I often talk about the various reasons I still believe humanity has a fighting chance at rescuing itself from extinction and Orwellian dystopia, like the fact that our ability to network and share information is at an all-time high while trust in the mass media is at an all-time low, or the fact that humans have the capacity to radically transform their relationship with thought in a way that longtime teachers of this art say is becoming easier and more common. I just stumbled across another such reason to hope, and I figured I’d tap it out with a few thoughts in case anyone wants to add it to the pile.
I like to listen to talks from the late philosopher/psychonaut Terence McKenna sometimes while I’m relaxing; I find it to be good mental hygiene. One particular video was on in the background today and something he said caught my ear that I’d heard many times before but never really ingested, arguing that there’s an unbroken trend in the known universe’s history which suggests that humans are going to make it past our challenges after all.
McKenna introduces the bit I’d like to highlight by saying that, while it is difficult to be both well-informed and optimistic about humanity’s future, there are some things science has tended to overlook about the big picture which gives optimism a more rational place in the grand scheme of things.
“What was overlooked was what I call the Conservation of Novelty,” McKenna’s odd, reedy voice said through my laptop speakers. “Now what I mean by this is something very easy for you to convince yourself is happening. The Conservation of Novelty is simply that over time, the universe has become more complicated. New levels of complexity become the foundations for yet deeper levels of complexity. And this phenomenon of the production and conservation of what I call novelty is not something which goes on only in the biological domain, or only in the cultural domain, or only in the domain of physics. It is a trans-categorical impulse in reality, meaning it’s everywhere. Everywhere.”
“The universe was born in a state of great simplicity,” McKenna explained. “There were no atoms, there were no molecules, there were no stars; there was only a plasmic ocean of energy. The physics for describing this were very simple. As time passed, you could almost imagine complexity crystalizing out of a universe that cools. As it cools new properties emerged; what David Baum called emergent properties come out of the universal mix.”
“Atomic systems form. This creates an entirely new domain of matter, different from the plasma that preceded it. As the universe cools, matter aggregates into stars. Stars cook out heavier elements, among them carbon. Carbon sets the stage for four-valent complex polymer chemistry, that sets the stage for life. Simple life sets the stage for complex life. Complex life sets the stage for multicellular advanced animals, land animals, so forth and so on. You see what the process is here: it’s that each emergent property becomes a building block for a new set of phenomena. The concrescence of atomic systems allows the physical world. The generation of carbon chemistry allows the organic world. The complexification of advanced animals allows the conscious world of human culture and civilization.”
Do you see where he’s going with this? The universe, for some mysterious reason, has been marching toward greater and greater complexity since its birth. Everything we know about our universe and our world tells us plainly that this is true; you don’t need to believe in any kind of deity or woo woo philosophy to see it, it’s evidenced in the behavior of the universe itself.
The most complex structure in the known universe is the human brain. As far as we know it is the pinnacle of material complexity at this point in spacetime. If what we know about this ongoing trend from plasma giving rise to particles giving rise to stars giving rise to elements giving rise to life giving rise to humanity giving rise to to increasingly complex cultural and societal structures is as reliable as it appears to be, does it make sense to believe the human brain would suddenly disappear from the equation and revert back to the lesser complexity of an earth without humans, or without life altogether?
It’s at least an interesting idea to consider and toy with the implications. Maybe we really are all along for the ride in the universe’s playful expansion into greater and greater complexity, a transitionary phase between simpler animal life and whatever vastly more complex thing we’ll give rise to in the future. Maybe our idea that the fate of the world rests in our little monkey hands is as precious and ridiculously self-important as one of the hundreds of side characters in a Where’s Waldo? illustration thinking that the whole book is about her. Maybe we’re just the earliest sprouting from the tiniest seed of what is on its way to becoming a towering tree, but mistaking ourselves for the finished product instead of a brief phase along the way toward something unimaginably grander. Maybe this fascinating adventure necessarily continues after all.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, of course we should. Partly because maybe ol’ Terence was mistaken in this particular case, but also because what the hell else are we going to do? Even if we are some awkward transitionary stage between the simpler and the more complicated, our trying and our fight to survive would be just as much a part of that march toward complexity as our little herbivore dinosaur ancestors scrambling to avoid the sharp teeth of carnivorous predators. The only thing to do is fight for life, but this perspective takes the pressure and hopelessness out of it.
So where are we headed, if McKenna’s theory of novelty conservation continues to bear out? Well, the early single-celled organisms wouldn’t have been able to predict the emergence of multicellular organisms. Early multicellular organisms wouldn’t have been able to anticipate the emergence of land animals. A prehistoric land animal never would have imagined that there would one day be humans driving around in cars and making street art and arguing with strangers on the internet. Maybe any attempt on our part to predict where this trend in complexification is headed would be just as futile. All we can do is keep alive, do our very best, and hope.
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