Cosmic Optimism: From the Principle of Maximum Diversity to Path Optimization
On his deathbed Einstein reportedly said, “There is only one important question—is the Universe friendly?” The history of science records growing skepticism about the benevolence of the Universe. One much quoted opinion, put forth by Steven Weinberg, a winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, states: “It is very hard to realize that this all [Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless (Weinberg  1988, 154). In Dreams of a Final Theory (1992), Weinberg talks about the unexpected reaction to that statement:
I did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point (…) Recently Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer published interviews with twenty-seven cosmologists and physicists, most of whom had been asked at the end of their interviews what they thought of that remark. With various qualifications, ten of the interviewees agreed with me and thirteen did not, but of those thirteen three disagreed because they did not see why anyone would expect the universe to have a point. The Harvard astronomer Margaret Geller asked, “… Why should it have a point? What point? It’s just a physical system, what point is there?” (…) My favorite response was that of my colleague at the University of Texas, the astronomer Gerard de Vaucouleurs. He said that he thought my remark was “nostalgic.” Indeed it was – nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God. (Weinberg 1992, 256).
After all, for most of its history the West was steeped in the idea of providential design as a key feature of its creation narratives. One of the aspects of providential design, the “Principle of the Economy of Nature” (Malebranche), rested on the conviction that what is done simply is done best. Far more than an aesthetic concept, the notion of the economy of nature led directly to the idea that nature proceeds in the simplest, most efficient way, and hence science should do likewise (Occam’s razor). “All that is superfluous displeases God and nature,” wrote Dante Alighieri about 1300. Before we turn to the Principle of Maximum Diversity, it will be worth reviewing the story of how the belief that nature never chooses a more costly path to achieve the same end result led to the development of the Principle of Least Action (or Effort), one of the mainstays of modern physics.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE CLASSICAL PRINCIPLE OF LEAST ACTION
In physics the Principle of the Economy of Nature took the form of ‘extremal’ principles (Jargodzki 1993). The 17th-century French mathematician Fermat argued that the behavior of a ray of light in both reflection and refraction could be understood by assuming that out of all possible paths that it might take to get from one point to another, the ray of light takes the path which requires the shortest time. Fermat was able to show that his Principle of Least Time implied not only Snell’s law, but also the fact that light travels more slowly in a medium with a higher index of refraction.
The next step in the development of the minimal principles was taken by the French polymath Maupertuis who in 1744 presented a paper showing that the behavior of bodies in an impact could be predicted by what came to be known as the Principle of Least Action. Nature acts in such a way as to render a certain quantity, called action, a minimum. Essentially, action was defined as the product of mass, speed, and distance, although Maupertuis’ precise definition varied somewhat from example to example, and was more an intuition than a precisely defined concept. That Maupertuis attempted to furnish a theological foundation for mechanics became clear when in 1747 he published an elaborated version of his ideas as “The laws of motion and rest deduced from a metaphysical principle.” He stated the principle in the following way: “If there occurs some change in nature, the amount of action necessary for this change must be as small as possible.” Maupertuis saw in this principle an expression of the wisdom of God, according to which everything in nature is performed with the least expenditure of effort. He wrote, “What satisfaction for the human spirit that, in contemplating these laws which contain the principle of motion and of rest for all bodies in the universe, he finds the proof of existence of Him who governs the world.”
Maupertuis’ work was immediately generalized and put on a firmer mathematical foundation by his friend Euler. It was soon found, although not by Euler, that Maupertuis was incorrect in calling his discovery a Principle of Least Action. The action, defined as the integral of mv ds and calculated along the actual path s of a particle could be a minimum, maximum, or neither. In all three cases, however, the action was stationary, which is it differed by an infinitesimal quantity of second order along virtual paths infinitesimally close to the actual path. The fundamental concept of the virtual path makes its first appearance here: a virtual path is one along which the particle may be imagined to move without satisfying Newton’s laws of motion. The action principle was later extended from the case of one particle to a system of interacting particles by Lagrange in 1760, and was given a particularly useful formulation by Hamilton in 1835.
The fact that extremal principles seemed to imply a grand teleological plan for physical systems was in tune with the optimism of the 18th century. Newton’s view that “Nature does nothing in vain,” Leibniz’ contention that ours is the best of all possible worlds, Maupertuis’ and Euler’s beliefs that the action principle demonstrated the existence of the Divine Architect, all indicated a deep belief in a grand teleological scheme underlying all physical phenomena. Indeed, it does appear that the action principle implies that a system undergoing change picks out, from all processes, that particular one for which the action is an extremum, and that to enable the process to take place, the choice must be made at the outset, in full knowledge of all that will happen in the future. Such apparently prior knowledge of the entire process can obviously be taken to have all sorts of philosophical and theological implications.
However, an opposing point of view was not long in coming. Indeed, the fact that a ray of light in following the path of least time in both reflection and refraction requires no prior knowledge of its route was already implied by Huygens in his work Traite de la Lumiere written in 1678 and published in 1690. Interpreting light as a wave motion, he enunciated what has since become known as Huygens’ Principle: every point on a primary wavefront serves as the source of spherical secondary wavelets, such that the primary wavefront at some later time is the envelope of these wavelets. The least-time propagation of light is then simply the result of interference among all the secondary wavelets produced by the primary wavefront. From the modern atomic point of view what happens as a ray of light advances through a medium is that the atoms within the material are driven by the incident disturbance, and reradiate in all directions. Generally, wavelets originating in the immediate vicinity of a stationary path will arrive at the destination point by routes that differ only slightly and will therefore arrive nearly in phase and reinforce each other. Wavelets taking other paths will arrive out of phase and tend to cancel each other. Thus energy will effectively propagate along that ray that satisfies the Principle of Least Time. It was 250 years before the Principle of Least Action was similarly utilized by Feynman in his sum-over-histories approach to quantum field theory.
Most natural philosophers found arguments of this sort convincing, and after Maupertuis and Euler it became unfashionable to draw any teleological conclusions from the laws of physics. For example, neither Lagrange nor Hamilton, who did so much to extend the usefulness of the action principle, assigned any metaphysical significance to it. Concurrently, the eighteenth- century optimism coming in the wake of the triumph of Newtonian mechanics, but still grounded in the idea of providential design that claimed to draw its inspiration from natural theology, was undermined by a number of other developments including the devastating Lisbon earthquake of October 1, 1755 and the horrors of the Seven Years War which began the year after the Lisbon earthquake.
Ironically, as the teleological argument appeared to lose its power in physics in the late 1700s, in biology the period before Darwin was the heyday of teleological thinking. Paley’s Natural Theology (1801) and The Bridgewater Treatises (1833), commissioned by the Eighth Earl of Bridgewater, were synonymous with the gospel according to anthropocentric design. Whatever one’s attitude toward the Design Argument, it must be admitted, however, that teleological thinking was, as in physics, quite fruitful in biology as well, in serving to focus the attention of naturalists upon a set of remarkable adapted features. But ultimately the vast collection of observational evidence that resulted, and also Darwin’s introduction of the concept of natural selection, finally in the 1860s displaced the anthropocentric design arguments from biology as well.
THE PRINCIPLE OF PLENITUDE AND ITS CONTEMPORARY GUISES
Another principle that came to exert a deep influence on the emergence of modern science, termed the Principle of Plenitude by the historian A. O. Lovejoy, states that “… no genuine potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled, [and] that the extent and abundance of creation must be as great as the possibility of existence, and commensurate with the productive capacity of a ‘perfect’ and inexhaustible Source” (Lovejoy 1936, 52). The principle, almost universally accepted until well into the nineteenth century, was the basis of pre-evolutionary biology with the living world pictured as a ‘Great Chain of Being’: monocellular organisms at the bottom of the chain, humankind somewhere in the middle, the angels above, and God at the top. On the surface, the Principle of Least Action and the Principle of Plenitude appear to contradict each other: one postulates simplicity, the other extravagance of being. However, it could be argued that the Principle of Least Action through its applications in quantum field theory resulted in what I would term the Principle of Virtual Plenitude, exemplified in Feynman’s sum-over-histories approach to field theory. Similarly, the Principle of Plenitude has become resurrected in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, in the idea of the multiverse, in Freeman Dyson’s Principle of Maximum Diversity, and in the idea of the landscape in string theories. It seems that a proliferation of being has become an inescapable feature of modern physics and cosmology. Among the concepts just enumerated we shall briefly examine those that are relevant to this paper.
While still a graduate student at Princeton, Feynman had developed with John Wheeler, his thesis advisor, a theory of classical electrodynamics involving direct action at a distance between charged particles without the intermediary of any field. The problem was how to translate it into quantum language. In 1941, inspired by a 1933 paper by Dirac exploring the quantum analog of the classical Principle of Least (or, more precisely, stationary) Action, Feynman was able to amplify Dirac’s basic insight into a full-fledged method of “sum over histories” or “path integration.” In Feynman’s approach a probability amplitude, in general a complex number, is associated with a particle’s path, that is, each possible way the particle can go from one point to another in spacetime, even one that violates the laws of relativistic mechanics. The latter possibility is termed a virtual process, analogous to the virtual paths in the classical Principle of Least Action. The probability of an event which can happen in a number of different ways, say a photon exchanged between two electrons is, then, the absolute square of a sum of the amplitudes, one for each alternative path. The amplitude is simply e to the i/h times the action for a path, where the action is the time integral of the so-called Lagrangian function. This prescription reproduces all of standard quantum theory. James Gleick in his biography of Feynman writes, “Even to physicists well accustomed to theoretical constructions with awkward philosophical implications, Feynman’s summings of paths – path integrals – seemed bizarre. They conjured a universe where no potential goes uncounted; where nothing is latent, everything alive; where every possibility makes itself felt in the outcome” (Gleick 1992, 249). This is no exaggeration: virtual photons exchanged by electrons, for instance, have an amplitude to go faster or slower than the conventional speed of light. This phenomenon of virtual plenitude is sometimes designated the Principle of Quantum Anarchy: what is not expressly prohibited is allowed to happen. Feynman’s sum-over-histories vision of nature, although initially greeted with a degree of skepticism, began to show increasing power in the succeeding decades, particularly in areas where other methods failed, and today has become an essential tool in quantum field theory and cosmology.
For a recent re-interpretation of the Principle of Plenitude, let us now turn to one of the world’s greatest theoretical physicists, Freeman Dyson who in Infinite in All Directions (1989) asks the questions that Job asked, “Why do we suffer? Why is the world so unjust? What is the purpose of pain and tragedy? (…) My answers are based on a hypothesis which is an extension both of the Anthropic Principle and of the argument from design. The hypothesis is that the universe is constructed according to a principle of maximum diversity. The principle of maximum diversity operates both at the physical and at the mental level. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy”. (298) This is certainly a more hopeful take on the question of natural evil than the view promulgated by Weinberg but perhaps we would be asking too much of physics in expecting more. Before we turn to the next level of organizational complexity, namely that addressed by biology, let us look at the final example of plenitude in modern physics, in fact an example that makes physics appear eerily similar to biology. We are referring to the eleven- dimensional version of string theories, dubbed M-theory.
What is perplexing about M-theory is that it allows a vast landscape of possible vibration modes of superstrings, only a tiny fraction of which could conceivably correspond to our world, the world of subatomic particles described by the Standard Model of particle physics. In the words of University of California theoretical physicist Steve Giddings, “No longer can we follow the dream of discovering the unique equations that predict everything we see, and writing them on a single page. Predicting the constants of nature becomes a messy environ- mental problem. It has the complications of biology.” (quoted in Gardner 2007, 120). The clues along the trail then appear to lead us in the direction of biology so this will be the next stop on our journey.
BATTLE OF THE METAPHORS: PHYSICS VS. BIOLOGY
Francis Crick is known to complain that biology has no elegance. Holmes Rolston adds that “all the good is in physics and the bad in biology” (qtd in Drees 2003, 69). Charles Darwin was deeply distressed by this dichotomy; “[the evolutionary process] is clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel” (quoted in Drees 2003, 79). Struggle for existence deepens through time into suffering. Holmes Rolston, writes, “In chemistry, physics, astronomy, geomorphology, meteorology nothing suffers; in botany life is stressed, but only in zoology does pain emerge. Is not this the evolution of increasing disvalue? A more adequate answer is that struggle is the dark side of creativity” (79). An evolving population typically climbs uphill in the fitness landscape (here is that word again!) that represents the various possibilities for survival until a local optimum is reached. There it remains, unless a rare mutation opens a path to a new, higher fitness peak. In the words of Brian Goodwin, “The evolutionary metaphor of organisms constantly struggling up the slopes of fitness landscapes (…), despite its excessively Calvinist work-ethic image, represents organisms as agents that actively engage in the process of evolution. On the other hand, the physical notion of doing what comes naturally by seeking the path of least effort (…) suggests a different kind of agency, one that tends to harmonize its actions with the environment and go with the flow. Despite these differences, both the biological and physical metaphors of process have been forced into the same straitjacket of mechanical causation” (Goodwin 2001, 172). Here I believe is the crux of the matter: We need a more satisfactory theory of causation, one that no longer sees nature as a mechanistic universe: a world of inert things that get pushed and pulled by external forces. It is well known that quantum mechanics reveals a world of action that is anything but mechanical. Bell’s Theorem and Aspect’s experiment imply a deep non-local connectedness among particles. Particles are not acted on by forces external to themselves, they are themselves aspects of a single process! Thus isolating elements for examination can only be done in a limited way because in some sense the universe appears to be one seamless whole. We shall return to this point later, in our discussion of synchronicity. We couldn’t leave biology, however, without extracting a more positive lesson.
In his essay “Naturalizing and Systematizing Evil,” Holmes Rolston points out how “the life process is drifting through an information search, locking onto discoveries. With such a conclusion we pass from a law-like world into a historical world (…) In physics and chemistry one seeks laws and initial conditions with which one can predict the future. But in biology any such laws become only regularities, subject to surprises. Something is increasingly learned [my emphasis] across evolutionary history: how to make more kinds and more complex kinds. This may be a truth about natural history, even if Neodarwinism is incompetent to say much about how this happens” (qtd in Drees 2003, 72). In this context the story of terrestrial life can be interpreted as a triumph of the learning process because the land environment is so challenging. Holmes Rolston writes, “Reptiles can cope in a broader spectrum of humidity conditions than amphibians. Mammals can cope in a broader spectrum of temperature conditions than reptiles. Genetic and enzymatic control is surpassed by neural networks and brains; there are increases in sentient capacity, locomotion, acquired learning, communication, language acquisition, and in manipulation” (qtd in Drees 2003, 75). One interpretation might be that progress has occurred in the living world as life has learned how to transcend the limitations of physicality. The claim that the basic process in the universe involves learning how to transcend the limitations of inanimate matter is not exactly new. It was already presaged, for example, by Arthur M. Young, the inventor of the Bell helicopter and an integral thinker, in his book The Reflexive Universe: Evolution of Consciousness (1976). More specifically, Young portrays the manifest universe as part of a dynamic learning process involving a “forward” thrust toward a transcendent goal. This, in fact, suggests a way in which we can wrest a more optimistic scenario from this ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel’ process, to use Darwin’s famous phrase. Of course, those who see nature primarily as “red in tooth and claw,” may not find much solace in the scenarios to which we now turn.
GLOBAL ATTEMPTS AT RESOLVING THE PROBLEM OF NATURAL EVIL
Since “all the good is in physics and the bad in biology,” to, again, use the phrase from Holmes Rolston’s essay, let us again turn to physics to enlarge our frame of reference, this time to encompass the whole universe. That physics is increasingly in competition with theology in dealing with ultimate issues becomes obvious when we look at some recent titles. Books such as Paul Davies’ The Mind of God (1993), Frank J. Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality (1997) and his latest, The Physics of Christianity (2007), definitely constitute a trend. Both physics and theology employ the standard move of imbedding “this tale of sound and fury, (seemingly) signifying nothing” within an optimistic cosmic scheme, natural or supernatural, that brings redemption and meaning to our earthly suffering. Physics has been advancing in this direction for several centuries now. As matter was the basic concept in mechanistic physics and energy in modern physics, so information is becoming the cry of postmodern physics. Is it so far-fetched, therefore, to presume that the physical Universe will, in the not too distant future, be regarded as virtual and dematerialized, indeed as a mental projection of some vast collective consciousness? Indeed, there is no shortage of speculative ideas in this area: Edward Fredkin and Digital Physics, Frank J. Tipler and his re- interpretation of Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, Stephen Wolfram and the Software of Everything, Ray Kurzweil and his Singularity, and Seth Lloyd and the Cosmos as a Quantum Computer, just to mention a few representative proposals. A grand synthesis of these ideas with the anthropic cosmological principle and Lee Smolin’s cosmological Darwinism is sketched by the complexity theorist James Gardner in his latest book The Intelligent Universe (2007), and dubbed the Selfish Biocosm Hypothesis. In Gardner’s words, “the universe is coming to life, purposely and in accordance with a finely tuned cosmic code that is the precise functional equivalent of DNA in the terrestrial biosphere. The universe, under this interpretation, is a kind of vast emerging organism in the process of self-assembly and self-animation, endowed with the capacity to not only replicate itself, but also to transmit heritable traits” (Gardner 2007, 157). Furthermore, “Under the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis, the immense saga of biological evolution on Earth is a minor subroutine [my emphasis] in the inconceivably lengthy process through which the universe becomes increasingly pervaded with ever intelligent life. Thus, the hypothesis does not challenge Darwinism, but seeks to place it in a cosmic context in which life and intelligence play a central role in the process of cosmogenesis” (Gardner 2007, 161). Gardner believes that “life and intelligence have not emerged in a series of random accidents but are essentially hardwired into the laws of physics,” (Gardner 2007, 161).
The latter is a restatement of the Strong Anthropic Principle, first articulated by Brandon Carter in Poland at the 1973 symposium honoring Copernicus’s 500th birthday. One is astonished how in a matter of only a few decades the scientists, including such former skeptics as the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, went from regarding the universe as horrifyingly hostile and violent to viewing it as improbably bio-friendly. Kansas State University mathematician Louis Crane puts it this way, “The world around us was created by something like us, and is structured, as if deliberately, to produce us and nurture us. We have a larger purpose which goes beyond ourselves, that of sustaining and recreating the universe” (quoted in Gardner 2007, 216). One is reminded of a sentence from the opening page of The Whole Earth Catalog (1969): “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Four decades later voices like these have become surprisingly common. To illustrate, the computer guru Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) includes this striking passage: “The laws of physics are not repealed by intelligence, but they effectively evaporate in its presence. So will the Universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, (…) the fate of the Universe is a decision [my emphasis] yet to be made, one, which we will intelligently consider when the time is right” (quoted in Gardner 2007, 233).
Evaluating such grandiose claims is pointless for at present they are little more than extra-vagant speculation. Cosmological Darwinism, specifically, will probably remain untestable into the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the idea that the laws of nature can change, reminiscent of Charles Peirce’s notion of the laws as habits that successively emerge in the history of the universe, is something that we shall return to later.
Our discussion so far focused on attempts to redeem biological evolution by placing it within a cosmic scheme that could be interpreted as more optimistic. Another kind of imbedding was already discussed above in the context of the Principle of Plenitude. We are speaking of the recent attempts to situate quantum mechanics and general relativity within a broader framework provided by string theories, more precisely by M-theory. The latter has come under increasing criticism because of its failure to generate any falsifiable predictions or to even come up with a unique solution corresponding to our bio-friendly universe. Not much seems to have changed since the 1980s when Feynman was quoted as saying that string theorists don’t make predictions, they make excuses. Could it be, though, that the disturbing lack of predictability in parts of modern physics is steering us toward a deeper truth, namely that physics, when applied to cosmology, acquires an element of narrative and becomes a historical science? That a higher value is found “in story, not law, in history, not repeatability” (Holmes Rolston quoted in Drees 2003, 72)? Or, to quote Muriel Rukeyser, perhaps “The Universe is made of stories, not atoms.” If story trumps law, then the future need not be like the past and instead can bring freedom from physical limitations as a reflection of divine freedom and creativity. However, as the naturalistic approaches are at this stage too speculative, and therefore fail to provide a satisfactory resolution of the problem of natural evil, we shall next consider several new models of divine action.
NEW APPROACHES TO DIVINE ACTION
Nicholas Saundersin his recent magisterial survey Divine Action and Modern Science (2002) reaches the conclusion that we are still far from a satisfactory account of how God might act in a manner that is consonant with modern science. “In fact,” Saunders writes, “it is no real exaggeration to state that contemporary theology is in crisis.” [italics in the original] In my opinion, this assessment is needlessly pessimistic. What we are witnessing today is a convergence of factors – including three that are either conspicuous by their absence in the science and theology literature or mentioned but not developed – that could enable us to make a real advance. These include
(I) The Panentheistic Turn in Modern Theology (Clayton and Peacocke (eds.) 2004) (or, in Philip Clayton’s phrase, the “panentheistic analogy” (Clayton 1997)).
Panentheism, the doctrine that the world is (in some sense) in God although God’s reality is not exhausted by the world, has over the last few decades gained major advocates in the field (e.g., Charles Hartshorne, Joseph Bracken, Arthur Peacocke, Philip Clayton). Historically, the turn toward panentheism has resulted partly from a fundamental shift in ontology, from a “substance ontology,” to a “relational ontology.” As Michael Brierley explains, “Classical theism tended to conceive of God and the world as substances, which would always make it difficult to relate the two, since substances are essentially spatial and cannot overlap. Panentheism is the result of conceiving “being” in terms of relationship or relatedness”. (Clayton and Peacocke (eds.) 2004, 13). Today many believe that panentheism provides the clearest scientifically-compatible theory of God’s action in the world.
(II) The Re-Emergence of Emergence (Philip Clayton and Paul Davies (eds.) 2006)
Reductionism, for all its successes in the physical sciences, tends to promote the view of reality as consisting of isolated and disconnected components. However, even in a relatively simple situation at the quantum level, Bell’s theorem already shows that two subatomic particles exhibit a significantly greater degree of correlation than allowed by classical physics, as if they were engaging in a conspiracy to cooperate. The degree of cooperation is even greater in superconductive materials where at low temperatures the billions of electrons that constitute the current move in a highly correlated and organized pattern (Jargodzki 2006).
If reductionism is associated with the view that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, as is true for linear systems, emergent and cooperative phenomena display synergy, i.e., for them the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as is characteristic of nonlinear systems. Much of nature is not linear—including most of what is really interesting in the world. Examples include emergent structures (protons, neutrons, nuclei, atoms, solitons, instantons, black holes, tornadoes, schools of fish, networks, cities), chaos (the butterfly effect, strange attractors, turbulence), synchronization (Huygens’ pendulum clocks, flashing of Indonesian fireflies, circadian rhythms), and many others. Nonlinear equations are notoriously difficult to solve by hand which goes a long way toward explaining why for over 300 years reductionism was the only game in town. Progress in solving nonlinear equations has finally come in the last 50 years with the advent of computers (Scott 2003). The growing sense that reductionism has reached the stage of diminishing returns, particularly in physics, is aided by the postmodern skepticism toward grand metanarratives, and the consequent popularity of pluralism. According to its advocates, no unified account of reality seems possible or even desirable. Any attempt at a unified picture of reality today almost smacks of totalitarian tendencies. This trend goes hand in hand with the movement away from classical theism and toward panentheism. Indeed, panentheism is more emphatic in its portrayal of immanent divinity as a source of novelty and creativity, features that are also displayed by emergent phenomena.
Three developments that have received very little attention in the science and theology literature:
(III) The Science of Networks (Barabasi 2002)
Networks are an important example of emergent structures. Examples include social networks of friends, the web’s six billion websites, biological food chain, and neural networks. Network theory, invented by Euler in the 1780s, is now developing at a dizzying pace. The field received a jump start in the late 1960s when Milgram performed his famous six-degrees-of-separation experiment. In fact, he discovered that six is the average number of links necessary to connect two individuals in the United States. Some people are so well connected they can reach someone far away with only three links. Others require up to a hundred links to reach someone else.
“Fitness” in networks refers to the number of links connected to a node, thus reflecting its ability to compete for links or in the case of a website its relative potential to lure visitors. Note the similarity to the way process panentheism speaks of God as “luring” the creation toward goals that God intends. This is one of several reasons why, in my opinion, the language of network theory, with certain modifications, could provide a perfect metaphor for God’s action in the world. Contrary to Pannenberg and Torrance who speak of using the field concept to make the presence of God in every single phenomenon intelligible, to a physicist an incoherent concept at best, it seems preferable to speak of God as having only one degree of separation from every node in the web of reality, i.e., effectively no separation.
Complex networks can undergo phase transitions. When the tipping point is reached all the nodes start acting as a single entity. In some cases this is equivalent to Bose-Einstein condensation. In theology one could think of this phenomenon as the metaphor of the union with God in the absence of ego defenses or, as I like to call it, the Whiteheadian remnant of the union with God (Jargodzki 2006, 9). In many ways what might lead one to think of networks as a viable framework for theology was a remarkable model developed by Doug Seeley and Michael Baker, associated with the South Australia Institute of Technology (Herbert 1993, 282). In their version of the history of the universe, sentient beings renounce the illusion of separateness, maintained by ego defenses, and gradually reconnect with others. “The laws of physics, in this view, consist of certain persistent “patterns of ignorance” (…) the act of reconnection resembles a model of gas atoms condensing into a liquid or the progressive construction of a telephone network” (Herbert 1993, 283). This bears some resemblance to the view advocated by Wolfhart Pannenberg and John Polkinghorne (and apparently also presupposed by George Ellis and Nancey Murphy in On the Moral Nature of the Universe) in which “miracles are not defined as breaks in the natural order but rather as the first appearances of the new type of regularity that will characterize the world at future times” (Clayton 1997, 205). I believe extraordinary events will happen in proportion to the amount of connectivity (non-separation) present, similar to phase transitions in complex networks, rather than as violations of the laws of nature.
In many ways the developments in the physics of networks have paralleled the attempts by Stuart Kauffman to recast random variation and natural selection, bedrock concepts in Darwinism, as explorations of the adjacent possible (Kauffman 2000). In her excellent review, Joyce M. Cuff states how “[the] focus has shifted from the physical elements of reality to their interrelationships. Connections are critical; cooperation is everywhere (…) Connections are stable relationships that produce functional patterned networks. Connections also allow for directional flow – of energy, of matter, of information. Networks allow for feedback loops, coupled flow, and emergence of new properties” (Cuff 2007).
(IV) Return of Idealism
Whether in the form of John Wheeler’s “It from Bit” proposal or any view that portrays the universe as a simulation or virtual reality, idealism is staging a major comeback. Within this context I’d like to mention an idea that as yet has not received much attention in the literature, proposed by Donald D. Hoffman, professor of cognitive science, philosophy, and computer science at the University of California, Irvine. In Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See (1998), he presents compelling evidence that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Specifically, in his view, the multisensory world of our daily experience is a “species-specific user interface between ourselves and a realm far more complex, whose essential character is conscious.” (Brockman (ed.) 2006, 91). Hoffman’s solution of the mind-body problem would force us to abandon critical realism, and so will probably be seen by most as too extreme. It is mentioned here primarily to show the extreme range of the debate.
(V) Transpersonal Psychology
Transpersonal psychology attempts to combine the findings of modern psychology with insights from the world’s contemplative traditions, both East and West. From the 1970s to the present the field has developed through the works of such authors as Charles Tart, Stanislav Grof, Frances Vaughan, Roger Walsh, Michael Washburn, and especially Ken Wilber – the most translated American philosopher living today. To the extent that one can define spirituality as the empirical core of religion, as Walsh does in his Essential Spirituality (1999), spirituality is to religion what basic research is to science, and transpersonal psychology could then provide the theoretical underpinnings of spirituality. The central concept in transpersonal psychology is the ego, understood here as the symbol of separation and fear rather than in its Freudian sense. The ego is what separates us from the supportive web of life. Not surprisingly, the ego self believes that life is a struggle against the material reality seen as inert and resistant to our effort. The ego defenses maintain separation and obstruct the flow of divine guidance – similar to Polkinghorne’s concept of – active information – that could help us become synchronized with the deeper rhythms of reality, resulting in a state of grace in which the material reality is seen as abundant and supportive. In this sense the Principle of Least Effort on the physical level may be seen as what remains, i.e., as the Whiteheadian remnant, of the absence of struggle that one hopes might be experienced in a life full of grace. With the advances in communication and transportation humanity is learning how to manifest its desires faster and with less effort. The Internet with its instant access to music, videos, books, and, in the near future, movies is speeding up this process immeasurably. New inventions like 3-D printers will allow us to materialize objects instantaneously practically out of thin air. If we measure time in terms of the delay between an awareness of a need and its satisfaction in the world of physicality, then in many ways time will effectively stop for us once our desires are manifested with little effort and in practically no time! This, of course, is a rather futuristic claim!
SYNCHRONICITY AND PATH OPTIMIZATION
Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity as an acausal connecting principle (Aziz 1990) was already prefigured in the Pauli Exclusion Principle formulated by Wolfgang Pauli in 1925. In stating that no two electrons in an atom can have the same four quantum numbers, the Exclusion Principle takes us beyond the mechanistic causality of pushes and pulls into the realm where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and where electrons show in their togetherness laws of behavior different from the laws that govern them in isolation. The concept of synchronicity which Jung developed in many conversations with Pauli2 could be described as a higher-level equivalent of the Exclusion Principle, which is a concept lifted from the level of physics to the level of psychology. In this sense the Exclusion Principle could be viewed as a Whiteheadian remnant of the concept of synchronicity. Thus synchronicity is in a sense an acausal synchronization between the inner mental world and the outer physical world. Synchronistic events share a number of characteristics (Aziz 66):
1. The specific intrapsychic state of the subject includes the unconscious content which, in accordance with the compensatory needs of the conscious orientation, enters consciousness;
2. An objective event corresponds with this intrapsychic state: the objective event is a compensatory equivalent to the unconscious compensatory content;
3. Even though the intrapsychic state and the objective event may be synchronous according to clock time and spatially near to each other, the objective event may, contrary to this, be distant in time and/or space in relation to the intrapsychic state;
4. The intrapsychic state and the objective event are not causally related to each other;
5. The synchronistic event is meaningful
a. The intrapsychic state and the objective event contain meaningful parallels
b. There is a numinous charge associated with the synchronistic experience
c. The synchronistic event touches the archetypal level of meaning
Thus synchronistic events may be regarded as cooperative phenomena that touch the archetypal level of reality. Specifically, the notion of a spiritual journey where the goal is the transcendence of the ego may be studied using the archetypal framework developed by Joseph Campbell in his analysis of the hero’s journey. Something has to change our habitual rhythms and take us out of our comfort zone, out of the ordinary world. The hero receives a call to adventure, is encouraged by a mentor, crosses the threshold into the “fairy-tale world, encounters tests, allies, and enemies, endures an ordeal, experiences a “resurrection,” and returns with a treasure to benefit the ordinary world. Similarly, on the spiritual journey a person receives a spiritual call, begins systematic spiritual practice whether in the form of contemplative prayer or meditation, endures the Dark Night of the Soul, and, if everything goes well, emerges in a state of non-dual consciousness.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that as the meditative state deepens, synchronistic events occur more frequently. In The Global Brain (1983), Peter Russell observes, “Many people who practice meditation (…) have found that the deeper and clearer their meditations, the more they experience curious patterns of coincidences. This tends to be particularly so after extended meditation retreats on returning to regular activity, each day can seem like a continual train of the most unlikely, and most supportive, coincidences (Russell 214). Evidently, prayer can have a similar effect. The British archbishop William Temple once commented, “When I pray, coincidences start to happen. When I don’t pray, they don’t happen (quoted in Combs and Holland 1990, 58).
Hence synchronistic events could be viewed as offering evidence that ego defenses are being lifted, and as the ego is transcended the psyche becomes more aligned with God. God, viewed here as the (Ground of) Being in unity and relationship with everything, acts as a lure guiding us toward the view of reality as marked by a cosmic generosity and lavish in its care, so we can drop our defenses and gradually reconnect with the supportive web of life, thus establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, to use the Christian metaphor. According to this non-interventionist proposal, even if the overall cosmic optimality is difficult to discern, we can always find an optimal path through life on which we are in sync with the cosmic flow of events (Jargodzki 1997).
Employing the network terminology, we can say that God acts as the facilitator of connectivity, leading to greater synchronization, coherence, and amplification as the changes cascade and multiply throughout the web of relationships.
1. An empirically useful definition of spirituality combines the wisdom of the West with the wisdom of the East. It contains four prescriptive statements: 1. Quiet the mind, i.e., quiet the voice of the ego which is characterized by fear, anxiety, and blame-seeking (emphasized in Buddhism and Yoga); 2. Open the heart or change the heart by eliminating the bitterness blocking the expression of agape (emphasized in the gospels as the metanoia and usually mistranslated as repentance); 3. Unite the mind with the heart so all intrapsychic divisions are healed; 4. Transform your relationships, relationships understood here in the broadest sense of the word so one lives in harmony with the universe.
2. Carl Jung referred to Arthur Schopenhauer as the “godfather” of his ideas about synchronicity. In 1850, Schopenhauer wrote an essay, “On the Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual,” in which he examined the apparent pre-established harmony that seems to connect the chains of causality that establish the life paths of two or more individuals.
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