The Universe as a Statistical Approximation

On the behavior of matter, your brain, and the continuing evolution of humanity.

TheDigitalArtist

Every now and then it is our duty to remind ourselves just how much we don’t know…

So let us start with you.

Listen to that voice in your head currently reading these words. When you read these words, a small cluster of neurons fire near the back of your skull. We call this section of the brain the “angular gyrus.”

You’ll notice that you can read these words in any voice of your choosing. This is a feat you surely take for granted, but we can’t easily replicate this with a computer. Text-to-speech software takes hundreds of gigabytes of data, hours of voice recordings, sound manipulation software; it’s a tremendous undertaking.

So how can the machinery of your brain perform this effortlessly with a lump of neurons a little larger than a quarter?

Well… what if “machine” isn’t quite the right word here.

Most people tend to think of the brain as a single supercomputer, a single, rigid machine. But as Descartes pointed out hundreds of years ago, if this is the case, how is the brain capable of flexible reasoning? Why is each of our responses not exactly the same to each identical input? A machine produces a rigid output for every input. You ask me what I want to eat, I won’t always say pizza.

Let me point you in the right direction. Why does the stock market not respond identically to each identical or similar event? Because the stock market’s movement is the product of a statistical average of the millions of human beings buying and selling at any given moment. And each buy and sell is the product of practically infinite variables, events and circumstances.

What neuroscientists have begun to realize over the past half-century is that your brain isn’t a single supercomputer. You are an internet of trillions of computers, with each individual neuron being closer to a computer, possessing a significant amount of complex computational power, the extent of which is still not fully known.

That is why you have flexible reasoning. Your response to anything is the statistical average of trillions of neurons, and that response becomes more accurate with the number of neurons you add.

Many people are under the impression that AI is right around the corner, that at some point in the near future, we will create a program capable of learning everything exponentially, all with the same general awareness that we possess. I hope the last few paragraphs have really opened your eyes to what a monumental task that actually is.

We are hopelessly outmatched compared to 3 billion years of evolution.

I am a programmer myself; if you ask me, we’re not even close. We’re obviously doing something wrong if it takes us 50 data centers to crudely replicate what a tiny fraction of the brain can do with less than 20 watts of power.

But get this: it looks like this all the way down…

The atom, by itself, behaves in ways we don’t fully understand. Alone, it appears to act “randomly,” (which again is just another of saying, “in ways we don’t understand.”)

Then how does anything work? How does anything make sense if the smallest component of our existence behave in ways that make no sense to us?

Scale changes everything.

Although atoms respond “randomly” on their own, together they form a statistical average in one direction that becomes more accurate with the more atoms you add.

“Only in the co-operation of an enormously large number of atoms do statistical laws begin to operate and control the behaviour of these assemblées with an accuracy increasing as the number of atoms involved increases”

- Erwin Schrodinger, “What is Life?”

All the physical properties you take for granted, inertia, absorption, electric fields, elasticity, hardness, all of these things appear to be the result of the law of large numbers. It is the result of countless atoms behaving in their own ways, the nature of which we have no idea, but the result of which is the statistical average in a single direction.

And it will continue upwards…

I hear people say, “why do we not see large-scale evolution continuing today, and why aren’t humans evolving?”

Well, we are.

Looking at paintings of people 2000 years ago and the physical differences are fairly apparent. Look at people 500 years ago and you’ll see people who were about one foot shorter on average. And we’re getting smarter.

And that leads me to my next point. What is the internet but the creation of a new, vast nervous system? Can the economy not be seen as the creation of new organs, the continued development towards an organism even larger than ourselves?

What is our body except an economy of tiny organisms who coincidentally cooperate in the same fashion we do with each other?

Like the clownfish and the anemone, the shopkeeper to the customer, biological mutualism — to help yourself by helping others. Compassion is not entirely necessary here to satisfy the double-coincidence of wants, but as human beings we bring something to the table completely new, the ability for each individual component of this new organism to make complex moral calculations.

That last sentence may spark fantasies to those with technocratic mindsets, or those of communist inclinations. Though we are contained in this one organism, our consciousness contained in this body which may seem Borg-like to us, but it is absolutely not. Not even the human body behaves in a top-down fashion, nor could it.

There are over 200 different types of cells in the human body, with vastly different skillsets. The brain could never possess the information required to regulate all of the goings-on of the body. The goings-on of every organ are self-regulated in their own way; it is a decentralized economy of cells.

The brain is simply what the internet is to mankind.

This new organism we’re creating, if we choose to call it that, is something we may guide at an individual level, but its overall development is something alive in its own way, with its own “agency”, outside any individual or group of human beings.