Anakentavada – the principle binding molecules to minds and cells and civilizations
Everything is information processing.
Cells grow and reproduce. From the smallest prokaryote to the most complex metazoan the principle connecting life at all levels is the abstract ability not only to process information, but also to share it. The integration of multiple detection events coordinated to build a picture of the world the processor finds itself in; this is Anakentavada.
Let the classic story of the elephant illustrate our meaning. Five men, blind from birth, are brought across the shining sea to the court of the Raja. The king, in his opulence and mischief, sets before them a great elephant, a beast common in his kingdom. He summoned the men before his throne, where he has placed the beast. Complimenting the wisdom of the men, he pleaded with them that they should help him identify a mysterious object which had appeared in his realm. Not knowing if this was some terrible misfortune sent from the gods across the seas, he bid them each in turn to grasp the thing and tell him what it portended.
The first man touched the trunk and said that it was a tree. The second touched its leg and said that it was a pillar. The third touched its tail and said that it was a brush. The fourth touched its ear and said that it was a sail. And the fifth touched its tusk and said that it was a plough.
Not desiring to wrongfully proclaim a portent from their gods across the shining sea, they soon fell into quarrel. Their words became sharp and soon they fell to blows, each convinced by his own experience. At last the king, who was very wise and had called together this scene for his own amusement, said:
“Honored Sirs, there is no need for violence as you are all correct. This beast I took from the dark forest and set before you. It is larger than one man can experience with his hands. The reason you do not agree is because the elephant is all these features and more besides.”
At the most basic level, stripped of anything material, were these events: detection, transformation, and communication. Simple cells detect with raw physics. A protein molecule binds some elemental environmental feature — a small molecule, a photon of light, a mechanical motion — with some specialized portion of its surface. This changes its configuration, making a different portion of it available to interact with another protein or molecule within the cell. The elemental detection by one molecule therefore becomes the event detected by the next molecule with which it communicates, building a chain of information processing. Eventually, these elemental events become the behavior of the cell. It moves toward food, away from danger, toward a conjugal partner. It is through these disconnected detection events, integrated through communication, that the cell becomes aware of food to move toward or poison to move away from. There is no cellmunculus — no cell within a cell — no prokaryotic Descartes sending the detections to the soul of the cell for cogitation. There is only detection and communication. The cell builds its picture of the world through Anakentavada.
Applying this principle a level higher, we see that brains — and the dynamic mind they give rise to — are no different. Billions of specialized detectors at the periphery collect the same elemental events observed so efficiently by the unincorporated cells. A vastly greater number of events are detected. Brains cope with this by building dynamically interlinked hierarchical levels, with each level detecting the abstracted and processed information from the level below. There is, here, no homunculus — no Cartesian screen upon which the cogitations shine for the soul alone. There are only separate, bounded cells, each detecting events which only they can see, and passing their own decided detections (i.e. Was some lower level event there or not, and to what degree?) on to their fellows. Each point in space, at least each that can be resolved by light and sound and touch, limited by the density and sensitivity of the sensory detectors, passes its own occurrences to separate processors within the brain. The brain builds its picture of the world through Anakentavada.
Advancing to civilizations, we can see the principle holds fast. The civilization is made wholly from separate, bounded individuals, each equipped with their own unique configuration of cellular detectors and a unique position within the web of society. Individuals are able to detect extremely complex events over a massively expanded range of timescales. Microscopes and particle accelerators allow access to the smallest and swiftest events we can detect; radio telescopes and computer simulations of cosmology grant access to the longest. They can communicate these detections efficiently to their fellows by transforming them into language or mathematics. Great cooperative works can arise from the communication: computers and machines, tractors and nuclear submarines, internet and mobile communications. The picture of the world built up in a civilization is reflected in these works. Its character and uniqueness among its fellow civilizations is shown in the material trappings built by its members — buildings, cultures, and social relationships. But there is no civilunculus — no enormous Cartesian unit funneling all the information gathered by its members into a longer, more durable, societal soul from whence all decisions come. No all-seeing eye abstracted through the actions of the members of the society. There are only the individuals, their detection of events, and their communication of these events.
As Descartes said, we inhabit a privileged position — safe in the middle state, between the enormity of the void, and the nothingness beneath the atom. In order to expand our view of the world, built by Anakentavada, there is one straightforward way to accomplish this. We have today, or soon will have, the capacity to enhance the abilities of the most elemental detection events of our cells, and the processing abilities of our brains. By studying biology, neuroscience, computer science, physics and chemistry, we gain the power to improve and enhance the very units collecting and processing the most elemental detections from which all higher order pictures of the world are built.