Saturday, May 5, 2012

Orders and Ideas: The Nebulous End of Self-Organization

Necessary Disclaimer

Organization underlies everything in the universe. Molecules are made of atoms, atoms made of smaller particles. The ability of human beings to observe the organization of the universe is only limited by the accuracy of our instruments and the clarity of our thoughts. This organization is widely thought to have begun with a Big Bang, from which all the matter in our universe emerged in an explosion of...stuff. Quickly, that stuff was pulled together by forces inherent in the stuff itself, energy and matter quickly becoming organized: smaller particles into organizations that created larger ones, those larger particles into conglomerates that became nebulae, suns, planets, moons, comets, et cetera.

All images in this article courtesy of Wikipedia.
It is interesting that there is a measure of self-similarity in the construction of atoms and the construction of solar systems, galaxies, and other space-bound organizations: a center surrounded by smaller objects in motion. Recently, CERN scientists found a particle composed of two heavy quarks and a light one, with the mass of a lithium atom. It decayed in about a trillionth of a second. Arguably, there could have been a large number of these unstable particles created by the Big Bang, which decayed quickly while the stable ones went on to make protons and neutrons. The universe just threw everything at the wall and saw what stuck. The laws of physics sorted them all out in something of a "survival of the stablest" race.

Carl Sagan famously said, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Of course, for that pie to get here, there had to be some organization beyond simply the invention of the universe—the emergence of a solar system where our planet sits in a habitable zone and survived some rocky formational eras to get a stable atmosphere and liquid water (but not too much of it), and some of the material on the planet formed a certain type of very complex acid. That acid, acting in accordance with the laws of physics around it, began to replicate itself, which opened a whole new can of worms (via prions, viruses, bacteria, and the like).

Life is clearly more complex matter than non-living material, adding functionality to the material possessed of it. Again, everything simply following the laws of physics, the emergent behavior we call life added a great deal of complexity to the matter contained on one (though probably not just one) planet orbiting a random sun, which was circling something else. Earth has become the playing field for a new type of complexity, the beginning of life a type of Big Bang.

And just as the Bang pushed matter and energy out into the void, where physical laws organized it into intricate forms, the beginnings of life pushed tiny organisms out into a lifeless mass, where the laws of nature organized them into more complex life, from single cells to multi-cellular forms. The rules governing these forms are simply very complex iterations of the laws of physics, though they are so complex that it is simply easier for us to consider them a new code of law entirely.

There is a third explosion to be examined, however. Just as emergent matter-organization paved the way for life, emergent lifeform-organization paved the way for sapience. Humanity is one species among many, like Earth is one planet among many, but it has become the birthplace of a new type of organization. Human interaction and development represents an dramatic increase in complexity over other forms of life, tool and language use resulting in huge shifts in the structure of Earth's surface, the electromagnetic emissions in our part of space, and future changes that have not yet been executed.

The laws governing the interaction of sapient matter are significantly more complex than the laws governing other life. So much so that our own guesses as to the content of these laws constitutes what some call the "soft sciences", simply because they cannot yet be codified rigidly as in physics.* And sapient beings as a group have engaged in a third type of matter organization: technology.

Just as matter in close proximity to other matter appears to want to form a spherical object, though it is without free will, lifeforms appear to want to propagate their genetic code. No non-sapient lifeform is aware of the concept of genes, but they all appear to act in a way that indicates a desire to preserve their genetic code. Again, the universe is just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks—this has the end result of producing life that spreads its code, as all life that is "stingy" with its code has a reduced chance of influencing what life will succeed it.

However, relating this observation to this third type of self-organization is difficult. Kevin Kelly's famous question "What does technology want?" sums the problem up nicely. Ideas do not organize themselves and propagate in a way that is clear or obvious to observers, perhaps because those ideas exist in those observers' minds in the first place. Beyond that, what precisely is this third type of self-organization? Plants and planets are made up of atoms, but such a constraint on "ideas", "technology", or "sapience" is tenuous at best. In the end, what is the substrate of sapience?

Matter inhabits space, and life inhabits Earth. What does thought inhabit? Is it locked into brains, making humanity the only matter than can ever truly think? Or are ideas objects in themselves, expressed in magnetic patterns, sound, or visual symbols? Perhaps it is a middle ground—ideas might only be represented in the objects they impel human brains to make. Each possibility has different ramifications:

If ideas can only exist as brain impulses, then humans themselves are the third type of self-organization, and teaching is the idea's method of procreation. Are our human organizations the emergence of the next form of self-organizing material? If so, are our groups more like slime molds—cooperatives of single-celled organisms—or like plants or animals? Is the next step in our "evolution" the rigidification of human organizations into multi-brained organisms?

Assuming ideas themselves are the true form of the pinnacle of self-organization, the question is: how do ideas organize themselves? We see them clump together in societies, belief systems, political parties. Is polarization just another name for the evolution of idea-based superlife? It is interesting that we often refer to organized ideas as "culture", the same name we give a bacterial colony.

And if technology is actually the third wave of self-organization, does this mean that technological singularity is inevitable? Or are there other possible evolutions of technology that do not inhabit a one-directional concept of progress? Could the superhuman machine actually develop in a way that does not mimic our intelligence?

And, in closing: It appears that most of us believe we have free will, which emerged somewhere between the beginning of life and the beginning of humanity. Is the development of the next stage of self-organization dependent on humanity's use of its free will? Or is it fated?

*It is interesting that the science governing physics is considered the "hardest", and that sciences of increasingly complex matter get "softer" until reaching the softest of them all, the human sciences. It is conceivable that the study of the next form of organization will be softer, not harder than the human sciences. If this is the case, the robot psychologists in Asimov's work might be a better prediction for the future than the hard-nosed engineers of other Golden Age sci-fi.

Disclaimer: This article was not written from any religious point of view. I find no conflict between the idea of a sentient Creator, and the idea that the Universe we experience was organized by physical law after a large explosion. I, personally, begrudge no one their leanings, whether they be pro- or anti-God. If you feel this text offends you, by all means feel free not to finish reading it.