I'm thrilled to be talking to you by this high-tech method. Of all humans who have ever lived, the overwhelming majority would have found what we are doing here incomprehensible, unbelievable.
Because, for thousands of centuries, in the dark time before the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, people had low expectations. For their lives, for their descendants' lives. Typically, they expected nothing significantly new or better to be achieved, ever. This pessimism famously appears in the Bible, in one of the few biblical passages with a named author. He's called Qohelet, he's an enigmatic chap. He wrote, "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there something of which it is said, 'Look, this is new.' No, that thing was already done in the ages that came before us."
Qohelet was describing a world without novelty. By novelty I mean something new in Qohelet's sense, not merely something that's changed, but a significant change with lasting effects, where people really would say, "Look, this is new," and, preferably, "good." So, purely random changes aren't novelty. OK, Heraclitus did say a man can't step in the same river twice, because it's not the same river, he's not the same man. But if the river is changing randomly, it really is the same river.
In contrast, if an idea in a mind spreads to other minds, and changes lives for generations, that is novelty. Human life without novelty is life without creativity, without progress. It's a static society, a zero-sum game. That was the living hell in which Qohelet lived. Like everyone, until a few centuries ago. It was hell, because for humans, suffering is intimately related to staticity. Because staticity isn't just frustrating. All sources of suffering — famine, pandemics, incoming asteroids, and things like war and slavery, hurt people only until we have created the knowledge to prevent them.
There's a story in Somerset Maugham's novel "Of Human Bondage" about an ancient sage who summarizes the entire history of mankind as, "He was born, he suffered and he died." And it goes on: "Life was insignificant and death without consequence." And indeed, the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever lived had lives of suffering and grueling labor, before dying young and in agony. And yes, in most generations nothing had any novel consequence for subsequent generations.
Nevertheless, when ancient people tried to explain their condition, they typically did so in grandiose cosmic terms. Which was the right thing to do, as it turns out. Even though their actual explanations, their myths, were largely false. Some tried to explain the grimness and monotony of their world in terms of an endless cosmic war between good and evil, in which humans were the battleground. Which neatly explained why their own experience was full of suffering, and why progress never happened. But it wasn't true.
Amazingly enough, all their conflict and suffering were just due to the way they processed ideas. Being satisfied with dogma, and just-so stories, rather than criticizing them and trying to guess better explanations of the world and of their own condition. Twentieth-century physics did create better explanations, but still in terms of a cosmic war. This time, the combatants were order and chaos, or entropy. That story does allow for hope for the future. But in another way, it's even bleaker than the ancient myths, because the villain, entropy, is preordained to have the final victory, when the inexorable laws of thermodynamics shut down all novelty with the so-called heat death of the universe.
Currently, there's a story of a local battle in that war, between sustainability, which is order, and wastefulness, which is chaos — that's the contemporary take on good and evil, often with the added twist that humans are the evil, so we shouldn't even try to win. And recently, there have been tales of another cosmic war, between gravity, which collapses the universe, and dark energy, which finally shreds it. So this time, whichever of those cosmic forces wins, we lose.
All those pessimistic accounts of the human condition contain some truth, but as prophecies, they're all misleading, and all for the same reason. None of them portrays humans as what we really are. As Jacob Bronowski said, "Man is not a figure in the landscape — he is the shaper of the landscape." In other words, humans are not playthings of cosmic forces, we are users of cosmic forces. I'll say more about that in a moment, but first, what sorts of thing create novelty? Well, the beginning of the universe surely did.
The big bang, nearly 14 billion years ago, created space, time and energy, everything physical. And then, immediately, what I call the first era of novelty, with the first atom, the first star, the first black hole, the first galaxy. But then, at some point, novelty vanished from the universe. Perhaps from as early as 12 or 13 billion years ago, right up to the present day, there's never been any new kind of astronomical object. There's only been what I call the great monotony. So, Qohelet was accidentally even more right about the universe beyond the Sun than he was about under the Sun. So long as the great monotony lasts, what has been out there really is what will be. And there is nothing out there of which it can truly be said, "Look, this is new."
Nevertheless, at some point during the great monotony, there was an event — inconsequential at the time, and even billions of years later, it had affected nothing beyond its home planet — yet eventually, it could cause cosmically momentous novelty. That event was the origin of life: creating the first genetic knowledge, coding for biological adaptations, coding for novelty. On Earth, it utterly transformed the surface. Genes in the DNA of single-celled organisms put oxygen in the air, extracted CO2, put chalk and iron ore into the ground, hardly a cubic inch of the surface to some depth has remained unaffected by those genes. The Earth became, if not a novel place on the cosmic scale, certainly a weird one.
Just as an example, beyond Earth, only a few hundred different chemical substances have been detected. Presumably, there are some more in lifeless locations, but on Earth, evolution created billions of different chemicals. And then the first plants, animals, and then, in some ancestor species of ours, explanatory knowledge. For the first time in the universe, for all we know.
Explanatory knowledge is the defining adaptation of our species. It differs from the nonexplanatory knowledge in DNA, for instance, by being universal. That is to say, whatever can be understood, can be understood through explanatory knowledge. And more, any physical process can be controlled by such knowledge, limited only by the laws of physics. And so, explanatory knowledge, too, has begun to transform the Earth's surface. And soon, the Earth will become the only known object in the universe that turns aside incoming asteroids instead of attracting them.
Qohelet was understandably misled by the painful slowness of progress in his day. Novelty in human life was still too rare, too gradual, to be noticed in one generation. And in the biosphere, the evolution of novel species was even slower. But both things were happening.
Now, why is there a great monotony in the universe at large, and what makes our planet buck that trend? Well, the universe at large is relatively simple. Stars are so simple that we can predict their behavior billions of years into the future, and retrodict how they formed billions of years ago. So why is the universe simple? Basically, it's because big, massive, powerful things strongly affect lesser things, and not vice versa. I call that the hierarchy rule. For example, when a comet hits the Sun, the Sun carries on just as before, but the comet is vaporized. For the same reason, big things are not much affected by small parts of themselves, i.e., by details. Which means that their overall behavior is simple. And since nothing very new can happen to things that remain simple, the hierarchy rule, by causing large-scale simplicity, has caused the great monotony. But, the saving grace is the hierarchy rule is not a law of nature. It just happens to have held so far in the universe, except here.
In our biosphere, molecule-sized objects, genes, control vastly disproportionate resources. The first genes for photosynthesis, by causing their own proliferation, and then transforming the surface of the planet, have violated or reversed the hierarchy rule by the mind-blowing factor of 10 to the power 40. Explanatory knowledge is potentially far more powerful because of universality, and more rapidly created. When human knowledge has achieved a factor 10 to the 40, it will pretty much control the entire galaxy, and will be looking beyond.
So humans, and any other explanation creators who may exist out there, are the ultimate agents of novelty for the universe. We are the reason and the means by which novelty and creativity, knowledge, progress, can have objective, large-scale physical effects. From the human perspective, the only alternative to that living hell of static societies is continual creation of new ideas, behaviors, new kinds of objects. This robot will soon be obsolete, because of new explanatory knowledge, progress.
But from the cosmic perspective, explanatory knowledge is the nemesis of the hierarchy rule. It's the destroyer of the great monotony. So it's the creator of the next cosmological era, the Anthropocene. If one can speak of a cosmic war, it's not the one portrayed in those pessimistic stories. It's a war between monotony and novelty, between stasis and creativity. And in this war, our side is not destined to lose. If we choose to apply our unique capacity to create explanatory knowledge, we could win.