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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
I’m always thinking about Lot’s wife,
wonder what her neighbors thought
when she packed up her tunics and cooking pots
and left town without so much as a fare thee well.
Dave, the guy I work with says, “It’s because
she was a sinful woman in a sinful town.
You know where the word sodomy comes from.”
I tell him, “Sodomy’s been made legal in Texas.
I read it in the paper yesterday.”
Dave has been known to get down on his knees
and pray before a computer, but it never seems
to work because it’s always messed up.
“You see, Dave, if she’d had a name, maybe someone
could have called to her, maybe she might
not have turned back.” I’m obsessed with this,
it’s true, but I can’t get the no-name-pillar-of-salt thing
out of my head, and this woman
who probably left with wash on the line
and goat stew simmering on the fire.
And, then there are those two daughters,
who later lay with their father, there being no
other men worth their salt in that mountain town
where they ended up. “Good thing she wasn’t around
to see that kind of sodomy,” I say. “Women
need guidance. Remember Eve?”
I tell him, “Let’s agree to disagree on this.”
He glares at me; his face turns red; pimples
stand out like, like angry mountains, I think.
“Beside, Dave, Lot lingered—he lingered,
and God took mercy on him. I want
mercy for her. And a name, Dave,
a name for God’s sake. Please call her
something besides ‘Lot’s wife’.”
Dave takes my hand, says, “Kneel with me
and let’s pray for you, my disagreeable friend,
and for all those sick people in Texas.”
Meanwhile, the computer flashes:
this program has performed an illegal operation.
“How about Loretta?” I ask, thinking of my best friend
from high school. I shuck off his hand and add,
“It’s a good name, and Mary’s been used.”
Philosophical understandings of consciousness divide into emergentist positions (when the universe is sufficiently organized and complex it gives rise to consciousness) vs. panpsychism (consciousness pervades the universe). A leading emergentist position derives from autopoietic theory of Maturana and Varela: to be alive is to have cognition, one component of which is sentience. Here, reflecting autopoietic theory, we define sentience as: sensing of the surrounding environment, complex processing of information that has been sensed, (i.e. processing mechanisms defined by characteristics of a complex system), and generation of a response. Further, complexity theory, points to all aspects of the universe comprising “systems of systems.” Bringing these themes together, we find that sentience is not limited to the living, but present throughout existence. Thus, a complexity approach shifts autopoietic theory from an emergentist to a panpsychist position and shows that sentience must be inherent in all structures of existence across all levels of scale.
We see these very simple programs, with very complex behavior. It makes one think that maybe there’s a simple program for our whole universe. And that even though physics seems to involve more and more complicated equations, that somewhere underneath it all there might just be a tiny little program. We don’t know if things work that way. But if out there in the computational universe of possible programs, the program for our universe is just sitting there waiting to be found, it seems embarrassing not to be looking for it.
Hoping to firm up such notions, Wissner-Gross teamed up with Cameron Freer of the University of Hawaii at Manoa to propose a “causal path entropy.” This entropy is based not on the internal arrangements accessible to a system at any moment, but on the number of arrangements it could pass through on the way to possible future states. They then calculated a “causal entropic force” that pushes the system to evolve so as to increase this modified entropy. This hypothetical force is analogous to the pressure that a gas-filled compartment exerts on a piston separating it from a nearly evacuated compartment. In this example, the force arises because the piston’s motion increases the entropy of the filled compartment more than it reduces that of the nearly empty one.
In contrast with the usual entropy, no known fundamental law stipulates that this future-looking entropic force governs how a system evolves. But as a thought experiment, the researchers simulated the behavior of simple mechanical systems that included the force, and the effects were profound. For example, a particle wandering in a box did not explore the volume randomly but found its way to the center, where it was best positioned to move anywhere in the box. Another simulation tracked the motion of a rigid pendulum hanging from a pivot that could slide back and forth horizontally. The pendulum eventually moved into an inverted configuration, which is unstable without the modified entropic force. From this upside-down position, the researchers argue, the pendulum can most easily explore all other possible positions.
The researchers interpreted this and other behaviors as indications of a rudimentary adaptive intelligence, in that the systems moved toward configurations that maximized their ability to respond to further changes. Wissner-Gross acknowledges that “there’s no widely agreed-upon definition of what intelligence actually is,” but he says that social scientists have speculated that certain skills prospered during evolution because they allowed humans to exploit ecological opportunities. In that vein, the researchers connect the inverted pendulum’s mechanical “versatility” to the abilities that bipeds like us require in order to make the numerous on-the-fly adjustments needed to stay balanced while walking.