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  • I'm thrilled to be talking to you by this high-tech method.

  • Of all humans who have ever lived,

  • the overwhelming majority would have found what we are doing here

  • incomprehensible, unbelievable.

  • Because, for thousands of centuries,

  • in the dark time before the scientific revolution

  • and the Enlightenment,

  • people had low expectations.

  • For their lives, for their descendants' lives.

  • Typically, they expected

  • nothing significantly new or better to be achieved, ever.

  • This pessimism famously appears in the Bible,

  • in one of the few biblical passages with a named author.

  • He's called Qohelet, he's an enigmatic chap.

  • He wrote, "What has been is what will be,

  • and what has been done is what will be done;

  • there is nothing new under the sun.

  • Is there something of which it is said, 'Look, this is new.'

  • No, that thing was already done in the ages that came before us."

  • Qohelet was describing a world without novelty.

  • By novelty I mean something new in Qohelet's sense,

  • not merely something that's changed,

  • but a significant change with lasting effects,

  • where people really would say,

  • "Look, this is new,"

  • and, preferably, "good."

  • So, purely random changes aren't novelty.

  • OK, Heraclitus did say a man can't step in the same river twice,

  • because it's not the same river, he's not the same man.

  • But if the river is changing randomly,

  • it really is the same river.

  • In contrast,

  • if an idea in a mind spreads to other minds,

  • and changes lives for generations,

  • that is novelty.

  • Human life without novelty

  • is life without creativity, without progress.

  • It's a static society, a zero-sum game.

  • That was the living hell in which Qohelet lived.

  • Like everyone, until a few centuries ago.

  • It was hell, because for humans,

  • suffering is intimately related to staticity.

  • Because staticity isn't just frustrating.

  • All sources of suffering --

  • famine, pandemics, incoming asteroids,

  • and things like war and slavery,

  • hurt people only until we have created the knowledge to prevent them.

  • There's a story in Somerset Maugham's novel "Of Human Bondage"

  • about an ancient sage

  • who summarizes the entire history of mankind as,

  • "He was born,

  • he suffered and he died."

  • And it goes on:

  • "Life was insignificant and death without consequence."

  • And indeed, the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever lived

  • had lives of suffering and grueling labor,

  • before dying young and in agony.

  • And yes, in most generations

  • nothing had any novel consequence for subsequent generations.

  • Nevertheless, when ancient people tried to explain their condition,

  • they typically did so in grandiose cosmic terms.

  • Which was the right thing to do, as it turns out.

  • Even though their actual explanations, their myths,

  • were largely false.

  • Some tried to explain

  • the grimness and monotony of their world

  • in terms of an endless cosmic war between good and evil,

  • in which humans were the battleground.

  • Which neatly explained why their own experience was full of suffering,

  • and why progress never happened.

  • But it wasn't true.

  • Amazingly enough,

  • all their conflict and suffering

  • were just due to the way they processed ideas.

  • Being satisfied with dogma, and just-so stories,

  • rather than criticizing them

  • and trying to guess better explanations of the world and of their own condition.

  • Twentieth-century physics did create better explanations,

  • but still in terms of a cosmic war.

  • This time, the combatants were order and chaos, or entropy.

  • That story does allow for hope for the future.

  • But in another way,

  • it's even bleaker than the ancient myths,

  • because the villain, entropy,

  • is preordained to have the final victory,

  • when the inexorable laws of thermodynamics shut down all novelty

  • with the so-called heat death of the universe.

  • Currently, there's a story of a local battle in that war,

  • between sustainability, which is order,

  • and wastefulness, which is chaos --

  • that's the contemporary take on good and evil,

  • often with the added twist that humans are the evil,

  • so we shouldn't even try to win.

  • And recently,

  • there have been tales of another cosmic war,

  • between gravity, which collapses the universe,

  • and dark energy, which finally shreds it.

  • So this time,

  • whichever of those cosmic forces wins,

  • we lose.

  • All those pessimistic accounts of the human condition

  • contain some truth,

  • but as prophecies,

  • they're all misleading, and all for the same reason.

  • None of them portrays humans as what we really are.

  • As Jacob Bronowski said,

  • "Man is not a figure in the landscape --

  • he is the shaper of the landscape."

  • In other words,

  • humans are not playthings of cosmic forces,

  • we are users of cosmic forces.

  • I'll say more about that in a moment,

  • but first, what sorts of thing create novelty?

  • Well, the beginning of the universe surely did.

  • The big bang, nearly 14 billion years ago,

  • created space, time and energy,

  • everything physical.

  • And then, immediately,

  • what I call the first era of novelty,

  • with the first atom, the first star,

  • the first black hole,

  • the first galaxy.

  • But then, at some point,

  • novelty vanished from the universe.

  • Perhaps from as early as 12 or 13 billion years ago,

  • right up to the present day,

  • there's never been any new kind of astronomical object.

  • There's only been what I call the great monotony.

  • So, Qohelet was accidentally even more right

  • about the universe beyond the Sun

  • than he was about under the Sun.

  • So long as the great monotony lasts,

  • what has been out there

  • really is what will be.

  • And there is nothing out there

  • of which it can truly be said, "Look, this is new."

  • Nevertheless,

  • at some point during the great monotony,

  • there was an event -- inconsequential at the time,

  • and even billions of years later,

  • it had affected nothing beyond its home planet --

  • yet eventually, it could cause cosmically momentous novelty.

  • That event was the origin of life:

  • creating the first genetic knowledge,

  • coding for biological adaptations,

  • coding for novelty.

  • On Earth, it utterly transformed the surface.

  • Genes in the DNA of single-celled organisms

  • put oxygen in the air,

  • extracted CO2,

  • put chalk and iron ore into the ground,

  • hardly a cubic inch of the surface to some depth has remained unaffected

  • by those genes.

  • The Earth became, if not a novel place on the cosmic scale,

  • certainly a weird one.

  • Just as an example, beyond Earth,

  • only a few hundred different chemical substances have been detected.

  • Presumably, there are some more in lifeless locations,

  • but on Earth,

  • evolution created billions of different chemicals.

  • And then the first plants, animals,

  • and then, in some ancestor species of ours,

  • explanatory knowledge.

  • For the first time in the universe, for all we know.

  • Explanatory knowledge is the defining adaptation of our species.

  • It differs from the nonexplanatory knowledge

  • in DNA, for instance,

  • by being universal.

  • That is to say, whatever can be understood,

  • can be understood through explanatory knowledge.

  • And more, any physical process

  • can be controlled by such knowledge,

  • limited only by the laws of physics.

  • And so, explanatory knowledge, too,

  • has begun to transform the Earth's surface.

  • And soon, the Earth will become the only known object in the universe

  • that turns aside incoming asteroids instead of attracting them.

  • Qohelet was understandably misled

  • by the painful slowness of progress in his day.

  • Novelty in human life was still too rare, too gradual,

  • to be noticed in one generation.

  • And in the biosphere,

  • the evolution of novel species was even slower.

  • But both things were happening.

  • Now, why is there a great monotony in the universe at large,

  • and what makes our planet buck that trend?

  • Well, the universe at large is relatively simple.

  • Stars are so simple

  • that we can predict their behavior billions of years into the future,

  • and retrodict how they formed billions of years ago.

  • So why is the universe simple?

  • Basically, it's because big, massive, powerful things

  • strongly affect lesser things, and not vice versa.

  • I call that the hierarchy rule.

  • For example, when a comet hits the Sun,

  • the Sun carries on just as before,

  • but the comet is vaporized.

  • For the same reason,

  • big things are not much affected by small parts of themselves,

  • i.e., by details.

  • Which means that their overall behavior

  • is simple.

  • And since nothing very new can happen to things

  • that remain simple,

  • the hierarchy rule, by causing large-scale simplicity,

  • has caused the great monotony.

  • But, the saving grace is

  • the hierarchy rule is not a law of nature.

  • It just happens to have held so far in the universe,

  • except here.

  • In our biosphere, molecule-sized objects, genes,

  • control vastly disproportionate resources.

  • The first genes for photosynthesis,

  • by causing their own proliferation,

  • and then transforming the surface of the planet,

  • have violated or reversed the hierarchy rule

  • by the mind-blowing factor of 10 to the power 40.

  • Explanatory knowledge is potentially far more powerful

  • because of universality,

  • and more rapidly created.

  • When human knowledge has achieved a factor 10 to the 40,

  • it will pretty much control the entire galaxy,

  • and will be looking beyond.

  • So humans,

  • and any other explanation creators who may exist out there,

  • are the ultimate agents of novelty for the universe.

  • We are the reason and the means

  • by which novelty and creativity, knowledge, progress,

  • can have objective, large-scale physical effects.

  • From the human perspective,

  • the only alternative to that living hell of static societies

  • is continual creation of new ideas,

  • behaviors, new kinds of objects.

  • This robot will soon be obsolete,

  • because of new explanatory knowledge, progress.

  • But from the cosmic perspective,

  • explanatory knowledge is the nemesis of the hierarchy rule.

  • It's the destroyer of the great monotony.

  • So it's the creator of the next cosmological era,

  • the Anthropocene.

  • If one can speak of a cosmic war,

  • it's not the one portrayed in those pessimistic stories.

  • It's a war between monotony and novelty,

  • between stasis and creativity.

  • And in this war,

  • our side is not destined to lose.

  • If we choose to apply our unique capacity to create explanatory knowledge,

  • we could win.

  • Thanks.

  • (Applause)

I'm thrilled to be talking to you by this high-tech method.

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【TED】After billions of years of monotony, the universe is waking up | David Deutsch

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    林宜悉   に公開 2019 年 11 月 05 日
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