Simon Conway Morris’s new book once again claims that the evolution of human-like creatures was inevitable. He’s wrong.

May 3, 2015 • 11:30 am

Paleontologist Simon Conway Morris has a new book on science coming out, coincidentally, on the same day as mine, and I’m sure that his has religious overtones. The book is called Runes of Evolution: How the Universe Became Self Aware, and, predictably, is published by Templeton Press. Templeton simply laps up books like this. Here’s part of the publisher’s summary:

How did human beings acquire imaginations that can conjure up untrue possibilities? How did the Universe become self-aware? In The Runes of Evolution, Simon Conway Morris revitalizes the study of evolution from the perspective of convergence, providing us with compelling new evidence to support the mounting scientific view that the history of life is far more predictable than once thought.

A leading evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge, Conway Morris came into international prominence for his work on the Cambrian explosion (especially fossils of the Burgess Shale) and evolutionary convergence, which is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

In The Runes of Evolution, he illustrates how the ubiquity of convergence hints at an underlying framework whereby many outcomes, not least brains and intelligence, are virtually guaranteed on any Earth-like planet. Conway Morris also emphasizes how much of the complexity of advanced biological systems is inherent in microbial forms.

This isn’t new stuff at all: Conway Morris has been banging the humans-are-inevitable drum for years—at length in his earlier book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (a book that I read).  Here he uses the idea of evolutionary convergence—independent lineages hitting on the same evolutionary solution—to promote the idea that the evolution of humans, or a big-brained, God-worshipping creature like humans, was inevitable. I’ve gone over the problems with this argument before (see here and herefor instance), and reprise them again in Faith versus Fact. The problems are twofold:

1. Convergence does tell us that, to some extent, niches exist in nature to which animals must adapt. That is, contra “niche construction theory,” in some cases organisms must simply adapt to the physical environment and cannot just create their own environments through their own activities (viz. beaver dams). Ichthyosaurs, porpoises, and fish all independently evolved a fusiform shape, for when you live in water and want to move fast, that shape is adaptive. Ditto for the remarkable convergences between many Australian marsupials and unrelated placental mammals, something I recount in WEIT. Arctic mammals often are white or turn white in winter to hide themselves from predators or prey, for they can’t make themselves a non-white environment in the Arctic.

But the human brain and its unique capacities extolled by Conway Morris are not convergent with anything! Our mental abilities, which include language, are a one-off, like the evolution of the feather and the elephant’s trunk. Therefore, they give not an iota of evidence for a pre-existing “intelligence niche” to which some lineage inevitably had to adapt. The convergence argument has NO BEARING on whether human evolution was inevitable.

2. If you’re a determinist like me, you might think that, since all evolution must obey the laws of physics, in that sense human evolution was inevitable from the time that life first began. (When we say that evolution is “contingent,” as Steve Gould did, that doesn’t mean that it was “not determined.” All it means is that we don’t know enough to predict it. It’s likely that the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs was predictable from the principles of physics, and thus wasn’t really “contingent.” Gould didn’t think deeply enough, I suspect, about what he meant by “contingent.”)

That’s all well and good, but there may well have been unpredictable—fundamentally unpredictable—aspects of evolution that would make it non-deterministic. The most important ones are quantum processes. There are two that might have been relevant to human evolution.

First, I’m told by physicists that quantum processes were important around the time of the Big Bang, and thus there was no guarantee that our Solar System, or our Earth, was inherent in the Big Bang. If that’s the case, then life on Earth, and its niches, were not determined either. And that means that human evolution wasn’t determined, at least on Earth. Now maybe there’s life on some other planets, but did those planets also have niches for “big-brained God-loving creatures”? Besides, theists emphasize that life was inevitable not just somewhere in the Universe, but on Earth, ergo Jesus was inevitable. After all, the Bible doesn’t describe what happened on Tralfamadore.

Second, it may well be true that the fuel for evolution—mutations—arise by quantum processes, like the hitting of DNA by cosmic rays or other particles, or simply failures in base-pairing militated by quantum-mechanical processes. If these mutations are fundamentally nondeterministic, then so is their product—evolution (including humans).

To me, the question of whether humans or something like them were inevitable in evolution can be answered only like this: “We don’t know for sure, but there’s room for doubt.” Conway Morris cannot make a credible argument to overcome that.B

But the reason Conway Morris does make that argument is palpably clear, and only the obtuse don’t see it. It’s because he’s a devout Christian. Therefore he’s trying to support the Christian view that God created humans, albeit through the tortuous process of evolution, and so the appearance of humans or “humanoids” was inevitable. We are, after all, said to be made in “God’s image.” Were that so, God could not have left the appearance of God-like creatures to pure chance. We are a God-designed feature of evolution: in fact, its ultimate product.

Now I haven’t read this new book, but based on the publisher’s summary I suspect it makes the same old flawed arguments based on “convergence” and “pre-existing niches.” If that’s the case, then Conway Morris is engaged in the time-honored religious practice of natural theology: using observations from nature to prove the existence of God and discern his nature. As he has done before, he’s misusing science to fulfill to his emotional requirement for a human-creating God.  Sadly, science really doesn’t tell us that the evolution of God-like creatures was inevitable.

It’s sad that a guy as smart as Conway Morris has let his science be dictated by his faith, and even sadder that he uses his cachet as a famous paleobiologist to foist misguided scientific conclusions on the public. At least my book, coming out the same day as his, contains the palliative to his emetic.


111 thoughts on “Simon Conway Morris’s new book once again claims that the evolution of human-like creatures was inevitable. He’s wrong.

  1. That subtitle is unfortunate. The Universe itself is not “self-aware.” However, as Saint Sagan put it so eloquently, we are a way for the Cosmos to understand itself. That is, we are emphatically a part of the Cosmos, albeit an incredibly tiny part. And, yet, our imaginations contain fuzzy and incomplete reflections of the entirety of the Cosmos.

    That’s damned amazing…and it gets even better when you realize that we’ve figured out this great tool, science, that lets us refine the reflections to make them ever clearer.


    1. ” The Universe itself is not “self-aware”

      Chief end of man, the ultimate design
      Of intellect, is knowledge undefiled
      With use or usufruct. Matter, unknown,
      Unknowing, crawled and groped through grade on grade of faculty,
      Till Thought came forth at last
      With power to sift the elements.
      Chief end Of Matter
      the Earth aware in us,
      As of that Greater Matter orbed and lit
      Throughout Eternal Night is evermore
      Self- Knowledge.

      John Davidson “Testaments”

    2. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

      As an agnostic I would prefer understand. But I get the gist.

      1. As Cicero once put it, “There are some things which shall forever remain unknown.” The Great Curse of consciousness is that this is irrefutably true. ###

    3. Even an ignorant non-scientist like me is going to be put off a book with the statement in the title that the universe is self-aware. It’s just stupid.

  2. As the same fundamental laws of physics apply both to the processes of Evolution and the processes of human cognition I really cannot see how it can be argued that Evolution is causally indeterminate but human agency (free-will) IS causally determinate.

    1. I think the way that Jerry would put it is that, of course, given the particular circumstances that happened to come to pass on Earth, it was inevitable that you should be reading these words right now.

      However…well, we know that the Sun formed from a relatively homogenized cloud of interstellar dust, and that there would have been a number of other stars that formed from the same cloud of dust, and they would have solar systems of their own with similar distributions of elements. It’s quite likely that one of those stars is of roughly the same size as our own and has a planet about the same size as Earth in the same general orbit.

      If so, it’s overwhelmingly likely that that planet has a complex biosphere. It’s also overwhelmingly likely that the apex aquatic predators are shaped roughly like dolphins or squid or sharks or tunas.

      On the other hand, there’s no reason (yet) to think that there’s an intelligent civilization on the planet.

      Now, if an hundred million years from now the Earth has seen the independent rise of corvid civilization and cephalopod civilization and maybe a couple others, then one could conclude that civilization is perhaps inevitable.

      But we’ve got good reason to believe that dinosaurs were reasonably intelligent, meaning intelligence of one type or another has been around for a looooooong time…and, yet, like the elephant’s trunk, no other species has developed it to the degree we have.

      So…yes, humanity was inevitable given the way events unfolded. But, “all else being equal,” it’s quite possible we’re the rare exception and not at all the rule.


      1. While I agree with you that the general principle life is likely to be found elsewhere, there is a problem with your scenario. You seem to imply that of the many difficult transformation through stages of the evolution of life on earth, or elsewhere, the transition from fish to intelligent being is the hardest and least likely. It might very well be that earlier stages are the most difficult to traverse. Such as the initial chemistry of reproducers, or the transformation to an oxygen atmosphere through photosynthesis. In fact it could be that there are many billions of planets supporting only anaerobic bacteria-like life for billions of years and nothing else. Fish, and mammals may be a rare as the proverbial teeth of a hen (which is not really a good analogy, since hen do have teeth). I mean rare as an atheist choir at Jerry Falwell’s funeral.

      2. But we’ve got good reason to believe that dinosaurs were reasonably intelligent

        Indeed we do, because corvids ARE dinosaurs.

      1. I think we can safely rule out any “spooky” quantum effects going on in human brains; they’re far too hot and big and messy for anything at quantum scales to filter up.

        And, even if so…it would just be a matter of efficiency, same as how there’re some quantum “tricks” played by chloroplasts to capture more energy from the Sun.

        There’s nothing that a quantum computer could do that a classical computer couldn’t, given enough time and / or other resources. And vice-versa. The one is just more efficient at certain types of algorithms, and the other at others.


        1. Ben, your argument that there is no QM involved in cognition is almost certainly false. First of all, even direct sensory perception is pretty near some quantum limits. We can detect even very small numbers of photons, and very tiny numbers of some odorous molecules, and quantum processes may be involved in determining whether one actually detects or does not detect them.

          The network of neurons in our brain also seem theoretically susceptible to QM uncertainties. Tiny Qm uncertainties in the time of transmission of a signal across a synapse can be magnified into quite large uncertainties farther downstream in the web of interconnected neurons.

          Obviously our experience is (mostly) not random, so the brain must be wired to keep QM uncertainties under control, but I don’t think you should be so quick to dismiss some small effect.

          1. There is no question that quantum phenomena are apart of the functioning of our material selves.
            As it is true that quantum effects play a part in the functioning of computers. Semiconductors rely on quantum effects.
            However, there is no evidence that quantum effects play a part in the quality of our conciousness, which seems to occur at a different level, like the outcome of an algorithm is independant of quantum effects.
            If I am wrong on this I would like to know about it though. Not the Deepity woo woo stuff but.

          2. I think we’re in agreement.

            The sorts of things you mention are good analogues to the example I gave of photosynthesis. It’s a more efficient way of making solar energy for the plants, so it’s not surprising that evolution would make use of such a QM “trick.” But it doesn’t mean that there’s Chopra-style quantum consciousness being absorbed by the plant from the Sun.

            Same thing with human brains. There will be instances where you need a bit of QM to fully explain what’s going on…but I can guarantee you that there’s not a single qubit or other quantum computational structure in the entire brain.


          3. Isn’t “wired to keep QM uncertainties under control” the same thing as operating in the classical regime? Cellular mechanisms works with all sorts of stochastic chemistry, but I don’t think anyone is claiming that QM is involved anymore than it is in chemistry as such.

            There are some few examples of molecular machines that may be operating by manifest QM processes, such as photosystem II (IIRC). But the evidence is scant and controversial. (Admittedly it looks to become better over time.)

            On the other hand there are some (again controversial) evidence on brain tissue is operating close to deterministic chaos. That would predict its ability to maintain spontaneous long range signaling.

            [If that is what it is. But those videos of zebra fish brains operation do seem pretty spontaneous, with flashes of long range activity.]

            For a philosophic determinist there is a difference. But for a physicist both sources of stochastics is equally long time unpredictable, and the respective sources are equally fundamental (quantum physics vs finite resources/relativity).

      2. Well, from what I’ve been recently reading quantum effects are now being suggested to exist in biological processes at even a macroscopic level. level.
        I cannot see how we can argue that Evolution can be so affected yet cognition not be.

        As all behaviours in physical systems we may choose to deem as “classical” are themselves actually emergent from quantum behaviours how can we separate certain biological process (Evolution) as randomly driven and others (cognition) as not?

        1. I cannot see how we can argue that Evolution can be so affected yet cognition not be.

          Depends on what you mean by “affected.”

          If you mean are there are certain workings of the brain in which you’d need quantum mechanics to fully explain, yes; any time you dig down deep enough into the details, you need quantum mechanics to explain. You need QM to fully explain the polarity of water molecules, for example, and there’s lots of water in the brain. And, as somebody else mentioned, our visual systems are, in the extreme, capable of detecting single photons — something you can only explain with QM.

          But, if you’re instead suggesting that some part of our brains are doing some form of quantum computing or quantum entanglement or quantum teleportation or anything else similarly “spooky”…that we can rule all of that out entirely, just as we can rule out the possibility that there’s any superconductors or superfluids in the brain. It’s just not an environment in which those sorts of things are physically possible.


          1. What I’m saying Ben is that NEITHER Evolution nor Human Agency is wholly determinant and quantum effects underlie this situation.

            When it comes to human agency we then come to the question what then MOST influences human decisional capabilities, given that the system is, to a significant degree, disengaged from a direct deterministic causal chain? My answer – the “self-formed” individual self. This is the iteratively processed, and reprocessed decisional criteria and values that we program into ourselves as we grow from a child to the specific adult that we become. Within this is a set of moral values. So this indeed makes the individual morally responsible for decisions made.

            1. …. and before you repeat again your assertion that we are exactly similar to simple mechanistic systems (eg teapots or crude computers) I would point out that the level of abstraction, symbolic processing, pattern recognition, learning and associative memory processes we possess makes us far more advanced a decisional entity that your simplistic reductionist argument models.

              1. The problem is that there’s no relevant logical distinction to be made that’s dependent on the complexity of the Turing-equivalent computation. Were there, you could describe “free will” as a particular (class of?) algorithm(s?), and, frankly, it seems ludicrous to describe an algorithm as being the very essence of “free will.”


              2. “… it seems ludicrous to describe an algorithm as being the very essence of “free will.”
                I don’t see any problem at all in that Ben. Of course it would have to be one hell of an algorithm (or group of algorithms). You consistently (and deliberately?) avoid the possibilities of emergent phenomena and go to incredible reductionist lengths to model your version of physical reality. But physics and chemistry is replete with examples of emergent properties. You endlessly bring up Turing machines in your arguments – well, you should know that even in the simplest of models, Conway’s Game of Life- which exhibits the most primitive rules of behaviour – can have a Turing machine implementation as a possible structure. From that emerges the possibility of executing any possible algorithmic process in existence with the most primitive of Conway subelements. This sophistication EMERGES.
                With respect, I really believe that you are in total denial – you are so set on rejecting the idea of free-will that you reject having any rational argument on the subject.

              3. The problem is that emergence simply doesn’t work like that.

                Individual water molecules aren’t wet. They’re not dry. They’re not sticky, slick, or anything else like that. Those terms simply aren’t applicable to individual molecules. The properties of wetness and so on only emerge from aggregates of huge numbers of molecules.

                But a thermostat is pretty clearly not merely not free, it’s unfree. The opposite of free. And you don’t get an emergent freedom from something that’s chained. You can aggregate thermostats together until the cows come home and the thermostats don’t liberate themselves once there’s a sufficient number of them. Nor transistors nor neurons nor whatever.

                …and I’ll again note that we remain bereft of a coherent definition of, “free will”….


              4. No Ben, emergence is not simply a phenomenon based on a larger quantity of some subcomponent, although on occasion it can be. The scope of Emergence is very very much wider. Emergence in a system is a function of the interaction of any number of different phenomena of the subcomponents, each differing subcomponent having any number of different sub-behaviours which interacting all together at a system level produce some totally different phenomenon not seen within the subcomponents. Think about it – “life” is not just the property of a quantity of atoms, nor proteins etc.
                As for free will, the subcomponents are decisional functionalities in the human mind which are a mix of a number of very complex abstract entities – language, associative reference, abstract inference, learning, recognition etc. along with sophisticated computational capabilities. You trivialise the complexity of the system because you cannot explain these higher levels of functionality and you just want to win an argument. This is not a very scientific attitude. As for freedom – what constitutes an emergent phenomenons “degrees of freedom” is not the variability of the subcomponents sub-freedoms, but the new degrees of freedom established by the emergent phenomenon.
                “Free Will” is exactly that sort of new emergent “degree of freedom”.

              5. Howie, even after your description of the constituent components of “free will,” I honestly still have no clue what “free will” is supposed to be.

                You describe “degrees of freedom,” which, in most other contexts, would, for example, apply to an horse that has more degrees of freedom than a train on tracks, and a bird that has more degrees of freedom than the horse. The train is stuck in a single linear dimension; the horse has two dimensions to work with; and the bird a third. That’s the sort of thing that “degrees of freedom” means to me…and that seems entirely irrelevant to any sort of discussion about “free will.”

                So, please. Just what the hell is this “free will” thing? What is the will free from, and how does freedom persist in the presence of the will?


              6. Well Ben, I always lean toward the mathematical definition of degrees of freedom which encapsulates the number of variables that exist in an equation. A variable, of course, is one of the factors that can take a range of possible values. This is a multidimensional geometry – not just the three dimensional one you talk about. The dimensions can be viewed as “ways to go” if we veer back to philosophy – possible positions in a multidimensional continuum of choice. And I can’t imagine anything that has more dimensions of choice than the human mind (if not CONSTRAINED that is). This begs the question- that with the human mind who is MOST responsible for the “solution” (the position taken in a solution space for the equation. The answer – the self-programmed self.
                This thread began on the question of whether evolution was randomly influenced so that it if we rewound the clock would the results always be the same? We all agreed that it wouldn’t be the same. Evolution explores a “solution space” by harnessing the inherent randomness of the mutation process to do the exploration. Randomness frees evolution of deterministic causality as it explores its solution space. And in exactly the same fashion, randomness breaks the causal chain – and allows the self to be the principal author of its position in its own solution space. It is a capability which is actually favored by evolution, because it produces an organism with more “degrees of freedom” to deal with the problems of survival and reproduction.

              7. First, Howie, I cannot stress this enough: until you can actually define “free will,” my instant conclusion must, of necessity, be that it’s undefinable and therefore, obviously, doesn’t exist.

                What is “free will”?

                There’s no need to convince me that there’s a great deal of complexity to human minds, nor that our computations involve vast fields of variables with seemingly-limitless potential. I’m not disputing any of that as an accurate description of reality.

                What I am disputing is that it makes any sense to define “free will” as “complexity.”

                As to randomness…again, from a computational perspective, it’s irrelevant. It can be an effective trick to have in your toolchest in all sorts of domains…but, logically? It’s perfectly equivalent to a non-random computer, even if it sometimes gives you the answer you’re looking for sooner. See particularly the subheading, “Equivalence with DTMs” here:


                Even disregarding the question of equivalence…where’s the will in randomness? You’ll let a flip of the coin, a roll of the dice tell you which choice to make? And what difference does it make if the source of randomness is a coin in your hand or a noisy circuit in your brain? Either is, by definition, entirely without meaning — and, if you doubt that assertion, just try to compress an arbitrary random stream of bits.


              8. Even disregarding the question of equivalence…where’s the will in randomness?”

                You are making the EXACT same argument that a creationist makes when he states that it is impossible for randomness to underpin evolution because the results would “certainly not to lead to improved complexity and adaptiveness”. As with the creationist you do not understand that another factor is also at work, the factor of SELECTION. Randomness provides the freedom to explore a solution space. Let me repeat that – randomness provides the FREEDOM TO EXPLORE a solution space. The freedom is a freedom not only to explore, but a freedom from direct causality (inevitability) – you cannot rewind the clock and get exactly the same outcome, although certain outcomes might be probabilistically somewhat favored.
                NOW … this is exactly the same sort of mechanism that is operating in creating an individual’s free-will (the thing that “does the choosing”) in that the self-formed self is the entity that is being formed. It is an iterative process, as evolution is… the time span in this case being the period of an individuals infancy to his/her maturity.
                When Dennett saw similar mechanisms at work in both Evolution and the development of human free-will he had a brilliant insight. And, as in evolution, randomness forms one crucial part of the process – freedom from inevitability (or human EVITABILITY = free will).

              9. Howie, you’re conflating unrelated phenomena in an irrelevant manner.

                And, all that aside…randomness is only necessary in the settings you describe for the same reason that we perform surveys rather than censuses.

                Imagine for a moment if evolution or your brain could explore all possibilities simultaneously rather than having to randomly pick a few and choose the least worst of the lot. In each case, the results would obviously be really, truly optimal — and, equally obviously, there would only be one actual outcome, as surely as the Sun will rise in the East. The “freedom” you’re proposing with randomness is the freedom to be suboptimal by some amount…and, worse for your position…the more complete your sampling, the more optimal you get, resulting in even fewer choices because more and more bad ones get winnowed out.

                And, still! You haven’t actually defined what you mean by, “free will”! Won’t you please tell us what you mean when you use that pair of words together like that? I really can’t stress this enough. Every time you fail to define, “free will,” you do that much more to convince me it’s undefinable.

                Get it?

                If there’s no definition of, “free will,” it doesn’t exist. Period.


              10. “Every time you fail to define, “free will,” you do that much more to convince me it’s undefinable.”

                And every time you fail to progress an argument by using this little definition gambit of yours again Ben, the more you convince me that you can’t think of any valid argument backing up your own position. Setting yourself up as both judge and jury on the issue of “definition of terms” and then rejecting all perfectly sound responses that an opponent suggests is such a tediously tediously old trick of debate that I am surprised that you’re not too embarrassed to employ it. I have defined/described free will multiple times on this thread and again many other times on other threads. So I’m not playing that game Ben.

                Anyhow I’m off now to get a good night’s sleep now after watching the British election results all night long (the results of which I’m absolutely overjoyed with). I will check the thread to see if you can come up with anything in my absence.

              11. “The “freedom” you’re proposing with randomness is the freedom to be suboptimal by some amount…etc etc”

                Optimality has nothing to do with either evolution or with free will. What is involved in both cases is SELECTION as part of a two phase choice. Variation in alternatives in the “contest of choice” is influenced by random effects. In both cases, for a specific iteration, occurring at a particular location in an overall solution space, a particular vector of direction in that space is “decided”. The vector of “decision” in Evolution is determined by the Payoff Matrix of Evolutionary Game Theory for the particular individual.

                In the case of free will however the payoff matrix is the set of values and goals for the self which are within the matrix.

                So let me focus on questions on free will. The issue here is EXACTLY WHAT is principally setting the criteria of the decision matrix?
                The answer – the conscious self of the human agent.

                The question then is: “how is the decisional payoff matrix formed”?
                The answer – the self programmed self forms it.

                The next question – how does the self programming work.
                Answer: iteratively, just like evolution drives the adaption of a species.

                Further question- how is it that the decision matrix is not then pre-determined?
                Answer: the issue is what percentage of actions are attributable directly to external inputs at time t, versus how much the resultant action is determined by the state of the decision matrix at time t? The decision matrix is MOST important. Furthermore decisions are “two-stage” in which randomness again influences the alternatives presented for analysis – further making the decisional process free to a degree from a direct causal chain

                Question:Is this then all nothing but random indeterminacy:?
                Answer: No – iteration makes the process a SELECTION – by iteratively refining and “adapting” the decisional matrix.

                Question: Is it not however that the decision matrix is predetermined by precedent causal events and heredity and innate strategy?
                Answer: Only partly. First because the causal chain has been broken by random effects. Secondly because the decision matrix has been iteratively reprogrammed
                (over many years) by the conscious self – and the conscious self is itself an object of similar programming. The processing is very complex utilising the abstract mental capabilities of the human mind from which very advanced decisional function can emerge.

                Question: Is this then dualistic?
                NO… it is mathematical in nature, just like all other physical behaviours are mathematically describable. In computational terms, it is produced by the “mental software” running on the “mental hardware” (the physical brain). Just because two things are involved – hardware and software – this is NOTHING like classic dualistic “ghost in the machine” silliness.

              12. Howie, if your arguments about randomness were valid, then we’d consider surveys to be the gold standard and censuses to be a waste. When you understand why a census is the gold standard and surveys, though quite useful, are at best a tool for approximation, you’ll understand why all your tangents about randomness are utterly irrelevant.

                And you still haven’t defined, “free will”! You’re doing a not-bad job of explaining how a bit of randomness can help both brains and Evolution sample the impossibly-vast spaces they have to work in, but I fail to see how that has any bearing whatsoever on either “freedom” or “will.”

                Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please!

                Won’t you please tell us what “free will” is supposed to be, as opposed to defending why you think it’s real and / or significant and / or how you think it functions?

                WHAT IS “FREE WILL”!?


              13. Right! As you’ve said pretty-please…

                Howie’s definition of free will…..

                “Free Will is the capacity of the human mind to exert an essentially autonomous behaviour in the external world based on conscious decisions based upon the specific and unique nature of that individual self – and with the consciousness that that self has of its own involvement in this decision making – decisions which to a major degree entail the use of criteria of decisions –e.g. values and goals – which are developed over time in that particular individual BY that particular individual (notwithstanding that influences do exist from “nature and nurture”). Thus ultimate responsibility for the decisions and actions taken, is to a sufficient degree, directly attributable to the unique agency of that particular individual.”

                Now I have left out the detailed mechanisms and the effects of random processes in all of this -it’s not necessary for the definition, only for the explanation of the functionality

              14. Thanks for that definition…though it could stand a bit of wordsmithing.

                However…according to that definition…my ’64 1/2 Mustang will, when the project is done, have free will. You see, it’s going to get an electronic fuel injection system (from Holley) that autonomously adjusts the fuel-air mixture based on both its own model of ideal combustion and its awareness (through sensors) of its environment. And it learns over time; it starts out with a generic fuel:air map that will keep pretty much any engine from stalling or getting damaged, and, the more you drive it, it fine-tunes that map for that specific engine and all its quirks.

                That’s a perfect fit for your definition of, “free will,” and yet I’d suggest that it’s absurd to say that any car other than Herbie has anything even vaguely resembling “free will.”

                See, that’s yet another problem with the notion. Not only do people not want to define it at all, when they do define it, the definitions simply don’t hold up once you start banging on them. It’s just like with gods; nobody wants to define what makes a god in the first place, and they’re never happy with the consequences of their definitions when they finally offer them up. Either the definitions lead straight into contradictions or they include entities that the person offering the definition doesn’t want to include as an example of a god. Same with “free will”…the two words are mutually self-contradictory, like “married bachelor,” and, if you offer a definition that ignores the meaning of the words “free” and “will,” you wind up with toasters that have free will.


              15. “when they do define it, the definitions simply don’t hold up once you start banging on them”

                Although I applaud your choice of car Ben, your criticism of my definition is totally and utterly irrelevant. Reread my definition – you will note that in the definition I require the facility of consciousness(the need is mentioned several times) Consciousnes of course encompases facilities such as abstraction, self perception etc. Anyhow, as your car fails to exhibit any such capabilities, your point is not in any sense, germane.

                You are a one trick pony Ben, for you are, as I predicted, just playing the definition game. We could play it, for example, with the “definition of a chicken”.

                Anyhow, in this instance you’re playing it extremely badly. I paste my original comment and warn you I will not become involved in this silly game…

                ” …every time you fail to progress an argument by using this little definition gambit of yours again Ben, the more you convince me that you can’t think of any valid argument backing up your own position. Setting yourself up as both judge and jury on the issue of “definition of terms” and then rejecting all perfectly sound responses that an opponent suggests is such a tediously tediously old trick of debate that I am surprised that you’re not too embarrassed to employ it. I have defined/described free will …on this thread and again many other times on other threads. So I’m not playing that game Ben.”


              16. Reread my definition – you will note that in the definition I require the facility of consciousness(the need is mentioned several times)

                I fail to see the relevance of consciousness to the rest of your definition.

                You yourself could perform the same task as the computer and manually tweak the fuel / air mixture based on sensor readings. If you’re any good at it, the end result will be the same.

                Or, for a more realistic example, take an airliner’s autopilot. There’re autopilots these days that receive their orders from dispatchers and air traffic control and can take the plane from the terminal at one airport to the terminal at another airport, all without any humans ever touching the controls. All the while, they’re perfectly matching your definition save for the “consciousness” part, and doing the exact same thing that countless human pilots have done before them.

                So either you and these computers have free will, or none do, or else your definition of “free will” is incoherent.


              17. “I fail to see the relevance of consciousness to the rest of your definition.”

                It is MY definition, and I am free to include whatever I wish to in it Ben.

                In any case consciousness is essential to my definition. There is already a word defined for an action taken WITHOUT consciousness, and that word is Reflex. Neither of us accept that sort of action as the result of free will. And as I said repeatedly, consciousness also includes higher capabilities. These capabilities also afford an ability to solve a range of problems and reach decisions relevant to that wider range. Therefor even very efficient specialised machinery eg. autopilots and chess computers, although rather good at what they do, have no general capabilities whatsoever in comparison to the conscious mind (in Artificial Intelligence terms these specialised systems are called “micro-worlds”).
                So my definition holds perfectly, and your own counterexamples continue to be totally irrelevant.
                Come on Ben – I thought you really fancied yourself as a master of the definition game – but you are doing an awful job in playing it.

              18. It is MY definition, and I am free to include whatever I wish to in it Ben.

                And I am equally free to reject it.

                You clearly think that a pilot who navigates an aircraft from one airport to another has “free will,” but an autopilot that does the exact same thing lacks “free will.” Because one has consciousness and the other does not.

                Why stop there? The human has hair; the computer does not. And cats have hair; therefore, they have free will just like humans, but the airline autopilot still doesn’t. But the cat has a tail and we do not; perhaps the cat has even more free will than we do?

                Conversely, we see clearly demonstrated that “free will” is entirely irrelevant to the question of aircraft navigation. By extension, it would be similarly displayed that “free will” is equally irrelevant to any action. You think it’s “free will” that lets you pick the best apple out of the display? Those apples themselves were picked off a conveyor belt either by automated robotics or by humans doing an inferior job to the automated robotics. Or, you might think “free will” is only meaningful when it comes to high-level analysis, such as whether or not to invade a particular country…and, yet, even there, we see computers playing an indispensable role in those decision and have every reason to think that we’re fast approaching, if not already past, the point where they’re likely to surpass humans in those arenas just as with so many others. Chess, after all, belongs entirely to the computers…and your smartphone is likely a better chess player than you are. Does your smartphone have even more “free will” than you do? If so, that’s absurd; if not, what good does your “free will” do you?

                A wise girl once questioned whether you can make words mean anything you wish them to. In response, an egg told her that her question is irrelevant; rather, mastery is all that matters. There is truth in the egg’s response…but it demonstrates a critical element: lacking mastery, any attempt at forcing words to your will will fail.


              19. “And I am equally free to reject it.”

                Of course you can Ben, that indeed is the core of the silly “definition game” you always play. But it is totally removed from being anything to do with proper rational debate and it is so horribly and tediously boring.

                Look at the specious “definition arguments” you have brought up here. They are all so embarrassingly silly. You argue in essence that the sort of functions that Artificial Intelligence clearly defines as merely “micro-worlds” (e.g. apple-sorting, autopilots etc. etc. etc.) are instead equivalent to Intelligence itself. Or that Intelligence is itself a micro-world. It’s ludicrous. Why don’t you read up a bit on the subject of AI before you make such preposterous assertions? I would suggest you start by reading some Dreyfus. Of course when the definition game is being played that sort of factual argument doesn’t really matter.

                Anyhow I had warned you, I’m not sticking around while you play this game Ben, I have far better things to do with my time

                I’m off

              20. That you capitalize “Intelligence” is curious. And, despite your fascination with AI…well, again. Any intelligence, artificial or biological, is going to be Turing-equivalent, logically identical to a mathematical function. That’s the whole point of Church-Turing. You can throw all the randomness or other complexities you want at it, and it still doesn’t change the fact that you’re dealing with a function, with but a single possible output for any given combination of input and configuration.

                You clearly see “freedom” in functions — at least, so long as the function is complex enough such that you personally can’t even imagine how you would be able to understand or predict it.

                Such “freedom” could only even hypothetically come into play with dualistic capital-I “Intelligences” that disregard not merely physics but logic itself. And, no, again, randomness is still not some sort of secret sauce that breathes freedom into the magic of the soul.


              21. I think we’ve pretty much covered the all the arguments concerning computability and free will already Ben, and it’s nice that we are also putting the definition game behind us.

                Given the terrible weakness of the arguments you’ve presented in both these areas I would suggest that the very best an Incompatibilist like yourself could say is that “the jury is still out” regarding whether or not there is free will. And I don’t mean to single you out for presenting such a weak case, it is the case itself that is weak. Perhaps it’s time now to bring up the consequences of the position you hold. I don’t mean to be making an argument from consequences but given the weakness of your position I think you really ought to consider the impact of what you are trying to convince people of.

                First there is the consequences that Dennett has been making – that the Incompatibilist stance will produce a lower level of moral behaviour in society (what you say is the “little people” argument). Well, Dennett’s argument is totally valid, and has been verified experimentally. And it is valid philosophically also. What is the point of considering the moral implications of my actions on a the feelings of a fellow human being if that fellow is a mere robot?

                Then there is the damage this Incompatibilist stance does to the chances that our Atheist/Humanist position and movement be adopted by a wider following to enhance the welfare of humanity. We tell the religious some pretty depressing things already when we ask them to give up their silly religious belief –that there is no life after death, there is no compensation for the evils of life in an afterlife, that their loved ones who suffer or die are lost forever, that there is no consolation or “payback” for evils they experience in life. Now to all this bad news you want to tell people that they are robots. This is not a very nice thing to do Ben, especially as most Humanists/Atheists are themselves totally convinced that free-will really DOES exist. Nor does it enhance the necessary growth of our movement. Stop to think about it.

                Cheers Ben –

              22. Given the terrible weakness of the arguments you’ve presented in both these areas I would suggest that the very best an Incompatibilist like yourself could say is that “the jury is still out” regarding whether or not there is free will.

                Howie, I’m still waiting for that coherent definition of what “free will” is supposed to be. Yours distills down to those decisions made by conscious agents which are otherwise indistinguishable from ones made by non-conscious agents; the autopilot lacks free will, but the human pilot who exactly duplicates the autopilot’s flight path does have free will.

                Considering that your definition is unique to you and not shared by other compatibilists, and that it really doesn’t make sense of itself…and that the dictionary definition (“the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.”) is of a theological concept with no bearing in reality, I find agnosticism simply uncalled for — just as there’s no reason for agnosticism with respect to anything else from theology.


              23. I’ve covered all these points Ben..
                See my “micro-worlds” comments
                I’m off this thread now
                Suggest you read up a bit on AI before we debate this subject again
                Cheers then Ben

              24. Howie, your own reading assignment would be Church-Turing, the Turing equivalence of non-deterministic Turing Machines, and the difference between a survey and a census.


    2. I don’t see that quantum processes leave much if any room for free will. If in fact my behavior is determined by subatomic events that could not have been predicted, that doesn’t mean that it is any less determined or any more under my conscious control. I cannot choose whether or not to be influenced by quantum events.

      1. Could it be that quantum effects play a prt in which choices you are presented with.

        1. As a trivial example: you could use a radioisotope to power a random number generator, and then use that to pick lottery numbers. That’d be an example of quantum effects playing a rather significant part in macro-scale phenomenon…and one that’s much kinder to the cats!


      2. Randomness arising from quantum effects breaks the causal chain that underlies absolute determinism. This provides an underlying “freedom” – the freedom from a specific predetermined unique result. We can’t rewind the clock to the exact initial condition and be sure the same thing will occur.
        Then we may ask ourselves what other factors will determine an alternative result? The answer – the “self formed” individual being. Yes, elements of that self-formed being are the result of nature and nurture, but the free-will that does exists is real enough, and as Dennett says, is certainly “worth having”

        1. “Free will certainly worth having” seems to me more a personal opinion than a statement about facts; certainly in the light of the lightweight version of free will. Of course this is also just an opinion.

          1. Well, everything being said here – including claims that there is no such thing as free will, or whether something is “lightweight” or is not – is also just an opinion.

            1. The problem with “free will” is that it’s a “married bachelor.”

              If you can offer a coherent definition of “free will” that isn’t a deepity (like Coel’s “lacking a gun to the head”)…well, I’ll go out and buy an hat just to eat it….


            2. Yes, that’s a perfectly rational response.

              It seems deterninists want to have their cake and to eat it, too.

        2. Interesting discussion.
          I think I’l stay an epiphenomenalist till you sort it out.
          Strange inversions?

          Is the self formed self a Dennet idea?

          1. “Is the self formed self a Dennet idea?”

            It’s an idea that Dennett uses extensively in his own explanations of free will. The original and very extensive analysis of self-forming and “two stage” self forming was the work of Robert Kane though earlier ideas of “self forming” predate Kane.
   These ideas of course are all compatible with a deterministic universe.
            I’m in the field of Computer Science. These models of mental processing and self-programming seem fully justifiable and convincing to me on this basis. And perhaps I appreciate the sophistication of what this processing entails -abstraction, associative reference, learning, modeling, symbolic representation etc. etc. more than the crude reductionist straw-man examples that Ben uses in his counterarguments.
            Random effects are vital in these explanations to establish a basis for breaking an otherwise fatalistic causal chain as self forming takes place. It provides a basis for autonomous functionality. No believer in compatibile free will denies that environment and genetics play a part in forming the individual agent. But this is exactly analogous to the fact that no one can deny that an organism must adapt and evolve within the confines of its particular environmental niche. Actually the similarities of Evolutionary process and mechanisms underpinning free will are striking.

            1. Random effects are vital in these explanations to establish a basis for breaking an otherwise fatalistic causal chain as self forming takes place.

              No; they do no such thing. They merely perform the same function as a survey compared with a census.


  3. According to modern cosmology galaxies are the late result of quantum fluctuations which occurred during the early stage of the big bang. If this is correct planet earth and humans had only some probability to emerge.

  4. As Ben, I was struck by the tortured subtitle.

    It is like claiming my house is magnetic, because I have appliances that generates local fields now and then.

    Worse, it show how tenuous and temporary that self awareness is. Of course, for an abrahamist that doesn’t count because according to their magic thinking they will ‘live’ forever if they behave just so.

    Our mental abilities, which include language, are a one-off, like the evolution of the feather and the elephant’s trunk.

    Our bushy lineages among near kin gives me the naive impression that our survival was the luck of the draw. It isn’t fully reviewed yet (that is, I await John Hawks’s take on it =D), but the fresh claim of really old stone tools would place them as australopithecine. And we know that extant apes dabbles in tool cultures too, while not showing much of the specific abilities we have.*

    * In that regard, I find the observation of a spear culture in a group of female chimps interesting. They don’t kill with them, but stab bush babies until they leave their day nests.

    It seems they continue to do so because that particular chimp group is pretty egalitarian as chimps go, the hunters can keep most or all of their food. That seem naively to be a prerequisite for a more permanent tool culture.

    Now anthropologists are revising the earlier model of huge gender differences among australopithecines. The variation found does not support it, and the new theory as I understand it is that the common ancestor of apes was not very gender differentiated. (See Hawks’s site.) So that could explain why some apes that fits that mold used tools commonly enough to leave an accessible record.

    But if one wish to make a forcing constraint out of all this speculation (and probably many more relevant factors), it would take a lot of Templeton funding…

    1. It’s not the claim of the universe being ‘self-aware’ that I have a problem with, because we speak of humans and (to some extent) other living things being self-aware without much controversy, but obviously (if we’re sane, and not theologians) don’t mean that every cell and process in the human body is aware of every cell and process. There’s a particular bundle of cells (brain, or part of it) that specialises in processing information that comes in from peripheral and internal sense organs, and directing behaviour that’s more or less adapted to preserve somatic homeostais and (ultimately) germ line propagation, and we fudge (benignly) by conflating brain, body and gonads as ‘self’ when the ‘awareness’ actually has a more restricted locus. Zooming out a bit, there’s still nothing perverse about saying that the universe is aware of itself through the same locus, because perceived events start, and action finishes, pretty far outside the skin.

      I haven’t read any of Morris’ stuff, but given his known religiosity I expect he probably adds further unquestioned assumptions about awareness (and behaviour) at multiple non-overlapping loci somehow adding up to or being derived from superawareness (and superpowers) ‘outside’ of space and time. Also, the whole convergence argument is obviously rubbish as PCC has pointed out.

      1. I should think the innate immune system must be part of our self-awareness, so I’m having trouble finding this “locus” of which you speak. –bks

  5. This raises a question in my mind. If human-like creatures are “inevitable”, shouldn’t they have evolved sooner? One might understand why it took bacteria so long to turn into something more complex, but why spend so much time on dinosaurs and stuff? And isn’t it a random event — an impact — that allowed the rise of mammals? The whole history of Earth is a chronicle of random events. Where is the inevitability in that? The history of some rocky, watery planet someplace else in the cosmos would be entirely different.

    1. P.S. Only if we were able to take a representative sample of planets with intelligent life and knew their history would we be able to say with any confidence something like “on average, it takes about 4 billion years for tech-savvy civilizations to evolve, with a standard deviation of 1.43 billion years.” And there is no reason why we should think it should happen at all. Which is possibly a reason to think more seriously about where we are headed as a species.

      1. “And there is no reason why we should think it should happen at all.

        It depends on your point of view. I think the most reasonable conclusion given the near complete lack of evidence is “not enough data to warrant any significant degree of confidence in any conclusions.”

        But, given a sample size of one biosphere, we have one known tech savvy species. Notice too that as our knowledge increases that nearly all of the arguments for why life elsewhere is a very low order of probability have been falling one by one.

        The only reason to suppose that we can place any more confidence in the speculation that there are no other intelligent life forms out there, as opposed to that there are, is some sort of belief in, or longing for, human specialness.

        1. But, given a sample size of one biosphere, we have one known tech savvy species.

          This is true, and it should be enough to suggest that it’s unlikely that we’re the only civilization in the Cosmos.

          But…as Jerry pointed out, we also have one-and-only-one example of the evolution of the feather whereas we have about as many different examples of evolution of the eye as there are classes, if not more. The ubiquity of the feather demonstrates that it’s an highly useful trait to have, and the success of H. sapiens also demonstrates that intelligence is very useful…but, again, we only have the one example of either ever evolving.

          It makes as much sense, right now, to suggest that intelligence is common as it does to suggest that feathers are common.

          Eyes are likely very common, as are streamlined apex water predators. Feathers are likely rare, as are elephantine trunks…and, honestly, technology-capable intelligence.


          1. What I was trying to get across is that it doesn’t make sense to pretend that any conclusion, either common or unique, should be granted any significant confidence based on what data we have now.

            Regarding the comparison of the feather and intelligence, I think they are not of comparable categories, i.e. comparing them is a category error. In any case, nearly all, if not all, of the cognitive features we have also developed in other creatures to one degree or another.

    2. There is a trick akin to how statisticians like to use log transformations to view data, namely you can make periods.

      Mass extinctions are sufficiently “restarts” that people (biologists and astrobiologists) have used them as proxies for separate worlds. The last MOOC astrobiology course I took for Sasselov, with updates on super Earths as is his specialty, did it.

      Of course you tend to end up with the expected result of probability 1, similar to how logarithm transforms tend to make data well behaved, so one can question the usefulness.

    3. Or, why didn’t intelligence evolve more than once? Maybe quantum mechanics comes into play, but it could also be perhaps that you need a number of historical events to line up in order to give rise to intelligence:

      1. Mammals were nocturnal for 140 Myr and evolved larger brains for scent and (I think) hearing. So this may cross out amphibians and reptiles as potentially smart creatures?

      2. Among the mammals, it seems you need to be a social species in order to evolve greater intelligence. So that crosses out quite a few mammals as progenitors of smart creatures.

      3. If you want to develop tool use and thus have a greater selective advantage to communication and intelligence, you need to have handy forelimbs, which crosses out elephants, wolves, and dolphins as potentially giving rise to an intelligent species.

      4. I have no preferred explanation for which event or series of events led to the evolution of human intelligence within the primates, but (assuming quantum effects are not the cause) it must be a fairly unusual and perhaps specific sequence of selection pressures if it only happened within one group of the primates.

      So, intelligence might be rare in the universe because the selection pressures are not nearly as straightforward as those for vision, bilateral symmetry, and a fusiform shape in marine animals. Instead, perhaps you need an extraordinary sequence of selection pressures that are unlikely to occur frequently, even over the time scale of several hundred million years.

      1. “…why didn’t intelligence evolve more than once?”

        Intelligence evolved independently many times here on earth. I don’t see why you say dolphins and wolves are not intelligent. Octopus, corvids, parrots, cats, wolves, dogs, primates, cetaceans all have some level of rudimentary intelligence, and many creatures besides us (including birds and molluscs) use tools. Intelligence has obvious survival value and will be selected for, so I don’t think it is unfair to expect that a complex biome that lasts long enough will probably produce intelligent beings. Of course, that intelligence may be completely different from the kind we have.

        1. We Homo saps (that’s not original) are biased to think our kind of intelligence is both qualitatively and quantitatively way greater, or at least different, than that of other species. Some of that comes from brain-to-body-weight ratio, naturally. But doesn’t it also depend on how brains evolved to function? How is it that some birds with their tiny little brains can mimic sounds so well? The octopus is an amazing creature as well.

          What sets us apart for me, more than anything else (and I don’t think I had this thought till just now) is the diversity of our activity, especially activity that doesn’t seem directly concerned with survival and reproduction. Creativity, imagination, symbol formation, forecasting, planning, etc. How did we get to that point?

          1. I do think “Creativity, imagination, symbol formation, forecasting, planning” have to do with our reproductive success, I don’t see any mystery there. That our intuition sometimes tells us something else; why would that be surprising?

            1. Perhaps not surprising. What’s hard is to infer just how things like art and music came to be–at what point, for example, did rhythm rise to the level of conscious awareness? Patterns of sound abound in the natural world: Insects, birds, water drops, not to mention diurnal and seasonal cycles. And art–how did it get started? Was it a rapid progression from some primordial awareness of symbol use,or did it evolve gradually over thousands of years? Will we ever know for sure?

          2. How did we get to that point?


            Language — and, with language, culture. The ability to build a body of knowledge not limited to a single person, but the collected wisdom of the ages.

            That’s what really sets us apart from all other species.


            1. Then I’m curious about how language itself evolved from more basic methods of communication through sound. I’m guessing that it began through the slow accumulation of particular sounds with life-threatening (and life-enhancing) events, a gradually developing repertoire of aural signaling. Cooperation through shared knowledge of the situation, etc.

              1. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a Nobel in the offering for anybody who can give a definitive answer to that question of “how”….


    4. An event can be completely random and extremely rare but still inevitable. Consider the case of rolling snake eyes 20 times in a row. You’ll be throwing dice a very long time before it happens, but it will happen eventually, given enough time.

      Intelligence could be like that: bound to happen eventually if you spend enough time random-walking the space of possible adaptations.

  6. “evoluton” in the title should be “evolution.”

    Also, I can’t say I find the Anthropic Principle so fascinating as I once did. For starters, it’s basically a spoiler and all we’re really doing is finding out the details that preceded it. Are humans just so desperate for a cosmic purpose that we’ll take such a low benchmark as our own existence as evidence for it?

    For another thing, it leads almost inevitably to the Egopic Principle: “The whole universe exists for the sole purpose of having me in it.” After all, I’m the only truly conscious entity in existence. And I only need one look in the mirror to know the universe could have done a better job. 🙂

    1. I think you might be misunderstanding the anthropic principle.

      You can come at it from either direction — before the fact or afterwards.

      Ahead of time, the anthropic principle simply states that, if there’s a lottery, so long as you sell enough tickets, no matter how dismal the odds, somebody’s going to win. There’s nothing special about the winner, though, of course, the fact of winning is going to be very special for the winner.

      Looking backwards, it says that, if you have a winner, you had a lottery…and that there’s almost guaranteed to be nothing special about the winner that made that individual win instead of all the others. The winner, again of course, will now be quite special, but only as a result of the non-special indifferent and uncontrollable act of winning.

      We can very safely say that we are a winner. At no time in the prior four-and-an-half billion years of the Earth’s history have there been entities such as us. We clearly won the lottery.

      But the anthropic principle says that there’s nothing special about us in particular, save that we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

      Indeed, the anthropic principle is the ultimate rejection of geocentricism and all its variants, and not at all the appeal to specialness you paint it as.



  7. Ignoring quantum effects, what about non-linear phenomena, where even if we can define initial conditions with 100% accuracy we still cannot predict the outcome? These are surely common enough in nature for us to say (pace Ben) that, even given the circumstances that have arisen on Earth, it was *not* always inevitable that we should be reading what we are now.

    1. Yes, but chaos doesn’t rule out regular trends over time. It’s like the difference between weather prediction and climate modelling; you can have a good idea of what sort of climate to expect over the next few decades while still struggling to predict weather forecasts for more than four days ahead.

      1. Indeed; and so I would suggest that individual human actions at time T+1 are not inevitably predictable at time T, even if we know their brain state with 100% accuracy at time T.

    2. Those sorts of things only dictate the practicality of computing outcomes. It means that, if you’re within the system, there’s no way you’d be able even in principle to make the perfect simulation, since you’d need all the resources of the system and then some to make the perfect copy.

      But there’s always the possibility of any of those crazy conspiracy theories — such as all of our observable universe being but a minor subroutine of some unimaginably-vast hypersuperultramegadupercomputer. There’s no reason to suspect that being the case, of course, but it’s also logically impossible to disprove — for the exact same reason Turing’s famous Halting Problem is unsolvable. (And, of course, the hypersuperultramegadupercomputer could, itself, be but a fleeting small part of Alice’s Red King’s Dream, and so on.)

      As such, we cannot, even in principle, predict many of those things, and neither could any other entity in the observable universe as we know it. But, logically, we can also be confident that those things are, indeed computable in theory; you’d just need a computer bigger than the universe to perform the computation.


      1. OK, I get that. But I still don’t see how even your hypersuperultramegacomputer – even if it’s bigger than the entire universe – could predict with 100% certainty how chaotic events are inevitably going to turn out here and now.

        1. There are two possibilities when it comes to randomness. Either it’s something that’s deterministic but impractical or impossible to model (with the classic example being a pool break) or it’s something that’s truly and fundamentally somehow random, as some propose is the case for anything in Quantum Mechanics that involves the Uncertainty Principle.

          If the former, the answer should be obvious: just keep throwing more computational power at it. Model the pool table and the room and as far out of the room as you think you need to go down to below Planck scales and there you go.

          In the latter…well, I’m not yet personally convinced of the Many-Worlds interpretation, but it’s the perfect example for how you’d answer the question.

          Your simulation “merely” needs to clone off copies for every possible outcome whenever there’s a truly random choice.


    3. In fact the impact that wiped out the (non-avian) dinosaurs is probably in this category of deterministic but fundamentally unpredictable events.

      As I understand it, asteroid orbits — especially Earth-crossing ones — are chaotic on a timescale of millions of years. It’s fundamentally impossible to know an asteroid’s orbit with infinite precision; there are always error bars. And these error bars grow exponentially with time due to repeated perturbations by Jupiter and other planets. So after a few million years, you simply have no idea where the asteroid is going to be, or even what shape its orbit will be, let alone whether it’s going to collide with anything.

      So we don’t need to go back to the Big Bang to find a fork in Earth’s history. The end of the Cretaceous will do.

  8. If this God guy is so clever, why did he need for humans to evolve via the tortuous method we did? Surely it would have been easier, and far better proof of His existence, if He just plonked us here in the manner of one of the creation myths?

  9. Arctic mammals often are white or turn white in winter to hide themselves from predators or prey, for they can’t make themselves a non-white environment in the Arctic.

    And when winter is late, or wet and rainy instead of snowy … the foxes boom and the hares bust. For a year.
    SCM has kept his cards close to his chest on public declarations of faith, as far as I know. But while he remains an important, productive and highly respected palaeontologist, he’s busted his flush on impressing anyone in the trade with is-it-woo-or-is-it-god-squaddy stuff. I brought ‘Life’s Solution’, read it once, and haven’t considered for one second buying anything non-technical by him again. to be honest, if he were to bring out an undergraduate textbook, I’d probably hesitate to recommend it without doing a cover-to-end note inspection because I couldn’t trust him to not project his personal opinions into such a forum. I haven’t seen him try to get that sort of stuff past the editors and referees of Nature or Lethaiaiaia though (which would be a really dumb thing to try, I suspect).

  10. I do wonder if something is being mischaracterized about the book here, though I haven’t read it myself.

    I would assume inevitability, that it was inevitable that conscious creatures, with a language, self-awareness, and the rational capacities to decipher truth, would be more in favor atheism than theism.

    I would think it’s the notion of “one-off”, that we’re just the recipient of a fluke occurrence, that leads credibility to intent.

    Someone winning the million dollar lottery is inevitable, but if someone won the million dollar lottery twice in row, we’d assume that machines were intentionally tapered with to produce that result. Claiming it was one-off, a fluke occurrence, wouldn’t be as believable.

  11. But the human brain and its unique capacities extolled by Conway Morris are not convergent with anything! Our mental abilities, which include language, are a one-off, like the evolution of the feather and the elephant’s trunk. Therefore, they give not an iota of evidence for a pre-existing “intelligence niche” to which some lineage inevitably had to adapt. The convergence argument has NO BEARING on whether human evolution was inevitable.

    Much in this discussion depends on how precise a similarity one counts as convergence. Of course our exact level of cognitive abilities is (so far) unique, perhaps not least because somebody has to get there first. But if I look at corvids, just as one example, I find it plausible to conclude that intelligence may be sufficiently useful to pop up several times over, especially thinking in terms of the next 200 million years or so, let alone 200 other planets.

    Same for the elephant’s trunk. Surely “an organ to grasp stuff” is useful, has evolved many times in parallel, and surely it is then irrelevant whether they are exact anatomical homologues?

    In summary, I strongly lean towards the convergence side of things. What I would focus on here is the heads you win, tails you lose mentality of religious thinking. If our abilities and characteristics were absolutely unique, they would take that as evidence that we are favoured by god; and after it turns out that we not so special at all, they take that as evidence … that we are favoured by god. Funny that.

  12. I like the use in the cover photo of Runestones(TM), that nineties(?) re-invention of divination, to imply that gullibility rather than self-awareness is what the universe has been working towards.

        1. I’m saying that once life got started, it wouldn’t be long before every plausible breeding ground for life became colonized by descendants of that initial origin. It’s hard to see how prebiotic chemical evolution can happen a second time in an environment already permeated by living cells ready to exploit any novel source of chemical energy.

          RNA World is viable only when there’s nothing more complex than RNA around to perturb it.

            1. Er…it’s a bit simpler than that.

              Whatever gets there first is going to be good at eating the stuff of its environment — and, soon thereafter, its environment is going to include its cousins, at which point the arms race is on.

              Anything that comes afterwards is going to be the stuff of the environment that’s now the eternal battleground, only it’s unarmed.

              For example, there’s been some speculation that life might actually have originated near subsea thermal vents. (I don’t think this is necessarily a leading contender any more, but bear with me.) Were that the case, you could easily imagine the same sort of chemical reactions happening to this day that, billions of years ago, were our ancient ancestors. But anything like that that happened today would be happily gulped down by the tubeworms already living there, as that’s what they eat.


  13. “Ichthyosaurs, porpoises, and fish all independently evolved a fusiform shape, for when you live in water and want to move fast, that shape is adaptive.”

    This is (mostly) niche construction. The environment is created by the fish’s behavior (swimming). If the fish weren’t swimming, the water wouldn’t be flowing (exceptions of course are fishes in fast flowing rivers, wave swept environments, etc.).

  14. Re: Humor in Islam. At some point Geller says that Ayatollah Khomeini said there are “no jokes in Islam.”

    My view is that it is always ideology that is humorless. To the extent that Islam is not an ideology, I think humor could exist in it. There’s some question as to whether Sufism is really Islamic, but there’s no doubt that Sufism uses humor as a teaching tool, especially in the Nasrudin stories.

  15. Evolution is what’s left over after the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have run their course–until, of course, shifts occur, as they do continuously, on both sides of the suggested equation. (It is perhaps not the size of the computer so much but the evidence of a megamath to match reality.

    “Big fleas have little fleas, upon their backs to bite ’em, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so on ad infinitum.”

    All organisms do what they can, when they can, where they can.

    In determining what the phenomenon is that we describe as “intelligence,” we have to have a test standard beyond mere egocentrism. Biologically, a bacterium that has persisted the longest might be said to be the most successful. And Neanderthals, having persisted for about twice as long as Homo sapiens, would have to, on that standard, be considered, for now, twice as successful as H. sapiens. Will H. sap. be able, through its vast accumulation of knowledge, be able to persist for about another 100,000 years?

    If, on the other hand, one bases success on population, H. sap. already is the clear winner!

    Uh, oh . . . do populations (numbers, biomass?) boom before a bust? What happens to organisms that consume their prey faster than the prey can reproduce? What happens to populations that alter their environment beyond their basic needs (and even going so far as to satisfy demands ‘way beyond needs), yea, even into hedonistic “pleasures” that fail to satisfy?

    Nature, by whatever name assigned by whatever ideology, simply doesn’t give a damn.


Leave a Reply