Sunday, February 03, 2008

I have something to say

There is no god. The universe is a material thing. There is no supernatural. There is no higher being. Mankind is not special.

The universe has a set of rules. We do not yet know all of these rules, but we are working towards that goal.

A human being is a material being. It is made up of material components, and is a part of the universe. There is no supernatural component in a human being.

I wish to be quite clear. The universe has a set of rules. We may not know those rules, but there are rules. And every person, with no exception, is subject to those rules.

The rules are well understood. Humanity has expended much effort into understanding the universe, and has a long way to go still. The rules we have discovered, within their realms are incredibly accurate and precise.

But these rules are not the full story. We understand how to work with one particle. That is easy. We understand how to deal with two particles. This we can do exactly in almost every circumstance. Three particles is a different story. There we have to make approximations. We have to do mathematical tricks. We have to divide time into discrete chunks. We have to make approximations.

Everything we experience is a collection of billions upon billions of atoms. For some things, new approximations come into play, and again we can be exact. The motion of an object in the gravitational field of the earth can be described simply and elegantly by a mathematical equation. The behaviour of gases and other materials can be described by the rules of thermodynamics.

These rules are not derived from the behaviour of individual particles (although I would like to think that some general principles could be derived, and indeed may have already been derived from quantum theory), but are what are called emergent phenomena. One could study quantum mechanics for many lifetimes, but would not necessarily predict the phenomena of superconductivity. This is because superconductivity is a property of a collection of particles. No single particle by itself can superconduct. It is the collection of particles, interacting with each other, which creates this new, unpredictable phenomena.

And so it is with humanity. The human mind is a collection of particles, amazingly organised, which together exceeds the sum of its parts. The rules of the universe set the ways in which two particles interact, and these interactions are incredibly limited. There are merely four ways in which particles affect one another. But the rules describe the interactions between just two entities. And so, when a collection of particles interact and affect each other, the outcomes can be something which someone who studied the rules for millennia would never consider.

Emergent behaviour is something with which we are familiar. John Conway's Game of Life is a set of simple rules that apply to a two dimensional grid. Looking at just the rules, you could not predict the existence of patterns which not just sustain themselves, but produce other entities which endure in the universe of the Game. But such patterns exist.

And so it is with out universe. There is a set of rules by which all particles abide. But the behaviour of a collection of particles may follow those rules in ways no one could predict or expect.

And so it is. Without any intention of anthropomorphising, matter has found a way of organising itself which no longer believes itself bound by the rules of the universe. Human beings, and other creatures to a varying extent, are not just chunks of matter, but matter organised in such a way as to be self aware. To be able to think.

This is an awe inspiring thing. To consider that a set of rules that rigidly define the interactions of any two given particles, when applied to billions upon billions of particles acting upon each other gives rise to such amazing complexity and originality is mind boggling.

This is not something to be treated lightly. The ability to think, the awareness of one's self, the ability to weigh the consequences of ones actions and change them accordingly is a rare gift. It is something to be treasured.

The entire human condition is something of a contradiction. We are a material being, made up of material components which follow rigidly defined laws. But, the collective of matter displays properties which would never be predicted just by looking at the laws of nature. The Schroedinger equation, while being the fundamental underpinning of all the universe, does not answer all the questions.

But just because we are a collection of material parts, does not mean that humanity is not important. Actually, it does not mean that sentience, awareness is unimportant. The ability to think, to reason, to plan, to consider ones situation, to reflect on the past and hope for the future is a treasure.

It is not something to be thrown away lightly. Every human has these abilities to varying degrees, and different animals also have these capacities, although at the moment to a lesser degree than humans.

Intelligent life is precious. It is precious because it is able to recognise what it is, and to value itself. A rock can not do this. A plank of wood can not do this. At this time, a computer can not do this. But a human being can.

This capacity for thought, this behaviour which while following the rules of the universe, is not explicitly defined by the rules, is what is exceptional, is the thing which is to be treasured.

Life is precious. The idea that a collection of matter is able to arrange itself so as to be aware of itself, to think, to reason is extraordinary. It is to be revered. And so too is the universe which allowed such complexity to exist.

The universe is an amazing place. It is so full of wonder, of possibilities that the human mind reels away when considering the full grandness of it. When compared to the idea of a complex universe such as the one we live in, the idea of a supreme being tinkering with dials to make sure the universe is just right for humans seems small minded and self centred.

I will say this: Human beings are special. But so to is any creature who is aware of itself, who can reason and think, as would be shown by its actions. It is through this emergent behaviour, this going beyond the simple rules and finding new patterns of existence that can endure and spread that we rise above the simple rules that govern matter and become worthy of recognition.

Simply to be aware of oneself is a wondrous thing. Nowhere in the rules of the universe is such a thing described, but still it exists. It is a marvel of the universe that it can produce such things.

But, it is not a contradiction of the rules of the universe. The interactions of the particles in my mind, in any mind, follow the rules of the universe. By working together they can behave in complex, unpredictable ways, but each individual particle follows the rules of the universe.

I feel this has been somewhat of a rambling post, but let me summarise. The universe is purely material. The material universe follows a set of rules, which we do not as yet fully understand, but they do exist and we are trying to improve our knowledge of them of. The human mind is a collection of material components which exhibit behaviour that while not described in the rules, does not contradict the rules. Such entities which display such behaviour are rare, and deserve to be treated as special and important, despite the fact that they are merely a collection of matter.

End Post
Writing time: 1 hour 21 minutes (I'm not at my most coherent right now)
Time since last post: two hours ish
Current media: Pleasantville

1 comment:

Chris_the_Blogger said...

This reminds me of a quote I heard at a conference. I don't know the author or the exact wording but it went something like this.

When computers were first invented this was a massive breakthrough for numerical physics. We could accurately simulate up to nine electrons; it wasn't much but it was a start. In the intervening years computers have become exponentially smaller and faster. The invention of the transistor harnessed the power of quantum mechanics causing computation times to drop dramatically. Each year's computers completely eclipse those of the previous year and now, in 2008, we can accurately simulate two more electrons.