Teleology, Chapter 6

Teleology CoverartThrough that winter, as I recall, Harry became even more involved with the church. I kept my mouth shut about his choices. Mom, sensing that I might be feeling left out, pushed me to get involved in a mentoring program for gifted students after I opened up with my theories about evolutionary simulation and meaning.

My first meeting with my assigned mentor went pretty well, though he intimidated me by not responding immediately to most of what I described. Dr. Korporlik was Serbo-Croatian by ethnicity and had worked for years as a computer scientist and mathematician at the nearby Department of Energy laboratory, Los Alamos, after coming to the US via German laboratories. He was now at a local think tank—the Rio Grande Group—that specialized in studying complex systems. I knew next to nothing about RGG when my school counselor set up my appointment to meet Korporlik. On a crisp November night, Mom drove me to their office building near the downtown plaza. She planned on doing some grocery shopping and left me with instructions to call her if I finished before the allocated hour was up.

Korporlik introduced himself and said he worked on problems in computer science mostly, but that those problems had parallels in biology, and asked what I thought about school.

“It’s OK,” I said.

“Good grades, I think?” he responded.

“Yeah, I get pretty much all As unless I get too bored and then I sometimes get lazy,” I said.

“Yes, it is a common problem. The schools here could be more challenging, yes?” He said rapidly. His accent was fairly thick with chirpy Germanic overtones.

“I guess so. I don’t mind it being easy, I guess. Less homework means more time for other things,” I responded.

“Alright,” he said, “I will give you some other things to think about.” He handed me a book from his bookshelf and waved his hand dismissively in the air. “Come back next week and we will discuss it.”

The book had a soft cover with some diagrams and seemed cheap. “Ilya Prigogine,” I mouthed and he nodded and turned towards the whiteboard behind him.

I left and walked a block towards the plaza glancing at the introduction. Korporlik had not impressed me. He was too distracted and uninterested in talking about ideas. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had been uninteresting in my comments or whether he was just so inwardly focused that everyone only commanded a few moments of his attention. I would read the book but somehow doubted that discussions with him about it would result in new insights insofar as he stayed a dour Eastern European enigma.

The back of the book and the preface were already grabbing my attention, though. Self-organizing chemical systems that could become more complex over time, seemingly defying the idea that entropy breaks things down in an inevitable process. Why had he given me a book about chemistry when he was a computer scientist? Yet the parallels with my conceptual problems with evolution seemed obvious. If chemical systems could self-organize and become more complex, they were moving towards the kinds of replication that was essential for variation and selection—the key components of evolution.

Mom was clearly irritated when she finally located me after rounds of text messaging. The evening was turning frosty as she pulled through the plaza, the warm glow of candelarias already shining from the rooftops of galleries and restaurants. The other kids had dispersed early because of the chill, leaving me perched alone on a bench seatback, the cold of the formed cement beginning to penetrate my light jacket as I projected misty funnels of breath against the sharp moonlight.

At home, I found Harry reading in the den and was surprised to see it was a copy of a Bible that Dad had gotten from my uncle and left untouched on a bookshelf. He had been an advocate, like Mom, of the idea that no books should be excluded from our consideration, yet seeing Harry pouring over it was a violation of the principle because I wasn’t convinced he had the proper detachment to understand the book in context at this point.

“You’re reading the Bible?” I asked with a tone of amused derision.

“Sure,” he responded, “Sarah thinks I need to read it.”

“Uh-huh, Sarah. So you don’t want to read it?”

“Naw, that’s the wrong impression. You’re too cynical. She mentioned it and I am reading it. Have you read it?” he asked.

“Well, some of the Old Testament and chunks of the New,” I responded, confident that there was nothing new he could spring on me.

“Right, chunks,” he smiled at me, though it was an accurate description of my interaction with the book. I had read Genesis closely, but got lost in all the “who begat whom” language, ultimately skipping through to Exodus.

“Really, I did chunks. I was at the Rio Grande Group HQ down by the plaza tonight. I had a really interesting meeting with my contact, there,” I exaggerated. “We discussed how entropy can actually create complex systems.”

“Entropy? Isn’t that randomness?” He asked.

“Not exactly, but it is the reduction in order that is in the universe as a whole. Things fall apart,” I said, suspecting he would not get the reference. We had been growing apart over the past several years, but things had really accelerated in the last year or so, and I was beginning to feel like I was capable of manipulating him at a certain level.

“So how can a reduction in order create anything?” he asked.

“The key is that entropy only increases for closed systems without energy inputs. The universe as a whole is an example, but for the Earth it doesn’t apply. The sun is constantly supplying energy.”

“I don’t buy it. Watches don’t self-assemble, regardless of the energy. You are trying to justify evolution and it just seems ridiculous to me,” he proclaimed.

“Ridiculous?” I was on my heels. I was impressed with Prigogine as a technical solution to the problem of entropy and the possibility of life. The idea that it was a contentious issue had caught me by surprise, and the idea that it related to his newfound interest in religion was equally unexpected.

“Look, why do you want to fight me all the time?” he suddenly yelled. I was guilty of concern and even cynicism about his recent religious affiliations, but tracing a direct path between reporting the evening’s events and his religious interests was off base.

“What’s your problem?” I yelled back. Realization suddenly struck me and I tried to cool down a bit. Harry was standing. His shoulders were tensed and his face twisted up in rage. “This is just stuff I’m studying, man. Your religion stuff is your business.”

“No way. You’re always talking it down. You’re jealous because of my friends and the fun we are having.”

I tried to be as composed as I could, “No, not really, Harry. I don’t care about fantastical nonsense.” My composure brought with it a desire to challenge him and I knew that the more composed I was the angrier he might become. Did his volatility parallel his emotional commitment to religion itself? There was no reason why he should react with such intensity unless he felt challenged or that his faith was being shaken. I had no faith, however, just ideas that were at work explaining the world. If there were sound reasons to doubt them, I could release them and move on to other options. But that wasn’t the way religion worked. Either you were committed to unreason or you were unreasonably defending it.

His face contorted and his lips rolled back, “Sarah is right. You are being influenced by the Devil,” he yelled at me.

I was caught off-guard by that and my forced composure slipped as my mind raced. “Are you serious?” I asked as the smug expression eased into confusion.

“Yeah, you are the Master of Lies, needling me about evolution and entropy and things like that. You need to read the Bible and drop that pseudo-intellectual crap. Join the human race.”

It made no sense whatsoever. He made no sense, but his rage was evident as he pushed me suddenly and forcefully in the chest. The room jerked and receded as I flew back over the end table, knocking the lamp to the floor beneath me as I slammed into the armoire and dropped to the tile floor. Pain emanated from the back of my head. I heard Mom’s voice.

“What? Harry, what did you do?” she yelled.

“He’s pushing me Mom. He thinks he’s so smart but he’s just trying to trick us all,” he yelled back.

Then I was in Mom’s arms and she looked me over. There was blood running down from the back of my head. It was warm and sticky.

“I didn’t do anything, ” I quietly told her as she asked me if I was hurt anywhere else. Harry was gone. I heard the kitchen door slam and Mom brought an ice pack. She asked me to tell her what happened and I did the best I could.

“You pushed him some, though, didn’t you?” she asked.

“Not enough for his reaction. I called religion ‘fantastical nonsense’, I think, but that’s about it,” I told her.

“You need to find a way to get along, you know? He’s really interested in, well, what he’s interested in, and you have your interests. You just need to coexist in peace, find some harmony between you or at least keep your distance,” she said.

I could feel a headache emerging and beginning to wrap its way around my skull. “I was really just telling him about my stuff with RGG, Mom, and he got really defensive.” I could tell that she didn’t fully believe me from her expression, but she was compelled to help me nonetheless.

Many years later I would recall this conflict as the first of many. The pair bond of twins had entwined everything until recently. What bothered him bothered me. What concerned him equally concerned me. Then it changed and we diverged as if we were not brothers at all, but complete strangers. Or so it seemed in retrospect, though a rational analysis would have traced the separation back over the last several years. Yet it hurt and I wanted to run to Harry and try to reconcile, to fix the divisions between us and make things the way they once were. And, still, I was angry with him over his irrationality—his fantastical nonsense—and that he was unable to control his emotions and look clearly and calmly at the issues we were trying to discuss.

“I feel like he doesn’t think anymore,” I told Mom, “he just reacts.”

“That’s standard teenage stuff, you know?” she smiled at me as she held the icepack against my head. “You do realize that you are the exception in that regard?”

I was nonplussed. “Thinking is the exception?” I asked.

“Somewhat. Most people and certainly most teenagers don’t think very clearly. It’s enough for them to sort out why they feel the way they do. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Feeling is very human.”

“Thinking is what we should do about facts and ideas. Feeling is for feelings,” I responded, but suddenly felt a certain longing. Mom was distinguishing emotion and logic in a way that celebrated emotion itself as valuable. It was a concept that worried me. If we felt about economics or business, if we felt about science, or if we felt about something as mundane as public safety, our lives would be diminished. Theories would not be envisioned, policies would not be enacted and crosswalks would not be created. It was not that I didn’t feel things—indeed, I felt I was far too often driven by feelings—but I wanted to govern those feelings enough that I could actively distinguish between situations where feeling was appropriate and where reason should hold the upper hand. Yet, how was it possible to make that distinction? If every thought, feeling and idea becomes subject to reason and consideration, doesn’t that eradicate the spontaneity and impulsive character of emotional response itself?

Mom looked at me with seriousness. “We need both. They have to balance in some way. Look at art or music. They channel emotion through mechanisms of expression that can be rationally characterized in a way, but the final product is still uniquely…” She winced, searching for the right phrase, “…determined by the emotional drive to produce that art.”

I circled back to the logic of natural history. If the formation of the brain was ultimately dictated by the evolutionary circumstances in which it was formed, what determined the creation of novelty like art and poetry? I couldn’t connect Mom’s balancing act of emotion and reason to Harry’s religious interests—at least not the way she had characterized it. If emotion was a wildfire that randomized everything, it hardly seemed connected to the orderly and non-evolved world that Harry envisioned where God determined everything.

A better model might have been that Satan introduced randomness into the mind of the artist or musician to better allow them to transcend existing modes of expression with the ultimate consequence being new artworks. This played into the notion that good and evil had to be intertwined for the world to work, though, something that Christians were opposed to, yet something that fit well with any attempt at explaining the horrible events that befall people all on God’s watch, much less the existence of Shakespearean sonnets or the brilliant excesses of Abstract Expressionism.

Harry wanted to belong and wanted to not have to think about why he was belonging. It was enough to belong and be among accepting friends who were not troubled by these complexities, I thought. But I was already onto something new, I realized. Evolutionary forces made us complex creatures who were superior in a way to other creatures by dint of our tools and language. We could even transmit ideas through generations using books and recorded information. We seek knowledge and thrive on ideas. But that creativity must be hard to evolve. Much harder than something like better night vision that has immediate consequences to survival. Instead, creativity often results in failure and requires some kind of randomization, a breaking down and rethinking of how things work and how the universe is conceived.

“Sometimes, I guess,” I responded, relieving the sharp sting of the ice pack by raising it a bit and repositioning. “But I can’t conceive of how emotion actually drives people to produce art.” I thought of the galleries and the Indian pottery downtown. “The potters do it because it is functional and decorate the pots based on traditional patterns. Painters aren’t really driven to paint or their heads might explode, are they?”

She smiled, gently. “True. It’s a more subtle emotional commitment, I guess, not like love or hate or sorrow or any of the terms we use for emotion. The same is true I think about Harry’s interest in religion. Pious people operate on a kind of internal joy that justifies their choices concerning how to think or not think about some subjects,” she emphasized the “not” with a conspiratorial lowering of her voice.

“They avoid thinking about them,” I said flatly.

“Sure, but they also sometimes see them as threats when they do come up. Avoiding conflict in order to remain happy works for physical threats, why not for threats to your mental model?” She paused. Her eyes traced along the bookshelf over the English tea chest with the silver filigree inlays and settled on a Mudhead Kachina. “That’s why Harry is so passionate about what you say. You can think of it as him caring about your opinion of him, in a way. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t be so passionate.”

My head healed the way kid’s heads do, but I avoided Harry for the rest of the week. The nights were getting colder now. The evening air smelled of piñon fires. I returned to RGG for my meeting the next week. Koporlik was warmer, it seemed, perhaps because I had made the effort to return and brought the book with me.

“How was it?” he asked.

“Very interesting. I didn’t fully understand the chemistry and physics in it, though,” I responded.

“No, of course not. What are your takeaways?”

“Systems can self-organize at several different levels as a consequence of entropy, which is essentially the experience of time due to change in physical systems.”

“Very good. I am actually not a chemist, as you know, but my work also involves self-organizing systems. Here at RGG we are studying very simple rules systems that can self-organize in different ways. Let me show you.” He walked to the whiteboard and drew a line of squares near the top. “Imagine that we are playing a game with these squares. The rules are very simple. Call this the initial configuration.” He blackened the most central of the squares. “Now, let’s say that if a square is black, it will remain black in the next step. Also, if it is black, its neighbor will turn black in the next step.” He drew another row of squares and blackened the central three squares. “Now, what does the next step look like?”

It seemed so simple that I was concerned there was a catch and froze for a moment. I didn’t want to make a mistake so I double-checked my own thinking. “Five black in the center?” I finally said.

“Precisely. This is a cellular automaton. Cellular because it operates on squares or cells and automaton because it is an automatic device.”

Did he really study such trivial games, I wondered? He seemed serious and I couldn’t imagine what kind of joke he might be trying to play on me if it was a joke.

“Come around here,” he invited me to his desk dominated by a flat-screen monitor. An application was running that showed complex and detailed patterns flowing from the top of the interface to the bottom. “This is a cellular automaton with just slightly different rules,” he waved his hand in front of the pyramidal shape riven by elaborate chains of smaller triangles. A few mouse strokes later and a new pattern began to form, starting from a single dark pixel at the top of the screen, elongating downwards, line by line, forming into detailed silver embroidery wrapping into itself. “And this one,” he smiled.

“They’re very pretty,” I said, “They’re producing complexity out of very simple rules, like Prigogine’s chemical systems?”

“Right. That’s right. And there is even work dating back to the 50s and 60s that shows that cellular automata—CAs for short—can be designed that are capable of reproduction.” He was grinning now as he watched my reaction.

“Reproduction?”

“Yes, they can assemble a copy of themselves, though such a CA operates in two dimensions rather than just one dimension in terms of the interaction rules.” He switched the view on the application and showed elaborate patterns forming and dissipating, racing along in different directions. “Here, this is called a shuttle,” he said pointing at a small triangle zipping through empty space.

Waiting for my ride that evening I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of what Korporlik had shown me: abstract mathematical machines that could reproduce themselves; self-sustaining gardens of pixels that were filled with modulating, pulsing forms all powered by a rules system of enormous simplicity. The problem of how complexity could emerge and begin to evolve had suddenly become tantalizingly solvable. I tried to imagine what self-reproducing versions looked like. Korporlik had said two hundred thousand cells were involved in some versions. How could such a thing have been conceived? It was inevitable, I realized, that given an infinite or even large-enough collection of random patterns self-reproducing automata would emerge. Then, with variation and selection, anything was possible.

The need for a computer to execute the automata concerned me, though, because it again introduced a higher power of sorts that enforced the rules system and changed the cell states. It was a simulation, I knew, and only a simulation. The rules system certainly had no sense of godlike powers in the way we talk about such ideas, but within the context of the CA engine there was a sense of control being exercised by the computational machine. I supposed that merely the structure of rules themselves as part of the operational environment did not really rise to the level of control in a strong sense. After all, in the wider universe, physical law imposed limits on self-organization but only, as Prigogine had suggested, in that it created an entropic environment where that organization was possible. Physical law was executing the program of physical action that allowed the emergence of life, but was not the controller of it in a way paralleling the notion of God.

I was satisfied with that solution—at least temporarily—and remained excited for weeks. As the discussions with Korporlik unfolded, I felt a greater purpose than I ever had through an increasing understanding of the most complex questions I could imagine. I still found myself mildly jealous of Harry and his happy world of teen interactions, but that jealousy was tempered by a buoyant calm that was resistant to everyday events. Reading and daydreaming became my main focus. I imagined chemical circuits pulsing like the arabesque needlework of the running automata, splitting and reproducing in cyclical elaborations of fractal triangles. I imagined shuttles running like primordial chemical messengers within the confines of the protective membranes of shimmering cells created by tiny chemical loops. Then, eventually, there was self-awareness, though it was too far removed from reproduction and self-organization for me to find a visual connection between them.

2 comments

  1. Eric 'Siggy' Scott

    Fantastic. Thanks for the preview. I was an intern at SFI about the time this book was in press — and I’m tickled to see it fictionalized as “RGG,” lol. Just ordered a copy of Amazon :).

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>