James Stengram

Parabola Magazine

The Cosmic Metabolism of Form PDF  | Print |

Ecosystems depend on a delicate balance of mutually supportive interactions, forming a greater organism. For that matter, any given organism is itself an ecosystem: birds keep the hippopotamus clean, our intestinal bacteria help us digest. Even the subcellular organelles that power our cells, the mitochondria, were, it is thought, once independent organisms. The boundaries of selfhood become blurred and somewhat arbitrary.

CW-known_universeThese interrelations extend out to the entire universe. The Sun, besides providing the energy that fuels life on Earth and keeping the Solar System in place with its gravity, also interacts with the Earth and other planets through the solar wind, shaping the Earth’s own magnetic body and influencing the weather, which in turn affects all Earth’s creatures. There are certainly other crucial interactions at this electromagnetic level; the more we look, the more we find a complex and delicate order. And the basic elemental building blocks of our world and of organic life—carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and the rest—were formed in the nuclear furnaces of stars and distributed by the explosions of supernovae, as part of vast cosmic cycles of stellar formation, growth, and death.

In considering these things, we generally think in terms of substances being endlessly recycled and transformed, in large and small metabolic cycles. But the consequence of all these transformations is to preserve form. An organism or an ecosystem is a form, whose elements are constantly changing while its structure is preserved for a time: its lifetime. It is estimated that every single atom in the human body is replaced in at most seven years. Most cells, with the exception of many of the cells of the nervous system, are also replaced during the lifetime of the body, some more rapidly, like skin and intestinal cells, and others more slowly. Similarly, the organisms in an ecosystem live and die, to be replaced by others, but the ecosystem has a longer lifespan.

CW-silicon_atomA subtler, often unacknowledged, materialistic bias in our thinking appears in the assumption that form is simply the result of the properties of matter. Atoms form molecules, molecules cells, cells organisms, etc., because the basic properties of the smaller constituents determine how they organize themselves into the larger assemblies. Given the physical laws that govern the fundamental particles and forces, and time for evolutionary processes to work, everything has become what it is now, culminating in self-aware organisms that happen to be able to contemplate these matters. It is certainly true that quarks and the strong nuclear force must have the properties they have in order to form nuclei, and that oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen can join in the molecules they form only because of their specific chemical properties, and so on at every level. But fundamentally, what is matter? Physics has long since reached an impasse in defining it with any kind of bricks and mortar, or even whirling particles. Picture: atoms are mostly empty space, and the subatomic constituents of everything are both waves and particles, but not both at the same time, or perhaps neither, but with properties of both. Ultimately, the only reliable descriptors of the constituents of matter are mathematical equations, the abstract mathematical forms of group theory. So form underlies substance, as Plato taught, rather than the reverse.


If this is so, perhaps intelligent beings such as ourselves, who are capable of resonating with (and therefore discovering) the mathematical forms that govern external reality, do not have these capacities merely as an accidental byproduct of being the fittest organisms in the evolutionary struggle, but have a more fundamental role in the universe. Just as our bodies transform substances in metabolic cycles of varying complexity, and take part in the larger ecological metabolic cycles of organic life on earth, our minds take in and manipulate, transform, break down and build up, in short metabolize, forms—as impressions, perceptions, concepts, memories, and plans. And we take part in a larger ecology of form: culture, literature, art, science.

One could say that everything in the universe has three aspects: a physical or material aspect, an energetic aspect, and a form. We share with other creatures the ability to participate in the metabolism of matter and energy, but seem uniquely endowed by our consciousness to participate in the metabolism of form.

In the view of the traditional religious teachings, human beings have a special place in the cosmos:

“And God said, let us make men in our own image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth…. And God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.”1

One of the main concerns of the ecologically minded is that humanity is despoiling the Earth and disrupting the web of life. But even this capacity implies its converse: “to replenish the earth.” This is not simply to populate it, but to care for it, and maintain it, by virtue of our understanding, in ways that are obvious and perhaps in other ways that we now only dimly perceive.

CW-mitochondriaHuman intelligence provides us with a unique relationship to time: we are not confined to the relentless march of our bodies through linear time, but are able to remember the past, foresee the future, and contemplate all of their possibilities. We can look at a tree and see planks and beams and a bridge, look at mud and see adobe bricks and a house. We can create, repair, and maintain to a degree and with a flexibility unknown to other creatures. We are, at our best, anti-entropy machines.

This capacity of our consciousness is evident in all our artifacts, and whether ultimately it will serve to replenish the earth or to destroy it is still in the balance. But it is possible that our awareness has a purpose on another level as well. Some religious and mystical teachings hold that human consciousness, in reflecting reality, also helps to bring it into being. According to the Islamic mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, man acts “as the eye through which God can see His own creation:”2

“He praises me (by manifesting my perfections and creating me in His form),

And I praise Him (by manifesting His perfections and obeying Him).

How can He be independent when I help and aid Him (Because the Divine attributes derive the possibility of manifes­tation from their human correlates)?

For that cause God brought me into existence.

And I know Him and bring Him into existence (in my knowledge and contemplation of Him).”3

A similar concept, though with a less hierarchical emphasis, appears in Hindu teaching as Indra’s net:

“In the Heaven of Indra, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way, each object in the world is not merely itself but involves every other object and in fact IS everything else.”4

Perhaps the most detailed, though still incomplete, elaboration of this idea is contained in the writings of G.I. Gurdjieff. According to Gurdjieff, humans take in three kinds, or levels, of food: ordinary food, air, and impressions. These consist of substances of increasing fineness, but each is metabolized according to the same general laws. The three foods and their metabolites interact with each other, helping each other’s digestion: the clearest example is the necessity of oxygen for the complete metabolism of ordinary food, which is well known to ordinary physiology and biochemistry. On first encountering this idea, the analogy between the metabolism of ordinary food and the taking in and processing of impressions by the brain may seem far-fetched, but there are clear parallels. The food we eat consists mostly of macromolecules—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats—which themselves are compounds of smaller molecules: amino acids, sugars, and fatty acids. These in turn are made up of different configurations of atoms, mostly carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. The process of digestion is a progressive breakdown of these large macromolecules, which contain energy stored in their atomic arrangements, into much smaller molecules, primarily water and carbon dioxide, the atomic arrangements of which are in a much lower energy state, thus releasing the energy of food for use by the body. Some of the molecular constituents of food are also recycled by the body and built up again into the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats of the body itself. So the metabolism of food has at least two results: one on the same level, which is the maintenance of the body by producing substances, just like those in food, which make up our flesh; and one on a “higher” level, which is the production of energy to maintain the life of the body.

Impressions also consist of larger configurations of smaller elements. A visual scene is made up of many shapes and colors, which in turn are made up of lines and boundaries between patches of differing contrast and hue. Colors themselves can be thought of as consisting of mixtures of primary colors and different amounts of white, gray, and black, and ultimately different combinations of wavelengths of light. Complex sounds are ultimately combinations of fundamental frequencies varying over time. In processing impressions, the brain breaks them down into more fundamental components. In the visual cortex, individual cells are activated by the elementary components of the visual scene: oriented lines and edges, spatial frequencies, binocular disparity conveying depth, basic colors. A wealth of information is known about these processes (and a great deal remains to be known), which I cannot go into here, but the analogy is clear: impressions are also metabolized via a process of breakdown into smaller and simpler elements.

Subsequently, impressions are, so to speak, reconstituted into our perceptions. Something has been added, our awareness and our interpretations, based on experience. The capacity to perceive depends on a long process of learning in early childhood. Our brains are partly formed, or tuned, by our environment of impressions. People born blind whose sight is restored later in life typically do not learn to see properly, although the eye is transmitting all the information to the brain; at best they are like people using a dictionary to speak in a foreign language, painfully correlating their visual impressions with their learned perceptions in other sensory modalities.

The reconstituted perceptions are internal representations of the external stimuli, analogous to the reconstituted macromolecules that make up our bodies. What do these internal representations consist of, in material terms? This is an as yet unresolved question scientifically, but evidence suggests that their physical correlates may be complex patterns of electromagnetic vibrations in the brain. Visual configurations are conveyed to us via patterns of electromagnetic vibrations—light—and our internal perceptions may be of the same materiality.

According to Gurdjieff, our impressions are not fully metabolized in our ordinary state of relative unawareness. For metabol­ism to proceed further, we must be conscious of ourselves in the act of receiving impressions, just as oxygen is necessary for the full metabolism of food. The full metabolism of food releases much more energy than that released in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic metabolism). What kind of energy is released by the full metabolism of impressions? Perhaps the energy of consciousness. Although consciousness is required for this process to take place, acting like a catalyst, the result is the production of even more consciousness. Or more precisely, it is the addition of consciousness to the impressions, just as the energy of life is added to the macromolecules of our bodies.

This vivification of impressions feeds our inner life, which needs conscious impressions to grow, and may also serve a larger purpose, enabling God to “see” his own creation through us and other conscious observers throughout the ­universe.

The great paradox of quantum theory is that the form of what we observe in looking at the smallest constituents of matter, for instance whether they consist of waves or particles, depends on the kind of observation that is conducted. Some argue that the “decision” is made when a conscious observer appears, others that a measuring apparatus is sufficient, but in any case, the measuring apparatus was made by a human being.5 Perceptions have a similar property, for when we see something we are making decisions. This is made evident in the perception of ambiguous figures such as the Necker cube (Fig.1), but is going on all the time.

So perhaps, in an as yet unclear fashion, we are, or can be, part of a great cosmic ecology of consciousness, maintaining the form of the universe against the entropy of linear time, because of our potential capacity for metabolizing form, made possible by our flexible and encompassing relationship to time itself. In this process, we become part of everything on a conscious level, just as we are part of everything on the level of gross materiality. Just as our bodies are made up of atoms that once were ­created in supernovae, and passed through a variety of inorganic and organic entities, the material of our inner lives consists of all our perceptions—of other beings, of earth, sea, sky, and stars, and of the fundamental laws that govern it all—and we are thereby connected to everything on both levels, and to the Whole.

“He through Whom we see, taste, smell, feel, hear, enjoy, know everything, He is that Self.

“Knowing That by Which one perceives both dream states and waking states, the great, omnipresent Self, the wise man goes beyond sorrow.

“Knowing that the individual Self, eater of the fruit of action, is the universal Self, maker of past and future, he knows he has nothing to fear.

“Born in the beginning from meditation, born from the waters, having entered the secret place of the heart, He looks forth through beings. That is Self.

“That boundless power, source of every power, manifesting itself as life, entering every heart, born with the beings, that is Self.”6

1 The Holy Bible, King James Version, Genesis 1:26–28.

2 R. Landau, The Philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabi (London, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1959), p. 74.

3 Ibn ‘Arabi, with commentary in parentheses by ‘Abdu ‘l-Razzaq al-Kashani, quoted in ref. 2, p. 74.

4 Charles Eliot, quoted at www.cs.kent.ac.uk/people/staff/saf/networks/networking-networkers/indras-net.html.

5 There are other theories, and the question of how the wavefunction “collapses” is not really resolved.

6 Katha Upanishad, edited by the author based on multiple translations.


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