Monday, April 2, 2007

God's Toenail Clippings

I prefer to think of God as a self-organizing principle of energy, matter, and information, rather than some bearded dude with a white robe who sits on a throne up in the sky, counting people's sins and grinding his teeth every time someone masturbates. Obviously, DNA takes the prize as the most impressive self-organizing system of information, but I love the little coincidences that most people don't really find significant at all. Here is one of my favorite palindromes (it is spelled the same way backwards as forwards):


This sounds a little bit "spiritualist" (in the pejorative sense) or "New Age," like something Madame Olcott might trot out in a late night informercial, unless we squeeze the meaning of "extrasensory" a little bit. While the "paranormal" definition of ESP popularized by J.B. Rhine in the 1930's refers to experience outside one's normal sense perception (a psychic or occult "sixth sense"), for the purposes of this post I will settle on a more mudane, literal definition. I will take extra to mean "larger or better than what is usual; something of superior quality" (, and sensory to refer to "the first stage in the biochemical and neurologic events that begins with the impinging of a stimulus upon the receptor cells of a sensory organ" (Wikipedia). I will then assume that perception refers to an exponentially more complex mental state in which information is organized, interpreted, selected, and stored. In this state, associations are formed, and new sensory data are compared with those in memory and scrutinized for similarity and contrast.

To a nematode worm, whose primitive nervous system is incapable of issuing commands much more complex than approach or avoid, higher animals such as fruit flies, rats, cats, chimpanzees and humans would seem to be engaging in the most esoteric behaviour for the most incomprehensible of reasons every time they did anything at all. Along the same lines, imagine what a rhesus monkey would think if it were watching a human laugh while reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The monkey (in its own monkey-ish way) would likely either believe the human was crazy (and maybe by monkey standards we all are), or that s/he was recieving bizarre, inexplicable messages from The Great Beyond.

The wand in question is probably the caduceus, the winged staff entwined with twin snakes that is the symbol of the medical profession, as well as of Hermes, messenger and psychopomp of the gods. It may be the best primitive symbolic representation of the DNA double helix. Not that the ancients knew about deoxyriboneucleic acid per se, but, as Fred Turner has suggested, the helix is possibly is the simplest and most accurate graphic representation of the positive feedback loop, an iterative cycle coupled with an element of irreversible change that is probably the most universal structural feature of living, growing things. I like to interpret the imperative that DNA "seek a wand" as meaning that it should seek to form a symbolic representation of itself, and thus become reflexively self-aware. The fact that evolution has produced animals possessed of higher and higher order nervous systems (capable of greater and greater self-knoweldge), such as cows, dogs, whales, chimpanzees, and humans, seems to indicate that DNA and the wand are doing their jobs.

Of course this little palindrome doesn't prove anything other than the fact that information sometimes organizes itself in clever ways. Some might even insist that since people speak language, it is people who organize information in clever ways. I would argue that since language is "grown" more than it is chosen (as studies of creole languages have shown), the palindrome's existence is more of a coincidental emergence rather than a deliberate product of human artifice. (The constructivist turkey will certainly get off the ground, but it may not fly far on its own.)

Another weird emergent linguistic coincidence (this one is a bit more of a stretch, but it is also really cool) involves the English first person singular pronoun I, and its Russian counterpart, ja. Both of these words are used by speakers of their respective languages to refer to themselves individually. The first (rather unremarkable) coincidence is that the pronunciation of one is an exact mirror image of the other. I is pronounced [aj]. Ja is pronounced [ja]. It gets weirder when you examine the single cursive letter which represents each morpheme (this doesn't work at all with their typeset equivalents):

Here is the cursive I:
And here is the cursive ja:

Don't these look a lot alike? And rather than simply standing in arbitrarily for their respective meanings in a system of differences (the standard Saussurean explanation for any sign or symbol), don't they look quite a bit like pictographs? Like little human figures gesturing towards themselves?

There is no reason that I know of why these two letters, words, and meanings should land as close together as they do. However, this ain't no burning bush. Like the earlier palindrome, I do not offer it as evidence of anything other than the idea that information is oddly connected to other information. There is no obvious causal mechanism at work here. It is a seemingly random coincidence, and any "higher" meaning must come to us via the imagination. Carl Jung called this assignation of meaning to coincidence "synchronicity." The strictly scientific mind might dismiss it as an example of the old saw about the thousand monkeys working on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years, but I like to think of it as a minor and interesting example of an obscure self-organizing principle of information--God at work in a more or less trivial way (hence the title of this post). For me, this is a matter of faith. I do not really have a superior argument why it is so, but I nonetheless believe it to be true.

Anyone who is interested in reading a deeper study of the caduceus's symbolism should check out John Armstrong's The Paradise Myth or Frederick Turner's Natural Religion, which also contains a more serious and interesting discussion of the spiritual possibilities of information and language.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

My favorite palindrome is A man, a plan, a canal: panama.

Sorry I don't have anything intelligent to add to your post.