Once again, Matt Rouge offers some fascinating philosophical insights, this time focusing on Leibniz's theory of monads. Take it away, Matt ...
Thank you, Michael! Always an honor and a pleasure.
On this blog, Michael frequently talks about the theory that information is in some way fundamental to reality, and I subscribe to this view as well. But the word “information” has a connotation problem. In a recent comment on this blog, our friend Bruce Siegel said,
If it's a choice between over-using one or the other, I'll choose "consciousness" because it refers to a *living* thing rather than a dead one.
Bottom line: I think life/consciousness/love is central to both the universe and my own being, not some abstract, bloodless, nebulous, concept like "information." […]
For me, the undue focus on "information" is closely related to an obsession with matter. And that's because in its normal use "information" is always associated with some form of physical substrate.
Bruce has done me the favor of outlining rather completely the problems with using this word to mean what we want it to mean in this case. But what if someone had solved this issue way back in 1714? And what if he had, likely without understanding he had done so, elucidated the theory of information as fundamental to reality in a concise, intelligible, and illuminating way?
I think that that, with his La Monadologie (The Monadology), mathematical and philosophical genius Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz did exactly that. Here is the complete text. It’s not very long, so I’m going to go over much of it right here. For the sake of brevity, I won’t quote and comment on everything, but I invite you to read the entire text as I go through it.
Now, before we begin, I will ask you to mentally participate in this way: Imagine that when Leibniz says “Monad,” he is actually saying “unit of information.” Further, please accept for the moment my definition of “information.” It is not limited to data contained in a medium like paper, silicon, or neurons. Rather, it is any fact, thought, or qualia. Ultimately, it is any actual or potential object of awareness. Perhaps you will agree that, if you read the text with these concepts in mind, The Monadology leads to some stunning insights.
Without further ado…
1. The Monad […] is nothing but a simple substance, which enters into compounds. By ‘simple’ is meant ‘without parts’.
2. And there must be simple substances, since there are compounds; for a compound is nothing but a collection or aggregatum of simple things.
We can see the Monad as a unit of information and compounds as relationships with other information. Information ultimately does not have parts in the physical sense, though it may be divisible and compoundable in our minds.
3. Now where there are no parts, there can be neither extension nor form nor divisibility. These Monads are the real atoms of nature and, in a word, the elements of things.
Ah, right away we get some good stuff. Monads have no geometric characteristics or form whatsoever, which is true of information. In other words, information is non-local. Further, it is nevertheless fundamental to what we call “physical reality.”
4. No dissolution of these elements need be feared, and there is no conceivable way in which a simple substance can be destroyed by natural means.
Information is indestructible, in other words.
7. Further, there is no way of explaining how a Monad can be altered in quality or internally changed by any other created thing; since it is impossible to change the place of anything in it or to conceive in it any internal motion which could be produced, directed, increased or diminished therein, although all this is possible in the case of compounds, in which there are changes among the parts. The Monads have no windows, through which anything could come in or go out. […]
This matches pretty well how we think of information: we cannot alter information itself, but we can alter how we form “compounds”/relationships with it in our minds.
14. The passing condition [i.e., changes in the Monad], which involves and represents a multiplicity in the unit or in the simple substance, is nothing but what is called Perception, which is to be distinguished from Apperception or Consciousness, as will afterwards appear. […]
There is a lot that comes before this, but in essence Leibniz argues that monads must be different from one another; otherwise, they would not exist as units. Further, they must be subject to change. So what is the content of the monad? Perception! And this makes sense with respect to the definition of “information” I earlier described. The unit of information is essentially the object of awareness, however the mind at that moment chooses to relate to it (e.g., looking at the face instead of the entire person, looking at the nose instead of the face, and so on).
Now we are getting into pan-consciousness and, since monads are non-local, the holographic universe that friend and frequent commenter Art espouses. This theme will only be spread on thicker as we proceed.
Manuscript page of The Monadology
17. Moreover, it must be confessed that perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in a simple substance, and not in a compound or in a machine, that perception must be sought for. Further, nothing but this (namely, perceptions and their changes) can be found in a simple substance. It is also in this alone that all the internal activities of simple substances can consist.
Here is a brilliant insight by Leibniz that also gets into the problem of qualia. If we were to increase the size of the brain, we would see neurons and so on, but we would not see perception itself. Materialists would say that perception lies in the relationships between neurons, but what if perceptions lie within information itself? That is, the perception is its own content. This is a kind of Copernican Revolution in reverse, in which information does not revolve around the mind, but the mind revolves around the information; or rather, the mind is a relationship among infinite non-local modes of experiencing awareness.
18. All simple substances or created Monads might be called Entelechies, for they have in them a certain perfection (ἔχουσι τὸἐντελές); they have a certain self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια) which makes them the sources of their internal activities and, so to speak, incorporeal automata.
Here is perhaps the word that can replace the bloodless word “information”: entelechies. Also, Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. George Clinton knows his Leibniz!
19. If we are to give the name of Soul to everything which has perceptions and desires in the general sense which I have explained, then all simple substances or created Monads might be called souls; but as feeling is something more than a bare perception, I think it right that the general name of Monads or Entelechies should suffice for simple substances which have perception only, and that the name of Souls should be given only to those in which perception is more distinct, and is accompanied by memory.
This is directly relevant to our discussions of souls and what kinds of things might experience the Afterlife. A soul, in other words, is a sufficiently complex relationship among entelechies that also has access to memory (which itself is information, or more entelechies, I would myself add in explanation).
26. Memory provides the soul with a kind of consecutiveness, which resembles reason, but which is to be distinguished from it. Thus we see that when animals have a perception of something which strikes them and of which they have formerly had a similar perception, they are led, by means of representation in their memory, to expect what was combined with the thing in this previous perception, and they come to have feelings similar to those they had on the former occasion. For instance, when a stick is shown to dogs, they remember the pain it has caused them, and howl and run away.
An interesting observation by Leibniz. Our minds are constantly running on the fuel of association between various pieces of information.
27. And the strength of the mental image which impresses and moves them comes either from the magnitude or the number of the preceding perceptions. For often a strong impression produces all at once the same effect as a long-formed habit, or as many and oft-repeated ordinary perceptions.
28. In so far as the concatenation of their perceptions is due to the principle of memory alone, men act like the lower animals, resembling the empirical physicians, whose methods are those of mere practice without theory. Indeed, in three-fourths of our actions we are nothing but empirics. For instance, when we expect that there will be daylight to-morrow, we do so empirically, because it has always so happened until now. It is only the astronomer who thinks it on rational grounds.
Some more good observations. I think these passages reflect an important aspect of spiritual development: getting out of habit (lower-dimensional thought) and moving toward true reflection and understanding (higher-dimensional thought).
33. There are also two kinds of truths, those of reasoning and those of fact. Truths of reasoning are necessary and their opposite is impossible: truths of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible. When a truth is necessary, its reason can be found by analysis, resolving it into more simple ideas and truths, until we come to those which are primary.
46. We must not, however, imagine, as some do, that eternal truths, being dependent on God, are arbitrary and depend on His will, as Descartes, and afterwards M. Poiret, appear to have held. That is true only of contingent truths, of which the principle is fitness [convenance] or choice of the best, whereas necessary truths depend solely on His understanding and are its inner object.
Leibniz is here describing what I call “a priori reality” and “a posteriori reality,” which I think is a very important distinction. For example, the truths of mathematics are true in all possible universes, are uncreated, and unalterable. God/Source cannot influence them and is in fact bound by them. We have the ability to understand these truths (at least to some extent, currently, with our human minds), but they are not “information” in the same sense as, say, the perceptions I have of the room I am in.
47. Thus God alone is the primary unity or original simple substance, of which all created or derivative Monads are products and have their birth, so to speak, through continual fulgurations of the Divinity from moment to moment, limited by the receptivity of the created being, of whose essence it is to have limits.
There is a lot before this in which Leibniz talks about the nature of God. But the above sounds to me quite close to the New Age definition of Source. This “original simple substance” could also be called, per the Sanskrit term of Indian thought, “Cit,” or universal consciousness. Leibniz is of course operating in the traditional top-down European mode of thinking about spirituality. I personally add in the concept that all entelechies are striving to compose Source/Cit. There is therefore causality in both directions, in my view.
53. Now, as in the Ideas of God there is an infinite number of possible universes, and as only one of them can be actual, there must be a sufficient reason for the choice of God, which leads Him to decide upon one rather than another.
It’s interesting that Leibniz had the concept of multiple universes. He goes on to argue that this must be the best possible universe, since that is the only choice per se that a perfect God can make. I don’t agree with this argument, but it does lead to some interesting thinking on his part:
56. Now this connexion or adaptation of all created things to each and of each to all, means that each simple substance has relations which express all the others, and, consequently, that it is a perpetual living mirror of the universe.
Things are connected and adapted to achieve the perfection that God wills. I don’t agree with that, but here Leibniz has conceived of the holographic nature of reality—all the way back in 1714.
57. And as the same town, looked at from various sides, appears quite different and becomes as it were numerous in aspects; even so, as a result of the infinite number of simple substances, it is as if there were so many different universes, which, nevertheless are nothing but aspects of a single universe, according to the special point of view of each Monad.
OK, wow. In other words, all entelechies (in my conception actual or potential objects of awareness) are reflections of each other and of the entirety, Source.
58. And by this means there is obtained as great variety as possible, along with the greatest possible order; that is to say, it is the way to get as much perfection as possible.
This jibes with Michael’s recent speculation: “Of course, a brainstorming session makes no sense if the solution to the problem is already known. Brainstorming is something we do when we don't know the answer. Which leads us to the conclusion that the universe, or whatever lies behind it, doesn't know all the answers. The universe is a work in progress, and the various experiments – whether successful or failed – are its way of working out its own unanswered questions.”
60. […] For God in regulating the whole has had regard to each part, and in particular to each Monad, whose nature being to represent, nothing can confine it to the representing of only one part of things; though it is true that this representation is merely confused as regards the variety of particular things in the whole universe, and can be distinct only as regards a small part of things, namely, those which are either nearest or greatest in relation to each of the Monads; otherwise each Monad would be a deity. It is not as regards their object, but as regards the different ways in which they have knowledge of their object, that the Monads are limited. In a confused way they all strive after the infinite, the whole; but they are limited and differentiated through the degrees of their distinct perceptions.
This statement is directly analogous to the concept of the holographic universe, even though holography or even photography didn’t exist in Leibniz’s day. Each monad has a clear perception of what it is itself about and a less clear perception of that to which it is more distantly related. Similarly, as a holographic plate is broken into pieces, each of the pieces still contains the entire picture but is fuzzier the smaller it is.
69. Thus there is nothing fallow, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe, no chaos, no confusion save in appearance, somewhat as it might appear to be in a pond at a distance, in which one would see a confused movement and, as it were, a swarming of fish in the pond, without separately distinguishing the fish themselves.
The parts before this are quite interesting but long. In essence, everything in the universe in all dimensions is conscious and alive.
70. Hence it appears that each living body has a dominant entelechy, which in an animal is the soul; but the members of this living body are full of other living beings, plants, animals, each of which has also its dominant entelechy or soul.
Here is where we get into our recent discussions of the I-Thought. I would say the “dominant entelechy” in any mind is Cit itself, or Universal Consciousness. Through psycho-spiritual mechanics, this nature in turn leads to the I-Thought, and so on, relating more or less strongly to other entelechies as it reflects the entire Universe in its own manner.
77. Thus it may be said that not only the soul (mirror of an indestructible universe) is indestructible, but also the animal itself, though its mechanism may often perish in part and take off or put on an organic slough.
The parts before this need to be read through the lens of modern science, but Leibniz is here in essence stating what I believe is the reason why we experience an Afterlife: our minds are relationships between indestructible units of information, or entelechies. “Mirror of an indestructible universe” is in the original—not my addition!
78. These principles have given me a way of explaining naturally the union or rather the mutual agreement of the soul and the organic body. The soul follows its own laws, and the body likewise follows its own laws; and they agree with each other in virtue of the pre-established harmony between all substances, since they are all representations of one and the same universe.
The mind-body problem was the bugbear of the philosophers of the time: How can the soul interface with the body if they are of two different natures? Here Leibniz takes nothing less than a radical approach: the holographic universe and the interrelatedness of all things.
83. Among other differences which exist between ordinary souls and minds, some of which differences I have already noted, there is also this: that souls in general are living mirrors or images of the universe of created things, but that minds are also images of the Deity or Author of nature Himself, capable of knowing the system of the universe, and to some extent of imitating it through architectonic ensamples, each mind being like a small divinity in its own sphere.
I think this statement reflects the concept of dimensionality of thought: that is, the greater the dimension of our thought, the closer it is to God/Source. Thus, there is consciousness in all things, but minds can be of varying levels.
So that’s my gloss on the text itself, and now I’d like to do a bit of more freestyle commentary.
First, while I don’t agree with everything Leibniz says in The Monadology, I do think he anticipated many future developments in thought, some of which jibe very well with today’s advanced physics and recent trends in spirituality (New Age, if you will).
The thing that is quite stunning to me is that Leibniz was taking an approach to atomic theory that completely ignored the concept of extension, or the void of space, which Descartes had emphasized in his Meditations as fundamental to the understanding of physical reality. At the same time, Leibniz doesn’t just hint at a concept of a holographic universe—he states it outright.
But Leibniz goes beyond merely anticipating ideas that others, perhaps in ignorance of The Monadology and his other works, have fleshed out to a greater extent in the 20th and 21st centuries. That is, he does more than simply allow us to say, “Wow, it was cool he was thinking of this stuff in 1714!”
Rather, he sets forth ideas in The Monadology that can take us further toward the truth than we’ve already gone. To wit:
• He suggests, as I put it, the reverse Copernican Revolution of seeing the mind proceed toward mental content and inhering in it, as opposed to containing it. Entelechies are each their own “perception” or content, the relationships between which (“compounds”) form the whole.
• In his argument of the enlarged mill, he gives us a clue as to the nature of qualia. Instead of looking for qualia in the relationships between the parts (neurons, etc.), we may see that they are “simple substances” or entelechies with which our minds can form a relationship. That’s not a full explanation but is a big hint, I believe.
• Reality is not based upon geometry (i.e., the Universe does not equal the void of space and its contents) but on relationships (“compounds”) between units of mental content (“monads/entelechies”). This insight has direct relevance to psi, spiritual matters, and the Afterlife, in which we consistently see that physical distance is irrelevant.
• Further, the base units of matter are only superficially atoms broken further down into electrons, quarks, and so on. Although Leibniz in The Monadology is describing the workings of what we would call the “physical universe,” he does away with extension entirely in his explanation. Monads have no size or geometric qualities whatsoever. I took a 400 level course in college specifically about Leibniz, and this absence of geometry was something everyone had a hard time wrapping their heads around. I think the implications for understanding quantum mechanics and other aspects of reality are immense, since our minds have a natural and understandable tendency to form geometric models that lead us to extrapolate incorrectly.
• The transmission hypothesis becomes unnecessary. Since the base unit of reality, the monad/entelechy is mental, there is nothing to transmit from one “place” to another. Rather, minds/souls/spirits (these all being the same thing) inhere in reality by dint of relationships. As Leibniz observes, the relationships can be stronger or weaker in quality, even though everything is ultimately interrelated.
• Consequently, the Afterlife becomes easier to understand. When a person dies, some relationships become weaker while others become stronger. There is no need for a soul to “pop out of” the body, since the human soul inheres relationally in the entire universe (Source, Cit, etc.).
• Leibniz’s concept of “pre-ordained harmony” was also well ahead of its time. Today, we could analogize that this harmony is a computer program by which information is controlled. Since this could be another “bloodless” concept, we can further describe it as the mode of “perception” of Source and entelechies it comprises.
Those are some observations, but I have hardly squeezed the orange of The Monadology of all its juice. I encourage the reader to go through the rather brief text and draw further conclusions, for I think increased attention to this remarkable document can help us understand better both physical and spiritual reality and resolve the artificial dichotomy between the two.