The wheel breaks the butterfly, part 1
What should I do?
It can appear from the outside, that everything that exists was created with a purpose, fulfilling a role, even if we do not understand it. I am not fatalist, but a scientist, which might be even worse. We are not only skeptical about the existence of free will or purpose, we also skeptical of the possibility to ever find out the truth about it. Some great physicists already destroyed our feeble concepts of cause-consequence or the existence of time by investigating quantum mechanics, and every great mathematician will tell you that math in its periphery is more about philosophy and humbleness than finding true answers. In its essentials, also the belief in the power of religion or the method of science might not be that different from each other, at least when it comes to making assumptions about metaphysical truth, both a quite likely wrong.
However, science works more reliably than religion when it comes to making a long-distance phone call or scrolling the internet for information.
or to paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it works no matter if you believe in it or not” So while one might argue that it is pointless to investigate metaphysical questions using scientific knowledge, I believe that science can come up with answers that work and are useful, at least for a given scope. Maybe there is indeed a different objective reality behind for example particle dynamics and wave behavior, but thanks to science we can still utilize parts of our probably incomplete understanding to make cell phones work.
Having put all the caveats out there, let’s now roll out some of our arguably incomplete understanding to investigate the following question:
What should we do?
Immanuel Kant’s first question is often referred to a question of ethics and behavior, sometimes free will or determinism, sometimes even religion.
We are going to take a different approach and start with science, and its evergreen concept of good old evolution. Evolution, as described by Charles Darwin, means survival of the fittest even in its most narrow interpretation. And it can be observed from the start of life with first wild-floating self-replicating RNA molecules, over specialization of prokaryotes to their niches, up to mammals with complex behavioral traits that out-competed less fit mechanisms. Regarding Kant’s first question, it seems that the only purpose of evolution is to keep “it” going. “It” meaning a lot of things, primarily life, or change, or increase in complexity.
Evolution brought order to a chaotic energy filled universe, where anything that can happen will happen, given infinite time.
But where does general evolution come from? Darwinian evolution only started once we had lifeforms, so maybe there is deeper, more general principle that created the world we know? To answer this question, we have to go deep into physics and look back to the beginning of our universe, 13.8 billion years ago.
For a cool video version about the history of our universe, please visit David Christian’s amazing TED talk.
There are conflicting theories how our universe came into existence, one of the more prominent explanations is that a very small difference (asymmetry) in the ratio of “matter”/”anti matter” caused our universe to pop into existence in a Big Bang. Common cosmological theory starts with what happened since the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang up to the point where I write this sentence now.
We do not know what caused the Big Bang, but we know it happened and that our universe followed physical laws ever since.
Virtually all physical laws we uncovered so far appear to be a product of a mathematical universe, so we should actually wonder about why it is mathematical and if the principles of math were there before our universe… anyway, there is no way around noticing that our universe follows physical laws now (although we do not yet know all of them, this we can say for sure).
But back to our question about evolution: Now, since the beginning of our universe, the only “evolution” actively working was the physical evolution, which used energy and particles to form matter and space-time, manifesting in galaxies, and ultimately our sun and planets. What happened at the start was that energy condensed and formed local optima (many speculate gravity to have been the driving force), thus creating matter and with it the first simple atoms (Hydrogen and Helium, which get fusion-burned by our sun, basically re-transforming matter back into energy) and during the evolution of the stars also other known elements are formed.
This “physical evolution” took out universe the better part of its existence, we are talking almost 8–10 billion years.
Clearly not very quick. The next thing that came into being, though, is the so-called chemical evolution.
Usually thermodynamics would demand a great dissipation of structure and not an increase in complexity… however in a system that gets permanently bombarded with energy, atoms are better to dissipate this energy (like entropy demands) by acting in concert (thus in structured arrangements) than individually on its own.
Imagine you are a lonely planet with not much going on, but you are full of all kinds of different atoms and you get permanently bombarded with energy from the sun. At this level, energy drives atoms to be more outgoing, to form bonds and interactions with other atoms, and some of those partnerships are so good, that they will hold for quite some time once they met each other. This is how all kind of weird molecules came into being.
Chemical evolution on earth was significantly quicker (about 1 billion years) to give rise to a next step of general evolution: the one we know as life. The very thing Charles Darwin is famous for.
Although uni-cellular life started somewhere 3.5 billion years ago on earth, it took a staggering 2.9 billion years to reach the next threshold, multicellular life.
This is the big threshold most people talk about when you ask them whether they believe there is more intelligent life out there in our universe. Fact is, unicellular life is extremely successful and still is more abundant on our plant by several factors than multicellular organisms.
How strong unicellular life can be is shown us every day in diseases, we are inhabited by multiple times more bacteria than actual cells in us, scientist now start to call us “human-microbe superorganisms”. Or take a rogue cell that stops cooperating with others for its own survival benefit, we know such a phenomenon as a “small” disease called cancer that can hardly be stopped, because those cells will live forever under right conditions. This is the power of Darwinian Evolution.
In only 600 million years, evolution of multicellular life brought forward a plethora of animals, and with it social behavior and cooperation. And finally, intelligent beings that can use their opposable thumps and abstract thinking.
Intelligent beings are something as fundamentally new to our universe as the first weird atoms, or the first weird self-replicating polymers. Suddenly, our planet could be drastically transformed not within eons, but within centuries, and the transformation potential grows faster and faster the more we transform our world and ourselves.
Technology, silicon-based information technology, computation, these are the names of this new kind of evolution. A new face for the old principle.
And similar to the physical, chemical or biological evolution that preceeded this new evolution, technology works way faster in creating complexity than the evolutions before it. And with the evolution of technology, humanity as a species started a process that is way quicker in transforming the world and potentially universe than biology will ever be able to, effectively out-competing the purpose of biological evolution.
We are now the masters of our physical, chemical and more and more biological existence. We were created be these processes and principles, yet now we manipulate them to our will.
We spawned technological evolution, what happens once silicon-based intelligence gets smart enough to improve itself? There we are again, back at Immanuel Kant’s ”What should we do?”
Maybe it’s too far-fetched to reason with evolution, a term we re-engineered after observing 13.8 billion years of what brought us along the way we are now.
But if you observe something for 13,8 billion years, it seems cocky to assume that it stops with you.
Maybe we indeed have no free will and are still nothing more but brainy, but effectively helpless, creatures damned to self-replicate and evolve, unable to escape their biological-programming. Or, one might argue, our development as a consciously thinking (‘spiritual’) species (even with free will) is very well part of this evolutionary process, and that it had to happen.
Maybe our universes step-ups in complexity levels from particles to chemical bonds and over self-replicating molecules to cells and from cells to animals is all part of the big plan, a yet more successful and promising way to keep the wheel going. Why the wheel needs to turn is not clear at all.
But no matter if you believe in free will or not, we cannot assume that the wheel of evolution stopped with us, that we are more but an intermediate state.
We are just a recent implementation, a successful species, but by no means absolute or complete, and we should think and act out of this perspective.
By observing how our universe’s existence unfolded, science answers Kant’s first question ”what should we do” quite simply:
The wheel will keep turning, no matter what you do. If you want to stay in existence, evolve!
And like it is common in science, every answer found is just the first stepping stone for ever more questions…
If you liked this article, feel free to ❤ and recommend it. Stay tuned to hear more about science and Kant!