Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Universe Chose to Be

I believe in Free Will. I also believe that nearly everything that happens in our observable universe is determined by very strict laws of nature, and that these laws even govern how thoughts happen in our minds. But I'm not interested in the debates about whether or not we have non-deterministic free will. I want to understand the free will I do have. I want to know what choices are really mine so I can stop wasting time on trying to choose things beyond my abilities. I'm not about to try to become a professional athlete. There is no set of choices I could make at this point in my life to make that a productive reality. I may, however, be able to make a string of choices that will lead to my being healthy, strong, flexible, and energetic for many years to come. But even that will require little choices, like just being active every day, even if I can't (or can't get myself to) run or bike several miles a day. I want to know what I can choose and what is out of my power to choose. It constantly changes as our abilities change, but I want to stop deluding myself. I want to make choices that will really lead to the goals I have for myself and the world rather than wasting my precious resources telling myself I can just be happy if I decide to (or pretending we can solve the worlds drug abuse problems by throwing black people in jail for marijuana possession, or that government foreign aid is about helping the poor and not about consolidating economic interests, or . . . ).

I also think the Free Will Theorem makes sense. Even if it ultimately is shown to be flawed, it won't surprise me if there is another way to prove its main conclusion--if I have Free Will, everything down to the smallest particle has a limited degree of free will. I've been extrapolating from this conclusion, and I'm interested in discussing some religious implications of it. Here is the creation I'm imagining.

Far in the past--perhaps unimaginably, or impractically far--some eternal stuff of nature existed. It existed because it always has and always will. I don't know how much of it there was, nor how long it existed for, because it was at least outside of our time and space, so it was effectively unmeasurable to us, and perhaps simply unmeasurable. It was without form and void, because form implies relationships among things, and there were no relationships as yet. What this stuff of nature did have was an ability to choose. The choices were limited, but bits of this stuff could choose to form relationships--very elementary ones--with other bits of this stuff (I know this idea is reminiscent of one a few thousands of years old). As long as the bits of stuff continued to choose these relationships, new properties could emerge.

I am assuming new properties would emerge, and that those properties could result in the emergence of even more complexity, but this isn't really much of an assumption. A single hydrogen atom isn't really that interesting. A third year college physics student knows enough to describe all of its properties mathematically. Add it to an oxygen atom and then another hydrogen atom and you have a water molecule. This is already too complex for our current state of theory to predict all of its properties, so we have to use numerical approximations calculated on fast computers (like the one you might be sitting in front of). Put that together with more water molecules, and our fastest supercomputing clusters can only approximate the many properties of a small glass of water. A pond of water has even more properties, and from an ocean of water even more new and interesting behaviors emerge, like waves and currents and tides. None of these properties belong to a water molecule, but they emerge as the system increases in size and complexity.

So while choice is a fundamental property of this stuff that existed before time, the kinds of complex choices we experience are an emergent property of the increased complexity generated through chosen relationships among the immeasurable (or simply unmeasured) stuff of nature. Most of the simple relationships will result in nothing like our universe. It takes vast amounts of stuff agreeing to follow certain sets of relationship laws to result in a universe. It's possible this universe of relationships could be seeded by a small group of relationships recruiting other bits in a very natural and unconscious way, but what the Free Will Theorem implies is that these bits have to all choose the relationships. If they don't choose the relationships, the universe won't happen. If they stop choosing the relationships, the universe will end. So the very existence of the universe is a massive act of will of all of the stuff in it to maintain the relationships necessary to its existence.

Does this imply that the universe could fall apart, or lose random pieces of itself because some pieces suddenly choose to stop playing by the rules? I suppose it does in theory, but in practice I think it far less likely than that you or I decide to reject all rules of civil society and attempt to make humanity vanish from existence. It's not in the nature of this stuff that has now been playing by the rules for at least 14 billion years to suddenly cease to do so. Thus, in the very act of choosing to make a universe (or choosing the simple relationships which, in aggregate, eventually foster the emergence of a universe), near total determinism emerges. Unpredictability and chaos cannot sustain a structure as complex as a universe. Only by agreeing to certain natural laws (as yet unspecified) can the complexity of conscious intelligence eventually emerge.

Yes, there is little rigor in these speculations, but I find in them emotionally satisfying answers to some seeming dilemmas:
  • The universe is very nearly determined, but I experience Free Will. That's OK because free will is fundamental to my very being, and not just choices I make at certain moments. Still, a high degree of determinism is mandated by the need for our universe to exist as a coherent entity. It is not free will that is the exception, but the nearly deterministic universe that is the miraculous oddity. Order out of the natural chaos. We see something like this in the regular order that arises from seemingly random quantum events going on in all of our atoms all the time.
  • Gods are understandable as more complex and advanced emergent entities within Nature, not as ultimately inconceivable beings who differ from humanity in very essence. We are of a type with the Gods with potential to become like them.
  • Gods can create universes by learning to persuade or invite more of the stuff of Nature to agree to enter relationships bound by laws of nature that result in universes. This may appear or function as control or command, but it is only possible when some of the stuff of nature chooses the relationships. After that it may be shaped or controlled by more complex entities who understand the laws more consciously, but it is impossible without that minimal (and continued) consent of the foundational stuff.
  • Gods can have immense power, including power to predict much about the future, but that power cannot take away the choices that are fundamental to our very nature and being. Gods are also bound by the laws and relationships that enable their being. Should they choose to violate those laws they would cease to be Gods, and could potentially cease to be.
  • It's conceivable that the only Gods who could have initially come into existence were ones who were committed to preserving constructive relationships, very much like we think of love. Anything destructive would have resulted in eventual dissolution of their very existence as complex, emergent entities, so an evil God could have never come into existence unaided. Thus any first, or natural God would be a being committed to preserving enduring relationships among all the stuff of existence. It might even be thought that the will to destroy or dissolve relationships is contrary to the nature of the stuff Gods are made of, since the stuff had already chosen to enter and maintain relationships.
  • We don't simply end at death (at least) because we are made of chosen relationships. The only ones who ultimately die are those who reject enduring relationships and pass into outer darkness (and perhaps dissolution into primordial chaos). The possibility of this choice must be allowed because it belongs to the very stuff of existence and cannot be taken away.
  • Evolutionary principles which themselves are the consequences of emergent properties in complex systems can be used to understand more about the nature of Gods, even if only giving us a little glimpse.
  • We can seek out and partake of the binding relationships (atonement) that are a gift to us both from the stuff that makes us and the Gods who would empower us to endure in these ever expanding relationships.
So here is how I make some sense of my very body crying out to belong, to love and be loved, to lift up the world. It's a choice I began before time. It's more complex, now, but I think vastly beautiful. Imagine what it will be as we emerge into even grander relationships.