Life factors

  1. Is the universe fine-tuned for life or does life supply the fine-tuning? (Tweet published March 2, 2019)
  2. Do we need science to find the cause of life before we can know for sure what it really is?
  3. Can we gain a window into life by ascribing it to nature?
  4. Is the ‘secret of life’ eluding science simply because none of the candidate causes are ‘alive’ in the way that life is? (Tweet pub. March 11, 2019)
  5. Where does evolution take us when it has to take the existence of life as its starting-point? (Tweet pub. March 10, 2019)
  6. What makes scientists think that the undiscovered cause of life holds the key to the deeper mystery of consciousness? (Tweet pub. March 5, 2019)
  7. If intelligent life is a state of nature, what does it say about the nature of nature? (Tweet pub. March 13, 2019)
  8. Given the gaping gap in explanation, it might just be possible that the mystery of life is deeper than the laws of nature as we know them, that the evidence indicates something pivotal at the heart of nature – to the point that intelligent life enables nature to behave differently. Consequently, the physical processes that enable intelligent life now yield uncharacteristic patterns of behaviour because they have become integral to a new kind of nature – in being able to sit up and think about what they are about.
  9. In what realm of possibility do we rank as overseers of the possibility or impossibility of things?
  10. What organisational principle will explain the existence of consciousness no matter that even a disorganised consciousness can still be conscious?
  11. Could the new evolutionary evidence for species ‘fuzzyness’ and inter-breeding indicate something very basic about the theory of evolution – that it might never catch up to the facts?
  12. Can the origin of consciousness be attributed to its evolution when the origin of life cannot? (Tweet pub. March 15, 2019)
  13. If thinking is a physical effect of physical causes, is it a power that has been ‘held in trust’ for us by the laws of physics? (Tweet pub. March 18, 2019)
  14. Do the things that life can’t do without show us very much about what life can do?
  15. If conscious intentional action is a part of a physical universe, what else might be ready to evolve from the stardust? (Tweet pub. March 16, 2019)
  16. Do we actually get to know what our thoughts are really like by observing them as brain processes?
  17. How do the brain’s operations manage to convince us that there is really no additional ‘us’ to be convinced?
  18. Is the fact of life any less mysterious in terms of its known effects than its unknown causes?
  19. Might we get to know life better by finding its cause – where it comes from – or by observing its diverging properties as an effect – where it leads?
  20. What if biology gains rather than gives life? (Tweet pub. March 12, 2019)

Mike Laidler



The life factor

Part 1

Extracts from “Goldilocks retold”

(first published July 11, 2016)

Once upon a time Goldilocks chanced upon a baby bear’s bowl of porridge that was just right for the eating.  Sometime later, scientists took a fresh look at the fact of a universe that happened to be just right for the emergence of life, and recognised that the necessary fine tuning of the manifold preconditions, the ‘physical constants’, seems more like a contrivance than a coincidence – a conspiracy of coincidences – so named the “Goldilocks enigma…And though we see life as a novel possibility, it is explained as an effect of causes that subsist within existing boundaries of possibility.  Yet the effect causes profound changes.  It looks like non-living causes determine the mix of possible preconditions, but, ultimately, it is the potential for life that sets the limits.  Furthermore, that potential remains a defiant mystery, regardless of how much we learn about the preconditions for life on earth, or indeed the preconditions for different types of life on different kinds of planet.  Moreover, no amount of causal analysis explains how effects ratchet up the course of change, beginning in the observable differences between cause and effect.  Indeed the paradox at the heart of existence is the pre-existence of its possibilities, despite their probable absence in certain forms at certain times – subsequently to ‘emerge’ in the times and events an observer chances upon, in the form of co-incidence called ‘reality’.

  Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? Pub. Allen Lane 2006

Part 2

The demon of the pixels 

According to one convention in physics, everything boils down to the presence of a fixed amount of information in the universe.  Information is said to be everything because everything exists as a version of that information.  And the flow of information represents the active nature of existence.  Even a body at rest relative to another has an operational status.  So everything exists as a form of activity with the differences between things being represented as different patterns of organisation.  It means that, at a material level, we are stardust but behave differently because of its particular arrangement as us. The accepted explanation is that everything has a cause – that causes make the difference.  But there is a gap in this explanation that is proving difficult to fill: How does the organisation get organised – that is, what is the cause and what enables it to organise the elements?  In short, how does the stardust begin to behave differently?

Scientifically, life is describable as the form of organisation particular to the cell, but this falls short of an explanation because we “still can’t tell the fundamental difference between animate and inanimate matter – often still described as the ‘magic spark’.” ‡ 

So what might be the source (cause?) of this ‘magic’?  Could the answer be that “hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life”? ‡‡

 Paul Davies: “Well, in spite of what you hear, I think nobody knows what life is or how it started.  If you look at the level of an atom, then it’s just basic physics, but if you look at the level of a cell – well it seems like magic.  It’s just amazing what life does. …We can’t even distinguish between something that was once alive and is now dead or something that’s almost alive or something that is living now.  We don’t have a criterion that can do that. ….I think the secret of life lies with organised patterns of information. ….in trying to understand how information couples to matter. …how information can gain leverage over matter – and I’m convinced after thinking about this for decades that the existing laws of physics are not up to the job.  We need some new laws – not only new laws, but new type of physical law in order to explain how information comes into the picture. … we need to look beyond known physics and have some new physics.  …Life is not really so much about chemistry, it’s not the stuff of which we’re made, it’s the way it’s put together and the patterns of information.  …and I have always felt that this informational signature is very distinctive for life on earth, and that they should be universal.”‡‡‡

However, can this “manifesto” for a new approach begin to resolve the question of how things diversify to become alive, since if life is due to “organised patterns of information” then the same basic unknowns attach to them about how they organise, stabilise or become metabolic and purposive?  And what does it prove if the web patterns (qua “hidden webs”) happen to carry the ‘mysterious’ stamp’ or ‘magic spark’ of life – are we not merely recasting the same old questions into a different narrative, not knowing what makes the difference; for instance: how do the patterns bridge the difference between the ‘animate and inanimate’ or undergo the necessary transitions to feature that difference as ‘themselves’?

Consider this analogy: a densely pixelated screen is capable of reproducing any image – therefore, any image appears as a sub-set of the screen’s capacity, yet that capacity doesn’t “control or manage” what can be depicted on the physical array (“how information comes into the picture”) – something else, other than the pixels (qua elements) determines the emergent pattern, especially if it is an actively self-maintaining pattern – only, in this case, we know what that something else is (us).  But even this fact remains unexplained at the level of the physical fundamentals.  Indeed, the questions (gaps in explanation) begin at a much lower level than that of the emergence of life, namely: how does an essential randomness at the level of the elementary particles turn into a developmental gradient that paves the way for further organisations and events amounting to settled radical changes – firstly material states, then life?

So, although the digital image is just pixels it is also more than that – and it is this additional factor – the organised “coherence” – that isn’t explicable in terms of its diffuse elements.  Likewise, life can be depicted as a self-maintaining pattern that isn’t explicable in terms of the chemical and cellular elements alone – even though it is nothing without them.  Remember, we have already discovered that genes carry ‘the information of life’, though perhaps not all of it because they have not crossed ‘the divide’ – genes are agents of change, they form a ‘vital’ part of each living cell, except the DNA (the much larger organised pattern of this information) is not alive, despite being “coupled” to life, with “leverage” over it.  Therefore, whether or not there are “hidden webs of information” corresponding to a nascent “lifeness”, and even if a putative “lifeness” is attributable to them, it is actually the explanation that remains hidden – and the same problem transfers to explaining the origin (organisation) of the so-called “hidden webs”.  That’s because, the effect (life) behaves differently to its causes – otherwise there would be nothing to compare and no difference to explain.

In sum, does the web hypothesis contribute anything to the explanation of where the change-to-life comes from, or is it just another doomed attempt to explain one thing in terms of another?  That is, does the representation of everything as a pattern of information, manifested of something else (presumably another pattern of information), make ‘the reality’ more explicable in terms of these nominal (sometimes hidden) causes – or is it just because we wantonly assume that there must be a cause to explain the phenomenon of change – so to expound the mysterious organisational principal that will plug the persisting gaps in our explanations – even when the emergent features (in this case, new patterns of information) dramatically exceed the behavioural repertoire of those causes?

Mike Laidler

BBC Interviewer, Martha Kearney,  introducing physicist, Professor Paul Davies (BBC’s Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ broadcast at 08.41 on February 12, 2019)

‡‡ Professor Davies’ new book is entitled: ‘The Demon in the Machine: how hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life’. Pub. Allen Lane 2018

‡‡‡  Quotes  from Professor Paul Davies


Subjects and objectives

“I think therefore I am” – but in what arena of awareness do I conjure a thought as the focus of my attention?

What is the truth that changes as the facts change?  What is the logic that pitches reason against reason?  What is the belief that shows us the ‘right thing to do’?

Is truth our imaginative representation of facts that are believed to defy contradiction?

Does logic become our guide to the truth only because we have decided beforehand that the truth must be logical?

Do we see as we believe believing we see as we see?

What is this chalice we call consciousness – at once a source of all pleasure and pain?

Is a memory the same thing whether or not we are actually remembering?

What is the fact of proof – for even as life can be found to have its causes in a preceding physical reality it neither proves that cause and effect are identical nor explains the difference?

What is entropy but an event that gains no purchase without the events that have already defied it?

What is reality apart from a convergence of events, now inclusive of a point of view?

What is the cause that allows us an insight into ourselves without the fundamental distinction initiated by taking a point of view?

Is the device that responds automatically to our movements aware of us no less than we are of ourselves when blindly accepting that perception is due to the causes that trigger our responses?

What is the observation that allows us to see the order of things and our place within it?

Are theism and atheism not conventions of belief – since we either believe that God exists in the way we believe, or that there is no God because there is no evidence to match our preconceptions?

Can there be a more classical case of begging the question than presuming that existence must have a cause?

Without philosophy how would we know how little we know?

Mike Laidler


A question of knowing

What do we know?  Is it just a matter of remembering?  Does the memory do it for us?  Is it entirely a state of the brain?  What if the brain is but a staging point with its own quantitative and qualitative limits?  Whichever way we look at it we seem to arrive at a less than satisfactory definition – ‘the known’ could be tainted by its incompleteness, and how would we know?  Laying claim to our experiences doesn’t seem to get us any further forward; yet, for the sake of our sanity, we rely upon our impressions and ideas of an external reality, together with what we are told about things.

Therefore, despite its shortfalls, it seems that equating the known to an external source appears to be the most tactical way of proceeding.  However, our ability to consider this move raises a more fundamental question: is knowledge something else, something more than the facts by which we seek to measure it?  Does the act of knowing appertain to another nature beginning with an awareness which we subsequently fragment in attaching it to the things we are aware of for the time being, apparently on the outside, believing that our awareness belongs there because it has to be an ‘it’ that is like everything else?

Also, don’t we find that the more we know the more we become aware of how little we know – that factual knowledge can harbour deep uncertainties?  Even scientific knowledge advances on the basis of a constantly revisable awareness – knowing now that 99% of the universe doesn’t seem to be knowable in the same way as the 1% known as its observable dimensions.  But in order to consider what that fact means, scientists will need to do something that the facts cannot do for them – consider the meaning in the broader context of an expanding awareness which they can attach to the facts, but cannot find there.

Mike Laidler

Do machines perceive?

There is a more down-to-earth rendition of this question: Do plants perceive?  After all, they are alive and, like us, are motivated to survive.  The accepted answer seems to be that they do, but not in the way we do, nor do they need to.  In short, plant life exhibits similarities and differences which help us to address some broader questions such as: is perception a gradation of capacities; is consciousness a necessity; is there an essential motivation?  Of course, there are contenders at both extremes who wish to argue that plants are either capable or incapable of sentient perception.  In the case of machines, the motivation is not theirs, but that might change if machines become conscious – if consciousness can bypass biology.  And isn’t life just another kind of mechanism?  So isn’t perception a process that can be replicated mechanically? On the scientific front, perception is taken to be explicable objectively without the prerequisite of a sentient ‘presence’ – the corollary being that a scientific explanation of perception will automatically yield an explanation of sentient behaviour and account for different levels of awareness to boot.  Then there is the related question of a self-motivated inquiring intelligence; indeed, could an ‘intelligent machine’ ever begin to match a child’s imaginative perception of an event like Christmas?

‘Automata’ have been entertaining us for generations with mechanical responses that look like perceptions and intentions.  Now we have versions that can engage us with conversational simulations.  Altogether, they have shifted the debate onto the question about whether machines can be capable of achieving a ‘functional equivalence’ – whether, for practical purposes we don’t need to talk about mental states.  But even if mental states are considered to be extraneous, it doesn’t prove that they don’t exist.  In fact most exponents of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ tend to skirt around the issues, as if we only need to observe that artificial intelligence and artificial perception amount to alternative, perhaps superior, operational modes of what we call thinking and awareness.  On the other hand, a case can be made for perception to be recognised as a confluence of two realities, the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’, which has been artificially under-stated in the name of explanation by swapping a fact for a theory – the fact being what we know of mental states from the inside, which we have devalued in favour of the theory that such knowledge doesn’t make a real difference because it is more like a passive effect than an active causal component of perception.

In fact, perception makes a difference because it introduces a new sort of realisation – such as when we come to know that colour is something more than the wavelength of light.  So even though we can build a robot to detect different wavelengths and name the corresponding colours, it doesn’t prove that it can actually see colours.  Nor does it matter whether my perceived ‘red’ is your ‘green’ in a world where only wavelengths count – wavelengths that don’t need to be elaborated in perception – except that reflected light has neither colour nor luminosity until perception supplies a different kind of realisation.  Therefore, instead of downgrading our qualitative experiences because robots might not need them, we should be celebrating their special status.  Similarly, a computer can win at chess without realising the significance of its achievement – so its victory is hollow even if it is programmed to cheer.  Consequently, in the bigger picture, there may be more to reality than all we might affirm in terms of its physical properties alone – and the fact that we can equate everything to the physical world is possible only because there are two explicit sides to the equation.

Mike Laidler


Why existence?

Traditionally, our place in existence has been framed by beliefs in the world as created out of ‘the void’. Then it was thought that we might explain ‘life, the universe and everything’ by pruning it all down to a primordial ‘next-to-nothing’. Now we are prepared to consider a wider array of alternative or ‘parallel’ universes with wholly different natures and outcomes – to the extent that, by comparison, nothing is something and vice versa. Of course, our words fail to describe natural phenomena extending beyond everything that counts as natural for us. Even our ideas of ‘quantum leaps’ or ‘shifts’ fail to explicate the magnitude of the changes that colonise the possibilities left vacant in our physical world. And perhaps, after all, origins aren’t everything. Nevertheless, we continue to impose on the facts the same constraints that we impose on our explanations: namely that they remain logically consistent – as if the omnipotent and omnipresent laws of physics said to be the cause everything, must, therefore, of necessity, explain the vector of possibility leading to a game of football or a nature capable of evaluating itself.

Perhaps there is more to a fact than its causes. Also, the fact that a game of football cannot proceed without the ball doesn’t mean that the ball provides the explanation. And it might seem narcissistic, but the possibility of a universe hatching ideas about itself, albeit in the form of our ideas, marks an event as profoundly significant as that of the birth of the universe itself. It indicates that a new kind of possibility attends the laws of physics which cannot be predicted from those laws. Even so, that fact isn’t enough to justify our presence in existence, either at an individual or species level. Yet it is more profound than that, it means that we are participants in possibilities bigger than us, in a conscious dimension that doesn’t demand an evolutionary explanation. So we can start with the fact that our existence is sufficient to demonstrate, albeit within our own minds, a feature of existence that is significant for the very reason that we might otherwise choose to reject as a figment of the imagination – that mental space is a presence in a parallel ‘world of its own’.

The dynamics of change also promote shifts and leaps in the nature of thinking, with the scientific mind denouncing the ‘why’ question as a fanciful attempt to reify the link between fact and imagination – as if imagining fairies makes them real. However, there is a growing controversy over the ‘how’ of existence because beginnings feature changes that we cannot equate to things as they were without begging the question. Moreover, we reify our perceptions in supposing that causes give us answers by revealing more of themselves – such as, by showing us that the mind must be explicable as a physical effect in organic reality. But this doesn’t explain the shift that leads to living entities representing reality in cognitive space. Nor do the operations of the brain resemble thoughts or the imaginative frontiers of knowledge which exist as a functional necessity for our ensuing conceptual explorations. Consequently, it might be just as realistic for us to consider that existence, and what we know of it, exists for what is to follow. When all is said and done, isn’t that why we exist?

Mike Laidler

“What is truth?”

Philosophy asks questions in pursuit of truths – a principle that is also the driving-force of science.  Divisions arise over which questions are potentially answerable; although answers don’t stem the flow of questions, nor does a recognised truth come with a full-stop, as if to put our questions to rest – as if the truth is definable by its defiance of contradiction.  In fact, reality greets us with an avalanche of contradictions: the earth is and isn’t solid, the universe is and isn’t infinite, gravity is and isn’t a force, life is and isn’t just chemical activity, we are and are not merely stardust, a thought is and is not the same thing as a brain process, causes do and do not explain effects, change is and is not more of the same, the present does and does not shape the future, the governing constants and absolutes do and do not control what happens next.  Furthermore, change proves to be more fundamental than any ruling truth.  It means that the truth-content of our answers doesn’t negate the fact that change can be radical, that there can be wholly different answers in different contexts, that those contexts stand out as different dimensions of existence which we partially understand as energy, matter, life, consciousness and thought.  And doesn’t life show us that the facts can defy reason?  Indeed, there is more to existence than we can reduce to the axioms of our logical explanations.  Then if there is to be a resolution that applies to everyone, might it not be this: don’t dismiss ‘the impossible’ simply because it contradicts your aspirations to countenance possibility on your terms – don’t dismiss as impossible the truth that changes to become more than it was.

Mike Laidler