The Open Mind

Cogito Ergo Sum

Archive for the ‘Physics’ Category

The Origin and Evolution of Life: Part II

leave a comment »

Even though life appears to be favorable in terms of the second law of thermodynamics (as explained in part one of this post), there have still been very important questions left unanswered regarding the origin of life including what mechanisms or platforms it could have used to get itself going initially.  This can be summarized by a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” dilemma, where biologists have wondered whether metabolism came first or if instead it was self-replicating molecules like RNA that came first.

On the one hand, some have argued that since metabolism is dependent on proteins and enzymes and the cell membrane itself, that it would require either RNA or DNA to code for those proteins needed for metabolism, thus implying that RNA or DNA would have to originate before metabolism could begin.  On the other hand, even the generation and replication of RNA or DNA requires a catalytic substrate of some kind and this is usually accomplished with proteins along with metabolic driving forces to accomplish those polymerization reactions, and this would seem to imply that metabolism along with some enzymes would be needed to drive the polymerization of RNA or DNA.  So biologists we’re left with quite a conundrum.  This was partially resolved when several decades ago, it was realized that RNA has the ability to not only act as a means of storing genetic information just like DNA, but it also has the additional ability of catalyzing chemical reactions just like an enzyme protein can.  Thus, it is feasible that RNA could act as both an information storage molecule as well as an enzyme.  While this helps to solve the problem if RNA began to self-replicate itself and evolve over time, the problem still remains of how the first molecules of RNA formed, because it seems that some kind of non-RNA metabolic catalyst would be needed to drive this initial polymerization.  Which brings us back to needing some kind of catalytic metabolism to drive these initial reactions.

These RNA polymerization reactions may have spontaneously formed on their own (or evolved from earlier self-replicating molecules that predated RNA), but the current models of how the early pre-biotic earth would have been around four billion years ago seem to suggest that there would have been too many destructive chemical reactions that would have suppressed the accumulation of any RNA and would have likely suppressed other self-replicating molecules as well.  What seems to be needed then is some kind of a catalyst that could create them quickly enough such that they would be able to accumulate in spite of any destructive reactions present, and/or some kind of physical barrier (like a cell wall) that protects the RNA or other self-replicating polymers so that they don’t interact with those destructive processes.

One possible solution to this puzzle that has been developing over the last several years involves alkaline hydrothermal vents.  We actually didn’t know that these kinds of vents existed until the year 2000 when they were discovered on a National Science Foundation expedition in the mid-Atlantic.  Then a few years later they were studied more closely to see what kinds of chemistries were involved with these kinds of vents.  Unlike the more well-known “black smoker” vents (which were discovered in the 1970’s), these alkaline hydrothermal vents have several properties that would have been hospitable to the emergence of life back during the Hadeon eon (between 4.6 and 4 billion years ago).

The ocean water during the Hadeon eon would have been much more acidic due to the higher concentrations of carbon dioxide (thus forming carbonic acid), and this acidic ocean water would have mixed with the hydrogen-rich alkaline water found within the vents, and this would have formed a natural proton gradient within the naturally formed pores of these rocks.  Also, electron transfer would have likely occurred when the hydrogen and methane-rich vent fluid contacted the carbon dioxide-rich ocean water, thus generating an electrical gradient.  This is already very intriguing because all living cells ultimately derive their metabolic driving forces from proton gradients or more generally from the flow of some kind of positive charge carrier and/or electrons.  Since the rock found in these vents undergoes a process called surpentization, which spreads the rock apart into various small channels and pockets, many different kinds of pores form in the rocks, and some of them would have been very thin-walled membranes separating the acidic ocean water from the alkaline hydrogen.  This would have facilitated the required semi-permeable barrier that modern cells have which we expect the earliest proto-cells to also have, and it would have provided the necessary source of energy to power various chemical reactions.

Additionally, these vents would have also provided a source of minerals (namely green rust and molybdenum) which likely would have behaved as enzymes, catalyzing reactions as various chemicals came into contact with them.  The green rust could have allowed the use of the proton gradient to generate molecules that contained phosphate, which could have stored the energy produced from the gradient — similar to how all living systems that we know of store their energy in ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate).  The molybdenum on the other hand would have assisted in electron transfer through those membranes.

So this theory provides a very plausible way for catalytic metabolism as well as proto-cellular membrane formation to have resulted from natural geological processes.  These proto-cells would then likely have begun concentrating simple organic molecules formed from the reaction of CO2 and H2 with all the enzyme-like minerals that were present.  These molecules could then react with one another to polymerize and form larger and more complex molecules including eventually nucleotides and amino acids.  One promising clue that supports this theory is the fact that every living system on earth is known to share a common metabolic system, known as the citric acid cycle or Kreb’s cycle, where it operates in the forward direction for aerobic organisms and in the reverse direction for anaerobic organisms.  Since this cycle consists of only 11 molecules, and since all biological components and molecules that we know of in any species have been made by some number or combination of these 11 fundamental building blocks, scientists are trying to test (among other things) whether or not they can mimic these alkaline hydrothermal vent conditions along with the acidic ocean water that would have been present in the Hadrean era and see if it will precipitate some or all of these molecules.  If they can, it will show that this theory is more than plausible to account for the origin of life.

Once these basic organic molecules were generated, eventually proteins would have been able to form, some of which that could have made their way to the membrane surface of the pores and acted as pumps to direct the natural proton gradient to do useful work.  Once those proteins evolved further, it would have been possible and advantageous for the membranes to become less permeable so that the gradient could be highly focused on the pump channels on the membrane of these proto-cells.  The membrane could have begun to change into one made from lipids produced from the metabolic reactions, and we already know that lipids readily form micelles or small closed spherical structures once they aggregate in aqueous conditions.  As this occurred, the proto-cells would no longer have been trapped in the porous rock, but would have eventually been able to slowly migrate away from the vents altogether, eventually forming the phospholipid bi-layer cell membranes that we see in modern cells.  Once this got started, self-replicating molecules and the rest of the evolution of the cell would have underwent natural selection as per the Darwinian evolution that most of us are familiar with.

As per the earlier discussion regarding life serving as entropy engines and energy dissipation channels, this self-replication would have been favored thermodynamically as well because replicating those entropy engines and the energy dissipation channels means that they will only become more effective at doing so.  Thus, we can tie this all together, where natural geological processes would have allowed for the required metabolism to form, thus powering organic molecular synthesis and polymerization, and all of these processes serving to increase entropy and maximize energy dissipation.  All that was needed for this to initiate was a planet that had common minerals, water, and CO2, and the natural geological processes can do the rest of the work.  These kinds of planets actually seem to be fairly common in our galaxy, with estimates ranging in the billions, thus potentially harboring life (or where it is just a matter of time before it initiates and evolves if it hasn’t already).  While there is still a lot of work to be done to confirm the validity of these models and to try to find ways of testing them vigorously, we are getting relatively close to solving the puzzle of how life originated, why it is the way it is, and how we can better search for it in other parts of the universe.

The Origin and Evolution of Life: Part I

leave a comment »

In the past, various people have argued that life originating at all let alone evolving higher complexity over time was thermodynamically unfavorable due to the decrease in entropy involved with both circumstances, and thus it was believed to violate the second law of thermodynamics.  For those unfamiliar with the second law, it basically asserts that the amount of entropy (often referred to as disorder) in a closed system tends to increase over time, or to put it another way, the amount of energy available to do useful work in a closed system tends to decrease over time.  So it has been argued that since the origin of life and the evolution of life with greater complexity would entail decreases in entropy, these events are therefore either at best unfavorable (and therefore the result of highly improbable chance), or worse yet they are altogether impossible.

We’ve known for quite some time now that these thermodynamic arguments aren’t at all valid because earth isn’t a thermodynamically closed or isolated system due to the constant supply of energy we receive from the sun.  Because we get a constant supply of energy from the sun, and because the entropy increase from the sun far outweighs the decrease in entropy produced from all biological systems on earth, the net entropy of the entire system increases and thus fits right in line with the second law as we would expect.

However, even though the emergence and evolution of life on earth do not violate the second law and are thus physically possible, that still doesn’t show that they are probable processes.  What we need to know is how favorable the reactions are that are required for initiating and then sustaining these processes.  Several very important advancements have been made in abiogenesis over the last ten to fifteen years, with the collaboration of geologists and biochemists, and it appears that they are in fact not only possible but actually probable processes for a few reasons.

One reason is that the chemical reactions that living systems undergo produce a net entropy as well, despite the drop of entropy associated with every cell and/or it’s arrangement with respect to other cells.  This is because all living systems give off heat with every favorable chemical reaction that is constantly driving the metabolism and perpetuation of those living systems. This gain in entropy caused by heat loss more than compensates for the loss in entropy that results with the production and maintenance of all the biological components, whether lipids, sugars, nucleic acids or amino acids and more complex proteins.  Beyond this, as more complexity arises during the evolution of the cells and living systems, the entropy that those systems produce tends to increase even more and so living systems with a higher level of complexity appear to produce a greater net entropy (on average) than less complex living systems.  Furthermore, once photosynthetic organisms evolved in particular, any entropy (heat) that they give off in the form of radiation ends up being of lower energy (infrared) than the photons given off by the sun to power those reactions in the first place.  Thus, we can see that living systems effectively dissipate the incoming energy from the sun, and energy dissipation is energetically favorable.

Living systems seem to serve as a controllable channel of energy flow for that energy dissipation, just like lightning, the eye of a hurricane, or a tornado, where high energy states in the form of charge gradients or pressure or temperature gradients end up falling to a lower energy state by dissipating that energy through specific focused channels that spontaneously form (e.g. individual concentrated lightning bolts, the eye of a hurricane, vortices, etc.).  These channels for energy flow are favorable and form because they allow the energy to be dissipated faster since the channels are initiated by some direction of energy flow that is able to self-amplify into a path of decreasing resistance for that energy dissipation.  Life and the metabolic processes involved with it, seem to direct energy flow in ways that are very similar to these other naturally arising processes in non-living physical systems.  Interestingly enough, a relevant hypothesis has been proposed for why consciousness and eventually self-awareness would have evolved (beyond the traditional reasons proposed by natural selection).  If an organism can evolve the ability to predict where energy is going to flow, where an energy dissipation channel will form (or form more effective ones themselves), conscious organisms can then behave in ways that much more effectively dissipate energy even faster (and also by catalyzing more entropy production), thus showing why certain forms of biological complexity such as consciousness, memory, etc., would have also been favored from a thermodynamic perspective.

Thus, the origin of life as well as the evolution of biological complexity appears to be increasingly favored by the second law, thus showing a possible fundamental physical driving force behind the origin and evolution of life.  Basically, the origin and evolution of life appear to be effectively entropy engines and catalytic energy dissipation channels, and these engines and channels produce entropy at a greater rate than the planet otherwise would in the absence of that life, thus showing at least one possible driving force behind life, namely, the second law of thermodynamics.  So ironically, not only does the origin and evolution of life not violate the second law of thermodynamics, but it actually seems to be an inevitable (or at least favorable) result because of the second law.  Some of these concepts are still being developed in various theories and require further testing to better validate them but they are in fact supported by well-established physics and by consistent and sound mathematical models.

Perhaps the most poetic concept I’ve recognized with these findings is that life is effectively speeding up the heat death of the universe.  That is, the second law of thermodynamics suggests that the universe will eventually lose all of its useful energy when all the stars burn out and all matter eventually spreads out and decays into lower and lower energy photons, and thus the universe is destined to undergo a heat death.  Life, because it is producing entropy faster than the universe otherwise would in the absence of that life, is actually speeding up this inevitable death of the universe, which is quite fascinating when you think about it.  At the very least, it should give a new perspective to those that ask the question “what is the meaning or purpose of life?”  Even if we don’t think it is proper to think of life as having any kind of objective purpose in the universe, what life is in fact doing is accelerating the death of not only itself, but of the universe as a whole.  Personally, this further reinforces the idea that we should all ascribe our own meaning and purpose to our lives, because we should be enjoying the finite amount of time that we have, not only as individuals, but as a part of the entire collective life that exists in our universe.

To read about the newest and most promising discoveries that may explain how life got started in the first place, read part two here.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

with 20 comments

Previously, I’ve written briefly about some of the cosmological arguments for God.  I’d like to expand on this topic, and I’ll begin doing so in this post by analyzing the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), since it is arguably the most well known version of the argument, which can be described with the following syllogism:

(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause;

(2) The universe began to exist;

Therefore,

(3) The universe has a cause.

The conclusion of this argument is often expanded by theists to suggest that the cause must be supernaturally transcendent, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and perhaps most importantly, this cause must itself be uncaused, in order to avoid the causal infinite regress implied by the KCA’s first premise.

Unfortunately this argument fails for a number of reasons.  The first thing that needs to be clarified is the definitions of terms used in these premises.  What is meant by “everything”, or “begins to exist”?  “Everything” in this context does imply that there are more than one of these things, which means that we are referring to a set of things, indeed the set of all things in this case.  The set of all things implied here apparently refers to all matter and energy in the universe, specifically the configuration of any subset of all matter and/or energy.  Then we have the second element in the first premise, “begins to exist”, which would thus refer to when the configuration of some set of matter and/or energy changes to a new configuration.  So we could rewrite the first premise as “any configuration of matter and/or energy that exists at time T and which didn’t exist at the time immediately prior to time T (which we could call T’), was a result of some cause”.  If we want to specify how “immediately prior” T’ is to T, we could use the smallest unit of time that carries any meaning per the laws of physics which would be the Planck time (roughly 10^-43 seconds), which is the time it takes the fastest entity in the universe (light) to traverse the shortest distance in the universe (the Planck length).

Does Everything Have a Cause?

Now that we’ve more clearly defined what is meant by the first premise, we can address whether or not that premise is sound.  It seems perfectly reasonable based on the nature of causality that we currently understand that there is indeed some cause that drives the changes in the configurations of sets of matter and energy that we observe in the universe, most especially in the everyday world that we observe.  On a most fundamental physical level, we would typically say that the cause of these configuration changes is described as the laws of physics.  Particles and waves all behave as they do, very predictably changing from one form into another based on these physical laws or consistent patterns that we’ve discovered.  However, depending on the interpretation of quantum mechanics used, there may be acausal quantum processes happening, for example, as virtual particle/anti-particle pairs pop into existence without any apparent deterministic path.  That is, unless there are non-local hidden variables that we are unaware of which guide/cause these events, there don’t appear to be any deterministic or causal driving forces behind certain quantum phenomena.  At best, the science is inconclusive as to whether all phenomena have causes, and thus one can’t claim certainty to the first premise of the KCA.  Unless we find a way to determine that quantum mechanics is entirely deterministic, we simply don’t know that matter and energy are fundamentally causally connected as are objects that we observe at much larger scales.

The bottom line here is that quantum indeterminism carries with it the possibility of acausality until proven otherwise, thus undermining premise one of the KCA with the empirical evidence found within the field of quantum physics.  As such, it is entirely plausible that if the apparent quantum acausal processes are fundamental to our physical world, the universe itself may have arisen from said acausal processes, thus undermining premise two as well as the conclusion of the KCA.  We can’t conclude that this is the case, but it is entirely possible and is in fact plausible given the peculiar quantum phenomena we’ve observed thus far.

As for the second premise, if we apply our clarified definition of “began to exist” introduced in the first premise to the second, then “the universe began to exist” would mean more specifically that “there was once a time (T’) when the universe didn’t exist and then at time T, the universe did exist.”  This is the most obviously problematic premise, at least according to the evidence we’ve found within cosmology.  The Big Bang Theory as most people are familiar with, which is the prevailing cosmological model for the earliest known moment of the universe, implies that spacetime itself had it’s earliest moment roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and continued to expand and transform over 13.8 billion years until reaching the state that we see it in today.  Many theists try to use this as evidence for the universe being created by God.  However, since time itself was non-existent prior to the Big Bang, it is not sensible to speak of any creation event happening prior to this moment, since there was no time for such an event to happen within.  This presents a big problem for the second premise in the KCA, because in order for the universe to “begin to exist”, it is implied that there was a time prior in which it didn’t exist, and this goes against the Big Bang model in which time never existed prior to that point.

Is Simultaneous Causation Tenable?

One way that theologians and some philosophers have attempted to circumvent this problem is to invoke the concept of simultaneous causation, that is, that (at least some) causes and effects can happen simultaneously.  Thus, if the cause of the universe happened at the same time as the effect (the Big Bang), then the cause of the universe (possibly “creation”) did happen in time, and thus the problem is said to be circumvented.

The concept of simultaneous causation has been proposed for some time by philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant and others since.  However, there are a few problems with simultaneous causation that I’ll point out briefly.  For one, there don’t appear to be any actual examples in our universe of simultaneous causation occurring.  Kant did propose what he believed to be a couple examples of simultaneous causation to support the idea.  One example he gave was a scenario where the effect of a heated room supposedly occurs simultaneously with a fire in a fireplace that caused it.  Unfortunately, this example fails, because it actually takes time for thermal energy to make its way from the fire in the fireplace to any air molecules in the room (even those that are closest to the fire).  As combustion is occurring and oxygen is combining with hydrocarbon fuels in the wood to produce carbon dioxide and a lot of heat, that heat takes time to propagate.  As the carbon dioxide is being formed, and the molecule is assuming an energetically favorable state, there is still a lag between this event and any heat given off to nearby molecules in the room.  In fact, no physical processes can occur faster than the speed of light by the principles of Relativity, so this refutes any other example analogous to this one.  The fastest way a fire can propagate heat is through radiation (as opposed to conduction or convection), and we know that the propagation of radiation is limited by the speed of light.  Even pulling a solid object causes it to stretch (at least temporarily) so the end of the object farthest away from where it is being pulled will actually remain at rest for a short time while the other end of the object is first pulled in a particular direction.  It isn’t until a short time lag, that the rest of the object “catches up” with the end being pulled, so even with mechanical processes involving solid materials, we never see instantaneous speeds of causal interactions.

Another example Kant gave was one in which a lead ball lies on a cushion and simultaneously causes the effect of an indentation or “hollow” in the cushion.  Again, in order for the ball to cause a dent in the cushion in the first place it had to be moved into the cushion which took some finite amount of time.  Likewise with the previous example, Relativity prevents any simultaneous causation of this sort.  We can see this by noting that at the molecular level, as the electron orbitals from the lead ball approach those of the cushion, the change in the strength of the electric field between the electron orbitals of the two objects can’t travel faster than the speed of light, and thus as the ball moves toward the cushion and eventually “touches” it, the increased strength of the repulsion takes some amount of time to be realized.

One last example I’ve seen given by defenders of simultaneous causation is that of a man sitting down, thus forming a lap.  That is, as the man sits down, and his knees bend, a lap is created in the process, and we’re told that the man sitting down is the cause and the formation of the lap is the simultaneous effect.  Unfortunately, this example also fails because the man sitting down and the lap being formed are really nothing more than two different descriptions of the same event.  One could say that the man formed a lap, or one could say that the man sat down.  Clearly the intentions behind the man were most likely to sit down rather than to form a lap, but nevertheless forming a lap was incidental in the process of sitting down.  Both are describing different aspects of the same event, and thus there aren’t two distinct causal relatum in this example.  In the previous examples mentioned (the fire and heated room or ball denting a cushion), if there are states described that occur simultaneously even after taking Relativity into account, they can likewise be shown to be merely two different aspects or descriptions of the same event.  Even if we could grant that simultaneous causation were possible (which so far, we haven’t seen any defensible examples in the real world), how can we assign causal priority to determine which was the cause and which was the effect?  In terms of the KCA, one could ask, if the cause (C) of the universe occurred at the same time as the effect (E) or existence of the universe, how could one determine if C caused E rather than the other way around?  One has to employ circular argumentation in order to do so, by invoking other metaphysical assumptions in the terms that are being defined which simply begs the question.

Set Theory & Causal Relations

Another problem with the second premise of the KCA is that even if we ignore the cosmological models that refute it, and even ignore the problematic concept of simultaneous causation altogether, there is an implicit assumption that the causal properties of the “things” in the universe also apply to the universe as a whole.  This is fallacious because one can’t assume that the properties of members of a set or system necessarily apply to the system or entire set as a whole.  Much work has been done within set theory to show that this is the case, and thus while some properties of the members or subsets of a system can apply to the whole system, not all properties necessarily do (in fact some properties applying to both members of a set and to the set as a whole can lead to logical contradictions or paradoxes).  One of the properties that is being misapplied here involves the concept of “things” in general.  If we try to consider the universe as a “thing” we can see how this is problematic by noting that we seem to define and conceptualize “things” with causal properties as entities or objects that are located in time and space (that’s an ontology that I think is pretty basic and universal).  However, the universe as a whole is the entirety of space and time (i.e. spacetime), and thus the universe as a whole contains all space and time, and thus can’t itself (as a whole) be located in space or time.

Since the universe appears to be composed of all the things we know about, one might say that the universe is located within “nothing” at all, if that’s at all intelligible to think of.  Either way, the universe as a whole doesn’t appear to be located in time or space, and thus it isn’t located anywhere at all.  Thus, it technically isn’t a “thing” at all, or at the very least, it is not a thing that has any causal properties of its own, since it isn’t located in time or space in order to have causal relations with other things.  Even if one insists on calling it a thing, despite the problems listed here, we are still left with the problem that we can’t assume that causal principles found within the universe apply to the universe as a whole.  So for a number of reasons, premise two of the KCA fails.  Since both premises fail for a number of reasons, the conclusion no longer follows.  So even if the universe does in fact have a cause, in some way unknown to us, the KCA doesn’t successfully support such a claim with its premises.

Is the Kalam Circular?

Yet another problem that Dan Barker and others have pointed out involves the language used in the first premise of the KCA.  The clause, “everything that begins to exist”, implies that reality can be divided into two sets: items that begin to exist (BE) and items that do not begin to exist (NBE).  In order for the KCA to work in arguing for God’s existence, the NBE set can’t be empty.  Even more importantly, it must accommodate more than one item to avoid simply being a synonym for God, for if God is the only object or item within NBE, then the premise “everything that begins to exist has a cause” is equivalent to “everything except God has a cause”.  This simply puts God into the definition of the premise of the argument that is supposed to be used to prove God’s existence, and thus would simply beg the question.  It should be noted that just because the NBE set must accommodate more than one possible item, this doesn’t entail that the NBE set must contain more than one item.  This specific problem with the KCA could be resolved if one could first show that there are multiple possible NBE candidates, followed by showing that of the multiple possible candidates within NBE, only one candidate is valid, and finally by showing that this candidate is in fact some personal creator, i.e., God.  If it can’t be shown that NBE can accommodate more than one item, then the argument is circular.  Moreover, if the only candidate for NBE is God, then the second premise “The universe began to exist” simply reduces to “The universe is not God”, which simply assumes what the argument is trying to prove.  Thus if the NBE set is simply synonymous with God, then the Kalam can be reduced to:

(1) Everything except God has a cause;

(2) The universe is not God;

Therefore,

(3) The universe has a cause.

As we can see, this syllogism is perfectly logical (though the conclusion only follows if the premises are true which is open to debate), but this syllogism is entirely useless as an argument for God’s existence.  Furthermore, regarding the NBE set, one must ask, where do theists obtain the idea that this NBE set exists?  That is, by what observations and/or arguments is the possibility of beginningless objects justified?  We don’t find any such observations in science, although it is certainly possible that the universe itself never began (we just don’t have observations to support this, at least, not at this time) and the concept of a “beginningless universe” is in fact entirely consistent with many eternal cosmological models that have been proposed, in which case the KCA would still be invalidated by refuting premise two in yet another way.  Other than the universe itself potentially being an NBE (which is plausible, though not empirically demonstrated as of yet), there don’t appear to be any other possible NBEs, and there don’t appear to be any observations and/or arguments to justify proposing that any NBEs exist at all (other than perhaps the universe itself, which would be consistent with the law of conservation of mass and energy and/or the Quantum Eternity Theorem).

The KCA Fails

As we can see, the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails for a number of reasons, and thus is unsuccessful in arguing for the existence of God.  Thus, even though it may very well be the case that some god exists and did in fact create the universe, the KCA fails to support such a claim.

Here’s an excellent debate between the cosmologist Sean Carroll and the Christian apologist William Lane Craig which illustrates some of the problems with the KCA, specifically in terms of evidence found within cosmology (or lack thereof).  It goes without saying that Carroll won the debate by far, though he could certainly have raised more points in his rebuttals than he did.  Nevertheless, it was entertaining and a nice civil debate with good points presented on both sides.  Here’s another link to Carroll’s post debate reflections on his blog.

Mind, Body, and the Soul: The Quest for an Immaterial Identity

leave a comment »

There’s little if any doubt that the brain (the human brain in particular) is the most complex entity or system that we’ve ever encountered in the known universe, and thus it is not surprising that it has allowed humans to reach the top of the food chain and also the ability to manipulate our environment more than any other creature on Earth.  Not only has it provided humans with the necessary means for surviving countless environmental pressures, effectively evolving as a sort of anchor and catalyst for our continued natural selection over time (through learning, language, adaptive technology, etc.), but it has also allowed humans to become aware of themselves, aware of their own consciousness, and aware of their own brains in numerous other ways.  The brain appears to be the first evolved feature of an organism capable of mapping the entire organism (including its interaction with the external environment), and it may even be the case that consciousness later evolved as a result of the brain making maps of itself.  Even beyond these capabilities, the human brain has also been able to map itself in terms of perceptually acquired patterns related to its own activity (i.e. when we study and learn about how our brains work).

It isn’t at all surprising when people marvel over the complexity, beauty and even seemingly surreal qualities of the brain as it produces the qualia of our subjective experience including all of our sensations, emotions and the resulting feelings that ensue.  Some of our human attributes are so seemingly remarkable, that many people have gone so far as to say that at least some of these attributes are either supernatural, supernaturally endowed, and/or are forever exclusive to humans.  For example, some religious people claim that humans alone have some kind of immaterial soul that exists outside of our experiential reality.  Some also believe that humans alone possess free will, are conscious in some way forever exclusive to humans (some have even argued that consciousness in general is an exclusively human trait), and a host of other (perhaps anthropocentric) “human only” attributes, with many of them forever exclusive to humans.  In the interest of philosophical exploration, I’d like to consider and evaluate some of these claims about “exclusively human” attributes.  In particular, I’d like to focus on the non-falsifiable claim of having a soul, with the aid of reason and a couple of thought experiments, although these thought experiments may also shed some light on other purported “exclusively human” attributes (e.g. free will, consciousness, etc.).  For the purposes of simplicity in these thought experiments, I may periodically refer to many or all purported “humanly exclusive” attributes as simply, “H”.  Let’s begin by briefly examining some of the common conceptions of a soul and how it is purported to relate to the physical world.

What is a Soul?

It seems that most people would define a soul to be some incorporeal entity or essence that serves as an immortal aspect or representation of an otherwise mortal/living being.  Furthermore, many people think that souls are something possessed by human beings alone.  There are also people who ascribe souls to non-living entities (such as bodies of water, celestial bodies, wind, etc.), but regardless of these distinctions, for those that believe in souls, there seems to be something in common: souls appear to be non-physical entities correlated, linked, or somehow attached to a particular physical body or system, and are usually believed to give rise to consciousness, a “life force”, animism, or some power of agency.  Additionally, they are often believed to transcend material existence through their involvement in some form of an afterlife.  While it is true that souls and any claims about souls are unfalsifiable and thus are excluded from any kind of empirical investigation, let’s examine some commonly held assumptions and claims about souls and see how they hold up to a more critical examination.

Creation or Correlation of Souls

Many religious people now claim that a person’s life begins at conception (after Science discovered this specific stage of reproduction), and thus it would be reasonable to assume that if they have a soul, that soul is effectively created at conception.  However, some also believe that all souls have co-existed for the same amount of time (perhaps since the dawn of our universe), and that souls are in some sense waiting to be linked to the physical person once they are conceived or come into existence.  Another way of expressing this latter idea is the belief that all souls have existed since some time long ago, but only after the reproductive conception of a person does that soul begin to have a physical correlate or incarnation linked to it.  In any case, the presumed soul is believed to be correlated to a particular physical body (generally presumed to be a “living” body, if not a human body), and this living body has been defined by many to begin its life either at conception (i.e. fertilization), shortly thereafter as an embryo (i.e. once the fertilized egg/cell undergoes division at least once), or once it is considered a fetus (depending on the context for such a definition).  The easiest definition to use for the purposes of this discussion is to define life to begin at conception (i.e. fertilization).

For one, regardless of the definition chosen, it seems difficult to define exactly when the particular developmental stage in question is reached.  Conception could be defined to take place once the spermatozoa’s DNA contents enter the zygote or perhaps not until some threshold has been reached in a particular step of the process afterward (e.g. some time after the individual parent DNA strands have mixed to produce a double-helix daughter strand).  Either way, most proponents of the idea of a human soul seem to assume that a soul is created or at least correlated (if created some time earlier) at the moment of, or not long after, fertilization.  At this point, the soul is believed to be correlated or representative of the now “living” being (which is of course composed of physical materials).

At a most basic level, one could argue, if we knew exactly when a soul was created/correlated with a particular physical body (e.g. a fertilized egg), then by reversing the last step in the process that instigated the creation/correlation of the soul, we should be able to destroy/decorrelate the soul.  Also, if a soul was in fact correlated with an entire fertilized egg, then if we remove even one atom, molecule, etc., would that correlation change?  If not, then it would appear that the soul is not actually correlated with the entire fertilized egg, but rather it is correlated with some higher level aspect or property of it (whatever that may be).

Conservation & Identity of Souls

Assuming a soul is in fact created or correlated with a fertilized egg, what would happen in the case of chimerism, where more than one fertilized egg fuse together in the early stages of embryonic development?  Would this developing individual have two souls?  By the definition or assumptions given earlier, if a soul is correlated with a fertilized egg in some way, and two fertilized eggs (each with their own soul) merge together, then this would indicate one of a few possibilities.  Either two souls merged into one (or one is actually destroyed) which would demonstrate that the number of souls are not conserved (indicating that not all souls are eternal/immortal), or the two souls would co-exist with that one individual and would imply that not all individuals have the same number of souls (some have one, some may have more) and thus souls don’t each have their own unique identity with a particular person, or it would indicate that after the merging of fertilized eggs took place, one of the two souls would detach from or become decorrelated with its physical counterpart, and the remaining soul would get to keep the booty of both fertilized eggs or so to speak.

In the case of identical twins, triplets, etc., a fertilized egg eventually splits, and we are left with the opposite conundrum. It would seem that we would be starting with one soul that eventually splits into two or more, and thus there would be another violation of the conservation of the number of souls.  Alternatively, if the number of souls are indeed conserved, an additional previously existing soul (if this was the case) could become correlated with the second fertilized egg produced. Yet another possibility would be to say that the “twins to be” (i.e. the fertilized egg prior to splitting) has two souls to start with and when the egg splits, the souls are segregated and each pre-destined twin is given their own.

The only way to avoid these implications would be to modify the assumption given earlier, regarding when a soul is created or correlated.  It would have to be defined such that a soul is created or correlated with a physical body some time after an egg is fertilized when it is no longer possible to fuse with another fertilized egg and after it can no longer split into fertilized multiples (i.e. twins, triplets, etc.).  If this is true, then one could no longer say that a fertilized egg necessarily has a soul, for that wouldn’t technically be the case until some time afterward when chimerism or monozygotic multiples were no longer possible.

If people believe in non-physical entities that can’t be seen or in any way extrospectively verified, it’s not much of a stretch to say that they can come up with a way to address these questions or reconcile these issues, with yet more unfalsifiable claims.  Some of these might not even be issues for various believers but I only mention these potential issues to point out the apparent arbitrariness or poorly defined aspects of many claims and assumptions regarding souls. Now let’s look at a few thought experiments to further analyze the concept of a soul and purported “exclusively human” attributes (i.e. “H”) as mentioned in the introduction of this post.

Conservation and Identity of “H”

Thought Experiment # 1: Replace a Neuron With a Non-Biological Analog

What if one neuron in a person’s brain is replaced with a non-biological/artificial version, that is, what if some kind of silicon-based (or other non-carbon-based) analog to a neuron was effectively used to replace a neuron?  We are assuming that this replacement with another version will accomplish the same vital function, that is, the same subjective experience and behavior.  This non-biologically-based neuronal analog may be powered by ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) and also respond to neurotransmitters with electro-chemical sensors — although it wouldn’t necessarily have to be constrained by the same power or signal transmission media (or mechanisms) as long as it produced the same end result (i.e. the same subjective experience and behavior).  As long as the synthetic neuronal replacement accomplished the same ends, the attributes of the person (i.e. their identity, their beliefs, their actions, etc.) should be unaffected despite any of these changes to their hardware.

Regarding the soul, if souls do in fact exist and they are not physically connected to the body (although people claim that souls are somehow associated with a particular physical body), then it seems reasonable to assume that changing a part of the physical body should have no effect on an individual’s possession of that soul (or any “H” for that matter), especially if the important attributes of the individual, i.e., their beliefs, thoughts, memories, and subsequent actions, etc., were for all practical purposes (if not completely), the same as before.  Even if there were some changes in the important aspects of the individual, say, if there was a slight personality change after some level of brain surgery, could anyone reasonably argue that their presumed soul (or their “H”) was lost as a result?  If physical modifications of the body led to the loss of a soul (or of any elements of “H”), then there would be quite a large number of people (and an increasing number at that) who no longer have souls (or “H”) since many people indeed have had various prosthetic modifications used in or on their bodies (including brain and neural prosthetics) as well as other intervening mediation of body/brain processes (e.g. through medication, transplants, various levels of critical life support, etc.).

For those that think that changing the body’s hardware would somehow disconnect the presumed soul from that person’s body (or eliminate other elements of their “H”), they should consider that this assumption is strongly challenged by the fact that many of the atoms in the human body are replaced (some of them several times over) throughout one’s lifetime anyway.  Despite this drastic biological “hardware” change, where our material selves are constantly being replaced with new atoms from the food that we eat and the air that we breathe (among other sources), we still manage to maintain our memories and our identity simply because the functional arrangements of the brain cells (i.e. neurons and glial cells) which are composed of those atoms are roughly preserved over time and thus the information contained in such arrangements and/or their resulting processes are preserved over time.  We can analogize this important point by thinking about a computer that has had its hardware replaced, albeit in a way that matches or maintains its original physical state, and understand that as a result of this configuration preservation, it also should be able to maintain its original memory, programs and normal functional operation.  One could certainly argue that the computer in question is technically no longer the “same” computer because it no longer has any of the original hardware.  However, the information regarding the computer’s physical state, that is, the specific configuration and states of parts that allow it to function exactly as it did before the hardware replacement, is preserved.  Thus, for all practical purposes in terms of the identity of that computer, it remained the same regardless of the complete hardware change.

This is an important point to consider for those who think that replacing the hardware of the brain (even if limited to a biologically sustained replacement) is either theoretically impossible, or that it would destroy one’s ability to be conscious, to maintain their identity, to maintain their presumed soul, or any presumed element of “H”.  The body naturally performs these hardware changes (through metabolism, respiration, excretion, etc.) all the time and thus the concept of changing hardware while maintaining the critical aspects of an individual is thoroughly demonstrated throughout one’s lifetime.  On top of this, the physical outer boundary that defines our bodies is also arbitrary in the sense that we exchange atoms between our outer surface and the environment around us (e.g. by shedding skin cells, or through friction, molecular desorption/adsorption/absorption, etc.).  The key idea to keep in mind is that these natural hardware changes imply that “we” are not defined specifically by our hardware or some physical boundary with a set number of atoms, but rather “we” are based on how our hardware is arranged/configured (allowing for some variation of configuration states within some finite acceptable range), and the subsequent processes and functions that result from such an arrangement as mediated by the laws of physics.

Is the type of hardware important?  It may be true that changing a human’s hardware to a non-biological version may never be able to accomplish exactly the same subjective experience and behavior that was possible with the biological hardware, however we simply don’t know that this is the case.  It may be that both the type of hardware as well as the configuration are necessary for a body and brain to produce the same subjective experience and behavior.  However, the old adage “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” has been applicable to so many types of technologies and to the means used to accomplish a number of goals.  There are a number of different hardware types and configurations that can be used to accomplish a particular task, even if, after changing the hardware the configuration must also be changed to accomplish a comparable result.  The question becomes, which parts or aspects of the neural process in the brain produces subjective experience and behavior?  If this becomes known, we should be able to learn how biologically-based hardware and its configuration work together in order to accomplish a subjective experience and behavior, and then also learn if non-biologically-based hardware (perhaps with its own particular configuration) can accomplish the same task.  For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s assume that we can swap out the hardware with a different type, even if, in order to preserve the same subjective experience and behavior, the configuration must be significantly different than it was with the original biologically-based hardware.

So, if we assume that we can replace a neuron with an efficacious artificial version, and still maintain our identity, our consciousness, any soul that might be present, or any element of “H” for that matter, then even if we replace two neurons with artificial versions, we should still have the same individual.  In fact, even if we replace every neuron, perhaps just one neuron at a time, eventually we would be replacing the entire brain with an artificial version, and yet still have the same individual.  This person would now have a completely non-biologically based “brain”.  In theory, their identity would be the same, and they would subjectively experience reality and their selves as usual.  Having gone this far, let’s assume that we replace the rest of the body with an artificial version.  Replacing the rest of the body, one part at a time, should be far less significant a change than replacing the brain, for the rest of the body is far less complex.

It may be true that the body serves as an integral homeostatic frame of reference necessary for establishing some kind of self-object basis of consciousness (e.g. Damasio’s Theory of Consciousness), but as long as our synthetic brain is sending/receiving the appropriate equivalent of sensory/motor information (i.e. through an interoceptive feedback loop among other requirements) from the new artificial body, the model or map of the artificial body’s internal state provided by the synthetic brain should be equivalent.  It should also be noted that the range of conditions necessary for homeostasis in one human body versus another is far narrower and less individualized than the differences found between the brains of two different people.  This supports the idea that the brain is in fact the most important aspect of our individuality, and thus replacing the rest of the body should be significantly easier to accomplish and also less critical a change.  After replacing the rest of the body, we would now have a completely artificial non-biological substrate for our modified “human being”, or what many people would refer to as a “robot”, or a system of “artificial intelligence” with motor capabilities.  This thought experiment seems to suggest at least one of several implications:

  • Some types of robots can possess “H” (e.g. soul, consciousness, free-will, etc.), and thus “H” are not uniquely human, nor are they forever exclusive to humans.
  • Humans lose some or all of their “H” after some threshold of modification has taken place (likely a modification of the brain)
  • “H”, as it is commonly defined at least, does not exist

The first implication listed above would likely be roundly rejected by most people that believe in the existence of “H” for several reasons including the fact that most people see robots as fundamentally different than living systems, they see “H” as only applicable to human beings, and they see a clear distinction between robots and human beings (although the claim that these distinctions exist has been theoretically challenged by this thought experiment).  The second implication sounds quite implausible (even if we assume that “H” exists) as it would seem to be impossible to define when exactly any elements of “H” were lost based on exceeding some seemingly arbitrary threshold of modification.  For example, would the loss of some element of “H” occur only after the last neuron was replaced with an artificial version?  If the loss of “H” did occur after some specific number of neurons were removed (or after the number of neurons that remained fell below some critical minimum quantity), then what if the last neuron removed (which caused this critical threshold to be met) was biologically preserved and later re-installed, thus effectively reversing the last neuronal replacement procedure?  Would the previously lost “H” then return?

Thought Experiment # 2: Replace a Non-Biological Neuronal Analog With a Real Neuron

We could look at this thought experiment (in terms of the second implication) yet another way by simply reversing the order of the thought experiment.  For example, imagine that we made a robot from scratch that was identical to the robot eventually obtained from the aforementioned thought experiment, and then we began to replace its original non-biologically-based neuronal equivalent with actual biologically-based neurons, perhaps even neurons that were each taken from a separate human brain (say, from one or several cadavers) and preserved for such a task.  Even after this, consider that we proceed to replace the rest of the robot’s “body”, again piecewise (say, from one or several cadavers), until it was completely biologically-based to match the human being we began with in the initial thought experiment.  Would or could this robot acquire “H” at some point, or be considered human?  It seems that there would be no biological reason to claim otherwise.

Does “H” exist?  If So, What is “H”?

I’m well aware of how silly some of these hypothetical questions and considerations sound, however I find it valuable to follow the reasoning all the way through in order to help illustrate the degree of plausibility of these particular implications, and the plausibility or validity of “H”.  In the case of the second implication given previously (that humans lose some or all of “H” after some threshold of modification), if there’s no way to define or know when “H” is lost (or gained), then nobody can ever claim with certainty that an individual has lost their “H”, and thus they would have to assume that all elements of “H” have never been lost (if they want to err on the side of, what some may call, ethical or moral caution).  By that rationale, one would find themselves forced to accept the first implication (some types of robots can possess “H”, and thus “H” isn’t unique to humans).  If anyone denies the first two implications, it seems that they are only left with the third option.  The third implication seems to be the most likely (that “H” as previously defined does not exist), however it should be mentioned that even this third implication may be circumvented by realizing that it has an implicit loophole.  There is a possibility that some or all elements and/or aspects of “H” are not exactly what people assume them to be, and therefore “H” may exist in some other sense.  For example, what if we considered particular patterns themselves, i.e., the brain/neuronal configurations, patterns of brain waves, neuronal firing patterns, patterns of electro-chemical signals emanated throughout the body, etc., to be the “immaterial soul” of each individual?  We could look at these patterns as being immaterial if the physical substrate that employs them is irrelevant, or by simply noting that patterns of physical material states are not physical materials in themselves.

This is analogous to the concept that the information contained in a book can be represented on paper, electronically, in multiple languages, etc., and is not reliant on a specific physical medium.  This would mean that one could accept the first implication that robots or “mechanized humans” possess “H”, although it would also necessarily imply that any elements of “H” aren’t actually unique or exclusive to humans as they were initially assumed to be.  One could certainly accept this first implication by noting that the patterns of information (or patterns of something if we don’t want to call it information per se) that comprise the individual were conserved throughout the neuronal (or body) replacement in these thought experiments, and thus the essence or identity of the individual (whether “human” or “robot”) was preserved as well.

Pragmatic Considerations & Final Thoughts

I completely acknowledge that in order for this hypothetical neuronal replacement to be truly accurate in reproducing normal neuronal function (even with just one neuron), above and beyond the potential necessity of both a specific type of hardware as well as configuration (as mentioned earlier), the non-biologically based version would presumably also have to replicate the neuronal plasticity that the brain normally possesses.  In terms of brain plasticity, there are basically four known factors involved with neuronal change, sometimes referred to as the four R’s: regeneration, reconnection, re-weighting, and rewiring.  So clearly, any synthetic neuronal version would likely involve some kind of malleable processing in order to accomplish at least some of these tasks (if not all of them to some degree), as well as some possible nano-self-assembly processes if actual physical rewiring were needed.  The details of what and how this would be accomplished will become better known over time as we learn more about the possible neuronal dynamic mechanisms involved (e.g. neural darwinism or other means of neuronal differential reproduction, connectionism, Hebbian learning, DNA instruction, etc.).

I think that the most important thing to gain from these thought experiments is the realization of the inability or severe difficulty in taking the idea of souls or “H” seriously given the incompatibility between the traditional  conception of a concrete soul or other “H” and the well-established fluidic or continuous nature of the material substrates that they are purportedly correlated with.  That is, all the “things” in this world, including any forms of life (human or not) are constantly undergoing physical transformation and change, and they possess seemingly arbitrary boundaries that are ultimately defined by our own categorical intuitions and subjective perception of reality.  In terms of any person’s quest for “H”, if what one is really looking for is some form of constancy, essence, or identity of some kind in any of the things around us (let alone in human beings), it seems that it is the patterns of information (or perhaps the patterns of energy to be more accurate) as well as the level of complexity or type of patterns that ultimately constitute that essence and identity.  Now if it is reasonable to conclude that the patterns of information or energy that comprise any physical system aren’t equivalent to the physical constituent materials themselves, one could perhaps say that these patterns are a sort of “immaterial” attribute of a set of physical materials.  This seems to be as close to the concept of an immaterial “soul” as a physicalist or materialist could concede exists, since, at the very least it involves a property of continuity and identity which somewhat transcends the physical materials themselves.

Objective Morality & Arguments For God

with 2 comments

Morality is certainly an important facet of the human condition, and as a philosophical topic of such high regard, it clearly deserves critical reflection and a thorough analysis.  It is often the case that when people think of ethics, moral values, and moral duties, religion enters the discussion, specifically in terms of the widely held (although certainly not ubiquitous) belief that religions provide some form of objective foundation for morals and ethics.  The primary concern here regarding morals is determining whether our morals are ontologically objective in some way or another, and even if they are, is it still accurate to describe morality as some kind of an emergent human construct that is malleable and produced by naturalistic socio-biological processes?

One of the most common theistic arguments, commonly referred to as the Divine Command Theory, states that the existence of a God (or many gods for that matter) necessarily provides an ontologically objective foundation for morals and ethics.  Furthermore, coinciding with this belief are the necessary supportive beliefs that God exists and that this God is inherently “good”, for if either of these assumptions were not also the case, then the theistic foundation for morals (i.e. what is deemed to be “good”) would be unjustified. The assumption that God exists, and that this God is inherently “good” is based upon yet a few more assumptions, although there is plenty of religious and philosophical contention regarding which assumptions are necessary, let alone which are valid.

Let’s examine some of the arguments that have been used to try and prove the existence of God as well as some arguments used to show that an existent God is necessarily good. After these arguments are examined, I will conclude this post with a brief look at moral objectivity including the most common motivations underlying its proposed existence, the implications of believing in theologically grounded objective morals, and finally, some thoughts about our possible moral future.

Cosmological Argument

The Cosmological Argument for God’s existence basically asserts that every effect has a cause, and thus if the universe began to exist, it too must have had a cause.  It is then proposed that the initial cause is something transcendent from physical reality, something supernatural, or what many would refer to as a God.  We can see that this argument most heavily relies on the initial assumption of causality.  While causality certainly appears to be an attribute of our universe, Hume was correct to point out the problem of induction, whereby, causality itself is not known to exist by a priori reasoning, but rather by a posteriori reasoning, otherwise known as induction.  Because of this, our assumption of causality is not logically grounded, and therefore it is not necessarily true.

Clearly science relies on this assumption of causality as well as on the efficacy of induction, but its predictive power and efficacy only requires that causal relationships hold up most of the time, although perhaps it would be better to say that science only requires that causal relationships hold up with the phenomena it wishes to describe.  It is not a requirement for performing science that everything is causally closed or operating under causal principles.  Even quantum mechanics has shown us acausal properties whereby atomic and subatomic particles exhibit seemingly random behavior with no local hidden variables found.  It may be the case that ontologically speaking, the seemingly random quantum behavior is actually governed by causal processes (albeit with non-local hidden variables), but we’ve found no evidence for such causal processes. So it seems unjustified to assume that causality is necessarily the case, not only because this assumption has been derived from logically uncertain induction alone, but also because within science, specifically within quantum physics, we’ve actually observed what appear to be completely acausal processes.  As such, it is certainly both possible and plausible that the universe arose from acausal processes as well, with this possibility heavily supported by the quantum mechanical principles that underlie it.

To provide a more satisfying explanation for how something could come from nothing (as in some acausal process), one could look at abstract concepts within mathematics for an analogy.  For example, if 0 = (-1) + (1), and “0” is analogous to “nothing”, then couldn’t “nothing” (i.e. “0”) be considered equivalent to the collection of complementary “somethings” (e.g. “-1” and “+1”)?  That is, couldn’t a “0” state have existed prior to the Big Bang, and this produced two universes, say, “-1” and “+1”?  Clearly one could ask how or why the “0” state transformed into anything at all, but if the collection or sum of those things are equivalent to the “0” which one started with, then perhaps the question of how or why is an illogical question to begin with.  Perhaps this ill-formulated question would be analogous to asking how zero can spontaneously give rise to zero.  In any case, quantum mechanical principles certainly defy logic and intuition, and so there’s no reason to suppose that the origins of the universe should be any less illogical or counter-intuitive.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that our conceptions of “nothing” and “something” may not be ontologically accurate or coherent with respect to cosmology and quantum physics, even if we think of those concepts as trivial and seemingly obvious in other domains of knowledge.

Even if the universe was internally causal within its boundaries and thus with every process inside that universe, would that imply that the universe as a whole, from an external perspective, would be bound by the same causal processes?  To give an analogy, imagine that the universe is like a fishbowl, and the outer boundary of the fishbowl is completely opaque and impenetrable.  To all inhabitants inside the fishbowl (e.g. some fish swimming in water), there isn’t anything to suppose except for what exists within the boundary, i.e., the water, the fish, and the laws of physics that govern the motion and physical processes therein (e.g. buoyant or freely floating objects and a certain amount of frictional drag between the fish and the water).  Now it could be that this fishbowl of a universe is itself contained within a much larger environment (e.g. a multi-verse or some meta-space) with physical laws that don’t operate like those within the fishbowl.  For example, the meta-space could be completely dry, where the fishbowl of a universe isn’t itself buoyant or floating in any way, and the universe (when considered as one object) doesn’t experience any frictional drag between itself and the meta-space medium around it.  Due to the opaque surface of the fishbowl, the inhabitants are unaware that the fishbowl itself isn’t floating, just as they are unaware of any of the other foreign physical laws or properties that lay outside of it.  In the same sense, we could be erroneously assuming that the universe itself is a part of some causal process, simply because everything within the universe appears to operate under causal processes.  Thus, it may be the case that the universe as a whole, from an external perspective that we have no access to, is not governed by the laws we see within the universe, be they the laws of time, space, causality, etc.

Even if the universe was caused by something, one can always ask, what caused the cause?  The proposition that a God exists provides no solution to this problem, for we’d then want to know who or what created that God, and this would create an infinite regress.  If one tries to solve the infinite regress by contending that a God has always existed, then we can simplify the explanation further by removing any God from it and simply positing that the universe has always existed.  Even if the Big Bang model within cosmology is correct in some sense, what if the universe has constantly undergone some kind of cycle whereby a Big Bang is preceded by and eventually succeeded by a Big Crunch ad infinitum?  Even if we have an epistemological limitation from ever confirming such a model, for example, if the information of any previous universe is somehow lost with the start of every new cycle, it is certainly a possible model, and one that no longer requires an even more complex entity to explain, such as a God.

Fine-Tuning Argument

It is often claimed by theists that the dimensionless physical constants in our universe appear to be finely tuned such that matter, let alone intelligent life, could exist.  Supposedly, if these physical constants were changed by even a small amount, life as we know it (including the evolution of consciousness) wouldn’t be possible, therefore, the universe was finely tuned by an intelligent designer, or a God.  Furthermore, it is often argued that it has been finely tuned for the eventual evolution of conscious human beings.

One question that can be posed in response to this argument is whether or not the physical constants could be better than they currently are, such that the universe would be even more conducive to matter, life, and eventually intelligent life.  Indeed, it has been determined that the physical constants could be much better than they are, and we can also clearly see that the universe is statistically inhospitable to life, empirically supported by the fact that we have yet to find life elsewhere in the universe.  Statistically, it is still very likely that life exists in many other places throughout the universe, but it certainly doesn’t exist in most places.  Changing the physical constants in just the right way would indeed make life ubiquitous.  So it doesn’t appear that the universe was really finely tuned at all, at least not for any of the reasons that have been supposed.

There have also been other naturalistic theories presented as possible solutions to the fine-tuning argument, such as that of the Multi-verse, whereby we are but one universe living among an extremely large number of other universes (potentially infinite, although not necessarily so), and each universe has slightly different physical constants.  In a way, we could say that a form of natural selection among universes occurs, where the appearance of a finely tuned universe is analogous to the apparent design in biological nature.  We now know that natural selection along with some differentiation mechanisms are all that are necessary to produce the appearance of designed phenotypes.  The same thing could apply to universes, and by the anthropic principle, we can see that those universes that had physical constants within a particular range conducive to life, and eventually intelligent life, would indeed be the type of universe that we are living in such that we can even ask the question.  That is, some universes could be naturally selected to undergo the evolution of consciousness and eventually self-awareness.

There have been other theories presented to account for the appearance of a finely tuned universe such as a quantum superposition of initial conditions during the Big Bang, but they utilize the same basic principles of cosmic differentiation and natural selection, and so need not be mentioned further.  In any case, we can see that there are several possible naturalistic explanations for what appear to be finely tuned physical constants.

An even more important point worth mentioning is the possibility that every combination of physical constants could produce some form of consciousness completely unfathomable to us. We have yet to solve the mind-body problem (if it is indeed solvable), and so without knowing what physical mechanism produces consciousness, are we justified in assuming which processes can not produce consciousness? Even if consciousness as we know it is limited to carbon-based biological organisms with brains, can we justifiably dismiss the possibility of completely different mechanisms and processes that lead to some form of self-regulating “life”, “consciousness”, or “awareness”? Even a form of life or consciousness that does not involve brains, let alone atoms or molecules?  If this is the case, then all universes could have some form of “life” or “consciousness”, even if they would never come close to falling within our limited definition of such concepts.

“God is Good” & The Ontological Argument

The assumption that a God which exists must necessarily be a good God is definitely necessary for one to believe that the existence of that God provides an ontologically objective foundation for morals and ethics. So what exactly is the basis for this assumption that a God must necessarily be good?

This assumption has been derived by many from some versions of what is known as the Ontological Argument for God’s existence. This argument, believed to have been first asserted by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the year 1078 CE, basically asserts that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being.  However, if the greatest conceivable being is supposedly limited to the mind, that is, as a mental construct, then an even greater conceivable being is possible, namely one that actually exists outside of the mind as an entity in reality, therefore, God exists in both the mind as well as in reality.  Furthermore, regarding the concept of God being good, some people take this argument further and believe that the greatest conceivable being, that is, a God, also has to be good, since it is believed that the most perfect God, by definition, would deserve to be worshipped, and would only create or command that which is best.  So it follows then by the Ontological Argument, that not only God exists, but also that God must necessarily be good.

One obvious criticism to this argument is the fact that just because one can conceive of something, that act in itself certainly doesn’t make that conception exist in any sense other than as a mental construct.  Even if I can conceive of a perfect object, like a perfect planet that is perfectly spherical for example, this doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to exist.  Even if I limit my conceptions to a perfect God, what if I conceive of two perfect beings, with the assumption that two perfect beings are somehow better than one?  Does this mean that two perfect beings must necessarily exist? How about an infinite number of perfect beings? Isn’t an infinite number of infinitely perfect beings the best conception of all?  If so, why isn’t this conception necessarily existent in reality as well?  Such an assertion would indeed provide proof for polytheism.  One could certainly argue over which conceptions are truly perfect or the best, and thus which should truly produce something necessarily in reality, but regardless, one still hasn’t shown how conceptions alone can lead to realities.  Notice also that the crux of St. Anselm’s argument is dependent on one’s definition of what God is, which leads me to what I believe to be a much more important criticism of the Ontological Argument.

The primary criticism I have with such an argument, or any argument claiming particular attributes of a God for that matter, is the lack of justification for assuming that anyone could actually know anything about a God.  Are we to assume that any attributes at all of a God should necessarily be within the limits of human comprehension?  This assumption of such a potent human attribute of understanding sounds incredibly pretentious, egotistical, and entirely unsubstantiated.  As for the common assumptions about what God is, why would a God necessarily have to be different from, or independent of, the universe itself, as presumably required for an ontologically objective foundation for morality?  Pantheists for example (which can be classified as atheists as far as I’m concerned), assume that the universe itself is God, and thus the universe needed no creator nor anything independent of itself.  Everything in the universe is considered a part of that God and that’s simply all there is to it.

If one takes a leap of faith and assumes that a presumed God not only exists, but is indeed also independent of the universe in some way, aren’t they even less justified in making claims about the attributes of this God?  Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that they’d have an even larger epistemological barrier between themselves and an external, separate, and independent God?  It seems incredibly clear that any claims about what a God would be like are based on the unsubstantiated assumption that humans must necessarily have access to such knowledge, and in order to hold such a view, it seems that one would have to abandon all logic and reasoning.

Euthyphro dilemma

One common challenge to the Divine Command Theory mentioned earlier is the Euthyphro dilemma, whereby one must determine if actions are good simply because a presumed God commands them, or rather that the presumed God commands particular actions because they are good independently of that God.  If the former premise is chosen, this would imply that whatever a God commands, even if humans or others see those commands to be immoral, that they must be moral and good regardless of human criticisms. If the latter premise is chosen, then morality is clearly not dependent on God thus defeating the Divine Command Theory altogether as well as the precept that God is omnipotent (since God in this case wouldn’t ultimately have control over defining what is good and what is not good).  So for those that ascribe to the Divine Command Theory, it appears that they also have to accept that all moral actions (no matter how immoral they may seem to us) are indeed moral simply because a God commands them. One should also contemplate that if a God were theoretically able to modify its commands over time (presumably possible with an omnipotent God), then any theological objective foundation for morals would be malleable and subject to change, thereby reducing, if not defeating, the pragmatic utility of that objective foundation.

There are many people that have absolutely no problem with such Divine Command Theory assumptions, including the many theists that accept and justify the purported acts of their God (or gods), despite there being an enormous number of people outside of those particular religions that see many of those acts as heinous and morally reprehensible (e.g. divinely authorized war, murder, rape, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, sexual-orientationism, etc.).  Another problem that exists for the Divine Command Theory is the problem of contradictory divine commands, whereby many different religions each claim to follow divine commands despite the fact that the divine commands of one religion may differ from another.  These differences clearly indicate that even if the Divine Command Theory were true, the fact that people don’t agree on what those divine commands are, and the fact that there is no known method for confirming what the true divine commands are, illustrates that the theory is pragmatically useless as it fails to actually provide any way of knowing what these ontologically objective morals and ethics would be.  In other words, even if morals did have a theologically-based ontologically objective foundation, it appears that we have an epistemological barrier from ever confirming such an objective status.

Argument from Morality for the Existence of God

Some believe in what is often referred to as the “Moral Argument for God” or the “Argument from Morality”, whereby at least one variation asserts that because moral values exist in some sense, it then follows that a God must necessarily exist, since nature on its own appears to be morally neutral, as nature doesn’t appear to have any reason or mechanism for producing moral values from purely physical or materialistic processes. One can also see that by accepting such an assertion, if one wants to believe in the existence of an objective foundation for morals, one need only believe that morals exist, for this supposedly implies that God exists, and it is presumed that an existent God (if one ascribes to the common assumption that “God” must be good as explained earlier) also provides an objective foundation for morals.

Well, what if morals are not actually separate from naturalistic mechanisms and explanations?  While nature may appear to be morally neutral, there is evidence to suggest that what we often call “morality” (at least partially) resulted from natural selection pressures ingraining into humans a tendency for reciprocal altruism among other innate behaviors that have been beneficial to the survival of our highly social species, or at least beneficial in the context of the environment we once lived in prior to our cultural evolution into civilization.  For example, altruism, which can roughly be expressed or represented by the Golden Rule (i.e. do to others what you would have them do to you), is a beneficial behavior for it provides an impulse toward productive cooperation and reciprocal favors between individuals.  Another example of innate morality would be the innate aversion from incest, and this also makes evolutionary sense because incestual reproduction is more likely to produce birth defects due to genetically identical recessive mutations or problematic genes being expressed more often.

These innate tendencies, that is, what we innately feel to be good and bad behaviors are what we often label as “moral” and “immoral” behaviors, respectively.  It is certainly plausible that after our unconscious, pre-conscious, or primitively conscious ancestors evolved into self-aware and more complex conscious beings that were able to culturally transmit information over generations as well as learn new behavior, they also realized that their innate tendencies and feelings were basically fixed attributes of their human nature that couldn’t simply be unlearned or modified culturally.  Without having any idea where these innate tendencies came from, due to a lack of knowledge about evolutionary biology and psychology, humans likely intuitively concluded that moral values (or at least those that are innate) were something supernaturally based or divinely ordained.  It is at least arguable that not all morals that humans ascribe to are necessarily innate, as there also appears to be a malleable moral influence derived from the cultural transmission of certain memes, often aided by our intellectual ability to override certain instincts.  However, I think it would be more accurate to say that our most fundamental goals in life in terms of achieving personal satisfaction (through cultivating virtues and behaving with respect to the known consequences of our actions) constitutes our fundamental morality — and I think that this morality is indeed innate based on evolutionary psychology, biology, etc.

Additionally, a large number of these culturally transmitted behaviors (that we often label as “morals”) often align with our innate moral tendencies anyway, for example, memes promoting racism may be supported by our natural tendency to conveniently lump people into groups and see outsiders as dangerous or threatening.  Or the opposite may occur, for example, when memes promoting racial equality may be supported by our natural tendency for racially-neutral reciprocal altruism.  Clearly what we tend to call “morals” are an amalgam of culturally transmitted ideas as well as innate predispositions, that is, they result from socio-biological or cultural-biological processes — even if there is an innate fundamental morality that serves as an objective foundation for those culturally constructed morals.

Moreover, since other animals (or at least most other animals) do not seem to exhibit what we call moral behavior, it is likely that most humans saw it (and many still continue to see it) as a unique property of humans alone, and thus somehow existing independently of the rest of the nature around them.  One response to this anthropocentric perspective would be to note that if we look at other animals’ behavior, they may just as easily be described as having their own morals based on their own naturally selected innate behavioral tendencies, even if those morals are completely different from our own, and even if those morals are not as intelligently informed due to our more complex brains and self-awareness (most notably in the case of culturally transmitted morals).  Now it may be true that what evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and sociologists have discovered to be the mechanism or explanation for human morality, as well as how we choose to define that morality naturalistically, is not something that certain people want to accept.  However, that lack of acceptance or lack of comfort doesn’t make it any less true or any less plausible.  It seems that some people simply want morality to have a different kind of ontological status or some level of objectivity, such that they can find more solace in their convictions and also to support their anthropocentric presuppositions.

Objective Morality, Moral Growth, and our Moral Future

While the many arguments for God have been refuted or at least highly challenged, it appears that the actual existence of God isn’t nearly as important as people’s belief in such a God, especially when it comes to concepts such as morality.  Sartre once quoted Dostoyevsky as saying, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.”  I personally feel that this quote illustrates quite eloquently why so many people feel compelled to argue that a God exists (among other reasons), as many seem to feel that without the notion of a God existing, the supposed lack of an objective foundation for morality will lead people to do whatever they want to do, and thus people will no longer ascribe to truly “moral” behavior.  However, as we can clearly see, there are many atheists who behave quite morally relative to the Golden Rule, if we must indeed specify some moral frame of reference.  There are also plenty of people who believe in a God and yet behave in ways that are morally reprehensible relative to the same Golden Rule standard.  The key difference between the atheist and the theist, at least concerning moral objectivity, is that the atheist, by definition, doesn’t believe that any of their behavior has a theologically grounded objective ontological status to justify it, although the atheist may still believe in some type of moral objectivity (likely grounded in a science of morality, which is a view I actually agree with).  On the other hand, the theist does believe in a theological basis for moral objectivity, so if either the atheist or theist behave in ways that you or I would find morally reprehensible, the theist alone would actually feel religiously obligated to do so.

Regarding the concern for a foundation for morals, I think it is fair to say that the innate morality of human beings, that is, those morals that have been ingrained in us for evolutionary reasons (such as altruism), could be described as having a reliable foundation, even if not an ontologically objective one.  On top of this “naturally selected” foundation for morality, we can build upon it by first asking ourselves why we believe moral behavior is important in the first place.  If humans overwhelmingly agree that morality is important for promoting and maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures (with higher-level conscious creatures prioritized over those with less complex brains and lower-level consciousness), or if they agree with the contra-positive of that proposition, that morality is important for inhibiting and minimizing the suffering of conscious creatures, then one could say that humans at least have a moral axiom that they could ascribe to.  This moral axiom, i.e., that moral behavior is defined as that which maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures (as proposed by many “Science of Morality” proponents such as Sam Harris), is indeed an axiom that one can further build upon, refine, and implement through the use of epistemologically objective methods in science.  Even if this “moral axiom” doesn’t provide an ontologically objective morality, it has a foundation that is grounded on human intuition, reason, and empirical data.  If one argues that this still isn’t as good as having a theologically grounded ontologically objective morality, then one must realize that the theological assumptions for said moral objectivity have no empirical basis at all.  After all, even if a God does in fact exist, why exactly would a God necessarily provide an objective foundation for morals?  More importantly, as I mentioned earlier, there appears to be no epistemologically objective way to ascertain any ontologically objective morals, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

One can also see that the theist’s position, in terms of which morals to follow, is supposedly fixed, although history has shown us that religions and their morals can change over time, either by modifying the scripture or basic tenets, or by modifying the interpretation of said scripture or basic tenets. Even if moral modifications take place with a religion or its followers, the claim of moral objectivity (and an intentional resistance to change those morals) is often maintained, paradoxically. On the other hand, the atheist’s position on morals is not inherently fixed and thus the atheist is at least possibly amenable to reason in order to modify the morals they ascribe to, with the potential to culturally adapt to a society that increasingly abhors war, murder, rape, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, sexual-orientationism, etc.  Whereas the typical theist can not morally adapt to the culturally evolving world around them (at least not consciously or admittedly), even as more evidence and data are obtained pertaining to a better understanding of that world, the typical atheist indeed has these opportunities for moral growth.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, human nature is malleable and will continue to change as our species continues to evolve.  As such, our innate predispositions regarding moral behavior will likely continue to change as it has throughout our evolutionary history.  If we utilize “engineered selection” through the aid of genetic engineering, our moral malleability will be catalyzed and these changes to human nature will precipitate incredibly quickly and with conscious foresight.  Theists are no exception to evolution, and thus they will continue to evolve as well, and as a result their innate morality will also be subject to change.  Any changes that do occur to human nature will also likely affect which memes are culturally transmitted (including memes pertaining to morality) and thus morality will likely continue to be a dynamic amalgam of both biological and cultural influences.  So despite the theistic fight for an objective foundation for morality, it appears that the complex interplay between evolution and culture that led to theism in the first place will continue to change, and the false idea of any ontologically objective foundation for morality existing will likely continue to dissipate.

History has shown us that reason as well as our innate drive for reciprocal altruism is all we need in order to behave in ways that adhere to the Golden Rule (or to some other moral axiom that maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures).  Reason and altruism have also given us the capability of adapting our morals as we learn more about our species and the consequences of our actions. These assets, combined with a genetically malleable human nature will likely lead us to new moral heights over time. In the mean time, we have reason and an innate drive for altruism to morally guide us. It should be recognized that some religions which profess the existence of a God and an objective morality also abide by some altruistic principles, but many of them do not (or do so inconsistently), and when they do, they are likely driven by our innate altruism anyway. However, it takes belief in a God and its objective foundation for morality to most effectively justify behaving in any way imaginable, often in ways that negate both reason and our instinctual drive for altruism, and often reinforced by the temptation of eternal reward and the threat of eternal damnation. In any case, the belief in moral objectivity (or more specifically moral absolutes), let alone the belief in theologically grounded moral objectivity or absolutism, appears to be a potentially dangerous one.

Religious Paradigms in the Wake of Science

with 2 comments

Albert Einstein once said “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” From my perspective, I see the latter as most certainly true as science is the only way we’ve been able to gain a falsifiable world view of our universe. As for the former, it seems that Einstein was mainly pointing out how religion has largely precipitated from the human aspiration to ascertain truth, and without that drive for truth, science would be ineffective. That also sounds reasonable, as early on and throughout most of human history, religion was more or less the dominant world view used to provide many explanations for the unknown. Many if not most of these explanations were supernatural and the world view in general was also highly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric, perhaps due to its highly subjective basis and the failure to see that subjectivity bias as a fundamental problem (even if it sometimes produces more intuitive explanations). For a more in depth analysis of religion, I recommend you read one of my previous posts.

As people stumbled upon science, realizing that the same empirical and causally-based methodologies used to tackle everyday problems could actually be applied to the investigation of all phenomena, it has been slowly but surely replacing the religious world views with a more objective perspective as the human quests for truth, understanding, and predictive power are perpetuated. In the hopes of maintaining many of the old religious world views, there has no doubt been an enormous amount of religious opposition to science. It’s certainly not difficult to see why so many different religious proponents oppose science. After all, the pragmatic knowledge and explanatory power derived from science has replaced the hundreds of different gods and supernatural explanations proposed over the centuries, and it has also been taking power away from the priests and clergy whose authority throughout history has been based on the presumed existence of those gods and supernatural processes. Above and beyond the fact that science has been eliminating the “gods of the gaps” one by one, science has also been refuting some primary and often necessary assumptions within certain religions. Overall, it seems that the religious world views are slowly fading away in the wake of science. Let’s examine a few…

Human Origins

There is a strong belief held by many religious proponents that human beings along with all other species were created by a deity in their present form. Science has shown us no evidence of any deities, but it has shown us a plethora of evidence within evolutionary biology (among other disciplines) which shows that human beings, like all other life forms on Earth, have indeed evolved from a common ancestor thus forming the diversity of life we see today. Furthermore, we are seeing many different species continue to evolve (including human beings). Despite the scientific consensus that evolution is a fact, there are a large number of people that ignore the evidence in order to preserve their creation origin myths as well as to preserve many other parts of their old world view. While this ignorance may be seen as inconsequential to some (people are entitled to their own beliefs after all), it definitely becomes problematic when it enters and poisons the educational and political spheres of society where reason and intellect are needed most.

Some people have actually gone so far as to try and add Creationism as a complement to the Theory of Evolution currently being taught within the science curriculum of various public schools, despite the fact that the creationist’s claims aren’t supported by any scientific evidence, and thus should remain in the academic realms of cultural studies, religious studies, and mythology. To make matters worse, many religious proponents have also tried to use pseudo-scientific arguments to disprove evolution (although to no avail). Some have even resorted to using the intellectually dishonest (or merely ignorant) argument claiming that “evolution is just a theory”, not realizing that the meaning of the word “theory” within science is quite different from the common everyday usage. Whereas the common everyday usage of the word “theory” is meant to imply a “hypothesis”, the scientific usage implies an explanation with a factual basis that is generally supported by most if not all of the scientific community within the relevant fields. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is no different and thus would also be considered as “just a theory”, but we know for a fact that some force which we call “gravity” does indeed exist, and this force also produces measurable temporal dilation, as well as the non-Euclidean or curved space effects predicted by the theory. While some of the details of these theories may remain under contention, and while the theories may be incomplete in one way or another, the main crux of these scientific theories are widely accepted as scientific facts.

These kinds of arguments and tactics have far less precedent, for in the past, religious claims were largely supported by religious authority and intuition alone and didn’t require falsifiable scientific support. As science has continued to gain more influence and followers through its explanatory power, and as more educated people begin to participate in these kinds of public discourses, the necessity of scientifically grounded arguments has grown substantially. So it isn’t all that surprising to see many of the people with religious-based world views try and find scientific arguments to support their case, although it is obviously hypocritical and inconsistent when the same people undermine science when it no longer supports their position. The crucial difference worth noting here is that science is ultimately about trying to find an explanatory and descriptive model that fits the data best, whereas those trying to prove religious beliefs to be true are effectively cherry-picking data to fit a presupposed model. That is, science is always willing to scrap a poor model for a better one that has more explanatory and predictive power as more and more data is collected, whereas religion clings to one model and one model only no matter how poorly it fits the ever increasing amount of data and despite it’s usual lack of explanatory and predictive power.

Teleological Evolution of Humans

Evolutionary theists believe that evolution is factual, but some of them also believe that evolution has had a specific purpose or end-goal in mind determined by a deity, namely to produce human beings (another example of religious anthropocentrism).  In a few of these religious accounts, it has been suggested that once humans evolved from other life forms, they were given a soul and have been participating in some kind of an ongoing religious narrative.  Some have claimed that humans evolved to worship some god(s), to prepare for an apocalypse, to prepare for the afterlife, and other similar stories.  The main point here is that within these types of religious claims, the human species is purportedly the final speciation goal of evolution, and as a result, humans are thought to be the most remarkable, most intellectually capable, and most important species that will ever exist.

In terms of the scientific credibility of such claims, none of the claims are falsifiable except perhaps one — that humans are the end-all be-all for evolution and speciation, or to put it another way, that humans (or another species for that matter) will not evolve further (let alone evolve to produce a species that is more remarkable or one with more intelligent capabilities than homo sapiens).  We can already see that the assumption that humans will no longer evolve is patently false by noticing some relatively recent evolutionary changes to human beings, including the otherwise unnecessary ability for some human adults to digest lactose (this mutation became favorable after the recent development of agriculture and dairy farming several thousand years ago), the existence of specific disease resistances (and their genetic markers) within certain ethnic populations, and other gene pool changes due to genetic drift.

Perhaps more importantly, with the recent development of genetic engineering, we are beginning to consciously and directly guide our own evolution at the molecular level (and the evolution of other species).  As this technology develops further, we are likely to change extremely quickly into a completely different species, and one with more advanced capabilities engineered into the genome. Interestingly enough, there hasn’t been any evidence for the teleological evolution of any species until relatively recently, but it is human beings that are teleologically driving it through both artificial and, what I call, “engineered” selection.

Free Will

If science has shown us anything, it has shown us that there is a causal structure that exists in the world around us in which events that occur are ultimately caused by prior events. If this weren’t the case, then we could never successfully apply the scientific method, let alone live our daily lives with any predictable order or structure. Fortunately, because of the causal (and potentially deterministic) nature of our universe, we’ve been able to successfully formulate hypotheses, test them, and use the results to make further testable predictions.  Regarding free will, there is no known way for humans (or any other entity or object for that matter) to circumvent this causality without their actions being causa sui which would not only undermine the process of rational thought (which depends on causal thought processes), but would also go against every bit of scientific evidence we have obtained thus far.

Even if the randomness proposed within quantum mechanics were ontologically the case (which we’ll likely never know), we all know that randomness can’t produce freely willed actions either, since there have to be non-random conscious intentions and thought processes behind any deliberate action.  So whether the universe is ontologically deterministic or indeterministic (i.e. random), classical free will is logically incompatible with either possibility. Obviously this presents a serious problem to those religious views which assume that humans do in fact possess free will. Concepts such as moral responsibility, human fate in some proposed afterlife, karma, etc., lose their luster when free will is taken out of the equation since this would imply that any spiritual fate supposed isn’t something we can actually change or control anyway, and thus any implemented punishment or reward is ultimately futile.

Despite the fact that we don’t have free will, we all live with the illusion of free will since we don’t directly experience the prior causes to our thoughts and subsequent actions, and thus we truly feel that we self-cause those thoughts and actions.  In the grand scheme of things, even without any free will, we can see that our societal approach of implementing laws, crime deterrence measures, and any punishment-reward system for that matter, isn’t based on the assumption that we can freely choose our behaviors so much as they are based on their efficacy to maximize safety, productivity, as well as what society deems to be acceptable behavior.  It’s efficacy is accomplished primarily through the physical constraint measures put into place as well as the pragmatic application of psychological conditioning principles.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether or not we could have chosen to behave differently unless one is trying to maintain certain metaphysical presuppositions, such as those proposed in many religions. However, our recognition that free will doesn’t exist can certainly affect how we approach problems in society. As a result of science demonstrating that we lack free will through the discovery of causal constraints such as genes, the body’s internal environment, and the body’s external physical environment (including that which causes the psychological conditioning of the brain), we’re definitely becoming more able to address the actual root causes of many problematic behaviors. In doing so, rather than wasting resources and erroneously blaming an individual for not “choosing” to behave differently (as in many religions), we can appropriately view every individual as an innocent amalgam of genetic and environmental information (regardless of their behavior) and then take more effective measures to improve their behavior by attempting to change any problematic genes and environmental factors.

Struggle for Morality

One of the most pressing issues regarding the human condition is the constant struggle to behave in ways that society deems to be moral. Many religions have their own ideas about what is considered to be moral behavior and they often claim that their particular morals are ordained by a god or some form of divine authority. It is also common that morality and immorality play an important role within various religious narratives.  For example, within the Abrahamic religions, if a person commits what the religion deems to be immoral acts, that is, if they “sin”, and this person does not repent or have their sins absolved, they are destined to eternal damnation.  Within Christianity, “sin” is considered an inevitable act passed down from generation to generation ever since the supposed “fall of man” which, as the story goes, began with a first descendent, named Adam.  This concept of seeing humans as inherent sinners is sometimes referred to as “original sin”.

As was mentioned in the previous section, humans’ lack of free will suggests that humans ultimately have no control over whether they “sin” or not.  Behavior is determined by prior causes such as a person’s genes and the psychological conditioning they’ve undergone throughout their lives.  Evolutionary biologists have also shown that the reasons for humans behaving in ways that society or various religions deem immoral is because of selfish genes as well as an ongoing conflict between biological instincts and societal conventions and expectations.

The strategy that genes tend to implement through their respective phenotypes (including behavior) tend to perpetuate those genes through means of self-preservation, reproductive success, and subsequent child-rearing success.  Additionally, because of the incredible speed of cultural evolution and ever-changing social conventions, humans may find difficulties adhering to particular conventions due to their biological evolution lagging behind that cultural evolution. To give some examples, if people kill others or steal, it is likely (or was likely long ago) to increase one’s chances of survival or increase one’s chances of successful mating by gaining power, property, and social status.  Infidelity could also be seen as a result of being sexually attracted to others because they may provide better genes for new offspring or simply provide more offspring.  Also, if humans are naturally more of a polygamous primate, it would make sense that monogamy, even if the current societal convention, would be difficult to maintain. Thus, there are many possible reasons for why humans behave the way they do, and science has been continuing to enlighten us with these reasons as we gain more information from evolutionary biology and psychology (among other disciplines).

As for the religious claim that humans will always be immoral, a few things must be made clear. For one, morality is largely determined by society, and so what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another. Despite the claim by some religious proponents that religions provide some kind of objective foundation for ethics and morals, we can see that different religions often proclaim different morals, thus it is clear that no such objectivity exists. Science and reason on the other hand do provide a nice resource for answering moral questions by showing us in detail the consequences of our actions (such that we can better determine how we ought to behave), by providing us with a clearer picture of how the world really is so that our moral goals aren’t based on false pretenses, and by providing us with increasingly better ways to achieve those moral goals.

As we continue to evolve as humans or into another species entirely, our innate feelings or instincts about what is moral or immoral will likely continue to change (as will our behavior) since anything that is innate has a biological basis. Most importantly, as we continue to consciously guide our own species’ evolution through genetic engineering, we will have the power to shape human nature into anything we desire. In other words, we aren’t necessarily trapped in a struggle for morality as many religions claim, for we are going to have greater and greater abilities to change our instinctual behavior such that we are naturally inclined to behave in any way that society desires. The key point here is that, as opposed to some religious views which assume that mankind is forever doomed to immoral behavior, science is providing a way out of this supposed predicament.

Final Thoughts

It’s not at all surprising to see certain religious groups highly opposed to science, for there are countless ways that science has been threatening to their world view. Even the fear of death which has likely attracted people to religions for the promise of eternal life is being addressed by science as advances in genetic engineering, medicine, and artificial intelligence work toward increasing life expectancy potentially to the theoretical upper limit (i.e. for as long as the universe is able to support life, given the Second Law of Thermodynamics, etc.).

One striking parallel between many religious claims and the actual efficacy of science is that science truly appears to be providing the ultimate salvation of our species (and whatever species we will become). However, it is being accomplished by taking the ever increasing knowledge acquired over time and addressing every problem we face within the human condition, one by one. While religion has played an important role in history, most notably, in the human quest for truth — it seems clear to me that history has indeed also shown us that the more we accept and use science to learn about the universe, the better chance we have to achieve our goals as our species continually evolves.

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

leave a comment »

At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?