In the last article of the series, “Infinity: We’ve been here before”, we discussed the possibility, given the current science theories of creation, that the universe, given infinite time, will be recreated again and again, infinitely, and so will have infinite opportunities to assume the same configuration, effectively repeating all the possible universes an infinite amount of times. The “reality edition” of the library of babel.
We were left with two really tough questions, though:
- Where do the quantum vacuum fluctuations really come from?
- Where do the quantum fluctuations actually happen? In other words, where IS the universe?
Note that a physicist would probably answer the latter with “in the Bulk”, and the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would be enough to explain the former. Stephan Wolfram would talk (at great length) about hypergraphs and rules. A spiritual person would call on God, or the Universe trying to understand itself, which for me goes back to the Chicken and Egg problem. I am none of those. Unlike everyone listed, I refuse recursive answers — answers which raise more questions, like “where does the hypergraph live, who makes the rules, and what computing substrate are they executed on?”. I also refuse to invoke belief or pseudo-science. But unlike a “real” physicist, I also allow myself to get out of the “description” mode and attempt explanations, speculating outside the boundaries of current physics frameworks.
Emergence Of Control
A lot of what I am going to discuss in this first part is described in Valentin Turchin’s “Phenomenon of Science” (that you can download on the page linked in the footnotes****) in great detail. I will, however, summarize, focus on the main point, and will go further back than either the Phenomenon Of Science or the current Principia Cybernetica**** pages.
Let’s begin at the beginning of life on Earth, as the science currently understands it. With a little twist. (What does that have to do with the universe? We will get there, I promise.)
Earth, some 4 billion years ago. The oceans are a dirty soup of salts and chemicals spewed out by volcanoes. There is no life to consume them, they permeate everything, some maybe forming a layer on the top, some a layer on the ground. Lightning strikes the top layer repeatedly, forming various interesting compounds (like numerous lab experiments have demonstrated). By sheer accident, after millions of years and lightning strikes, some of them are catalysts — they accelerate chemical reactions. One of them accelerates the formation of its own copies.
With its first copy, the chances of another copy to appear double. When each of those copy themselves once, the chances double again. After only 7 cycles, the chances have grown 128-fold. Only three cycles later, it is 1024. Another three — and it is 16386. No matter how slim the chances of the thing to replicate were in the beginning, very soon it becomes close to inevitable. All that was needed, was one.
The process isn’t perfect. It is disturbed by wind, waves, currents, varying concentrations of stuff. Some imperfections cause the copies to break down — some, however, make the copies more efficient at copying themselves than their predecessors. Or more stable. Everything that increases their chances to stay intact — to “survive” — and replicate, increases their relative numbers, which increases their chances to survive and replicate: a positive feedback loop.
What were those molecules? Maybe, RNA. Maybe something even simpler, a purely chemical catalyst. It doesn’t matter. We know how this story ends (for now)— we are here, after all. But how did it get from simple chemical catalysts to something contemplating the existence of the universe? Please bear with me for a little while longer.
In the meantime, our self-replicating mechanisms, drifting in the waves of a primordial ocean, or maybe concentrated in a puddle of a tidal pool slowly drying out, keep being interrupted by winds, water currents, changing chemical composition of their surroundings. The ones that survive and replicate best, are those, that have some constancy in their changing environment: that are surrounded by a membrane. Of course, if the membrane is impermeable to everything, they can’t replicate at all. So the ones that survive best — the ones, whose mathematical odds to replicate are the highest — are the ones that have mutated to have some control over what goes in and out. Control over their own chemical composition (homeostasis).
Next comes the search for food. if everything is just adrift in the waves, it will only replicate at the same rate as everything else — when it runs into food by accident. If there is, however, some way to find new energy sources that are independent of the waves and the wind, that would give our little organisms a better chance — a higher probability — to survive and replicate. Two ways emerge: control over energy (photosynthesis) and control over location (locomotion).
Of those organisms that move, the ones that will have the best chance are the ones that can move only at certain times (when the motion is towards the food). This is control over motion. Turchin calls it “irritability”. A direct connection between sensor and actor.
This is the main theme of Phenomenon of Sience and the Principia Cybernetica movement: emergence of higher and higher levels of control as the most significant points of evolution. They call those steps “metasystem transitions.” Homeostasis, then Control of Location, then Control of Motion, then Control of Irritability (for example the “decision” if and when to move towards the food source — a complex reflex). The latter requires some kind of learning (e.g. conditioning) — which has been demonstrated in organisms as simple as the single-celled slime mold Physarum polycephalum*, but really does benefit from a nervous system — something that is only possible in multi-cellular organisms. Which is OK, because it seems that organisms benefit from being multicellular in other ways as well, and so multicellularity has emerged quite early in our evolution — around 2.3 billion years ago**.
The following stages happen at an ever-increasing pace, partially because they eventually transition from the realm of major physical evolution of body morphology to minor tweaks of brain structure and chemistry, to learning — modification of pure information (which I will write about at some point, as well). Skipping over a couple of stages we get control over learning (repeating after our peers — monkey see, monkey do — that allows us not to have to re-invent the wheel), control over tools (using sticks and stones that are in the right shape), control over tool-making (bringing sticks and stones into the right shape), and voila, we got civilization***.
Civilization with observers, someone like you and me, asking all kinds of funny questions. Observers, without which nothing in this universe would be able to ask those questions, like probably in most other universes. Which leads me to the next point: the anthropic principle.
But first, a quick recap:
- Everything that can happen, will happen, given infinite time. In fact, it will happen infinitely often.
- Everything that happens, that increases its own chances to happen, will cascade exponentially to dominate its environment**.
- The mathematical probabilities of survival and replication greatly benefit from metasystem transitions — emergence of new levels of control.
The Anthropic Principle
We know that this universe is special in at least one way: it contains us, conscious observers that have the ability to think about its existence. In the end, this is the universe we see. We could only arrive at this step because evolution of the type described above is possible in this universe. This is the selection criterium for universes with conscious observers: by definition, they have to enable conscious observers to exist. The universes might not self-select for creating conscious observers, but all observed universes will do so — the infinitely large rest simply doesn’t matter (unless we find ways to observe them). It literally does not matter how improbable this universe is: we are here, and we wouldn’t be if it was different; and it had infinite time and infinite amount of re-tries to get the rules just right.
Armed with this knowledge, and the concept of emergence of control, and let’s go back from the point of the first life on earth.
Emergence of the Universe as we know it
What was necessary for the first self-replicating molecules to come about? Self-replication is based on templating — something forms a template, something else fills that template. The basic requirement for this is the ability to make matching shapes — something for which you need at least two, better yet three spacial dimensions.At the level of single atoms, this is not possible — their shapes are mostly regulated by fields and waves, and so they are mostly spherical, or three-dimensional standing waves. They can connect to each other by overlapping those waves though. While this is not enough for each atom to be a copyable template, this is enough to form complex molecules — which have those 3d-shapes that we need.
But wait, why were the atoms necessary in the first place? (Please remember, the “why” here does not refer to the will of some unknown deity, but to the simple necessity of those things to exist so that we could be there to talk about them. In uncountable… or rather, probably countably infinite universes nothing comparable to atoms exists, and so nobody is there to care.)
While they are built mostly out of fields, atoms behave, for intents and purposes of our molecular lego set, as classical particles. We know that didn’t come naturally to our universe, because if we look at even smaller scales, things don’t behave that way at all. As mentioned before, at smallest scales everything is a fuzzy blob acting as a wave. Electrons, bubbles of naked electric field held together by their own gravity*****, produce interference patterns with themselves in a double-slit experiment, creating a probability distribution. Things have a chance to be, or not to be. An uranium nucleus can decay after 5 minutes, and its neighbor, identical in all respects, can stick around for another twenty thousand years. It would be really hard to build anything stable of a substrate that is a set of probabilities.
If you look carefully at those two steps, they look suspiciously like metasystem transitions in Turchin’s sense: Molecules represent control (in terms of stabilization) of shape, whereas atoms represent control (again, in terms of stabilization) of uncertainty. Both were absolutely necessary for life as we know it to become anywhere near possible. Those two transitions are what separates a sea of raw probabilistic chaos, from a universe that makes us.
This transforms our original question of “why and where” — probably the scariest question we can ask — into the question, “which metasystem transition was necessary to arrive at the sea of raw probabilistic chaos”.
Q: Which system is required to produce probabilities at all? What is the substrate in which probabilities exist?
Q: What is the minimal requirement for something to happen?
A: Its probability being infinitesimally greater than 0.
This is all. There is nothing but math and probability. Everything we know as our universe is one of infinite possibilities that emerge from that. There are infinite more.
There shall be light.
** Everything that happens, that increases its own chances to happen, will cascade exponentially to dominate its environment — often to its own chagrin — see for example the Great Oxidation Event — that one time in history when the first cyanobacteria decided to go multicellular, and produced so much oxygen by photosynthesis that they managed to kill most of the previously anaerobic life on Earth right off. But they also gave us the nice oxygen-rich athmosphere that we are breathing now. So, yay?
*** Of course we skipped a few metasystem transitions on the way to real civilization. For example you could argue that a civilization also requires “culture” — a system of traditions — which are essentially “control of habits” (which, by themselves are “control of repetition of useful behaviors” which are impossible without learning). We could — and probably should — go further down the chain to “control of traditions” — something that allows us to critically examine why our traditions are the way they are, and to modify them to suit the goals of our civilization better. A system of ethics, or moral philosophy if you will.
**** Principia Cybernetica is a school of thought based around the ideas V. Turchin’s Phenomenon of Science, that attempts to explain many things, from evolution to ethics, from the standpoint of systems science — cybernetics, specifically from the view point of metasystem transitions. (Go for the PDF copy of the book, the HTML Version seems to be broken at the moment.)
***** “Auto-Stabilized Electron”, https://arxiv.org/abs/2006.07719