Life: as we know it

Reporter: ‘What makes life alive?’

Professor: ‘All the things that constitute a living organism.’

R:  ‘But those things started out as non-living chemicals – so what makes the difference?’

P:  ‘Well, we now know that life evolved gradually and became more and more sophisticated.’

R:  ‘So did evolution make life?’

P:  ‘Not exactly.  It may be that life arose by chance to begin with – in a very primitive form – and evolution took over’.

R:  ‘And does evolution work by chance?’

P:  ‘Not exactly, but evolution makes the difference that enables life to change and become more complicated.’

R:  ‘Then can we understand life better in its simplest forms?’

P:  ‘As it happens, evolution tells us more about how life works, even at a basic microbial level.’

R:  ‘So what is the difference between a living organism and a non-living thing?’

P:  ‘The clue is in the name – in the way a living thing is organised.’

R:  ‘How does this show that chance might be the original cause?’

P:  ‘Because there’s nothing else to see.’

R:  ‘Does it mean that chance is organised?’

P:  ‘All we can say is that something happens.’

R:  ‘But how does not seeing a cause mean that it can be identified as chance?’

P:  ‘You need to understand that science is based upon a combination of observation and reason, and scientists are always ready to change their conclusions when new facts are observed.

R:  ‘So we can conclude this interview in the knowledge that evolution does and does not explain life, and chance may or may not be the cause – because the fact of an explanation does and doesn’t mean that the facts are explained.’

P:  ‘As it happens, there is no better explanation than the scientific one.

R:  ‘Is it the observation of life as different that causes the problem for explanation, especially when it is scientifically plausible to look at it in terms of something else – as if the problem can be reduced by identifying its non-living causes?  Is that why some scientists want to regard viruses as alive and computer viruses as forms of life created by us?’

P:  ‘Who knows what we might discover in the future.’

R:  ‘But surely it all goes back to the fact of life as something different, otherwise we would have no idea of what to look for or explain?’

P:  ‘Perhaps we will find new forms of life in the universe which will completely change our ideas about what life is’.

R:  ‘Except you must be able to spot a vital difference in order to identify it as alive, and we can’t avoid the problem of explaining that difference by finding out that life is really something else – it just shifts the burden of explanation onto something else.’

P:  ‘That’s the fun of doing science – we just never know for sure where the evidence might lead us.’

R:  ‘Then we will have to conclude by admitting that we don’t even know what amounts to a conclusion.’

P:  ‘Exactly.’

Mike Laidler



Improbable possibilities

It’s a moot point that, despite our technical prowess in ‘getting to know’, a very basic knowledge of ourselves remains sufficient to rival science’s most sophisticated and influential understandings of the nature of existence – not because scientific theories are patently untrue, but because they are not true enough to do justice to a universe that commands a conscious presence.  And whenever we attempt to understand the nature that ‘surrounds us’ we are doing something that is unnatural according to the scientific definition of the nature we are trying to understand.  So when scientists build upon their understandings with rigorous explanations, they introduce a layer of knowledge that is quite unlike the world they are explaining – since it marks a step change amidst a nature that isn’t supposed to know anything.  Indeed, when scientists determine that there is no meaning and purpose in nature, they are making a comparison by way of a criterion that remains larger than the natural causes said to make it all happen – causes that cannot explain for us the change to being conscious.  Thereafter, knowing that knowledge necessarily proceeds knowingly, we can see that an objective reality, unaccompanied by a subjective counterpart, constitutes a lesser fact of ‘a nature’ now redefined by the presence of awareness.


We like to think that our understandings of the world mirror its objective reality, as if the presence of consciousness makes no real difference to the way things are in ‘nature at large’, or in a brain that evolved to ‘think for us’.  On the other hand, the question of whether or not our faculties are just brain processes highlights a point of change of fundamental importance, not just for our understanding of ourselves, but for an understanding of what existence amounts to – and precisely because it is an issue that couldn’t be raised without a subjective point of comparison.  Indeed, only a sentient entity could see that the nature of nature is transformed by a conscious thinking dimension.  It is rather ironic, therefore, that the contribution of our subjective nature gets underrated – as if subjectivity does not sit as a proper fact within an ‘objective’ universe, and consciousness merely subsists in a superfluous world of its own, unable to influence or change the course of events within the ‘true nature of things’.  Yet reality remains bigger than science’s best attempts to know ‘it’ and dominate knowledge by stipulating how ‘the real thing’ should be defined and explained – because the changing possibilities are neither defined by the way ‘things are’, nor explained in retrospect by the way they were.


We struggle to understand the nature of possibility, even as we see it unfolding in a world that ‘makes it all happen’.  Furthermore, logical incongruities plague our attempts to rationalise the interaction between intention, necessity and chance.  Nonetheless, and with great ingenuity, we invent devises to display the workings of chance, but they cannot function independently of their design and intended use.  Also, with eloquence and alacrity, we use words and numbers to affirm our grounding in a ‘definable reality’, but they gain no bearing without our subjective faculty for recognition.  Likewise, there is no knowledge without the capacity for knowing, which we cannot detach from the knower, even though we may devise artificial means of storage and retrieval.  In effect, knowledge introduces a change in reality which feeds back into the course of events and the development of further possibilities within and beyond our immediate purposes.  So things change, including states of awareness, though it is frequently said that ‘we can’t change the world, we can only change ourselves’.  However, by changing ourselves we also change the world – since knowledge transcends the blind facts to open up possibilities in a reality that is no longer characterised by an oblivious inertia.  But first we need to divest ourselves of the false belief that these facts are telling us what to think.


There are numerous examples to remind us that by deferring to ‘the facts as they are’ we are apt to unrealistically discount the importance of change.  Of course we tend not to look to a state of affairs that might be other than we are inclined to see it – that is, until we are confronted by events that rudely defy all expectation to expose disparities in our perceptions of basic matters of fact or the categorical mistakes we make when believing that ‘the truth’ cannot possibly be subject to change.  Consequently, in a world of perceived facts that may not be ‘real’ enough to complete the ‘bigger picture’, the lesson is that the facts aren’t everything until the possibilities have played out, but we can’t assume how the possibilities will play out on the basis of the facts as they are.  Yet that’s just what we do in the name of ‘being realistic’.  So our shared beliefs in ‘the real’ may be the main source of a collective delusion, especially if we live in a universe of multiple realities.  And if we are prone to categorical errors over simple and calculable matters of fact, then how much more might we deceive ourselves about the facts arising within a complex and incalculable universe of possibilities – in a universe that continues to build on change.


Of all things, it takes an American game show to demonstrate how possibilities can change implausibly, even though, as in the world at large, they are actually changing as a result of what we know and decide.  Here’s the nub: Monty Hall hosted a game show that gave contestants the opportunity to win a star prize concealed behind one of three doors.  The lucky contestant chooses – the odds being one in three that they might win.  Then the host opens one of the two remaining doors to reveal a booby prize.  That leaves the star prize behind one of the two unopened doors.  But the odds now shift against the contestant’s choice, which was based on a one-in-three chance, whereas, on the surface, the odds are now clearly 50/50 – although these odds don’t apply automatically in the contestant’s favour.  However, the contestant is given the option of shifting their choice at this point, all against a background of cleverly contrived bribes – because the host knows where the prize is.  On average, contestants gain a better chance of winning by shifting from their original choice, because the odds actually shift, for them, to a massive ⅔ chance of the prize being behind the other door.  However, there followed a fury of angry exchanges between various experts over the possibility of this being so.


The dispute was finally settled using experimental simulations of the outcome, which proved that   the odds do change to ⅔ – whereas, to someone who walks onto the scene ‘cold’, when the choice lies between the two remaining doors, the odds confronting them are strictly 50/50.  Nevertheless, the controversy rolled-on for years in the media, in part because subtle variations in behaviour are sufficient to change the odds, but mainly because the experts couldn’t agree among themselves over the mathematical probabilities – different approaches to the problem seemed to yield different answers.  In addition, their most notable opponent, a gifted woman columnist, was vilified for her stupidity in the face of ‘the facts’.  She had to defend her impeccably correct reasoning against a backlash of ridicule for holding onto her personal opinion in defiance of those who professed to know better by flaunting their professional and academic qualifications.  The stand-off was all the more surreal because the calculation needed to work-out the answer is ridiculously simple, yet it took so long to resolve, and to this day there are dissenters who regard the whole thing as nothing more than a dupe, quirk or distraction of no real consequence.  But what if such ‘quirks’ begin to affect people’s life chances based upon the decisions they are prepared to make, the risks they are prepared to take and the certainties they take to be their guide?


In the bigger picture, it is no longer true to say that reality amounts to no more than the fact of what’s ‘out-there’.  Reality is a dynamic mix of possibilities that interact and change according to what we know and decide, or otherwise ignore.  Possibilities also change on a grander scale, as states of awareness occupy a universe that was previously devoid – the active ingredient at every level, being change.  Further down the line, chance, accident, co-incidence and inevitability in the ‘real world’ become shaped by intentions which were previously absent in ‘nature’.  These intentions are big enough to divert rivers or alter climates – and now there is talk about the possibilities of terra-forming Mars.  Nevertheless, when thinking objectively, things still seen to ‘just happen’ irrespective of what we think – but objectivity does not belong to the world of objects, since it very much a version of thinking made possible by a change that we cannot observe neutrally – so we do not get reality in perspective by perceiving the ‘objective facts’ as the ultimate truth.  Nor is the greater reality compressed, embryonically, inside the lesser – as if it is more realistic to explain things as they were, before the appearance of change.  In the event, a sentient reality introduces a potency of its own – it is a difference that makes a difference.  It means that thought doesn’t exist in the things that don’t think, including all the codes, formulae and algorithms we use as aides to thinking.  This places a responsibility upon us to think about thinking, to be prepared to reflect and doubt, especially when certainty, in a changing world, becomes a restriction that can amount a dangerous delusion.


Thinking commands an exceptional place in nature which the objective facts cannot usurp by ‘telling us what to think’.  In fact, there is something self-contradictory in the expectation that thought and consciousness will one day be identified properly as properties that currently remain hidden within the laws of physics until the facts are uncovered – which raises awkward questions about what uncovers what, what recognises what, and facts hidden from themselves?  Indeed, every so called ‘objective fact’ is actually a perceived fact that comes packaged up with a point of view already attached to it – for in reality, ‘objectivity’ is nothing if it is not a way of thinking.   In other words, we must start with consciousness in order to begin to look for it in the brain, or the laws of physics, where we are bound to find the ‘it’ of it as something else.  Therefore, we need to be ever vigilant and prudent in our considerations of what the ‘objective facts tell us’, especially when eminent thinkers tell us that the facts are telling them what to think.  For instance, here’s some advice on taking risks from a professor of risk, based upon an objective overview of external risk factors: Apparently it’s comparatively less risky for an elderly person to take up sky-diving than it is for a younger person – because, on balance, the older person has to contend with so many additional age-related, often fatal risks, that the particular risks of sky-diving, or swimming with sharks, don’t feature nearly so prominently for them.  But don’t expect to persuade your granny that these ‘hard facts’ can benefit her more than her personal doubts.


Mike Laidler

The Silent Truth

There is a simple truth that defies all explanation because it forms the basis of all explanation. It towers over our philosophies, religions and sciences, dwarfing the edifices of knowledge by which we claim to know. It can’t be magnified by theory, refined by belief, or preserved in tablets of stone. Neither is the ratification of discovery or reification in fact sufficient to define its boundaries. Nor can it be captured by the finesse of the artist, or the subtleties of scholarship, or the trappings of authority. Indeed, it empowers knowledge by stripping away all authority in what we can claim to know – for the knowledge that needs to be bolstered by authority is not true knowledge. And history shows that it is not with the mouth of truth that the facts are said to speak for themselves.

In the name of reason, we reject the possibility of a knowledge beyond the reach of our understanding, except as we allow it to be held in trust for us by others believed to know better. Thus we entertain proxy truths in relying upon the edicts of appointed authorities to tell us what we can and cannot know – as if personal knowledge is a recipe for ignorance, contradiction and delusion – as if reason can resolve the paradox of existence – as if paradox is the antithesis of truth. So we try to overrule the simple truth, believing that it must give way to the necessity of explanation. Yet the more we come to know, the more we come to realise the sheer scale of what we don’t know. Meanwhile, the fact of existence remains a mystery and the simple truth remains silent within the paradoxical pre-existence of possibility.

Mike Laidler

Knowing Belief

Reality may be seen as a plurality of the physical and metaphysical, more especially because the ‘thinking makes it so’ – for whilst the physical world remains essentially insensible and objective the metaphysical becomes personal and subjective. This form of metaphysics is evident in the nature of thought thinking about itself: ‘I think therefore I am’ – knowledge being a state of mind discernible in the recognition of its own inferences. However, our obsession with the inference of a reality beyond inference leads us to infer that real knowledge belongs to external facts that know nothing, as if they can also explain for us the transition to a knowing universe and demonstrate that the fact of the knowing is a change of less significance than ‘the facts’, in the greater glory of their objective oblivion.

It seems, to those who care to look, that knowledge is a minefield of assumptions beginning with the mind’s inferences about itself. Not surprisingly, popular forms of factual knowledge purport to minimise the need for inference – so in knowing for sure that Paris is the capital of France we may also rest assured that other forms of factual knowledge will not lead us astray. But such knowledge masks its own deficiencies and our ignorance of a deeper truth – that all ‘knowing’ is built upon inferences fashioned into beliefs. Indeed it is belief, rather than fact, that is the patron of knowledge, actively tuning the known by turning and pitching one understanding upon and against another; and no matter whether it ends in agreement or disagreement, that end is mediated by belief because the facts can’t tell us what to know.

Belief and knowledge are more alike than we might imagine, yet we tend to believe that knowledge displaces belief, which is why the ‘knowledgeable’ are dumfounded by what others are prepared to believe in disregard of the ‘known facts’. However, the knowing adds something to those facts, and the conclusions we draw go beyond the facts, entering into the realms of belief by the fact that we are drawing conclusions, and in particular because we feel the need to do so. So whether or not we are ‘in the know’ we are all using beliefs of one sort or another to put that knowledge in perspective, and it is the perspective that determines what we are prepared to make of ‘the facts’. Of course belief and knowledge are not static, then it is a matter of belief whether we take the facts to be static – and in every discipline the basic facts are open to reinterpretation, or not, depending the beliefs upon which that discipline is founded, and by which means the discipline gains its purpose. Indeed, to know is to believe we know, but to truly know is to know we believe and that we ‘believe in order to understand’, knowing that knowledge is built upon the myths by which we ‘explain the inexplicable’.

Mike Laidler

The consciousness uncertainty principle

Consciousness is bigger than anything we can set-up in consciousness as the form of our awareness.  


We are certain that we are conscious and yet we cannot discern its nature in any preconscious state of nature.  Nor can we prove that such preconscious states relate to the fact of consciousness without relying implicitly on the very fact we are trying to establish explicitly in terms of those other facts.  In other words, we can know the essential nature of consciousness only from within and must start from that knowledge in order to assess any fact about its nature and origin.

Furthermore, every time we probe the form of our consciousness in order to find out something new about it we alter the state of our awareness in the wake of our discovery – we generate a new state of consciousness, so ensuring that there is always something new to learn.  And if, as it would seem, consciousness remains bigger than any fact we can determine about it, then our awareness of that paradoxical fact holds the key to expanding our horizons.   

Mike Laidler

The nature of the beast

Either we think through nature or nature thinks through us – either way, nature gains the power of thought.

Part 1: Dualities

Our presence in nature goes to show that there is more to reality than the unseeing and impersonal. Something has changed, and if that change is natural, then nature now forms a duality that is both sensible and insensible. In this duality the body retains its own needs and predilections, though like the ‘tame’ beast it can be pressed into the service of larger causes. Likewise, the dualities of change raise our schemes and intentions into powers and perversions under the influence of an emergent knowledge, or at least our version of it. We presume to identify truths, defend principles and know ourselves by espousing something that is no thing, something we see as all the more real for being more than us – whereby basic drives and noble values come to co-exist in us, and nature. Thus there is a paradox at the heart of nature: we know and so a part of nature knows, and it seems that all we know is owed to an erstwhile nature that knows nothing.

Part 2: Possibilities
We are a part of a nature that is in a process of change, in the act of becoming something more than it was. So it is possible to see evolution as something happening to nature. However, whilst it is patently obvious that thought has a presence in the universe, we are loathe to conclude that nature thinks through us, or even that will power makes a fundamental difference. Nonetheless, we introduce possibilities in the form of purposes, meanings, goals and designs that change the face of nature. Then, as a part of nature, we embody convergences of possibilities, each acting on the other and building into changes that extend the vital facts of nature into burgeoning faculties. And as nature comes to perceive itself though us, so self-perception elevates the natural into the realms of a super-nature – because nature doesn’t behave like that at its lower levels. Meanwhile, there remains the fact of what we were and still are – as animals contending with the dilemmas of our pleasures and pains. Typically, we crave food as much for the sake of pleasure as hunger, yet we make sacrifices and put ourselves under pressure to accomplish ends which place our basic needs and desires in conflict with our higher aspirations.
Part 3: Realities
In the bigger picture, the incongruous presence of personal existence in an impersonal universe is indicative of a convergence of possibilities with different natures. Thus nature changes through a series of ‘quantum shifts’ whilst losing nothing of what it was. So here we are. We look to the origins of the universe in terms of ambient possibilities of a different nature to the observable laws of physics, yet downplay the more obvious presence of animate possibilities acting upon the austere laws of nature. Nevertheless, something has obviously changed and the best example of this change is ourselves. We are both animal and animus, and the brain straddles this duality: being the insensible source of sentience, the impersonal seat of personality, the dark root of illumination, the blind cause of choice. And the mysteries of the body are eclipsed by yet deeper mysteries of the ‘known mind’ by which we presume to master ourselves, for it remains evident that the stark aloofness of our crowning glory in logic and reason can lead us to acts of wanton brutality that far surpass the savage nature of the beast. Paradoxically, our intellectual rowess is no surety against ourselves; and logic is not everything – for the nature of reality is such that we act through the auspices of other natures, binding our choices – and reason can serve any master.

Mike Laidler

Presuming to know

Philosophical discourse is not as it seems to the onlooker. Outwardly it appears to revolve around versions of belief; but in reality the whole point is to get beyond belief, which is why beliefs are seen to feature so prominently.

In fact it is impossible to progress philosophically until belief is examined by tackling the presumptions underlying what we think and know, ultimately by facing up to the extent of our presumptions behind everything – thereby to discover something paradoxical – that we can know nothing about the world that does not depend on making presumptions, but that we prefer to think otherwise, to believe in certainties for the sake of ‘making progress’.

Meanwhile, for those who believe that knowing is a matter of what they know, the unexamined life, or the version examined by others, remains their preferred choice.

Mike Laidler