Where Does It All Come From? A Conversation

Benjamin Olshin is assistant professor of Philosophy, History, and History of Science at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Paul Grobstein is professor of Biology at Bryn Mawr College. The two met and discovered common interests, like this one, at a meeting on "Building the Scientific Mind" in Vancouver in May 2007 (for another common interest see Reality and Virtual Reality). Their ongoing exchange is provided here to encourage further conversation. Your thoughts are welcome in the forum area below.


Olshin - 30 November 2008

As Grobstein and I have waded through various questions concerning how human beings perceive, narrate, or even create the universe, we have kept stumbling upon a persistent puzzle: Where does it all come from? That is, we both agree that the brain somehow takes all the input from the world around us, and through some kind of “fuzzy” interface, puts together a “story” that makes sense of it all, allowing a person to navigate their way through life. But we left with the question of what’s “out there”, on the other side of the interface. I think that Grobstein and I agree at this point that there is something out there, perhaps. Grobstein talks about an order emerging out of chaos, I think...

One of the issues that this brings up is an old one: Where does order come from? We all learned in school that systems go from order to chaos, not vice-versa. Certainly, there seem to be contrary examples — a recent article in Scientific American notes: “In seeming defiance of the second law of thermodynamics, nature is filled with examples of order emerging from chaos.” But such “examples of order” are usually small-scale. And Wolfram’s examples of emerging patterns also sidesteps the main question of, again, “Where did it all come from in the first place?” In mythological constructs, such as those of the ancient Greeks, order emerges out of some initial chaos — and it emerges spontaneously, from nowhere. This led the conundrum of a “First Cause”, puzzled over by the early Greek philosophers.

Most Western conceptions of “origins” — such as the origin of order and pattern, or the origin of sub-atomic particles — drift towards a supposition of some kind of “substrate”. In physics, there are quarks, “quantum foam”, and so on. But of course, with anything like that, even with the infinitesimally small “origin” of the “Big Bang”, we are back to the Greek problem of the “First Cause”. To have a start to anything, it implies that there was something before it that started it, that ordered it. or at the very least gave it physical properties and laws.

http://www.dragon.org/chris/ouroboros.htm As I was ruminating over this question of “First Cause”, I started reading, by chance, about the Ouroborus, the serpent, snake, or dragon that is depicted biting its own tail. The image has several meanings, but typically it is interpreted as representing the cyclic nature of existence, of the universe. This includes ideas such as disintegration and re-integration, creation out of destruction, and so on. But another less-understood symbolism inherent in the image is what is known as “self-fecundation”. More particularly, the Ouroborus can be seen not as eating its tail, but rather disgorging itself into existence: the mouth is spewing forth the tail, the whole body. Indeed, as Jung notes in his Mysterium Coniunctionis, “the ouroboros... brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself”. Fine, yes, but what does this mean for our present discussion? In short, I think that as usual the ancients — whoever it was that first devised the Ouroborus symbolism — were onto something here; instead of positing an original substrate, or even an original chaos out of which order (or even matter) emerged, they shifted the question entirely. The only thing that can create is that which is already created; in other words, we created ourselves, and always have been creating ourselves.

My final comment here is this: I don’t want us to think that I’m just talking mystically here, or metaphysically. I think this idea of us creating ourselves can be taken all the way to physics. In fact, I am pretty sure that David Bohm, in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, was articulating the idea in such a context. His work with the neuroscientist Karl Pribram on a holonomic model of the brain — an idea that has been grossly misinterpreted in the popular press — is also suggestive. In fact, one might argue that such a model suggests that the origins of physical phenomena may be found in consciousness. We spin out from ourselves the world around us.

Grobstein - 12 January 2009

"Chaos" is a bit of a problematic term these days. In common and literary usage it means disorder. In contemporary scientific jargon, however, it means things that look unpredictable but actually follow well-defined rules ("orderly but ill-mannered", for more on the distinction between deterministic and non-deterministic unpredictability see The Magic Serpinski Triangle). So, to be clear, Grobstein "talks about an order emerging out of ... " randomness, unpredictability of the non-deterministic sort.

Yes, Wolfram's "New Kind of Science" sidesteps the "First Cause" question, because it depends on deterministic processes (to generate both order and chaos (of the deterministic sort)). One of the appealing things about starting with randomness is that it doesn't. As discussed in Serendip's new Ways of Making Sense of the World, one can think of randomness not as something caused by something else but rather as .... what has been and always will be, as what underlies all order ... which indeed "emerges spontaneously, from ... " nothing more than randomness.

As Westerner's we are indeed inclined to look for some kind of order as a cause for order and to think of randomness as the antithesis of order rather than its origin. Maybe though, as per Ways of Making Sense of the World and Inverting the Relationship Between Randomness and Meaning its time to question that particular presumption (or form of mediation)?

Along these lines, the ouroboros image is a particularly interesting one. Randomness is transformed by itself into transient order which is in turn altered by randomness into disorder. So randomness gives birth to itself? Over and over again?

"The only thing that can create is that which is already created", ie randomness? That makes sense to me, and may in fact be a better way to think about the "order" that we (think we) perceive around us. See Chance in Life and the World for an illustration of how the world might look if we weren't imposing order on it (weren't dealing with it in a mediated way). So, yes, in an important sense, we certainly "create ourselves" as well as "the world around us." Neither would appear as we see them without our seeing them. Does that mean that "the origins of physical phenomena maybe found in consciousness"? Clearly yes, if one means "the origins of physical phenomena as we currently see them." It doesn't though necessarily mean that nothing exists without consciousness. My bet is that the universe has a long history of existing without their being in it any consciousness whatsoever and that, indeed, it is out of that history, driven largely by randomness, that consciousness itself emerged (see From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond (Soundings, 2007, as a Word file)).


Robert Rota's picture


I came across your posts through a search engine result for where does randomness come from. I am studying artificial intelligence and have come to the comclusion that the brain is designed for pattern recognition. I do not know where randomness comes from and if you think about it mathematically I wonder if the amount of randomness in the universe is increasing or decreasing or neither. Do you know? If you have a random phenomena integrated with a deterministic phenomena isn't the product still random? I recently read that the brain is incapable of a random thought. If randomness occurs in the environment could the brain not input that phenomena in its own processes? if the brain is incapable of random thought then it follows that humans or groups of humans are incapable of random behavior. Further, humans will never be able to model anything natural that is even remotely affected by anything random (read artificial intelligence). Above you mention that a deterministic algorithm can produce a random string. I don't think that logic is sound. Incidently, logic and scientific method hinge on the identification of a pattern.

bolshin's picture

Olshin - June 2009

Egads! Last time I posted a comment on this discussion was back in 2007! How time flies...

Paul and I are still locked in (friendly) battle about this topic. As far as I can gather, Paul is still of the "order arises from randomness" school, and I am from "we create ourselves and whole universe out there" school.

This is a very, very complicated subject, of course, as one can see from the comments posted here by Paul, Laura (whom I don't know), and myself. I think that it is complicated for several reasons:

1. We don't have the proper language to talk about it, since...

2. We are really talking, here, about EVERYTHING, and...

3. We have so little empirical material to operate from in this investigation, and it may well be beyond empirical methods.

The particular path that I have been contemplating recently as an attempt to attack this problem is one that I've shared briefly with Paul, and hope to get his further feedback on in the near future. It's a very short passage in the Zhuangzi (= Chuang Tzu), an early Daoist work (I think that the Daoists were attacking this same problem, along with doing some other stuff):

"The understanding of the men of ancient times went a long way. How far did it go? To the point where some of them believed that things have never existed — so far, to the end, where nothing can be added. Those at the next stage thought that things existed but recognized no boundaries among them. Those at the next stage thought there were boundaries but recognized no right and wrong. Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured, and because the Way was injured, love became complete. But do such things as completion and injury really exist, or do they not?" [Chuang Tzu, Burton Watson translation]

More to come...

Paul Grobstein's picture

order: from randomness, from ourselves, or both?

Mea culpa.  It hasn't actually been that long.  What previously read "Olshin - 30 November 2007" on the page above should have read, and now reads,  "Olshin - 30 November 2008."  Yes, even time is a brain construction, and hence challengeable.

In a similar vein, I'm not sure there is actually a "battle" between the "order arises from randomness" and the "we create ourselves and the whole universe out there" school.  I, at least, am perfectly comfortable having my cake and eating it too.  Indeed we (our brains) actually "create ourselves and the whole universe" insofar as those are things we talk about, try and make sense of.  There is no way for us to experience what is "out there" except by creating our own stories (verbal or otherwise) about it.  As per Wittgenstein.  But, contra Wittgenstein, we can aspire to tell stories of what is out there as we imagine it might be if we weren't here/there  constructing stories about it.  "Order arises from randomness" is such a story.  And one based on a lot of "empirical" material, ie observations that one is trying to make sense of.  An "answer" to the question of what is "EVERYTHING" may well be beyond empirical methods, but the investigation isn't. 

Like the Zhuangzi quote.  There are some quite amusing similarities to the contemporary philsophical literature on the question of "realism."  And, as per having cake and eating it too, I'm particularly attracted to "Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured ..."  Reminds me of Jelaluddin Rumi (13th century Sufi)

Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.

Maybe we need to give up the aspiration to be "right" and the associated concept of "battle," and be content with using whatever we have, both agreements and disagreements, to create new stories, ones that seem to us to open new directions for exploration, and may (or may not) prove to be "less wrong"?

Laura Cyckowski's picture

Insofar that "order" or

Insofar that "order" or patterns are "stories"/perceptions made by an observer, it seems randomness also would have to be a "story". So, what's "really out there" is...? Is there a useful distinction between randomness as a state of things versus randomn processes? I.E. the Sudoku example--- a solved puzzle may look to be in a random state but the process by which it came about was not random at all but was subject to certain restrictions (no two adjacent numbers can be identical). And as the opposite of that, random processes can in theory yield anything, including what may look to an observer to be a highly organized state/non-random pattern, regardless of how improbable it may be. So maybe it makes sense not to ask only where did things come from (a random or ordered state) but how they've evolved (random vs. non-random processes)? Either way, the question/answer seems to have to always go back to the observer, so I like the image of the ouroboros and the notion that "the only thing that can create is that which is already created".



Paul Grobstein's picture

randomness as an onion

Yep, a really important point here. Randomness, sensu strictu, is not a property of existing things but rather a characteristic of the process by which existing things come to be. A random process can, given enough time, generate any existing thing, or anything that can be imagined. And most existing things/imagined things (Chaitin's omega being an exception) can equally be generated by either a random or a deterministic process. Its precisely for this reason that it may make sense to use as a criterion of randomness the breadth of a process's ability to explore possibilities rather than any particular one of its products.

There is, though, a more relaxed/common use of "randomness": the absence of any discernable order (in either space of time) or, more generally, the absence of any ability to make any useful predication about a particular element of any array (in either space and time) given knowledge of the rest of the elements. A sequence of numbers produced by a random number generator has this property (despite being generated deterministically). A completed Sudoku puzzle doesn't because the properties of each element (the number at a particular location) depends on the properties of other elements. To put it differently, any correlation among elements in an existing/imagined thing makes it non-random in the more common/relaxed sense of randomness. And, in this circumstance, there can be varying degrees of randomness (more or less correlation).

The upshot: "randomness" is, like most human ideas, an "onion," with nested different meanings that need to be peeled apart. A random process can generate an uncorrelated product that will appear random to an observer. But one can have uncorrelated products that result from non-random processes, and one can have correlate products that appear random to an observer. And one can have correlated products that result from random processes that may or may not appear random to an observer.



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