The Big Picture (2)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

2

My criticism is that Carroll’s approach, like Gould’s, leaves the knowing subject fragmented, and human knowledge arbitrarily shackled and without the resources needed for some eventual unification. I propose that instead of evoking parallel endeavors that do not overlap (and most certainly do not converge), there should be a hierarchy among the disciplines that reflects the hierarchy that we see in reality.

In the real world we encounter living matter. It is only later, under artificially controlled conditions, that we discover that the components of living organisms can also be found in non-living forms. The hierarchy in nature is integral and organic. That means we experience matter directly and primordially as a living dynamic synthesis before we artificially analyze it into its components and experience those parts as inert. I believe it is more faithful to the data to let our conceptual organization be guided by the organic whole as presented to us by nature rather than to insist that the analysis we perform using artificial intermediaries, dominate experience and determine the direction of discourse.

Nature’s integrated hierarchy should be reflected in human enquiry not as a set of discrete layers one on top of another but rather as an interpenetrating system that allows data and perceptions from the primordial “level” — LIFE — to enter heuristically into the other levels that depend upon it, in order to “guide” enquiry and suggest solutions. Analysis in this case follows and mirrors the living hierarchy as it exists in the real world and is therefore open to an intellectual synthesis that reflects reality.

Under the obsolescent reductionist regimen, the assumed inertness of matter was permitted to dominate all other levels of enquiry and declare them, prejudicially, to be secondary, i.e., “emergent.” A reduced version of living phenomena determined the overarching definition of matter. What I am proposing is the inverse: that the unmistakable perception that matter is alive in living organisms should be allowed to influence the discourse about the “nature” of matter at the level of the guiding “philosophy” and from there, physics and chemistry.

Having a “guiding philosophy” is an integral component of this approach. I have suggested that such a philosophy be derived and continually adjusted “abductively” from the principles, premises and conclusions of the various positive sciences with regard to the nature of matter. That means that there is a constant interaction between what the sciences are discovering about what is “real” in their area of interest and the overall nature of matter, i.e., what it means to exist, which is the purview of philosophy. The fundamental focus is, as always, existence. What is real is what exists — matter’s energy.

What have we learned about existence from the discoveries of science, and what, therefore, are some of the assumptions of this philosophy?

  • The first is that existence is matter and matter is existence. Ideas and their derivatives like “bodiless minds,” spirits, are not real “things” — that includes an erstwhile imagined “Great Spirit.” They do not exist as stand-alone entities. Mind and its ideas are a “state” or “dimension” or “condition” of matter. There is no separate world of “spirits.”
  • Secondly we have learned that matter is not a static “thing” but rather a dynamic energy, a force that resides at the core of all things sustaining them in existence. Matter and energy are not only a conceptual dyad — two different ways of looking at the same thing — they are a dual phenomenal reality: matter may appear as solid particles or as an undulating force that we call waves. Indeed, the primary insight of quantum physics is that matter is both particle and wave — matter and energy — simultaneously. The indeterminacy, superposition, entanglement and tunneling that characterize matter at the quantum level are all reducible to the particle/wave duality of matter.
  • Third, we have learned from biology that in nature, spontaneously and without any intervention from rational beings like humans (or gods), matter is alive. Material organisms are conscious of themselves and of the world around them as distinct and separate. They preserve their living integrity by intentionally relating outside themselves: finding food, avoiding enemies and reproducing.
  • Fourth, self-awareness is an intrinsic feature of LIFE and therefore can be assumed to be an intrinsic potentiality of the matter of which living organisms are constructed. This “interiority” means that consciousness is not different from living organisms as a separate “force” or “power.” Consciousness, in other words, and in contrast to idealist mediaeval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and Johannes Eckhart, is ancillary to LIFE, not the other way around.

It is essential that we eliminate from this “philosophy” all vestiges of the preconceptions that once assigned an exclusive priority in all areas of endeavor to the experience had at the level of scientific physics and chemistry. Reductionism has had free rein for a century and a half and has failed miserably to solve the problem of the origin of life — to this day still claiming a strictly mechanistic understanding that will be found “any day now.” Furthermore, reductionism, in the form of the “modern synthesis” about evolution — a consensus of the 1940’s that saw evolution as a strictly passive a posteriori event based exclusively on random genetic mutations — has also failed to account for some of the more common examples of rapid genetic adaptability. I claim, to the contrary, that reductionist perceptions are secondary; they are mediated by potentially distorting intromissions like sophisticated tests that use arcane instruments and catalytic reagents inaccessible to the ordinary person. They are not foundational perceptions and they do not represent the living hierarchical synthesis existing in nature and in human intellectual endeavors that mirror nature, like art and poetry.

I propose a phenomenological starting point for this philosophy. The beginnings of human knowledge about matter are the spontaneous unmediated perceptions of unsophisticated, scientifically unprepared culturally socialized human-beings. Let’s take an example. A boy meets a girl; and in each of them there is generated the possibilities of a relationship. One of the spontaneous unreflective assumptions in this encounter is that the other person is a living human being. There is no way that either of them would be the least bit confused about what it means to be human and alive, especially in the context of an intergender contact, even if for some reason they were momentarily deceived. If there were the slightest doubt about it, the process of evaluating the possibility of relationship would be immediately terminated. No professional help is needed to make that judgment. The question is resolvable by the “unaided” individuals themselves using their own resources without having recourse to any outside instrumentation, guidance, mathematical calculations or other substance. The perception is primordial; it is direct, unmediated, spontaneous and, barring an unusual source of deception, intentional or otherwise, inerrant. Human beings know LIFE when they see it, and they very quickly determine whether a living organism is human or not, even in the absence of common language. Both these perceptions, then, of LIFE and for want of a better word, human conscious intelligence, are primordial, unmediated, spontaneous and unmistakable.

The perception on the unsophisticated level is as indisputably objective as any perception had on any “scientific” level of discourse mediated by any instrumentation or procedure of any kind. No experience is any more privileged, true and free from error. Any later perceptions had on other levels that would seem to require that these primordial perceptions be considered illusory are invalidated ad limen.

*

As our example illustrates, our unmediated perceptions are of the macro world and they are objective, verifiable with the consensus of multiple observers and indisputably true. A child can see that a caterpillar is alive, and, through a microscope, that an amoeba or a bacterium is alive. There is nothing privileged — any more objective — about the later perceptions of the isolated inert components of living organisms mediated by sophisticated instruments and expressed in numerical measurements. What is known is LIFE: that this “thing” is alive.

In the case of LIFE at the macro level, the perception is not the result of an inference or mediated through other data. We absolutely know what LIFE is, directly. The very fact that it cannot be defined in other terms suggests that it is as primary a datum as any garnered from some later mediated experience. We know LIFE because we ourselves are alive; we know it connaturally — because we are in direct contact with our own conatus. The perception is infallible.

The issue here is whether you trust the validity of your own experience. Do you know LIFE when you see it … based on your experience of your own life … or are you a robot mesmerized by illusion? And what does it say about you and/or your relationships if you can be easily convinced that everything significant to you and within your range of competence as a human being is illusion. Indeed, if “science” can convince you that your spontaneous perceptions about LIFE are completely unreliable, then perceptions had through the lens of a microscope are equally invalidated because it is the same human being in each case doing the looking.

To insist that somehow the later, reduced apprehension, focused on the components which also exist in full substantial integrity in other, non-living inert forms, reflects the really valid version of reality that, since it does not include the perception of LIFE, means that LIFE must be secondary and therefore introduced or caused, is absurd. In other words, the declaration that LIFE is not primordial but “secondary,” “emergent,” “derived” is an unproven presumption and I contend, prejudiced by the false primacy afforded to scientific perception and therefore to the organism’s components which may be found inert in other instances. The demand that somehow the “emergence” or the “derivation” of LIFE from non-life must be “explained,” is premature and unwarranted. Applying Ockham’s razor, I contend that it is simpler and more justified to see LIFE as the fundamental reality — exactly as we perceive it — the result of the primitive unmediated spontaneous perception, and the primordial datum. That the components of life can also be found in non-living forms, I contend, is really the secondary phenomenon that must be explained. We can see from matter’s role in living organisms that the potential for LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter, for living organisms are all and only matter.

I realize how revolutionary it is to speak in these terms. It has been the claim of the reductionists since time immemorial that LIFE must be the effect of some peculiar configuration of the inert particles of matter, or the integrity of the material universe is compromised. Any other stance, they say, implies that LIFE is a kind of second substance[1] or force other than matter that had to have been introduced into matter from outside matter, i.e., by something that was itself not matter. They reject dualism. I agree and applaud their efforts. But they cannot escape from it. A spirit-matter dualism has been the unquestioned metaphysical assumption in the lands of the West since almost the beginning of the common era. We have since discovered that there is nothing other than matter. So such a spiritualist hypothesis is out of the question. Reductionists continue to defend themselves against an imagined rival dualism because starting from the assumption of inertness, some form of dualism is the only explanation for LIFE: there must be something other than matter to account for LIFE in the reductionist universe.  The assumption of the inertness of matter was set in stone with Descartes who was a convinced dualist, and perfectly content to let “spirit” explain the presence of LIFE.  Indeed, it was the dualist conviction that all vitality including  conscious intelligence belonged exclusively to “spirit” that gave rise to the belief that matter was inert and passive.   Without dualism reductionists have no explanation for LIFE and also have no reason for their reductionism.

This helps elucidate the devastating intellectual effect of Carroll’s and Hawking’s “model-depen­­dent-realism” separating the disciplines into parallel tracks hermetically sealed from one another instead of being hierarchically unified and mutually inter-related. “Model-dependent-realism” is a short-term practical escape that allows the various sciences (and religion) to proceed with their traditional pursuits free of any interference from one another. But in the long-run it militates against the kind of conceptual integration that reflects the integrity of the real world. There is only one beautifully integrated world out there, and our minds are a part of it. There is no reason, in theory, why our ideational constructs cannot reflect that integrity. Reductionism prevents any such unified understanding from occurring.

By invalidly assuming that matter is inert, reductionists are left without an explanation for LIFE. They have no choice but to insist without proof that what appears to be a property that goes beyond the known possibilities of inert matter in isolation, must actually be the effect of some inert mechanical cause that we have yet to discover, and that the living phenomena that result are inexplicably of an exponentially different level of reality from that cause. (… or, more logically, illusion.) Reductionists have no valid right to deny to the components of living organisms the very property of LIFE that they actually experience in them as composites, calling such experience “illusion.” They insist on reducing the living material organisms whose components are all directly experienced as alive, to the components as they could be found outside of living organisms … an experience that in fact they are not having … and then, based on that fantasy, make predictions about mechanistic causation that in fact have never materialized: they still can’t explain in reductionist terms how LIFE is “caused.”

It’s all a work of the imagination. By refusing to accept the living potential inherent in matter — an empirical datum of unimpeachable validity — they are suppressing their and everyone’s first, primordial and immediate experience of LIFE as all and only matter, and therefore that LIFE is incontrovertibly a property of matter needing not a cause but a simple activation for it to emerge and be made manifest.

LIFE is not alone with this characteristic. Electromagnetism, for example, is another property of all matter; but a particular material’s electromagnetic potential is not apparent until something becomes present in the immediate environment that activates that potential and puts it on display. A simple copper wire, for example, appears utterly inert. It shows no electromagnetic characteristics until magnetic lines of force in motion cross the wire. When that happens, an electric current is induced in the wire and travels in a direction and with a power determined by the strength of the magnet, the speed and direction of the moving force-lines.

That the appearance of LIFE in a perceptible form may depend upon a particular configuration of matter’s elements for its activation, is not the same as saying that LIFE was caused or created by that configuration. LIFE is a property not an effect of matter. We experience LIFE long before we are tempted to think of matter as inert and lifeless, and the LIFE we experience are all living material organisms. There is no experience of life that is had outside of material organisms. There is no “immaterial” life that we ever experience anywhere or at any time. We can experience matter that does not appear alive, but we cannot experience life that is not matter.

*

I contend that LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter, every bit as much as mass, electromagnetism, chemical valence or ordinary matter’s four spacetime dimensions. It is this intrinsic potential for vitality that demands entrance into the explanation of everything made of matter, guiding the discourse of the other disciplines that encounter matter in its purely physical and chemical, as well as its living, sentient, conscious and social forms. From this inverse point of view it is clear that the mystery is not how a dead earth can be teeming with life of all kinds, but how the living components of living organisms can also be found in an inert, non-living form. How did this come to be?

In some cases the inert form is clearly secondary — a by-product of living activity. Atmospheric oxygen is a good example. The transformation that occurs in photosynthesis wherein plants utilize carbon dioxide and sunlight to generate living energy, also produces oxygen as exhaust. Oxygen is an inert gas that is necessary for the combustion of nutrients in the cells of other living organisms. It is believed that the early earth had too little oxygen to support animal life. Virtually all the oxygen, therefore, that now makes up more than 20% of our atmosphere, on which all animal life including ourselves depends, was the result of plant respiration over billions of years. In this case a major inert and necessary component of the cellular life of animals and insects is a derivative of living organisms. Another example is limestone, a type of rock that supplies soils with needed calcium, a base that offsets toxic levels of growth-inhibiting acidity. Most limestone is composed of skeletal remains of marine organisms such as coral, forams and molluscs. These organisms have made a significant contribution to the geology of the earth, again, over billions of years. About 10% of the sedimentary rocks of the planet are limestone. It is an inert product of living activity that is in turn essential to the nutritional needs of other forms of life. There is no way you can speak of calcium being an essential component of living organisms without acknowledging that much of the calcium on earth is itself a derivative of LIFE.

In other cases we cannot explain how matter with an intrinsic potential for life ends up appearing dead and inert in any form. I think most people assume that there is a special internal configuration of some type, which may include dynamical forces like light or electricity, which need to be present for the life potential to be activated. But in all cases, the LIFE that appears to emerge, is actually inherent in matter and made manifest under conditions that we have not been able to reproduce probably because LIFE is so natural to matter. There is nothing that requires that LIFE be imagined as coming from outside matter, caused, created, produced and introduced by agents that are themselves outside matter. There is nothing outside matter. Matter is alive and passes life on without assistance from any outside source; whatever causes things to live resides inside matter.

*

Living energy is fundamentally appetitive; it is focused on the desire to stay alive. Reductionist attempts to explain evolution as the purely fortuitous survival of genetic modifications that occurred through random mutation have failed to fully explain adaptation that is more rapid and more specific than the statistical probabilities of classic genetic variation anticipate.[2] Darwin stated that evolution’s tendency to fill out with new species all the various environmental niches that are available to it would be inexplicable if evolution did not have “profitable variations” to select from. Random mutations require a time factor that is too deep to produce “profitable variations” that respond to a rapidly changing environment.[3] McFadden observes:

Adaptive mutations occur more frequently when beneficial to the cell, in direct contradiction of the standard [reductionist] neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, which states that mutations always occur randomly with respect to the direction of evolutionary change. John Cairns’ initial experiments incubated E. coli cells unable to grow on lactose, on media containing lactose, and on parallel media without lactose. If, following standard neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, mutations always occur randomly in relation to the direction of evolutionary change, then the same mutation rate would be expected in both sets of cells. However, Cairns discovered that, after prolonged starvation, mutations that allowed the E. coli to utilize lactose increased in frequency. It appeared that the presence of lactose specifically enhanced mutations that allowed the cells to eat the lactose. The E. coli cell appeared to be able to direct its own mutations.[4]

This recent work in the study of evolutionary biology has suggested quantum mechanisms that could permit genetic drift in the direction indicated by the environment. That means that utilizing purely material means at the quantum level the organism is capable of “reading” (learning from) its environment and “desiring” to change itself accordingly. Evolution would then prove itself to be an active — living — instead of a purely passive — inert — process.

Those words, “learning” and “desiring,” are meant to be metaphoric placeholders for an energy, an inclination, a gradient, a disequilibrium between organism and environment creating a tension at the quantum level that is reflected in the genome of the organism — a disequilibrium to which we have yet to assign an appropriate term. Nevertheless, even without a proper label this recent work indicates that material mechanisms exist that can serve as the instrument for a primitive inclination that approximates “desire.” So while such a mechanism does not suggest the presence of an “immaterial” soul much less intelligence, it must also be said that it certainly does not support the purely mechanistic reductionist thesis that matter is utterly indifferent to its own existence, as it would if it were inert, and that survival is itself a matter of chance. It shows that there is even at the quantum level a proactive bias toward continuity of identity (implying a self-awareness of some kind), and a corresponding material basis that enables it. Matter is a living existential dynamism that “wants” to continue to be-here.

This “wanting” is universal. The fundamental indicator that some mass of matter is alive is that it wants to stay alive. The instinct for self-preservation is one of the unmistakable signs of life and it is perceptibly homogeneous across earth’s entire biota. Called “conatus” in the West since ancient times and most recently by Baruch Spinoza as integral to his system, the instinct is the same wherever it is found from protozoa to the most highly complex mammals. It displays itself always as (1) a flight from predators and other dangers, (2) an aggressive search and seizing of nutrients and (3) a compulsive need to reproduce. Staying alive is surviving. The conatus is an energy, a tension, whose point of equilibrium — secure existence — is by the very nature of things unachievable because matter is entropic.

It is the awareness of this internal contradiction that is the source of the unique pathos of human life.

 

[1] “second substance” was Descartes’ term for “spirit” as opposed to matter.

[2] Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili, The Edge of Life, Penguin Random House, NY, 2014, p. 220 ff.

[3] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, reprint Random House, NY,1979, p. 167.

[4] Johnjoe McFadden, Quantum Evolution, Harper Collins, London, 2000, p. 77ff; p. 263. Cf also McFadden 2014, op.cit., p. 223.

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