The Mind of the Universe

I try to articulate this idea but I keep getting bogged down in details or getting lost down tangents. So let’s just dive in and see if we get to the other side.

It’s about Humanity… Hmm, I should say sentient life to be accurate. Humans just happen to be the species I’m aware of. But, I’m kinda starting at the end here so we should back up. We need to talk basics, which means physics.

Gravity makes the solar systems an inevitable fact. Mass attracts mass, it creates stars which burn and heat the planets that formed from the accretion disc surrounding the stars. It’s neither chance nor up to the discretion of some higher being; the planets and stars will form. Physics makes it so.

And likewise with biology. We may not have evidence of life on other planets but there doesn’t appear to be anything special about earth. It’s extremely likely that life will happen when it’s able to. Replicating chemical structures become persistent by adapting to changing environments. They are resilient because they adapt to their environment, while also maniputlating that environment. On a micro scale, it’s very, very hard to wipe out life on earth. 

Sentience/consciousness is a byproduct of the mind. It’s maybe not a necessity but it’s very useful to the creature in question. That’s a variable, but what is a logical progression of physics is Memetics. The same way self replicating chemical structures persist in surviving, so do mental replicators. Where larger animals exist, minds exist, and where minds exist, the ability to learn will be hugely important. The first species to create internal memetic structures in their mind will dominate their planet (whether it’s good for the animal in question is debatable). Communicating thoughts to other minds, whether through sound or writing or even some form of telepathy, will create a new branch of evolution. The Meme.

Our growth in technology, in power, is Memetic. Therefor, it is an inevitable conclusion of the universe. Another step in the progress of the universe. It is not the “purpose” of the universe though. One must not fall into the trap of egoism, we are not the endpoint. Merely the furthest step we’re aware of. The universe will always be far bigger than our meager rock.

It is also not to say we will continue to our currently imagined future. We may not have found evidence of life because it never breaches the light barrier. Given that limitation, it’s incredibly unlikely to create any civilization larger than a solar system. Communication is nearly impossible from one habitable planet to the next. So most life lives and dies on its homeworld.

Some would say it’s sad to accept that. But really, it’s the same as accepting your own mortality. The earth is mortal just the same.

The Fifth Dimension

This is going to be about Einstein’s view of gravity, which while it is complex physics, I’m not going that deep into it. If you’re one of those people who get turned off by the more mathematical stuff, you don’t need to fear. And if you’re the type who already knows their physics, this is going to be frustrating due to how much is lost in the simplification. Take it as a philosophic approach to physics.

Einstein linked time to space in the concept of spacetime. This means that time is a dimension akin to the other 3, making our universe a 4 dimensional place. This in and of itself wasn’t a major shift, but it was when taken in tandem with how gravity can warp this spacetime. This makes time into a relative property, not a universal given (I actually touched on this *here*). When explaining to someone how this works, there’s a common analogy used, that of a bed sheet. A sheet is held taught in the air horizontally. A large heavy ball is placed in the middle. This distorts the sheet downwards, creating a funnel like shape. A smaller ball placed “uphill” from the larger one will descend towards it. If you toss the smaller ball around the funnel, it will rotate around the larger ball but eventually fall towards it. If friction weren’t an issue, you could fling the smaller ball at the exact right speed to orbit around the centre point. This is how gravity works. It isn’t a force per se, but a warping of space, forcing everything within our universe to “fall” towards the centre of mass.

The analogy visualizes spacetime as a 2 dimensional sheet, in reality, it’s 4 dimensional (cause of time). But we were really discussing 3 dimensions with the sheet, the two that are “within” it, and the 3rd dimension which it is warped into; the downwards direction. If spacetime is truly equivalent, then it must also be warped into a further dimension. The 5th dimension. You could call it a 4th spacial dimension but it is distinct in that it is not contained inside our universe. Gravity pushes the universe into it, but everything within our universe stays inside it. It’s merely the shape of the universe that changes.

Now, in reality this is only a metaphor. There isn’t necessarily a physical warping because there isn’t really a way the concept of ‘physical’ makes sense. Physical only applies to our experiential world, the inside of the universe. Like all of philosophy, it’s a way of conceiving of our world, which if useful, is true in some sense.

But still, 5 dimensions, kinda cool, yes?

Our Expansive Will

The other night I was traveling through the city, first by bus then walking, and doing a bit of people watching. The bus was typically crowded; standing room only, pressed up against strangers. Normally on transit I read but it was clearly not possible given the number of people. So I overheard a series of conversations. What struck me was how few of them were between people actually on the bus. I was hearing half of these conversations, the other half taking place blocks, kilometers or even cities away. That’s bizarre. That’s fantastic.

I arrive at my stop and get off the bus, now walking down some side streets. I pass a woman talking to someone on her bluetooth. She’s still making facial expressions and hand gestures, as if the person could see her. Her brain actually feels like there’s another person next to her in the conversation. And I’m not calling her crazy for doing this, I do the same thing (well I don’t have a bluetooth, but similarly unnecessary visual cues while on a cell phone).

This experience got me thinking on how unique we are. This ability we have, to communicate over vast distances, it may not be the thing that differentiates us from other creatures, but it’s the significant final element. The core end result of our technology is that we can do this. In generalized terms, it allows us to extend our conscious will across space and time. If you look at the animal kingdom, many non-human creatures can speak and communicate in some fashion. We don’t know exactly how complex their languages may be, but they can definitely express something vocally and/or through physical gestures.

Writing is one of the earlier technological signs of a ‘civilization’. Language is a way for an individual brain to influence the world around them by imparting ideas into other brains. It’s limited by its locality because only people nearby can hear. With the advent of writing, that locality is extended through time into the future. When you read ancient manuscripts from Greece, China, Mesopotamia, etc, you are hearing the words of people long dead. This is a startling power and it’s crucial for the development of all other technologies. Whereas before new ideas must be passed down person to person, now they could lie dormant, like the seeds of a great tree.

It allowed for great power to centralize within individual hands. The rulers of nations were only capable of doing so by utilising an extensive bureaucracy, which itself required the written word. Some may argue that this was a bad thing, others say it good, but none can disagree that it allows a single person to wield far more power than would ever be possible without it.

Additionally, when writing is moved around the world, it not only travels through time but also space. The words of a man in China can bring technology to Europe. The spread of religious texts shows how powerful this can be. The technology of writing advanced over time, making the written word more accessible to more people. These were incremental advances, improving upon the original. The printing press was a major leap forward but I would argue the far more significant revolution had to wait for the 1800’s and the discovery of electricity.

Transmitting words through wires allows us to broadcast our ideas over space without a time lag. The lag of physical writing would severely hamper two way communication, often setting back human discoveries by generations due to failed opportunities. Transferring of writings could result in the originator being deceased long before the ideas could reach enough people to achieve their true potential. Telegraph wires pushed this back but radio was what broke the barrier. The first time the ruler of a nation broadcast their voice over the radio, effectively exerting their mental will into thousands and thousands of homes, that was the dawning of a new era for humanity. It was as if they had made an avatar of themselves and placed it in every home of the nation. That is awe inspiring power. And I mean awe in the original form, powerful yet tinged with fear.

And now to the modern era and the people on the bus. We all have this insane ability. We can exert our will across space and time. In social media we post, and like, and comment; it’s all communicating across distances. Visualizing this helps to show its true power. Try to see these massive arcing blue lines connecting each person on the bus to the other end of the lines. I’d love to get some technology, ala an augmented reality app, to actually see all these pulses connecting us through radio communication. That woman on the bluetooth, it’s as if she had an avatar of the other person walking next to her and talking. That’s effectively what we’re able to do, even if we can’t see them yet. We need to appreciate the power we wield.

Really this blog is an attempt for my will to be exerted across time and space.

Upon you dear reader.

Writing Ones Past

The past and future are fiction, only the present is real. This isn’t some deep philosophical point; your Will, the part of you that exerts control on reality, can only act in the present. We see a connection between the present conscious mind and the ones that preceded it (and the ones that will likely follow it). This isn’t backed up in a physical way. Multi-cellular organisms will replace their cells so often in a lifetime that no individual cell exists from birth to death. Raw physicality won’t show you to be a continuous entity. Your mind changes over time too. At best we’re patterns of information, imprinted on a steadily changing substrate, with no consistent pattern of said information. I don’t wish to belabour the point so I will recommend a great book on the subject, “The Mind’s eye”, by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter.

Memory is notoriously fallible. We don’t admit it often, but we misremember things all the time. And that’s okay. It’s only a problem if you think the past is something set in stone. A fixed part of reality so to speak. Sure, you can’t actually go back and change things, but the idea that it’s a concrete thing is just as silly. It doesn’t actually exist somewhere, it can’t be held and it can’t be tested. It’s a useful assumption to believe it exists, nothing more.

If you think memory is accurate, it can be shown as unreliable in two ways. The first is doing tests on memory, using recorded data to verify. Additionally, you can ask participants how confident they are in their memory, to show how false our confidence is. It’s been done and the results are clearly against our amazing ability to remember things. People will regularly claim to be sure of an event or the appearance of something, which is subsequently shown to be incorrect. This is not to say we can’t remember anything, or course we can. Our abilities are far from perfect and confidence in a memory does not equate with increased accuracy.  

The second way is to try to understand how the brain forms memory, tackling it from a hardware perspective. Our memories are imprinted onto patterns of neurons. Remembering things causes a rewrite of said memory, that’s how we retain them over long periods of time. That rewrite process can literally imprint the memory with your current mental perspective on the event. This happens every single time you remember it. That’s what remembering actually is. So it will obviously change over time. Hence it being unreliable. This last part is speculation on my part, so take it with a grain of salt. When a memory is bound up with strong emotions, remembering it will cause a stronger re-imprint. More powerful emotions will lead the conscious mind to think harder on a memory, replaying it repeatedly in a single sitting. This can magnify the memory in whatever direction the mind is currently interpreting it.

“Well then”, you may say, “what about physical artifacts from the past, surely those are concrete evidence of the past?”

Well no, not really. Those only exist in the present tense world. It’s not a pedantic point because the current state of an item doesn’t directly show it’s history. There are many ways any particular item could have ended up where it was. A manuscript from 10 years ago could have been written as if it were from 1000 years ago. We have ways to test things, like carbon dating, but every test has limitations. Some only work on short time scales, some only on long term scales with the margin of error in centuries, and all of them are limited to what materials they work with. That’s all speaking about long term history but short term is just as challenging. Look at crime scene evidence (not the silliness on TV, actual police investigation) and you’ll see just how challenging it can be to reconstruct a single day from within the last couple months. The amount of information that can be gleaned from physical remnants of the past has a startlingly steep decline.

It’s certainly more accurate in the long term compared to memory, but ultimately it’s just as fallible. The fact of the matter is that in order to understand any artifact, one must create a history which includes that item.
A history.
A story.

A major change in the human’s relationship to the past has occurred recently. Social media. We have an unprecedented ability to record and analyse our world. A major component of social media is a log of ones life. Photos, parties, weddings, graduations; we catalogue them all. When we post about a boring day or a shitty day or the most beautiful day we’ve had; we’re writing our past. It’s a degree of control that few humans have had access to until very recently. Before then it was always in the hands of someone else to write your history (if it was ever deemed worth recording). Now we curate and edit our past selves. It’s an empowering thing to do.

It can also smack of narcissism.

When someone is spending more time taking photos of their life than actually living it (whatever the hell that means), what they’re doing is writing their story. The past as a fiction, with the self as the protagonist. It is unquestionably narcissistic, yet so is consciousness. As long as they’re aware of the inherent narcissism and they keep it in check, there’s nothing wrong with it. You have every right to try and write your own story because you are the owner of your past. 

If you’re not a good author though, no one will care.

Einstein’s Ceiling

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Most of us are familiar with the basics of what Einstein discovered. One of those things is that nothing can travel faster than light. This isn’t relevant to our day to day lives, because we can’t possibly conceive of how fast light is. We can get a grasp on it when we think about distances where that speed is relevant. We’ve all thought about traveling the stars, about finding a new Earth or contacting aliens. When thinking on that scale, the speed of light is a very relevant thing. It’s possible future scientists will prove Einstein wrong or come up with some clever way that we don’t really break the rule, while breaking it in a practical fashion. For now, I’m assuming that doesn’t happen. Not because I’m convinced it’s the case, but because it’s a possible option and our societal view of the future doesn’t address it very well.

Here’s some facts that are relevant:

Light Year (ly) = time it takes light to travel that distance in one year (it’s very large, bigger than the solar system)
Nearby Stars: one at 4.5 ly, one at 8.5 ly, one at 10.5 ly, and four at about 11.5 ly
Span of our galaxy: 100,000 – 180,000 ly
Nearest galaxies (not satellites): 2,560,000 ly, 2,640,000 ly, and 3,390,000 ly

So with the most amazing engines following Einstein’s speed limit, we could reach those places in a little more than that amount of time. Four to twelve years for close stars, hundreds of thousands of years to cross the galaxy and millions to leave the galaxy. Communication across those spans would take just as long and twice that for a response.

Civilization would not be possible, at least not as we’ve come to know it. A 9-24 year delay for any communication is closer medieval speeds. We could colonize that local group of stars, hoping that there’s planets we can use in some fashion, but we’ll always remain separate. We have the potential to create a united humanity on earth, forging ahead with some grand goal. With some very advanced forms of organization we could manage it across the solar system. There is no hope beyond that.

So colonization is possible and even some interaction between the colonies. They’d never unite, but trade and immigration would be possible. We can remain optimistic, but that division would put us in constant danger of falling back into our violent ways. And with the weapons our technology could create…. Maybe this is the answer to the Fermi Paradox.

The span of the milky way effectively eliminates any possibility of humans colonizing it. Our physical and mental offspring may reach the edges of the Milky Way, but we certainly wont. Homo Sapiens have only existed for roughly 200,000 years. Our population size was vastly smaller for much of that time and also far more concentrated in a specific environment. We will not remain one species in the time it takes us to colonize the galaxy. We will not remain human. Even if we sent fertilized embryos on robotic ships, the variations that would evolve from one region to another would render us different species. It would be like the spread of language and writing across Eurasia. Each group would be somewhat similar to the one next to it, but the variations from one side to the other would be massive.

Within our galaxy we may not be able to colonize, but at least we can have some idea what it could look like. Not so on the next scale up.

Inter-Galactically it’s just too much to conceive of. Millions of years is beyond the point of even speculating with any shred of reality. The human mind can’t span that gap.

So what’s the point of all this speculation? We can draw one definite fact from it: Humans will not leave our small region of the galaxy. Maybe leave our solar system and reach nearby stars, but ultimately anything beyond say 1000 ly is beyond us.

We can send our seeds out there and hope for the best, but unless we breach Einstein’s ceiling we’re stuck here.

Resource Management P2: Entropy

Last time I was talking about how since nothing is created or destroyed, we can always return the earth to it’s previous state, no matter how much damage we’ve done (assuming we live long enough to improve our technology). Now I’m going to explain how that’s not true. It’s because of the universal downer of physics; Entropy.

So here’s the thing about that hydrocarbons example and the CO2 we release into the air; there’s a crucial element that’s changed and it’s not matter. The fossil fuels we dig out of the ground are in a highly concentrated state of energy. That’s why we love burning them, they release a massive amount of energy per weight. That energy is ultimately from the sun; first plants concentrated the solar energy into sugars, then animals ate them and further concentrated them into fats, then the animals died and were compressed over a long time into the sludge we pump out of the ground. That energy is in a low entropy state. When we burn them, the resulting energy is in a higher entropy state.

Entropy can be created. In fact, it’s always being created, you can’t stop it. Everything that happens in the universe is a gradual shift from low entropy to high entropy. Every chemical reaction will tend to disperse the energy over a larger area; high concentrations always flow to low concentrations, never the reverse.

Well, that is if you look at the system as a whole. So life on earth is able to concentrate energy because the sun is gradually dispersing it’s energy throughout the solar system. The entire closed system, the solar system, is gradually increasing in entropy over time. Now this is a very, very long term problem. It’s not a pressing issue. It’s not even a problem for humans because if our decedents actually survive to the point that they must grapple with this, they will no longer be humans. Either evolution or technology will have rendered them completely alien to us. Not really our problem then.

What is our problem is the short term supply of low entropy chemicals. Hydrocarbons are so attractive because they’ve concentrated the energy we so love into such a small package. Until we can recreate those forces which replenish them, we will be depleting our supply. And without that low entropy energy, we can’t power our technology. And our technology is the only thing that can save civilization as we know it.

Then again, maybe it’s better if our civilization doesn’t survive. Maybe we want something better?

Resource Management P1: Creation/Destruction

The environment is a very important topic. It’s gotten to the forefront of political/social discussion recently, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s always been significant. The difference is that we were blind to how we changed it and now we can’t be. It’s just not an option anymore. There are people far more qualified to discuss the nitty-gritty details on how to improve things in the short-term. What I’m focusing on here is the broad ways in which relatively simple physics can bring clarity to the problems and help us understand the scope of the possible solutions.

Mass and Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. This is taught in highschool physics, and a law which most adults can parrot. It may be simple, but rarely is it actually applied to the global biosphere. We talk of running out of fossil fuels, of adding CO2 to the atmosphere or about the decline of fresh water. The physical matter that makes up all of that is constant, nothing is being created and nothing is destroyed. The carbon and oxygen that make up the CO2 were in a different form, if it’s exhaust from fossil fuels then it was in the large hydrocarbon bonds found under ground. Those fossil fuels are made of the same basic stuff as all life on earth, it’s simply in a complex chemical bond which we’re breaking into smaller components. And the fresh water has had impurities added, in the case of excess sea water it’s mostly salt.

Now before I go further, I’m not saying everything is fine. The natural forces which gave us an abundance of the chemicals that we rely on (and a lack of the chemicals that could be damaging) are not things we can repeat currently. Ecosystems have wonderfully complex cycles to maintain a balance of the various elements, and they’re remarkably resilient to changes in the environment. Only to a certain point and we have clearly pushed them past that point.

What needs to be understood is that it is recoverable. All those atoms that made up the world as it was for millennia are still here. The earth is a closed system, at least in terms of matter. We just need to find out how to get them back to their previous compositions. We can recover them, we can recreate them. We just need to survive long enough to figure out how.

Except helium. That stuff just floats into space. Course if we live through the next 1000 years we can go get it back, it’s just floating around the solar system.