Anticipation and the artificial: aesthetics, ethics, and synthetic life


If complexity is a necessary but not sufficient premise for the existence and expression of the living, anticipation is the distinguishing characteristic of what is alive. Anticipation is at work even at levels of existence where we cannot refer to intelligence. The prospect of artificially generating aesthetic artifacts and ethical constructs of relevance to a world in which the natural and the artificial are coexistent cannot be subsumed as yet another product of scientific and technological advancement. Beyond the artificial, the synthetic conjures the understanding of aesthetics and ethics no longer from the perspective of the How? type of question, but rather the Why? Given the current infatuation with synthetic biology (i.e., making life from non-life), there is a practical consequence to such considerations. Synthetic life, as any other form of life, implies the possibility of evolution. Anticipation, which is the underlying factor of evolution, is thus expected. At the level of human existence, anticipation is expressed, for instance (but not exclusively), in aesthetic forms and ethical values. This translates, in turn, into an argument for the role aesthetics and ethics play in the process. Consequently, to qualify as life, the synthesis of the physical and the living will have to efficiently handle ambiguity. Current computational facilities, regardless of their nature or performance, operate exclusively in the semiotic domain of the well defined non-ambiguous.

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  1. 1.

    Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem, perhaps the single most celebrated result in mathematical logic, states: Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths, there is an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory.

    The incompleteness theorem first appeared as “Theorem VI” in his 1931 paper On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I. In Gödel’s original notation, it states: “The general result about the existence of undecidable propositions reads as follows: ‘Theorem VI.’ For every ω-consistent recursive class κ of FORMULAS there are recursive CLASS SIGNS r, such that neither v Gen r nor Neg(v Gen r) belongs to Flg(κ) (where v is the FREE VARIABLE of r)”.


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The author would like to acknowledge feedback from Lotfi Zadeh, Frank Dufour, W. Jay Dowling, and an anonymous reviewer. This research was supported by antÉ-Institute for Research in Anticipatory Systems, ATEC (Arts and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas), and the QF Foundation.

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Nadin, M. Anticipation and the artificial: aesthetics, ethics, and synthetic life. AI & Soc 25, 103–118 (2010).

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  • Synthetic Biology
  • Artificial Life
  • Incompleteness Theorem
  • Living Entity
  • Simple Machine