This is not a facetious question. Nor a vacuous answer.
I am quite serious when I say that I believe universal evolution is now and has always been the way the Universe solves problems. Let me lay out my arguments.
To begin I suppose I should say what characterizes the nature of a problem. There is what might be called a human-centric perspective and then what I would call the Universe's perspective. In the end, I will argue, they are actually one in the same. But let me start with the familiar perspective of what constitutes a problem for humans.
A problem can be said to exist when a human wants something in particular and there does not appear to be an immediate means for obtaining that something. If you are hungry and want to eat but there is no food around then you have a problem. If you want to travel a long distance to get from where you are, at point A, to get to where you want to be, at point B, and you have no conveyance available, then you have a problem. If you want a computer program that will provide you with information but the program doesn't exist, then you have a problem. In all cases we recognize that human wants and needs motivate the existence of problems. Human intentions to fulfill those wants and needs by “solving” the problem, and then applying our human intelligence to doing so, is what makes us the unique animals that we are. To be sure, other animals do run into problems and work out solutions of sorts. What makes humans unique is the much greater scope and variety of situations that constitute problems to be solved. And, our amazing capacity to invent and devise artifacts that help in producing solutions to problems does set us apart qualitatively as well as quantitatively from our animal predecessors and relatives.
A human-centric problem seems to arise from our human desires and intentions coming into seeming conflict with our environmental situation. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, for example, early humans wanted to eat while at the same time becoming very proficient at killing off the game in central Africa (with a nudge from changing climate to boot). What to do? Go looking for new game in distant areas (this happened not once but several times to different species in the human lineage). But there were physical barriers to overcome. Climate variations from the African homeland made it necessary to invent and wear clothing and tame fire. Problem solved. New game was found in Europe and Asia.
On the surface it might seem like human will and intelligence were put to the task of solving a problem (or many) and found the solution. But is this really the story, or the end of the story? The archeological evidence argues that humans didn't so much invent solutions as they discovered them. Various stone “technologies” evolved over long periods. They showed signs of remaining stable in form for long stretches and then when conditions changed, undergoing modifications followed by rapid spreading of the “improved” versions. The pattern of change over time in stone tools resembles the pattern of change in species of various genera over time, as demonstrated in the fossil record.
What about more modern kinds of problems? Take heavier-than-air flight as an example. Humans had been looking at and admiring the flight of birds and insects for who knows how long. Humans were driven by several synergistic desires. One was to gain a vantage point of the world from on high. It really is very clever of humans to imagine what it must be like to look down on their world from above — to see the world as the gods must have. It was also clear that birds could get from one place to another much faster because they need not deal with obstructions found on the surface of the Earth. Travel would obviously be much faster if one could fly. Our exploratory nature, our inquisitiveness, our desire to do something better and faster all combined to cause many men, over the centuries, to explore possible ways to achieve flight. Many took the obvious approach and attempted to emulate bird flight (see: Ornithopter). From centuries of crude to refined experiments humans discovered the principles of airfoils slowly and often painfully. The Wright brothers did not invent airfoils out of their own minds. The knowledge and experience they needed was already there. What they did was to put several pieces together in just the right formula. Others were doing similar work elsewhere and might have easily beat the Wrights to the punch.
What humans do, in solving problems, is to discover how to put things together such that the composite comes closer and closer to achieving a desired end. Invention is more a process of trial and error than most people realize. But what about the desires themselves? Surely that is a unique quality of the human mind. Human desires and the impediments to achieving them are the source of problems so why shouldn't we see problem existence in a human-centric way? Well, as it happens, humans have those desires because evolution (biological) created a creature that has a tremendous ability to see how things can fit together to gain an advantage, like a lever (affordance). Long-time readers may have an idea of where I stand on the notion that evolution has a trajectory in the sense of always driving systems toward higher complexity and organization as long as usable energy is available. Human, are just the Universe's way of solving the problem of raising to the next level of organization!
Auto-Organization and Emergence
The term “self-organization” is used a lot in the evolution and complex systems literature. I actually don't like it much. The ‘self’ part connotes intention of the cognitive sort, which I feel ends up putting a somewhat mysterious aura around the whole idea. In fact the idea that aggregates of components in an unformed system (one that is yet to evolve) can interact in ways that end up having structure and form is not mysterious at all. I prefer the term “auto-organization”; the sentiment is the same. When components are first brought together into an essentially bounded volume, if they have interaction capacities and there is energy available to drive those interactions they will naturally combine into various structures that are then tested for stability by interactions with other forming structures. The ones having the greatest stability of formation win the competition and dominate the internal organization.
Once a population of stable structures arise they then interact with one another more to form yet higher level structures, the properties of which (behavior as well as form) could not have been predicted just from taking an inventory of all of these structures and their individual properties. This is what we call emergence. A new level of order emerges from a lower level. Quarks auto-organize to produce subatomic particles. These, in turn interact to form atoms and they interact to produce chemistry! Under the right conditions with the right chemicals present (and, as always the flow of usable energy) from chemistry emerges life - cells. And from cells emerge organisms of greater complexity.
Universal evolution is the on-going process of auto-organizing entities interacting both competitively and cooperatively as the collection explores design space (I got my inspiration for this from Dan Dennett's treatment in, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, but Dennett was basically summarizing the views of a number of evolutionists). Some combinations and interactions are favored by environmental conditions (like selection). And from the mix emerges new relations and possibilities. What we see in this process is not only the relationships between cooperation and competition, but between exploration and exploitation. Every system that is undergoing energy flow is pushed to explore new possibilities. The stable, favored relations will seek to exploit their functions but with energy constantly pumped in, some of that exploitation will be sacrificed just to see if there are some as-yet unrealized combinations that could do a better job. Systems undergoing energy flux (as well as material flux) will never remain the same. Genetic mutations are just one of many examples of energetic disruptions of something that has already proven it can work providing an opportunity to explore new regions of design space.
The Universe may have come into being in a mighty explosion (the Big Bang). At first it was comprised of almost pure energy that condensed into particle-like objects (like quarks) as the expanding stuff cooled. More complex particles auto-organized into atoms. Meanwhile the force of gravity pulled great masses of these particle (primarily hydrogen and some helium) into denser clouds and eventually into hot globs that would become stars. Gravity provided the means for forming bounded component aggregates. The fusion of some of these particles was just the auto-organization that took place in the hearts of stars and what emerged were heavier particles (atoms of heavier elements). Those, in turn, interacted in new ways as they were blown out into space. Chemistry was born. Supernovae produced really heavy atoms that would, again under the influence of gravity, clump to form planets and planetary-star systems. The laws of thermodynamics, especially the Second Law, would ensure that energy would flow from the concentrations in stars around and through the planetary systems providing abundance of chemically-usable energy in the form of light. Eventually, from this configuration of nature, life arose, more than likely quite often in the Universe, and still newer levels of organization and complexity emerged; new properties and new possibilities to explore design space. Biological (i.e., neo-Darwinian) evolution became the focus of activity from that point on. Life evolved to eventually produce brains, and eventually brains emerged that could construct internal models of increasingly larger parts of the Universe. And those brains produced artifacts to help continue the process of exploring design space while still exploiting the energies already found.
Brains as a New Evolutionary Medium
The human brain is almost unbelievable! Within a rather small volume of space and time, neurons form complex associations that do a pretty good job of representing other objects and relations and dynamics from the environments of those brains. Those brains are bound to the biological imperative, of course. They still need to make the containing organism eat and eliminate wastes and these are powerfully compelling influences that had to be hard coded into the neural structures at a very basic level. The brain has to hold off the more negative aspects of the Second Law — entropy. Biological evolution ensures that those basic drives are conserved in every brain no matter how big and flexible it might be.
But biological evolution discovered a really great way to organize neural tissue so as to gain a maximum amount of flexibility in terms of what can be encoded into the neural structures. This is the cerebral cortex (actually cortical structures in general have highly flexible encoding capabilities). And evolution's newest layer of cortex, the neocortex in mammals, is possibly infinitely flexible in terms of combinatorial representations. Now, when the cortex is then organized as in the human brain, with a representation competency like no other, along with a hierarchical control structure (executive functions, planning, and judgment in the prefrontal lobes, action selection in the posterior-frontal, association formation and sensory processing in the mid and posterior cortex) the brains of humans has achieved the ability to form models of the world as it finds it that allow it to project into the future as well as remember the past.
But it may come as a surprise to most people who are unfamiliar with how neurons work and encode engrams in their synaptic connections that the way the brain forms these models is by evolution! Neurons are, perhaps, the greatest example of nearly infinitely auto-organizing components we know of. The majority of the wiring in the neocortex is driven by exploration and experience-based selection of stable connections. Those connections, and the engrams encoded, endure because the sensory experience of the world outside the head provides the selection criteria that favor veridical representations and disfavors (usually) non-veridical ones.
And what do you know(?), those representations of objects and relations and dynamics in the world outside the head interact with one another in unpredicted (and unpredictable) ways because the neural nets are so flexible and reconfigurable with minimum energy. So it is that humans continue to explore design space but now in their own brains. We have imagination. That imagination is part of what makes us so good at affordance. It allows us to visualize solutions to perceived problems. In us the Universe has found itself with one of the most efficient ways to continue to explore design space without moving a lot of mass around, expending a lot of energy doing so. What an invention the human brain has been!
Unfortunately, every gain also has a cost. The human brain may be a penultimate design space explorer, a virtual design space explorer of sorts, but that advantage doesn't come free of charge. Indeed the very capacity to imagine future possibilities also includes the capacity to imagine impossible pasts, presents, and futures. Its what we get from being so mentally flexible without some kind of constraint that regulates the way our imaginations produce fantasies. Or rather, without regulation on our conviction-holding system (our beliefs) that allows us to hold as true things which really couldn't be. The real problem here is that we have a tendency to act on our beliefs. We make decisions largely driven by our beliefs and their underlying intuitions and judgments. And those decisions and actions have gotten us into a lot of trouble. As our discovery of greater technologies have proceeded we have gained greater physical power and we have used that power based on our erroneous beliefs. The needed regulation mechanism was starting to emerge in Homo sapiens but got outrun by our emerging command over powerful energy sources. It never caught up. Today most humans have great imaginations, affordance, and a set of firmly held beliefs that don't necessarily correspond with reality. That is the price we are paying for having been the Universe's way of efficiently trying new possibilities.
This brings us back to the whole notion of problems and solutions. We humans have been happily exploring design space without much regard for the consequences. We now have marvelous means of transportation that are simultaneously eating up our reserves of fossil fuels and polluting the atmosphere and oceans with excess carbon dioxide. We'll run out of energy and right when we are going to need all we can get to adapt to radical climate change. Now that is what I call a difficult problem (some people prefer to call seemingly unsolvable problems predicaments)! There are others, related in many ways. And no one seems to know how to solve them.
And that brings me back to evolution. It always has been and always will be the solver of problems. The problem is really how to continue exploring design space, how to increase organization and complexity in manageable ways so as to allow the emergence of yet new things with new properties. Human brains along with their artifactual products, and especially that mind augmenter, the computer, have formed the ultimate level of organization on the face of the Earth. They did it by exploiting the stored high-powered energy resources in fossil fuels. And, unfortunately, they did not use that resource to invest in finding sustainable alternatives that can be constructed in time to make a difference. Nor did they use their superior intellects to regulate their own numbers or how physical wealth got distributed around. And so, as a little piece of the Universe that reflects the Universe and recursively reflects upon the Universe, we are in a real predicament. Perhaps this set of problems cannot be solved in the sense that our species, Homo sapiens will survive into the future. But there is really nothing new about that option. Evolution will find a way for some new level of order to emerge. There is still lots of potential energy flowing from our star, Sol. There is no reason to believe that life will be completely wiped off of the planet even if there is a major decline in biodiversity as a side effect of humans exploring design space.
As I have written here many times, my money is on the further biological evolution of that little imagination/belief regulator mechanism I mentioned above. All of my investigations, including some very recent developments in neuroscience, point to the idea that our brains are poised for the next step by what may turn out to be very minor adjustments in some of the prefrontal cortex circuits, especially in the fronto-polar patch known as Brodmann Area 10. Ordinarily I am not a betting man. But I will bet that human evolution is not finished. Neither biological evolution nor mental evolution are stoppable as long as energy flows. Our genus may take a bit of a setback in the collapse of technological civilization and an evolutionary bottleneck, but so what? This is just part of how evolution works from time to time (on a cosmic scale!) Sentience will recover on Earth, one way or another. You can take that to the bank!