Monday, January 13, 2014

A Punctuated Participatory Anthropic Hypothesis

My dearest far-left friend is holding an anti-Creationist rant on her Facebook page today, so I will take the bait and post my current working hypothesis on human origins. I know I'm just trolling for trolls, but life is too short to lurk. I will begin with my two reasons for questioning the conventional Darwinian wisdom.

The evidence of the occult

First, I am persuaded by the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. If that happened, then there is more to this universe than mere time, space, matter, and energy. I'm not going to try to persuade today's readers that I am right, but I will note that the "methodological materialists" who refuse to even consider the possibility of any other entities necessarily rule out all testimony about occult or supernatural events.

If we decide in advance that ghost stories are necessarily false, then we don't need to question whether materialism explains everything. If we are willing to listen to stories about hauntings and other immaterial events, however, then we do need to question mere materialism.  Since I believe the story about the resurrection of Jesus, I am open to events that can't be explained by physics. When I listen to the stories from people throughout time and around the world, I find as much reason to believe the "spiritualists" as I do to believe the "materialists."

The mathematical problem

Second, I used to believe that Darwinian evolution was an elegant hypothesis that explained the evidence--until I did the math. I won't bore you with calculations here, but I'll state the issue: evolution can't begin until there is something that is capable of both (a) replication and (b) mutation. John von Neumann (who invented the modern computer) did a series of lectures at Harvard in the 1950s which treated life as a form of information, and he computed the theoretical minimum length of "cellular automata" that could reproduce after a mutation. He came up with a minimum "program" of 1400 bits. 

If you accept von Neumann's number and can do math involving exponents, you will conclude, as I did, that either (a) there is a single universe and the existence of life is proof of the existence of God, or (b) this is just one of an infinite number of universes and life is a mathematical necessity (since an infinite number of chances will give you every possible outcome, including this one).

My current working hypothesis of origins

My own hypothesis combines the evidence of immaterial activity with the possibility of multiple universes. It is a variation of a hypothesis of John Wheeler (who coined the term "black hole"), which he called the "participatory anthropic principle." 

The participatory anthropic principle starts with the principle of quantum physics that holds that any system of particles is a cloud of overlapping possibilities until that system is "observed," at which point it "collapses" into an actual state. Wheeler asked, "what happens in a universe that has no observers?" It would seem that the entire universe would be a system of particles in a cloud of overlapping possibilities until an "observer" emerged to "collapse" it all. Wheeler suggested that the "observer' was one of the possibilities, and that the observer's own observation was the reason the universe has an actual state (with an observer in it) rather than remaining as a quantum cloud.

Wheeler's suggestion was brilliant, but it isn't "science." Science consists of questions that can be answered through some experimental method, not "just-so stories" that are necessarily untestable, no matter how well-supported they may as a matter of theory..

The hypothesis that I am about to advance pushes Wheeler's hunch a bit further in order to make it testable. Note--I am not arguing that my hypothesis is better than Wheeler's hunch, just that my hypothesis is "scientific" (because it can be tested) whereas Wheeler's is not. Ironically, my "scientific" hypothesis comes directly from the text of Genesis 1.

Genesis does not tell us that humankind popped into being in a single participatory leap from the Big Bang. It spells out six steps, with man as the last. This led me to question Wheeler's hunch--if the universe is a vast quantum computer "programmed" to produce an "observer," why should that "observer" do anything more than flare into existence for one moment of consciousness and then vanish just as quickly? A cloud of perfectly arranged ions in space might function as a neural network for one instant--and the universe would "collapse" into the kind of universe that has ion clouds. But the next moment, the ions would disperse and we would be left with an "unobserved" system for a long time.

I call this the "bowl of petunias" problem, named after the scene in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" where the infinite improbability drive creates a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias miles above the surface of a planet. 
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.
As you can see, my hypothesis explains exactly why the bowl of petunias thought this--in a participatory anthropic universe, the existence of consciousness does not imply its continuation. "I think, therefore I am--briefly!"

My hypothesis is that the six days of Genesis 1 refer to six "observer-driven" events. The first two involve the emergence of what the Bible calls "angels" and "demons." I don't expect anyone reading this to buy into that, but I do note that the existence of immaterial intelligences would explain why anybody should bother with anything the book of Genesis says. If there are intelligent aliens (of any sort) and if they have ever communicated with humans, that communication is worth examining. My proposal  explains where the aliens came from and how they have communicated with us--but this part is not a "scientific" hypothesis because there is no way to test it.

The scientific part kicks in with the third through sixth days of Genesis, which deal with biological life. According to my hypothesis, plant life emerged on some other planet on Day Three--and these plants were "observers." Imagine a sentient pomegranate on a distant planet, drinking in sunshine and pondering the meaning of life. It's a peaceful scene, although an intelligent fruit isn't able to "observe" much beyond its own consciousness, and therefore has little effect on the overall unfolding of the quantum cloud.

Pollen grains are fascinating items--I will spare my readers any discussion of the "alternation of generations" or the interstellar potential of such genetic carriers. It is enough to suggest that pollen grains could seed an entire galaxy with life in a version of panspermia. A single haploid pollen grain falling into a lifeless ocean might colonize an entire planet. If two haploid units came together into the full diploid form, the sentient fruit would cause the system to collapse into a form capable of supporting multicellular life, but would not otherwise affect its environment.

In Genesis, Day Four describes the appearance of the sun and moon, with stars for "signs and seasons." In my hypothesis, this event occurred during the Cambrian explosion when a squid-like creature looked up through its remarkable eye and saw the skies. Octopi are fantastically intelligent--but have tragically short life-spans.  For one reason or another, the first octopus observer was also the last--and since then, octopi have been bait for faster predators.

Day Five of Genesis says the oceans swarmed with fish and the skies with birds. Parrots are as intelligent, in their way, as any other animal. An African Grey  parrot named Alex was able to count, do simple arithmetic, and use words in context. In my hypothesis, birds arose before the therapsid dinosaurs, which are their simple-minded, warm-blooded descendants.

On Day Six, humans and other land animals arose. I picture a set of footsteps across a sandy beach of the Black Sea punctuated by an instant in which a hominid became a human. I'll skip the scene where a human and a "serpent" and a fruit tree come together--that's religion, or history, or both--in order to explain why all this is science.

Testing the Punctuated Participatory Anthropic Hypothesis

Science can be tested by experimental means. Other ideas, no matter how closely associated they may be with scientific knowledge, are philosophy (or theology), not science. Thus, the claim that the universe consists exclusively of space, time, matter, and energy is a philosophical statement, not a scientific statement--because it cannot be put to a scientific test.

By contrast, the claim that birds were created after squids but before humans in a punctuated participatory anthropic fashion is testable. Observer-driven evolution (ODE) has a distinct pattern of development which is quite different from neo-Darwinian evolution (NDE). ODE is characterized by a statistically-impossible accumulation of changes leading to intelligence, with "adaptive radiation" outwards from the main line of evolutionary advance. It "looks" like an umbrella, with a handle going "up" and species all coming "down" from the most advanced line. NDE is characterized by  broad horizontal diversity with agonizingly slow upward creep--visually, a very wide upside-down pyramid.

In the past, there wasn't much scientists could do to tell whether living species better fit the umbrella or upside-down pyramid model, but DNA sequencing now enables us to see which model is the better fit. Michael Denton's 1985 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, did not have the punctuated participatory anthropic hypothesis to guide his work, but he notes a number of anomalies that led him to question the neo-Darwinian model. I submit that the evidence Denton noted supports the punctuated participatory anthropic model and suggests further study along those lines.


Genetic comparison of mammalian, avian, and cephalopod fossils and DNA could support or undermine these fundamentally different models of evolution. If the evidence does suggest that birds came first and that octopus eyes are genetically related (not merely functionally similar) to mammalian eyes, then perhaps we should reexamine human stories of occult events. It may turn out that ghost stories are evidence, too.