Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Intelligent Universe by James Gardner

I have long toyed with the idea that intelligence is embedded in the universe, it is not an emergent property but an intrinsic property. Materialists will resile at that idea but they can eat my shorts. As I like to say, how is it that in this materialist universe our most powerful tools are ideas?

I have long been sceptical of the strict materialist position because I have always found the probabilities of life emerging, let alone the marvellous complexity and diversity of life, as being so improbable that Hoyle's famous comment about life arising by chance being akin to a hurricane going through a junkyard and creating an aircraft in the process to be a reasonable argument. There is an important caveat here and it is this: when confronted with mysteries don't embrace ghosts to deal with the mystery. Acknowledge the mystery but don't second guess it.

Nonetheless, when you read studies like this one about "intelligent slime" you have to wonder what on earth is going on with this intelligence business. Einstein once famously said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. A reasonable comment, especially if you accept evolution as an explanation for the emergence of intelligence. It is completely impossible to derive an evolutionary based argument that can explain how selection pressures gave rise to an intelligent species that give rise to people like John Moffat. (On the other hand, it is not so surprising that evolution should give rise to intelligence like mine.) It makes no sense that evolution should endow human beings with an intellectual capacity that is dazzling in its power and far in excess of anything else on the planet. Some argue that this is just another lucky accident of evolution. Of course they couch this in technical words like "epiphenomenon". Words don't matter, ideas do, and calling something an lucky accident or epiphenomenon is not an argument it is an attempt to feign knowledge in the face of overwhelming ignorance. cowardice. Just say it: Don't know!

The basic premise of Gardner's work, which is based on his earlier text, Biocosm, is that the universe is much more than a set a physical laws, that it may well be a living thing, a computational thing, a highly creative thing. I used to argue with people that if we define creativity as the ability to create new things then compared to the universe we're as dumb as it gets. In the creativity stakes the universe beats us hands down. It makes us look dull but we are not, we humans are amazing, no amount of theorising based on neuroscience and evolution and psychology, at present at least, can ever hope to explain our creative and intellectual potential.

I can't say I was impressed with this text of Gardner's, the ideas are interesting but poorly formulated, the text lacks a sequential elaboration of argument and tends to rely too much on one off statements and arguments. Oddly enough, while Gardner draws a long bow in putting forward his arguments, he also makes reference to assertions by various individuals to assert just how ignorant we are. For example:
The most difficult thing for laypeople to understand about science, Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann once told me after a lecture in Portland, Oregon, is how very little scientists truly comprehend about the basic nature of nature, how vast is our ignorance of the fundamental reality of the cosmos. 

He then quotes Newton who made a similiar comment. And continues ...
Why is that our greatest geniuses - Gell-Mann, Feynman(? - not sure he is correct there), Newton, and their ilk - can humbly concede how pitifully limited is the reach of deep human insight and comprehension while lesser spirits noisily proclaim the certainty of their conclusions and forcefully dismiss any dissent, doubt, or skepticism? 
The short answer, I think, is that humans crave certainty. 
Yes, that is the short answer. I'll be more blunt. People hate saying, "I don't know!" Learn the habit of saying that and with a little luck as the years go by you won't end up, as I have done, cursing yourself for entertaining and promoting so many dumb ideas. A word of advice, if a person is always expressing confidence about their views adopt the assumption that person is an idiot, or arrogant, or a confidence trickster.

If you are not familiar with the types of arguments that revolve around ideas about the universe as being more than a physical thing then this book is a good starting point. It provides a welter of further reading material and does introduce us to some very interesting ideas being developed within artificial intelligence, information theory, and cosmology.

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