What Can We Know?

You will have noticed over the years that I am a great fan of science and mathematics. When I am seeking an explanation for something that is where I would normally turn first. But I have recently been contemplating what can we really know and indeed how can we know it? Foremost in my mind are two essential questions which I will elaborate on below.

The power of science is such that we in the modern world have a vastly superior knowledge of our world than our predecessors of but a few generations ago. Depending how you might define knowledge, many argue that the sum of human knowledge has doubled in the last hundred years. It is a source of wonder (at least to me) that in such a short space of evolutionary time we have ventured into space, unravelled the mysteries of the atom and found the cure for many diseases that were debilitating for even our recent ancestors. As a result most of us have become materially more wealthy and extended our life spans. (Mind you there is little evidence to suggest we are, as a result, happier!) And of course there is no evidence to suggest that we have learned to cope with recalcitrant teenagers, let alone deal with the exigencies of social technology!

Science seems to me to provide elegant explanations for the physical world. When I was very young I was an assiduous reader of science.

When I was about eight or nine having bought my first model steam engine and harnessed it through the drive train made from the gears of a broken clock to create a steam-driven vehicle, I was driven to know how it worked. Physics came to my aid. The slide valve admitted high pressure steam into the cylinder of the device which subsequently expanded to drive the piston forward. This motion was transmitted to a crank coupled to the wheel of my device which caused it to turn. At the end of the stroke the slide valve vented the steam and allowed the piston to be restored to its original position via the momentum created by the expansion stroke. And what about the clock? Well I had discovered that the torque directly created by the engine was insufficient to propel the vehicle without the aid of gears and I enlisted the aid of the cogs from the clock to magnify the torque but consequently reducing the speed. Now I had a vehicle that could move, but not very quickly. Consequently after constructing this device, I thought I had a good idea of how it worked and why.

So here is a phenomenon that I encountered and wanted to understand and felt reasonably satisfied that I understood the underlying precepts.

And I suppose that many of us coming from some sort of a scientific tradition might think that we could find equally convincing explanations for those phenomena that confront us – but this is not always the case, or at least not to my satisfaction.

Let me give you two such examples.

The first one is the creation of life from inanimate matter. This historically has been a subject of huge concern to scientists, theologians and philosophers. It is now relatively settled (after Darwin) how life has evolved. There is sufficient evidence to see how once life began more complex life forms could develop through billions of years of evolution. But to me the principal question is, how come there is life at all?

I have read that in certain chemical environments we are able to nurture self-replicating molecules. Well there is a huge step between a self-replicating molecule and a biological organism. Biological organisms not only self-replicate (reproduce) they metabolize energy from their environment, they use this in controlling their behaviour. Not only this they adapt and they grow. They compete with each other for resources. The complexity of even the simplest living organism is infinitely greater than any inanimate molecule. We could take many examples, but for example animate “stuff” responds to its environment not just to gather nutrients and ward off predators but in such subtle ways as being responsive to circadian cycles. Biological organisms also transport nutrients, relay messages and repair cell structures. Usually, at a minimum, we would admit to something being “alive” if it could reproduce and respond to its environment.

More than a century ago, the vitalists tried to find a way to solve this problem. How could matter be somehow imbued with these astounding properties? Their solution was to propose that the difference between inanimate matter and living organisms was the presence of the elan vital (“vital spirit”) in the latter. The elan vital was something (ill-defined) that inhabited living things but was not present in the inanimate. When a living organism died it was because the elan vital had abandoned it. But this is a merely confected way of saying that matter of itself has no life and what is living, when life ceases, becomes again matter. So, of course, as an explanation it left a lot to be desired!

No matter how they framed it, the vitalists could not pretend that elan vital was anything more than merely a synonym for life. As a result it offered no sensible solution to the problem.

The physicist, Leonard Mlodinow rightly asserts that:

“The belief that there is some sort of essence – a life force –present in the universe was (and still is) appealing to many whose religious or spiritual views tells them that life is imbued with a special quality that can’t be explained by the forces of nature.”

So, to me, this is still an insoluble question – how does inanimate matter come to manifest life?

I have read some books and numerous articles that suggest that now that we know more about genetics and DNA we somehow have solved this problem. But for someone with my limited intellect the problem is far from solved. Some scientists say that it is possible for genetic molecules similar to DNA to form spontaneously. They might then be coaxed by their environments to then somehow act as catalysts for the formation of life. This all seems so conjectural to me. We also know that, according to the laws of physics it is possible for time to run backward, but we have yet to see any evidence of this phenomenon.

I am not in any way suggesting that we need a conventional Creator to solve this problem (because if nothing else this merely shifts the problem.) I am just asserting, with our current state of knowledge it is impossible to articulate how life might arise from inanimate matter to the satisfaction of an ordinary observer like myself. As I stated earlier, as soon as that single cell organism arises, I can believe the evolutionary development through the eons into more complex life forms. But I am still baffled by the emergence of that simplest and most primitive form of life.

So that was big problem number one. My next problem engages me even more. It is the problem of consciousness.

Consciousness presents a major problem for science. Science depends on observation and fact. It seems to work best when the observations are third person and objective. We can’t look at consciousness like that because it is first person and subjective. And while we find it most difficult to scientifically deal with subjective experience, it is subjective experience, our experience of love, beauty, wonder and compassion and so on, that makes our lives worth living.

The American philosopher and neuroscientist, Daniel Dennett, maintains that consciousness is a function of brain complexity and recursivity. But to my mind I find it hard to accept that subjective experience can somehow be reduced to a brain process. For many years I have believed that the causality goes in the other direction. I believe that consciousness is a fundamental, irreducible part of the universe. Now I am not as smart as Dan Dennett and I can’t begin to know how I could prove such an assertion. And it also concerns me that I seem to share this belief with Deepak Chopra!

(It is interesting to read the commentary in 10% Happier by Dan Harris on his encounters with Chopra.)

So the question I would like to put was that raised by the physicist Dr Henry P Stapp:

“Is consciousness an aspect of nature that had no precursor prior to the appearance of life, or is it a feature of nature that was in some form always present?”

As I implied above, whilst I have a preference about how this might be answered, I certainly don’t purport to have a proof. And yet it is such an important question for humankind. If we attempt to answer the question “What does it mean to be human?” scientists and philosophers have posited many answers. But the most convincing answer, to me, relates to the nature of our consciousness.

[The good Dr Phil prefers to talk about our “self”-consciousness. He says the peculiarly human attribute is not that we are conscious (ie have thoughts, emotions, experience qualia or whatever) but that we are aware of our consciousness. Our minds are a theatre for our consciousness. We are aware of our thoughts, our emotions and so on. This “awareness” means that not only do we have to deal with an exterior world, but we have to deal with an interior world as well. It seems to be the nature and most likely the complexity, of this interior world that defines our humanity. Dan Dennett says that the problem of investigating consciousness is that because we are “self”-conscious we are always looking at the world through a point of view! (We have discussed in previous essays the impact of “worldviews”.)]

Of course we now come back to the enduring problem of duality. We need to ask, “What is the nature of inner experience?” Is it possible that neural processes can create the mind? The Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, David Chalmers, has termed this the “hard problem”.

My belief, and I won’t elaborate why in this short essay, is that consciousness could easily be one of the fundamentals of the universe, like space, time or the force of gravity. It is part of humankind’s conceit to believe our brains create it. It seems to me likely it is not something we create but something we access.

And of course, I know the dangers I face here. We will always give more credence to that which is consistent with our worldview. As the theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman told us, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest to fool!”

So here are my two big questions. I am not convinced we currently have the answers to these. (Tantalisingly, it seems to me that these two problems are closely interrelated.) Perhaps, like the behaviour of your teenage children, they might be fundamentally inexplicable! But I suppose some might argue that a hundred years ago there were many seemingly unanswerable questions for which we have subsequently found answers. If you have found the answers I would appreciate your sharing them with me!

2 Replies to “What Can We Know?”

  1. Hi Ted,
    On the matter of life emerging from physical elements I must confess to a lack of knowledge of chemistry. However, it is a fact that whatever form the first successful took, it is rarely noticed that we are all living an extension of that first life. Given that whether we consider simple cell division or sexual reproduction, the truth must be that the continuation of life is only possible because the reproducing components have to be alive for it to work. From that perspective, we are all sharing that common thread we call life. It is hardly surprising that the Buddhists say everything is interconnected and we are not separate.
    I have spent much of the last forty years thinking about consciousness and for most of that time I have followed the Hindu philosophy which suggests that matter emerges from consciousness. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.41 speaks about the coalescence of two minds when one is in the Samadhi state, and I have experienced that coalescence on many occasions, thus I leaned toward the Hindu viewpoint.
    Recently I was thinking about the decision process; neuroscience says that a neuronal signal in the brain is detected a millisecond before one as aware of the decision to move. If that is the case then surely the same is true when making a decision about anything.
    Yoga also talks about the modifications of the mind, which are one’s personal biases laid down through life experience. These modifications determine what we think and how we think. Like the decision process, we become aware after the fact, and since the time gap is too short to be noticed we believe we actually thought to act or decide when in fact the reverse is the case.
    All of this makes it likely that consciousness, as we experience it, is the product of brain activity. Most of that activity comes from memory.
    Going back to the first life, it is reasonable to say that coincident with life would be the first form of memory, which would have evolved to have the life form survive. We read a lot about epigenetics, and it might be the case that how the survival information is passed from one generation to the next is really down to the fact that each generation, from the perspective of life, has simply relocated into a new body, along with its past experience.
    I would assert that consciousness is not an exclusively human trait, given that we all evolved, in the case of humans, from earlier mammalian forms.
    So, rather than answering in a definitive manner, I hope I have at least contributed to this fascinating subject.


  2. Thank you Alan – some food for thought there. I have in previous essays commented on the influence of Vedanta, Hinduism and Buddhism on the development of some of my thinking in this and related fields.

    I could not begin to respond sensibly to your comments without writing another essay. I might save that for another day!

    I appreciate your considered input and I see that we might share a few common threads.

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