Belmont Club

Proof of Life

The intellectual role that used to be occupied by theology is now largely filled by science fiction. Wikipedia lists only a dozen of possibly hundreds of books where writers, some of them practicing mathematicians or scientists themselves, examine the consequences of our current understanding of the universe.  The familiar, everyday world that we know isn’t what it seems. It is actually a strange place.

On large scales it isn’t governed by ‘common sense’ Newtonian physics but by the paradoxes of relativity.  At very small scales, perhaps at its foundation, it is governed by quantum phenomena, which is stranger still.  Arthur Eddington said “not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”  But we try not to think about that in our daily lives.

It is commonly believed that very smartest people are atheists. In fact, the really intelligent tend to discuss things like multiverses and singularities, driven by the knowledge that reality is really, really wierd.  David Deutsch, for example,  has attempted to describe the implied fabric of reality as an infinitude of multiverses entangled by consciousness.

It implies, incidentally, that free will is real, as science writer Stephen Whitt noted with relief:

Now insert a living thing into this multiverse. Life is knowledge, and (as Deutsch said in Beginning of Infinity) “(K)nowledge is information which, when it is embodied in a suitable environment, tends to cause itself to remain so.” (BoI, p 123) What can this possibly mean in a multiverse? It means that we no longer have an evenly branching tree! Knowledge causes itself to remain embodied. Once you have knowledge, for instance a living thing, that living thing makes choices. How? Living things that aren’t people do it through variation and selection. Once you have plants in the multiverse, you’re going to have more than the expected number of universes in the multiverse in which plants survive and thrive. Variation and selection ensures that plants develop good survival strategies (because those are the ones that survive).

It may occur to you that Deutsch’s idea of multiverses joined by consciousness incidentally provides a solution to the Fermi Paradox. I have often quoted a friend’s joke maintaining that human folly was so great that the only way the continued survival of the species could be explained is through the operation of Providence or the guidance of Space Aliens. The Fermi Paradox says the same thing. Human life seems incredibly improbable, for our instruments can’t find anyone else. We must really be special to be here, otherwise as Fermi noted, then where is everyone?

The Fermi Paradox is non-trivial challenge to our concept of ‘life’. As Enrico Fermi pointed out, if Space Aliens were anything like us, given the cosmic time scales involved the galaxy should already be colonized by life.

The Fermi paradox can be asked in two ways. The first is, “Why are no aliens or their artifacts physically here?” If interstellar travel is possible, even the “slow” kind nearly within the reach of Earth technology, then it would only take from 5 million to 50 million years to colonize the galaxy. This is a relatively small amount of time on a geological scale, let alone a cosmological one. Since there are many stars older than the Sun, or since intelligent life might have evolved earlier elsewhere, the question then becomes why the galaxy has not been colonized already. Even if colonization is impractical or undesirable to all alien civilizations, large-scale exploration of the galaxy is still possible using various means of exploration and theoretical probes. However, no signs of either colonization or exploration have been generally acknowledged.

The Fermi Paradox suggests that humans are either more special than they can imagine or we have formulated the search for life all wrong. If knowledge or information — if computing or thinking in some sense — are the real stuff of interest then looking for flaring rockets, sputtering nuclear drives or TV transmissions featuring some bug-eyed version of Bonanza is to search for the wrong thing.  Suppose computing is going on around us all the time and we just haven’t been listening for it?

Physicist Frank Tipler provoked ridicule when he suggested that Christian theology was right after all.  For “the known laws of physics to be mutually consistent that intelligent life take over all matter in the universe and eventually force its collapse. During that collapse, the computational capacity of the universe diverges to infinity and environments emulated with that computational capacity last for an infinite duration as the universe attains a solitary-point cosmological singularity. This singularity is Tipler’s Omega Point. With computational resources diverging to infinity, Tipler states that a society far in the future would be able to resurrect the dead by emulating all alternative universes of our universe from its start at the Big Bang.”

Tipler may be wrong, but his ideas about reality-as-computation are less crazy and more modern than we think. The problem is that human intuition doesn’t work very well in the realms of interest and either leads us to a completely wrong result or presents a truth that is too preposterous to sell in any self-respecting literary cafe.

Whitt’s preoccupation with “free will” is more central than it would seem at first glance. Christianity’s most important assertion is that the infinite is not only “out there” (in God the Father to use older terminology) but also incarnate in individual consciousness. None of this works without Free Will. This puts consciousness in an place more exalted than it has been since the Copernican revolution. The idea that consciousness somehow entangles many worlds through a kind of superposition restores liberty to the world.

If so then liberty is the building block of history; the primitive element of biography. It is perhaps even the building block of reality. Without choice — free will — everything is mechanical sound and fury. To understand this clearly, recall that today marks the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a moment now on the furthest fringe of living memory. Suppose the significance of that long-ago day consists not in the physical events which occurred, as if the bombs were just rocks tumbling down the hillside of some mountain, but in the things that were chosen that day.

Our telescopes are turned outward seeking Dyson Spheres in the vast reaches of the cosmos for proof of life. Yet I have on my hard drive the picture of a man long ago dead, part of a group of fliers who rose in Boeing P-26 Peashooters to challenge Zeros over Batangas province on December 12, 1941. The pilot did not survive the day. In some modern cosmology there is multiverse where he landed safely;  just as there is one where all the battleships at Pearl Harbor rode out the day peacefully at anchor. There is  a multiverse where America surrendered to Japan. But while those multiverses may exist in potential, the universe we have, through the operation of choice is  the one where the flag flies, unvanquished to this day.  But that particular today had its price.  To purchase it the pilot could not land and the proud warships were forbidden to live out the day.

P-26 versus the Zeros

P-26 versus the Zeros

Perhaps we have oriented our scanners in the wrong direction; if we focus our instruments aright we shall find ourselves, not alone, as Fermi feared, but in better company than we deserve.  Of course we may be totally wrong and hundred years hence, people if they still exist, may say to themselves “how could they think that?”

Well because we chose to.  We choose, therefore we are.

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