Fusion and Consciousness: Technologies of Nature

27 April 2013

Saturday


fusion and consciousness

Fusion: nature got there first

Fusion came very early in the history of the universe, and consciousness came very late in the history of the universe — this pair of natural technologies come so early and so late, respectively, that one could say that they “bookend” cosmological history as the Alpha and Omega of cosmic evolution.

big bang nucleosynthesis

After an initial period of big bang nucleosynthesis in the first twenty minutes of the life of the cosmos, the universe did little in the way of producing more baryonic matter until gravity took over, and the baryonic matter condensed into early stars. Stars began to “light up” about 100 million years after the big bang, which in cosmological terms is not a terribly long time. This “lighting up” of the stars has been said to mark the advent of the stelliferous era.

nucleosynthesis1

In the almost 14 billion years of the universe’s history, stars have been shining for all but the first 100 million years — the vast majority of the age of the universe. What this means is that fusion has been around for the vast majority of the history of the universe. Nature innovated fusion technology early on, and fusion has continued to be central to the natural processes of the universe up to the present time and for the foreseeable future.

It has been said that human beings are a solar species. I wrote about this in my post Human Beings: A Solar Species. To say that human beings are a solar species is to say that we are a species dependent upon fusion. All life, and not only our species, is dependent upon the energy generated by fusion, so that fusion is responsible for all (or almost all) subsequent emergent complexity.

Fusion is a basic technology of the universe, a conditio sine qua non of cosmological order and its history. As such, fusion is a robust and durable technology proved over billions of years. Fusion as a natural source of energy is achieved through gravitational containment, and while human technology is not yet in a position to exploit the technology of gravitational containment, we have a very clear idea of its mechanism, as we have sophisticated physical theories to account for it. In other words, we have a good understanding of a technology that is one of the early building blocks of the universe.

Other technologies of nature

It is interesting, in this context, to consider other natural technologies and their place in cosmological natural history. We know, for example, from a 1972 discovery at Gabon, Africa, that fission, like fusion, is a natural technology. At Oklo in Gabon, about 1.7 billion years ago, just the right elements came together with a critical mass of fissionables to produce self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions.

oklo gabon

Fissionables are relatively rare, and we know that these heavier elements are created by supernovae, so that natural fission reactors cannot come about until after (at very minimum) generation III stars have gone supernovae and flung their radioactive remnants into the universe. The date of the natural reactor at Gabon makes it quite old, but still not half as old as the earth itself, and nowhere nearly as old as fusion. It has been proposed that there was a “paleo-reactor” on Mars in the distant past, and it is interesting to speculate how widely spread, or how rare, fission technology is in the universe. We will not know until we explore in detail.

Another natural technology of note is life itself. Current biological thought suggests that life emerged on earth not long after the planet began to cool. The Earth is thought to be about 4.54 billion years old, and life may have arisen as much as 3.9 billion years ago. In other words, the Earth has hosted life for much longer than its initial sterility. The earth has, in turn, existed for almost a third as long as the entire universe, so that means that life (at very least on earth, if nowhere else) has been around for a quarter of the age of the known universe. That makes life a well-established and robust natural technology.

A recent paper, Life Before Earth by Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon, suggests that if the complexity of life is extrapolated backward in time we must posit an origin of life at about 9.7 billion years ago, which is almost twice as old as the earth, which suggests in turn that earth was “seeded” with life as soon as its was cool enough to support life, rather than independently arising on Earth. While this thesis is, in my judgment, rather tenuous, its cannot be dismissed out of hand, and if it is correct, it shows life to be an even longer-lived and more durable technology than we now suspect it to be.

Just as we are curious if there have been other naturally occurring fission reactors in the universe, we are intensely interested in the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe: the robust and durable technology of life on earth suggests that this technology may well be replicated elsewhere, as pervasive in the universe, where conditions are right, as fusion technology is pervasive in the universe. The existence of life elsewhere is the cosmos is one of the great scientific questions of our time.

Consciousness: nature got there first, too

In contradistinction to fusion, the technology of consciousness arrives late in the history of the universe. While there were likely rudimentary forms of consciousness prior to the particular forms of mammalian consciousness familiar to us both in ourselves and in the other mammals with whom we often share our lives, and mammalian consciousness is a robust natural technology about 160 million years old (interestingly, not so much more distant from the present as the lighting up of stars was distant from big bang), the intelligent, self-reflective consciousness of human beings seems to be even younger than the bodies of anatomically modern human beings.

The late emergence of consciousness in the history of the universe is interesting in so far as it demonstrates that the universe, even at its present advanced age, is still capable of technological innovation.

In regard to consciousness, we are closing in on the mechanisms of the brain that enable the emergence of consciousness from a material substrate, but, unlike the case with fusion, we have no idea whatsoever what consciousness is and have no theory to account for it. Of course I am aware that many will disagree with me on this — even, if not especially, those scientifically-oriented readers who found themselves nodding over what I wrote above about fusion, and who have convinced themselves of the truth of some reductivist or eliminativist theory of consciousness.

Hugo de Garis, who appeared in the film about Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man, said in an interview (Interview with Hugo de Garis: Approaches to AI, Neuroscience, Engineering, Intelligence Theory, Cyborgs interviewed, filmed and edited by Adam A. Ford) that, “…we have ourselves as the existence proof that nature has found a way to [build] a conscious, intelligent creature.” (We could, in the same spirit, say that stars are the existence proof of fusion energy.) This is a perfect evocation of the weak anthropic principle as applied to consciousness and intelligence: we’re here, and we’re conscious, therefore consciousness is possible and the universe is consistent with the emergence of conscious life.

The possibility of conscious knowledge of consciousness

These natural technologies are not just randomly jumbled together, but are in fact closely related. The fusion technology of stars enabled energy production that was exploited by life, which latter grew in complexity until it made possible the even more subtle and complex technology of conscious intelligence. The earliest of these technologies, fusion, we understand well; the latest of these technologies, not surprisingly, still eludes us.

And in saying that a full understanding of consciousness still eludes us, what we are saying is that consciousness so far understands the natural technologies that made itself possible, but it does not yet understand itself in the same way. We may yet attain the full measure of reflexive self-awareness of consciousness when consciousness knows itself in the same way that it understands fusion technology. This will take time, since, as we have noted, consciousness is a youthful technology of nature.

Consciousness may, too, someday become as pervasive in the universe as fusion. Indeed, the fact that we know, that we can see, that fusion is operating everywhere in the known universe, is the first precondition of life, and if life too has been made pervasive by pervasive fusion energy sources, the technology of life may, in the fullness of time, give rise to the technology of conscious intelligence. But consciousness is a late-comer in cosmological order, and has not yet shown itself to be a technology of nature as robust and as durable as fusion. Only the test of time can demonstrate this.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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