Auguste Nahas
BA Philosophy
BLUE Fellow
|
Summer
2019
Exploring the emergence of novelty: from biological contexts to philosophical ideas
BLUE Fellow
Summer
2019

Background

Auguste recently finished his BA in philosophy. His academic interests include a number of topics ranging from philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology. Over the last few years his main area of interest has been in philosophy of biology, especially questions regarding the definition of life, complexity, and emergence. His project aims to investigate the meaning of creativity within a biological context, specifically by grappling with the following question: how, when, and why does novelty emerge in the universe? He is originally from Paris, France.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful

My project began with the convergence of two unoriginal ideas. The first was that biological evolution is a paradigmatic case of a creative process; an idea already evident to Darwin when he wrote: "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved". The second was that the endless forms of thought themselves emerge from a process which is analogous to natural selection. Together, these ideas suggested that insights from biology could be relevant to questions asked of creativity in human life. Though I was confident that there were at least some parallels between human creativity and evolution, I wanted to find out how deep that parallel really was.

As time wore on, my focus shifted as I became increasingly concerned with various meta-questions regarding how I should approach my question, and how I might faithfully represent my thinking process in its entirety, in order to make it intelligible for myself and others. I found myself repeatedly converging on a set of general concepts under which I might unify all my disparate ideas and thoughts.

"There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." — Charles Darwin

The first was the concept of constraint, which inherits an idea which many cultures have long known: presence and absence co-constitute each other. Broadly speaking a constraint limits or prevents certain things from happening and in doing so makes other things more likely. The words on this page are meaningful not only thanks to what I have written, but also what I have not committed or later removed. Similarly, my body functions as it does thanks to innumerable processes, many of which have as their function the prevention of other possible processes which would lead to dysfunction. What is not, therefore, brings into being what is.

The second, which I owed to Douglas Hofstadter's essays on creativity, was the idea of theme and variation. It puts emphasis on the fact that novelty always comes about as variation on something which existed previously. What interests me most about this is the fact that as things vary, we become more aware of what is not varying, or varying much more slowly. In biology and human life, it seems that certain structures are much more prone to varying than others. This establishes certain 'themes' which delineate the scope of variation and betray that change always seems to be more likely in certain directions. Novelty, therefore, always occurs amidst repetition.

The central nervous system from a horned dung beetle (Onthophagus sagittarius). This image was taken from a National Science Foundation-supported research project on the evolution of novel and complex traits.

The third is the relationship between actuality and possibility. Stewart Kauffman, Maël Montevil, and others have emphasized that we can distinguish two senses of possibility, one being much more relevant for understanding the ways things change in the biological realm. The first is an absolute sense of possibility, which is the kind we might invoke to describe the set of all possible symphonies of a certain length. This set would include every possible arrangement of notes, most of which would sound completely unmusical. The second sense of possibility is the one we would invoke when we described the set of all possible musically meaningful symphonies. This sense of possibility is relative and contingent, because it will change as the actual course of history changes. It is this second sense of possibility which is relevant across biology. As history unfolds, the set of adjacent possibilities itself changes, opening up novel possibilities and leaving behind others for good.

The fourth is the notion of open-endedness. My first encounter with this concept was through C. S. Peirce, who described interpretation as an open-ended process. This points to the fact that no matter how many times we read the same book or admire the same artwork, there is always the possibility that we might notice something we had never noticed before, or that we might see the entire work in a new light-- despite the fact that the piece is itself finite. Similarly, language and evolution are constrained by a finite number of rules and laws, while remaining open-ended. Even with infinite time and energy, there will at any given time always be new (adjacently) possible meanings or phenotypes.

As the end of the fellowship drew near, I tried to create a piece which could together these four concepts while hinting at the ways they applied to creativity across biology and human life. I also wanted this piece to be a window into the idiosyncratic contours of my thought. After discussions with other Fellows on ways of materially extending, representing, and interacting with thought, I came up --through variations on those themes-- with the idea of writing a text which had no end or beginning, printed on a large Mobius strip. This text would describe my core themes in both general terms and through concrete examples, while only hinting at the connections which weave together the entire text. I loved the fact that the text would seamlessly fold back into itself, acting as a physical representation of circularity and open-endedness. To my mind, it also gave a sense of progressing while also being perpetually "in the middle," which is what it feels like to be me. Finally, it pointed to the fact that my philosophical inquiries inexorably return to the place they started. Answers emerge only to help me recontextualise the questions from which they were provoked, and this is true even of the question into which all the others boil down-- that question which is both the product and the beginning of all questions. There is, therefore, no end nor beginning; there is only the finding of oneself in the midst of an interpretive circle and an attempt to get to grips with the totality of the circling itself from within it.

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