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The Paradigm of Emergence: A Unifying Worldview for a Divided World and a Solution to the Meaning Crisis

The Paradigm of Emergence: A Unifying Worldview for a Divided World and a Solution to the Meaning Crisis by Bobby Azarian

The following article was originally published on the Road to Omega Substack by Bobby Azarian. Reposted with permission.

We are living in a time of great uncertainty and it is not unreasonable to be fearful. The world is dangerously divided and the existential threats are piling up. World War III is not only possible, it is starting to look unavoidable unless a conscious collective effort is made to prevent it. Artificial intelligence is improving at dizzying speeds, making it an existential risk potentially as dangerous as any other. Pandemics have become part of the new normal. Climate change is causing unpredictable weather patterns that are destroying entire ecosystems. Political extremism is at an all-time high, and the different sides live in completely different realities. To top it off, we’re experiencing what has been called a “meaning crisis”—in other words, no one knows what to believe or what is real, and this creates a sense of despair and meaninglessness.

The aim of Road to Omega is to develop and popularize a unifying worldview that can solve these problems. This worldview is based on an emerging scientific paradigm that stands to change everything we thought we knew about the universe and our relationship to it. This “cosmic perspective” has the potential to transform society by ushering in a new age of optimism, one that can facilitate both technological and social progress by giving us a sense of collective purpose and direction.

At a personal level, the paradigm will give you a new lens through which to view the world—a lens that will instill life with a sense of meaning and cast a psychedelic glaze over reality. It will reveal how to live optimally, so that you are maximizing productivity, creativity, and happiness, based on principles employed by nature. And it will do all this without asking you to believe anything that is not supported by science and rational argument. But before we can fully appreciate this new worldview and its tools for progress, we must understand what worldviews are, why they are important, and why a new one is desperately needed.

Worldviews are belief systems that give us a sense of purpose, meaning, and direction. Examples of worldviews include religions, political ideologies, and national identities. These philosophical systems tell us how to live life as individuals, and also as a collective.

Evolutionary speaking, a worldview is a strategy for collective survival. That is, it is a blueprint for a stable society, in much the same way that a genome is a blueprint for a stable organism, and a strategy for individual survival. Cognitively speaking, a worldview is a “sense-making lens,” because its function is to make sense of a complicated and confusing reality. As knowledge systems, worldviews aim to reduce our uncertainty about the world in an attempt to minimize anxiety and cognitive dissonance. Simply stated, they tell us what to do and why.

Worldviews are an important part of the evolutionary process because they facilitate the emergence of a social organism—an organism made of intelligent organisms—by aligning the interests of interacting agents and harmonizing their activities. In this way, worldviews entrain groups of humans into a unified whole, bringing about the creation of a metasystem with new emergent properties and causal powers. For example, civilizations are capable of creating art and technology that is infinitely superior to anything that could be made by any individual working in isolation. The creative power of civilization is the result of collective intelligence, which is the intelligence associated with a network of cognitive agents working together as one coherent computational system. A collective mind is a mind made of many minds that share a common goal.

Worldviews produce all the fruits of culture, but they can also blind us to truth or be used to control us. That means we should always be looking to update our worldviews so that they are consistent with reality and aligned with the requirements for human progress. Unfortunately, at the present time our most popular worldviews seem to have neither of those qualities. So, what is wrong with them exactly, and how can they be improved?

The earliest worldviews were religions. These religions brought humans together under a collective purpose and gave them an ethical system that produced social order from behavioral chaos. However, as our understanding of the natural world progressed, our new knowledge revealed crucial inaccuracies in these worldviews—inaccuracies that actually increase cognitive dissonance, and create confusion rather than clarity.

The other problem with religions is that they are all different, and therefore divide us into tribes with conflicting visions about how the world should be. Just as organisms with sufficiently different genomes will typically be in conflict, social organisms with different worldviews will be at war unless they find a way to align interests. This will usually require a unifying worldview that integrates the competing worldviews into a coherent philosophy that encompasses both, a fact that will become important later.

Due to their inaccuracies, the religious worldviews of the world began to gradually be replaced by a scientific worldview, shaped by the paradigm-shifting discoveries of people like Newton and Darwin. In many ways humans have made progress by transitioning to a science-based worldview, because inaccurate beliefs about reality are being filtered out and replaced with beliefs based on empirical evidence. However, worldviews must address our existential questions and inform us ethically, if not directly then implicitly, or else cognitive dissonance and uncertainty will cause existential anxiety. Even if we are able to effectively suppress our existential concerns by compartmentalizing, the anxiety will still be present underneath the surface, affecting our cognitive function and sense of wellbeing. This is why religions are still the most popular worldviews today.

The mainstream scientific worldview, known as the reductionist paradigm, depicts life as a temporary statistical fluctuation away from a general trend of increasing cosmic disorder. According to this framework, life will come and go without making any significant difference to the universe at large. This suggests that existence has no meaning and that life has no purpose, objectively speaking, making it essentially a nihilistic philosophy. The essence of reductionism is that “We are nothing more than our atoms.” It reduces us to our parts by denying the existence of the whole that is you.

Not only would it have us believe that life is doomed for thermodynamic reasons—an assumption that will be shown to be on shaky ground—under this belief system free will is typically considered to be an illusion, which means nothing you do in life has actually been chosen by you. According to the philosophy known as determinism, a cousin of reductionism, choice or possibility does not exist at all; everything that happens is just the result of a deterministic chain of events with no room or role for human agency.

In the 20th century, the nihilism of this paradigm seeped into popular postmodern philosophy, which brought about an age of cosmic pessimism and a sense of meaningless that still lingers in intellectual circles and exerts an unseen influence on the culture, politics, and ethics of today.

If all the reductionist assumptions about nature are true, and that is simply the way reality is, then we must accept it no matter how depressing, regardless of the negative consequences for mental health and the ethical implications (or lack thereof). However, if new science is casting doubt on the fundamental premises of the reductionist worldview and all their existential assumptions, then we should explore those ideas with great enthusiasm and curiosity. And that is exactly what we are now seeing.

The universe no longer appears to just be this big random machine evolving arbitrarily, but instead a creative system that is recursively generating novelty, pattern, and experience—perhaps endlessly. In other words, reality is an emergence generator. So far, it has produced matter, life, mind, and culture through a process of hierarchical self-organization, whereby nature’s fundamental components come together to form greater wholes, which then become the building blocks for the next level of complexity. Subatomic particles came together to form atoms, which came together to form molecules, which formed cells, which formed complex organisms, which formed societies, and human civilization now seems to be forming what has been described as a “global brain.” Could this global brain of humans informationally connected by wireless devices someday become conscious? We can only speculate about what kind of emergences are in store for our civilization should we collectively choose to consciously participate in the process of cosmic evolution that life seems to be such a crucial part of.

Although this paradigm is completely naturalistic, many will find its philosophical implications to have a spiritual quality because they suggest that life has cosmic significance. By “cosmic significance,” I mean that life is a mechanism for the growth of complexity in nature that will shape the evolutionary trajectory of the universe and determine its large-scale development. And if biologically-based intelligence is the primary driver of cosmic evolution, then life has objective significance and a somewhat mysterious purpose that transcends the individual.

If this emerging paradigm—which can be called the paradigm of emergence—suggests that life does in fact have cosmic significance and is not destined for transience, then that is a discovery that must be shouted from the rooftops. One could argue that it is a more profound paradigm shift than those associated with Newton and Darwin, because it places life at the center of everything, though It is actually an extension of the Darwinian paradigm, as it applies evolutionary logic to every scale of organization in nature, including the cosmos as a single system.

Not only would delivering this information have positive effects on the mental health of all the science-minded people who have accepted a nihilistic philosophy for no good reason, it would also be of great practical importance to society, because the new cosmic narrative illuminates not just why we are here, but where we’re going and how to get there. Simply stated, the paradigm of emergence provides a road map for human progress. It is also a general theory of adaptive systems that can instruct us on how to optimize our social, political, and economic systems for maximum resilience and computational power.

Of course, the big question is, where is it all going? There’s no way to be certain, but it is useful and necessary to speculate, not to mention, fun. We can already see that as the evolutionary process proceeds on Earth, life transforms the inanimate world into an information processing network composed of a fabric that can feel. A single cell grew into a sentient web that now spans the planet, and that is just the beginning of a process of open-ended evolution and complexity growth. Through the spread of sentient beings, the universe is waking up and experiencing the fruits of its own creation. To quote the great cosmologist and educator Carl Sagan, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

If that is the case, the spread of life would appear to be the mechanism through which the universe is organizing itself into some cosmic-scale computational system, with an architecture that mirrors a complex adaptive system, like an organism or a neural network. This presumed goal-state of the universe—what physicist Paul Davies describes as a “cosmic mind”—would correspond to an attractor, meaning it would inevitably emerge at some future point in time due to the self-organizing dynamics of the evolving system. This cosmic entity, an integrated informational network composed of all the conscious agents in existence, would be indistinguishable from a god.

The French philosopher and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin referred to such an emergence as an “Omega Point”—hence the name Road to Omega—and it is our job to figure out how to get there. If such a conscious state emerges, even at the scale of the global brain that is forming on Earth, it will allow for surreal experiences and artistic possibilities we cannot begin to fathom. Below is a depiction of the process by Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, who believes that bringing about a sentient state of the cosmos is life’s destiny.

Talking about life having a destiny might sound like a mystical vision, but Kurzweil’s “law of accelerating returns” shows that the trend toward higher complexity and greater computational power is a principle of nature.

In the book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Conscious, and Cosmic Complexity, I try to show why this trend exists, and why it should be expected to continue into the future, based on the new sciences of complexity—including but not limited to—non-equilibrium thermodynamics, evolutionary theory, information theory, and cybernetics. These fields reveal that evolution is a knowledge creation process that builds hierarchical control systems which spread throughout the cosmos in an attempt to sustain life against the tide of entropic decay described by the second law of thermodynamics. As this process plays out, life saturates the universe with intelligence, at first gradually, but at a rate that is always accelerating.

It is important to note that the “goal” of the cosmic evolution process may not be some final state of the universe in which all matter acquires mind. The goal of nature, if it is even appropriate to describe nature as having an intention, may simply be the continued persistence of life and consciousness. Therefore, it is likely that the process of recursive emergence does not culminate in a single ultimate Omega Point, but is an infinite chain of Omega Points that stretch into the future with no foreseeable end. Reality would best be understood as a creative process of eternal recursive emergence. If we create simulated worlds with their own conscious agents, assuming such a thing is possible, then we will be contributing to the process of eternal recursive emergence.

Today, the view that nature is complexifying and will continue to do so through life has been proposed or at least seriously entertained by some of the greatest scientists alive. The list includes theoretical physicists like David Deutsch, Seth Lloyd, Paul Davies, Lee Smolin, and Julian Barbour, as well as biologists like Stuart Kauffman, and neuroscientists like Christof Koch. Before them, the same vision was supported by scientists such as Herbert Spencer, Harold Morowitz, Freeman Dyson, and Christian de Duve, along with philosophers like Aristotle, Hegel, Bergson, Whitehead, and Teilhard de Chardin. Now, you can see it becoming part of the intellectual zeitgeist.

If the universe is growing more complex through life, then that gives human civilization a collective goal—to see that life flourishes and assists the cosmos in its process of awakening. As individuals, we should play our part in ensuring that consciousness and creativity continues into the future. You can choose not to, since you do have genuine agency, but that won’t stop the process. In fact, your decision to protest the process could in fact facilitate it.

Yes, we are taking the philosopher David Hume’s principle that you “can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’”—meaning we cannot derive moral judgments from any facts about nature—and throwing it out the window. Nature has given life a mandate: spread as far and as fast as you can. Of course, spreading more quickly over the long term will often require choosing to spread less quickly over the short term. This is not a paradox. Continued growth passed a certain point takes foresight, and an understanding that resources for growth will be limited until the time comes when we figure out how to unlock more of nature’s free energy supply.

To the pessimist, rescuing humanity from its own demise might sound like an impossible task. It is true that the world has some major problems, but it is our problems that create progress. In my book, I call this “Popper’s Principle,” named after the great philosopher of science Karl Popper, who understood that problem-solving is the mechanism through which life learns and evolves. Without challenges, human civilization would not be forced to seek out new solutions, and society would become stagnant.

The intention of the Road to Omega project is to inspire us to embrace our existential challenges and the opportunity to create real-word solutions that push progress forward. Visit the Substack to learn more and join the journey. 

Bobby Azarian is a science journalist and a cognitive neuroscientist with a PhD from George Mason University. He has written for publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times, BBC, Scientific American, Slate, HuffPost, Quartz, and Aeon. His research has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Human Brain Mapping, Cognition & Emotion, Acta Pychologica, and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. His blog “Mind in the Machine,” hosted by Psychology Today, has received over 8 million views. Azarian worked on Season 2 of the YouTube Premium psychology-based series Mind Field (as a consultant and researcher), which helped the show win its first Emmy nomination. He has appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience, The Michael Shermer Show, The David Pakman Show, and The Young Turks to discuss his work. He is based in Arlington, Virginia.