Particles and Swarms

Does anyone know about particle swarm theory? It seems close to a unified theory of everything. Or at least like a pebble whose waves ripple through everything – biology and computer science, quantum physics and relativity, metaphysics and religion.

Basically, it says that independent particles form swarms, wherein each particle spontaneously takes advantage of the experience of the entire swarm. Examples in the natural world include fish schooling, bird flocking, and ant colonies. Swarm intelligence (SI) has apparently (I’m no expert) become increasingly important in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Can this bridge the persistent gap between the predictions of relativity and those of quantum physics? The problem as I see it is that relativity assumes a universe with physical matter of determinate location and mass. Quantum theory says that when you get down to the building block elements in the atom, units of matter no longer have such determinate values, but can only be described in terms of clouds of probability.

The relativity/quantum theory discrepancy has been scrutinized lately by “oil drop experiments” and “pilot waves.” It seems that you can drop oil on a liquid surface and as it bounces along, it interacts with its own ripple waves, creating a pilot wave that resembles the blur that quantum physicists see when they look at an electron or elemental particle – this would mean (I think) that underneath quantum physics is a stable physical reality after all.

So what if you looked at all the fundamental particles (or waves or whatever units you prefer) of the universe together as a swarm, all those pilot waves interacting, the every move of each affected by the every move of all the others, all one singular pattern of vibration? Do you get a 21st-century physics that recapitulates Leibniz’s 17th-century metaphysics of the indivisible unit, the monad? To wit, Leibniz:

“Each monad … adapts itself to all the others outside itself … This connection of all created things … the connection and adaptation of every single thing to all others, has the result that every single substance [every monad] stands in relations which express all the others. Whence every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe … They are but perspectives of a single universe, varied according to the points of view which differ in each monad.”

From Leibniz, it is an easy step to the world view of the Eastern religions. This connectedness of all things, objective or subjective, expressed as material or expressed as Soul – is particle swarm theory the underpinning here also? And in that swarm lies an immanent intelligence, transcendent and mysterious to the individual, but not requiring any external or anthropomorphic god.

To shift from this synchronic view (how the swarm functions across the space of the many particles) to a diachronic view (how the swarm functions across time), the swarm is the intelligence that drives the trajectories of evolution, terrestrial and cosmic, or, more viscerally, all a singular shudder in some vast cosmic orgasm. A fifteen billion year–old orgasm, you say? Why not? From what I know of Einstein and Hawking, the universe may be one minute old from some other reference point, but only seem fifteen billion years old to us because we are near the event horizon of some black hole, where time becomes stretched toward infinity.

I am no expert in these fields, but I hope that my lateral thinking about them can stimulate a few thoughts. Even if I do nothing but stimulate streams of imagination, I hope that that in itself is no mean accomplishment.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Albert Einstein)

41 thoughts on “Particles and Swarms

  1. Great post, Gary. This idea of swarm theory as you’ve expressed it, helps me with my own argument that the new cosmology and physics is pointing towards a more purposeful idea of the Universe. If the Universe is expanding as a particle swarm, then it means that it is capable of adapting itself to finding the right course to go; which implies that the Universe is not headed towards the Big Crunch or the Big Freeze at all. We don’t know where the swarm will go, but if it is a conscious swarming movement then it is unlikely it will go anywhere just to annihilate itself. Positive physics like this, become a mechanical basis for more positive (non-religious) metaphysical thinking. Very interesting indeed, an area that demands more research.

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  2. Considering the belief that the universe is accelerating away from its original singularly it would be nice if it came back together in a sense with the swarm. I confess once you get deep in quantum all the quarks etc are beyond me.

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  3. Greetings Dr. Gauthier,

    Swarms of fishes, birds, etc. are coordinated by very simple local time-space relationships between each individual and those other individuals directly around them. Thus complex looking behavior arises out of very simple local “rules”. Yes information is shared among the “swarm”, but only as a localized wave that spreads out in the swarm.

    On the other hand, the physically proven fact that the universe is non-local and that particles are entangled on opposite sides of the universe ( speaks to a real mystery at the quantum level, having no relationship to those “structures” we readily see in the “apparently real world”.

    I do believe that there is only one thing, but I have no idea what that thing may be and how many dimensions it lives in !

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  4. This pilot wave formulation of quantum mechanics has many attractive aspects, and I hope that further research will be directed into this area. But at the present it does not explain many of the established physical properties of the universe that have been used with such predictive success over the past century. It would be nice if it could work, but it is very speculative and problematic at present.

    Swarm behaviour itself is an interesting phenomenon. It’s an excellent illustration of how very complex large-scale behaviour can arise from very simple local interactions between objects, such as birds or galaxies.

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  5. Puts me in mind of the Hindu concept of Brahman, the infinite foundation of all being and non-being, the very ground upon which all particulars arise and disintegrate.

    Om mani padme hum, baby!

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  6. Great article that comments on physical laws from a more philosophical point of view.

    To me swarm intelligence as it’s known from fish schools for example is not quite comparable to
    Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle you descbribed. Fish developed sideline organs that take up sensations from their environment and cause an appropriate reaction to avoid being eaten (swim left, swim right, swim fast). They adjusted to their surroundings so they would not become “Darwin-losers” 🙂
    Atomes/atomic shells on the other hand don’t react to their surroundings like this (though quantum physicists would probably disagree), they have their own rules. They always “seek” for the state of lowest energetic value to be “happy”. It has nothing to do with intelligence or neuronal processes.
    This is just a close-up point of view. Maybe our entire world is no more than an electron surrounding its nucleus.

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    • Thanks for the fine new details, Lisa. I see how and why individual fish developed those sideline organs, but the “swarming” aspect seems to have its own body of research (which I know little or nothing about), and one with software applications that I’d like to know more about. If we define “intelligence” in neurological terms, I am with you. But I’m holding out for a more expansive view of intelligence (or some preferred word), one that can extend your metaphors of how atomic and cosmic things “seek” certain changes of state in order to be “happy.” Aristotle’s “entelechy” might be closer. If I find the secret, I will let you know, as then I will be able to turn the tables and say that the neurological expression of intelligence is just one of the shadows cast by my ____________ (to be filled in by my more expansive word for intelligence, when I find it).


      • The references to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle (and maybe Godel’s incompleteness theoroms need mention here) brings us back to the God of the gap theory. (at least I think it could). No one knows what causes individual actors to swarm and take on group behavior that they do not otherwise possess individually. Dare I say it are you walking your way into the “God of the gap” to fill your __________ above?


        • I don’t think I’m headed toward “God” in any conventional Christian sense. Maybe a sense of presence or proto- or cosmic consciousness more amenable to Eastern religions. But “consciousness” is ultimately just a metaphor, like the anthropomorphic Christian God is ultimately a metaphor, isn’t it? Or maybe quantum physics just reminds us that the universe of the physicists will always have a “gap” somewhere, a marker of incompleteness, a sign that it can never fully complete the circle because it is only one aspect of lived reality (i.e., the physical universe is simply lived reality seen as an objective abstraction … but lived reality is more than its objective abstraction).

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      • One thing I forgot to add to my previous reply, Lisa. In my understanding, the excitement in swarm intelligence now relates to robotics and artificial intelligence, just using the biological examples as an antecedent illustration. And Leibniz comes at it from pure (if speculative) physics. I’d be very curious to know what today’s quantum physicists think of Leibniz, but alas Leibniz himself was perhaps in the last generation when all physicists were expected to be philosophers and vice versa.


        • I’d put Schrodinger in that ‘last generation’. He didn’t like Leibnitz’s monads, being a fan of the Upanishads. L assumes a multiplicity of ‘souls’ but S wasn’t having any of that. I’m with Schrodinger, but your swarm’ ideas’ would work inasmuch as there is a higher-level multiplicity of experienced consciousnesses. It’s just that by reduction consciousness would be one, which S calls the only plausible solution.

          As for nonlocal ‘swarming’, for the Upanishadic view spatial and temporal extension would be reducible, thus not an obstacle to instant correlations. I don’t know why physics doesn’t take more of an interest given all the data at their fingertips.

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          • I’m with you on non-local swarming. This Upanishadic view might be supported by Kant, insofar as the latter suggests that time and space (i.e., extension) are not attributes of the world but subjective ways of organizing the world. I don’t know Leibniz and Schrodinger at this granular level, but it seems a physics that theorizes a multiplicity of monads is not inconsistent with “one soul” or imbued intelligence that underwrites the swarm of monads (especially since the “swarm of monads” is just a conceptual vehicle for making the physical level of reality intelligible).


      • One more reply to my own comment, Lisa. It just occurred to me that my revered commenter, Steve Morris, may have filled in my blank for me in his previous comment. To wit, “…one of the shadow cast by my spooky magic.” 🙂


        • Haha, Gary 🙂
          Do you think humanity could end up in a “Matrix”-like world? Manmade machines develope independent from “their master” and gain something like consciousness?
          Machines getting more intelligent and more independent while humanity falls asleep in their social media dream. The tendency is real 🙂

          It’s getting pretty abstract, so i try to stick on what we got.
          Spooky and magic is so long called spooky and magical as it’s not completely understood. Perception is based on stimuli that find a way to your receptors and being transported to your central nervous system, that modifys these stimuli and tells your brain what just happened by using different pathways and a whole cocktail of neurotransmitters. We gain experiences based on that and these experiences influence what we see and how we see (a glass can be half full or half empty). This isn’t magical at all though i would sometimes prefer some magic over reality 😛

          The idea of an omnipotent, caretaking and allknowing something can be pretty soothing but psychologically it’s just the gapfiller, that might keep people sane. (i hope nobody gets offended, that wasn’t my intention).

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