The following is the edited transcript of a talk entitled “Ontological Cosmology” I gave in New York City in 2014. I am revisiting older recordings and use AI to clean up the text, making it more readable.
What we are going to discuss here is entirely speculative. It will likely prove controversial for some listeners. Let me qualify that I remain open-minded about my own perspectives, still pushing at boundaries that I believe we should reconsider philosophically. That effort always carries moral hazard, but I aim to explore these concepts nonetheless.
I originally intended to open with definitions before moving to applications, but now I will introduce ideas first then demonstrate applications before attempting to connect everything. We shall see how that goes.
Ontological Cosmology – David Orban – New York, 2014
We inhabit a fascinating universe for many reasons. Just when we assume some grasp of underlying dynamics, our understanding reveals itself as illusion – there is always more yet to learn. In fact mathematics proves our knowledge fundamentally incomplete. In the 1930s Hilbert identified 10 unsolved problems in mathematics, proclaiming that resolving those problems would represent the field’s culmination. However, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem not only addressed one of Hilbert’s problems but also contradicted Hilbert’s basic premise.
Gödel showed that sufficiently elaborate mathematical systems contain true statements that cannot be proved or disproved from within those systems themselves. A mathematician is then free to adopt either stance towards such undecidable claims, employing one as axiom to extend theoretical reach. And remarkably, even the most bizarre new mathematical notions eventually find concrete equivalents in physical reality, though the route connecting abstract to actual often proves convoluted.
One philosophical perspective on this phenomenon is the anthropic principle, which states, basically: If conditions in this universe did not enable human life – requiring as it does some meaningful order enabling evolution – then we would not exist to contemplate cosmology. Perhaps it is inevitable, then, that the universe we inhabit proves intrinsically comprehensible and explorable. For 13 billion years, matter within this universe has grown progressively more elaborate, recently producing the human brain – arguably the most complex structure in the known cosmos.
When Ray Kurzweil documents exponential trends – in computing, genetics, communications, etc. – he identifies an accelerating arc of complexification spanning human history. Yet humming faintly behind those notes audible to us now is the universe’s deeper chord of emergence, going back to initial conditions after the Big Bang. Physics has yet to fully explain the underlying process driving that epic crescendo.
Consider an advanced intelligence suddenly awakening within this universe. Given mere minutes or even seconds of careful observation, it could logically infer nearly everything we know regarding cosmos and quantum. In particular, no human observers could have existed in the billion years following the Big Bang, since essential elements for life had not yet arisen inside early stars. Any sentience finding itself carbon-based can thus deduce, for example, a 10-billion-year-old universe.
Notable aspects of our brains include synchronized electrical oscillations enabling global coordination, along with exceptional developmental plasticity after birth. However, cranial dimensions during gestation are limited by the maternal pelvis. There may also be genetic or environmental constraints around the duration of human parental dependence as our brains mature. When developmental disorders like schizophrenia disrupt the brain’s integrity, psychiatric symptoms can severely impede personal identity and agency.
Of course we love comparing the brain to computers, notwithstanding the limitations of that analogy. As we build progressively more powerful computers, some predict an impending era of exponentially accelerating technological change. However, fundamental physical barriers arise, like errors from quantum tunneling at tiny circuit scales. Quantum computing promises progress by embracing rather than rejecting inevitable quantum effects. Companies like Google now claim primitive but functioning quantum processors composed of superconducting elements nearing absolute zero. Developing algorithms suited for quantum parallelism poses additional challenges.
Some theorists extend the computer metaphor even further. Granting unlimited engineering capacity, what are the ultimate limits to computation? This yields the concept of computronium – defined as the arrangement of matter theoretically optimizing computational capacity within a given volume. If you have a fixed quantity of computronium, adding more of it represents the only way to expand capability. Jupiter-sized spheres of computronium could host “Jupiter brains” – constructed intelligences with unmatched complexity and proficiency.
Since Jupiter brains by definition want to compute as much as possible, they would be motivated to acquire more computronium, presumably by assimilating astronomical structures like planets. We can attempt to model how Jupiter brains might operate. For instance, synchronizing across longer internal distances probably requires transmission speeds at or below light speed to propagate signals efficiently. So Jupiter brains may face upper size limits due to causality, above which dissident factions inside the brain emerge, with contradictory aims and intents.
Nick Bostrom, a philosopher, presented the simulation argument that is widely misinterpreted as claiming we probably exist inside a computer simulation. Bostrom actually showed one of the following three statements must be true: 1) Human civilization perishes soon; 2) Technologically adept societies eschew complex simulations of ancestry; 3) We almost certainly inhabit a simulation. Evaluating these cases:
1) Human extinction could arise from internal strife or external shocks. Our survival outlook depends largely on whether science and technology progress swiftly enough to address threats as they emerge.
2) Given indefinite continuity, advanced civilizations would almost certainly run elaborate simulations for insight, amusement, etc. Our enthusiasm already encompasses books, film, video games, virtual worlds, etc.
3) If travel far exceeding light speed ever becomes possible, sentient life could rapidly infiltrate the entire galaxy. By aggressively transmuting matter into computronium, Jupiter brains enabled by faster-than-light expansion could ultimately convert most accessible energy in the universe into computation. We might dwell inside such a Jupiter brain rather than base reality itself.
Perhaps science can in fact address the question of whether we inhabit genuine external reality or an engineered construct. Science continually expands its explanatory reach, drawing seemingly philosophical questions into the ambit of empirical validation. Cosmology now scrutinizes theories of cosmic origins by observing background radiation and distant galaxies.
There are also profound moral implications to consider. We must weigh the consequences of assumptions potentially shaping individual and collective priorities. While authentic existence feels intuitively preferable to a simulated one, I also appreciate the appeal of interstellar travel unconstrained by an organic body, transmitting consciousness between networks of nanoscale probes moving at nearly light-speed.
During the Manhattan Project, physicists Enrico Fermi and Robert Openheimer joked that security would improve if only Hungarians handled the classified research, given the heavy concentration of Hungarian talent on the science team. They called them the Martians. I’m Hungarian myself, so the jokes by Fermi definitely strike a chord! While observing bomb tests in the New Mexico desert, Fermi gazed upward and asked, “Where is everybody?” That line of questioning now represents the Fermi Paradox – if intelligent life commonly develops under suitable conditions, we should encounter alien artifacts everywhere.
Even relatively sluggish interstellar expansion across millions of years would populate the galaxy with observable footprints. And yet projects like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have so far discerned only an ominous silence, despite rapidly improving detection capabilities.
So life appears astoundingly rare for unknown reasons, given trillions of cosmic habitats. Perhaps most alien biospheres eventually birth Jupiter brains to maximize computational capacity, resigning observable space in the process. Or intelligence generally proves tragically fleeting due to resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, etc.
If life emerges extremely rarely amid myriad barren worlds, perhaps we owe existence itself a profound duty of stewardship wherever it takes root. That responsibility spans not only this generation or planet, but our shared heritage across the depths of space and time. Through gradual discovery and actualization of mathematical truth, our choices collectively forge reality – participating in the evolving cosmos as it unfolds moment to moment.
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