“You could say we can state the configuration space, since it’s simply a classical, 6N-dimensional phase space.”

This made me smile and then laugh.

“You could say we can state the configuration space, since it’s simply a classical, 6N-dimensional phase space.”

Well, duh.

I often say that. I was in the queue in my corner shop last night and I said it. Always gets a laugh.

“It is important to note how strange this is. In statistical mechanics we start with the famous liter volume of gas, and the molecules are bouncing back and forth, and it takes six numbers to specify the position and momentum of each particle. It’s essential to begin by describing the set of all possible configurations and momenta of the gas, giving you a 6N dimensional phase space. You then divide it up into little 6N dimensional boxes and do statistical mechanics. But you begin by being able to say what the configuration space is. Can we do that for the biosphere?

“I’m going to try two answers. Answer one is No. We don’t know what Darwinian pre adaptations are going to be, which supplies an arrow of time. The same thing is true in the economy; we can’t say ahead of time what technological innovations are going to happen. Nobody was thinking of the Web 300 years ago. The Romans were using things to lob heavy rocks, but they certainly didn’t have the idea of cruise missiles. So I don’t think we can do it for the biosphere either, or for the econosphere.

“You might say that it’s just a classical phase space—leaving quantum mechanics out—and I suppose you can push me. You could say we can state the configuration space, since it’s simply a classical, 6N-dimensional phase space. But we can’t say what the macroscopic variables are, like wings, paramecium detectors, big brains, ears, hearing and flight, and all of the things that have come to exist in the biosphere.

“All of this says to me that my tentative definition of an autonomous agent is a fruitful one, because it’s led to all of these questions. I think I’m opening new scientific doors. The question of how the universe got complex is buried in this question about Maxwell’s demon, for example, and how the biosphere got complex is buried in everything that I’ve said. We don’t have any answers to these questions; I’m not sure how to get answers. This leaves me appalled by my efforts, but the fact that I’m asking what I think are fruitful questions is why I’m happy with what I’m doing.”

This is top quality stand-up, if you are a fan of Sheldon and The Big Bang Theory.

https://edge.org/conversation/stuart_a_kauffman-the-adjacent-possible

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One thought on ““You could say we can state the configuration space, since it’s simply a classical, 6N-dimensional phase space.”

  1. I should have said that I have enormous respect for Stu (I met him at conference so I can legitimately call him Stu). I think he is probably my #1 complexplicator and visonary scientist. And as you can see in this quote, he can be as playful as Feynman (but mercifully without the bongos). I love the way he laughs at himself for his own appalling answers. A Dude who will abide.

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