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

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  • #7122
    Profile photo of Michael Dowd
    Michael Dowd
    Participant

    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.

    Trust me, I’m with you, brother!

     

     

    Big love and cyberhugs,

     

     

    ~ Michael

    #7123
    Profile photo of Michael Dowd
    Michael Dowd
    Participant

    Another major attribute of living systems is that they all have GRACE LIMTS. For anyone on this thread who might be interested, this is the main thing I’ve been involved in over the last year: http://thegreatstory.org/grace-limits-audios.html       

     

    My most important contribution to this “Grace Limits” body of work (indeed, the main message I’ve been working on over the past year and, by far, the best articulation to-date of my Connie’s and my core values, priorities, and commitments), can be found in this amazing “Buddha at the Gas Pump” interview. Connie spent two days editing this and adding all kinds of cool visuals:    

     

    PRO-FUTURE or ANTI-FUTURE?    

     

    Thanksgiving love and blessings to all,        

     

    ~ Michael

    #7127
    Profile photo of Laura Hawkins
    Laura Hawkins
    Participant

    Someone else must be cooking for you gentlemen today! While cooking up collard greens and carrots, a new cranberry sauce experiment and sweet potatoes for a shared meal, I came across this little video with a big message (part of the Nature Speaks series). Happy Thanksgiving and many many thanks for this network.

    Laura Hawkins

    #7128
    Profile photo of Michael Dowd
    Michael Dowd
    Participant

    Beautiful, Laura, and a perfect contribution to this conversation thread. Thanks! (And yes, a most beloved woman in my life is taking responsibility for Thanksgiving dinner; I do the clean up. 🙂

     

    Among other things, these videos celebrate the evolutionary (survival!) significance of our brain’s propensity to personify — that is, to give human characteristics to what is, in fact, more-than-human. 

     

    All eight “Nature Is Speaking” videos reflect something I wrote a couple of years ago for my HuffPost blog.  (Substitute the word “Universe” for “God” and the parallels become obvious):

     

    God: Personification ≠ Person        

    #7133
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Michael—

     

    Thank you for bringing the wisdom of Thomas Berry into this dialogue. I’d like to bring in a few quotes into this inquiry from his bookThe Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).  An important aspect of Thomas’s dream for the Earth was that we progressively awaken to the creative power and presence of the universe. He wrote: 

     

    We bear the universe in our being

    as the universe bears us in its being.

    The two have a total presence to each other… 

     

    He recognized, however, our species has barely begun this great enterprise:

     

    …the universe is so immediate to us, is such an intimate presence, that it escapes our notice, yet whatever authenticity exists in our cultural creations is derived from these spontaneities within us, spontaneities that come from an abyss of energy and a capacity for intelligible order of which we have only the faintest glimmer in our conscious awareness.

     

    Importantly, wrote Berry, we are empowered to discover that, in our evolution 

     

    “(W)e are not left simply to our own rational contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our own beings.”   

     

    He further says that, 

     

    Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. . . . what we need, what we are ultimately groping toward, is the sensitivity required to understand and respond to the psychic energies deep in the very structure of reality itself. . . .  I suggest that this is the ultimate lesson in physics, biology, and all the sciences, as it is the ultimate wisdom of tribal peoples and the fundamental teaching of the great civilizations. 

     

    Overall, in my understanding of Berry’s views, we live in a universe that represents a greater form of aliveness than the life-forms on Earth. He is in alignment with the view of Plato that our universe is a single living creature that contains all creatures within it. Berry sees the universe as a living, learning system that is forever emerging as a unified whole while simultaneously growing ever more diverse expressions of its aliveness.

    #7134
    Profile photo of Angela Manno
    Angela Manno
    Participant

    Hi Duane,

    One “rational” means tribal people (American Indians to be precise) use in their discernment process is to consider the effect an action will have on the next seven generations. We need both intuition and reason! I think maybe one reason our intuition fails us is our alienation from nature. In the words of a Delaware Indian in the early nineteenth century:

    “No one can have visions because the earth is no longer clean.”

    “. . . [T]he sensitivity required to understand and respond to the psychic energies deep in the very structure of reality itself” may be contingent on our contact and intimacy with a pristine nature. I have been on a retreat in such an atmosphere for the past two weeks where I notice these “spontaneities” rising in myself, through dreams and all different forms of intuition,  where this “intimate presence” can be more easily felt.

    A good thing to ponder in these post-Thanksgiving days, in honor of the people who developed and practiced those technologies that allowed them to live in harmony with the Living World.

    Thanks,

    Angela

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    #7135
    Profile photo of Jon Cleland Host
    Jon Cleland Host
    Participant

     

    Thanks, Michael! 

     

    A lot of the stuff that Ursula and I thought was unhelpful had to do with making claims that go beyond the evidence, and with the use of reductionism as a reason to reject science.  Regarding reductionism, it’s important to be aware of the difference between methodological reductionism and ontological (or philosophical) reductionism.

     

    Methodological reductionism (MR) is simply the use of a reductionist approach as a first line of investigating a problem. In other words, to say “*if* this thing were the sum of its parts, *how* could I test what those parts are and how they work?”   Most science uses methodological reductionism because it is helpful in finding experiments to better understand the subject being studied.  We all use it every day, or else we would not be able to function in our daily lives.  We all agree that it is useful, and has helped give the astounding success of science.

     

    Philosophical reductionism  (PR) is the belief that things really are simply the sum of their parts.  That’s what Duane, and myself, and many others, disagree with.  We are on the same page there – we all agree that it is not valid to claim that everything is simply the sum of it’s smallest parts (atoms, quarks, etc.).

     

    Where I’ve perceived a mismatch is when someone cites the fact that science uses methodological reductionism as proof that scientists are actually philosophical reductionists, and uses that to either reject science or to oppose science.  For instance, such an argument could go MR -> PR -> “scientists are unfairly biased against x idea” -> “x idea is actually true” .

     

    If one is to object to reductionism, or accuse this or that person of being a reductionist, it could go a long way toward having a fruitful discussion to be clear about whether that “reductionism” is MR or PR.  

     

    Equinox (Jon Cleland Host) 

     

     

     

    #7143
    Profile photo of Mike Bell
    Mike Bell
    Participant

    Folks,

    There is no doubt that this discussion—Is the Universe a Living System?—has been quite stimulating. We are indebted to Duane Elgin for starting it. People have been hanging in and expressing their opinions for some seven months. There are those of us who strongly believe that the universe is living and there are those of us who believe just as strongly that it is not living.

     

    Recently, it seems to me that we have been going around in circles. I was wondering if, after seven months of discussion, a common ground may have emerged.  I read back over many of the postings but couldn’t find a common ground. Both sides are sticking to their positions, saying the same thing but in different ways. (After reading all those postings I had an image of a Mobius Strip or the osborous eating its own tail.) Neither side—including myself– could move off the dime and find common ground. I wondered why.

     

    Recently I had an “aha” experience. I was reading an article by the theologian, Ilia Delio, entitled Laudato Si and Vatican 111

     

    http://globalsistersreport.org/column/speaking-god/laudato-si-and-vatican-iii-34616  

     

    Delio had significant praise for the insights of Pope Francis and his ability to move the relationship between science and religion forward in his discussion about climate change. But she also discussed a limitation of Francis’ approach. He was adopting the traditional geocentric cosmology of the medieval theologians, Bonaventure and Aquinas, that is based in large part on the insights of Aristotle. But Francis has not recognized that, since the early part of the past century, science has been moving into a new cosmological world based upon the insights of quantum mechanics.

     

    Could we be having a similar problem in our discussion of whether the universe is a living system?

     

    Let us imagine a discussion between two scientists—a biologist, an expert in cellular biology, and a physicist, an expert in quantum mechanics.The biologists asks the physicist, “From the point of view of your science, Is the Universe a living system?” The physicist answers, “I can’t answer your question. My discipline does not deal with material substances like yours does. It deals with elemental particles, quanta, waves, entangled energy fields, non-localities and so forth.”

     

    Then the physicist says to the biologist, “Now let me ask you a question about your science. Since Earth is part of the universe, what can you tell me about the relationship between cellular inter-action on the one hand and, on the other hand, waves and particles, energy fields or, say, what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.

     

    ”I think the example shows the difficulty we are having in our discussion.  It is a logic problem. The question, “Is the Universe a living system”, is a non-sequitur. There is a disconnect between the premise and the conclusion. In terms of the science it’s the old apples and oranges problem.

     

    But is there a question that is true to science and helps us find a common ground? I think there is. It might be this question: Is the Universe Conscious?  Neither the biologist nor the physicist can come up with a satisfactory, agreed upon definition of consciousness. But they can both come up with numerous examples that suggest that both the Universe and earth seem to manifest consciousness.

     

    We might start with Thomas Berry’s observation: “Human consciousness is the Universe reflecting upon itself.”  

     

    #7151
    Profile photo of Ursula Goodenough
    Ursula Goodenough
    Participant

    Well, the physicist’s question to the cell biologist doesn’t have a disconnect in that cells operate via molecules and molecules operate via chemistry and chemistry operates via physics, so there’s lots to be said about building cells, and about their molecule-mediated interactions, that builds on physics. 

     

    I’m not getting how one can have a conversation about consciousness without a definition of it. If I define it differently than another person does, then my answer to the question will likely be different from the other person’s answer, and then where are we?

    For example, given the definition of consciousness that I hold, which is that it is a property of biological organisms, I wouldn’t be able to come up with any examples that suggest that both the Universe and earth seem to manifest consciousness. I guess I wouldn’t be a good conversation partner!

     

    I regard the Berry quote as breathtakingly wonderful poetry. 

     

    #7152
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Mike —  

     

    Thanks for the inquiry into common ground! I’m open to the possibility that exploring the aliveness of the cosmos is a non-sequitur — that the conclusion of aliveness does not follow from the attributes of our universe. Although plausible, I find this puzzling because scientific research increasingly describes the universe as: 1) a unified whole, 2) sustained by the flow through of tremendous amounts of energy, 3) with a knowing capacity or consciousness that fits the form and function of systems at each scale, 4) having the capacity for freedom of choice at the quantum foundations, and 5) in theory, able to reproduce itself. While not “proving” aliveness, because these are attributes of living systems, they seem to imply or point toward the universe as a living system. 

    #7153
    Profile photo of Ed Lantz
    Ed Lantz
    Participant

    Great to see the conversation continuing…

     

    Mike: “The question, “Is the Universe a living system”, is a non-sequitur. There is a disconnect between the premise and the conclusion.”

     

    Thank you for this!  Yes, this thread has been going in circles and agree with your observation that folks are sticking to their guns, so to speak. I believe there are disconnects here regarding the definition of a “living system.”

     

    Jon: “If one is to object to reductionism, or accuse this or that person of being a reductionist, it could go a long way toward having a fruitful discussion to be clear about whether that “reductionism” is MR or PR. “

     

    I agree, this is an important differentiation. Methodological reductionism is an essential tool in science. Philosophically, the universe is not a collection of disconnected bits… it is a connected whole. It is our mind that does the reducing in MR, not the universe. In doing so we discover (seeming) causal relationships between bits of the universe and this gives us great insight and power over matter. However most scientists (especially a quantum physicists) will tell you that the absolute isolation and separation of systems is not physically achievable.

     

    Philosophically then, the universe IS alive because WE are alive and we are inseparable from the universe.

     

    Scientifically, however, this is a useless statement because there are bits within the universe (biological organisms, for instance) with properties that are extremely well differentiated from other bits (inert matter, for instance). In order to perform science we must separate and categorize these bits. One category is called “living” and the other is called “dead.” No scientist is going to want to lose this differentiation between biological life which has a finite life span and inert matter that just “sits there” obediently conforming to the laws of physics without volition of any kind. Declaring the entire universe as living is therefore anathema to science.

     

    Other arguments have been raised for the “universe as living system” as well that go beyond the simple philosophical one.

     

    Duane asserts that the universe has life-like properties with a beginning, a progression of growth, and reproduction of sorts. Elisabet called this autopoiesis.  This is a more difficult argument to make with scientists who have defined life in a particular way and in my opinion this argument is more akin to the Philosophically Non-Reductionist case, requiring a “big” view of the universe as an interconnected whole. Gathering scientific evidence to support this case seems like an uphill battle.

     

     

    There is also the (presumably) evidential view – anthropic arguments aside – that the probability of the universe spontaneously and randomly forming as it currently exists is so improbable as to be nearly impossible without some underlying distributed intelligence – and intelligence implies life. This possibility is supported by the observation that nonlocal quantum information and computational capacity pervades the universe, leaving the possibility that quantum randomness may in fact not be random but may indicate underlying computational processes that might be though of as a pervasive “intelligence” that is somehow related to consciousness.

     

    I also have asserted that the phenomenological domain has relevance here, although this is not widely accepted scientific practice. Basically, when polishing the lens of contemplation, we can achieve a state of consciousness where the entire universe APPEARS to be alive.  To me this is a valid datapoint on the scatter plot of observations about the universe…

     

    Considering all of these arguments, here is my conclusion at this time which is the best “common ground” that I can muster. We must allow science the categories of “living organism” and “non living matter” for them to do their work. However there is also room for the “big philosophical view” of an interconnected universe where living and non-living matter (in the scientific sense) are inseparable and part of larger phenomena that we are only starting to understand. Methodological reductionists need to respect that their methods are conceptual and not actual, and that quantum physics is clearly showing us that there are (or could be) informational interconnections that prevent our conceptual separations from ever being achieved. At the same time, philosophical non-reductionists must recognize the power of MR, however imperfect, to “decode” the workings of the universe.  MR works.

     

    So in this spirit, my suggestion (as pointed to by Jon) is to honor methodological reductionists (MR’s) for their good work – AND – to honor philosophical non-reductionists (PNR’s) for their “big view” observations and speculations which may one day prove to be scientific fact (that is, everything is integrally interconnected and therefore “alive”).

     

    So how do we honor both?

     

    The challenge, it seems to me, is one of language. PNR’s want to take control of the word “living” and use it to describe everything. MR’s say no, that word is reserved for a very specific phenomena (biological life) that is well differentiated. 

     

    Duane, is there another word that would suitably describe the non-biological yet highly interconnected and interdependent matter of the universe without co-opting a scientific term with a much more narrow definition?

     

    Jon, is there some sort of qualifier that Duane could use in front of the word “living” that would differentiate the use of this word from the implication of biological life?

     

     

    #7154
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Ed–  

     

    Thanks for your discerning and insightful posting! I’m excited by the possibility that, after more than 400 postings, our learning community may be discovering important common ground. I am comfortable with the summary paragraph that you wrote, Ed, and I’m wondering if this offers common ground for Jon and Mike (and others) as well.    

     

    “Considering all of these arguments, here is my conclusion at this time which is the best “common ground” that I can muster. We must allow science the categories of “living organism” and “non living matter” for them to do their work. However there is also room for the “big philosophical view” of an interconnected universe where living and non-living matter (in the scientific sense) are inseparable and part of larger phenomena that we are only starting to understand.” 

     

    #7155
    Profile photo of Duane Elgin
    Duane Elgin
    Participant

    Ed–

     

    You ask an interesting question: Is there “another word that would suitably describe the non-biological yet highly interconnected and interdependent matter of the universe . . .”? There are phrases that are evocative for me:

     

    • Double-Aliveness or Doubly-Alive — Life is nested within Life. In Plato’s terms: the universe is uniquely alive as an integrated whole and, within its vast wholeness, there are countless, differentiated organisms with their unique expressions of life. The aliveness of biological systems is then seen as a subset of the doubly-alive (life within life) universe.

     

    • Trans-Biological Aliveness — This phrase points explicitly beyond the realm of biology to another expression and realm of aliveness; for example, exploring the Earth as an integrated living system or the cosmos.

     

    • Deep Aliveness — This phrase is based on the recognition that 95 percent of the known universe is invisible and this realm seems vitally important to the important attributes that we describe as “aliveness.”  The “depth” of aliveness is unbounded and extends to the entire cosmos as an integrated system.

     

    After going through this thought-exercise, I realized, even more clearly, how the words “aliveness” and “living” are very valuable in describing our relationship with the universe. In turn, I don’t want to give them up to be used only by biologists — particularly if biological life is viewed a subset of the aliveness of the larger universe. Perhaps the question is: “Is there another word that would suitably describe the expression of ‘aliveness’ found in highly differentiated and seemingly separate biological systems?”

     

    #7170
    Profile photo of Mike Bell
    Mike Bell
    Participant

    Folks,    

     

    I’m having trouble keeping up with this conversation but here are some thoughts.   At first glance Jon’s distinction between methodological reductionism (MR) and philosophical reductionism (PR) would seem to be helpful. It may be that some are using reductionism to deny a holistic approach to science.   He may be right. I don’t know anything about this. But his distinction seems to me to imply (and I might be wrong) that PR is not real science. It is actually philosophy or something else.    

     

    Never the less I think his distinction is helpful if we turn it around. For me it is actually a distinction between ontology (what actually exists) and epistemology (how we think about what exists). I think those who believe that life exists in the universe are first arguing from an ontological perspective. Life actually exists on earth and in the universe. But we are also arguing the need for an epistemological perspective; we have to think of life on earth and in the rest of the universe in a different way.    

     

    What is the different way? We are turning to science but to those scientists who seem to know most about the universe –the quantum physicists. They have continually told us that their science–quantum mechanics–is counter intuitive. It is real but we have to learn to think about the universe in a different way.

     

    I’m reminded of the story of a young couple who get lost while driving down a road in country. . They stop at a gas station to get instructions. The attendant comes out and they tell him where they want to go. The attendant pauses, looks down the road they are on and says to them, “You can’t get there from here.” We can’t get to a discussion of life in the universe by travelling down the road of cellular biology. We need a different way.    

     

    I quite like Duane’s distinctions. Double Aliveness and Trans Biological Aliveness are a bit of a mouthful. Deep Aliveness is better. These terms indicate both an ontological reality (life within life) and an new way of thinking about life. But they don’t actually avoid the word “life” which could be problematic.    

     

    I prefer the word “consciousness” because it implies life and seem closer to the world of quantum physics which talks not about life but about relationships and awareness. For example in discussing non-locality they describe the awareness or consciousness of spinning entangled particles that may be light years away from one another but still seem conscious of one another. I think “ “consciousness” it is less likely to present problems for those who identify life with cellular biology, but it is t is not without its own problem.  

     

    Though I would agree with Ursula that we all have our own definitions of consciousness, a brief Google search of the many article on the web indicates a wide variety of divergent opinions.   The scientific community is very uncertain about the nature of consciousness and in particular about the brain as the “cause” of consciousness. I think she discusses this in her article on The Sacred Emergence of Nature.     T

     

    hough Ursula considers Thomas Berry’s statement that “human consciousness is the universe reflecting upon itself” as beautiful poetry, I think it is much more than that. I think is an ontological reality. In Ilia Delio critique of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si (referenced in my last posting) she regrets the document’ s failure to embrace the insights of quantum mechanics . She notes that “By framing the human person as integral to, but distinct from creation however, Laudato Si thwarts a true evolutionary discourse on human becoming. For we are not simply in evolution; we are evolution becoming conscious of itself.

    #7195
    Profile photo of Jon Cleland Host
    Jon Cleland Host
    Participant

      Sorry for not checking back sooner.   Ed wrote:

    Great to see the conversation continuing…

    Thanks for the great contribution to the discussion.   Your last post is very helpful.    

    Philosophically then, the universe IS alive because WE are alive and we are inseparable from the universe.

      Yes.  In that way, I agree.      

    So in this spirit, my suggestion (as pointed to by Jon) is to honor methodological reductionists (MR’s) for their good work – AND – to honor philosophical non-reductionists (PNR’s) for their “big view” observations and speculations which may one day prove to be scientific fact (that is, everything is integrally interconnected and therefore “alive”). So how do we honor both?

      : )  

    The challenge, it seems to me, is one of language. PNR’s want to take control of the word “living” and use it to describe everything. MR’s say no, that word is reserved for a very specific phenomena (biological life) that is well differentiated. 

    Yes, I agree.  

    Duane, is there another word that would suitably describe the non-biological yet highly interconnected and interdependent matter of the universe without co-opting a scientific term with a much more narrow definition? Jon, is there some sort of qualifier that Duane could use in front of the word “living” that would differentiate the use of this word from the implication of biological life?

      : ).     Yes, let’s try this.  I agree with pretty much all of your post, and didn’t quote each part so as to save space.

     

    *********************************

    Doubly Alive or Double Aliveness–   I like this.  It suggests two different ways of defining “alive”, which is what we are doing.

    Trans-biological aliveness– I like this too.  It is very clear that we are not talking about aliveness in terms of strict biology.  

    Deep Aliveness – This may be OK, but I think I prefer either of the other two, because “Deep” is often used to describe extended views of things that don’t include anything controversial.  For instance, Deep Time, or Deep Ancestry, or Deep space – all are things that the strictest scientist full agrees with as real.

    Perhaps “Doubly Alive” is best because it is both clear and accurate as well as being shorter than “trans biological aliveness”?

    ********************************************************   Duane wrote:

    Ed–   Thanks for your discerning and insightful posting! I’m excited by the possibility that, after more than 400 postings, our learning community may be discovering important common ground. I am comfortable with the summary paragraph that you wrote, Ed, and I’m wondering if this offers common ground for Jon and Mike (and others) as well.    

      Incredibly, perhaps so.  : )  

    “Considering all of these arguments, here is my conclusion at this time which is the best “common ground” that I can muster. We must allow science the categories of “living organism” and “non living matter” for them to do their work. However there is also room for the “big philosophical view” of an interconnected universe where living and non-living matter (in the scientific sense) are inseparable and part of larger phenomena that we are only starting to understand.” 

      Sounds good to me!   Deep thanks!                 -Jon      

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