Deep Time Journey Forum › Is the universe a "living system"?
- November 14, 2015 at 9:35 am #7486
Duane asked me to post more interesting stuff from “Life of the Cosmos” By Lee Smolin. Here is an outline of one chapter, “What is Life” page 141 to 160. There are interesting ideas contained.141-142. Ideas of Newton and Plato are reviewed. Smolin says their ideas lack the idea of evolution, change. Plato and Newton thought a God outside the universe kept the system from going towards disorder. Boltzmann said that life is too improbable to occur by chance. Boltzmann concluded that our life is a transient excursion from normal uniform equilibrium that occured only because the universe in infinite in time and space, so all configurations no matter how wildly improbably have to happen sometime. (Brian Green said something like this too, if I recall.) Smolin regarded Boltzmann’s answer to this quandary as inadequate Smolin instead wants a science that would have life as a natural inevitable outcome, not a transient occurrence of incredibly unlikely odds. Smolin says that a galaxy or even the universe as a whole does not equaly the complexity of one single cell. So he says we may not pronounce the universe “alive” (page 145.) (However, he says in chapter one that life can’t exist in a dead universe hmmm.) Instead, he wants to describe the characteristics of living things, and go from there. (Same idea we had!) P145 He gives the biological definition of life, which is similar to the one Ursula gave, so I won’t repeat it. The problem, he says: this definition does not say why things with these characteristics exist in our universe. A better definition would say Life is interconnected. (James McAlister will like this.) Smolin says the biological definition he gives (similar to Ursula’s, as I said) would allow for a solitary living thing, which he says is not possible. (Nor can there be only one species, he says) So, the biological definition of life that will be useful to biologists deciding, for example, if a particular coral is alive or not is not useful for our discussion. He discusses the Gaia hypotheses at length p 148-151 (saying it’s validity is still unsettled but it is a good scientific, plausible, testable idea, which has stood up to testing but not yet so enough to be confirmed (this is written in 1997). He says he thus doesn’t understand why it (the Gaia hypotheses) is controversial. He insists a definition of life must include interconnections. He discusses thermodynamics (as I related in my first post). The universe runs in the direction of disorder (p. 142. ) He discusses self-organization, p 152 and notes that a flow of energy IN is needed for self-organization. The second law (i.e. entropy increases) holds for the universe as a whole, not an isolated system like the Earth. For example, the configuration of DNA is improbable. In a living cell, random motions break DNA and proteins; the cell reconstructs itself using energy. The energy must come in a useful form. (And must be able to leave as well!) Here on Earth, for example, we have a source of energy as photons (the sun) and we have cold places to ditch our energy. (P 153) (Again, he stresses, our universe is not in thermal equilibrium, very important to him!!) So to him, life requires a flow of energy in from a high energy area and then OUT again to an even lower energy area. In such an area, organization can thrive and even be favored. Also, there must be the potential for organization. (i.e., There must be atoms) This is a good area for physicists to study, he says. People who have been looking for theories of self-organizing systems are: (p. 154) Per Bak, John Holland, Stuart Kauffman, Harold Morowitz, Ilya Prigogine. He discusses. Morowitz and Prigogine have found/studied systems that have an energy-in energy-out flow and that reach non-equilibrium states. Morowitz studies chemical reactions and says energy-in-out cycles are more fundamental than life, and may be the first step in biological life, or perhaps biological life may be understood as a subset of such processes. (Smolin discusses the cell membrane here in a general discussion of system boundaries, and this is something of importance to my own thinking, so I will return to this in a separate post.) Smolin calls these ‘boundaried’ systems that contain non-equilibrium states with energy-in-and-out processes “Self-organized non-equilibrium systems” and gives a longer definition of such that I won’t replicate (but I do urge you to read the book!) (Some characteristic from his definition–the state is maintained for an extended time and is stabilized against perturbation.) He says a spiral galaxy (see my first post) fits the definition. (But he says a spiral galaxy is not “alive’) Life is a subset of these systems. Life needs three more characteristics, which I had in my first post.a self organized non-equlibrium system such thatthe processes are governed by a program which is stored symbolically andIt can reproduce itself, including the program (p 156)(Fancifully, He says the biosphere could be called alive once it spreads to other planets, re the Gaia hypotheses, according to his criteria) He says he doesn’t think you can call the universe as a whole alive, because the laws of nature are not an information program that can be replicated symbolically An information program must be able to be specified by a finite amount of information. This also rules out the laws of the universe, because he doesn’t feel that this must be so. (I.e. that they must be specified by a finite amount of information.) Remember, he is a mathematician. Also, you must have a flow of energy in and out. (He doesn’t mention the idea of flow from another universe as we discussed) He says that the self-organized systems in the universe are transitory because you can’t have them forever in a universe that will tend towards thermal equilibrium. But he again stresses that the non-uniformity of our present universe is essential for life, and gives the quote I made in my first post: It seems then that life is situated in a nested hierarchy of self-organized systems … (from) local ecologies to the galaxy. Each of the levels are non-equilibrium systems that owe their existence to … self organization …. Is there a sense in which the universe as a whole could be a non-equlibrium self organized system? Page 159. In this sense, life is not a statistical fluke, because self-organized non-equilibrium systems permeate our universe on every scale. He says if we construct a picture of cosmology based on non-equilibrium, we might see life within as natural. This system would be “liberated from a crippling duality” where outside intelligence imposes order on chaos.November 17, 2015 at 9:34 pm #7539
Karen– Thanks for encouraging us to read Smolin’s cosmology. I ordered his book and it arrived yesterday. I’ve been appreciating his creative inquiry!November 20, 2015 at 9:35 am #7482
Hi, Duane, how kind of you to order the book on my recommendation. It took me many months to read it; as I said, I found it in the library when this conversation first started. Looking back on it, I think I might have done better to start with the chapter What is Life (p. 141-160) , and work backwards and forwards, because the excitement this chapter generates would have helped me. The first few chapters of the book are hard, I thought. Chapters like “Beyond the Anthropic Principle” , p.202 to 210, are quite easy to read and stimulating in a crazy, philosophical way. (Smolin, besides being a pretty well known physicist, is also apparently a philosopher–according to Wiki, he is a graduate member of the philosophy department at the University of Toronto, whatever that means.) Chapters like “Space and Time in the New Cosmology”, p. 213-221, are harder. The section of the book that holds that chapter (part four and part five) that discusses cosmology, relativity, and quantum effects was very good, but difficult (though written for non scientists). The chapter, “The Evolution of Time”, is interesting. A lot of these chapters can be read by themselves, in a pick and choose fashion, though I suppose the reader won’t understand as much. If there is interest, I will outline more chapters.November 20, 2015 at 9:35 am #7483
BTW, I’m sorry my spacing is a bit off. I was correcting it when I got kicked off the computer in the library. (I refuse to have internet in my house, because I spend all my time on the web!) At least my spaces are too big, rather than too small. And I’m grateful to have this page to share my ideas (and Lee Smolin’s. I hope you will agree, perhaps based on just this one chapter alone, that Smolin has done much of the work we as a group intended to do.November 20, 2015 at 11:57 am #7505
Karen: Thanks for this helpful overview and introduction to Smolin’s book! I will jump to the chapter, “What is Life.”November 21, 2015 at 9:35 am #7481
Hi Duane, I’m reading your article for ReVision (Summer 1988) on continuous creation and it’s blowing my mind! Personally, I don’ t think the Universe has to have all the properties of a living system as we know it on Earth. We’re derivative of the Universe and the Universe is beyond a living system — it’s the Mother of Living Systems. Just as Thomas Berry noted in a private conversation with me many years ago about the Gaia theory, “As the mother of life and having these capacities for self-adjustment, it is in a sense a greater form of life than any particular form on the Earth.” I don’t think we should be defining qualities of the Universe in terms of our biological standards. It’s too limiting. Thanks, AngelaNovember 22, 2015 at 11:57 am #7503
Hi Angela, Thanks for the feedback on the “continuous creation” paper with its living systems view of the universe (available on my website). Also, I agree with you that it is too limiting to define the qualities of aliveness of our universe with the qualities of aliveness found in biological systems here on Earth. Your quote from Thomas Berry is powerfully relevant, describing the aliveness of the universe as a “greater form of life.”November 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm #7466
Connie and I fully and wholeheartedly agree with Angela (and Thomas Berry) on this point!As I said in my only previous contribution to this discussion, what truly matters, it seems to me, is NOT whether or not we all agree that “the Universe” is “alive”, or “a living system”, so much as this… If we don’t treat NATURE with the same respect and honor that we would naturally give a human person we consider part of our “in-group”, we will self-destruct and bring about a literal hell on Earth. Can we agree on that? I think so (at least those on this DTJN list) 🙂 Love to all,Together for the future, ~ Michael (and Connie)November 25, 2015 at 8:57 am #7502
Michael– I strongly agree with your view that it is vital we treat nature with the same respect and honor that we give to a human person, we will self-destruct. I like the idea that nature is part of my “in-group.” In agreeing with Thomas Berry, do you regard the universe as “. . . a greater form of life than any particular form on the Earth”?November 25, 2015 at 9:35 am #7479
Duane, I would certainly agree that the universe is a greater form of life than any particular form of life on earth. We tend to use life in the universe as analogous to life on earth. But I think it is really the other way around. Once we accept the Big Bang as a mysterious reality, life on earth is analogous to life in the Universe-the “Mother of all life.” This is a mystery of course, but as you have pointed out we live continually in the realm of mystery and we have to base our understanding of life on numerous logical assumptions. One of them is Ex nihilo nihil fit. Life on Earth cannot come from nothing. We are facing the limitations of language but, as Thomas Berry pointed out to me on one occasion, “Just because something is analogous does not mean it is not real.” I quite like the way Thomas Berry has expressed the creative awakening of a life giving force in the Universe. “If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture. ” (The New Story in the Dream of the Earth, p.137.November 26, 2015 at 9:59 am #7500
Thomas Berry was quite careful, Duane, to only use language that could be embraced by the vast majority of mainstream scientists. You, by contrast, consistently take the opposite approach. I knew Thomas personally over a period of 20 years and counted him as a dear friend as well as my main mentor. Between August 1988 (when I first met him and spent the weekend at his home in Riverdale, NY) and November 2008 (when Connie and I saw him for the last time, at his nursing home in Greensboro, NC), Thomas and I saw each other a dozen or more times and had probably engaged in 50+ hours of conversation. (He even visited my home and stayed with me and my family in Ann Arbor in 1994.) Never, in all that time, did Thomas say what you seem to be implying he said. “Close, as they say, but no cigar”; and the difference is huge in terms of how it lands on others! I suggest that you can use Jon Cleland Host as a litmus test. I can say confidently that Jon would celebrate and fully align with virtually all the language Thomas used. But Jon hardly celebrates your wording, and there’s a good reason for this. Regarding the nature of the Universe/Solar System/Earth, what Thomas said often, publicly and privately, are things like this:”The Universe, the solar system, and the planet Earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being. “Earth, within the solar system, is a self-emergent, self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-governing, self-healing, self-fulfilling community.” “The Universe is the only text without a context.” “From its beginning the Universe is a psychic-spiritual as well as physical reality.” “The three basic laws of the Universe at all levels of reality are differentiation, subjectivity and communion. These laws identify the reality, the values and the directions in which the Universe is proceeding.” “The human is that being in whom the Universe activates, reflects upon and celebrates itself in conscious self-awareness.” In any event, Duane, I truly applaud your passion for inviting all of us to relate to Nature in a loving, respectful, mutually enhancing way. And I guess that’s really the bottom line for me. Big Love and Thanksgiving Blessings to you and Coleen, ~ Michael cell: 425-760-9941 PS. Here are some of my favorite quotes of his: Thomas Berry: Gems of Deep-Time WisdomNovember 26, 2015 at 10:18 am #7541
Mike, thanks for that quote from Thomas! Years ago I memorized that one and often concluded my evening programs by reciting it. What a gemNovember 26, 2015 at 11:13 am #7542
Michael I’m not sure what you meant by this statement “Thomas Berry was quite careful, Duane, to only use language that could be embraced by the vast majority of mainstream scientists. You, by contrast, consistently take the opposite approach.” Could you give us some specific examples of how Duane’s language is problematic? On a related matter I think this brief video may be of interest. It seems that though Thomas had the highest regard for science, he had some difficulty with how science tended to use its insights. Science thinks it is also a cosmology but it lacks a cosmology–an ability to use it insights in a way that creates a mutually enhancing relationship between our species and Earth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOdw0eoX9gM/November 26, 2015 at 11:33 am #7120
fyi…near the top of Connie’s and my “What’s New?” page on our main website is a link to some great videos of Thomas Berry on YouTube:November 26, 2015 at 12:35 pm #7121
Thank you for the eloquent and poetic quotations from Thomas Berry! I agree with and celebrate his insights and artistry.
I have not purposefully used language in opposition with mainstream science. My interest is straightforward: Look at the attributes of living systems and ask whether those are attributes of our universe.
To me, the evidence points increasingly in the direction of aliveness and this has truly enormous implications for the foundational nature of reality and the human journey.
With love, gratitude, and Thanksgiving blessings to you and Connie (and all others on this thread),
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