I’ve been pretty sceptical about AI hype going back a decade or so when Kurzweil coined Transhumanism beyond the Singularity where artificial computer intelligence overtakes real human capabilities. Here my 2010 take on the 2009 Singularity Summit, where one of my heroes, Hofstadter, and others were also sceptical about Kurzweil’s take.

In fact there are many posts in the blog going back to 2002 and 2003 (quite a few now with link-rot) picking up on Steven Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science” and specifically Kurzweil’s take on “ANKOS”. I was already sceptical for “there’s nothing new under the sun” reasons. Cellular automata were already an established topic in my Dennett & Hofstadter space, building on Conway’s “Game of Life”. Marvin Minsky no less was also pointing out this was hype based on 20 year old material.

The idea that the complex – and the entirely unpredictable – evolves from repeated algorithmic application of very simple rules to simple starting points is long established, the key point being, whether it’s the physical or the biological domain we are talking about, this is an information processing phenomenon – disembodied information independent of its physical or biological substrate. Hofstadter expanded the algorithmic concepts most widely and generally in “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies“(1995). Dennett has ploughed his furrow, applying it continuously ever since to the evolution of intelligent human consciousness and will, culminating most recently in “From Bacteria to Bach and Back“(2017).

Interest lies in the artificial intelligence field is because it teaches us about the evolution of real human intelligence, not because it enables us to predict the unpredictable. Futurists like Kurzweil at Google obviously make their living predicting the future. Like politics, futurism is as much about making true what you wish to be true than “prediction” per se.

Doubly interesting in this field where Shannon and Turing appear to be as important as Darwin, is that it appears that fundamental aspects of information and computation also lie at the heart of physics, not just biology. The evolution of a whole physical, living and intelligent cosmos simply from information – any differences between points in space-time, prior to any particles, forces or energy (or laws even?). Do ideas come any bigger? [Ref EES (Biology and Philosophy). IIT (Physics and Philosophy). ANKOS (Unger & Smolin). And more.] Well yes they do.

Move over God, you might think. Dan Brown’s “Origin is based on that thought. Half on the futuristic trans / post-humanist “where are we headed”?” angle, and half on the fundamental evolutionary “where have we come from?” angle. It’s a fiction, a conspiracy and code-breaking action thriller in Brown’s usual style, and clearly the protagonists Edmond Kirsch, Robert Langdon and their AI Winston bear more than a passing resemblance to Kurzweil. However the scientific and technical plot components are firmly based – with explicit references in most cases – on the science above.

There are two corollaries to the information-based evolution thread that are also exposed in the plot.

Firstly, the idea that increasingly complex life and human intelligence are an inevitable outcome of physics. A kind of cosmic teleology towards humanity (and beyond). Get that! Brown uses Jeremy England’s Dissipative Systems work as his source. I’ve long used Rick Ryals’ Entropic Anthropic work as my source. Given the 2nd Law – the inevitable dissipation of energy in the increase of entropy in the cosmos – it turns out the most effective and efficient arrangement to achieve that is life. The more complex and intelligent the better. Local pockets of high order and intentional activity maximises the overall disorder – entropy – of the cosmos. Order is the complement to information. Entropy is an informational property.

Secondly, having admitted humans to the party, several other concepts can be rehabilitated after decades, even centuries, of exclusion from science. For example Dennett has pushed consistently to recognise intelligent design – the intentional purposes of naturally evolved intelligence – as one of evolution’s driving forces. Dennett has also consistently warned scientists and philosophers not to be too quick to exclude human subjectivity by rushing to greedy reductive objective definitions. And another example, Iain McGilchrist in “Master and Emissary” has rehabilitated that the fact the human brain has a bicameral design – in two hemispheres – is fundamental to how we function intelligently. Brown exploits the latter – even explaining the hemispherical roles without specific references – in his fictional artificial brain design behind Winston.

As a fiction Brown has used many established sci-fi tropes in his AI knockabout. The cliched HAL(2001) and impossible Déjà Vu technology references are neatly played down by the Winston character of the AI supporting our hero. He plunders the Bach and Familia Sagrada memes much used by evolutionary theorists, including Dennett. As a thriller, it has all the components you’d expect from a Dan Brown block-buster. It has screen-play written all over it.

However, having had the “move over God” thought, it’s worth taking stock. Brown’s conclusion is that rather than a God of the gaps – what gaps? – what we really have here is a natural human bridge between science and theism. Humanity of the gaps, I’ve called it. Like others before him, Sacks for instance, Brown’s futurist predicts a benign, adaptive and progressive fusion. A transhuman fusion between AI and humanity sure, but also a humanist fusion of science and theism – an integrated and enlightened religion by any other name.

“May our philosophies keep pace with our technologies.
May love not fear be the engine of change.”

Whatever the intellectual snobbery Brown’s conspiracy-theory block-busting style might attract, it is excellent that we have a best-seller exposing these fundamentally exciting topics to a wide public. Hopefully more than a few will be moved to curiosity.

Origin is the latest from Dan Brown. [Many spoilers and rough notes.]

[This below is a doubtful piece of writing – a much better review here in “Pre and Post-Humanism”.]


This review focusses on the “technical” content, with anything on the plot and style or on my reading of it being relegated to a later post. Safe to say, if you’re a fan of Brown’s you’ll probably enjoy the conspiratorial code-cracking block-busting thriller you’re expecting, visually it’s practically a screen-play already. If not you probably won’t. Except, that is, for the content.

The content was the topic of this earlier review by David Klinghoffer published in Evolution News, the voice of the Discovery Institute. They of course are the somewhat controversial organisation attempting to use science join up science and theism, so not a surprise that the plot appeals to them. But others have also reviewed:

In the Guardian Peter Conrad called it “a Nostradamus for our muddled times” Sam Leith called it “fun in its own galumphing way – the battle between science and religion

Lakshmi Singh of NPR leads with “Pits Creationism Against Science

I’m going to cut right to the chase, so as far as being a thriller is concerned, this is ALL spoiler.

Dialogue Towards Enlightenment

I take issue with “battle between” and “against“. Sure that’s what gives the plot its thriller-style trajectory, but the point of Edmond Kirsch’s story as told by Brown through his hero Robert Langdon is in Blake’s words:

“The Dark Religions are departed & sweet science remains.”

Elaborated by Langdon to emphasis the Dark Religions as:

“Science can banish the dark religions ….
so that enlightened [science & religion] can flourish.”

And quoting Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster” Treating religion as a monster to be slain risks becoming just such a monster as Brown reminds Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and Neil deGrasse-Tyson et al.

It is indeed a story about joining-up the dots between the two where “Dialogue is always more important than consensus.”

Part 2 First – Amor Vincit Omnia

What makes it plausible, however well Dan Brown does or doesn’t succeed in telling it, is its dependence on a well-researched set of current theories.

“Where have we come from, where are we going?” I can’t be the only person whose earworm sings Cotton-Eyed Joe to that meme, but it repeatedly restates the scope of the book. It’s a story of two halves.

The second half – where humanity is headed in a godless world is in many ways the least interesting half. It’s a prediction about the future, and you know what they say about those. It follows a Transhuman AI Singularity narrative, similar to (say) Ray Kurzweil, but there the similarity ends. The nature and outcome of the syncretic co-evolution of technology and humanity is very specific and non-threatening except for its pace. Specifically not just a new species overtaking intelligent human life, in fact not even a genus, order or phylum but new Kingdom absorbing – incorprorating – humanity. As Brown points out none of this is new in the sci-fi genre.

In fact, it is simply a continuation of how we came to be as we are. With hindsight, we will always be “the ancients”, even an alien species from an alien kingdom, but it’s still our future, however it turns out.

“May our philosophies keep pace with our technologies.
May love not fear be the engine of change.”

It’s Amor Vincit Omnia again! Spiritual love reigns and love is a spontaneously-created non-finite resource.

Then Part 1  – The Science

Predicting the actual future is less interesting than understanding the processes that will continue to happen into the future, those same processes that got us to where we are today. What is really interesting technically – hopefully scientifically – the first half the story is the natural explanation, without a supernatural god, of how life came to be. The main omission, for me anyway, given the theories expounded, is that the story is limited to life only, not pre-life physics & cosmology and not post-origin-of-life human intelligence, consciousness and will. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but all the key components are there.

In terms of life the story draws on Jeremy England’s dissipative structure work. If we treat the “universal teleology” of the cosmos to dissipate energy and maximise entropy, then the most efficient spread of energy requires pockets of order to maximise long run entropic dissipation of energy . Life is the most effective tool for creating local pockets of order to maximise the spread of disorder, creating entropy and dissipating energy. Life is the inevitable result of entropy. Teleology without a god.

The other topic introduced but not greatly elaborated is in the assertion that “The question of god lies in the difference between patterns (of information) and codes (intended to convey information).” The god question here concerning creative evolution being natural with or without supernatural intervention. As soon was we call something like DNA a “code” we are implying intelligent intention to use the information not simply incidental patterning. Some stuff also on the earlier Conway “game of life” cellular automata evidence of how complexity can evolve from processing of simple information patterns, the kind of material I’ve taken from Dennett and Hofstadter. Right now beyond Brown’s book the fundamental nature of information is seen to lie behind the evolution of both physics and intelligence, the intelligence needed to turn patterns into code. This is sadly left hanging as an open question.

AI is central to the whole story, not just in the transhuman predictions and not to mention the participation of “Winston” in the plot action, but its involvement in the science of the evolution story. Great to see the bicameral nature of the AI “brain” relying on distinctly separate regions interacting whilst processing information quite differently. This is another area of science being rehabilitated after decades of abuse.

A Hopeful Future?

As well a science, religion and love, there is a large element of extolling the humanity of libraries and museums. And as far as the dialogue between religion and science is concerned it goes as far as predicting a merger between science and religion as a new religion by any other name.


Previously on Psybertron: A recent preview “Our Destiny in Dan Brown’s Origin
And earlier “Teleology Without a God” and “Andy Martin et al on Transhumanism

Better consolidated content review here.

Further review on plot and style may follow.

Raw notes below:

Rough notes – ALL SPOILERS:

Joe Campbell upfront.

All locations an institutions real.

Libraries … Monarchy … Symbols … codes and codes within codes. many di’s / written instructions / info read by character unknown to reader
Kirsch assassination, after only weeks to live / large donation ton church … self-set-up
Revenge for atheist terrorism? No, his mother.

Conspiracy politics of fake news “even respected scientific channels simply turning every ludicrous statement into a leading question”

“An Episcopal minister and an evolutionary biologist – polar opposites or they would not be on your show.”

Winston is in fact named after Churchill not 1984 oh well.

Four Horsemen titles and American Atheists / Brights – only Dawkins and Dennett by name so far … and Harris, eventuallt NdGT and Hitchens.

Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster”

Oh my, it’s Blake! “The only pre-modern with any imagination”. Been thinking Origin / Origen / Urizen all the way through.

Palmarian (conservative) church vs the new atheists. Kirsch as Blakeian Horseman.

(Crass 47 char password search – the last book in the last cabinet! With the baddies and security forces arrived yelling the stairwell outside the front door. Cut to other scene with its own suspended drama … a physical climax? crah bng wallop fights. x marks the spot and password. boys own stuff. Telegraphing in the actual text “the ultimate moment of triumph seemed to have arrived without any fanfare”)

Eco-enviro reasons to find new planet and extraterrestrial panspermia advanced alien life …? recipe for advanced alien intelligence? Surely not. Langdon agrees.

Interesting Sagrada Familia star of the show …. as epitome of Darwinism, bottom-up evolving structure? Kirsch donation.

Conway’s Game of Life – Cellular Automata – I did scream Dennett & Hofstadter, didn’t I.

Darwin “If we admit a first cause the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose.”

silence / opposite – scheme of dying man?

Mare nostrum plus a q-computer – metallic monolith – E-Wave? – two half-brains vertically layered?

yep, bicameral = humanity

what’s inside? a new model of the universe

lots of geeky computer jokes.

more than a nod to ayn rand’s atlas shrugged speech

miller-urey primordial soup.

flaw predictability through complexity? nothingb about uncertainty? false climax

Origin seems to be only about life’s origin, not cosmos?



every 38 years – Kondratiev

JEREMY ENGLAND – universal goal – efficient spread of energy requires pockets of order to maximise long run entropic dissipation of energy – Rick. Jeremy England and dissipative structures – universal teleology driven by local pockets of order maximising spread of disorder? Life is exceptionally effective tool for creating entropy /dissipating energy.

Life is the inevitable result of entropy.

Ah! part 2 not the loss of god but the prediction of where evolving intelligent entropy leads. (tweening in simulation modelling).

Not just new species overtaking intel human life, not just genus / order / phylum but new Kingdom absorbing humanity.
Kenin Kelly nothing new here in term of sci-fi

syncretic fusion of humanity with technology. hybrid specie hom sapiens > homo – bright future.

Singularity yes, but not Kurzweil –

“May our philosophies keep pace with our technologies. May love not fear be the engine of change.”

happy / sad ending trick

Merging of science and religion, a new religion by any other name – (Sacks)

Winston has no hopes & dreams, no sentimental attachment to himself.

Amor Vincit Omnia again! Spiritual love reigns. And love is NOT a finite resource. Dialogue is always more important than concensus.

Pana for History in libraries, art and museums.

The question of god lies in the difference between patterns (of information) and codes (intended to convey information).

The of mice and men denoument – obvious from the moment it happened. And a little too much neatly tying up loose ends – the true meaning of the key Blake line.

The Dark Religions are departed et sweet science remains.

Science can banish the dark religions …. so the enlightened ones can flourish.

I’m reading Dan Brown’s latest in a similar mode to my readings of Lee Child. That is it’s a genre and author that really holds no interest other than witnessing what a best-seller looks like and attempting an understanding how it’s constructed. Who am I to call it drivel? Stylistically neither has won me over. The “thrilling” aspect is very dependent on structural twists hidden under a mass of intricate detail. Ballistics and field-craft detail for example in Jack Reacher’s case; institutional locational and historical conspiracy detail in Robert Langdon’s case. I say hidden but, if you don’t find the detail topic absorbing, the plot devices are transparently obvious and telegraphed before every twist, so far.

With Origin however there is a level in which the content and the overall premise and thesis fit right into my agenda. From this point on this “review” is a spoiler. It’s the content I’m gutting here.

I’m reading it because of this review I noted here: “Teleology Without a God”. I’m interested in AI and latest information and communications technology not because they impress me about possible artificial futures, utopian or dystopian, but because they are helping us understand the evolution of real human consciousness, will and intelligence from the information potential of the universe.

Almost all of the components of Brown’s plot I’ve read before: The lying down in a meadow to look up at the cosmos, and the simulation in “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” are pure Douglas Adams. The religious institutional historical conspiracies and libraries of ancient books are pure Umberto Eco (as was already said about Brown many years ago) with the connections right to the top of the Vatican a la Godfather-III. A little too much religious suppression of science a la Galileo and al-Ghazali put me in mind of Alice Dreger and Salman Rushdie. Gaudi and his Familia Sagrada as archetypes to the plot, and the encoding of emergent natural patterns all scream Dennett and Hofstadter to me. I’m probably not Brown’s target audience.

One neat device is the use of a fictional conspiracy-theory web-clearing-house to summarise the public view of unfolding news stories, rather than inserting an inevitable myriad of individual tweets and messages into the narrative or dialogue. The cliched HAL(2001) and impossible Déjà Vu technology references are neatly played down by the character of the AI supporting our hero, named Winston as a nod to 1984 no doubt. There is a certain craft, and it’s not all bad. As suspected the topic is right on.

And, as usual, I’m writing this “review” barely a third into Origin. First impressions.

Looks like Brown’s central story really is the “discovery” that the middle way between mindless evolution and a creative god, is naturally evolved, intelligent and purposeful creativity – Teleology Without a God, as I already said. Information patterns are the root of course. At this point I can’t quite see two things: why this Elon Musk vs Discovery Institute angle is so earth shattering to the religious communities; and how is Brown going to resolve first-cause beyond his infinite corridor metaphor?

I’ll be back.

STEM is the acronym for those “sciency” disciplines that contribute to the (human) built environment. It was coined at least in part to provide a handle on those areas of humanity that had traditionally been very male gender biased, unlike the humanities themselves. The natural order MSTE is arranged to make STEM a pronounceable acronym, but it represents part of a useful taxonomy of human knowledge (independent of gender issues).

There is always a tendency for people to put their topic, the one they are promoting, at the centre of their world view assuming the broadest definition of their topic. One of my pet hates is the extent anything remotely technical attracts the “isn’t science wonderful” meme. Science is indeed wonderful but, as I often say, it required a lot more than science to get 500,000 rivets flying in close formation to the moon and back.

The maths, logic and the art of being scientifically rational is one thing. Everyone should have a basic horizontal grounding in tools and methods and in the model of factual knowledge supported by these. But this is just science without a vertical education in why and how the whole edifice of humanity hangs together.

Using the natural MSTE taxonomy:
Science is more than Maths and Logic
Technology applies the art of the possible to the Science.
Engineering turns the possible into reality with Human Ingenuity

Horizontally, humanity interacts as a subjective input at every level, these are all human endeavours, but in terms of the vertical stack, “STEM” is simply the point of contact between science and the rest of the edifice. Education in and about science has limited value without understanding the whole of our built environment, by which I mean the sum total of all physical and human systems humanity has co-evolved.

Did I mention I was an engineer?


And, right on time:

What matters? What’s matter anyway …. for another time.

Really just a holding post, but a recurring theme of mine that the memetics of sharing information freely via the web necessarily tends to lowest common denominators, degenerates to simplest polarised positions, despite the efforts of those who pursue more nuanced truths.

So-called “inventor” of the web – Tim Berners-Lee – on how The Web is Failing.
The semantics of interlinked content is indeed degenerate.

Founding president of Facebook – Sean Parker – on the Monster that is Social Media.
(Also reported by the BBC.)

More to unpick, but in the meantime, read.

It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned scientism, nor the first time I’ve written specifically with this topic in my title. However, scientism rang positive bells with several of the audience the other night. My slides included this early bullet:

  • My Sceptical Position is For “Science and Rationality”
    But against “Scientism”, the narrow dogma – or accidental arrogance – that science with objective logic is the privileged answer to anything and everything that matters.

What follows elaborates on that, so let’s start with:

Treating science as …

… the knowledge, explanation and understanding of the natural world, including humanity within it

and that …

… the thing that distinguishes science from any other rational considerations, the thing that science alone brings to the party, is the repeatable empirical falsifiability of hypotheses suggested by theory, independent of subjective context.

(Note that none of this traditional Popperian definition limits the scope, nature, content or processes of the theories of science themselves nor of their creation, development, evolution, explanation of theory or models, nor any metaphorical representation exemplifying such models. The progress of natural understanding progresses on many fronts in many interacting disciplines, many of which may claim to be scientific in terms of the narrow definition, but the whole endeavour progresses on the broader imaginatively rational basis, science included. See also skdh.)

Given that, my position is that science explains:

Potentially, anything, eventually,
But not
Necessarily, everything, now.

The only practical limits to anything and everything in the long run are (say) Wittgenstein and Gödel. That is, sharing that knowledge between humans will always involve symbolic language, lexical or visual, and reducing such a description to some formal logical language will limit the former but never fully resolve its own bootstrapping; its own definition based on some axiomatic premise. Some sort of “first cause”. There is always this minimum representational difference between the actual real world, and our model or theories of it, and our (subjective) grasp of it, empirical or intellectual.

But, as well as this residual gap, there are of course many more gaps and unresolved mysteries here and now in our real world. And, the closer such mysteries are to aspects considered fundamental to our model, the more such mysteries might run through more accepted understanding of otherwise uncontentious levels of our physical world model.

You might argue that the residual gap – the one(s) that forever elude(s) natural explanation – can quite harmlessly be considered god-like. It is after all supernatural, by definition here. A god of the primary gap. Seriously, who cares?

But that is a million miles from, absolutely no reason for, falling back on a “god of the gaps” supernatural explanation of the current mysteries and gaps within nature. I prefer to handle these as the humanity of the gaps.

Whatever we call them we need to deal with gaps in scientific knowledge here and now in our lives and in the politics of how we govern our lives collectively. Working to plug the gaps by extending models, or finding falsifiable hypotheses or other evidence to support applying existing models, is obviously part of our response to dealing with it. But life cannot be placed on hold whilst we wait for that happen, however much priority and resource we give to it. Here and now we must apply our humanity to the gaps. What certainty can we attach to evidence of what we do or don’t know, and it’s relevance to a given life decision. Popper, again, said all life is problem-solving.

And at this point it’s very important to recognise the nature of the gaps. Remember our working model is affected by gaps that may apply very locally in the theory, but which run through many otherwise non-contentious aspects in practice now.

When assembling relevant evidence and marshalling our rational resources to address an argument as part of such a life decision we need to remember that the whole model is imperfect, even though only small parts may be currently accepted as unknown or mysterious. It is too greedy to reduce the whole argument to only those parts where scientifically objective evidence can be brought to bear directly or by logical inference indirectly on well-defined objects, unless that inference also includes proper understanding of the risks of ignoring human subjective involvement. We all individually have skin in this collective game.

And for the benefit of true science the danger is to dogmatically deny, or to ignore the significance of, the gaps we deal with on a subjective level in real life. After all, in the eponymous title of the conference, itself after the lyric of Leonard Cohen:

There’s a crack, a crack in everything.
It’s how the light gets in.


It was a couple of years ago I noted E M Forster quotes turning-up with increasing regularity in my blog postings on knowledge and consciousness, and I mentally added Forster to my reading list. Last night the BBC TV started broadcasting a new serial dramatisation of Howard’s End. When one newspaper review compared it to Downton (!) it drew angry responses from Andrew Copson and Peter Cave.

Yes, the whole Upstairs-Downstairs / Downton genre risks misrepresenting intelligent social commentary – even a la Jane Austen, but in our case watching Ep1 of Howard’s End last night we were more recalling Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day”. Must correct the Forster omission in my actual physical reading list. Recommendations anyone?

Prompted by this click-bait headline on Pan-Psychism from Philip Goff in Aeon magazine.

“Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true.”

“… physics tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the entities it talks about, and indeed that the only thing we know for certain about the intrinsic nature of matter is that at least some material things have experiences.”

As recently as last Wednesday my own position came up when I was talking about the evolution and nature of consciousness. Whatever nonsense(*) is talked about how the observer-effect influences physics – collapse of the wave function, n’all that – it remains certain that there is some “spooky” relationship between consciousness and physics. I made only a passing reference, but clearly it rang bells with the audience in the discussion it started. [(*) Be great if people could simply remember that Schroedinger’s cat was only ever a thought experiment intended to demonstrate how nonsensical it appears!]

It’s partly a problem of human metaphors that precede understanding in physics generally, physics as a model that works without deep understanding, but let’s stick with the specifics of this problem.

Panpsychism is a common suggestion, though it’s not always clear what is meant. It’s not necessary to suggest that highly developed consciousness itself underlies the real physical world, that might indeed be time for the men in white coats with the straitjacket, though obviously it will always underlie our subjective model of it. Consciousness itself, evolved and distributed unevenly throughout sentient species, is however only one metaphor away from the forces and other effects “sensed” by and between other otherwise non-sentient physical objects. Whatever physical objects “have” it’s quite different to our own experience of advanced intelligent consciousness, but nevertheless related it seems. There is also no need for the dualist thought that two distinct physical and psychical types of natural stuff exist and that some supernatural effect creates relationships between them.

I tend to think of the connection as a common basis in proto-consciousness, a “psychical” (non-physical) component of consciousness that is necessarily present throughout the physical world even if not generally manifested as consciousness. And this proto-conscious component is far from mysterious or supernatural. In both fundamental physics and evolved biology this common component is simply information – significant differences between points in space-time. (Points not particles notice, without any intrinsic properties of their own, but with all properties and particles, psychical or physical, deriving from information integral to these point distinctions.)

Fundamental (Shannon) information is both proto-physical and proto-psychical. Not crazy and probably true.


[Previously on Psybertron – “significant difference” as a fundamental component is a recurring theme, first used with this integral information meaning back in 2005. And IIT is an exciting recent development in the physics of consciousness. Also a different topic on the face of it but with many more of the consciousness-as-evolved-information references and links.]