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



Sceptic or cynic?

If a sceptic can be seen as a liberal thinker, a challenging doubter and a seeker after truth, then the cynic is something else: a contemptuously abrasive, dismissive and pessimistic type – a wanton disrupter, even an extremist who poses a threat to civilised life – a troublesome pariah who would shun the very truth for the sake of it.  Not surprisingly, in our ‘enlightened times’, hardly anyone wants to regard themselves as a cynic or be characterised as such.  Even the label ‘mildly cynical’ carries pejorative overtones now that we have alienated the notion, debunked its respectability and popularised forms of post-cynicism through our modern brandings of virtue, truth, justice, authority, civility and tolerance.  However, the lip service paid to ‘the right thing to do’ may conceal a Freudianesque veneer of righteous indignation –‘noble’ prejudices against the incursion of ‘inferiorities’. In sum, scepticism is seen as acceptably productive, progressive and illuminating, whereas cynicism ‘is’ unacceptably morose, dogmatic and subversive; but there is a fallacy behind these stereotypes that is hidden away within the ‘dark horses’ of human nature.

Apparently it’s fitting to confront cynicism with cynicism, whereas being sceptical about scepticism smacks of a counter-productive contradiction.  Perhaps the inverted cynicism – the negative stereotyping and demonisation – serves to burnish our tarnished virtue.  Yet, historically, the cynics were seekers after truth and virtue – ‘God’s’ watchdogs who stood as vanguards against the hubris of human pretentiousness.  But now it’s valid to see ourselves as ‘OK alone’, complete in our self-appointed nature as ‘Homo sapiens’.  So reason, once ‘a slave of the passions’, is now a liberator, enabling us to test the truth with logic, even to bring the unconscious mind into line and raise us to the authority of ‘the Gods’ – because the intellect is supreme and logic is infallible.  But this gives rise to the fallacy that all is subject to the higher truths of logic, which defy contradiction – so rendering any dissent illogical and a futile throwback to more archaic now ‘displaced philosophies’ that are riddled with personal points of view, such as the uncivil cynic might indulge in for the sake of being noticed.

Mike Laidler

Logic Alone

Logic is not everything.
The idea of true or false pays homage to our biases
– as if contradiction has the power to destroy a fact.
And logical conclusions serve our pre-logical presumptions
whilst the certainties of logic blind us to our blindness.
For it is logic alone that demands of reality
that it should be logical to be realistic.
But nothing exists alone.

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

Dialectical diversions

Our understandings lay claim to the facts on the understanding that those facts can be characterised by their consistency – inferring that even as things can be seen to change over time, the nature of that change forms a pattern of consistencies underpinned by a natural lawfulness and immutable truth. However, it is our conceptualisations of fact, rather than the facts themselves, that require ‘their truth’ to be free of contradiction. Meanwhile, the everyday is replete with factual contradictions that we purposely overlook in favour of a perceived logical integrity – a logic we claim to inherit from a nature that apparently has no purpose in it. Likewise, life is seen to be a derivative of an unliving nature that is both changed and unchanged – a contradiction that remains embedded in the very stuff of our DNA, understood as the unliving stuff of life. Furthermore, quantum mechanics reveals that our world is built upon, indeed depends upon, a raft of stark factual anomalies.

Normally, we habilitate the factual contradictions by making them inter-personal – by supplementing our observations with theories and opinions by which we variously agree or disagree with one another. And the more we expect the truth to be either one thing or the other, the more those perspectives tend to polarise. So the paradoxes holding truths in contradiction get assimilated as factors of ideas in opposition. Then, by rationalising different points of view, we move to mould the facts and ideas into an intellectual consistency, albeit hypothetical – as if, from a synthesis of our contentions and disputations, truth might emerge to resolve contradiction and uphold our reasoning. Thereby we affirm, in applying that synthesis to our observations of reality, that the facts show us truths that cannot be inconsistent – one thing and another – lest we abandon sound reason in countenancing a nature that can be both mindless and aware, or an earth beneath our feet that is both round and flat.

Mike Laidler

Goldilocks retold

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’ because there is no settled evidence for it beginning other than by chance.  But what if both scenarios are true: chance and non-chance – the evidence for the co-existence of chance and non-chance possibilities being everywhere in the world that surrounds us?  Then perhaps the enigma is actually a paradox which reflects the true state of existence – something we cannot reduce to our logical truths by which we demarcate the facts as either right or wrong, true or false, possible or impossible.  Paradoxically, there is more to the fact of existence than the prerequisite of an explanation that requires itself to be logical.  And it is logic, not truth, that requires the facts to be logical.  Perhaps our belief in logic is holding us back – believing that logic gives us exclusive access to the ultimate truth – a truth to withstand all contradiction.

Perhaps paradox is nearer to ‘the truth’ than the logic that demands its resolution.  So let’s begin with three truisms: ‘the universe’ is vast, ‘everything’ and ‘contains’ life.  Given the scale and scope of it all, together with the potential diversity of planetary environments, then the right conditions for life on more than one of these planets becomes a loaded possibility.  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’.

Mike Laidler

Towering Foundations

We can’t pretend not to care much about the nature of belief, or who believes what, when everything we know and care about is entwined with our beliefs. Belief is ubiquitous; nothing is immune from its influence, indeed it forges our understandings of reality and recognisance of the facts since it provides the frame of reference in which we turn to fact and reason. But if we are to glean anything from the observation of one another – about the interplay of belief and reason – it is that belief is more accomplished at making its way without reason than is reason without belief. And in this world of beliefs, if we are to discern anything about the basis of knowledge that forms opinion, it is that there is no such thing as a neutral fact.

Mike Laidler