Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Limits to Omniscience

Omniscience, as the term has been used in religious contexts since Buddha first sat under the bodhi tree, means knowing everything. Everything includes everything. As we use it for alien civilizations which have achieved asymptotic technology, it means having created and verified scientific theories for all fields, covering everything we might classify as a object of science. This is a bit of a circular definition, but the concept is of a three level hierarchy. One is the everything of Buddha, but the second is the knowledge of everything scientific. The difference is local data. In the second category is knowing how stars evolve, and the local data contains which star falls into which classification. The third level is the theoretical level, where instead of empirical theories there are abstract theories. In the third level, there is an understanding of the underlying physics of how stars evolve. In the second level, there is only tabulated information on how stars of different classes and attributes evolve. Subjects which are not amenable to the third level are not within the purview of omniscience.

The third level, over the domain of all science, is what the alien civilizations which have been past the Baconian transition for a millennium or more have achieved. That gives them an incredible capability to manage their own society and everything connected with it, such as the planet upon which the live. But this capability is limited, and the limits are caused by chaos. Chaos defeats omniscience for two reasons. The first is the well-known butterfly wing effect. In essence it says that a tiny change can have a huge result. One example that is easy to appreciate is the orbit of a planet. A tiny change in its direction will lead, after sufficient orbits, to a situation where no one can predict where the planet will be in its orbit. This is meant to be discussed in the context of an ideal problem, with no external changes to the environment. In real life, there are other factors which influence the orbit, such as other planets. In the abstract situation with no other factors, even the best computing equipment gives up sooner or later as the number of orbits increases. The butterfly wing effect hypothesizes that a small effect like the beating of a butterfly’s wings is enough to make a tiny change in the air flow, and this tiny change will have an ever increasing effect as time marches on. Weather is difficult to predict for this reason. Near-term weather is easy, and far-term weather is impossible.

The second reason that even the aliens have limits is the real world. There are tiny influences from multiple factors on almost everything, and knowing all the inputs may be infeasible, so some variation down the line will be unpredictable. This means that the accuracy of any prediction is limited by external factors, largely unmeasured. The body of scientific knowledge can be impressive and handle many external factors, but often there is no limit on the numbers of them. You cannot abstract the real world perfectly.

Often there are too many fine details to even start figuring out the exact results. In very many situations, large numbers of subunits are around. Subunits are things like atoms in a gas or stars in a galaxy, with plenty of things in between. Having data on each of them is ludicrous in the case of a gas and difficult in the case of a galaxy. The typical work-around involves statistics. Aliens trying to predict long term perils for the galaxy may run into this problem, in that they can figure out that statistically their solar system has a 10% change of having a close encounter with another one in a billion years, but they don’t have the data to compute any particular instance for, say, beyond a million years. So they are limited in knowing their own future. A civilization which has lasted for a billion years may be able to do better than a million years of prediction, having collected data for such a long time, but there is a limit.

In the scale of numbers of individual elements in each area of science, there should be a limit on how many can be accumulated in a theoretical solution. There is also a limit on how few can be adequately treated by a statistical solution. These two limits may cross or may be far apart, with a gap in between. To translate that into something practical, an alien civilization has some governance it does over the citizens who participate in it. Perhaps they have data on all citizens, in great and gory detail, which allows them to see if everyone is living a happy life and not about to do anything disruptive, according to what has been recorded. But they may not be able to calculate the effect of small or medium sized groups on individuals. So, will they be able to ensure a happy life for all citizens? This is not a question we can answer, but we can try and contemplate the two extremes of this situation.

One extreme is a totally successful civilization, successful in the sense that everyone living in it is satisfied with their state, and will work as needed to maintain the civilization. The other extreme is that chaos slips in, and the sensitivity of an individual is high enough to the influence of group dynamics that some few become dissatisfied, even to the level of doing something. With psychology having been converted into a hard science, completely understood theoretically and practically over the eons of the civilization’s existence, there would be knowledge of such effects, statistically, and a response would have been taken, in the early ages of the civilization, to develop societal methods and practices to detect and accommodate such individuals.

This would take more resources, and thus the nub becomes clear. In a civilization on a scarcity planet, where resources are limited, it is not only the civilization itself as a whole that might undertake desperate measures to migrate or otherwise improve their situation. That type of civilization might also be prone to individuals or more likely small groups doing something disruptive. Does this mean that at some time in the future, our solar system might be visited by a renegade group of aliens, large enough to be able to obtain a starship, but not being limited by the memes of the society and not agreeing with their customs for star travel? There is no argument to say this is impossible from synchronicity, which is a requirement that they are doing their colonization star traveling at just the very short instant in galactic time when we are first monitoring our local environment. As discussed elsewhere, colonization comes early in a civilization's history and we are swinging around a young star. The standard type of colonization is already over. This is not true in the situation being discussed. Because of statistics, such a group might arise at any time in the history of the alien civilization on the near-scarcity planet. So, this topic of just what scarcity can do to an alien civilization is worth exploring.

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