Freedom

Could Play and Freedom Trace Back to the Building Blocks of Everything?

|

central planners not required
"Cosmos"/PBS

Anthropologist David Graeber writes at The Baffler about "play" and how the concept may be necessary at any and every level of physical reality. I found the piece via NPR, which rightly highlights Graeber's idea that the self-organizing "play" principle is something approaching a primitive ancestor to freedom. But, wrongly and unsurprisingly, NPR differentiated that force from the ones at play in the marketplace.

An excerpt from Graeber's essay:

What would happen if we proceeded from the reverse perspective and agreed to treat play not as some peculiar anomaly, but as our starting point, a principle already present not just in lobsters and indeed all living creatures, but also on every level where we find what physicists, chemists, and biologists refer to as "self-organizing systems"?

This is not nearly as crazy as it might sound.

Philosophers of science, faced with the puzzle of how life might emerge from dead matter or how conscious beings might evolve from microbes, have developed two types of explanations.

The first consists of what's called emergentism. The argument here is that once a certain level of complexity is reached, there is a kind of qualitative leap where completely new sorts of physical laws can "emerge"—ones that are premised on, but cannot be reduced to, what came before. In this way, the laws of chemistry can be said to be emergent from physics: the laws of chemistry presuppose the laws of physics, but can't simply be reduced to them. In the same way, the laws of biology emerge from chemistry: one obviously needs to understand the chemical components of a fish to understand how it swims, but chemical components will never provide a full explanation. In the same way, the human mind can be said to be emergent from the cells that make it up.

Those who hold the second position, usually called panpsychism or panexperientialism, agree that all this may be true but argue that emergence is not enough. As British philosopher Galen Strawson recently put it, to imagine that one can travel from insensate matter to a being capable of discussing the existence of insensate matter in a mere two jumps is simply to make emergence do too much work. Something has to be there already, on every level of material existence, even that of subatomic particles—something, however minimal and embryonic, that does some of the things we are used to thinking of life (and even mind) as doing—in order for that something to be organized on more and more complex levels to eventually produce self-conscious beings. That "something" might be very minimal indeed: some very rudimentary sense of responsiveness to one's environment, something like anticipation, something like memory. However rudimentary, it would have to exist for self-organizing systems like atoms or molecules to self-organize in the first place.

Read the rest here.

Graeber is apparently a co-founder of the "Anti-Capitalist Convergence," so he too, like NPR, may miss the link between free markets and self-organization, as well as the ought-to-be self-evident idea that centralization (even when masquerading as "consensus") can only destroy the wonders self-organization (which requires not consensus but freedom to act) can produce.

NEXT: ATTN POLICE: Enough Already with the Jaywalking Stings! Don't Cops Have Better Things To Do?!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    1. Since I beat Fist, I tried to go back and actually read the article. Here are my thoughts:

      “I read your story. You used a lot of big words. Great! Good for you! It was a little long, so I didn’t read the whole thing, but who cares ’cause I gave you an A!”

  1. Graeber is apparently a co-founder of the “Anti-Capitalist Convergence,” so he too, like NPR, may miss the link between free markets and self-organization, as well as the ought-to-be self-evident idea that centralization (even when masquerading as “consensus”) can only destroy the wonders self-organization (which requires not consensus but freedom to act) can produce.

    Or maybe they see it but don’t care because capitalism results in inequality.

    And as we all know, there is no problem in society worse than inequality. Thus capitalism must be destroyed, because it is better for everyone to be equally poor than for a society to be fabulously rich with the wealth spread unevenly.

    1. Inequality is such a severe problem that we have to pay Krugman big bucks to think deep thoughts about it.

      1. People trump principles. Inequality is perfectly fine if the rich person subscribes to the correct politics.

    2. He hates capitalism because it results in winners and losers.

      You know what else results in winners and loser? (Hint: It starts with a “g”.)

        1. Genetics?

  2. as well as the ought-to-be self-evident idea that centralization (even when masquerading as “consensus”) can only destroy the wonders self-organization (which requires not consensus but freedom to act) can produce.

    THAT WHICH IS NOT MANDATORY IS PROHIBITED.

  3. “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”

  4. Graeber is apparently a co-founder of the “Anti-Capitalist Convergence,” so he too, like NPR, may miss the link between free markets and self-organization

    I don’t think he missed the link at all; he simply prefers to dismiss the implication because it makes hash of his ideological passion to impose a new aristocracy of wise “Top Men” above all us poor rubes. That’s all.

    I don’t trust ideologues simply fail to connect the spontaneous order in nature with the spontaneous order of the markets. They’re simply being intellectually dishonest.

  5. But, wrongly and unsurprisingly, NPR differentiated that force from the ones at play in the marketplace.

    Keeping score is oppression, dude.

  6. Never underestimate the power of doublethink.

    1. Re: Doctor Whom,

      Never underestimate the power of doublethink.

      Indeed. You can notice this just by reading their arguments made up of non-sequiturs like this one: “you worship markets because you just want to help rich oligarchs!”

    2. Any post about doublethink ought to be posted twice, so we can think doubly about it.

      1. Any post about doublethink ought to be posted twice, so we can think doubly about it.

        1. Doubleplusgood bellyfeel!

        2. Doubleplusgood bellyfeel!

  7. We are biological machines, biological robots if you will, titrated with chemicals, with a large swelling of the nervous system called a brain that necessarily and automatically gives rise to consciousness at some point in the development from a fertilized egg to a human being independent of the mother.

    That we use those brains to imagine that we are not driven by the laws of chemistry and physics and DNA to react in specific ways that we don’t have control over — that we are at the beck and call of our DNA interacting mechanistically to the environment, with the environment mechanistically altering how that biological computer react to future stimuli — is to fail to observe twins in action and see how dazzlingly similar they are.

    1. I teach a pair of identical twins. They look almost identical — they have a miniscule difference in the arch of their eyebrows, and one has a freckle on her cheek that the other doesn’t. They sound identical. They react in almost identical ways to how I interact with them. They make the same types of errors on the math assignments, though one is slightly ahead of the other in her math skills.

      Every day they come in, I try to guess which is which, and so far I get it right about 50% of the time.

    2. If the only things that have experience are living animals (and only some of them) and only a single thread of experience per organism, isn’t it fantastically unlikely that out of all the potential and actual combinations of matter, you would happen to be one of those with experience?

  8. Since Tony is not here, it means he agrees with everything that is being said here.

    1. Including any posts that contradict each other, because Tony is strong with the doublethink.

  9. Seems like an ability to see and understand how self organization works at all levels is part of what predisposes one to libertarian thinking. It seems like most people, not just dipshits who spend their time worrying about inequality, have a hard time seeing (or perhaps accepting) the principle as it applies to big complicated things like human society.

    1. As a friend of mine said the other day: “Most people have — at best — the ability to see one step of cause and effect. I used to think that if I just made better arguments, I could explain to them why their one-step approach was causing them to misunderstand very important things. But it turns out they just can’t, or won’t, understand that you might have to look beyond the first layer of consequences to understand the effects of an action. Thus “give poor people money” is the solution to poverty, and “give people health insurance” is the solution to poor health care outcomes. Its not a shortcoming in me that I can’t get people to understand why it just isn’t that simple.”

      1. Critical thinking is an uncommon skill.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.