Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Miracle of Intelligent Selection of Events

Do miracles happen? Is the notion of the miraculous still useful, after the Scientific Revolution? I think so, contrary to the strawman originating, perhaps, from David Hume’s criticisms of natural theology. Hume misconceived of miracles as violations of natural law, defining “natural law” as an inductive generalization that’s based on observations of mere correlations between events. We perceive loose patterns in the world and add causal connections via the imposition of instinctive expectations or heuristics (cognitive rules of thumb) onto the more open-ended data. We thus naturally simplify the world’s infinite complexity to make rational sense of it, as opposed to wishing the world operated according to the gratuitous, occult dictates of divine commandments. Natural laws are thus opposed to religious dogmas, for example, in that the former are based on the brain’s interpretive mechanisms, whereas the stem from strategies for social domination.

This Humean view is right as far as it goes, but it’s not sufficiently atheistic. There are no objective natural laws, since “law” in this case is euphemistic. There are regularities which we understand according to our models which simplify and idealize to further such pragmatic ends as our interest in exploiting apparent natural processes. But all laws are social agreements, given atheism rather than deism or theism. Strictly speaking, there are no natural laws and thus there can be no violations of them. Thus, the notion of a miracle as a violation of a natural law is useless. Here, though, is a worthwhile notion of a miracle: a miracle is an anomaly that astonishes or terrorizes those who appreciate something of the strange event’s significance. Notice that this definition is consistent with the foregoing account of natural order. Again, there are perceived regularities which are understood in light of our subjective and social resources, including our cognitive rules of thumb and experimental models. The regularities themselves are objective, as are the data that inform our models, but the way we understand and explain the phenomena are largely anthropocentric. Even scientific understanding, which bypasses the crude anthropocentrism in the metaphors implicit in natural language, inherits the animal’s prejudice for the utility of working tools or traits. The chief standard for scientific explanations is their workability in the civilized project of taming the natural world. Like all gross, bullying demonstrations of power, technoscience will likely prove to be self-destructive. In any case, we become accustomed to the regularities we observe, because we’re in terror mainly of what we don’t understand. Anomalies, then, are those natural events which are rare and which we don’t understand. Some subset of anomalies is, further, miraculous, because a philosophical suspicion of its cosmic importance subverts the predominant way of life.

There have been at least three miracles in this viable sense. First, there was the proto-physical event that sparked the universe’s creation from quantum weirdness rather than from any intelligent design. Virtual nothingness proved to be unstable and so particles popped spontaneously into being. Then the seed inflated and evolved into spacetime which fragmented into the galaxies of solar systems we see today. Second, life developed from nonlife. At one time, physical processes occurred despite there being no one to wonder at them. Some such processes created a rudimentary form of biological life, and that life form complexified by natural selection and by other such evolutionary means so that organisms acquired various body types, including senses and brains for interpreting the environment. Third, some organisms developed also a vision of how the world should be and boldly sought to modify how the world naturally is, according to that ideal.

The Miracle of Artificiality

Let’s focus on the third miracle, which is the miracle of artificiality, of art and of all other idealistic contrivances. Part of this miracle is present in the way the natural patterns of some system persist despite interference from the system’s environment. This is why working explanatory models are ceteris paribus, why they include some humble recognition of the model’s limitations or partiality. The model is about a special occurrence that “tends” to happen but that may or may not actually happen, depending on the circumstances. In the laboratory, those circumstances are controlled for, so the phenomenon can be studied in isolation and in its pristine form, whereas in the wild, factors which aren’t covered by the model can intervene and prevent the causal relationship from materializing. There are, then, possible outcomes, one of which speaks, as it were, to what we think of as nature’s structure, to some signal or meaningful bit of information, whereas the other outcomes are so many confounding noises. Only a theory of the totality of the universe would bypass the need for this distinction between system and environment, between the part and the whole, in which case the places of every part would be understood according to their interrelations that make up the whole of everything; more precisely, the whole would be understood as a unity with no divisible parts.  

As to why one possibility is realized rather than another in nature, this is typically accidental. At least, there’s no intelligent direction or choice as to when the effect follows the cause as dictated by a scientific idealization. Peripheral conditions may or may not impede the unfolding of some segment of natural structure. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, depending on which way the wind is blowing. Mystical rationalists such as Plato like to think that nature’s mathematical structure is objectively ideal, that some natural developments are closer to the Good than others. But if there’s no Mind responsible for nature, there can be no such purely objective good, neither in a moral nor in an aesthetic sense. What there can be is the potential for a meeting between the observed and the observer, which is bound to strike the latter as having one value rather than another. For example, from an artistic perspective, some natural outcomes may seem beautiful, not disappointing. Many physicists and mathematicians like to think that the universe’s structure is simple and that simplicity rather than baroque complexity is aesthetically appealing. Regardless, that sort of value is partly objective and partly subjective, in the Kantian respect.

After eons of natural pseudo-selections of physical and chemical outcomes, due to the accidental arrangements that sometimes emerge, the third miracle occurred: the arrival of the intelligent selector. When a self-aware creature understands how the world works, considers several alternatives, favours one as ideal and tries to achieve that ideal, we seem to have a peculiar supplement to the indifferent shuffling of elements by various forces and circumstances. Prior to the evolution of persons and of self-awareness, possibilities were indifferently realized by brute undead nature, although order in the form of causality did develop. What we add to the flow of mindless order in the universe are our preferences for certain possible worlds and the ingenuity to actualize them. In particular, we prefer those worlds that reflect our values; we try to achieve what we call the good.

We can see what’s involved here by considering this miracle in light of an interesting discussion of our cosmic insignificance, called “Do we matter in the cosmos?” The author of that article explains the intuition that life must be meaningless, given the unimaginable vastness of time and space, by pointing out that even if values must be subjective, significance can be objective as in the case of information or of causal power, and compared to what the universe contains, our ability to influence the course of cosmic events is vanishingly-small. So a transient creature that leaves no mark on the universe’s evolution at large might as well not have been, from the astronomical perspective. By contrast, a godlike being, such as a member of a Type III civilization, on Kardashev’s scale, which member would control a galaxy’s energy rather than the energy of a whole star or the energy that reaches its home planet, could conceivably impact the entire universe. Cosmology would be incomplete without reference to such a godlike being that alters the course of galaxies.

With this in mind, we can appreciate the miracle of even Type I artificiality, including the artificiality of our modest deviations from the indifferent, natural course of events, because a Type III civilization must pass through the weaker stages. Thus, we may be contributing to the rise of a godlike generation that will be cosmically significant in the sense that its decisions will be literally consequential even from the least parochial perspective that would recognize the major turning points in the universe’s development. Even if our species will be extinguished before we’re able to graduate to Type II or III status, the universe is so vast, encompassing hundreds of billions of galaxies and untold billions of years in its total duration, that some intelligent species somewhere and at some time will likely acquire that godlike power, in which case we can marvel vicariously at that miracle which likely occurs. (We can even speculate, with Nick Bostrom, that that miracle has already happened, that the universe has already been intelligently redesigned, and that what we perceive as nature may be only a simulation running in that superpowerful species’ computer.) In any case, one way to express this idea of the miracle of intelligent selection of events is to say that the miracle is of the birth of gods which we’ve been naively worshipping for millennia, missing the point that theistic religions have only been foreshadowing transhumanism and the rise of technoscientific godhood, which ironically would vindicate those ancient speculations.

Even if we lay that aside and focus on intelligent selections that are cosmically inconsequential, we’re still faced with a virtually supernatural affront to nature. Even the most short-lived artificiality, the weakest, most low-tech re-engineering of the wilderness or the most humdrum action that’s meant to realize an ideal rather than to follow animal norms has the distinction of being anti-natural. When we act with resentment against nature’s monstrous indifference to the life that emerges in it, we have the significance of being cosmically novel. We rebel against nature, by learning how it works and by devising techniques for imposing extensions of ourselves, namely our machines, cities, and cultures, onto the undying wilderness. Even should we fail in the end to overcome nature’s onslaught, even should we succumb to the lethality of outer space or the tragedy of our biologically-programmed death sentences, the least consequential action that nevertheless proceeds from intelligent disgust with the way the world is which differs from how it should be, objectively transcends nature by being intentionally opposed to how most of the universe operates.

This kind of existential opposition is different from an insane person’s delusion. When the latter intends to destroy the whole world merely by blinking hard at it, for example, we don’t credit that doomed scheme with miraculous audacity, because the scheme is irrational. But when our opposition proceeds from knowledge of the natural facts and when it implicitly or consciously is meant to alter those facts according to a plan that transcends what mindless nature alone can do, our efforts are monumental. This is because those efforts then have a reasonable chance of succeeding, albeit perhaps vicariously or indirectly and in the long run, but also because they target something of the essence of all of nature. We aim to slay the cosmic dragon whenever we act not as preprogrammed animals or physical objects, but as persons, autonomously, intelligently, imaginatively, and with deep-seated horror for nature’s indifference, amorality, and ominous evolution towards a state of oblivion in which even the gods would perish.     

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