Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Is the Sun alive?

I have previously argued (see link below) that 'animism' is correct, and it makes sense to regard everything as alive - that, indeed, the mainstream modern belief that some things are alive (humans, trees, plankton) but most things are not alive (water, rocks, fire) is unstable - and the denial of life to chemicals and minerals has led inexorably to the de facto denial of life to plants, animals, and humans.

This is evidenced in the extraordinary confusions of mainstream science about what counts as alive - with a strong body of opinion stating that computers could be, or may become, alive, aware, conscious Artificial Intelligences - while treating humans as deluded zombies, consciousness as an epiphenomenon, free will as a rationalization.

(Indeed, although the argument is differently structured, I think the same applies to meaningfulness. The current official belief is that some, few, things in the world are meaningful - but most things are meaningless and a consequence either of simple causality or, more often, random chance. However this meaningful-meaningless division has, in practice, proved unstable and our culture treats everything as meaningless. Therefore, since this is psychosocially unsustainable, metaphysically self-refuting, and contradicts spontaneous human beliefs and religious revelation - it is necessary to assume that everything is meaningful in some way - although typically we do not know the meaning and never will.)

With life, there is a serious problem of borderlines between living and non-living - these borderlines (viruses, prions, alive-and dead) are not dealt-with (indeed, they cannot be dealt-with except by obviously arbitrary definitions), but merely ignored; which itself serves to undermine the significance of life.

For example, I heard the top British doctor-expert on coma and other 'near-death' states, assert that we should not think of death as an event, but rather as a process. So there was no 'moment of death' but only a period of time on one side of which was life, and the other death. The implication was that some people are stuck in this process for very long periods - maybe years.

(He was responding to the fact that various definitions of death may conflict - cessation of the heart, activity in various parts of the brain, responsivity of the pupils, decomposition of internal organs such as the pancreas and adrenal - these signs do not co-occur simultaneously, and may be dissociated in some situations (i.e. signs of death while still alive); plus of course they are, to some degree, reversible - so death cannot be conclusively pronounced until there are several or all of these signs in place for some length of time.)

The doctor was unaware or unconcerned that this pragmatic clinical rule-of thumb, if taken as truth, actually destroyed the distinction between a living person and a rotting corpse; or between a living rotting person and an apparently perfectly-preserved corpse. In our culture, if life and death are not distinguished, the assumption is that nothing is really alive - 'life' is merely an arbitrary - indeed legal - definition, a matter of operational convenience, of opinion. When the law changes, or opinion changes, the boundary between life and death is moved - therefore clearly it is not real.

So, is the Sun alive?

The 'scientific' importance of the Sun is that life on earth depends on it, it drives climate changes and differences, causes seasons and weather... there is no end to what the Sun does and many of the greatest civilizations have regarded the Sun as the most significant divinity.

Are we depending on a purely physical process (partly random, partly determined) to sustain life on earth? Or are we depending upon a living entity? - perhaps a living consciousness, perhaps a thing with a purpose?

From Rupert Sheldrake comes the striking perspective that even by mainstream scientific criteria, it is perfectly reasonable to regard the Sun as alive, conscious, purposive: here is a summary of his argument:

Since the seventeenth century, science has portrayed the universe as inanimate. The Sun is simply a star like other stars, burning up fuel. Celestial bodies, like all other bodies, are essentially mechanical. In modem scientific thought, the Sun cannot be conscious. The question does not even arise.
For materialists, our consciousness is nothing other than the activity of our brains. From this point of view, since consciousness is confined to human brains ( and is perhaps present to a lesser degree in higher animals) then neither the Sun nor the stars, nor the Earth, nor anything within it except man and perhaps some animals can have consciousness. The Sun, Gaia and indeed the entire universe cannot be conscious because they do not have brains.
Most materialists suppose that the complex electromagnetic rhythms in our brains provide the interface between brain activity and consciousness. Could rhythmic patterns of electromagnetic activity likely be associated with the consciousness of the Sun?
One of the starting points of our discussions was the recent discovery of the extraordinary dynamism of the Sun. The eleven year sun-spot cycles, linked to reversals of the magnetic polarity of the Sun are well known. But the sun has recently been found to reverberate, like a gong, to over a million pitches, each bouncing back and forth through the different layers of the interior of the Sun, with the resonance being determined by their pitch. As well as this extraordinarily complex spatio-temporal pattern of vibration, there are the oscillations, perturbations, and harmonics of the electromagnetic field associated with the phenomena on the surface of the Sun such as sun-spots. Magnetic storms on the sun are so intense that they can disrupt radio communications, cause homing pigeons to lose their way, and in other ways affect what happens on Earth.... 
Perhaps the Sun can think in a way barely imaginable to our more limited power of thinking, its thoughts interfacing with its ever changing patterns of vibratory activity. In this way, it is scientifically imaginable that the Sun could be conscious.

Considered in this way, it becomes not so much wrong as perverse to regard the Sun as anything but alive; and if alive possessing purpose - which would potentially have implications for Men on Earth.

So, is the Sun alive? Yes!

What that fact means, how it impinges on us, is another question - but the Sun is indeed alive by the dual criteria that 1. The Sun displays many of the scientifically defined signs of life, and this must be important because the Sub is so important; and of course, 2. Everything is alive , therefore The Sun is alive - but things are alive in different degrees and in different ways; and the fact of being living does not necessarily have special significance.

Interestingly, it is the general animist (such as myself) who believes everything is alive who does not necessarily see the life of the Sun as of special importance; but for the mainstream scientist who regards life as restricted to only some thing - the aliveness of the Sun must be of massive significance; and understanding (or inferring) what the Sun wants and how it operates, would necessarily be regarded as a major task for the future. 


Bruce B. said...

Maybe a bit off topic but not entirely. I hate the popularity over the last decade or so of zombie movies, TV shows, toys, games, etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I blame the (ignorant) philosophers who, twenty years ago, used to use zombies as a thought-experiment to argue that consciousness was some kind of illusion.

August said...

Does it have language? If so, maybe I can tell it to stop bothering me.
I'd say for the past two years or so this is my main sort of 'mystic' experience- being in close orbit of the sun. Very disorienting. Not painful, though. Just causes vertigo.
I haven't figured out what it means, and I have stopped trying to figure it out because I only end up getting more vertigo if I dwell on it.

John Fitzgerald said...

Discussion on the Sun in 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', p.215:

"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."
"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."

Nicholas Fulford said...

Is the universe alive?

What does the question actually mean?

As part of the universe - a living part of it for the moment at least; am I necessary as well as contingent? Is my existence an emergent expression of some intrinsic set of properties that is itself necessary and contingent? How deep does this particular rabbit hole go, and what are the implications?

What I can say is that I exist in an unfolding universe that expresses complex and intricate relations over time as it evolves. I know this because I am part of it, and I can see and experience the process at work. The paradoxical aspect is entropy and the role of entropy in allowing intensely complex forms of expression to manifest. What seems to be contradictory cannot be because diverse and interrelated biologically complex forms of life exist. Ipso facto, the universe from its earliest state contains the seeds of life which over time are expressed in and as us.

It is a bizarre and wondrous thing to reflect upon - opening imaginative vistas of emerging forms that are intrinsically meaningful and gorgeous. It is a thing in motion - a living whirl of becoming, a perfect poetic fugue for subatomic particles and DNA?

ajb said...

@Bruce re philosophical zombies,

It was the opposite. Philosophers used (and it's still current) thought experiments about the conceptual possibility of 'philosophical zombies' (functionally or physically identical human beings with no subjective experience - not what is depicted in movies and so on) to argue that materialism was false, not that consciousness was an 'illusion'!

The latter is the position of eliminative materialism, which attempts to obviate philosophical zombie arguments by doubting the veracity of intuitions about consciousness in general (and to my mind isn't a very compelling position).

(Since the link you provided says much the same things as I just did, I take it you were joking - this note is for readers, then!)

The same philosophers who use arguments about philosophical zombies also tend to be interested in theories like panpsychism, which of course would include the view that the sun is conscious in some sense.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - Not the ones I was reading. The link was just for definition.

ajb said...

Who used philosophical "zombies as a thought-experiment to argue that consciousness was some kind of illusion"? I'm genuinely curious.