The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Bobby Azarian. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Bobby Azarian. Bobby Azarian is a science journalist and a cognitive neuroscientist with a PhD from the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University. He’s written for The Atlantic, New York Times, Scientific American, Aeon, and many others. And he writes a quite interesting blog called Mind and the Machine, that is an in-depth investigation in many of the issues we’ll be discussing today. And while it’s pretty deep, it’s also quite accessible to the general reader. Welcome, Bobby.
Bobby: Thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim: This is going to be a whole lot of fun. Today we’re going to be talking about his new book just published, I think it was two days ago, at least on the day we’re recording this, it won’t be quite two days ago when it comes out, titled The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity.
Jim: This is really quite an amazing book that hits on many of the subjects we tend to cover here on the show. And he specifically references several of our previous guests, including Terrence Deacon, who was just on the show last month, as well as Stuart Kauffman, Eric Smith, David Krakauer, Christof Koch, Bernard Baars, and probably others I don’t even recall. So I would say of perhaps all the books we’ve ever talked about on this show, it’s the most Jim Rutt Show-ish book, ever.
Bobby: Well, I’m proud to have that label.
Jim: I would also say that, like his blog, despite the range and depth of the topics he covers, he does a great job of bringing the ideas to life in the way that accessible to the general readers. I really do think that many of our readers would really enjoy this book. So, if you like what you hear today, go buy the book on Amazon or some such. And as always, we will have links to the book on the episode page at jimruttshow.com.
Jim: So here’s a quote from early in the book, and I think is a good place to start. How did we get here? And where are we going? The reductionist worldview answers, luck, and probably nowhere. So your book is in essence, a long journey to refute that reductionist idea. So reductionism, what is it? What has it gained for us humans? And what are the limits that are now being transcended in that way of thinking?
Bobby: Reductionism means more than one thing, so it’s a method, but it’s also a philosophy and something of a worldview. So the method is great. The method says that to understand systems, or the universe, the universe is a system as well, we want to look at its most fundamental components and how those components behave in isolation. So it’s given us most of our most successful physical theories, but the problem with the reductionist worldview, which basically says that, that’s how we understand reality, break things down to the smallest units, is that it leaves out complex systems and it leaves out emergent phenomena.
Bobby: And so these are phenomena where the interactions between the components matter. And so when you have a complex adaptive system, like an organism or a society, the components interact, and these interactions create patterns at a higher level, and these patterns are real causal phenomena. So it’s not that reductionism is bad. It’s great, but it leaves out a whole class of phenomena. And that’s what complexity science and the paradigm of emergence includes.
Jim: Absolutely. In fact, as we talked about in our pre-show chat, it’s the complexity lens that lets us take all the good things that we learn from reductionism, and I’m not of that camp, “Oh, reductionism bad.” Reductionism is essential to our understanding of the universe, but it’s very incomplete.
Jim: Regular listeners to the show know I like to use this silly little metaphor I created, which is, I often will describe reductionism as the study of the dancer. How tall is she? How strong are her legs? How high can she jump? How agile is she, et cetera? While complexity is the study of the dance. How do the various dancers move around, interact with each other, interact with the music,? And then the aesthetics that emerge from all that. So I find that to be somewhat useful to make that distinction.
Jim: But anyway, this book is all about that. And I will say that you didn’t bash reductionist too badly. Some people in this space do, and I’d say, well balanced. And so the next kind of big picture, because we’re actually going to start big picture and move down in some degree, and then back up to big picture, is that one of the things that has emerged from this reductionist philosophy is the assumption that our world is gradually, these are your words drifting towards a more disordered, random, and lifeless state. And you say that’s utterly wrong and the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the thermodynamic laws.
Jim: In fact, you say in terms of adaptive complexity, it appears to just be getting started. So maybe start with a little bit with what are the thermodynamic laws that are relevant here? And what is the historical view the heat death hypothesis? And sort of in general terms, what do you think is the alternative?
Bobby: The second law of thermodynamics has been really influential on science and scientists, and there’s a few versions of that law. So it started being about heat flow, and this idea that heat will flow from a hotter body to a colder body, until an equilibrium is reached, until there’s a mutual uniform temperature. And it wasn’t until later, with the work of Josiah Gibbs, Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann that there was a statistical interpretation of this law, which is a little bit different.
Bobby: It says that a system, an ordered system, will move toward a state of increasing disorder until it approaches this equilibrium state. And this is applicable to closed systems only. And so the problem with trying to apply that law to the universe as a whole is that within the universe, it has a lot of open systems like the planet Earth. So the planet Earth is open, because it is receiving energy from the environment, from our sun and this energy flow pushes systems, what’s called, far from equilibrium, so you get the spontaneous emergence of organization.
Bobby: So it’s not the case that the universe as a whole is moving toward an increasingly disordered state. You can have, not only pockets of complexity that are transient, life is adaptive complexity, that’s the description that I use in the book, living systems are complex adaptive systems. So it’s just kind of a way to change that term and talk about life as this interconnected phenomenon, as adaptive complexity. And as long as life can extract energy from the environment, it can evade this tendency toward disorder.
Bobby: Of course, using the energy, dissipates the energy, and creates heat waste. And so the second law in its original version isn’t violated, because entropy still goes up. But I think it’s a mistake to talk about heat waste entropy as disorder, because you quickly see that there’s this picture where if life continues to expand and extract energy to sustain itself, the universe as a whole can grow more organized.
Jim: Though, it’s always important to make this note, that the kind of the folk version of the three laws of thermodynamics is you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game, right?
Jim: And those are still true. And I like to sometimes like to say that life is a local reversal of the second law, which is, that within a domain, you can increase order. But, as you point out, at the aggregate level disorder still goes up, and essentially you’re converting free energy into order, at least in certain circumstances at the cost of also degrading the energy down to thermal energy, which is not particularly useful for much, at least at our current level of understanding of how the universe works. Anyway, we’ll go into all-
Bobby: No, no, it’s great to get into that. I just think that calling the generation of heat disorder can be kind of misleading. And I think people do that to make this narrative where everything’s going toward disorder work, but if life can extract free energy from other stars, and all of the matter in the universe could be a source of energy as well, we know from E=mc². So there isn’t really any limit to how far life can spread and complexity, if there is still free energy available in the universe.
Bobby: And we might not want to get into this now, but some people have challenged this heat death scenario, who are very respected, like Stu Kauffman and David Deutsch, they’ve argued that you can have basically continual free energy to power life. Maybe the source is the dark energy that is powering the expansion of the universe, but, yeah, we can talk about that maybe later.
Jim: It’s a very, very interesting topic. And the fact is that people talk about the thermal energy, but they forget about the order being created during the process, the far from equilibrium flow.
Jim: So another key concept in the book, and what I’m going to probe on a little bit, because I’m not a 100% sure, fully, there, is that you quote Carl Sagan, “The origin of life must be a highly probable affair, as soon as conditions permit it, up it pops.” So what do you have to say about that?
Bobby: I should say that the second law of thermodynamics really just says that organization can be created, but it has an energetic cost. And this energetic cost is generating entropy in the form of heat. So the work that really started scientists looking at this is the work of Ilya Prigogine, the Belgium biochemist who won a noble prize for his work on non-equilibrium thermodynamics, also called non-equilibrium statistical mechanics. And he recognized the importance of this phenomenon in nature called dissipative structures.
Bobby: So dissipative structures can be tornadoes, whirlpools, anything where you see the emergence, the spontaneous emergence of order in the world. When that happens, it’s because the system is trying to collapse an energy gradient or trying to dissipate energy as efficiently as possible. So we are talking about systems, again, open systems that are open to flows of energy coming in from the environment.
Bobby: And so you see that this second law doesn’t apply to open systems, and that we can get organization as long as the system creates entropy and pays that cost. I guess the big picture here is that on planets with sufficiently similar geochemistry to the Earth, you will get life emerging, inevitably, given enough time, because life is sort of a relaxation channel to alleviate these energy pressures that have built up on planets, like the Earth.
Jim: It’s interesting. And when I read that, actually, preparing for the podcast, I went to look and see how much of the energy that falls on the Earth from the sun is actually captured by life. And the answer is way less than one percent. So in terms of actually managing the energy disequilibrium on earth, life is still pretty irrelevant, close to. And so I’m not entirely sure I buy Eric Smith’s theory about life as a channel for dissipating energy. I mean, that is what it does, but it’s such a small part of the energy flux on the Earth, I suspect he may be overstating a little bit there.
Bobby: Well, the idea with the origin of life is that this energy was geochemical energy before we’re talking about like energy from sunlight, so there was that pressure building up around hydrothermal vents. But I know that hydrothermal vent theory is being challenged currently, but it still seems to be the reigning theory. And basically it says that there’s so much energy flowing through chemical systems in those regions that it basically forced life into existence. But, yeah, it’s very theoretical. It’s definitely not… the case is still open.
Jim: Yeah. I spoke to another origin life guy a couple weeks ago and then he was saying, “No, no, it’s definitely not the vent theory. We’re back to the little warm pond theory,” right?
Bobby: Oh, yeah. Who is that? Was it Bruce Damer?
Jim: Yes. As a matter of fact, it was.
Bobby: Yeah, we’ve been talking about that. He has a pretty interesting theory. I think it still has this principle though, of non-equilibrium thermodynamic systems of energy flowing through a system and creating order that way.
Jim: That part’s indispensable. I mean, Perogone was definitely right there, I think, that far from equilibrium, and you keep coming back in this, is a core concept. That what life is about is trying to stay as far from equilibrium as possible, more or less. And Bruce would certainly agree that has to be part of the story.
Bobby: I guess the big question is, is life something like a typical dissipative structure that emerges to dissipate an energy gradient and then disappears? Or is life different? And I think life is different. I think adaptive complexity is unique because it encodes information about the environment, and it uses this information to stay far from equilibrium. So where a hurricane forms due to a temperature gradient between the warm surface of the ocean and a cold upper atmosphere, it doesn’t have the ability to seek out new energy gradients, it kind of just emerges and vanishes.
Bobby: But what life can do is it basically models its environment. And because it has that capacity, it can extract energy and sustain itself. And as life becomes more intelligent, it is able to unlock new sources of energy. So we get this story of adaptive complexity emerging and spreading that I think is really interesting.
Jim: The other one, and when I was out at the SFI, the Santa Fe Institute out there as a researcher, et cetera, I used to get in trouble with some of the folks out there. They disapproved. I would say, “There’s a bright line between life and non-life, and that life is qualitatively different than non-life.” And they would, of course, give me some counter examples, et cetera. And I go, “Okay. Yeah, there’s some grayness around the edges.” But to your point, it does feel qualitatively different.
Jim: I mean, it’s very amazing to consider that as far as we know, every bit of life on earth is descended from a single last universal common ancestor. And that that process, obviously, has never failed, which is unlike, as you say, the transient self-organization you see in sand piles and tornadoes and the whirlpool of your toilet, and all those sorts of things, and in some sense, qualitatively different. It’s figured out how to create a reversal of second law, locally, that never ended, basically, which is quite interesting.
Bobby: Four billion years that’s a pretty good survival streak.
Jim: At least three and a half. They argue three and a half, four some somewhere in that [inaudible 00:16:48]-
Bobby: Yeah, three point eight, maybe, is the current estimate, give or take a certain amount.
Jim: Indeed. Though, now here’s the big question. And this is one of the ones that we talk about on the show a fair bit though, often in different contexts, which is the Stu Kauffmans of the world would say, “Any planet sort of like Earth, life will happen. The autocatalytic set will be discovered, and it will organize itself into something that has these attributes of life. I am still not entirely sold on that, that it will always happen. In fact, one of the very best scientific discussions I had in my life was with Stuart Kauffman. We talked for four hours-
Jim: … about the origins of life. And I kept coming, at that time, I was at the height of my rather modest scientific powers. Where after I retired from business, I reinvented myself as a evolutionary computation guy, where you grow software via Darwinian evolution. And so I kind of had a pretty good feel for how fast evolution works, and things like the error catastrophe in particular. Where if mutation rates are too high and the preservation of information between generations is too low, the power of evolution to build things is relatively modest, takes a shit long time to do anything.
Jim: And so what I proposed to Stuart in this very long, interesting conversation was, “All right, DNA and all that machinery, even at the relatively primitive level we see in bacteria and archaea is pretty damn sophisticated. The way the errors are corrected, and the relatively high fidelity you get in DNA replication. So once you get there, yeah, I can see how evolution moves life forward, but how in the world did much lower fidelity information systems have the evolutionary lift to get to high fidelity information like the full…”
Jim: Because DNA is not just DNA, as you point out in your book, DNA is intimately connected with the interpreter of the cellular machinery, without them it’s useless, essentially. And nor, could it duplicate itself at high fidelity, if you just took a pile of DNA and threw it in a warm pond, it would just break down basically, right?
Jim: So I think this is one of the great questions, fortunately we’re on the verge of perhaps getting some empirical data on this, is life at a very, very, very long shot against the odds somehow beating the error catastrophe and somehow stumbling into high fidelity information replication. Or, and I know Eric believes the or also, Eric Smith, is there a natural and almost inevitable process that somehow this autocatalytic networks generate a whole series of reactions, which are more or less destined to happen. And we manage to get to that information technology that allows evolution to then bootstrap with a stronger toolkit, which is high fidelity information replication with variation. So maybe talk to that a little bit. I mean, this is, to me, such a huge question.
Bobby: It is a big jump, and it’s hasn’t been explained in a way where there’s consensus, but I think there’s a really useful concept known as dissipative adaptation, put forth by Jeremy England when he was at MIT. And this basically says that if you have a simple molecular system and you strike that system with energy and push that system far from equilibrium, you will see this spontaneous self-organization. And there are simple studies that have been done, where, for example, they take a laser and shine it on some nanoparticles, and those particles will organize and form something with what looks kind of like worm like behavior. So even in very simple systems, when you push them far from equilibrium, you start to see this pretty quickly.
Bobby: And the idea is that metabolism comes first and you basically have this very simple, as you said, autocatalytic set, and this allows the system to self-amplify. So I think one of the concepts that are missing here, that explains how we get to life, is that self-organization itself is a Darwinian process. And you see this in the name dissipative adaptation. And when I say it’s a Darwinian process, going back as far as the ’70s with Donald Campbell who invented evolutionary epistemology, that was inspired by Karl Popper’s ideas.
Bobby: But the idea was that self-organizing system can evolve through an evolutionary mechanism, instead of blind variation and natural selection. It’s kind of a tweak on that for self-organizing systems, the mechanisms called blind variation and selective retention. So the idea is that you have a system being pushed far from equilibrium, and when you push that system, with a flow of energy, the system will naturally explore a sequence of different configurations. And the configurations that are more stable will tend to be the configurations that the system gets stuck in. And the configurations that aren’t stable, basically, get forgotten. They get filtered out by natural selection.
Bobby: So this form of natural selection doesn’t require a self-replicating system. You just have one system exploring configurations. And those configurations that allow the system to extract the energy it needs to stay far from equilibrium, will be the stable states that get retained.
Jim: And the question is, is there a natural ratchet, a stack of such states to get to DNA architecture? And what is the probability of that? That is the key question. And I would say, let’s take a look at the empirical data. And this is, again, listeners know that I always ask this question, usually at the end, but in this case, it makes more sense to ask it earlier, which is, what about the Fermi paradox? If Stu Kauffman, Eric Smith, Harold Morowitz idea that, yeah, life’s going to happen in any reasonably tolerable planet, where all the other species, God? Where are all the other sentient beings, right?
Jim: I was actually a little bit surprised that you didn’t explicitly address the Fermi paradox in your book. And so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. And then I’ll also just mention that we will soon have at least a clue or two, which is the study of exoplanet atmospheres will soon determine whether they have some biosignatures like oxygen, for instance. You start seeing planets with percentages of oxygen in their atmospheres, and, yes, there are some kind of long shot biophysical processes that could produce that.
Jim: If you start seeing it with some regularity, it starts to become statistically improbable that it isn’t due to life. But if you start looking at a 1,000 nearby exoplanets in the water zone, and none of them have an oxygen signature, you go, “Hmm.” So, the Fermi paradox, and your thoughts about what that says about the difficulty or not of reaching life that’s able to bootstrap to higher and higher levels.
Bobby: Yeah. So that’s really exciting that they’re looking for those biosignatures. So, basically, the inevitable life paradigm isn’t saying that life will emerge on any planet. It has to be, what Michael Russell and Nick Lane have described, as a wet, rocky, sunny planet. So it has to be similar to Earth. How similar? No one knows. I usually say, “sufficiently similar conditions to earth will produce life.” So it’s not going to be everywhere. And I’ve seen different estimates ranging from billions to trillions of planets that would be like Earth enough to give rise to life, inevitably. And, yeah, it is something that at some point we’re going to be able to find out when our technology allows us to look out in the universe as far as we would need to.
Bobby: So the reason I didn’t address the Fermi paradox in the book, I kind of do implicitly, but explicitly I don’t, and that was really just a matter of not having the time. I took like a year longer than agreed upon to write the book, because the scope is really big. So the idea is maybe they just haven’t got here yet, because, if this process that gives rise to life on Earth is happening in other places, then it’s probably following a similar timeline.
Bobby: So it might be that they’re not here yet. It might be that they don’t want to make themselves known, because they don’t want to in interfere with the evolutionary development of our civilization. And something I think David Krakauer said was that “we may not have the right tools to be looking for signals for life.”
Jim: Yep. Couple SFI guys, I forget even who it was, have come up with a theory that one of the reasons we don’t see them is that they have such good compression that all the signal looks like noise from our perspective. And then a good enough compression scheme will look like noise to a naive and stupid species like ourselves.
Jim: And, of course, the other argument is that, all right, let’s even assume that life at the level of bacteria and archaea will happen at a fairly decent probability. What about the other steps? One that I like to focus on is the step from the protist, the bacteria/archaea stage to the eukaryotic, the eukaryotic revolution, which really was a revolution. Eukaryotic cells are the bigger things like paramecium and amoebas, and, of course, they’re’ same cells that are in plants and animals. That only happened one point seven billion years ago, so it starts to feel a lot less obligatory if it took that long.
Jim: And the cells were a 1,000 times bigger. They involve the encapsulation of, it was probably an archaea, I think, is the current thinking based on a little research I did here for the show, and that encapsulated a bacteria that processed oxygen, and maybe it required the merger of three different bacteria/archaea level things. What are the chances of all that… And it formed a nucleus, and it created a bunch of cytostructure, and there’s no sign of any intermediate states. Maybe that was just an incredibly crazy one in 10 trillion years roll of the dice. And that’s why we don’t see the techno or biosignatures out there yet, out in the world.
Jim: And then the other one, which we did a great podcast with Doug Erwin about, which is the Cambrian explosion, which was a mere 550 million years ago, 12% or so, since the origin of life, where our form of multicellularity evolved extremely rapidly. And then maybe in as little as five or 10 million years, all the phyla, except one, of multicellular life came into being, all around the sudden emergence of a specific technology, which I suspect was closely related to the evolution of the neuron, which happened just before. So, again, how likely was that one to have occurred. Stuart Kauffman might tell us that bacteria are high probability, but what about these other steps?
Bobby: It’s a really interesting question. And it’s really complicated. You’re right that the emergence of eukaryotic cells, which was necessary to make multicellular life, only happened once. It was this merger of different types of bacteria. But that could have happened a lot of times that could be something that isn’t that improbable, it’s just improbable that these things would come together and make a unit that’s functional enough to reproduce. So that process could have been happening, but we don’t see any evidence of it, because only one sort of merger was functional.
Bobby: So it’s interesting that you have the origin of life, which as far as we know, occurred once. You have the origin of eukaryotic cells, which happened once. But then multicellularity happened a bunch of times. So it seems like, as this process goes on, you go from something that’s inevitable to something that seems more and more likely.
Bobby: I think that basically you will get the emergence of multicellularity once you have eukaryotic cells, because of the simple fact that working together allows organisms to extract energy from the environment easier than they would if they had to do it alone. So it’s kind of this advantage that you get from synergy that makes it such that you see these evolutionary transitions, where cells come together to make multicellular organisms, and then some organisms come together to make societies.
Bobby: So that’s what I argue in the book that there’s this thermodynamic basis for these evolutionary transitions or meta-system transitions, where units come together to make a larger functional unit. And we think of self-organization as this kind of mysterious thing that happens spontaneously, but it’s really because working together makes the energy extraction problem easier. So once you get multicellular life, then it really turns into a process that gives rise to intelligence, because you will have the emergence of increasingly complex niches.
Bobby: Will have the emergence of increasingly complex niches. So when life emerges at first, if you buy the hydrothermal vent theory, life has a very simple energy extraction problem. Basically, there’s all this surrounding geochemical energy and it’s not hard to extract for the system. Then there was a genetic mutation that allowed for photosynthetic bacteria. And that problem of extracting energy from a moving sun was a little bit more difficult than the previous problem so it required slightly more sophisticated machinery for life. And then you have … Because life is always making copies, it’s sort of exploring this space of possible designs and it will find designs that just happen to unlock a new form of energy. So after that, there was heterotrophic organisms that survive by eating other organisms. Yeah, exactly. So heterotrophic organisms have a much more difficult survival problem. They have to now extract energy from a food source that’s intelligent and that’s moving.
Bobby: Kind of like we do in a somewhat unpredictable way. So the idea is that a system must solve this energy extraction problem. It also has the problem of avoiding threats and because more complex niches will naturally emerge over time, you get this statistical tendency towards more complex life forms. And in the book, I talk about the law of requisite variety, which comes from cybernetics, it’s the work of Ross Ashby, and I try to apply that to evolutionary theory as some people have done in the past, but the law of requisite variety just states that the complexity of an organism must be such that it matches the complexity of the environmental challenges. So the system must have as many states as there are potential challenges or disturbances in the environment. So basically what you get from that law is that over evolutionary time, you will have the emergence of species that have to solve a more challenging cognitive problem.
Jim: That’s great. And that gets me to the one big idea in the book for me, I’d never run across before. I don’t know if this was your creation or if you got this from somebody else, it’s one of these things kind of like Darwinism, Thomas Huxley famously smacked himself in the forehead and said, how stupid of me not to have thought of that? Because in reality, Darwinian evolution was basically on the table since the time of Aristotle for anybody to pick up. It was not that hard, but it had to be the right set of time, place, and previous conditioning for someone to pull it together. But this idea that you express in the book, I go, why didn’t I think about that? And I wonder if it’s your idea, or if you got this from somebody else, which is that every time a new species comes into being, by definition, a new potential niche is invented, which is a species to eat that species.
Jim: Where’d you get that? I love that idea. I think because that actually talks to my mind is so rich with the idea of an evolutionary arms race of complexity. Once again, of course, to hetero tropes and agency, etcetera, we’ll talk a little bit about that part, but once you get there, every time a new one exists, ah, there’s a potential new niche for somebody to eat that. Where’d that come from?
Bobby: Exactly. So yeah, Stu Kauffman recently published a paper with colleagues. Not totally recently, it’s been a few years, but the idea was that ecosystems are autocatalytic sets as well and they naturally produce increasingly complex species because of this idea of niche emergence. So yeah, it goes back to Kauffman. I can’t take credit for that. Also this idea of the law of requisite variety being applied to evolution was written about by Francis Heylighen, cybernetics, complexity theorists. So that’s the basic idea is that you have life having to solve this energy extraction problem. And it’s basically through blind variation and natural selection exploring this space of possible designs as it self replicates or if it’s a self organizing system, as it moves through a sequence of different configurations. There will be this ratcheting up of complexity because when you get that new species, as you said, it can serve as a food source for a new species. So there is really this opportunity for more complex life to have this kind of untapped source of food through this process of niche emergence.
Jim: Yeah, I never heard that idea before and I go, wow, that’s really rich. I’m going to think about that next time I talk to Stu, have talk to him about it. I’ve checked that in the paper too.
Bobby: Yeah. I don’t know if he frames it in the exact way that I did but.
Jim: That was a great way to, a very simple, powerful way to frame it. So good job there on science communication if nothing else. Now let’s move on to the next stage. We’ve talked about metabolism first, maybe we get the information, how we get the cells, all this good stuff, how people eat people. But what’s really, really interesting is how biology becomes an information processing system. And you make the very good point, which people get confused about this is, intelligence does not mean consciousness, right? Even bacteria are intelligent. One of the simple examples, I don’t forget which bacteria it is, but one of them will seek sugar and avoid acid as an example, all within one very primitive cell. So why don’t we segway to talking about biology? You’re obviously alluding to it with the idea of model building, but let’s talk now more explicitly about biology as information processing and knowledge acquisition and condensation.
Bobby: Yeah. So I think this is one thing that people have not really seized upon this idea of evolution, creating information. So we all are familiar with Darwinian evolution, but we don’t think of it as a knowledge creation process. And basically it creates knowledge through this mechanism of blind variation and selective retention or natural selection. So you have a system, it’s making copies of itself because there will always be genetic mutations because the copying process isn’t perfect. You will get this spectrum of new designs of offspring designs. And the designs that stick around are those designs that are able to predict the environment well.
Bobby: So the dysfunctional designs get weeded out by natural selection. So natural selection is this filter and it’s also something like an information channel. So you have a system that can make copies and it’s basically through that process generating random codes, but the codes that are worthless disappear, and the codes that create an organism that can predict the environment stick around. And so that genetic information that is left over after the filter of natural selection has been applied, is adaptive information or knowledge. And I call it knowledge in the book because it is specifically information that reduces environmental uncertainty for the organism.
Jim: Yeah. That’s actually a very good way to think about this, or at least make it robust against environmental uncertainty. And that’s where I might push back a little bit about the model idea because in simple life, it’s not like let’s say our neural systems lay down maps of our body and maps of the visual perception in the sense that these are models, they’re models in a rougher sense, and that it’s a ensemble of responses to stimuli that are statistically, at least correlated with the problems or challenges of the environment. Is that a fair way to state it?
Bobby: Yeah, I think we don’t really get sophisticated modeling until we have brains. Models that represent the integrated structure of the environment around them. But you can still talk about simple brainless organisms as encoding a statistical model in some sort of simplified abstract sense. So earlier you mentioned a process known as chemotaxis where you have bacterium swimming towards molecular food and away from toxic chemicals. And you also have an analog of that called heliotropism in plants where plants will grow in the direction of sunlight and sort of track the sun. So this means that there is a very simple form of cognition or information processing being performed by these systems. And if the organism is able to do that intelligent process to detect food and swim away from toxins, then in some very rudimentary since, they have some sort of statistical model or mapping of the environment.
Jim: Yep. And at the level of … Well, I’m not sure, I don’t actually know the answer to that. Before neurons is all such knowledge acquisition genetic, or is there some epigenetic knowledge acquisition that goes on?
Bobby: Yeah, there’s probably some epigenetic knowledge acquisition, but I think the main mechanism is phylogenetic learning, which is generational learning. It’s this learning that I just described where you basically have a system making copies of itself. And the copies that stick around, the functional organisms, basically represent adaptive information. So it’s not like learning with brains where you basically encode the causal consequences of your action in real time. It’s this slow process where things have to die out. You have to be creating all of these organisms and some of them will survive, and some of them won’t. And the learning is the update to the genome, which becomes increasingly robust as you have this learning process over all of these generations. As far as epigenetics having some sort of role, that’s a really interesting question. I would like someone to explore that, but really, we have phylogenetic learning as the main source of learning until brains, and then you get ontogenetic learning, and basically that’s just kind of this revolution in information processing and storage machinery.
Jim: Yep. And that’s very important that people understand that Darwinian evolution is actually a form of knowledge condensation over time. It’s slow, slower and shit, again, it’s somebody who’s played with the mathematics of evolutionary computation. It ain’t quick, but it can work under the right circumstances. And so far it hasn’t blown it. We’re still all the descendants of the last universal common ancestor.
Bobby: Yeah. It’s slow, but it’s very meticulous. So it explores this design space in a way that’s not really biased, it’s just creating these different configurations based on a configuration that worked. And that’s a way for nature to discover new designs that can extract energy because the configuration is one that allows the system to have greater function and to be more robust.
Jim: Yeah, of course it’s an interesting trade off between efficiency and robustness. If you assume no change in your environment, you can optimize yourself biochemically to extract whatever energy is available very efficiently. But if you have to deal with variations, say droughts and floods, then you have to have some overhead for things like storing water for droughts and a membrane that’s waterproof for floods. And those are come at some cost that reduce your metabolic overall efficiency. So again, like in a computational evolutionary context, there’s going to be trade offs between efficiency and the ability to withstand variation or robustness. I think that’s always important for people to think about as well in terms of how evolution might be working.
Bobby: Yeah, that’s a good point. And the simple organisms aren’t going to evolve towards higher complexity, if they’re solving their energy extraction problem fine without that increased computational cost. So when I say that there’s this tendency towards higher intelligence, I’m certainly not saying that each species is becoming more complex. What I’m saying is that this process due to the niche emergence mechanism you described will create an increasingly complex species, but the systems that are doing their energy extraction job just fine, they don’t have to evolve.
Jim: Yeah. In fact, people will point this out, a counter example, which is you sometimes species decomplexify for instance, our gut bacteria have lost a lot of their knowledge about how to do biochemistry because we’re doing it for them. Of course, on the other side, they’re doing stuff for us. And that’s essentially how [inaudible 00:44:59] evolution works, is that people can find niches that are in cooperation with other species. And we would not be who we are without all of our friendly bacteria growing in our guts.
Bobby: Yeah. That’s a really interesting example because you do have the … I guess you would say decomplexification of the bacteria, but the whole unit that’s formed from that symbiotic relationship becomes more complex because there is that synergy that you get from cooperating organisms.
Jim: Okay. So we now have intelligence, and now to make another step towards up. As you mentioned, a lot of this threshold comes once we have brains or if not, brains, at least neurons, right? Things like elegans have somewhat smarter behavior than bacteria and they don’t have brains exactly. But they have, what is it, 304 neurons or something like that? Some fixed number, which is quite remarkable, N plus or minus one. And they have a whole series of adaptive behaviors that are implemented in a small number of fixed neurons. And at that point, one can say, at some sense, do they have agency at that point? Where do we get to the line of in your mind of agency? Very interesting concept.
Bobby: So, and you mentioned in the previous question consciousness and that cognition doesn’t necessarily indicate that the system is conscious. And so when we talk about the emergence of agency, I think that’s something that I have to be clear about is that agency comes first I believe. And consciousness comes later. So just to define what we mean by agency, a living system, like you said, bacteria, let’s just keep using that example of chemo taxes, you start to see some intelligent behavior. And that system, that organism moves in a way that’s fundamentally different from an inanimate system, like a rock. If a rock moves it’s because it was either on a hill and gravity’s pulling it down or it was acted on by some external force, like gust of wind or maybe a kid threw it. So there’s not goal oriented behavior for inanimate objects, but we see this goal oriented, purposeful, or teleological movement in living organisms that tells us something different is going on.
Bobby: And what that is that, it’s not an [inaudible 00:47:25], it’s not some mystical force. It is a product of information, adaptive information that has been encoded in the system through evolutionary processes. Whether it was Darwinian evolution, where you have this competitive learning this phylogenetic learning, or whether it was just self-organization and you get this dissipated adaptation process, which also builds up knowledge in the system. But yeah, so you see this agency, this goal oriented movement. I don’t think that’s necessarily good enough to get you consciousness because I think consciousness doesn’t only require a world model. It requires the organism that has this world model to also model itself.
Jim: Let’s not do too much consciousness yet. We’ll get there because this is one of my favorite topics. We’ll get to this later and we’ll go into it deeply, but let’s talk about agency. I just looked it up on the Google and see elegans got 302 neurons, plus or minus one. And it has quite a richer repertoire of behaviors than a bacteria does. And somewhere along the line of more complex neural systems, we get to something like agency. So let’s talk a little bit and clearly distinct, at least in my mind from consciousness. I would not expect to see elegans to be unconscious at all. Other than maybe in some statistical IIT sense, which we’ll talk about later. So talk a little bit about what is agency and what does that then buy the organism in the world?
Bobby: So agency is just this product of an information processing system, trying to perform its survival goals, trying to evade thermodynamic equilibrium. And it’s really a product of this process of variation and selection, which is an evolutionary algorithm. You talked about evolutionary computation and basically what evolution is doing through this variation and selection mechanism is exploring the design space and those systems that are better at predicting their environment will get selected. So you have this concept of natural selection as an information channel. And what’s going on is that the system is becoming more correlated with its environment. So let’s say you have a bacterium and it moves its tail at random. It doesn’t go in any particular direction. Compare that with bacterium, that swims in the direction of chemical food. So there was a genetic mutation that allowed for this new ability and that organism, that swims in the direction of food rather than moving at random, is more statistically correlated with its environment.
Bobby: So as the evolutionary process continues, and a system is evolving and making copies of itself, and there’s this natural selection filter weeding out the dysfunctional designs, the organism is becoming more statistically correlated with its environment. So there’s an increase in mutual information. And in the book I argue that this process is basically making a more predictive world model in the organism and it’s reducing its uncertainty about the world around it. So Terrence Deacon has described this as reducing Shannon entropy. So you get this kind of interesting story that you can describe in terms of entropy, where organisms are keeping internal entropy low by extracting energy. And they’re increasing environmental entropy by producing heat waste.
Bobby: And at the same time, they are reducing Shannon entropy or uncertainty. And that story basically explains how you have the persistence of functional organization in nature. Life, the biosphere is this memory system, that’s encoding all of the solutions, the adaptive solutions that life discovers that solve this problem of staying far from equilibrium. And so you can really start to look at the biosphere as being this knowledge repository, and agency is just a behavioral product of the fact that you have these information processing systems that have been programmed by evolution to evade the tendency toward disorder.
Jim: All right, let’s pop up to a slightly different view. And I was very happy to see you had a section called the problem of epistemology in your book. Regular listeners know that I often will say, when I hear the word metaphysics, I reach for my pistol. Which is that … I also then will sometimes follow that and say, oh, I need is a functional and pragmatic epistemology. I don’t need no fucking stinking metaphysics. And you talk a bit about popper and predictive knowledge, et cetera. So where were you pointing at when you talked about the problem of epistemology?
Bobby: Yeah. So there’s this age old question, going back at least to Plato asking how do we know anything about the external world, and not only is there the question of how do we know things? How do we know that the things that we know are valid? So how do we know that our information about the world, our beliefs are actually knowledge, and not invalid incorrect information? And it sounds kind of like a trivial question at first because everybody believes the things that they know, but it’s a pretty important question. So for most of history, throughout human civilization, religious books were the source of knowledge and everyone just kind of accepted that as fact and didn’t question. But we know that the biblical story or these stories from other books don’t match up to what we observe about the universe.
Bobby: So we have to think about how do we know certain things are true? Later with people like Dekar, we see that there’s this transition to seeing the importance of empirical evidence and sense information. So the idea is that what we experience directly through our senses, that’s how we come to know things about the world. But this sensory information can be misleading too. So for example, when we look around us from a naive perspective, it doesn’t look like the earth is round. The earth looks flat. It looks like the sun travels around the earth and not the other way around. So Karl Popper was really thinking about this idea and wondering how knowledge emerges. And he was thinking about science. And that science seemed to be this method for producing knowledge that actually works. It eradicates diseases, it gets us off the planet, it puts people on the moon.
Bobby: So he recognized this mechanism that he described as conjecture and reputation. So basically you have a theory about something, or you have some sort of beliefs and you need to make predictions based on that theory or those beliefs. And then you need to test those theories. And depending on what the experimental results show, not only do you test them, but you also get criticism from other scientists. So the theories that survive experimental testing and criticism from peer review, our knowledge. That’s what represents knowledge, the information that has proven to be predictive. So information that reduces our uncertainty, and if it reduces our uncertainty, it should allow us to understand and manipulate the world in increasingly sophisticated ways. What Popper realized was that the scientific process where you have all these theories and that some die out and only the most predictive theories survive, is really similar to biological evolution.
Bobby: And so you get this picture where not only does biological evolution kind of inform what science is, tells us about how science works, the scientific process tells us about biology. So you can look at organisms as embodied theories about how to survive. And these organisms are competing in a similar way to how theories compete, and the organisms that survive the filter of natural selection, the genetic information in those systems represents knowledge. And that’s because it has survived testing. Not all of the information in the system will be knowledge, only that information which is predictive is knowledge. So over time, this non predictive information gets filtered out. So you can look at the process of evolution and phylogenetic learning through these generations as sort of a model update or a Bayesian update. So every species has a world model and as evolution proceeds, that model is becoming more predictive.
Jim: That makes a lot of sense. So now let’s go the next step up. This is the kind of evolution that can work without brains. And once you get the brains, we have a whole new set of capability and you lay out something which I was vaguely aware of, but I need to go out and do some more reading on this, which is the Bayesian Brain Hypothesis.
Bobby: Yeah. So it’s notorious for being hard to understand. When I first read it, I had no idea what it was talking about. I wasn’t even sure if it was legitimate science, but I knew Karl Friston, it was his theory. So I was like, I’m going to spend some time looking into this and being interested in non-equilibrium thermodynamics, I already had this narrative that we see with the Bayesian Brain Hypothesis and the free energy principle, which I’ll explain are kind of the same thing. So with the non-equilibrium thermodynamics picture, you just have an organism and you know that for the organism to evade thermodynamic equilibrium, it has to extract energy. That’s what it has to do to persist. And the Bayesian Brain Hypothesis starts with this simple fact that for a system to persist, it must and really because it has to extract energy from the world around it, it has to model the world and it also has to minimize its prediction. So that process that I just explained of genome getting updated over time through the evolutionary process, that’s this Bayesian process where the prediction error of the prototypical model for the species is minimized.
Jim: Yeah. And what does that exactly say about what’s going on in the brain? I mean, what does that say, tell us about how the brain tends to self-organize?
Bobby: Yeah, so the brain is the predictive machinery for the agent. So if the agent has to solve these problems, it has to extract energy and avoid threats. If it wasn’t minimizing prediction error, it would die off. So there are lots of systems that aren’t doing this efficiently, and those get weeded out by the filter that is natural selection. So what the active inference paradigm describes, which is the paradigm of the Bayesian Brain Hypothesis, is that to persist against this tendency toward disorder described by the second law, have to minimize our models’ prediction error. So you could think of an example where a baby is reaching for a bottle. Let’s say the baby had been fed up until that point. And now it’s starting to do things on its own. So it reaches its hand out. It misses the bottle the first time. So it made an error.
Bobby: Now it has to try something new because it didn’t get … Its goal wasn’t satisfied. So it didn’t get a little surge of dopamine. There was no feedback to create this reward pathway. So it tries, again, it doesn’t know how to get to its goal at first, because it’s not psychic, it just has to try these different actions. So let’s say it moves again, but it moves farther away from the bottle this time. So again, it has to try something new. And the other option after that is that it moves its hand and it gets a little bit closer. And then there’s this little reward of dopamine that creates this circuit. And you have this mechanism of reinforcement learning. So over time through us correcting our errors to get towards a goal, we basically minimize our world models prediction error, and we have to do this to persist.
Bobby: So this applies for any conceivable adaptive or sentient system. You will see this well, it’s also called free energy, which is kind of confusing when I was saying like, I didn’t understand it at first. It was because they use this thermodynamic term free energy, which in thermodynamics is literal. It’s talking about extracting usable energy from the environment. But in this context, we’re talking about information theoretical free energy. So free energy is really just a measure of prediction error. And when I say prediction error, basically you have this model of the world and then you have the real world, and your model of the world isn’t going to be completely accurate. There’s going to be some ignorance or uncertainty with your model and through actively exploring your environment, just like.
Bobby: Through actively exploring your environment, just like in that example I gave where the baby’s reaching for the bottle, you will start to minimize that difference between the model and the actual world.
Jim: Yep. I’m going to go down a little bit of a thread that I don’t believe you actually talked about in the book, which is that evolutionary search is making us, or making some species at least, more and more capable of using this Bayesian brain. Let me give you an example of another fairly bright line that I used to get chastised for at SFI for laying out there. But I think I’m right and they’re wrong. This is Terrence Deacon’s idea that the difference between humans and everything that came before humans, is that we have a circuit for doing symbolic representation. And that that was what allowed us to bootstrap to first proto language and then somewhat later, full language, and that the Bayesian explorations and optimizations you can do with symbols are grossly more powerful than what you can do without them.
Jim: For instance, I think my seventh grade teacher, Mr. Williams, he was brilliant actually, at getting us to think about deep principles of science. He made the point, the one you did, that our actual experiences are that the world is flat and he challenged us to find counterexamples. Truthfully, in everyday life, you can’t. Ever since that time, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I’ve looked for examples that the world is round and I’ve only run into six or seven in my whole life. Right?
Jim: Yet the symbolic toolkit has allowed humans to ratchet up their Bayesian brain into whole new realms, for instance, deriving that the earth is round. No chimp is ever going to figure out that the world is round. Right? But we now have a whole new set of tools. And as I said, it was a bright line that separates humans from chimps and everything else that came before it, and that we’re now in this very interesting, just beginning to explore the implications of, what does a Bayesian brain do that’s armed with symbols. And I mentioned that you didn’t really talk about that in the book, but it just happens to be an interest of mine.
Bobby: Yeah. Language is really interesting and it was this huge step in evolution. I think, as you said, it basically opens up the possibility space. By that, I mean, when we have this symbolic thought, we can imagine all of these potential futures that are simply like creations of our mind. Then we can create the future that we imagine. So if you have an idea for a new business or a new book, you imagine that thing and you can actually bring those ideas into existence, but lower animals wouldn’t have this potential.
Bobby: I think it basically opens up the space of possible designs. It allows us to think about inventions and technology and this relates to consciousness too. I think that’s one powerful property of conscious experience, and the ability to imagine is that basically the future isn’t determined in this strict sense once thought. We can use our imagination to sort of explore the space of possible designs and we can manifest those designs by acting on the mental creations we’ve made.
Jim: Okay. We’ve kind of gotten ourselves now all the way from bacteria and [inaudible 01:05:51] up to humans and sophisticated symbolic thought. I can buy most of that. I do wonder about what the steps along the way, are they low probability or high probability? My position is we don’t know. I think you take a different position perhaps, and we talk about this. You contrast your view with people like Brian Green, the scientist and science writer, who says, “I think it’s very important to face up to the truth of reality that is, in fact, that life and consciousness is a fleeting phenomenon on the entire cosmological timeline.”
Jim: I think you would disagree with that. So why don’t you take it from that point and run with a little bit?
Bobby: Yeah. So that assumes that life is just like one of these typical dissipative structures. I imagine that the way Brian Green looks at it, is that the biosphere itself is one large dissipative structure that is degrading the energy from this solar gradient. But what Brian Green isn’t recognizing, is that life is this phenomenon that we’ve called adaptive complexity.
Bobby: It learns and it self corrects. That’s kind of fundamentally what life does. So if life can create the technology that it needs to leave its planet of origin and to extract the maximum amount of energy from stars, then it can survive and spread essentially without limit. We said that we’re going to talk about maybe heat death towards the end, but until you get to that point, there is no limit for how far adaptive complexity can spread, as long as it-
Jim: Yeah. Once we’ve reached our level. And the question is, how probable is it that we reach our level? If we can survive for 10,000 years, we’re going to start spreading life to the universe, I think.
Bobby: Yeah. So, it’s a great question, how probable is it? The work on convergent evolution, I think Simon Conway Morris has done a lot of stuff in that area, we see that things like brains and eyes and visual systems have emerged many times in these separate lineages. So I don’t think that it’s that far of a leap to assume that if you have biospheres on other planets, that you will get, not the same species, but a similar distribution, as far as spectrum from simple to increasingly complex. Richard Dawkins has actually argued this, so there you get one of the world’s most famous skeptics saying that he doesn’t believe that intelligent life is this sort of statistical anomaly, which is what was argued by Steven J. Gould, and super influential biology people believed that for a long time. But he makes the argument that he doesn’t think what happened on this biosphere is that improbable, and that there probably is this mechanism that ratchets up complexity and intelligence.
Bobby: We talked about niche emergence. There are evolutionary arms races. So I think there’s good reason to believe that there’s not only life out there, but on planets similar to the earth, that there would be intelligent life, and maybe even life that is able to leave the planet. That’s because the system, the species, the most complex species, has to deal with an increasingly complex world, and it’s forced to model that world in increasing sophistication. Having a model of the world, I mean, that’s what science models is the universe and all of these different types of systems, and by doing that, we learn how these systems work and that allows us to control our environment better and to manipulate the world for the goal of life’s persistence.
Jim: Yeah. Very good. We’ll get into more implications of these theories. I’m going to take a rant break here and give the Ruttian view of humanity and it’s destiny, which is a little different. Then we’ll get back to Bobby’s story. My view is again, and this probably has probably come through, I’m, I’m still agnostic on this. Right? All these probabilities, how do they add up? How hard was the eukaryotic transformation? How hard was it to discover neurons? Apparently, neurons were only discovered once, maybe twice, but probably only once. How hard was finding symbols? That only happened 40,000 years ago, probably. Right? Should that on average take a trillion years or were we just lucky that it only took 550 million since multicellularity? I don’t know. I’m remaining agnostic on all that. So I suggest the following meta plan for humanity, which is we have a two forks in the road, and both are extraordinarily important.
Jim: One, let’s say that these transitions were very low probability and we are the only general intelligence in the universe. The 14 year old me would’ve said, “That’s absurd. I mean, just read Asimov and Heinlein. Those books are full of… There’s got to be hundreds of thousands of them out there. Or I look forward to meeting them.” Right? But as I’ve studied this more and more, I’ve become more and more agnostic on it. I say, it is quite possible that we are alone. And if we are, then I’d say that our responsibilities become even greater. In some sense, life is qualitatively different, more interesting and better than non-life. So human destiny therefore becomes bringing the universe to life. If we fuck it up and i.e., lose our capacity to leave the earth, then we have done a giant injustice to the universe.
Jim: Now, in 50 or 60 million years, maybe raccoons or something will re-evolve to general intelligence, and there’ll be a second whack, a second bite at the apple, but it’ll be harder. One of the reasons it’ll be harder is because we’ve depleted a lot of the easily accessible resources, like the metal ores, the fossil fuels, et cetera. Mr. Superintelligent Raccoon is going to have a harder job than Mr. Superintelligent ape did at ratcheting up advanced technology, because we’ve strip mined the earth of the easily available energy and materials. But nonetheless, there might well be a second bite at the apple. But if we’re alone, we have this huge responsibility not to fuck it up, so that we can bring the universal life because nobody else will.
Jim: Then of course, the other fork is the Fermi paradox has a reasonable explanation. They’re talking in high compressions, so we can’t understand them or they have an agreement, like the Star Trek non-intervention policy, leave those chimps alone until they get considerably more sophisticated than they are today. And at some point we’ll discover that, “Yeah, we’re one of many generally intelligent species in the galaxy.” And we will join galactic civilization or universal civilization when we’re ready.
Jim: That will also be interesting, but interestingly less fraught in some sense, right? If we’re one of 10,000 advanced technologies in the galaxy and of trillions in the universe, then if we fuck our own planet up or kill ourselves, truthfully, it ain’t all that important on the big picture of things. It would be somewhat of a tragedy, because we’ll bring our own interesting flavor to galactic and universal civilization, but it’s a different level of tragedy than if we’re the only general intelligences in the universe. The answer is we… I mean, not the answer, the reality is we do not know which of those two is true. So on the precautionary principle, it’s very important for us to, I believe, move forward assuming we’re the only general intelligence in the universe, be very, very careful to preserve our civilization until we can learn enough to find out.
Bobby: Yeah, well that scenario certainly puts the pressure on, I guess. So yeah. If we are the only intelligence, it’s kind of up to us to see that creativity, experience, all of this stuff survives, persists and spreads, but I don’t think that’s the case. Like you said, there’s no way to know right now, but I think we will see that, as we’ve discussed, that life is inevitable given the right geochemical conditions. So basically if you have the right ingredients, it will cook up life.
Bobby: I also think that these evolutionary transitions were also inevitable. If you look at the specific ones and you’re like, “Oh, this could have happened a different way,” it starts to seem improbable. But if you have an understanding of this mechanism where basically units will… So systems, they can be agents, they will come together spontaneously, because working together makes their thermodynamic task easier. This isn’t something that is a conscious decision to work together. A lot of times, you just have these agents in a similar geographic location, and they’re interacting, and through those interactions, they will just start to discover these collective configurations and the energy extraction task or whatever survival problem they’re trying to solve, becomes easier.
Jim: Like ourselves and our gut bacteria, perfect example. Right? We couldn’t extract the energy from our food nearly as efficiently without them. They’ve gotten to the point where they can’t survive at all without us. So it’s a, where the sum of the parts through cooperation is actually greater than either of the components. So anyway, that’s the end of the Jim Rutt Show rant, it’s back to the Bobby show.
Jim: Let’s talk about a topic that you championed, and Terrence Deacon also did on the show, a month ago. And that is teleology. As you know, many traditional scientists, when they hear the word teleology, they go, “Bah.” Right? “You’re trying to smuggle religion in.” Right?
Jim: I will confess that I’ve also historically had a problem with the teleology, and part of it was the fact I was raised as a Catholic. I radically rejected it in an almost religious, which I think is ironic and funny, epiphany I had when I was 11, once I decided it was all horseshit, that it was created by humans to control other humans. I now have a more sophisticated cultural, evolutionary story about that, but I still believe it’s all horseshit. But anyway, I did get infected with the Catholic catechism. This is from the Catholic dictionary, definition of teleology, “The doctrine that there is a purpose or finality in the world that nothing ever happens merely by chance. And that no complete account of the universe is possible without final reference to an all wise God.”
Jim: So I think that’s part of the reason, when people hear the T word, they go, “Bah.” But as Terrence Deacon did, and as you do, and frankly, as Aristotle does, if you read him correctly, one can make an argument for teleology that makes a whole lot more sense. So why don’t you have at it?
Bobby: Yeah. In this case, it really depends on how you’re defining these terms. The definition that you read, that’s not how I used the word teleology, and I don’t think everyone would agree on that. The word means different things to religious people than it does to scientists. A cyberneticist in the thirties and forties talked about teleological systems, and what they were really referring to, was goal directed systems. So systems that are agents that move with purpose. As I mentioned, a rock is a good example of something that doesn’t have goal directed movement. So we need a name to talk about systems that are purposeful and goal directed and teleological systems. The word teleonomy replaced teleology for some people. The evolutionary theorist, Ernst Mayr, he suggested that term. But I don’t use the term myself because I think that teleonomy doesn’t allow for this notion that there is this inevitable progress towards higher intelligence through the mechanisms I describe.
Bobby: So for me, teleology means two things. One is purposeful movement or goal oriented behavior, and the other is progress. Progress happens on earth towards higher intelligence because evolution is this knowledge creation process. That knowledge is accumulating in genetic, neural and cultural memory. So yeah, we just want to use that term. We want to define it in a naturalistic sense. I think people like Aristotle or Henri Bergson, who had the notion of “élan vital,” or Teilhard de Chardin. I think they would be completely happy with this mechanistic description of teleological systems, but what they were getting at, is that you do see this different sort of behavior with living systems compared to the inanimate world. Now we know that’s a product of the information encoded in the system that has been built up by evolution.
Bobby: So I think those guys get a bad rap. I think that they were calling something teleology or calling something a vital force. They were really trying to describe computational systems, these information processing systems, that’s what biological systems are, with the best vocabulary they had at the time. They didn’t really have this understanding of information and computation. So the vital force is the force of information we now know. But I don’t think because we understand it, we should say, “Oh, there’s no teleology or there’s no purpose in nature.” We’ve just naturalized those concepts.
Jim: So the goal, and teleology is the idea that there’s a goal behind action in some sense, what is the goal then of, let’s say, biological evolution? There’s sort of a process which is maintaining far from equilibrium status for a sufficient diversity to dissipate the most energy that is accessible via the machinery of biology, which turns out to be a small piece. But beyond that, is there any other, broader sense of what this goal might be maybe? Or put a little color on the goal of, let’s say, biology.
Bobby: Yeah. I think it depends on what scale you’re looking at. So if you zoom in and you’re looking at individual organisms, you do see this picture that you’ve described. This Second Law of Thermodynamics, tendency toward decay, does give every adaptive system an intrinsic purpose, and that’s to evade equilibrium. At that scale, that’s how we explain teleology. But if you zoom out and you look at this entire process, it seems to be that the matter, the simplest components in the universe, are organizing themselves into larger functional units, and that this process, these evolutionary transitions, meta system transitions occur inevitably. Teilhard de Chardin, the fringe paleontologist and philosopher and Jesuit, who wrote the book, Phenomenon of Man. It was heavily criticized by scientists and atheists, but he did make a prediction. He thought that there was this noosphere emerging on the planet where all of the human minds would merge into some sort of global integrated mind.
Bobby: There’s certain scientists, like Christof Koch and Harold Morowitz, who thought that a Teilhard prediction of the noosphere came true with the emergence of the internet. So the internet is connecting humans in a way where we see the human network as very similar to a brain. A brain has something like 80 billion neurons and 10,000 connections among each of those neurons, and the network of humans that spans the planet that’s connected by the internet, social media, and now blockchain systems, is doing collective computation in very much the same way that biological brains are. The output of this is the products of culture and technology and science.
Bobby: When you start to look at this picture of cosmic evolution, as a process of cosmic self-organization, where nature’s simplest components organize themselves to form larger integrated systems, which make copies of themselves and link up to form larger systems, then you start to see cosmic evolution as a process of recursive emergence and hierarchical self-organization. We get these nested systems that have this robust architecture, because for example, if our civilization fails, or if there’s a third world war, nuclear war, it doesn’t kill every component of the system. The system can self assemble again.
Bobby: So this hierarchical structure is really robust. For that reason, I think that if our civilization does have some cosmic catastrophe, or nuclear war I guess is a better example, that our civilization will self assemble and will learn from our errors and will do a better job than we did. So that’s where this inevitability comes in because adaptive complexity is fundamentally self-correcting. As it becomes more intelligent, we realize things, like the fact that our star is going to die in about 4 billion years. If intelligent life doesn’t get off the planet before then, then life is over, at least for us.
Bobby: So it creates something like a game clock. I think that any intelligent species on other planets that can… I’ve modeled the world at this level of sophistication and have technology, will also realize this. It creates this sort of imperative for spreading through the universe. I don’t think that SpaceX and Elon Musk wanting to get off the planet, I don’t think that was his decision, just his original idea. I think that this desire to get life off the planet is due to this fundamental need for us to keep acquiring knowledge to evade equilibrium.
Bobby: When you look at it at the level of the universe and you acknowledge that we are not separate from that universe, we are just configurations of inanimate matter, organized in a way that supports experience, then you see our progress and the spread of life, as the universe, as a system itself, developing as if the universe as a whole was a self-organizing adaptive system. So that’s where this larger kind of cosmic goal comes in. I don’t know if there’s an end goal, or if it’s just a series of ever greater attractors that emerge, and maybe at the end you get something like a cosmic attractor. I don’t know if there’s a culmination of this process or if it just goes on essentially forever.
Jim: Yeah. Teilhard de Chardin, he has his theory, I forget what he called it. The omega point or something?
Jim: It sounded kind of like religious blather to me, but who knows? Right?
Bobby: So yeah, omega point is just like a optimally complex state of a system. He was seeing that there was this biosphere that was becoming more integrated and computationally powerful, and he thought that this was… He did have this sort of religious association, he thought that it would be some sort of spiritual emergence, but I don’t think he was necessarily wrong. I think when humans start to see that we’re part of this cosmic evolutionary process, and we’re actually a driver of this complexification process, that it has spiritual implications and that it could change how we experience the world for the better.
Bobby: Then, certain scientists later, like Barrow and Tipler in the book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, took this idea of an omega point, which Teilhard was using to describe this point of a noosphere that’s on our planet, and applied it to the universe and argued that there could be some sort of final omega point where you have this cosmic mind that’s this infinitely powerful computational structure. Of course, when we found out that the universe was expanding at a accelerating rate, kind of cast doubt on that model, because it was based on the idea that the expansion would stop and would start to collapse towards a final singularity. But I don’t think that we know for sure where this process ends. I can talk about the challenges to this idea of a heat death, if you like.
Jim: Well, a few other things [inaudible 01:27:50]. We laid out all kinds of interesting things we’re talking about. And I do like to point out to people, we don’t know shit about dark energy, right? So even though the rate of acceleration is increasing today, doesn’t mean it might not decrease in the future and even go negative. Right?
Bobby: Yeah. It seems to be changing. I think they’ve found that-
Jim: It appears to be almost certainly changing. It’s increasing currently and has been for 5 billion years, but if it changed once, it could change again, we don’t know anything about it. So, assuming that it’s just going to keep increasing is just an assumption. I would say you can’t rule out either the eventual… If you actually extrapolate from the simpleminded increasing rate of dark energy, you can actually calculate the time when even atoms will be shredded by the dark energy. Right?
Jim: So it’s not heat death, it’s shredding of everything by dark energy and-
Bobby: A big rip, I guess.
Jim: Yeah. I think they call it that. And I go, “Yeah, truthfully, way past my pay grade. I don’t care a fuck about anything that happens more than maybe 10,000 years from now.” So I don’t spend too much time worrying about it, but I know some people do. But let’s go back to another very interesting topic, that will take us, I think, down a fairly long road and probably enough road to use up most of our time, which is this idea of a group mind and consciousnesses interacting in at a new scale.
Jim: That will get us to talk a little about, what is consciousness. One of my day jobs, to the degree I have one, is keeping up on the research on consciousness and making my own assessments and even writing my own software that implements consciousness in some rudimentary sense, [inaudible 01:29:25] claims, or at least, I should say, it’s analogous to. We started earlier on the fact that people get all confused when they talk about consciousness. They confuse it with sentience or intelligence or all kinds of things. I would say, I’ll put down my flag, that I’m a Searlean, John Searle, who argues that consciousness is a very specific biological thing. In fact, he would like to say that consciousness isn’t really a thing, it’s a process and it’s biological and it’s very much analogous to something like digestion, which is the analogy he used.
Jim: The Rutt corollary to that is, “And yeah, it often has the same final product.” Right? And so I tend not to get caught up in a bunch of hooey about consciousness. I just say it’s a thing biology evolved because it’s useful. It’s expensive, as it turns out, both in genetic code, some significant piece of our genetic code, maybe 10%, is dedicated to the machinery for things that produce consciousness. And some fair amount of our energetics, 5% maybe of all of our energy, is invested in maintaining the harmonics and network waves from which we think, we’re not sure, consciousness evolves. So I tend to de-blatherize discussions about consciousness and just say, “It’s yet another tool for information processing to allow us to play this game of more efficiently using the resources of the universe.” And, you haven’t mentioned this too many time, “Yes. We avoid getting eaten, but we also live to reproduce.” That’s important too, right, in terms of Darwinian evolution. So consciousness is a specific biologically grounded thing.
Jim: I’m very interested because you talk about the self modeling and all that. I’m not a hundred percent sure that’s at the essence because again, there’s a number of people at the Searlean school that would argue that consciousness goes back, at least as far as the amphibians, relatively rudimentary consciousness. I like Gerald Edelman’s model, where he makes a distinguishing of primary consciousness, which is essentially, “You are inside your own self-authored movie” kind of thing. Right? And I would argue, clearly the kind of consciousness that we share with a dog. Right? No doubt in my mind that unlike Descartes, who didn’t believe dogs are conscious, I do. But if you push that back, you can see that, by argument of incremental change, perfectly reasonable to push it back at least to amphibians, certainly to reptiles. Do they have a self model where they’re self-conscious? I don’t know. But to the fact, do they live in their own self-created audio video experience like we do? Probably. So I’ll start with that and say, what do you think consciousness is? And how far back does it go?
Bobby: Yeah. There are a lot of things you mentioned there. So I’ll try to remember all of them, to touch on that. Searle’s important to talk about. But when I say that consciousness requires self modeling capacity, to be clear, I’m not talking about self consciousness. All I’m talking about here is that a brain allows an organism to encode the consequences of its actions. So, if you reach across your room and you knock your drink over, you make a memory of that event and the next time, you don’t do it. Prior to brains, there was just this, at least mostly, this mechanism of phylogenetic learning, where you had a single cell organism, for example, and it’s doing its thing, due to information that has built up through the evolutionary process. So you-
Bobby: Information that has built up through the evolutionary process, so you get this intelligent behavior with something like chemotaxis. But if it bumps into something or encounters something that it hasn’t countered before, it cannot make a memory of that. It doesn’t have the machinery to do that. What brains do is it allows us to record the consequences of our actions, and that creates a data variable for the agent. I become aware of myself in a sense when I’m forming memories based off my interactions with the world.
Jim: That’s not enough to give consciousness, though. It would seem extremely primitive. Things like sea elegans are adaptive. They have plasticity, they have the equivalent of memories; at least they change their behavior permanently based on things they encounter in life. Would you think that that level of very minimal neuro structures are conscious?
Bobby: That’s what I argue in the book. I’m not sure that could be necessary but not sufficient. But I think brains are a good place to draw the line because you do have this self modeling capacity in the sense I mentioned. And if you believe integrated information theory, for example, then you would have conscious organisms that are much simpler than that. You would have a single celled organism that would be having some phenomenal, conscious experience. I don’t think that’s right. And I think panpsychism is this trendy thing right now probably because of integrated information theory, but that it is going down… It’s going in the wrong direction. I don’t think it’s right.
Jim: Yeah. I had Christof Koch on the show sometime back, and we argued quite a bit about that. And he didn’t convince me and I didn’t convince him because the radical integrated information theory guys, the [inaudible 01:34:59], and of who Christof is now probably the leading collaborator, they’d argue a light switch is conscious; got one bit of consciousness. They can actually calculate how much consciousness something had.
Jim: But something else that you had in your book I think is closer to a line where you should start talking about consciousness. You talk about Bernard Barr’s global workspace theory. We had Bernie on, I don’t know, a little over a year ago, had very good conversation about the global workspace theory. And at that point, it strikes me that you have something more like this idea of being embedded in your own self-authored audio, visual production, or there’s conscious contents, they’re co-activated with each other, they’re given access to the other structural comparts of the brain, et cetera.
Jim: And you did reference him, Thomas Nagel’s famous, famous essay, What’s it Like to be a Bat? or something. A useful operational definition of consciousness is a thing of which it is like something to be in a subjective sense; you have the subjective experience. And my argument has always been that once I learned enough to be able to make the argument, that there’s a certain set of advanced neuronal structures necessary before that occurs, and that that’s where we should draw the line. And it’s way after the emergence of neurons and rudimentary brains and rather a specific organizational scheme, which results in consiousness.
Bobby: Yeah. Well, I think it’s a good point to articulate or make the distinction between two different types of consciousness. We have phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. And the philosopher, Ned Block, is who first made this distinction. Phenomenal consciousness would just be that raw sensation and experience. We’re talking about that there’s this point of view, there’s this observer and there’s this unified, cohesive field of experience.
Bobby: And then we have access consciousness, which is if we rehearse a phone number, for example, or we think of a friend and how that person looks and we have that image in our mind, that’s using access consciousness. These two types of consciousness have different neural substrates, and access consciousness is much more sophisticated than raw, phenomenal consciousness.
Bobby: IIT has described phenomenal consciousness being the substrate, being in the back of the brain. There’s this, I think it’s called a posterior hot zone where global workspace theory, Bernard Barr’s theory, is talking about the frontal lobe is really the area that’s the substrate for access consciousness. And you have these frontal parietal loops that create this entrained neural activity that allows for this… I guess you would have stuff that’s consciously in your mind. You can imagine having phenomenal experience where you’re just spacing out and there’s no access consciousness. I think once we make that distinction, we can get on the same page about what we’re talking about, because then people saying that you have a simpler consciousness without this sophisticated prefrontal cortex machinery, maybe they’re right, but they’re talking about a simpler form of consciousness.
Jim: I don’t know about that one, because there’s some very good lab psychology work that shows that it’s very difficult to do any kind of higher learning without spotlight attention. And spotlight attention would seem to be a manifestation of frontal lobe forms of consciousness. And I would reject that the back brain is where the perceptual work is being done. And to argue that perception itself is consciousness, I think is an overshot. You have to have more than just perceptual application, you have to have the parietal zone where you create objects, and then you have to have the dance of the objects in the global workspace before I would call it consciousness. But-
Bobby: Yeah, well, so yeah, attention is spotlight or a filter, and it basically erects consciousness toward areas of the environment that are biologically relevant. But I think you could imagine agent having experience without the ability to be able to direct attention selectively to certain parts of the environment. I’m not sure that attention is necessary for just this raw, phenomenal experience. But you may be right.
Jim: Yeah. Well, it may not be, but it may. I would argue it probably wouldn’t have evolved because served no useful purpose. You go to the amphibian, for instance, the frog. One of the things that we have learned is the frog has this… apparently a very rudimentary movie of its visual field, and when it sees something that’s the right size and actually angle of intercept that’s within its tongue range of a fly or anything like a fly, it’ll strike at it. It seems to be watching a movie in its brain, and its brain seems to trigger. You can hold a paper cut out of a fly that’s three times the size, hold it three times as far away, and it will trigger. It’s a very rudimentary movie that it’s watching, but, nonetheless, they can look at the brain waves going around. Seems to be implementing this movie, and that’s called perceptual conscious but also attentional in that it focuses on this thing, that’s the fly, and then it fires one of its affordances, from what we would call procedural memory at the human level, and tries to nip the fly. But I don’t see how you get the phenomenal consciousness without the actionability. Doesn’t make any evolutionary sense to me. But anyway, neither here nor there. We’ll move on.
Bobby: Yeah, it depends on if you think integrated information, if that’s enough to create some cohesive perceptual experience, or-
Jim: Yeah. I’m pretty strong that information is a necessary but not sufficient condition for something like consciousness. Scott Aaronson has shown that you can create some mathematical entities, computer programs that will generate structures that have high nominal fi, which is Tononi’s measure of integrate information that are clearly not conscious. I think it’s quite likely that things that are conscious will have high fis, but things that have high fis are not necessarily conscious.
Jim: But now let’s go on to the group mind idea, because this is something that’s quite intimately involved with integrated information theory. Tononi himself refutes the idea of a group mind. At least he says that if you were to take a bunch of humans and connect them via the internet, the fi, there is no increase in fi, hardly measurable, that integrated information within each brain is vastly higher than the fi between the brains. And so I would suggest that to talk about the group mind as like the conscious mind is a category error at this point in time when we have this very narrow bandwidth. And it is something different. It is an emergent kind of processing that is not like consciousness but is a new way to organize in the same way that the forger band is a way to organize. The limited liability corporation is a way to organize, the nation state is a way to organize. And I would suggest that the internet of humanity is more like that than it is like a super consciousness. And only once we get really high brain-to-brain bandwidths will we actually be talking about something like a super mind.
Bobby: Yeah, well, that’s what I argue in the book, that this global brain… I do think it makes sense to call it a global brain because you do have this integrated system with these components, which are the agents that are interacting and exchanging information. And that’s creating our technology and science. Those things are collective pursuits.
Bobby: But I think it is something comparable to a very simple organism where you have computational or cognitive system, so there is this coherent information processing at this level of the global brain, but that there’s no global mind or consciousness, there’s no agent that’s actually experiencing the world through this phenomenal lens. And I don’t know if that’s something that can emerge, I’m leaning towards yes, but it would, at the minimum, have to do what you said: integrate information theory argues that the fi of the larger network would have to be greater than the fi of the brains that compose the network.
Bobby: The question is is it possible in the future? And I think Christof Koch argues that it is, and that when we reach this point where we’re… Let’s say people are interacting and the fi of the group interaction is greater than the individuals that there will be some sort of… this larger consciousness subsuming the individuals. And that’s really intriguing idea. I have no idea what that would feel like [inaudible 01:44:13].
Jim: Yeah, welcome to the board, right?
Jim: And again, I can see that it is logically possible. Whether we can get there from being humans or we have to upload ourselves to the cloud first, I’m not sure, but I think it is certainly logically possible, and it might be our destiny. We’re about out of time here. We’ve gone longer than I usually do. I told Bobby up front that we’d spend two hours rather than 90 minutes because there was just so much good chewy stuff in this book. And by the way, we didn’t even get to half of it, so those of you are interested in the ideas here, read The Romance of Reality by Bobby Azarian, a really good book. I really recommend it.
Jim: But let’s go off into a last topic, which is kind of out there, which is you do quite a good, interesting riff on arguments about the nature of reality, interesting statistical arguments about the multiverse for instance. And one of my favorite topics is the weak and strong anthropic principle. Why don’t you start with what those are, and then what that may mean? May with a big may, big question mark, about the realities of the universe that we live in.
Bobby: Okay, yeah. This is the biggest topic, I guess, in the book, and the one I find the most interesting. We have this fine tuning problem, or more cautious people would call it apparent fine tuning. I’m not sure it’s necessary to say that, and I’ll explain why.
Bobby: The fine tuning problem comes from the fact that the parameters of the universe, the physical laws and constants have to be what they are to allow for the emergence of life. If you tweak the strength of the force of gravity or the weak or strong nuclear force, for example, you would get a universe that has no life and probably has no real structure, so there’s this mystery as to why we find ourselves in a universe that seems to be this highly improbable universe. But that’s really only a problem if there’s a single universe. I should say that if the story this book is proposing is true, then the fine tuning problem is even harder, it’s even worse because it’s no longer saying that the fine tuning just allows for life, that we have a life friendly universe, but that it necessitates life and that the universe itself is this self-organizing, adaptive agent. It would seem like there is very specific tuning of parameters.
Bobby: Now, the reason I said some people will say a parent fine tuning is because if this isn’t the only universe, if we’re in this vast multiverse that has infinite number or a super, super large number of universes, then the reason that we find ourselves in a life friendly universe is because there’s this observer selection effect. We just happen to be in one of the very improbable universes, but there’s tons of universes out there with no life and no structure at all. But I don’t completely find that explanation persuasive, or at least it’s not as persuasive as some of the other explanations.
Jim: Yeah. Just to be clear, first is the strong anthropic principle, which is that we live in one universe, it’s astoundingly well tuned for us and we don’t know why. And of course the traditional explanation be God did it, right? Or-
Jim: … maybe it’s some kid playing on his Sony PlayStation in a Meta universe, and we’re a simulation, and he’s a smart enough kid to set the setting so something interesting will happen. But anyway, there’s some reason the settings are what they are. And then the weak anthropic principle is that, yes, they are set, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here by definition. And then the extension from that is that the weak anthropic principle is a good fit though not necessary with a multiverse theory.
Jim: And it’s also important people to note that there are various flavors of multiverse, which makes this even more confusing. Now, one is the continuous inflation model where there was a big bang, but may not have been 13.5 billion years ago. And the inflation, which is one of the theories on why the universe is like it is, keeps happening and happened many, many times. And there’s many causily disconnected islands in the same creation, essentially, and that they may have somewhat different scientific laws, some of which will rule out life, some of which rule in life. And this is something people forget all the time. Some of them may be tuned in ways that are nothing like that would allow our life to exist but they might be tunings that allow something else interesting to exist that we can’t even imagine, right?
Jim: And people forget about that case. It’s not all just gray goo, probably. There’s probably some other interesting little islands out there that we can’t even imagine. That’s one form of multiverse.
Jim: And then the other one, the one that Sean Carroll likes to talk about a lot, becoming more and more popular, though it strikes me as the absolutely opposite of parsimony, which is the quantum multiverse where at every quantum mechanical choice, a new universe is spawned off. And of course what makes it even more interesting is that the two multiverse models, one contains the other. A quantum multiverse can also be a ongoing inflation multiverse, so you have multiverses within multiverses. There’s a shitload of universes to choose from if you want to go down that road.
Bobby: Yeah. I think Max Techmark has outlined all of the different multiverses, and I’ve seen people refer to it as the Maxiverse. [inaudible 01:50:03].
Jim: Yeah. I like that. I should check that out because I’ve been interested in the fact that there are just… Numbering universes just seems like it could be mighty large. But for parsimony sake alone and just aesthetic taste, I go I’m going to reject all that. Just say there’s one. Fuck it. Right?
Jim: And then when-
Bobby: Yeah, it’s interesting because it’s not an empirical question. You got to ask this question, how did it become part of accepted science that we’re talking about the multiverse? It’s an interesting situation where we have basically a metaphysical theory. The multiverse theory is metaphysical in the sense that… Well, you could say 100 years ago it was metaphysical. If someone said, “Oh, there could be other universes,” they’d be like, “Oh, that’s not science, that’s sci-fi and metaphysics.” But now a lot of people consider the idea of a multiverse as being a scientific idea.
Bobby: Why did that happen? Because of the fine tuning problem. People weren’t happy with the strong anthropic topic principle so the multiverse theory, which was already around… And there’s mathematical reasons to make that hypothesis. But I think the reason it got more popular and the reason that we saw a fundamentally metaphysical theory become a physical theory was because it explained this problem that scientists and atheists weren’t happy with, which is that fine tuning seemed to imply something like a design. Yeah, today’s metaphysics could very well easily be tomorrow’s physics. There seems to be no clear cut way to know, for example, how big reality is.
Bobby: Let’s quickly go through those options that you mentioned. As you said, we have the strong anthropic principle and the weak principle. And both of these on their own don’t say anything that specific, it’s really the implications of those models. Like you said, the strong principle says, okay, we have a fine tune universe; there seems to be only one so that’s pretty miraculous. And people have used that to argue for a God, for some intelligent creator. But as you point out, it could be something like simulation, some creation by some intelligent agent that’s not necessarily a God. I’m not sure that that distinction is that important because any agent who becomes intelligent enough, sophisticated enough through, presumably an evolutionary process to be able to create this world of conscious agents, would be godlike in their powers.
Jim: Yeah, that’s good point. The kid with his super PlayStation at least as powerful as the God of Genesis, maybe more so, right?
Jim: Because he can set the parameters of the universe. Catholic theologians will argue on whether God could change the parameters of the universe or not, but we know the kid with the PlayStation probably has a little slider, right?
Bobby: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it’s really interesting. It means we have to consider that there are levels to reality, and that, who knows? Something like a God, like an intelligent creator from a religious book could be true in some very general, abstract sense, but then you have to ask where did they come from? To me, it’s not the ultimate answer if there’s God, it just means there’s an intelligent agent in a base reality that created our world, which we haven’t created conscious agents inside our simulated worlds, but we have done enough to show that the idea is probably logically possible. And soon as we display or demonstrate that ability, taking a Basian approach, we have to automatically make that a theory for… Whether that explains our universe and the fine tuning. Yeah, it’s just a idea I throw out there because there just seems to be this unnecessary war between is there a creator or not? And maybe there is a creator, but still, that could work within a scientific framework if that creator himself, herself, itself emerged from an evolutionary process.
Jim: Yeah. As you point out, you get the infinite regress problem. Where did the kid with the PlayStation come from, right?
Bobby: Yeah, you do, but it might not be bad because maybe it explains… It could explain fine tuning, and then that universe or reality that’s this more base reality, perhaps it has some structure that would be more easily explained and not show the fine tuning we have, so it might not be completely useless to think about.
Jim: Yeah. Then the other one that you did mention… Actually, I’ve got another one of the Jim Rutt show guests. He’s smiling in his evolutionary universe theory, which I like. You seem to show a taste for it also, the hypothesis that the back end of black holes are new universes, essentially, with some tweaking of the laws of physics each time a new us universe is generated. And he goes into some quite elegant arguments on why our universe is a fairly typical universe under such a evolutionary theme that we’re producing black holes at about the right rate, blah, blah, blah. Another interesting bootstrap way of getting to the weak anthropic principle but at the cost of lots and lots of universes in which nothing much interesting is happening.
Bobby: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s awesome. Yeah, Let me address that. Oh, but quickly, the multiverse explanation, why I don’t think it’s that compelling. If there is this multiverse that’s largely lifeless, there would be a small set of universes that are life friendly and there would be a much smaller set that are these, what Paul Davies calls optimally biophilic universes. I was going to say teleological universes, but I guess optimally biophilic… Since people are scared of that word, teleogy.
Bobby: You have a subset of the multiverse that’s minimally biophilic universes, and then a much smaller subset that’s optimally biophilic. And if the multiverse explanation is right and we just happen to find ourselves in a life friendly world, then it seems to me that it would be more likely that we find ourselves in a world where life is insignificant and transient and doesn’t have this ability to leave the planet and spread, that it would be more likely to find ourselves in a minimally biophilic universe than one of these self-organizing, optimally biophilic universes.
Bobby: If there’s a theory out there like cosmological natural selections, Smolin’s theory, that explains why we should find ourselves not just in a life friendly universe but this universe where life seems to be able to spread almost without limit, then that might be a better explanation for our universe. You already said it, but just to restate it, in Smolin’s idea, you start with the universe. That universe has to be stable enough to create a black hole, but that black hole is actually a big bang event in offspring universe. And the offspring universe would inherit the parameters of the parent universe, but because nature is just fundamentally noisy, you would get something like a mutation where you would get variation and the offspring universe would be slightly different than the parent universe. If this is true, then you see this Darwinian cosmological reproduction process where universes that are better at creating black holes will be the ones that… There will be more of them.
Bobby: You can take Smolin’s idea a little bit farther by saying if you have the emergence of a universe with intelligence that can actually engineer black holes and create these new big bang events, then you would have a selection process where universes with life start to populate and dominate this multiverse. What’s interesting about this theory, this possibility is that basically you have a similar teleological model that’s with the strong anthropic principle, which says life must emerge and then spread, you just have this on the level of a multiverse. You have the inevitable emergence of life because the conditions that are good for creating black holes are also the conditions that create carbon based life. But if you have this further thing where intelligent universes, or universes with intelligent life can create all of these baby universes, then you see this teleological structure to that multiverse where life not only emerges but it starts to spread and dominate this multiverse picture.
Bobby: You can’t get away from this idea that life is somehow central to reality. And to me, that has spiritual implications. Because you could imagine a static universe where life emerges, and then it’s transient, and then the nothing interesting happens; there’s no adaptive complexity that spreads. But I don’t think we live in that kind of reality, I think we live in a reality where the universe or the multiverse, whatever’s the largest thing is fundamentally creative and it generates novelty, and the products of this novelty generation are life and consciousness. And I think that’s pretty neat.
Jim: We’re going to wrap it up there. That’s very hopeful. And man, this has been one of my favorite episodes ever. We’ve touched on a zillion interesting topics. Listeners of The Jim Rutt Show, go to Amazon right now and buy The Romance of Reality. Let’s push Bobby up on the bestseller chart on Amazon.
Bobby: Ooh. Yeah, let’s do it. If you order the book and you screenshot the receipt and send it to email@example.com, I will send you a signed and numbered book plate sticker that goes in the book. This was super fun, Jim. I love all the questions. They were definitely challenging. Yeah, let’s do it again sometime.
Jim: Yeah, this was great. And again, well, we hit the high points, but there’s a whole lot of richness in the book that we did not get to, so don’t think that you don’t need to buy the book because you all listened to the podcast, right?
Bobby: Yeah, and articulated way better than I could today because I had lots of time for that. And Jim, you definitely asked questions that I haven’t been asked in interview, so, yeah, it was fun. The book should explain everything a lot more cohesively.