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Contextuality: the intricate bonds between things big & small

German writer Hermann Hesse introduces Siddhartha to the reader as the son of a brahmin called to inherit his father’s socially recognized holiness, but we learn early on that Siddhartha wants to pursue spirituality on his own. After meditating under a banyan tree, Siddhartha leaves his town as a wandering beggar on a journey of self-discovery in which he will even get to speak to Gautama (Buddha).

As we follow Hesse’s straightforward prose, time seems to decompose along with reality itself, and we take our time to get through the short yet influential book. And so when we just finished reading or re-reading the book and have it still afresh, we sense that sitting by a tree, if only to read or observe passers-by, is not quite the same experience anymore.

Hermann Hesse

Unlike animals, trees don’t have a central nervous system or neurons, the ingredients of a process we know little about and call conscience, the fabric of experiences. But, as a reader of the old texts of Eastern philosophy, like the Upanishads, Hesse gives importance to the contrast between the uneasy character of human beings and the cold, still nature of trees. If we were to imagine a proto-conscience in trees, their silent, rooted existence seems attuned to experience a long, geological time that contrasts with vertebrate animals’ hyperactivity by comparison, which explains the fundamental differences between animal and plant cells.

The way we sense things

From the tree’s imagined perspective—one that may not “exist,” or at least as something we could easily understand or define—a calm young person meditating still for hours or days under its branches, such as Siddhartha and Govinda, is a display of swift, accelerated activity. We can imagine a high-speed image recording in which we observe Siddhartha coming and sitting in lotus position twenty feet apart from Govinda, then leaving right away in a fraction of a second, even if, from the friends’ perspective, time has felt very differently. This abyssal gap between a still living entity that can live for hundreds of years and even millennia, and the accelerated fury of warm-blooded vertebrates, replicate when we compare ourselves with some insects whose comparatively high-speed movement we cannot fully perceive with the naked eye, feeling we would need a registered image in slow mode to appreciate the swift accelerations and direction turns of the most intrepid of them.

When we look at a bee, we envision the slight but real danger of its sting, but we seldom imagine how the bee sees reality, including us —that mass moving in an oddly slow fashion in front of them. The bees’ gaze is very different from ours. Like us, they experience color as a reflection of light waves hitting objects, though they “see” color faster and more vividly than humans, registering a higher amount of detail on the scrutinized surfaces. The wavelengths bees decipher are also different to the point they perceive the ultraviolet spectrum, unlike us, but cannot see red. Some studies suggest that bees recall “good” and “bad” experiences and use different brain areas to register them.

Oral culture and early written traditions show the human tendency to humanize animals and generally discard a similar treatment to plants. We take plants for granted and even evolved a bias known as “plant blindness” since—studies show —we are more interested in animals than in what we consider an “inanimate” part of the landscape. Not even the rise in popularity of localism, self-sufficiency, and regenerative agriculture or best-seller books such as Peter Wohlleben’s The Secret Life of Trees have transformed this perception.

The Butterfly Dream

Anthropomorphism, or giving human traits to animals, is an innate tendency with evolutionary purposes; paintings and figurines from the Upper Paleolithic already depict this psychological construction to raise awareness of the possible dangers and opportunities around us. Our old ancestors may have scrutinized the world around them in a very different way, perceiving reality markers in ways that could seem as odd as the way we think other animals do.

Ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, an influential author from early Taoism, looked beyond the fabric of reality perceived by humans when he dreamed that he was a butterfly flying from flower to flower, feeling free each time he caught the propulsion of a nice breeze. He was so happy that “he didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou,” but suddenly he woke up and there he was. But he felt puzzled when he considered the fact that he couldn’t be totally sure of whether he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that it was Zhuang Zhou. How can we distinguish reality from dreams?

Back to the moment when young Siddhartha decides to sit by a tree and meditate, reciting the verse of the Om, he may have aspired to be like a tree: quiet and mighty but also liberated from any suppletory distraction. Hermann Hesse’s simple and short book does not elaborate on the Upanishads, but the self-discovery adventure he carries from the struggle of feeling like an individual to the “liberation” of feeling the interconnection of all things, echoes in stories found here and there in Dharmic texts.

The Chandogya Upanishad depicts a conversation between a Brahmin and his son who, like Siddhartha, wants to know more about the “teaching.” The father tells the son to go pick a fig from the banyan tree and split it open, uncovering the fruit’s tiny seeds. Then, when prompted to split open one of the seeds, the father asks again, but there’s not much to see. The essence of the fig seems to come to “nothing,” yet—the father says— the massive banyan trees arise from it. In a similar way, he explains, the essence of all that exists, “reality,” arises from apparently nothing.

The granularity of the world

We may have the temptation to think the Upanishads are senseless stories providing nothing but traditional anecdote, but it takes little to realize how prescient such parables are for the last developments in fields such as quantum physics. Theoretical physicist and science vulgarizer Carlo Rovelli confronts the dazzling puzzle of quantum mechanics, packing his short essay Helgoland from beginning to end with an intelligible yet mysterious theory of reality: one where, in Rovelli’s words, “matter is replaced by ghostly waves of probability.”

In the apparently erratic world of quanta, the old laws humanity had come to comprehend crumble: what if reality is made of “relations” rather than “objects”? In trying to decipher the inner workings of reality and experience, quantum theorists stumbled upon a world that, despite seeming continuous to us, is “granular,” where things can be understood only in relation to other things: the very properties make sense (or “materialize”) when things stuff interact between each other. In the macroscopic world, though, the “reality” we interpret, none of the intricate relations and probabilities materializing as things interact with one another are apparent.

Carlo Rovelli

Hence the confusion about the odd things happening in the microscopic fabric of reality, which in turn materializes in the only world we see and try to define. Objects, Rovelli elaborates, only can be defined if we perceive them in relation to the other objects to which they manifest themselves. The interaction among things is an inseparable part of what we experience in the macroscopic world as if we humans had evolved a way of perceiving what suits us as a strategy for survival that has brought us to think that what we see consists of perfectly isolated entities with absolute properties, and not as manifestations of intricate physical systems whose properties conform “a web of relations that weaves reality.” As if the very essence of everything was contextuality (the relation of things with things) and not actual “substance” or elements that could be perfectly measured and isolated.

Yet if reality is “granular” or emerges out of contextuality, of a reciprocal reflection of perspectives, then there’s no “external point of view,” one perception or theory capable of grasping everything unequivocally since every description of the world happens inside it and from one parochial situation (and point of view). To illustrate his relational theory of quantum mechanics, which Rovelli attributes to a series of predecessors in philosophy and theoretical physics, he even brings Eastern philosophy, and this leap feels refreshing when it’s performed by somebody who knows what he’s talking about.

Will and representation

The world of probability that only becomes substantiated at a macroscopic level that had been unveiled by Heisenberg, Born, Jordan, Dirac, and Schrödinger, seemed to belong to one shaped by intentionality and “representation,” as science’s preconceptions of a world conformed by matter was replaced by one of waves. As a part of the Viennese early-twentieth-century cultural life, Erwin Schrödinger benefited from cross-disciplinary thought when one of his friends, the philosopher Hans Reichenbach, recommended him Vedanta Hinduism readings he considered very relevant. More recently, Rovelli himself would face the same question when speaking about the relational nature of quanta at conferences: whether he had read Nāgārjuna, an Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist thinker born in the second century arguing that there is nothing that exists independently from something else.

The resonance of Nāgārjuna’s thought in quantum mechanics, explains Rovelli, is puzzling:

“If nothing exists in itself, everything exists only through dependence on something else, in relation to something else.”

This same definition from the second century would fit a general explanation of the quantum properties of the world, suggests Rovelli. The world of quanta doesn’t consist of a pool of simple matter in motion but in the contextuality it creates. Elementary entities can only be understood in relation to something else. Reality can sometimes feel like a game of veils or mirrors, or—as Erwin Schrödinger thought—reality can be understood as the world of representation suggested by nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Ethnologists and anthropologists remind us that our detached relationship with all we consider external to us individuals, defined as self-contained entities, including living organisms, is part of our culture. French anthropologist Philippe Descola, a disciple of Claude Lévi-Strauss, describes the complex world of the Achuar people from Ecuador’s Amazon Basin. Unlike the Western separation between mankind and Nature or the conceptualization of “nature” itself as something apart from us, the Achuar have developed a rich relationship with their surroundings. Like other indigenous peoples from the Americas, the Achuar don’t consider themselves outside animals, plants, or inanimate objects, Descola explains poetically in The Spears of Twilight; Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle.

Animism and contextuality

There are different ways to perceive non-human things without establishing a sharp distinction between what’s “nature” and what’s “culture.” Animist societies attribute a living soul to plants but also to inanimate things or events such as natural phenomena. To them, everything possesses an essence. Some peoples go beyond what they can “see” and include experience or even words within the world of surrounding things with a soul. In Amazonian perspectivism, animals and plants share more things in common with humans than the rest since they are thought to possess human-like souls, representing a socialized nature. Shamans use “soul journeys” with hallucinogenic drinks such as ayahuasca to reveal the interrelation of all things.

Eastern philosophy, ancestral animism, and theoretical physics are three different examples of our efforts to unearth Nature’s relationships and the very fabric of time, experience, and reality itself.

Our hyper-technical society deals with its own inherited patterns and interrelations, which first reflected legacy cosmogonies and systems issued from traditional beliefs, and later—especially after the acceleration of the so-called Age of Reason, from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards—was shaped by rational, utilitarian purposes in mind. In Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies, theoretical physicist Geoffrey West researches the patterns connecting all things: cells, living organisms and their interaction in natural ecosystems, but also artificial ecosystems such as cities, social networks, businesses, or the flows that define today’s society (both the physical flows—partially upended by the pandemic—and information flows that allow remote work and entertainment).

Relative information

In physics, “information” behaves like elementary particles in relation to each other. Carlo Rovelli defined the concept of “relative information in a 2017 article for Edge.org:

“We say that there is ‘relative information’ between two systems anytime the state of one is constrained by the state of the other. In this precise sense, physical systems may be said to have information about one another, with no need for a mind to play any role.

“Such ‘relative information is ubiquitous in nature: The color of the light carries information about the object the light has bounced from; a virus has information about the cell it may attach; and neurons have information about one another. Since the world is a knit tangle of interacting events, it teams with relative information.”

Such concept appears again in Helgoland, a book that expands this dependability to quanta, and hence to reality: we cannot describe any elementary entity if we don’t consider the context in which it interacts with something else. Until this interaction happens, the world of quanta is just probability.


Back to the macroscopic world we perceive: rational, grid-like cities designed to ease the modern flows of people and goods lack the organicity of medieval patterns to the point of transforming the cognitive behavior of their inhabitants. A recent study suggests that people who grew up in rational cities tend to be worse navigators than those raised in the countryside or in cities with more chaotic patterns, such as old cities with large sections of medieval, irregular streets.

Another paper (Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities) illustrates the correlation between the speed of life and the place where people were raised: some people from vibrant cities walk remarkably faster than other populations raised in the countryside or in smaller, less dynamic environments. Conversely, if a city is ten times larger, people will walk 25% faster on average. Hence our based feeling of speed of aggressivity when we visit centric areas of big cities.

When thinking about the surrounding world and interacting with it, acknowledging the beauty of its intricate interrelations can help us unleash the magic of being part of it. Or, put by Henry David Thoreau:

“Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view to the next day’s dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight, serenaded by owls and foxes, and hearing, from time to time, the creaking note of some unknown bird close at hand. These experiences were very memorable and valuable to me,—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, sometimes surrounded by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonic themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element which was scarcely denser. Thus, I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.”