The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life
It is a thrilling time to be alive—perhaps more so than any other time in human history. Right now, we are beginning to experience a paradigm shift, and it is a profound one. A paradigm is a general scientific worldview, and a paradigm shift occurs when new science forces us to adopt a different overall framework and perspective. Such a shift occurred when humanity learned that the earth was not the center of the universe, but instead a seemingly insignificant planet among countless others. Another major shift happened when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection explained that all life in the biosphere evolved from a single common ancestor, that is, a single-celled organism.
While the paradigms that these discoveries ushered in taught us a lot about the universe and our origins, they helped shape a worldview that depicted life in the cosmos as accidental and utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This view, which resonated with critics of religion and enemies of superstition, was reinforced by subsequent scientific breakthroughs and the popular philosophical interpretations of these new laws and processes.
For example, around the same time that Darwin was writing On the Origin of Species, scientists were formulating the second law of thermodynamics, a principle that created an overwhelmingly bleak cosmic narrative. Not only was the universe’s useful energy supply constantly being depleted—like a great engine running out of fuel—a new statistical understanding of the law seemed to imply that the world was continually becoming more disordered and random. If true, it would mean that all forms of complexity and organization, including intelligent life, are doomed to a transient and ultimately insignificant existence, cosmically speaking.
The significance of life took another blow around the mid-twentieth century. The discovery of the DNA molecule confirmed Darwin’s big idea: all forms of life in the biosphere, from hamsters to humans, were produced by a blind and mindless mechanical process that could be boiled down to replication with genetic mutation, which inevitably leads to speciation. While Darwin himself was careful not to assume that this was nature’s sole evolutionary mechanism, many proponents of his theory did just that. Since in their minds the creation of complex forms required biological evolution, the actual emergence of life came to be portrayed as the result of some improbable molecular collision rather than a lawful evolutionary process, like self-organization. In other words, life was a statistical fluke—a “cosmic accident” so unlikely that we should not expect it elsewhere in the universe.
This general sentiment was in line with the dominant scientific ideology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, known as reductionism, which proposed that reality could be best understood by breaking down all physical phenomena to their simplest parts and processes, so that we may observe the basic behavior of the fundamental constituents of nature in isolation. According to the gospel of reductionism, whenever possible, the social sciences and psychology should be reduced to biology, biology should be reduced to chemistry, and chemistry should be reduced to fundamental physics. Although the reductionist approach has been wildly successful, giving us most of our greatest physical theories, it created the impression that all life-forms, including humans, are nothing more than collections of atoms obligatorily following fixed and arbitrary mechanical trajectories, determined solely by math and not by mind.
As a result, the reductionist approach to science helped popularize the philosophical stance known as materialism, which holds that reality only consists of that which is physical. While this view helped further rid science of supernatural concepts like souls and spirits, classic materialism denied the existence of apparently immaterial things, like consciousness, and largely ignored the concepts of energy and information. In doing so, materialism reduced us to zombielike meat machines with no agency, feeling, or inner experience. To most materialists, life and mind are considered to be “epiphenomena” if acknowledged at all, which essentially means they don’t matter; they are just there. Any feeling of free will we might have when making a decision is merely an illusion. We are not the authors of our actions but passive observers who get constantly fooled by the brain into believing we’re not causally impotent.
Collectively, these intellectual advances formed what philosophers call the reductionist worldview. This paradigm was not satisfied merely with the removal of god and the soul from the physical picture—it also wanted to purge nature of all traces of purpose or progress. Regarding such important existential questions as “How did we get here?” and “Where are we going?” the reductionist worldview answers “luck” and “probably nowhere.” It was supremely rational to adopt this worldview, as that is how things first appear to those who have rightly abandoned explanations for natural phenomena that invoke the supernatural. But the paradigm that is on the horizon leads us to a very different conclusion—one that will radically transform the way we think about the universe and our place in it. In particular, the phenomena that we call life, consciousness, and intelligence will be shown to have deep cosmic significance.
These insights come from considering the roles that energy and information play in the emergence and growth of complexity. Such considerations are the realm of a relatively new academic discipline known as complexity science, a unification of the major sciences of our time including, but not limited to, physics, biology, neuroscience, computer science, evolutionary theory, and statistics. These sciences and their methods have been combined by researchers with interdisciplinary backgrounds to form an integrated approach, equally theoretical and experimental, aimed at understanding how nature’s dynamical systems emerge and evolve over time. A dynamical system is a general term for any system made of a set of interacting components that can explore a variety of structural or functional states, and they can be physical, chemical, biological, cognitive, social, or technological. Complexity science studies dynamical systems on all scales, from the imperceptibly small to the inconceivably large, including the largest dynamical system of all, the universe itself.
The methods employed by complexity scientists—the stepchildren of the cyberneticists and chaos theorists of the twentieth century—achieve something that the reductionist approach is fundamentally incapable of: They allow us to understand how nature’s building blocks spontaneously self-assemble through a synergistic dance that creates wondrous emergent phenomena, like life, mind, and civilization. It turns out that the collective behavior of interacting parts, not simply how they function in isolation, is key to understanding the emergence and evolution of all the fascinating organisms and ecosystems that make up the biosphere. These kinds of dynamical systems are special in their ability to adapt to a changing environment, and they have been suitably named complex adaptive systems. We can generally think of life as a form of adaptive complexity, to distinguish it from the non-adaptive forms of complexity, like the order we see in structures such as crystals and snowflakes, which is fixed and not functional. Adaptive complexity is a flexible term that allows us to talk about the entire biosphere as an integrated and interconnected network of complex adaptive systems.
Adaptive complexity has often been described as existing at the boundary between order and chaos—the “edge of chaos” it’s been called—and it is at this juncture where structure and randomness conspire to create systems that are optimally resilient, flexible, and innovative. Due to the intricate and convoluted nature of complex adaptive systems, from cells to communities, their dynamics could not be adequately understood or predicted until computer modeling reached a certain level of sophistication. Recognizing this fact, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking famously declared that the twenty-first century would be “the century of complexity.”
From a deeper understanding of how complexity emerges in nature, a new cosmic narrative is being revealed that will change our understanding of our origins and our future. I call it new, but paradigms don’t come about overnight. They often spread gradually at first, slowly permeating scientific, philosophical, and intellectual circles until a tipping point is reached, triggering a sudden rise to prominence. Well, that tipping point is on our doorstep. While this new “big picture” will likely surprise most people, it may seem logical if not obvious to those curious minds who have tried to imagine the future implied by the exponential rate of technological progress. Whether the paradigm I speak of confirms intuitions, surprises you, or triggers a skeptical reaction, it is likely to excite you, because in a strong sense, it is about you.
Through rigorous scientific argument and mechanistic explanation, The Romance of Reality will elucidate why it is not just the biosphere but the entire universe that is undergoing an adaptive transformation. The assumption that our world is gradually drifting toward a more disordered, random, and lifeless state is utterly wrong and the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of thermodynamic law. If it is accurate to think of the cosmos as a massive computational machine, it is not one that is winding down. In terms of adaptive complexity, it appears to be just getting started. Through a series of hierarchical emergences—a nested sequence of parts coming together to form ever-greater wholes—the universe is undergoing a grand and majestic self-organizing process, and at this moment in time, in this corner of the universe, we are the stars of the show.
As cosmic evolution proceeds, the world is becoming increasingly organized, increasingly functional, and, because life and consciousness emerge from sufficient complexity and information integration, increasingly sentient. Through the evolution and eventual outward expansion of self-aware beings like ourselves, and their efforts to organize matter into arrangements that support information processing and computation, the universe is, in a very real and literal sense, waking up. It is not waking up independent of us, as in a panpsychic sense, but through us, as all the matter that composes life was once inanimate. As cosmologist and science educator Carl Sagan famously put it, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Rather than brushing it off as merely a poetic metaphor, this book takes Sagan’s statement seriously and places it within the context of cosmic evolution. In doing so, we see that adaptive complexity has initiated a cosmic awakening process that is only just beginning. Where it ends is to be determined. Exactly how the story goes curiously appears to crucially depend on the actions of intelligent life. In fact, it could depend in some meaningful way on you, and on us, collectively.
While the laws and constants of physics seem to have carved out this evolutionary trajectory for life in the universe—described by futurists like Google’s Ray Kurzweil as a “cosmic destiny,” determined not in detail but in rough outline—the hard truth is that existential success is in no way guaranteed for Homo sapiens. There is no particular law or force of nature preventing our civilization from failing. Progress occurs not because it is being driven by some mystical force, but because life learns from continual failure. Natural selection is nature’s algorithm for error correction. If we are not wise, we could be the errors that get corrected. In that case, the next civilization or species will have their go, and if they do not repeat our mistakes, they will advance beyond where we were at the height of our glory. This book aims to show that knowledge in the biosphere will accumulate under either scenario.
But we don’t have to fail. The fact that humans truly are, as this book will argue, autonomous agents with free will—formalized as causal power—means that it is up to us to decide between extinction and transcendence. We have every incentive to work toward the latter and away from the former. Through the collective efforts of humanity, by way of our intellectual, cultural, and technological progress, we can continue to assist the cosmos in its great awakening process. Promoting an awareness of our emergent cosmic purpose could facilitate exponential social, economic, and technological progress, allowing us to transcend our intrinsic limitations and the biosphere to extend itself outward into the heavens.
Of course, the new cosmic narrative should not be taken on faith. Any claims so magnificent should, as a rule, be greeted with thorough skepticism. A paradigm shift of this magnitude requires a satisfying physical account of the evidence supporting such a radical departure from general scientific consensus. But that account does indeed exist, and the pages to come will describe the exciting new theories, experimental findings, and physical processes that substantiate these remarkable assertions.
The major emergences in the self-organization of the universe will be explained mechanistically, so that we may see precisely how and why adaptive complexity and the knowledge it embodies grows inevitably and without bound, as a consequence of the laws of physics and the evolutionary dynamics that emerge from the constraints they impose on matter in motion. In our quest to understand cosmic evolution, we will arrive at a “theory of everything” that we may call a unifying theory of reality.
This ambitious theory attempts to solve the greatest remaining mysteries of science. The infamous “hard problem of consciousness,” the puzzle of free will, and the mystery of increasing cosmic complexity in an increasingly entropic universe all begin to unravel as the unifying theory dissolves the paradoxes created by the unjustified assumptions of the reductionist worldview and exposes the language traps that have prevented us from making intellectual progress for so long. By introducing a new evolutionary synthesis—the integrated evolutionary synthesis—the unifying theory of reality bridges the gap between the quantum and cosmological with principles from evolutionary biology.
This book is an invitation to a cosmic journey dedicated to understanding the universe, how it is waking up, and what that means for us as human beings. Part One of this book, “Origins,” is about the emergence of life on Earth. To understand this event, we must become familiar with the basic concepts of complexity science and cybernetics, such as self-organization, phase transitions, attractors, and feedback loops. Part Two, “Evolution,” is about the emergence and evolution of intelligent life in the cosmos. Evolutionary epistemology, universal Darwinism, and an emerging paradigm called universal Bayesianism will allow us to integrate the concepts from Part One into a unified theory of systems. Part Three, “Transcendence,” covers consciousness, free will, and the ultimate fate of life in the universe.
By the end of the trip, we will have arrived at a new scientific and spiritual worldview—called poetic meta-naturalism—that challenges everything we thought we knew about the world. According to this philosophy, reality is inherently creative because it is always producing novel patterns that are “rhymes” on the patterns of the past. The knowledge this new worldview offers about the power of knowledge may be the only thing that can save our specific civilization from self-destruction. The existential game clock is ticking, so let’s get started.
1 A New Beginning
2 Energy, Entropy, and the Paradox of Life
3 Unraveling the Mystery of Life
4 The Emergence of Life on Earth
5 Biological Information and Computation
6 Natural Selection and Knowledge Creation
7 A Unifying Theory of Reality
8 The Integrated Evolutionary Synthesis
9 Hierarchical Emergence
10 The Mind-Body Mystery
11 Causal Emergence and Free Will
12 The Strange Loop That Spawns the Self
13 Transcendence and Enlightenment
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|Epub, PDF||July 13, 2022|
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