My current take on emergence and causation

Is the universe pulled toward Life?

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The Terasem Colloquium on December 10, 2021, 10am to 1pm ET via Zoom, will feature a stellar lineup of speakers: Susan Schneider, Randal Koene, Max More, Ken Hayworth, Gabriel Rothblatt, Robert McIntyre. The topic: What is consciousness, and how to preserve it beyond physical death?

You are invited! This post will be updated with the Zoom access coordinates. Stay tuned.

Agah Bahari has interviewed (again) Rizwan Virk for the Neohuman show. See my review of Virk’s two books on the simulation hypothesis and the last Turing Church podcast dedicated to the simulation hypothesis.

I suggested to Bahari to ask Virk this question: “What should be done to make new religions inspired by science, e.g. based on simulation cosmology, as popular and energizing as traditional religions?” Listen to Virk’s answer at 1 hour 3 min in the video. I loved Virk’s final message to the viewers: “let’s not take everything so seriously.”

I have been on the Neohuman show to discuss my first book “Tales of the Turing Church” and I’ll be on the show again in a few weeks to discuss my second book “Futurist spaceflight meditations.”

Is the universe pulled toward life and consciousness?

This week I have been continuing to read and think a lot about causation and the metaphysics of biology. This is a snapshot of my current take.

Is life entailed by physics? Is the emergence and growth of life a result of the kind of physics we are familiar with (known physics and incremental improvements based on the reductionist framework of known physics)? Or do we need a new framework? Is the universe pulled toward Life?

Living matter, says Erwin Schrödinger in “What Is Life?” (a seminal book based on a course of public lectures delivered by in 1943), “while not eluding the 'laws of physics' as established up to date, is likely to involve 'other laws of physics' hitherto unknown, which, however, once they have been revealed, will form just as integral a part of this science as the former.”

Will these “other laws of physics” be just incremental improvements to known physics, or will they require an entirely new framework where other forms of causation (e.g. backward, downward, top-down, teleological) play a role alongside the efficient causation mechanisms of today’s physics?

I’m a big fan of Stuart Kauffman, and of course I read his latest book “A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life” (2019). The self-constructing diversifying becoming of life “is beyond physics,” Kauffman says, “and may be as huge as physics in the emerging and growing complexity of the evolving universe as a whole.”

Kauffman bets on a concept due to Maël Montévil and Matteo Mossio (2015) called “Constraint Closure” as an organizational principle that builds order “faster than that order can be dissipated by the second law of thermodynamics.” See also the book “Biological Autonomy: A Philosophical and Theoretical Enquiry” by Mossio and Alvaro Moreno.

However, in this book Kauffman is ambiguous on whether life requires a new framework of scientific understanding very different from today’s physics, with other forms of causation. Other authors are similarly ambiguous. Many authors including Mossio and Moreno refer to “Sperry’s classic example of the wheel rolling downhill,” where the shape of the wheel constrains the motion of the molecules that form the wheel.

But it seems to me that, in principle, everything in Sperry’s example can be explained without invoking exotic forms of causation: all the molecules that form the wheel rolling downhill follow gravity but also the laws of molecular interactions with nearby molecules, and that’s it. Same for other often cited forms of emergence with feedback loops between molecular motions and boundary conditions: I see no reason to doubt that efficient causation is perfectly able to explain these weak forms of emergence.

But I am persuaded that life and consciousness require strong emergence and exotic forms of causation beyond efficient causation. And I am persuaded that there’s no mystery here: the efficient causation laws of the physics we know are strictly followed, but leave the actual evolution of physical systems under-determined. This is what quantum mechanics says, but it can be argued that classical mechanics is under-determined as well, and that under-determination might follow from Gödel’s theorems.

So there’s enough slack for other laws to be strictly followed as well, seamlessly and without inconsistencies. Spinoza said:

“every part of nature agrees with the whole, and is associated with all other parts… by the association of parts, then, I merely mean that the laws or nature of one part adapt themselves to the laws or nature of another part, so as to cause the least possible inconsistency.”

I first encountered this quote in “Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity” by Denis Noble, a very good book that argues for emergence and multi-level causation in biology (though Noble is also ambiguous on weak vs. strong emergence). Spinoza really says it all, and it is very simple. Really very simple.

I think definable natural laws only scratch the thin surface of a thick reality that can’t be reduced to a finite description. In the words of William James: “Thought deals thus solely with surfaces. It can name the thickness of reality, but it cannot fathom it, and its insufficiency here is essential and permanent, not temporary.” So there can’t be over-determination.

Don’t try to visualize how strong emergence “works,” because any mental image that you can visualize would push you back into reductionism. Let Robert Pirsig have the last words.

Eric Steinhart suggests that general principles, still unclear, are at work in the universe to convert entropy to complexity. For example, according to Rod Swenson, physical laws maximize overall entropy production rates. Producing physical systems that keep low entropy locally (e.g. living systems) is the fastest way for the universe to increase global entropy, and that’s it. By the way, Swenson is really a fascinating character. See “Revolution, Evolution, and Rock 'N' Roll: An Exclusive Interview with Plasmatics Founder Rod Swenson.”

According to Thomas Nagel, high level teleological laws pull the universe toward complexity, life, and consciousness. See my review of Nagel’s book “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,” with relevant quotes. Here are some more relevant quotes from Nagel’s book:

“[The] universe is rationally governed in more than one way - not only through the universal quantitative laws of physics that underlie efficient causation but also through principles which imply that things happen because they are on a path that leads toward certain outcomes - notably, the existence of living, and ultimately of conscious, organisms.”

“[Teleological evolution] may be determined not merely by value-free chemistry and physics but also by something else, namely a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.”

“The tendency for life to form may be a basic feature of the natural order, not explained by the nonteleological laws of physics and chemistry… An understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive.”

In “The Demon in the Machine,” a 2019 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.” Concerning the needed new laws of physics, Davies says:

“My hunch is that they would not be so specific as to foreshadow biology as such, but they might favour a broader class of complex information-managing systems of which life as we know it would be a striking representative. It’s an uplifting thought that the laws of the universe might be intrinsically bio-friendly in this general manner.”

Davies speculates that quantum physics must be strongly involved, and sketches a downward causation picture of quantum collapse based on integrated information.

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