Does the nature of our understanding get in the way of our understanding of our nature?

What do I mean by this? I’m spending time somewhere between being a minor player in the Human Brain Project (FP7, proposed flagship), and considering co-ordinating an FP7 IP in FP7-ICT-2011.9.7: Dynamics of Multi-Level Complex Systems, (DyM-CS). The former aims to understand the Human Brain (I think), and the latter to understand multi-level complex systems (which surely includes the human brain, though there’s plenty of others too).

It’s not that I can’t or won’t help to write such a proposal: it’s more that I’m not convinced that such a full-fromtal assault on these issues is necessarily the way forward. I don’t think we’re at a level where we would even recognise that we do understand the answers (and I’m certainly not convinced that it would be good for society if we did understand the answers – even better drones? controlling the weather locally?). I do believe that we may learn a lot by finding out what we really don’t understand.

But to my original title: can we understand our nature? Can we understand what it is that takes a system of (biochemical/systems biological) reactions, and reaction cascades and infuses them with life? Is it simply a matter of there being a genetic set of machinery inside that maintains the equilibrium in the longer term, removing excess entropy? (The problem here is that it’s quite possible to imagine exactly that, but without it being alive: or would such an entity necessarily be alive?) And how does the multicellular organism gather together the single cellular living entities and infuse that with a unified purpose (I nearly wrote self-hood, but does a tree have a self?). And in the case of human (or ant) multicellular organism, how does the society (should the be family, tribe, or even nation state) gather the disparate elements of self-hood into one larger purpose?

Clearly these are difficult questions. Mostly, I believe that we can get to understand (in some sense) what the nature of these issues are (and I’m involved in an EU CA project, INBIOSA, in this area): but I do worry about what we might do with such knowledge. On good days, I think of imbuing mixtures of living tissue and mechanical support with an overall unified living ness – and sending such cyborgs to other planets (see my input to Grand Challenges 2002). And on bad days I have a more dystopian vision in which the whole concept is used for military purposes!


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