Irrational mechanics, draft Ch. 6
Creative evolution toward quality.
Greetings to all readers and subscribers, and special greetings to the paid subscribers!
Please scroll down for the main topic of this newsletter. But first:
Mark your calendar! At the Terasem Colloquium on December 14, 2023, 10am-1pm ET via Zoom, stellar speakers will explore recent AI developments (ChatGPT & all that), machine consciousness, and the nature of consciousness. You are invited! Please note that a related issue of the Terasem’s Journal of Personal Cyberconsciousness (Vol. 11, Issue 1 - 2023) will be published in December. See the call for papers.
Starship returned to integrated flight testing with its second launch from Starbase in Texas. Here’s what I said back in April after the first launch. In these pictures I’m watching the official SpaceX stream (via X) and the Everyday Astronaut stream with Tim Dodd and MaryLiz Bender (via YouTube).
Once again, I followed the streams like a religious service. As my readers know, space expansion is part of my personal religion, and watching important spaceflight events is my ritual connection to our future among the stars. Starship will hopefully take people to live on Mars and open the road to human expansion into the solar system and beyond, and therefore it is part of my numinous.
Much of the media coverage of the launch is full of BS. Don’t waste time reading that BS. Read Eric Berger’s piece instead, titled “Sorry, doubters: Starship actually had a remarkably successful flight.” Eric is right indeed: the second test flight was remarkably successful.
To the doubters, I say: it was a TEST, for F#'s sake. A TEST. TESTING is how engineers improve things and make them good enough for operational use.
In particular, I'm happy to see that the launch pad is in good shape after the second test flight. I think this was an important objective of the test and I hope its successful achievement will help clear the regulatory obstacles to the Starship program.
With less regulatory obstacles on Starship’s way and more government support, the Moon and Mars will be much closer. See also my commentary in last week’s Turing Church newsletter.
I’ve been following the OpenAI drama, which feels like one of those golden age science fiction stories.
Best comment that I’ve seen (by Tony Parisi): “This season of Silicon Valley is pretty crazy Almost like it’s AI-generated.” There are rumors that the OpenAI drama in this real new season of the Silicon Valley TV show was caused by “a powerful artificial intelligence discovery that they said could threaten humanity.”
“At the moment, we have a clear alignment of e/acc ambitions and corporate interests… There are flows of pattern evolution here that we are caught up in ... we help them along by our efforts, and we can nudge their direction a bit, but to feel we are driving them would be egoic delusion...”
e/acc means effective accelerationism. I don’t call myself e/acc - my favorite mental state is one of serenity and calm contemplation of awesome futures - but I agree that we should start expanding into space and developing AI & other futurist technologies without wasting too much time, without worrying too much, and without too much regulation. The outcome of the OpenAI drama can be seen as a big win for the e/acc camp.
“I guess the universe is driving. The universe wants intelligence to spread among the stars faster than the outward speed of biological intelligence.”
So here’s a very early draft of Chapter 6 of my new book “Irrational mechanics: Narrative sketch of a futurist science & a new religion” (2024).
Note that this and the others draft chapters are very concise. At this point I only want to put down the things I want to say, one after another. Later on, when the full draft for early readers is complete, I’ll worry about style and all that.
6 - Creative evolution toward quality
Quick recap so far: I’ve started [Chapter 3] with Newton’s rational mechanics and Laplace’s determinism, an elegant philosophy that stimulated awesome achievements in science and engineering. The celestial mechanics of the solar system was one of those first achievements.
But while planets move regularly and predictably, trees grow wildly and unpredictably, and so do we. And if you think of it, the world of Newton and Laplace is a boring, sad place. Everything enfolds mechanically. Everything that ever happens is predetermined. Nothing really new ever happens and everything will die out eventually. A very boring place if you ask me. No change. No creativity. No free will.
Then I’ve argued [Chapter 4] that a global concept of determinism leaves room for libertarian free will. It is the universe as a whole that is endowed with free will, but we are part of the universe, and therefore our own free will counts. If there is a single history of the universe (timeline), the past doesn’t determine the future without some degree of randomness. If there are multiple timelines, a single timeline taken in isolation from the others is not determined without some degree of randomness.
Then I’ve moved to Gödel & friends [Chapter 5]. I’ve argued that certain things are, and will remain, hidden from observers like us that live in our space and time. Our laws of physics, formulated from within our space and time, do not and can not determine physical reality without some degree of randomness.
I guess our conceived space and time are not part of the kernel of the cosmic operating system, not really, but rather artifacts of our way of being in the world. But we can’t escape our own way of being in the world, not yet. In particular, from our current perspective we can only speak of the evolution of the world in time. We can speak of it, and we must speak of it because this is the best we can do at this moment, but then we must bear in mind that the evolution of the world in time is not predetermined.
So now I’ll put Laplacian determinism aside and switch to the alternative view of Henri Bergson, centered on non-predetermined change and creative evolution.
The world of Newton and Laplace (and Einstein) is pristine, aseptic, mechanical, reducible, deterministic, and reversible. But the world of Bergson is messy, dirty, living, whole, nondeterministic, and irreversible. According to Bergson, creative evolution [Bergson 1998] is present everywhere in nature. Matter is alive, flowing, mysterious, spiritual.
Alfred North Whitehead [Whitehead 1979], Robert Pirsig [Pirsig 1974, Pirsig 1991, Glover 2002], Ilya Prigogine [Prigogine 1984, 1997], and many scientists, especially biologists but also chemists and physicists, have embraced parts of Bergson’s philosophy. Becoming is more fundamental than being, and comes before being.
Quantum mechanics and chaos theory suggest that the world is not fully deterministic in the strict sense of Laplace (I’ll often drop the qualifier and just speak of determinism).
In chaos theory, accurate predictions are impossible in practice, and arguably even in principle when things are really, really chaotic [Stewart 1997, Stewart 2019].
In the 1930s John von Neumann emphasized that, in quantum mechanics, observation (quantum measurement) seems to trigger “abrupt changes” that are “non-causal” [von Neumann 2018]. While the discussion has been going on for decades and of course some scientists disagree, this seems to be the case indeed.
However, speaking of measurement is misleading, because this doesn’t need human observers that do experiments to measure something. Any interaction with the rest of the world that leaves irreversible records in some physical system (including a human brain of course, but not only) triggers non-predetermined changes in a quantum system.
I must say that many scientists are persuaded that the world is fully deterministic, and nondeterminism is only apparent. Many chaos theorists insist on deterministic chaos and point out that, while the evolution of a chaotic system is unpredictable, the system still follows mathematical laws that are well defined and deterministic. Many quantum physicists think that multiple versions of any observer (like you or me) live in parallel worlds or timelines of a quantum multiverse [Deutsch 1997, Wallace 2012, Carroll 2019], which is perfectly deterministic even though any single timeline appears nondeterministic to local observers in that timeline.
To me it seems evident that, in a world that is fully deterministic in the Laplacian sense of [Chapter 3], there is no free will (though some people go to great lengths to argue otherwise). In a quantum multiverse, what happens in one timeline is not predetermined within the same timeline, but is still fully determined in the multiverse at large.
I’m not blind to the appeal of a deterministic universe. But my preference goes to a creative universe where genuinely new things happen and we are free agents endowed with free will. I’m persuaded that the concept of libertarian determinism that I’ve outlined in [Chapter 4] brings the best of both universes together in essential harmony.
Another key open question facing contemporary science is whether the world strives toward a goal. Perhaps the universe is pushed (or pulled, the conceptual difference is subtle but important) toward complexity, life, and intelligent consciousness, by principles embedded in natural laws, which operate at all scales.
Eric Steinhart has written a great book titled “Believing in Dawkins” [Steinhart 2020]. Powerful principles or “cranes,” Steinhart says, are at work to “lift matter to greater heights of complexity.” The cranes are firmly anchored in the bedrock of physical reality and lift everything up in ways that are only partly understood at this moment.
One thing that I don’t like in Steinhart’s book is the title, because I don’t like the intolerant militant atheism promoted by many fans of Richard Dawkins. But Steinhart develops a philosophy of spiritual naturalism (now, that’s a label I like) to show “that the jobs once done by God can be done by natural entities.” To me, the important thing is that the job gets done.
For example, life after death. Dawkins “frequently affirms that there is no life after death,” but Steinhart shows that this is inconsistent with Dawkins’ own convictions. Dawkins, Steinhart says, “should have argued that false religious theories of life after death can be replaced with more plausible scientific theories of life after death.”
Steinhart sketches two plausible scientific theories of life after death, which he describes in more detail in his previous book [Steinhart 2014, Chapter 12 of Prisco 2020]. His philosophy, he adds in [Steinhart 2022], “affirms life after death” and therefore “provides you with hope beyond the grave.” I guess Dawkins would think that, here and elsewhere, Steinhart gets dangerously close to religion.
But while inspired by Dawkins, Steinhart’s spiritual naturalism is not attributed to Dawkins. To Steinhart, “believing in Dawkins” means continuing Dawkins’ work and making it more consistent and complete. Steinhart builds a spiritual naturalism “every bit as wild and glorious” as the Sagrada Familia, the architectural masterpiece of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia is always being worked on, never finished, and in most pictures one sees construction cranes.
So what can we say about the cranes that lift matter to greater heights of complexity?
We speak of emergence when matter has collective properties besides and beyond the properties of its microscopic parts. For example, water is wet but a water molecule is not (the concept of wetness just doesn’t make sense for a single molecule).
More generally, a system of interacting elements can have emergent properties that the elements don’t have. Emergent phenomena take a life of their own, so to speak, and follow high level laws (e.g. fluid dynamics) that emerge from the low level laws followed by the elements. Chemistry emerges from physics, biology emerges from chemistry, we emerge from biology, and there could be levels of emergence above us.
Emergence comes from “powerful and general principles of organization,” explains Robert Laughlin [Laughlin 2006]. Some of these principles are known, but most are not. Laughlin is persuaded that all known physical laws are emergent.
The controversial idea that emergent high level laws could overwrite and replace the low level laws of microphysics that regulate the behavior of molecules and atoms is called strong emergence. I’ll adopt an intermediate position: emergence is genuinely creative, but doesn’t need to overwrite low level laws. The low level laws are probabilistic rather than deterministic, and therefore the high level laws can complement rather than overwrite the low level laws.
Life is emergent. While “not eluding the ‘laws of physics’ as established up to date,” said Erwin Schrödinger in “What Is Life?” [Schrödinger 2012] (a seminal book first published in 1944), life is “likely to involve ‘other laws of physics’ hitherto unknown.”
Will these “other laws of physics” be just incremental improvements to known physics, or entirely new physics?
In “The Demon in the Machine” [Davies 2019], a book inspired by Schrödinger’s “What Is Life?,” Paul Davies suggests that the emergence of life and consciousness may be “etched into the underlying lawfulness of nature” and require “a radical reappraisal of the nature of physical law.”
It has been suggested that life follows from thermodynamics (e.g. [Kauffman 2019, England 2020, Roddier 2020, Azarian 2022]). Entropy, which never decreases in isolated systems, defines the evolutionary arrow of time implied by the second law of thermodynamics. Steinhart uses the term MEPP (an acronym for “Maximum Entropy Production Principle”) to indicate “whatever principle converts entropy into complexity.” This generalizes various maximum entropy production principles that have been proposed.
According to Rod Swenson, physical laws maximize overall entropy production rates. Schrödinger emphasized that living systems seem to elude thermodynamics, but of course living systems are not isolated. Producing physical systems that keep low entropy locally (e.g. life) is the fastest way for the universe to increase global entropy.
A simple semi-serious illustration of this concept: the entropy of a room left to itself would increase slowly. But to increase it faster, the universe puts a messy teenager in the room, and that’s why teenagers exist.
By the way, Swenson (yes, the same Rod Swenson who formed the Plasmatics rock band with Wendy Williams) is really a fascinating character. The old idea “that physical law predicts that the world should be collapsing monotonically into disorder has now been turned on its head,” said Swenson in an interview [Webber 2012]. On the contrary, spontaneous order occurs “as soon as it gets the chance.”