Justin Li

Ex Nihilo


The Latin phrase ex nihilo is probably most commonly seen in theology debates or some kind of highly theoretical science, maybe particle physics, where things just appear out of nowhere: creatio ex nihilo, or "creation out of nothing". Although religion touches on some of the subjects below, I would like to talk about the idea of something out of nothing in a broader sense.

Without me realizing it, several of my interests and ideas have revolved around the creation of something out of nothing. I don't know where this interest started; perhaps the pursuit of the "why" in science will always end with the, for the lack of a better term, "first cause" of the phenomenon under study. Since I don't have a phenomenon to call my own, my interests have lead me to several of these points.

The first one, as I mentioned already, is the theological and physical beginning of the universe. I am of course more inclined to say that it was a big bang than six days of creation, but to be honest I don't think either can properly account for stopping the infinity regression of causes. Then again, I don't have much training in either fields of theology or physics, so this more "famous" of creatio ex nihilo is the one I know the least about.

This next one is more in my field. A while back I had talked about a theory of learning called cased-based reasoning. As I said, I like the theory, but there remains the caveat of the one original rule we generalize from. Somehow in newborn babies there is a first an initial case from which all other problems can be mapped down to, so sort of "superclass" of problems from which all problems inherit. I'm personally of the opinion that it's not so much a case which babies have, but the ability to make causal connections between events. How it works I have no clue, but once that is down it seems the "babies as tiny scientists" metaphor works really well.

If my professors read this they'll probably call me naive. Heh.

My last example of ex nihilo is the one I find most interesting. For case-based reasoning and the ontological beginning of the universe, there is a direct chain going from the present to the first cause. That is, the first cause is thought of as the same material as what is observed. There is a field, however, where this is not the case: the field of complex systems.

I know, that's a buzz word nowadays, but it really is fascinating. The thing with emergence is that you can't see what will happen just based on knowing what is going on now. The interactions between the different "agents" are just too complex, even if the rules it follows are simple. The most famous and one of the simplest examples of this is Conway's Game of Life (a demo here; requires Java). Even if you know all the rules (of which there is only 2 or 3, depending on how you phrase it), you'll be surprised by how the pattern develops. A simple search on Google will give you lots of patterns to try out.

There are other fun examples hosted at Northwestern's Center for Connected Learning, but the thing I'm interested in is not there. I don't think any one has ever modeled it, either, because it would be quite a breakthrough. My question is, how do societies form?

This has of course been debated by philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and a whole bunch of other -ists and -ers before. I'm particularly interested in the development of altruism between individuals, when one would give up something "for the greater good". There seems to be intelligence involved, but how much? Is the symbiotic relationships we see in nature related? Does simple altruism eventually but deterministically lead to morals and law and order? There are a lot of theories, but I would love to see a computer model of the evolution of morals.

How does this tie into ex nihilo? Well, the product created in this case are the human moral values. In some sense, it seems to come out of no where, developed all of a sudden when we become "humans" and not "animals". Animals didn't have morals before, and suddenly boom, humans know not to kill each other, or to steal from each other, or even (gasp) to be polite.

Voila, creatio ex nihilo.