The Purchasing Power of Complexity


Humans are the nerve endings of a Universe evolving the ability to experience itself, Alan Watts liked to say.

Just as in the retina there are myriads of little nerve endings, we are the nerve endings of the universe.

Does evolution support his thesis? True, our journey from prokaryotic, single-celled organisms into magnificently complicated homo sapiens affords ever-more complex, concise instruments for interacting with and discovering the Universe. 

But it appears that the price of this complexity is clarity. Single-celled organisms may be the only ones for whom sense impressions, that is, the experiential data gathered regarding what’s going on in the world, are not edited for, or by, the brain. 

We can imagine the body as one big electricity rod, a walking nerve ending. Everything it encounters — the sight of a great tree with the sun shining through its leaves, the smell of gasoline when we get a few drips on our fingers from the pump, or the distant sound of young children playing in a park — the body translates these sense impressions into electrical impulses called action potentials. Specifically, nerve cells pass these shocks through connected networks of dendrites, into the labyrinth of neural connections leading to the brain. 

This is where things get wonky. There is no difference in the composition of an action potential resulting from sight or smell, or any other sense. All sense impressions are converted into the same language of electricity. The textbook Principles of Neural Science explains: 

“…the information conveyed by an action potential is determined not by the form of the signal but by the pathway the signal travels in the brain. The brain analyzes and interprets patterns of incoming electrical signals and their pathways, and in turn creates our sensations of sight, touch, smell, and sound.”

So when Donald E. Carr pointed out that single-celled organisms might be the only ones who encounter direct, un-edited sensations of the world, it’s because they lack any networked system of nerves, dendrites, and neurons. The sense impressions they encounter do not travel along any pathways, they simply register and stimulate response. Carr mourns the implications for our distorted view of things:

“This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.”

When I encounter a sense impression, like the aroma of freshly cut garlic, the electrical impulse conveying that information traverses an assembly line of labyrinthine neural pathways shaped over 2.5 decades of living. The sticky haze of memories, emotions, and abiding insecurities pervade my neural cavities, penetrating the action potential with their qualities like that smell of garlic infiltrating my thick cotton sweater. 

By the time an action potential reaches my brain (action potential speeds range from 1.1mph — 268mph), it carries the scent and character of all my past experiences, all my tangled emotional clots and uniquely shaped neural pathways. 

For all of our complexity, our nuanced instruments for perceiving and responding to the world, we sacrificed clarity. Neuroscience confirms the old saying: we see things not as they are, but as we are.

A Dizzying Purchasing Power

But with that cost comes dizzying purchasing power. We’ve bargained up from simple clarity to the wild, self-aware landscape of human consciousness. Would we sacrifice beauty and despair, suffering and elation, triumph and tragedy, for the ascetic simplicity of a prokaryote? Are we better off, being tangled up in these intangibles?

Prokaryote internal view

Prokaryote internal view

prokaryote external view

prokaryote external view


The further we evolve from prokaryotic simplicity, the more transformed our perceptions are as they travel from nerve endings to neurons. From the Buddhist perspective, this distortion of reality is problematic. The Sanskrit avidyā translates as ignorance, or misconception regarding the nature of reality. From this view, our misperceiving reality is the root cause of that most intangible scourge upon the human experience: suffering.

So much of the human project, in what I find its most thoughtful articulations, has to do with taming this suffering, that persistent demon born of subjective complexity. But if the best we can aspire towards is the organized diminution of suffering, then it’s difficult not to see the entire human project as a sophisticated form of naval-gazing. If suffering is just a byproduct of complexity (don’t we suffer more acutely than less complex animals?), then our preoccupation with it may be more of a distraction than a discovery. Our way of seeing things gave rise to a game we now devote our lives to alleviating. What might we do if that particular game were never invented?

As Annie Dillard calls cruelty a waste, I wonder if suffering too, is a waste of vision, of life. A beast that runs amok in complex, intersubjective landscapes, to be tamed before we can get to life’s real business, to the real pearls of experience complexity affords. 

“Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain.”

But, if suffering is indeed life’s real business, or at least a permanent sidekick alongside the carriage of complex consciousness, then we can think of naval-gazing in the ancient Greek sense. Their word for naval-gazing is Omphaloskepsis, which literally means staring at the naval as a meditation aid. In the 1830’s, J.G. Minningen called the monks living on the Greek Mount Athos Omphalopsychians, who experienced “celestial joys” while systematically gazing at their umbilical regions. 

Suffering could also be a potent meditative catalyst. Naval-gazing into our own suffering. If we cannot escape it, we can use it. Buddha’s story goes that meditating on the nature of suffering catalyzed liberation, a penetration of his inherently distorted view into a subjective sense of freedom. 

But we’re not creatures disposed to sitting still. We may naval-gaze in the morning, but the rest of the day is invariably spent in motion. As a collective, perhaps propelled by the march of time, or some foggy notions of progress, we’re always heading somewhere. Suffering, then, might be some kind of anchor for our collective movement. Lightening the aggregate load of suffering may enable us to drag the anchor to new frontiers of complexity’s unknown landscape. 

A Return to Clarity

Setting the organized diminution of suffering aside, what more is possible for our lives, as beneficiaries of subjective complexity? What else might we do with our shiny new toy of self-consciousness? 

Dillard herself remarks that self-consciousness was indeed a “bitter birthday present from evolution”: 

“It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator — our very self-consciousness — is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It was a bitter birthday present from evolution, cutting us off at both ends.”

Self-consciousness is a new island we’ve reached in the ocean of complexity. We look around and find no maps of the terrain, save human ones, and we’re rightly skeptical of those. It follows that philosophy’s question — how might we live? — arises in this space. Our answers naturally curve towards the immediacy of suffering, like planets orbiting a sun. Allen Ginsberg said of the work, while we’re here on this island:

“Well, while I’m here I’ll do the work — and what’s the Work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.”

But I wonder if we might, in addition, engineer forms of living that harness the curious fruits of complexity, our self-consciousness, to re-generate and amplify clarity. The march of complexity would then be a circling one, always returning to clarity as it makes wider circles into the unknown, bringing back and utilizing its newfound tools in service of that original clarity. 


The obvious proposal is meditation. Practice programs of insight that invert consciousness upon itself to cultivate a clearer view as to what’s going on here. Meditation is one among a wide spectrum of technologies, practices, we might employ to enrich our lives

Less obvious is to reconstruct cultural norms, economic ideologies, and political incentives to incentivize clarity. In a recent widely circulated essay for Aeon Magazine, Dan Nixon describes a useful layer of complexity to the notion of attention, differentiating between ‘attention-as-resource and ‘attention-as-experience’. Cultural forms that incentivize attention-as-resource serve the same old biological masters of survival, status, and dopamine. They’re optimized for a species without self-consciousness. In this new landscape of awareness, attention-as-experience is our link back to clarity, no matter how far out into the fringes of complexity we venture.

“The problem, then, is twofold. First, the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention…Second, on top of this, an attention-economy narrative, for all its usefulness, reinforces a conception of attention-as-a-resource, rather than attention-as-experience…At one extreme, we can imagine a scenario in which we gradually lose touch with attention-as-experience altogether. Attention becomes solely a thing to utilise, a means of getting things done, something from which value can be extracted…” (Nixon)

Of course, the ultimate irony of using our complexity to enhance clarity is that clarity, by most trusted accounts, reveals how little we actually know. But there’s a kind of liberation in this. Basking in the unknown of our cosmic position makes life feel more like a dance than a marathon. Each step becomes an end in itself, a creative act to be savored. The utilitarian mentality of life being ‘for’ anything other than itself, of the present as training ground for the future, melts away, and we find ourselves always already at the finish line.

If the problem is twofold, so too is the work. Easing the suffering of the living may remain a perennial task of any self-conscious organism. But, in addition, we can nurture a calming lucidity as to the nature of our situation. We can use complexity, in all its richness, as a set of binoculars into the yet-unknown, and write stories, dance, sing, paint, or laugh about what we see; we can enjoy the view while we’re here, because it’s (we’re) gone all too soon.