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Decoding the Noosphere: Investigating Collective Intelligence

Frederick Dolan, Richard Doyle, Philip Kuberski, Andrew Pilsch,

SLSA, November 5-8, 2009



This panel will experiment on and with notions of collective intelligence.



Declarations of the Noosphere: Towards an Involutionary Speech Act

This talk will treat the noosphere - an emergent concept of Vernadsky, Le Roy, Teilhard and Aurbobindo - as a form of address suited to mapping the informational attentional layer of the biosphere towards a thermodyanamic practice of sustainability.

     If the noosphere is a "form of address", a word addressing an ecological ensemble of attention gathering, exchange, recording and recombination, (transduction)  who or what is being addressed? Diverse traditions and studies of Non Ordinary Consciousness ( Harner, Fischer, Strassmann) suggest that rhetorical practices of emptiness are both necessary and sufficient to these "involutionary speech acts" ( after Austin, 1954, "illocutionary", "perlocutionary"). These practices of the self on the self, in which a radical sense of interconnection with larger scale phenomena such as "noosphere" often occur, are likely "irreducible" ( Wolfram) yet well mapped by simple iterative rules that produce of effects of "infinity". ( CF.  recursion in Lisp, "A Little Lisper")

     "Involution" ( Aurobindo) often involves algorithms such as mantra or the simple repetition of breath, in conditions not entirely of the self's choosing. Neither "self reference" nor "reflection" nor a "strange loop", "involution" labels an operation of folding, an always ongoing discovery of the very topology of what has been dubbed "interiority". Such an exploration of the "morphogenomic space" (Lalvani) of subjectivity confronts the involute with evidence that the "inside" world of introceptive (Wollf) space is at least as complex, differentiated and evolutionary as the "outside." As a form of address, I offer the "noosphere" as an invitation to an experiment in collective intelligence through parallel involution.

     The Noosphere, a concept probably first coined by Vernadksy, names the feedback effect of awareness on living systems. Vernadksy's context for the definition was essentially a functional one - the noosphere is the collective effect of human attention on the Biosphere, which in turn transformed the lithosphere through the collective processes of living systems. Given what we now know about plant, fungal and bacterial intelligence, it now seems necessary to expand Vernadksy's definition to include all organisms and groups of organisms capable of actively increasing their dissipation of exergy (available energy) through the transfer, expression and alteration of information. Every layer of this system appears to be thermodynamically informed, so  concepts from thermodynamics can usefully orient our collective transhuman investigation of this emergent attribute of our planet.  In closing, we will consider the sentence "Perhaps the dynamics of human subjectivity have more to learn from  protein folding than has been previously considered." Just Say Yes to the Noosphere!

--Richard Doyle, Penn State University


Bateson on Distributed Mind

Gregory Bateson in his Mind and Nature (1979) has argued that a "mind" is neither necessarily interior nor non-material, but exists as and within an ecology. "A mind is an aggregate of Interacting Parts or Components."  This can refer, then, not only to the "mind" of Wordsworth healing itself by a return to the Lake District; it could also include, as Bateson suggests, ecosystems such as a seashore or a redwood forest since they are both "self-corrective" (119). In other words, for Bateson, mind or intelligence is not only an aspect or feature of brains but of the wider system that evolves brains: we can scale these as "natural selection," "epigenesis," and "nature" itself. This "mind" is an association of parts, and "the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference" (100). Thus the mind is an aggregate of differences and is driven by difference: "...perception operates only upon difference. All receipt of information is necessarily the receipt of news of difference" (29).  Batesonian difference seems to reveal a spirit-function in nature and mind. Like spirit, difference is unreified, atopical, eternal, immaterial and yet somehow central or essential. When Emerson tells us in Nature (1835) that "Spirit primarily means wind," he is reminding us that the basis of "metaphysical" terminology is metaphor--and metaphor is at base a rough draft of ecology, a tactical assertion that relationship in its profounder sense has not to do with appearance, but function. The metaphor of self, in other words, is irreducibly double, different in essence--a relationship: it represents the self as if and as is--the hard and durable idea of the self is a literal reading of the metaphor, the fluid and transient view is a metaphorical or equivocal reading--. “nothing” but breath or wind.  

Philip Kuberski

Wake Forest University   


He Called It “Utopia”: Jameson’s Social and Vedic Transhumanism

Now a widely transmitted meme with diverse meanings and practices, transhumanism often features the creation of a collective intelligence amongst future humanity. The temporal location of this collective force differs from account to account. In some cases, this transhuman collective will manifest the end point of a certain evolutionary trajectory, while in other accounts, the collectivizing forces that humanity begains to capture in their creation of the transhuman are immanent to an already existing system. This concept of an  immanent transpersonal force is often linked to the transmission of Vedic ideas (Cf. Goswami) and practices of  meditation as originally espoused in the Upanishads.


From this perspective of a field of immanent and certainly collective intelligence, I explore the work of Marxist critic Fredric Jameson. Specifically, I am interested in exploring the transhuman valences of three terms in his conceptual vocabulary: "social," "political", and "Utopia". While an entire book could probably be written on Jameson’s concept of Utopia alone, I argue for a specific interpretation of the concept as a form of collective existence within the framework of the social.


Sri Aurobindo's conversion from  poet and  radical to spiritual, transhuman guru during the early part of the 20th century makes him an exceptionally interesting figure for building a bridge between Jameson’s post-Marxist analysis and the main body of transhuman thought. In exploring various examples of Vedic transhumanism, I wish to highlight the importance of the figure of individual, spiritual work of participants in this model of transhuman overcoming.  The commitment to revolutionary praxis and social change within Jameson and Aurobindo's theoretical systems extends throughout the other thinkers within this model of transhumanism and offers us a necessary and important context for understanding the personal and collective work of bringing about a transhuman future.

--Andrew Pilsch, Penn State University


Emergent Pan Psychism: The Really Hard Problem
Frederick Dolan
Recent decades have brought a renewed willingness to take seriously the phenomena we stab at with such terms and phrases as “subjectivity,” “consciousness,” and “the character of human existence.” The tone of today’s discussion, however, is very different from that which surrounded these words a half-century ago. Then, “existentialism” referred to issues of individual authenticity and commitment, “consciousness” was closely linked with concerns about action and with notions of social and historical determination, and Jean-Paul Sartre was the master thinker. The context in which existence, subjectivity, and consciousness were discussed was predominantly moral and political. In an important sense, as today’s talk about “subject position” and “the performance of identity” suggests, that discussion is still very much alive, though the terms are different, the context has suitably changed from History-with-a-capital-“H” to matters of justice and liberty here and now, and Michel Foucault has displaced Sartre. At the same time, though, a different kind of inquiry into existence, subjectivity, and consciousness has taken shape, focused more squarely on the nature of these phenomena: on what sort of “thing” consciousness is, for example, on whether it can be explained, 

and, if so, what sort of explanation is called for, and on why and how it matters.  My talk will focus on how the very idea of an "explanation" of consciousness is misguided and will point to more fruitful approaches to the meaning of the phenomenon.





"Decoding the Noosphere" Seminar Schedule

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