Category: Essays

Strawberry Virgin

DSCN0736Gladys found the Virgin Mary in my strawberries.  We would call CNN and Ebay, but we ate them.  Oops.

John Gray and the atheist delusion.

Not the author of Man are from Mars and similar populist drivel, but John Gray the British philosopher has an interesting take on what he calls the New Atheists.  I found a lecture by him on YouTube  (parts 1, 2, 3, & 4 ) in which he deftly skewers the likes of Dawkins, Dennet, et al., pointing out that their position is far from novel, and, if anything, rather a caricature of a line of thought with an honourable pedigree.  You can find a text summary of his views in The Guardian (I suppose, once in a while, even they have to publish something worth reading).

An interesting tidbit: suicide bombing was not invented by any religiously driven ideology, but by the Tamil Tigers, a wholly atheist and Marxist group with no illusions about earning themselves a place in paradise surrounded by doting virgins by blowing themselves to pink mist along with anyone who happened to be standing nearby.  No, for these guys, pressing that switch finished it thoroughly and proved that you don’t need religion to engender terrorism.

Sometimes the scientists do themselves no favors.

Following my earlier armchair-philosopher post “The born-again atheists bother me“, I encountered an atheist’s web page purporting to respond to “50 reasons to believe in God“.  The reasons range from the lame and childish to the moderately intelligent.  A number of them aren’t reasons to believe in God at all, such as “atheism is based on faith”, which is just a criticism of atheism, as are several others.  The responses are largely entirely predictable and the only interesting thing about the web page is that it brings a number of Christian/Atheist strawmen together in one place.  The only one I want to talk about here is number 36 “How vs. Why”.

The “reason” given is “Science can explain ‘how’ something works, but not ‘why’ something works.”.  Why this is a reason to believe in God, per se, escapes me because I see it only as a statement of one of the limitations of science and also misleading, on its own, because how “why” differs from “how” is not addressed, and that’s an important question.

The responses are two.  First: “This argument is essentially meaningless. To science, ‘how’ and ‘why’ are the same thing.” which is an astonishing cop-out.  If we agree that science certainly answers “how” questions, and I suggest that there is nothing controversial in that, then defining “why” to be the same thing as “how” immediately cuts off any investigation of “why” questions that is not “scientific”.  I put “scientific” in quotes here because no scientist should make that assertion unless he’s talking about scientism and not science, which should also be made clear if it is the case.  In a sense, it says that there is no “why”, without justifying the claim.

The second response just irritates me, because I like Terry Pratchett, who, the page claims “sheds insight onto this. The question “why” presupposes that there is a story to be told. A narrative. Science is a different way of knowing, and one of its discoveries is that the language of the universe is not that of story and legend, but that that of mathematics. It’s something that a lot of math-phobes have a hard time accepting.”  Yes, I suppose a narrative is a way of understanding what “why” means, but it’s a bit of a red-herring and the meat is more in the position about mathematics.

OK, so the universe speaks mathematics.  I speak English.  I can tell a story in English.  Why cannot the universe tell a story in mathematics?

Apart from that, the rules of the universe, its mathematical and scientific laws, are just that, the rules that are (apparently) followed.  They are not the universe itself.  They are a “how”, they are not a narrative or a motivation.  They are themselves not a reason for the universe’s existence.  A logical conundrum – “this sentence is false” – is not a reason for its own existence, but it’s rules are obvious.

Perhaps the universe has no reason for its own existence.  If not, then I challenge the loonie atheists who reify the scientific method to the level of cosmic significance: prove it!

Oh, I know, they’re trying, trying very hard.  But what they are really doing is trying to answer the “how” questions and hope that the “why” questions go away; and granted, they often do.  Ultimately, perhaps “why?” is limited to the realm of subjective experience.  Like blue, pain, love, it might be open to scientific analysis insofar as you can identify the parts and processes of the brain where such experiences lie, but you cannot extract and measure an independent substance to which you can reasonably give such labels.

You can go on about why I see the sky is blue until you’re blue yourself, but at no point can you prove that your experience of “blue” is identical to mine.  Likewise, I suspect that everyone’s “why” is different, dependent on their own experiences and derived world view.  The argument, like this blog post, is pointless.

A sense of fair play

I found this clip on YouTMonkeyube the other day, exploring whether or not capuchin monkeys have a sense of fair play and I found the implications somewhat deeper than immediately obvious.

There are two segments – the first demonstrating cooperation between two monkeys in pursuit of food, the second pitting the two monkeys against each other.  It was the second segment that particularly intrigued me.  The monkeys, Vulcan and Virgil, are taught to “buy” a treat with a plastic token.  Vulcan buys a cracker, which is tasty enough, but then he sees Virgil gets a grape in exchange for his token.  Now a grape is much tastier in monkey world than a cracker, and Vulcan clearly feels short changed.  The transactions continue, with the same different treatment of the two, and Vulcan gets more and more agitated until eventually he wins a grape too.

What grabbed my attention was not even noted by David Attenborough’s narration – once Vulcan spotted the preferential treatment of Virgil, he never once accepted that lower reward of the cracker again.  He turned it down flat, every time.

I went for a walk to think about it.

All Vulcan knew was that Virgil was getting grapes and he was getting crackers and he didn’t like that.  But he didn’t take the cracker and continue to demand a grape.  He knew that one token got him one treat, and his treats weren’t as good as Virgil’s, even though the two were doing exactly the same thing.  Clearly Vulcan was not hungry enough or otherwise motivated to eat the cracker anyway and try again later.  He wanted his fair does right then and there and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

There is a clue here to underlying evolutionary pressures.  Monkeys have learned, or evolved (same thing for these purposes), certain behavior patterns in response to certain conditions.  This experiment quite cleanly demonstrated an escalatory response to an unfair situation.  It was better to risk a worse outcome, no treat, in response to inequality than it is to accept the inequality itself, (or, at least, to be seen to accept it).

What would be the consequences of accepting the cracker that were so undesirable?  Had Vulcan accepted the cracker would he have been accepting a subordinate position with respect to Virgil?  Clearly he is already subordinate to the effectively all-powerful, human experimenter, but, from Vulcan’s point of view, would it have risked giving the experimenter the idea that Vulcan was somehow “cheaper” than Virgil, encouraging further inequalities down the line?

Of course, we have much in common with these monkeys.  We are perpetually faced with unfair situations and must decide on appropriate responses with a view to future consequences.  Sometimes the response is apathy because that’s cheaper than  putting up a fight, although it may turn out to be far from free, and apathy creates further apathy as the inequalities become entrenched.  Sometimes the response is to fight, despite the costs which are perceived as less than those of apathy, up to and including death.  In the case of these monkeys, we see the fundamental mechanics of the decision.  Is it conscious?  Is it learned?  Is it instinctive (evolved)?  I’d say all three, in both us and the monkeys, and not least because all three are intimately related.

All this might lead you to reflect on the eons of experience of the generations before you informing the emotions you feel next time some jerk in an expensive car cuts you off.

(While writing this, it also occurred to me that with this video we also have some illustration of the mechanics of gambling.  One monkey sees another monkey put a coin in a slot and pull a lever.  Many coins fall out, all in a heap.  Monkey see, monkey do.  First monkey puts a coin in the slot and pulls the lever.  Nothing comes out.  Monkey feels affronted. What he might, in other circumstances, call his sense of justice is tweaked and causes him to insist, to fight back, to put another coin in the slot and pull the lever again.  And so on.)

Air France Flight 447 and me

Air France flight 447 Empennage Retrieval

Air France flight 447 Empennage Retrieval

It was all over the night before, even before I went to bed, although not to sleep.  228 people were already dead, and I spent the night cursing the heat, humidity and noise from everyone else’s air conditioner.  With mine on, sleep would have been completely impossible with the sound of a small jet engine and rushing air in the room, even given the cooler air.

Only when my alarm clock yanked me out of a sweaty and fitful doze were people starting to get worried.   Urgent attempts at radio contact were being made, radar screens being studied with concern.  By the time I dragged myself through the shower, dressed, checked out and refused to pay the 10% “service charge” (cash only, they said, ‘sure, but I gave them 5% anyway), the worst had been realized, if not faced, and people were trying to decide what to do.

Ramon drove me quickly through dark and largely empty streets which had been start-stop traffic everywhere every other time I’d been on them.  Once on the freeway, oncoming traffic started to pick up as the city’s workers began the day – a stream of white lights heading towards us, just the one set of red lights in front.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

At the airport, I thank Ramon for his services and tip him handsomely.  He’d taken me to see Christ the Redeemer the day before; between my lazy Spanish and his native Portuguese, more or less mutually comprehensible, we’d discussed Rio’s music scene and what it was like to live there.

Inside the wreck of a terminal, I check in, and collapse awkwardly in a cheap metal chair to wait for the VIP lounge to open.   The chair remains oddly prominent in my memory; very shiny, very light, very flimsy.  (By now, most of the wreckage has gone, sunk; just a few bits and pieces, some bodies and luggage remain bobbing in the waves, still quite high from the storm.)  For a few minutes, I try to stay awake browsing the ridiculously priced souvenirs in a shop when it opens, then others arrive and begin the work of opening the café.  I hope for a coffee, but their lack of hurry is palpable and I’m too tired to insist.  The sky starts to lighten outside.

A woman in uniform and heels walks down the corridor and into the VIP lounge and I follow.  Peeking through the door, I ask, are you open?  A face similarly in need of coffee makes a weak attempt at a smile and beckons me in.

Coffee, finally, from a machine, tastes more or less right, but is inevitably disappointing given that I’m drinking it in Brazil and it really should be better than that.  The wireless internet doesn’t work.  But one of the workstations lets me read the news.  The BBC, for my sins.

Breaking news … a plane … Air France … to Paris … left Rio last night … Missing … somewhere over the Atlantic …

Wait.   What?

I’m in Rio, at the airport.  I look outside, there are planes, but no Air France.

I go back to reception.  Does she know anything?  Her eyes go wide, looks confused.  No.  Her face goes white.  She’s got friends at Air France.  She lunges for the phone.

The TVs are on now, CNN is talking about something inconsequential.  Eventually, the thread of banality is interrupted.  News just coming in, a plane has gone missing, Air France, Rio, Paris.

The receptionist and I, now temporary friends in anxiety, swap information – me what I can find on the internet and see on CNN, she what she can learn from what contacts she can reach.  Nothing and nothing.

The Andes from the air

The Andes from the air

It’s time to go.  Compartmentalize what I am about to do (fly) and what seems to have happened last night (unknown) and put one foot in front of the other, not putting the two together.  I am a little late and escorted the short walk from ticket collection to the gate.  Does my escort know anything?  No, know anything about what?  I explain quickly.  She looks doubtful, but once at the gate she asks two colleagues and gets shushed immediately, don’t scare the passengers – there’s only me, and I told her.

Taxiing out to takeoff, I see a group of uniformed men accumulating next to a military aircraft hanger.  A rescue team?  I wish them well, but, although none of us know it yet, it’s too late anyway.  Later they will say “likely to have struck the surface of the sea in normal flight attitude, with high vertical acceleration”.  Very sanitary – they flew, down, into the water.

The pilot engages power, and we’re gone.

The born-again atheists bother me.

In the beginning

They ridicule religion, but it is not the principles of religion they mock, it is the human institution. (Which, er, heaven knows, richly deserves it.)  And you’d think that, from the way they speak, religion is scientifically proven to be a complete waste of time.  Not even close.

Science does not answer “why” questions, it answers “how” questions, but you wouldn’t know it in today’s world because there is a modern, unspoken taboo against asking real “why?” questions of scientists. So much so that they have been able to hijack “why” and use it as if it meant “how”. As scientists – as opposed to armchair philosophers, like me for the moment, but it’s Saturday so I reserve the right – the only permitted “why” questions are actually “how” questions. So much so that I, as a scientist, get nervous about raising the point, but like I said, it’s Saturday, and I’m off the clock, so bear with me.

‘Why is the sky blue?’ is a question with two answers. Almost always, we ignore the “why” and implicitly translate it into the “how”. ‘Rayleigh scattering, my son’, comes the response and we think we’ve answered the question. I just Googled the question and got some 55 million hits. I went some 300 hits in before the silly and the artistic began to become significant and even so, the last few that Google will serve (up to 1000) are dominated by this answer. I’d be willing to bet I’d have to go quite a lot further to find anything else.

But really, all we’ve done is describe the process of how the sun’s light gets scattered by the atmosphere so that preferentially short-wavelength photons interact with our retina and get converted into nerve signals which combine with others until we experience the color “blue”. No-one, at any point, has explained what is “blue” and why it is attached to this particular blend of photons. I expect cognitive science will probably, eventually, be able to explain how we correlate those photons with the sensation of “blue”, but I suspect it will never be able to tell you why you experience blue the way you do. Nor will it ever be able to prove that the guy standing next to you experiences “blue” in the same way you do.

Some philosophers of science call this problem of subjective experience “the hard problem” of consciousness studies. It’s hard because no-one has even begun to make a dent in it, although billions of hours of cogitation have been expended on it.

It’s a pretty strong statement for a scientist today, to claim that there are limits to science’s potential knowledge. I can see my adviser shaking his head in disappointment (or perhaps I am unfair). So strong is the conditioning that I even went back and added the word “suspect” to the sentence claiming science won’t be able to tell you why you experience blue as you do. Just to cover my backside. But it’s a pretty strong suspicion.

The properly indoctrinated scientist doesn’t like what he calls philosophical questions. He considers them irrelevant and evades them. The sleight of hand that converts a “why” question into a “how” question is the most used tool in the box, so much so that the typical scientist doesn’t even know he’s doing it. It’s not much further along this path that he might start to claim the “why” questions are meaningless, and he adopts a purely physicalist attitude towards the universe and, presumably, himself – there is no “why”, only “how”, anything else is embarrassing.

Forgetting the hard problem for now, let’s just take the human mind as a straightforward property of a complex brain. Indeed, I have no problem with the idea of consciousness being the inevitable consequence of a complex mind, built into the rules of the universe. That is, consciousness is a natural and inevitable, even requisite part of the universe, with nothing supernatural to it. All you need is a process which is capable of producing a brain complex enough to generate a dynamic, extrapolative model of its surroundings, constrained by the input of its senses. Since such a thing grants some degree of control over those surroundings, it seems likely that it would be a survival trait.

You knew I’d get to evolution sooner or later.

Many evangelical atheists come from a background steeped in the lore of Darwinian evolution. Richard Dawkins is their pope for the moment, Daniel Dennet something of an archbishop, and Christopher Hitchens a bit of a Torquemada, although personally I think he’s less of an atheist than someone affronted by the idea that anyone, including God, would know better than him about, well, pretty much anything. His favorite strawman is the question that if he didn’t get his morals from God, then where did they come from? He dodges this by being offended by the idea that he wouldn’t know better than to indulge every base urge without God, leaving unanswered the question as to why he does know better than to simply indulge himself. The correct answer is, of course, that his morals are bred and socialized into him. He learned them from his father and mother, and from the people around him and perhaps, to some degree, through introspection, although that introspection is inevitably informed by the same people. Morals are simply necessary to get on with others.

No need for God? Well, maybe. God, if He exists, might reasonably be expected to take an interest in morality. But let’s politely ask Him to be quiet for a moment and ask why cannot religion, as a purely social entity, not be an adequate vehicle for the generation and promulgation of morals? I don’t see why it can’t.

Does that make religion necessary? No, because there are other such vehicles, such as political parties, or sports clubs or any of a myriad other ways in which humans interact, which might be as effective, although, human and therefore fallible. Organized religion’s usual claim to precedence is that it is not, fundamentally, of human origin and therefore not subject to the same fallibility, which is where God raises his hand to make a point. We’ll ask Him to wait.

Evolution gives me a bit of a problem.

That is not to say that I don’t think it is real, or that it is “just a theory” which is the weakest possible criticism that organized religion can possibly make and only makes a total fool of itself when it does. The problem that I have lies in the sense that, on its own, it has something missing.

Evolution, as normally described in the popular science press, is really just natural selection. It is the process by which living things get from one generation to another and survive their environments and over time produces changes in those living things. “Just” natural selection? Natural selection is a filter, it is like the sieve used to sort the rocks from the sand. It is like the turnstile at the football ground, letting through only those with tickets. Yes, you’d be a fool to turn up without a ticket, but it’s not the turnstile that makes you show up if you do have one. Likewise, the sieve doesn’t fill itself and push through the small stuff.

Natural selection is a bit cleverer than this, as many of its filtering properties are also a function of the objects, living things, being filtered. Some aren’t, such as the combination of carbon dioxide and water using sunlight into sugar and oxygen as a vehicle for plants to exploit solar energy. If that didn’t work, then plants wouldn’t photosynthesize, and life might have remained hanging around deep ocean volcanic vents, where some believe it started.

(By the way, a quick look at Wikipedia and I learn that “The amount of energy trapped by photosynthesis is immense, approximately 100 terawatts which is about six times larger than the power consumption of human civilization”. Personally, I see that the other way around, that the power consumption of the human race is immense, being by now up to 1/6 the total photosynthetic absorption of the planet.)

There are other constraints, such as the changing illumination by the sun, on a daily and annual cycle.

Then there is the fact that ice floats. Not an obviously critical point, but if it didn’t the world’s oceans and lakes would freeze from the bottom up and getting out of an ice age would be next to impossible and life very, very difficult.

The point is that natural selection has to work within a certain context. It operates on living things partly through interactions between themselves, partly through the particular properties of the local environment, and it must obey the laws of chemistry, physics and, ultimately, mathematics.

On top of this, it needs an energy supply. Mostly, that would be the sun. Throw in the laws of thermodynamics and we’re not far from viewing all life on Earth as just some highly structured eddies that result as the universe inexorably increases its entropy through the dissipation of the sun’s energies. It happens because it has to happen. The laws of the universe require it. (But, the small voice in the back of my head wonders, why those particular laws? Does that matter?)

Why did evolution get started in the first place? It’s pretty obvious to anyone with eyes (and most of a brain) that it’s in full swing all around us right now. But what happened to trigger it and why didn’t it just fizzle out? If you’re sharp eyed, and have been paying attention, you’ll notice that this is another of those tricky questions with two answers. But anyway, let’s ignore the “why” and let the evolutionary scientists run with the “how”, as many of them are right now.

Given space-time, base matter and energy with their laws of thermodynamics, and other organizing principles (the bare rules) and the process that emerges (natural selection itself) perhaps we can get all the way from inanimate matter to fully organized eukaryotic life and even emotions, consciousness and morality. All this is just how, not why, and once again, awed by the explanatory power of answering only “how” questions, we might be tempted to conclude that “why” doesn’t matter. Worse we might think there are no answers to “why” questions, rendering them meaningless, simple howls in the dark.

There is further to go along this direction of exploration. We have considered only life, as we know it, from origin to present day. But one has to ask how the Earth and other planets were made, and here I catch myself in another potential abuse of the language. Being “made” usually implies a maker, but today we seem to be able to explain how planets form without any need for anything but the matter and energy of the universe and the laws they follow. In fact, if anything, the problem is more straightforward to answer than most faced by science (it takes time because, well, it’s slow and we can’t do the experiment in the lab). The planets seem to make themselves.

Likewise we ask how, not why, the stars are formed, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, superclusters and all the way up to the universe itself. But that last is in a category all of its own. Everything else gets explained by the action of physical laws on what the universe contains. The universe itself came with its own laws – out of nothing? A quantum fluctuation in, er, nothing, that got carried away? Like life, how did it get started? Why didn’t it just fizzle? Or did it, almost infinitely many times, descending into primordial chaos with no structure and no laws? Again and again? Except for us and we’re just the lucky one (of infinitely many?) that survived.

Far better minds than mine are working on these hows, I don’t know of any that work on the “why”.

Perhaps the universe came out of nothing, for no reason, and it can then perhaps be claimed that it created itself. If so, to say that the Universe created itself is, to me, a fundamentally religious statement, no less bizarre than requiring a God to do it, even if it means we have to invent the whys ourselves. But doesn’t, therefore, the universe generate its own whys, through us?

What arrogance of these tiny little, mushy brains to suppose that they know the meaning of any “why” question, and how pathetic of them to think that they cannot answer!

They ridicule religion, but it is not the principles of religion they mock, it is the human institution. (Which, er, heaven knows, richly deserves it.)

Science does not answer “why” questions, it answers “how” questions, but you wouldn’t know it in today’s world because there is a modern, unspoken taboo against asking real “why?” questions of scientists. So much so that they have been able to hijack “why” and use it as if it meant “how”. As scientists – as opposed to armchair philosophers, like me for the moment, but it’s Saturday so I reserve the right – the only permitted “why” questions are actually “how” questions. So much so that I, as a scientist, get nervous about raising the point, but like I said, it’s Saturday, so bear with me.

‘Why is the sky blue?’ is a question with two answers. Almost always, we ignore the “why” and implicitly translate it into the “how”. ‘Rayleigh scattering, my son’, comes the response and we think we’ve answered the question. I just Googled the question and got some 55 million hits. I went some 300 hits in before the silly and the artistic began to become significant and even so, the last few that Google will serve (up to 1000) are dominated by this answer. I’d be willing to bet I’d have to go quite a lot further to find anything else.

But really, all we’ve done is describe the process of how the sun’s light gets scattered by the atmosphere so that preferentially short-wavelength photons interact with our retina and get converted into nerve signals which combine with others until we experience the color “blue”. No-one, at any point, has explained what is “blue” and why it is attached to this particular blend of photons. I expect cognitive science will probably, eventually, be able to explain how we correlate those photons with the sensation of “blue”, but I suspect it will never be able to tell you why you experience blue the way you do. Nor will it ever be able to prove that the guy standing next to you experiences “blue” in the same way you do.

Some philosophers of science call this problem of experience “the hard problem” of consciousness studies. It’s hard because no-one has even begun to make a dent in it, although billions of hours of cogitation have been expended on it.

It’s a pretty strong statement for a scientist today, to claim that there are limits to science’s potential knowledge. I can see my adviser shaking his head in disappointment (or perhaps I am unfair). So strong is the conditioning that I even went back and added the word “suspect” to the sentence claiming science won’t be able to tell you why you experience blue as you do. Just to cover my backside. But it’s a pretty strong suspicion.

The properly indoctrinated scientist doesn’t like what he calls philosophical questions. He considers them irrelevant and evades them. The sleight of hand that converts a “why” question into a “how” question is the most used tool in the box, so much so that the typical scientist doesn’t even know he’s doing it. It’s not much further along this path that he might start to claim the “why” questions are meaningless, and he adopts a purely physicalist attitude towards the universe and, presumably, himself – there is no “why”, only “how”, anything else is embarrassing.

Forgetting the hard problem for now, let’s just take the human mind as a straightforward property of a complex brain. Indeed, I have no problem with the idea of consciousness being the inevitable consequence of a complex mind, built into the rules of the universe. That is, consciousness is a natural and inevitable, even requisite part of the universe, with nothing supernatural to it. All you need is a process which is capable of producing a brain complex enough to generate a dynamic, extrapolative model of its surroundings, constrained by the input of its senses. Since such a thing grants some degree of control over those surroundings, it seems likely that it would be a survival trait.

You knew I’d get to evolution sooner or later.

Many evangelical atheists come from a background steeped in the lore of Darwinian evolution. Richard Dawkins is their pope for the moment, Daniel Dennet something of an archbishop, and Christopher Hitchens a bit of a Torquemada, although personally I think he’s less of an atheist than someone affronted by the idea that anyone, including God, would know better than him about, well, pretty much anything. His favorite strawman is the question that if he didn’t get his morals from God, then where did they come from? He dodges this by being offended by the idea that he wouldn’t know better than to indulge every base urge without God, leaving unanswered the question as to why he does know better than to simply indulge himself. The correct answer is, of course, that his morals are socialized into him. He learned them from his father and mother, and from the people around him and perhaps, to some degree, through introspection, although that introspection is inevitably informed by the same people. Morals are simply necessary to get on with others.

No need for God? Well, maybe. God, if He exists, might reasonably be expected to take an interest in morality. But let’s politely ask Him to be quiet for a moment and ask why cannot religion, as a purely social entity, not be an adequate vehicle for the generation and promulgation of morals? I don’t see why it can’t.

Does that make religion necessary? No, because there are other such vehicles, such as political parties, or sports clubs or any of a myriad other ways in which humans interact, which might be as effective, although, human and therefore fallible. Organized religion’s usual claim to precedence is that it is not, fundamentally, of human origin and therefore not subject to the same fallibility, which is where God raises his hand to make a point. We’ll ask Him to wait.

Evolution gives me a bit of a problem. That is not to say that I don’t think it is real, or that it is “just a theory” which is the weakest possible criticism that organized religion can possibly make and only makes a total fool of itself when it does. The problem that I have lies in the sense that, on its own, it has something missing.

Evolution, as normally described in the popular science press, is really just natural selection. It is the process by which living things get from one generation to another and survive their environments and over time produces changes in those living things. “Just” natural selection? Natural selection is a filter, it is like the sieve used to sort the rocks from the sand. It is like the turnstile at the football ground, letting through only those with tickets. Yes, you’d be a fool to turn up without a ticket, but it’s not the turnstile that makes you show up if you do have one. Likewise, the sieve doesn’t fill itself and push through the small stuff.

Natural selection is a bit cleverer than this, as many of its filtering properties are also a function of the objects, living things, being filtered. Some aren’t, such as the combination of carbon dioxide and water using sunlight into sugar and oxygen as a vehicle for plants to exploit solar energy. If that didn’t work, then plants wouldn’t photosynthesize, and life might have remained hanging around deep ocean volcanic vents, where some believe it started. (By the way, a quick look at Wikipedia and I learn that “The amount of energy trapped by photosynthesis is immense, approximately 100 terawatts which is about six times larger than the power consumption of human civilization “. Personally, I see that the other way around, that the power consumption of the human race is immense, being by now up to 1/6 the total photosynthetic absorption of the planet.)

There are other constraints, such as the changing illumination by the sun, on a daily and annual cycle.

Then there is the fact that ice floats. Not an obviously critical point, but if it didn’t the world’s oceans and lakes would freeze from the bottom up and getting out of an ice age would be next to impossible and life very, very difficult.

The point is that natural selection has to work within a certain context. It operates on living things partly through interactions between themselves, partly through the particular properties of the local environment, and it must obey the laws of chemistry, physics and, ultimately, mathematics.

On top of this, it needs an energy supply. Mostly, that would be the sun. Throw in the laws of thermodynamics and we’re not far from viewing all life on Earth as just some highly structured eddies that result as the universe inexorably increases its entropy through the dissipation of the sun’s energies. It happens because it has to happen. The laws of the universe require it. (But, the small voice in the back of my head wonders, why those particular laws? Does that matter?)

Why did evolution get started in the first place? It’s pretty obvious to anyone with eyes (and most of a brain) that it’s in full swing all around us right now. But what happened to trigger it and why didn’t it just fizzle out? If you’re sharp eyed, and have been paying attention, you’ll notice that this is another of those tricky questions with two answers. But anyway, let’s ignore the “why” and let the evolutionary scientists run with the “how”, as many of them are right now.

Given space-time, base matter and energy with their laws of thermodynamics, and other organizing principles (the bare rules) and the process that emerges (natural selection itself) perhaps we can get all the way from inanimate matter to fully organized eukaryotic life and even emotions, consciousness and morality. All this is just how, not why, and once again, awed by the explanatory power of answering only “how” questions, we might be tempted to conclude that “why” doesn’t matter. Worse we might think there are no answers to “why” questions, rendering them meaningless, simple howls in the dark.

There is further to go along this direction of exploration. We have considered only life, as we know it, from origin to present day. But one has to ask how the Earth and other planets were made, and here I catch myself in another potential abuse of the language. Being “made” usually implies a maker, but today we seem to be able to explain how planets form without any need for anything but the matter and energy of the universe and the laws they follow. In fact, if anything, the problem is more straightforward to answer than most faced by science (it takes time because, well, it’s slow and we can’t do the experiment in the lab). The planets seem to make themselves.

Likewise we ask how, not why, the stars are formed, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, superclusters and all the way up to the universe itself. But that last is in a category all of its own. Everything else gets explained by the action of physical laws on what the universe contains. The universe itself came with its own laws – out of nothing? A quantum fluctuation in, er, nothing, that got carried away? Like life, how did it get started? Why didn’t it just fizzle? Or did it, almost infinitely many times, descending into primordial chaos with no structure and no laws? Again and again? Except for us and we’re just the lucky one (of infinitely many?) that survived.

Far better minds than mine are working on these hows, I don’t know of any that work on the “why”.

Perhaps the universe came out of nothing, for no reason, and it can then perhaps be claimed that it created itself. If so, to say that the Universe created itself is, to me, a fundamentally religious statement, no less bizarre than requiring a God to do it, even if it means we have to invent the whys ourselves. But doesn’t, therefore, the universe generate its own whys, through us?

What arrogance of these tiny little, mushy brains to suppose that they know the meaning of any “why” question, and how pathetic of them to think that they cannot answer!

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