The Tree in Me

Arnfinn Sørensen
7 min readFeb 1, 2024

Where do the branches end and the rest of the Universe begin?

Naked tree with stem and branches silhouetted against blue evening sky.
(Photo: The author)

In my neighborhood in Bergen, Norway is a cemetery. In this clear winter afternoon, the trees stand out as black silhouettes against the deep blue sky. It makes me think. First: How soon will I be lying here? I am almost seventy. And then: Do I want to lie here — in a grave? Would I rather want to be spread with the wind over one of the landscapes where I have wandered as a boy? And then: Does it matter where and how my remains are laid to rest?

More trees, more silhouettes against the darkening sky. They remind me of lungs. In fact — they are lungs. When spring comes, the leaves will be like alveoles, gathering light, inhaling and exhaling. Trees like lungs — and like brains? Yes, I have seen illustrations of the human body where everything but nerves have been removed. From the brain stem, the nerve fibres spread out. Not as neatly hierarchical as in the lungs, but still — maybe more like a tangle, a thicket? Then again, the brain is not like lungs and trees. The nerve cells are not diffusing, exchanging with their external surroundings. Well — they are in a way, with the blood in the brain, but this is not the way thoughts are formed. Or — maybe still?

I was walking uphill, out of the cemetery, past yet another tree silhouette. The branching hierarchy is the natural way of maximizing an interface with the world, like in trees or lungs. But the branching hierarchy is also the natural way of maximizing a system of increasing complexity. In fact, hierarchical trees have been used to order reality — everything from the taxonomical plant trees of botany to the taxonomical particle trees of quantum mechanics.

How come these tree-structures are not so much invented as discovered by us — out there in the physical world? Scientists use the elaborated nerve trees in their brains to find out that their brains are … elaborated nerve trees. How much of these scientific models are the scientist's models, and how much of their models are the Universe expressing itself through the models: elaborated nerve trees in brains formed by billion of years of evolution?

Then, the thought appeared, as I still watched the delicate structures of the bare branches against the sky: How much of me is in my brain and body, and how much of me is the Universe expressing itself through me? And further: Is there any difference between these two ideas, or are they just different perspectives of the same?

Another analogy flashed in my brain: Are nerve cells like the chess pieces, and my self consciousness — my me-feeling– like the chess game? The chess pieces are lined up, and the game can unfold from simple rules into more combinations than all the atoms of the Universe. The “chess pieces” of my brain — the neurons — have more complicated rules, and unfold into yet more complex games in my brain.

Some games are simple and hardly playable. They stop at a dead end, and do not evolve into complexity. Other games — well, they challenge us endlessly. Like chess. Or Go. It is an evolution of games. Is the biological evolution similar? Dead ends ended up in the graveyards of rock strata. The biological games with rules promising complexity ended up in … us. With brains and trees. Today's life on Earth is the winning game.

But the chess analogy is lacking. The chess pieces are dead wood or marble or ivory or plastic. They do not follow the rules by themselves. They need players. The players define the rules. The players move the chess pieces. The players are external to the chess pieces.

In a better chess analogy, the chess pieces are their rules. The knight can only move in “L”-pattern. The knight is the “L”-pattern. And — in a way, is that not how chess has evolved — through meme evolution? The “L”-pattern evolved through trial and error of Homo Ludens. The rule combinations spiraled into higher and higher complexity, ending in chess — and leaving other simpler rule combinations behind in the dust of death.

And further— is not this how all human inventions have evolved? Did we really squeeze them out of our brains from nothing? A Norwegian word for “invent” is “finne opp” — directly translated: “find up”. Good expression! The invention is found through the meme evolution in the inventor's brain, and then picked up as something useful. And so, technology evolves. Through us.

Technology presents us with a great challenge — to control it. How to ensure that knives are used to cut bread, not to kill people? Or — more pressing — how to ensure that AI is used for the best of humankind, and not the other way round?

There is a dark question regarding this challenge: Can technology be controlled? If the inventor is the cause and the invention is the effect, maybe yes. But if “cause” and “effect” are interactive, if technology evolves through humans and humans evolves through technology, the answer might be no.

Is it so? Does our technology evolve with us and we evolve with our technology? I think yes. The best example is what is happening right now — you, the reader, are absorbing my words.

Words and language are also technology, although a partially abstract one. What would I have been without language? What kind of thoughts would I experience? It is very obvious to me that my verbal conceptions have formed me, just like I am now forming verbal conceptions. No “cause” and “effect”, no “master” inventor and “servant” technology, no “control” — only interactions, interactions, interactions.

Is this frightening? Yes. Losing control is frightening. I am tangled up in a thicket of interactions of unfathomable complexity with the rest of the Universe. What to do? Only one way out: Have trust in the Universe.

Hey, Universe! Can I trust you? Will all these interaction end well? Well … what is … “well”? Does this sound like some kind of prayer? Oops — I'm about to utter the “G…”-word!

Then again: Isn't this a total disclaimer? I blame the universe, and take no responsibility myself. Do I not have a will and an ability to do what I think is good?

This objection shows how difficult it is to think in terms of interaction rather than cause and effect. It’s not like I’m letting the universe be the “cause” and I’m the will-less “effect”. It's rather: I am part of interactions generating an enormous spiral of evolving complexity. The Universe is playing itself out. And I have my part in that giant game. And part of the game is my need for the concepts of “cause” and “effect”. And the underlying need for the concept of “will”. My free will.

Why are “cause” and “effect” dependent on “will”? Think of Newton's third law of motion: “If two bodies exert forces on each other, these forces have the same magnitude but opposite directions.”

Newton did not assign “cause” to one of these forces and “effect” to the other. But often, people do. Like rocket scientists. Rockets have “reaction engines”. The expanding burning gas exerts its “action” force out of the engine nozzle, and the “reaction” force moves the rocket. Behind the willed rocket's “action”, there is a wanted “reaction”: to push the rocket towards the wanted destination.

We could have said that the rocket's movement is the “action”, and that our goal was the “reaction”: to push hot gases out of the nozzle. But then, the rocket would probably not reach any meaningful goal.

So, “will” is necessary for the concepts of “cause” and “effect”, which again are necessary for the jewel in the intellectual crown — the brain — of Homo Sapiens Sapiens: Natural science and technology. Homo Sap need the experience of will, of control to understand the world, to master the world, to obtain what we need to live. So, humans should use the concepts of “will”, “cause” and “effect” for all they are worth. But are they only illusions, then?

“Illusion” is a treacherous word. It sounds like “false” or “unreliable”. But humans are really totally dependent on illusions. Illusion is necessary for “objective natural science”: The scientist describes “objective reality” as if positioned in a camouflage tent, outside the Universe, studying it like some strange animal which is unaware of being studied. Our modern science-based technological society depends on this illusion. We should use it for all it is worth.

But science is forced by science itself to question this illusion. Quantum mechanics revealed unpleasant effects: the camouflage tent is torn away. The scientist comes into view. The animal — quantum diversity — dies: Schrödinger’s cat. The researcher stares into the imaginary looking glass of objectivity, but sees himself in the white of the eye.

The experiment says as much about the researcher as the object of study. Because what exactly is the researcher’s experiment? It is the Universe that experiments with itself.

And here, I once more have to approach the next level of insight — or belief: That my “will” is in fact part of the “will” of the Universe. And this universal “will” is also an “illusion”, evolved out of itself. The existentialists express it this way: There is no a priori essence. Existence creates essence. The essence of will.

My thoughts about my “will”, about “cause” and “effect”, about brain, about lungs, about trees — are the result of the evolution of “will”, “cause”, “effect”, brain, lungs, trees. There is no “creator” and “creation”, neatly separated. The creation is the creator. I am in the Universe. The Universe is in me.

There is comfort and peace in these thoughts. The tree lives it's tree-life through it's tree-ness, and my brain lives it's brain-life through it's brain-ness — which in some respects is also tree-like, in the hierarchical possibility for complexity. Both the tree and I are what we are because of the Universe's wondrous immanent potential for complexity.

So — birth is not the beginning of the story of me. Nor is death the end of the story of me. Because the story of me is the story of the Universe.

Møllendal cemetery, Bergen, Norway in winter, with Moon and the planet Jupiter. Graves, one with candleelight.
(Photo: Author)

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Arnfinn Sørensen

Retired science journalist from Norway. Meme switchboard operator.