Humanity will use explanatory knowledge to control ever-larger swathes of the universe, with the potential to control the galaxy as our reach expands. This is according to David Deutsch, a visiting professor at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Quantum Computation, who explained that this power could upend the traditional order of the universe, where bigger things dictate the state of smaller things.
“I call that the hierarchy rule,” Deutsch said at this year’s TED conference in Vancouver, Canada on Tuesday, during a five-day event where experts on a broad range of subjects shared insights on a broad range of topics. “For example, when a comet hits the sun, the sun carries on just as before, but the comet is vaporized.”
Deutsch noted that the Earth is unique in this regard, as it plays host to multiple entities that are capable of influencing larger objects. The first genes for photosynthesis are what first enabled the creation of plants, which then evolved into more advanced forms of life and began to gradually spread. They subverted the rule of big dominating the small by a staggering factor of 10 to the power of 40.
Another entity could have a similar influence on the galaxy: explanatory knowledge, the ability to share knowledge universally such that its only boundaries are the laws of physics. The power of explanatory knowledge is distinct from the fixed nature of our DNA, and is what could ultimately help humans explore the stars, divert asteroids and become masters of their own destiny.
“Explanatory knowledge is potentially far more powerful because of universality, and more rapidly created,” Deutsch said. “When human knowledge has achieved the factor 10 to the 40, it will pretty much control the entire galaxy, and will be looking beyond.”
This shift could have a profound influence on what has otherwise been a rather monotonous universe, where for the past 12 billion years the same basic chemicals and astrological objects have populated the sky. Stars are so predictable their lifespan over billions of years can be mapped.
Humans throughout history have always seemed aware of this stasis, even when we didn’t fully understand it: The Hebrew Bible book Kohelet states that “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Rather than recognizing their agency as creators of novelty, past civilizations instead spoke of cosmic wars between the gods, or between order and chaos in 20th-century physics, or sustainability and waste in recent years.
“If one can speak of a cosmic war, it’s not the one portrayed in those pessimistic stories,” Deutsch said. “It’s a war between monotony and novelty, between status 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.”