#2: Sinks and sources

But where does the energy within a thing come from? Of course, in the human study of proximate causes, energy always comes from some other thing, a battery, for instance. It is well known that the search for original causes quickly encounters philosophical and historical conundrums that have never been satisfactorily overcome. Thus, as far as we know, all things derive their energy from something else, some sort of source or proximate cause. We will return to the question of origins later, but for the world of things that can be studied, every thing is in some way plugged into some other thing. Humans get their energy from food, food gets its energy from the sun, the sun was generated by larger cosmic forces, and it’s simply not necessary to know where everything began to know that all things get their energy from some other thing. Depending on whether the perspective is from the giving or receiving thing, we will follow analysts of elecricity and name the point of connection between things sink or source, respectively. Once energy comes into a thing and supplies energy for its thinghood, electrical engineers teach us that any number of other things can be plugged into the first thing. If a new thing is plugged into a circuit, there are now simply two things composing one thing larger than the first thing by itself. 

But to speak of “plugging” a new thing into the circuit of another thing, as a second lightbulb can be plugged into the circuit previously only running one lightbulb, is only a metaphor, already too specific and historically advanced to be justified as the exact model. It presupposes too much, for instance, that a thing can already exist before it’s plugged into something else. A lightbulb is itself only produced by humans plugging hundreds of things into each other in a particular production process. So really what we need to understand are the conditions for the very possibility of plugging things into one another. In other words, how do things produce other things before it is possible to speak of “plugging?” 

The study of natural systems suggests that things are constantly sending energy off of their own circuits, throwing it into the milieu of some other thing(s), sometimes dissipating, but sometimes powering some other thing. To pursue the intimations of our definitions, when a thing sends off energy out of its specific thinghood and thereby sends energy into some other thing(s) that channel it, stabilize, and circulate it in a new, more or less distinguishable configuration we might say that it simply produces a new thing. Because energy can be neither created nor destroyed, anytime a thing sends off energy, in a sense, it will be going somewhere, into some thing. So energy is inherently always producing, it is only a matter of what thing(s) it is producing. When a volcano erupts, the energy is seemingly more destructive than “productive,” but it is clear that the natural system of which it is a part reabsorb these energies and they function in its system. Thus, this is the circulation of energy within a certain ensemble of things, which we are capable of distinguishing into so many sub-things and sub-sub-things (the whole eco-system, the volcano, the magma, etc.) On the other hand, energies thrown out by one thing sometimes produce qualitatively new things, for instance, the production of organic matter from inorganic matter, or the engineered steering of steam into moving locomotives.

Thus, there are things and then there are things producing other things. Let us call ensemble _any thing composed of more than one thing. This term emphasizes the open-endedness with which things can be composed of other things; there are no _a priori reasons for defining in advance how many things can be plugged into how many things, and neither are there reasons for saying much about how things plug. It is enough just to establish that things plug into other things. Schematic of the simple, minimal ensemble:

The diagramatic representation of the ensemble focuses attention on an interesting feature of any existing ensemble. For an ensemble to persist, it would not be enough for a thing simply to send off energy somewhere. If a thing plugs into some other thing without the second thing plugging back into the first, without a plug in return, if the first thing diverts outside of itself previously-looping energy by a tangent, this implies the end of its own positive feedback. In such a situation, there would be no ensemble but rather a process of transformation. One thing would become a new thing, but that is all. Genuine transformation is genuine creativity, as we will see. The tangential offshoot of energy represented in the upper curved line of figure two illustrates that the new thing would receive all of the energy in the first thing; and as a result the first thing would simply lose its consistency as a thing. The second thing’s internal consistency or loop would absorb all of the first thing’s energy into its own loop if there were not a reciprocal tangential offshoot (the lower curved line) of energy back to the first thing. Thus, we say that for an ensemble to be a stable thing consisting of and constituted by sub-things, it is necessary for one sub-thing to plug into the second sub-thing and vice-versa. When two or more things each plug into one another, creating an ensemble, we say that their relationship is one of reciprocity.

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Murphy, Justin. 2012. "#2: Sinks and sources," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2012/06/09/24772831771/ (December 14, 2018).