The first time I had a hint that “as above, so below” was when learning how to trade crypto. Prices go up and down in waves, and there were waves that manifested themselves on the 10 minute chart, and waves that manifested themselves on a 1 day chart, and one could make money trading on both timeframes. That is, within the larger, longer term waves, there were smaller, short term waves. It’s like fractals that you can zoom infinitely into.
Recently I found this essay “Cognition all the way down” (archive), which proposes that even cells, genes, DNA are agents that are autonomous, who find their way through life, who sense opportunities and try to accomplish things.
Thinking of parts of organisms as agents, detecting opportunities and trying to accomplish missions is risky, but the payoff in insight can be large. Suppose you interfere with a cell or cell assembly during development, moving it or cutting it off from its usual neighbours, to see if it can recover and perform its normal role. Does it know where it is? Does it try to find its neighbours, or perform its usual task wherever it has now landed, or does it find some other work to do? The more adaptive the agent is to your interference, the more competence it demonstrates. When it ‘makes a mistake’, what mistake does it make? Can you ‘trick’ it into acting too early or too late? Such experiments at the tissue and organ level are the counterparts of the thousands of experiments in cognitive science that induce bizarre illusions or distortions or local blindness by inducing pathology, which provide clues about how the ‘magic’ is accomplished, but only if you keep track of what the agents know and want.
OK, so cells are actually selfish agents. How do they cooperate to form a cohesive whole, like a human who has no sense of his constituent cells? I’m just going to quote liberally from this article just to hammer home that you should really read it.
When two cells connect their innards, this ensures that nutrients, information signals, poisons, etc are rapidly and equally shared. Crucially, this merging implements a kind of immediate ‘karma’: whatever happens to one side of the compound agent, good or bad, rapidly affects the other side. Under these conditions, one side can’t fool the other or ignore its messages, and it’s absolutely maladaptive for one side to do anything bad to the other because they now share the slings and fortunes of life. Perfect cooperation is ensured by the impossibility of cheating and erasure of boundaries between the agents. The key here is that cooperation doesn’t require any decrease of selfishness. The agents are just as 100 per cent selfish as before; agents always look out for Number One, but the boundaries of Number One, the self that they defend at all costs, have radically expanded – perhaps to an entire tissue or organ scale.
Sounds just like relationships, doesn’t it? Would you want to connect your innards with somebody who hasn’t got their life together?
The other amazing thing that happens when cells connect their internal signalling networks is that the physiological setpoints that serve as primitive goals in cellular homeostatic loops, and the measurement processes that detect deviations from the correct range, are both scaled up. In large cell collectives, these are scaled massively in both space (to a tissue- or organ-scale) and time (larger memory and anticipation capabilities, because the combined network of many cells has hugely more computational capacity than the sum of individual cells’ abilities).
To paraphrase: a cell’s lifespan and goals are short, perhaps on the order of seconds or hours (don’t ask me I’m not a biologist). As more of them collect together, their biological feedback mechanisms interact such that their lifespan and goals are larger, whether it be in terms of time or space.
Doesn’t this remind you of large sea creatures, or tall trees hundreds of years old?
The cooperation problem and the problem of the origin of unified minds embodied in a swarm (of cells, of ants, etc) are highly related. The key dynamic that evolution discovered is a special kind of communication allowing privileged access of agents to the same information pool, which in turn made it possible to scale selves. This kickstarted the continuum of increasing agency. This even has medical implications: preventing this physiological communication within the body – by shutting down gap junctions or simply inserting pieces of plastic between tissues – initiates cancer, a localised reversion to an ancient, unicellular state in which the boundary of the self is just the surface of a single cell and the rest of the body is just ‘environment’ from its perspective, to be exploited selfishly. And we now know that artificially forcing cells back into bioelectrical connection with their neighbours can normalise such cancer cells, pushing them back into the collective goal of tissue upkeep and maintenance.
Let’s return to talking about blockchain now, remembering that Ralph Merkle first compared Bitcoin to a lifeform.
Recently, humans discovered that they can unite areas larger than towns with the notion of a nation-state. A nation state is a bigger organism than humans, can accomplish more and reach for bigger goals, yet some things are still the same. It’s got an organ that poses a direction called the government (the brain). A nation, just like a human, needs to maintain its boundaries with force and keep order internally (the immune system). And last but not least, a system of transferring value within itself, keeping its various parts fed and nourished (the blood). It’s called a currency.
If we think about it like this, it is only natural that countries stamp out alternative currencies like Bitcoin as soon as they exist, like the Wörgl Experiment in Austria. From their point of view, it is a cancer – a totally different organism. Case in point: the new STABLE ACT from the US is all about banning stablecoins. A coin that has exactly the same value as the USD, but isn’t under the US Treasury’s control? Obviously going to undermine them at some point, which is why this isn’t surprising at all.