The monad, autopoiesis and Christmas

If you were listening, the season brought the usual surge of Christmas music through all manner of electromagnetic transmission, wired and wireless, causing me to remember again my mild preoccupation with one tune in particular, namely – Do You Hear What I Hear? For the past few years I found myself listening more closely to the lyrics of this piece because, for me, they created an image related to the many things I have written about mathematics and cognition. I decided this year to try to pin down my thoughts more clearly, and share them.

The song describes the ‘transfer of information,’ if you will, that moves through the wind to the lambs, from the lambs to a shepherd, from the shepherd to the king, and finally from the king to the people. It goes like this:

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song
High above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

The wind perceives and communicates what it sees to the lamb. The lamb hears the wind, as a song, a formulation, and somehow communicates what he hears to the boy. The boy then knows something, has a fully conscious perception, which he brings to the king (the one responsible for organizing the human world) and from there it is broadcast so that everyone knows.

I was raised Catholic and so I remember the birth of Jesus described to us as the marriage of heaven and earth, which may be said to be the reconciliation of the eternal and the temporal, or the ideal and the instantiated. It’s the last of these that has gotten considerable attention from me, in these past many years, as I have worked to square conceptual reality with physical reality through a refreshed look at mathematics. And so the song got my attention because it suggests a continuum of knowing, from the wind to the King, and a oneness to the world of the physical and the devine. The idea that sensation and cognition are somehow in everything reminds me of the polymath and mathematician Leibniz’s monads for one thing, and cognition as understood by biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. The rigor of Leibniz’s work in logic and mathematics, together with what he understood about the physical world, and his faith in reason, he dissociated ‘substance’ from ‘material’ and reasoned that the world was not built from passive material but from fundamental objects he called monads – simple mind-like substances equipped with perception and appetite. But the monad takes up no space, like a mathematical point. I wrote about these things in 2012 and made this remark:

All of this new rumbling about mathematics and reality encourages a hunch that I have had for a long time – that the next revolution in the sciences will come from a newly perceived correspondence between matter and thought, between what we are in the habit of distinguishing as internal and external experience, and it will enlighten us about ourselves as well as the cosmos. New insights will likely remind us of old ideas, and the advantage that modern science has over medieval theology will wane. I expect mathematics will be at the center of it all.

For Varela and Maturana, every organism lives in a medium to which it is structurally coupled and so the organism can be said to already have knowledge of that medium, even if only implicitly. Living systems exist in a space that is both produced and determined by their structure.Varela and Maturana extend the notion of cognition to mean all effective interactions – action or behavior that accomplishes the continual production of the system itself. “All doing is knowing and all knowing is doing,” as they say in The Tree of Knowledge. I wrote about some of the implications of this idea last year.

There is certainly mystery in Christmas images, from the return of the life-giving presence of the sun on the solstice, to the generous red-suited giver of gifts who lives where there is no life, to the unexpected marriage of the heaven and earth. The song Do You Hear What I Hear? has an interesting history. It was written in 1962 by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne. Regney wrote the lyrics. He was a French-born musician and composer forced into the German army by Hitler’s troops during World War II. He became a member of the French underground and, while in the required German uniform, he collected information and worked in league with the French resistance. He moved to Manhattan in 1952 and continued his career as a composer. Although he once expressed that he had no interest in writing Christmas songs, amidst the the distress of the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962, he has said that he was inspired to write the lyrics in question when he saw the hopeful smiles of two babies in strollers, in friendly exchange on a street in Manhattan.

I’m not arguing that my observation of the lyrics defend any particular religious perspective. I want more to express the fact that I can’t help but notice that the song sits comfortably within world views once considered by a 17th century polymath, known for his development of the calculus, and by 20th century biologists whose work redefines life as well as our experience of reality! And there is value in taking note of unintended science-like perspectives in religious images. Even the notion of The Word in Christian literature, translated from the Greek logos, is replete with fundamental views of reality in Ancient Greek philosophy. For the Stoics logos was reason both in the individual and in the cosmos. It was nature as well as God.

Religion and science have a common ancestor and may have a shared destiny.

2 comments to The monad, autopoiesis and Christmas

  • Joselle

    And thank you! It makes me happy to see you reading my post the way I hoped it would be read. I’ll follow up on your references.

  • Gary Lewis

    Thanks, Joselle, for a very enjoyable post!

    As serendipity would have, your post ties nicely into some reading I’ve done this past week of Robert Bringhurst’s translation of “The Fragments of Parmenides.” We find there: “WHAT IS is thought itself,” and “In the same way, time is not something other than and separate from being.” Both quotes appear in B8. This may relate to your own “perceived correspondence between matter and thought.” Bringhurst also encourages listening to what-is, as your Christmas carol image makes so clear.

    Again, thank you.

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