Does the universe operate by a set of fixed rules, or are those rules subject to change? Can the universe learn, adjusting and refining the laws of physics over time?
A new paper by researchers from Microsoft and multiple universities explores the idea that the universe is autodidactic, learning and teaching itself independently.
“We present an approach to cosmology in which the Universe learns its own physical laws. It does so by exploring a landscape of possible laws, which we express as a certain class of matrix models,” they write.
Natural Selection in the Universe
Just as life on Earth evolves, guided by Darwinian evolution, a process may guide the laws of physics, they suggest. While survival of the species results in natural selection, a similar process may guide the universe. As above, so below, the ancient axiom from the Kybalion goes.
Rather than changing for survival, the universe may change over time to “evole into a more stable state,” reports Popular Mechanics.
In the paper, the authors point out that the idea the universe may be guided by natural selection isn’t new.
“The application of natural selection to cosmology was first proposed by the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, in 1893,” they write.
More on Charles Peirce below, but the authors go much further. Not only does the universe evolve, but it is capable of learning.
“In this paper, we want to go even further and suggest that the universe has the capacity to learn its laws. Learning is, as we will explain, a much more general notion than evolving by natural selection; it is also a more complex and demanding idea. But we hope to help the reader to see it as within the realm of the possible.”
As the laws of physics evolved, they led to “novel phenomena” such as you, the curious reader.
“If laws can evolve, then they can do more: We consider the notion that only a universe that learns its laws can be expected to engender novel phenomena like life and physicists.”
How Does the Universe Learn?
Notably, the paper omits any mention of concepts of consciousness or spirituality. Instead, “it” is compared to an artificial intelligence system. Over time, the laws of physics in the system became more sophisticated naturally.
“Over time, that system will teach itself, and some fundamental laws will arise, and that’s really what they’re talking about [in the paper],” explained Barnard College of Columbia University professor Janna Levin.
“If the universe can compute with a given set of algorithms, then maybe it can do the same kind of thing we see in artificial intelligence, where you have self-learning systems that teach themselves new rules. And by rules, in cosmology, we mean laws of physics.”
According to the research, higher-order laws of the universe control the laws of physics. Perhaps, we as humans can’t hope to comprehend the larger universal picture, at least not with our current compartmentalized scientific disciplines and thinking.
What about Consciousness?
According to Levin, there is no consciousness guiding the process.
“The universe doesn’t have a conscious mind, just like selection hasn’t; selection is 100 percent agnostic.”
As the researchers put it, no supervision is required:
“We propose that if the neural network model can be said to learn without supervision, the same can be said for the corresponding physical theory.”
However, the paper’s ideas, blending cosmology with concepts of AI, are meant to be thought-provoking and speculative as they work toward a new theory.
Now, back to Charles Sanders Peirce, whose cosmology was guided by something unlike AI – universal love.
Charles Peirce and ‘Evolutionary Love’
Peirce is better known as the American father of pragmatism, and he was one of the founders of the Smithsonian Institution. However, the “black sheep or white elephant” of his philosophy, as W.B. Gallie once called it in 1966, was in cosmology. At the time, Peirce’s idea the entire universe is an evolutionary product was considered anthropomorphic.
However, Peirce’s ideas on evolution were in opposition to Darwin’s. Whereas Darwinism sees an evolutionary process guided by struggle, greed, and competition, Peirce saw evolution guided by nurturing love or “agapeism,” reflecting a belief that God is love.
Thus, it was the “Gospel of Greed” versus “Evolutionary Love,” his 1893 philosophical essay.
“Three modes of evolution have thus been brought before us: evolution by fortuitous variation, evolution by mechanical necessity, and evolution by creative love.: — C.S. Peirce 1893.
To Peirce, a force much like empathy drives the creative universe. Ahead of his time, empathy wasn’t a word in the English language until 16 years after his essay.
If Peirce were here today, he might well agree with the idea of an autodidactic universe. Under his theory of tychism, Greek for “chance” or “luck,” he understood nature is not static but dynamic, always subject to ongoing change. On the other hand, the idea of unfeeling artificial intelligence behind the system seems to align more with Darwin.
Perhaps any theory will remain incomplete without knowing for sure if consciousness (or a lack thereof) is guiding the universe. In the quantum world, reality can change depending on a conscious observer, although it’s unclear why. If humans have this affect on reality, then could the same be true for all observers in the universe?