A final analysis

At first there were the deities

who moved heaven and earth

and filled the firmament

with metaphysical meanings

as affirmed by ‘group think’.

Everything for a purpose

Nature anthropomorphised.

Then came the scientific method

with purpose translated into process

and meaning into verification

all within a material reality

as affirmed by ‘brain think’.

Humanity denuded

Nature atomised.

Mike Laidler

 

Emergence

Is order the slave of chaos?

Is entropy the sole measure of change?

Or is there evidence

pointing in another direction

– an “open channel”

into dimensions of being

– conscious and meaningful

adumbrating the cosmic dust

with properties

otherwise absent 

in the atoms alone?

Mike Laidler

Science

Idea of nature

Ideal of proof

Culture of causality

– beginnings without meaning

eventualities without purpose

prognosis of entropy.

Objective understanding

– rationale of reductionism

evidence as explanation

confirmation by default.

Quantifier of the unseen

Diviner of the unknown

Premise of truth

Promise of control.

Mike Laidler

The ‘Technocene’

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?

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

 

“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

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

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

 

The aura of the physical

As every student of physics learns, ‘solid’ matter is not solid.  So they ‘discover’ a fact that is counter-intuitive; yet they still understand it on the basis of naïve experience – that is, they rely on the concept of solid in order to appreciate its opposite.  In other words, understandings of fact remain rooted in our subjective realisations which build a knowledge of the world and ourselves upon the capacity for recognition.  In short, there is no knowing without its subjective content.  And whilst we can appreciate that reality is bigger than our concepts, we have no notion of the real, the right or the true that is ‘discoverable’ without some reference to those intuitive sensibilities.  How else might we recognise a truth for ourselves?  Unfortunately, a mutual distrust lingers between scientists and proponents of common sense over the identification of ‘objective facts’ which allow for the recognition of things that are ‘meant to be’ independent of what we think.

Actually, the physical sciences don’t replace common sense or vice versa – they are mutually complimentary – and no pragmatic physicist or engineer behaves as though the world at large can’t be solid, or functionally flat.  In fact, ‘behavioural phenomena’ matter at all levels – as constituents of diverse realities from the quantum and beyond.  The fact is, there is more to reality than a single version – the world is and is not solid etc.  Likewise, there is more to the ‘world at large’ than the ‘characteristic’ properties of the physical, especially when they turn uncharacteristically subjective and reflective.  Thus objects ‘do science’ but not like scientists do it.  Then, in order to bridge the gap, scientists look upon the fact of conscious experience retrospectively as an effect that is wholly identifiable with its physical causes – as if physics encounters itself in the ‘psychoplasm’ of the brain – as if to cancel out any duality in the event – as if dualities are unnatural.

Mike Laidler