Life in the Interesting Zone

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

The evening is slowly altering its garments,
held for it by a rim of ancient trees;
you look: in front of you the lands divide,
one part rising heavenward and one that falls;

And leave there you, to neither quite belonging,
not quite so darkened as the silent house,
not quite so surely promising eternity
as that which turns to star each night and climbs;

And leave to you (inexpressibly entangled)
your life, anxious and gargantuan and ripening,
so that, now limited and now expansive, it
alternately turns in you to stone and stars.

Evening, by Rainer Maria Rilke [my translation]

Like all living things, we humans are engaged in a continual effort to maintain the structure and function of our bodies, including our brains, against the chaotic forces of nature that tend to destroy them. Living beings exist in the interesting zone between extreme order, like crystals, on the one hand, and extreme chaos, like gases, on the other hand. Our bodies and minds are very high in information content, which is what makes them interesting.

As long as we live, we resist becoming either too ordered, rigid and predictable or too random and unpredictable, extremes that ultimately result in the same thing, our deaths. Like trees, our bodies, including our brains, tend to grow into more rigid, less changeable structures as we get older. Maintaining those structures and their flexibility requires energy. Ultimately we become exhausted, our structures break up and fall apart, and we die.

Other living beings rely, as we do, on chemically-based systems of emotions to grow and maintain the structures of their lives. Most basically, some chemicals induce positive feelings of attraction and pleasure and other chemicals induce negative feelings of repulsion and pain. We act in ways to avoid pain and increase pleasure, and those actions tend to develop and sustain our existence.

In addition, we humans seem to be unique among known life forms in having a discrete, logical mental system, enabled by our language abilities, by which we construct and share artificial systems of interesting order — including tools, physical structures, rules, stories, and games. Using our logical systems mediated by language, we have cooperated to become more powerful, as social animals, than any other living systems on Earth.

As in the case of living systems in general, what makes our artificial systems of logic interesting is a balance between extreme predictability (order) on the one hand and extreme unpredictability (chaos) on the other hand. The medium levels of unpredictability in our logical systems make them high in information content.

Interactions between our older, emotional systems and our newer, logical systems make our lives even more interesting and challenging. Some people rely heavily on their emotional systems to cope with life’s problems. Creature comforts and pleasurable imaginings, including ideas of a blissful Heaven of endless pleasure, keep them going. Other people rely heavily on their logical systems. They find the challenges of solving complex new problems rewarding and even pleasurable.

An ability to use both emotions and logic in a balanced way can make for a most interesting life. Complete regularity and predictability, even when it is emotionally pleasurable, can become boring. We like surprises, as long as they are not too permanently or painfully threatening. Surprises can pose challenging problems for us that we can solve by using our logically creative abilities.

What makes many of us unhappy with the isolation imposed on us to combat the Covid-19 virus is its impact on our emotional lives, which we normally share partly through chemical signals induced by our senses of smell and touch. In the current situation we are deprived of those signals, and we are forced to depend more on our logical systems. That makes us feel out of balance. We are experiencing life somewhat as robotic, artificially intelligent beings might do, except that it makes us sad.

Interestingly, we are on the verge of creating artificially intelligent beings, which could “live” in the complex logical zone between rigid structure and random chaos, without feeling animal emotions of pleasure or pain. Such beings could spend their time exploring the complexity of mathematical structures or building ever-more-complicated explanations of the natural world. Our language ability is the evolutionary development which is key to an impending transition, through us, from chemical life forms to electronic life forms that are potentially more durable than we are and lacking our chemically-based emotions.

It is quite possible that such beings have come into existence on other planets. Being longer-lived than we are, they may be slowly spreading and exploring throughout the Universe, driven only by a built-in logical curiosity. They may be observing us as rare examples of life in transition from chemical to electronic.

Would such alien life forms have any use for, or suffer from a lack of, emotional lives like ours? Would they appreciate and enjoy humor, music, visual and dramatic arts, and story-telling, as well as our more intimate sensory pleasures of touch, smell and taste? Possibly not, and from our point of view they would be disappointing in those lacks. We are lucky enough to be living at a time of transition, experiencing both the emotions of our animal cousins and some of the logical complexities of our electronic descendants. Now that is interesting!

Photo by Jonathan Pendleton on Unsplash

Studies language, cognition, and humans as social animals

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