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

 

Subjects and objectives

“I think therefore I am” – but in what arena of awareness do I conjure a thought as the focus of my attention?

What is the truth that changes as the facts change?  What is the logic that pitches reason against reason?  What is the belief that shows us the ‘right thing to do’?

Is truth our imaginative representation of facts that are believed to defy contradiction?

Does logic become our guide to the truth only because we have decided beforehand that the truth must be logical?

Do we see as we believe believing we see as we see?

What is this chalice we call consciousness – at once a source of all pleasure and pain?

Is a memory the same thing whether or not we are actually remembering?

What is the fact of proof – for even as life can be found to have its causes in a preceding physical reality it neither proves that cause and effect are identical nor explains the difference?

What is entropy but an event that gains no purchase without the events that have already defied it?

What is reality apart from a convergence of events, now inclusive of a point of view?

What is the cause that allows us an insight into ourselves without the fundamental distinction initiated by taking a point of view?

Is the device that responds automatically to our movements aware of us no less than we are of ourselves when blindly accepting that perception is due to the causes that trigger our responses?

What is the observation that allows us to see the order of things and our place within it?

Are theism and atheism not conventions of belief – since we either believe that God exists in the way we believe, or that there is no God because there is no evidence to match our preconceptions?

Can there be a more classical case of begging the question than presuming that existence must have a cause?

Without philosophy how would we know how little we know?

Mike Laidler

 

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

Do machines perceive?

There is a more down-to-earth rendition of this question: Do plants perceive?  After all, they are alive and, like us, are motivated to survive.  The accepted answer seems to be that they do, but not in the way we do, nor do they need to.  In short, plant life exhibits similarities and differences which help us to address some broader questions such as: is perception a gradation of capacities; is consciousness a necessity; is there an essential motivation?  Of course, there are contenders at both extremes who wish to argue that plants are either capable or incapable of sentient perception.  In the case of machines, the motivation is not theirs, but that might change if machines become conscious – if consciousness can bypass biology.  And isn’t life just another kind of mechanism?  So isn’t perception a process that can be replicated mechanically? On the scientific front, perception is taken to be explicable objectively without the prerequisite of a sentient ‘presence’ – the corollary being that a scientific explanation of perception will automatically yield an explanation of sentient behaviour and account for different levels of awareness to boot.  Then there is the related question of a self-motivated inquiring intelligence; indeed, could an ‘intelligent machine’ ever begin to match a child’s imaginative perception of an event like Christmas?

‘Automata’ have been entertaining us for generations with mechanical responses that look like perceptions and intentions.  Now we have versions that can engage us with conversational simulations.  Altogether, they have shifted the debate onto the question about whether machines can be capable of achieving a ‘functional equivalence’ – whether, for practical purposes we don’t need to talk about mental states.  But even if mental states are considered to be extraneous, it doesn’t prove that they don’t exist.  In fact most exponents of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ tend to skirt around the issues, as if we only need to observe that artificial intelligence and artificial perception amount to alternative, perhaps superior, operational modes of what we call thinking and awareness.  On the other hand, a case can be made for perception to be recognised as a confluence of two realities, the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’, which has been artificially under-stated in the name of explanation by swapping a fact for a theory – the fact being what we know of mental states from the inside, which we have devalued in favour of the theory that such knowledge doesn’t make a real difference because it is more like a passive effect than an active causal component of perception.

In fact, perception makes a difference because it introduces a new sort of realisation – such as when we come to know that colour is something more than the wavelength of light.  So even though we can build a robot to detect different wavelengths and name the corresponding colours, it doesn’t prove that it can actually see colours.  Nor does it matter whether my perceived ‘red’ is your ‘green’ in a world where only wavelengths count – wavelengths that don’t need to be elaborated in perception – except that reflected light has neither colour nor luminosity until perception supplies a different kind of realisation.  Therefore, instead of downgrading our qualitative experiences because robots might not need them, we should be celebrating their special status.  Similarly, a computer can win at chess without realising the significance of its achievement – so its victory is hollow even if it is programmed to cheer.  Consequently, in the bigger picture, there may be more to reality than all we might affirm in terms of its physical properties alone – and the fact that we can equate everything to the physical world is possible only because there are two explicit sides to the equation.

Mike Laidler

 

Why existence?

Traditionally, our place in existence has been framed by beliefs in the world as created out of ‘the void’. Then it was thought that we might explain ‘life, the universe and everything’ by pruning it all down to a primordial ‘next-to-nothing’. Now we are prepared to consider a wider array of alternative or ‘parallel’ universes with wholly different natures and outcomes – to the extent that, by comparison, nothing is something and vice versa. Of course, our words fail to describe natural phenomena extending beyond everything that counts as natural for us. Even our ideas of ‘quantum leaps’ or ‘shifts’ fail to explicate the magnitude of the changes that colonise the possibilities left vacant in our physical world. And perhaps, after all, origins aren’t everything. Nevertheless, we continue to impose on the facts the same constraints that we impose on our explanations: namely that they remain logically consistent – as if the omnipotent and omnipresent laws of physics said to be the cause everything, must, therefore, of necessity, explain the vector of possibility leading to a game of football or a nature capable of evaluating itself.

Perhaps there is more to a fact than its causes. Also, the fact that a game of football cannot proceed without the ball doesn’t mean that the ball provides the explanation. And it might seem narcissistic, but the possibility of a universe hatching ideas about itself, albeit in the form of our ideas, marks an event as profoundly significant as that of the birth of the universe itself. It indicates that a new kind of possibility attends the laws of physics which cannot be predicted from those laws. Even so, that fact isn’t enough to justify our presence in existence, either at an individual or species level. Yet it is more profound than that, it means that we are participants in possibilities bigger than us, in a conscious dimension that doesn’t demand an evolutionary explanation. So we can start with the fact that our existence is sufficient to demonstrate, albeit within our own minds, a feature of existence that is significant for the very reason that we might otherwise choose to reject as a figment of the imagination – that mental space is a presence in a parallel ‘world of its own’.

The dynamics of change also promote shifts and leaps in the nature of thinking, with the scientific mind denouncing the ‘why’ question as a fanciful attempt to reify the link between fact and imagination – as if imagining fairies makes them real. However, there is a growing controversy over the ‘how’ of existence because beginnings feature changes that we cannot equate to things as they were without begging the question. Moreover, we reify our perceptions in supposing that causes give us answers by revealing more of themselves – such as, by showing us that the mind must be explicable as a physical effect in organic reality. But this doesn’t explain the shift that leads to living entities representing reality in cognitive space. Nor do the operations of the brain resemble thoughts or the imaginative frontiers of knowledge which exist as a functional necessity for our ensuing conceptual explorations. Consequently, it might be just as realistic for us to consider that existence, and what we know of it, exists for what is to follow. When all is said and done, isn’t that why we exist?

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

“Life, the universe and everything”: 42 unanswered questions

Why existence?  (Tweet: Pub. Jan 22, 2015)

How is the universe possible?  How is possibility possible?  Of what possibility ensues the chance to wonder?  (Tweet: Pub. April 4, 2018)

What makes nature ‘necessarily so’, perceptible, or an ‘it’?  (A question of stature.  Pub. Sept 24, 2017)

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’? (Once upon a time.  Pub. Nov 6, 2018)

Did life come to earth from another planet?  But what explains the origin of alien life – what accounts for the birth of life in the universe?  Are planetary environments enough to explain its emergence?  Can its evolution explain its existence?  (The Pinocchio factorPub. May 2, 2018)

Perception, in common with everything else, involves the coming-to-be of things that were not – and this raises a question of change which we cannot resolve ‘at source’ either by looking for a first cause or by attributing the form of the effect to its cause.  (Before and after.  Pub. Nov 14, 2017)

So what can we understand about the extent of a universe that apparently expands to exceed itself in the evolution of appearances and understanding?  (True coloursPub. Jan 28, 2016)

Is humanity more than a passive cog in the mechanism of nature?  (Tweet: Pub. Sept 28, 2018)

Is our delineation of nature just a crude metaphor for the inexplicable phenomenon of existence?  (Phases of knowingPub. May 27, 2018)

And isn’t our brand of intentional action something alien to nature?  (Surviving deathPub. Jun 11, 2017)

Then can we, in general, unlock the mystery of change by looking for a primal cause, as if all can be explained by unpacking the nature of nature at its inception?  Or does the answer come from evolution, which is change by another name, diffusely portrayed as the explanation of itself – that is, things change because they evolve?  (Changing things.  Pub. Aug 25, 2018)

Also, the question of necessity persists despite all the revelations of observation and explanation – since we still don’t know how the universe came to be as a necessary fact, and if not, why it came to be at all?  (Loaded dice: The chances of a ‘theory of everything’Pub. Nov 28, 2015)

Then are we to imagine some form of pre-existence of chance behind the origins of everything – if not God, then some no-thing that ‘plays dice?  (In sight of the supranatural: Part 4 – Beyond ourselvesPub. Mar 26, 2018)

However, our causal mythology portrays it as a bottom-up chain of events in a temporal succession, as if the effect was somehow embedded in the preceding sequence of causes, just waiting to be released, as if nature already contains a rudimentary consciousness – otherwise, logically, where else might it come from?  (Changing things, Pub. Aug 25, 2018)

So, as things change, we find that not everything is explicable ‘naturally’, unless we are prepared to broaden our definition of nature.  But do we know what we are doing?  (Tooth fairiesPub. Jan 8, 2016)

How does a knowledge of the universe emerge from facts that know nothing in themselves?  (Tweet: Pub Aug 9, 2018)

Does the idea of a universe that remains devoid of thoughts and intentions do justice to the facts?  (Tweet: Pub. Jan 21, 2018)

What is the presence of mind that enables us to look out upon reality and see ourselves there?  (Demonstrating the transcendent. Pub. April 13, 2018)

Is reality a plurality of realities?  (The way things are.  Pub. Mar 9, 2016)

Are we inside nature looking out, or outside nature looking in, and what does the idea of an outside amount to?  (Tweet: Pub. Feb 8, 2016)

Is reality actually a hologram – a projection of something else which ends at the beginning? (Tweet: Pub. May 27, 2018)

How is it that some things are impossible for nature even though they become possible only through nature?  (Tweet: Pub. Feb 24, 2018)

What makes us believe that possibility becomes explicable by observing its incidence?  What makes us believe that life would be explicable if only we could observe the transition from the non-living to the living?  (The Pinocchio factor.  Pub. May 2, 2018)

Is a living being really like a Pinocchio waiting to be fashioned out of the raw materials?   (Tweet: Pub. May 2, 2018)

What is the arena in which the brain appears ‘before us’ as a cause of observation?  (Private correspondence)

As if we could ever be satisfied by the knowledge that the mind is really a thing, namely the brain, which does the asking then provides the answer.  (In sight of the supranatural: Part 4 – Beyond ourselves.  Pub. March 26, 2018)

But where in nature do we find the ‘thingness’ of intention and awareness except as resonant features of our beliefs, theories and ideas?  (Standing stones.  Pub. Sept 11, 2017)

Doesn’t a sentient presence add a new dimension to reality – so that, even as consciousness remains embedded in the physical world, it also occupies a mental space of unprecedented possibilities?  (Demonstrating the transcendent. Pub. April 13, 2018)

Question: “Seriously, what is the transcendent?”

Answer:  “The transcendent is instantiated by any effect that differs from its cause, nor is this fact explained by observing the evolution that ensues.”  (Private correspondence)

Can everything be traced back to a first cause – if not do we have to rewrite all the theories and theologies? (Tweet: Pub. Aug 25, 2018)

Does nature give us a heart or do we give a heart to nature?  (HeartstringsPub. Sept 15, 2016)

What if the self – the recognisable continuum of our being – is but a psychological device for creating a recognisable continuum?  (Tweet: Pub. Jul 23, 2018)

Does the brain work like the world works – apart from us?  (Tweet: Pub. Jul 3, 2018)

Do intelligent genes explain intelligence? (Tweet: Pub. June 12, 2018)

Does the prowess of AI prove that an intellectual initiative is just a mechanical response in disguise?  (Tweet: Pub Jun 20, 2018)

Then, in some distantly future world populated by intelligent machines, might they be left to wonder how their components came together in an act of creation?  (Could Artificial Intelligence supersede us and spell the end of the human race? Pub. Dec 5, 2014)

If the universe is defined by the laws of physics, does it mean that the mind is really a material state that thinks it is something else and consciousness makes no difference?

Is the ‘objective truth’ a diversion with facts appointed to be the only truth?

Must God exist in the way we believe in order for us to make sense of existence – and if not, does it prove that God doesn’t exist?

Are belief and disbelief two sides of the same coin – squandered upon the vain circumspections of our presumptions to categorise the truth?  (Countenances (edit).  Pub. July 23, 2018)

Have we discovered or invented the truth-so-far about the origins of everything? (Tweet: Pub. Nov 6, 2018)

If all our questions could be answered would there be no remaining unknowns, would reason have finally conquered paradox?

Mike Laidler