.  An alternative perspective that might be usefully adopted in the present context is that it is not isolated singular entities with which evolving systems begin, that they instead begin with entities that are defined at least in large part by their interactions with other entities.   To put it differently, while certain phenomena of relatedness (love, hate, suffering) may be restricted principally to human experiences (or, more probably, to living organisms with story telling capability), relatedness itself may well be an essential characteristic of evolving systems in general.  Animals and plants, to take just one example, are defined in large part by their relatedness to and contemporary dependence on one another.  And living things, in turn, exist by virtue of  an essential relatedness to the non-living world from which they take origin and with which they continue to interact bidirectionally.  My guess is that a fundamental relatedness exists as well in the "active inanimate." 

A little onion-peeling of this sort (recognizing that human concepts have nested meanings, some specific to the human context, others more widely applicable) may be useful in regard to "suffering" as well (see Evolving inquiry: the unconscious as a bridge for another example re "spiritual").  I don't think that trees or rocks suffer in the sense that humans do.  On the other hand, I do think that trees are responsive to their interactions with other trees (as well as other living organisms and the non-living world) and that they actively modify their interactions so as to favor some interactions over others.  Even the interactions of rocks with other things exhibits a distinction (to the observer at least) between more and less stable interactions.  So perhaps it is not only relatedness that is fundamental to evolving systems but also some tendency to move from less stable to more stable interactions?  And "suffering" is the human awareness of being in what is for a human a less favored set of interactions?

What about "love"?  One might think of it as, for humans, the opposite of suffering, the feeling of being in a more favored set of interactions with other human beings.  But I suspect there is more to it than this, both for humans and for evolving systems in general.  Several years ago I wrote about a human state of "interconnected vastness" in which "issues of power and control disappear" as do "fears of loss or inadequacy", and later suggested that it corresponded to an "absence of conflict that can exist on the interpersonal level (at scales ranging from the dyad all the way up to societies/cultures) but can also exist in terms of interactions between the self and the non-human world."  This characterization suggests that "love" may go beyond not only "humanness" but also beyond a particular favored state of interactions.  It involves as well a distinctive openness to new possibilities, to forms of interaction as yet unexplored.   There is an interesting irony in the possibility that love in the sense of "openness to possibilities of interactions as yet to be explored" might be the core of the "love" onion, that feature of the human concept that is most useful the general evolving systems content and while being in some ways the feature of love that humans many humans least readily recognize.  In any case, one might say that is not only relatedness and some tendency to move from less stable to more stable interactions that is fundamental to evolving systems but also an openness to new possibilities.  

Does the onion-peeling help?  My sense is that a fundamental relatedness, and a tendency to move toward more stable relations together with an openness to new possibilities, does in fact give us a "a meaningful zone of human existence in between an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality" and does so in a way that grounds human existence comfortably in a more general evolving systems pattern.  In the best of all worlds, perhaps it gives us as well the wherewithal  to think in new and productive ways about the more specifically human problems of affiliation, love, suffering, and even prom dates?  Our humanity provides us with ideas and inclinations that we can try and connect to the non-human world and the non-human world in which we are rooted in turn gives us back perspectives useful in the human world?    


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