Deep Time Journey Forum › Is the universe a "living system"?
- April 18, 2015 at 9:28 am #3973
Jon Cleland HostParticipant
OK, I’m back. I’ll quickly respond to your most recent post, then continue on the points ((F)) – ((H))
((A)) Apology accepted. Thanks. : )
((C)) – Let’s not bring in additional topics such as branes until we resolved the current ones. So far, it doesn’t seem clear to me that we’ve resolved a single point, much less resolved whether the universe meets criteria #1 for life – metabolism. Same for “continuously emergent process” ((D)).
I do consider Brian a scientist in the widely accepted definition of being “a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences.”
No, because “is studying” is wide enough to drive a truck through. That would classify college students as “scientists”, and is clearly not “the widely accepted definition”. After correcting that, you have “person who has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences.”
So, how do we know if one has “expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences”? Exactly by the criteria I listed, which were 1. a Ph. D. in a relevant field (natural or physical sciences are the empirical sciences), 2. significant research in the field, and 3. significant publications of #2 in peer reviewed journals. (that’s to show that #2 is true, otherwise it’s hearsay).
Our criteria are the same, and Brian doesn’t meet them. As a further check, we must remember that our criteria is only useful if it can weed out pseudoscientists, like creationists. It does so, in the 1, 2, 3 form above. We agree that the criteria is only useful if it weeds out pseudoscientists, right?
((F)) Text of “Living Galaxy” article – I thought that you had it. What does it say?
((G)) David Bohm-
You wrote: First, you say that the physicist, David Bohm was “regularly fooled by charlatans” and, as proof of this you quote Martin Gardner. Gardner was a notoriously closed-minded skeptic who dismissed anything having to do with intuitive functioning. To quote Gardner as proof that Bohm was regularly fooled by charlatans is like asking an atheist to comment on whether people are being fooled by ministers. Martin Gardner is not a source of “empirical scientific data” but dogmatic opinion.
Martin Gardner looked for evidence for claims, and rejected those that did not have it. That is being “evidence based”, and that’s what it means to be a scientific field. Being that you called me “closed-minded” for using a dictionary, I’m not sure what basis you are using for calling Martin Garnder “closed minded”. If you have evidence of a claim that Martin Gardner rejected, which was later shown to be correct in peer-reviewed journals, then please present it. Otherwise, you section above sounds like simple name calling.
Since you are asking for evidence beyond Gardner, I can supply some as well, though it isn’t necessary. Feynman also pointed out Bohm’s gullibility, in this article: http://www.indian-skeptic.org/html/fey2.htm, and you can see plenty of co-presentations by Bohm and charlatans like Krishnamurti, Sheldrake, etc, on sites like this:
Also, this raises a larger, and important, point, which is especially relevant when seen in conjunction with our point ((E)). That important point is the use of quotes as evidence in themselves.
Unlike Swimme, we both agree that Bohm is a real scientist, and is speaking in the relevant field (physics). Yet, I have objected to his quote as proving the point it was used for. Why? Because to do so is to use quotes as evidence in themselves, which is a mark of pseudoscience. If one is to look to determine if something is likely true, then finding a scientist who says so (though better than nothing) is not sufficient to do so. Why not? Because scientists are real people, and there are millions of them. Out of millions of real people, of course one can find one who has said something that could support whatever is desired. Creationist do this all the time. It also opens the door to the similar method of quote -mining.
So even if we agreed that Swimme was a scientist in the relevant field, and had quoted him at saying “the universe is alive”, it still wouldn’t establish the point. It would help you a lot, but what is needed is something peer reviewed, or better yet, in a college textbook, since those also go through extensive peer review, so the views are those that are widespread among real scientists. Which brings us back to point ((H)), which is:
((H)) Pseudoscience List
A major concern I have is that much of this appears to follow a similar approach as does a lot of pseudoscientific fields. Specifically:
- Redefining words (“Universe”)
- Use of quotes as evidence in itself (Bohm)
- suggesting that other ideas are “assumptions”
- citing non-scientists as evidence (this also applies in cases, not seen here, where scientists are quoted outside their field).
- Vague, unsupported assertions (such as “There appears to be a permeating sentience or knowing capacity infusing the universe…”)
You also wrote:
Fifth, non-locality does suggest there is a deeper connectivity in the universe which can include “information” connectivity. See, for example, http://plato.stanford.edu/search/searcher.py?query=nonlocality Sixth, you seem to regard scientists as independent observers who are separate from that which they are observing. Is that a correct assumption on my part? If so, I wonder what you think of the statement by physicist John Wheeler who wrote: “Nothing is more important about the quantum principle than this, that it destroys the concept of the world as ‘sitting out there,’ with the observer safely separated from it…. To describe what has happened, one has to cross out that old word ‘observer’ and put in its place the new word ‘participator.’ In some strange sense the universe is a participatory universe.”
These could be interesting discussion points, but we haven’t resolved any of the points ((A)) – ((H)), so adding more topics now would make less manageable than it already is. Plus, it would begin to look like a Gish Gallop, which we surely want to avoid.
How about we make a “parking lot” for future topics? If that’s good, then here it is:
((I)) Parking lot: Branes, continuously emergent process, non-locality, independent observer.
Sound good? Thanks – Jon P. S. Take your time to think and respond. I’ve got stuff for the next several days, and so certainly won’t be able to write again until mid next week.April 18, 2015 at 12:02 pm #3982I’d like to bring empirical research into this conversation that gives a more complete explanation for why I regard the universe as a living system and, in John Wheeler’s phrase, as a “participatory universe.” This research involves both objective and subjective aspects of knowing. The conversation so far has focused only on the “scientific” perspective of the removed observer. I want to bring in evidence from the side of an engaged participator that is based on years of personal experience in a laboratory setting with double-blind experiments whose results have been published in some of the most rigorous and prestigious journals in the scientific world.In 1973-1975, for nearly three years, I was a subject in parapsychology experiments at the think-tank SRI International. Although my participation was intentionally, largely anonymous, I was one of four, primary subjects who participated in a wide range of scientific experiments funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to explore our intuitive potentials. These experiments were conducted in the engineering laboratory at SRI International (separate from the “futures group” where I also worked). Results from these experiments (particularly “remote viewing”) have been published in major scientific journals; for example, the scientific paper by two, world class scientists, Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ, “A Perceptual Channel for Information Transfer Over Kilometer Distances,” published in the proceedings of the prestigious Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, (vol. 64, no. 3), March, 1976. This work is also described in the book MindReach: Scientists Look at Psychic Ability (1977) also by Targ and Puthoff. I also authored the appendix on “Personal Observations on the Use of SRI’s ESP Teaching Machine,” for the SRI report: Development of Techniques to Enhance Man/Machine Communication, by R. Targ and H. Puthoff, for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, June, 1974 [Contract 953653 Under NAS7-100, c/o California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] These rigorous, double-blind, scientific experiments with empirical data were thoroughly reviewed by NASA, IEEE, NSF, and others—including the CIA. I dropped out of the research program after three years when it was classified as secret and taken over by the CIA (Freedom of Information Act files indicate that the research continued for roughly another twenty years and was one of the longest running programs in the agency’s history).Below is a personal summary of my three years of experience. Because I worked at the SRI think-tank, I was an easily accessible subject and was paid as a consultant by NASA for engaging in experiments. I would often spend two or three hours at a time, several days a week, engaged in diverse experiments in the engineering laboratory. I’m not presenting this as “proof” or “empirical data” but as a “subjective” summary of my own, first hand experiences (as it includes a brief description taken from of a series of psychokinesis experiments not conducted under “controlled” conditions but instead that relied on my honest participation as a subject). For the peer reviewed, empirical data for controlled, “remote viewing” experiments, please refer to the studies in the previous paragraph.Beyond my own experience (and that of others in the SRI experiments) the respected scientist and researcher, Dr. Dean Radin, did an exhaustive meta-analysis of psi research involving more than eight hundred studies and sixty investigators over nearly three decades. After weighing the collective evidence from more than 800 studies, he concluded that we do participate in a subtle field or ecology of consciousness where we can both “send” and “receive.” [See: Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe (1997) and Entangled Minds (2006).]There is an enormous amount of research emerging that is directly related to this theme: see, for example, “Action at a Distance in Quantum Mechanics” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, January 26, 2007 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-action-distance/ My intention in sharing these experiences is to open our dialogue to the possibility that our universe is infused with an ecology of consciousness and is a participatory system in which we can participate meaningfully and measurably.April 18, 2015 at 9:40 pm #3987
Duane, thanks for your courage in sharing your personal direct experience of a living universe. I know many others who have had experiences in this direction, including myself and other scientists. For a while, the psychologist Charles Tart was keeping an archive of scientists’ transcendent experiences, and he feels that this type of data from scientifically trained individuals are especially important since part of scientific training is to maintain a healthy skepticism towards the data and resist premature interpretation. Accumulating similar experiences from large numbers of individuals is important to help avoid the “messiah effect” and to begin to see common overlaps between experiences. One area where these experiences overlap is the widespread experience and agreement among these individuals that the universe is infused with both consciousness and aliveness.
This is also the widespread view of many indigenous peoples that I have spoken with around the world – that everything that exists is alive in some way, including the universe as a whole. It might not be too big a leap to suggest that many of the ancient cultures of the world believed (and perhaps experienced) the world as a living being. Certainly it was the case for many of the ancient Greeks such as Plato who thought it obvious that the world was alive, since how could something which was not alive give rise to individuals who were clearly alive?
However, these data are qualitative in that they come from the direct subjective experiences of individuals, and can’t be measured quantitatively via instruments, which makes them much less convincing to contemporary science.
So there might be different aspects to the living universe, some of which can be measured quantatively in biological systems, such as metabolism, etc.. and some which can only be experienced through more qualitative approaches to knowing. To mix qualitative and quantitative data can lead to great confusion, which is partly what may be happening in this dialog. Also, after reflecting on Ursula’s definition of metabolism as a specific set of reactions and energy transfers limited to a particular set of biological systems, I tend to agree with her. Trying to fit galactic activity into the biological idea of metabolism may miss what may be really going on at the galactic scale, which could be an entirely different type of energy exchange and perhaps aliveness of an entirely different order and character.
There’s more to say about the qualitative perception of aliveness, and I think many people have the sense or intuition of this aliveness, but it gets filtered out through our common worldview. I can give some examples next time, but I’m prepping for a public talk tomorrow, so I’ll finish this post up here.April 19, 2015 at 1:28 pm #3988
Thanks for your insightful comments Stephan. I think you point clearly to the difficulty of exploring the universe as a living system by trying to extrapolate from the biological processes in earth-based systems:
Trying to fit galactic activity into the biological idea of metabolism may miss what may be really going on at the galactic scale, which could be an entirely different type of energy exchange and perhaps aliveness of an entirely different order and character.
The challenges you describe for understanding the “metabolism” of galactic scale systems may be magnified when trying to describe systems of cosmic scale (assuming a multiverse cosmology where our universe is a continuously regenerated system–which I realize is a controversial hypothesis).April 19, 2015 at 8:45 pm #3990
Hi All. Interesting discussion!
Definitions in science allow useful distinctions to be made in the study of observable phenomena – particularly the study of relationships between the objects being distinguished from one another, or the (conceptual) isolation of one particular type of system under study from other types of systems. The intent behind David Christian’s definition of life (I would guess) is to distinguish inert matter from biological systems. If you blur the distinction between biological life and inert matter, than the word “life” could be less useful to the scientist. I doubt that you will get scientists to let go of that distinction.
Duane, I would pose this question to you. What do you hope to achieve by defining the entire universe as a “living system?” Also, who do you hope to convince? I am asking this because you have clearly chosen an uphill battle and there is likely a better way to achieve your goals.
Certainly we can say that the universe is highly dynamic when viewed over a large time scale. And the universe (somehow) spawns biological life. Biological organisms are also known to form superorganisms. And (despite some lingering disagreement) the Gaia hypothesis put forth by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis plus the work of James Hutton, Vladimir Vernadsky and Guy Murchie, suggest that the biosphere is a superorganism. These all seem like reasonable positions to take.
However saying that galaxies – which can be (nearly) completely modeled and predicted using simple numeric simulations – should be placed into the same general category as a biological organism or superorganism would remove the ability of scientists to make what is a very important distinction between biological systems and matter.
I also share some of Davidson Loehr’s concerns about the scientific validity of your four criteria (although I differ with Davidson on his critique of mysticism – perhaps another debate for another day). You say:
“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.”
Can you please explain what you mean by this and cite some mention of it in recent scientific literature? I can model a toroidal motion and other natural phenomena using very simple physics. Biological systems are complex and, while we have dissected and analyzed biological organisms and our understanding of them continues to grow, to my knowledge they have not yet yielded to any singular mathematical or numerical model. There is no computer model that can adequately describe a nematode much less a human.
Perhaps we should instead add non-reducable complexity to David Christian’s criteria for life…April 19, 2015 at 9:58 pm #3991
Yes, thanks so much for your insightful comment Stephen pointing out the differences between a biological idea of metabolism and what’s going on at the “galactic scale which could be an entirely different type of energy exchange and perhaps aliveness of an entirely different order and character.” Perhaps there’s another approach we might try, rather than trying to extend a biological definition of life to include the universe as a whole.
Jim, Varela’s or Maturana’ definitions of life might be helpful here? Can you tell us what they are.
I’m not a scientist and not sure how this relates to your question Ed, but it might:
Eric Chaisson’s (astrophysicist) work examines the grand narrative of the universe as one of increasing complexity, reflected at a fundamental level as an increase in energy rate density, that is, an increase in the flow of energy per second and per gram of material found in a given system. This increase in energy rate density increases from the first elements to elements in stars, through early life, plants, animals, humans, and society. A single metric is used across all these different phenomena. In other words, life is not a radical departure from what came before, but is, instead, part of a pattern of increasing energy flow. Or put another way, an amplification of what was before. Is there a way in which life is part of an energy continuum that includes “non-life”? Seems so according to this metric. Ursula? Thoughts?
What about behaviors? What are life (or life-like) behaviors that biological life and let’s say, galaxies have in common? (Might be better to steer away from considering the universe as a whole since we get into the multiverse problem referred to in earlier comments.)
Re your question Ed, about the goal of the discussion, I hear that Duane is looking for a scientific explanation of his own personal experiences. Would that be fair to say Duane?April 20, 2015 at 12:40 am #3992
When viewed on a macroscopic scale, galaxies have simple behavior governed primarily by Newton’s laws of motion with additional factors including relativity, dark matter and dark energy. Very predictable. Biological organisms are complex systems that are not so predictable or easily reduced to a simple set of math equations. I think it is valid for scientists to differentiate between these types of systems.
Regarding personal experiences, that is another thing altogether! I have experienced moments of heightened awareness where I saw everything as alive with “consciousness.” However I am also very careful not to assume that my phenomenological (subjective) experiences are literally applicable to the same domain that scientists study – namely, the observable physical universe.
I do have my own theories about how the phenomenological domain of mind relates to the physical universe. I see “mind” as an informational domain that may very well be supported by quantum informational/computational processes. My scientist colleagues groan what I say this, but quantum theories of consciousness are my best guess so far for the mental phenomena that I’ve observed based on my study of a wide range of published data. For anyone interested I’m currently moderating a LinkedIn discussion on quantum consciousness (QC) theories here: https://lnkd.in/bBA48WN
Should any of these QC theories be confirmed we may someday be able to substantiate the statement that the universe (including the vacuum) is alive with consciousness. However at the present time there is no repeatable evidence that biological organisms can exploit quantum informational/computational processes, so we are not going to get mainstream science to accept such a statement. Now if scientists polished the lens of contemplation, as Ken Wilber says, perhaps they would also see the universe as “sentient.”
A less (yet still) controversial interpretation of the universe as “intelligent” comes from James Gardner (and others with similar ideas) in his book Intelligent Universe: http://www.intelligentuniverse.org/Contents%20and%20Excerpt.htm. But even here, there is not enough consensus to win over mainstream science.
Perhaps there is a better way to achieve Duane’s goals…April 20, 2015 at 6:17 am #3993
Thanks so much to Jennifer for hosting this fascinating exchange of views as we struggle to understand and articulate our best current understandings of these complex topics.
The discussion about the specific meaning of metabolism is helpful. Jennifer also reminds us of Eric Chaisson’s idea of energy densities.
As you remember, his estimated power densities are:
Generic Structure Approximate Age (10 9 year) Average Φ m (10 − 4 watt/kg)
Galaxies (Milky Way) 12 0.5
Stars (Sun) 10 2
Planets (Earth) 5 75
Plants (biosphere) 3 900
Animals (human body) 10 − 2 20,000
Brains (human cranium) 10 − 3 150,000
Society (modern culture) 0 500,000
The ideas of increasing complexity and emergent properties in addition to energy densities are also often used. Portions of the universe seem to have moved from a level of complexity best analyzed by physics, to that of chemistry, then to biology, then to ecosystems, social systems, and finally (showing my bias) the most complex level: the humanities.
It is not only that there are increasing energy densities, it is also useful to consider the alternate possible routes that these flows can take. Increased energy densities produce and sustain higher complexity. I don’t think there are too may alternatives for electrons when H2 is formed. The steps in increasing complexity of electrical and chemical exchanges from the emergence of atoms to communication among neurons are many and not completely understood. Along the way, there seem to be many emergent properties.
By the time we get to humans, electrical impulses in the brain seems to be able to take a great many different paths. The possibilities of this conversation are even more varied. I doubt that H2 gets bored by endless repetition of movement of electrons; I doubt that flatworms get bored either. However, we would lose interest in this discussion if new ideas were not introduced. Boredom and interest are emergent properties in consciousness.
Only a small portion of matter becomes more complex and more conscious, while most remains at lower levels of complexity. There are still enormous clouds of hydrogen and helium that have been floating since the Big Bang, I think. There are still huge numbers of prokaryotes who have never found any good reason to develop greater complexity.
Most hydrogen in the universe is just floating about. A tiny proportion of it has become able to be fascinated by this conversation. I am grateful that I get to be among that portion.April 20, 2015 at 12:45 pm #3994
I think it needs to be said that, when I claim that the macroscopic model of a galaxy is governed by relatively simple equations, it is because I am making a differentiation between macroscopic and microscopic scales. Scientists love to divide things into bits. The macroscopic view ignores the many smaller features of galaxies – including us. The only 100% accurate model of a galaxy would have to include everything – planets, atmospheres and biospheres and all species of life. Any attempt to separate these bits (i.e. macroscopic/microscopic) results in an approximation, and approximations can lead us astray if taken too literally.
However, without these conceptual separations there would be no science.
Lowell’s point of view is more holistic. Life is not separate from the universe – separation is a concept. Life is a natural progression of galactic evolution (or at least our galaxy). What the scientist “sees” – the answers we get – depend on the questions we ask and the choices we make in our conceptual differentiations. Big-picture thinking like this is usually relegated to a field called cosmology. So, in a cosmological sense, I do think we can say that the universe is alive because we are not separate from the universe.
Having said that, I still do think that scientists deserve a separate category for biological organisms versus non-biological organisms. The convenient and most common word that makes this differentiation is “life.” If we want to shift the story, trying to prove that a rock or a galaxy is alive is probably not going to work. I think it may be best to work within the field of cosmology and show that what we call life is inseparable from the rest of the universe and is a natural progression of galactic and planetary evolution (under the right conditions).April 21, 2015 at 12:03 pm #3997
Jon Cleland HostParticipant
As you had proposed, we were having an orderly discussion of a specific question – “does the universe fit David Christian’s definition of being “alive”, starting with the first part of that definition, “having a metabolism”. It is clear that we have not resolved that question, nor agreed on points ((A)) through ((H)).
You have repeatedly proposed new topics before finishing the current one. Now you have proposed looking at the SRI results – and I am OK with doing so – but before we do, should we not intentionally move on from the current topic?
So which would you like to do? Would you like to: 1. Put the SRI stuff in the parking lot and continue with the current topic.
or, 2. intentionally pause the current topic (metabolism and A-H) and look at the SRI stuff?
Your call. Thanks-
-JonApril 21, 2015 at 5:12 pm #3998
Jon – I see no reason why we cannot have parallel conversations as long as we are not distracted from addressing the points you are making.
You say: “Martin Gardner looked for evidence for claims, and rejected those that did not have it. That is being “evidence based”, and that’s what it means to be a scientific field. Being that you called me “closed-minded” for using a dictionary, I’m not sure what basis you are using for calling Martin Garnder “closed minded”. If you have evidence of a claim that Martin Gardner rejected, which was later shown to be correct in peer-reviewed journals, then please present it. Otherwise, you section above sounds like simple name calling.”
Then you go on to say: “Since you are asking for evidence beyond Gardner, I can supply some as well, though it isn’t necessary. Feynman also pointed out Bohm’s gullibility, in this article: http://www.indian-skeptic.org/html/fey2.htm, and you can see plenty of co-presentations by Bohm and charlatans like Krishnamurti, Sheldrake, etc, on sites like this:
With all due respect, it sounds to me like you are now the one who is name-calling 🙂
I have followed Sheldrake for years, and while his theories certainly do not follow the “status quo” of science, he has indeed put forth testable and falsifiable hypotheses – unlike most “new age” philosophers – and I have found his approach to studying unusual phenomena be consistent with the scientific method. He should be praised for this and does not deserve the vitriol that has been directed towards him. Personally, I suspect that he has been targeted so heavily exactly because he is attempting to progress science – real science – in a direction that is quite uncomfortable for skeptics because it challenges their worldview.
The problem I have with extreme skepticism is that is promotes a faith-based worldview that purports to be scientific but in fact is not. I found Gardner to be one of the more rational and balanced skeptics, and for the most part I found myself agreeing with him, however he still promoted the smug faith-based certainty of scientism. An honest and open-minded scientist would consider his certainty unjustified and extreme when seriously reviewing the evidence at hand.
Colin Wilson said it better then I could when he commented on Gardner:
“He writes about various kinds of cranks with the conscious superiority of the scientist, and in most cases one can share his sense of the victory of reason. But after half a dozen chapters this non-stop superiority begins to irritate; you begin to wonder about the standards that make him so certain he is always right. He asserts that the scientist, unlike the crank, does his best to remain open-minded. So how can he be so sure that no sane person has ever seen a flying saucer, or used a dowsing rod to locate water? And that all the people he disagrees with are unbalanced fanatics? A colleague of the positivist philosopher A. J. Ayeronce remarked wryly “I wish I was as certain of anything as he seems to be about everything”. Martin Gardner produces the same feeling.”
– Colin Wilson, in The Quest For Wilhelm Reich (1981), p. 2April 21, 2015 at 6:54 pm #3999
Hi, I am very happy to add my viewpoint to the conversation. Thank you Duane, for enlightening me about these interesting topics. Jennifer asked me to read the entire discussion–I have done that, but I have not had time to read the supporting material. But I think I can make a post now, and then another post after I have time to study. So here goes:
First, is is worthwhile to use a unique model to analyze a big thing?
Why, yes, I’d say.
For example: I recently attended a seminar where the presenter described the Earth as a battery (or , galvanic cell).
The scientist used standard definitions for such words as cathode, anode, voltage, current. (Humans, who oxidize sugars and fats for fuel, are part of the anode.)
He presented the methodology he used to come up with his numbers (the amount of electrons transferred between anode and cathode)
With this unusual way of viewing the Earth, if memory serves, he calculated voltage and current for different years, and had some interesting observations relating to our politics and environment.
With the above talk as a (simple) model for this type of endeavor, our version being: Is the universe a living system?
Okay, as others have said, words must be defined precisely. That means a group of people (we, on this board?) must first agree to the definitions of the words, before anything other step.
We must also define the methodologies used to gather our information.
The original poster gave four criteria for ‘living’, and I am happy to agree with them.
The words contained in the criteria, however (‘universe’, ‘metabolism’, ‘living’, ‘surroundings’, ect.) already have so many definitions ‘out there’ and thus we are already discussing which ones to use.
Forum members have introduced other words, too, in the above discussion, also carrying multiple definitions, and we don’t agree. (“consciousness”) Just debating our definitions can be fun, as we have seen. We can ‘choose’ a definition, and must. Once we choose it, our group can use it.
Secondly, the methodology. How do we determine if the universe imports energy, for example?
A monumental job just to get to the point where we all agree where to start our work!
I also think we might want to state our purpose for asking the question: is the universe living? The truth is, if our definitions (that we as a group choose) are sufficiently narrow, the answers we get may be dull. (i.e., yes, according to our own strict, narrow definition of metabolism, the universe has a metabolism. What now?)
Also, what do we hope to gain? (Ed Lantz made this point.) The ‘battery’ scientist above (if memory serves) proposed that if electrons are ‘missing’ from the cathode or anode on any given year, he could infer that some eco system or other is undergoing a change that might be interesting.
Do we have such a purpose, after this all the work of our exercise? Perhaps not.
In my opinion, I believe the original poster wanted to make the broader point that there is more going on in the universe than meets the eye, and that there are things we don’t understand, and that some people won’t acknowledge. There are connections we don’t yet see or understand.
I personally agree with this.
Is it necessary to call the universe ‘living’ to make this point?
The other problem: this question is so difficult, compared to say, the earth as a battery, which, if memory serves, was a hard enough model to create. That doesn’t in itself make this a not worthwhile endeavor.
Back to the task: Jon’s idea of choosing one criteria, metabolism, is a reasonable idea. I myself volunteer to look into the question: what is the universe compared to the ‘surrounding’ of the universe? Can energy be imported from surrounding into universe? I don’t know if I will come up with answers, but if I get any insight, I will post them.
There is a parallel discussion in this forum: Is there an emergent property of ‘life’? Are there emergent properties at all?
This question intrigued me some years ago. A philosopher who says the answer is no (I think) is Daniel Dennett. See his book: ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’.
I’ve been told that Roger Penrose’s book, ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’, explains the answer is yes. I can’t make heads or tails what that book is about, because it is too hard for me.
I don’t know the answer to the question, Are there emergent properties at all? but I don’t think it is necessary to have emergent properties for there to be more going on in the universe than meets the eye, nor do I think the universe has to be living.
I believe that the ‘missing connections’ will come from the study of the small, (waves, the electron) not the large (the universe). Someone will have a new insight and the new insight will overturn preconceptions. Just my personal belief and I am probably wrong! I hope it happens in my lifetime, though!
An interesting question: If the universe is living, can we define when it would ‘die’?
My apologies to the fellow who gave the battery seminar if I have disremembered something. I am kicking myself because I can’t find the notes I took.April 21, 2015 at 8:06 pm #4003
Welcome to this intense conversation! As Jon described, there are so many topics to which to reply, but there is one that, for me, is over-riding:
Were it not for the survival of human civilization (and the survival of roughly a quarter to half of all plant and animal species), I could easily let our many differences slide by as merely an academic concern. However, the currently dominant perspective of scientific materialism regards all phenomena, including consciousness, as the result of mechanical interactions of matter. In this view, the universe is (non-living) “dead matter” at the foundations—inanimate and without consciousness. Given this view, it then seems logical that we, the living, would seek to exploit on our own behalf that which is not alive—the vast majority of the world around us. If the universe is lifeless at its foundations, then it has no deeper purpose, meaning, or value. In short, a “dead universe” perspective immediately fosters an exploitive mindset—encouraging us humans to use that which is dead on behalf of that which is most alive–ourselves. In turn, an exploitive and ruinous future for the Earth emerges directly and powerfully from scientific materialism. This ruinous paradigm is already profoundly impacting the Earth with climate disruption, species extinction, resource depletion, ocean acidification and much more—producing a world that is moving rapidly into a global, systems crisis. Looking beyond the paradigm of scientific materialism is not simply an academic or philosophical exercise—it is vital for the future of our species and the rest of life on the Earth.
Put simply, can we move beyond seeing the world around us as an “it” to a “thou”? Can we find within the realm of science the wisdom and insight to revere and preserve the world around us? I’m thinking of Martin Buber’s proposition that we can regard existence either as an “It” (an object that is separate from us which we can use), or as “Thou” (in which we regard all that exists as being in an intimately interdependent relationship). Scientific materialism has been very powerful in regarding existence as comprised of separate objects. It seems to me a new scientific understanding is emerging which regards existence as an inseparable whole in which we intimately participate. This insight, in turn, seems to foster a more “ethical” paradigm that moves from exploitation to preservation. If the universe is infused with aliveness, then a “thou” relationship is not an artificial construct but a deeper scientific realism.April 21, 2015 at 11:20 pm #4006
Hi Duane. Thank you for sharing your motivations here. So what I hear you saying is that you would like to foster a shift in human consciousness towards greater reverence, sensitivity and respect for our biosphere and, in fact, all of creation. I believe you are making the assumption that humans have greater reverence and respect for life (i.e. biological organisms), therefore if we can convince people (namely, scientists) that the entire universe is alive, then we will be forced to apply a more caring set of ethics to how we treat all things.
A few thoughts:
1) It seems to me that the “ruinous paradigm” that concerns you is also prevalent in how we treat other lifeforms as well. We exploit plants and animals insensitively just as we treat natural resources without regard for the consequences. So even if you could prove that everything is alive, I question whether that alone would bring about the shift in consciousness that you seek.
2) The ethical stance that you hope to foster in the public requires that we pay more attention to the affect of our natural resource utilization, waste products and other human activities on our bodies, our biosystems and our future generations. This does not require that we grant “living” status to all things. It requires holistic “big picture” understanding, monitoring and modeling of these subtle and dynamical systems, allowing us to explore interrelationships and “what-if” scenarios so that we can make wiser choices. And it requires that information to be validated and disseminated widely to the general public in order to influence public policy.
3) I would assert that the ruinous paradigm that you refer to is not, in fact, the result of a materialist philosophy. A wise, sensitive and compassionate materialist will likely reach the same conclusions as you about “climate disruption, species extinction, resource depletion, ocean acidification” and more. In fact, concerned scientists are the ones leading the charge against climate change. The problem is one of ignorance and insensitivity. There are a wide range of philosophical stances that one can take – pantheism, reductionist materialism, objectivism, realism, pragmatism, etc. Rather than attempting to convert everyone to a particular philosophical/religious path by asserting that inanimate matter is literally alive (an uphill battle that some may see as the promotion of a pantheistic worldview), I would recommend that we instead document these subtle dynamical relationships in nature and show how human can affect these relationships (for better or worse) to foster a greater sensitivity to these systems.
4) In my mind, education is the key for fostering the shift in consciousness that we seek. Not necessarily traditional education, however. Education is so often associated with the conveyance of “cognitive” information, but that is not enough. Here we also wish to foster a sense of compassion for and a sense of interconnectedness with our environment – what some have called “deep ecology.” This is an “affective” educational goal. I have directed my work towards the development of immersive media programming including virtual reality systems and dome theaters. There are 1200 digital domes in the world – largely in schools, museums and science centers – that are hungry for compelling content. And in another couple of years there will be millions of VR headsets in consumer’s homes. These are the most powerful media delivery systems on the planet able to immerse audiences in future scenarios, scientific visualizations and more, using the power of art, music and experiential storytelling to evoke a deep connection with and understanding of our world, including our diverse biological ecosystems and diverse social cultures. That is my contribution to this work for which we are seeking support.
Hope this helps!April 22, 2015 at 12:16 am #4007
Two points seem to belong here. First, it’s useful to remember — as Wittgenstein so tersely put it — that “Certainty is only an attitude.”
Second, it’s useful to know the background of those posting opinions and comments in these discussions. Not all of us are scientists, and shouldn’t have our comments valued as though we were. To name just the two I know about: myself, and Duane Elgin. My undergrad was in music theory (Univ. of Michigan — Go Blue!). My M.A. was in methods of studying religion. And my Ph.D. was in theology, the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science, with Wittgenstein’s language philosophy added into the mix (Univ. of Chicago). Duane’s undergrad was in liberal arts, and his two M.A. degrees were in finance and the history of economics. It might be useful, since we don’t know each other, to provide a sense of our education and professional experience, and its connection with our comments in this forum. For me: before graduate school (1979-1986), I had been a professional musician, combat photographer in Vietnam, owned a high-priced wedding and portrait studio in Ann Arbor, and done carpentry, first as hobby then to earn a living. After graduate school, I was a Unitarian minister for 23 years, before retiring in 2009. I have just one book, America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2005). My concerns in these discussions are mostly with language: using it clearly, not using emotional language as though it were intellectual/factual (three decades of reading and listening to people in religion created a deep yearning for people who could say what they meant in ordinary language!) It might help if we shared a brief introduction of ourselves when we enter these discussions. At least it would help me, so I began.
That said, I’ve been frustrated at Duane’s use of “scientific materialism” as a straw man, and what have felt like romantic/emotional arguments cloaked in scientific garb, so appreciated Ed Lantz’ challenges and clarifications in those areas. Guess I’m over-sensitive to arguments that feel more like sermons, without unambiguous arguments and support. My limitation.
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