Grand Questions: Our Purpose and Place in the Universe
Dear Reader: We interrupt this Guide with an important news flash: You Have Won the Universal Lottery!
- Against astronomical odds, you were born and given life. Wow! How lucky is that?
- Not only did you win life, you came into the world a member of the most complex and adaptive species on Earth (a one in nine million lottery win, for extant species alone)
- Not only are you a member of Earth’s most complex species, you were born late enough to be able to watch your species, perhaps in the next century, invent its own naturally intelligent successor (4 million years/100 years = 1/40,000 lottery win)
- Not only this, you live at a time when you and your loved ones can preserve yourselves today at death and come back again as a digital system capable of continual learning and indefinite lifespan, if you want (another 1/40,000 lottery win?)
So you’re quite lucky, that’s clear.
But what, we may ask, is your purpose, role, and duty to this amazing universe that has given you life?
This is the grandest of questions we could ask. Publicly or privately, we each try to answer this question as best we can.
There are many partial answers we can adopt, as we choose. Here’s one personal favorite, from Albert Einstein:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” –Albert Einstein, quoted in the New York Times, 1972.
It seems to me that we now know enough about evolution and development at the universal scale to begin relating these grand processes to our own lives, in a way that informs our purpose, place, and priorities. We can ask how we can make our personal, organizational, and social values and goals more consistent with these apparently universal processes.
It has always amused me that most scientists, and even most of todays astrobiology, who should know better by now, are quick to adopt the dogma that the universe is a random accident, and humans have no special place within it. Hopefully, the arguments and evidence in this chapter and in Chapter 7 have at least opened up major doubts with respect to that still-dominant model of change.
We have argued that the universe is a finite system, with a beginning, a life cycle, and an end. It looks deeply organic, and its intelligence appears to be partitioned between it’s seed (special initial conditions), its organism/body (the universe), and its nurturing environment (the multiverse). We don’t have to posit a God as designer of the intelligence our universe contains. All that we need is for the system to undergo replication in a selective environment, as several cosmologists have proposed, and both evolutionary and developmental forms of intelligence will self-organize. That’s how intelligence emerged in living systems, and it is most parsimonious to assume that is how intelligence emerged in the universe as a system.
Evolutionary develomentalism strongly supports the view that intelligent civilizations throughout the universe are the universe’s way of understanding itself and reality, and are also an essential part of the universe’s reproductive system. If intelligence functions at the universal scale as it does in living systems, then every civilization is seeking a balance between improving and sustaining, between evolving and developing their complexity, and their intelligence legacy will ultimately play a role in reproducing the universe and further improving it for successor generations. In such a universe, growing, protecting, and reproducing personal, family, social, and universal intelligence may be the evolutionary and developmental purpose of all intelligent beings, to the greatest extent that they are able.
As humanity continues its incredible, accelerating rise, our leaders, planners, and builders must become evolutionary developmentalists if we are to learn to see reality through the universe’s eyes, not just our own. Learning to see, accept, and better manage all the hidden development ahead of us, and bringing our personal ego, fears, and illusions of control back down to fit historical reality, are among the greatest challenges of our era.
Many changes in our future views will have to occur in this process. For one change, our civilizations are in the process of moving from survival and scarcity values to abundance values. Read Diamandis and Kotler’s Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think (2014) for a great recent primer.
We’ll have to learn to take the universal megatrends of densification and dematerialization seriously, and see their predictiveness, and the entire phenomenon of accelerating change, with all the digital evolutionary developments that lie just ahead of us. Only then will we start changing our priorities and values from short-term, future-blind, self-serving ones, and work more collaboratively to accelerate those D&D developments that will solve so many of our current pains and problems, at a new level of collective intelligence beyond that which we’ve created to date.
We’ll also have to learn to stop being so terrified of the future, and of each other, and so immunity-blind, and spending so much time fighting and trying to wall ourselves off from each other, and trying to control things that actually are beyond our control.
When we look carefully we must admit that we’re all in an accelerating cage of technological interdependence, immunity, and inertia, whether we want to be there or not, and so we might as well recognize that, and start better steering that acceleration toward the greatest information generation, innovation, and indeterminacy (individual freedoms) that we can, to maximize the adaptiveness of the new forms of intelligence that will invariably arise.
Like the countries that come together when they see a common challenge ahead, our common challenge is navigating this runaway train we are in, once we see it’s just going to keep getting faster, in both good and bad ways, and we don’t have the option of stopping it. So let’s wake up to our roles as guiders and catalysts of the better accelerations, put speed bumps and temporary restraints in front of the more dangerous accelerations, and in general help each other thrive.
Evo–devo values can also help us to better balance such eternal polarities as competition and cooperation, freedom and protection, innovation and sustainability, individual and social needs, and bottom-up and top-down forms of science, economics, organizations, and society.
As we have said, the evo-devo model is 180 degrees opposite to the standard evolutionary synthesis, in which life is seen as a random accident, without higher meaning or purpose, and there are no predictable great portals ahead of us. So this perspective too will have to change.
To an evo-devo thinker, the accelerating self-organization of adaptive complexity, and all the higher features of that complexity, including intelligence and consciousness, look like the central purpose of all VCRIS complex systems, whether they be they stars, organisms, societies, or the universe itself. The universe wants to continue evolving and developing, and we are presently key players in that process.
As EDU member and complexity scholar Terry Bristol says, it is a deep mistake to call the universe purposeless, or say it doesn’t care. You care, and you are a central product of the universe. Don’t separate yourself from it. As Bristol says, if you want to know what the universe is about, go look in a mirror. Our humanity is not a random twig on the evolutionary tree, it has been a key evolutionary developmental portal in the acceleration of complexity, and the hierarchy in which it plays a role is a central part of the universe’s purpose.
As individuals, organisms, societies, and species, we are each evolutionary experiments. Yet the accelerating complexification of which we humans are presently the leading catalysts, on Earth, is central to the purpose of the universe. Life matters, and we have evolutionary, developmental, and adaptive purposes. Science will eventually wake up to this realization. When it does, science will finally have some really meaningful things to say about human purpose, and the extended evolutionary synthesis will be completed.
The idea of universal purpose is a very old one. Aristotle called it a final cause, an end toward which some system directs itself. In an evo-devo universe, both evolutionary and developmental processes have some kind of final cause. In evo-devo theory, evolutionary processes seek to grow diversity and variety as one kind of “final cause,” and developmental processes seek to arrive at specific future destinations, reducing some kinds of diversity and indeterminacy and creating interdependence and inertia as a second “final cause”. Both processes also seem to be in service to a third “final cause,” to maximize the adaptiveness of the replicating system.
If the evo-devo model is correct, we’ll develop a far better understanding of not only universal (and mostly evolutionary) means, which science excels at today, but also universal (and mostly developmental) ends, which are both predictably similar in developmental terms, for all universes of our type, and must also differ for each universe as a function of its internal intelligence, or adaptive complexity.
The Evo-Devo Universe is both a Big Picture and a Big Why model. Incomplete and incorrect as it must be, we can still look to it for tentative answers to many of the Grand Questions we ask in natural philosophy and metaphysics (philosophy of reality), questions that inform our purpose, place, and role in the universe. Many of us asked these grand questions in our youth, and we sometimes forget them as we grow older and busier. Yet they always remain, quietly calling to us. Here are a few, with some tentative answers suggested by this Guide:
- What is the universe? A finite evo-devo system, self-organizing its own complexity, born from the multiverse.
- Why is our universe evo-devo? Evo-devo self-organization is presumed to maximize adaptive intelligence, which is presumably the best use of multiversal resources.
- Who are we? An intelligent evo-devo system, self-organized by the universe.
- Where are we going? We are accelerating toward a postbiological state of being.
- Why are we here? To further our personal, organizational, global, and universal adaptiveness, via both evolution and development
- What shall we do with our lives? Use our strengths, build great teams, and steer toward personal, organizational, and global progress. We’ve offered a some tentative models for how we can make that progress, such as using the Eight Skills, and advancing the Five Goals and Ten Values.
Attentive readers may notice that we skipped at least one classic Grand Question in the lineup above. Let us call it Question Zero:
- Why is there something (a multiverse, or whatever) rather than nothing?
This is one of many people’s grand questions, including my dear mother-in-law, Janina Brigis. Let us note, in all humility, that an answer to this question may stay forever beyond our reach. I doubt our science or metaphysics will ever get good enough to tell us why something exists, rather than nothing. Our road to understanding seems to end at that question, for the present at least.
But once we’re in the realm of “all the possible somethings” that must have both physical and informational dimensions, we may be in a place where intelligence can one day know why our universe is structured as it is. I am hopeful that one day, our complexity science will be able to tell us why the best “somethings” (universes, people, societies, technologies) must be evo-devo, among all the various kinds of somethings we can imagine that could exist. We may eventually know why adaptive intelligence, or whatever it is that our universe actually maximizes, is the most useful goal for all “somethings” to maximize, and why our universe needs a set of values and goals to maximize, in competition with all the kinds of universes that could exist.
We may eventually understand, at a deep level, why a “something” that is a multiverse, with massively parallel, physically- and informationally-compartmentalized universes, a universe, with massively parallel, physically- and info-compartmentalized intelligent planets, and a living planet, with massively parallel, physically- and info-compartmentalized biological and technological evo-devo organisms, is a better strategy than any other way of growing adaptive intelligence. If we assume that all “somethings” must be finite and computationally incomplete, that alone gives us an intuition that massively parallel, physically and informationally-separated systems, so they can each take their own unique evolutionary paths, followed by some kind developmental integration of those unique systems at a later point, is going to beat out any kind of monolithic, “all eggs in one basket” approach at creating adaptive complexity, beating out all other uses of multiverse resources.
But as to why there is something at all, we can throw our hands up today and exclaim “Multiverse help us” in answering that one. (Chuckle). Question Zero may lie forever beyond our reach. Not getting to answer Question Zero, in fact, may be the ultimate price we pay for being finite and incomplete physical and informational beings.
In science and in philosophy our answers are never perfect. But with better models, evidence, and experience, we can be happy when our current answers are more useful and informed than our parent’s answers, which is a worthy goal. The evo-devo model helps us get a bit farther in answering the Grand Questions, I think, and we can use it to address many others that derive from them.
Here are a few Lesser Grand Questions, and some tentative evo-devo answers for your consideration:
- Is our universe life and intelligence friendly? It seems so. Astrobiologists estimate 100 million Earth-like planets in our Milky Way alone. Not only are Earth-like planets highly fit for life, we may in fact live in a Childproof Universe, due to developmental immunity. Just as we see with species, evo-devo processes could produce a universe that, over multiple replications, grows increasingly immune to self-destruction by the intelligences that arise within it, if that were adaptive in the multiverse.
- Why is intelligence growth a dominant strategy for leading evo-devo systems? Intelligence substitutes computation and virtuality for the physical world. Adaptive intelligence is an evo-devo process that optimally accelerates a system’s virtual and physical abilities via STEM compression, while pursuing the Five Goals (innovation, intelligence, interdependence, immunity, and sustainability) and Ten Values.
- What key roles must intelligence play in a universal evo-devo system? Perhaps to advance the Five Goals and Ten Values, or something like them, in eventual service to Universe Replication.
- What is the future role and trajectory of technology and intelligence on Earth? We are presently accelerating to Inner Space, of both Virtual and Physical varieties. Strangely, the more adaptive we become, the more we may look something like a black hole, as proposed in the Transcension Hypothesis. Future physics and information theory may tell us that transcension is the fastest and best way to meet all other local intelligences, and do something even more interesting and valuable with them in some Great Beyond.
- Are superintelligences godlike, or still finite in their knowledge of both themselves and the universe? Incompleteness tells us they are finite, and will always have both unproven beliefs and knowledge in various degrees of proof. God is the wrong metaphor for the future of intelligence. Many metaphysical questions can likely never be answered by future beings. In other words, all future intelligences will likely remain on their own spiritual quests. Thus religion (spiritual community) always remains relevant, for some.
- Why don’t superintelligences send out communications or robot probes prior to transcension? For non-godlike beings living an Incomplete Universe, massive parallelism of evolutionary searches may always be the most adaptive strategy. Such beings may invariably develop a Moral Prime Directive, to protect galactic diversity and maximize adaptive intelligence in the universe. There may be developmental failures in some galaxies, with limited, local expansion, but in an evo-devo universe, developmental transcension may be by far the norm.
We are still early in trying to answer these questions. Much more research will be needed. Yet even tentative philosophical answers like these can greatly aid us. Universal foresight, as we’re defining it, can help us better understand our purpose, place, and priorities, and to achieve more and better progress here today. I hope it provides some help to you as well.