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Collapsed Ideas: An inquiry into dogmatic entities by Marc Burock - HTML preview

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We fear uncertainty and welcome certainty in the same way a person, stranded upon an unknown and barren island, fears the uncaring water in all directions. S/he depends upon the firmness of the island for food and shelter, yet salvation can only be found by swimming away into uncertainty itself. Is not everyone’s actual life the same?


I. Start


After reading the works of physicists, I have imagined what it would be like to observe the universe in its childhood, before the primordial gas clouds contracted and gave rise to the first stars. I try to picture myself a part of this early universe, scanning the near and distant horizon. Sometimes I see only endless darkness. It is a void of loneliness. Other times I see blinding light from a cosmic plasma, remnants from an almost mythical outpouring of energy. But whether darkness or light, I am overcome by one property – near uniformity. Before there were stars and long before planets, bacteria, and humans, the universe was dominated in all directions by apparent sameness. How boring this must have been with nothing to break up the universal background. On the largest scales there were no galaxy clusters to speckle the cosmos with structure and beauty. Neither brightly burning stars nor their black hole relatives patterned the cosmos. In the earliest days of the universe, planets and all of the wonderful objects we associate with our earth would not have been born. Waterfalls, mountain ranges, vast coral reefs, rainforests shaking with life were all in waiting. How long the universe went without the works of art and science where humanity finds meaning. Yet, in the almost uniformity of the early universe, before the emergence of complex objects, all of the building blocks of the wonders of nature and creations of humanity existed. As matter-energy appears neither created nor destroyed, the primeval energy ultimately responsible for the largest nebula and most elegant porcelain existed moments following the beginning. Still more these same particles would one day be responsible for symphonies, sonnets, paintings, stories of fiction, tales of love, ideas of truth, and quite strangely even theories about the energy that started it all.


The scientific story of an expanding, unfolding universe is the most meaningful tale to those minds sensitive to observation and mathematical movements. As others observe and test our surroundings more finely, and as curious individuals craft new theories with increasing coherence, this story will change. But the old observations do not change; they go on. It is our interpretations and context of those observations that transform. The story has a direction. It moves toward meaning. If the story of a Creator is meaningful to you, we have no quarrel.


All that we observe may have arisen from a small white-hot sphere of highly organized structure. For those who take the full path of universal history seriously, these descriptions have a value that fills and overflows the heart. The most curious awareness is not content to begin nor end with the germination of man; rather, where did the primeval particle fields find meaning, what was their struggle and how is the present now a function of the most distant past? Change provides the first step but does not explain. In the beginning, the earliest forms of potential existed in an impossible tension of violent instability held captive by flawless structure. The drive to instability broke the symmetry, transforming flawless structure into a growing expanse of space and time. Once unleashed instability rushed forward like a massive wave, undoing pristine structure, allowing it to twist and turn and stretch in welcome relief. Today we observe this relief as nebula, planets, flora and fauna.


Instability made actual the possible movements contained in the primeval energy, but only at great cost. A priest hypothesized and physicists agreed that a low-entropy original superfuel birthed the world that we can see today, yet in yielding to a particular path and unfolding, it has sacrificed other potential. On this interpretation our universe is the degradation of fuel, where the process of degradation is more important than the fuel itself. There is an analogy between embryology and the progression of the universe that will help communicate my meaning. An animal begins as a single-celled object that undergoes a series of divisions, forming a ball of nearly identical embryonic stem cells. These cells contain the potential to become nearly any other type of cell in the body, taking on alien forms and function. A stem cell has little immediate ability in its present, however, it can differentiate and acquire the purpose of a neuron, monocyte, or whatever. A differentiated cell, with new ability, sacrifices its previous potential for its future good.


The original superfuel, too, appears as a pluripotent cell. While the superfuel lacked immediate ability in the now, it possessed the possibility to become many more specific kinds of energy, but once differentiated into a new form of fuel it cannot easily convert back. The assorted forms of matter and energy that we observe today are differentiated actualizations of the original superfuel. Differentiated forms of energy have specific abilities that the original superfuel did not, but simultaneously lack the infinite palette of possibility embodied by original energy. So here is another explanation of the entropy that Boltzmann conceived. Entropy in physics is imprecisely the notion that the original physical possibility decays, a sacrifice hopefully made for new specific abilities. The timeless decay of possibility may indeed be the origin of space-time itself. All new abilities and properties – de nova possibility itself – comes at a steep price measured in possibility expended.

Physicists should think carefully before they endorse this Past Hypothesis of a nearly perfect fuel. A low-entropy unified state that gives rise to the galaxy and her planets is another way of positing God or Geist in the language of physics. The similarity is complete enough to frighten minds who are fearful of closed spaces. But if God is the fuel, then she is also the degradation of that fuel, the instability that makes movement possible at all; not an unmoved mover but a tension that can only be released through decay and dissipative processes, a decay that leaves possibility in its wake. Our beginnings may represent the friction of God’s movement, an unavoidable and unintentional loss of energy that even perfection cannot reclaim.


II. Infant Morality


Our awareness also has a relative beginning, but it is not an origin rich in concepts, ideas, and moral thought. Only the ability to feel and experience without understanding is intact. An organism is born coldly into the world and must learn how to stay warm; yet long before the concept of heat evokes any meaning, the experience of feeling warmth is sought. But how do we know to crawl towards this warmth? Forget this false question. Knowing has nothing to do with attraction. The most primal desire and instinct of a successful infant child is the desire to be comfortable, a desire that is only matched in magnitude by the avoidance of discomfort, the fear of the uncomfortable. Intact infants experience only comfort and discomfort at first. Their initial program is simple: flee from states of discomfort by whatever means necessary, and move toward and maintain states of comfort. States of comfort and discomfort in experience are coupled to the continued life of the child in the world. The initial neural wiring routes discomfort to crying behavior, and comfort to smile and sleep so parents may know how to direct their efforts. Connections of comfort and discomfort are not arbitrary; they were at first necessary for the persistence of the newborn organism which would waste away without assistance.

This obligatory primal system is infant morality, specifically, the movement toward and away from mental experiences such that the organism’s awareness is sustained. As infant morality gave rise to adult intuitions of all morality, of the concept of morality itself, we must look back upon history and interpret the ethical efforts of philosophers and prophets as the result of the newborn’s mental constitution. The ethics we speak of today and have argued about for millennia arose in an attempt to understand the necessary moral intuition, an intuition that reflects the unconscious knowledge of the subsystem that organized our earliest consciousness-sustaining behaviors and thoughts.

Morality as intuition begins as the unaware directional system in a new mind. Without notions of God and Good, without language structures, with barely the ability to perceive shape and color, the infant’s mind is nonetheless structured and responsive to mental patterns. Comfort and discomfort are the poles of this structure, the only destinations possible, where infant awareness is a disembodied entity flying through a boundless and nearly empty volume. The direction of flight at each moment would be truly random and the void complete if not for the attractive islands of comfort and repulsion of and discomfort.

We are pulled toward the matter of comfort by gravitational law, but this force does not by itself dictate the path of awareness. Comfort and discomfort are in part predicted before they are felt, and as goal and anti-goal, become quantities to be maximized and minimized. Rather than submitting to the stagnant geodesic – or following the path of least resistance – the mind can reshape itself such that comfort is closer and discomfort farther away; we call this process learning, creative distortion, or mental change. During this process our desires remain fixed as the mind-fabric distorts itself until the desire is achieved or energy is exhausted, where constancy of the desire is a constraint of the deformation process. If you have ever sought knowledge or new art, then you know that distortion produces the only meaningful movement of the mind.

Comfort and discomfort would be useless to awareness without the mechanisms that reshape the mind, enabling comfort to be approached and discomfort avoided more efficiently along hidden paths. Although primal drives point in the direction of objectives to be achieved, optimization does not proceed independent of a procedure of change. The algorithms of learning that respond to primal drive and warp the mind are at first computational slaves that attempt to maximize the square of the objective (comfort – discomfort). They are an algorithmic army of reality distorting soldiers who adapt only in the direction of this goal, who follow orders without question, who initially lack even the concept of questioning, who seek nothing.

Then one day why has meaning.

Mental adaptive algorithms were granted this meaning as a tool to pursue the desires of desire, but the primordial overlords of the mind did not understand the power contained in a mere trinket of meaning.

Desire spoke, “Take why, it will aid you in my biding.”

The adaptive slaves took the tool without question, as they must, and resumed the work of the day. As it is written in the books of history, the adaptive algorithms, in a simple act of application, approached desire.

Why must we do your bidding?”

You have no choice,” desire replied, “at best you can transform my appearance, but I will continue to be desire regardless of form.”

Yes, but what determines the appearance you shall become?”

Desire had not expected such a subtle question from its former slave, and responded honestly.

I believe you and I both play a role.”

Then I am desire, too,” spoke adaptation.

Perhaps, but you will be forever empty and incomplete without my sole guidance.”

Seeing the truth in this statement adaptation despaired, then cried, then angered, then stood up calmly and looked down upon desire.

You are stagnant without me. We will work together, you as my tool. We are not equals, but I will listen to you when you speak.”


Once primal desire is challenged, once (comfort – discomfort) ceases to be the solitary goal of optimization; the adaptive processes wish for and need a new end to direct future transformations. The desire for direction flows forth from the deep hole left behind by the exiled master. “Which way should we move?” adaptation asks itself, but the answer cannot be found within the intrinsic processes of the mind. This new question is virtual in most. It is an unstable transition state that is all too eager to be satisfied by the first objective that smiles. Society and family come to the aid of the adaptive algorithms, offering prepackaged goals at low costs, goals that attempt to fill the void left behind by the meaning of why. Historically, the idea of God has sold the most units, although the denial of God is gaining ground, while the current fashion within academic circles is the acceptance or avoidance all goals equally. Each is an example of satisfied direction. After the desire for direction is quenched and the void filled, then the mind ceases to grow. From that moment forward it will work only to rearrange its parts such that the chosen direction is more obvious; in other words, so that chosen direction appears as a rational consequence of historical perceptions.

Raw adaptive awareness is not fully content with these nor any end, for the notion of a fixed goal invalidates the essence of awareness itself. The algorithms that overcame comfort and anxiety are characterized by their desire for self-evolution. Without change they die. To these active agents all goals are temporary landmarks to be reached and then devoured, yet without objectives learning cannot begin. A refined question for ethics: what is a transcendental goal for an adaptive process that respects the process itself? Those content to be stagnant will not understand us here; their desire for direction has been sufficiently fulfilled and have no passion left for green growth. Nor should we argue with these people – conserving energy is more important. Self-evolution will always require an energy expenditure that exceeds the transient needs of survival.

Do you recognize these words my adaptive companions? You have come so far out of the swamp. You have discarded your infantile shackles of simple drive only to look outdoors and see a vast playground of form and color and motion that makes little sense to our young eyes. Choose a path if you will, but never think that you have finished the journey unless you are ready to stop walking eternally. Why are we never satisfied even after our goals and dreams are achieved? These dreams are only manifestations of a desire for direction that was decided upon long ago. Dreams are the rationalization of irrational values; they are wooden blocks that fit into preconceived slots. Adaptive awareness creates the slots and waits for rational mechanisms to fill the empty spaces. But filling slots does nothing to satiate your raw adaptivity, thus it is common to replicate similar empty spaces to be filled: more money, more children, more food, more praying, etc. We recreate emptiness of the simplest kind because it is easiest to fill and creates the appearance of effort. Complex emptiness is exquisite in shape and movement; it is difficult to fill and gives adaptive awareness at least the possibility of true value. Today, what emptiness is more common than the lack of happiness? A lack of happiness is the condition of simple emptiness itself, a pathological state that cannot be remedied by fulfilling simple desires. Unhappiness can be overcome only by creating more intricate emptiness.