Five Universal Hierarchies (Substrates)
We made an oversimplification in the last section. We treated physical and chemical systems as one system, which we called Cosmology. But there are in fact important differences between physical and chemical systems. Each evolves, develops, and replicates in very different ways. Most foresight work can ignore these differences, as they don’t seem to matter to global and organizational foresight at present, but not scientists. Scientists need to understand how replicating chemical systems create replicating cells, or life, and how replicating chemistry may have arisen from replicating universes in the multiverse. Scholars of universal foresight should also understand at least the basics of these ideas, as they have so many powerful implications. We also need to consider technology as not just a human system, but one that will soon be fully independent of biology. It isn’t yet , but it’s time we started thinking of it as such.
Each substrate has properties within it that cannot be explained using the language of the simpler substrate from which it is constructed. We call such properties “emergent”. They are unpredictably more complex than the actors and laws which generated them. Chemistry, for example exhibits a variety of emergent properties, like the taste of salt (an emergent property not found in sodium or chlorine prior to their combination), and emergent constraints like Le Chatelier’s principle, a kind of chemical homeostasis, that cannot be fully explained in physical terms. The chemist Eric Scerri, editor of Philosophy of Chemistry (2015), is a leading advocate of the hypothesis that there are many emergent properties and principles of chemistry that will never be reducible to quantum mechanics. For experts, then, chemistry must be considered as a separate and emergent computational domain from the physics which underlies it.
A more scientific universal view then, offers us the following five major computational “substrates” for complex systems. These substrates have emerged hierarchically over the universe’s lifespan, in a natural process of evolutionary development. Each has a different set of material structures within which it operates. Sociology, for example, operates in the nervous systems of biological organisms with brains and language. Here are the five obvious substrates:
Why do these five exist as discrete systems? Developmental processes attract (funnel) complex systems toward future-specific forms and functions. One way they do this is by building their complexity in hierarchies. The new layers of the hierarchy are built using the old layers, and their new complexity, intelligence and adaptiveness, give them emergent new rules of operation, new evolutionary abilities, and new developmental constraints that continue to guide them toward future-specific destinations in both form and function.
Think of the way a human develops, from egg to adult. The more developed it gets, the more of a certain kind of freedom (to be non-human) it loses. The more hierarchies of complexity emerge (organ systems, nervous system, endocrine system, psychological development, etc.), the more it is guided to a particular future. These new hierarchies, which emerge in the same way in all developing humans, direct the human to increasingly specific, complex, and future-fated behaviors.
So too it must be with our universe, if it also is a developmental system. Our universe has built intelligence in a developmental hierarchy as it has unfolded, from physics, to chemistry, to biology, to biological minds. Our human culture will soon develop some form of postbiological intelligence. The accelerating rise of intelligence in our universe, via hierarchies, is little-discussed by current science. Yet any aware high school student can now see that there is a clear directionality to universal complexification. Seeing this directionality is a foundation for all modern universal and global foresight, and it has organizational and personal implications as well.
In this view, future physics, chemistry, and biology, via both theory and simulation, must eventually tell us that part of the developmental role, purpose or “destiny” of biological civilization, everywhere it emerges, is to create first social and then technological descendants of biological systems that are much faster, more complex, and more resilient than purely biological life. This concept is called postbiological evolution (more accurately, evolutionary development) a topic a few philosophers and computer scientists are thinking about today.
Our current science is nowhere near advanced enough to prove or disprove the existence of a universal process of postbiological development for leading-edge complex systems at present. Yet this idea seems a natural outgrowth of the idea of universal accelerating change, discussed in Chapter 2. Looking at universal development from this perspective, we can imagine that everywhere complexity grows in the universe, it must move from physics to chemistry to biology to culture (replicating ideas in brains, or “memes”) to technology (replicating technologies in cultures or “temes”). None of these steps can be skipped, if they are developmental, and they must be taken in the order we’ve proposed. That is the essence of a hierarchy.
Fortunately, even mainstream evolutionary theory is now beginning to think about human futures in not only evolutionary but also developmental terms. But a lot more work along those lines will be necessary before developmentalism (universal development) moves out of the realm of natural philosophy and complexity studies, and gains broad scientific legitimacy. We’ll get a sense of what that some of that work may end up looking like, in rough outline, in the remainder of this chapter.