Properties of Nature, and of the Human Mind

Reading David Krakauer’s announcement on the collaboration between Santa Fe Institute and National Science Foundation I discovered Murray Gell-Mann’s paper, “Nature Conformable To Herself”. Gell-Mann won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions.” 

This paper resonated after an on–going unease I had with a Kantian, rule based, conquestian attempts at taming nature.

We need to deal […] with the widespread notion that all scientific theory is nothing but a set of constructs with which the human mind attempts to grasp reality, a notion associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. 

Are the laws of science just constructs of the human mind so that alien intelligences seeking the laws of nature would most likely arrive at something very different? Or does nature determine to a great extent how an intelligent being would have to describe its laws? 

We have this picture of the laws of physics: A simple unified theory (which may well be superstring theory) describes all the elementary particles and all the forces of nature. 

It is a property of nature, not of the human mind, although the way it is formulated by human beings may be peculiar to our species.

A great deal of confusion can be avoided, in many different contexts, by making use of the notion of emergence. 

Life can perfectly well emerge from the laws of physics plus accidents, and mind, from neurobiology. 

It does not diminish the significance of life on Earth to know that it emerged from physics and chemistry and the special historical circumstances permitting the chemical reactions to proceed that produced the ancestral life form and thus initiated biological evolution. 

It does not detract from the achievements of the human race, including the triumphs of the human intellect and the glorious works of art that have been produced for tens of thousand of years, to know that our intelligence and self-awareness, greater than those of the other animals, have emerged from the laws of biology plus the specific accidents of hominid evolution. 

When we human beings experience awe in the face of the splendors of nature, when we show love for one another, and when we care for our more distant relatives—the other organisms with which we share the biosphere—we are exhibiting aspects of the human condition that are no less wonderful for being emergent phenomena.

— Murray Gell-Mann, “Nature Conformable To Herself”

Published by Nitzan

I am a designer, writer and strategist with interest in machine learning, liminal thinking and complexity science. In my commercial work I help companies build innovative tools, design better qualitative processes, and lead that human machine collaboration with complexity in mind.

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