Order in the Universe and Pattern Recognition

Humans have evolved in a world with a certain amount of order. Our brains take advantage of it through built-in pattern recognition capabilities. That’s why we can recognize trees that we’ve never seen before; we see them as part of a set, or class, of things. That’s why once we’ve learned to read in a certain language, we can read text printed in hundreds, if not thousands, of different typefaces without having to re-learn the skill with each one of them. Etc.

But what if another form of intelligent life had evolved in a world with significantly less order than in our world? What if it had evolved in a world with significantly more order than our world? Could either of those possibilities happen in our universe – on a planet with very different conditions from ours, for example, or with life-forms based on different chemical elements than us, or with different sensorial inputs – or would that require an universe with different physical laws?

If other intelligent life-forms exist out there and they don’t live in Earth-like conditions, there’s no reason to think that the ‘tuning’ of their minds with regard to order is anything like ours. This could be one more thing, along with a possible difference in subjective time and many others, that could make communication difficult.

I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, but it’s a nice thought experiment, and while it might not teach us a lot about hypothetical aliens, I think it can teach us something about ourselves by giving us a less human-centric perspective on intelligence.

See also: Virtual Reality Could Explain the Fermi Paradox

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3 Responses to “Order in the Universe and Pattern Recognition”

  1. The Electric Pulse Says:

    This is a very interesting thought experiment, but I’m not sure it makes that much of a difference in terms of cognition. Picture, for instance, an Eskimo being raised in an extremely remote part of the Arctic. His observable universe would be very ordered, as there would be very few set of objects. The few animals would all be “game”, the entire landscape would fall under “snow/ice”, and then there would be a few sets dealing with his tribe. Even in this terribly limited scenario however, there would still be some items that overlapped, such as igloos, which would be part of the landscape and also man-made.

    I guess it’s hard for me to imagine any environment, no matter how basic, in which an intelligent creature would not encounter sets of objects. Dealing with these sets would seem to be a necessary condition for intelligence, and if you’re able to deal with some sets, I think you have the mental machinery to deal with more.

    If you were brought up in an incredibly ordered environment however, your inclination to explore could be severely reduced, as it would disrupt the order in which you were accustomed. This “curiosity” repercussion, stemming from an ordered environment could have an effect on the Fermi Paradox as you’ve described, but I’m not sure order or a lack thereof would account for large cognitive differences (or maybe I just can’t wrap my mind around it).

  2. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    There’s not much doubt that our brains have been shaped by our ancestral savanna. Just like every page of a physiology textbook applies to all humans worldwide, we also all share many evolved cognitive ‘organs’. I’m fairly sure that if somehow we had evolved for the past 10-15 million years in the arctic instead, that would make big difference. I wasn’t just talking about living in a different environment, but about evolving in one.

    It’s a good question whether savanna vs arctic would make that big a difference to our pattern recognition capabilities, though. Maybe even those are not different enough from each other on the ‘order’ level to generate radical differences.

    But in more extreme scenarios; say life was possible on a level were quantum or relativistic effects are important, or life with sensorial information coming from the x-ray spectrum, or some gaseous lifeform on a gas giant or hydrogen cloud, or even in a universe with totally different laws, etc. Very scifi scenarios, very different from our ancestral environment, creating entities that we might not even recognize a intelligent life at first, and that’s kind of my point. Part of that difference might simply be what can be recognized as patterns and what is below the threshold.

    Of course, I’m also having a lot of trouble imagining an environment where the amount of order would truly be different from here, but there’s a chance that this is more a failure of human imagination than a true limitation of our universe.

  3. Bookmarks about Universe Says:

    […] – bookmarked by 3 members originally found by alphaecho35 on 2008-08-16 Order in the Universe and Pattern Recognition http://michaelgr.com/2008/07/22/order-in-the-universe-and-pattern-recognition/ – bookmarked by 5 […]

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