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The Grand Difference Engine

Thoughts after reading "The Consciousness Paradox"

I wanted to respond to an article that I read here on Vocal. The Consciousness Paradox, by Justin James Gignac, is a great article asking whether or not life is simply a chemical reaction, or something new to the universe altogether. More specifically, is intelligence simply an illusion created by the vast processing power of the brain? If you have read any of my philosophical meanderings, you probably picked up this theme. It has interested me ever since reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My own philosophy is that life and intelligence are the result of necessity.

There is a very good reason that math explains the universe so well: The universe operates like a Grand Difference Engine. Shortly after the big bang, all matter and anti-matter collided and all but a tiny fraction of a percent of matter was annihilated. Just like the polarity of magnets attract, every atom is charged, and all energy is the result of atomic matter seeking to stabilize itself by pairing negative and positive charges and negating them.

Hydrogen, the first element we recognize, developed first and is highly reactive. A tiny puncture on the zeppelin Hindenburg turned it into a flaming maelstrom and the incorporation of hydrogen into atomic weapons geometrically increased their power.

Hydrogen is what fuels stars, and there it turns into other elements which are more stable and coalesce into planetoids. The problem is thermodynamics: Every new step in the conversion back-and-forth between energy and matter uses part of that energy. Therefore, you get less energy back each time, and require more energy for the next conversion. Hydrogen reacts violently with oxygen, then transitional metals react slowly by corroding and, finally, the noble gases do… nothing. At least not at the limits of energy as we currently understand them. I think this was the same problem encountered by the Grand Difference Engine.

You might think the odds of life developing at random because of a simple imbalance are astronomical, but the universe is an astronomical kind of place. If the potential is there, then it seems inevitable that these chemicals will mix, because they are all seeking a reaction that will exchange energy. Just as a collection of dust floating in space will run into one another and build up to the point that their gravity well attracts more matter, forming a planet. So, from my perspective, life is inevitable because of the nature of the universe to convert energy.

What I am not so sure about, is why some damned dirty ape scratched his hairy ape-butt and wondered why the universe must constantly exchange energy. I think that life itself only had the goal of creating self-awareness, or real intelligence. It did this through evolution, and possibly over billions and trillions of star systems, which creates Fermi’s Paradox: Where the heck is everyone? Well, just as the chances of life developing were inevitable because of the sheer scale of the universe, the chances for things to go wrong are just as infinite. So, every moment over the last twenty billion years or so was a moment for some event somewhere in the universe to go wrong and destroy and entire life-supporting planet.

That means that any species that can’t travel through space is eventually doomed. Think of the dinosaurs. Titans that they were, they never really had a chance. Even with intelligence, there are circumstantial limitations that are, again, caused by the nature of things to exchange energy. Fish ate other fish, so some fish took a hike. The evolutionary race led to us, because our best competition for sentience were sea mammals, who had no chance to develop dexterous digits like we did.

Finally, we get to the “us” that we know today, on the cusp of creating Artificial Intelligence and wondering what that means about ourselves. An AI is not intelligent, but either draws on vast amounts of input or such incredible processing speeds that it is able to run algorithms to adjust itself constantly. In both those cases, the seemingly infinite possibilities are due to our own physical limitations. They are not actually infinite and cannot introduce information into the universe, which is our perspective of ourselves. To quote Carl Sagan: “Humanity is the universe becoming aware of itself.”

There are numerous viewpoints on the nature of intelligence and its place in the universe. I happen to think it is the result of the same problem that we have seen thus far. The universe is about spending energy, and simple life has limitations. Tyrannosaurus Rex could not build a shelter, keep the species alive through an Ice Age and then develop industry that would lead to space travel. However, this spends energy at an accelerated rate, sometimes at near destructive speeds. Is the universe seeking to burn itself out? Is it simply investing in steps to reach sentience?

I enjoyed Mr. Gignac's article, because one thought I took away from it was the question: Is our view of intelligence itself simply limited by our position in reality? Yes, I mean “reality.” The fact that the speed of light will always be the same to you, no matter how fast you are travelling sounds like a barrier to me. Laws of the universe also seem to be limited to the fact that we are made of atoms, which are made up of subatomic particles. That is the limits of what we call “reality”, meaning the universe that we can perceive and interact with. In fact, that is a brilliant example of why intelligence is necessary to continue the great difference engine.

We can see light in a certain spectrum, naturally. That is to say, unless you count people wearing infrared goggles, or UV filters. We have sensory input from both of those forms of radiation, but burns area pretty painful way to find out that they are nearby. We found a hazard, defined the problem and found a solution. We can problem solve in ways only possibly through self-awareness and realizing that you and the universe are two different things. That makes us either the Masters of the Universe or the servants.

After much blustering, these are my thoughts on Mr. Gignac's possibilities:

  1. If consciousness is simply the result of vast data, then its purpose is to maintain the universes ambition at finding new ways to spend energy and remain “alive,” if the term applies.
  2. If, however, intelligent life is more than normal matter, then that means that the universe is a function in support of intelligence itself.

If you think on it, you can’t say that the universe is here to support humanity itself. That seems absurd to me. We are certain to evolve past where we are, despite the best efforts of the current muppet in the Oval Office. Barring some astronomical disaster that kills every single person in less than one week (which is by no means impossible), we look forward to what I think is the next step for all intelligent life: technology. What some call the Singularity.

That is a point in the future where humans and machines will be unable to survive separately and eventually merge into one species. It sounds very Dalek-y, but that is because it is. The idea is that we are afraid of losing our humanity, and becoming cold, homogeneous, logical beings. Of course, that is our perspective right now, but I would say that I already see a surge in group-thinking and extreme empathy. It sounds an awful lot like differences seeking a balance, to me. More of the Great Difference Engine at work.

And, I want to thank Justin James Gignac for a thought provoking article and I hope he doesn’t mind me mentioning it here.

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