Last time, we raised the question: “What is ‘Jim”?” (substitute your own name for “Jim” here). We think of ourselves as “individuals” and “selves” with free will. But we are, in fact, a complex system made up of other complex systems—a system of systems. I have, in a greatly oversimplified way, tried in the diagram above to sketch out something of this complexity.
On the left of this diagram (3) is what we humans call a “human being”, an individual mind/body. In reality, we are composed of two systems. One (1 in the diagram) is a head brain (well connected to brain (neural) material throughout our body) that is a complex system made of many different modules. Each module collects and processes information from inside and outside our bodies and makes decisions about what “we” (whatever that is) should feel, do, think, or believe. Only one of these modules—the Interpreter—is conscious. This module collects outputs (decisions) from all the other unconscious modules and then interprets these outputs (decisions) the best it can with the very limited information available to it (such as often our fallible memories and observations of what is or has been going on around us).
Another system (2) that is part of our human mind/body is the part of us we call our “body”, which, of course, includes our head brain (so 1 and 2 are not really separate). This complex system is composed of cells (and higher-order structures) that are part of our “self” (our DNA). But these cells are only a small part of the cells (and genetic material) inside and on us. Perhaps as many as 90% of “our” cells are microorganisms (viruses, bacteria, and other small “creatures”). These microorganisms use outposts of our head brain (via the vagus nerve) and other systems to communicate to our head brain. They also train and supplement our immune system. These microorganisms heavily affect how we feel and a great many aspects of our mental and physical health and functioning. Of course, they come from the environment and their make-up as an ecology of small living things can change based on our interactions with the environment.
Systems 1 and 2 (= 3) are not really separate but are blended parts of a larger system that is what we call and think of as an “individual human”. Note that this so-called individual thing is composed of a great many mental modules of which the thing has no conscious knowledge and a great many cells that are not part of their “self” DNA, both of which certainly play a bigger role in what “we” do, decide, and feel than does our conscious mind (the Interpreter).
On the right of the diagram (4) is what we call the “environment”. While we think of the environment as outside “us”, it is very much also “inside” us. The environment (just as we are) is a complex system of complex systems. Roughly we can divide the environment into physical, natural, social, institutional, and cultural “parts” (all of these are quite inadequate terms). Each of these are complex systems, of course, in their own right. Each of them also fully interacts with each of the others in reciprocal ways.
What we call the “human individual” (3) and what we call the environment (4) interact in a myriad of complex ways so that they are not really or ever separate from each other. The environment gives us our microorganisms and various aspects of the environment can turn on and off various genes in our genome, changing “who” we are, how we feel, how we act and think, and our mental and physical well-being. Chemicals wash in and out our body, back and forth in reciprocal exchanges with the environment. We can and do continuously change, transform, and even destroy parts of our environment and our environment can most certainly destroy us. “Us” and our environment are interpenetrated.
The picture we have drawn so far is too static (though it is already rife with complexity, interactions, and reciprocal transactions). This whole big system of systems (5) is continuously moving through time and is, at each instant, changing, interacting, and transforming in small or large ways. It is shape-shifting through space and time, in constant process and movement.
So, what is 5? 5 is “Jim” (substitute your name for “Jim”). It is a thing for which we humans have no name, yet it is “us” (“you”, “me”). We are not individuals. We are more akin to the weather than we are to a “thing”. And the diagram above is too neat and tidy—in reality, it’s one big mess.