Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 31 March 2012

How chaos drives the evolution of the universe and life

The Cosmic Blueprint is the very first book of Paul Davies I ever read nearly a quarter of a century ago, and I’ve read many others since. I heard him being interviewed about it on a car trip from Melbourne to Mulwala (on the Victorian, New South Wales border) and that was the first time I’d heard of him. The book was published in 1987, so it was probably 1988.

Davies received the Templeton Foundation Prize in 1995, though not the wrath of Dawkins for accepting it. He’s also received the 2002 Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society and the 2001 Kelvin Medal and Prize from the UK Institute of Physics. He was resident in Australia for a couple of decades but now resides in the US where he’s an astro-biologist at the University of Arizona.

In America, Davies has been accused of being a ‘creationist in disguise’ by people whose ignorance is only out-weighed by their narrow-mindedness (they think there are atheists and there are creationists with nothing in between). The 2004 edition of this book is published by the Templeton Foundation and the first word in the opening chapter is ‘God’ as part of a quote by Ilya Prigogine, who features prominently in the book. But anyone who thinks this is a thesis for Intelligent Design will be disappointed; it’s anything but. In fact, one of the book’s great virtues is its attempt to explain complexity in the universe and evolution as a natural occurrence and not a Divine one.

I’ve long believed that Davies writes about science and philosophy better than anyone else, not least because he seems to be equally erudite in the disciplines of physics, cosmology, biology and philosophy. He’s not a member of the ‘strong atheist’ brigade, which puts him offside with many philosophers and commentators, but his argument against ID in The Goldilocks Enigma (2006) was so compelling that Stephen Law borrowed it for himself.

I remember The Cosmic Blueprint primarily as introducing me to chaos theory; it was the new kid on the block in popular consciousness with fractals and Mandelbroit’s set just becoming conspicuous in pop culture. Reading it now, I’m surprised at how much better it is than I remember it, but that’s partly due to what I’ve learnt in between. A lot of it would have gone over my head, which is not to say it still doesn’t, but less so than before.

More than any other writer on science, Davies demonstrates how much we don’t know and he doesn’t shy away from awkward questions. In particular, he is critical of reductionism as the only method of explanation, especially when it explains things away rather than explicating them; consciousness and life’s emergence being good examples.

I like Davies because his ideas reflect some of my own ruminations, for example that natural selection and mutations can’t possibly explain the whole story of evolution. We think we are on the edge of knowing everything, yet future generations will look back and marvel at our ignorance just as we do with our forebears.

There is an overriding thesis in The Cosmic Blueprint that is obvious once it’s formulated yet is largely ignored in popular writing. It’s fundamentally that there are two arrows of time: one being the well known 2nd law of thermodynamics or entropy; and the other being equally obvious but less understood as the increase in complexity at all levels in the universe from the formation of galaxies, stars and planets to the evolution of life on Earth, and possibly elsewhere. Both of which demonstrate irreversibility as a key attribute.  And whilst many see them as contradictory and therefore evidence of Divine intervention, Davies sees them as complementary and part of the universe’s overall evolvement.

Davies explains how complexity and self-organisation can occur when dynamic systems are pushed beyond equilibrium with an open source of energy. Entropy, on the other hand, is a natural consequence of systems in equilibrium.

In the early pages, Davies explains chaotic behaviour with a simple-to-follow example that’s purely mathematical. In particular, he demonstrates how the system is completely deterministic yet totally unpredictable because the initial conditions are mathematically impossible to define. This occurs in nature all the time, like coin tosses, so that the outcome is totally random but only because the initial conditions are impossible to determine, not because the coin follows non-deterministic laws. This is a subtle but significant distinction.

A commonly cited example is cellular automata that can be generated by a computer programme. Stephen Wolfram of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, has done a detailed study of one-dimensional automata that could give an insight into evolution. Davies quotes Wolfram:

“…the cellular automaton evolution concentrates the probabilities for particular configurations, thereby reducing entropy. This phenomenon allows for the possibility of self-organization by enhancing the probabilities of organized configurations and suppressing disorganized configurations.”

Wolfram is cited by Gregory Chaitin, in Thinking about Godel and Turing, as speculating that the universe may be pseudo-random and chaos theory provides an innate mechanism: deterministic laws that can’t be predicted. However, it seems that the universe’s innate chaotic laws provide opportunities for a diverse range of evolutionary possibilities, and the sheer magnitude of the universe in space and time, along with a propensity for self-organisation, in direct opposition to entropy, may be enough to ensure intelligent life as an outcome. The truth is that we don’t know. (Btw, Davies wrote the forward to Chaitin’s book.)

Davies calls this position ‘predestiny’ but he’s quick to qualify it thus: ‘Predestiny is a way of thinking about the world. It is not a scientific theory. It receives support, however, from those experiments that show how complexity and organization arise spontaneously and naturally under a wide range of conditions.’

This view is mirrored in the anthropic principle, which Davies also briefly discusses, but there are two version, as expounded by Frank Tipler and John Barrow in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle: the weak anthropic principle and the strong anthropic principle; and ‘predestiny’ is effectively the strong anthropic principle.

Roughly twenty years later, in The Goldilocks Enigma, Davies elaborates on this philosophical viewpoint when he argues for the ‘self-explaining universe’ amongst a critique of all the current ‘flavours’ of universe explanations: ‘I have suggested that only self-consistent loops capable of understanding themselves can create themselves, so that only universes with (at least the potential for) life and mind really exist.’ This is effectively a description of John Wheeler’s speculative cosmic quantum loop explanation of the universe’s existence – it exists because we’re in it. Davies argues that such a universe is ‘self-activating’ to avoid religious connotations: ‘…perhaps existence isn’t something that gets bestowed from outside…’

Teleological is a word that most scientists avoid, but Davies points out that the development of every organism is teleological because it follows a ‘blueprint’ or ‘plan’ entailed in its DNA. How this occurs is not entirely understood, but Davies makes an analogy with software which is apposite, as DNA provides coded instructions that ultimately result in fully developed organisms like us. He explores a concept called ‘downward causation’ whereby information can actually ‘cause’ materialistic events and software in computers provide the best example. In fact, as Davies hypothesises, one could imagine a software programme that makes physical changes to the computer that it’s operating on. Perhaps this is how the ‘mind’ works, which is similar to Douglas Hofstadter’s idea of a ‘strange loop’ that he introduced in Godel Escher Bach (which I reviewed in Feb. 2009) and later explored in another tome called I am a Strange Loop (which I haven’t read).

Davies introduces the concept of ‘downward causation’ in his discussion on quantum mechanics because it’s the measurement or observation that crystallises the quantum phenomenon into the real world. According to Davies, Wheeler speculated that ‘downward causation’ in quantum mechanics is ‘backwards in time’ and suggested a ‘delayed-choice’ thought experiment. To quote Davies: ‘The experiment has recently been conducted, and accords entirely with Wheeler’s expectations. It must be understood, however, that no actual communication with the past is involved.

It’s impossible to discuss every aspect of this book, covering as it does: chaos theory, fractals, cosmological evolution, biological evolution, quantum mechanics and mind and matter.

Towards the end, Davies reveals some of his own philosophical prejudices, which, unsurprisingly, are mirrored in The Goldilocks Enigma twenty years on.

The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness – in other words, that the universe has organized its own self-awareness – is for me powerful evidence that there is ‘something going on’ behind it all.

This last phrase elicits the ‘design’ word, many years before Intelligent Design was introduced as a ‘wedge’ tactic for creationists, but Davies has been an outspoken critic of both creationism and ID, as I explained above. Davies strongly believes the universe has a purpose and the evidence supports that point of view. But it’s a philosophical point of view, not a scientific one.

This leads to the logical question: is the universe teleological? I think chaos theory provides an answer. In the same way that chaotic phenomena, which includes all complex dynamics in the universe (like evolution) are deterministic yet unpredictable, the universe could be purposeful yet not teleological. In other words, the purpose is not predetermined but the universe’s dynamics allow purpose to evolve.

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