Life: Keeping you safe from a deterministic universe, Part III

So somewhere, somehow some chemicals started replicating. It’s no shame that science hasn’t cracked this yet. There are some great hints starting to become manifest, maybe RNA started it, but how is actually irrelevant to our metaphysical quest. Somehow it got started, is a perfectly acceptable beginning to our quest at this stage of the science. But we want to be careful about just saying “God did it” because when science figures this out we don’t want to have hung our hat on this lack of explanation as a coat hook for our belief. (See my “God of the Gaps” post for more on this.)

So we have replicating molecules in the universe, with sequences that specify the attributes of those entities. Now we are up and running with a system with enough variability to kick start natural selection: variation in traits, inheritance of traits from parental types, and differential survival based on those traits: selection. That variation is the stuff that evolution uses as raw material. It is based upon mutations. Mutations that are random with respect to whatever nucleic sequences were inherited from a thing’s parents.

Life is a way of connecting the wildly random world of quantum mechanics and the tick-tock functioning of the macro world. Life is a bridge, which allows genuine novelty and creativity to come into play in the design of organisms. The space of design however is not heading towards some goal or preferred type; it is a solution to the immediate problem of surviving better than your neighbor. Mutations are just changes that occur in nucleic acids (the stuff of heredity) randomly. Mutations can be caused by lots of things (and the subject is too complex to really go into here without laying out the bio-chemical properties of DNA and such), but one way is through the exposure to radiation; of which there are abundant sources all over the universe. These radiation events have their source in the quantum world’s unwieldy randomness (and note this is not just unpredictability-type-randomness like you get when you flip a coin, which is structured by largely deterministic forces many and varied working on the spinning coin (like friction, wind, forces applied unevenly by the fingers, etc.) that we could probably never model or gain epistemological purchase with a predictive model because it is just too complex. This quantum-type stuff is real randomness, ontological randomness, in the dirt of reality randomness.

Most mutations are bad, bad, bad. And our DNA has to be good at repairing most of these, or it may just cause the life-form to fail. However, some mutations in an organism’s genetic code make the thing the gene codes for just a little better than that gene had in their fellow organisms—in the current environment it’s living in. That’s important. Natural selection is always contextual. Organisms are always imbedded in an environment where these advantages and disadvantages play out.

But suddenly, the universe is no longer deterministic! Real randomness has just bubbled up and there is no longer just one-way things can play out. Things are no longer strongly teleological. They are not heading anywhere in particular. Random variations are allowing life to test different options by random mutations.

Life allows for an escape from a purely deterministic universe. Novelty, creativity, and design suddenly are possible. But purpose? Not yet. We need something else.

And have we completely lost teleology? Is there no direction life is heading? Well, clearly not completely, because complexity is at least is increasing—that is a direction. But can we say more?

Next time: Teleology-lite (Now With Added Purpose, for a new fresher scent!

(And fear not, those of you still with me, we are going to get back to Faithful evolution. I’m setting the stage.)

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5 comments to Life: Keeping you safe from a deterministic universe, Part III

  • Steve: As I see it, the search to find some evidence of God in the details of biology is misplaced on several levels. I’m a process philosopher and my background is in neurophysiology — and I think you have adopted something like a process view in you paper on consciousness. In process thought, the divine lure, the “initial aim” in Whitehead’s terminology, is made available as the ideal pole of experience of ever occasional event. It is simply something that is taken into consideration as part of the events becoming – and there is nothing but becoming. Such purposiveness could not be detected by analysis or scientific evidence anymore than one can experience the consciousness of another’s phenomenal experience by looking at the other’s brain.

    Indeed, it seems to me that the “did God do it?” question is looking in the wrong places for the wrong types of evidence for the wrong kinds of causes. Science explains by referring to efficient causes at the most basic level of physics. WE explain why cells act as they do by looking at th molecules in the cell, and we explain what molecules do by looking at atoms, and we explain what atoms do by looking at all kinds of sub-atomic particles. But ultimately if we have an explanation, it comes down to — that is just the basic power to act and cause effects in other patients and there is nothing more to it. But that kind of reductive explanation is going to miss the basic creativity of the initial aim present in every actual occasion every time.

    The ideal lure is a type of teleology and purposiveness that cannot seen in the neurophysiological or molecular details. My neurons aren’t conscious; I am. My neurons aren’t morally responsible for what I do; I am. That means that we need a kind of emergent agent or perhaps a supervenient agent (assuming non-reductive physicalism) to account for the kind of teleological behavior that we find everywhere in nature. (I reject non-reductive physicalism because I believe that physicalism always is reductive).

    However, the ultimate explanation, it seems to me, is that to be just is to be creative and to create novel possibilities from pre-existing realities. The human imagination and ability to pre-figure the future in novel way seems to me to be the ultimate basis of human freedom.

  • Thanks Blake, I don’t think I disagree with much of what you said. I’m going to take this through Bergson, rather than Whitehead, but some of the ideas are similar, but Bergson explicitly tackles process in evolution through Natural Selection in interesting ways.

    The place I may disagree is in this: “That means that we need a kind of emergent agent or perhaps a supervenient agent (assuming non-reductive physicalism) to account for the kind of teleological behavior that we find everywhere in nature.” Mostly because we don’t see teleological behavior at all at evolutionary scales. At the level of the organism, of course we see teleological behavior all over. If that is what you mean, I agree. But in evolutionary changes across generations no.

  • Dave Grandy

    For many people Darwinian evolution and Biblical creationism appear to be irreconcilable. This is not true. One can take any significant object or idea in the Bible and use it to better understand the evolutionary process. Here I look briefly at the humble cubit, which has been under-studied and under-appreciated. I am convinced that the cubit is the key to resolving the evolutionist-creationist conflict, which is not a conflict at all.
    The Hebrews were advanced mathematicians and were the first to attempt to square the circle. This they did with a unit of measure called a “squarit,” which had no standard length but which was bent at a right angle to form half a square. This served as a drawing compass to produce circles. To achieve three-dimensional circles (spheres), they had to move up a dimension to the cubit. When they discovered by empirical means that the circumference of a baptismal font or half-sphere was about three times the length of the diameter (see 2 Chronicles, chapters 4-6), this convinced them that there is something cosmically important about the cubit. According to rabbinical tradition, Yahweh first created the universe as a zero-dimensional point, which, incidentally, was nothing other than the Big Bang singularity of modern cosmology. Then, feeling a bit underwhelmed, he decided to make a one-dimensional linear universe which he quickly grew tired of and improved by adding a second dimension. It was in this flat universe that dinosaurs and cave men came about, and that is why fossils are generally, well, very flat, and cave drawings are two-dimensional. After a while, though, Yahweh realized that even this two-dimensional universe was not grand enough for his high purposes and so, in a moment of truth, he said, “CUBE IT!” At that point Adam and Eve popped into three-dimensional existence and human history began as we know it.

  • David H Bailey

    Steve: Thanks for this post. Yes, this is an important point — modern science effectively refutes the mechanistic universe of classical physics. Laplace’s “inteligence” (a “computer” that had all information and could simply calculate the future) cannot exist. Insted, Laplace’s “intelligence” died from a combination of chaos theory, which shows how in many physical laws, even tiny uncertainties or changes in initial conditions are magnified to macro scale, and quantum mechanics, which fundamentally forbids us from obtaining the present state of a system (much less the universe as a whole) with arbitrarily high precision.

    And indeed, the mechanics of molecular biology is one region where Laplace’s demon is most certainly skewered.

    I wish this were better appreciated both in modern science and philosophy as a whole and in Mormon thought in particular — the determinism that many have feared, directly or subliminally, from modern science has no basis in fact.

  • SteveP

    David that’s great! Very good!

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