A Cosmic Evolutionary Worldview: Short Responses to the Big Questions

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This page is Clément Vidal's philosophical identity card, providing short responses to the big questions.

Introduction

Across centuries, humanity has been wondering about its existence and place in the universe. Humans employed insights from myths, religions, art, philosophy and science to make sense of the world around them.

However, in the current era of accelerating scientific, cultural and social developments, all the old certainties are put into question. The confusion and fragmentation associated with this often lead to pessimism and uncertainty, and the need for psychological guidance in the form of a clear and reliable system of thought.

This is why it is important to have a coherent and comprehensive worldview, by answering today the big questions of this quest for understanding. Answering them explicitly is an enterprise which is traditionally philosophy's task. This takes the form of comprehensive and coherent systematic philosophical treatises. The great philosophical systems are of this sort. Regrettably, this trend seems to have fallen out of fashion, since most of today's philosophy is busy with 2nd-order problems (Adler 1965).

We distinguish between first- and second-order knowledge (Adler 1993, 13-16). First-order knowledge is about “reality”, and second-order knowledge is about knowledge itself. In contrast to most of contemporary philosophy's practices, below are tentative and provisional responses to first-order philosophical questions. The answers to these questions together determine a worldview, i.e. a comprehensive philosophical system, a coherent vision of the whole. A worldview gives meaning to our life, and helps us to understand the world around us.

Each question would need at least a book to be properly answered. More than that, the most appropriate way to answer them is with a systematic philosophical system (e.g. Bunge 1974; Rescher 1992). I don't have that objective here. Instead, I provide below very short responses, as positions, not arguments. I give some main references to the works which influenced me, where the curious reader will be able to find many detailled arguments. It is worth reminding the many advantages of explicitly stating one's philosophical position.

  • First, these short responses will obviously let the reader quickly grasp my position. The position is stated transparently, straightforwardly, with a few technical concepts involved.
  • Secondly, the task of answering those questions is a daring effort. I balance this great ambition with great caution in answers I provide. They are non-dogmatic, provisional, revisable and falsifiable. The responses proposed here are mixed philosophical and scientific conjectures to make sense of the world. There are of course not definitive and this endlessly editable wiki is the perfectly suited technology for this endeavor. In such a short format, I also do not make justice of the pros and cons of alternative positions. It doesn't mean that I'm not aware of them. Still, if you think I've missed something important, or a position clearly better than the ones presented here, please contact me. As every good philosopher and scientist, I very much value and warmly welcome criticism and further reflection you might have reading this text.
  • Thirdly, this transparency in responding to basic questions allows efficient debate and communication and collaboration. Many debates and disagreements get lost in details, without touching the heart of issues at stake. This practice of answering 1st-order questions can save an enormous amount of time in confusing debates, because enduring disagreements always end-up in disagreements about such fundamental questions. I invite you to do the same exercise! See How can I make explicit my worldview?

0. Where to start from?

Before proposing responses to those big questions, here are some preliminary considerations, laying bare how I start this entreprise. The (meta)philosophical framework and method are mainly inspired by the works of Adler (1965; 1993), Rescher (1985; 2001; 2006) and Bahm (1979).

If I had to choose a philosophical stream, I would say I am mostly influenced by systems philosophy (esp. Heylighen 2000 and the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition (ECCO) worldview, on which this text is based). To summarize it in one sentence, its "data come from the empirical sciences; its problems from the history of philosophy; and its concepts from modern systems research" (Laszlo 1972, 12). I add to systems theory an interdisciplinary problem solving approach and evolutionary-developmental theory, applied on many scales (Vidal 2008a).

The worldview agenda

A philosophical agenda defines the range of problems and issues that are addressed by a philosophy. What are the most profound questions of existence? Those questions, not their answers, are surprisingly enduring through the history of philosophy (Passmore 1961, 39; Rescher 2006, 91). The worldview approach developed by Leo Apostel elegantly make explicit those ambitious questions (1991 translated in; Aerts et al. 1994), which are:

  • (1) What is? Ontology (model of the present);
  • (2) Where does it all come from? Explanation (model of the past);
  • (3) Where are we going? Prediction (model of the future);
  • (4) What is good and what is evil? Axiology (theory of values);
  • (5) How should we act? Praxeology (theory of actions);
  • (6) What is true and what is false? Epistemology (theory of knowledge).

Those questions together form an enduring philosophical agenda. Each question corresponds to a main philosophical domain, in italics above. Questions 1-3 concern how we model the world and overlap with science. Their precise formulation will thus vary from epoch to epoch. For example, current problems related to the ultimate constituents of matter (question 1) highly depend on available scientific theories. It is thus mandatory to reformulate and define precisely those "big" questions in the context of a certain epoch. Such purely philosophical questions become "mixed questions" in the sense that they require scientific knowledge to formulate and to solve them (Adler 1993, 67).

Apostel's definition of a worldview is broader than just a representation of the world, and also includes theories of values and actions (questions 4-5). The proposed answers constitute the worldview components, which articulated together form a worldview, that we define as a coherent collection of concepts ‚allowing us to construct a global image of the world, and in this way to understand as many elements of our experience as possible‚ (Aerts et al. 1994, 17).

The metaphilosophical criteria

Once the questions are asked, we obviously need to answer them and use evaluation standards to assess their strength. In (Vidal 2009a), I developed 9 criteria and a battery of tests to compare and assess different worldviews. Here, we use in priority the objective criteria (objective consistency, scientificity and scope) to construct a coherent and comprehensive worldview. In this cosmic evolutionary worldview the scope is maximally wide, concerning the whole universe.

When those objective criteria are maximally satisfied, we turn to subjective and intersubjective criteria to make the worldview successfully applicable in the conduct of a good life and in the organization of a good society. The pursuit of a good life and a good society is then harmonized with cosmic evolution.

1. What is?

As a preliminary remark, we are generally skeptic with reductionistic ontological statements. Reality is complex, evolving and multi-layered, and different ontologies are more or less appropriate to analyze and solve different problems. Dooyeweerd's (1953) 15 aspects, although static and not dynamic, offers an example of a non-reductionistic ontology.

Our ontological commitments go toward the systems theory framework which aims to offer a universal language for sciences (e.g. von Bertalanffy 1968; Boulding 1956). It is also very fruitful for philosophizing (e.g. Laszlo 1972). It is best combined with evolutionary reasonings, which gives rise to an evolutionary-systemic approach (Heylighen 2000).

We chose an ontology of actions and agents, i.e. elementary processes and relations, not independent, static pieces of matter (in the spirit of Whitehead (1978), Lazslo (1972), Jantzch (1980), etc). Out of their interactions, organization emerges. Through evolutionary processes, these systems become more complex and adaptive, they start to exhibit cognition or intelligence, i.e. the ability to make informed choices.

2. Where does it all come from?

Modern science explains -at least in parts- the harmony within nature, connecting physical, chemical, biological and technological evolution (e.g. Chaisson 2001; De Duve 1995). Regarding the origin of the universe, although Big Bang models are a success of modern cosmology, the initial conditions remain mysteriously fine-tuned (e.g. Leslie 1989; Leslie 1998; Rees 2000; Davies 2008). Whatever possible explanation we favor, we need to cope with difficult metaphysical choices (Vidal 2009b). I proposed the scenario of "Cosmological Artificial Selection" connecting the origin and future of the universe with the emergence of intelligent life (Vidal 2008b; 2009c; 2009).

3. Where are we going?

Modern science has shown that there are two trends at play in the "big history" of the universe. First, a tendency to produce more order, with the emergence of more and more complex systems, from galaxies, stars, planets, to plants, humans and our technological society (Chaisson 2001; Kurzweil 2006; Morowitz 2002; Livio 2000). Secondly, the second law of thermodynamics applied to the universe as a whole implies that in the far-future the universe will irreversibly go toward a state of maximum disorder, or heat death (e.g. Adams and Laughlin 1997). The outcome of those two opposite trends remains unsettled.

The discovery of the heat death generated a widely spread pessimistic worldview which sees the existence of humanity as purposeless and accidental in the universe (B. Russell 1923; Weinberg 1993). With Darwin (1887, 70), we estimate that "it is an intolerable thought that he [man] and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress".

Hopefully, the second trend is more promising. The process of on-going complexification and adaptation can reasonably be extrapolated towards the future. This allows us to predict that in the medium term, conflict and friction within human society will diminish, cooperation will expand to the planetary level, individual and collective intelligence will spectacularly augment.

Generally, more advanced biological organisms build more and more sophisticated representations of their surroundings (Peter Russell 1995). The scenario of "Cosmological Artificial Selection" (CAS) pushes this trend to its limit, to the point where intelligent life has a detailed model of the whole universe. This modeling capacity can be used to understand not only our own universe, but also other possible universes. The radical proposal of CAS is that to avoid the effect of the second law of thermodynamics, those toy-universes can become a blueprint for a new universe (Vidal 2008b; 2009c; Vaas 2009; Vidal 2009b).

However, this scenario has more than a scientific aspect. Since it involves a role for intelligent life, its success depends on our conscious choices for the future of cosmic evolution. It thus requires an axiological dimension.

4. What is good and what is evil?

The inner drive or implicit value governing all life is fitness, i.e. survival, growth, development and reproduction. From a human perspective, this fundamental value includes a sustainable quality-of-life, well-being or happiness. Evolutionary, psychological, and cybernetic theories allow us to derive a number of more concrete values from this overarching value, i.e. properties that are necessary for long-term well-being. These include openness, diversity, intelligence, knowledge, cooperation, freedom, personal control, health, and a coherent and comprehensive worldview.

In the longer term, fitness implies increasing adaptiveness and evolvability beyond human society as we know it. Actions that promote these values with the less friction as possible are intrinsically good, actions that suppress them are bad.

As our worldview goes beyond the egocentric stage, we make sure our values don't conflict with higher evolutionary systems. Not only do I try to improve my happiness, but my happiness becomes more and more tightly linked with my family, my country, society, humanity, the planet, and the cosmos. Ultimately I should act being aware and trying to respect such a hierarchy, bootstrapping the values of my own life with the sustainability of larger and larger evolutionary systems.

At heart, humans long for a kind of immortality (e.g. Turchin 1990; Lifton and Olson 2004). In our worldview, it takes the form of an endless, infinite cosmic evolution. Indeed, the metaphysical part of Cosmological Artificial Selection translates this will for immortality in an infinite process of evolution, with an infinite production of intelligence-driven reproducing universes (Vidal 2008b; 2009c; Vaas 2009; esp. Vidal 2009b).

5. How should we act?

To maximally achieve these values in real life, we will need to overcome a variety of problems and obstacles. Cognitive sciences, cybernetics, and complex systems science suggest various tools and strategies to tackle complex problems, and to stimulate and steer self-organization so as to be as efficient as possible. These methods include feedback control, anticipation, hierarchical decomposition, heuristic search, stigmergic coordination, extended mind and memetic engineering. At the level of society, these methods define a strategy for effective governance, for the maximization of collective intelligence, and the minimization of friction and conflicts.

There is a trend in cosmic evolution to do ever more with less energy, space and time (Smart 2009). Using less energy to achieve more is also at the heart of productivity principles. On a personal productivity side, The Getting Things Done method combines high productivity with low-stress (Allen 2001; Heylighen and Vidal 2008).

6. What is true and what is false?

Let us note that this is a 2nd order question which concerns knowledge about knowledge. The domains of epistemology and ontology are very close. We can divide this question in the following two questions (Heylighen 2000, 15):

  • What is knowledge? This question defines the domain of epistemology.

Science can be seen as a natural outcome of the more general evolutionary pressure to get more and more accurate knowledge (Campbell 1974). Knowledge is the existence in a system of a model, which allows that system to make predictions, that is, to anticipate processes in its environment. Thus, the system gets control over its environment. Such a model is a personal construction, not an objective reflection of outside reality (Turchin 1993; Heylighen 1997).

  • What is truth?

There are no absolute truths. The truth of a theory is merely its power to produce predictions that are confirmed by observations (Turchin 1993).

The scientific enterprise is one of conjectures and refutations (Popper 1963) and there is a natural selection of ideas, theories, which give more power, i.e. prediction and control (Campbell 1974).

Ultimately, what is the meaning of the phenomenon of science in this pragmatic, constructive and evolutionary epistemology? We do not seek an ideal "truth", just a pragmatic goal. It is to build a model of our and other possible universes that could become, with some variation, a blueprint for a future universe, thereby escaping the predictable heat death of the universe.

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