The Role Of Intelligence in an Indifferent Universe

I. Setting the Stage

I’m no expert on AI or anything. I won’t be the one to construct the model for Biologic Intelligence that revolutionizes humanities ability to process information. Unlike Prome.

What I am is a curious individual. I like thought experiments and I like understanding big concepts. One of the more interesting areas of exploration (and an increasingly relevant one with the dawning advent of AI) is that of intelligence. What is it? Why does it exist? Is it inevitable or coincidental? Well let’s explore that.

Intelligence could be defined as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” I think of it more as a measure of an organisms ability to influence the world around it. More intelligent species like humans, influence the physical world more than less intelligent ones like gophers.

Source: Tim Urban of WaitButWhy. Link in footer.

II. The Multiverse and You

Multiverse theory holds that an infinite number of “bubble universes” exist in a frothy expanding, contracting foam beyond the scope of our home universe. Each universe during its formation has it’s “constants of nature” defined; like the masses of atomic particles, the strength of gravity and so on.

The reason we have this odd feeling that our universe was “made” for us is because intelligent observers only occur in those universes in which the constants were set such that intelligence COULD arise.

If we look one step beyond our universe out into this greater (but obviously theoretical) multiverse where all these different universes reside. We get something that could look like the image below.

III. The Ends of the Universe

A sort of turbulent ocean of universes blinking in and out of existence. It may seem odd painting the death of our universe, which will likely take trillions of years, as being ‘quick’. But on the timescale of the multiverse, we’re a heartbeat from birth to extinction.

Our universe will likely face one of the four possible ends cosmologists have theorized. These are known as the Big Freeze, the Big Crunch, the Big Change and the Big Rip. Either frozen, burned, swallowed, or shredded.

  • Big Freeze: Due to entropy and the universes continual expansion. It eventually ends up “uniformly cold, dead and empty.”
  • Big Crunch: Eventually the universe stops its expansion and begins to reverse ending in a full contraction and a repeat of the singularity event. Evidence that the universes expansion was speeding up due to dark energy made this outcome seem less likely but not impossible.
  • The Big Change: Quantum physics dictates that even in a totally empty vacuum, there is a small amount of energy. If a truly empy vacuum were to arise it would rapidly convert the old slight energy vacuum to the new total one. In the big change all the physical matter; people, stars, galaxies and so on that compose our universe cease to exist in the forms we’re familiar with.
  • The Big Rip: If dark energy, which is continually added to the universe in proportion to its expansion, were to have its density increase over time. Eventually the universe would rip itself apart in a dramatic and obviously lethal few moments.

Artists interpretation of the Big Rip

IV. Turtles All The Way Down

No matter which of these ends occurs. Or if it’s some other outcome beyond our current comprehension. What is widely agreed upon is that our universe will end. Such is the nature of a having a distinct birth event. It’s true for at this point, every single thing that’s ever existed. They universally have an end.

If our universe ends it’s almost guaranteed that the other universes inhabiting our homely little multiverse will end at some point as well. Their unique constants will dicate whether that takes an instant, an eternity or something in between. But like our universe, they’re also doomed. This would include any intelligent life within them.

This means that whether we’re alone in this universe or not. If we survive for billions of year and achieve dominance of the entire universe including what’s beyond the observable. Eventually all of that will run out of fuel and become cold, or otherwise die in a momentary ball of fire or monumental breakdown through a rip or change.

Given that it seems like a real short change being an intelligent being. We’re given the tools to develop an understanding and mastery of our world around us and then we’re left to see our efforts turned to dust. Living knowing inevitably everything ends.

It’s possible some being out there in another universe has cracked the code and become ascendant to the multiverse. But then what?

If the universe was born and then eventually dies. It seems reasonable that the multiverse experiences the same distinct life cycle. Just on a timescale an order above our universes. Perhaps there’s another layer beyond the multiverse, which again exists on another timescale beyond the short lived multiverses bubbling within it. Perhaps mirroring a famous line from a Bertrand Russel lecture it’s “turtles all the way down”. Or in other words, there’s always another “layer” of existence as we work our way down.

In that sense each atom could be thought of as a layer beneath our universe and our universe is the multiverse they inhabit. With us, as intelligent beings being the momentary constructs that these atoms happened to build based off the fortuitous values of our cosmological constants.

It seems eternally true then that all life forms, no matter what heights they reach, will end.

The layers of the universe

V. Two Universes Thought Experiment

This was all necessary context for a little thought experiment I want to explore. I call it the Two Universes Thought Experiment.

Basically we’re going to take two universes. One of them is inhospitable for life for some low impact reason. Maybe due to slightly higher gravity planets that would otherwise form in the “goldilocks” zone or circumstellar habitable zone are broken up before they can and so life never arises. Otherwise it’s the same, with the same recognizable galaxies, stellar nurseries, quasars, black holes and other distinct cosmic phenomena.

The other is our universe. It’s exactly as we got it out of the box complete with its confusing instruction manual and humanity.

Now we’re going to speed things up to when both universes end. Both of them die on similar timescales and so we can do some comparisons of them. In one, intelligence (not necessarily human) spreads throughout the entire habitable universe and could be said to be a Type V universe on the Kardashev scale. They would be like gods to us humans now and able to manipulate the universe and its megastructures at will.

These gods however, still died in the fiery or frozen end of their universe and any evidence of their momentary existence was erased in the process.

Now we’re taking the role of an outside observer whose comparing the outcomes of these two universes. Sort of like our alien creators if we are indeed in a simulation.

One had intelligence and one didn’t. The question or thought experiment here is, which was better? Was the outcome modified by intelligence in such a way that it could objectively be said to be preferential? They’re both gone. So it’s tough to say one way or the other. What I’m trying to get at is a sort of confusing question, hence all the stage setting. The question is: is intelligence… good?

Obviously as the most notable wielders of intelligence its natural (and an example of the self-serving bias) for us to say yes. Intention is better than amoral indifference. But to the wider cosmic structures it’s tough to say. Remember life isn’t inevitable, it’s just that with our limited data set of one universe it seems that way. To the universe and beyond, we’re just a little experiment that could go one way or the other.

VI. Seriously… is intelligence good?

On our scale we seem pretty good in some ways, even in as simple a way as changing the indifferent paradigm of the wider universe and thus creating more complexity and opportunity for “innovation”. But we also seem like pretty poor guardians of the beauty we’ve been blessed with watching over given the acidification of the oceans, melting of the arctic ice caps and so on.

What if a lifeform escaped the universe somehow and came to inhabit the multiverse and thus could influence the constants of nature each universe had? These lifeforms would probably create universes with more life like them in order to study and perhaps create something useful for themselves. Would this be a good thing? Is intention, with all its opportunity for desecration, a superior alternative to the amoral, indifferent operations of the unintelligent universal systems?

Or perhaps that’s an irrelevant question as we to are just another facet of an amoral universes constants. Life being just another variable to slot in and play with to see what fun comes out of the goop.

I personally believe the Drake Equation and relevant research has led people into believing there’s more life than there is. Even the current Tabby star “possible life” situation leaves me with doubt. I just think there’s not that much intelligence out there, and even if we do find “life” it won’t be ahead of us on the intelligence staircase seen earlier in the article. It’ll be simple single or multi cell life which, while it may operate on different biological principles than DNA like us, still wouldn’t hold the secrets to our universe that we crave so much.

VII. Understanding the mystery

Thinking about big cosmic stuff like this always fills me with a unique blend of existential dread/awe and excitement. The universe is so massive and we know so little. Even amongst the pantheon of human knowledge we each hold so little within us. Its only in the last decade with the advent of the global internet that we’ve really nailed an efficient way of categorizing and accessing human knowledge.

Thinking about these vast cosmic megastructures and the immense timescales they operate on makes me acutely aware of how short my life is in comparison. I’m a mayfly dancing on a pond wondering what the next pond over is like before I progenate and pass on my genes. With my consciousness inevitably fading out of existence. It’s sort of terrifying but also encouraging in an odd way.

My life may be brief. But the reverberations of my actions will be bouncing around the universe if only in some brief way for long after I pass. Perhaps one day based off the actions of the giants of today humanity will be the species to break the chains of this indifferent cosmic cycle and takes its place amongst the eternal of the cosmos. It seems like wishful thinking but we’re the most intelligent species we’ve found yet, so maybe that’ll keep being true.

It’s for that reason I work towards this brighter future. Why I encourage AI, Space as a Service (SaaS), and any other innovation which seems to further sustainable development goals or expand humanities footprint on the universe. The sort of goals that one needs to look beyond their one lifetime in order to see the real benefit.

Imagine a world where people had this long-term perspective and lived knowing their actions mattered beyond themselves. They lived knowing that more important things than their momentary satisfaction existed. They lived for a brighter future for their offspring and the species in general. If that was everyones goal, why would anyone fight a war? Debates would still occur, scientific disagreement, and progress would fluctuate. But people would get the bigger picture. Our species welfare and place in the cosmos would matter to more than the privileged few. But no one would live with the intention of as Carl Sagan would say “momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

I think that’s a world I’d want to live in.

 Source: Written and supplied by: Andrew Walls. Andrew writes for Landing Attempts. A blog about space and business intersecting. Andrew is also active on Quora, check him out.

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