Thalience – The Mind-Blowing Theory You’ve Never Heard Of

Karl Schroeder wrote a little book in 2001 called Ventus - a hard-sci-fi story that will undoubtedly be most remembered for its radical new theory about life on Earth…that gives us an insight into what life might be like after science.

Those of you who’ve read my novel Ventus may recognize “The Successor to Science” as the title of a fictional paper referred to in that book. The paper introduces the reader to the concept of thalience.  As originally intended, thalience was an attempt to look past science to see what discipline would come after it–hence the title “A Successor to Science.”

You’re forgiven if you’re bewildered–after science? How does that make sense? Am I saying that science is just a cultural phenomenon, a fashion? No. But it is something that exists in a particular historical context, and the question I was asking with thalience was whether science might produce some new kind of activity that, while not replacing it, could be viewed as an offspring of equal value to us.

Let’s back up a bit. In Ventus I invented a new word, and gave several definitions for it–quite deliberately, because I believe that ambiguity is the life-force of words. The word is acutally defined now on Wikipedia, but the two definitions given there are only half-right. Vinge asked me whether the word has to do with distributed sensor nets–because the Winds of Ventus are a system of massively parallel nanotech AIs–and I said yes at the time, but didn’t expand on what that implied. If your eyes haven’t glazed over yet, bear with me; you may find what follows interesting.

What if you could separate the activity of science from the human researchers who conduct it?Automate it, in fact? Imagine creating a bot that does physics experiments and builds an internal model of the world based on those experiments. It could start out as something simple that stacked blocks and knocked them over again. Later models could get quite sophisticated; and let’s say we combine this ability with the technology of self-reproducing machines (von Neumann machines). Seed the moon with our pocket-protector-brandishing AIs and let them go nuts. Let them share their findings and refine their models.

So far so good. Here’s the question that leads to the notion of thalience: if they were allowed to freely invent their own semantics, would their physical model of the universe end up resembling ours? –I don’t mean would it produce the same results given the same inputs, because it would. But would it be a humanly-accessible theory?

This is a better question than it might at first appear, because even we can produce mutually irreconcilable theories that successfully describe the same things: quantum mechanics and relativity, for instance. Their worldviews are incompatible, despite the fact that together they appear to accurately describe the real world. So it’s at least possible that non-human intelligences would come to different conclusions about what the universe was like, even if their theory produced results compatible with our models.

This little thought-experiment asks whether we can turn metaphysics into a hard science; and this becomes the first interesting meaning of the world thalience: it is an attempt to give the physical world itself a voice so that rather than us asking what reality is, reality itself can tell us. It is possible that thalient systems will always converge on a model of the universe that is comprehensible to humans; if so, then we will actually have a means of solving what were once considered philosophically imponderable questions–such as, what is the world really made of? How much of our understanding of the universe is subjective, and is truely objective knowledge even possible? A thalient system could tell us.

When Biology And Technology Merge

In Ventus, of course, the thalient system has lost the ability to communicate with humans; but the end of the novel holds out the hope that some sort of bridge can be constructed. Strangely, this bridge appears in the form of politics, rather than as a meeting of minds through Reason or Mathematics.

But there’s a further meaning to the term. If you were to automate science, and reap the rewards, what would you be left doing? Twiddling your thumbs while the AIs solve all the big problems? Well, not necessarily. The last definition of thalience involves the exciting possibility that, yes, multiple equally valid physical models of the universe are possible. Not one true “theory of everything” but many, perhaps an endless number of them. In this case, the conclusions we reach about our place in the universe when we understand quantum mechanics and relativity–or, for that matter, Newtonian physics–are accidental, by-products of the subjective side of objective research. So here is the grandest definition of thalience: it is the discipline that chooses among multiple successful scientific models based on which ones best satisfy our human, aesthetic/moral/personal needs. In other words, given two or more equally valid models of the universe, thalience is the art of choosing the one with the most human face. It is the recovery of the natural in our understanding of the Natural.

The ability to create non-human intelligences that can ask the same questions we ask leads to the possibility not just of answering ancient questions, but of turning science into the precursor of a new human activity. If thalient entities can create accurate models of the world that are different from our own, you may no longer be faced with the dilemma of taking either a religious, comforting view of the universe, or an objective and scientific–but not humanly satisfying–view. Thalience would consist in taking science’s results as raw material for building new mythologies–and possibly religions–which would differ from all previous ones in that they would all be scientifically, objectively true.

Now maybe you can see how science could have a successor: thalience would use objective truth as an artistic medium and merge subjectivity and objectivity in a creative activity whose purpose is the re-sanctification of the natural world. To believe in an uplifting and satisfying vision of your place in the universe, and to know that this vision is true (or as true as anything can be) would be sublime. Thalience would be an activity worthy of post-scientific humanity, or our own biological or post-biological successors.

Whoa.