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



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 advent of Artificial Intelligence

What are we waiting for? Is it not here already? Or is it not yet powerful enough to match our expectations? But what do we expect – programmes for perception, language, memory, cognition, action and intention – plus a socio-emotive awareness? So what has been achieved to date? Has the technology managed to mimic the full range of abilities of an insect, fish or bird – or will it all follow naturally from the development of a hyper-intellect? Then, if AI can simulate these motivated abilities, and duplicate the purposive dynamic that gives intelligence its thoughtful meaningful aura, will this automatically settle another hypothesis yet to be proved – that life’s ‘vital spark’ may also be replicated as a virtual cog in an algorithmically-driven machine?

Mike Laidler

Subject to oneself

Is consciousness an illusion generated by the brain?  But how would we know it without the overview that enables our recognition?  So consciousness ‘looks on’.  And there can be no scientific discoveries without a sentient faculty of realisation.  Hence the dawning of awareness heralds a new kind of reality in which facts become identified as perceptual objects.  Likewise, self-awareness marks a new kind of realisation – evocative of ‘a self’ as the object of its own perception.

However, reality is not necessarily limited to that which is framed by perception.  And there is something odd about the nature of self-discovery because it involves the perception of facts that had hitherto escaped recognition – even when the recognisable element of such facts obtains imaginatively of the subjective realisations of insight.  Then what of science’s embrace of an ‘objective reality’ of things natural – is it inclusive enough to show that scientific knowledge represents nature’s insight into itself?

Mike Laidler


The brain is us

– so it says?

But how little is known

– how much to discover

about ‘how we tick’

– about ‘us’

looking for ourselves.


Then who is looking

and of what angle?

Is it us

looking in

or looking out

– or looking away

to something else?


Mike Laidler


Think about it – a cause of consciousness.  What does it mean?  Does it mean that the cause is operative in the identification of itself?  Or does it mean that the cause and effect work in some kind of relationship brought about by a difference occasioning an interaction?

But how are we to identify a difference without a point of comparison that is particular to the nature of consciousness?   And how can the observation of parallel changes in the operations of consciousness and its physical support processes prove sufficient to explain any differences or show that they are one and the same thing?

Mike Laidler

What is reality?

Scientifically speaking, the lesser reality is the greater – assuming that an underworld of physical processes will provide a ‘theory of everything’.  But that ‘everything’ is not everything – because experience reveals that a universe which subsists beneath the threshold of self-perception is not the whole thing.  However, experience might be confined to a world of its own with no inkling of a ‘bigger picture’ beyond the images that happen to hold our attention.

On the other hand, whatever else reality may or may not be, we can know without further ado that it includes the perception of ourselves thinking.  And if our capacity for reflection is the thing that distinguishes our thinking, albeit in the absence of a definitive knowledge of anything else, then at least we can know that thinking exists as a feature of the way things are, though the wider reality may not be tied to the way we think about it.

Even so, this would be sufficient to tell us that we inhabit a sentient reality, as augmented by a power to be, which we can know but incompletely by its instantiation in the vagaries of our understandings.  And we can know as much because of the reflective experience of the vagaries of our understandings.  Then again, even if we could know everything in terms of ‘something else’ identifiable as the source, we would still need to ask ourselves: have we really identified the whole, or explained the something else?

Mike Laidler