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A Universe Predisposed for Us

In his New Yorker blog post Thomas Nagel: Thoughts Are Real, Richard Brody lays out the arguments of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

    “People of a rational, scientific bent tend to think that…everything is physical. … Nagel affirms that he’s an atheist, but he also asserts that there’s an entirely different realm of non-physical stuff that exists — namely, mental stuff. The vast flow of perceptions, ideas, and emotions that arise in each human mind is something that, in his view, actually exists as something other than merely the electrical firings in the brain that gives rise to them….
    “His argument is that, if the mental things arising from the minds of living things are a distinct realm of existence, then strictly physical theories about the origins of life, such as Darwinian theory, cannot be entirely correct. Life cannot have arisen solely from a primordial chemical reaction, and the process of natural selection cannot account for the creation of the realm of mind. …
    “Since neither physics nor Darwinian biology — the concept of evolution — can account for the emergence of a mental world from a physical one, Nagel contends that the mental side of existence must somehow have been present in creation from the very start. But then he goes further, into strange and visionary territory. … He suggests that any theory of the universe, any comprehensive mesh of physics and biology, will need to succeed in ‘showing how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it.’
    “And this, he argues, would be a theory of teleology — a preprogrammed or built-in tendency in the universe toward the particular goal of fulfilling the possibilities of mentality. In a splendid image, Nagel writes, ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.’

In other words, according to Nagel, the universe is predisposed to favor an outcome in which intelligence like ours exists.

Meanwhile, Scientific American has published an article which touches on similar themes, Physicists Debate Whether the World Is Made of Particles or Fields or Something Else Entirely.

    “Physicists routinely describe the universe as being made of tiny subatomic particles that push and pull on one another by means of force fields. … But this view sweeps a little-known fact under the rug: the particle interpretation of quantum physics, as well as the field interpretation, stretches our conventional notions of ‘particle’ and ‘field’ to such an extent that ever more people think the world might be made of something else entirely. …
    “Many physicists think that particles are not things at all but excitations in a quantum field, the modern successor of classical fields such as the magnetic field. But fields, too, are paradoxical.
    “If neither particles nor fields are fundamental, then what is? Some researchers think that the world, at root, does not consist of material things but of relations or of properties, such as mass, charge and spin.”

Unfortunately, this is just a “teaser” — the article itself is behind a paywall. But it prompted me to do further research. As a former computer programmer, the mention of “properties such as mass, charge and spin” reminded me of the properties assigned to an object in programming. I soon learned that in 1990, John Archibald Wheeler, one of the preeminent physicists of his time, introduced the concept of “it from bit,” in which the building blocks of the universe are neither particles nor fields, but bits of information.

    “It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’ — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions …in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”

The concept of the universe as information is seconded by Anton Zeilinger, a contemporary physicist reknowned for his demonstrations of “quantum teleportation” — the instantaneous transfer of properties through space from one entangled particle to another, which means that the particle (or its information) has traveled faster than the speed of light. The following comments come from a 2006 interview.

    “For me the concept of ‘information’ is at the basis of everything we call ‘nature.’ The moon, the chair, the equation of states, anything and everything, because we can’t talk about anything without de facto speaking about the information we have of these things. In this sense the information is the basic building block of our world. …
    “We’ve learnt in the natural sciences that the key to understanding can often be found if we lift certain dividing lines in our minds. Newton showed that the apple falls to the ground according to the same laws that govern the Moon’s orbit of the Earth. And with this he made the old differentiation between earthly and heavenly phenomena obsolete. Darwin showed that there is no dividing line between man and animal. And Einstein lifted the line dividing space and time. But in our heads, we still draw a dividing line between ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge about reality,’ in other words between reality and information. And you cannot draw this line. There is no recipe, no process for distinguishing between reality and information. All this thinking and talking about reality is about information, which is why one should not make a distinction in the formulation of laws of nature. Quantum theory, correctly interpreted, is information theory.”

This article from 2001, The Mystery of Quantum Mechanics by Hans Christian von Baeyer, has much more to say about Zeilinger’s ideas on information as the building blocks of the universe.

    “Zeilinger thinks that before we can truly understand quantum theory, it must be connected in some way to what we know and feel. The problem, he says, is the lack of a simple underlying principle…. All the other major theories of physics are based on such principles — pithy, comprehensible maxims that anchor the formulae in the everyday world. … Now Zeilinger proposes to rebuild quantum mechanics on a similar basis, to put it in terms that need no debatable philosophy.
    “Perhaps it is no surprise that the terms he uses are those of information. We live in the age of information. We depend increasingly on information technology, our schools teach information processing and information science, and our industry and commerce are information based. But until now, the concept of information has only hovered on the edge of physics.
    “About a decade ago, John Archibald Wheeler urged that information should take centre stage. What we call reality, he thinks, arises from the questions we ask about it and the responses we receive. ‘Tomorrow, we will have learned to understand and express all of physics in the language of information,’ he said.
    “The atom of information is the bit…. If experiments are questions we ask of nature, then the simplest of them have yes or no answers: ‘Did the photon arrive here, or not?’ ‘Did the counter click, or not?’ We can also ask more complex questions, but they can always be built up from simpler yes or no questions like these.
    “Zeilinger’s conceptual leap is to associate bits with the building blocks of the material world. In quantum mechanics, these building blocks are called elementary systems, and the archetypal elementary system is the spin of an electron. The only possible outcomes of measuring an electron’s spin are ‘up’ and ‘down.’ … These outcomes could just as well be labelled ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ or, in the fashion of digital computers, ‘1’ and ‘0.’ …
    “Zeilinger’s single, simple principle leads to these three cornerstones of quantum mechanics: quantisation, uncertainty and entanglement. What, then, of the more formal elements of quantum mechanics such as wave functions and Schrödinger’s equation — the bread and butter of atomic physicists? The road promises to be long and steep, but Zeilinger and his student Caslav Brukner, have now begun the ascent.”

This article from last year, The Higgs, Boltzmann Brains, and Monkeys Typing Hamlet by Amir Aczel, is also definitely worth a look, if you have any interest in what cutting-edge physics is thinking about. In it, Aczel tackles a thought problem, the Boltzmann Brain, which is currently making the rounds in quantum theory.

    “The second law of thermodynamics implies that the entropy — the degree of randomness, or disorder — of any closed system never decreases (and generally increases). … Investing energy can bring back order to the system and thus reduce its entropy. So a high-entropy [disordered] state is ‘normal,’ while creating order is something that requires concentrated, directed energy. This is an important observation. …
    “Boltzmann wondered why our observed universe seems so orderly rather than completely random, as one might expect as the ‘natural’ state of the universe. … And he hypothesized that perhaps our portion of the universe is just a statistical fluke: an aberration within a wider universe in which randomness reigns supreme. So a Boltzmann brain, named after him, is a brain — a conscious observer — that materializes out of the disorderly universe purely by chance (a very, very small chance, I must emphasize) in the same way that, as Boltzmann had suggested, our entire universe may have emerged out of a wider chaotic multiverse purely through a random event. As Andrei Linde of Stanford put it in an interview with the New York Times: ‘It’s cheaper’ to create just a disembodied brain than it is to make a universe.”

So according to the second law of thermodynamics, our universe should not exist, since it is extremely ordered and complex — a high-energy state — whereas the “natural” state would be a universe that is all noise and no signal, a dead universe of chaotic, disordered events. Aczel continues:

    “But if you travel forever in the multiverse, will you encounter a single Boltzmann brain?
    The argument made by Linde…as well as by other proponents of the infinite multiverse and its Boltzmann brains is that the probability of producing — purely by chance, through quantum fluctuations, in infinite space and time — a disembodied brain is higher than the probability of producing an entire universe.
    “But this is not true. A brain requires a body to support it, and a world to feed it and house it and protect it, and — from everything we know so far from science — it needs 13.7 billion years of an expanding universe, galaxy and star formation, including many millions of years of fusion in stars to create and spread around the iron and carbon and oxygen and other essentials needed to start and maintain life on a hospitable planet, and to set evolution in motion, in order to create a conscious, thinking, self-aware brain. …
    “Wait to infinity and these ingredients will all just materialize in the right way through a ‘quantum fluctuation’? I think not. The case of a Boltzmann brain is unmeasurably more complicated, and astronomically more demanding probabilistically, than that of a simple sequence of 150,000 characters to be typed in the right order [“a monkey typing Shakespeare”]. It is, in fact — because of the requirements of something like our world to support a human or a computer brain — an event of probability zero. It cannot happen by itself even ‘at infinity.'”

So to have intelligent life like our own, a universe must first evolve in such a way as to support life. And as Boltzmann pointed out a century ago, there is something highly “unnatural” (according to the second law of thermodynamics) about a universe ordered enough, and complex enough, and durable enough, to do this. The probability of this happening on its own, through a quantum fluctuation, is vanishingly small — and yet here we are.

This brings us back to Nagel, and the notion that our universe must be predisposed in some way to seek complexity and self-awareness. There must be some other principle at work here to counter the drift towards entropy. If the universe is really made of information as Anderson and Zeilinger believe, maybe that predisposition is built into the programming. Maybe we live in a universe which, through random events playing out over time according to natural law, is pre-programmed with a high likelihood of becoming conscious.

So who or what did the programming? Was there a programmer? I have some thoughts on the subject that I’ll share below. The following pieces were written in the last few months of 2012. I was reflecting then on what I knew of current theories in physics, but I’m not a student of physics, and I was really coming at this from another angle. My real interest is the study of the world’s religions, particularly the Eastern traditions, and religious philosophy. What struck me is that if you squint at science and religion in just the right way, scientific and religious views of the universe seem to be returning to harmony.

— • —

Earth is a fine planet. Enjoy your time here.

What is a planet? It’s a place where intelligence comes to settle for a while. It’s a place where, out of all the infinite universes, galaxies, and stars unsuited to life, a harmonious balance of gravity, temperature, and chemicals exists to make life work.

My current theory is that wherever intelligence can be, it will be. It is everywhere, seeking the right receptacle. It will inhabit the receptacle to the extent that the receptacle is able to carry it. At times intelligence will even guide the receptacle to improve its capacities, as when a complex molecule striving to become life makes the leap with some kind of innate intelligence.

We seem to know what we’re going to become before we get there. We have a precognitive intuition that recognizes new discoveries as obvious and says, “I told you so.” It remains in the background but prods us to knowledge wherever new knowledge is possible, and then breaks through to reveal itself as the thing we knew all along.

Why doesn’t it simply tell us all we need to know in advance? Because we ourselves must make the discovery. The complex molecule must go through a billion permutations before it becomes a cell. The tadpole must evolve over millions of years into a bird, an elephant, a dog. The scientist must labor for years over his equations before finally grasping the concept in its simplicity. Intelligence guides us, but we must do the work.

It’s the process that counts — the result is just a side effect. By putting itself to work in the world through physical laws, natural selection, or the workings of the mind, intelligence finds progressively more worthy receptacles and is itself improved. The ultimate project of intelligence is the universe itself, with evolution as its sign.

— • —

I’m arguing that events in the universe are pre-programmed both for randomness — to produce sufficient variety — and for what I’ll call “useful complexity,” meaning a preference for results that achieve a more advanced state. In this way, simply by “running the clock” and allowing randomness to happen, according to rules that prefer more advanced states, evolution will inevitably take place, leading to life bearing planets, intelligent life on those planets, and beyond. While the process is completely random (though constrained by rules), the result is, roughly speaking, foreoredained. The universe was designed to evolve to a higher state.

“Spontaneous programming,” as a friend of mine calls it, is coupled with a “learning curve” so the most successful variations take priority over time. Darwin’s theory of natural selection shows how this learning curve works, not just in the biological world, but in the physical world as well (solar systems, organic compounds) and even on the level of cosmology (universe formation, natural laws). Some natural laws and universes were “discarded” simply because they didn’t work. They didn’t produce a stable equilibrium able to hold itself together and build yet further complexity.

So “spontaneous programming” plus the “learning curve” (which is natural selection, or the tendency to preserve a successful model) equals complexity.

— • —

We should be operating under the premise that God doesn’t “intervene” and our universe has been running under the same rules from the beginning. That those rules produced all this complexity, including us, is built into the programming, or the design, or the original intent of the model in which we are living. Thus, through a principle of guided randomness, which is to say randomness filtered through, constrained by, or selected according to certain parameters which favor complexity, we got from random stardust to where we are now without divine intervention.

— • —


This is simple. God is what we call the unknown. Since the first humans knew nothing at all, even about the natural forces that acted on them directly, they called those forces God. The natural world, with its winds and rivers, animals and forests, was seen as sacred, and we walked within that sacred space. Later, when humans began to understand these natural forces rationally and reduce them to patterns, God retreated to the heavens, and became associated with the sun and moon, planets and stars. In a yet further abstraction, the dawn of monotheism invited us to perceive God as the “unmoved mover,” the unseen, unknowable, yet omnipresent force behind the known universe. And today, for those who feel that physical laws explain everything, scientific inquiry has so far pushed back the boundaries of the unknown that there is no longer any room for God.


It seems obvious to me that no matter how much humans eventually come to understand about ourselves and the universe in which we live, there will always be infinitely more that we don’t know. This is partly because our perceptions and mental capacities are limited, no matter how much we abstract them or acquire additional tools — and partly because each time we manage to solve an intellectual problem such as the structure of DNA or the expanding nature of the universe, this only leads to more questions about how these things actually work. So if God is what we call the unknown, as I claim above, then God will be with us forever, one step out of reach.

Let me give two examples. Darwin gave us a working model of evolution and how the various forms of life arose that we see around us today. We can map the DNA of these life forms, and confirm that humans are much closer to monkeys than we are to lizards or birds. Scientists can trace back, in theory, all the current forms of life to a single source, simple one-celled organisms that existed in the earth’s primeval oceans a billion years ago. We understand how the existence of certain elements like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, in certain combinations at certain temperatures, made the formation of complex hydrocarbons possible, which are the building blocks of life. What we don’t know is why it happened, or how these static compounds, however complex, “learned” to move around, acquire energy from their environment in a systematic way, and above all reproduce their complex structure in subsequent generations. Does it make sense that such an exceptional “qualitative leap” could occur entirely by chance, through random combination of molecules over billions of years? Perhaps, but we can easily imagine a trillion planets like ours where the same material conditions existed and the same complex hydrocarbons formed, but where the leap to a self-reproducing new form, which we call life, never occurred. So at least, we must admit that we are very lucky.

My other example involves the universe itself. Less than a century ago, astronomers discovered that our universe is expanding from a single point in time and space, known as the Big Bang. Indeed, time and space are themselves products of the Big Bang, and only have meaning within the confines of our universe, which is vast but not infinite. The expulsion of matter and energy from that single point produced all the forms we now perceive — galaxies and nebulas, planets and stars. For life as we know it to exist in the universe, stars are necessary as a source of heat, and planets like the earth are also necessary, to serve as an “incubator” for life. Fortunately, our universe seems to contain a vast quantity of planets and suns. But what the latest theories now tell us is that if the Big Bang had occurred in a slightly different way, no planets or suns would have arisen. If the physics of the Big Bang were tweaked even slightly, either the universe would have collapsed almost instantly, or it would have expanded too fast and dispersed all its energy, or the separation of matter and energy into discrete masses would never have happened, and we would have an undifferentiated field of plasma, rather than planets and suns. Indeed, the parameters for a “suitable” universe are so exact that the chances of one forming from a random Big Bang are vanishingly small. Now, apparently scientists believe that new universes are being formed all the time — not that we can see them, because their Big Bangs occur beyond the bounds of our own universe — in more than sufficient quantities to produce a universe like our own, once in a while. But while random events may have caused us to be where we are, once again we can say we are extremely lucky.

Therefore, at the very frontiers of modern science — the origin of the universe, and the origin of life on earth — are two “miracles” which, though they can be explained by physical laws and random events, are so unlikely as to raise the question, “Why?” Why did it happen, when obviously it didn’t have to happen, and indeed has not happened far more often — so much so that it boggles the imagination? For one universe like ours with the conditions to support life, ten to the trillionth power universes had to form where the physical laws were a tiny bit off; and for life to arise on earth, who knows how many random combinations had to occur before one molecule arose that proved to be self perpetuating. If God is what we call the unknown, then clearly God played a role here, for the simple reason that we can’t answer the question, “Why?” How we managed to be so lucky is unknown.

Of course, this is all just sophistry, simply a game of defining God in such a way that I can later bring her back into the picture under the guise of clever wordplay. It certainly isn’t meant to be taken as a proof that God exists, simply an example of how much about our existence, even for a rationalist, necessarily remains mysterious and unexplained. Indeed, for a rationalist there is no “miracle” at all, because all the universes that came into being without being able to support life, and all the chemical reactions that came close to generating life on our planet but fell short, are simply irrelevant to the fact that it eventually worked. Had it failed, we wouldn’t be here to gripe about it, so of course we live in a universe able to support life, and on a planet that produced life, however rare that may be. A rationalist may allow herself to wonder at the seemingly infinite blind alleys necessary to produce one random rationalist — but there is nothing miraculous about it, or anything unknown. It’s simply the product of chance, just as you can be sure that enough monkeys, or enough raindrops, at enough keyboards will eventually write Shakespeare.

But Hamlet produced by rain falling on an infinity of keyboards would be just as meaningless as all the garbage words produced on those same keyboards beforehand, because there is no intent. Fundamentally, instinctively, we sense that there is an essential difference between Hamlet written by meaningless raindrops, and Hamlet written by Shakespeare with intent. These events are of an entirely different order. So the real question here is, did life emerge on this planet, in this universe, through intent? Were we helped in some way? Were the rules written so that the series of random events that occurred would make our emergence more probable, even likely? It makes all the difference, and it speaks to our future as well. Raindrops producing Hamlet will go on to produce a nearly infinite series of garbage words before producing Hamlet once again, or Plato’s Republic. But if there is intent, perhaps both our past and our future have meaning. Perhaps we’re headed somewhere, somewhere unknown. And since God is what we call the unknown, maybe God is the future we’re headed to — in a universe that is far from meaningless, because it is governed by intent.


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