Steve Grand

CREATION
Life and How to Make it

Phoenix 2001


Keywords: persistence - some things persist and others don't - .... the very components of which the universe is built are nothing more than persistent localised distortions of the basic field that make up all of space - hierarchies of persistent phenomena :

life, intelligence and mind

pg 41

Things that persist, persist. Things that don't, don't.

I fully appreciate that this statement is a tautology, also that its blindingly obvious. But remember that philosophy is the art of stating the obvious, and just because it seem self-evident and even tautological now that I've said it, you shouldn't assume that is not profound. In fact, this one statement explains all that you see around you.

pg 42


the reason the universe looks the way it does is that some things persist and others don't.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about 'six honest serving men' named 'What and Why and When, and How and Where and Who'. Science can be seen as the process of asking these very questions about persistent phenomena. Naturalists may study where a phenomenon persists (a species of animal, say). Palaeontologists look at when things persisted, and thus how one form of persistence gave rise to others (evolution). Natural historians of all kinds used to spend much of their time recording what persisted, classifying it and labelling it so that those answering the other questions had names to which they could refer.

Why things persist is a question with only a few answers: phenomena persist because they are either inherently stable in an absolute sense, or because they are more stable than other phenomena with which they are somehow competing. On the whole, though, the big scientific question is always how things persist: what mechanism explains their existence and what common laws underlie their ability to cheat oblivion.

Ripples in water persist by means of propagation, as wave motion. It has long been realized that many other phenomena persist by similar means. A sound is a phenomenon that propagates itself in the form of waves of compression and rarefaction of the medium in which it travels. Urban myths and fashions propagate from mouth to mouth. Until quantum theory came along and complicated everything, light was visualized as a fairly simple phenomenon that traverses space as an electromagnetic wave, in much the same way that a ripple propagates across the surface of water. This is not a physics book and I am not a physicist, so I don't want to pursue the following line of reasoning too far. But if you can think of light and other subatomic particles as wave-like propagating disturbances, then the very components of which the universe is built are nothing more than persistent localized distortions of the basic fields that make up all of space. Stuff is clearly not as solid as it looks.

the very components of which the universe is built are nothing more than persistent localized distortions of the basic fields that make up all of space. Stuff is clearly not as solid as it looks.

Intuitively, we think of the universe as if it were a painting. Space seems like a canvas on which atoms and particles are daubed like paint. This is such an ingrained notion that it is embedded in our language, and even physics texts (during the rare moments when mathematics gives way to metaphor) often talk of particles as if they were solid lumps, superimposed on the fabric of space. In truth, nobody really knows what a particle is like, but it seems that a closer analogy than a painting would be a repousee panel - a sheet of metal into which an image has been embossed. A particle or photon (an individual 'packet' of light) exists as a disturbance in something, rather than something superimposed on a quite separate backdrop. A wave on water is quite similar to an embossed image, since the wave is literally a dent in the water surface, albeit a moving one. A photon, a particle or a more complex atom can also be seen as an image embossed into something; this time into the electromagnetic and gravitational fields of the universe. Whereas a ripple on water propagates itself by copying the front of its disturbance into the next bunch of water molecules along, light travels in a more complex way, involving two 'surfaces' simultaneously. In my imagination I can just about picture a photon as a disturbance in an electric field, which collapses and thus distorts the local magnetic field (the same principle that makes an electromagnet work) In The Matter Myth (see bibliography), Paul Davies and John Gribbin describe the soliton, a propagating, wave-like phenomenon that can persist without fading away as ordinary ripples do: 'indeed, ordinary protons, neutrons and the rest of the particle zoo can be regarded, in a certain basic sense, as solitons in the appropriate force field. When it is no longer supported by the energy flux from the collapsing electric field this too starts to collapse, generating a new electrical disturbance shifted slightly forward in space. In my mind, light hops along as an alternating series of electrical and magnetic dents in space. My imagination may be way off the mark, and I have no intuition for the more bizarre ideas current among physicists, such as superstrings. But I feel fairly confident that the metaphor is not too far from the truth, at least to the extent that it is reasonable to consider matter as a disturbance of space, and not a superimposition of something onto it.

This may not seem very relevant to artificial life, but it is the first step in an argument that will show us how to create synthetic creatures and also allow us to support the notion that they are truly alive and not merely a sham. The important point is that matter and energy are essentially made of the same non-stuff as the rest of the universe, where 'the rest of the universe' means other forms of persistent phenomena such as genes or minds.

Consequently, we can apply the same kinds of reasoning and look for the same kinds of mechanism throngh-out the whole of nature. This is an antidote to post-Newtonian physical science, which tries to explain the universe purely in material terms and has immense difficulties dealing with higher-order phenomena such as those that interest us here. Descartes's dualism asserted that the universe was made up from two entirely different qualities: matter and spirit. Materialism then countered with the view that matter alone was sufficient, and so the immaterial world slowly lost its status.

Only the other day I gave a radio interview about the possibility of constructing conscious machines. To balance my views the producer brought in a well-respected professor of engineering who proffered the theory that 'consciousness may be a fundamental property of matter'. He seemed to be suggesting that consciousness might be a 'force', akin to gravity, that showed itself whenever enough small components were brought together in one place. Here we see the pernicious influence of materialism at work once again. Spirit has to be reified. All intangible things must be made tangible. Wishy-washy spiritual notions must bow down before the great god of matter. In the few seconds available to me I tried to explain that there are vast numbers of ways in which small elements can be put together, but only a very, very few of them would result in consciousness. Consciousness cannot therefore be a property of matter, only a property of certain configurations of matter. The purpose of this book is to discuss exactly how we might configure large numbers of small components to create life, and perhaps consciousness. Approaching the task from the point of view of a physicist is absolutely the wrong way - materialist, reductionist thinking will just not do.

It is better to let go of our innate preference for substance over form and learn instead to see the material world in immaterial ways. Matter is merely a minor subset of form; hardware is simply a variety of software; there is essentially no such stuff as stuff.

It is better to let go of our innate preference for substance over form and learn instead to see the material world in immaterial ways. Matter is merely a minor subset of form; hardware is simply a variety of software; there is essentially no such stuff as stuff.

Matter is merely a minor subset of form; hardware is simply a variety of software; there is essentially no such stuff as stuff.




pg 42

Everything you see around you is an example of a phenomenon that persists, at least for a reasonably extended period, and the reason the universe looks the way it does is that some things persist and others don't....

Naturalists may study where phenomenon persists (the species of animal, say). Paleontologists look when things persist, and thus how one form of persistence gave rise to others (evolution). Natural historians of all kinds used to spend much of their time recalling what persisted, classifying it and labelling it so that those answering the other questions had names to which they could refer. Why things persist is a question with only a few answers: phenomenal persist because they are either inherently stable in absolute sense, or because they are more stable than other phenomena with which they are somehow completing. On the whole, though, the big scientific question is always how things persist: what mechanism explains the existence and what common laws underlie their ability to cheat oblivion.

.... the very components of which the universe is built are nothing more than persistent localised distortions of the basic field that make up all of space. Stuff is clearly not a solid as it looks.

pg 44

... it is reasonable to consider matter as a disturbance of space, and not the superimposition of something onto it. This may not seem very relevant to artificial life, but it is the first step in an argument that will show us how to create synthetic creatures are also allows to support the notion that they are truly alive. The important point is that matter and energy are essentially made of the same nonstuff as the rest of the universe.

pg 45

... it is better to let go of our innate preference for substance over form and learn instead to see the material world in a material ways. Matter is merely a minor subset of form. Hardware is simply a variety of software. There is essentially no such stuff as stuff.

pg 46

John Conway Game of Life

Patterns in the Game of Life

.... the results can be quite startling. Sometimes the whole pattern will flicker for a few ticks of the clock then quickly died out. Other times, stable patterns - persistent phenomena - will emerge. Some of these or trivial and boring.


For example a group of four lit bulbs in a square will just remain in the same state forever.

The lines of three in adjacent lights are slightly more interesting, because the alternate endlessly between two patterns: one horizontal and one vertical. Such shapes are dubbed "spinners".

Quite a large number of initial patterns indulge in rather more spectacular behaviour. They transform themselves into a pattern after pattern, never quite repeating themselves, and usually growing to fill large area of the grid. Such patterns are persistent but not immortal, and they are fascinating things to study.

But the pattern that knocked me off my chair when I first saw it on a computer screen is a rather simpler one. It is made up of five asymmetrical lit bulbs. It's posh name is the R-pentomino, but it is commonly known as a "glider", because that describes exactly what it does.

The glider continues to alternate between four states, and with each cycle moves one square across the board. The thing that really startled me about this, and stilled spooks me today, is that something is clearly moving across the board, and yet no thing is moving! The lightbulbs don't move; they just switch on and off. There is no central control deciding where to put the pattern next (like those displays of moving text you sometimes see in airports); it just emerge as all by itself. The glider is a thing - and yet it is not separate from or superimposed on that space. It is simply a self-propagating disturbance in the space created by these little rule following lightbulbs.

It seems to me that the natural world is rather like this too. Space is not really like a grid of lightbulbs, and the phenomena that persist in physical space are different from those that emerge Conway's game. But in both cases

...we see phenomena arising out of local disturbances, and many of those phenomena persist. We can classify them in terms of how and why they persist, and the more complex phenomena can "hitch a ride" on simpler ones, so that every new class of phenomena opens the door to the creation of further classes. Whether we are dealing with the simplest or the most complex phenomenon, the same basic concepts and mechanisms apply - everything is a self-maintaining pattern in a sequence of cause and effect. The universe is not made of stuff but of events and relationships.

...hierarchies of persistent phenomena

Now that we finally put matter in its proper place, we can start to look at how whole hierarchies of these persistent phenomena, including many that have hitherto been relegated to the realms of the intangible and thus beyond the pale for science, can come into existence and persist for extended periods. Among these phenomena, besides particles and atoms, we shall discover life, intelligence and mind.

Among these phenomena, besides particles and atoms, we shall discover life, intelligence and mind

life, intelligence and mind








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