Dr. Clément Vidal is a philosopher with a background in logic and cognitive sciences. He is co-founder of the Evo Devo Universe community and founder of the High Energy Astrobiology prize. In 2014, he authored The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective. He is eager to tackle big questions, bringing together areas of knowledge such as cosmology, physics, astrobiology, complexity science or evolutionary theory.
In the last few decades, cosmology provided us great insights about our place in the universe. However, scientific worldviews strive to be value-free, leaving the problem of how we can give meaning to our lives. We need a broader philosophical worldview that attempts to answer our existential questions. This worldview will encourage people to find a meaning of life in harmony with cosmic evolution.
This essay links all my publications in an autobiographical story about my research.
I was born and raised in Paris, France, where I studied and gained three different masters in philosophy, mathematical logic and cognitive sciences.
In 2003, at the University Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, I wrote a master thesis in philosophy of mathematics, entitled Georg Cantor and the Discovery of Infinities (in French). I couldn't believe that there could exist different powers of infinity, and I wanted to understand how this could be true. It took me time to realize that the counterarguments (e.g. by Wittgenstein) were deeply wrong. I keep a fascination for this transition between discrete (countable) and continuous (uncountable) infinite.
As part of my second masters in mathematical logic, I translated from English to French a technical paper about The Logic of Paradox. However, I don't think it is a very fruitful line of research, as argued in the introduction of the translation.
Further to my studies in logic, I enjoyed the interdisciplinary atmosphere of my third masters in cognitive sciences, in Paris 5/6/ENS/EHESS. I wrote a thesis entitled The Brain and the Internet: Critical Study of an Analogy (in French). I was fascinated by the idea that the interconnection of humans and machines through global networks would lead to a new level of planetary intelligence, or global brain. At this time, I discovered the work of Francis Heylighen, who not only had written extensively about the global brain, but also about a diverse range of captivating topics related to the evolution of complexity. I was keen to continue to do research, and undertake a PhD, but I was undecided on which direction to go. From the global brain idea, two roads were of special interest to me. The first down to Earth, the second beyond its orbit.
The first has to do with The Phenomenon of Science, which is, according to the visionary mind of Valentin Turchin "the highest growth point of a growing tree, the leading shoot in the evolution of the universe". I wanted to help science grow faster, better, more efficiently, with the help of information, computation, and network technologies. I thus made a PhD proposal to accelerate and improve the exchange of scientific ideas and theories, focusing on "open peer commentary" (in French).
The second direction from my study of the global brain was simply to ask: what next? It was increasingly clear to me that software, hardware and humans were merging through globally interconnected networks. But what would come after? What would the Earth's global brain become, say in 2000, or 2 million years? Could it be that there are other global brains in the universe? To answer such big questions, a broader evolutionary and cosmological perspective was needed. I imagined that Francis Heylighen, with his background in theoretical physics, theorist of the global brain idea, and strong background in evolutionary theory, would be ideal to supervise such a PhD project.
Undertaking a very practical or a very theoretical PhD, this was my dilemma. This dilemma was resolved when I read a most interesting paper about the future of peer-review by Marko Rodriguez, entitled The Hyper-Cortex of Human Collective-Intelligence Systems. To my great surprise, I realized that he was then working with... Francis Heylighen! At that moment, I knew I had to meet Heylighen. In October 2005, I took a train from Paris to Brussels, and presented my two PhD proposals to his research group. He liked both topics, and simply asked me to choose one of them. I went out of orbit... for a long time!
I was glad to receive confirmation that Heylighen has both a theoretical and practical mindset. As kindred minds, we later published a paper together entitled: Getting Things Done: The Science Behind Stress-Free Productivity, explaining the theoretical reasons for the success of the action management method called Getting Things Done.
I subsequently worked a few years on the controversial issue of the fine-tuning of the universe: the claim that some parameters of our cosmological and particle physics models are fine-tuned for the emergence of life or complexity. Is our universe fine-tuned? The broad literature shows wide diversity with many mutually contradictory positions. The issue stems from physics, but is often motivated by philosophical or theological agendas. We can find skeptics who insist that fine-tuning is impossible to define rigorously, physicists who maintain that either it is a central issue in theoretical physics or that there is no need for fine-tuning, and natural theologians who use fine-tuning arguments to infer the existence of God. The difficulties are numerous because an exact formulation of the argument requires an understanding of physics, cosmology, probability theory, dynamical systems theory, parameter sensitivity, and philosophy.
I argued that future computer simulations could enlighten this thorny issue. This can be found in my 2008 paper: The Future of Scientific Simulations: from Artificial Life to Artificial Cosmogenesis, my 2013 paper: Artificial Cosmogenesis: a New Kind of Cosmology, and Chapters 5-6-7 of my 2014 book.
In my exploration of cosmology, I was not fully satisfied with existing approaches, which do not sufficiently link the physical evolution of particles, stars, galaxies with the acceleration of changes on Earth since the emergence of life, intelligence, civilization, information society, and what may come after. In 2008, I started fascinating email discussions with futurist John Smart. We quickly became friends, and co-founded the Evo Devo Universe academic community, which has been consistently growing ever since. We obtained a grant to organize an international conference, EDU 2008. With the help of colleagues, I took the lead in editing the special issue, which was published in Foundations of Science, with papers, commentaries and responses. This was for me an opportunity to implement in practice the ideas of open peer commentary. In addition to the 12 peer-reviewed papers, 20 additional manuscripts were published, giving additional discussion, critique, and debate to this special issue. The whole EDU2008 special issue is also available as a preprint on arXiv.
In October 2010, my research took another turn. Martin Dominik invited me to talk at a Royal Society meeting entitled “Towards a scientific and societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life”. The meeting took place in Buckinghamshire, at the Kavli Royal Society International Centre, and was quite exceptional, thanks to the combination of high quality speakers and a stimulating surrounding. Although I believed, like most scientists, that it is unlikely that we are alone in the universe, I had not yet given serious thoughts on how to find extraterrestrial life. The organizers invited me to take part in a discussion panel focusing on the question: “What are the implications of SETI for the future of humanity?”. I reasoned that to answer this question finding extraterrestrial life would not be enough, only advanced extraterrestrials would help. Indeed, only in this case would we have insights into our possible futures. In the ensuing paper entitled Black holes: Attractors for Intelligence? I set out to speculate on the most advanced extraterrestrials possible. I built on John Smart's ideas that the future of intelligent life lies in compression and densification of organization. As strange as it may seem, to the extreme possibilities of matter, as John noticed, extraterrestrials would be organized around or as black holes (like in the movie Interstellar).
However, if extraterrestrials really lived off black holes, we would not stand a chance to detect them, simply because they would emit no light. Still, in a scientific spirit, I went to look more closely at where the few confirmed stellar black holes were observed. I then realized that they were not isolated, but found in binary star systems. I started to explore with fascination microquasars and gradually the variety of accreting binary star systems. They immediately struck me as displaying all features of metabolism. Metabolism requires an energy flow, maintenance of an internal organization and exportation of entropy. All these features appeared to be present in some of these binary systems. I coined the term "starivore" (a hybrid word from English star; and latin vorus) because of its proximity with the word "carnivore". But from August 2015, I now prefer to use stellivore (from latin stella and vorus).
Could these systems be advanced living things? Could they be super global brains using stellar energy actively? The exploration of these questions is just getting started, and my up-to-date reflections are to be found in Chapter 9 of my 2014 book: "High Energy Astrobiology". A short 2016 paper summarizes the argument: Stellivore Extraterrestrials? Binary stars as living systems. Of course, proving the existence of an internal organization in a white dwarf, neutron star or black hole remains a key open question. This is why I created the High Energy Astrobiology Prize to stimulate research in this area.
I am very much aware that these topics are highly speculative. This awareness is reflected in my constant reflection and work about the philosophical method, motivated by finding ways to answer big questions carefully and rationally. I use the worldview concept as a framework for integrating insights from different disciplines. I spent nearly as much intellectual energy in setting this framework as I did exploring the big questions themselves. For more details, you can read my paper What is a worldview? or the more sophisticated Metaphilosophical Criteria for Worldview Comparison. These reflections are also integrated and expanded in Part I of my 2014 book (chapters 1-3).
In 2012, I started to work at the Global Brain Institute, and developed with my colleagues a tentative mathematical model of the global brain: Foundations for a Mathematical Model of the Global Brain: Architecture, Components, and Specifications. In my paper entitled Distributing Cognition: from Local Brains to the Global Brain, I proposed a scenario where the global brain emerges from the bottom-up. I also included the cosmological connection, which helps to envision the deep future. To make this vision more palpable, the paper includes a fictional story of A Day in 2060, followed with a plausibility analysis (French version here).
In 2013, I synthesized my research in my PhD in philosophy, which was the basis of my book entitled The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective, and published in 2014. Both were major personal goals, and I am very pleased to have achieved them, and gratified by the ensuing media reactions.
In March 2014, I wrote a paper entitled Cosmological Immortality: How to Eliminate Aging on a Universal Scale, where I suggest that we should strive not only for human immortality, but also for the immortality of the largest system in which we are embedded, that is, the universe. Ideas from this paper and my book recently appeared in the science documentary Through the Wormhole (season 6, episode 4, hosted by Morgan Freeman).
In September 2014, I was invited to a NASA/Library of Congress event, to speak about the impact of discovering life beyond Earth. I proposed A Multidimensional Impact Model for the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life, that I would like to dedicate to Albert A. Harrison, who sadly passed away recently. Indeed, this paper is a tribute to his work, as I built on many of the insights from his book After Contact, in order to propose an impact model where scenarios can be systematically explored with radar charts.
As stated in my home page, in my current research, I am aiming to:
- Study and assess the possible existence of advanced extraterrestrial life in candidate binary star systems. This is conducted within the nascent field of high energy astrobiology.
- Explore the practical and religious implications of the epic of evolution and big history.
- Understand, foresee and facilitate our evolution towards a global brain.