Is nature conscious
so we are conscious
or does its evolution
mark a change
also for the nature of nature
– then does ‘nature’ explain that change
or its ‘evolution’ explain anything?
Is nature conscious
so we are conscious
or does its evolution
mark a change
also for the nature of nature
– then does ‘nature’ explain that change
or its ‘evolution’ explain anything?
Light and dark
Sea of change
life of life.
The dream of science is to look upon existence and explain it; but in reality, its paradigm of a universal ‘thingness’ could turn out to be just another grandiose edification of the imagination. In this ‘image of objectivity’ the mystery of existence is sought in the technical details, with scientific knowledge perched at the cutting edge of truth and functioning as a positive feedback system in which a physical nature expresses and reconfigures itself by becoming self-aware through us – in particular, through scientific thinking, observation and experimentation. In other words, nature is eminently explicable and, likewise, the human mind is a physical system that operates as an extension to its living ‘Technocene’; consequently the scientific brain currently represents the best known example of nature thinking about itself – and there is no arguing with nature – the only way a scientific explanation can be challenged is with an alternative scientific explanation. But is explanation (qua theory) more of an imaginative state of mind than an objective state of the facts? Does the assumption of an objective reality objectify the assumption?
Theoretically, the cosmic ‘Technocene’ is still evolving – nature is turning electronic in the advent of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) with the potential to overtake ‘brain power’ by a factor of many thousands because of its advanced operational efficiency – electronic circuits being faster than neural networks. AI is seen as superior in the same sense that a person in a quiz or IQ test proves to be superior by being able to think faster than others. But will ‘out-smarting’ remain the ‘name of the game’ in a post-evolutionary environment that is unencumbered by the usual biological fetters? Ultimately, could AI out-compete us to extinction precisely because it has no need to compete and survive? Would it need a biosphere at all? So is humanity, indeed the biosphere as we know it, destined to go the way of the dinosaurs? Or is the survival factor in Darwinian evolution just a ‘stop-gap’ theoretical attempt to mount an explanation on top of all the inexplicabilities of life and its origins? Crucially, what theory of extinction explains the presence of life; what experiment teases-out the fact of life?
Unlike most scientific theories, the theory of evolution does not make specific predictions – even life is a ‘given’ – nevertheless, it has been highly successful at promoting a core scientific dogma – namely, that the ‘why’ of existence amounts to a subjective non-scientific departure from the objective question of the ‘how’ of natural events and their reasoned explanation. Accordingly, the theory resonates with the idea of life as a technicality – an outgrowth of the laws of physics awaiting a precise explanation in the mechanism of nature – with reasoning, deliberation, knowledge and understandings operating as a part of nature and the sentient mind being the organic product of successive evolutionary adaptations. But there is a contradiction in the claim that mental events are reducible to physical processes, thereby to become explicable in the uncharted depths of a physicality that is ‘observable’ on its own – as if the peculiar presence of an observer is not sufficient evidence of a radical change in the nature of nature – or as if those ‘how’ questions don’t trade on theoretical assumptions about the objective nature of nature and natural causes.
In sum, evolution proffers a retrospective biological explanation of human intelligence linked to our success as a species in the ‘fight for survival’, yet it remains theoretical, as do our ideas about whether the one depends on the other. So it is not an inevitable fact that human and artificial intelligence will need to compete or that the human intellect will prove to be inferior to the lightening ‘mind’ of AI – or that quick-wittedness steers progress and innovation? Nor is it certain that intelligence is ‘brain power’ or that AI will automatically gain intentionality or become ‘intelligent enough’ to recognise itself – to recognise its limits and seek to improve itself? In any case, by what inductive logic do we presume to quantify intelligence against some arbitrary metric of ‘thinking-time’? Furthermore, what makes us think that the dependency of life upon its chemistry explains things? Is reality reducible to its lesser forms – is a ‘final analysis’ destined to show us everything by showing us a primordial next-to-nothing? In fact, is the resounding success of science as science distracting us from its precipitous failure as a philosophy?
What is ‘the inanimate’
– a vague comparison
with what we know of life?
Yet isn’t everything animate
from chaos to concern
– defining existence
as ‘being in existence’ –
the direction for there to be order
the consolidations of form
the purpose in ‘being alive’
the meaning in awareness
the moral in thought
the thrust of emotion
the urge to know
of the power to be
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
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?
‡ 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
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.
Links: ‘Mindless Replicants’: A ‘Point of View’ by Will Self:
‘Science Stories’: The ‘uncanny valley’ of AI: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06vy2jd/episodes/downloads
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?
To be continued…