Mar 9, 2023
“'Distributed intelligence' challenges our ideas of God and of Nature; but it may offer a pathway to a new and better theory of cosmogenesis.”
Recently, I had the privilege of spending the better part of a year with Andromeda’s version of an ‘anthropologist’. Her mission: to search for and document eruptions of ‘intelligent life on Earth’. Of course, our conversation was pretty much a one-way street. We poured our hearts out while she made notes…and asked probing questions. She could not engage in dialog; she was prohibited from doing so by the Prime Directive.
You remember the Prime Directive. It states that representatives of cultures with interplanetary reach may not share new information with any ‘alien’ life forms (e.g., us) they encounter on the worlds they visit. The goal is a good one: to prevent cultural imperialism of the sort that still goes on here today, i.e., to permit civilizations to evolve organically. “Let 1,000 flowers bloom,” and all that. Nevertheless, as every married couple knows, one way conversations can be frustrating!
As residents of Planet Earth, we are not subject to the Prime Directive…at least not yet. Our civilization is not yet interplanetary (though we’re getting close). Once we are able to visit and/or communicate meaningfully with other worlds, we too will be subject to intergalactic law. But in the meantime…
While our visitor could not share her own knowledge and ideas with us, her questions revealed a lot. Just as Supreme Court justices often ‘tip their hands’ by the questions they pose during oral argument, our visitor’s questions could not help but reveal some of her preconceptions. I have made it my business to analyze every single thing she said in hopes of uncovering clues.
Here’s what I’ve been able to discern: Earth’s understanding of itself is deeply flawed. Almost everyone on Earth clings to one of two models of cosmogenesis. I’m guessing neither is entirely correct; see below:
Bottoms-up! Things that come to be, come to be by some version of bootstrapping. Universe is entirely self-contained and self-referential. It has no cause, no purpose, no direction. It pays homage to no universal, objective, transcendent values. To be is to be an accident within an accident. (This is the predominant view of the early 21st century.)
Top-down! Things come to be (at least some of them do) by the will of some creative, intentional intellect; call it The God Hypothesis. To be is to assume a role in a drama that is at least to some extent scripted. (Those who reject Bottoms-up Cosmology tend to assert a Top-down alternative.)
Our visitor’s questions suggest that neither of these models tells the whole story. Both seem possible…but each with vanishingly small probabilities. Neither flows intuitively from the evidence. There is a sense, in both cases, that unruly data has been made to fit a preconceived ideological scheme; and yet, each may have a contribution to make to some new, broader synthesis, to wit:
Cosmogenesis does not appear to be entirely accidental. The parameters are too finely tuned and coordinated to be products of mere chance. Things fit together too well, and certain bonds survive long after they have ceased to perform useful functions. Events are certainly not determined, nor do they fit into any rigid causal lattice, but they do seem to ‘flow’. Sure, there is turbulence, but beneath that turbulence, events seem to exhibit a species of laminar flow.
Nor are we comfortable with the idea that values have no objective necessity. We balk at the notion that Beauty is exclusively in the eye of the beholder, or that Truth is relative, or that Justice is whatever the ruling class says it is. We cling to the feeling that these values have universally normative content, even though that content will express itself differently in different contexts and in different cultures.
But we also affirm that the universe shows no apparent signs of intelligent design. Life appears to have evolved according to a totally random process, even if it didn’t. If there was a designer, that designer had to be cruelly malevolent, massively incompetent, mostly impotent, or darkly magical, and in any case, a master of disguise - all of which are precluded by most coherent versions of The God Hypothesis.
A successful model of the cosmos and our place in it would need to minimize its reliance on both the random and the determined; it would need to respect the data. My inclination is to look to the idea of ‘distributed intelligence’ for help here. A universe resulting from such intelligence would not be an accident, but neither would it bear the tool marks of design.
Distributed intelligence challenges our ideas of God and of Nature; but it may offer a pathway to a new and better theory of cosmogenesis. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, our visitor left some notes behind, probably by accident. One such note pointed to the link below:
In 2006, Harvard University teamed up with XVIVO to develop a 3 minute long medical animation that would take their cellular biology students on a journey through the microscopic world of a cell. The Inner Life of the Cell follows a white blood cell’s movement along the endothelium and its response to an external stimulus — a process known as leukocyte extravasation.
If I’m right about our visitor’s conclusions, I wonder if she selected this video as a way to demonstrate rather graphically her contention that the cosmos cannot be explained either as a product of accidently evolution or as an artifact of intelligent design.