From the New York Times Sunday Book Review, David Deutsch's Beginning of Infinity has a concept for us that's somewhat counter-intuitive for someone into biology and an atheist to boot. Here's the core idea from the reviewer, David Albert:


There is a famous collection of arguments from the pioneering days of computer science to the effect that any device able to carry out every one of the entries on a certain relatively short list of elementary logical operations could, in some finite number of steps, calculate the value of any mathematical function that is calculable at all. Devices like that are called “universal computers.” And what interests Deutsch about these arguments is that they imply that there is a certain definite point, a certain definite moment, in the course of acquiring the capacity to perform more and more of the operations on that list, when such a machine will abruptly become as good a calculator as anything, in principle, can be. Deutsch thinks that such “jumps to universality” must occur not only in the capacity to calculate things, but also in the capacity to understand things, and in the closely related capacity to make things happen. And he thinks that it was precisely such a threshold that was crossed with the invention of the scientific method. There were plenty of things we humans could do, of course, prior to the invention of that method: agriculture, or the domestication of animals, or the design of sundials, or the construction of pyramids. But all of a sudden, with the introduction of that particular habit of concocting and evaluating new hypotheses, there was a sense in which we could do anything. The capacities of a community that has mastered that method to survive, and to learn, and to remake the world according to its inclinations, are (in the long run) literally, mathematically, infinite. And Deutsch is convinced that the tendency of the world to give rise to such communities, more than, say, the force of gravitation, or the second law of thermodynamics, or even the phenomenon of death, is what ultimately gives the world its shape, and what constitutes the genuine essence of nature. “In all cases,” he writes, “the class of transformations that could happen spontaneously — in the absence of knowledge — is negligibly small compared with the class that could be effected artificially by intelligent beings who wanted those transformations to happen. So the explanations of almost all physically possible phenomena are about how knowledge would be applied to bring those phenomena about.” And there is a beautiful and almost mystical irony in all this: that it was precisely by means of the Scientific Revolution, it was precisely by means of accepting that we are not the center of the universe, that we became the center of the universe.


Has nature made a quantum leap with the production of beings able to use science? My guess is that it's unlikely that this phenomenon is long-lived enough to produce huge results. Carl Sagan suggested as much. 

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Replies to This Discussion

I think we already have made some major leaps using the scientific method- namely all the new technologies we've discovered and applied to every field from IVF and fertility to space travel and powerful weapons and particle physics and nanotechnology. I think humans will live long enough and use this method enough that we'll end up changing something drastic. Unless we all follow the way of "Idiocracy" ... then there's no hope...

In the end, natural selection controls all biota. It doesn't care how smart you are unless that smartness furthers survival, breeding, survival. ad nauseum.

I see at least three fatal flaws in the jump to science.

#1 - We're making zoo animals out of ourselves, increasingly dependent on our technology, building an ever higher and more fragile house of cards. Pull the plug now and billions die. And it's just been a century or so. Antibiotics, food production and distribution, et al. 

#2 - Relatedly, we don't have the honing effect of the wild - the savannahs of Africa and wherever H. sapiens faced nature red in tooth and claw. This dovetails with #1 above. The drive to procreate is failing in advanced societies; the future belongs to those who breed, and they seldom have advanced degrees.

#3 - Like any pond overgrown with duckweed, there is inevitably and invariably a big die-off. Clearly there is no sign yet that we'll get a grip in time to avert it.

Nature may just slap us back to the stone age from time to time. A new population will bloom, perhaps play with science, and as a consequence be slapped back down again.




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