Sunday, September 25, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's copper brain

Is our universe an intelligent living organism or a dead machine that came into being by accident with no one manning the control knobs?

To answer that age-old existential question, let's ask none other than Honest Abe Lincoln, our 16th President, who presumably would not lie at all, much less about something as important as this.

Well, we won't actually ask the fleshly Honest Abe -- too late for that -- but rather his copper likeness on the U.S. penny.

The copper Lincoln, of course, cannot speak, but he does have the right moves, so to speak, to give us a suggestive answer.

Flip a penny ten times and you get a totally random heads-tails outcome.

But the longer you stretch out any series of flips, the less randomness you will get in the heads-tails result. Indeed, the longer the series of flips, the closer and closer the outcome will creep toward exactly 50 % heads and 50 % tails.

This will happen in every experiment. Every time. As dependably as gravity or a morning sunrise.

An extremely long series of flips will time after time have an outcome that is virtually exactly 50 percent heads and 50 percent tails. Many flips, little randomness. Few flips, lots of randomness. A middling number of flips, a middling amount of randomness.

Question: How does The Great Emancipator, made of pure copper and no neurons, axons or dendrites, know how to behave this precisely?

Scientists answer blithely that it's the Law of Probability. But why -- we persist in asking. "Just 'cause" is the reply, and the matter is closed.

Of course, to a philosophically inclined person, the matter is far from closed.

The mystery of mindless copper Lincolns behaving so precisely and dependably is a metaphor for the incredible orderliness of this seemingly conscious universe that skeptics dismiss as random and accidental.

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