14 September 2010

Alternatives to No Mind Hair

Hanson says: Gods Near or No Mind Hair

Robin Hanson speculates that U-evolution (aka fecund universes) implies that either:

  • Imprinting minds on baby universes is impossible.
  • One such mind is imprinted on our universe and probably could be found.

In this post I propose some other possibilities.

Let's calculate the right probabilities

But first I want to address his calculation.

A self-reproducing universe would have a chance p of evolving intelligence, which would then birth an expected number N of similar baby universes, such that p*N >1.

This calculation isn't calculating the right thing. It gives us an estimated number of mindful universes for a given number of U-generations. That tells us nothing. Under the U-evolution assumption, there are infinitely many universes that we might have been in.

What we need to estimate is the likelihood that a universe selected at random is mindful or mindless. We could model it with an infinitely long Markov chain. So either:

  • The MINDFUL state is persistent and the MINDLESS state is transient, so the probability of picking MINDFUL is 1.0
  • The MINDLESS state is persistent and the MINDFUL state is transient, so the probability of picking MINDFUL is 0.0
  • Both MINDLESS and MINDFUL states are more likely to transition to each other than to themselves. Then the probability of picking MINDFUL depends on the transition probabilities.
  • Or MINDLESS never transitions to MINDFUL - but we know that's not so.

Mindless because mindless black holes are useful

Would the U-children of a mindful universe all be mindful universes? Or even mostly?

Though of course I can't estimate the probability that it would with any real confidence, if absolutely forced to answer, I would say that probably not. That would imply that an advanced civilization would imprint on nearly every black hole it made. But black holes are probably very useful to them for other purposes. Much has been written on the potential uses of black holes; I won't repeat it here.

In other words, the transition probability MINDFUL -> MINDFUL is probably fairly low. So I would have to estimate the probability that we live in a mind-imprinted universe as fairly low.


Many years ago on rec.arts.sf.science I argued a similar issue with regard to the Fermi Paradox1. The issue was not the Fermi Paradox itself, but what a certain variant of the Anthropic Principle2 had to say about it.

The Anthropic Principle has often been used to answer philosophical questions about probable universes by ruling out the uninhabitable ones, thus making our own habitable universe seem more probable, even if a priori it is calculated to be improbable3.

I suggested that the question "Are we alone in the universe?" was similar to the Anthropic question, and like the Anthropic question, implied an affirmative answer. I speculated that if advanced extraterrestrials had visited us, we would not be asking whether we were alone in the universe, not even to proceed to answer the question in the negative. They would almost surely dominate us so thoroughly that we wouldn't have a separate identity to ask about. We would ask "Are humans-and-aliens alone in the universe?" and we would still answer no.

For comparison, I don't think that dogs would ask "Are dogs alone in the universe?", even if they could formulate the thought. They'd ask "Are dogs-and-people alone in the universe?" Another comparison: I don't seriously ask "Am I myself alone in the universe?". It'd be a silly question! I only seriously ask "alone?" about the largest extension of "us" that I know of, all humanity.

By this argument, it is not very surprising that we find that the largest extension of "us" to be alone in the universe. It could hardly be otherwise.

First movers and families of mindful universes

Other people speculated that, given the Anthropic Principle, we should expect to be in a universe with nearly as many observers as possible. But the argument above provides a counterargument: Almost no matter our state of development, we'll find that "we" are alone. On that interpretation, it's not that surprising that "we" should be in some intermediate stage of growth and appear likely to be the first movers in the next stage of growth.

In a similar vein, even if there are familial chains of mindful universes, perhaps it is still not surprising that we find ourselves to be potentially first movers.

Or maybe it's us

Suppose that the universe was in fact imprinted and will one day become mindful. What form should we expect the mechanics of it to take?

Of course it's very hard to say, but one answer builds on the idea that "Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny". That is, the way that an organism develops loosely repeats the way it evolved in the first place. For instance, at one point in a fetus' development, it has gills. Yes, you and I had gills. What for? They're not functional, so why do we grow them and then lose them? Because we (and all vertebrates) evolved from fish.

Why is it still like that? Because the only way that our DNA knows how to build a human is by doing the tried-and-true way that worked before, with small variations. Apparently all the variations that didn't make gills4 also omitted something important, so the gill-making stays.

It could well be that our most distant U-ancestor-inhabitants came to be in a way broadly similar to how we did: Evolving chemically from non-life in some stable situation fed by a stellar energy source. I'll call that idea Evolving-on-planets. If so, "Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny" implies that when they imprinted mindfulness on our universe, they would use evolving-on-planets. They'd make, more or less, us.

This is not to suggest that our U-ancestor-inhabitants were short-sighted like DNA is. Even if they could design other methods, they might still prefer mindfulness thru evolving-on-planets:

  • Having no feedback from the black holes they so imprinted, they must design "blindly". Maybe they would trust only the most familiar way of coming to mindfulness, the same one that spawned them.
  • Maybe they would have a sentimental attachment to evolving-on-planets.
  • Maybe evolving-on-planets is a technologically appealing way for a U-imprinter to make a universe mindful.


1 The Fermi Paradox is: Since there are so many stars in so many galaxies, and each has some probability of bearing life, where is everybody?

2 The Anthropic Principle states that we can only find ourselves in a habitable universe, because otherwise who would be there to notice its uninhabitability?

3 But beware the Boltzmann Brains answer. The Anthropic Principle cannot be used to overcome arbitrarily high adverse probabilities. If the adverse probability is too steep, it becomes more likely that an observer would find himself to be an improbable thing in a probable but inhospitable universe (A Boltzmann Brain) than a normal thing in an improbable but hospitable universe.

4 Or that reduced gill-making to less than it is now, to be very picky.

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