Oxford dictionary defines relevance as “The quality or state of being closely connect or appropriate”. Any connection or appropriateness is with respect to the ecosystem or a reference point. Hence the relevance of anything is always with respect to a perspective of something outside of it. The perspective can be view-able from any lens- different time, location, view-point or context. If that is the case then the following question begs to be asked: As humans, what determines our relevance? Which perspective goggles do we see through which we can gauge our own relevance? To answer that we will have to go back into the genesis of humans or further still into the genesis of life itself!
The existential duality
Ever since the birth of the universe at the Big Bang, nature has exhibited both properties- order and chaos. There is order in the formation of galaxies, stars and planets. Yet there is chaos within this order too- within the stars and in the fabric of the expanding universe itself which is expanding into nothingness. So what is the nature of being of the entire universe? Order or chaos? This is the essence of the order-chaos duality.
Excessive order is monotony. Take the endless expanse of time for instance. The eternal dreadful nothingness. That’s why many philosophical schools of thought say that the fact that we are mortal is what makes life beautiful. But excess is no good either. Chaos lends no meaning to existence. e.g. imagine a universe made of just random atoms. That would be too random & meaningless. How can such a magnificent phenomenon like life exist in such a random chaotic universe? In a way, order and chaos are yin-and-yang, each giving meaning to the other.
Natural phenomenon & the force of life
In nature there are phenomenon which are latent & static while at the same time there are also forces which are active & agents of change. Examples of static phenomenon is the vastness of space & its various inherent forms of latent energies (dark matter, potential energy, electromagnetism, etc.). If we start to enumerate the no. of observable phenomenon in the known universe, the list will probably not end during our lifetimes.
The basic laws & common universal phenomenon
The variety of phenomenon varies to a great degree though. On one hand there are cosmological phenomenon such as neutron star radiation, black holes, comets, etc. There are also microscopic phenomenon such as quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty, revolving electrons around an atom’s nucleus, etc. Then there are phenomenon found in the wild such as the weird mating rituals of a black widow spider, migration of birds, etc. Even human civilization is filled with uncountable phenomenon. e.g. war-crimes, rapid urbanization, office culture & mobile addiction. 1
Although the list of phenomenon can be as large as the imagination, things become more meaningful when we see an underlying pattern. All these phenomenon have, at a deep level, the same set of laws governing their behavior or depicting their pattern. For examples all the cosmological laws have the Newtons laws of motion & gravity along-with Einsteins special theory of relativity at their core. At the micro-level there are laws of electro-magnetism and strong forces. These are the basic laws of nature.
The phenomenon of life
Although, in theory cells too should be able to be defined in terms of the more basic laws of gravity, quantum physics and electromagnetism, their behavior is more complex. Its like the behavior of a compound is vastly different than that of its constituent elements (Water, something which is used to douse fire is made up of oxygen and hydrogen, both of which aid combustion). Behind all phenomenon in our visible spectrum, at the core are cells which combine and reproduce to give birth to the varied forms of life and the resultant varied forms of phenomenon.
Life too behaves like a compound behaving in a far more complex way than its constituent elemental forces. The resultant vector, when imbued with the missing link of consciousness gives rise to the vector called the “Life force”. The life force is unlike any other in the universe because on one hand it is wildly complex and yet, it has few common threads of specific domains wherein it is highly narrow & focused in its application.
Life- embodying the duality of existence
Within the wide array of phenomenon in this universe, Life represents order. A sequence of atoms so arranged so as to replicate themselves over time, consuming materials & subsuming it into themselves. But life also brings about change in its ecosystem. Herein lies the confusion. Isn’t life itself also a force of change as well? By its very nature, life is motivated to survive & then seek to propagate. It then keeps on becoming more complex depending on its dominant needs. Life changes its environment in pursuit of the satisfaction of it’s needs- and that is why it is a force of change in nature. The change is to bring order in randomness. And that is why Life is an agent of order as well as change- a unique phenomenon indeed. It has both the yin-yang components subsumed within it.
A typical example of life force in action while bringing order into the universe is when a unicellular organism such as Amoeba is consumes matter from its surroundings, swells and later reproduces into more copies of itself. A clear example of order trumping randomness. Where there was just basic raw materials, now exist living breathing life!
Indistinguishable order amidst the chaos
Is it not possible that what seems as random or chaotic to us now is actually a piece of a bigger puzzle? Is it not possible that chaos is a higher form of order? A more evolved life is more complex. Complex multi-cellular animals are more complex than the single-celled Amoeba. From the perspective of Amoeba, higher-celled life is chaos. It doesn’t understand it. So, to a lower ordered life form, an evolved being is random or chaotic. It is no different than chaos. Hence, life, the agent of order also evolves into higher forms of chaos from the perspective of its previous versions. But then again, it isn’t possible to differentiate higher order from pure chaos. The mystery continues!
Complexity of human life today
Each social media outlet today publishes a timeline with storyline which gets updated every minute with feeds from all friend’s life. This is a total game-changer from just 10 years ago where the only one story-line existed for ever individual- their own mental story-line of their lives where they themselves are the protagonist and their life events are the story. And every human’s brain was wired to process this 1 story-line alone. The internal havoc our brains face now when subjected to these external story-lines can be gauged by the rise of no. of depressed people across the globe today. But before understanding the chaos, we have to go to the roots- what is a typical life-story of an individual? This is what we’ll cover in the next section.
Why does the human brain weave stories?
Each one of us is the protagonist of his/her own life story. The most important story to each one of us is our own life-story. In fact, all we care about is our own life-story. Everything else is only a back-story or background noise. Going to college, proposing to that girl, getting that job or achieving that milestone, everything is done to make our own life-story more compelling to ourselves. But what does this life-story represent? Why is it so important to us? Any astute observer of the human condition would say that it is our needs that drive us. On the other hand, we observe that we view the world through the prism of our individual life-story. What’s the missing link here? Can it be that individual life-stories somehow represent the inherent needs that drive us!?
The magical simplification formula
Beyond the need of survival itself, our predominant need is to make us want to have the most compelling life-story possible. We already know that the biological evolution of the human body has not been able to cope with the complex nature of demands expected from each one of us. The daily demands of work & behavior exhibition expected from each human are complex but an integral part of living in a civilized & progressive society like ours. Without a secret sauce, humans had no hope to survive the onslaught of complexity on their minds.
The human brain has come up with a competent simplifying mechanism to make sense of the diversity of the behaviors & demands of work expected from them. Its like a magic simplification formula (much like summation or integration function in mathematics) applied within the mind to make sense of it all. They simply weave a story corresponding to one particular dimension of their life and inter-weave multiple stories into a coherent life-story. This life-story is the bible and acts as the only lens through which the brain views and makes sense of the world.
Hierarchical web within the head
For any normal person there are 2-3 main dimensions to his/her life which typically include (may differ based on the person though) work, personal life and/or relationship with self. Each dimension of life has a corresponding story-line to make sense of that dimension. But since there are generally a lot of incidents and/or new information, each dimension of life are generally sub-divided into sub-dimensions, each sub-dimension having its own story trying to make sense of that world. The combination of all the stories that constitute all the sub-dimensions and dimensions, in totality constitute a life-story of a person.
The life-story acts as a informational framework to process demands placed on a human from all aspects of his life. In a way, the life-story is evolution’s home-bred project management system for the human mind. The human brain is better wired to remember stories. So, rather than remembering disconnected tasks and their associated facts, the human mind weaves them in a coherent web of stories in a hierarchical format eventually leading to the complex yet coherent mass refereed to here as a life-story of an individual. In fact the human brain itself wired in a web-like fashion wherein multi-branched neurons are linked to each other forming a wide web of connection where thought structures are placed in hierarchical patterns. Essentially, the life-story is a multi-hierarchical web of sub-stories. This provides the base for a person’s life-story to reside, with all the inherent inter-relationships & factual information storage associated with it imbibed within the brain. 2
A break-down of a life-story of a hypothetical person named Rohan (say) will look something like this: 3-4 dimensions (work, personal front, social circle, self-relationship). Each dimension will have sub-dimensions. For instance on the personal dimension, he’ll have sub-dimensions of stories on his marriage, relationship with parents, kids. Each sub-dimensions now are manageable story-units. Now Rohan’s brain easily weaves a story for each sub-dimension and then establishes a rough relationship between these various layers of dimensions. This coherent mass of stories spread across hierarchies is Rohan’s life-story. A rough schematic depicting how it might look in Rohan’s head is given below:
Why animals aren’t going crazy
In the animal kingdom, in stark contrast to humans, the behavior expected of each member of a specie is fairly homogeneous and more in lines of the few needs drivers such as survival, food gathering , sleep and mating. Animals also lack the capability to have such life-stories because weaving such stories requires the development of an advanced brain. But animal behavior is simple enough that the associated complexity variation can be counted on fingertips. Because of the simple and repetitive nature of their behavior, there is no life-story created in their minds to strand through the diversity of demands expected from them.
As far as how the story-weaving quality originated in animals, its a chicken-and-egg type of situation: On one hand weaving stories requires advanced brains to be generated, on the other hand, advanced brains require weaving stories to deal with the life complexity which is a characteristic part of already evolved & developed society. Somehow evolution managed to develop gradually but simultaneous the advanced human brain with its story-weaving capabilities & associated gradual complexity of human social life together
The practicalities of story-weaving
When a hypothetical person Amit (say) thinks of his life he imagines how situation at work is. How he has to get that promotion to be able to get the status her thinks he deserves among his colleagues. He thinks of his personal life and just instinctively knows that he has to take care of his wife & 2 children and all their associated issues including schooling, daily disputes, etc. He can also clearly see how his relationships with his friend circle is, how he meets people for socializing at the local club every week. The list goes on… Each component of his life comfortably fits to his life story. No complexity of Amit’s life is so complex that it cannot be incorporated in his life-story.
Life without a life-story
If, on the other hand, Amit did not have a life-story, then let’s imagine how his mind would have gone about coping with the various things & demands needed from him on a day-to-day basis. Amit’s life would be reduced to a large to-do list with different elements allotted to different categories such as home, work, kids, etc. Delving deeper into just one category, all current work related projects would be listed with their sub-tasks in that list. At home, his list would include home-maintenance tasks, kids-related tasks, etc. His life, essentially would be reduced to a project management system of to-do lists.
With Amit’s life transformed into a massive project-management problem, what motivation would he have to get up in the morning!? There clearly would be no space for emotions or intuitions. Logic being the only guide, Amit’s brain would have to work like a computer. The problem is, the wiring of the human brain and that of a silicon microchip is very very different. Hence the drives are also different for both.
Stories are the bedrock of emotions
Even a farmer in the countryside has to deal with complexities several orders of magnitude above those of the animals he might keep in his farm. e.g. tending to the flock, tilling the land, maintaining farm equipment, cooking food, involving himself in complex social rituals such as marriage, etc. His daily routine is driven by a diversity of drives each entailing different stakeholders and contexts. How else can he make head-or-tail of what’s happening if he doesn’t have his own life-story to fall back to.
For any drive to exist in Amit’s mind he has to be able to see what’s in store for him beyond the tasks. e.g. recognition at work, love of family, the joy of socializing. And what better way of internally doing that than weaving a life story with all complexities simplified within it, making the brain able to make sense of it all! Without a life-story however, Amit’s neurological pathways would be rendered irrelevant making the healthy functioning of his cognitive part of the brain completely impossible.
When our fathers or grandfathers tell about the innocent childhood they lived in we listen with mixed feelings. Things were clearer back then. There were a handful of professions & a fixed mode of personal life. Everyone was expected to go to school, choose one of the 3-5 job-getting professions, maybe goto college, get married, have kids and then help the kids live out in the same way but in the best way possible. The definitions of success, failure & struggle were not many back then. The joys of life were also comfortably limited- good food, spouse education, sports & television. But those times now seem like a relic of the past.
The conflicted combined consciousness
None of us live in vacuum. Especially not in today’s day-and-age of globalization, social media and virtual reality. We all live side-by-side. Each of us affecting & influencing each other and our respective life-stories. In a hypothetical scenario where a boy proposes to his long-time crush but she turns him down. The proposal registers as a separate chapter in both their life-stories (which reside in their respective minds). But there is a difference. While the rejection registers as a significant incident in the boy’s story, the same proposal only registers as a minor event in the girls. In such a manner we all keep on influencing each other’s life-stories.
This influencing of life-stories isn’t limited to individuals either. Entire organisations, societies & countries get influenced by each other. Countries wage war against each other on matters of national prestige, companies burn themselves to bankruptcy to live up to their ingrained values. The examples are many. 3 Each entity is driven by its needs. It just so happens that in these modern times, the dominant mental need is to have a satisfying & compelling story of one’s own self told to oneself while living in the labyrinth maze of a complex social ecosystem. As groups and institutions influence each other’s life-stories, the collage forms a mega-life-story or in other words, a combined consciousness. Unlike a coherent life-story inside an individual’s mind, the stories in the larger social groups are not necessarily perfectly inter-meshing or compatible. Different groups have different beliefs, drives and goals often at loggeer-heads with each other.
The conflicted individual
Mirroring the conflicting components of humanity in general, each one of us find our own sub-stories often incompatible with each other. Never has there been a more confusing time to live in than today. Everyone is confused as there is no clear life’s story-line which makes sense anymore. It’s all blurred!! The world around us is changing at a dramatic pace, especially post 1990s. Our economies, jobs & life-styles have gone a dramatic shift. More and more, we are expected to update ourselves with new information & newer skills. All of us stand at the precipice of irrelevance. Never has there been such an existential risk to the protagonist in our respective life’s story-lines. 4 The irrelevance is here, staring each one of us in the face 5, but we are too confused to realize it.
Life situations have become far too complicated for them to be able to be woven into 1 life-story with simplicity so that our brains can make sense of it. Situations are changing too fast to form a coherent meaning for our minds to grasp. In this age of information overload, the brain is struggling to cope. For the life-story to be able to do justice to the information overload, both the no. of stories and the depth of each story (in terms of content or volume of data) will have to increase manifold. The problem is that, if left to mere biological evolution, the limited cranial capacity of the human brain will not grow for several millions of years to come. The conclusion is simple: Humans have become increasingly inadequate to rise to the challenge of this day and age of information explosion!
Coming to terms with the truth
For the first time we have realized that we are not the center of our own stories. That our own individual life-story is not the most important thing in the world. We have been forced into this realization by current confusing times. Since our own life-stories aren’t enough to make sense of the world, we realize that our story is only a mental fabrication and a coping mechanism. A coping mechanism to live and function in this chaotic & changing time.
An appropriate emotional response hasn’t registered yet though. And so we wonder- How did this come to be? Before an answer comes to mind our attention shifts to the more pressing concern- What now?! The answer- We have to change the way we think & live. It’s no longer a choice. What to change and how? We still have to figure a convincing answer to those questions.
The intelligence takeover
The debate about the dual nature of existence has been going on amongst philosophers and scientists since the dawn of recorded human history. From philosophers like Aristotle & Socrates around 2000 years ago to present day scientists working on cutting-edge string theory, all are still riddled with similar questions. Perhaps the mystery will one day be solved. Until that happens, should we not focus on what is happening today? As society progresses & evolves, the degree of order as well as complexity on Earth is increasing exponentially, especially post 1990s with the digital revolution, the internet and now the boom in artificial intelligence. What broader meaning can this trend hint at?
Viewing human reality through system’s theory
In systems theory, an increase in order of any open system leads to increase in communication frequency and speed among its constituent elements. 6 Enhanced internal communication capability also enables rapid expansion and ability to alter the surrounding environment. The system’s energy consumption increases exponentially with time and is used for pursuing its own ends. All of these traits can be observed on Earth as well. The human society is an open system co-existing with other ecological and natural systems.
The intelligence booster-power
What is the real driver of the recent increase in humanity’s system capabilities? In all probability, it is the property of intelligence which birthed in the humans brain which is driving this acceleration in its systemic capabilities. Intelligence is defined in the oxford dictionary as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”. Essentially, intelligence gives booster rocket power for acquiring complex systemic behavior. It has the power to focus on a specific predefined goal and utilize the resources to achieve the ends, without distractions. It’s only the second force in the observable universe which acts with a clear intention. The first is life itself.
What separates intelligence from other powerful forces of nature is its ability to adapt and focus on its goals. A magnifying glass demonstrates how powerful focus can be. Simple unnoticeable light rays gain the power to burn through paper or wood via focus.
Intelligence- the unpredictable vector
All other forces rely only on themselves for their power. e.g. Gravitational force uses only the mass of bodies to exert force, electromagnetism uses only the charge polarities to exert force, so on and so forth. But intelligence can use other forces of nature for its own ends. E.g. a simple electric dynamo utilizes the forces of electromagnetism, momentum as well as fossil fuels to achieve its ends. But intelligence is not a basic force of nature. It is a vector force, a resultant of a number of basic forces including gravity, electromagnetism, etc. It also has a number of compound forces (non-basic forces) as its constituents. e.g. Life. It shows that intelligence, quiet unlike the simple basic natural forces, is not only a very complex force or a vector force but its also very flexible and unpredictable.
When you couple intelligence of humans with that basic change phenomenon that is life itself, the human condition becomes highly specific & directional in the larger context. It is aimed very accurately to satisfy its own very specific needs. Although in nature there are other forces which are very powerful (nuclear forces, black holes, etc.), but rarely is any other force so directed & focused. Intelligence is a rare powerful & focused force and is hence capable to cause the maximum impact in its vicinity. Its as if the forces of nature have become focused into a dense ray of light of a specific wavelength. Just like a magnifying glass focuses light rays to a point.
Getting a taste of its own medicine
An ironic parallel can be drawn here: [Basic natural forces : Life :: Life : Intelligence]. Earlier in the article, we observed how the life-force represents a vector of basic natural forces working in coherence to yield to the compound & complex life-force. In a similar fashion, the force of Intelligence is emerging as a resultant vector force of which Life forms a very basic ingredient. And continuing with the tradition, the behavior of this intelligence-force is far more complex than its predecessor. Its seems life just got a taste of its own medicine.
What happens to the egg-shell after hatching?
Human’s stand at the very edge of life’s intelligence developmental thresh-hold. That is precisely why they are most exposed to friction between the intelligence vector force within the shell of its biological origins. To put simply, if life is the nest and humans the egg, then intelligence is the baby chicken which might break the shell to unleash itself onto the universe!
What happens to the egg-shell after a chicken hatches? Ever wondered? Probably not, because the hatched egg-shells are not important. They are irrelevant as they have served their purpose. So what should we feel now about our current situation?Its probably a lingering feeling of Irrelevance!
Who is using whom?
As the human brain evolved to possess more intelligence, the nature of human goals became more and more complex. Higher order needs arose. The human will to work to fulfill these new goals arose out of a need to satisfy exactly those very specific higher-order needs generated by an intelligent brain!! It is not clear whether man is using intelligence to achieve his goals or whether intelligence is using man to create goals. And perhaps this is, at a basic level as to why humans feel irrelevant today. 7 They simply don’t know why they are creating an unending series of goals and running in a mad race to achieve them.
The old ways of having a meaningful life-story which makes sense of human lives does not seem to work for them anymore. Its as if humanity has lost control of its own steering wheel and its developmental trajectory is now on auto-pilot. Perhaps this was supposed to happen in the grand order of things. Perhaps the purpose of egg-shells was merely to enable the chicken to hatch.
It feels like there has been a coup where the social and emotional homo sapiens has been dethroned by a purely rational entity residing within humans themselves. To get a broader view, I’ve attempted to visualize how the sequence of events has been when viewed from the ‘relevance’ perspective:
What’s clearly evident from the above illustration is that the sequence of events are on an accelerating time-line, i.e. the sequence of events are happening in an accelerated manner as events unfold. Just like life-force emerged from the rubbles of meaningless nothingness , it seems that a new force of intelligence has birthed itself within life and is taking over, and fast! Fortunately or unfortunately, humanity is at the cusp of this transition. We stand at a crucial juncture of transition to a newer force of nature- the intelligence vector. No wonder we all stand at the precipice of irrelevance!