onsdag 17 november 2010

Definition of Life

Since the English translation of my Concluding Remarks was published I received a few comments and questions regarding my rather unconventional definition of “life” as it obviously does not conform to the traditional view that life came about with the “birth” of the first cell. One question was how I could define brainless animals and vegetables as being without life.

Here is my answer:

As I have no academic background in biology or chemistry I realise that I am out on very thin ice. As you noticed, my starting point was Descartes’ revelation that he “is” because he thinks. Well, I am no expert on Decartes either, but the little that I have read about him has puzzled me. – If Descartes sees himself in a mirror, he cannot be sure, that what he sees is real, because his eyes may deceive him, but if he thinks that he sees himself in the mirror, then he can be certain that he exists! To my simple mind, that seems to be more like a play with words than deep philosophy.

So, that made me “think”, not to prove for myself that I exist, but to see whether I could improve on that revolutionising statement “cogito, ergo sum”.

The first question is what “cogito” actually means? What is the “I” in “I think” and subesequently included in “I am”? – Am “I” the thought produced by my thinking or some sort of consciousness, i.e. a pure abstraction? Or am “I” the thinking person consisting of a brain, a head and a body of flesh and blood?

If we assume – as I do – that Descartes had this latter definition in mind, then he must have also been convinced of having or having had parents. Thus, if Descartes exists, something else must also exist. Otherwise, he would have neither been created nor sustained in his existence. It follows from this that Decartes did not exist in a vacuum. There must have been an environment.

To discover this environment and what is in it we can use our intellect and our senses. These can deceive us, so we can never be sure of what it really is that we perceive as our environment, but following from the above, there must be something or some things around us that actually exist. Some of it may be alive, the rest may be dead materia, but it all exists.

Decartes’ conclusion “ergo sum” does not say anything as to whether Decartes is part of the world that lives or in that which does not.

Now back to the second leg of “cogito”. What is actually the meaning of the word “think”? - According to my way of “thinking” there is an important difference between simply reacting on stimuli and thinking, which is to assess stimuli, envisage options, form concepts and draw conclusions. (I am aware that this is only one of all possible definitions, but I believe it is sufficient in this context).

For a thinking process a brain is required. At the beginning of the evolution there was no brain and consequently, no thinking. Bio-chemical organisms reacted on changes in their environment, moved around and adapted themselves to changing circumstances. The world got gradually covered by grass, flowers and trees and inhabited by mussels, corals, worms and insects.

Later on some animal species developed brains capable of carrying out a thinking process. The first thought was born! - Reacting on stimuli continued, however, to be the predominant activity.

It is my personal view that it was not the appearance of the first single cell organism but the beginning of “thinking” that marked the beginning of life on earth. All there was, before the first thought was thought, was simply varying forms of bio-chemical machineries. – Therefore I reformulated Descartes’ phrase to read “cogito, ergo vivo”.

Thinking is, however, not the only indication of life. The other one is the “awareness” of our emotions, such as love, hate, fear, etc. This awareness is also inconceivable without a brain. Although the brain’s rational functionality is often severely impaired by very strong emotions, the awareness of loving and being loved is undoubtedly an indication of life. Thus, we can also say, “amo, ergo vivo”.

What it all boils down to is my perception that life is a spiritual phenomenon, not a bio-chemical one. This has led me to the conclusion that without “thinking” or “awareness” there is no life but materia only and various bio-chemical processes. Therefore, the inception of life did not come – as is generally stated - with the appearance of the first single cell organism but with the evolution of the first brains capable of enabling their bearers to “think” and/or reach at least some level of “awareness”.

23 kommentarer:

Anonym sa...

Great post! To me the most important statement in your text is "the brain’s rational functionality is often severely impaired by very strong emotions".

However, going back to the center of your topic - "what is life". It's interesting to note that most people would agree that life can be defined as "anything that is capable of movement by its own force".

But then again, if you split a worm in two with a showel, both parts will still be moving. Since you have not created life in the process it's logical to argue that there was no life to start with.

Thus, going back to your original conclusion (if reading between the lines), i.e. that life must stem from an interconnected nervous system with a brain as its center node.

Anonym sa...

Adding to the above post. If you split a body with a brain in two equal parts, both parts will most certainly cease to move. Note: It is strongly advised not to try the above.

HC sa...

Hello Anonym,

Regarding your first comment, I don't agree with your assumption "that most people would agree that life can be defined as "anything that is capable of movement by its own force"." - Then, they would agree that a car (an automobile) is alive or a waterfall or a volcano. They don't.

I do agree, however, with your conclusion "that life must stem from an interconnected nervous system with a brain as its center node". I think it is just another - and perhaps more sophisticated - way of formulating what I tried to say myself.

I also completely agree with your second comment. Throughout history, too many people have tried this already, albeit not with the purpose of creating life but the reverse.

Anonym sa...

Not sure if a car, waterfall or volcano "moves by its own force". The car moves because the user steps on the gas pedal. A waterfall falls because of gravity and a volcano moves because of the pressure of the earths' core pushing magma to the surface. All of these movements are mechanical. None of the above "decided" to move. Thus what I mean "by its own force", is that there must have been a conscious decision to move, i.e. a "thought" for life to exist. Basically you and I are in agreement. And come to think of it - isn't this exactly what Descartes said "I think - therefore I am".

Laura sa...

Interesting post.

The question that popped in my head as I finished reading it was ,would you define a dog's (cat's, gorilla's) existence as "life"?
Do they think? Probably not in an existential kind of way (although I did see Chester, the 12 week chiuaua we babysat admire himself in the mirror at least once =)

Then there is the emotions aspect. You bet that little dog feels emotion when you walk in the door, as he runs and greets you and constantly wants to be close to you.
That's love.
They are sad, when you dissaprove of their behaviour.
But are they aware of the fact that they love you, do they sit there next to that puddle they just made on the floor and say, " I feel ashamed of what I just did". Not likely.

Still, I would have a very hard time agreeing that a dog's existence does not constitute what we call "life".

HC sa...

Dear Anonym,

Descartes was not sure, if anything at all existed. The fact that he was able to think revealed, however, to him that at least something existed, himself.
So he coined the famous expression "Cogito, ergo sum". - "I think, thus I am (or exist)"

That something is or exists does not necessarily mean that it lives.

Descartes may, of course, have meant that he existed not only as a piece of materia and that he was in fact alive. If so, why did he not say so? This is not quite clear to me. Others may know better.

However, even if Descartes felt he had proven his existence as a living being, his widely known conclusion "..., ergo sum" has had little or no influence on our definition of life and the nature of its inception.

HC sa...

Dear Laura,

Thanks for your comment.

My definition of life is that life is connected with thinking or awareness and thus in need of a brain. Who am I to prescribe which level of thinking or awareness is required for qualifying as life?

In the realm of medical diagnosis a person is usually considered dead, when his/her brain is "dead", i.e. when the encephalogram (EEG) is blank, even though the body may continue to function. I agree with this assumption, which is also reflected in Swedish legislation.

To answer your question about cats and dogs, they do have brains. Thus, according to my definition, they are alive as long as their brains are alive. I don't think you need to hold a PhD in philosophy to qualify as a living being and I would not know either which thoughts or thinking ability would or would not do that. I think it would be extremely presumptious and even scary, if someone even tried to.

I believe we are looking at a long evolutionary process through which the awareness and ability to think evolved gradually with the emergence of brains and their successive development.

Thus, "life" was not born at some unique fantastic moment at the very beginning of the evolution marked by the first emergence of a single cell, but rather at a time when the first thought was thought or the first emotion or sign of awareness occurred.

Using this definition, life would not have started, when the first single cell came about, which is the traditional basis for determining the time for the beginning of life but much later, probably some 500 million years later or more.

Emil Ems sa...

I won't go into the difference between your concept of life and that of others since this is, let's face it, only a question of definition.

Let me just add my small grain of philosophical wisdom. We tend to believe that we, as human beings, are essentially self-governed by our brain actively thinking and planning ahead. In my view, this is not altogether correct. We are to a high degree driven by instincts in our younger life. Only as we mature, that is, are going beyond the life-span originally allotted to us and laid down in our genes, our basic instincts loose their firm grip on our consciousness and active thinking starts to take over the greater part of our brain activities.

Thus the difference between us and the other higher primates is, in our younger age, a question of degree rather than absolute. As newly born, the difference is nought, it increases only slowly. albeit in discontinuous jumps, during our young age, but bounces, rather abruptly, up to its final value by the age of forty or thereabouts.

HC sa...

Hi Emil,

You say my concept of life and that of others is only a matter of definition. Obviously, you didn’t miss the rubric.

In my view, precise definitions are very often of great value. How much time is not being wasted in endless and useless debates, because words and concepts discussed have different meanings for each participant? To some people the word “democracy” may simply mean oppression of the minority by the majority, while it means a lot of other things to others. What do we understand by “human rights”? What is included, what’s not? How can we define “secularism”? Do discuss the value of any such concept, their respective pros and cons is fruitless without agreements on how to define them.

Many religious people refuse or are unable to define the God in which say they believe, which makes it very difficult for others to understand what it is that they actually believe in, let alone conduct a conversation about the nature of their particular God and the likelihood of his existence.

As I would now like to respond to your comment I realise a need for definitions. For instance, what do you mean by “the lifespan originally allotted to us and laid down in our genes”? Is it anything different from our statistical life expectancy taking account of our status of health?

From what you write I understand you mean that when we are newly born our ability to “actively think” is comparable to that of a newly born ape, i.e. we are merely reacting in conformity with our instincts. As time goes by and we grow older and wiser, at least more intelligent, the intellectual differences between humans and apes also grow significantly.

I am inclined to agree with the second sentence but am not so sure about the first one. That you say the “difference… increases only slowly” surprises me, but again how do we define “fast” and “slow” in this context?

You say that the difference “bounces, rather abruptly, up to its final value by the age of forty or thereabouts”. Do you still mean the difference between humans and apes with respect to “active thinking”? How do you actually define “active thinking”? Is it our ability to learn or to solve problems or to develop concepts… or what?

Hans Christian Cars sa...
Den här kommentaren har tagits bort av skribenten.
Hans Christian Cars sa...

De som till äventyrs tyckte att det här inlägget var intressant och som kanske ocksa tagit del av kommentarerna till detta kan vilja läsa om upptäckten av en hittills okänd form av bakteriellt liv. Ga i sa fall till följande länk: http://www.popast.nu/2010/12/gastinlagg-liv-pa-jorden-men-inte-som-vi-ar-vana-att-se-det.html

James sa...

Dear Hans Christian, thank you for a very interesting post that has given me some cause for thought this cold Sunday morning. I hope you do not mind me scribbling down some of my scattered and somewhat disorganised thoughts.

It seems to me that Descartes was struggling with the question of whether he or indeed anything at all exists and not an overriding definition of what constitutes life. While you agree with him over the deep significance of the ability to think and have borrowed the elegance of his Latin, I am not sure ‘cogito ergo sum’ is particularly relevant to your debate. My interpretation is that his argument rested purely on what he could conclusively prove, based on his ability to make logical deductions, while distrusting even his own perceptions. I cannot help but wonder if he would have balked at making wide assumptions on the ability of other species’ to think and rationalise, let alone love. Something more subjective than love, it would be hard to find. (Although interestingly, Descartes used his process of deduction to ‘prove’ the existence of a benevolent God!)

However, the issue of ‘what constitutes life?’ stands independently. It does seem to come down to a question of definition. Should it be defined as the ability to reproduce and continue a species, or as you suggest, require some level of thought or awareness? Perhaps a more elegant solution is to use a different word for each, in order to differentiate more accurately. Maybe a formalisation of the loose ‘higher life form’ categorisation already casually used.

Your preferred definition does however throw up some difficult paradoxes. One of your previous posters alluded to babies and it strikes me that they are precisely the biochemical machines to whom you deny the title of the living. At what stage do we ourselves become living entities? When trying to draw a line through the vast array of thinking and non-thinking ‘life-forms’ on our planet, any number of other examples can be found that tread firmly in the grey area, making the formation of a strict definition next to impossible.

It can of course always be argued there is no line to be drawn at all and that we are all just unfathomably complicated biochemical machines, programmed by our genes and our momentary differential gene expression and will think and react purely as we are instructed by the chemical neurotransmitters flowing between our neurons at any particular moment. Thinking and rationalisation itself seems to be purely the result of evolution, giving an advantage in terms of feeding, reproduction and survival, just as the development of sight or hearing would have done.

What is most amazing to me is that first moment when a collection of unrelated molecules came together and began to act in some sort of cohesive, albeit very basic manner to reproduce and develop. Whether this constitutes life or not, I can see no logical basis for it occurring and it appears to have just happened just once on our planet so full of the building blocks of life. There does not seem to have been the spontaneous birth of new one-celled organisms at any other time in the past (viruses may be a slightly different case but it is still likely they evolved from the same biological lineage at some point). From those initial organisms, evolution is a logical albeit extraordinary process, progressing through movement, light perception, digestion, all the way up to the development of rational thought, which I hold every bit as dear as you do.

Hans Christian Cars sa...

The following is a comment from Katie Snape:
First part:

I agree with some of the other postings that in some ways "life" is a question of definition, and perhaps what we/I/you are trying to comprehend is the transition from an organism which "lives" in the biological sense of the word to one which exists in a state of concious awareness of its own existence.

As a scientist I tend to feel that the definition of "life" should incorporate any object that is biologically alive. We must have a word which distinguishes a cell capable of replication and division and repair, from that of an inanimate object which is capable of none of those things. If not life, then what should that word be?

The attached essay published in the Science magazine by Daniel Koshland Jr (a link to the article) will hopefully help define the tenets of the biological definition of life - I found this article useful in framing this concept.

And yet, as you have pointed out, there appears to be a vast difference between life as explained by these "pillars" and life as we as thinking, conscious beings are able to rationalise and understand it. Even the word conscious has for me an ambiguous meaning - on one hand it simply means "awake", i.e. not asleep, but on the other hand, being conscious of one’s own existence and having the ability to question it requires a brain that is very much different from a brain that cannot. Perhaps, what determines your definition of "life" is simply lack of ignorance and one’s awareness of existence, rather than to simply exist.

More than that though, once one is aware of one's own existence, does this mean anything? What is the point of being aware that you exist? Can one control one's own existence? Do you believe in free will or determinism? One might state that humans are the only species truly "alive" because of this ability, but if we are still controlled solely by the biology of our body and our cells, then what does it matter? The more science evolves, the clearer it becomes that there are biological determinants of processes that we may have wanted to believe were a result of "free will". There are, for instance, genetic markers of altruism, depression and social interactivity.

I think it is incredibly interesting to examine whether that which we perceive as our own independent thought is actually a product of the intrinsic chemistry of our brain cells. If this is the case, then perhaps we are no different from any other organism or species. We may believe we are, because we are able to discuss, question and understand, but if these abilities are utterly controlled by basic molecular processes, then it is a mistake to believe that they distinguish us in any way other than regarding our conception of our reality and environment. Actually, there is tremendous evidence that our comprehension of the world is biologically determined, a view supported by various studies, for instance, concerning the effects of drugs or strokes on the mind and studies of mental illness.

To continue, see next comment

Hans Christian Cars sa...

The following is the remining part of Katie Snape's comment:

One may claim that we have developed rational thought but this is only rational in our own understanding according to the mechanisms by which we exist in the first place. And what may seem rational to one person may seem entirely irrational to another. What governs the choices we make and our thinking? We can only think, because our brains allow us to do so through a complex interplay between neurotransmitters and cells. How these are set up and how they react to their individual stimuli, is clearly beyond our control. This whole process is biologically determined. We have through evolution developed this ability, but to what degree it distinguishes us from other life forms is unclear to me. I believe it is only in our perception of the importance that we attach to it.

To argue that we are something more than a biological process, that we have something that cannot be scientifically defined, such as a soul or a free will, seems to me as much of a leap of faith as any form of religious sentiment. I do not know what word you would use to define that.

I am afraid that my conclusion may be extremely hard for most people to accept. In addition, I think it is interesting to consider whether it would be a good or useful thing to accept it and I do not know the answer to that question. Is it better to believe in something false that makes you happy or believe in something that makes you sad, although it may be true?

Hans Christian Cars sa...

Here are my personal reflections of the very thought-provoking comments made by James Lavers and Katie Snape.
First part:

The sceptical philosopher Descartes concluded that he existed, because he was able to think. In my first post under this heading (Definition of Life) I reformulated his famous phrase “cogito, ergo sum” to read “I think, thus I am alive”, which was further extended to “I love, thus I live”.

The purpose of this was to declare my belief that life is closely associated with abilities to think, feel and being conscious of at least one’s own existence. None of these abilities can be achieved without some sort of brain. Thus, my tentative definition would exclude all brainless animals and these come in large numbers in different species ranging from the tiniest little single cell organisms and bacteria to more developed ones, such as mould, mussels, grass, trees, etc.

Why is this definition important? Well, it is not, except for tuning down the exaggerated attention that in my view is given to the emergence of the first single-cell organism, which was just one step of the evolution from the Big Bang via the formation of subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, stars and galaxies.

Much more important and in my opinion deserving more awe-inspiring attention was the gradual evolution of brains capable of all these wonderful things mentioned above. But Katie is right, of course, when she says that if the biological processes of all those species without brains would not fall within the concept of “life”, then we would have to invent another concept to distinguish these organisms from stones, metals, etc.

As James points out, we will run into a grey area “making the formation of a strict definition next to impossible”. But who says that the definition has to be “strict”. It has to be functional, understandable and widely accepted. This applies to many useful concepts, although they are not strictly defined. When, for instance, does “dawn” start and when does it end? What is the definition of “red” or “yellow”? How do we define the value of making a point?

To continue see my next comment

Hans Christian Cars sa...

Second part:

On my understanding that we have by now – or at least for now – sufficiently explored this subject, I would wish to turn my attention to something else that Katie brought up. – She asked: “Once one is aware of one's own existence, does this mean anything? What is the point of being aware that you exist? ….. Do you believe in free will or determinism?

First, I wish to deal with the questions regarding “awareness” and revert later to the question about “free will and determinism”.

To me, the ability of being aware is a prerequisite for life. If I am not able to be aware of anything and definitely and finally unable to recover that ability, then I am no longer alive. Other important abilities are to think and to feel. These processes may partly take place sub-consciously and may be of value to us in that we become aware of them.

The concept of “awareness” leads to the question of who is being aware. Who am I being aware? – Please bear with me while I explain my views on this.

During the embryonic state the embryo develops entirely in accordance with genetic blueprints usually called DNA. Environmental factors are kept to a minimum. During this stage a brain is developed and a body. After birth, the brain begins to receive impressions through all its senses. Initially, these impressions are stored somewhere (not on a hard disk as in a computer, but in some other fashion) and the brain is developing its ability to make some sense of all those various impressions.

The brain’s initial ability to receive and store impressions develops gradually into an ability to assess, sort, evaluate, and register incoming information and also to retrieve, recognise, relate, combine, analyse and process incoming and stored information as a basis for conscious decision-making, i.e. to evaluate options and make choices. Information is stored so as to become the brain’s own terms-of-reference, i.e. its ethical and non-ethical values. With due regard to these, the brain makes plans and takes decisions.

Some may object to this perception of such a dominant brain, as they may think it is them and not their brain that is in charge, that they are somehow using their brain to make their decisions.

I believe that this is an illusion. What I believe is that I am my brain. By “brain” I don’t ,mean that greyish substance that will remain in my skull after my death, but all there is in it in the form of values, thoughts, memories, feelings, convictions and beliefs, bad conscience and hopes for the future.

A scientist named Benjamin Libet discovered during the 1960-ies that an action to move one’s hand may be initiated before the person is even aware of it. This gave rise to the question who decides – me or my brain? In my view, this is a futile question, as there is no discrepancy between the two.

Hans Christian Cars sa...

Third part:

What does it mean to be aware? – I believe it is when the brain is fully activated compared to a state in which it is relaxed, for instance, when we sleep. Also, in a state of full awareness, when we, i.e. some part of our body, is hit by something painful, the brain reacts spontaneously and only afterwards the whole of it becomes aware of what happened. Thus, to revert to Mr. Libet’s finding, could it not be so that a part of the brain can initiate a trivial action like moving one’s hand and send the necessary command to the nervous system without any prior notice to the rest of the brain, which will become fully aware of the action only some half second after its initiation?

I will now come to the problem of “free will or determinism” as raised by Katie.

My understanding of the concept of determinism is that everything happens according to a set of unbendable laws and if we only knew these laws plus the position, direction and intention of everything we would be able (theoretically) to calculate and thus predetermine all events henceforth, similarly to the manner in which we can determine the movements of all the balls on a pool table.

This concept has been dealt with in depth throughout the history of philosophy by people with great minds. Nevertheless, I regard this concept as a purely nonsensical issue and for the following reasons.

First, we are not sure whether everything follows a given set of unbendable rules. At present, it does not seem to be the case. After Werner Heisenberg’s discovery of the uncertainty principle, we know that subatomic particles behave in a manner that we cannot predict. They seem to operate according to laws that we cannot define or without laws, i.e. at random. Thus, as long as this situation remains, we cannot say with any degree of certainty that all is predetermined as we don’t know the laws according to which this would be true.

Secondly, even if there were for us understandable laws governing everything, we will never know the position, direction and intention of everything, which would be necessary for our calculations of how everything is going to proceed. We know from the chaos theory that even the tiniest little deviation in initial conditions can make a huge difference to the outcome. The commonly used reference to the Australian butterfly causing a sandstorm in Texas is just one example of such effects. – How would we possibly know what is going on in every brain, when we hardly know what is going on in our own?

To continue see next comment.

Hans Christian Cars sa...

Fourth and final part:

Thirdly, we don’t perceive the future of the world as being predetermined. Even if the concept of determinism is correct, it is for us a useless concept, because we will never know what it is that is determined. This reminds me of my youth, when some soccer or hockey games were emitted on the TV a few hours only after the match had actually finished, which we knew. Nevertheless, we parked ourselves in front of the TV and followed the game with great suspense. And we always hated that wise guy who popped in his head to ask us whether we would like to know the outcome. We could, if we wanted, he said, because he had been smart enough to find it out. We did not want to know, because we wanted to be thrilled by the game.

Just like then, I still wish to remain thrilled and I am resting luckily assured that none will ever be able to tell me for sure what is going to happen in the world where I am living. Thus, to summarise my view: determinism is useless nonsense.

But what about “free will”? Katie stated the following in her comment: “To argue that we are something more than a biological process, that we have something that cannot be scientifically defined, such as a soul or a free will, seems to me as much of a leap of faith as any form of religious sentiment.”

To embrace the concept of “free will” is not the same as accepting that of “soul”, especially not if we attribute to the latter transcendental qualities.

Free will is defined in relation to determinism. If the latter is real, the former is impossible, except as an illusion. If determinism is false, free will is real. If determinism is real but useless, as we cannot know what is determined, free will is useful, even as an illusion.

Free will is never absolutely free. It is a function of the brain and the way it functions. It is limited by that and also by our own bodies and our environment placing innumerous restrictions on our options. Nevertheless, we are never without options, we make our choices and to a lesser or greater extent we suffer their consequences.

Whether these choices and consequences are predetermined or not is of no relevance, beacause we cannot know the way in which they were. Thus, our brains continue to make our choices and we shall continue to do so as long as we live.

James sa...

Part 1:
This conversation continues to take some interesting turns. I hope that my further muddled thoughts on the points raised will be of some interest.

It seems Katie and I are in agreement on the majority of the debate, perhaps unsurprisingly given we have touched on some of these issues before and found considerable common ground; conversations that were always compelling and challenging and are much missed. She has certainly expanded substantially on my suggestion that we are all just incomprehensibly complex biochemical machines thus eliminating the need to draw any distinction between life-forms in terms of what it means to be alive or indeed in possession of free-will.

I am uncertain how much my thoughts will add to such a well trodden philosophical debate as that of free will vs determinism, but for what its worth I fill try and find a coherent line of thought.

I do not like the word determinism. To me it implies that everything is pre-determined and inevitable. This physical determinism, which is admittedly only one strand of the several determinist arguments, implies that there is only one possible future, which is being acted out blindly by everything, every atom, every quark in the Universe to a foregone conclusion. There seems to be substantial doubt over this view, not least because of the sub-atomic uncertainty that you have alluded to in your comments. However I do not believe that the presence of this physical indeterminism infers the existence of free will. While it seems there is room for variation and uncertainty, there is no evidence that we have the ability to influence these uncertainties in any way. We cannot control or choose the instantaneous position of an electron. The uncertainty that exists is external to our decision making and affects us indistinguishably from any other event. We react as we always do, in the way we are programmed to by our biochemical configuration through the stimulation of neuroreceptors by neurotransmitters.

James sa...

Part 3:
Finally, I would like to return to the original subject matter to reassert my disagreement with what you describe as the exaggerated attention given to the emergence of the first single-cell organism. I think there are two moments in the history of the universe that completely defy logical explanation. The first is the Big Bang itself, where for no reason that we can yet understand an incomprehensibly enormous mass suddenly emanated from one single point. From a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe, the formation of stars, galaxies and planets follows a logical process. We have formulated rules that appear to conform to our observations. But what caused that initial moment? What caused the birth of the Universe? From what did it come from? What was there before? Nothing we understand can explain it and likely never will.

Only slightly less extraordinary to me is the first emergence of life. I don't see this as a ‘natural next step of the evolution from the Big Bang via the formation of subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, stars and galaxies,’ as you do. It is something completely different. It is unlikely it was a unique moment, given the incomprehensible number of stars and planets in the Universe, but it is extraordinary and for me, again without logic. What possible reason is there that molecules, to all intensive purposes inanimate objects should start acting together for a common goal? To reproduce and develop? There was no evolution before. It is like the Big Bang but on Earth. The single point from where all life has emanated. From that moment the diversification and development of life on Earth, has again followed a logical process, this time governed by the laws of evolution. That does not make the process of evolution anything less than extraordinary, but it does follow a pattern that we can understand. That an ability to perceive and process the reflections of a section of the electromagnetic spectrum has been developed, to the extent that a representation of what surrounds us can be constructed is unbelievable. Light was not designed to be used to see. It is emitted from stars as a byproduct of nuclear reaction. Evolution has provided the tools to utilise it to confer a survival advantage. It is remarkable. But it follows a logical course of development, which can even be followed by studying organisms with variously developed abilities to perceive light and react to it. A process of slow improvement can be traced. It is logical.

And yes, even with all that has developed, vision, hearing, motor function, sensation, there is no doubt that the self-aware brain is evolution's most sparkling achievement. The crown jewels. A stunning work worthy of awe and wonder, with the ability to perceive beauty, humour, love and even itself. That such a seemingly haphazard process as evolution could create such a work of art is remarkable and worth celebrating. But there is a process there. A process which started with that very first life form. A process that is rational. Why that first life form first came together, at least for me, is not logical.

James sa...

It hasn't published my part 2!!!
I will split it into two parts.
Part 2a:

As such, my personal view is closest to a type of Biological Determinism. I imagine that we are all independent physical entities (although the word entity is in itself problematic given not a single atom remains constantly as a part of us throughout our lifetime) that inhabit an uncertain Universe, but that our individual reactions are mediated purely through our biochemical responses to external stimuli, controlled by our genetic make up. An analogy might be that of a computer programme. When it is written, the programmer does not know exactly what it will do and when, but it has no free will, it just reacts to stimuli in the way it was designed to. Clearly, the situation for human beings is more complex than that, because we have an ability to change and will not act in the same way throughout our life. For the solution, I once again have Katie to thank for one of the most interesting and important conversations I have ever had. It seems that the genome does not produce an intransigent code as I had imagined but it acts more like a database from which receptors governing different things may be upregulated and downregulated. The numbers of particular receptors up and down-regulated at any one time affects mood, behaviour and pretty much anything. In experiments (in Humming birds I think), this regulation has been shown to be influenced by environmental factors. In one fell swoop this provides a logical route for the environment to effect the biologically mediated behaviour of humans (including in utero) and may solve another well trodden philosophical path, the debate of nature vs nurture. This model would mean that when considering doing something the idea of not doing it because everything is predetermined and inevitable and thus you have no power to affect anything is nonsensical. You are able to influence your environment with your actions and thus also the reactions of other people. What you cannot do is make a free decision over whether you will do it or not. The chemicals in your brain do that. But the evolution of awareness in the human brain provides the illusion of free will by necessity, as the alternative would mean being a confused passenger on a ride where you feel no association at all with the decision processes.

James sa...

Part 2b:

I admit my argument relies on time being a linear unidirectional entity, which while our perception as humans, may be just evolutionally how it is useful for us to perceive it within the frame of reference of our own existence. However, even if time is capable of being perceived in different ways, it is unlikely that this would make the Universe less deterministic.

You comment in your answers ‘Even if the concept of determinism is correct, it is for us a useless concept.’ Again I am afraid I do not agree. It is true it is a fairly depressing thought, although for me the pursuit of truth is in itself reason enough to try and understand, regardless of what you might find. However, I also believe it has far reaching implications for our society. To what extent are people really responsible for their actions? If some sort of biological determinism is indeed the reality, then the answer is fairly uncomfortable. Should this influence the way society acts in for example punishing criminals? Almost certainly. It is not as simple as saying we should completely scrap the penal system. I imagine that the environmental factors of society have a powerful effect on us. We have evolved to become highly social beings and social pressure and the threat of incarceration effect behaviour, even if in a biochemically mediated way. However, with consideration and research, better understanding of how and why we act may be able to produce a fairer society in a range of areas. Certainly it is worth considering, although clearly care would be needed to avoid producing a ‘Big Brotheresque’ society, where humans were controlled using environmental cues in a mechanistic fashion to produce uniform, conformist beings, which have lost the invention and variation that are such positive traits in our species.

Hans Christian Cars sa...

As James Lavers' new comment was split in several parts and these got published in a distorted sequence, I have today, 23 January 2011, published the whole text as a new post under the rubric "Definition of Life, continued". Welcome to that post and to continue the discussion there.