Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Orthodox Christmas: Life in the Adjacent Possible

Image Source: The Culture Concept.

Any apiarist, keeping watch over a hive of bees sleeping through the winter, would tell you that civilization can only function under certain circumstances. Apiculture is one of the world's oldest professions. It is a founding pillar of agriculture. In colony collapse disorder - now threatening beehives across Europe and North America - workers stock up a hive but then abandon their helpless queen. The plague is blamed on pesticides, pathogens, and mobile phone towers, with bee-keepers reporting that roughly one third to one half of their hives have been dying over winters every year for the past decade, despite various high tech solutions. It is hard to say how new this disaster is. There were reports of 'mystery diseases' and 'disappearing diseases' in hives in 1918-1919 and in the mid 1960s. Whatever the causes, the insects' tiny world of flowers and pollination remain critical to human survival. In 2010, the United Nations estimated that the worth of global crops pollinated by bees was 153 billion euros, or "9.5 per cent of the total value of human food production worldwide."

Image Source: My Greek Spirit.

The remarkable way bees organize themselves remains symbolically powerful. Their honey production makes their system seem much friendlier than the terrifying laws that govern your average ant hill. Any agricultural society would see bees as the civilized agents of the natural world, a properly arranged mini-society with a sweet output.

Today, 7 January 2015, is Eastern Orthodox Christmas. Due to the traditional symbolism of the apiary, beeswax candles are held in special esteem in Orthodox rituals. At Mystagogy, John Sanidopoulos explains that for Orthodox Christians, beeswax candles symbolize purity, adaptability of the heart, forgiveness of sins, and divine grace garnered from the wax's floral sources. Candlelight and the sweet smell of burning beeswax recall summer days to illuminate and banish darkness caused by fear, corruption and misery.

Image Source: Tanjica Perovic via flickr.

Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki (1381-1429) elaborated upon that hallowed journey to much higher purpose. He believed that the burning beeswax candle lit the way to theois, a transformation in which a believer might know God's nature through "katharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria," a kind of higher consciousness witnessed through nous, or the mind's eye. In 4th century BC Athens, Greek philosophers had considered theoria to be a contemplation of the real truth of existence beneath superficialities:
For Plato, what the contemplative (theoros) contemplates (theorei) are the Forms, the realities underlying the individual appearances, and one who contemplates these atemporal and aspatial realities is enriched with a perspective on ordinary things superior to that of ordinary people. Philip of Opus viewed theoria as contemplation of the stars, with practical effects in everyday life ... . Aristotle, on the other hand, separated the spectating of theoria from practical purposes, and saw it as an end in itself, the highest activity of man.
The Wiki explanation of theoria refers to Matthew 6:22-23, indicating a Judeo-Christian religious adaptation of the Greek philosophical idea:
"The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!"
The entire concept of seeing a higher truth poses two challenges. First, one must envision the world beyond oneself, separate from how one perceives one's own identity and how one experiences time. Expected values may be associated with what the individual personally associates with 'order.' To step back from that order can lead to a frightening embrace of chaos, because one must be willing to have one's expectations, assumptions or illusions shattered. Therefore, secondly, the nature of the higher vision depends on the spiritual health of the visionary, because the vision may involve disillusionment and ensuing moral confusion. That is the complex symbolism of beeswax candlelight on this Orthodox Christmas Day.

There is a curious analogy to these challenges in the current secular attempt to predict the future, a theory called 'the adjacent possible.' To define the idea, Practically Efficient cites a 2010 article in the WSJ by Steven Johnson:
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. As Steven notes, the adjacent possible "captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation" ... it was present in the "primordial innovation of life itself."
The adjacent possible is now being used to innovate technology and manage Big Data. But what is far more interesting is that it potentially returns to the bees, their hives, and colony collapse disorder. In imagining the adjacent possible, one must discount one's expectations and perceive all possibilities, including future evolutionary solutions to currently inexplicable and overtly mysterious problems. The theory of the adjacent possible was invented by biologist Stuart Kauffman in 2003 in his study of living systems and how species adapt in immediate microcosms to survive. The Edge:
Stuart Kauffman is a theoretical biologist who studies the origin of life and the origins of molecular organization. Thirty-five years ago, he developed the Kauffman models, which are random networks exhibiting a kind of self-organization that he terms "order for free." Kauffman is not easy. His models are rigorous, mathematical, and, to many of his colleagues, somewhat difficult to understand. A key to his worldview is the notion that convergent rather than divergent flow plays the deciding role in the evolution of life. He believes that the complex systems best able to adapt are those poised on the border between chaos and disorder.

Kauffman asks a question that goes beyond those asked by other evolutionary theorists: if selection is operating all the time, how do we build a theory that combines self-organization (order for free) and selection? The answer lies in a "new" biology, somewhat similar to that proposed by Brian Goodwin, in which natural selection is married to structuralism.

Lately, Kauffman says that he has been "hamstrung by the fact that I don't see how you can see ahead of time what the variables will be. You begin science by stating the configuration space. You know the variables, you know the laws, you know the forces, and the whole question is, how does the thing work in that space? If you can't see ahead of time what the variables are, the microscopic variables for example for the biosphere, how do you get started on the job of an integrated theory? I don't know how to do that. I understand what the paleontologists do, but they're dealing with the past. How do we get started on something where we could talk about the future of a biosphere?"

"There is a chance that there are general laws. I've thought about four of them. One of them says that autonomous agents have to live the most complex game that they can. The second has to do with the construction of ecosystems. The third has to do with Per Bak's self-organized criticality in ecosystems. And the fourth concerns the idea of the adjacent possible. It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.
It is hard to imagine that honeybees are adapting now to cope with something far worse in the future that we cannot yet see; for example, a situation in which workers need to abandon the hive and travel extremely long distances to find nectar; or a situation in which they are resistant to certain mites or diseases. In Kaufmann's terms, it is evident is that western honeybees are changing in the most dramatic and rapid way to marry order to chaos. And they are doing so now, frantically and at extreme cost, in a time when no obvious price needs to be paid. It proves that in a way, the mystery of why phenomena like colony collapse disorder occur does not lie in an unlocked future, but in the limited perception of the present.

Image Source: Today I Found Out.


  1. Extremely interesting juxtaposition, TB! I'm not entirely convinced there's a common thread between the Orthodox understanding of divine grace, the inexplicable deaths of sentient creatures, and Kauffman's "order for free", but the concept of an "adjacent possible" resonates. I like that. Of course, that this idea would currently be used to "innovate technology and manage Big Data" isn't particularly encouraging - specifically to the "autonomous agent" currently writing this comment - but, on an optimistic note, perhaps in some other adjacent possible... um... other possibilities exist.

    Thanks for all your hard work in creating this blog, TB, and the very best to you, we - and the bees - in 2016!

  2. Of course, your juxtaposition is cleverly sewn together by bees, TB. I think it's all those mechanistic terms that make me nervous.

    Your last words tie it up quite neatly though: "And they are doing so now, frantically and at extreme cost, in a time when no obvious price needs to be paid. It proves that in a way, the mystery of why phenomena like colony collapse disorder occur does not lie in an unlocked future, but in the limited perception of the present."

    Sadly, true.

    BTW, it's almost impossible now to find beeswax candles here in the states.

    1. Guilty as charged, Dia. I was stretching to make another notorious juxtaposition; but I woke up thinking about bees, how they sleep through the winter, an analogy for civilized order only existing under certain conditions. And if their little civilizations are collapsing, then why are they? Could it be not all the things we expect or think, but some big unknown coming towards us; in that regard, consider the bees as canaries in the coal mine. In the Orthodox faith, beeswax is a metaphor for that order, and again there is the element of the larger unknown, but with spiritual meaning. The adjacent possible concerns the future, created at the dotted line where order meets collapse and chaos. And one could project on a larger scale and ask if humans are not confronting their own versions of colony collapse disorder. It's intuitive, but it seems to mesh.

    2. Hah! Yeah, a human colony collapse disorder... it sometimes looks that way...

      Intuition and poetry are inseparable terms. The jury's in. You're free to go. ;-)

    3. The blogging medium does not easily allow in depth explorations of an idea. You can sketch the concept, but longer posts like the Yeats post last year resisted the format.

    4. ... As you of course know!