Our Physicists Fetish

This week I’ve been enjoying listening to the latest Massey Lectures, a series of talks by the physicists, Neil Turok. For at least a certain segment of this blogs readers,these lectures are worth checking out. You can do so by clicking on the picture above. In his talks,Turok provides an overview of the history of humankind’s quest to understand the universe in which it lives from the ancient Greeks to our own day.

He also provides a vision of what he calls “our quantum future”. Turok states in his lecture and its accompanying book “We are analog beings,living in a digital world,facing a quantum future.” I was intrigued by what this phrase meant and was lucky enough to find an pre-lecture interview of Turok by the ever excellent Paul Kennedy of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s wonderful program- Ideas.

Turok’s point is that human beings have an analog form of intelligence whereas the current generation of computers that surround us are digital. (A distinction I touched on briefly in my post Turning and the Chinese Room 2 .) Turok sees digital computers and how they process information as essentially “stupid”. Our analog intelligence is built on a much more simple “digital” DNA, and what we’ve done in moving to the digital world is in some sense an evolutionary step backward.

Quantum computers, however, which Turok finds inevitable, will be an evolutionary advance of a whole different order, a new,and yet more natural form of intelligence. I am not quite sure how to imagine this, but my intuition is to imagine an intelligence that could write every possible book,compose every possible piece of music, solve any solvable problem in mathematics.

Turok seems to think that this new kind of intelligence will lack purpose and intentionality which will be the role of our analog minds that will exists within this sphere of quantum intelligence with us playing a role that is somewhat analogous to the role our genes play to our much more complex brains. Our genes provide us with imperatives “eat, mate, acquire, rule” and our brains are tasked with the particular job of figuring out how to do this. We will give quantum intelligence its intentionality, direction, purpose, the “what” it is to do, but the new form of intelligence will provide us with the how.

All fascinating stuff!

And yet, as I was watching Kennedy’s interview with Turok I found myself getting a little annoyed. A former student of the brilliant Marshall Mcluhan,Kennedy kept trying to have a conversation about how specialization had made it impossible for people of different knowledge domains to talk to one another, that the university had become a “multiversity” with people cordoned off into strict domains. Turok didn’t really seem to want to engage in this line of conversation and muttered something about an intellectual diversity of perspectives being good, but physics had to be “in the lead”, which sparked an association for me of how philosophy used to be called the “handmaiden” of theology. And that’s when I started to wonder if we were all, myself included, under the spell of what was little more than a new secular priesthood.

Why do we turn to physicists for meaning? Why are the religious views of an eminent scientist considered major news? Why do we think physicist are somehow able to divine the human future? Perhaps its because physics has taken over fundamental questions that used to be the domain of religion and philosophy: “how did the universe begin? how will it end?” Perhaps we are contaminated by a kind of intellectual radioactivity from that generation of scientist during the Second World War that, with the bomb, gave us the capability of destroying ourselves. Perhaps we are so overawed by the technology and rise in the standard of living science has given us that we think the intelligence behind this must be able to answer the existential questions of the human condition, must have access to some sort of divine wisdom.

I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that even the most brilliant of physicists have had a horrible track record when they stepped outside their domains. Isaac Newton’s intelligence was a gift to humanity, but he was nevertheless a horrible human being. His view of the future was based on his obsession with counting down the days to armageddon by applying numerology to the Bible. Einstein thought global catastrophe was imminent unless a world government was established immediately after World War II. The only surviving genius from the generation of scientist that gave us the bomb is Freeman Dyson who thinks global warming is nothing much to worry about.

Few of the most renowned scientists have been great in other domains of human thought and expression great philosophers, religious thinkers, poets, writers,composers or painters. Perhaps the only ones that fit the bill are Davinci and Goethe. The former a great anatomist, engineer and artist, the latter both a great scientist and a great writer. Human thought and expression is multifold and no domain should have a monopoly on meaning or purpose.

Physics here isn’t in the lead so much as it provides the background for the world we live in: “what is it?” “ how did it come to be?” “how will it end?” “what is possible within it?” Given the vast differences in timescales between human life and civilization and the “life-cycle” of the universe itself, the question of our future and role within the universe is not one that physicists are anymore qualified to answer than the rest of us.

Far too often, and Turok is as guilty here as any, physicists use the same deterministic language to describe the future of civilization as they do for the universe itself. Yet there is no real way of knowing this. Perhaps intelligent civilizations follow different paths and end up at as many different destinations as are possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics and biological evolution. This to me seems a more interesting prospect than every world following the same damned deterministic course to the Omega Point or Quantum intelligence or whathaveyou.

In any case, this speculation about the human future is a parlor game that all of us are free to play, but presenting a personal preference for a particular outcome for civilization as physics isn’t science- it’s setting oneself up as a modern day arbiter between us and the gods physicists have shown us are not there.