Deep Time Journey Forum Is the universe a "living system"?

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  • #3928
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant
    An extensive conversation has been underway on the Deep Time Journey Facebook page regarding the issue of whether it is scientifically valid to consider our universe as a living system. I would like to use the criteria from Big History as a basis for a constructive debate for this foundational topic. From the big history project (and the work of founder David Christian) we find this straightforward definition of “life”: 
     
     
    Here David Christian explains that “we know that life has four qualities”:
     
    • Metabolism: the ability to take in energy from surroundings to keep going
     
    • Self-regulation: also known as “homeostasis,” an organism’s ability to regulate itself to maintain stability
     
    • Reproduction: the ability to create copies, allowing life to preserve itself and go on
     
    • Adaptation: the ability to change from generation to generation and become better suited to environments
    I propose that these four criteria apply to the universe and, on that basis, it is legitimate to consider our universe as a unique kind of living entity:
    1. The universe demonstrates metabolism as it takes in vast amounts of energy to sustain itself as a flow-through system. Numerous scientists have described this process. Mathematical cosmologist, Brian Swimme, states that the “universes emerges out of an all-nourishing abyss at every moment.” Physicist David Bohm states that “the universe is a unified whole in flowing movement.” 
     
    2. The universe demonstrates self-regulation over billions of years by producing self-organizing systems at every scale, from the atomic to the galactic. The signature of these self-organizing systems is found in the toroidal architecture throughout the universe—the torus being the simplest geometry of a self-organizing system. This is not speculation but visible, clear, and scientifically evident.
     
    3. The universe demonstrates reproduction in the multi-verse view of black holes as the doorway into new cosmic systems and the premise of “survival of the fittest”—the most successful and surviving universes are those that are able to emerge and evolve over billions of years. Because we cannot stand outside our universe, we cannot “prove” this process is occurring but a multi-universe view is now the widely accepted norm in scientific cosmology.
     
    4. The universe demonstrates adaptation as it has evolved through billions of years to ever higher order systems at every scale: cosmic, planetary, microscopic, atomic. This is not speculation but based on observable facts from science.
    Because I see the universe as exhibiting these qualities as viewed through the lens of science, it does seem appropriate to consider our universe as a unique, living system that supports the emergence of a vast array of other living systems within it. In turn, I welcome comments on David Christian’s four qualities of life as a basis for considering whether it is scientifically valid to regard our universe as a living system. 
    #3930
    Profile photo of Lowell Gustafson
    Lowell Gustafson
    Participant

    Thanks Duane.

    Are there any differences between black holes or systems of galaxies and a prokaryote cell, and if so, what are they?  Are there any differences between what is seen as the consciousness of the universe and how people think, and again, if so, what are they.  I’m looking for ways of making distinctions.

    Best,

    Lowell

    #3931
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Dear Lowell,
    I’ll give a simple answer to a very important and complex question: I assume there are meaningful distinctions in “consciousness” in the sense that I assume that every “thing” has a consciousness that uniquely fits its form and function. For example, scientific research indicates there is some kind of self-organizing capacity (and “knowing” capacity) operating at the level of DNA that enables self-assembly, as well some level of knowing-sentience operating at the level of single-celled organisms (e.g., slime mold) that enables collective self-assembly (when faced with starvation), and some degree of consciousness and self-organizing capacity operating at the human level, etc. but the form and function of each is vastly different so I would assume that the reflective or knowing capacity at each level would be vastly different. There appears to be a permeating sentience or knowing capacity infusing the universe and different systems make use of that to enable self-organizing activity appropriate to their form and function.
    Kind regards,
    Duane  

    #3936
    Profile photo of Davidson Loehr
    Davidson Loehr
    Participant

    Duane, 

    I know you’re heavily invested in this, but the things you’re citing are neither scientific nor evidentiary for the argument that the universe is “living.” It’s a misuse of language, and an important one to clean up. “Living” and “Dead” are biological terms. Used elsewhere, they’re being used as metaphors. You use words in senses far more “sweeping” than they can be used: Universe, living, consciousness, and the rest of them. There is no sense at all in which the Universe is alive. As most of the BH writers point out, almost everywhere, at every scale, the universe is a dull place with nothing happening: almost all suns burn out without ever growing beyond hydrogen and helium, burning out in a short time, producing nothing. The same is true at every level of magnification. The overwhelming majority of prokaryotes never got complexified at all, and are still with us — prokaryotes/bacteria/archaea account for half the biomass of the Earth today (the weight of living and recently dead things). No complexity, no advances, etc. Only rarely is this monotony broken, and to try and make those exceptions the Rule is not at all scientific. The same applies to all the words you’re using out of their original context, and in very misleading ways. I know you’re not alone in this. Many people want to think we’re special, that the Universe somehow “cares” or at least “notices” the presence of wonderful us. But no. 

     

    This is why I keep bringing up the word “mysticism”: the game where the wish and need are parents to the data we choose to see and cite. And I know people like saying things like “we are the universe being conscious of itself,” and so on. But it’s important to say this is scientific nonsense — and to say it to the scientists who use the language this way, as well. This applies to the four qualities of “life” you cited from David Christian. When applying them to “the Universe,” you’re using them metaphorically, not factually, and not helpfully. 

     

    In my limited experience — not enough to be scientific — the roots of mysticism are biographical and psychological. A very dear, now dead, longtime friend of mine was the example I knew best — and he helped explore his own past as we both wondered about these things. John was into every kind of (my word) goofy crap that came down the pike, and there was a LOT of that in the 70’s! Marijuana, LSD, Transcendental Meditation, Astrology, auras. I would tell him he never met a flaky idea he didn’t love. Once, I asked what he GOT out of this, and he answered quickly: “A feeling that I am loved, valuable, accepted in Reality even at its largest scales.” We were both surprised by that! He was puzzled, but figured out where that came from (John had his Ph.D. in psychology — no surprise!). His father was a fundamentalist Christian minister of the most soul-numbing literalist kind, living in a world where Rules governed absolutely everything, there was Judgment everywhere, and almost no one could ever pass that judgment — least of all John, he said. As he grew, this very bright boy grew toward adulthood with a monstrous vacuum where a contented and fertile soul should have grown. When he got to the University of Michigan in the late 60’s, he was in the perfect place to experience every sort of alternate reality there was, and he did. Marijuana first relaxed him and gave him a sense of belonging. LSD blew his mind, gave him very creative illusions, wrapped him in a “world” within which he felt loved — for the first time in his life, and so on with the rest of it. 

     

    Once, when I was grilling him about the Astrology crap, he first told me that’s just what a Taurus would say, and wanted at least two points for that move — we decided it was worth more like five. Then he said “Oh very well, I’ll come into your world to answer your questions.” And he did. He described the whole grammar of astrology as a system of metaphors and symbols, along with fertile and imaginative images and stories, that offered him a set of lenses through which he could view the world, and the people, around him, and find insights that let him accept everyone for their “gifts differing” (he knew the Bible very well, even though he didn’t like it). That orientation let him accept the wild differences he found in people, without ever Judging them — a very bad word for him, given his biography. Acceptance meant a lot to John, and he was one of the most accepting and loving people I’ve ever known. After spending some time fleshing out this world in ways I could understand, he said “Is that enough?” I said it was, and thanked him for it. “Fine. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going back to MY world!” 

     

    John was as complete a mystic as anyone I’ve ever known, and helped me understand why someone would leave reality for a far more fertile imaginative world/universe in which they felt — for the first time ever, in John’s case — part of an inclusive, empowering and loving Whole. We would be poorer without our mystics, whether they’re writing in religion, poetry, history, or the sciences. But we must still insist that language is too innocent to deserve being bent as mystics bend it. Yes, it’s fine in their world, as John insisted. But it’s important that in empirical sciences, we outlaw such deceptive uses of words that have their meaning in other fields: like “living,” “dead,” “metabolism,” and the rest of them. No, “the Universe” doesn’t care if we’re here, because it can’t hold any anthropomorphic attributes: caring, seeing, loving, any of them. It’s important to make distinctions between knowledge and yearning: between science (scientia = knowledge, meaning empirical knowledge) and wishing. 

     

    I’m not trying to be mean, but am meaning to say language doesn’t deserve being used so sloppily that it can slough off its important connection with empirical facts/data. No, of course “the Universe” isn’t “living”. Mostly, it’s terribly boring, with very little of interest happening — no matter how much all those prokaryotes weigh. There’s no Presence, no Life, sort of hovering over the universe, beckoning to it and to us. I still think the metaphorical use of words whose meanings — empirical meanings — lie in quite different areas is probably best explained by biography and psychology. Nor does this condemn us to an existence without hope or meaning, though it’s misleading to use words like “hopeful” or “meaningful,” “purposeful,” outside of specific situations where “potential” can have meaningful products because the circumstances happen to be just right. People often — perhaps usually — look to religion to fill the universe with meaning, embrace them in love and so on. That’s the solipsism that is no friend of honest religion. But it’s the mortal enemy of honest science. The fact that there are some scientists, including some popular ones, who use scientific language in deeply unscientific ways doesn’t mean they’re right to do so. Personal authority can’t reach that far, even though personal need and wishing can always reach that far without even breaking a sweat. We’ve not met, Duane, and I don’t know anything about you, but you’re mixing science and religion/mysticism in ways that don’t serve either of them well, as I understand them, and as I understand language. 

    #3937
    Profile photo of Jon Cleland Host
    Jon Cleland Host
    Participant

     

    Duane-

     

           Thanks for opening the discussion here.   This could be an easier venue to work in than facebook.  

     

    I suspect that it might be best to pick one aspect and focus on discussing the scientific evidence there before going to others, so as to keep the discussion manageable.  If so, then for starters I’ll agree to use David Christian’s definition of life.  So starting at the first claim (metabolism) seems like a logical place to start.  

     

    However, do we want to follow Lowell’s line first?  If so, then the next step would be to provide evidence for the large number of claims in Duane’s response (3931).

     

    I’ll do either as we wish, leaving the other to follow.  Best-

     

           -Jon

     

    #3938
    Profile photo of Jennifer Morgan
    Jennifer Morgan
    Participant

    Thanks Jon.  For this conversation to be helpful, let’s look at a specific statement that Duane is making and evaluate whether it is:

    A) A science-based statement that most of the science community would subscribe to.
     
    or
     
    B) A statement that’s an “interpretation” of science-based statements that most of the science community would not subscribe to, at least not at this time.  If it is B, it may be valid for creating a paradigm, but it’s important to be clear that there is not consensus in the scientific community regarding the paradigm, at least not at this time.  In my many years of experience with scientists at Princeton and elsewhere, there’s nothing that drives scientists more bonkers than people making statements, as interesting and valid and they might be, without making the distinction between science-based statements that have consensus in the science community and interpretations of science-based statements.
     
    The “Approaches to a Science-Based Origin Story” paper that I’m working on is about creating a map, or topology, of different views.  It’s attempt to identify the strictly evidence-based lineages from other lineages that interpret science and create paradigms based on science.  Evolution is so messy, particularly the evolution of ideas.  What we’re about here is cutting edge, where science is being integrated into culture in so many different ways impacting human identity and behavior.  The care and rigor we bring to this project is so important. 
     
    So, as you suggest Jon . . . how about starting with metabolism?
     
    What do scientists say about metabolism — statements that enjoy consensus?
     
    What statement(s) are you making about metabolism Duane?  Are they a departure from statements that enjoy consensus in the science community.  If so how?  Why is this important? 
     
    Thanks for prompting this important discussion Duane.
     
    Jennifer
     

    #3940
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Yes, let’s focus the conversation. Metabolism does seem like a good place to start. David Christian describes “metabolism” as the ability to take in energy from surroundings to keep systems going. In turn, my understanding of current science is that it requires vast amounts of energy for the universe to maintain itself as a flow-through system. I mentioned two scientists who have described aspects of this process. Mathematical cosmologist, Brian Swimme, states that the “universes emerges out of an all-nourishing abyss at every moment.” Physicist David Bohm states that “the universe is a unified whole in flowing movement.” I agree with Jennifer that this is an interpretative understanding of the word “metabolism” because this word is generally identified with biological systems at the earth-scale and the physical and chemical processes which enable those systems to maintain themselves. The question becomes whether it is rational/scientific to expand our description of scale beyond the earth and, in turn, consider the universe as a unified system with physical and chemical processes at work that enable it to maintain itself. Returning to David Christian stating that metabolism is “the ability to take in energy from surroundings to keep systems going,” this view fits with a number of scientists exploring the idea that the universe is not static but is, instead, a dynamically regenerated system maintained by enormous amounts of energy drawn from its surroundings (recall that 73 percent of the known universe is dark energy–and this could be regarded not only as an expansive energy but also as a sustaining energy for a dynamically maintained universe). This seems to align with the views of the distinguished Princeton physicist John Wheeler who stated that material things are “composed of nothing but space itself, pure fluctuating space. . . that is changing, dynamic, altering from moment to moment.” Wheeler goes on to say that, “Of course, what space itself is built out of is the next question. . . . The stage on which the space of the universe moves is certainly not space itself. . . The arena must be larger: superspace. . .” At this larger scale, it does seem scientifically legitimate to consider our unified (non-local) universe as a dynamic system that draws energy from its surroundings to maintain itself. 

    #3941
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    As context for this inquiry, I want to say that I view all paradigms as provisional and evolving as our understanding of the universe grows and deepens. Therefore, I consider a living universe paradigm as provisional and very much open to change as our knowledge of the universe develops. We are in a time of deep change in how reality is understood and described. Scientific materialism is no longer a fully validated paradigm as some of its underlying assumptions are being questioned by science. Science has become so powerful that it is challenging itself and its own deep assumptions regarding concepts as fundamental as “time,” “space” and “matter.” Likewise, neither is the paradigm of a living universe fully validated as many of its assumptions are also questioned by science. This is a time of exciting discovery and change. Openness to discovery is vital for developing a scientific paradigm that fits most closely with our evolving understanding of the universe. With an appreciation for the developmental and evolving nature of all paradigms, I look forward to a respectful exploration of the paradigm of a living universe.

    #3942
    Profile photo of Jennifer Morgan
    Jennifer Morgan
    Participant

    First, Duane, I really admire the way you’re putting the Living Systems Paradigm out there for scrutiny.  Not everyone has the guts to do what you’re doing.  This is a profound and complex inquiry and it would be good to bring in scientists and also philosophers of science to take this conversation to the level where it needs to go.  It certainly does seem that some of the patterns that distinguish life are also happening at the universe level in some form.   But I would like to get biologists and astrophysicists involved.  Jon, you’re our lone scientist for the moment so it would be great to hear your view.  Duane, do you know Fritjof Capra?  If so, can you invite him into the conversation. 

     

    I’m leaving tomorrow morning early for Indiana to give a program and so may not respond right away.  All of you might also reach out to others who you feel would be able to contribute to the conversation.

     

     

     

     

    #3943
    Profile photo of Stephan Martin
    Stephan Martin
    Participant

    Hi Duane,
    Glad to be joining the conversation at this point. A helpful approach to understanding whether the term metabolism applies to the universe might be to apply it to nested and emergent biological systems and see at what point (if any) the term breaks down as we apply it to larger scales. I think biologists would all agree that cells and organisms all metabolize by exchanging energy with the environment, and they might feel comfortable applying the term to collections of biological entities such as nests, colonies, or even ecosystems. At ecosystems, it begins to push the boundary between traditionally defined living and non-living entities. For example, the largest ecosystem on Earth could be considered to be the biosphere itself, which metabolizes sunlight as it’s primary energy source. This extends the ecosystem to at least the Sun-Earth system. At this point I think most astronomers would be uncomfortable using the term metabolism to describe the energy dynamics of the system, and would see it as a biological metaphor applied to a physical system. But I’m not sure it doesn’t apply here as well, if we’re using David Christian’s definition as a starting point. Astronomers also talk about galactic ecology, the exchange of energy between various parts of the galaxy and the enrichment of the interstellar medium (the “soil”) over time through stellar nucleosynthesis – is this metabolism on a galactic scale?

    It may be that these larger-scale metabolic processes occur on such long timescales (millions and billions of years in the case of galactic metabolism) that we simply don’t have enough scientific observations and evidence to answer the question “Is the universe a ‘living system’?” from a scientific standpoint.  I’d love to have biologists weigh in on this issue and see where the cracks are in the argument from their perspective.

    #3944
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Greetings Stephan,

    Thanks for these thoughtful and insightful contributions to our conversation. I don’t have any “answers” but you certainly raise important questions and offer stimulating insights that make me think freshly about this theme! I agree that it would be wonderful to have biologists (and cosmologists) weigh in on the fascinating issues you present. I look forward to further dialogue catalyzed (metabolized?) by your contributions.

    Duane

    #3945
    Profile photo of Jennifer Morgan
    Jennifer Morgan
    Participant

    Indeed.  Thanks for your insightful comments Stephen.  Moving from small to large and seeing if and where the term metabolism breaks down is a great question.  I’m searching for biologists to help us out.  Do either of you, or Davidson, Jon, or Lowell, know any who could come into the conversation? 

    #3946
    Profile photo of Linda Fitch
    Linda Fitch
    Participant

    As a non scientist my only contribution to this discussion is the expression of my gratitude to Duane for initiating such a riveting conversation.  It actually began on the very day that I was, during my arduous journey of self-education regarding science, wondering about the boundaries between life and non life.  I await, with baited breath, the next contributions to this fabulous exchange.

    #3947
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Stephan, Following up on your comments about metabolism at the scale of galaxies, I recall an article in Scientific American magazine in January, 2004 by Bart P. Wakker and Philipp Richter with the title, “Our Growing, Breathing Galaxy,” and the subtitle comment, “Long assumed to be a relic of the distant past, the Milky Way turns out to be a dynamic, living object.“[emphasis added] I don’t have the full article (they charge roughly $8 for it!), but I think it directly bears on your thoughts about galactic-scale metabolism as a “dynamic, living object.” Here’s a link: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/our-growing-breathing-gal/  Duane  

     

    #3948
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Greetings Linda,

    Welcome to this conversation. Thanks for your work–preserving geological evidence of the Earth’s ancient origins of life is vital to understanding the story of our evolution. 

    Duane

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