Friday, March 22, 2013

Isoentropic Dreams

Wherever I look, I see people searching for meaning. They get a string of bad luck and they start wondering if someone is sending them a message. A happy coincidence seems like a sign. This piece of wood is not just a piece of wood; it retains an imprint of the spirits of all who have worn it smooth. That ritual is not just a communal habit; it's a thread of continuity that embodies us as a people across time.

We seem built not to allow the perceptible to bound our world. It's as though our reality is merely a membrane stretched taut over a hidden landscape. The membrane throbs and hums with tectonic rumblings from the world of meaning beneath. Exceptionally violent upthrusts stretch the boundaries of our reality thin enough for us to perceive them. The patterns are too clear to ignore; they must come from that rich transmundane landscape.

There is a cost in fixating on that landscape. When we demand that every thing bespeak hidden depths of meaning, we do not allow a thing to be only itself. We trivialize it by neglecting to seek its intrinsic value. One sees this rejection of reality as ungrateful, almost Manichaean. Where does it come from?

The bluegrass gospel music I've been listening to, particularly the song "Gloryland", helped me find an answer. Listen to it.  Read the words below. See the sadness underlying the faith. The speaker's keening lament over the pain of life drives his belief in a better world beyond.

If you have friends in Gloryland,
Who left because of pain
Thank God up there, they'll die no more
They'll suffer not again.

Then weep not friends, I'm goin' home
Up there we'll die no more
No coffins will be made up there
No graves on that bright shore

The lame will walk in Gloryland
The blind up there will see
The deaf in Gloryland will hear
The dumb will talk to me

The doctor will not have to call
The undertaker, no
There'll be no pain up there to bear
Just walk the streets of gold

We'll need no sun in Gloryland
The moon and stars won't shine
For Christ Himself is light up there
He reigns of love divine

Then weep not friends, I'm goin' home
Up there we'll die no more
No coffins will be made up there
No graves on that bright shore

That's the voice of a human who's looked around at the pain of living and has had his heart broken. Unable to bear the thought of his loved ones enduring that pain only to pass into merely nothing, he believes this world to be a shoddy prelude. Those friends of ours have passed into a world where there is no pain: where our bodies don't break down, where we don't need to worry or suffer.

He's dreaming of an isoentropic universe.

This song exemplified the relentless questing after meaning I'd noticed. I listened, and asked myself why people seem hard-wired not to accept the universe around them at face value. Why do they demand that reality not be merely itself?

Abraham Heschel would say that the very prevalence of the quest for the transcendent is evidence for the transcendent. I find his faith breathtaking. I love the way he answers the question I've been asking for decades, "Is there objective beauty?", with a resounding "Yes". I wish I could buy it. But I don't.

However, when I started with the assumption of a makerless entropic universe, and thought it through, the results were eye-opening.

Imagine you have a universe with nothing but an initial state and a set of physical laws: a gravitational constantPi, a proton-to-electron mass ratio, that sort of thing. And entropy, of course. Never forget entropy. The fabric of our universe is dyed in it. I doubt a human could imagine a universe without it.

Entropy is another way of saying that the universe trends toward disorder. Air rushes into a vacuum. A hot object imparts its heat to its cooler surroundings. Watches wind down. Everything winds down.

Think of the universe as a river. The vast majority of the water molecules are moving downstream. But here's the interesting thing: our universe seems not only to support, but to actively encourage, its equivalent of eddies. Within isolated pockets, some of the water can move in an upstream direction. That's negentropy: little bits of order, like you and me, existing within the overall disorder.

The direction of the entropic stream guarantees that negentropy always comes at a price. Those eddies get their power to buck the trend from the trend. The energy of the stream drives the eddies; without it, they could not swirl. To maintain our ordered selves we create disorder. We break down food for energy, and we slow heat loss from our bodies by burning wood and by tearing apart plants and organizing the pieces into clothing. To exist, we must destroy.

But we do more than exist, don't we? We aren't insensate self-replicating patterns, like viruses. We conceive of ourselves, and of our relationship to the rest of the universe. Where does this sentience come from? Why would a machine imagine itself more than a machine? Why would it imagine itself at all?

Richard Dawkins articulated a convincing explanation of sentience. Like a general pushing toy soldiers around a tabletop to simulate battles without risking real troops and equipment, an organism can use cognition to simulate interactions with its environment without risking its life. Sentience is what happens when the simulator grows complex enough to include the organism in its own simulation.

Our brains let us exploit our environment, arguably more than any other organism. They also cost us dearly, using about 22 times as much energy to run as the equivalent in muscle tissue. So presumably sentience confers a potent adaptive advantage.

Imagine a topography of adaptive strategies. One might think that sentience leads species to the global maximum except that, in the words of Michael Creighton, "The survival value of human intelligence has never been satisfactorily demonstrated." Perhaps sentience can lead only to a local maximum or, worse, to a catastrophic plunge into the global minimum. But regardless of where sentience leads, for the sake of this argument we need only suppose it an evolutionary attractor.

The moment its species gets pulled over the threshold of sentience, the organism has a problem. As it develops, it begins to include itself in its simulation. Seeing itself in relation to its universe, it has more options, and so seeks a firm basis for choosing among them. It looks for causation. And when it discovers that its progenitors are organisms like itself, they no longer suffice.

As it casts about for a causative agent, the organism finds nothing obvious. Cognitive dissonance leads to anger over having wasted processing power on dead-end scenarios. It sees no intent in its creation: not even malice or indifference. Either of those would be a kindness, because it would at least give the organism an implied focal point for its rage. But it is denied even that. It sees only a lack of intent. It is merely a resultant of the interaction of abstract forces.

With sentience comes existential horror. Staring into that abyss, the organism might recoil into quiescence, or it might see what Camus saw: that the argument for suicide is at least strong enough to warrant a counterargument.

Sentience is highly adaptive. Existential horror is highy maladaptive. How can a species have the former while minimizing the latter? Simple. Throw more processing power at the problem. Give the organism a predisposition to include another world in its simulation: an invisible world beyond what Plato called the sensible.

The overall entropic gradient of our universe fuels pockets of negentropy. Those negentropic patterns which develop better methods of exploitation carve out larger pockets for themselves. Sentience is one attractive strategy. With sentience comes a thirst for meaning. We slake that thirst with a profligacy of abstraction.

Everything in this argument is predicated on the assumption that no cause, either efficient or final, exists. I don't speak to the validity of that assumption. I say only that we behave like organisms that could reasonably be expected to arise within a universe having only the observable attributes of our own.

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