The Directionality of the Universe
Even as a young kid, I’ve always been enamored with grandiose ideas of something far larger than life as we know it today. It started with sci-fi adventures found in Star Wars, Pokemon, and The Legend of Zelda and has blossomed over time into spiritual studies. Heck, that’s even what I entered undergrad initially to do. My original major at Lincoln Christian University was “Preaching Ministry,” and I’ve come to recognize that my interest was less in being a church pastor at the time to more of this idea of purely wanting to understand the God of the Bible.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve always had this natural hunger for the big question on everybody’s mind: what’s the meaning of all this? What’s the meaning of life? If you’re expecting I hypothesize an answer here, then you’ll probably be disappointed. I think it was the Buddha who was asked by a devotee this question and replied back, “That’s none of your business.” He wasn’t being cheeky; he was simply acknowledging that it will always remain an elusive mystery in this incarnation that it’s not worth spending your time on.
Obviously, it’s still a question I’m interested in, but throwing out an answer here would be highly naive of me. But what I do find interesting is simply noticing the general arc of the universe from a purely scientific lens. Of course, we have a lot to learn about our universe, but every new discovery seems to indicate a directionality, if you will, to the universe. When I mean directionality, I mean this grandiose pattern that’s been occurring as far back as we can trace scientifically. And as a machine learning engineer, you know I love patterns!
Laying the foundation for the rest of the post here, we’re going to assume conventional science as we have come to know it is true. I’m talking about things like the Big Bang, evolution, and the general laws of physics. I say that because religion tends to hold more supernatural concepts about the universe’s origin. Not trying to put those views down, but we simply can’t verify those through empirical means. (And actually, I think those serve a far better role in terms of metaphor, but discussing that is out of scope for this post. I have plenty others that do that on Medium.)
Full disclosure: the remainder of this post is going to rely heavily on the works of philosopher Ken Wilber, particularly his book A Brief History of Everything. It’s a dense book but well worth reading. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon.
Right at the outset of that book, Wilber introduces this idea of a holon. A holon refers to something that is simultaneously its own being while also being part of something else. A simple example of this is a molecule. As you probably recall from grade school, a molecule is comprised of atoms, so something like a water molecule consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom — H2O.
The interesting thing about things like molecules is that the “sum” of what a molecule is is more than the individual parts itself. One hydrogen atom and one oxygen atom is not a water molecule. Two hydrogen atoms and four oxygen atoms is not a water molecule. So here, the atom and molecule are both considered holons in the sense that they stand alone as individual entities but also come together to form things that create something far “greater” than what it can do alone.
And so you can keep following this right up the chain to the visible universe as we interact with it today. Atoms form molecules, which form cells, which form bodily tissues, which form organ systems, which form a whole human being. Of course, this hierarchy — or “holarchy” as Wilber would refer to it — is not limited to human beings. Everything is comprised of this hierarchical chain of holons, starting with things that we’re still discovering at the subatomic level. (No, the atom is NOT the smallest thing in the universe!)
Here’s the kicker though: it’s not as if this holarchy is necessarily random. As we’ve seen with the example of the water molecule, when those two hydrogen-one oxygen atoms come together, they form this thing that defines something larger than the individual parts. You can’t just have other atoms randomly bumping into each other and expect a water molecule to form. It’s very specific, but very specific in a “good” way. I throw “good” in quotes because I don’t know how else to describe it.
Wilber talks about a holarchy forms a new level when it is able to “transcend and include” the holons from a previous level. That might seem like a dense sentence, but it’s basically describing what we’ve already talked about with our pal the water molecule. The water molecule “includes” the holons of atoms, and it “transcends” the atoms because it forms something greater than the sum of the atoms as individuals.
The reason that I note that holarchy isn’t necessarily random is because not all combinations of holons “transcend and include” the “lower levels” of a holarchy. A lot of combinations of atoms bounce together but do nothing in terms of forming a higher level molecule. In other words, they might fulfill the criteria of “include”, but they do not fulfill the criteria of “transcend.”
Again, I’m not here to postulate the “why” behind all of this, but there is undeniably a pattern going on here. The universe seems to “reward” a holarachy that is able to “transcend and include” its previous level. Think about the concept of evolution. Evolution works through the process of natural selection, which is by definition a means to adapt for better survival. Negative mutations — like cancer — ultimately don’t survive because they don’t contribute to a transcendence to the next level in the holarchy.
A little bit of bad news: these evolutionary steps in this holarchical chain take place over literally millions of years, so we probably won’t get to see what the next stage of this holarchy looks like. From the purely scientific perspective, our analysis unfortunately ends here.
What is highly interesting to me is how this idea of “transcend and include” has extremely high relevance in a cultural sense. We might not be physically changing form, but history has tended to reward cultures that are able to “transcend and include” what is the status quo for them. Now, I don’t want to brush aside the “dirty side” of human history. Yes, humans have done dastardly things that have had some pretty significant tangible effects.
But the general arc of human history tends toward the positive over the negative. There is indeed a lot of bad stuff in our present day society, but as books like The Better Angels of Our Nature point out, today is a far better time than any in human history. Even setting morality aside for a second, it’s undeniable that we’ve been able to come together to do great things. After all, I’m typing this post on an iPad. Our ancestors couldn’t even have dreamed about something like the Internet!
On a more personal level, this idea of “transcend and include” wholly resonates with me when I consider my interactions with other people. I’ve found that as I become more of a loving and inclusive person to others, I equally benefit — if not more — from these caring interactions. I know from personal experience that feelings of revenge — feelings that drive us away from one another — ultimately left me feeling hollow.
Don’t take my word for it, just look at all the lovely movements going on today around diversity and inclusion. The people who are able to drop their presuppositions and embrace those who seem “other” than themselves are generally happier people. I’m sorry, but I do not find that truly bigoted people tend to really be all that happy. What do these people really stand to benefit by being so exclusive?
(Side note: I’m not necessarily trying to disparage these people. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that nothing is nearly as “black and white” as we tend to make it out to be. Bigoted people tend to be hurting people, and that hurt is often directly correlated to some really sad and depressing experiences. So while I do not at all condone these people’s behaviors, my heart goes out to their often unstated pain.)
I just think it’s really cool that if this “transcend and include” pattern we see in science is true, then the implications of that have a direct validity on our day-to-day interactions. And it has truly changed my life. If you know me on a personal level, you know I’ve tended to be a cynical dude most of my life. I still tend to be cynical at times, but by incorporating these practices of diversity and inclusion in my own life, I can unequivocally say that I’m far more at peace in my life today than I have ever been at any point.
Okey doke, that’s a good place to stop. I hope this post didn’t get *too* heavy. If you like what you read about holons and holarchy, definitely check out that book by Ken Wilber. I think we only covered the material from chapter 1, so there’s a LOT of equally great content that I didn’t cover! I wish you grace and peace in this life journey, and I promise you will find life in this philosophy.