What is a Tsotl?

This article is going to get a bit confusing before it gets clear, but the end result is a reality-model — a way of looking at things — that I use to unify my views of evolution, memetics, genetics and perception. It also made it possible for me to appreciate the oneness of existence.

Okay, here comes the really confusing part. I apologize for this, but I need to write it out. Examples will clarify it later.

A tsotl is what makes a thing seem a thing. A tsotl is a pattern for patterns; it is form. A tsotl can be made of other tsotls. A tsotl is a thing that seems to contain other things.

There, that was the really confusing bit. If you didn't get it, don't worry. Now let me give you examples, starting with some sciencey bits. If you don't fully get it at first, just keep reading, since it will get to more familiar territory later on.

Sub-atomic particles (like quarks) are, for reasons we need not explore here, brought together to form an atom. They are not eternally bound there, but for the moment that's where they are. The coming-together of smaller units into what we can consider a larger whole is a tsotl.

Special note for quantum physicists: Note that I said “we can consider” — I am not forgetting about Heisenberg. But let's not complicate matters too much.

For reasons we won't explore, but which any scientist can explain quite well, the atoms cluster togther into molecules. The coming-together of smaller units — atoms, in this case — constitutes a tsotl. So to review: this particular tsotl — a tsotl from atoms — is made of another tsotl — a tsotl from sub-atomic particles.

Entropy doesn't “like” this stuff happening. If you don't understand that remark, don't worry about it.

Special note for physicists: I put the word “like” in quotes; I'm not suggesting entropy actually gives a darn. I'm trying to keep this simple, okay?

The molecules cluster together in a particular way to form a cell. This, too, is a tsotl, and it is made of tsotls.

Entropy really doesn't “like” cells. They are anti-entropy incarnate. If you don't understand what I mean by that, don't worry about it; just keep reading. It will get more clear in a bit.

Special note for scientists:  I did not put quotes around the word “anti-entropy”. I consider it an important enough principle to get its own actual word.

Cells come together to form organs. These are tsotls, which are, of course, made of tsotls. Organs form organisms — such as your body. A body is a tsotl, and it is made of tsotls.

Special note for biologists:  Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about mitochondria. I'm trying to emphasize the linearity of the progression, here. I've written about mitochondria in another article. Actually, it's a poem.

Things get a bit more complex at this stage. Your body is host to countless other organisms. Your digestive tract contains something like ten times more bacteria cells than your body has human cells. You are a walking ecosystem for the bacteria. From their point of view (to the extent that they have one), your entire purpose for existing is to provide them with a place to live. And since they outnumber your cells, it might be argued that they're right and your opinion doesn't count! But let's ignore their vote for now and keep climbing up the size scale.

Bodies come together to form groups of people, like a family, or a social circle, or a city. These are tsotls, made of tsotls.

Groups come together to form communities (which are tsotls), which come together to form regions (also tsotls), which come together as countries (which are also tsotls). All countries taken together form the human race, which is a tsotl. Obviously enough, we can say it's made from tsotls.

But the planet isn't just made from humans. There is all life to account for, like those (hopefully) friendly bacteria in your gut. And house cats. And dogs. And sheep, and horses, and wolves, and gorillas, and ants, and beetles, and mosquitos, and so on.

And let us not forget plants, or the countless single-celled organisms like algae upon which so much depends.

Taken all together, these smaller units contribute to one larger unit, the biggest tsotl we can conveniently conceive of, which is our planet. It is sometimes called Gaia, and it shows signs of self-regulation. It, too, is a tsotl.

Gaia must really annoy entropy. The principle of entropy is that disorder in a closed system increases. Gaia is not a closed system, but it does slap entropy in the face, so to speak.

No, it's definitely not a closed system. Mother Earth depends upon Father Sun to provide the energy to make things happen. Without Father Sun we would not have the energy to live, love and evolve.  (I hope you can forgive me for referring to our planet and local star as Mother and Father, but I feel a great reverence for both of them. For one thing, if it wasn't for them I'd have never been born.)

Well, that's enough about tsotls to serve as an introduction to the subject. And now I'm going to do something I should have done years and years ago: tell people how to pronounce the word tsotl!

I'm comfortable with either of the two following pronunciations:

tuh-saw-tuhl   or   ts-aw-tl  (if you can manage that).

I use the second one.


  1. Good concept your tsotl. What is the origine of the word? Why that word? It gives a word for things made from the bottom up.

  2. Circle of Life: I invented the word “tsotl” for a computer game I created during the 1980's (Pyroto Mountain). It was an acronym, meaning “The Spirit of the Land,” and was intended to focus the attention of players on the fact that they were acting in unison to create the gaming world and its events.

    Interestingly, I did not reveal this fact to the players at the outset. It could take them months to get to the level where they could read an article called “The Nature of TSOTL.” Yet some of them figured it out before they got there.

    A few years ago I discovered that a somewhat similar concept already existed, called a “holon.” You can look up that word (and also Pyroto Mountain) on Wikipedia.

  3. Yep, it was Arthur Koestler who first used the word 'holon', in his book The Ghost In The Machine. He has some really good ideas I thought.

    For the past year or so I have been aware that, to all useful intents and purposes, the word 'soul' of ancient and venerable usage, can best be translated in the modern era as empathy or empathising, [North Americans can spell it with a zed if you like :-]
    Just recently I became aware the the word 'Spirit', also of venerable and ancient usage, can be translated in the modern tongue as _self assertive tendency_. In other words it denotes one side of what Koestler considered to be intrinsic to all real holons and thus of every real tsotl.

    What this refers to is the tendency of all things which really exist to resist dissolution and destruction by the rest of the universe. I think it was one of the German philosophers who emphasised this as characteristic of things in general. Koestler pointed out that all holons/tsotls also exhibited what he called a self-transcending tendency; in other words a propensity to be part of something else, a greater unity. I believe that empathy is one of the main features of our human psyche that allows us self-transcendence.

    Koestler maintained that one of the biggest problems with human beings is not egotism or assertiveness but rather the tendency to fall, all to easily, into a compliant 'unity' with others and end up being manipulated into acts of barbarism by individuals who do not feel empathy [at all]. These latter have no conscience and no qualms about using everybody as mere instruments in their narcissistic power games. I think this is quite a subtle insight.

  4. Mark: I will consider how your proferred definition of "soul" might apply in some cases. It's not obvious to me.

    I really like the definition of spirit as "self assertive tendency." That phrase nicely touches upon the ideas I have in mind when I think of the word "spirit."

    My favorite two examples of "spirit" are (1) the phrase "school spirit" and (2) the half-billion-year-old creek that runs past our house. In both cases I can see a "self-assertive tendency." Thanks for passing that along!

    I don't know about a "propensity to be part of something else;" that sounds tautological. Everything is within a larger context; it cannot be avoided.

    As for our "biggest problems," I'd have to side with The Buddha, who said that it's "ignorance." That's a superset of what Koestler mentioned (as your post cites).

  5. I know this is an old thread now, but have you ever read Ken Wilber's books? "A Brief History of Everything" is the one that comes to mind.

    1. Yes, I read one of Ken Wilber's books, though not "A Brief History of Everything". I found the book I read very interesting but it has not greatly influenced what I write. As I recall, he appears to be dealing with a subject slightly different overall than what I deal with.

    2. Cool; I only mentioned him here because of the "Tsotl" thing. Wilber's work is usually called "Integral Theory", and his "Theory of Everything" (haha, lots of people have those, don't they?) is really similar to this. He uses the word "holon" instead.

      I like your blog by the way. I found it from the xkcd forums and have been reading some of your stuff here and there at work, instead of working ;-)


    3. As you may notice from one of the previous comments, I am aware of the term "holon," which was invented by Arthur Koestler. In recent months some people have also drawn parallels between holons (or tsotls) and fractals. The key concept, as I see it, is the self-similarity across various scales.