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Seeking Our Humanity

Are our paths, our choices, our lives pre-determined, or does life "bubble forth" in unpredictable ways? Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

Are our paths, our choices, our lives pre-determined, or does life "bubble forth" in unpredictable ways?

Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

For Nobel laureate and physicist Stephen Weinberg, our humanity is to be found in an explanatory skein: The explanatory arrows point downward from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to molecules and chemistry, to physics, to particle physics and to his Dreams of a Final Theory. Explanation running up these arrows is by entailment from the Final Theory at the bottom.

Our humanity, like all in the universe, is mathematically entailed. Nothing truly novel — that is, not entailed — can arise.

Poetry has caromed off the walls of science since Newton. Alexander Pope: "God said, 'Let there be Newton,' and all was light" — in dumbfounded admiration of celestial mechanics.

John Keats struck back at science with its "rule and line" disenchanting us. The job of poetry was Romantic re-enchantment in the face of the cold, valueless, facts of science and its rigorous entailment.

In another famous passage, Weinberg writes, "The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears." The universe is fact without value. In the 1950s, Gestalt psychology founder Wolfgang Kohler, would write The Place of Value in a World of Fact, a scientific lament, but of little effect.

The famous French Existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others, sought meaning in a meaningless universe by the free and responsible choices we human agents make: humans as heros of values in a sea of meaningless darkness, spotted with valueless but brilliant stars and vastly distant galaxies.

But the Existentialist heros needed responsible free will and human agency to choose against the meaningless universe, and required consciousness to responsibly choose.

Yet the best of our neuroscience, computer science, our framework of thought in the philosophy of mind, struggles with philosopher Gilbert Ryle's famous ghost in the machine, where the ghost is consciousness itself. If no ghost exists, we are mindless behaviorist zombies.

Nobel laureate Francis Crick, in The Astonishing Hypothesis, proposes that "we are a pack of neurons" whose classical physics firings are somehow to be the basis of "consciousness neurons."

Where does Crick leave Camus? The brain is deterministic classical physics, the brain a deterministic dynamical system, so we have no ontologically real and responsible free will. Camus, too bad, we have no ontological real and responsible choices with which to wrestle against the meaningless universe.

Worse, as G. Longo and F. Bailly point out in Mathematics and the Natural Sciences: The Physical Singularity of Life, Imperial College Press, in physics, all is describable by symmetries and geodesic "shortest paths" on curved manifold surfaces. The becoming of the universe occurs, in contemporary physics, they say, in a pre-stated "phase space" of all the possibilities it could become, within which the actual unique trajectories are always specific geodesics which are "optimal paths." Sartre, we have no capacity to make choices for we have no free will, and we have no choice anyway, we merely "follow the geodesic" optimal path, whether Einstein's world line, or a "least action" in quantum physics.

Wither our humanity? Withered by hard science, rule and entailed line.

Sir Roger Penrose and Henry Stapp before me have turned to quantum mechanics to think about mind and consciousness. Following them, but along a rather different path, I have now tried, in posts from mid November 2010 to the end of January 2011, based on the new quantum mechanics of open quantum systems and the Poised Realm hovering back and forth between quantum coherent behavior and classicality, to suggest that we are indeed conscious, that we can have responsible free will via our mind-brain system as trans-Turing systems, and that we are real agents. Thus, as the Existentialists sought, we really do chose.

We do so because we have Immanuel Kant's "means to ends" values and his "ends in themselves" values. These NPR-posted ideas are now a chapter entitled "Answering Descartes: Beyond Turing" in the Alan Turing centennial volume, The Once and Future Turing: Computing the World, Cambridge University Press, 2012, with many other chapters of interest and republished, with other articles, by ECAL 2011 online.

If this is right, we have our evolved full humanity.

But more, in my last post, "The End of A Physics World View: Heraclitus And The Watershed Of Life," I argue, with help from Giuseppe Longo, that no law entails the evolution of the biosphere or human life. As Heraclitus said 2,700 years ago, for life, the world does "bubble forth," beyond the entailing laws of physics, but without violating them, in a kind of natural magic that can re-enchant us. Then we do not follow unique geodesic optimal paths. Life finds myriad ways, not the optimal path.

And stunningly, the evolving biosphere, with no selection doing so, creates the very possibilities of its future evolution. One means is by creating Darwinian pre-adaptations such as swim bladders evolved from the lungs of lung fish. Once swim bladders, selected to function well in fish, have come to exist, with no further selection acting to achieve it, these swim bladders now constitute new adjacent possible empty niches. Thus, bacteria or worms could come to live in swim bladders. It is really true that without selection the evolving biosphere creates the very possibilities it may/will become. This is a natural magic.

So too does the evolving econosphere, where new opportunities come to exist, and thereby shape what we can become. Again, without intention, the evolving economy creates the very possibilities it may/will become. Again, here is a natural magic.

So too do our personal lives and political lives: we co-create the possibilities we become. Thus life is literally building, willy nilly, that is, without selection, or intention, the very possibilities it may/does become. Life "bubbles forth." Magic? Yes, but natural magic. How much magic do we need to be re-enchanted?

If all this is right, we are "free at last," to borrow the triumphant cry of the Civil Rights movement, from the entailing web Newton wove.

Keats, no "rule and line" proscribes the becoming of life. We are free to create as we will, but as evolved hominids.

Then if Newton disenchanted us and we entered modernity, as Max Weber said, a modernity which has given us wealth and constitutional government, but vastly concentrated powers in financial interests and renders us price tags, now we are free to invent that which is beyond modernity that better enables and respects our diverse humanity.

We are and live in natural magic. It seems we always knew this, but perhaps return home to recognize ourselves and the world we co-create anew.