Bobby Azarian on How the Universe Organizes Cosmic Complexity

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"Jim talks with Bobby Azarian about the ideas in his new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, which Jim calls “the most Jim Rutt Show-ish book ever.” They discuss the meaning & limits of reductionism, why the universe may not be moving toward an increasingly disordered state, life as a channel for dissipating energy, dissipative adaptation, self-organization as Darwinian process, the Fermi paradox, an evolutionary arms race of complexity, biology as knowledge creation, the emergence of agency, the Bayesian Brain Hypothesis, how symbolic thought opens up design space, the probability of complex life, teleology at local & universal scales, Teilhard de Chardin’s omega point, global workspace theory, phenomenal vs access consciousness, whether the internet is a global brain, applying the weak & strong anthropic principle to multiverse theory, cosmological natural selection, life as central to reality, and much more."


Brendan Graham Dempsey:

"In his deeply insightful 2022 book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, neuroscientist and science journalist Bobby Azarian brings together a vast number of threads of inquiry to articulate a compelling “Unifying Theory of Reality,” which comprehensively harmonizes the many insights from complexity science into an elegant and profound idea.

What idea is that?

The emergent evolution of the cosmos, Azarian demonstrates, is actually a learning process.

Uniting conceptual paradigms like universal Darwinism, universal Bayesianism, and evolutionary epistemology, Azarian’s “integrated evolutionary synthesis” identifies the key algorithm common to all enduring change in the universe: Through continual experimentation and retention of successful attempts, more information about the world is processed, whereby everything in the universe evolves and complexifies. From the dissipative adaptation of material to the evolution of biological organisms to the cultural enterprise of science itself, the landscape of reality is learned better and better through continual trial-and-error refinement.

In the various explorations of the universe’s probability space, matter that self-organizes best to dissipate free energy “learns” its environment and is retained vs. matter that doesn’t; such matter that then self-replicates flourishes as life vs. matter that doesn’t. The genetic codes of lifeforms that more effectively map to their environment are retained vs. those that don’t; lifeforms that can learn their environment by means of brains are retained vs. organisms that don’t. Brains that learn conceptual knowledge through experiment and reflection flourish vs. those that don’t—and so on.

At every stage, a learning process is underway, and knowledge accumulates. By ceaseless trial and error, the universe is discovered more fully, reality is more intelligently engaged, more information about it is processed, and the subjective model comes to match more accurately what it seeks to represent: objective reality.

Such is the education through complexification that has been occurring since the Big Bang, says Azarian. “You could say that energy organizes matter into life,” he writes,

and life organizes information into knowledge. And it is knowledge that makes the universe comprehensible to intelligent life. Or, from a less anthropocentric per-spective, it is knowledge that allows the universe to comprehend itself, through intelligent life. We must remember that we are not distinct from nature but a functional manifestation of it.

Indeed, this framing—that it is the universe that is best understood as the entity ultimately undergoing this learning process by means of intelligent life—is key to Azarian’s broad conception of what complexification is really all about:

As cosmologist and science educator Carl Sagan famously put it, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Rather than brushing it off as merely a poetic metaphor, this book takes Sagan’s statement seriously and places it within the context of cosmic evolution. In doing so, we see that adaptive complexity has initiated a cosmic awakening process that is only just beginning. Where it ends is to be determined. Exactly how the story goes curiously appears to crucially depend on the actions of intelligent life. In fact, it could depend in some meaningful way on you, and on us, collectively.

As the living organisms at the knife’s edge of this cosmic awakening process, humans occupy a unique position in the history of the universe. Because of our complexity, we are participating in a special way in the universe’s evolution towards greater self-knowledge. The thermodynamic and evolutionary story revealed by complexity science is one that leads, through us, to a more conscious, intelligent, and intentional cosmos. As Azarian succinctly expresses it:

The assumption that our world is gradually drifting toward a more disordered, random, and lifeless state is utterly wrong and the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of thermodynamic law. If it is accurate to think of the cosmos as a massive computational machine, it is not one that is winding down. In terms of adaptive complexity, it appears to be just getting started. Through a series of hierarchical emergences—a nested sequence of parts coming together to form ever-greater wholes—the universe is undergoing a grand and majestic self-organizing process, and at this moment in time, in this corner of the universe, we are the stars of the show. As cosmic evolution proceeds, the world is becoming increasingly organized, increasingly functional, and, because life and consciousness emerge from sufficient complexity and information integration, increasingly sentient. Through the evolution and eventual outward expansion of self-aware beings like ourselves, and their efforts to organize matter into arrangements that support information processing and computation, the universe is, in a very real and literal sense, waking up. It is not waking up independent of us, as in a panpsychic sense, but through us…

Sentience has thus emerged out of pure matter, deepening through evolution so as to process information at higher and higher resolutions of fidelity and accuracy. Consciousness itself, then, emerges as a natural part of the process by which the universe learns more about itself. Energy’s natural organization of matter into more complex forms leads unavoidably, through life, to mind and to the psyche, as these emerge out of one another so as to better learn reality."


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