Back in 1984, Derek Parfit’s work on population ethics led him to formulate a possible consequence of total utilitarianism, namely, what was deemed as the Repugnant Conclusion (RC). For those unfamiliar with the term, Parfit described it accordingly:
For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.
To better explain this conclusion, let’s consider a few different populations, A, A+, and B, where the width of the bar represents the relative population and the height represents the average “well-being rating” of the people in that sub-population:
Image taken from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/fig2.png
In population A, let’s say we have 10 billion people with a “well-being rating” of +10 (on a scale of -10 to +10, with negative values indicating a life not worth living). Now in population A+, let’s say we have all the people in population A with the mere addition of 10 billion people with a “well-being rating” of +8. According to the argument as Parfit presents it, it seems reasonable to hold that population A+ is better than population A, or at the very least, not worse than population A. This is believed to be the case because the only difference between the two populations is the mere addition of more people with lives worth living (even if their well-being isn’t as good as those represented by the “A” population, so it is believed that adding additional lives worth living cannot make an outcome worse when all else is equal.
Next, consider population B where it has the same number of people as population A+, but every person has a “well-being rating” that is slightly higher than the average “well-being rating” in population A+, and that is slightly lower than that of population A. Now if one accepts that population A+ is better than A (or at least not worse) and if one accepts that population B is better than population A+ (since it has an average well being that is higher) then one has to accept the conclusion that population B is better than population A (by transitive logic; A <= A+ <B, therefore, A<B). If this is true then we can take this further and show that a population that is sufficiently large enough would still be better than population A, even if the “well-being rating” of each person was only +1. This is the RC as presented by Parfit, and he along with most philosophers found it to be unacceptable. So he worked diligently on trying to solve it, but hadn’t succeeded in the way he hoped for. This has since become one of the biggest problems in ethics, particularly in the branch of population ethics.
Some of the strategies that have been put forward to resolve the RC include adopting an average principle, a variable value principle, or some kind of critical level principle. However all of these supposed resolutions are either wrought with their own problems (if accepted) or they are highly unsatisfactory, unconvincing, or very counter-intuitive. A brief overview of the argument and the supposed solutions and their associated problems can be found here.
I’d like to respond to the RC argument as well because I think that there are at least a few problems with the premises right off the bat. The foundation for my rebuttal relies on an egoistic moral realist ethics, based on a goal theory of morality (a subset of desire utilitarianism), which can be summarized as follows:
If one wants X above all else, then one ought to Y above all else. Since it can be shown that ultimately what one wants above all else is satisfaction and fulfillment with one’s life (or what Aristotle referred to as eudaimonia) then one ought to do above all else all possible actions that will best achieve that goal. The actions required to best accomplish this satisfaction can be determined empirically (based on psychology, neuroscience, sociology, etc.), and therefore we theoretically have epistemic access to a number of moral facts. These moral facts are what we ought to do above all else in any given situation given all the facts available to us and via a rational assessment of said facts.
So if one is trying to choose whether one population is better or worse than another, I think that assessment should be based on the same egoistic moral framework which accounts for all known consequences resulting from particular actions and which implements “altruistic” behaviors precipitated by cultivating virtues that benefit everyone including ourselves (such as compassion, integrity, and reasonableness). So in the case of evaluating the comparison between population A and that of A+ as presented by Parfit, which is better? Well if one applies the veil of ignorance as propagated by the social contract theories of philosophers such as Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, whereby we would hypothetically choose between worlds, not knowing which subpopulation we would end up in, which world ought we to prefer? It would stand to reason that population A is certainly better than that of A+ (and better than population B) because one has the highest probability of having a higher level of well-being in that population/society (for any person chosen at random). This reasoning would then render the RC as false, as it only followed from fallacious reasoning (i.e. it is fallacious to assume that adding more people with lives worth living is all that matters in the assessment).
Another fundamental flaw that I see in the premises is the assumption that population A+ contains the same population of high well-being individuals as in A with the mere addition of people with a somewhat lower level of well-being. If the higher well-being subpopulation of A+ has knowledge of the existence of other people in that society with a lower well-being, wouldn’t that likely lead to a decrease in their well-being (compared to those in the A population that had no such concern)? It would seem that the only way around this is if the higher well-being people were ignorant of those other members of society or if there were other factors that were not equal between the two high-well-being subpopulations in A and A+ to somehow compensate for that concern, in which case the mere addition assumption is false since the hypothetical scenario would involve a number of differences between the two higher well-being populations. If the higher well-being subpopulation in A+ is indeed ignorant of the existence of the lower well-being subpopulation in A+, then they are not able to properly assess the state of the world which would certainly factor into their overall level of well-being.
In order to properly assess this and to behave morally at all, one needs to use as many facts as are practical to obtain and operate according to those facts as rationally as possible. It would seem plausible that the better-off subpopulation of A+ would have at least some knowledge of the fact that there exist people with less well-being than themselves and this ought to decrease their happiness and overall well-being when all else is truly equal when compared to A. But even if the subpopulation can’t know this for some reason (i.e. if the subpopulations are completely isolated from one another), we do have this knowledge and thus must take account of it in our assessment of which population is better than the other. So it seems that the comparison of population A to A+ as stated in the argument is an erroneous one based on fallacious assumptions that don’t account for these factors pertaining to the well-being of informed people.
Now I should say that if we had knowledge pertaining to the future of both societies we could wind up reversing our preference if, for example, it turned out that population A had a future that was likely going to turn out worse than the future of population A+ (where the most probable “well-being rating” decreased comparatively). If this was the case, then being armed with that probabilistic knowledge of the future (based on a Bayesian analysis of likely future outcomes) could force us to switch preferences. Ultimately, the way to determine which world we ought to prefer is to obtain the relevant facts about which outcome would make us most satisfied overall (in the eudaimonia sense), even if this requires further scientific investigation regarding human psychology to determine the optimized trade-off between present and future well-being.
As for comparing two populations that have the same probability for high well-being, yet with different populations (say “A” and “double A”), I would argue once again that one should assess those populations based on what the most likely future is for each population based on the facts available to us. If the larger population is more likely to be unsustainable, for example, then it stands to reason that the smaller population is what one ought to strive for (and thus prefer) over the larger one. However, if sustainability is not likely to be an issue based on the contingent facts of the societies being evaluated, then I think one ought to choose the society that has the best chances of bettering the planet as a whole through maximized stewardship over time. That is to say, if more people can more easily accomplish goals of making the world a better place, then the larger population would be what one ought to strive for since it would secure more well-being in the future for any and all conscious creatures (including ourselves). One would have to evaluate the societies they are comparing to one another for these types of factors and then make the decision accordingly. In the end, it would maximize the eudaimonia for any individual chosen at random both in that present society and in the future.
But what if we are instead comparing two populations that both have “well-being ratings” that are negative? For example what if we compare a population S containing only one person that has a well-being rating of -10 (the worst possible suffering imaginable) versus another population T containing one million people that have well-being ratings of -9 (almost the worst possible suffering)? It sure seems that if we apply the probabilistic principle I applied to the positive well being populations, that would lead to preferring a world with millions of people suffering horribly instead of a world with just one person suffering a bit more. However, this would only necessarily follow if one applied the probabilistic principle while ignoring the egoistically-based “altruistic” virtues such as compassion and reasonableness, as it pertains to that moral decision. In order to determine which world one ought to prefer over another, just as in any other moral decision, one must determine what behaviors and choices make us most satisfied as individuals (to best obtain eudaimonia). If people are generally more satisfied (perhaps universally once fully informed of the facts and reasoning rationally) in preferring to have one person suffer at a -10 level over one million people suffering at a -9 level (even if it was you or I chosen as that single person), then that is the world one ought to prefer over the other.
Once again, our preference could be reversed if we were informed that the most likely futures of these populations had their levels of suffering reversed or changed markedly. And if the scenario changed to, say, 1 million people at a -10 level versus 2 million people at a -9 level, our preferred outcomes may change as well, even if we don’t yet know what that preference ought to be (i.e. if we’re ignorant of some facts pertaining to our psychology at the present, we may think we know, even though we are incorrect due to irrational thinking or some missing facts). As always, the decision of which population or world is better depends on how much knowledge we have pertaining to those worlds (to make the most informed decision we can given our present epistemological limitations) and thus our assessment of their present and most likely future states. So even if we don’t yet know which world we ought to prefer right now (in some subset of the thought experiments we conjure up), science can find these answers (or at least give us the best shot at answering them).
After reading and commenting on a post at “A Philosopher’s Take” by James DiGiovanna titled Responsibility, Identity, and Artificial Beings: Persons, Supra-persons and Para-persons, I decided to expand on the topic of personal identity.
Personal Identity Concepts & Criteria
I think when most people talk about personal identity, they are referring to how they see themselves and how they see others in terms of personality and some assortment of (usually prominent) cognitive and behavioral traits. Basically, they see it as what makes a person unique and in some way distinguishable from another person. And even this rudimentary concept can be broken down into at least two parts, namely, how we see ourselves (self-ascribed identity) and how others see us (which we could call the inferred identity of someone else), since they are likely going to differ. While most people tend to think of identity in these ways, when philosophers talk about personal identity, they are usually referring to the unique numerical identity of a person. Roughly speaking, this amounts to basically whatever conditions or properties that are both necessary and sufficient such that a person at one point in time and a person at another point in time can be considered the same person — with a temporal continuity between those points in time.
Usually the criterion put forward for this personal identity is supposed to be some form of spatiotemporal and/or psychological continuity. I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to point out that the question of which criterion is correct has already framed the debate with the assumption that a personal (numerical) identity exists in the first place and even if it did exist, it also assumes that the criterion is something that would be determinable in some way. While it is not unfounded to believe that some properties exist that we could ascribe to all persons (simply because of what we find in common with all persons we’ve interacted with thus far), I think it is far too presumptuous to believe that there is a numerical identity underlying our basic conceptions of personal identity and a determinable criterion for it. At best, I think if one finds any kind of numerical identity for persons that persist over time, it is not going to be compatible with our intuitions nor is it going to be applicable in any pragmatic way.
As I mention pragmatism, I am sympathetic to Parfit’s views in the sense that regardless of what one finds the criteria for numerical personal identity to be (if it exists), the only thing that really matters to us is psychological continuity anyway. So despite the fact that Locke’s view — that psychological continuity (via memory) was the criterion for personal identity — was in fact shown to be based on circular and illogical arguments (per Butler, Reid and others), nevertheless I give applause to his basic idea. Locke seemed to be on the right track, in that psychological continuity (in some sense involving memory and consciousness) is really the essence of what we care about when defining persons, even if it can’t be used as a valid criterion in the way he proposed.
(Non) Persistence & Pragmatic Use of a Personal Identity Concept
I think that the search for, and long debates over, what the best criterion for personal identity is, has illustrated that what people have been trying to label as personal identity should probably be relabeled as some sort of pragmatic pseudo-identity. The pragmatic considerations behind the common and intuitive conceptions of personal identity have no doubt steered the debate pertaining to any possible criteria for helping to define it, and so we can still value those considerations even if a numerical personal identity doesn’t really exist (that is, even if it is nothing more than a pseudo-identity) and even if a diachronic numerical personal identity does exist but isn’t useful in any way.
If the object/subject that we refer to as “I” or “me” is constantly changing with every passing moment of time both physically and psychologically, then I tend to think that the self (that many people ascribe as the “agent” of our personal identity) is an illusion of some sort. I tend to side more with Hume on this point (or at least James Giles’ fair interpretation of Hume) in that my views seem to be some version of a no-self or eliminativist theory of personal identity. As Hume pointed out, even though we intuitively ascribe a self and thereby some kind of personal identity, there is no logical reason supported by our subjective experience to think it is anything but a figment of the imagination. This illusion results from our perceptions flowing from one to the next, with a barrage of changes taking place with this “self” over time that we simply don’t notice taking place — at least not without critical reflection on our past experiences of this ever-changing “self”. The psychological continuity that Locke described seems to be the main driving force behind this illusory self since there is an overlap in the memories of the succession of persons.
I think one could say that if there is any numerical identity that is associated with the term “I” or “me”, it only exists for a short moment of time in one specific spatio-temporal slice, and then as the next perceivable moment elapses, what used to be “I” will become someone else, even if the new person that comes into being is still referred to as “I” or “me” by a person that possesses roughly the same configuration of matter in its body and brain as the previous person. Since the neighboring identities have an overlap in accessible memory including autobiographical memories, memories of past experiences generally, and the memories pertaining to the evolving desires that motivate behavior, we shouldn’t expect this succession of persons to be noticed or perceived by the illusory self because each identity has access to a set of memories that is sufficiently similar to the set of memories accessible to the previous or successive identity. And this sufficient degree of similarity in those identities’ memories allow for a seemingly persistent autobiographical “self” with goals.
As for the pragmatic reasons for considering all of these “I”s and “me”s to be the same person and some singular identity over time, we can see that there is a causal dependency between each member of this “chain of spatio-temporal identities” that I think exists, and so treating that chain of interconnected identities as one being is extremely intuitive and also incredibly useful for accomplishing goals (which is likely the reason why evolution would favor brains that can intuit this concept of a persistent “self” and the near uni-directional behavior that results from it). There is a continuity of memory and behaviors (even though both change over time, both in terms of the number of memories and their accuracy) and this continuity allows for a process of conditioning to modify behavior in ways that actively rely on those chains of memories of past experiences. We behave as if we are a single person moving through time and space (and as if we are surrounded by other temporally extended single person’s behaving in similar ways) and this provides a means of assigning ethical and causal responsibility to something or more specifically to some agent. Quite simply, by having those different identities referenced under one label and physically attached to or instantiated by something localized, that allows for that pragmatic pseudo-identity to persist over time in order for various goals (whether personal or interpersonal/societal) to be accomplished.
“The Persons Problem” and a “Speciation” Analogy
I came up with an analogy that I thought was very fitting to this concept. One could analogize this succession of identities that get clumped into one bulk pragmatic-pseudo-identity with the evolutionary concept of speciation. For example, a sequence of identities somehow constitute an intuitively persistent personal identity, just as a sequence of biological generations somehow constitute a particular species due to the high degree of similarity between them all. The apparent difficulty lies in the fact that, at some point after enough identities have succeeded one another, even the intuitive conception of a personal identity changes markedly to the point of being unrecognizable from its ancestral predecessor, just as enough biological generations transpiring eventually leads to what we call a new species. It’s difficult to define exactly when that speciation event happens (hence the species problem), and we have a similar problem with personal identity I think. Where does it begin and end? If personal identity changes over the course of a lifetime, when does one person become another? I could think of “me” as the same “me” that existed one year ago, but if I go far enough back in time, say to when I was five years old, it is clear that “I” am a completely different person now when compared to that five year old (different beliefs, goals, worldview, ontology, etc.). There seems to have been an identity “speciation” event of some sort even though it is hard to define exactly when that was.
Biologists have tried to solve their species problem by coming up with various criteria to help for taxonomical purposes at the very least, but what they’ve wound up with at this point is several different criteria for defining a species that are each effective for different purposes (e.g. biological-species concept, morpho-species concept, phylogenetic-species concept, etc.), and without any single “correct” answer since they are all situationally more or less useful. Similarly, some philosophers have had a persons problem that they’ve been trying to solve and I gather that it is insoluble for similar “fuzzy boundary” reasons (indeterminate properties, situationally dependent properties, etc.).
The Role of Information in a Personal Identity Concept
Anyway, rather than attempt to solve the numerical personal identity problem, I think that philosophers need to focus more on the importance of the concept of information and how it can be used to try and arrive at a more objective and pragmatic description of the personal identity of some cognitive agent (even if it is not used as a criterion for numerical identity, since information can be copied and the copies can be distinguished from one another numerically). I think this is especially true once we take some of the concerns that James DiGiovanna brought up concerning the integration of future AI into our society.
If all of the beliefs, behaviors, and causal driving forces in a cognitive agent can be represented in terms of information, then I think we can implement more universal conditioning principles within our ethical and societal framework since they will be based more on the information content of the person’s identity without putting as much importance on numerical identity nor as much importance on our intuitions of persisting people (since they will be challenged by several kinds of foreseeable future AI scenarios).
To illustrate this point, I’ll address one of James DiGiovanna’s conundrums. James asks us:
To give some quick examples: suppose an AI commits a crime, and then, judging its actions wrong, immediately reforms itself so that it will never commit a crime again. Further, it makes restitution. Would it make sense to punish the AI? What if it had completely rewritten its memory and personality, so that, while there was still a physical continuity, it had no psychological content in common with the prior being? Or suppose an AI commits a crime, and then destroys itself. If a duplicate of its programming was started elsewhere, would it be guilty of the crime? What if twelve duplicates were made? Should they each be punished?
In the first case, if the information constituting the new identity of the AI after reprogramming is such that it no longer needs any kind of conditioning, then it would be senseless to punish the AI — other than to appease humans that may be angry that they couldn’t themselves avoid punishment in this way, due to having a much slower and less effective means of reprogramming themselves. I would say that the reprogrammed AI is guilty of the crime, but only if its reprogrammed memory still included information pertaining to having performed those past criminal behaviors. However, if those “criminal memories” are now gone via the reprogramming then I’d say that the AI is not guilty of the crime because the information constituting its identity doesn’t match that of the criminal AI. It would have no recollection of having committed the crime and so “it” would not have committed the crime since that “it” was lost in the reprogramming process due to the dramatic change in information that took place.
In the latter scenario, if the information constituting the identity of the destroyed AI was re-instantiated elsewhere, then I would say that it is in fact guilty of the crime — though it would not be numerically guilty of the crime but rather qualitatively guilty of the crime (to differentiate between the numerical and qualitative personal identity concepts that are embedded in the concept of guilt). If twelve duplicates of this information were instantiated into new AI hardware, then likewise all twelve of those cognitive agents would be qualitatively guilty of the crime. What actions should be taken based on qualitative guilt? I think it means that the AI should be punished or more specifically that the judicial system should perform the reconditioning required to modify their behavior as if it had committed the crime (especially if the AI believes/remembers that it has committed the crime), for the better of society. If this can be accomplished through reprogramming, then that would be the most rational thing to do without any need for traditional forms of punishment.
We can analogize this with another thought experiment with human beings. If we imagine a human that has had its memories changed so that it believes it is Charles Manson, has all of Charles Manson’s memories and intentions, then that person should be treated as if they are Charles Manson and thus incarcerated/punished accordingly to rehabilitate them or protect the other members of society. This is assuming of course that we had reliable access to that kind of mind-reading knowledge. If we did, the information constituting the identity of that person would be what is most important — not what the actual previous actions of the person were — because the “previous person” was someone else, due to that gross change in information.
My sincerest condolences go out to all the victims and the friends and families of those victims in the Orlando (“Pulse”) night-club shooting. While it is still uncertain and under investigation whether or not there were any ties between the shooter (whom I won’t bother naming) and some Islamic extremist organization, there was in fact a proclaimed allegiance to such an organization voiced by the shooter himself to the police prior to the incident. Even if no direct ties are found between the shooter and this or any other radical Islamic extremist organization, the possibility will remain that this was a “self-radicalized” or “self-actualized” Jihadist Muslim. The man very likely knew that he was going to die one way or another that night (by police or otherwise) and so a belief in martyrdom and in an eternal paradise after death would have been perhaps the most powerful reason to not care about the consequences. And a person believing that they are carrying out the wishes of an invisible magic man in the sky, and that are doing so in order to achieve eternal paradise, has more than enough motive to commit this kind of heinous act.
Obviously we don’t know what the man was thinking and can’t confirm his alleged motives, but if we take any of his own words seriously, then this is yet another incident that demands that the difficult religious conversation that many people want to avoid be opened further. A conversation involving the topic of reforming Islam with the secular moderates that claim membership in that religion, and a conversation involving a recognition that when those religious texts are plainly read in their entirety, they clearly advocate for violence and oppression against non-believers. There may be some good messages in those texts, as there are in just about any book — but to deny the heinous contents that also exist in those very same texts and to deny the real religious motivations of these murderers who are inspired by those texts is nothing but intellectual dishonesty and delusion.
Regressive liberals aren’t making things any easier as they throw out accusations of racism and bigotry even in cases where it is only the religious ideas themselves that are being criticized, with no mention of any race or ethnicity. That has to stop too. It’s true that many conservatives that are also racists and bigots and that have racist motives behind their anti-Islamic agenda, are also some of the same conservatives that are mentioning the dangerous ideas in Islam. But as an intellectually honest liberal myself, I can both recognize and abhor those racist motives common to many conservative social and political circles, yet also agree with some of those conservatives’ claims pertaining to the dangers of certain Islamic religious ideas.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the origin of the regressive liberal movement and its commitment to eliminating any and all criticism of Islam is that it has conflated the racism and bigotry directed at Muslims that is often coming from conservatives (including political clowns like Donald Trump), with the criticism against Islamic ideas that make no mention of race. I suspect that because many of these anti-Islamic claims are also coming from the same conservative sphere, that regressive liberals have unfortunately lumped all anti-Islamic claims into the same category (some form of racism and bigotry against Islam), when those two kinds of claims should be in entirely different categories. There are criticisms of Islamic ideas that have nothing to do with race and there are criticisms of Muslims that are clearly racist — and the latter is what liberals and everyone should continue to fight against. But the former type of criticisms are simply a part of a reasoned discussion on the topic and one that needs to take place in the public sphere. I have propagated the former type of criticisms (based on reason and evidence, not prejudice or racism) and I have seen many other free-thinker and humanist advocates do so as well.
Bottom line — we have to begin to talk more about the dangers of believing in and relying on faith, dogma, revelation, and any other belief system not grounded on reason and evidence. These epistemological “methods” are not only demonstrably unreliable and fallacious, but they are also being high-jacked by various terrorist organizations that have their own aims. Even if the leaders of a dangerous extremist organization don’t actually believe in the religious ideas that they proclaim as their motivation, they know that if others do, and if others are already willing to die for their faith and to do it for such compelling reasons as eternal paradise, then those leaders can get people to commit heinous acts. As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.” These words of wisdom still apply, even if the leaders that (initially) spread those absurdities don’t believe them. Now I think that many of the leaders that spread these ideas do believe them, but I’m betting that there are also many that do not. If people begin to see the dangers of faith and dogma and are instilled with an ultimate appreciation and priority of reason and evidence, then these radical recruitments will be far less effective if not rendered entirely ineffective.
Religious ideas don’t get a free pass from criticism just because people hold them to be sacred. Because, sacred or not, the reality is that this kind of muddled thinking can and has ended many innocent people’s lives throughout human history. Bad ideas have bad consequences and it doesn’t matter where those bad ideas come from. Despite the fact that we are living in a post-enlightenment age, not everyone has accepted that paradigm shift yet. We must keep trying to spread the fruits of the enlightenment for the good of humanity. It is our moral obligation to do so.
Back in 1859, Charles Darwin released his famous theory of evolution by natural selection whereby inherent variations in the individual members of some population of organisms under consideration would eventually lead to speciation events due to those variations producing a differential in survival and reproductive success and thus leading to the natural selection of some subset of organisms within that population. As Darwin explained in his On The Origin of Species:
If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.
While Darwin’s big idea completely transformed biology in terms of it providing (for the first time in history) an incredibly robust explanation for the origin of the diversity of life on this planet, his idea has since inspired other theories pertaining to perhaps the three largest mysteries that humans have ever explored: the origin of life itself (not just the diversity of life after it had begun, which was the intended scope of Darwin’s theory), the origin of the universe (most notably, why the universe is the way it is and not some other way), and also the origin of consciousness.
Origin of Life
In order to solve the first mystery (the origin of life itself), geologists, biologists, and biochemists are searching for plausible models of abiogenesis, whereby the general scheme of these models would involve chemical reactions (pertaining to geology) that would have begun to incorporate certain kinds of energetically favorable organic chemistries such that organic, self-replicating molecules eventually resulted. Now, where Darwin’s idea of natural selection comes into play with life’s origin is in regard to the origin and evolution of these self-replicating molecules. First of all, in order for any molecule at all to build up in concentration requires a set of conditions such that the reaction leading to the production of the molecule in question is more favorable then the reverse reaction where the product transforms back into the initial starting materials. If merely one chemical reaction (out of a countless number of reactions occurring on the early earth) led to a self-replicating product, this would increasingly favor the production of that product, and thus self-replicating molecules themselves would be naturally selected for. Once one of them was produced, there would have been a cascade effect of exponential growth, at least up to the limit set by the availability of the starting materials and energy sources present.
Now if we assume that at least some subset of these self-replicating molecules (if not all of them) had an imperfect fidelity in the copying process (which is highly likely) and/or underwent even a slight change after replication by reacting with other neighboring molecules (also likely), this would provide them with a means of mutation. Mutations would inevitably lead to some molecules becoming more effective self-replicators than others, and then evolution through natural selection would take off, eventually leading to modern RNA/DNA. So not only does Darwin’s big idea account for the evolution of diversity of life on this planet, but the basic underlying principle of natural selection would also account for the origin of self-replicating molecules in the first place, and subsequently the origin of RNA and DNA.
Origin of the Universe
Another grand idea that is gaining heavy traction in cosmology is that of inflationary cosmology, where this theory posits that the early universe underwent a period of rapid expansion, and due to quantum mechanical fluctuations in the microscopically sized inflationary region, seed universes would have resulted with each one having slightly different properties, one of which that would have expanded to be the universe that we live in. Inflationary cosmology is currently heavily supported because it has led to a number of predictions, many of which that have already been confirmed by observation (it explains many large-scale features of our universe such as its homogeneity, isotropy, flatness, and other features). What I find most interesting with inflationary theory is that it predicts the existence of a multiverse, whereby we are but one of an extremely large number of other universes (predicted to be on the order of 10^500, if not an infinite number), with each one having slightly different constants and so forth.
Once again, Darwin’s big idea, when applied to inflationary cosmology, would lead to the conclusion that our universe is the way it is because it was naturally selected to be that way. The fact that its constants are within a very narrow range such that matter can even form, would make perfect sense, because even if an infinite number of universes exist with different constants, we would only expect to find ourselves in one that has the constants within the necessary range in order for matter, let alone life to exist. So any universe that harbors matter, let alone life, would be naturally selected for against all the other universes that didn’t have the right properties to do so, including for example, universes that had too high or too low of a cosmological constant (such as those that would have instantly collapsed into a Big Crunch or expanded into a heat death far too quickly for any matter or life to have formed), or even universes that didn’t have the proper strong nuclear force to hold atomic nuclei together, or any other number of combinations that wouldn’t work. So any universe that contains intelligent life capable of even asking the question of their origins, must necessarily have its properties within the required range (often referred to as the anthropic principle).
After our universe formed, the same principle would also apply to each galaxy and each solar system within those galaxies, whereby because variations exist in each galaxy and within each substituent solar system (differential properties analogous to different genes in a gene pool), then only those that have an acceptable range of conditions are capable of harboring life. With over 10^22 stars in the observable universe (an unfathomably large number), and billions of years to evolve different conditions within each solar system surrounding those many stars, it isn’t surprising that eventually the temperature and other conditions would be acceptable for liquid water and organic chemistries to occur in many of those solar systems. Even if there was only one life permitting planet per galaxy (on average), that would add up to over 100 billion life permitting planets in the observable universe alone (with many orders of magnitude more life permitting planets in the non-observable universe). So given enough time, and given some mechanism of variation (in this case, differences in star composition and dynamics), natural selection in a sense can also account for the evolution of some solar systems that do in fact have life permitting conditions in a universe such as our own.
Origin of Consciousness
The last significant mystery I’d like to discuss involves the origin of consciousness. While there are many current theories pertaining to different aspects of consciousness, and while there has been much research performed in the neurosciences, cognitive sciences, psychology, etc., pertaining to how the brain works and how it correlates to various aspects of the mind and consciousness, the brain sciences (though neuroscience in particular) are in their relative infancy and so there are still many questions that haven’t been answered yet. One promising theory that has already been shown to account for many aspects of consciousness is Gerald Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection (NGS) otherwise known as neural Darwinism (ND), which is a large scale theory of brain function. As one might expect from the name, the mechanism of natural selection is integral to this theory. In ND, the basic idea consists of three parts as read on the Wiki:
- Anatomical connectivity in the brain occurs via selective mechanochemical events that take place epigenetically during development. This creates a diverse primary neurological repertoire by differential reproduction.
- Once structural diversity is established anatomically, a second selective process occurs during postnatal behavioral experience through epigenetic modifications in the strength of synaptic connections between neuronal groups. This creates a diverse secondary repertoire by differential amplification.
- Re-entrant signaling between neuronal groups allows for spatiotemporal continuity in response to real-world interactions. Edelman argues that thalamocortical and corticocortical re-entrant signaling are critical to generating and maintaining conscious states in mammals.
In a nutshell, the basic differentiated structure of the brain that forms in early development is accomplished through cellular proliferation, migration, distribution, and branching processes that involve selection processes operating on random differences in the adhesion molecules that these processes use to bind one neuronal cell to another. These crude selection processes result in a rough initial configuration that is for the most part fixed. However, because there are a diverse number of sets of different hierarchical arrangements of neurons in various neuronal groups, there are bound to be functionally equivalent groups of neurons that are not equivalent in structure, but are all capable of responding to the same types of sensory input. Because some of these groups should in theory be better than others at responding to some particular type of sensory stimuli, this creates a form of neuronal/synaptic competition in the brain, whereby those groups of neurons that happen to have the best synaptic efficiency for the stimuli in question are naturally selected over the others. This in turn leads to an increased probability that the same network will respond to similar or identical signals in the future. Each time this occurs, synaptic strengths increase in the most efficient networks for each particular type of stimuli, and this would account for a relatively quick level of neural plasticity in the brain.
The last aspect of the theory involves what Edelman called re-entrant signaling whereby a sampling of the stimuli from functionally different groups of neurons occurring at the same time leads to a form of self-organizing intelligence. This would provide a means for explaining how we experience spatiotemporal consistency in our experience of sensory stimuli. Basically, we would have functionally different parts of the brain, such as various maps in the visual centers that pertain to color versus others that pertain to orientation or shape, that would effectively amalgamate the two (previously segregated) regions such that they can function in parallel and thus correlate with one another producing an amalgamation of the two types of neural maps. Once this re-entrant signaling is accomplished between higher order or higher complexity maps in the brain, such as those pertaining to value-dependent memory storage centers, language centers, and perhaps back to various sensory cortical regions, this would create an even richer level of synchronization, possibly leading to consciousness (according to the theory). In all of the aspects of the theory, the natural selection of differentiated neuronal structures, synaptic connections and strengths and eventually that of larger re-entrant connections would be responsible for creating the parallel and correlated processes in the brain believed to be required for consciousness. There’s been an increasing amount of support for this theory, and more evidence continues to accumulate in support of it. In any case, it is a brilliant idea and one with a lot of promise in potentially explaining one of the most fundamental aspects of our existence.
Darwin’s Big Idea May Be the Biggest Yet
In my opinion, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was perhaps the most profound theory ever discovered. I’d even say that it beats Einstein’s theory of Relativity because of its massive explanatory scope and carryover to other disciplines, such as cosmology, neuroscience, and even the immune system (see Edelman’s Nobel work on the immune system, where he showed how the immune system works through natural selection as well, as opposed to some type of re-programming/learning). Based on the basic idea of natural selection, we have been able to provide a number of robust explanations pertaining to many aspects of why the universe is likely to be the way it is, how life likely began, how it evolved afterward, and it may possibly be the answer to how life eventually evolved brains capable of being conscious. It is truly one of the most fascinating principles I’ve ever learned about and I’m honestly awe struck by its beauty, simplicity, and explanatory power.