Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Dead or Alive
Plenty long for the format here, though abbreviated by a deadline at the time. Not nearly a complete discussion. I owe you all this, though, as well as the continuation. Wait for it....
For Darrell Dooyema
21 February 2009
Bertrand Russell suggested these questions as among those imminent in philosophy, and reserved them particularly to philosophy, claiming that if they were ever answered conclusively they would be claimed by empirical science and cease to be approachable by philosophy: “Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous concourse of atoms? Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe, giving hope of indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory accident on a small planet on which life must ultimately become impossible” (par. 5)? Many of Russell’s readers will immediately notice the proximity of these to similar questions about the existence of God. Surprise! Great thinkers have grappled with these fundamentals since before humans gained the ability to convey their arguments to us across time and still we bicker over them, rarely if ever to the satisfaction of anyone unwilling to make a leap from a logical dead end to what they view as a conclusion based on mere convenience, or one might say, a leap of faith.
The primary argument for or against the existence of God is known as the “Cosmological” argument and shows up in variations such as Kant’s “First Cause”, Leibnitz’ “Argument From Contingency,” described by Coplestone in his debate with Russell, and goes something like this:
1. The universe began to exist.
2. Everything which begins to exist has a cause
3. Therefore the universe had a cause.
All of these say the same thing, in essence, that since we are unable to account for the infinite, or for the existence of any objects lacking a cause then we are forced to acknowledge some self-existent being, or thing, that serves as a “causeless” cause . Copleson puts it rather poetically while citing Leibnitz during his scuffle with Russell, maintaining that, “in order to explain existence, we must come to a being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, which cannot not exist.” (par.16).
This line of thought is fine so far as it goes, but all too often we seem tempted to apply our prejudices to the nature of the undetermined Cause we come to at its conclusion. Plenty of theologians, including Copleston use this argument as proof of God, but the reasoning does not warrant this conclusion, even if it presents an intriguing bit of direction. It may be that “God” cannot be defined by reason. In fact the business of a First Cause seems an attempt to create distance between the thinker and a closed system that is reason itself, and an insoluble problem. This, in turn, brings to mind Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and discussion given by Hofstadter where he suggests we humans possess a capacity to mentally “jump out of the system” when we find ourselves faced with an obviously self-defeating question that nonetheless we intuit as brushing up against truth. But as a matter of logic, this is cheating, really, and even if we allow it and admit a first Cause, or a Causal Principle, we haven’t by any means begun to describe it, and to label it “God” is not at all warranted.
So if we find ourselves unable to prove God in this manner, what about some sort of undefined organizational principle, and if we allow for such a principle, can we go so far as to label it “Conscious,” as he asks? Well now, this is another matter and we are left to address the question of an organizing principle in the universe, at least a slightly simpler conundrum.
First, allow that by this we mean an undefined cause that girds an underlying impetus toward organization in whatever exists. This prevents us from being derailed by questions about what is real, questions of dualism versus monism, the existence of any sort of god or gods, “multiverses”. The question is only whether or not something tending toward complexity and organization rather than chaos and dissolution is apparent in the structure and processes of the universe, the definition of which we have allowed to remain rather loose. Note that to posit the existence and functioning of such a principle, whether this involves a conscious intervention or is merely an artifact of the way things are, would necessarily bring argument from physicists attached to the Second Law of Thermodynamics all the way to the level of sixth grade science classes.
Handily enough, we can turn to Science to point us toward an answer to the matter, and over the past thirty years or so some startling developments have occurred, causing at least some in the scientific community to begin to sidle up to these foundational questions that have been eschewed by their peers since the Enlightenment gave birth to Modernism. Since 1824, when the Second Law was formulated (Erlichson, par. 6), scientists have avoided the rather glaring problem that living biological organisms ignore the Law with impunity. Both live specimens and the fossil record demonstrate the very impetus toward greater complexity one would expect if directed by our postulated organizing principle. In fact, organizations of cells, organisms, and even societies, rather than dispersing, persistently form ever more complicated structures and arrangements.
Now, this brings us to a secondary question. “Life” is defined as, “The property or quality manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, response to stimulation, and reproduction, by which living organisms are distinguished from dead organisms or from inanimate matter...” (Morris 754). Without delving too deeply into the history and technical aspects of the matter, the problem is that there are all sorts of non-biological systems and objects, such as crystals for example, that display all these properties. Manifold systems throughout nature do, in fact, and are referred to as “self-organizing,” often achieving a level of order that seems quite magical to the average observer (Prigogine and Stengers 72). Furthermore, some objects we would certainly think of as “live,” such as dormant seeds, display none of these properties for many years, yet can produce viable plants or other forms we think of as obviously live. In fact, cosmologists, chemists, physicists and others have described innumerable systems suiting this definition just fine, most of which we would not commonly view as “alive.” That is to say the same sorts of processes occur in things that are living and things, including our cosmological universe, which we generally imagine to be non-living.
The mechanics involved in these associated systems can be extraordinarily complex, concentric, and overlapping, or very simple. The core features remain identical, though, with their feedback loops and processed data and remain the same in all coherent systems from galaxies and molecules, to bacterium and human beings, and even systems which contain information only and no matter at all, such as computer programs and imaginary stories. When the coherency of the information falls apart, or dissipates, one might say as a nod to Carnot’s Second Law, we cease to recognize the structure as systemic. It takes very little information to establish a recognizable system. For example, if we say 2+2=4, we immediately recognize something coherent. If we say 2-17=12 the coherency disappears. If we substitute minor balancing variables to feed back to one another, making a slightly more complex system, such as x=x2+c, we can create a beautiful structure such as in this case is found in “fractal” artwork (Kelley 3). This is akin to phenomena of all sorts, from weather patterns, to crystal formation, a bacterium foraging for nutrients, or children learning to add, as well as any noumena we might imagine. It is fully pervasive.
Because of this difficulty in finding a distinction between life and non-life Feinberg and Shapiro suggest that we should abandon our attempts to define life based on what parts make up an “organism,” and readjust our definition to one based on the amount of order and information contained in the arrangement of those parts, with attention to the likelihood of the arrangement occurring by chance (131). Discussing the self-organizing nature of the universe, Prigogine, who won a Nobel for his work on this field of inquiry, and not a Theist, by the way, stated that, “We no longer conceive of nature as a passive object. I can't stress enough that it is an active object in our lives,” that is, matter is not inert. It is alive and active (Tucker, par. 20).
We are forced to acknowledge that due to a lack of space, and perhaps equally because of our own limited capacity to grasp some of the technical aspects of the discussion, a deference to authority has necessarily taken place here. But this is not entirely a trap. Prigogene was a highly distinguished chemist and physicist. Collaborators Feinberg and Shapiro have distinguished themselves in the fields of physics and biology respectively. Between them are several thousand pages describing rigorous thought and experimental evidence. We could, if so motivated, study physics and chemistry or other fields and pursue the evidence ourselves. Further, these three are merely representative of a fairly large minority school of thought in scientific circles, among whom a rather common feature is having reached their jarring conclusions pertinent to Russell’s queries with great reluctance—hostile witnesses, one might say. For the most part, these scientists did not approach the material from a religious or philosophical angle, but discovered this difficulty in defining life as an outcome of studying nature as its own end. So if we trust that there is generally no bias from these learned figures toward the mystical-sounding determinations they render, there is no particular reason to assume that we would have better luck at separating objects or phenomena into the categories at hand.
So given that we have found systems throughout nature that follow the principles of organization, in that the likelihood of having fallen together by chance approaches nil, and we find additionally that we cannot distinguish these organized phenomena from anything else we define as living by any substantive means, then we have discovered at minimum a pair of simple philosophical identities. The universe must be not only imbued with an organizational principle, but it must also--an incredible postulate--be alive. But what of our musings about God?
All of this, as noted above, smacks of Theism. One may notice similarities to the “Watchmaker” argument of the Intelligent Design camp. It is tempting to suggest that this organized, organizing, living thing we have made the universe out to be represents the flesh of God. But, alas, we haven’t even begun to wonder whether this life principle as we might call it possesses any sort of individuality or consciousness, let alone to approach the question of just what we mean by “God,” or where the heck God or the universe derives from. We have found no “Necessary Being” or “First Cause,” and certainly no reason to label any such object “Allah,“ or “Jesus,“ “Ahuramazda,” “Sophia,“ or for that matter, something like “Joe Smith.” Nothing whatsoever in this argument supports any Theistic conclusion at all, even if it may point in that direction somewhat. To make that stretch from here will require an altogether new argument. Or we could “jump out of the system.”
Copleston, Father F. C, and Russell, Bertrand. A Debate on the Argument from Contingency. Ed. Chrucky, Andrew. Blackboard, 21 February 2009
Erlichson, Herman. Sadi Carnot, ‘Founder of the Second Law of Thermodynamics’. European Journal of Physics 20 (1999): 183-192. 21 February 2009
Feinberg, Gerald, and Shapiro, Robert. Life Beyond Earth. New York, New York: William Morrow, 1980.
Hofstadter, Douglas. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. 1979. New York, New York: Random House, 1980.
Kelley, Alice. Fractal Cosmos: The Art of Alice Kelley 2009 Calendar. Amber Lotus Publishing, 2009.
Morris, William, ed. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York, New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1973.
Prigogine, Ilya, and Stengers, Isabelle. The End of Certainty:Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Physics.New York, New York: Free Press, 1999.
Russell, Bertrand. The Value of Philosophy. Problems of Philosophy, 1912. Ed. Andrew Chrucky. Oxford University Press: 1959. Blackboard, 21 February 2009
Tucker, Robert B.Ilya Prigogine: Wizard of Time, part 2 Omni Magazine, May 1983. 21 February 2009