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Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
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Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
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Media Partner: Scientific American


How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
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It From Bit or Bit From It
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Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
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Is Reality Digital or Analog?
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January 23, 2018

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: From Athena to AI: the past and future of intention in nature by Rick Searle [refresh]
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Author Rick Searle wrote on Mar. 1, 2017 @ 20:07 GMT
Essay Abstract

This essay attempts to link the pre-Socratic philosophers who created science with current work in bio-physics and cognitive science to answer the question of how goals and intentions can arise from mindless matter and mathematical laws.

Author Bio

Rick Searle is a writer and educator who focuses on the ethical aspects of science and technology. He is a member of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology and an essayist in 2014 FQXi book "How should humanity steer the future?".

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Andrew R. Scott wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 14:23 GMT
An interesting tale, although I am not quite sure where it took me.

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Joe Fisher wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 17:34 GMT
Dear Rick Searle,

Please excuse me for I have no intention of disparaging in any way any part of your essay.

I merely wish to point out that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) Physicist & Nobel Laureate.

Only nature could produce a reality so simple, a single cell amoeba could deal with it.

The real Universe must consist only of one unified visible infinite physical surface occurring in one infinite dimension, that am always illuminated by infinite non-surface light.

A more detailed explanation of natural reality can be found in my essay, SCORE ONE FOR SIMPLICITY. I do hope that you will read my essay and perhaps comment on its merit.

Joe Fisher, Realist

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 04:29 GMT
Nice Godly Story Searle,

Your ideas and thinking are excellent, I hope you are not implying that present day science is also searching God and His philosophy ! Some parts of the story are nice like…..

1. As with your namesake fate what is... is... what is not... is not- but with this difference- no gods inspiring the lechery of Paris lie behind the destruction of Troy, nor even...

view entire post

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Author Rick Searle replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 21:54 GMT
Hello Satyavarapu,

No, I certainly wasn't trying to imply that science is searching for God or the gods.

I wasn't aware of the Dynamic Universe model until now and will certainly read you essay and try to learn more about it.

Best of luck,

Rick Searle

Cristinel Stoica wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 18:23 GMT
Dear Rick,

I liked your essay, both the fun and instructive story at the beginning, so well written, and the next parts. You made a clear picture, including philosophy, history, science, in a unitary construction.

Since I enjoyed your story, let me invite you to read a short story I wrote (not related to the contest).

Best wishes,


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Author Rick Searle replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 21:47 GMT
Hi Cristi,

I really liked your story. Quentin is like a human Schrödinger's Cat.

It reminded me of Asimov's short story, Nightfall, or the science-fiction of Rudy Rucker.

Thanks for sharing it.

Again, best of luck.


Vladimir Nikolaevich Fedorov wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 12:17 GMT
Dear Rick,

A great story about determinism, which I highly estimate.

I share your aspiration to seek the truth

«Something like structure and organized behavior flows almost inevitably from physics itself.»

«What sets complex adaptive systems apart from other types of systems is their ability to respond to not just external cues from its environment, but to signals emanating from the system itself.»

In my opinion, such elementary an adaptive system is classical parametric resonance in the form of a soliton wave.

Perhaps my essay will complement your understanding of the determinism and causes of physical processes.

Your essay allowed to consider us like-minded people.

Kind regards,


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James Lee Hoover wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 16:48 GMT

Interesting way to tie the ancient with the modern. You do a credible job of showing the agenda-driven AI endeavors as our modern gods.

Jim Hoover

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Peter Jackson wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 17:12 GMT

Great essay in all respects, and better for not inviting Aristotle or Plato to tread old ground. Our essays use orthogonal views and interactions with Mount Olympus but (I think!) agree on every single point.

It did seem old Pythagorus was in need of another dimension (=3) and dynamic interactions. I apply his theorem in such a way and shockingly a classical derivation of QM emerged from his cosines. I jest not! Do read and comment You may recall from previous finalist essays the same discrete field mechanism (DFM) of re-emissions at local 'c' allows unification with relativity in QM's 'absolute' time.

I also entirely agree "...if society continues to fail to educate citizens in how artificially intelligent systems work, or fails to empower them with the ability to influence their programming,..." then our short evolution may be ended. I go on to identify why and how our method of thinking must evolve to allow advancement. I hope you'll read and comment. I think no genuine new science can emerge while cognitive dissonance keeps us locked in the dungeons of ancient thinking. Come to think of it, wasn't Pythagoras killed by a mindless Roman soldier for dissent?

Well done, and thanks for the powerfully fresh historic multiparable.


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Laurence Hitterdale wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 04:34 GMT
Dear Rick,

I think it was the 2014 contest when I first read an essay of yours. I like your essay this year, as I did the previous two which I read. I must also say that I read your reflections at the IEET Web site. I rarely comment because of time constraints, but I do read what you have to say. I agree with much of it, and always find it worthwhile. I hope that in the future I will be able to respond more often.

Thanks for your comments on my essay. I will reply to them on the Web page for that essay.

A number of points in your essay are worthy of comment. I am especially interested in your answer to the question which you ask in your concluding section. “Are we actually free?” I think you are saying that at this moment in history to some extent we are. You seem to be cautiously optimistic that such freedom as we possess, if used wisely, can last for a long time (at least by normal human standards of duration) and can become effective over a wider range of human activities. I wonder whether the growth and expansion of freedom is more likely, or less likely, than the diminishment of freedom and its eventual extinguishment. But then, in the last sentence of the essay, you suggest that in the long run the forces of nature are adverse to the enterprise of enlightenment and freedom. If that is so, then perhaps the appropriate human outlook on the future is to take a view which is long but not too long. The view ought to be long enough to lift us from the problems of daily living but not so long as to bring into the picture the inevitable or almost inevitable unhappy ending.

This may or may not be what you had in mind, but it is what occurs to me as I reflect on the text. The issues you raise are important and challenging.

Best wishes.

Laurence Hitterdale

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Author Rick Searle replied on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 21:46 GMT
Hello Laurence,

I am honored to have you read my reflections at the IEET and glad you find them worth reflection.

You picked up on an element I hadn't given much space in my essay when:

"I wonder whether the growth and expansion of freedom is more likely, or less likely, than the diminishment of freedom and its eventual extinguishment. "

In my view, the two potentials march in parallel- every increase in our capacity for freedom is an increase in our capacity for oppression, though I am hopeful freedom will better define us.

I suppose the essay's ending reflects the general mood as much as anything and I largely agree with you and John Maynard Keynes that:

"The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead."

We all must do what good we can even if we know the Second Law, if not our own stupidity will ultimately unravel everything.

All the best,


Laurence Hitterdale replied on Mar. 25, 2017 @ 20:53 GMT
Dear Rick,

I certainly agree with your injunction to do as much good as we can here and now, regardless of what the longer term outlook might be. Herbert J. Muller in “The Uses of the Past,” a book from about 1953, expresses similar ideas, and a few thoughts are like this: “ . . . we cannot escape mystery . . . . our life is surrounded by darkness. . . . Meanwhile, however, we live on an island of light. As life can be worth living even if we are not going to live forever . . . .” It is a good book, though it probably seems now a little out of date.

Best wishes.

Laurence Hitterdale

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Willy K wrote on Mar. 22, 2017 @ 08:50 GMT
Dear Searle

The initial discussion with the pre Socratic philosophers was delightful. I have written similar essays a few years ago and so found your essay to be rather engaging. I rate your essay pretty highly.

I tend to agree with Dennett’s view that freedom must have co-evolved with our brain’s ability to decide between aims and intentions. You go on to state, “Until the forms of artificial intelligence we create can likewise reason about their decisions and leverage their internal states (their equivalents of imagination and emotion) they will remain mere tools”. It is not clear whether this is Dennett’s own view or your own interpretation of his work.

My own work suggests that artificial intelligence will always remain a tool, even after they acquire intelligence that is recognizably equivalent or perhaps even superior to that of humans. This is because acceptance into human society does not hinge on intelligence, but rather on the ability to avoiding harm to fellow humans. The ‘internal states’ that you referred to in artificial intelligences will be different from the internal states of humans, in that, since they are embedded in a non-biological substrate they cannot internalize all the biological vulnerabilities present in the biological world.

Warm regards


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Author Rick Searle replied on Mar. 27, 2017 @ 00:47 GMT
Hi Willy,

Thanks for your comments. In answer to your question: "It is not clear whether this is Dennett’s own view or your own interpretation of his work."

The viewpoint of mine, not DD's. From what I gather he has a very interesting take on AI i.e. that while it might prove technically feasible to recreate human thinking in a non-biological substrate it might prove prohibitively expensive and even unnecessary. To make an actual replication of a bird, intelligence and all, might cost more than the moon missions, but why bother when we can build jet airplanes that act on completely different principles but suit our purposes much better.

All the best,


Member Noson S. Yanofsky wrote on Mar. 27, 2017 @ 00:05 GMT
Dear Searle,

You start off with a nice peice of theology but then make it relavent to the modern world. Very Nice!

I also like the fact that you have a clear introduction to how Jeremy England's work is important for the questions discussed.

I have never heard of Giulio Tonoi or his work. Thank you for pointing me in that direction.

Please have a look at my paper.

All the best,


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Author Rick Searle replied on Mar. 27, 2017 @ 01:06 GMT
Thanks Noson. I just read and commented on your essay.


Anonymous wrote on Mar. 28, 2017 @ 20:33 GMT
Dear Rick,

what a wonderful essay and thanks for bringing Englands work to my attention.

Some comments about evolution (I wrote my PhD thesis on this topic):

you mentioned thermodynamics as the source of disorder but mutation as the corresponding evolution process produces new potential informtion. That is new species are generated with completely new properties. But this new information has no goal. Wandering towards a goal (at least locally) is given by the selection (Is the sepcies adapted?). This selection can be a global function where one tried to find the global minimum (or maximimum). But in our world, all species are forming this function via a non-linear interaction.

So in this short form: you need white noise to create something new and you need the selection given by the interaction between the spoecies.

In my essay I tried to develop a model for our brain which models the process of intention. Maybe you are interested to read it?

Best wishes


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Torsten Asselmeyer-Maluga wrote on Mar. 28, 2017 @ 20:37 GMT
Damned I was logout...

It was me with the highest voting.

Best Torsten

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George Kirakosyan wrote on Apr. 1, 2017 @ 09:04 GMT
Hi dear Rick

I have remembered Schrodinger's amazing words when I began to read your nice essay. I think you will know this also; about "necessities to link our present opportunities with the wisdom of our ancestors, based on their ability of direct - natural thinking ..." (But who take care this now?) I am inclined to see the main merit of your work here, despite there are many important things also, that no need to repeat for you. Your work just is need to read slowly and good thinking how right we have doing now, in our live or, in the science?

So I just can evaluate it very high, because it calling to return to wisdom and to a morality as well. Hope you will open my article and you will tell some words that will valuable for me, as from maestro!

With best wishes,

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George Kirakosyan wrote on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 04:54 GMT
Dear Rick

Your favorable words are over of any my expectations! It's very encouraging for me to meet with people who preferring thinking by own head. We know the bosses always are right in life. I think however in the science every thinker must be free to feel himself an small prophet. Then we can cry in our deserts, hoping somebody will passed nearest! Now I'm thinking it may really happen.

Thank you, and my best wishes to you!

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Jochen Szangolies wrote on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 15:17 GMT
Dear Rick,

it seems that the unconventional presentation of your essay obscures its depth to many. However, I could not help but be both impressed and amused at your somewhat subversive framing of the issue---we see the echoes of Pythagoras in today's mathematical universes, the specter of Heraclitus in thermodynamic and information-theoretic approaches, and so on, each providing their part of and path to an answer. (A shame, though, that Epicurus was born too late, his 'swerve'---the clinamen---interrupting the downward fall of atoms having obvious correlations to many present ideas of free will/intentionality.)

Anyway, this essay deserves a much higher rating!



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Author Rick Searle replied on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 23:13 GMT
Thanks Jochen,

Your compliments mean a lot to me. I think you're the first person to have articulated the method to my madness.

I have finally had the time to read your excellent essay and will comment there.

Best of luck,

Rick Searle

Stefan Keppeler wrote on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 15:35 GMT
Dear Rick,

bravo, you actually managed to draw a line from the pre-Socratics to modern science in a coherent way! Your essay is impressive and enjoyable to read.

In some passages I see connections to other essays which I liked. Your Heraclitus reminds me of Joe Brisendine, and when you wrote that "[o]ur intelligence and decision making (...) emerges in this tension between thought and action, the gap between our internal models of the world and reality itself" I had to think again about the essays of Sofia Magnúsdóttir and Alan Kadin.

I think the views expressed in my own contribution are in line with yours, though I expressed them in a less poetic way and I chose a slightly narrower scope.

Cheers, Stefan

Democritus arose from his seat clearly amused and let out a belch. It appeared he may have already been a little drunk. :)

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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 09:53 GMT
Dear Sirs!

Physics of Descartes, which existed prior to the physics of Newton returned as the New Cartesian Physic and promises to be a theory of everything. To tell you this good news I use «spam».

New Cartesian Physic based on the identity of space and matter. It showed that the formula of mass-energy equivalence comes from the pressure of the Universe, the flow of force which on the corpuscle is equal to the product of Planck's constant to the speed of light.

New Cartesian Physic has great potential for understanding the world. To show it, I ventured to give "materialistic explanations of the paranormal and supernatural" is the title of my essay.

Visit my essay, you will find there the New Cartesian Physic and make a short entry: "I believe that space is a matter" I will answer you in return. Can put me 1.


Dizhechko Boris

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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 00:56 GMT
An interesting and fun read Rick,

I especially like the Greek philosophers cited, and how that lays a groundwork for modern independence of thought. I'm not certain how much of the got-motivated view people actually believed, but I am sure they were taught and ruled by fear of crossing their will. Better to be an independent thinker, if you are going to be responsible for your actions anyway. Nice that you wove in Tononi (misspelled twice), and so raised the idea of a non-human measure of consciousness.

More later,


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