lördag 5 februari 2011

Definition of Life, revisited

The following is my reply to James Lavers’ comment shown below under the rubric of “Definition of Life, continued.” As my reply is rather long and elaborate I have decided to publish it as a separate posting. Those who want to comment on it may do so by clicking on the word “kommentarer” at the end of the text or send me an e-mail to Hchcars4(at)yahoo.com.

Dear James

My understanding of the first part of your comment is
1. that you refute the idea of physical determinism, because it is impossible to predict the movements of sub-atomic particles;
2. that we cannot, however, influence these uncertainties in any way, from which it follows
3. that this “indeterminism”/”uncertainty” does not infer the existence of “free will” and
4. that we react the way we are programmed by our biochemical configuration.

Thus, you are of the view that our individual reactions are mediated purely through our biochemical responses to external stimuli, controlled by our genetic make up. This is what you call “Biological Determinism”.

Having touched upon the regulation of brain receptors and the effect of the environment on biologically mediated human behaviour, you come to the conclusion that the idea of us having no power to affect anything is non-sensical. We are able to influence our environment with our actions, but we cannot decide as to whether we will do so or not. Such decisions are caused by the chemicals in our brains but through our awareness we perceive an “illusion of free will”.

In the second part of your comment you assert your view that the concept of determinism is of considerable interest from a scientific point of view and that searching for the truth is always important irrespective of whether the result can be of any practical use or not.

In the third part you marvel at the origin of the Big Bang and at the emergence of the first biological organism, which you cannot accept as a result of a chemical molecular process. However, you believe that the Darwinian theory of evolution is valid from the moment after which the first single cell was created.

Finally you maintain that neither the start of the universe, nor the unique creation of the first single cell was logical by which I think you mean scientifically explainable using logic.

The above is an honest attempt from my side to summarise your main points as a basis for my comments and I apologise, of course, if I have in any way misrepresented your views. Please correct me if I have. – Let me now proceed with a comparison between your views and mine.

I agree with you that a “Biological Determinism” is a possibility. It is, however, still a theory that needs to be scientifically verified or rejected. It is important that proven scientific methods be applied in our search for the “truth”, whilst we always should remain humbly conscious of the fact that any “truth” may later be replaced by another one based on additional evidence or a clearer analysis.

My rejection of determinism as a useless concept is not founded in a belief that it is false. It may be correct, it may be false. I don’t know. If the theory is proven false, it is, of course, useless. I assume you will agree with me on that. Where we seem to differ is that I also maintain the view that the theory is useless, even if proven correct, because I wouldn’t know what to do with that information.

Would I be depressed being informed by our best scientists in the field that I am just some sophisticated biological machine programmed to exist in this world and behave in certain predetermined ways during a pre-specified period of time? Would that revelation have any impact at all on the way I lead my life? Would I in any way change the way in which I make decisions, if I am told by the scientists that I have no “free will”?

My answer to each of these questions is “no”. Given a scientifically proven information that I am “biologically determined” and therefore unable to freely decide what to think or do, as all this would be handled by the chemicals in my brain, then I would also be unable to act on this information, as there would be no “I” able to do so, only a biological machine.

This is why I think that the theory of determinism is useless, even if it is correct. I believe it is useless also for the reason that our awareness, as you said, “provides the illusion of free will”. You are perhaps right in saying that our sense of having a “free will” and not being biologically (or otherwise?) determined is just an illusion. More famous philosophers than you and I have spent considerable time on discussing the possibility that just about everything may be an illusion, even the entire universe.

My somewhat disrespectful reaction to this is “so what?” – We may be living in an illusion, but that is not our reality! This is not the way we perceive the world or each other. Determinism and lack of free will may be scientifically interesting concepts and may even be correct, but incapable of giving us any guidance for how we should conduct ourselves, therefore useless.

The other theme on which we seem to disagree is about our understanding and valuation of the emergence of the first single cell organism. It is not by chance but on purpose that I have used the word “emergence” and not “creation”, which is easily associated with the words “creator” and “creationism”. Whilst I see this important event as resulting from a physio-chemical process, thus explainable, you see it as something that cannot be logically explained.

To my understanding there are reports already telling how “life” has been produced in a laboratory. See the following link as an example of such reports: http://www.economist.com/node/16163154.
You may rightly say that conditions existing on earth some four billion years ago were quite different from those prevailing in a modern laboratory, but it seems to me quite conceivable that present or future scientists will one day be able to explain how “life” came about in the circumstances prevailing at that very first time.

If this very first cell marked the birth of “life” or wether it was just a bio-chemical machine that initiated a process called evolution, which led to the gradual emergence of forms of “life” able – as you said - to perceive beauty, humour, love and even themselves depends on what one understands by “life”, i.e. by being alive.

In a world where every single step of our lives is predetermined and we have no free will we are in fact no more than bio-chemical machines, more complex but nevertheless comparable to bacteria, mussels, vegetables and worms. In a world where our lives are not predetermined and free will exists, we are categorically different from such creatures in that we have something that they don’t have, i.e. the ability to think, feel, dream, etc, etc. and to be aware of ourselves and our environment. The nature of these abilities is not vegetative but spiritual.

To me the concept of life is also not vegetative but spiritual. Thus, so-called “life forms” lacking this quality are merely bio-chemical machineries similar to any other kinds of machinery. This is also why I – unlike you – do not find their appearance being so extraordinary and non-logical and that the gradual evolution of brains that are able to think and feel is - as you put it - “the evolution’s most sparkling achievement – worth celebrating”. – Yes, let’s drink to that and let it be champagne.

Finally, regarding your points about the origins of the universe and the logic or lack of logic behind it, you may be interested in learning about the M-theory as elaborated by Stephen Hawking in his latest (co-authored) book with the title “The Grand Design”. Whilst you seem to mean that the Big Bang was a unique miracle defying any logical explanation and that “nothing we understand can explain it and likely never will”, Hawking says that “perhaps the true miracle is that abstract considerations of logic lead to a unique theory that predicts and describes a vast universe full of the amazing variety that we see”.

Based on the M-theory, which is yet to be confirmed, Hawking maintains that a whole universe can appear out of nothing. If finite, the theory “can become a model of a universe that creates itself”. Thus, Hawking claims, “it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going”.

Qui vivra, verra! Or perhaps not.

5 kommentarer:

Ron Krumpos sa...

In "The Grand Design" Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same "eternal" event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the "seeing" which differs.

In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from my e-book on comparative mysticism]

Hans Christian Cars sa...

Dear Ron,

I have looked you up on internet and realise that you have thought a lot about life and what it is or may be.

However, having read your comment a couple of times I must admit that I do not know what to make out of it. Would you have another way of saying what it is that you would like me to understand?

Kind regards

Hans Christian

Ron Krumpos sa...

Dear Hans Christian,

I have looked you up, too, and am quite impressed. Please contact me by email (you have my address). We were both born in 1939, but have followed very different paths.

Hans Christian Cars sa...

Hi Ron,
No, I'm afraid, I don't have your e-mail address, but you can write to me at Hchcars4(at)yahoo.com.

Ron Krumpos sa...

Sorry. My comment was in response to Hawking's recent book, but it was quite off topic. All living beings are affected by some biological determinism (ask Hawking), yet we also have free will. The freedom to choose, however, is subject to psychological, sociological and physical restrictions. Many of those limitations are discussed at length in my ebook.

The sense of being of true mystics has been transformed into a transpersonal outlook on life. When we can get beyond our ego and individuality we begin to see the world as it really is. The title of my book, "the greatest achievement in life," refers to that transformation. It differs in degree, duration and frequency for each mystic.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel astrophysicist, in 1959 invited me to the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory and introduced me to mysticism. Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington were supporters of mysticism. A good reference is "Quantum Questions / Mystical Writings of the World's Greatest Physicists," edited by Ken Wilber (Shambhala 1984, 2001). I had read 40 books on physics, biology and psychology while writing my ebook, but am certainly not a scientist.