TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART V – NON- HUMAN CONCIOUSNESS

Consciousness cannot be defined: we may be ourselves fully aware what consciousness is, but we cannot without confusion convey to others  a definition of what we ourselves clearly apprehend. The reason is plain: consciousness lies at the root of all knowledge.– Sir William Hamilton.

 

 

 

In our analysis of natural selection, we have considered inorganic evolution, the appearance of life, and the evolution of organisms. Last time we found natural selection is likely independent of preordained design, but entails a directiveness and leads to a teleology within living things. Now we will focus on the appearance of consciousness, perhaps the most surprising of nature’s byproducts. This subject breaks into two parts: (1) non-human animal consciousness, and (2) human (reflexive) consciousness. This blog and the next will look at the first of these.

It seems most likely that early life was able to receive its energy directly from sunlight, using chlorophyll or a similar substance; which means most early living things were “plants.” These organisms would be able to float freely on or in water, and eventually could survive on land. But because they created energy directly from sunlight and a few simple surrounding chemicals, they did not need to evolve specialized functions such as locomotion or sensation. Thereafter some organisms living in an environment rich in plant matter abandoned photosynthesis and seized on deriving their energy for living by consumption of plant species, thus becoming the first animals. (Of course with time these early animals evolved and some even began to consume other animals leading to the scenario that exists today.)

But animals required new abilities including locomotion and sensory functions necessary to find food, water, and mates. New organ systems were required to permit these key functions, especially a nervous system. Early neurons were probably just specialized cells sensitive to temperature or touch. Over time these developed connections (synapses) with other neurons, forming nerves that could transmit information throughout the organism. Natural selection meant advantages for specialized senses – vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste – and for greater mobility, balance, and fine movements, all of which depend on nerves. With time these nerves became integrated into networks or ganglia.

At some point, likely with early worms, ganglia in the front part of the organism (quite logical as that is where the mouth is located) became enlarged and began to coordinate the senses with the muscular system at which time the most primitive brains can be said to have formed. Increasingly complex organisms required larger brains. All of these changes seem to be reasonably explained by natural selection within a long enough time-frame.

Less easily explained is the still mysterious appearance of consciousness.  We will pick up there in the next post.

TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART IV – ORGANIC EVOLUTION (cont’d)

We saw in an earlier post3 that George Gaylord Simpson identified three theories on the forces acting throughout the history of life: (1) materialistic, (2) vitalistic, and (3) finalistic.

The materialistic theory argues that the evolution of life is simply an extension of the evolution of all matter with only the difference of the organization of life. The vitalistic theory suggests the possibility of forces peculiar to and inherent in life. The finalistic theory assumes a force that brings progression toward foreordained goals or a transcendental purpose.  Scientists typically affirm the materialistic theory. He does not see progress as an essential feature of evolution. Man is a new kind of animal with a second order of evolution – the ‘inheritance of learning’ or ‘societal evolution.’4 This phase of evolution does involve purpose and plan unlike organic evolution. Teleology then is an outgrowth of societal evolution not vice versa.

Bernard Rensch concedes an upward trend in organization of some animals, for example, mammals as compared to reptiles or fish, and considers it one of the “distinctive characteristics of life.”4 He also considers as fact their “capacity for progressive evolution.”5 But he is clear in a later chapter, that given the regular biological and biochemical laws that can explain evolution and the finite expectancy of life on any planet based on modern cosmology, science “can offer no proof of an ultimate aim of existence for the organisms which emerge and vanish again as life rolls on in a continuous stream, nor a purport of existence for the highest species, Homo sapiens. We humans too are no more than temporary, finite, highly complex systems of the protophenomenal ‘matter’ of which the world is composed, a ‘matter’ representing a system of certain relationships subject to universal laws… the ‘purport of existence’ can therefore be looked for in finite aims alone.6

Natural selection then leads to a denial of design behind the appearance and variation of living things and of  particular species, but does allow a directiveness and an internal teleology. Through man, a second order of ‘societal evolution’ leads to a novel teleology.

1Fadiman, Clifton, Editor, The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.Viking Penguin, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-670-83568-4, page 434-440.

2Russell, E.S., The Directiveness of Organic Activities. Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1946. Page 1-9.

3See Post on this site September 4, 2019, Human Destiny – Part III – Biologic.

4Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, page 53.

5Ibid. Page 65.

6 Ibid. Page 314.

TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART IV – ORGANIC EVOLUTION

 “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” – Herbert Spencer

Now we move to Darwinian evolution; the gradual development of species by virtue of variations in makeup (particularly genetic variation) and adaptability to environment.  Since the mid 19th century, natural selection has upended the religious explanation for man and other creatures. Julian Huxley presents the evidence in a 1926 entry in The Encyclopaedia Brittanica: (1) paleontology meaning fossilized remains of organisms now extinct, (2) embryology which in land animals repeats the forms of earlier species, (3) distribution of animals, (4) comparative anatomy, and (5) vestigial organs (e.g. remnants of limbs in snakes). Darwin “assumed as a fact the existence of variation, showed the universal presence of a struggle for existence due to the invariable birth of more young that can come to maturity, and then pointed out that this would inevitably lead on average to the survival of those that were best fitted to survive and so to evolutionary chance and progress.”1

E.S. Russell writing 80 years after Darwin sees natural selection as “directiveness.” He sees life as showing directed action towards the biological ends of self-maintenance, development, and reproduction in contradistinction to the inorganic . He does not see this as purposive, but neither is it completely mechanistic. In fact he considers this directive activity an “irreducible characteristic” of life. He believes trying to reduce biology to strict physical laws and data does not help us understand living things and their activities, and so is not sufficient for the biological sciences.2

(continued next post)

TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART III – THE APPEARANCE OF LIFE (cont’d)

At the end of our last post, we were stalled on the question of whether the appearance of life is evidence of design in the universe. Science cannot be certain on this question as observation and experiment are and may always be inconclusive. The opinions of two philosophical biologists may be useful here.

Bernhard Rensch believes that since all processes within organisms follow physical and chemical laws, it is unnecessary to postulate ‘vitalism.’ Nonetheless he concedes we have yet to explain how “living physicochemical systems could originate and become so constructed that the processes follow one another in a purposeful manner and combine to function efficiently and in so finely adjusted a manner that the individual system and the species survive, and the continuation of life is ensured.”1

He comes to two conclusions, first, that “the fundamental biological processes are so completely integrated, especially in their interposition in individual systems, that certain specific laws relating to living organisms originated.”2 (his emphasis). Perhaps more revealing is his second conclusion, “A special feature of all living organisms… is the fact that biological processes in general appear to be ‘meaningful.’ They are not only appropriate to the immediate conditions but also seem to be directed to some purpose which in individual development is only achieved at a relatively late stage and after many modifications of form.”3 The implication, it seems to me, is that teleology (or perhaps teleonomy) is incorporated into living organisms, even if one remains skeptical of design behind the origin of life.

George Gaylord Simpson approaches this subject from a slightly different perspective beginning with a reminder there is no fossil record of very early life, and it would be useless in any case. Biochemistry and cytology are the fields that offer hope of explaining how life appeared although he concedes the solution may be unattainable. Rather he notes “there is no theoretical difficulty…under conditions that may well have early in the history of earth, in the chance organization of a complex carbon-containing molecule capable of influencing or directing the synthesis of other units like itself…‘a protogene’…There is at any rate, no reason to postulate a miracle. Nor is it necessary to suppose that the origin of new processes of reproduction and mutation was anything but materialistic.”4 But he admits the evolution from ‘protogene’ to amoeba was as great as from amoeba to man, and likely required multiple seismic steps over millions of years.

What response can be offered to the biologists? Well, their belief that life appeared spontaneously appears to be speculation, not science at all as it can neither be observed nor tested. Some have proposed that the odds against the appearance of any functioning organic chemical (e.g. a protein) are astronomical – V.H. Mottram put the odds at 10160 to 1 and a required time frame of 10243 years,  both equivalent to impossible – although his assumptions and justifications are unclear and debatable.5 For myself, I look back on my college courses on molecular and cellular biology, remembering the amazingly complex structures involved, and remain astonished that scientists can so glibly propose spontaneous generation – a principle Louis Pasteur disputed and disproved in the 19th century. One is reminded of Fred Hoyle’s analogy of millions of separate jet parts being blown about in the wind and assembling into a Boeing 747.

There is much here to contemplate, but for now the main points are: (1) only inconclusive arguments and speculation exist for the spontaneous appearance of life, (2) life requires the origination of specific laws, (3) biological processes appear meaningful, and teleonomy is integral to life. These will reappear in our synthesis at the end of this section.

 

1Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, page 81.

2Ibid. Page 107.

3 Ibid.

4Simpson, George Gaylord, The Meaning of Evolution. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1949. Pages 14-15..

5Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 6, page 410.

TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART III – THE APPEARANCE OF LIFE

Intelligence is characterized by a natural incomprehension of life” – Henri Bergson.

 

 

In our consideration of natural selection as a potential alternative to design in explaining the universe, the last post explored the evolution of inorganic compounds and the environment wherein they exist. Today we will discuss the appearance of life. The fundamental question here is less about selection than origin. In other words, is it credible that life appeared spontaneously from a primordial soup of colloidal substances, or did it require a creator?

This is one of those difficult questions that may never be resolved definitively by science. If life forms are eventually found on other planets, it would make the theory of spontaneous life more reasonable, but would not be clear proof as a designer might create life in multiple locations or life may have disseminated form an initial site. If scientists eventually produce a living thing in a laboratory from scratch, one might argue this is simply further evidence that life is created only by design (in that case a human designer). The hope of an experiment wherein organic and inorganic chemicals known to readily form in nature are placed in a sterilized vat, and observed for the spontaneous appearance of life seems futile given the astronomical odds of life arising in a human time frame.

On the other hand, the inability of man to synthesize life to date and the absence of demonstrated life elsewhere in the universe to date serve as only weak support for a designer, and certainly not proof. It would appear we have reached an impasse – the  origination of life turns out being inconclusive in deciding whether teleology applies to the universe, rather opinion, often based on prejudice, likely informs one’s belief. Agnosticism here is vain as well since whether life is accidental or intentional is the crux of the whole question of teleology as opposed to a pointless universe. That is, if life is designed, than the universe has a point – as the setting for the fabrication of life!

Perhaps we should think about this enigma for a couple of days…and pick up where we left off next time.

TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART II – INORGANIC

“Evolution consists largely of molecular tinkering – producing new objects from old odds and ends.” George Wald, Nobel Prize winner, Medicine, 1967.

 

Last time we discussed the two possible explanations for the mechanism of the universe and for life –either a designer (presumably God) or natural selection. We noted that natural selection is a highly coherent theory based on the assembly of some common observations and scientific principles. In fact, nowadays many theists concede that natural selection is irrefutable. Our next step is to sort out the two facets of this selection process – the inorganic and the organic.

In an earlier post we reviewed the ‘evolution’ of the inorganic as outlined by Fred Kohler.1 Briefly, following the Big Bang subatomic particles aggregated into atoms which combined to create molecules. Stellar processes formed higher weight elements such as carbon, oxygen, and iron, and forces in supernovae created the very heavy elements such as gold. Crystalline structures followed in favorable places as for example on the crust of Earth. These highly organized substances were able to spontaneously enlarge or ‘self-replicate’ as were the still more advanced colloidal structures such as proteins which formed from primitive amino acids.

But at the cosmic level inorganic evolution also includes the elaboration of essential environments, a process where the force of gravity appears to be fundamental. Stars, planets, and galaxies are explained by the effects of gravity on what would be free floating matter. Large amounts of matter in close proximity are drawn together by gravity into megastructures. The largest resulting structures become stars while some of the smaller structures become planets and moons bound to the stars by gravity, although at varying distances. This critical circumstance allows temperature differences on each planetary body permitting a range of inorganic chemical reactions.

Assuming we grant this ‘evolution’ of complex inorganic structures and their environment, we are left with the question of its implications for teleology. Can we truthfully say the unfolding of nonliving matter is purposive or designed?  Let’s turn to Julian Huxley, an early 20th century biologist, who thinks we should broaden the idea of evolution into ‘the directional processes’ seen in the universe. “So far as a main direction is to be observed in physics and chemistry, it is, as all authorities are agreed, towards the degradation of energy and a final state in which not only life but all activity whatsoever will be reduced to nothing,”2 However he identifies a subsidiary direction towards the production of more complex forms of matter.3 Huxley further defines his three great principles of the cosmos – unity, uniformity, and development which he sees as ‘emergent’ rather than ‘creative.’4

In short, Huxley feels ‘directionality’ is a more accurate term than ‘purpose’ or ‘goal,’ and ‘emergence’ more accurate than ‘creation.’ The direction appears to be one of interim complexification of matter but eventual futility. Perhaps he is hinting at a component of short term, but not long term, design in the form of complexification. Next time we will expand our discussion to organic evolution.

1See Posts on this site September 9 and September 11, 2019, Human Destiny – Part IV – General Science View.

2Huxley, Julian, Essays of a Biologist. Chatto and Windus, London, 1929. Page 72.

3Ibid.Page 252.

4 Ibid, Pages 241-242.

TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART I – INTRODUCTION

“And many monsters too the earth at that time essayed to produce…but all in vain, since nature set a ban on their increase and they could not reach the coveted flower of age nor find food nor be united in marriage. For we see that many conditions must meet together in things in order that they may beget and continue their kinds”- Lucretius

The traditional arguments on teleology focus on the idea of the mechanical workings of the universe, the ‘miracle’ of life, and the apparent hierarchy of living things with man in all his cleverness at the top. The thesis is simple enough, this astonishing apparatus would not appear spontaneously or by accident, any more than a pocket watch found on the ground would be assumed to have materialized into existence. The rest of the argument is then automatic: there must be a designer or creator which we call God.

It took thousands of years for man to unravel an alternative explanation for the mystery of the working of the universe and the existence of complex forms of life found on Earth. But of course the solution was not difficult; in fact, in some ways we might be amazed it took so long to solve this riddle. If we grant the reliability of our experience and some basic science, then a few facts and observations can be assembled into the theory of natural selection:

  1. The universe is very large and very old.
  2. The matter of the universe is made up of tiny particles called atoms.
  3. Atoms combine in a variety of ways spontaneously into compounds.
  4. Some chemical compounds are more stable than others.
  5. Some chemical compounds or entities can self-replicate.
  6. Self-replicating entities increase more readily than non-self-replicating entities.
  7. Some self-replicating entities replicate imperfectly.
  8. The environment surrounding entities in the universe undergoes constant change.
  9. Entities which have features that favor their existence in a particular environment persist.
  10. Self-replicating entities with features that favor their existence an environment will continue to exist and replicate.

The first of these points was known by most of the ancients – particularly the Indians and the Greeks. Atomic theory dates back to ancient Greece although its more modern form is only a few hundred years old. We empirically know items #4 (a rock is more stable than dirt), #5 (crystals and life), #6 (living things versus rocks), and #7 (congenital abnormalities; varying talents in children). The constant flux of the universe was identified in the 5th century BCE by Heraclitus, and the effects on life, for instance the simple change of seasons, are obvious. Logic and experience inform #9 (fish die when a river or pond dries up, but mammals like the beaver or otter survive).

It is the last point which is a leap, but even it is suggested by variations in easily observable animal behavior (seagulls live on the coast where they can find fish, not inland). We need simply invert the idea that animals choose to live where they can most easily to the idea that the animals that live where they do are those that can live there.

In the next three posts I will expand this understanding of natural selection to envelop the inorganic, the organic, and humanity. Our focus will not be on the science behind natural selection and evolution, but rather on the philosophical consequences for teleology.

TELEOLOGY – STATISTICS

“Factual science may collect statistics and make charts. But its predictions are, as has been well said, but past history reversed.John Dewey.

 

 

In talking about probability last time we distinguished subjective from objective probability and discussed the a priori form of the latter. Today we will look at the second form of objective probability: statistics, which we can define as a theory of information obtained by using experimentation or random sampling to make an inference about a larger set of measurements, existing or conceptual, called a population.1

An example is helpful here. If I tell you that 2% of Americans have naturally red hair, you understand that no one has recorded the hair color of every American, rather this assertion is based on a representative sampling of the population. Of course we recognize the possibility of error in such sampling and conclusions. Unlike the a priori calculation of a coin toss, statistics are less certain and less exact. A particularly salient example is the political poll which can be fraught with problems, and whose results are often misleading.

Science, it turns out, consists of subjecting careful observations and experimental results to statistical analysis in order to generate general laws and predictions. Alternatively stated, science uses statistics to determine the universal from particulars. Of course this mathematically cleansed induction is not logically certain. As Hume observed, there is no metaphysical basis to believe that prior results will be repeated in the future, rather this is just a habit of the human mind.

But the crux of the significance of statistics for our purpose is its reliance on two fundamental premises: the uniformity of nature and the law of universal causation. These premises appear in fact to be supported by scientific experiment and its technological applications even if they cannot be proven categorically. Once we grant the validity of statistical predictions, it then seems fair to ask whether uniformity in nature suggests design.

But we can extract a similar significance from the more exact a priori probability of the coin flip. On the one hand there is the consistency of mathematic calculation which signals design, and on the other  that a priori probability is manifest in nature where the coin flip is mirrored for instance in the gender of animal offspring which follow this same formula.

And then there is perhaps the most sublime corollary: mathematics itself is instantiated in nature  (as opposed to being simply a human idea). Take the common white cabbage butterfly where male and female are identical in appearance except the male has one dark spot on its wing and the female two; it appears these butterflies can “count” to two. Or while robins typically have three eggs per season, they correct for a fourth egg by pushing one out of the nest, thus it appears robins can “count’ to three.

Mathematical, probabilistic, and statistical uniformity are strong arguments for design in the universe, but we must hold on making a final conclusion until the end of this section. Next time we will take up evolution – often called ‘natural selection.’

1Ott, Lyman and Mendenhall, William, Understanding Statistics. Duxbury Press, Boston, 1985. ISBN 0-87150-855-9, page 3.

TELEOLOGY – PROBABILITY

“The most important questions of life are indeed, for the most part, really only problems of probability.”Pierre-Simon Laplace

 

 

In thinking through whether reality and the universe are meaningful or pointless, I have been taking the approach that if the universe is designed, then it has meaning, whereas if it is not designed, its meaningfulness is suspect. So far we have looked at chance, complexity, chaos theory, accident, and quantum uncertainty as possible explanations of the universe that circumvent design. The next logical subject in our search is the statistical or probabilistic nature of the cosmos.

Probability is a difficult concept to pin down, but we can dissect its meaning into subjective and objective forms. Subjective probability refers to opinions or estimations of likelihood of an event, that is, levels of confidence, typically in non-recurring or unique situations that cannot be justified by specific scientific or mathematical data. So for instance if you think your political party will probably win the next Presidential election, this is subjective.

Objective probability consists of two forms. The first of these is called by A.J. Ayer, a prior referring to situations of a mathematical symmetry of frequencies of outcomes.1 A simple example is the coin flip where there is a 50% probability of the coin coming up heads or tails. However, there is no way to confirm empirically that a coin flipped repetitively will yield 50% heads and 50% tails, since in fact any outcome in any number of coin flips is theoretically possible. (If you flip a coin 100 times and you get heads 57 times, you don’t decide coin flips give heads 57% of the time; you assume this was just one particular outcome of 100 coin flips).

In fact, objective probability assures no specific outcome can be predicted. For instance while the chance of rolling double sixes is one in 36 for one roll and the chance for rolling double sixes 10 times in a row is > 3.6 x 1015; given sufficient rolls, 10 consecutive double sixes will occur eventually, and with an infinite number of rolls theoretically will occur an infinite number of times.

But of course the symmetry of objective probabilities cannot be absolute, since in fact a coin flip must come down either heads or tails, and a dice roll must yield a specific number between 2 and 36. Chaos theory offers the best theoretical explanation of the eventual outcome of coin flips and dice rolls;  tiny or obscure factors determine the result in a given instance, even though those factors are neutral in the long run. (Contrast this with quantum mechanics where both outcomes can occur simultaneously at the subatomic level and only the addition of the observer leads to an actual outcome.)

The conclusion from this brief blog is that subjective probability refers only to an individual’s level of confidence while  a priori probability cannot be proven empirically nor does it predict specific outcomes. Next time we will look at the second from of objective probability – statistics.

1Ayer, A.J., The Central Questions of Philosophy, Penguin Books, Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1973. Page 164.

 TELEOLOGY – UNCERTAINTY – PART II

 “I have no reason for believing the existence of matter. I have no immediate intuition thereof: neither can I immediately, from any sensation, ideas, notions, actions, or passions infer an unthinking, unperceiving, inactive substance – either by probable deduction or necessary consequence.” – George Berkeley.

Last time I traced briefly the history the development of the uncertainty principle as finalized by Werner Heisenberg. Subsequently, he and other physicists attempted to understand the significance of this discovery and created what came to be known as the Copenhagen Interpretation consisting of three main theses:1

(1)  The fundamental micronature is indivisibly bipartite: i.e. depends on field-theoretical and particle-theoretical considerations.

(2)  We will never return to classical determinism.

(3) We must learn to live in thought with the uncertainty relationship.

The philosophical implications are even more wide-ranging, as delineated by Norwood Russell Hanson:2

(1)  The significance of scientific knowledge becomes questionable.

(2)  The role of science may need to be reconsidered as descriptive rather than predictive.

(3)  Causality remains unexplained or worse is literally unexplainable.

(4) It is unclear if man has the possibility of gaining objective knowledge of the world.

This latter point is particularly poignant. In fact, quantum mechanics reminds us the act of measurement defines the thing measured and is inextricably intertwined with it. So even at the macro level, the world revealed to us depends on the measuring tools we possess and the kind of information we are capable of understanding. Reality as experienced by man then is not absolute but subjective.3

In addition when we enlarge the scope of uncertainty to the level of the universe, we are left with the question – how do superstructures such as galaxies, stars, and planets emerge from the indeterminate quantum fog without external measure or observer (assuming there is nothing external to the cosmos)? The answer offered by physicists is ‘decoherence’ wherein “the internal interactions of a complex quantum system constitute a kind of incessant self-measurement that allows the system as whole to display fixed and definite properties even though the underlying quantum state is in constant flux.”4 From this unfolds independent and objective reality which we label as classical.

Of course this solution is at best hypothetical, and an outside observer seems to be the more palatable alternative. Therefore Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle leads us to question not only the nature of reality but also whether its fundamental laws require an observer/designer – if not a deity than perhaps a demigod. We will pick this up again in the synthesis at the end of this section

 

1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 7, page 43.

2Ibid. page 41.

3Lindley, David (introduction) in Werner, Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy.HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-120919-2, pages xiii-xiv.

4Ibid. page xx.