- In Wordle, we're disappointed when we don't get green letters, even though non-answers turn out to be big clues too.
- For all we have discovered in science, we still don't have an explanation for how life emerged from chemistry.
- Life is self-control: A living being is a constraint that channels energy into work to regenerate the constraint it is.
- This possibility has been overlooked for millennia because we've been looking for the green-letter answers, not the black-letter eliminations.
Bummer. Your start word reveals no green or yellow letters. You wanted answers, and you got none.
Sure, those eliminated black letters are hints but not the ones you prefer. You want to know what you got right, not what you got wrong. Homing in on answers in green and yellow feels more rewarding than eliminating non-answers.
But it’s more than that. There are more non-answers than answers. To find out that a letter isn’t in the answer is like asking someone what they're going to do and them telling you what they're not going to do. Given that there are more things they’re not going to do than do, eliminations don’t narrow the field much.
When planning your day, you’ve got your to-do list, not your to-don’t list. Still, to achieve your goals, you rely on self-control to keep yourself from dithering. Getting your to-do list done takes de-liberation, un-freeing yourself from doing just whatever. You constrain yourself, wall yourself in. You corner yourself with your chosen tasks by preventing alternatives. Self-discipline is a process of elimination, like discovering Wordle’s eliminated letters.
Anything we do can be described in two ways, what’s presented versus what’s prevented. When some possibilities become less likely, others become more likely. You know that in Wordle. Though they’re disappointing, you get big clues from those eliminated letters.
Still, given our gut preference for answers over non-answers, appreciating both takes a skill I call vice-versatility, the versatility to look at things both ways, what is and what isn’t.
Wordle, like twenty questions, is a process of elimination. So were some of science’s greatest breakthroughs. Darwin explained the species that exist by noticing the species that failed to persist. Mind you, he didn’t explain life, and he knew it. He assumed the struggle for existence. He didn’t explain it. But he did explain speciation as a process of elimination.
Computer tech would be hobbled without the concept of “bits,” which quantify the transfer of patterns from one place to another as the elimination of possibilities. A bit is like a coin flip. Before the flip, there are two possibilities. After the flip, there’s one actuality, a reduction in possibilities from two to one by process of elimination.
The most fundamental phenomena in the universe—increased entropy and self-organization—were also explained by paying attention to what’s eliminated. The second law of thermodynamics, which should be the first because it’s such a big deal, recognizes that patterns tend to degenerate simply because patterns are far less likely than randomness.
Spill a box of aligned toothpicks on the floor, and they’re very unlikely to end up in any pattern. Spill it into the ocean, and order becomes increasingly unlikely. We couldn’t have explained universal degeneration without vice-versatility, the ability to compare what’s likely to what isn’t.
Self-organization—how things fall into patterns—is that same fundamental law but between multiple flow patterns, each falling toward randomness like toothpicks in the ocean.
Picture a packed crowd, people threading around each other in all directions. The crowd will tend to fall into patterned flows, people filing out efficiently, threading around pockets of congestion. Whirlpools are like that, too—turbulence resolving toward the fastest flow pattern.
You know, for all scientists have uncovered, we still don’t have an explanation for life itself. Living beings struggle for their own existence. They try. They make effort on their own behalf. Non-living things don’t. Scientists don’t know why, and I think it’s because we haven’t applied vice-versatility to the question.
We living beings are patterns too, but unlike whirlpools, we try to sustain ourselves. “Beings” is an apt name for us. We’re both verbs and nouns. We’re busy being beings.
In contrast, a whirlpool drains your bathtub faster than turbulence would. You can’t make water flow faster by scattering the whirlpool. If whirlpools were alive, they’d be suicidal, depleting the flow they depend upon.
Beings aren’t like that. We are self-sustaining patterns going back 4 billion years.
To explain this difference between life and non-life, researchers have been looking for the equivalent of Wordle’s green letters. They’ve looked for what’s added to matter to make it come alive, not what’s subtracted, an added thing, like spirit or DNA, God or natural selection, something that causes life. We assume that life is something added to physical possibilities.
Vice-versatility suggests we should be looking at how the living prevent their own dithering and, therefore, their own degeneration. I’m convinced that’s what I am. I’m my self-control, my ability to prevent my chemistry from dithering. I prevent myself from dithering today so that I can continue preventing myself from dithering tomorrow. I’ll do that until I can’t anymore—until I die, my chemistry then liberated to dither away with no me left to control it.
A whirlpool doesn’t do that. It drains itself. Still, the whirlpool is a clue. It’s a flow pattern. Being alive is flow patterns pitted against each other like in that crowd, constraining each other, resulting in a macro flow pattern that keeps itself going.
An organism has that in common with an organization. The workers’ workflows impose constraints on one another such that it prevents the failure of the organization.
I’m a prevention that channels energy into the prevention of the degeneration of the prevention I am. I know that sounds odd and for two reasons. One is that it’s circular, which it would have to be for me to keep me going. The other is that it’s like the black letters that are eliminated in Wordle. Who thinks of themself as a prevention?
I’m a self-sustaining process of elimination that makes my death unlikely as long as I can. My struggle for existence is a struggle against the tendency for everything to end up dithering like toothpicks on the ocean. I’m like the elimination of possibilities in Wordle. No wonder we’ve overlooked that possibility for millennia. We lacked vice-versatility. We were looking for green-letter answers, not black-letter eliminations.
Sherman, Jeremy (2017) Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The emergence and nature of selves. NYC, NY: Columbia University Press.