The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time when humanity first stepped into the light. – Isaac Asimov, The Last Question
As a youth, I remember stepping on a puffball in a field near where I grew up in Virginia. Puffballs are a sort of roundish mushroom without a cap or gills. Almost all of them are edible, although without a distinctive taste, when they are young and pure white inside. As the spores mature, the inside of puffballs form a mass in the center of the fruiting body. Eventually the covering of the puffball dries and shrivels and an opening develops in the top. At that point, the slightest provocation will trigger the release of the spores from the opening and cast them to the four winds. According to David Arora (1), a large puffball may contain seven trillion spores. On this day in my youth, I played my part in the propagation of the puffball. At the time, I saw something that looked like brown dust coming from the top of a odd looking sac . It was the puffball finding its own way to spread itself.
Years later, living near Eugene, Oregon, I got interested in mushrooms again. The interest wasn’t just in the psilocybin mushrooms but in the dazzling variety of all types. Walking through the woods in the Willamette Forest in the Fall, I became captivated by the stunning array of mushrooms, most of them in very distinctive shapes and colors, some were large and stately, others small and slimy, and still other rather grotesque, and a few almost other worldly.
Most people don’t realize that the most visible part of the mushroom is actually its fruit. The real mushroom itself is a fibrous web called mycelium that is typically buried in the ground or in wood. When conditions of heat and moisture are just right, the mycelium projects its fruit out from its hiding spot. Paul Stamets believes “that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. “ (2)
Although we may want to think of fungi as plants, actually fungi are organisms with their own kingdom separate from plants, animals, and bacteria. Stamets says “animals are more closely related to fungi than to any other kingdom”. Fungi are coordinated networks of cells that operate as miniature factories transforming living and dead material around them for their own benefit and producing as byproducts nutrients for other life. They may have the expeditionary force that first came from the sea more than a billion years ago and succeeded in making land suitable for other life. Stamets believes they could play a similar role today in transforming oil and chemical spill sites into healthy ecosystems.
Fungi does what all life does – it avoids decay by assimilating, ironically, material that often has already decayed and it multiples itself by producing so many spores that the odds are good that a few of them will survive to reproduce. It has evolved into such variety to make use of every available niche and gain every possible advantage to survive. If we had to choose one form of life to represent all life, we could do no better than fungi. If we draw back from the forest floor and look to the big scale of the universe as a whole, might life itself in all of its forms seem somewhat like fungi with its infinite variety, its waste, and its irrepressible urge to continue itself?
In 1944, Erwin Schrodinger wrote a small book called “What is Life?” (3) It was based on lectures he gave at Trinity College in Dublin. The lectures covered several topics. One concerned the substance that carried genetic information for life which Schrodinger described as a aperiodic crystal. This was some years before Watson and Crick discovered the helix structure of DNA that is the basis of most life on Earth. An aperiodic crystal is a quasi-crystal that is ordered in a complex fashion such that the arrangements of its atoms do not seem obvious or predictable. On the whole, the description of DNA as a aperiodic crystal was really not too far off the mark for the time. Another topic, however, was the relationship between life and thermodynamics, in particular the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Physicists believe the universe to be subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. To understand the Second Law we need to understand the concept of entropy. Entropy is typically defined as a measure of disorder in a system. For example, when hot water and cold water are mixed, initially there is order because the hot water and cold water are separated. Over time, however, the order decreases as the waters mix and the temperature becomes equalized. The molecules of water that were moving faster (hotter water) become dispersed and the temperature overall becomes equalized.
According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the entropy or disorder of the universe, never decreases. This means things are methodically becoming less ordered and colder. When the maximum disorder is reached, no free energy is left. This is the heat death of the universe. In the modern view, the universe is proceeding from the perfect order of the singularity and hotness at the beginning of the Big Bang to some future state of decayed cold matter without galaxies, stars, planets, ourselves, or anything remotely like us.
Life seems superficially to be a contradiction to this. If things in the universe are moving from more ordered to less ordered, how does something ordered like life exists? Schrodinger says: “It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state that the organism appears so enigmatic.” (4) Schrodinger answer to enigma is that “the device by which the organism by which an organism maintains itself stationary at a high level of orderliness (= fairly low level of entropy) really consists in sucking orderliness from the environment.” (5). In other words, life exists on planet Earth at least by consuming the energy from the Sun and from the internal heat of the Earth in either a direct or indirect way. Life is not in closed system like water in a glass but is in an open system receiving energy inputs from the outside.
The origin of life itself still poses a peculiar problem in this story. How does inanimate, disordered matter assemble itself into something more ordered? How do islands of complexity come about in a universe that is methodically going downhill from order to disorder. As Robert Wright says: “Still, if life doesn’t violate the second law, it violates the spirit of the law.” (6) . Whether we speculate that life began in a “warm little pond” as Darwin did or at thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, we lack a convincing explanation of how a soup of organic materials spontaneously begets an organism which is able to “suck orderliness” from the environment and to reproduce. When we mix hot and cold water, we end up with lukewarm water not something unlike water. Our expectation for an organic soup would be an organic soup with simpler molecules than those with which we began, not spontaneously assembled organisms.
The actual details of how life arose will likely be worked out as a subset of some larger theory about how complexity itself arises. Life itself is just one type of complex, organized structure in the universe along with galaxies, stars, and planets. The ability of life to come about in the universe is directly related to the existence of these other complex elements. and those other complex elements are directly related to entire series of properties of the universe that seem to make the universe hospitable to life. In the The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life?, (7) Paul Davies explores the series of “coincidences” in the laws of physics that enabled life to be possible. For example, the values in our universe of the four fundamental forces seem to be precisely in ranges to allow the formation of commonly found matter and subsequently the emergence of life. A slight increase in the strong nuclear force would have caused nuclear fusion to convert all hydrogen in the early universe to helium. Water, made from hydrogen, and the long-lived stable stars essential for the emergence of life as we know it would not exist. The universe had to create an array of chemical elements, especially carbon the key element for life. Elements are created by stars but the force of gravitation had to be in narrow range to permit the formation of planetary systems where life could exist. In order for carbon itself to have formed, a ratio of forces in the nuclei had to have exactly right within 1% for the correct resonance to occur. All in all, there are between six and twelve “coincidences” of these sorts that have no explanation in physics (they are the way they are) but without which life might not be possible.
Although some argue against this apparent fine-tuning, nevertheless, the prevailing view in quantum physics is that the constants and characteristics of our universe are random, chance fluctuations in a quantum vacuum at the time of the Big Bang. In other words physics has no way to explain why the basic forces that shape our universe – gravitation, electromagnetic forces, and the various forces that hold particles together – are the way they are or how they happened to have characteristics that permit life to exist. We just got lucky. Associated with this goes is the so-called anthropic principle, which has several variants, but basically says we and life are here because if it wasn’t possible to be here we wouldn’t be here. In this view life is an accidental consequence of the laws of physics.
There are two possible explanations for why we live in a universe where life can exist. One is simply that there was a Creator. God designed the universe for life and for us. The other is the multiverse idea. There are all kinds of fluctuations in the quantum vacuum. Most of them give birth to universes where life cannot arise but, given enough time (if time even has a meaning here), eventually our universe or one like it will emerge. Our universe is one of many that have emerged from the cosmic void through the statistical laws of quantum mechanics. In this theory, the particular laws that governed any one of these universes are selected more or less randomly, like a cosmic roll of the dice. In most of the universes, probably, stars and galaxies do not form and life does not exist. In the lucky universe we inhabit the laws are hospitable to life. Life is seen as a fortunate (for us at least) outcome of the random dice roll that formed our universe.
Despite the almost complete lack of falsifiability of any hypothesis about many universes, the idea seems rather widespread in contemporary physics. Most of the physicists who are proponents of the multiverse concept are adamantly against the concept of God. One of them Lawrence Krauss has even written a book “A Universe From Nothing:” (8) that claims that modern physics has removed the need for God. Richard Dawkins, the well-known atheist, even takes time in the afterword to the book to beat down the usual straw-man arguments about God. Ironically Krauss’s “Universe from Nothing” is actually from something – the quantum vacuum – and his idea of its creation is directly from Plato with the inexplicable constants of physics playing the role of the Demiurge that fashions the world from some eternal void.
Beyond God and the multiverse, however, I think there might be another explanation. The relationship between our universe, its laws, maybe even its creation, and life is much more complicated. The anthropic principle may have the causality reversed. We are not here because the laws of physics allow us to be here. The laws of physics are the way they are because we are here and because life exists.
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970’s formulated the Gaia hypothesis. Its principle is that life itself is transforming the Earth to make it more hospitable to itself. Life itself is making what might be a rocky sphere unable to support much of its current life forms into an environment that makes increasing varieties of life able to survive. There is feedback mechanism in place.
If the Earth is a microcosm for the universe, then just as life has transformed Earth so too life must be transforming the universe. The universe is infected with life. Life was in some way injected into the very structure of the universe. We may be in the very early stages of this transformation.
Life, however it arose, must be widespread in the universe. Some scientists and some Creationists argue that life may be rare and intelligent life even rarer, but this is highly unlikely. Modern astrophysics proceeds on the basis of the Copernican principle that Earth does not occupy a privileged position in the universe. The fundamental composition of matter and laws of physics are no different in the Andromeda galaxy as they are in the Milk Way and here on Earth. From all we can observe this is clearly the case. Yet life is here so why wouldn’t it be everywhere a reasonably hospitably environment exists for it? In this argument, it doesn’t matter how rare the spontaneous creation of life might be. Perhaps life rarely arises or perhaps it arises almost predictably given the right circumstances. It doesn’t matter to this argument. The fact that life is here on Earth means either it arose here and would likely arise elsewhere or life arose elsewhere and arrived here in which case there is no reason to suppose it would not spread elsewhere.
The common argument against the prevalence of life, particularly intelligent life, in the universe is the Fermi Paradox. It basically ask the question: “Why aren’t the aliens here?” Since billions of years have passed since the Big Bang, at some point in all of that time an intelligent civilization would have built probes to explore the universe. If the probes had any ability to replicate, even a few probes during the intervening time would now be millions and millions of probes exploring the galaxies. Even at modest sub-light speed velocities , one of those probes should have been here by now.
Nobody would expect life to have arisen in the first several billion years after the Big Bang. So some of the time is out of consideration. Life may be prevalent but intelligent life rarer since it has taken over three billion years to evolve on Earth. In more volatile planetary systems, life may have had to restart multiple times in response to various planetary catastrophes. Possibly the aliens have already been here. They may even have seeded life on Earth. They may have passed through our system numerous times and seen little of interest to them aside from some rudimentary life forms. The probes they sent may, in fact, after endless generations have little interest in us. Or, they may here now observing us patiently from a distance, what we hope a wiser civilization than ours might do. Finally, why should we assume that intelligent life elsewhere would have the same desires and goals as ours? Intelligent life might decide to stay in their neighborhood from either fear of contact or lack of interest in contacting other intelligent civilizations. In fact, if an advanced civilization showed up and announced themselves most likely the news would not be good for us.
All of the arguments we might make for the prevalence of life in the universe we could also make for the prevalence of consciousness and intelligence. Consciousness and intelligence may be rarer than life itself but ultimately it must too spread through the universe. Life and consciousness are intimately related. Though this may seem common sensical, in reality there is still considerable debate about whether machines will eventually become conscious. My answer is that machines as we currently think of them will not become conscious.. In other words consciousness is only possible in living organisms. Machines may be able to simulate consciousness but cannot be actually conscious.
To understand this connection we need to return to Schrodinger’s book again. Schrodinger identifies two key components of life – replication and metabolism. Replication is possible because life carries information in its genetic code. The information is about how to create and maintain a copy of the organism which can reproduce and create another copy of the organism. Metabolism is the dynamic interchange of energy with the environment. Life is from a thermodynamic standpoint what is called a dissipative system. That means life operates out of equilibrium with its environment and maintains its structure through the consumption of orderliness. Life persists by constantly changing and recreating itself in the same pattern. We are all familiar with the saying that the atoms of our body are completely replaced every seven years. While not literally true, the continual renewal of material in a constant pattern or form is a key characteristic of life.
Consciousness has both of the two key characteristics of life. It carries information about the environment. We might say it devours the environment. And consciousness also is a dissipative system that maintains itself through the dynamic interchange of energy with its environment. In the most basic sense, the brain and neural network are huge consumers of energy and producers of entropy. In the broader sense, consciousness provides the sense of purpose to consume the resources and energy to maintain the organism. In the most conscious creatures that we know of (ourselves) consciousness creates culture and technology which allows for the increasing large consumption of energy and resources.
The purpose of life and consciousness is to consume the universe and return it to equilibrium. Consciousness and intelligence are the ultimate dissipative structures that will enable life to spread throughout the universe consuming ever greater amounts of resources and harnessing ever greater amounts of energy. In the process of consuming the universe, life is gradually making the universe itself alive and conscious. In other words, the universe itself is a dissipative system that maintains its form and pattern that operates out of equilibrium with the cosmic void – the quantum vacuum.
Does this contradict some of the arguments I made against the Fermi Paradox? Yes, I think it could. But it might also be that the manner in which life and consciousness works is much more subtle. Mind, intelligence, and consciousness at its zenith may be able to transform space, time, and universe in ways we cannot imagine. It may be transforming it even now making the universe more hospitable for life. At any rate, I think life will find a way to continue on even if it has to create new universes to do it. In the end, life will find a way to replicate itself.
A growing view among some physicists is that the universe itself is a sort of computer. I find it interesting how the world-view of physicists seem to follow the technology of the time. After Newton, physicists regarded the universe to be like a clock, a fine mechanical mechanism that once wound would tick away forever. The Second Law of Thermodynamics was developed though work with steam engines and physicists began to think of the heat death of the universe. Now in our digital age, physicists think of the universe itself as a computer. When we look at the universe, are we really just seeing reflections of ourselves and our creations?
This view of universe as computer has been expanded by a number of people: Barrow, Tipler, Deutsch, and Wolfram among them. The starting point with all of them is that the universe is broken into discrete units – the quanta of quantum theory. These units can be thought to be like bits in a computer which can on or off, 0 or 1 in binary form. Just as computers essentially work by flipping bits on and off in memory the universe can be thought of as huge memory device with its quanta changing states. Wolfram in A New Kind of Science (9) thinks that ultimately the rules for this may actually be relatively simple and that by iteratively applying the rules the complexity of the universe can be generated. We can look at the incredible detail of fractal drawings to get an idea of how iteratively applying the same algorithms with the next input coming from the previous output to see how structures and complexity can be derived from simple rules. Frank Tipler pushes some of these ideas to the greatest extremes. In The Physics of Immortality (10) he predicts that the universe will eventually collapse back upon itself and that during that time the amount energy available for computation will become infinite. At that time, the universe will be able to simulate any virtual reality eternally. In other words our lives could played and replayed over and over again eternally.
In an odd way, we have come full circle. Universe creates life. Life creates consciousness. Consciousness creates machines. Machines (no longer just machines) become conscious. Machines modify the universe. The universe becomes conscious.
I began this blog with a reference to a rather obscure document from the RAND Corporation called “Winding the Universal Clock”. That document begins with an examination of the evolution of intelligence and the likely successor to humans – the machine – and the possibility of merging the human mind with machines. It then moves into a discussion of whether machines could be developed with the ability to reproduce themselves. The vision of the future is one of declining biological diversity as humans exploit our own resources and create machines which can exploit eventually the vast resources of outer spaces, the stars, and the galaxies. The ultimate purpose of these machines is to reverse the progression towards entropy and prevent the heat death of the universe.
While I love the broad speculations of “Winding”, I disagree with it in parts. In the first place, as I already explained, I do not believe machines can become conscious nor will we ever be able to download our minds to them. Consciousness is a property of life. A quite different question is whether humans might in the future create life based on different chemistry than that of organic life on Earth. The key properties of life are replication and metabolism. Even our most advanced machines of today exhibit neither of these characteristics but it might be possible in future for such devices to be created. Once created they would be able to evolve on their own with their own sense of purpose and direction. Such entities might be based more on metals than carbon perhaps with neural systems consisting of a hybrid of silicon and carbon. These entities, however, will not be machines but will be in a real sense “living”. Perhaps a new term will need to be invented for them.
A more major point of disagreement with “Winding” is the absence of an understanding of the key role of consciousness.
In the famous Isaac Asimov short story “The Last Question” various generations of super computers over time are asked by various generations of humans the same question: How can the heat death of the universe be averted? The answer comes back: “INSUFFCIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER”. At the end humans have evolved to God-like status as the stars begin to flicker out. Asked one last time the final generation of the computer still has no answer. The universe dies. Space-time ceases to exist. Humanity and the computer merge. Thought, however, continues until finally the there is the answer.: “LET THERE BE LIGHT”.
In the Asimov story, consciousness has broken its material bonds or perhaps the universe itself has become conscious. Matter is gone and then in some marvelous jujitsu mind creates matter so that once again matter can create mind. Mind and matter become entwined with matter creating mind and mind in turn creating matter. Life is the bridge between matter and consciousness.
If the universe is, as some suspect, a computer and if consciousness can be generated by computer, then isn’t the universe already living and conscious? There is hardly anything new about this idea. The belief that the universe itself is divine can be traced back to Taoism. Even in animism, perhaps the earliest of religious beliefs, the world is believed to be inhabited and guided by spirits. Many have thought the universe to be sustained and recreated moment by moment in the mind of God. Our seeming progression to some future point may be little more than awakening to what already is.
What is role of humans in this? And why does the future need us?
For the next 100 to 200 years or so we are in a very dangerous period for the reasons I elaborated on in Part I of this post. If we get through this period some way, I think we have a chance to create a future technology that will be living and conscious, not simply advanced machines. This technology will not be in a power struggle with us. It will be an equal partner with us. We could merge with this technology or we could step back from it. We could return to our natural biological roots, accept death, and cease striving for immortality. This technology, although “living” and not based on DNA, may continue to evolve long after we as species have died away. We could follow a different path that leads us to an Enlightened Society based on the fundamental ethical principles underlying all the great religions. And we will with Blake “see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour”. The choice is ours.
This might be overly optimistic. The Enlightened Society may be a thousand years off instead of a few hundred. It may not come at all. It is only a possibility.
Both “Winding” and the Asimov story envisions a key role for the human in the future of universe. Both of them see humans as the transitional species. Are we humans the ones meant to be the ones who evolve or create the ones who evolve into the beings that transform the universe? It is possible but unlikely. It is more likely we are like one of the trillions of spores from the puffball. Our spore may land on fertile ground and multiply or our spore may be washed away. Our ancestors may be the ones who reach the end with the solution, but the odds are not good. The puffball is prolific for a reason. Nature is wasteful and destroys as much as it builds. Humans are but one form of intelligent life on one planet. If we vanish or kill ourselves off, if we fail, others forms of life on other planets will succeed. We are only one part of the multitude of life that is doing its part without any predestined outcome.
But that is why the future needs us.
1- Arora David 1986. Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi (2nd edition). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
2- Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running, Ten Speed Press, 2005.
3- Schrodinger, Edwin. What is Life?, Cambridge University Press, 1967.
4- Ibid, p. 70
5- Ibid, p. 743.
6-Wright, Robert. Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Vintage Books, 2000, p 245.
7- Davies, Paul. The Goldilocks Enigma. Mariner Books, 2008.
8- Krauss, Lawrence M. A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, Free Press, 2012.
9- Wolfram, Stephen. A New Kind of Science. Wolfram Media, 2002.
10- Tipler, Frank. The Physics of Immortality, Anchor Books, 1994.