The climate change challenge

It is said that ‘time and tide wait for no man’.  Then what is the extent of our reputed ‘God-given’ dominion over and ethical responsibility for the planet?  Do we actually know?  For decades it was largely thought that the facts on climate change were ambiguous and independent of human activity.  There is still ambiguity – because that is the nature of the facts.  And what is reason’s purview when so much of perception is tied to the image of what we want to see?  Indeed, despite the growing consensus that something needs to be done, plus the acknowledgement that actions speak louder than words, the notion of ‘necessary and sufficient action’ still remains a source of controversy.  Nevertheless, it is possible to cut through all the ideation and procrastination to test the true sentiment behind our stated wish to do something – bearing in mind that there is no scope for ‘doing a deal’ or reaching a compromise with the forces of nature.  In reality, climate change may be a symptom of a bigger problem and it is not nature that needs to be fixed.

Doesn’t ‘globalism’ mean that China’s emissions are also our emissions?  What if the time for making comparisons and apportioning blame is over?  Even the checked advance of climate change could mean that the ordinary and the everyday are destined to become the exceptional and occasional.  Or is it just a matter of hanging on until science and technology find the solution?  But isn’t our predicament also due to our insatiable desire for more technology?  Perhaps we need to be honest with ourselves.  If we are to be serious about climate change and its threat to civilisation, then is it not time to re-evaluate the social and economic priorities of the ‘good life’ with its rude incarnations in our vain and excessive indulgences in wasteful luxury and lazy convenience?  If we can’t rise to that challenge and begin to moderate our extravagances right now then all other measures, adjustments and innovations could be compromised.  This problem beggars the imagination and demands a radical redefinition of our civil responsibilities.  Something needs to be done, but it may be the one thing that we can’t expect the authorities to do for us?


‘Philosophy Alive’ examines the relationship between our thinking and the facts.  This involves questioning our assumptions about what the facts mean.  For instance, if climate change poses an immanent threat of global disaster, then there is no doubt that we will need to take urgent and drastic action.  Some critics might point out that the ‘Armageddon scenario’ is still hypothetical, even in the long term, but there is a double consideration here – if the potential consequences are so daunting then we can’t afford to play ‘Russian roulette’ with the lives of our children, so to be pragmatic, we might need to treat the possibility as an inevitability and act accordingly.  Then, even if science has over-estimated the impact of climate change, the error is a good thing if it acts as a spur to positive reform.  Meanwhile, given that science is not infallible, let us hope that we have not already passed some unforeseen point of ‘no return’. 

Mike Laidler



Explanations: ‘joined-up facts’ and ‘the God of the gaps’

In the nature of things, if everything is constituted of something else, then is nothing fundamentally itself – but if everything is essentially itself, then what is explanation?

It is now ‘evident’ that the laws of physics had a beginning, as with the fact of life, although we don’t know how since both beginnings remain unexplained; but it is also evident that there are unknown beginnings ‘hidden’ within the regressions of our causal definitions – because causes introduce something else to be explained: namely the source of their originality.

Does consciousness defy explanation because we know of no cause that is similarly aware?  (Tweet pub. March 23, 2019)

In theory, explanation links the ‘facts of life’ to their evolution, but there is a missing link:  the origin of that evolution is linked to a fact of life it doesn’t explain – the origin of life.

If the ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ then science and religion may be seen to hold a belief in common – in the unverified presence of the ‘knowable fact’.

Without a superstructure of belief, can the fact that ‘speaks for itself’ be validated by the supposition to have found it?

If, the emergence of an ‘objective universe’ introduced a real difference into existence – a new reality defined by the laws of physics – then the emergence of a ‘subjective universe’ may have yet to make its mark – to be defined by a parallel nature yet to be fully realised.

Can a cause explain an effect without the uncanny intervention of a thing called ‘explanation’?

Of all the strange things in the universe, the presence of a questioner is stranger by far than any ‘answer’ to be singled-out from an original cause in the ‘hard’ (insensible) facts.

The day organisms began to think was an equally transformative event for nature and the universe at large – even when confined to those organisms thinking about themselves.

Aside from all the bogey-man stories, there is real evidence for a supernatural level of activity that emerges by way of the capacity for some things in nature to be self-aware.

Time passes: there was a time when ‘the truth’ was the exclusive province of religion and its revelations; now science offers-up a truth we cannot see beyond.

Is science struggling explain the basic fact of life because there is a world of difference between the physical world gaining and giving life – because there are no tiny seeds of life and consciousness to be found in the laws of physics?

Does the causality in existence prove that existence is caused – if not, then is the discovery of a ‘God particle’ any less of an abstraction than that of the ‘God notion’?

Beyond the ivory towers of AI, is it not evident that intelligence becomes of consciousness and not the converse?

Just because virtual reality has become a real experience for us, does it mean that the virtual consciousness and intelligence of AI is a real experience for the machine?

We live in at least two worlds, one of them being ‘a world of our own’, namely the world of thought; however, if that isn’t so, then the reality is even stranger than we picture it – because it is one in which nature is also thinking for us.

Mike Laidler



Brexodus: the exit from Brexit compromise

Extracts from “Defining democracy” (first published Sept 9, 2018)

It is said that actions speak louder than words …. In the event, democracy is legitimated by the idea of it, which doesn’t necessarily translate into bowing to the voter’s express wishes. ….Voters in ‘proper’ elections are …. required to assent to a raft of issues loosely held together by manifesto pledges that ‘their’ elected government will deliver on its promises.  But governments are subject to their own internal politics …. The occasional referendum appears to give voters exactly what they vote for.  The UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum asked people if they wanted to ‘remain’ in the European Union, or ‘leave’.  The choice was clear cut, but …. issues were shrouded in dubious delineations from the start …. The ‘apple cart’ was really upset when the unprecedented skirmishing continued after the vote …. it was rumoured that Brexit could become Brino (Brexit-in-name-only). …. Throughout this political wrangling the electorate had been assured that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.  Of course the word was absent from the dictionary, but then the dictionary has yet to be written in which every word simply means itself.  Meanwhile …. ‘the right thing to do’ is, by definition, the right thing to do – implying they don’t need to be asked to vote on it.

Mike Laidler


Life factors

  1. Is the universe fine-tuned for life or does life supply the fine-tuning? (Tweet published March 2, 2019)
  2. Do we need science to find the cause of life before we can know for sure what it really is?
  3. Can we gain a window into life by ascribing it to nature?
  4. Is the ‘secret of life’ eluding science simply because none of the candidate causes are ‘alive’ in the way that life is? (Tweet pub. March 11, 2019)
  5. Where does evolution take us when it has to take the existence of life as its starting-point? (Tweet pub. March 10, 2019)
  6. What makes scientists think that the undiscovered cause of life holds the key to the deeper mystery of consciousness? (Tweet pub. March 5, 2019)
  7. If intelligent life is a state of nature, what does it say about the nature of nature? (Tweet pub. March 13, 2019)
  8. Given the gaping gap in explanation, it might just be possible that the mystery of life is deeper than the laws of nature as we know them, that the evidence indicates something pivotal at the heart of nature – to the point that intelligent life enables nature to behave differently. Consequently, the physical processes that enable intelligent life now yield uncharacteristic patterns of behaviour because they have become integral to a new kind of nature – in being able to sit up and think about what they are about.
  9. In what realm of possibility do we rank as overseers of the possibility or impossibility of things?
  10. What organisational principle will explain the existence of consciousness no matter that even a disorganised consciousness can still be conscious?
  11. Could the new evolutionary evidence for species ‘fuzzyness’ and inter-breeding indicate something very basic about the theory of evolution – that it might never catch up to the facts?
  12. Can the origin of consciousness be attributed to its evolution when the origin of life cannot? (Tweet pub. March 15, 2019)
  13. If thinking is a physical effect of physical causes, is it a power that has been ‘held in trust’ for us by the laws of physics? (Tweet pub. March 18, 2019)
  14. Do the things that life can’t do without show us very much about what life can do?
  15. If conscious intentional action is a part of a physical universe, what else might be ready to evolve from the stardust? (Tweet pub. March 16, 2019)
  16. Do we actually get to know what our thoughts are really like by observing them as brain processes?
  17. How do the brain’s operations manage to convince us that there is really no additional ‘us’ to be convinced?
  18. Is the fact of life any less mysterious in terms of its known effects than its unknown causes?
  19. Might we get to know life better by finding its cause – where it comes from – or by observing its diverging properties as an effect – where it leads?
  20. What if biology gains rather than gives life? (Tweet pub. March 12, 2019)

Mike Laidler



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