Tuesday 15 April 2014

The animated universe - everything is (more, or less) alive


A few weeks ago I came up with a metaphysical argument which stated that either everything is alive, or nothing is alive - and if nothing is alive, then no argument of any kind has validity - therefore everything is alive.

In other words, this argument suggests that we live in an animated universe - so that, for example, we move through a living world (even when our environment is made of glass, plastic and concrete) and when we look up at the night sky this is a window on life (not a distant view of dead things).

In other words again - reality is 'biology', and not only physics.


The usual assumption is that some things are alive (plants and animals) while others are not - but it has proved so difficult to hold this line that public discourse has drifted further and further towards being based on the nihilistic assumption that nothing is alive.

In biology, the focus used to be on life, and the interest was in the difference between living and non-living things. A boundary was never found, and indeed modern biology was honed at precisely the boundary since bacteriophages (a kind of virus infecting bacteria) were the primary 'experimental animal' in the genetic research of the mid-twentieth century. This change in perspective seems to have been influenced by the importation of physicists into biology - specifically as small book called What is Life? by Erwin Schroedinger.

Viruses are 'not alive' in the sense that they do not have a metabolism; and the focus in biology shifted from 'life' to 'replication' - instead of being defined by what was alive, biology was defined by what replicated: by whatever was subject to natural selection. The focus on the origins of life shifted from the first 'alive' entities to an interest in the earliest replicating entities. Indeed, modern biology ignores the question of what is alive.


Here we get to the point of 'what is a metaphysical argument?'.

In one sense a metaphysical argument is not affected by science; because metaphysics is the basic understanding of reality - how reality is set-up and structured - and science takes place inside metaphysics, and according to the assumptions of metaphysics.

So in discussing 'what is life?' in a metaphysical way we do not begin by defining life in a precise and scientific fashion - because that would pre-decide the metaphysics - because any actual science arose within some already-existing metaphysics.

Thus when Schroedinger asked What is Life? and began to answer the question in terms of replication, he had already defined life in terms of replication ad thereby included anything which replicated - even crystals, minerals and any propagating structure.


So metaphysics begins with 'common sense' - with the belief that some things are alive, and especially that people are alive.

But what is common sense on this matter? Children (all over the world, even in modern cultures, and throughout known history) seem to regard everything which is a defined form, anything which can be regarded as separable from the rest of the world, as potentially more-or-less alive.

Some things are certainly more alive than others, but a piece of clay which you have shaped into an animal may become alive, and even a clay pit may have a kind of life. Life either comes and goes in the same object - or else becomes greater and lesser without ever quite disappearing (rather like a seed or spore may lie dormant and apparently 'dead' for many years or centuries before being wetted and coming-alive).

It is hard to say what is not alive - to a child, pretty much anything is potentially alive or has a little but of life in it.

Much the same seems to be true of hunter gatherers - where it is called 'animism'. Hunter gatherers (and it is assumed all human ancestors lived as hunter gatherers within about the past 15K years) seem to regard everything as either more, or less, alive - and the more-alive things are assumed to be aware, and sometimes even consciously aware - 'sentient'.

Common sense apparently, therefore, is probably that aliveness is a continuous variable but never wholly-absent - rather than a dichotomous state.


But is the universe really alive?

Surely modern science has proven - by its success - that most things are not alive - for example that the mineral world (including outer space) is not alive...

And what difference does it make anyway?


The answers depend on whether you take seriously metaphysical arguments, and whether - in principle - you could be convinced by a metaphysical argument to change your view on anything. I find the above metaphysical argument to be compelling - that if we believe in life at all, then we must believe everything is alive to a greater or lesser degree (or, at least, we must believe that everything is potentially alive).

And if we believe in metaphysical arguments, we must recognize that they are not legitimately affected by science - or more precisely that the in-practice decision to derive metaphysics from scientific assumptions is itself a covert metaphysical argument.

Schrodinger's hypothesis that the gene could be regarded as a physics-type (not alive) entity does not have any necessary metaphysical consequences - but in practice it seems to have introduced a habit of thought which led to everything, even human beings, being regarded as not alive - of humans (and all the rest of biology) being regarded as 'replicating entities' - and of the denial of many common sense ideas about the reality of the soul, life after death, consciousness and so on.

Biologists began by making a working hypothesis to frame their genetic research, and ended up becoming the frontline troops for atheism, nihilism, scientism and all the rest of it. Or else, considering that almost all biologists were already atheists, maybe the conversion of biology to physics was mostly an excuse, a rationalization, for atheism?

And anyway, it seems that the line between alive and not-alive, between old-style biology and everything else, was one which did not exist; therefore it was a line that could never have been held - even if biology has not been taken-over by the explanatory models of physics and chemistry.


But does it make any difference?

Well, ask yourself. Would it make any difference if you believed that everything you saw, heard tasted, smelled and touched was alive - or if, on the other hand, everything is really not alive - including yourself which thinks this thought; which is actually the modern mainstream view - epitomized by the idea that the mind IS information-processing, and could and probably soon will be downloadable.

Does it make any difference to regard the mind as in reality (bottom line) information processing, and human families as in reality (bottom line) replication of genetic information?

Well, yes of course.

How modern people behave, for example the fact that they prefer virtual lives to people, and that they replicate digital information rather than having babies, makes as much sense as anything does in a universe which is not alive - but this is psychotic behaviour if ours really is a living universe.


If the universe really is alive, but we are denying it, then we are insane.

But if the universe really is not-alive, and our childhood and historical belief that it was alive was merely ignorance, then nothing matters anyway - since nothing could, in principle, matter: mattering is something that would only have meaning in a living universe.



Ben Pratt said...

I wasn't aware of Schrödinger's book. Its effects can be taken as evidence for my notion that physicists make sloppy philosophers.

Last night the total lunar eclipse was visible from this side of the pond. We woke up the older children and from the backyard we all enjoyed a magnificent view of the eclipsed moon, Mars, and Saturn among the stars, which themselves brightened as the eclipse progressed. Jupiter hovered over the western horizon. As fascinating as the astronomical principles on display are, they are not responsible for the sheer awe viewing such events instills in the observer. I've also felt it at Badwater Basin, the deepest spot in Death Valley.

The moon, planets, and salt flats are almost completely devoid of replicating things, but even the lone observer senses Otherness there.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BP - It is a good while since I read Schrodinger myself - about 20 years - and I can't remember whether he was trying to do philosophy - probably not. What people like Francis Crick and Max Delbruck got from it was a new line of attack on understanding the gene - that the answer might be simple enough to be do-able. But the short term success of the approach to science was - it seems - taken as a philosophical argument - not least by the scientists themselves.

I've seen a few lunar eclipses here - marvelous and strange.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

If everything seems, really or metaphorically, alive, it is because all things are held into being and in motion (tendency, change, determination, causal order*) by God's thought. Inanimate things then, feel like living things because they are moved by a living principle. Aristotle was the first to express that in a scientific way that did not lack poetry, especially when he said that God moves the world as an object of love.

Cf. particularly Maritain's Introduction to Metaphysics... again.