Tuesday, November 29, 2016

How Everything You Do Might Have Huge Cosmic Significance

Infinitude is a strange and wonderful thing. It transforms the ridiculously improbable into the inevitable.

Now hang on to your hat and glasses. Today's line of reasoning is going to make mere Boltzmann continuants seem boring and mundane.

First, let's suppose that the universe is infinite. This is widely viewed as plausible (see Brian Greene and Max Tegmark).

Second, let's suppose that the Copernican Principle holds: We are not in any special position in the universe. This principle is also widely accepted.

Third, let's assume cosmic diversity: We aren't stuck in an infinitely looping variant of a mere (proper) subset of the possibilities. Across infinite spacetime, there's enough variety to run through every finitely specifiable possibility infinitely often.

These assumptions are somewhat orthodox. To get my argument going, we also need a few assumptions that are less orthodox, but I hope not wildly implausible.

Fourth, let's assume that complexity scales up infinitely. In other words, as you zoom out on the infinite cosmos, you don't find that things eventually look simpler as the scale of measurement gets bigger.

Fifth, let's assume that local actions on Earth have chaotic effects of an arbitrarily large magnitude. You know the Butterfly Effect from chaos theory -- the idea that a small perturbation in a complex, "chaotic" system can make a large-scale difference in the later evolution of the system. A butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause the weather in the U.S. weeks later to be different than it would have been if the butterfly hadn't flapped its wings. Small perturbations amplify. This fifth assumption is that there are cosmic-scale butterfly effects: far-distant, arbitrarily large future events that arise with chaotic sensitivity to events on Earth. Maybe new Big Bangs are triggered, or maybe (as envisioned by Boltzmann) given infinite time, arbitrarily large systems will emerge by chance from low-entropy "heat death" states, and however these Big Bangs or Boltzmannian eruptions arise, they are chaotically sensitive to initial conditions -- including the downstream effects of light reflected from Earth's surface.

Okay, that's a big assumption to swallow. But I don't think it's absurd. Let's just see where it takes us.

Sixth, given the right kind of complexity, evolutionary processes will transpire that favor intelligence. We would not expect such evolutionary processes at most spatiotemporal scales. However, given that complexity scales up infinitely (our fourth assumption) we should expect that at some finite proportion of spatiotemporal scales there are complex systems structured in a way that enables the evolution of intelligence.

From all this it seems to follow that what happens here on Earth -- including the specific choices you make, chaotically amplified as you flap your wings -- can have effects on a cosmic scale that influence the cognition of very large minds.

(Let me be clear that I mean very large minds. I don't mean galaxy-sized minds or visible-universe-sized minds. Galaxy-sized and visible-universe-sized structures in our region don't seem to be of the right sort to support the evolution of intelligence at those scales. I mean way, way up. We have infinitude to play with, after all. And presumably way, way slow if the speed of light is a constraint. Also, I am assuming that time and causation make sense at arbitrarily large scales, but maybe that can be weakened if necessary to something like contingency.)

Now at such scales anything little old you personally does would very likely be experienced as chance. Suppose for example that a cosmic mind utilizes the inflation of Big Bangs. Even if your butterfly effects cause a future Big Bang to happen this way rather than that way, probably a mind at that scale wouldn't have evolved to notice tiny-scale causes like you.

Far fetched. Cool, perhaps, depending on your taste in cool. Maybe not quite cosmic significance, though, if your decisions only feed a pseudo-random mega-process whose outcome has no meaningful relationship to the content of your decisions.

But we do have infinitude to play with, so we can add one more twist.

Here it is: If the odds of influencing the behavior of an arbitrarily large intelligent system are finite, and if we're letting ourselves scale up arbitrarily high, then (granting all the rest of the argument) your decisions will affect the behavior of an infinite number of huge, intelligent systems. Among them there will be some -- a tiny but finite proportion! -- such that the following counterfactual is true: If you hadn't made that upbeat, life-affirming choice you in fact just made, that huge, intelligent system would have decided that life wasn't worth living. But fortunately, partly as a result of that thing you just did, that giant intelligence -- let's call it Emily -- will discover happiness and learn to celebrate its existence. Emily might not know about you. Emily might think it's random or find some other aspect of the causal chain to point toward. But still, if you hadn't done that thing, Emily's life would have been much worse.

So, whew! I hope it won't seem presumptuous of me to thank you on Emily's behalf.

[image source]


Arnold said...

'Continuant' progressive assumptions help an observant Emily, but only for her past and future existences...
Could she also have an existence, 'in a special position in the universe', for observation of the present...

George Gantz said...

Wow. The swirls in my morning latte look different after reading this post.

Infinitude is indeed a strange and wonderful thing. I recently posted a riff on the typing monkey theorem (give 100 monkeys - or one - enough time and they will produce all the works of Shakespeare) as a way of addressing the cherry-picking problem with big data (selectively interrogate the data enough times and you can find "evidence" supporting just about any conclusion). This is one of the tactics climate change skeptics, for example, use effectively to undermine a scientific consensus. (see: http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/why-big-data-cant-be-trusted-part-one-and-what-to-do-about-it/ )

You point out the same problem with any cosmological speculations that are based on a conception of an infinite universe. Any and all speculations may be true - and there's no way to tell. This suggests that there may be a problem with your first premise - that the universe is infinite. The evidence of our senses and instruments suggests (but does not prove) that the physical universe is finite. Neither space nor time can be subdivided into continua due to quantum features of the universe. There's really no evidence that there are reaches of the universe beyond or outside our Big Bang cosmos - just lots of speculation. Moreover, even if we do find evidence of "something" out there, such evidence is by definition finite, as are we! More finite evidence cannot prove the universe is infinite.

Finally, I might suggest that perhaps the infinite recursive spectacle that you describe - one's actions/choices reverberating through cosmos and altering the fate of the "big intelligences" out there, can be reduced to a much simpler model of a single infinite big intelligence in which each action/choice of our small, finite intelligences reverberates. This is actually a much more commonplace speculation - infinite God creating finite worlds and intelligences with whom to share His eternity. I did some speculation along these lines in the 2015 FQXi Essay Contest (http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/2381 ).

Thanks for the fantastic journey!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, George! It's hard to know what credence to give to an infinite universe. Partly, it depends on the default, I suppose. Is it theoretically more attractive to posit no end unless we find positive evidence for an end?

On all being part of God's mind -- I'll check out your link. I do think that is an interesting cosmological perspective that deserves to be taken seriously and which has rarely been explored in 21st century Anglophone philosophy. I posted on it a while ago at http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2014/04/how-to-be-part-of-gods-mind.html

JR said...

Stumbled across your blog while google searching the likeness of a quote that came into my consciousness: "Gray is the moral scale between the black and the white." In other words, alluding to the presence of ambiguous moralities within or rather in the space between more rigidly defined moral constructs, i.e. good and bad/evil, and allowing for intermediate grounds between those polar moral constructs and neutrality -- suggesting that morality exists along the shades of a gradient rather than any finite set of terms, barring the polar extremes. At this same time another quote came into my consciousness, "Love is the color between the black and the white." and my immediate synopsis was that the quote first mentioned alluded to a more objective, logical line of thought and the latter to a more subjective, emotional line of thinking. The latter being expanded in a similar manner as before: love, or emotions, bring color to the otherwise static, rigidly defined monochrome -- or in other perhaps more concise words, emotions paint the intermediate spaces between moral constructs.

I digress, what brought me to comment is that on the same grounds as your hypothesis, a butterfly flaps its wings in continuation of its life and Emily, in turn, feels that impact in some cosmic way and is inspired to continue on in her life in pursuit of that which she deems worthy of pursuit -- I feel as though within my own life the cosmos reverberates and such quotes as the ones that struck me come into consciousness, of no volition of my own other than, say, a willingness to learn. Nothing juxtaposed to those thoughts, in my subjective opinion, would hint that those particular quotes would follow in succession, rather it was more of a 'eureka' sensation as it crossed my mind. A model of cosmic intervention could map the progression of these thoughts traveling into my being, or perhaps a more conservative thinker might say that it was more along the lines of environmental factors. I am of no availability to say, I can only question and postulate, as you will probably agree. Interesting nonetheless, and I felt compelled to share after reading such an interesting piece, thank you for sharing.

I also find your choice of 'labels' amusing. It is unfortunate that ideas outside of the stereotypical 'norm' are viewed with such stigma so as to leave even us, members of the philosophical community, to brand them as such. Although perhaps the label 'humor' is more telling in relation to the other terms chosen and I am reading too deeply here. :)

I would greatly enjoy more educated, or bar that, just in general more introspective/extrospective exploration of topics such as this one. Crazy is only crazy until it spreads and becomes a societal 'norm' after all.

Unknown said...

So will our emotions and intentions scale up infinitely, like for like? Like, there isn't at least equal chance that my surge in positivity won't chaos-wave into a surge of negativity for Emily? Could I play the demon and gaslight super-giant Ingrid Bergman? Are the me-waves likely to get cancelled out in a wash of you-waves? Will the electoral college favor rural over city intentionalities and saddle us with a Boltzmann Trump? Have you read The Confidence Man: His Masquerade?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those reflections and encouragements, JR!

Unknown: Yes, all of that and more -- although if there's a high likelihood of strict "canceling" without *any* remainder, then that's contrary to the postulated butterflying.

Adam said...

I wonder if this would violate Whitehead's ontological principle / relativity principle. Interesting because otherwise the cosmology has some interesting parallels.

I have an objection to what I take to be your principle that complexity scales up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_zD3NxSsD8

I simply don't see complexity like this happening on a galaxy and/or universal scale (or for that matter on the sub-atomic scale). The interaction of galaxies do in fact seem less complex to me than the kind of complexity we see in that video. It is of course entirely possible that this results from my ignorance of that complexity.

howie b said...

Your scenario sounds just like a Vonnegut novel. Like KIlgore Trout

Marcellus said...

This is, like, what I thought when I was 14? Lol. But as has been said before: The effect isn't cosmological, as the cosmos is all encapsulating, thus the probability of a mind, existing on the complex structures of our observed 'simpler' structures, stacked like our cells are stacks of proteins, molecules and atoms, the cells itself make up body, brain and their processes. A change in the digestive track, changes the way the mind works.....In all, there are many 'long shots' that may or may not have logical philosophical implications of possibilities, but as the magnitude doesn't changes anything, whether you 'know' of it or not, it feels (that is not the cognitive part but I seem to be able to rationalize it...perhaps emily, somewhere deep down in the universes that make up me, has caused this) like waste of energy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks! (And sorry for my slow replies.)

Adam: I agree that the interaction of galaxies is probably less complex (though measuring complexity is a trick). But unless interactions *have* to get less complex as one scales up, giving infinite scaling up there must be some magnitude at which complexity manifests again. It might be so huge that the whole visible universe is a Planck length of a Planck length compared to it.

Howie: I like Vonnegut. I haven't read that one yet, though!

Marcellus: Yes, maybe the magnitude changes nothing. We can run another version with a far distant "Emily" that is just our size.