Physical Inevitability of Intelligent Life

I’m fond of saying that humans ARE special, humanity IS special. That is technically we are a species, as distinct as any other, and in practice we are the most highly developed intelligent life and culture to have evolved in the universe we know. That is not exceptionalism in any unique or exclusive sense. We can hope and believe other centres-of-excellence exist in the so-far-unobserved universe(s). And self-organising colonies of other varieties of excellence – insects, fungi, bacteria – inhabit this universe, the same eco-system we share. We are nevertheless special and unique in our experienced world.

Figuratively, we are also self-centred, by definition of I / me / we, and we’ve always put ourselves at the center of our Copernican universe, whether that’s our earth, our solar system, our galaxy, our group or our universe as our knowledge grows and evolves. Of course geometrically or temporally that doesn’t make us the physical centre or origin of anything. Never has.

Philosophically many world views remind us of the pitfalls of misunderstanding our ego as the centre of anything, and go out of our way to positively dissolve the ego to help the lesson stick. Trouble is, that avoidance of misinterpreting our centrality lies at the dogmatic core of science. Objectivity is everything, extraneous subjective influence is squeezed out of every scientific procedure or explanation. Since we are not physically central, we quite rightly strive to some neutral god’s-eye view, for the physical model we aim to hold. So far so good.

But the exclusion of any kind of special pleading for humans as the highly developed life-forms actually doing the modelling can be so dogmatic as to also exclude legitimate thought. Any mention of Anthropic Principles is readily dismissed as heretical or merely tautological or circumstantial. In fact the aim of Brandon Carter, who invented the term AP, was precisely to warn against such dogma limiting necessary thinking on cosmological evolution. Sure we can hold that the real physical world exists independent of our place within it, but the model we call physics, or science more generally, is something that evolved – and continues to evolve – with us.

Many modern scientists have taken complex systems views of the cosmos – eg Prigogine – with life and intelligent-life as part of that complex eco-system. My own underlying interest has always been governance of self-organised complex systems – cybernetics – decision-making and actions in human organisations, groups, states and cultures. I first came across the idea that the evolution of complex systems must, for basic thermodynamic reasons, eventually lead to life, self-organisation, intelligent life, consciousness and who knows where after that, from a guy called Rick Ryals. He was at that time railing against the anti-Copernican / anti-Anthropic dogma that was denying him a hearing.

[Draft in Progress] Latest ….

“the origin of life is an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics”

“the true hallmark of biological systems is their information-processing capacity”

Objectivity itself is at stake.

As well as freeing some dogmatic blockages in cosmology – Fine-Tuning / Cosmological Constant / CMBR / Dark Matter etc …

Placing information yet again as more fundamental than physics or biology (or psychology). All are manifestations of the same underlying “substance” in physical / mental and science / humanity dilemmas. No need to have one explained as determined by the other, one need not reduce to the other.

Information > (Physical and Mental), not

Physical > (Informational and Mental)

At the metaphysical end – See also Tim Crane’s public talk on physical mind-matter confusions from earlier this year.

At the practical end – See also Neville Morley’s review of arguing truth with knowledge in these days of social media and the PC fetish for immediate “facts”. (Prompted by recent Mary Beard defences of seemingly-PC BBC cartoon portrayal of ethnically diverse Roman Britain.) As I said in the exchange with @NNTaleb, it’s part of the process of argument, AND “current authority” (*) must count for something – when a simple statement cannot itself be immediately represented in a hard objective statistical fact. Interpretation of what counts as a fact is more than a simple fact!

“What interests me is the framing of such historical arguments, and the dynamics of the encounter between [academic authority and social media].”

(*) Of course PC-ness pervades so much public discourse, every participant has their own agenda, and we need to guard against complacency and simple cognitive reinforcement, BUT it is crass to assume by default that an academic authority who has spent decades getting to grips with understanding a whole subject, to have been duped by misinterpretation of a new piece of data in updating their view. By definition most of the rest of us will have the culturally accepted and socially educated knowledge of the topic, so we will experience the cognitive dissonance without the deeper basis of knowledge of the academic authority. The latter’s interpretation of the new data is likely to be better. Particularly interesting in the @WMaryBeard vs @NNTaleb exchange where two “current authorities” on different topics disagree on the significance of the new fact, and in their style of argumentation(!), Mary the classicist historian, Nassim the objective statistician. In this case it so happens Nassim’s pet topic is also Mediterranean and Mid-East (genetic) ethnicity and (cultural/memetic) language – a recipe for conflicting interpretations and obviously not best resolved by 140 character public shittograms. There’s PC and then there’s anti-PC – equally problematic. A little decorum and respect goes a long way.

By contrast, talking of decorum here’s Tim Crane again, on how Dennett & Papineau work on disagreement.

Ha. Missed this particular exchange in the complex set of Beard / Taleb threads:

And, oh my, here is Massimo Pigliucci talking on Virtue Epistemology / Epistemic Virtue – putting the virtues of the knowing subject back into objective skepticism. Humility. And double-wow – good Q&A – first question is asking to compare Epistemic Virtue with Radical Empiricism (pre-Kantian style, I use a weaker version)! And timing of spread of bad ideas – memetics central here. Good stuff. Keeping science and humanism honest, as I say.

Also published on Medium.

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