Diigo Links

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ok, this is a blog. But pretty much nobody reads it (online), so it’s primarily a place where I put things so that I can find them again. It’s been a while between drinks here, but I feel it’s time I revisit my Theory Of Everything (TOE). The little boy with his finger in the dike has been reading again, hence not paying attention to his gatekeeping duties, hence the flood of ideas is making its way over the tulip fields, metaphorically speaking (get used to that if you’re prepared to keep reading).

Ok, I agree the below will, if read, sound a bit serious, maybe even authoritative. But be assured, these are strong views lightly held. They’re just a bit too complex to lightly hold them all in my head at once, so I’ve put the “pen to paper” in an effort to actually articulate as much of the idea as I can. But I’m very well aware of my limitations as a non-god. So I’m sure what’s written isn’t 100% correct in any objective (or maybe even subjective) sort of way. In fact, should any of my conjectures come to be proven by actual science (or divine revelation, just as likely), I’d expect a new book of Mormon to be published and for myself to be beatified for receiving The Word direct. I hope you agree this scenario is unlikely. But, similar to lotto, you gotta play to win. So, I write these things down (and use very many words in doing so).

Keep in mind, the internet. I try not to use words like “qualia” by accident. They’re there to remind me to remember what they mean. They’re used to advertise their existence. There are probably quite a few opportunities for anybody (myself included) to look stuff up on google/Wikipedia. Remember if you put “define: (anyword) “ into google, it’ll give you a sample of possible definitions.

And as a last bit of preface, I’m searching. Have been for a long time. I enjoy not putting a fine point on my beliefs, but I’m also looking for some spiritual terra-firma. It might seem like a lot of words are a long way away from the “personal relationship” with some sort of creator, but I personally doubt we can have anything but a close relationship with the creator (albeit mine doesn’t wear a beard). To my mind, it all gets very personal very quickly whether it’s being talked about in abstract/scientific terms or limerent poetry. And I’m not afraid to mix those up a bit.

Title: One agnostic folk reason why

Firstly, let’s dissect the title to let you know where I’m coming from.

“One” is meant to convey a single point of view, not necessarily the only “reason why”.

“Agnostic” to suggest that I only allow any influence of gnosis in the design and initial “go-live” of creation. I don’t consider further involvement necessary (in fact I don’t consider any notion of “time” appropriate for any sort of “god”).

“Folk”, because I’m not an expert and don’t base anything I ever say on empirically derived evidence, because I don’t actually perform experiments. I just read some things sometimes, and given the % of credence I give to what I read, I make my own extensions. Lucky for me, most of what I read is based on repeatable experiments which empirically derive evidence which has gone through peer review (i.e. science).

“Reason why” is the real open-ended subject here. Must there be a “reason why”? It’s sort of a 19th century attribution. To oblige the universe at large to give a reason why, to expect us people to have a reason behind us almost requires a concept of God somewhere in there. But I’m only happy to put down a reason short of guessing the motivations of some divine creator (as I would hope anyone would be, because I’d guess second-guessing God would be difficult at best). But physically speaking, inside the realm of our shared qualia, why? (maybe “whence” is closer to the details I’m putting down, but who says “whence” anymore?)

After all that build-up, after all those qualifications and couchings, I can sum up my answer in one word: entropy. I believe, as a guiding principle of my life in fact, that the reason for everything is entropy. That’s to say, all of the organisation in the observable universe is in the service of dis-organisation. Now before I get into the definition of entropy (which I doubt I could do in a technically accurate way), we come to the next “why” in what any 5yr old would recognise as an infinitely entertaining exercise in futility. Why dis-organisation? Why not the other way around: “Any organisation at all demonstrates something akin to God’s triumph over the evil of dis-organisation (remember “cleanliness is next to godliness”)”. The answer to that, as I see it, is in the big picture, the end game.

Pseudo-folk-technically, I propose the second law of thermodynamics only holds in a closed system. And any sufficiently large system will eventually qualify as a closed system. While the planet Earth is not a sufficiently large system, the observable universe is (based on the speed of light, because we can observe beyond Earth, it’s causally connected to those things we can observe. For anything beyond the observable universe the causal connection becomes less as you approach the limits of our light cone. So for our intents and purposes, the system becomes closed at the horizon).

Now that I’ve bounded the system, I can invoke the second law – things fall apart. Why? Something to do with the advance of time and the expansion of the substrate of the universe. I believe it’s important to make the distinction that things aren’t “moving” away from one another as the universe expands. It’s the space itself which is expanding. This sort of expansion, as opposed to things flying away from each other (as in an explosion), has far-reaching effects on the largest as well as smallest scales.

On the largest scales, we see cooling. On the smallest scale, I expect it will be found, there are stresses put on sub-atomic particles which drive some sort of process (i.e. the “strong force” gets stronger the further apart the quarks get. As this distance expands with the universe, will it tend to change fundamental physics on a macro scale? (I’ve submitted the question to the “Ask a particle physicist” project. Response: that the forces on scales anything smaller than galactic clusters are negligible, but I have my doubts). Regardless of the reason for the genesis of the universe, the method employed brings with it some inherent vectors. Time’s arrow has a decided bias towards “forwards”, space (or some sort of substrate aether underlying what we know as space) expands and is probably accelerating in its expansion (and not for the first time). These two vectors then determine quite a bit about the way things come together, fly apart, evolve, etc..

The argument I’m putting forward is that these two vectors directly determine our purpose on Earth. There is only one process going on (a point of set theory), with every other process being inherited from that. I’m happy if you choose to call the superset-process God, but I don’t choose to. I put “God” further back, outside the frame (the image I choose is that of “unmoved mover” or “full void”). If you like, the DNA of all we see and know is in the superset-process. The individual sub-processes serve to make up the superset, so must compile to exactly resemble the superset. Necessarily the component parts must at some level, resemble the whole (in attribute and/or value i.e. while all the colours of the rainbow are different in value, their common attribute is that they are light).

The question then becomes, what is the nature of the “superset-process”. As it’s evolved over time, the universe has gone from a tight heavy bundle of very little entropy (little energy in differential, free to do work), to a sweet-spot where we now reside (pockets of intense energy/density surrounded by void, so lots of energy free to do work), on its way towards heat-death (effectively even energy distribution, little energy free to do work). This, along with time, even more than taxes, are the inevitable truths of the universal process (without respect to anything human. And probably on a time-scale which wouldn’t accommodate anything human-like anyway). But nestled inside this process, somewhere in the middle, now, are we. We are subject to the same superset process in our design, creation, execution as anything and everything else in the universe. We are of nature (where nature is not to be considered so much a verdant forest, as it is to be considered an expanding, cooling void with impossibly small points of significant energy density.) Sure our local nature does have forests. I don’t deny the importance of the forest-type-nature we experience locally. But I’m asking that we don’t over-estimate the local component of the design brief. By and large, we are designed as a highly organised system or tool for the purpose of demolition (not unlike the worms, bacteria and fungi which comprise the vast majority of DNA information in our bodies). Far from denying the importance of local nature to the design of humans, the local nature (forests, ecosystems, etc.) is the very inspiration which required a more effective demolition system than the “simpler” systems and organisms provide.

I hope I made it clear above that the direction of the entire universe is this “demolition”. And it’s not messing around. The end is being made to happen as quickly and efficiently as is physically possible (probably measurable in the tens of billions of years, so yes, the end is nigh if you measure “nigh” in billions of years). “Physically possible” is determined by physical laws/constants as the limiting factor. Any and all combinations of demolition systems are being employed. The most visible of these systems are hydrogen burners, stars, because the energy potential in the universe is highly biased to this simplest of elements. Hydrogen is the only thing in the universe with mass which could be classified as “abundant”. And it just so happens that hydrogen decomposes when a lot of it gets together. But there are by-products, the other 100 or so elements. That’s where our solution-space is born, the problem landscape of a plurality of elements. It’s worth observing that, although a direct product of stars, our local environment is much different to a star. It’s less homogenous, but no less energetic.

Devil’s advocate digression on a technical point:

But if the sun is going to expand in X-billion years and swallow the earth, doesn’t that subsume the need for these ever advancing systems of destruction? No, because “the problem” has no concept of the future. The economy of destruction doesn’t measure like a bank account, it measures like velocity-of-currency (how fast the money is moving, not how much we have in the bank signals the health of an economy). The fact is that the tension between potential energy and the vacuum of space exists now, and requires the best pressure-relief it can develop now. But it is an interesting question to ask: does the earth know its doomed to be swallowed by the sun? Did it know it before we did (see: Dennett “intentional systems)? Or did we act to reveal it to some larger qualia (see: Lovelock “Gaia”)?

When looking at our local environment, it’s so important to take into account the variation and amount of energy coming in, the turning of the planet, the procession on axis, sunspot cycles, every possible advantage of energy free to do work (oil, coal, natural gas, trees, solar, hills, water, etc.) – the differences which make a difference (Bateson), with all of this anomalous potential in a barren universe, an especially quirky and relentless solution was required to settle the account. That’s us. And that “account” is how we trump the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

There is an uncommon amount of energy in uncommonly diverse formats free to do work on the planet Earth. The liquid water, the various elements, and the variation of things like temperature, Ph, light around the joint make for a multi-dimensional cornucopia of attempts at solving the problem (remember, “the problem” is to decompose order, to even the account towards heat death). The variation of energy listed above provides for many (millions?) of jumps in various dimensional directions away from “local minimum”. One process of searching the landscape for the lowest (global) minimum is commonly referred to as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The process of making mountains into sand is another (erosion), war is another.

You can think of any system which is “best” at doing what it’s designed to do as being at the local minimum. If there is a way to prove that it’s the best solution which can ever be found, it’s a global minimum. For many complex problems it’s impossible(?) to know if you’ve achieved a global minimum. So, it’s important to instead rely on a process of searching the landscape for solutions as your local minimum (i.e. humans are not an end result of evolution, but a product of an ongoing process. We may be the current best at destroying order, but there’s a meta-process in play constantly trying to find our replacement – whether that be the next-gen human or a form of fungus, or something A.I.’ish...)

Now, I don’t expect you to believe blindly, so I’ll provide a bibliography of related materials. Be warned that I’ve yet to find someone-with-letters-behind-their-name coming to a similar conclusion (I’ve looked – and having found a book on what I consider a more obscure hobby of mine “distributed cognition in large ERP systems”, I expect I would have found...) So, let’s assume I’ve got the “yoga” right. So what? What do we gain/lose by looking at ourselves as engines of destruction? I have this intuition that it might be a null response, or at least a zero sum game. But I’d like to toss around some SciFi’esq ideas to suppose a very different world-view than the one we’re commonly sold. And boy are we sold!

There was a time when people saw nature as a thing to be combed, tidied, conquered and tamed. I think, for the most part, that perspective has become unpopular. That shift in view has provided a great deal of “progress” technologically, socially, ecologically. Whole populations of people, whole geographies have been saved from poisoning themselves. Certainly the work to undo the excesses of the industrial revolution is not complete, but it’s well on its way. If you look at this from a personal perspective, the people in London have drinkable water and air they can breathe. Even developing nations like China and India are starting to address the pollution problem in the name of longevity and productivity.

On the large scale of our “purpose” in the universe, we’ve saved ourselves from languishing in a sub-optimal local minimum. The change in world-view required we put a great deal of energy into the system to rise above the local walls of our solution-landscape. You’re seeing this phenomenon in graphic detail right now with regards to energy formats. Petrol and coal are the old solutions. The change in world view has shown us that we’ve been neglecting a vital dimension in our value-chain,vis. sustainability. Upon inclusion of this dimension, some better solutions come flooding in (solar, wind, nuclear, etc.). I could come up with at least seven more scenarios where integrating a world-view more aligned to peer-reviewed-repeatable-results-of-well-designed-experiments (science) have lifted mankind out of poor solutions to the “the problem” (where you can take “the problem” to be the local problem facing the people, or the universal problem of maximising entropy).

So, if we again assume I’m on the right track with regards to our purpose in the universe, any alignment to that view would initially cause a bit of discomfort, require a bit more energy to lift us out of a poor local min., but in the end, it’d be a better solution (“Better solution” is defined as “requires less effort to complete the work of decomposition). But why should we optimise? We’re perfectly happy where we are. We consider the way we do things, the way people live, the way they consider their world, part of being human. To do something different would not conserve what we know as “human”. That’s where the universe has us over a barrel. Remember, as I said before, there are systems constantly at work, from deep-time in the past to deep-time the future, trying to solve the universal problem of optimising entropy, to settle the account. As good as people are at destroying, there’s every chance that a more virulent, sustainable and efficient system could be found in the landscape. Could be a squirrel, a fungus, a virus, an A.I., a seaweed, or some other unimagined conglomeration of energy and mass. The last thing we want is to find out what that more sustainable, efficient destroyer is. If it’s not us, we’re somewhat doomed. But that would be a long view indeed. I’m a little more concerned with what goes on in my kitchen in the morning than the ultimate destiny of mankind.

How about this, we’d know why we’re here. If ever there was an initiative to form a religion around the idea (see: Kali http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kali Agni Purana and Garuda Purana) that our ultimate purpose is in alignment with some universal constant, that we’re allowed to destroy, that what’s considered our “fall” in western culture is actually our primary strength. I think these realizations would be powerful. I think a cultural alignment to this as a norm would take us to the next level. This isn’t to say that I’m thinking of starting a religion. I think if this is to be, it’ll come of its own power. But a cultural shift at the religion-level is something that will hit people in their homes. Say it’s a religion which doesn’t require faith, but manufactures faith from first principles, from physical laws and observable, repeatable observation. That could well be a meme more powerful than the Wizard-of-Oz-man-behind-the-curtain-construct that’s been shilled for the past couple millennia (what I consider the “fallen” religions, no longer internal, but externalized and presented almost as a dare). I’m an advocate of no curtain, no net, no actors, no fine-tuning-required-style-religion. Haven’t found one yet (certainly not string theory - Note: "fine tuning" is used here is a specifically cosmological sense. I advocate "tuning" in the next paragraph. Maybe a poor choice of words. Seems like I'm contradicting myself. Maybe I'm doing it on purpose, all good religious texts contradict themselves heavily in order to inspire conflict of interpretation...).

Another artefact which I think would precipitate from a massive entropy-centric-alignment in worldview would be a change to the idea of “saving”. Just as it’s commonly agreed that there is no “away” in which to throw things, there’s no moral component to saving or conserving. The moral imperative is actually to consume in a very specific way. Consumption (i.e. destruction/decomposition) should be done as quickly as possible taking into account the requirement that the rate of consumption grow AND be sustainable. This will sound a lot like market capitalism to some. It is, a lot, and for good reason. Market capitalism is a product of evolutionary economics. But with all due respect to Marx and Engels, I think they missed a few links on their socio-econmic evolutionary chain of being. They missed the bit where "crowdsourcing" gave all the I.P. to the people and stripped the power from the major (record) labels (read: Shirky - "Here Comes Everybody").

As with the fuel market, we’ve been neglecting a dimension to the equation. To add “sustainable” to “ravenous consumption” seems anathema. But it’s not. It’s just another constraint which tunes the parameters of the solution-space. Just as the magic of a sonnet, a haiku, the power-trio, F1 racing, and soccer are based on their constraints (i.e. must rhyme, must not use more than three chords in 2-minute song, must not touch ball with hands, etc.), the power of our system is driven through the constraints in the system. Tune the constraints and you can achieve results on an astounding scale (it’s just this sort of constraint landscape which has put Toyota on the top of the manufacturing heap for decades).

Best of all, to enshrine our purpose as consumers, destroyers, decomposers, would flip the Left/Right political divide in the world inside-out. The typical moral arguments of conservation vs. Conservative, of Liberal vs. Moral, all get conflated and the red vs. blue arguments turn into some sort of purple vs. Yellow or plaid vs. Paisley. A wonderful mulching of ideas, a compost of passions, will arise to become fertile new landscapes – leading the trend, not lagging it. I’m seeing a culture of fierce competition in the play-space of sustainability – as opposed to the sustainability-gurus of today going begging to governments for handouts. It’d be a different world to be sure.

Yes, I am talking about some grand sweeping cultural changes. The Sci-Fi component is where I provide specific examples of what “might be”. The non-fiction is the idea that grand sweeping changes will take place. They have for thousands of years, and they will continue to happen. The Sci-Fi component is when I talk about the specific recognition that will become the driving force behind this change. The non-fiction is the idea that the universe will reveal itself honestly. One example of this combination, happening right now, is the slang usage of “random”. If you’d told me when I was a kid that in twenty years time kids would be saying “random” instead of “radical!, or awesome!”, I’d’a thought “like, no way”. Way. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to relate this particular usage of “random” to the pop-folk-assimilation achieved by Chaos Theory, fractals, and Quantum Theory in the last two decades. These currents in scientific thought have filtered through to pop, rock, poetry, Simpsons, etc.. And to put a time-frame around that – Quantum theory born ~1900, Chaos Theory and fractals born ~1970. So, it’s taking these memes 20-100 years to meld with culture. All I’m supposing is that this will continue to happen, and I’m putting the specific target on the importance of entropy. The details will work themselves out. The actual implementation of “entropcentricity” is up to time and context. I’m comfortable saying that much in the same way that the weatherman is happy to say “temperatures will trend towards cooler as winter takes hold”.

“The Naked Brain” Richard Restak
"The Road to Reality" Roger Penrose
"Coincidences, Chaos, and all that Math Jazz" E B Burger & M Starbird
"At Home in the Universe" Stuart Kauffman
"Mindware: An introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science" Andy Clark
“Sync” Strogratz

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