Hi Arran and Others,
Thanks for raising and discussing the mystery of the laws of physics at the creation of the universe in the seminar yesterday and the relationship to theories such as String theory. But I think the creation of life, and also the emergence of human life are equally great mysteries that are glossed over with similar scientific stories.
Arran talked about there being trillions of stars that have existed for billions of years. The presence of such large numbers – which boggle the mind – are not sufficient in themselves as an explanation for life and its evolution, yet these large numbers are relied on to fill in gaps in theory. For example, imagine you were walking on the surface of Mars, or any other of the trillions of stars, and you came across something that looked exactly like a painted Greek vase (see below). Now, you would no doubt be astounded. Yet, the mathematical theoretician will explain that this is really quite simple. There is a very small probability that such a vase will occur by chance in Nature, and that given long enough the emergence of such a vase is therefore inevitable.
You, however, might still be somewhat amazed at this freak of nature. Now, if you are astounded at finding a vase - the like of which can be made by many a skilled craftsman - how much more astounded should you be at coming across life, which no scientist can create from the raw materials of nature in a lab, let alone in the 'wild'? Life is much more complex than (and thus more unlikely to occur by chance) than a vase. Yet, the same explanation applies: there is a small probability that life could occur by chance, and therefore given enough time it will surely emerge.
This theory implies that any number of less complex things should then also emerge - given enough time. Finding a Taj Mahal on one of these planets should then be no real surprise. In fact, according this logic we should not be surprised if - in our travels - we find lying in the desert of some lifeless planet identical similes of Eiffel Towers, London Bridges, World Trade Centers etc. No doubt you are starting to find this concept a bit absurd. Yet even the simplest form of life is vastly more complex (and more fragile) than all these things, and therefore is less probable. Not only is life highly improbable, but given you have some microbial-like life, it is also highly improbable that - in a relatively short space of time - like a few billion years - it will evolve into a fish-like creature, then there is another improbability that it will evolve into a rat-like creature, then another improbability that it will evolve into an ape-like creature, and then another improbability that it will evolve into a human.
These things which we assume can occur in nature by chance we cannot do ourselves. I mentioned the lack of success computer scientists – and mathematicians such as Conway – have had in replicating the processes of life and evolution. We cannot create life, we cannot reproduce the processes of evolution that take something simple and evolve something complex, yet we create stories that are as almost as fanciful as Meta-verses and String theory and seem satisfied with such.
Now I am not suggesting that the story of evolution is completely wrong, but only that it is incomplete, and that in the absence of proof (which is lacking as many of the processes have not been replicated either in reality or simulation) further explanation is required to make aspects of it convincing.
One must be careful bout infinites. The set of positive integers (1,2,3,4 etc.) is infinite, but it does not contain the number 0.5, let alone an apple. An infinite set of possibilities does not mean anything can happen.
If an item is contained in an infinite set, for example “all the things that can happen within the laws of physics in an infinite amount of time”, but the sampling is finite, such as the time from the big bang, only some things that are possible have happened, and an infinite number of things have not. Even in this infinite “not happened yet” set, the possibilities are bounded by the laws of physics, so some things just cannot happen.
Thus, a spontaneous Airbus A380 may happen, just as a Boltzmann Brain can, but the time since the big bang has been so short, and the entropy clock is running so fast, that they will take a long, long, long, long, time to approach anything like a smidgeon of a chance. Life can happen, the question is whether or not the chances have been tilted by some catalyst…
I don't think Gare's point was to suggest that because we have trillions of starts and billions of galaxies it is no surprise that we have life. And I don't know if it is fair to suggest that we are more likely to find a Greek vase, the Taj Mahal etc. in the universe than life because these are themselves products of human thought and human relations and, because they embody, reflect and maintain these relations, they do reflect the growing complexity of the universe. These things are not merely random collections of mass but reflect both the desire to give form to thought and while they are clearly no in themselves more complex than life, much is lost by considering them separate from the conditions which gave rise to them. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, they reflecting the human desire for meaning, a desire which is crumbling under the weight of the physical view of reality which considers consciousness and life as epiphenomenon in order to maintain the core and necessary assumptions mainly, that the universe looks like Newton thought it did at some level and is therefore calculable by ever growing forms of mathematics, which exist so far disconnected from reality that it cannot be translated into no mathematical language. Consciousness and life cannot be explained through their view of reality. String theory, as Gerard point out, is a tautology (much like simple addition 1 + 1 is the same as 2) because it requires a multiverse in order for the pyramid to stand, it requires the 2 for the 1 to make sense. Gare's point is that there is no evidence for the existence of multiverses and we do not need them to make sense of things. So rather than try and squeeze something else into an obviously faulty framework, why not do what philosophy has always done and speculate about the nature of man's role in the universe while appreciating the complexity of this historical moment?
Gare's view is that we act in relation to stories and that stories legitimate the act - we achieve recognition by acting in such a way that reflects mutual interpretation of a situation from a different perspectives. And while these stories are not our own, they become part of us through socialisation. But this is also the case for scientists. Thus, we exists and embody multiple stories, from the global to the local, over vastly different temporal levels, many of which we may not be aware of. And because our stories (which are not really told thanks largely to scientific materialism and postmodernism as Aaron and Arran pointed out) hold conflicting and sometimes defective assumptions about what humans are, assumptions that give the impression that humans do not need stories and do not need meaning, these story exists in tension which play out in society. The horror of neo-liberalism is that it has effectively legitimated the story of humans as vile creatures, unable to constrain themselves, unable to act for the common good and unable strive for anything more than the most base of things. This story has become the basis for achieving recognition, which through distraction, consumption and competition destroys the possibility of reflection, question and replacing defective assumptions. Despite this, we are confronted with a concrete world in which these assumptions clearly do not reflect the complexity of things. Rather then reflect on these contradictions and reformulate its own assumptions, physics has for the most part retreated into abstractions and accepted its apolitical existence.
But Gare believes that, by underpinning the sciences with a natural philosophy which presupposes this complexity, reform can spread through all the branches of knowledge and repair itself much like imagining how a tree might prune its own branches. And it is these views which are starting to dominate science, but they need a new story to bring it all together. You might find the book I have attached useful in understanding this.
Yes, but in relation to “have been tilted by some catalyst…” - that is the missing piece. What separates complex life from less complex structures of other forms.? That said, I admit my examples were a bit facetious but I think the general point remains.
What we need to know is:
What substances are needed to be combined to create the elements of life? (perhaps we have made good progress on this)
Under what conditions can they come into existence and be combined to create the necessary components for creating a lifeform? (some progress on this – but in lab conditions, not ‘natural’)
This is the big one: how are they then all put together in such a way that a living, consuming, reproducing being comes into existence.? That is the huge jump, which I think is not so remote from conceiving a jumbo jet suddenly coming together from all the parts lying around (so far we have only put some of the parts there, and only in lab conditions). No one has done this, or I suspect even knows how to approach this problem – especially in relation to occurring in a dynamic, perhaps damaging – natural environment.
A scientific associate of mine, no friend of religion or spurious theories, has stated that even producing life in a lab would not answer some of the questions – until you can explain how it occurs in nature.
Thus, this remains a mystery.
Also Peter Kreeft discusses pretty much this same issue: