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

 

Where are we?

Evidently, we owe our existence to the presence of a smallish planet orbiting a medium size sun in a named galaxy, the Milky Way, existing among many billions of unnamed counterparts.  But that knowledge isn’t sufficient for us to recognise ourselves or place the universe in existence.  Indeed, the sheer insurmountability of the problem has encouraged us to adopt an alternative approach, by acknowledging that everything exists ‘in  nature’, which we identify as the ‘all encompassing fact of existence’ – as if we can become familiar with the bigger picture by generalising from the details.

However, this introduces another problem.  Whereas everything in existence can be represented as a feature of a micro reality, sometimes called the atomic flux, that’s not where we find the reality of things that transpire.  In short, we are alive and dynamic in a different way.  Nevertheless we presume to gain explanatory depth by tracing our existence back to causes operating at successively lower levels – and our ‘findings’ are taken to be all the more robust when there is nothing else to be found.  But the upshot is not realistic, namely that the atoms are living our lives for us.  Something else is happening.  Something else exists that can’t be found at that level.

So the observation that there must be somewhere for existence ‘to be’ doesn’t prove that everything condenses into its causes in a ‘first place’ – even when there is nothing else to see at that point.  And this paradoxical fact carries on up the scale to include the fact of our thinking – seen as located in the brain ‘because there is nowhere else for it to be’.  But we could ‘see’ our thoughts long before we sought to ‘find’ them objectively.  And our scientific explanations are as much the result of our thinking.  Therefore, the ‘discovery’ that the brain is thinking for us doesn’t do justice to our awareness of the fact or the place of sentience within the very real phenomena of change.  In fact, only a misplaced awareness would deem to identify itself as a mere superficiality that makes no real difference.

Mike Laidler

Links:     ‘Mindless Replicants’: A ‘Point of View’ by Will Self:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b6pjh5

‘Science Stories’: The ‘uncanny valley’ of AI: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06vy2jd/episodes/downloads

 

In sight of the supranatural – Part 1: Out of oblivion

Part 1

Realist:  ‘I don’t see a place for God in the universe.  There is no supernatural meaning to life, no divine purpose to existence, no celestial antidote to the finality of death, no sublime answer to those heart-felt ‘why’ questions – and we are quite capable of deciding matters of right and wrong for ourselves.’

Phenomenalist:  ‘How do you know you are right?’

R:  It’s obvious.  Show me otherwise.

P:  Do you regard yourself as a product of nature?

R:  Of course, and that’s why I can see things for what they are.

P:  Then what makes you begin to consider the status of meaning, purpose and the supernatural in the first place?

R:  I’m simply responding to what others claim.

P:  But wouldn’t you agree that all manner of events take place within nature?

R:  What’s your point?

P:  Well, things change and either nature represents everything through a plurality of natures or because it hosts a supranatural reality that goes beyond the parameters of the purely mechanistic.  Either way, the idea of a universe that remains devoid of thoughts and intentions doesn’t do justice to the facts.

R:  That doesn’t prove there is a meaning to existence.

P:  Nevertheless, the presence of a mindful, meaningful overview represents something of a larger reality than that portrayed by the blind workings of nature in its biological forms.

R:  Aren’t you are jumping the gun by claiming that this proves there is a meaning to life itself?

P:  Perhaps it is you who are failing to address the facts, because you want to say that the reality can be explained in terms of its ‘building blocks’.

R:  Well it can.

P:  Only by redefining the facts to suit.

R:  It is you who are doing that, by implying that mental life is something more than the physical properties of the brain.

P:  Yet, without a sentient dimension to reality the physical functions of the brain would not be observable.

R:  But there is nothing to see except the workings of the brain.

P:  However, you wouldn’t expect the brain to display anything else.

R:  That’s because there is nothing else.

P:  Only at the level of brain processes.

R:  Don’t be ridiculous.  You are contradicting the accepted findings of science.

P:  It was once thought that the brain changes colour when we perceive different colours, but now we know that brain processes differ from the properties of light in the outside world.  Likewise thoughts differ in kind from the biological properties of the brain.  The evidence suggests that effects, like perceptions, are not simple copies of their causes, otherwise nothing would change.

R:  But causality is in control.

P:  Although we can’t be sure what it amounts to.

R:  What do you mean?

P:  Causality is a transitional process – causes change, effects redefine causes and the tide of change raises questions about how to address the evidence – how do we find a basis in fact, and is it right to start by assuming beforehand what must constitute an acceptable candidate?  In short, what we find is that the cause doesn’t tell us everything.  We can’t even be sure about what nature is and whether we can explain it as a thing that explains other things – the cause of all causes.

R:  So what are you saying?

Mike Laidler

To be continued…

 

 

Nature myth

Nature: the great unknown

‘known’ to everyone.

The first-known

– too big to be a thing

– too general to be a cause.

The omnipresent godforce of science

– the putative power to be

– the archetypal source of everything.

A ghostly presence inhabiting every happening

– the orderer of orders

and progenitor of necessity.

The grand non-explanation

defined of itself

in being as it is

‘for no purpose’.

Mike Laidler

The nature of everything

We are a part of a universe that is ‘everything’ and from which we ‘inherit’ all our characteristics, yet it doesn’t appear to be all that we are because, unlike us, its nature isn’t characterised by thinking sensibilities.

Undeniably, we are a part of something bigger than us, but neither the evidence nor our reasoning is sufficient to resolve the conundrum that ‘nature’ does and does not include those thinking sensibilities – that the resultant ‘everything’ turns out to be more than its beginnings.

Perhaps ‘the nature’ we take to be ‘the starting point’ of existence is, in fact, a plurality of natures, which is why our observations of causality don’t give us all the answers we so willingly ascribe to it – especially when there happens to be so much more to the nature of the effect than we can find in the cause.

Mike Laidler

The Burden of Proof

I   The ‘big bang’ of change

If ‘everything is stardust’ then stardust does more than replenish the universe with lumps; yet even if we could see it all unfold before our eyes, into a living, conscious intelligence, we might gain no more than a cursory overview – courtesy of those somehow ‘enabled’ lumps perceiving themselves – otherwise the stardust isn’t everything.  In fact, we don’t understand these changes, despite all their conspicuous causes.  For instance, the emergent properties of life do not ‘boil down’ to its unliving chemistry – something changes, but it is not germinal to the chemistry, which enables, supports and sustains a difference by remaining as it is.  These dualisms pose problems for proof and explanation that show up in the reasoning we apply to the perception of change – either by identifying a ‘transformative event’ with things as they are, so ‘nothing really changes’, or by differentiating it from things as they were, which taxes logic and leaves the explanation wanting.  In other words, we cannot explain a fundamental change in terms of the properties of a cause without begging the question; and whenever causes are found to diverge, the ‘explanation’ runs into a convolution of uncertain proofs – which is why scientific conclusions are ever prone to error.  Thus no one can prove that order in the universe was caused by ‘the big bang’ or that energy gives definition to form any more than the properties of stardust cause consciousness or the nature of existence comes from the pre-existing nature of its causes.  Indeed, every explanation carries inferences based upon the form of our reasoning in excess of the facts – with the result that facts considered to be self-evident, such as: ‘everything is a part of nature’ and ‘everything has a cause’ lead into explanatory quagmires over ‘the cause of everything’, the necessity of change and the primacy of possibility.  So, if nature is the ‘bedrock of our being’, and everything remains a part of ‘nature’, then our faculties, like everything else, function as natural effects of natural causes, to the extent that nature is now ‘perceiving itself through us’.

II   The ‘little bang’ of chance

Proof begins in the imagination, by imagining that the world is explicable by its causes, as if we can find the nature of one thing in another because an effect is derived from its cause, with the same being true for acquired states of knowledge.  However, such explanations diminish the very fact they purport to explain, namely the fact of change.  Neither do the laws of nature prove that everything has its beginning in the pre-existence of a master cause that provides a blueprint for the universe becoming what it is from what it wasn’t, or otherwise changing from what it was to become more like itself.  Nor can we make the inexplicable explicable by presuming that chance changes the boundaries of possibility when, as a matter of fact, the evidence points to the converse.  Nevertheless, our acknowledgement of a causal continuum serves us well in rationalising our place in existence, as proved by the prerequisites for survival; except that our nature and evolution provide only the semblance of an explanation of the course of change towards an agency that is deliberate intentional and inquisitive – properties that are alien to their ‘primal causes’ in nature as it was.  In fact, all we know is that change introduces new properties – new boundaries of possibility by which we can also see that we differ from our origins in the oblivious morass enough to be threatened by it.  And we can also see that nature is more than a ‘chance engine’ for creating and shaping these possibilities – since chance has no internal mechanism for transcending itself – to become more than itself by chance – whereas ‘nature’ diverges to become a plurality of natures containing meanings, purposes and necessities that stand in stark and inexplicable contrast to things without.  Furthermore, we do not explain change simply by observing it then determining that our observations must explain it if there is nothing else to discern; and no perspective can be big enough to prove the necessity of change by way of the necessities we import into our proofs in order to make them logically tight, and ours.

III   Effects as causes

‘Seeing is believing’ when belief stands in for proof – and the question of proof confronts us once we try to look beyond appearances, to seek the reality behind ‘the seeming’.  Even so, we don’t look to the resolution as amounting to a difference of our making; instead, we experience it as coming through the perception in the same way as we experience perception as coming to us from the world.  Yet there are realities within realities – as when perceived sounds and colours come to transcend their primary causes.  Also, the vast array of our self-conscious perceptions mark a step-change in reality, just as perception marks a step-change from its causes in an oblivious world.  And all the evidence points to the same fact – that our knowledge of the world, even as perceived to be caused by it, is not necessarily the same thing, though we may wish to presume there is no ‘real’ difference for the sake of its validation.  Likewise, we see necessary connections between causes and effects, but it is not the cause that turns first to make the difference real.  That is, the perceived difference ‘arrives’ with the appearance of the effect, there being no change till then, and the fact that the ‘effect’ is as much of a cause in such transitions is known in the event that it becomes a necessity for any further ‘causal changes’ to be perceived, otherwise its existence is superfluous.  Nevertheless, we expect that the change can be explained by identifying it with a preceding cause, as if the cause now belongs in two versions of itself – to be better known in retrospect, for what it ‘really is’ in prospect.  Unfortunately, original causes aren’t amenable to explanation, but undaunted by this, we prefer to perceive the universe, qua existence, as a developed property of an ‘original cause’, as if the possibilities remain defined by this ‘fact’ – thereby proving to ourselves that all subsequent changes are somewhat less than original, and that our perception of everything as a version of stardust goes to show that we are perceiving reality ‘as it is’.

Mike Laidler

Supernature

Instinctively:

walking

talking

seeing

feeling

thinking

– being natural,

‘nature’ redefined.

 

Knowingly:

changing

becoming

incorporating

ascending,

transcending

– being otherwise,

‘being’ redefined.

©Mike Laidler