Yesterday I suggested that we are at the edge of a new era in cosmic history, at least our local version of it, for we have little idea what’s been happening with life on other planets in other solar systems in other galaxies or even if such life exists or has existed. The arena of matter started 14 billion years ago, from which the arena of life emerged four billion years ago. Human culture, the third arena, started about 3 million years ago. We are now on the threshold of a fourth arena.
The second and third arenas each brought new kinds of beings into the world, and those beings brought with them new ways of being in time. Living beings, the second arena, use free energy – ultimately from the sun – to swim against the tide of entropy. Life has been getting ever more complex over the long run – something David Hays and I argued in A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity.
The third arena has brought us, well, cultural beings – there is no one good word for them. Yes, we are talking about human culture and therefore about human beings. But in this scheme human beings are themselves creatures of the second arena, animals. But very special animals, but animals that that provide the arena in which cultural beings can live.
What do I mean by cultural beings? Things like songs, stories, works of visual art, buildings, machines, and so forth. All of these are cultural beings. Physically, they are constituted of matter in various ways, but they live in and through us.
And they have the potential to live as long as humans walk the earth. We know little of those protohumans who crafted those stone tools in Africa some two or three million years ago. They probably spoke some kind of proto-language, which is lost. Their clothing, lost, their songs and dances, lost, their food, what did they eat? But those stone tools persist, and specialists have spent hours upon hours trying to figure out how they made them.
What about the ancient Greeks? Some of their stories live on in the two poems by Home, Iliad and Odyssey. But many stories have been lost. We also have tools and implements, remnants of building, and so forth. We could ramble through all of human history like this, but you get the idea, no? Ancient texts, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Confucian Analects, and many others are still read today and used as guides to life. Cultural beings can, in the right circumstances, persist beyond the lives of the people who originally made them.
Sometimes an artifact – the material husk of a cultural being ¬– is brought to life after it has been dead. The manuscript for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was lost in the 14th century, but brought back from the dead in the 19th. J.R.R. Tolkien produced an edition in the 20th century, it has become a staple of YouTube videos, and was recently made into a movie, for the third time, albeit with a story somewhat revised from the original.
These cultural beings have a different relationship with time and matter than life forms do. Lifeforms inevitably die and their matter disintegrates into dust. Cultural beings can migrate from one material matrix to another. As long as humans exist to animate them, cultural beings can persist.
What kind of beings will arise in the Fourth Arena? Do we see them now, if only in primitive form? It so, what and where are they? How do they differ from the cultural beings of the third arena? Perhaps they will be computational beings living in the cloud and producing, what? third arena cultural beings for human inhabitation?