Alone in the Universe??

Abstract: Some predict that we are alone in the Universe, others that life is commonplace. Why so much discrepancy? It stems from a misunderstanding of complexity, and who observes, the Simple or the Complex.

Is infinity big enough?

Jean-Pierre Bibring, astrophysicist at Paris-Saclay and looking like a reincarnated Einstein, makes a discouraging or reassuring prediction, depending on whether we are fans of aliens or worried by them. The title of his book, ‘Alone in the Universe’, speaks for itself. He doesn’t expect to cross the little face of E.T. at the corner of the woods. Nor at the corner of the Dark Forest —an SF book in which Liu Cixin hypothesizes that the lack of intelligent cosmic signals is explained by the widespread fear of being spotted by an invasive galactic species; only Humanity came up with the stupid idea of the SETI program! SF fans are not alone in imagining a richly populated cosmos. Many scientists who could be called “infinitists” bet on the idea that the staggering expanse of the universe makes the existence of many foci of life almost certain, without specifying what degree of evolution they can reach.

A not-so-continuous science

Of these radically divergent opinions, which is the right one? Why do they diverge so much? Science is generally more consensual. Its problem here is the lack of clear bridges between disciplines. How are astrophysics and biology separated? By a great height of complexity. But the complex dimension is not theorized in science. Mathematics sees it unfold, consciousnesses experience its appearances, but nothing unifies these looks. Each discipline operates a reduction in its share of complexity. It arbitrarily defines its elementary processes and anchors its models in them. We know how to jump from one place to another in the complex dimension; but no one knows its deep nature of this dimension.

Bibring, like most scientists, is an ontologist. It unfolds the complexity of its fundamental physical basis. With this ascending look, from the simple to the complex, he sees an increasing diversification of things, to the point that the human being is found only after a really big multiple of possibilities. By “really big” I mean a number that is not infinite but that flirts with it. Even the vast universe is unable to accommodate such a number. Hence the conclusion of Bibring: the human who will flee the Earth will be very lonely.

Two ways to get to the Chosen One

In reverse of ontologists, idealists and theists take the realized human as a starting point in the complex dimension. They are now heading there with contemporary models rather than mystical revelations; nevertheless, real processes must imperatively achieve the observed result: the human is there, and well there. However, the chain of complexity is so rich in bifurcations that this creation could not have occurred by chance. A Hand guided it. Theists replace physical forces with Divine Intention, but the result is the same: the Universe is a showcase for the human being alone.

An oversight that changes everything

Both are mistaken about an essential property of complexity: it is not continuous. It crosses levels of stability, which are the famous foundations of the scientific disciplines just mentioned. When physical processes reach one of these levels of complexity, they do not resume their previous chaotic course; they maintain that level. A proton, from our point of view, is almost eternal. While it is a jumble of quantum interactions in perpetual agitation. An incredible number of possibilities converge in a stable element: the proton.

Level of the strongest, but not the only one. When chemistry assembles molecules, it comes to self-replicating molecules. This property is not “forgotten”. Self-replicating molecules naturally become more numerous. In turn, they build stable organizations.

The chaos is slowly being policed. The more the sequence of events progresses, the more likely it is to encounter stability. A complexity attractor is established. It serves as an anchor for a new collection of elements, relationships, contexts. The progression towards the human being is not the wandering between myriads of possibilities but a series of leaps in complexity.

Multiple realization principle

Another major feature of complexity is that different levels can establish identical relational patterns. Principle of multiple realization. This is how a scientific discipline manages to find new theories by drawing ideas from others. Complexity is not really a tree with infinite ramifications and different leaves, as Bibring thinks. The tree is rather a bizarre alien species —that then!!— whose branches merge after separating, forming new trunks at a distance from the main trunk. The sap can take different paths and eventually reach quite similar leaves.

We have confirmation, even within the human species, of these convergences. The complexity continues from biology in the mind and its conceptual stages. But this abstract complexity formed by neurons converges on shared memes, less durable than protons but still quite stable. Civilizational paths, linguistic evolutions, pass through the same crossroads among peoples who have never met.

A host of species at the heart of complexity

What to remember in brief? That the universe does indeed explore an immeasurable number of possibilities but that it gladly stops on the most stable, which replicate themselves everywhere within it. The human is neither the image of a Divine Will nor the fruit of chance. ‘Autopoietic‘ is the best adjective to describe us. And autopoiesis has certainly installed many colleagues in the universe, potentially with the same general look. Upcoming opportunity to expand our social networks? Unfortunately it is not certain that they have antennas or space engines better than ours. Let’s keep reading SF to learn more.


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