Anton Aylward

Cosmic Emergence

When explaining emergence
I sometimes say, half jokingly that:

The English language is an Emergent Property of the Hydrogen Bond

We usually talk of emergent properties of complex systems in the contemporary world, things like bio-systems and ecology, complex social systems and of course consciousness and “intelligence”.

Emergent properties are usually the result of complex interactions.  Simple, first level interactions such as sodium and chlorine, neither of which are crystalline or salty, combine to make salt – which has properties that are not inherent in either of them.  However basic chemistry does tell us that such chemicals can make “salts”.  Water, however, has complex physical properties that are unique in chemistry and cannot be predicted from knowledge of how similar elements combine.  Merely saying that:

“An emergent is a higher-level property, which cannot be deduced from or explained by the properties of the lower-level entities.”

is inadequate.  It may be simply that we don’t have the detailed knowledge.  Non-chemists, for example, will not be aware of the chemistry of “salts”.  There are no shortage of stories based on having such a superior knowledge to “impress the natives”.  Or be a stage magician.  See, for example, Penn and Teller explaining how they do their “magic” tricks.  

But there are many other areas where unexpected phenomena result from complex interactions:

The hydrogen bond I mentioned is the basis for DNA.  In his essay “Son of Moore’s Law” in the collection “The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century” Richard Dawkins predicts that DNA will become what computing has been in the lest 50 years, and fears that an obsession with God and a religion-based ethical outlook that was geared for small pre-technic tribes making a marginal survival in the deserts of the Middle East will inhibit the resource-rich, information-rich world we are moving into.

The Need For God

[The proofs of the existence of God] … say more about the nature of “proof” and the society they were formulated in than they do about God

Dawkins is well known for wanting to eliminate God and Religion. In various books and interviews (once again YouTube is an excellent source of interviews and past broadcasts) he has pointed out the problems, philosophical and political, with continuing a belief system that was developed for a pre-technic world into a scientifically dense technic one. In other works, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind for example, Julian Jaynes shows how the human subconscious, engaging in an internal dialogue with the conscious mind, was viewed as a “The Gods Talking”. There is no shortage of scientific work showing that the human mind is capable of hallucination and self delusion.

Depite this, there are many scientists who use their specialization to “prove” the bible or show that god “exists” by scientific means. This is distinct from “faith”, and Douglas Adams parodied this in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

“But,” say Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”

“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t though of that” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

Despite this, there has been no shortage of people trying to prove that God exists by means of reason, starting with the likes of Saints Augustine, Anslem and and Aquinas. By today’s rigour of logic and philosophical tools, many of those medieval proofs can be shown to be fallacious. Most were justifications of the fact that God’s existence was “obvious”. They say more about the nature of “proof” and the society they were formulated in than they do about God.

Some of that holds true today. “Creation Science” tried to go one step further and prove the inerrancy of the bible, usually the King James translation (despite the fact that it was a political work: see “God’s Secretaries” for some of the politics and chicanary behind it). One doesn’t have to be an excellent engineer or biologist to see that the human frame is not well designed. Comparison with other creatures – other evolutionary paths shows there are better ways. One of my favourite examples is the Human eye vs. the Squid’s eye. The ordering of the layers of the retina and the blood vessels mean that humans are doomed to all forms of macular degeneration problems that a squid is not. If God “designed” man he did a poor job of it; if he “designed” an after practicing with the lower animals he didn’t learn from the process. But then some fundamentalists might argue that these design flaws are deliberate “to test us”. Or perhaps we were made “in God’s own image and likeness” – and he is flawed.

Other scientists admit to evolution but view God’s hand in the process guiding it. That reduces us to some form of laboratory experiment – a plot occasionally used in poor SF (though there have been some good workings of it – Heinlein’s “Goldfish Bowl” for example).

The more interesting scientist-who-must-prove-god goes back further and recognises that we are no longer in The Age Of Miracles (and perhaps never were) and feels no need to “prove” that Genesis is literally or figuratively correct. He presents the universe as a machine that was built and set in motion by God who is watching it run. The degree of interference in the process depends on the individual.

One of the more interesting variations on this idea pushes the process back to before the monoblock. Cosmologists recognise that in the moments of creation the fundamental constants of the universe – of which the strength of the hydrogen bond is one (see! it is relevant!) – were set. If those values had been different not only would life not have evolved by the process of hydrogen fusion and the creation of the elements, the expansion of monoblock and much else might not have occurred.

In his book “The Goldilocks Enigma” Professor Paul Davies makes the teleological argument that, yes we are an emergent property of the hydrogen bond, but that is a deliberate design decision on the part of God:

If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of the galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible. Now, it happens that to meet these various requirements, certain stringent conditions must be satisfied in the underlying laws of physics that regulate the universe, so stringent in fact that a biofriendly universe looks like a fix – or ‘a put-up job’, to use the pithy description of the late British cosmologist Fred Hoyle. It appeared to Hoyle as if a super-intellect had been ‘monkeying’ with the laws of physics. He was right in his impression. On the face of it, the universe does look as if it has been designed by an intelligent creator expressly for the purpose of spawning sentient beings.

This is not a new thought from Professor Davies. A search of Amazon shows he has explored this theme before.

Yes, the universe is an “emergent property” of those fundamental constants. But from there on come some great leaps of logic. It may well be that the universe is “bio-friendly” for a whole variety of self-replicaitng molecules, some perhaps using methods that we have not yet experienced with chemistry very different from our own. Some of that might — might — evolve into life. But sentient life? Intelligent life? Smart enough to philosophize about it?

Before we get into the question of Intelligent life (elsewhere) in the universe, the Fermi Paradox and the results of SETI, and lead to the idea that God was involved somehow, lets face up to one simple thing.

We ARE here asking this question. Logically, this is no different from a coin toss turning up heads 100 times. It is a “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” argument. If things had been different, then things wold have turned out differently.

The cosmologists like Professor Davies assert that with different starting conditions the universe as we know it could not have happened. They fail to consider two other possibilities.

The first is that there are other sets of starting conditions that would allow the evolution of a universe, one different from out own but viable, and in which all the same arguments about being “bio-freindly” apply, albeit with a different chemisrty because of a different set of universal constants.

The second is that there could be some mechanism that meant only such viable universes could be created. Some form of “cosmic evolution” — a “selection of the fittest” which meant that only the viable universes, ones in which inteligent life that could have this discussion, could come into existence.

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