Why do we exist? For centuries, this question was the sole province of religion and philosophy. But now science is ready to take a seat at the table.
According to the prevailing scientific paradigm, the universe tends toward randomness; it functions according to laws without purpose, and the emergence of life is an accident devoid of meaning.
But this bleak interpretation of nature is currently being challenged by cutting-edge findings at the intersection of physics, biology, neuroscience, and information theory—generally referred to as “complexity science.” Thanks to a new understanding of evolution, as well as recent advances in our understanding of the phenomenon known as emergence, a new cosmic narrative is taking shape: Nature’s simplest “parts” come together to form ever-greater “wholes” in a process that has no end in sight.
In The Romance of Reality, cognitive neuroscientist Bobby Azarian explains the science behind this new view of reality and explores what it means for all of us. In engaging, accessible prose, Azarian outlines the fundamental misunderstanding of thermodynamics at the heart of the old assumptions about the universe’s evolution, and shows us the evidence that suggests that the universe is a “self-organizing” system, one that is moving toward increasing complexity and awareness.
Cosmologist and science communicator Carl Sagan once said of humanity that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” The Romance of Reality shows that this poetic statement in fact rests on a scientific foundation and gives us a new way to know the cosmos, along with a riveting vision of life that imbues existence with meaning—nothing supernatural required.
This book’s cover is pretty great. It nearly singlehandedly got me to start the book, and it looks like a lot of effort went into it – unlike anything else about it.
The Romance of Reality by Bobby Azarian opens with a collection of fourteen (14!) glowing review snippets all gushing full of praise for this book. This feels like overcompensating. Not even the best writer in the world needs that many positive reviews inside the actual book (if it’s truly that good, it will speak for itself!) and the staggering number of over-the-top praise in this one feels like a clumsy attempt to preventively make up for what is possibly the worst written book I’ve read this year.
Look. This book manages to be bad in such a myriad of different ways as to be pretty impressive; when I got to the end and read the acknowledgements I nearly couldn’t believe that this had been professionally edited.
The writing is simplistic and rough and just honestly lousy. The over reliance on italics for emphasis makes me think of a very eager undergraduate writing their first-ever term paper rather than the holder of a doctoral degree – if you’re not able to construct a sentence in a way that emphasises the concepts and words that you believe should immediately catch the reader’s attention, then your book doesn’t have an “engaging, accessible prose” as the blurb insists it does. Rather, a lot of the explanatory passages read as pretty patronising; I’ve seen high school textbooks that have more faith in the ability of the reader to follow basic scientific concepts and definitions. The Romance of Reality spends a lot of time and unnecessary words to recap what was just explained in the chapters (or even paragraphs) immediately prior, as if the author were well aware that most readers will be dozing off every dozen pages and picking the book back up days later if they remember it exists.
At the same time, so many of the sentences are such a meaningless word salad that feels like a parody of itself. For example: “It is important to keep in mind that the global mind, should we bring it about by coordinating our activity in the correct way, is not the end goal of evolutionary process; it is merely a step on the ladder of open-ended complexity growth. The major evolutionary transitions of biology are just a subset of a larger chain of cosmic metasystem transitions, which are far-from-equilibrium phase transitions that continuously create new levels of hierarchical control.” (Yes, that is three transitions in one sentence and a random semicolon when a conjunction would do – see what I mean about professional editing?). And the same paragraph continues: “Darwinian dynamics are at work above the level of biological evolution, propelling cultural and technological evolution forward, making a self-replicating biosphere as inevitable as was the origin of life, given enough time and enough evolutionary cycles. When intelligent life terraforms a new planet, that is the biosphere replicating, and because the planet will have different properties than the planet of origin, there will be replication with variation.” I feel like I’m reading Rob Hubbard by way of a Grimes song. I honestly didn’t think a book could be too dumbed down and too pretentious to follow, but Azarian managed it without even trying.
If the writing is mediocre, the content is worse. I admit I went in not knowing what to expect – I saw the pretty cover and very quickly skimmed the blurb, saw a Sagan quote, and expected a book that would be at least something resembling pop science. Instead this is just complete pseudoscientific drivel that doesn’t even seem to understand the point it attempts to make. There doesn’t seem to be a real thesis or a solid conclusion, or a reflection of what the more concrete, every day implications this “riveting vision of life” may be.
If I hadn’t read the author’s bio before writing this review I really wouldn’t believe that Bobby Azarian has an academic background, even putting aside the clumsy writing. There are constant references to scientists “quietly challenging” mainstream tenets of science from physics to neuroscience, but all the citations are from either very obscure work with little peer review, or out-of-context quotes from much more famous scientists whom I seriously doubt are even aware this book exists. Admittedly, if the prose had been less of a word salad it may have been easier to wade through the conceptual mess and understand what points the author attempts to make, but the combination of out-there ideas and messy writing makes for a thoroughly surreal combination of nonsense.
This book presents a metaphysics based on the relatively new (but increasingly mainstream) sciences of complexity, chaos, and information. It boldly explores some of the major questions that consume both philosophers and scientists, such as: how life came to be, what life’s purpose is (to the degree it has one,) what consciousness is and does, and how come we live in a universe finely-tuned to generate and support life? (Particularly, if one doesn’t like explanations that are audacious and unprovable like “god did it” or “there are infinite parallel universes.”)
The book starts out in territory that is fairly uncontroversial among physicists, arguing that life comes about (and does so with striking speed – i.e. fast abiogenesis) by a process through which nature moves the ordered / useful energy that Earth has in abundance into disordered / useless energy (e.g. waste heat,) a process that runs on rules not unlike Darwinian evolution (molecules have an informational existence that allow something like hereditability [passing down of “blueprints”] and mutation [distortion in copies, some of which will make the molecule or organism more efficient at using energy.])
The book then ventures into territory that is quite controversial, arguing that life has a purpose (beyond the tedious one of moving low entropy energy into a high entropy state,) and that purpose is to be an observer – i.e. to be the first stage in a self-aware world. I should point out a couple things. First, when I say this part is controversial, I mean that it couldn’t be called the consensus view, but that’s not to say that these ideas don’t have a following among some high-level intellects. Second, I think we need people to consider ideas that might seem a bit “out there” because there is a danger of not progressing because we’re trapped in morass of assumptions. Science has quite a few self-appointed guardians who mock as pseudo-science any idea that strays from scientific consensus or from a rigidly reductionist / materialist / Copernican worldview. The author doesn’t abandon a scientific point of view, even though it might seem he does to some because he abandons the nihilistic view that’s taken as a given by many in the scientific community (i.e. that life is a happy accident without purpose, significance, or influence on the universe – and that life consists of automata, playing out programs -- devoid of any kind of free will.)
I don’t know how much of Azarian’s metaphysics will prove true, but this book was superbly thought-provoking and opened up to me whole new vistas of possibility about the big questions of philosophy and science. I’d highly recommend it for readers interested in the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
This book is ambitious and inspiring for everyone interested in the topics of complexity, evolution and psychology. It tries to unify several theories from various epochs to provide a rather positive perspective of things in our difficult times. The figures inside of it are clear, well designed and help the reader better understand the content of the book. Also the explanatory video of the book on youtube offers a great explanation of the content of the book in 10min. I would recommend it to anyone interested at the big picture!
In, "The Romance of Reality" author Bobby Azarian has used words to create a tapestry of life's origins and emergence. I found it to be very thought provoking that the world and life is not an accident and life is not necessarily destined to a doomsday ending. I am a voracious reader, but not a scientist. Mr. Azarian provides the background and explanations that makes a very complex subject understandable.
I’m not one to normally utter such words. In fact, I didn’t say those words just now… I quoted them from the first page. But as I read further into The Romance of Reality I found myself agreeing and actually thinking those exact words. Any book that can convince a self-proclaimed “realist” (read: pessimist) that it’s a thrilling time to be alive has to have done something right.
So why it is a thrilling time to be alive?
Bobby Azarian ties together a lot of concepts and presents them coherently as something new and clear, something exciting and thought-provoking, something actually worthy of being called a new paradigm. Basically, I felt thrilled to be reading about the way in which so many scientific concepts are (and so much disparate research is) beginning to tie together in “a theory of everything” that is simple enough for me to comprehend.
The book is very well-researched. Azarian has clearly done his homework (the book acts as a compendium on complexity science, cybernetics, information theory, evolution, adaptation, and emergence) and synthesizes the ideas in a clear and presentable manner. Reading this book was like getting up to date on a lot of research that slowly starts to coalesce: starting a chain reaction that culminates in a new way to see cosmological evolution, life, and purpose.
The scientific paradigm most of us are running is probably based on reductionism since that has been the scientific zeitgeist of the last several hundred years: study things by observing them and experimenting with them on the smallest level possible; break things down to their most basic parts to understand them. Reductionism has taught us many things but it should never have become our myopic approach to the scientific process. Another predominant paradigm most of us are running is that of entropy as utterly ubiquitous, fundamental, and inexorable. Entropy is those things but only in certain situations, not all situations. Most importantly, entropy isn’t as dire and depressing as most of us think.
Now enter the paradigm (and booming research) of complexity science and the nuanced understanding of entropy within an open system…with those two lenses everything begins to look differently…most notably, less bleak.
The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that all energy moves towards, and eventually achieves, a state of equilibrium (i.e. heat moves from hot objects to cold objects); entropy is associated with a state of disorder resulting from that process of energy transfer. People get fixated on the movement towards equilibrium as overall entropic which is to say things are universally moving towards more disorder. This is actually only partially true; it is only true in a closed system of energy. Earth happens not to be a closed system of energy but an open system. Earth constantly receives free energy from the sun (not to mention all the former solar energy stored on and in the earth). This is extremely important and too often missed.
Suddenly, there is excess (free) energy in a system which has to be used up (dissipated). But even as that energy is used up it is immediately replenished (at least partially). Systems of energy dissipation can and do become more efficient at dissipating energy over time. Slowly, the inevitable byproduct of their increased energy dissipation is increased complexity. That means that as time goes on systems become better at using energy and also better at becoming organized in a complex manner. Play that process out for billions of years and impressive changes occur, accumulating to dramatic levels. Behold the power of repeating (feedback) loops and increasing levels.
The details of this process are the focus of the first half of the book.* It turns out that the Darwinian process of natural selection is more universal than with only biological systems. Basically, systems (or even simple chemical configurations and/or simple physical configurations: molecular, atomic, etc) that are more stable tend to be more resilient and thus, tend to survive and stick around in an environment. Nature is “selecting” the most resilient and stable configurations. This is not done by an agent but by the simple fact that the things that are unstable don’t last as long or survive as robustly as things that are stable. If a stable configuration can survive due to its stability, there is a higher chance other chemicals and/or molecules will eventually find their way into that stable configuration by the sheer fact that the unstable configurations break down and the system will keep trying new configurations as energy moves through it. Trial and error. Given enough time stable structures will increase in number and persist while unstable structures come into existence only briefly before falling out of their unstable configuration and ceasing to exist or rearranging into a different configuration.
How do things like molecular configurations come about in the first place? We know objects like the sun heat things like the air up. Energy in the form of light bumps into molecules in the air (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc) and stimulates them: when bumped the molecules move. Temperature is a measure of the amount of movement in a group of molecules (how stimulated they are) so the more energy present (moving/bumping) in a group of molecules the more those molecules (particles, atoms, etc) are stimulated and move around in order to dissipate that energy. The more energy feeding into something, the more the molecules are moving around and inevitably bumping into each other and occasionally stick together. If the the new configuration helps to dissipate the energy that is presently bumping around the configuration will hold together better and longer (sometimes as long as there is a steady flow of energy present) because it is more efficient at moving the universe towards energy equilibrium at that tiny, local level.
So, to stick to the analogy of Darwinianism, what is the engine of configuration creation? And what causes configuration mutation? Free energy moving into and through matter is an engine in an of itself. When energy flows through matter it inherently causes movement within that matter. Configuration mutation is caused by matter trying different variations in configurations —matter exploring various structural states (and eventually, exploring various functional states). Random molecular movement means that the molecules (or particles, systems, etc) inevitably try random (and non-random) configurations because they’re bumping around trying to get rid of the incoming energy as fast and easily as possible. The faster, easier, and more efficiently a configuration can dissipate energy the more “successful” (or “fit”) it is, thermodynamically speaking (since everything in the universe is trying to get to a place of equilibrium).
As that process bootstraps itself upward to greater and greater entropic efficiency it pulls things together and assembles groups of configurations. This is the world of autocatalytic sets. Sets or groups of things are often more efficient than individual pieces are on their own. We call this symbiosis and/or synergy. With synergy the output of a group is greater than the sum of its parts individually. That means efficiency gains are inherently found by non-agentic systems simply by the fact that a configuration which explores new arrangements eventually tries cooperating with another different configuration. The two configurations doing two different things can be symbiotic, helping themselves without hurting each other. If this joint configuration is found it is often kept since it can help itself more and hurt itself less. Therefore, there is an inherent attraction for systems to cooperate. Over time, new cooperating configurations create new meta-configurations which are more efficient than the non-cooperating individual configurations.**
Eventually you get to the example of multi-cellular organisms coming out of single celled organisms. At one (or many) point(s) in history a cell entered into the membrane of another cell. Eventually, that cell inside a cell tried new things and realized it could help in ways that gave both itself and the cell in which it resided competitive advantages. Multi-cellular organisms are generally more efficient and have more synergy than single-celled organisms since the cells can focus on different symbiotic tasks and find new energy to exploit. (Single celled organisms still exist today because they found a very stable and efficient configuration).***
Now things start to get interesting. Darwinian evolution is a process of knowledge creation. It is a process that created itself (autopoeisis) and continues to create itself through underlying processes. As an organism (like an animal) lives its life it learns how to survive and reproduce. The better an organism is at those two things the better it generally tends to do; better meaning the longer it lives and the more it is able to reproduce. The subtext of what is happening is that the animal is a specific instantiation of nature that is learning about the environment in which is exists. The animal is learning by exploring and the more successful it is at exploring and learning the more useful information it embodies. If that animal can pass that useful information onto the next generation through mating and upbringing then that animal is increasing the amount of useful information about a specific environment. Slowly, generationally, genetically, memetically, a species will embody more and more information about the environment where it is trying to survive and reproduce. We often call useful and applicable information “knowledge.” In this case, information that is useful for the species to survive and reproduce is adaptive information: information that helps the animal adapt. Adaptive information (like knowledge) often helps an organism survive and reproduce. Evolution is therefore a knowledge creation process.
Incrementally nature has been evolving various species to fill every exploitable niche in a given environment. As the niches are created, explored, and exploited more knowledge is added to the universe through the overall diversity of instantiations —various entities (i.e. plants, animals, humans, culture, etc)— that all seek to survive and reproduce in their respective niches. The longer this happens the wider and higher nature’s branches evolve and the deeper nature’s roots dig. Nature is learning about itself through entities that learn about their environments. Put another way, “the entire universe… is undergoing adaptive transformation.” Extrapolate this process out in all directions and it all starts to coalesce into a bigger picture: “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” (Karl Sagan)
Although the exact details and moments are contested, life eventually emerges through the thermodynamic process of disorganized matter becoming organized. “Energy is nature’s fundamental organizing force…[and] it is the concentrated flow of energy through matter that arranges nonliving elements into a configuration that is ‘alive’. By promoting self-organization, energy flux gradually converts a clump of mindless molecules into information-processing machinery with agency…The flow of energy builds agents from inanimate matter by organizing chemical systems into autonomous computational machines that gather information about the world and use that knowledge to perpetuate and spread life further.”
The implication of biology (and evolution) being a form of computation —“information processing performed by biological machinery”— is thought-provoking to say the least. This is only really the first half of the book. Seeing the process of Universal Darwinianism (mutation and natural selection applied cosmologically) and Universal Bayesianism (building a mental model and updating that model as the entity goes on: learning) play out seamlessly throughout cosmic history will start to enable one to see a bigger picture, to create a new internal paradigm, to realize the beauty of a simple process running consistently through reality and enlivening it; seeing such a view of reality is romantic and, indeed, thrilling.
*In an open thermodynamic system there is a constant energy gradient (i.e. difference in energy). The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe always seeks to get to energy equilibrium so a flow of energy will alway act in ways that are attempting to best eliminate the energy gradient. A more efficient means of flowing energy is one that is better at eliminating an energy gradient. Given the aforementioned laws, this is the direction the universe seeks to go. In a closed system thermodynamic equilibrium is often achieved as the system figures out ways to flow the energy (eliminate the gradient) efficiently so it is all at the same level. However, in an open system the gradient continues to exists due to incoming energy. Because of this steady incoming energy various functional structures form with the “purpose” of eliminating that energy gradient and achieving energy equilibrium. The longer the system stays open (i.e. the longer the gradient exists) the more functional structures are created and the more complex they become as they continue to seek more efficient means of energy dissipation.
** Things like dissipative structures are ordered patterns (configurations) that naturally and spontaneously emerge. Think of a vortex that forms when you pull the drain plug in a tub full of water. That vortex is an emergent phenomena; it is an organized pattern which emerges because that pattern is the most efficient pattern that the collection of water molecules can self-assemble into in order to dissipate the energy gradient. If the tub is constantly receiving water (and the drain is constantly open) a steady-state of order emerges and will exist as long those conditions persist. Biology is essentially an emergent phenomenon, doing the same thing (albeit on much more complex scale) through the fact that there is constantly free energy coming in from the sun. But before that happens (and under certain dynamic situations) nature finds and creates nonliving (abiotic) steady state patterns that exist for long enough to start assembling (through phase transitions) into more complex steady states that slowly start to exhibit “energy-seeking behavior.” What starts out as an efficient way to dissipate energy eventually becomes a pattern (entity?) seeking more energy in order to dissipate it. Of course, the pattern (which eventually does evolve into an entity) does not know or think its purpose/motivation is to better dissipate energy…even though that may be largely true. “Biology was the inevitable results of dissipative adaptation, autocatalysis, and non-equilibrium phase transitions. These organizing mechanisms built a biochemical flow channel to resolve a thermodynamic imbalance arising from free energy buildup on a sunny, wet, geochemically active planet.”
***There is an important pivot in the chapters about entropy where the nuances of Statistical Entropy and Shannon Entropy (as opposed to Thermal Entropy) are fleshed out. Statistical entropy relates to the fact that there are more ways for something to be disorganized rather than organized. Statistically speaking, information is more likely to be disordered. “Here is where it becomes useful to picture entropy as disorder…: there are many more ways for your room to be a complete mess (disordered) than there are ways of being neatly organized.” Knowledge is information that can be used to get everything in the room into an organized manner. There are only a certain amount of micro states (specific ways) your belongings can be arranged as a whole (macro state) in an organized manner. Getting your room from disorganized to organized requires physical energy but also information about ways in which all the items can be arranged in a way that makes sense, is understandable, useful, and accessible.
“How can organization persist and grow if an increasingly disordered state of the system is so much more likely?” Ordered systems can stay organized by using information to build more and better functional structures for metabolizing free energy. In other words, “…the cost of building and maintaining structural and functional order at the macro level is the energetic disorder of heat at the micro level.” Small pockets of information and organization can exist and grow but outside of those pockets informational disorder (statistical entropy) and heat (thermal entropy) do increase at a universal level.
Shannon Entropy is about reducing uncertainty by gaining and using information; it gets complicated quickly as entropy starts to mean so many different things once one begins to dive into information theory and cybernetics. Essentially, an entity can acquire information and perform computation (cognition) in an appropriate natural environment in order to avoid death, decay, and disorder; it must use information and cognition to extract energy (food), avoid threats (predators), and make copies of itself (reproduce). Biology starts to become more and more about computing information to reduce uncertainty and thus, can be mathematically quantified and ushered into the realm of algorithms. This is where my head starts to spin.
Let us stipulate from the outset, that the physical science, the many many citations, and the host of new terms are acceptable and accurate. I would not be able to dispute them in any event.
This is a book of cosmology that argues that the universe is a reality that is not only scientifically describable, but has a teleological omega point (a la Teilhard de Chardin), that directs reality to evermore self-reflection via information transfer, and an evolutionary mechanism that guarantees the survival of the fittest...the fittest meaning the most informed (enlightened and self aware).
This hypothesis is meant to reduce the burden of existential angst caused by the randomness of our ontological predicament. Life is not random any longer, but scientifically mandated to ever higher states of consciousness. We a are a stepping stone to higher consciousness.
The ideas in this book are brain busting. God turns out to be the algorithm which makes all reality possible. We turn out to be cosmic carriers of information (in our minds and in our DNA), that propel existence to some future 'omega point'.
Whether you buy any or all of this...might depend on whether you are a philosopher or a physicist. But for me, this does not completely send place on the party train of mental bliss at my newfound role in universal consciousness!!
Look, having a role in the evolution of a self conscious universe seems like it would give us something to increase our philosophical contentment, but it just doesn't feel that satisfying. One is left still wondering about why this process exists at all; disappointed at how small a role each of us plays; and what exactly is the endpoint which is the object of our trajectory (and is that endpoint worth all the trouble!).
Big ideas, a hard read, and a still unsatisfying result. But I think this book is important (even if I can't figure out exactly why).
The Romance of Reality keeps shuffling between a bit of sublime and a lot of ridiculous. The prose gets extremely muddled with heavy name-throwing when the author makes significant, unsubstantiated claims as if they are accepted, scientific facts by many experts, or just so obvious that only narrowly focused scientist types would miss them!
That said, the book is most readable in the initial sections, where the author argues why life might have been inevitable somewhere in our world rather than a low-probability accident. Paraphrasing the book's arguments, the forces that propel the world towards increasing worldwide disorder - led by the second law of thermodynamics - are more than counterbalanced by other forces/processes that foster self-catalyzing, recursive complexity in microspheres. While the author does not mention this adequately, the order-creating mechanisms emerging from all the other laws of physics sans the second law of thermodynamics are why we have atoms and galaxies and all the chemical elements, let alone life.
As the book progresses, it turns mystic, never mind the author's repeated claims of everything being rational and proof-driven. Many sections are laughable, like those coming down heavily on the thinkers who argue against free will with the most naive objections imaginable. The other sections ascribing purpose and direction, including somehow providing a space to blockchain in the teleological destiny of our universe, are incomprehensible even for those who want to hear out the alternate ideas without prejudice. Data-driven scientists will have more issues with so many word-based assumptions, and conclusion jumps on the back of sheer didactic and polemic.
The author's take on consciousness provides the best example of how little attention he may have paid to the various debates on the subject and the simplicity of the conclusions based on his wishes and already-formed views on what reality has to be rather than what it might be.
“The Romance of Reality” is a bold and stirring effort to explain biology, sentience, free will, and subjective awareness all at once. Bobby Azarian synthesizes clues from thermodynamics, information theory, evolution, neuroscience, and complexity science into a coherent account of our existence and significance which is bound to fascinate anyone who still wonders at the origin and destiny of humankind. This is a paradigm-shifting trip. I wouldn’t quite call it romantic, but there are a few poems, some metasystem “rhymes”, and a truck-load of meaning. This is a must-read for contemplators of life’s big questions (as long as you’re not afraid of a bit of science jargon).
I love this book. Azarian harmonizes ideas from most of my favorite fields of research, establishing consilience (agreement) where before I had only guessed at the connections. He doesn’t shy away from the philosophical correlates and ethical implications of his theory, either, and his brief treatment of those topics yields even more valuable perspective. His book thrilled me with fresh understanding at times, and it also challenged me with well-argued ideas that conflict with my own hard-won worldview. All of that makes this a five-star book in my opinion.
However, Azarian also promotes a kind of cosmic ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the moral insignificance of lesser creatures, among a few other ideas I argue against below. In addition, the narrative is a bit uncoordinated, making this an awkward read. I enjoyed it anyway, of course.
SUMMARY Although the second law of thermodynamics decrees that the entropy (disorder) of the universe must always increase, that doesn’t preclude a robust and enduring role for order and complexity. In fact, it is precisely the causal entropic drive (pressure towards disorder) that powers ordered dynamical structures like whirlpools, cyclones, and life itself. This natural pressure to dissipate free energy into entropy spontaneously creates systems (like life) that accelerate the process (life does this by radiating thermal entropy like mad). Although there are many unlikely steps required for abiogenesis and evolution, cosmic pressure helps explain why these are merely hurdles. Life, it turns out, is as predictable as a hurricane.
From the very beginning, life exists in a constant state of learning called adaptation. As it spreads to new environments and new energy sources, it gains knowledge and complexity, especially during “metasystem transitions” like the evolution of multicellular organisms. Over time, as the biosphere becomes more complex, it drives adaptive organisms inevitably towards intelligence (which also enhances energy absorption and dissipation).
Even the most basic organisms have real causal influence on their surroundings, contrary to the reductionist philosophy of determinism. They take advantage of the slack in the causal chain introduced through quantum indeterminacy and the chaos of dynamical systems to achieve limited cybernetic control and influence events that cannot be determined from their component parts. They do not, however, have subjective awareness. That emerges with brains. At first, this phenomenal awareness evolves as merely a “useless byproduct” of the brain; it’s just a passive observer, still a slave to its programming. But with forebrains comes self-modeling, and agents develop the ability to analyze their own actions via a vortex of self-reference. These organisms are then capable of making truly conscious choices, at least when they are mindful about them. Free will is born.
Having thereby unraveled the mysteries of existence, Azarian proclaims his philosophy: that nature is inherently creative, and its intrinsic purpose is to awaken through the emergent phenomena of life, knowledge, and consciousness. This leads to a fundamental purpose for intelligent life: to multiply and “suffuse the cosmos with intelligence and experience.”
Cosmic Manifest Destiny If sentient life is indeed inevitable, does that really imply that the purpose of intelligent life is to establish galactic empires? If it is inevitable, will not those other habitable worlds grow their own unique organisms? And if so, wouldn’t our invasion and destruction of cosmic diversity actually inhibit nature’s inherent creativity? Do we really need to control cosmic events in order to become ‘significant’? If we are how the universe wakes up, then hasn’t it already done that? Because here we are! We would be equally sentient staying right here, tending our own biosphere and wellbeing, rather than sacrificing the tremendous resources (and lives) required for cosmic conquest.
The Moral Insignificance of “Lesser” Animals Azarian argues that animals with smaller neural networks cannot feel as much pain as we can. It’s simply illogical. Smaller cognitive range does not equal smaller experience. Surely even the most basic neural networks can experience pain! What could be more fundamental? How can we possibly assume that their pain state is less significant than one of ours, regardless of how many neural nodes are involved in generating the signal? If an infant is in pain, is it also less significant than ours? Azarian states: “As our spectrum of possible experiences increases, so should the intensity with which we feel them.” I’ve found the opposite to be true.
The Narrative Itself In general, Azarian does a good job of introducing complex ideas to the layperson. However, he has an annoying habit of jumping the gun with terms and conclusions that won’t be explained until much later in the book. He also takes us on a few complicated tangents that don’t seem to add much to his theory (like phi, for example). At several points, he introduces concepts that seemed to me crucial for understanding previous arguments (the distinction between phylogenetic and ontogenetic learning should have come 60 pages earlier, in my opinion). It left me feeling like I was reading a stack of research notes that hadn’t yet been fully integrated. It wasn’t until I skimmed through a second time that I could fully appreciate all of his ideas. Additionally, he often prefers to use technical jargon in lieu of much simpler terminology (e.g. ‘adaptive complexity’ instead of ‘life’), which at times felt unnecessarily obtuse.
Bayesian Knowledge I didn’t count how many times Azarian used the word “Bayesian”, but it was a lot. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain it, and I felt that was a considerable lapse. Bayesian inference is not much other than a common-sense guest guess, which is why Bayes himself thought the idea too obvious for publication. Bayesian knowledge is inherently subjective, which means all of the knowledge gathered by earthling life is like a guidebook handed down through the generations which is progressively amended. It works, but it doesn’t describe anything akin to fundamental truth. Just as we can learn the controls to play a video game without understanding the hardware running it, so we can navigate life with our genetics and “common sense” while completely misunderstanding the fundamental nature of reality. Whenever we discuss information theory, I think this disclaimer needs to be announced clearly lest we mistake the video game for the real world.
Consciousness Although Azarian presented a few enticing details about the neural correlates of consciousness, specifically the distinct correlates of phenomenal consciousness and metacognition, he failed to dissuade me from my idealistic worldview. According to the analytic idealism of Bernardo Kastrup, reality is fundamentally mental, what we perceive as matter is merely the mental content of “Mind-at-Large”, and we are dissociated alters of one universal consciousness. Although this conceptual inversion sounds mystical and irrational, it’s really not. In fact, I find that Kastrup’s philosophy is compatible with most of Azarian’s other ideas yet avoids his major hangup: the difficulty of explaining the origin of a universe fine-tuned for life.
Evolving Towards Optimism: Does Science Inform Us?
Azarian appears to be a potent patternist. Using common language (even if intellectually challenging) he weaves cutting edge science into an explanation of the origin, development, and purpose of life as we know it. In three sections titled: Origins, Evolution, Transcendence, he relates how science and beliefs could fit together to make sense of everything, and provide us a purposeful and noble path for the future.
I read this book because my beliefs are underpinned by the research and writing of psychologist Daniel J. Siegel (UCLA/Mindsight) and include the thesis that mind is a process that regulates information and energy. After his practice in clinical and therapeutic psychology and clinical research on advanced meditators, he found that the process is emergent, self-organizing, embodied, and inter(trans)personal. Siegel has written over 30 books since 2010. So I was delighted to see that Azarian deals with many of the same elements in his 2022 book.
Azarian's subject is far broader than human behavior. He takes on the universe and reality. In his search for the theory of everything (TOE) he proposes that, "Energy is nature’s fundamental organizing force, and a universe rich with flowing energy is a cosmos primed for complexification." and further, "Knowledge is the information we acquire that reduces our uncertainty or ignorance about the world." He calls his theory: "the integrated evolutionary synthesis." I certainly admire the pursuit, his citations, and his creative synthesis.
I also appreciate that his synthesis points towards science as it's basis, and yet it's trajectory towards the wonder and nature of spiritual connectedness as necessary for our ultimate evolutionary path. I loved this reference about free will, "The evolutionary process is poetic because it is inherently creative, and each new functional pattern that emerges at a higher level is a “rhyme” on the level before it. In poetic meta-naturalism’s model of reality, the mind is a multilevel controller, and free will is a higher level of control than basic biological agency. Once we understand the hierarchical structure of life, mind, and cosmos, we begin to see that individual freedom and cosmic destiny are not incompatible notions."
Ultimately he gives us a way to be optimistic that even in our darkest moments in our world and environment he offers, "“Popper’s principle,” which is based on a simple premise: Problems create progress." Overall, I would say this is not an easy book to read. But if you are motivated by curiosity about science and how it will help us navigate the future, and you find it useful to participate in that discussion, you will find it delightfully intriguing.
This is an interesting and informative book. It's not written for a lay audience, though to me it didn't seem to be too difficult to be understood by a lay audience. I stopped reading around the 36% mark because it seemed to be getting increasingly technical and no longer held my interest.
I also felt like it made logical leaps that undermined the main thesis of the book. If thermodynamics inevitably results in adaptive systems, and life is an adaptive system, it doesn't necessarily follow that life is inevitable.
Nor does the book really seek to explain why abiogenesis happened only once on Earth as far as we know. There's maybe a paragraph on it during the first third of the book, and it wasn't all that persuasive. Something along the lines of "once life developed it was no longer imperative for life to develop." Okay, but that doesn't really explain why, if life developed along the mid-Atlantic ridge for instance, the pressure for life to develop elsewhere on Earth suddenly stopped. But I'm not a scientist, so what do I know?
Overall, I found the first quarter of the book to be really valuable. After that, the law of diminishing returns kicked in. I think the book does a good job of explaining how life might have first begun. But the arguments about inevitability fall short IMO.
Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.
There is no way to describe The Romance of Reality other than mind-blowing. Azarian takes you from cosmos to consciousness and back again, and gives a plausible explanation to the meaning of everything, (as far as I can discern). The language is accessible and I think he does a really good job describing things as best he can, bearing in mind some things are not really supposed to totally comprehensible to the human mind. Whilst Azarian is really trying to communicate these concepts to a wide audience and does' not presuppose knowledge (which I'm all for!), I think the writing style at times is a little too casual for my liking
Overall, I'd highly recommend this book to everyone. It's pretty tough going, and some bits you'll get more than others, but if you want to begin to understand the nature of things, this is a really good place to start and much more accessible than other books out there. I will definitely be giving this another read!
The author undertakes an audacious project to answer many of the most important questions of our age. He succeeds brilliantly. Combining reliable scientific research with well-accepted theories he describes the conditions that cause life to emerge. Although the book is well-researched, well written, and rigorously scientific, few of the hypothesis presented are readily falsifiable. The book is an integrated sequence of entirely plausible yet somewhat speculative narratives.
In this captivating book he boldly asks and then plausibly answers the questions: How did life emerge? Why did life emerge? What is consciousness? Free Will? Self? Knowledge? Information? Is the universe evolving toward an omega point? How do all these concepts fit together?
His overarching thesis, blandly stated as “we live in a computational universe that is continuously evolving into an increasingly complex, functional, and sentient state” becomes a compelling adventure as the implications of that thesis are explored in depth.
The book is organized into three sections. Part one of the book is about the emergence of life on Earth. Here we learn basics of complexity science, self-organization, phase transitions, emergence, attractors, and feedback loops. He often relies on these concepts, especially emergent phenomenon, to remain scientifically rigorous while filling the gaps left by scientific reductionism as he explains the complex world we live in.
The book connects the dots among well-accepted scientific theories. We learn that gradients often form in nature wherever free energy is available to do work. Dissipative structures commonly form to convert the available free energy into thermodynamic entropy. Many examples of this exist in nature, including hurricanes that form to dissipate the temperature gradient existing between a warm ocean and cooler atmosphere.
According to his narrative, abiogenesis—the beginning of life on Earth—emerged as a self-organized dissipative system, driven into existence by the thermal and chemical gradients produced in hydrothermal vents, or some geologically similar location where rock, water, and intense heat intersect. Abiogenesis is reconceptualized as an inevitable thermodynamic event that opened up new energy flow channels on Earth to facilitate entropy production.
After reminding us that information—anything that reduces uncertainty—is physically manifest, and that problems create knowledge, he describes the trial and error of natural selection as an on-gong process of forming, and testing hypothesis. Successful hypotheses are embedded as knowledge in living organisms. For example, a dolphin’s streamlined design, which is a product of the information stored in its genome, contains a knowledge of hydrodynamics. Furthermore, living systems include some internal model, or mental model, of its surroundings. As evolutionary learning occurs, life is effectively updating its model’s representations of the world around it to be more accurate and comprehensive.
Part Two, “Evolution,” presents a generalized concept of evolution that explains the emergence and evolution of intelligent life in the cosmos. We learn that evolution is an epistemology, a way of knowing, because survival requires learning about the environment. “Evolutionary epistemology emphasizes that the evolutionary process is a problem-solving procedure that creates knowledge”.
Learning by trial and error is ubiquitous. Because what works—what is proven to be successful—persists, and failures are short lived, Darwinism is universal. “Universal Darwinism emphasizes that the universe is evolving at every scale through both competitive evolution and through self-organization”.
An emerging paradigm called universal Bayesianism recognizes that we evaluate evidence to create knowledge and inform actions. Combining these ideas merge the concepts from Part One into a unified theory of systems.
Part Three, “Transcendence” becomes increasingly grand and abstract when presenting speculation on consciousness, free will, and the ultimate fate of life in the universe.
Using the liar’s paradox, “This statement is false” to introduce Douglas Hofstadter’s concept of a strange loop, the mechanisms of consciousness are easily explained. Because intelligent organisms include mental models of the environment, these mental models also include models of the self. Self-referential strange loops allow the self to emerge as an observer of that mental model.
The author decisively argues in favor of the existence of free will. After demonstrating that “information is physical,” he argues a big chunk of the dilemma of dualism dissolves away. The mind can influence the physical world through downward causation without paradox because thoughts are just instances of information in action. “In the model of reality proposed by poetic meta-naturalism, there is room for destiny and free will. Because the future is not determined in the strict sense imagined by Laplace, there is no paradox.”
The book provides optimistic speculations on the ultimate fate of the universe. “Because knowledge accumulates, life learns to control the cosmos for its own benefit.” “At this point, we can only speculate about which ultimate scenario is correct—or most likely. But we can say for sure that the cosmos is gradually waking up through life, it does so inexorably, and it is not clear whether this process ever has to end.” “The universe has a goal in much the same way an oak seed does, as it will inevitably develop into a tree, or an embryo into an adult.”
In the final section he speculates on a road to omega, the future event theorized by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in which the entirety of the universe spirals toward a final point of unification.
He briefly acknowledges spirituality when he states, “Spirituality simply refers to a sense of connection to something larger than oneself, and it has nothing to do with the supernatural”.
He then encourages us “By becoming aware of our emergent purpose, we can live more meaningful lives, in harmony with one another and with the aspirations of nature. You are not a cosmic accident. You are a cosmic imperative.”
This important book is brilliantly conceived, well researched, well written, very informative, encouraging, and a joy to read.
This is a book about ideas, most of them very big and very new to mainstream science readers. If you follow the work of people like Jeremy England, Stuart Kauffman and Karl Friston, Azarian's book will feed your brain.
Experience a seismic shift in your worldview by integrating emergence of matter, life, mind, and culture through the lens of complexity science and discover the realization that you are not a cosmic accident, you are a cosmic imperative!.
It is rare when a book seems to be written specifically to solve all my personal philosophical conundrums. I am an amateur philosopher and I heard Bobby Azarian during his appearance on The David Pakman Show when my ears perked up as he discussed the second law of thermodynamics. You see this law has, for decades now, been a giant thorn in my philosophical side. My contemplations about the nature of reality have led me to the hypothesis that the universe is moving inexorably towards greater complexity; greater order. Through visualizing the dynamics of solar system and planetary evolution, charting the path of the evolution of matter an energy from simple elements towards elaborate organic compounds and later biological life, and given the sheer volume of open systems for which to advance the evolutionary game, I could not help but come to the almost spiritual conclusion that the universe is geared towards progress. Progress is a tough word. From a metaphysical standpoint, progress indicates a goal, and goal indicates will. How can the universe have a will to become intelligent and ordered when the second law clearly states our future is destined towards entropic chaos? My scientific mind knows the universe is completely mechanical and nothing supernatural is necessary to explain it, so how can I be drawn towards such a teleological argument? Practically every respected physicist I encountered affirmed the irrefutable nature of the 2nd law and seem to universally extrapolate its meaning to conclude our universe is headed towards something resembling nothingness. If this is so, why did the universe once closely resemble a super heated soup of hydrogen and helium particles but is now teeming with dynamic systems of ever-growing complexity? Why didn't the universe just stay a soup, or just continue dissipating into complete entropic coldness? I, being an armchair philosopher, could not reconcile this contradiction. I knew the 2nd law was not wrong, so therefore I had to be. And there I remained, stuck in philosophical purgatory. This book changed all that. Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. I've always disagreed with this statement, (painful to disagree with your hero) believing that God does play dice, it's just he uses so many die, he always hits his number in sufficient quantity. I was beside myself when the author cited this very same quote and countered that God does play dice but "the game is rigged". It's as if this book was written for the sole purpose of affirming my deepest intuitions on reality and answering my most troubling quandaries. Now comes the fun part, trying to poke holes in my newly fortified theory of reality. All I can say is thank you Mr. Azarian.
Probably my most highlighted Kindle book of all time. 6 stars.
The Universe's ineluctable onward march towards higher and higher levels of complexity is the greatest mystery of all. One that simplistic scientific materialism cannot answer. The author takles this issue without invocation of a transcendent intelligence in what I found to be a very well researched, fascinating, and detailed book.
The Universe is some sort of engine for creating complexity.. agreed. While I doubt that entropy starts acting in an inverse direction at some unknown nominal point away from thermodynamic equilibrium to maximize itself, and that completely blind genetic mutation coupled with trial / error are the prime drivers of this complexity... I do wholeheartedly agree with much else in this book (one could perhaps turn to Alfred North Whitehead for more accurate speculation around a metaphysic of novelty and creativity)...
Apart from the strange exclusion of Whitehead, the author does bring together the thoughts of a vast range of interesting scientists and philosophers. I particularly found the final section on consciousness fascinating, probably the best arrangement of thoughts on this cofounding topic I have ever read.
More could have been made of the specific ethical and moral responsibility that should result from recognition of our place in a universe that is somehow being driven and lured forward to higher levels of complexity... And which places creativity and intelligence (and therefore humanity) at the forefront of value.
In conclusion, followers of both religion and scientism, which is all of us, should be made to read this and then let's all get busy going interplanetary and interstellar while paying the highest respects to Gaia (that's probably why she puts up with us). No one else is going to redirect asteroids, terraform new ecosystems and spawn further novelty if we don't do it.
If I'm being completely honest, I have to admit that I picked this book up to read only with great reluctance. After reading the blurb on the back cover, I was expecting some sort of pseudo-science babble, akin to new-age spirituality that I find difficult to swallow.
But once I started reading, I realized that while some of the concepts hinted at in the book might superficially look similar to some new-age mysticism, the arguments presented here are solidly grounded in solid science. The author pulls a number of ideas from a wide range of disciplines, from information theory, to evolution, to chaos and complexity studies, and combines them to argue that the widely accepted view that life is a statistical anomaly in the universe is incorrect. In fact, according to the analysis here, not only was the emergence of life in the universe likely, it was inevitable, as was the evolution towards intelligent life and self-awareness. The arguments for this position also suggest that the generation of knowledge and the growth of complexity in the universe will continue indefinitely.
This book took me a while to work my way through. It contains a great many ideas, some of which are complex, and it took me time to process and absorb the ideas presented. I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced of all of the merits of the paradigm set forth in this book, but I am intrigued enough to look forward to seeing how future research and experimentation impacts this framework. If the evidence generated by such scientific research ends up validating this viewpoint, it would signal an exciting new understanding of the nature of existence and what the future might hold.
Brilliant compilation of a ton of cutting edge science. I love the perspective Azarian offers here. I love the idea of reconciling science and faith. I love the idea of propping up complexity science instead of reductionism. I love Azarian's clarity and precision in explaining these subjects. What I don't love is the arrogance that it takes to frame your perspective as the emerging theory of everything. I get that you have to sell copies and no one really knows your name. The truth is, the first two parts of the book were 5 stars and the last was 3. That judgement is despite my holding Gödel, Escher, Bach to be one of the finest works of literature ever written. It all felt much more speculative and hand-wavey when Azarian started talking about the role of consciousness. His explanation of free will in terms of levels of agency felt half baked. For the number of times he reiterated the ideas related to energy flow and emergence, his sprinting through the philosophy of mind stuff felt especially out of place. I tend to weigh a book's ending pretty heavily into my general perception of it, and Romance of Reality could've tied things together better.
All that being said, this was one of my favorite books I've read recently. It really tied together a lot of related ideas for me. Above all else, it presents a plethora of reference material and I'm sure I'll be leafing through it for relevant papers and authors for years to come. It presents a compelling narrative with the broad strokes and speaks to the cognitive scientist and the physicist in me. Definitely worth your time.
It is my first introduction to Complexity Science and I was not disappointed. I have always found reductionism wanting and live by the axiom, "Life is Complex".
This book makes a bold claim to have arrived at a theory of everything called a Unifying Theory of Reality. Time will tell how well this stands up but it takes a very credible multi-disciplinary stab drawing from physics, biology, probability theory, philosophy, cybernetics and cosmology, among others.
The thesis starts with the emergence of life on earth and then proceeds to explore the evolution of intelligent life from a cosmic perspective. It ends by looking at consciousness, free will and the ultimate fate of life in the universe.
The author proposes a new worldview: poetic meta-naturalism - where reality is inherently creative because it is always producing novel patterns rhyming with the past.
There are few science books I'd read more than once but I suspect this will be one. The book is about cosmological natural selection, essentially how the universe might be using intelligence in a more fundamental way, a way that is baked into the mechanics of nature. It's a really interesting idea that's emerging from complexity science and something I wouldn't mind going over again.
It covers everything from evolution to quantum mechanics to Darwinian evolution, and tries to put it into what the author describes as a universal theory of reality. It's not exactly a new idea but it tries to communicate the concept in as way that's understandable.
The basic argument is that intelligence and complex systems are inevitable because the universe's laws of physics minimize free energy, meaning it is not a random process but governed by generative rules, such as Prigogine's dissipative structures minimizing energy locally by increasing it elsewhere.
For some reason he talks about multiverses and simulation theory, which does make it seem a little less credible, and I am not sure if any of the conclusions he seems to draw are conclusive or even warranted, but he does talk about some interesting models such as autocatalytic sets and Markov blankets.
I now have two authors that have helped change my life by opening up roads I would never have seen without their help. My first was Alan Watts and now Bobby Azarian. As we have all searched for the meaning of life, I now can just enjoy the dance and know that there is indeed some cosmic music that I’m dancing to. I hope to meet the author some day to thank you in person. Such a treat to read.
The first few chapters are innovative and the author tries to look at the 2nd law of thermodynamics by putting the biological and informational perspective into it. However, the input of living organisms into the law and the attempt to create a theory of everything have not been convincing and the expressions in the later chapters have been blank and over-the-top.
This book has been influential in my comprehension of how systems work with the 2nd law of thermodynamics.. While there are some leaps the author takes, the reasoning is sound until I learn of reasons to doubt the conclusions.
I plan to reread this text in kindle form to synthesize notes with other texts to understand how life began and the mechanisms emergence are explained.
An intriguing stab at explaining the transcendental notion of life. While the proliferation of knowledge has yet to fully explain our origins, our existence, and our presence, I really enjoyed how Bobby approached his theorized view from the perspective of multiple disciplines! Cool stuff
I think this book is fine. The writing is simplistic and the concepts are complex. It's dense and seems to have blown the minds of the people it's supposed to be for. But it's not for a wide audience, and I will bravely admit that it was not me. DNF at 20%
This book throws a wide array of overcomplicated theories and philosophies at the reader(like Quantum Darwinism, Casual Decoupling, and Evolutionary Epistemology, just to name a few), but a few of the major concepts have managed to capture my interest. I will definitely reread this book sometime.