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

 

A question of knowing

What do we know?  Is it just a matter of remembering?  Does the memory do it for us?  Is it entirely a state of the brain?  What if the brain is but a staging point with its own quantitative and qualitative limits?  Whichever way we look at it we seem to arrive at a less than satisfactory definition – ‘the known’ could be tainted by its incompleteness, and how would we know?  Laying claim to our experiences doesn’t seem to get us any further forward; yet, for the sake of our sanity, we rely upon our impressions and ideas of an external reality, together with what we are told about things.

Therefore, despite its shortfalls, it seems that equating the known to an external source appears to be the most tactical way of proceeding.  However, our ability to consider this move raises a more fundamental question: is knowledge something else, something more than the facts by which we seek to measure it?  Does the act of knowing appertain to another nature beginning with an awareness which we subsequently fragment in attaching it to the things we are aware of for the time being, apparently on the outside, believing that our awareness belongs there because it has to be an ‘it’ that is like everything else?

Also, don’t we find that the more we know the more we become aware of how little we know – that factual knowledge can harbour deep uncertainties?  Even scientific knowledge advances on the basis of a constantly revisable awareness – knowing now that 99% of the universe doesn’t seem to be knowable in the same way as the 1% known as its observable dimensions.  But in order to consider what that fact means, scientists will need to do something that the facts cannot do for them – consider the meaning in the broader context of an expanding awareness which they can attach to the facts, but cannot find there.

Mike Laidler

“What is truth?”

Philosophy asks questions in pursuit of truths – a principle that is also the driving-force of science.  Divisions arise over which questions are potentially answerable; although answers don’t stem the flow of questions, nor does a recognised truth come with a full-stop, as if to put our questions to rest – as if the truth is definable by its defiance of contradiction.  In fact, reality greets us with an avalanche of contradictions: the earth is and isn’t solid, the universe is and isn’t infinite, gravity is and isn’t a force, life is and isn’t just chemical activity, we are and are not merely stardust, a thought is and is not the same thing as a brain process, causes do and do not explain effects, change is and is not more of the same, the present does and does not shape the future, the governing constants and absolutes do and do not control what happens next.  Furthermore, change proves to be more fundamental than any ruling truth.  It means that the truth-content of our answers doesn’t negate the fact that change can be radical, that there can be wholly different answers in different contexts, that those contexts stand out as different dimensions of existence which we partially understand as energy, matter, life, consciousness and thought.  And doesn’t life show us that the facts can defy reason?  Indeed, there is more to existence than we can reduce to the axioms of our logical explanations.  Then if there is to be a resolution that applies to everyone, might it not be this: don’t dismiss ‘the impossible’ simply because it contradicts your aspirations to countenance possibility on your terms – don’t dismiss as impossible the truth that changes to become more than it was.

Mike Laidler

Once upon a time

What gives us the idea that there must be ‘a beginning’ that is the beginning of everything – that everything had an absolute beginning ‘once upon a time’?  Isn’t it patently obvious that beginnings are context-specific?  Then are we thinking of some kind of generalised capacity or potential for things ‘to be’– a pre-universe which we understand in the context of what ‘comes to be’ by supposing some kind of cause that pre-exists everything else?  But that opens up the idea of another kind of causality in another kind of reality.  The problem is that we can’t reconcile our idea of everything ‘as caused’ with the existence of a preceding uncaused cause.  It would seem that existence as a whole is bigger than all the causes we can place ‘in existence’.  Also, ideas about the cause of the universe amount to theories that go beyond the empirical evidence.  And doesn’t our capacity for contemplating the nature of existence necessitate the existence of a thinker in addition to the natural causes under consideration – suggesting a nascent context of a different order?  Or do we think that nothing really changes – that an unchanging core of existence explains all: that all things are really one thing, that nature contains the blueprint of itself, in itself, for itself – because the potential was ‘there’ all along?

Is a definitive cause an explanatory myth?  Could ‘once upon a time’ be the stuff of a scientific fairy tale in which everything is explicable in terms of a singular beginning as something else?  Doesn’t the reality of change reveal a succession of beginnings that are distinguishable by their specific differences from the way things were?  Or is our perception of change an illusion?  Some say that the universe was already alive in its primordial state, so that when primitive life ‘appeared’ and subsequently evolved it was really nothing new.  And does the evidence not show that life equates to the material properties of a pre-existing nature, therefore it isn’t all that different after all?  But why then would we contemplate the event of life as a special case, possibly with its own unique beginning on this planet, if we are of the mind that everything shares a universal beginning in the same fundamental properties?  Perhaps there is more to existence than our linear logic can make of it in retrospect, in thinking from effect to cause?  Alternatively, the observable divergences and convergences could be joint aspects of a non-linear continuity that encompasses life, us and everything else – so it is no co-incidence that ‘the beginning of everything’ remains as problematical today for the scientific mind as it was for the ancients – because origins aren’t everything.

Mike Laidler

 

Mythscapes

It’s entirely possible that everything we know about how things happen will remain purely academic until we find out how existence happens.

The fact of change is the big event of the ‘big bang’ and beyond, which we incorporate into our explanations as if to explain it – as if by taking it into account we have accounted for it.

Evolution, as it happens, is the effect that we presume to identify as the cause of change.

Despite our collective faith in the infallibility of logic as ‘true’ in itself, logic provides no guarantees that it will ‘externalise’ to show us truths about the world at large.

It’s a mass delusion tantamount to madness: the belief that logic cannot fail to show us the truth.

If science can admit to the incredible yet ‘finite calculable probability’ of a person being able to pass through a solid wall under certain circumstances – because objects are and are not solid – then what about the certain circumstance in which the earth is both flat and round?

We talk about consciousness as a phenomenon to be explained by the fact of life, as if we have already explained the fact of life.

We know of the phenomenon that is existence only because of what knowing brings to it.

In all the sightings of ghosts throughout the ages, duly attired in the dress of their time, has anyone ever wondered how the clothing manages to gain an afterlife?

Can a scientific explanation of the universe explain its most curious feature – its evolution, through us, of a curiosity about itself?

How can an objective account of nature, by precluding the subjective elements of conscious sensation and understanding, show us a greater truth in the lesser fact of existence?

Strictly speaking, we are but ghostly manifestations in the midst of an essentially physical universe that knows nothing of our existence – since, in the scheme of its absolute reality, our presence amounts to nothing more than a negligible flurry within an all-engulfing tide of atomic flux.

Does a mathematical proof of the universe not reflect more upon the enlarged particulars of mathematics than the particulars of the universe at large?

Presumption is the ancestor of all myth and a living part of all we take to know.

Mike Laidler

Hologram universe

Evidently, the universe is observable to us because of a chain of consequences which science endeavours to explain with laws of nature. However, our understandings are not passive representations of the truth, and whilst knowledge might be said to reflect its place in nature, its transformative presence also influences the tide of events. Even so, our intellectual axioms may not give us the final word on the bigger picture in a continuum of change where rules gain exceptions and predictability rubs shoulders with unpredictability. Indeed, behind all the industrious investigations of the ‘open-minded’, we find that every thesis can attract its antithesis. Furthermore, every attempt to ‘get to know’ begins with some idea of what we want to know, in order to recognise a result – so we might expect the same with a knowledge of the universe, which begins with the notional idea of its beginning.

Superficially, all the prominent theories share a common theme or paradigm – that nature is a thing in action. The problem is that the more we analyse it, the less of the ‘thingness’ we find. Instead, we discover that ‘reality’ is a projection of something else, but so is the reality of the ‘something else’. Then is the bigger picture of existence more like a hologram – a projection of another dimension which apparently ends up as the beginnings of the more familiar nature of our universe? And might this question give rise to an exceptional discovery – that we don’t really know what we are talking about in the first place, nor do we actually get to know what we are referring to in the second place – especially if different universes can accommodate different ‘laws of nature’ within the wider ‘reality’ of ‘a multiverse’ yet to be defined.

Mike Laidler

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/professor-stephen-hawkings-final-theory-the-universe-is-a-hologram/ar-AAwEA5O?acid=spar (2nd May 2018)

In sight of the supranatural – Part 2: A cosmic consciousness

Phenomenalist:  ‘The question is, either science is observing nature objectively, by looking at or upon it, or it is nature observing itself – because science acts in nature.  Either way something different is happening to the way things change in nature, since perception now has an active role.  So how are we to understand ‘the fact’ of nature?’

Realist:  ‘You seem to have overlooked the fact that perception is explained as an evolved capacity that assists survival, which is the same reason why thinking evolved with all its inherent meanings and purposes.’

P:  The utility of perception and intelligence for survival is without question, but it doesn’t prove that evolution is the explanation.  Evolution is observable as the result of change, but it amounts to a description, not an explanation – although the theory is generally regarded as if it is the cause of those changes.

R:  That’s because the theory proves what actually happens.

P:  There is no doubting the assiduous detective work that goes into piecing together the facts of evolution, but proving a fact is not the same as explaining it.

R:  You’re splitting hairs.  It’s the same thing.

P:  The distinction is not trivial.  The explanations are theoretical, hence it is properly called ‘the theory of evolution’.  Evolution appears to make things happen, but ‘it’ has no capabilities – it is no determinant of possibility – so we can’t explain the capacity for things to evolve by noting their evolution.  In other words, evolution doesn’t supply an answer to the question of how things are possible.  It is neither the beginning nor the end of possibility, nor does it give us an overview of what is possible.  In short, evolution is not the cause that we read into it, though it’s easy to see how the mistake arises, given the belief in underlying causes as the foundation of all explanation.  However, all the information in a picture doesn’t explain the change to its perception even though changes in one state of reality produce changes in the other.  Furthermore, in the bigger picture, we see that causes build upon causes in the constitution of different realities existing in parallel, but it doesn’t allow us to claim that one difference is the explanation of the other or that the unfolding direction of change is explained by the first cause.

R:  Nor does the idea of parallel realities help to explain anything.

P:  I’m not pretending that there is an explanation for everything.  It’s as basic as this: a book is filled with information but nothing is recollected until a reader comes along – so a book is and isn’t the source or explanation of knowledge, it just seems so when using it as a point of reference – but we don’t make the mistake of believing that the book knows anything.  The same applies to our observations of cause and effect as an explanation of change.   The explanation is in the mind, not in the cause.  Nor can we validate those explanations by claiming that they are direct effects of our observations – as if that explains what we see.  The same mistake arises when we believe that the brain does our thinking for us.

R:  It doesn’t mean that the theory of evolution is wrong.

P:  It does and doesn’t – it is wrong to believe that evolution provides a ‘missing link’ that explains change.  The theory is not self-explanatory, rather the explanation is an embellishment we attach to the observation that things change – which we presume to evolve that way because the changes are useful in the struggle for survival.

R:  So you accept that evolution has a place?

P:  However, it’s not the facts of change that owe their origin to the theory of evolution, rather it is the theory of evolution that owes its origin to the facts of change.

R:  Nevertheless, natural selection explains those changes as adaptations in life.

P:  Except the nature behind it all has no need to be selective.  That is, according to the laws of physics, there is no need for life to emerge, no necessity for there to be additional ‘evolved’ states of existence.

R:  But there it is – identifiable as a process of natural selection, which is also the explanation of how evolution works.

P:  I am not denying the fact of natural selection in evolution, but I am questioning its status as the definitive explanation of change in nature.

R:  There is no better explanation.  Also you are raising your objection in defiance of all the accumulated evidence.

P: The process of natural selection is but one unexplained change to the nature of nature, and it is not the end of the story.  The evidence indicates that things change, and the ensuing difference reveals properties that exist in addition to the observable cause – hence the laws of physics contrast with the relatively extraneous functions of biology, psychology and survival.  Nor can we explain away those differences as superficial versions of their underlying causes.  At the same time, we see the face of nature being transformed through the activities of a host of shaping influences, which we interpret variously and retrospectively as the marshalling of order, organisation, necessity, need, purpose and design.  Of course, science does not associate all of these factors with ‘things natural’.

R:  Because the explanation that things exist by design has been discredited scientifically.

P:  However, design exists in the real world – so where are you going to place it, or its agents, if it is not in the course of nature as defined and explained by science?

R:  But where’s your evidence that nature turns into something else?

P:  Remember, I am talking about a plurality of inexplicable natures, compared to a single version which is equally inexplicable.  In fact, things diverge in extraordinary ways from a reality seen to be unified by insensible natural causes; but you want to solve the problem by predicting that the facts will one day show us that it is all one and the same, so we might as well start believing it now.

R:  Then how would you approach the problem?

P:  Despite nature having been described as a ‘blind watchmaker’, implying a non-designer of ‘things natural’, we still have to explain the presence in nature of real watchmakers and their purpose-built designs.  To put it crudely, nature works as nature works, with the mind working as the mind works – bear with me on that for the moment – but the fact that thought fails or alters if the bio-chemical system fails or alters doesn’t prove that thought is just biochemistry, or that consciousness is explained by the cells of the brain becoming conscious.

R:  So is consciousness floating about in a world of its own?

P:  Yes and no.  Consciousness is different from other natural states – though we see it as growing out of those states.

R:  So how do you define consciousness?

P:  By the fact of what we know in being conscious.  But there is a reason why we cannot equate it to something else, thereby to explain it, because it means becoming conscious of it as something in addition to itself – the cause of the becoming – which nudges our awareness of the original fact out of the frame for the sake of a non-conscious fact that we claim to be more original.  Alternatively, if consciousness is a property of nature, albeit incomprehensible and inexplicable at present, then nature is both conscious and unconscious – something that we wrestle with in ourselves.   Either way, it is the definition of nature that gives way, not the fact of consciousness.

R:  You still haven’t defined consciousness.

P:  You’re missing the point – which is, the moment we try to relate consciousness or thought to something else, ostensibly in the name of explanation, we stand to lose sight of the features we are talking about – since we are now talking about them as features of something else.  This is why I asked you to bear with me earlier – because beneath it all, we can see that everything remains unchanged.  So, apparently, things change and don’t change – we really are stardust – however, the preconditions for change don’t explain the inception of change, or where it leads.  The point is that we need to alter our approach to the way we define things – beginning with our definition of ‘things natural’ – and we can make a start by accepting that we don’t have an adequate understanding of ‘things natural’ or ‘things explained’ or, indeed, ‘things conscious’.

R:  Then would you say that the problem is solved by the idea of a grand design within it all and a grand designer behind that?

Mike Laidler

To be continued