Chapter Six – The Jump to Universality

Deutsch now shows how the reach of some kinds of knowledge can become universal. The simplest example might be numbers. Tally marks are the first step to universality, because there’s no fundamental limit on them. In principle, tally marks could be used to count anything. Of course there’s lots of room for improvement. And yet, with that one invention, the marking of a tally for each member of a group, people created an idea, numbers without end, that has universal reach.

Every jump to universality, Deutsch says, as far as we know has come from people, with a single exception. That jump is the jump of DNA to a universal code.

DNA codes for proteins. The code evolved when all life on Earth was simple bacteria. And so it remained long after the DNA code had evolved. Today, without the code itself evolving any further, we have not just bacteria, but elephants, orchids, sea turtles, stink bugs, and sequoias. Why did such a huge amount of reach appear long before it was instantiated? Deutsch admits that we do not know. But someday we will.

I’m still struggling in this chapter with exactly what Deutsch means by universality, and it is a crucial question. I wrote earlier that because humans are universal explainers, Deutsch claims that we’ll never meet any sort of different people in the world. Sure, we can get smarter (that’s what the beginning of infinity is all about), but we’ll never qualitatively change our ability to understand the universe, because we’ve gone as far as there is can go.

“All entities with universal reach necessarily have the same reach.” (p 62)

But when something else has jumped to universality, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as good as it can be. It might be universal in only a limited domain – which doesn’t sound much like universality to me. For instance, when discussing tally marks, universal but quite impractical numbers, Deutsch says, “there is a hierarchy of universality.” (p 121)

Still, there are some clear pieces to the definition. An alphabet is universal because

“an alphabet can cover not only every word but every possible word in its language, so that words that have yet to be coined already have a place in it.” (p 120)

So universality is all about knowledge with a great deal of reach.

But what caught me most about this chapter, and what is still keeping me up at night, is the idea of free will.

OK, this chapter isn’t about free will at all, but it does touch on the ideas of free will. I’ll illustrate using two quotes taken out of context, when Deutsch is discussing the Roman numeral system.

“(K)nowledge is information which, when it is embodied in a suitable environment, tends to cause itself to remain so.” (p 123)

and

“People consist of abstract information, including the distinctive ideas, theories, intentions, feelings, and other states of mind that characterize an ‘I’.” (p 123)

So what? Here’s what. If we are abstract information, then it is possible to instantiate ourselves in different forms. A computer program that reproduced my abstractions would be me. In these various forms (organic vs. computer) I can learn. I can turn information into knowledge, and thereby change the set of abstractions that make up me. As Deutsch has said elsewhere, learning is inherently creative. The way learning changes my abstractions cannot be predicted, because any such prediction would be that learning. Therefore, on a fundamental level, learning gives me free will. It allows me to change what would otherwise be my fate, due to the laws of physics.

And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. How exactly does it work? What’s the mechanism? We know the other mechanism for knowledge creation. It’s variation and selection. A plant doesn’t have to violate the laws of causality to evolve a chloroplast in just the right place to absorb sunlight. Variation guarantees that plants will try chloroplasts in different spots, and one will be just right and help that plant to survive and reproduce, ensuring that the genes causing that particular variation spread into the next generation.

We know that creativity is something like variation and selection. Conjecture takes the place of variation, criticism the role of selection. Our theories can die in our place. And if we’re lucky, clever, and persistent, eventually we might come up with a good idea. But what caused the variation? Where did it arise? Is it like random variation? Do we all have random number generators in our heads, which every once in a while spit out something good?

I think these ideas must be very far from the truth. I think we need a Darwin of consciousness. It hasn’t happened yet. When it does (and of course it will), I think the idea will be so beautiful it has to be true.

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