Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, August 24, 2009

In the beginning

I took the opportunity over the weekend to catch up on some reading and try to do some thinking. At least I was somewhat successful with the first project. The new Scientific American -- it's here, but you can't read the full articles unless you have a subscription -- is organized around a theme of "origins." It's kind of bogus as a frame -- the issues don't really have a lot in common -- but there is something about the Big Three that hangs together for me.

The Big Three are of course the origin of the universe, of life on earth, and the human mind, which are addressed respectively by Michael S. Turner, Alonso Ricardo and Jack W. Szostak, and Marc Hauser. They're big only because they happen to be important to us, but that's what matters to me because I'm one of us. I'm sorry to have to say that I found all three essays rather unsatisfying -- not because I was expecting them to have the answers, but because the discussions were limited to reprocessing the already well-known (to the scientific literati) wonkery around the details of these processes without acknowledging the problems of meaning which seem deeper to most people.

It seems pretty obvious that one of the reasons people are drawn to religion is because they can't be satisfied with the mystery that still surrounds these questions. Of course "God did it" isn't really an answer, because you would still need to explain the origin of God and there isn't any evidence for God anyway, unless you simply define God as "whatever it is that made these things happen," which obviously isn't getting you anywhere.

But it nevertheless feels better to many people to attribute the universe and whatever there is in it that matters to us to some sort of sentience or ultimate purpose, even if we don't have any idea what that is. Apparently it feels even better to some people just to decide that it's a big Daddy sort of superperson that lives in the sky and is going to show us what it's all about after we die.

Alas, this sort of comforting nonsense isn't harmless, because once you start believing in something that is illogical and without evidence, you can believe anything; and you'll end up believing whatever the people tell you who you depend on to feed you the original comforting nonsense.

Of the Big Three questions, I find the origin of life on earth actually the least interesting and the least problematic. You just need to get some sort of self-replicating molecular system happening. It's not a problem if the requisite events have a low probability, because it only has to happen once, and you can sit around and wait for millions of years. I actually think it would be surprising if it didn't happen. Since nobody can go back and observe what was going on 3 billion years ago, the best investigators can do is muck around until they get something to work, which will constitute a proof of principle but it will be forever impossible to prove that is what actually did happen. So it seems rather feckless to me.

But the origins of the universe and of the human mind are more puzzling, and also offer more opportunity for real discovery and revelation. The curse of cosmology, as a cultural artifact, is that the more we learn about the universe, the more pointless it seems from our own point of view, and the harder it gets even to formulate the question of "Why?" As for the science of mind, even if we're willing to live with its unavoidable circularity, it seems to diminish us, compared with our intuition of ourselves as miraculous and transcendent. I think any discussion of the science surrounding these questions needs to acknowledge the discomfort they cause, and that it is as essential to confront the problem of meaning as it is to explore the problem of what is.


kathy a. said...

i don't need to know the origin of the universe. that is a question we will never solve -- in terms of time and mass, we are something less than the fleas on a dog in a far side cartoon -- and it matters not to our lives.

the origins of life on our planet -- that's a project that has reaped much information, and will continue to do so.

the human mind, though, is fascinating. want to think more before saying more.

Bix said...

Oh well. It sounds like a good link, but I'm not privileged enough to read it.

This was interesting:

"Charles Darwin argued that a continuity of mind exists between humans and other animals, a view that subsequent scholars have supported."

So, I wonder what constitutes that "continuity of mind?" That is, what is the evidence for it? Did the article say?

I recall Jill Bolte Taylor describing something like this during her stroke: "Because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body I felt enormous, and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there. And all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back on line and it says to me "Hey! We got a problem. We got a problem. We've got to get some help."

She said the brain is wired such that the right brain processes in parallel, the left brain in series. I can see this would give the left brain a temporal quality ... a past, present, and future. But the right brain would not experience things so linearly. (Her's was a left brain stroke.) It seems the right brain is more wrapped up in this "continuity." It's a curious thing. I can't say I've ever felt it.

Ayurvedic Medicine said...

you are saying right about that. really very good posting. thanks for this.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

A guy named Bill once told me that in his view mysticism had three basic postulates:

1)The universe is here for a reason, not by accident

2)People are somehow connected with this purpose

3)It's possible for some people to become aware of this connection and be a part of the team, so to speak

Are people who think things like this kidding themselves? Or is your disbelief merely a product of your own limited perception?

May the Creative Forces of the Universe help us to pursue Truth, Justice, and the Potentially Sentient Way.