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Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
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It From Bit or Bit From It
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January 22, 2018

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: Inverting the Phenomenology of Mathematical Lawfulness to Establish the Conditions of Intention-like Goal-oriented Behavior by Bradly John Alicea [refresh]
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Author Bradly John Alicea wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 16:52 GMT
Essay Abstract

To understand how physical and living systems wander towards a goal, we must first admit that mathematical laws describing such entities cannot imposed in a top-down manner, but rather emerge from physical and energetic constraints. This can lead to goal-directed behavior in systems that have no brain. In fact, there is an entire class of systems that exhibit "brainless" or “aneural” cognition, which produce autonomous and even intentional behaviors. Yet even then, the intention-like behavior of a system does not emerge in a brute force fashion. Rather, the generation of quasi-intelligent behavior results from a set of processes involving function, structure, and emergent dynamics. To understand how statistical regularities become mathematical laws, we can turn to both a statistical mechanics-inspired discrete model of combinatorial representations and the Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety. Taken together, these systemic features provide a means to understand how mathematical laws become discoverable, and how systems generate features captured using a formal mathematical language.

Author Bio

Bradly Alicea has a PhD from Michigan State University. He has published in multiple academic fields, and in venues including Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Stem Cells and Development, and Proceedings of Artificial Life. With interests spanning the biological, computational, and social sciences, he is currently Head Scientist and Founder of Orthogonal Research and a Senior Contributor at the OpenWorm Foundation. Bradly is also the administrator of Synthetic Daisies blog. Please see Bradly’s research website ( or blog ( for more information.

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Joe Fisher wrote on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 17:20 GMT
Dear Dr. Bradly John Alicea,

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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Karoly Kehrer replied on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 22:51 GMT
Dear Mr. Fisher

, but I found it interesting that you have exactly the same remarks about the article of Bradly John Alicea as you have posted about other absolutely different articles. What do you want to say?

Respectfully Dr Kehrer

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Willy K wrote on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 05:22 GMT
Out of all the essays I have gone through I was happiest to read your essay because you dealt in some detail on the Law of Requisite Variety. My own essay is perhaps validated by Ashby’s Law, but I have avoided mentioning it, as I did not want to get bogged down in the mathematics, which incidentally is not my strong suit.

For instance, I could not decide whether to invoke the Law of Requisite Variety only for the fifth Right (Regulation Right), or whether it could be used to invoke in each of the five cases of ‘doubling’ present in my model. I think if I understood the essence of your argument, the Law of Requisite Variety can be used to explain the why of the ‘doubling’ in each of the five cases. Quoting from your essay, “…systems that play a game against nature are subject to the Law of Requisite Variety. There will be enough advantageous strategies to provide variety in dealing with the potentially disruptive effects of stochastic noise, but this set is limited due to the structural constraints of the system itself.” Please let me know where I might be going wrong.

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Author Bradly John Alicea replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 04:44 GMT
Thanks for your interest. The law of Requisite Variety in the context of a game against nature is something I did not develop much in this essay, but is something I think has a lot of promise for theories of biocomplexity. The idea is that the more variation present in a system (or population), the greater number of strategies can be pursued to hedge against noise (or negative selection -- in this case, wiping out the population). In a game against nature, a system must do one of two things: 1) predict patterns in the stochastic outputs of nature, or 2) buffer itself from these stochastic outputs. I'm not exactly sure how this relates to your model, but it might relate to the emergence of autonomous structures that self-regulatory.

Willy K replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 07:17 GMT
I think out of the two strategies you mention, the second one is probably what is relevant to my model. The first strategy probably implies that we must understand nature's laws in a better manner, but the second strategy suggests the "emergence of autonomous structures that self regulate". Very nicely put, I must say.

Since you have not yet fully developed the theory of LoRV in the context of a game against nature, I guess it implies that I must avoid claiming that LoRV is relevant at all the 'doubling' stages present in my model. At most, I can suggest that LoRV is relevant at the fifth stage of Regulation Right. This is precisely why I avoided mentioning LoRV in the essay in the first place. It looks like that ambiguity will have to continue for some more time.

But I want to make it clear that I hold your essay in the highest esteem and have rated it accordingly. The rating system used by FQXi seems a bit arbitrary. Hopefully, good essays like yours will rise up with more time.

Kind Regards, Willy

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 12:35 GMT
Nice essay Prof Alicea,

Your ideas and thinking are excellent starting words in Abstract…. “ To understand how physical and living systems wander towards a goal, we must first admit that mathematical laws describing such entities cannot imposed in a top-down manner, but rather emerge from physical and energetic constraints. This can lead to goal-directed behavior in systems that have...

view entire post

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Author Bradly John Alicea replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 04:43 GMT
Thanks for your kind words. I will take a look at your essay. The literature on aneural cognition is an upstart field but nevertheless fascinating. I think that the idea of autonomic cognition might be of some use in cosmology, at least in the mechanistic sense.

Willy K wrote on Mar. 26, 2017 @ 06:39 GMT
Hi Alicea

If you get the time, you may want to check out the essay of Bach titled “Minimal Goal-Directed Systems”. It also attempts to address the theme of this contest using the theorems of Ashby and Conant.

Regards, Willy

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Peter Jackson wrote on Mar. 30, 2017 @ 11:10 GMT

I enjoyed your fresh, valid and interesting view and analysis, very well set out. In particular I agree your conclusions; "When a system stumbles towards a goal, it does so without the direct confines of mathematical laws. Rather, mathematical laws emerge from the interactions of the systems itself."

Also the importance of feedback loops; "the existence of adaptive behavior and feedback leads to the formation of small-scale control motifs which I develop in my own essay in hierarchical layers (so goals as higher level 'decisions') and also (causally) decoded quantum 'noise'.

(If you get the chance to read mine and struggle with the 3D dynamic evolution do watch the video too - links in the string).

Very nicely done and I hope it's a finalist.



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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 08:07 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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