Francis Heylighen and the Global Brain

Teilhard’s description of the Noosphere’s formation discusses various manifestations of human culture and technology. He emphasizes his conception of the Noosphere is a “Plausible Biological Interpretation of Human History”, enumerating analogies in three categories—the apparatus of heredity, the mechanical apparatus, and the cerebral apparatus.

The apparatus of heredity encompasses our methods of transmitting information culturally, rather than only genetically. These include “Traditions of every kind, hoarded and manifested in gesture and language, in schools, libraries, museums, bodies of law and religion, philosophy and science—everything that accumulates, arranges itself, recurs and adds to itself, becoming the collective memory of the human race”.

The mechanical apparatus encompasses all of the technological innovations that have extended our capabilities, from the first stone tools to the engineered wonders of the modern world. Teilhard viewed the ability to manipulate the physical world, through a combination of manual dexterity and creative brains, as essential in freeing us from the need to evolve the specialized body parts that narrowed the evolutionary pathways of other animal lineages: “Possessing hands as well as intelligence, and being able, in consequence, to devise artificial instruments and multiply them indefinitely without becoming somatically involved, (man) has succeeded, while increasing and boundlessly extending his mechanical efficiency, in preserving intact his freedom of choice and power of reason.”

However, it’s the third feature of its anatomy—the cerebral apparatus—that most compellingly embodies Teilhard’s definition of the Noosphere as “an envelope of thinking substance”. In other words, a global brain with collective consciousness. But what does that mean?

It’s relatively easy to understand Teilhard’s biological analogies for cultural heredity and the role of technology in accelerating human evolution. The analogy between a human brain with individual consciousness and a global brain that unites humanity in collective consciousness is somewhat less intuitive to grasp. Teilhard himself acknowledged the primary challenge in making this leap:

On the one hand we have a single brain, formed of nervous nuclei, and on the other a Brain of brains. It is true that between these two organic complexes a major difference exists. Whereas in the case of the individual brain thought emerges from a system of nonthinking nervous fibers, in the case of the collective brain each separate unit is in itself an autonomous center of reflection. If the comparison is to be a just one we must, at every point of resemblance, take this difference into account.

But how? That is a core challenge of achieving a truly noospheric consciousness. Today of course we immediately envision the role the Internet may play, but in Teilhard’s time electronic information and communication technology was in its relative infancy. Nevertheless, he realized it would eventually play a critical role in creating a “Brain of brains”:

I have said that, thanks to the machine, Man has contrived both severally and collectively to prevent the best of himself from being absorbed in purely physiological and functional uses, as has happened to other animals. But in addition to its protective note, how can we fail to see the machine as playing a constructive part in the creation of a truly collective consciousness?…

…I am thinking, of course, in the first place of the extraordinary network of radio and television communications which, perhaps anticipating the direct syntonization of brains through the mysterious power of telepathy, already link us all in a sort of “etherized” universal consciousness.

But I am also thinking of the insidious growth of those astonishing electronic computers which, pulsating with signals at the rate of hundreds of thousands a second, not only relieve our brains of tedious and exhausting work but, because they enhance the essential (and too little noted) factor of “speed of thought” …

Now that we have fully embarked on the Internet Age, how is Teilhard’s vision of a “Brain of brains” taking shape? This question is central to the Science of the Noosphere, and a primary focus of the Human Energy Project as well.

One of the thought leaders in that field is Francis Heylighen. He studies complex adaptive systems, especially as the concept applies to collective consciousness and the global brain. He recently discussed his work with David Sloan Wilson.

In Part One of the conversation, David asks Francis to describe his background, and what led him to his focus on complex systems. Francis begins by explaining that early in his intellectual development, he came to think that the fundamental evolutionary principles of variation and selection applied more generally to systems, not just biological ones. He began his formal education by studying physics, though he was critical of the reductionist and deterministic nature of that discipline.

He turned to systems theory and cybernetics, which led to a collaboration with Valentin Turchin and Cliff Joslyn. They collaborated to develop the Principia Cybernetica Project, one of the earliest sites on the World Wide Web. The combination of the cybernetics and systems theory led to his focus on the emerging new paradigm of complex adaptive systems.

Francis and David discuss some of the details of complex adaptive systems study, in particular what is meant by adaptive in different contexts, and at what level the systems adapt—whether individual agents adapting to their environments, or adaptation at the level of the system as a whole.

Francis introduces the concept of stigmergy, which in this context refers to an agent taking some action that leaves a trace in the environment shared by other agents, creating the opportunity for those agents to read that trace and build on it—such as termites depositing a bit of mud, and others adding to it to eventually create a large mound. He observes that a similar process takes place on Wikipedia pages, though the activity is of course much more sophisticated, as users edit and add text.

David introduces the concept of organism as something that exhibits adaptation at the level of a whole system. A discussion ensues about the level at which the elements of an organism are adaptive. Francis observes that the problem of adaptation at the level of an organism is coordination, which can be done essentially in two ways. There are either stigmergic-like processes such as hormones which diffuse generally throughout a system and can be read and acted upon by any elements, or the more targeted process that can be accomplished through neural networks which send out messages to particular parts.

Francis Heylighen with David Sloan Wilson: Part One Transcript

In Part Two of the conversation, David begins by bringing in the concept of the Noosphere, asking Francis how he would define the Noosphere and update Teilhard’s vision in light of our understanding today.

Francis begins by describing his own history with related ideas in more detail, particularly in regard to his work with Valentin Turchin and Cliff Joslyn on Principia Cybernetica. They had an idea for online connectivity using something like hypertext links, and discovered Tim Berners-Lee had already implemented such a protocol as the World Wide Web. They saw structural similarities between the structure of the Web and the human brain, and the potential of it evolving into a global brain.

He describes two levels of a global brain—an anatomical level of computers connected by links, and a more Noospheric level at which ideas circulate. As to the way coordination takes place, the anatomical level is more like a neural network, and the Noospheric level is more like the stigmergic paradigm. He gives the example Wikipedia being more stigmergic in nature.

David makes the point that though they’re discussing these methods of coordination in the Internet Age, processes that are similar to neural networks and stigmergy have operated at a variety of intermediate scales, but they are at this point relatively feeble forces at global scales.

Francis generally agrees, making the point that the Internet has made these processes more visible, because they happen so fast and we can see the underlying algorithms and linking structures. He gives some examples of the effectiveness of these processes at intermediate scales. But he also thinks David may be too pessimistic about the global scale, and gives several examples of global coordination.

Francis explains that he sees the invisible hand as a self-organizing coordination mechanism that is highly globalized and can do a number of impressive things.

David replies with an explanation of two kinds of complex adaptive systems—one kind that’s adaptive as a system, and another kind that’s composed of agents following their respective adaptive strategies. (the concept of the invisible hand is an example of the second kind).

This section of the discussion ends with a long and involved exchange about the nature of complex adaptive systems, and a difference of opinion is revealed in regard to organization, selection, adaptation, optimization, and evolution of complex systems at different levels.

Francis Heylighen with David Sloan Wilson: Part Two Transcript

In Part Three of the conversation, David begins by saying he’d like to turn the discussion toward the Third Story. This is a core initiative of the Human Energy Project to make people aware of the role that Teilhard’s vision of the Noosphere plays in creating a narrative that provides meaning, purpose, and direction for the human future. There is a quality to the Third Story that makes the lofty theoretical ideas Francis and David have been discussing much more captivating to a wide audience.

Francis responds that the Third Story is something he has been working at  for a long time, though not  by that name until more recently (since he’s been working in collaboration with Human Energy).

He explains that the fragmentation of science into disciplines and sub-disciplines is part of the problem, because it doesn’t support a worldview that gives meaning and direction to life, which the Third Story is intended to do. He thinks the concepts of complex adaptive systems come closer to that, because they show that evolutionary processes have direction but are not deterministic. That direction is toward increasing complexity and even more interesting, toward increasing consciousness.

Increasing consciousness means that the things life can be conscious of tend to increase. This implies that for our evolving global superorganism, we need to expand our horizon of consciousness to the level of humanity as a whole.

David comments that this is consistent with the constricted view of evolution that persisted for much of the 20th century, when any hint of purpose was drained away. He adds the concept of a conscious component of cultural evolution to these thoughts, and that the coming together of evolution and complexity creates a new foundation for the Third Story.

Francis expands on the progressive nature of evolution, and explains why the progressive direction is toward more intelligence, more consciousness, more flexibility, and more complexity—that “we expand our consciousness to a wider range of challenges and opportunities.”

David poses the question of whether the global superorganism of the Noosphere will emerge as an entirely bottom-up process, or if there “there needs to be some more deliberative process of selection”. If we want the earth to function as a whole system, we have to be deliberative about what we select with the whole system in mind, as opposed to the view that the Noosphere will just evolve on its own in a bottom-up way. He asks Francis what he thinks about that.

Francis replies that even though he earlier spoke about the working of the invisible hand, he is “not really a believer in laissez-faire economics, and the same applies to governing society as a whole.” He explains why it’s necessary to leave room for bottom-up processes of self-organization, it’s often more efficient to have top-down processes as well—but that it’s important to be able to experiment with top-down processes to be able to tell what works. He gives some examples of that.

David ends by commenting that the perspective of experimentation that Francis explained embodies the philosophy that David’s organization, Prosocial world, calls “bottom-up meets enlightened top-down”.

Francis Heylighen with David Sloan Wilson: Part Three Transcript