|The Beginning and the End||a review of
Clément Vidal's book
In this fascinating journey to the edge of science, Vidal takes on big philosophical questions:
- Does our universe have a beginning and an end or is it cyclic?
- Are we alone in the universe?
- What is the role of intelligent life, if any, in cosmic evolution?
Grounded in science and committed to philosophical rigor, this book presents an evolutionary worldview where the rise of intelligent life is not an accident, but may well be the key to unlocking the universe's deepest mysteries.
- Vidal shows how the fine-tuning controversy can be advanced with computer simulations.
- He also explores whether natural or artificial selection could hold on a cosmic scale.
- In perhaps his boldest hypothesis, he argues that signs of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are already present in our astrophysical data.
His conclusions invite us to see the meaning of life, evolution and intelligence from a novel cosmological framework that should stir debate for years to come. [From: Amazon]
I have recently previewed a forthcoming book, The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective.
- The author is Dr. Clement Vidal, a young scholar and member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group at the Free University in Brussels, Belgium.
- Vidal investigates a most important question – whether modern scientific cosmology can satisfy our search for meaning in life.
- The book is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades.
A briefest overview is as follows.
- Chapter 1 conducts a broad study of the philosophical method whose major aim, Vidal concludes, is to construct worldviews–comprehensive and coherent answers to big questions. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What should we do? What does it all mean?
- Chapter 2 develops criteria to test the strengths and weaknesses of these worldviews.
- Chapter 3 applies these criteria to various religious, philosophical and scientific worldviews.
- Chapters 4-6 investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos.
- Chapters 7-8 study the question of the future of the cosmos.
- Chapter 9 the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos.
- Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics.
Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises, it aims to solve scientific or philosophical problems.
- He knows his speculations could turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did.
- For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning.
- A narrative so desperately needed as the old mythological ones become increasingly passé.
- And we are privileged to journey along with a well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time–how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.
Clement Vidal is a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group at the Free University in Brussels, Belgium.
- Vidal investigates a most important question – whether modern scientific cosmology can provide insight and perhaps even answer the question of life’s meaning.
- It is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades.
Below I will discuss the work in more detail.
Vidal begins by arguing “that having a coherent and comprehensive worldview is the central aim of philosophy.” (Vidal, 2)
- This contrasts sharply with (Continental) philosophy’s investigation of subjectivity, or
- (British) philosophy’s logical analysis.
To better understand his synthetic philosophy Vidal introduces six dimensions of philosophy. Those dimensions are the:
- Descriptive – What exists? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Describing or modeling reality depends on our current scientific understanding.
- Normative – What should we do? What is good and what is evil? How do we live well? What is a good society? What is the purpose and meaning of life?
- Practical – How do we act in accord with our values to solve practical problems? What is our theory of action?
- Critical (epistemological) – What is true and false? What is the nature and limits of knowledge?
- Dialectical – How do we answer the previous question? By engaging in a debate or dialogue with opposing positions–a dialectic.
- Synthetic – This final dimension of philosophy provides the comprehensive and coherent synthetic worldview–a synthesis.
Following the Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel, Vidal argues that a complete worldview will comprise these six elements.
- And it is crucial to have a worldview because they sustain us and give meaning to our lives.
- Individuals lacking worldviews suffer psychologically, and without rational worldviews irrational ones will arise to fill the need.
- Yet it is so difficult to express a rational worldview that many philosophers have been content to reject them all – skeptics – or accept them all – syncretists.
- Nonetheless Vidal will try to articulate a synthetic worldviews.
While Chapter 1 conducted a broad study of the philosophical method whose major aim is to construct worldviews–comprehensive and coherent answers to big questions like: where do we come from? Where are we going? What should we do? What does it all mean? Chapter 2 develops criteria to test the strengths and weaknesses of these worldviews.
In order to derive criteria to evaluate worldviews, Vidal takes three perspectives into account.
- Objective or scientific;
- Subjective, existential, or phenomenological;
- Intersubjective, social or cultural.
These perspectives mirror the concerns of Kant’s three critiques, Popper’s three worlds, and Weber’s cultural spheres of value.
The three perspectives distinguish between the objects of knowledge, the subjects who assimilate knowledge, and the communication process to transmit knowledge among subjects.
“… the criteria can be seen as tools for philosophers to describe the history of philosophy, to work out their own philosophical position, or to clarify disagreements.” (Vidal, 18) Vidal draws heavily on Nicholas Rescher’s standards for evaluating philosophical theories to derive the criteria:
- Objective consistency – The worldview exhibits internal and systemic consistency.
- Scientificity – The worldview is compatible with science.
- Scope – The worldview addresses a broad range of issues and levels, in breadth and in depth.
- Subjective consistency – The worldview fits knowledge and experiences individuals already have.
- Personal utility – The worldview promotes a personally rewarding outlook on life.
- Emotionality – The worldview evokes emotions, so that it is more likely to be assimilated and applied.
- Intersubjective consistency – The worldview reduces conflicts between individuals.
- Collective utility – The worldview encourages an outlook on life and mobilizes for what is socially beneficial.
- Narrativity – The worldview presents its messages in the form of stories. (Vidal, 20)
Vidal’s subsequent discussion points out the strengths and weaknesses of each criteria. For instance: objective consistency informs a good worldview but overemphasizing it leads to a formalism that limits creativity.
- We must take modern science into account, yet dismissing the unscientific or non-scientific leads to a scientism.
- If the scope of a worldview is too narrow the resulting worldview becomes overspecialized, but as the scope expands synthetic integration becomes more difficult.
- Similarly the breadth or depth of the worldview can be too narrow or too broad.
When discussing the subjective and intersubjective criteria, Vidal also highlights how each component is an important part of a worldview, but that no criteria is sufficient by itself.
- He concludes by arguing that these criteria allow us to judge some worldviews as better than others.
- For instance continental philosophy generally ignores objective criteria while analytic philosophy often ignores subjective criteria.
Here are some things the three basic criteria illuminate.
- “… we humans are involved in three kinds of conflicts: against nature (objective), against ourselves (subjective), and against others (intersubjective)
- “… objective criteria require that the worldview not be in friction with the outside world;
- “subjective criteria require that the worldview not be in friction with an individual’s common knowledge and actions; and
- “intersubjective criteria require that the worldview minimizes friction between individuals …
“A worldview that fits well in the three worlds has more chances to be accepted, appealing, and useful. Ideally, it would give rise to the following benefits:
- “A consistent conception of the world (objective benefit).
- “A lifeworld providing a meaning for life, useful for living a good life (subjective benefit).
- “A worldview whose foundations are fit for a well-organized society, where few conflicts arise arise (intersubjective benefit).
- “Most importantly, those three worlds would be synthesized as far as possible in a coherent and comprehensive framework, thus forming a synthetic worldview.
“If we sum up the use of the three-perspectives criteria, we come to the goal of minimizing friction:”
- a good worldview has a minimum of friction within and between objective, subjective, and intersubjective worlds. (Vidal, 36-37)
3.1 Religious Worldviews – Vidal now invokes his criteria to test various worldviews. To demonstrate how the process works he compares intelligent design (ID) with flying spaghetti monsterism (FSM).
- They are both objectively consistent and equally unscientific, although ID is larger in scope.
- ID does better in terms of subjective consistency, since the designer of ID is amorphous, while FSM has a very specific designer.
- ID is also more useful and emotionally satisfying, as it is disgusting to think that a monster designed the world.
- FSM is more intersubjectively consistent since it has not killed millions, but ID is collectively more useful.
- ID’s narratives are more developed than those of FSM.
- From this analysis we can conclude that ID is a better worldview than FSM. (Of course it may be a much worse worldview than others.)
Now that we have a sense of how these comparisons work we can consider religious worldviews in general.
- Religions usually excel in personal and collective utility,emotionality and narrativity. “… a religious worldview gives meaning, provides answers to fundamental questions, and has a pragmatic value in terms of both psychological benefits and social cohesion.” (Vidal, 43)
- Yet religions have few rational methods to resolve conflict–hence the ubiquity of religious conflict–and they are generally low on objective criteria, their tenets often contradict known scientific truths.
- They typically respond by invoking a god of the gaps, using god to explain current gaps in scientific knowledge. (This strategy is notoriously weak, as the gaps are continually closed causing religion to continually retreat.)
- In short religions are generally much better with subjective and intersubjective criteria than with objective criteria.
3.2 Scientific Worldviews – The strength of science is apparent–it constructs our best models of what is, where it came from, and where it’s going.
- It is strong in precisely those areas religion is weak. (I would say this is because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today.)
- But science often ignores integrating its models with questions of value, actions, knowledge, and meaning.
- Essentially, science is strong regarding objective criteria but less so regarding the subjective and intersubjective.
3.3 Philosophical Worldviews – In order to correct the flaws in their various worldviews, theologians try to develop theologies more consistent with science, while scientists may expand their worldviews to include values, emotions, and meanings.
- Building a naturalistic worldview entails starting with objective, scientific principles, and extending them to include the subjective and intersubjective.
- For Vidal this is the essence of a philosophical worldview.
Vidal now examines three analogies to help us grasp how to build comprehensive and coherent worldviews.
- First consider worldview questions as an axiomatic system where worldview answers are structures satisfying the axioms.
- Many philosophies and religions use axioms such as god, immortality, or freedom as postulates in their systems.
- In general scientific worldviews are coherent but incomplete; religious worldviews are relatively complete but incoherent.
- Second consider worldview questions as a system of equations.
- In this model solving philosophical questions about worldviews compares to solving intricate sets of equations.
- Third consider worldview questions as problems to solve.
- In this case we might employ problem solving techniques to resolve these problems.
Now that we have some idea of what it entails to develop a philosophical worldview, Vidal’s next task is to reformulate worldview questions in light of modern science.
In Chapter 4 Vidal turns to issue of the beginning of the universe. Answers to these questions are no doubt found in the realm of science. “Modern science can successfully connect physical and chemical evolution with biological and cultural evolution … Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that science is an effective method to understand cosmic evolution.” (Vidal, 59) But the multiple challenges for any ultimate explanations include:
- epistemological – What are the epistemological characteristics of an ultimate theory? Are all ultimate theories either circular or infinite regresses?
- metaphysical – Why not nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?
- thermodynamic – Where does the energy of the universe comes from, and how will it end? Can something come from nothing?
- causal – What was the causal origin of the universe? Was it self-caused? Is its causal chain infinite?
- infinities – Is the universe spatially finite or infinite? Is it temporally finite or infinite?
Vidal begins by discussing a foundational starting point for the universe–a cause which does not need another cause. Examples of points include a god or the big bang. By invoking a creator god one avoids an infinite regress (the idea that the chain of causation goes back infinitely) but one can still ask questions like: “Where did god come from?” “What was god doing before he created the universe?” Theologians often answer that god is self-caused. Of course one could say the Big Bang was a self-caused starting point too.
To avoid these issues we might assume the origin of the universe has no foundation–that ultimate explanations are cyclical. Cyclical thinking is found in various disciplines: recursive proofs in mathematics and computer science; networks of meaning in linguistics; and feedback loops in systems theory. (Jean Piaget thought that all of the sciences ground each other in a “circle of the sciences.) Might cyclic cosmologies like those of the Stoics and Hindus better explain the origins of the universe? The problem with cyclic theories are many. Cycles appear to have no endpoint, and thus don’t supply an ultimate explanation. Cycles also imply an eternal return–an endless repetitive cycle.
To fully engage these deep issues Vidal encourages us to take current cosmological theories seriously. “It is crucial to take seriously our best theories to answer our questions about origins. Major physical theories like quantum mechanics or general relativity can have counterintuitive consequences, which nevertheless we must take into account. Such theories are more reliable than intuitions coming from our brains, which are mere products of biological evolution. The brain is well adapted to recognize cycles in natural environments, or to recognize starting points in human actions, but not to guess what happened in the Big Bang era.”(Vidal, 75)
Vidal concludes that building scientific models involves the interaction of the external system and an observer who constructs models of that system. And understanding how observers models the world gives us the best chance to avoid the cognitive biases that lead us astray.
(For a readable, in-depth discussion of the important topics introduced in this chapter see: Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, New York :Liveright Pub. Corp., 2012)
Chapters 5 and 6 continue to investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos. Perhaps the most important result for the average reader is that the argument for a fine-tuned universe is inconclusive. The discussion in chapters 4-6 leads to the question of the future of the cosmos in Chapters 7 and 8; the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos in Chapter 9; and Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics.. There are simply so many profound and novel ideas in these chapters that I’ll leave them to the readers of the book to explore.
The crescendo of the work appears in the last section’s discussion of immortality, where Vidal distinguishes five kinds of immortality:
- Spiritual – The belief in a supernatural realm where a non-physical soul “goes” after death. This belief is widespread and appealing, but anathema to the rationalistic mind.
- Individual – The belief that we can be biologically or digitally immortal. Vidal suggests that motivation for individual immortality arises primarily because we are cultural creatures. Our genes survive to a large extent but “most of the information we gather during our lifetime is cultural and gets lost at the time of death. And this is pure waste.” (Vidal, 298) The way out of this problem is biological or digital immortality or some combination of the two. Critics question whether cybernetic immortality is possible without embodiment, whether it’s worth it to live in a simulation, whether its cost will be prohibitive, whether death is good because it motivates us, etc. But Vidal suggests that immortality would force us to worry about things like climate change and the death of our sun and universe, since we will live into the far future. Still we don’t need to be immortal to have transpersonal concerns–we can care about others who will live on after we have died. And the same with our projects, concerns and goals. If they take many generations to achieve, then our deaths do not undermine them. Such considerations lead us to consider transpersonal immortality in three different varieties.
- Creative – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a cultural legacy. The main problem here is that even the achievements of an Aristotle, Shakespeare or Darwin may be forgotten in thousands or millions of years.
- Evolutionary – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a biological legacy. For example we are almost immortal at the level of the genes and are potentially immortal as part of a global brain. But even this is not enough if there are cosmological constraints on the immortality of the universe.
- Cosmological – The belief that true immortality can only be achieved by a connection between ourselves and the immortality of the cosmos. But can the universe continue indefinitely? Perhaps universes could reproduce other universes ad infinitum, or our descendants will become smart enough to determine the fate of the cosmos. Vidal believes that we can be concerned with the issue of cosmological immortality, we can see the immortality of the cosmos as our ultimate goal.
Let me conclude by stating my belief that only with cosmic immortality can complete meaning in life be found. And I agree with Vidal that this is our ultimate goal–the creation and continuation of a good, meaningful, immortal cosmos.
Finally let me reiterate what I said about this work previously. It is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades. Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises. He knows his speculations could turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did. For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning. A narrative so desperately needed as the old mythological ones become increasingly passé. And we are privileged to journey along with his well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time–how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.
John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin.
His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives.
He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com
By relegating consciousness to an epiphenomenon of neurons, Vidal excludes a primary constituent in the Universe. The excerpt below is one of several instances in which consciousness is described as the result of biological processes.
- For example, how did atoms emerge out of the Big Bang era? How did planets form out of stars and stardust? How did life originate out of molecules? How did consciousness emerge from biological organisms? And so on. (Vidal, 116)
This misunderstanding of consciousness is a fatal flaw in an otherwise systematic and comprehensive study of meaning of life.
Vidal goes on to hobble his work by confusing consciousness as a result of creation when in fact consciousness is prior to creation.
- 3.3.4 Nonviolent Worldview Communication
- For example, let us imagine what a neuroscientist could say to a religious person:
- You are just plain wrong, there is no evidence whatsoever that God created human consciousness. Open your eyes to evolutionary theory: it’s clear that a mechanistic scheme of explanation is under way. (Vidal, 54)
Vidal's lack of distinction between "World-creation" and "World-maintenance" is also evident in the excerpt above. Lumping these two distinct phenomena into one (God) is a common misconception that limits a true understanding of The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective.
Instead of trying to reduce consciousness
to something else, Chalmers believes
consciousness should simply be taken for
granted, the way that space and time
and mass are in physics.
According to this view, a theory of
consciousness would not explain what
consciousness is or how it arose; instead,
it would try to explain the relationship
between consciousness and everything
else in the world. [LINK]
The absence of this perspective — consciousness as a building block of the Universe — in Vidal's "carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination" is surprising.
- No doubt Vidal was aware of Chalmers' theory.
- Given the "bold hypothesis of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations", it is puzzling why Chalmers' theory is not worthy of mention.
Cosmological Artificial Selection — Vidal's "best solution" to make sense of the beginning, the end, and the meaning of life in the universe — is also strengthened when consciousness is recognized to be coeval with time (as per Gurdjieff's cosmology).
Vidal begins by listing seven big, eternal, or age-old philosophical questions — of which, the first two questions relate to "World-creation".
- What is? Ontology (model of being)
- Where does it all come from? Explanation (model of the past)
- Where are we going? Prediction (model of the future)
- What is good and what is evil? Axiology (theory of values)
- How should we act? Praxeology (theory of actions)
- What is true and what is false? Epistemology (theory of knowledge)
- Where do we start to answer the previous questions?
Mistaking consciousness to be an epiphenomenon of neurons and an inability to distinguish between "World-creation" and "World-maintenance" asssures no satisfactory answer to these most enigmatic questions.
Fig. 1.2 Worldview of an individual in
a cybernetic system (Heylighen 2000a)
The diagram in Fig. 1.2 represents the worldview of an individual in a cybernetic system (from Heylighen 2000a). As Heylighen (2000a) says, the cybernetic approach shows how the different worldview components interrelate dynamically:
- The apparently disconnected components of a worldview can in fact be understood as part of an encompassing scheme describing the interaction between a system or self and the world or environment.
- In cybernetics an autonomous system or agent is conceptualized as a control system, which tries to achieve its goals or values by initiating the right actions that compensate for the disturbances produced by the environment.
- For that, it needs to perceive or get information about the effects of its actions and the effects of the events happening in the world. More specifically, it needs to understand how particular events (past) cause other events (future), that is to say it needs to have a model that allows it to explain and anticipate events.
- The first six components of a worldview cover all the fundamental aspects of this control scheme, as illustrated in Figure 1.2. Worldview components [in large font] are written above the corresponding control scheme components.
Looking carefully at the diagram, one is struck by the centrality of the value component. The information we seek and the actions we perform ultimately depend on our values. Murphy and Ellis (1996) also saw the importance of values and ethics when they argued that ethics is a science at the top of the hierarchy of social sciences. Likewise, our treatment of cosmological ethics (in Chap. 10) is a cornerstone of this work.
Note that the seventh component (g) does not appear in Fig. 1.2, since it is a second-order component. Note too that an individual does not need to have made the components explicit. I can act consistently according to some values, yet never think about a theory of values.
To illustrate this, let us consider the extreme example of a bacterium’s worldview. How can we interpret its worldview components? Its ontology is what it senses at present; its explanation is a kind of memory, which may be its biochemical state; its prediction is a feedback system, fixed by its genes; its axiology (to find food, reproduce, move, eat and digest) is mainly fixed by its genes too; and its perceptions are chemical gradients. As Stuart Kauffman (2007, p. 909) argued:
- [A] bacterium swimming up a glucose gradient and performing work cycles is an agent, and glucose has value and meaning for the bacterium without assuming consciousness. Of course it is natural selection that has achieved this coupling. But teleological language has to start somewhere, and I am willing to place it at the start of life.
This approach in terms of worldviews thus intricately links abstract philosophical questions with an agent’s personal experience. We do not just seek the most perfect model of the world; we also want it related to and embodied in individuals, thus providing rules for living and acting meaningfully.
Modern science can successfully connect physical and chemical evolution with biological and cultural evolution (e.g., Chaisson 2001; De Duve 1995). Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that science is an effective method to understand cosmic evolution. The problem of harmony in the universe has thus shifted to its beginning: How did it all start? Why did the universe start with these initial conditions, parameters, and laws, and not others? Was the initial universe fine-tuned for the emergence of life and intelligence?
The belief in God allowed western thinkers to understand why the "Laws of Nature" are as they are and not otherwise. Scientific activity ultimately consisted of discovering the Laws of Nature set up by God. However, now that many scientists no longer believe in God, they lack an explanation of the origin of the laws of nature (Davies 1998).
Nicholas Rescher (1985, p. 230) summarized alternative ways to answer the question of why nature’s system of laws is as it is:
- The question is illegitimate (rejectionism).
- The question is legitimate, but inherently unsolvable (mystificationism).
- The question is legitimate and solvable. But the resolution lies in the fact that there just is no explanation. The world’s law structure is in the final analysis reasonless. The laws just are as they are; that is all there is to it. And this brute fact eliminates any need for explanation (arationalism).
- The question is legitimate and solvable, and a satisfactory explanation indeed exists. But it resides in an explanatory principle that is itself outside the range of (normal) laws — as it must be to avoid vitiating circularity (transcendentalism).
1) Rejectionism will not make science and rationality progress. Although I am aware that (1) is a common philosophical position, I am committed to answer childishly simple first-order questions. I do not want to dismiss those questions too quickly as meaningless.
2) Mystificationism does not make science and rationality progress either. Only if it could be proven that the question is indeed unsolvable would it be an impressive result, similar to negative results in mathematical logic, like the proof of the impossibility of constructing the quadrature of the circle.
3) Arationalism is equivalent to saying that all explanations will fail. Without arguments to support this view, we cannot take it seriously.
4) Transcendentalism invites an external and most likely supernatural explanation, which is not something we presuppose in this book.
5) Rescher mentions a fifth option, the position of rationalism. It states that the question is legitimate and solvable, and the resolution lies in the fact that there is an explanation, yet to be defined and found.
4.2.3 God’s Point
Judaism introduced God as a creator, putting the universe in the past, as a definite event. Furthermore, for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, time is linear, not cyclic. God’s creation is revealed in the sequential unfolding of creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and judgment. Thus the creation story has a beginning, a middle, and an end (Davies 2002, p. 42).
God has the power to put infinity in quarantine. Infinity is concealed in a three-letter word: God. Furthermore, we can reassure ourselves that we cannot fully grasp God’s infinity, because He is a supernatural being. With our finite and limited mind, we cannot really make sense of God’s infinity. Such a line of thinking succeeds in avoiding an infinite regress, since infinity is condensed into a single concept, rather than let loose in an unfathomable infinite causal chain.
The problem of the ultimate explanation has then shifted to a theological one. The inquiring believer can still ask: Where did God come from? What was God doing before he created the universe? To make this logic watertight, theologians add that God is causa sui, or self-caused. Furthermore, the thermodynamic issue remains. How did the energy transfer from God to the universe occur? Is there a separation? Is God a being, or being itself? Is God the energy-matter of the universe, as in some pantheistic interpretations? Although theological reasoning could resolve these issues, they involve a supernatural explanation, which a nontheist philosopher by definition does not address. Is there an alternative?
4.2.4 Big Bang’s Point
The Big Bang is often conceived as a space-time point or singularity. This conception is debatable, since it depends on the specific cosmological model whether a singularity did or did not occur (Ellis 2007a, p. 1235). But could Big Bang models have the equivalent of God's causa sui? Quentin Smith argued in a paper titled "The uncaused beginning of the universe" (1988) that one can solve the causal challenge without referring to a supernatural being. Following heated debates between atheists and theists, Smith wrote another paper, "The reason the universe exists is that it caused itself to exist" (1999), presenting three ways for the universe to cause itself to begin to exist.
A more precise cosmological model was developed by Gott and Li (1998), in which closed time-like curves solved Einstein’s field equations and made the question of an earliest point in time meaningless: "[A]sking what was the earliest point might be like asking what is the easternmost point on the Earth. You can keep going east around and around the Earth—there is no eastern-most point." So it may be possible to quarantine or avoid an infinite set of causes at the beginning of the universe, as an alternative to Heller’s proposal quoted above that only an infinite sequence of finite causes may replace the notion of God.
Architect Point of View: The more we are in a position to make a new universe, the more we shall understand our own universe.
If we extrapolate the steady growth of complexity and especially the amazing progress of science, then it may not be so difficult to imagine a stage at which intelligent life is able to conceive and make new universes. But the question of motivation remains. We shall see later that it can be grounded in a cosmological ethics and especially in the idea of cosmological immortality (see Chap. 10).
What is the meaning of science in CAS? Pondering the mysteries of the cosmos, we often marvel about the existence of life in the universe. Why are there such complex structures as life or consciousness? Yet the most recent outcome of complexity on Earth is not life nor consciousness. It is arguably the phenomenon of science, which is a natural continuation of the evolution of complex intelligent life (Turchin 1977; Campbell 1974).
Albert Einstein famously wrote that the “most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible” (cited in Hoffmann 1972). What he meant is that matter self-organized up to a point where it can comprehend itself. Through humans and science, the universe is self-comprehending. This self-referential aspect is perplexing and awe inspiring.
Scientists are by definition embedded in science. Somehow, this is quite ironic. Indeed, if we are very “scientific” by giving a maximum value to objectivity (i.e. observations independent of the particular properties of the observer), then we forget the very fact that there are observers! Which is itself a fundamental mystery. This is why I presented CAS as a philosophical theory and not as a scientific one. In CAS, we are involved, and so are conjectured extraterrestrials too (see Chap. 9). This is another reason why it is so important to search and try to find them. Our cosmic vision remains too limited if we have only one example of the emergence of life. Obviously, it is difficult and scientifically dubious to extrapolate any general trend from one example.
What is the meaning of science in a cosmological perspective? Why did the cosmos generate structure capable not only of understanding itself (in self-consciousness) but also of understanding and controlling its surroundings in an ever more developed and precise manner? What is the most complex model we can imagine, and which activity can provide it? We saw that it is a model of the whole universe, assisted by computer simulations. As we extrapolate the phenomenon of science into the far future, we approach knowledge of the entire universe. CAS hypothesizes that this knowledge, coupled with activities in soft and hard Artificial Cosmogenesis will provide all the ingredients for future universe making.
One can now throw new light on the fact that cosmic evolution gave rise to scientific activity. In CAS, the increasing modeling abilities of intelligent beings is not an accident but an indispensable feature of our universe, to ensure new offspring universes. In CAS, scientific activity does not seek an ultimate explanation but a pragmatic solution to a real problem: lurking cosmic doom. The quest for an ultimate explanation is no longer a quest for disinterested and absolute knowledge. Knowledge is useful, and nearly complete knowledge about our universe should at some point be useful.
In future, science will no longer be merely a search for understanding of the world; in the long run, it will tend to become a simulation or computation of the world. In the far future, such a simulation could be concretely implemented to make a new universe. CAS offers a fresh perspective for pondering the big questions Pagels (1986, p. 379) raised:
- “Is it possible that life, or whatever it may become, can alter the program of the cosmic computer, changing the course of its destiny? It will take more than a metaphor to answer that important question; it will take a far deeper understanding of life and the cosmos than we currently possess. Yet the desire to know the answer to such questions about our destiny will never go away. And that desire is perhaps the profoundest program in our cosmic computer so far.”
God’s existence: Does God exist?
Ikeda and Jeffrey (2006) advanced a new criticism against the fine-tuning argument used to prove God’s existence. It is particularly interesting because it grants the most difficult premise, namely that our universe is indeed improbably finely tuned (recall step 3, that outcome O is improbable, in our reconstruction of the fine-tuning argument). Ikeda and Jeffrey conclude that if the universe is finely tuned, then God’s existence is less likely, not more likely! Why? They start with the following assumptions:
- Our universe exists and contains life.
- Our universe is “life friendly,” that is, the conditions in our universe (such as physical laws, etc.) permit or are compatible with life existing naturalistically.
- Life cannot exist in a universe that is governed solely by naturalistic law unless that universe is “life-friendly.”
Now the point is that “a sufficiently powerful supernatural principle or entity (deity) could sustain life in a universe with laws that are not 'life-friendly,' simply by virtue of that entity’s will and power.” Indeed, if God can intervene in the course of cosmic evolution then why bother fine-tuning? You fine-tune because you cannot or will not intervene. So, as Stenger (2011, p. 253) summarizes, the “more finely tuned the universe is, the more the hypothesis of a supernatural creation is undermined”. I refer the reader to Ikeda and Jeffrey (2006) for the stronger version of the argument that uses Bayesian probabilities.
The question, “Why not nothing“ receives scant attention from Vidal, and although this question is not explicitly answered, it is most developed in section 4.1.2 Metaphysical [excerpted in its entirety below].
- 4.1.2 Metaphysical
- [Metaphysics] is the oldest of the sciences, and would still survive, even if all the rest were swallowed up in the abyss of an all-destroying barbarism. (Kant 1781, B XIV)
- Why not nothing? Those three words compose the most puzzling metaphysical issue. They question the brute fact of existence. This formulation is a shorter version of Leibniz' (1714, Sect. 7) question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
- The best treatment I know of this question was provided by Leo Apostel in his article “Why not nothing?” (1999). I refer the reader to this paper for further reflections and to (Kuhn 2007) for a panorama of possible answers to this question. As Kant famously wrote above, metaphysical questions are unavoidable.
“Why not nothing” is easily answered by the cosmology promulgated by Gurdjieff where consciousness and time are coeval, and limitless consciousness coexists with eternal time.
“What is?” receives even less attention (four instances of “What is?” vs. nine instances of “Why not nothing?”).
In Appendix I - “My Worldview Made Explicit” is found the most detailed explanation [excerpted in full].
- (a) What is?
- As a preliminary remark, I am generally skeptical about reductionist ontological statements. Reality is complex, evolving, and multi-layered, and different ontologies are more or less appropriate to analyze and solve different problems. Dooyeweerd's (1953) fifteen aspects, although static rather than dynamic, offer an example of a non-reductionist ontology.
- My ontological commitment goes toward systems theory, which aims to offer a universal language for sciences (e.g. von Bertalanffy 1968; Boulding 1956). It is also very fruitful for philosophizing (e.g. Laszlo 1972a). It is best combined with evolutionary reasoning, which gives rise to an evolutionary-systemic approach (Heylighen 2000b).
- I choose an ontology of actions and agents, i.e. elementary processes and relations, not independent, static pieces of matter (in the spirit of Whitehead (1930), Lazslo (1972a), Jantzch (1980), etc.). Out of their interactions, organization emerges. Through evolutionary processes, these systems become more complex and adaptive, and start to exhibit cognition or intelligence, i.e. the ability to make informed choices.
Two Scales of Time [Source]
1. “Heropass” (EternityINFINITY?)
■ A beginningless, independent time that precedes
creation of the world and is coeval with the Creator
2. Redesigned Time (Two Types)
■ “Foolasnitamnian” - Time for perfecting the self
■ “Itoklanos” - Time for occasioning mechanical events
To answer this question (What is?) return to the cosmology promulgated by Gurdjieff which logically asks, “When? before creation or after?”
Before creation — limitless consciousness with infinite time.
After creation — limitless consciousness of (and in?) the universe of redesigned time (Reciprocal Maintenance).
The only real attempt to answer the question, “Where does it all come from?” is again found in Appendix I - (b) Where does it all come from? [full excerpt, instance (13) of (13)]
- (b) Where does it all come from?
- Modern science explains — at least in part — the harmony within nature, connecting physical, chemical, biological, and technological evolution (e.g. Chaisson 2001; De Duve 1995).
- Regarding the origin of the universe, although Big Bang models are a success of modern cosmology, the initial conditions remain mysteriously fine-tuned (e.g. Leslie 1989, 1998; Rees 1999; Davies 2008).
- In Chap. 6, I concluded that fine-tuning is hard to prove and that it is at most a conjecture. Whatever possible explanation we favor, we need to cope with difficult metaphysical choices (Vidal 2012a).
- The scenario of cosmological artificial selection (CAS) developed in Chap. 8 connects the origin and future of the universe with a role for intelligent life (Vidal 2008b, 2010a, 2012a).
Quoting Gurdjieff in Beelzebub's Tales:
- In the beginning, when nothing yet existed and when the whole of our Universe was empty endless space … our Most Great and Most Most Holy Sun Absolute existed alone in all this empty space. … It was just during this period of the flow of time that there appeared to our Creator All-Maintainer the imperative need to create our now-existing Megalocosmos, that is, our World. … The Sun Absolute, on which He dwelt with His cherubim and seraphim, was almost imperceptibly, yet steadily, diminishing in volume. As this fact ascertained by Him appeared very serious, He decided to review immediately all the laws which maintained the existence of that still unique cosmic concentration. During this review, it became clear to our Omnipotent Creator for the first time that the cause of this gradual diminishing of the volume of the Sun Absolute was simply the Heropass, that is, the flow of Time itself. (Gurdjieff, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Chapter 36, abridged)
Listening to Beelzebub and reading reports from recent works in the field of complex system dynamics, and as I begin to see potential sacredness of all interactions, I am tempted to give the broadest possible meaning to such words as consciousness and awareness.
- Can we say, for example, that the Newton's apple and earth are aware of each other though the law of gravity?
- What are those physical laws anyway? Aren't they all means that enable matters to be aware of each other?
- In this sense, isn't it reasonable to see awareness as the real source of creation that preceded the working of these laws?
- Isn't it also the case that everything in the world, animate or inanimate, is aspiring to become more conscious through its interactions with others, the totality of which may have the effect of canceling out the decaying action of Time? [Source]
Simply put, limitless consciousness ascertained a very serious threat emanating from infinite time, and being conscious of all and everything, concocted a fix — the Universe (World-creation).
- When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
“Sherlock Holmes' rule” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
- We saw in Part I that the merit of a worldview can only be judged relative to others. We now aim to show that CAS is, relative to other theories, the best solution to make sense of the beginning, the end, and the meaning of life in the universe.
- Inquiring into the mysteries of our universe is like pursuing a difficult criminal investigation. You have few clues, but you need to build a consistent story to make sense of seemingly disparate pieces of a puzzle. Sherlock Holmes is of course expert in investigations, and his rule above stimulates us to compare CAS with other theories.
- Since we argued that CAS is above all a philosophical theory and not a scientific one, we can use the criteria and conceptual tools we developed in Part I. Let us explicate the metaphilosophical criteria we use.
- First, we consider a wide scope in agenda, looking for a framework to understand in a consistent manner the origin, the future, and the meaning of life. In other words, from a philosophical point of view, we want to show that CAS is at present the “best” attempt to answer three questions at the same time: “Where does it all come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life in a cosmological perspective?”. Since our work is cosmological, our scope in time and space is also maximally large. And we are strongly committed to the scientific method and the values of objectivity, and thus we do not assume any kind of supernatural forces.
|Table 8.4 Candidate explanations for the origin and future of the universe [Vidal, 195]|
not the causal issue
|Chance of the gaps||No causal explanation||-||-||-|
|WAP of the gaps||No causal explanation||-||-||-|
|Natural selection||Baby universe generation||-||Cyclical or branching?
|Hibernation (Dyson)||-||Infinite subjective time||-||-|
|Reversible computation||-||Infinite future
|God of the gaps||Point explanation||Spiritual immortality||Religious values||Theological|
|Omega point theory
|Artificial selection||Universe making and
|Fundamental role of
intelligence in a cosmic
|The last two columns show the associated meaning of life and metaphysics
 Weak anthropic principle
We should note that the proposition of involving intelligent life in the fate of the universe is at odds with traditional science. In the characteristic worldview of modern science, it is often suggested that the emergence of intelligence was an accident in a universe that is completely indifferent to human concerns, goals, and values (e.g., S. Weinberg 1993b; Stenger 2007).
As Paul Davies wrote above, through cosmic evolution and the emergence of humans and science, “the laws of the universe have engineered their own comprehension.” This self-awareness is dazzling. Where will this trend find a limit?
What is the meaning of the existence of intelligent life in the universe?
This question asks about the meaning of intelligence in the universe. Here, meaning is interpreted as “purpose” or “significance”. Are life and intelligence merely epiphenomena in cosmic evolution? Or could their presence have deeper and yet to be discovered implications? As Davies (1999, p. 246) formulates it, why did the laws of the universe engineer their own comprehension?
- “The problem of just how intelligence changes the universe is a philosophical issue which (rather surprisingly) few philosophers have addressed.” (Rescher 2009, p. 90)
- “As the spirit wakens, it craves more and more to regard all existence not merely with a creature's eyes, but in the universal view, as though through the eyes of the creator.” (Stapledon 1953, p. 150)
In general terms, we can describe selection as blind variation and selective retention (Campbell 1974). Universal Darwinist Cziko (1995, pp. 309–310) emphasized the power of multiple step selection (constructive cumulative selection):sup>
- “This process of selecting and fine-tuning the occasional accidentally useful emergent system turns out to be so powerful that we should not be surprised that the adaptive processes of biological evolution, antibody production, […] learning, culture, and science all employ it, and that its power is now being explicitly exploited in the design of organisms, drugs and computer software by one of evolution’s most complex and adaptive creations — the human species.”
The importance and power of selection is also clear from a cybernetic principle. Indeed, the great cyberneticist Rosh Ashby went as far as to argue that intelligence is the power of appropriate selection. It is worth citing at length the closing words of his Introduction to Cybernetics, where he discusses the amplification of intelligence and the importance of appropriate selection (Ashby 1956, p. 272):sup>
- “Now “problem solving” is largely, perhaps entirely, a matter of appropriate selection. Take, for instance, any popular book of problems and puzzles. Almost every one can be reduced to the form: out of a certain set, indicate one element. Thus of all possible numbers of apples that John might have in his sack we are asked to find a certain one; or of all possible pencil lines drawn through a given pattern of dots, a certain one is wanted; or of all possible distributions of letters into a given set of spaces, a certain one is wanted. It is, in fact, difficult to think of a problem, either playful or serious, that does not ultimately require an appropriate selection as necessary and sufficient for its solution.
- “It is also clear that many of the tests used for measuring “intelligence” are scored essentially according to the candidate’s power of appropriate selection. Thus one test shows the child a common object and asks its name: out of all words the child must select the proper one. Another test asks the child how it would find a ball in a field: out of all the possible paths the child must select one of the suitable few. Thus it is not impossible that what is commonly referred to as “intellectual power” may be equivalent to “power of appropriate selection”. Indeed, if a talking Black Box were to show high power of appropriate selection in such matters — so that, when given difficult problems it persistently gave correct answers — we could hardly deny that it was showing the behavioral equivalent of “high intelligence”.
- “If this is so, and as we know that power of selection can be amplified, it seems to follow that intellectual power, like physical power, can be amplified. Let no one say that it cannot be done, for the gene-patterns do it every time they form a brain that grows up to be something better than the gene-pattern could have specified in detail. What is new is that we can now do it synthetically, consciously, deliberately.”
231 - 9.3.6 Philosophical
Intelligence is the capacity to solve problems. It is by focusing on universal and long-term problems that we have our best chance of understanding the aims and purposes of presumed ETIs.
In this cosmological context, what are the ultimate values of intelligence? What is the ultimate good for intelligent life in the universe? Evolutionary ethics concludes that it is survival. But this almost trivial statement raises two questions.
First, survival of what? Myself? My family? My culture? My planet? The solar system? Our galaxy? The universe?
Second, survival for how long? For human, historical, evolutionary, geological, or cosmological timescales?
Ethical theories aim at producing good results (Bahm 1953, p. 310). But good for whom? For oneself, for others, for God, for the best people, for most people, for higher principles such as justice or the process of evolution? Could we and should we integrate goodness for these different options?
I argue in this chapter that the ultimate good is the infinite continuation of the evolutionary process. The “ultimate good” is an essential component of ethical theories and is also called summum bonum, supreme good, supreme goal, supreme value, or highest good (Adler 1985, p. 478a). I answer “survival of what?” with “the evolutionary process”; and “survival for how long?” with no less than “infinitely”. This is in line with the Principia Cybernetica Project, for which Heylighen et al. (1993) wrote:
- “Thus we can from there derive the ultimate good as the continuation of the process of evolution itself, in the negative sense of avoiding evolutionary “dead ends” and general extinction, in the positive sense of constantly increasing our fitness, and thus our intelligence, degree of organization and general mastery over the universe.”
The desire for immortality contrasts with the fear of death. Implicitly or explicitly this ultimate fear of death triggers a conscious or unconscious desire for immortality. However, outside religions, the topics of death and immortality are often taboo. Immortality is seldom found separate from belief in a supernatural order. Can we develop an idea of immortality without a supernatural order? This is the axis we focus on now.
Awareness of mortality is not obvious. As Jorge Luis Borges put it in his 1949 novel The Immortal, “with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death” (Borges 2004, p. 13). Only a few animals seem to understand death, and even children lack the idea of death. Their discovery of mortality leads to great anxiety (see e.g. Yalom 1980). This means that the idea of immortality requires awareness of mortality! This is not so trivial as it seems and suggests that at different cognitive and moral stages of human development, we have different ideas of death and immortality.
There are many critiques to these modern yearnings for individual immortality. Let us mention a few. First, the body is embodied (see e.g. Clark 1998). Cybernetic immortality assumes that preserving brain patterns is the only challenge. Yet it is far from clear whether memories, thoughts, emotions, or consciousness can be reconstructed without a body embedded in an environment. Additionally, if you resurrect a neural pattern in 200 years, all the context will be lost, and the resurrected brain will have a high chance of being totally maladapted. A possible way out is to run your preserved self in a simulation of your time. But this means you need to also preserve your environment, and not only your brain. And what’s the point of being resurrected in a fake world?
296 - 10.4.1 Spiritual Immortality
Spiritual immortality is the belief in a magical or supernatural realm where the soul goes after death. The idea of an afterlife is present in the major world religions, such as Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. Of course, the definition above assumes old-fashioned religious interpretations such as the separability of body and soul. We can distinguish a literal belief in the existence of an afterlife from a need to symbolize immortality as an answer to death (Lifton and Olson 2004). Spiritual immortality thus assumes the immortality of the soul.
This belief is quite widespread. As Dawkins (2006, p. 356) reports, 95% of the population of the United States believes they will survive their own death. This is not so surprising, because the idea of immortality is a point-cognitive attractor for the future. It is appealing for our minds. In his recent book about immortality, Cave (2012) argued that there are only four narratives around immortality that cultures have been transmitting. He calls the first belief the soul narrative of immortality.
Of course, we find also the cyclic cognitive attractor, where death is part of a reincarnation cycle. For example, in the Buddhist tradition, this involves the belief that you have already lived, that you will die but be reborn, over and over again. This happens according to the quality of a person’s actions. Cave calls this cyclic perspective on death the resurrection narrative.
But what does the rational materialistic mind think about these ideas? In 1925, Russell (2004, p. 7) famously wrote: “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive”. The critique of spiritual immortality argues that after the body dies, there is nothing. Being dead will be no different from being unborn, and anyway there is no proof of an afterlife. We need to find and define new kinds of immortalities. Can we use and extrapolate our knowledge of science and technology to achieve a materialistic and naturalistic immortality?
302 - 10.4.4 Evolutionary Immortality
Evolutionary immortality is the striving to continue or maintain life by replication, or any other process in harmony with evolutionary principles. In the case of our particular biology, Stephen Cave calls it the biological legacy narrative, to be contrasted with the cultural legacy narrative (creative immortality).
There is an immediate objection here, namely that animals and adults at all stages of development have children. So there is nothing particularly advanced or wise about evolutionary immortality. The most primitive sexual drive that we (or some of us?) share with animals leads us to achieve immortality through offspring. Even in some human tribes, the connection between sexuality and offspring is unknown. The situation is similar to the golden rule in developmental psychology. Kohlberg (1981) found consistently that it was held at all stages of moral development. What changes is thus the justification of the golden rule.
Similarly, what matters is the justification and motivation behind procreation. There is a continuum between unconscious procreation up to the most carefully planned in vitro fertilization for a homosexual couple. Is the motivation only the result of an instinctual drive? Of a social pressure? Of the fruit of love? Of a will to contribute to the tree of life? Here we consider only this last option, in line with the supposed evolutionary stage 7 of psychological development that we outlined earlier (Sect. 10.3.3).
The life expectancy at the level of genes is indeed impressive, but could we find something close to immortal at a macroevolutionary scale?
Crucially, Stephen Cave showed that immortality narratives are not mutually incompatible. He illustrated this with the Egyptian civilization, which used all four immortality narratives (soul, resurrection, staying alive, and legacy). So we could see a version of the global brain legacy as a combination of individual, creative, and evolutionary immortality. As Francis Heylighen elaborated (cited from the Global Brain Mailing list, 6/7/2006):
- “Personal knowledge and experience would ultimately be integrated into a collective consciousness, or what I usually call a “global brain”, which is itself immortal (or at least does not have an a priori limited life span). This combines the advantages of continuity (none of the good ideas are lost) and innovation (personal experiences may be combined with other personal experiences in order to produce something that is more than the sum of the parts).”
306 - 10.4.5 Cosmological Immortality
- “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein (quoted in 1972 by the New York Times)
144-5 - 6.4.8 Design
In this stance, our universe is the result of a purposeful design. It is worth stressing that the agent responsible for design is not necessarily a supernatural theistic God (Bostrom 2002, pp. 11–12). Of course, this is the most typical option, which leads to the God explanation. But logically, it needs not to be.
Can we imagine naturalistic and not supernatural design? Certainly. Systems exhibiting features of design such as teleology or parameter sensitivity can emerge either from natural selection processes, for example living organisms (see Dawkins 1996), or from artificial processes such as engineering (like a watch). A middle way between the two is found in artificial selection, where intentional breeding allows breeders to select certain traits over others.
What if the same applies to the universe as a whole? In Chap. 8, we shall look in more detail at two such options, cosmological natural selection and cosmological artificial selection. As usual, we have to recognize lurking metaphysical issues. How could we prove naturalistic design? How scientific is this approach? Aren’t supernatural and natural design explanations banned from science? Can we avoid the “design of the gaps” trap?
In sum, we could speak of the “intelligent design” movement as one of intelligent reactive design, whose members passively wonder at and admire the order in nature. They do nothing to further explain or explore the mechanisms at play in nature. Instead proponents of intelligent design try to show the insufficiency of current Darwinian mechanisms and infer or indicate, too hastily, evidence of divine creation. This is in stark contrast with the different levels of universe making that we could call intelligent proactive design. This time, if CAS holds for the future, we will make new universes. The logic is turned upside down.
Instead of looking for a creator, we speculate to what extent our future intelligence could approach the skills needed to breed or design baby universes. The extent of this design can vary a lot, from accidental production to playing God. Obviously, the question remains open regarding which level may be correct. So when we speak about universe making in what follows, all levels are possible (except the “blind” one).
As organisms grow in complexity, they become more and more goal-directed and therefore can be modeled as cybernetic systems. They are able to choose which goal to pursue, to compare alternative courses of actions, to remember patterns that do or do not work, that is, to learn. So we can legitimately extend evolutionary values to cybernetic values. Such values are essential for a goal-directed system to survive. For example, homeostatic animals are able to control and maintain their temperature. But such control mechanisms are more effective if the system has reserves or buffers, such as a fair amount of fat—or provisions in the refrigerator.
An effective cybernetic system also values the power of observation (input sensitivity of its receptors) in order to better anticipate the environment. A blind animal will have poor chances of survival in the wild. Once a system makes accurate observations, it should also be able to store its experiences and process new inputs through an intelligent mechanism (such as a neural network), thereby displaying knowledge and intelligence.
The system should also be able to act with sufficient power, using energy through its effectors. An animal seeing a predator coming, but mute and limbless or crippled (cruelly lacking effectors) would be useless and hopeless due to its inability to raise the alarm, fight, or flee.
As intelligence and knowledge increase, the menu of possible actions and goals grows too. It becomes more and more difficult to choose what to do. In our information-overloaded society this is a serious problem, and we need to have insight into our own goals or preferences to make our way. Two core cybernetic principles are needed to steer a complex system. The first is feedforward, which consists in proactive anticipation of a future course of action. Unfortunately, in a complex environment such anticipation is not always possible, and systems are easier to regulate using the second principle, feedback mechanisms.
Positive feedback helps in choosing goals by overcoming choice paralysis. For example, in the classical Buridan’s ass dilemma, an ass is equally hungry and thirsty, has water and hay at its disposal, but is unable to choose which to drink or eat first, and tragically dies from hunger and thirst. Philosophers like to discuss this thought experiment, but from a cognitive point of view it is unlikely to happen. The brain functions with positive feedback mechanisms, and the ass need only look for one millisecond longer at the water to trigger neural activation that will make it decide to drink first, and momentarily inhibit its hunger.
Cybernetic values provide a great addition to evolutionary values because they promote values that enhance not only survival and reproduction but also control, observation, knowledge, intelligence, and effective action. The richness and effectiveness of cybernetic values are impressive. A cybernetic philosophy of time could be:
- Learn from the past,
- Be in the present,
- Predict the future.
This means acknowledging lessons from past events (feedback); dealing with present events in the present (effective action); and anticipating future events as best we can (feedforward and model making).
But let us keep a macroscopic perspective. Is there a general direction or a developmental pattern in evolution that could help us build a normative ethics? This is what we now examine.
214 - 9.1.3 The Case for Postbiology
Already in the 1980s, Feinberg and Shapiro (1980) stigmatized proponents of carbon-and-water life as “carbaquists” who fail to imagine that basic building blocks of life could be very different. But if the essence of life is not its chemical constitution, what is it? Feinberg and Shapiro (1980, p. 147) say it is the activity of a biosphere, which is itself “a highly ordered system of matter and energy characterized by complex cycles that maintain or gradually increase the order of the system through the exchange of energy with the environment”.
We can think much more systematically about life as we don’t know it. Freitas Jr did this when he wrote Xenology (1979), the most comprehensive and systematic study of extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and civilization I am aware of. This long volume covers a much broader scope than the classical (and also very good) book by Shklovskii and Sagan (1966). I consider it a rare scientific masterpiece. Most of the book was written in 1979, although Freitas is constantly updating it and has now made it freely available on the web (www.xenology.info).
From the point of view of classical thermodynamics, life is a miracle. Living systems are able to maintain a state that is very far from equilibrium, despite the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all systems tend to equilibrium.
This seemed deeply paradoxical. The key to unlocking the mystery of living systems was to consider them in a larger thermodynamic context. They should be modeled as open systems, meaning that a flux of energy goes through them, and not as closed systems. The second law only applies to closed systems, not to open systems. All in all, the second law is not violated because living systems increase local order at the expense of a more global disorder generated in the environment.
Additionally, energy flow regulation or control is a necessary condition for the growth, maintenance, evolution, and reproduction of complex systems (see e.g. Aunger 2007b; Chaisson 2011a). For example, a stone processes virtually no flow of matter-energy, and most people will agree that it is dead. On the opposite side, we have a wildfire, which grows and uses a lot of energy but is totally uncontrolled.
Whatever a shaman’s view on the matter, scientists generally don’t consider fire as alive. Living systems are in between these two extreme examples. They are able to regulate their energy flow. To take humans as an example, if we eat too little or too much, we die. We thus regulate the amount of food that we eat to stay alive.
Energy flow control: Living systems control their energy flow to grow, maintain themselves, evolve, and reproduce.
A living organism can be described broadly by three components: a source of energy, an organized entity, and a sink to waste (to export entropy). The living system increases its internal organization — or negentropy — thanks to this energy flow. As Freitas (1979, Sect. 6.2.3) puts it, life "drives its environment to physical or chemical disequilibrium, establishing an entropy gradient between itself and its surroundings". He adds that all living systems "possess this feature, and it is contended that any system engaging in such negentropic operations must be considered 'living' to a certain extent". This leads to the criterion of metabolism:
Metabolism: Living systems maintain their organization by using a source of energy and producing entropy.
Freitas (1979, Sect. 25.1.3) proposed a similar principal thermoethic:
- “[A]ll living beings should always act so as to minimize the total entropy of the universe, or so as to maximize the total negentropy.”
Freitas explains that "living beings should always act to further the mission of life in the cosmos, which is to reduce the universe to order by building the maximum complexity into the mass-energy available". He summarizes three thermoethical duties, to avoid harming, to preserve, and to create, which indeed are very similar to the infoethics principles of Floridi. A corollary of the thermoethical principal is what Freitas calls the Corollary of Negentropic Equality:
- “All entities of equal negentropy have equal rights and responsibilities; the more negentropic an entity, the greater are its rights and the deeper are its responsibilities. (See Cocca 1962; Fasan 1968, 1970; Haley 1963, 1956; Nicolson 1978; Rhyne 1958.)”
Matter + energy + information
The subsystem that is capable of giving rise to other systems similar to the one it is in
The subsystem at the perimeter of a system that holds together the components making up the system, protects them from environmental stresses, and excludes or permits entry to various sorts of matter-energy and information
Matter + energy
The subsystem that brings matter-energy across the system boundary from the environment
The subsystem that carries inputs from outside the system or outputs from its subsystems around the system to each component
The subsystem that changes certain inputs to the system into forms more useful for the special processes of that particular system
The subsystem that forms stable associations that endure for significant periods among matter-energy inputs to the system or outputs from its converter, the materials synthesized being for growth, damage repair, or replacement of components of the system, or for providing energy for moving or constituting the system’s outputs of products or information markers to its subsystem
7. Matter-energy storage
The subsystem that retains in the system, for different periods of time, deposits of various sorts of matter-energy
The subsystem that transmits matter-energy out of the system in the forms of products or wastes
The subsystem that moves the system or parts of it in relation to part or all of its environment or moves components of its environment in relation to each other
The subsystem that maintains the proper spatial relationships among components of the system, so that they can interact without weighting each other down or crowding each other
11. Input transducer
The sensory subsystem that brings markers bearing information into the system and changes them to other matter-energy forms suitable for transmission within it
12. Internal transducer
The sensory subsystem that receives, from subsystems or components within the system, markers bearing information about significant alterations in those subsystems or components, changing them to other matter-energy forms of a sort that can be transmitted within it
13. Channel and net
The subsystem composed of a single route in physical space, or multiple interconnected routes, by which markers bearing information are transmitted to all parts of the system
The subsystem that alters the code of information input to it through the input transducer or internal transducer into a “private” code that can be used internally by the system
The subsystem that carries out the first stage of the learning process, forming enduring associations among items of information in the system
The subsystem that carries out the second stage of the learning process, storing various sorts of information in the system for different periods of time
The executive subsystem that receives information inputs from all other subsystems and transmits to them information outputs that control the entire system
The subsystem that alters the code of information input to it from other information processing subsystems, from a “private” code used internally by the system into a “public” code that can be interpreted by other systems in its environment
19. Output transducer
The subsystem that puts out markers bearing information from the system, changing markers within the system into other matter-energy forms that can be transmitted over channels in the system’s environment
Excerpted from Chapter 9 - High Energy Astrobiology [Vidal, 204-5]
ETIs could maximally be
7.5 billion years our senior!
Why is ETI likely to be more advanced? To answer this question, we need to estimate the maximum age of extraterrestrial intelligence. I refer here the review of Dick (2009b, pp. 467–468). The reasoning starts from our knowledge of cosmic evolution (see e.g. Delsemme 1998; Chaisson 2001). Dick elaborates:
- Recent results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) place the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years, with one percent uncertainty, and confirm the first stars forming at about 200 million years after the Big Bang (C. L. Bennett et al. 2003; Seife 2003). Although these first stars were very massive – from 300 to 1,000 solar masses – and therefore short-lived, it is fair to assume that the oldest Sun-like stars formed within about one billion years, or about 12.5 billion years ago.
- By that time enough heavy element generation and interstellar seeding had taken place for the first rocky planets to form (Delsemme 1998,p. 71; Larson and Bromm 2001). Then, if Earth history is any guide, it may have taken another five billion years for intelligence to evolve.
- So, some six billion years after the Big Bang, one could have seen the emergence of the first intelligence.
- Accepting the WMAP age of the universe as 13.7 billion years, the first intelligence could have evolved seven and a half billion years ago. By the same reasoning, intelligence could have evolved in our galaxy four billion to five billion years ago, since the oldest stars in our galaxy formed about 10 billion to 11 billion years ago (Rees 1997).
You’ve read correctly, ETIs could maximally be 7.5 billion years our senior! More fine-grained estimates by Lineweaver and collaborators (Lineweaver 2001; Lineweaver et al. 2004) show that Earth-like planets on other stars are on average 1.8 ± 0.9 billion years older than the Earth. Indeed, they show that 75 % of stars suitable for life are older than the Sun. Furthermore, Bradbury et al. (2011, p. 161) have a good point when they add that since “the set of intelligent societies is likely to be dominated by a small number of oldest and most advanced members […], we are likely to encounter a civilization actually more ancient than 1.8 Gyr (and probably significantly more)”.
These considerations raise disturbing questions. What if life on Earth is late, or even too late to make any meaningful contribution to the universe? What if humanity was born too late? In a more optimistic view, could being late be an advantage? Could we be “spoiled children of the cosmos” who are destined to follow the path of our elderly cosmic cousins? Is it really terrific if a child realizes that adults are smarter and stronger than him, that they know more and do strange things that disgust him — at present? No, we can act as children eager to learn from our cosmic cousins in order to see what is possible and desirable for us in the long-term future.
What else do these important insights imply? We need not be overcautious in our astrobiological speculations. Quite the contrary, we must push them to their extreme limits if we want to glimpse what such advanced civilizations could look like. Naturally, such an ambitious search should be balanced with considered conclusions. Furthermore, given our total ignorance of such civilizations, it remains wise to encourage and maintain a wide variety of search strategies. A commitment to observation, to the scientific method, and to the most general scientific theories remains our best touchstone.
Artificiality of the gaps: Unless proven otherwise, assume phenomena to be of artificial origin.
If we hold this principle, we generate false positives; i.e. detection of extraterrestrials where there are only natural phenomena. Ufologists hold it when they quickly jump from some strange light or object in the sky to the conclusion that it was an alien. They make the mistake of not systematically reviewing other explanations (unusual meteorological phenomenon, human artifact, secret military weapon, or hoax). They reason: “We don’t understand how it works, therefore it’s ETI”.
The principle of artificiality of the gaps is unscientific because any terrestrial or astrophysical phenomenon that is hard to model would be driven by extraterrestrial intelligence. This leads to “extraterrestrials-of-the-gaps” explanations that, like god-of-the-gaps explanations, explain everything and nothing at the same time.
We must acknowledge that it would be normal not to fully understand a system more advanced than us by millions or billions of years. But it remains a fallacy to say that because we do not understand something, it is the manifestation of advanced intelligence. Difficulty of modeling is a necessary condition for advanced ETI, not a sufficient one. It will not be easy to model advanced extraterrestrials with known astrophysics.
History offers much deeper roots to the idea of a naturalistic intelligence advanced enough to make a universe (see also Dick 2008). This advanced intelligence is not a supernatural god but a natural demiurge. In contrast with a god, a demiurge is not omnipotent and, like an architect, has to work within the constraints of the material world. Such a non ex nihilo creation myth was elaborated in Plato’s Timaeus. However, for Plato the demiurge made the cosmos from an ideal blueprint (see also Kragh 2007, p. 23). Plato’s myth thus retains an idealistic component.
In the context of the search for advanced extraterrestrial life, Tough (1986, p. 497a) speculated that an advanced civilization would try to avoid a cosmic doom scenario, heat death, or big crunch. For this grand purpose, “some way may be found to break out of this Universe into another one, either existing parallel to it or arising subsequent to it. That is, perhaps the best of our knowledge, consciousness, and genes can somehow be transferred to this other universe.”
Finding an extraterrestrial bacterium is very different from finding advanced civilizations 2 billion years older than us.
Strangeness heuristic: Advanced extraterrestrial manifestations will not be easy to model.
An ETI 2 billion years more advanced than us will not exhibit trivial behavior. As we mentioned, difficulty of modeling is a necessary condition for advanced ETI, but of course not a sufficient one (see Rubtsov 1991, p. 307).
A High Energy Astrobiology Agenda: The Starivore Hypothesis
Current research in astrobiology focuses on searching for extraterrestrial life that is less advanced than us, such as bacteria or traces of a biosphere in an exoplanet. This makes sense, because these are features of life on Earth that we know and that we know how to recognize. A naive symmetry argument would suggest we divide our resources in two, and use one half to search for less advanced extraterrestrials and the other half for more advanced ETI. But even that is not enough, since we saw that ETI may be on average 2 billion years older than us. So it would actually make sense to spend much more in the search for advanced extraterrestrials.
Our time is unique. Humans are connecting both via and with more and more networked and pervasive computers, creating a new level of planetary intelligence best conceptualized as a global brain. We are also on the brink of confirming the existence of extraterrestrial life, via astrobiology or high energy astrobiology, which would refute biocentrism or intellicentrism.
ETIs could maximally be
7.5 billion years our senior!
If ETIs could be 7.5 billion years our senior, why is no consideration given to the possibility that ETIs have intervened in the development of organic life on earth?
Of course, Lloyd Pye's Intervention Theory is not mentioned.
An easy to read book packed with hard evidence that aliens exist and have intervened in the evolution of life on Earth.
Lloyd Pye is known for his hard-hitting combination of scientific facts with jargon-free, easy to understand explanations.
Filled with "see it with your own eyes" evidence ranging from the moment that the Earth came into existence, to recent discoveries in our own DNA, this book will make you question many of the fundamental theories that are often mistaken for proven fact.
This eBook is the updated and revised version of Part 1 of Pye's best seller "Everything You Know Is Wrong," crammed with page after page of brand new archaeological and scientific evidence that was not available when the original print book was published.
[LINK] to Intervention Theory Essentials.
The word "consciousness" is used (24) times in this book.
■ (2) of those instances refer to books cited in the bibliography.
■ The other (22) instances are quoted below.
Assuming that consciousness is a "fundamental building block" of the universe (which the author does not), this would be a severely inadequate treatment of this word and its relevance to the subject matter of this book.
Extending from quantum physics and relativity to entropy, consciousness and complex systems—the Frontiers Collection will inspire readers to push back the frontiers of their own knowledge.
[A] bacterium swimming up a glucose gradient and performing work cycles is an agent, and glucose has value and meaning for the bacterium without assuming consciousness. Of course it is natural selection that has achieved this coupling. But teleological language has to start somewhere, and I am willing to place it at the start of life.
The dynamic and hierarchical understanding of different levels is key to understanding complex systems (see e.g. Salthe 1985). It is the ability not only to analyze issues closely but also to maintain a broad perspective by analyzing both microscopic and macroscopic issues. Even the contrast of microlevel and macrolevel is misleading because we do not want to restrict the analysis to two levels only. We need to look at n relevant levels. If we seriously consider the relativity of scales, all scales might be equally important. Understanding the transitions between different levels of complexity arguably generates the hardest challenges in contemporary science. For example, how did space–time emerge in the Big Bang era? How did life, language, consciousness, society, and the rest emerge?
For example, let us imagine what a neuroscientist could say to a religious person:
- “You are just plain wrong, there is no evidence whatsoever that God created human consciousness. Open your eyes to evolutionary theory: it’s clear that a mechanistic scheme of explanation is under way.”
In NVC, this can be reformulated in the following manner:
- “I see that we both wonder about the existence of consciousness. However, I feel puzzled because I’m not in agreement about the God explanation you propose. I need objective explanations to be convinced. I am therefore more inclined to think that consciousness gradually appeared through evolution. Could you be more explicit about why you need to introduce God in this context? Or is there a way to make your belief in God compatible with my need to fit the overwhelming evidence of evolutionary theory?”
By cosmic outcome I mean a milestone in cosmic evolution, such as the emergence of stable atoms, stars, galaxies, planets, life, or consciousness.
The challenge of understanding complexity transitions in cosmic evolution is both of the utmost importance and extremely difficult. For example, how did atoms emerge out of the Big Bang era? How did planets form out of stars and stardust? How did life originate out of molecules? How did consciousness emerge from biological organisms? And so on.
Table 6.2 List of cosmic outcomes:
#56 - Consciousness
“But the emergence of life and consciousness somewhere and somewhen in the cosmos is, I believe, assured by the underlying laws of nature.” Davies (1998, p. 317)
In the context of the search for advanced extraterrestrial life, Tough (1986, p. 497a) speculated that an advanced civilization would try to avoid a cosmic doom scenario, heat death, or big crunch. For this grand purpose, “some way may be found to break out of this Universe into another one, either existing parallel to it or arising subsequent to it. That is, perhaps the best of our knowledge, consciousness, and genes can somehow be transferred to this other universe.”
The last chapter of Dawkins' River Out of Eden (1995) is titled “The Replication Bomb”. Dawkins describes two kinds of bomb in our universe: supernovas in astrophysics and replication in biology. He reports 10 replication thresholds that were crossed on Earth. In summary, these are:
- Replicator threshold (self-copying system, e.g. DNA-RNA molecules)
- Phenotype threshold (consequences of replicators that influence the replicators' success but are not themselves replicated)
- Replicator team threshold (genes do not work in isolation, e.g. in bacterial cells)
- Many-cells threshold (phenotypes and functions are on a much greater scale than the cell)
- High-speed information processing threshold (nervous system)
- Consciousness threshold
- Language threshold
- Cooperative technology threshold
- Radio threshold
- Space travel threshold
Pondering the mysteries of the cosmos, we often marvel about the existence of life in the universe. Why are there such complex structures as life or consciousness? Yet the most recent outcome of complexity on Earth is not life nor consciousness. It is arguably the phenomenon of science, which is a natural continuation of the evolution of complex intelligent life (Turchin 1977; Campbell 1974).
What is the meaning of science in a cosmological perspective? Why did the cosmos generate structure capable not only of understanding itself (in self-consciousness) but also of understanding and controlling its surroundings in an ever more developed and precise manner?
Deleting information has a thermodynamic cost, and the authors argue that consciousness or sophisticated information processing will certainly need to erase information (see also Zenil 2012).
…as Krauss and Starkman (2000) have argued, erasure of unnecessary memories is essential for something like consciousness> to continue in the universe, and this operation has an entropic cost (Landauer 1961).
Russell (1982, p. 83) remarked that life forms build ever more extended models of their environment. As he wrote, an “important characteristic attributed to conscious beings is the ability to form internal models of the world they experience; the greater the consciousness the more complex the models”.
Gebser’s (1986) remarkable book The Ever-Present Origin analyzed and documented the developmental path for human societies. He analyzes five kinds of societal structures, from archaic, magic, mythical, and mental to integral. Each one involves changes in the conceptions of space–time; in the notions of signs, essence, properties, potentiality, emphasis, and consciousness; in forms of manifestation, the agency of energy, and the organic emphasis; in the forms of realization and thought, of expression, assertion, or articulation; and in relationships, the localization of the soul, the forms of bond, or the general order.
There are many critiques to these modern yearnings for individual immortality. Let us mention a few. First, the body is embodied (see e.g. Clark 1998). Cybernetic immortality assumes that preserving brain patterns is the only challenge. Yet it is far from clear whether memories, thoughts, emotions, or consciousness can be reconstructed without a body embedded in an environment.
[P]ersonal knowledge and experience would ultimately be integrated into a collective consciousness, or what I usually call a “global brain”, which is itself immortal (or at least does not have an a priori limited life span). This combines the advantages of continuity (none of the good ideas are lost) and innovation (personal experiences may be combined with other personal experiences in order to produce something that is more than the sum of the parts).
10.4.5 Cosmological Immortality
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein (quoted in 1972 by the New York Times)
Where does it all come from? It takes nothing less than a synthesis of modern science to answer this childish question.
Inspired by the advice of Adler and Van Doren above, my ideal is to answer childishly simple questions in a mature and wise manner. These questions concern our ultimate origin, future, and values from a cosmological perspective. To answer the questions wisely, we shall inquire into many intricate theories and discussions, but our aim will always be to answer those simple questions.
In Part I, I built scaffolding for answering our childishly simple big questions. Adults usually fail to answer such deeply philosophical questions. This is for a very good reason: answering the big philosophical questions demands both philosophical care and scientific expertise.
Apparently Vidal does not ascribe to the idea that,
|"If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough."|
I am a post-doctoral researcher at the Free University of Brussels (VUB, Brussels, Belgium), a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group.
I am affiliated with the Global Brain Institute, the Center Leo Apostel, and the Department of Philosophy.
You can read more about my research interests below, explore my publications, my biography, or learn more about my book.
The main focus of my research is the origin of the Universe and its far-future, which my book is about. I am thus interested in the philosophy of evolutionary cosmology and its wide-ranging implications. I also explore the developmental aspect of our Universe. To this end, I co-founded a research community with John Smart exploring the idea of an Evolutionary Developmental (Evo Devo) Universe. I use the worldview concept as a framework for integrating insights from different disciplines.
In my current research, I aim to:
- Study and assess the possible existence of advanced extraterrestrial life in candidate binary star systems. This is conducted within the nascent field of high energy astrobiology.
- Explore the practical and religious implications of the epic of evolution and big history.
- Understand, foresee and facilitate the evolution towards ever-stronger interconnection between humans, software and machines. This emergence of a globally distributed intelligence is best conceptualized as a Global Brain, and can be argued to be a major evolutionary transition we are witnessing. For more, see the Global Brain Institute.
My areas of interest include (but are not limited to):
- High Energy Astrobiology
- Big History
- Religious Naturalism
- Science-and-Religion Dialogue
- Philosophy of Religion
- Philosophy of Cosmology
- The Future of the Internet
- Complexity Sciences
- Philosophical Methodologies