Is the universe intelligent? Is intelligence built into the universe?
Materialistic science thinks of the universe as being composed of lifeless particles and waves obeying fundamental laws of physics. They bang about, sometimes coalescing into clumps, sometimes colliding with violence, sometimes passing by each other or even through each as other, as neutrinos go through solid matter, with scarcely any noticeable effect. The explanation of how life or intelligence could come from this universe is deeply problematic.
Perhaps the answer to my questions lies not so much in imagining a new science as in arriving at a new and different understanding about what is intelligence.
In 1802 William Paley used a watchmaker analogy in his book Natural Theology to argue for the existence of God or an Intelligent Designer. The argument goes like this. If you are walking about and happen upon a watch, would the most likely reason for the watch’s existence be that it was made by a watchmaker and dropped there or that it came into existence through accidental causes, such as wind, rain, and geological forces. A watch is highly ordered, a device with some degree of complexity and precision. It does not appear to be a random arrangement of parts as might be the arrangement of stones on hillside. So the argument goes, if we find things highly ordered in nature such as intelligent creatures like ourselves or the universe, there must also have been a designer for those.
The watchmaker analogy was largely refuted in its day by David Hume who argued that we see order all of the time in nature without a designer. Crystals are a good example. It isn’t logically necessary that because things contained in the universe like watches have designers, it must mean the we or the universe had a designer. Richard Dawkins takes a modern approach to the same argument. In The Blind Watchmaker, a clear reference to Paley’s analogy, the “Watchmaker” is evolution itself which operates without any predestined plan or design through accident, random events, and natural selection. In the God Delusion, he goes farther to argue that if an Intelligent Designer actually planned living organisms He really didn’t do a very good job. For example, “many of our human ailments, from lower back pain to hernias, prolapsed uteruses, and our susceptibility to sinus infections, result directly from the fact we now walk upright with a body that shaped over hundreds of millions of years to walk on all fours” (1) rather than our being intelligently designed for walking upright. This is exactly what we would expect if “design” came from evolution rather than a Designer.
Clearly we don’t need a Designer to explain all order. So none of my arguments that follow should be misconstrued as arguments for Intelligent Design. We can see that order, even very complex order, can arise directly from the universe through the operation of natural laws. We can readily see how the diversity and complexity of living organisms can evolve by natural selection.
What about everything before life? Can we explain the order that the universe needed to allow for life? Can we explain:
- Why was there more matter than antimatter in the early universe? If the amount of matter and antimatter were equal in the early universe, they each would have destroyed each other and we would have no matter.
- Why was the early expansion quick enough that the universe didn’t collapse back onto itself yet not too fast that all the matter flies away and stars and galaxies do not form?
- Why are the values in our universe of four fundamental forces precisely in ranges to allow the formation of commonly found matter and subsequently the emergence of life?
- Why is the ratio of forces in the nuclei exactly right within 1% for the correct resonance to allow carbon to form? Without carbon, there would be no life.
Modern physics doesn’t have convincing explanations for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life. One approach is to say the properties will be explained in some future all encompassing theory of everything. We don’t know now but we will eventually. Another thought is that the fine-tuning is largely the result of chance. To make this work, physicists must hypothesize that there are many universes with many different attributes and properties. Some universes collapse immediately upon themselves. In others, carbon never forms or has different properties than it has in the this universe, so life doesn’t exist. In other universes, life might form but be based on silicon instead of carbon because of the values of various nuclear forces. A variation of this is Lee Smolin’s cosmological natural selection. Smolin believes that black holes beget new universes. Therefore, a la Darwin, he theorizes that universes that create more black holes will be more likely to create universes that create more black holes. Each new universe inherits some of its parent universe’s attributes. Coincidentally many of the properties that encourage black holes also are compatible with life.
These theories assume that the properties and attributes of the physical universe were baked in at its beginning and are not changing. It is possible, however, that the properties and attributes of the universes – the values that permit life and intelligence to exist – have changed in the past and may change in the future.
Hume himself sort of suggests a different way to look at the universe when he writes “there are other parts of the universe (besides the machines of human invention) which bear still a greater resemblance to the fabric of the world, and which, therefore, afford a better conjecture concerning the universal origin of this system. These parts are animals and vegetables. The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable, than it does a watch or a knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation. The cause, therefore, of the world, we may infer to be something similar or analogous to generation or vegetation.” (2)
This Hume universe grows dynamically like an organism. A seed becomes a plant that grows branches, leaves, and eventually flowers. It would grow and evolve based upon internal dynamics. The laws of our universe might not be constant but the properties particles, forces, and matter could have evolved in time and might be different in the future. The reason this is not apparent is that we are living at a time when we are unable to see into the earliest beginnings of this universe and, of course, cannot see into the future. We may be living at a point of relative stability. However, there are some indications from Planck and measurements of electroweak forces that even now we might suspect some of these forces are not constant. The apparent fine-tuning might only exist at this time in the universe and life and intelligence have come about as part of the natural evolution of the universe. The universe is fine-tuning itself.
To mix the analogy, let’s take water. It can exist as as superheated steam. If superheated steam is cooled slightly, it will become saturated steam which will begin to condense into liquid water. If the liquid water is cooled, it can become supercooled water and then ice. At each phase, it has different properties. If the universe is at the “water” phase now, we may only be able to see the properties of water yet the universe may have been in a “steam” phase previously and may be in an “ice” phase in the future.
We can speculate there may be overriding laws that govern these phase shifts in the universe just as the properties of hydrogen and oxygen atoms create the properties of water at its different phases. Ideally these laws would seamlessly derive not only the large-scale properties of the universe but the also the small-scale properties, including explaining the development of life and intelligence.
I have speculated elsewhere about the relationship between life and thermodynamics, particularly the Second Law relating to entropy. A new paper published in Physical Review Letters describes intelligence as a thermodynamic process.
The paper called Causal entropic forces and is written by A. D. Wissner-Gross and C. E. Freer. A simple explanation of it with an intriguing video can be found here. The paper attempts to derive a general theory of intelligence from basic physical processes and “describes intelligent behavior as a way to maximize the capture of possible future histories of a particular system.”
For the paper, the authors developed special software called Entropica that they apply to various examples, including a particle in a box, a cart and pole system, a tool use puzzle, and a social cooperation puzzle. Running these examples in the software the authors discover unexpected complex and intelligent behavior in systems that maximize the capture of their possible future histories. “Adaptive behavior might emerge more generally in open thermodynamic systems as a result of physical agents acting with some or all of the systems’ degrees of freedom so as to maximize the overall diversity of accessible future paths of their worlds.”
Could this be what the universe itself is doing?
If the universe is “maximizing the overall diversity of accessible future paths of the world” then we would have at least a beginning on an overriding principle why life and intelligence came about. DNA might be itself the foundation capturing information and “maximizing future histories” on long time scales. This is almost definitionally Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene”. What we generally think of as intelligence (planning, rational behavior, etc) is “maximizing” on a real-time scales. Culture and collective knowledge extend the real-time intelligence over generations. We would have a connecting path from thermodynamics to life and intelligence. The apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life comes about as our universe expands by operation of some law relating to maximization of future possibilities.
What seems to be inexplicable intelligent behavior in other species, some without any nervous system, might not be so mysterious after all if it is regarded as the operation of this broader maximizing principle. For example scientists have noted seemingly intelligent behavior in slime molds, a sort of gelatinous amoeba sometimes found in the backyard. One species, the yellow Physarum polycephalum, “can solve mazes, mimic the layout of man-made transportation networks and choose the healthiest food from a diverse menu—and all this without a brain or nervous system.” (3)
Life and intelligence as we normally think of it would be particular examples of something the universe is doing all the time anyway.
There is one problem with drawing these connections. In the software developed for the paper, the authors created an algorithm and used a computer to perform calculations. If the universe is doing something like this where would the algorithm run? An answer could be in the quantum void itself. If Krauss’s book A Universe from Nothing is to be believed, our universe came from the quantum void and the quantum void – empty space – actually contains most of the energy of the universe. Even in his cosmology, the fine tuning constants came from this quantum void. My speculation would carry this one step more and argue that the quantum void actually works on an ongoing basis as a sort of calculating engine in the background of the apparent world of matter and energy. The results of this engine is the organization of the universe.
Various writers have drawn connections between life, consciousness, intelligence, and quantum physics. Some of the earliest pioneers in quantum physics, such as Erwin Schrodinger, hoped physics would eventually be able to explain life. Paul Davies has suggested even that life might have originated in the quantum world and that only later it found a way of recording itself in matter. The key properties of life – replication with variation and natural selection – does not logically require structures to be replicated. “It is sufficient that information is replicated, which opens up the possibility that life may have started with some form of quantum replicator.” (4) Robert Penrose and Stuart Hammeroff argue that operations at the quantum level are required to explain consciousness. That something is happening at the quantum level when we think would explain not only the brain’s speed but also how it operates in an organized manner.
We could describe the universe as intelligent but it might be better to understand that intelligence might not be really what it seems. We may not be the originators of our own intelligence as much as we are agents of an algorithmic principle working at the quantum level. Our intelligence would be a reflection of some deep physical principle that guides the evolution of the universe and life. In the end, our intelligence and that of the slime mold may be more closely linked than we might think.
- Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. First Mariner Books, 2006. p 161.
- Hume, David Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dialogues_Concerning_Natural_Religion/Part_7