Friday, July 10, 2015

Omniscience with a Working Definition

Omniscience comes from two Latin roots: omnis, meaning all, and sciens, meaning knowing, thus ‘all-knowing’. This is an interesting word, and has already been explored for a couple of millennia, starting with the Hindus, the Jains, and the Buddhists in India, and proceeding outward from there. But these discussions were mostly before the Baconian transition, in which how we know things was reformulated. Since it is a useful word, and abbreviates what has been discussed in this blog as Asymptotic Technology, it would help to try and pin down a working definition.

‘All’ what. There are three basic categories of knowledge that are easy to define. One is the data on everything in the universe that is knowable. Quantum dynamics revolves around probability of location and momentum, and removes the possibility of knowing everything exactly. Knowledge of this level of detail is out of the question and out beyond any reasonable limits of knowing. Why bother? Knowledge of macroscopic bodies, including all phases of matter, might be considered the bottom level of knowledge, being everything that might be considered by some pedantic scholar sitting around trying to figure out what knowledge of everything is. One could only know this to some level of accuracy, and even then the amount of information has so many zeros after the one that it doesn’t make any sense to discuss it for very long. It is a concept that exists, however strange. If one tried to make it more reasonable, say by restricting it only to our home galaxy, this means only about eight zeros get chopped off, which is a negligible change.

The second category of knowledge might be to know all the unique scientific data that could be dreamed up. Think of neurons for an example. Knowing the structure of the different types, the biochemical makeup, the properties in terms of recharge rates, propagation of signals along the axon, width of synapses, and so on would lead to a lot of information about this one narrow topic, considering that there are thought to be hundreds of types. This is what unique scientific information might be, catalogs of properties, data values, descriptions, distributions, nutrient requirements and effects of deficiencies, ability to tolerate shock either physical or electrical, cellular wall thickness and permeability to any molecule together with switching ability, mechanical properties, and so on. Here we have data that might be of some use to someone working on neurons, or something involving them, or designing them, or growing them, or anything at all. The data in the first category would be of use to someone who was in a particular location and needed to know something, as a person standing on a beach and wanting to know the structure of the deeper terrain so a building could be put down. It is simply that the view of the size of that data base is so preposterously large that makes category one ridiculous when considered in its entirety, as per the word omniscience.

The third category of knowledge involves the compression of the second category by the use of theoretical understandings, plus the theory itself. There seems to be a theory for everything, but it is elusive until enough insight is found that explains what the measurable quantities are that determine everything else. An understanding of how things work is one of the constituents of this category of knowledge. The point of this category is that you can predict anything in the second category from the minimal set of knowledge in the first category, provided that the theory is available with the key parameters that describe the situation. There might be twenty genes that completely determine the type and characteristics of a neuron, and that plus some description of the conditions under which it grew, maybe a few more parameters, and the whole data set in the second category can be replicated.

With a bit of specifics from the first category of data, maybe twenty five parameters, some binary or otherwise discrete, some numerical measurements, plus the theory from the second category, the actual conditions of any single neuron could be known. For the science end of Asymptotic Technology, having the third category of knowledge is sufficient for omniscience. The rest can be measured.

Recall that engineering knowledge, the how-to part of knowledge, is all about procedures on top of some scientific knowledge of the properties of materials and some data about parts. It doesn’t have the pedantic scholar part of it for distraction, but the compression that was discussed for the science end can also be applied to the engineering end. Procedures are not infinite, provided they are organized into steps that can be individually described. Inputs for design and construction are very finite to expedite them. So omniscience for the engineering part is perhaps easier to envisage that for the science part. This side of Asymptotic Technology is also something that has an understandable basis and is not something that is not self-consistent, not infinite, and not in any way prohibited from existing. There are only so many tasks to be accomplished in an advanced society, and engineering knowledge to do them can be accumulated and preserved. And thus asymptotic technology can be used as a concept to understand advanced alien civilizations, and referring to the civilization as omniscient can be interpreted in a workable way.

The ‘knowing’ part of the word means that they have the ability to take their knowledge bank and use it effectively to perform any action that they choose. This means the availability of some master computer or some device or network of devices that can respond to any request made inside the civilization. We can refer to it as a master computer, but there may be another mode of using the knowledge. Having information without the ability to do anything with it other than parrot it back is hardly omniscience. It does not include the actual performance of some engineering task, but it does include knowing how to do the engineering task, including design of something, methods for diagnosis of problems or troubleshooting, and maintenance and other service functions.

Old procedures, which are superseded, are not necessarily in the engineering part of the knowledge maintained under asymptotic technology. During the course of an alien civilization’s history, there will certainly be multiple generations of engineering procedures for performing any task which the civilization requires. But omniscient on the engineering side means to be able to do the task, perhaps with available materials, in one way. History is not part of the knowledge, but historical knowledge is incorporated into the total amount known.

Here on Earth at our stage of development, we have hardly begun to name the various scientific and engineering specialties that will emerge in the future. Neither do we clearly see how various aspects of our own civilization will slide under the auspices of technology. Nevertheless, the concept that everything eventually will is clear. That leads to omniscience.

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