On aliveness, pt 1

by Suspended Reason

Many S2 TIS posts have looked at questions of practical epistemology: When can we trust the information we’re handed? When can we depend upon correlations holding up over time? How much of the Universe do we understand? How should we orient ourselves towards institutional prescriptions intended for the average person”? How do we persist knowledge through time?

Each of these implies a detective—you, or I—embedded in an environment or ecosystem, trying to survive in and profit off this environment, which is rich with messages and signs. We (you and I, detectives) try to understand this environment—to internalize its rhythms and moods and weathers; to not be suckered by its deceptions, or fall into the hubris of thinking we know more than we know.

It can be useful to classify these information ecologies, and one of the basic ways an ecosystem differs is in its aliveness.” Yes, a barren desert can be its own sort of enemy, but it’s an enemy indifferent to our presence; if it kills, it kills indifferently; there is nothing you or I can say or signal to provoke a sandstorm, or end a flood.

But in a jungle, every footfall risks alerting a predator to our presence. How we hold ourselves, the voices and noises we make with our chest and lungs, suddenly matter. (We can imagine ritual practices for summoning rain as the anthropomorphization of complex systems: A sacrifice is a communication, a smoke signal sent up to the sky.) We are in a living environment, an arboreal tapestry knitted with keen-eyed and sharp-eared beings, and they are reading the writing of our steps.

(These areas of dense inhabitation are always resource-rich: this is why they support so much life; and the life forms which feed on local resources become resources in their own right, for higher trophic layers.)

We could call these poles the agentic and the inert, but we should be careful not to rush into rigorizing this scientifically”—for instance, defining agents by their ability to maintain homeostasis—because for the purposes of a strategic agent, a detective such as you or I, a comatose person may as well be a rock. We cannot get answers out of them, and we need not guard our words when speaking in their vicinity. The question is: How much can your environment be communicated with? How closely is it watching you? Will it change its behavior in response to your queries? I’ve chosen aliveness” partly in discourse with the concept of live” and dead” players, in geopolitical arenas (where live” players are unpredictable, and dead” players rotely play out habit). Perhaps there are better terms, better distinctions, better ways to think about the problem at hand, but this is a start.

The inferential maneuvers necessary to understand and navigate a highly alive landscape are fundamentally different than those necessary in a dead landscape.

Let’s consider Collin’s The biggest little guy.” Yes, biologically speaking, the _T. Magnifica _bacteria is living. But because it operates at such a different scale, and is optimized for life in red mangroves largely outside human contact, it has not evolved behaviors for avoiding or deceiving human observers. We weren’t ignorant, as a society, of T. Magnifica for so long because the bacteria didn’t want to be found. Our behavior, and the behavior of T. Magnifica, are functionally independent. This makes studying T. Magnifica simpler than studying a corporation involved in illegal waste dumping, The biggest little guy” is a testament to how wrong we can be, even when the epistemological landscape is simple.”

Now contrast this to the problem of a literal detective, trying to get to the bottom” of a case. None of the culprits want to be found out. They will not only strive to evade detection, they’ll also fabricate evidence. Any message or clue the detective finds could be misdirection, purposefully planted. Appearances cannot be trusted; perhaps they should even be systematically distrusted. We are in the realm of an anti-inductive game.