Wednesday, 30 April 2014

On the Nature of Things: Twenty First Century Update (2014)

From The Philosopher, Volume 102 No. 1
 

 On the Nature of Things
Twenty First Century Update

 





By Alvin Yusin


 About two thousand years ago, Lucretius wrote a treatise, in the form of an epic poem, whose Latin title is De Rerum Natura*. There are two common translations of the title: On the Nature of Things and On The Nature of the Universe. But whatever it is called, Lucretius' poem is a remarkable work. It expounds the perspective of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose explanation regarding origins of the world and the living things on it differed from the perspectives held at the time by his fellow Greeks, which in turn derived from mystical notions form the Far East.

One such explanation has been described as the Theory of Chaos. It is claimed that before sea, earth, and heaven separated there existed a confused, shapeless mass given the name Chaos. Unknown gods and nature separated the earth from the sea and the heavens from both. Other or the same gods then laid out topography of the earth's surface appointing rivers and bays, fields and forests, raising up mountains, and so on. When this work was completed those gods created living creatures from heavenly seeds in the earth. Birds lived in the air, fish in the sea, and four footed beasts on the land. When a nobler creature was sought, the god Prometheus kneaded heavenly seeds with water thereby creating man in the image of the gods and giving man upright stature - so that he could look at the heavens.

It is a fine story, but Epicurus did not accept it as any kind of an explanation of the natural world. Instead, according to Epicurus and Lucretius, all things, inanimate (non - living) and animate (living) alike are composed of small particles called atoms. The arrangement and organisation of these atoms determines the form those things will take as well as whether it will be living or inanimate.

Lucretius’ poem includes this account:


The supply of matter in the universe was never more tightly packed than it is now, or more widely spread out. For nothing is ever added to it or subtracted from it. It follows that the movement of atoms today is no different from what it was in bygone ages and always will be. So the things that have regularly come into being will continue to come into being in the same manner; they will be and grow and flourish so far as each is allowed by the laws of nature.

Clearly neither Epicurus or his pupil Lucretius were satisfied by explanations that the universe was created by gods. Instead, in On the Nature of Things, it is said to have sprung into existence spontaneously through the random play of atoms.  Later, both gods and human beings came into existence as a result of specific arrangements of the atoms, and share similar forms. Life comes about when what might be called 'specialised atoms' came into existence and formed souls. A special feature of the gods is that their souls cannot leave their bodies. It is this circumstance that provides them with the gift of immortality. The soul atoms of human beings, on the other hand, do leave their bodies and with their departure comes death. Other than this one difference, gods and human beings are exactly alike. 

Of course, these days, both the Ancient notions of Chaos and Epicurus' theory have been discarded. They have been replaced by two different and conflicting notions. In a general sense, these opposing notions are not unlike the views of interacting forces held in ancient Greece. Modern perspectives, too, identify two diverse powers that have created the world and the living things on it. The first, theological perspective, claims that divine forces created and organized the inanimate or physical world, then created the animate or living things who populate that world. The other world view insists that it is solely physical laws framing the random combinations and re-combinations of specific elements and molecules that have, over vast periods of time, given rise to the world and all its living creatures.

Yet, if the specifics of these ideas differ from the specifics of the earlier theory of Chaos and Epicurus and Lucretius ideas they all share something. In their different ways, they all reflect the same conflict that appears in human explanations regarding creation of the universe and the living things on it. Are the world and the life forms in it the result of spontaneous random interactions of basic elements that over time have given rise to simple then more complex life forms? Or is this world and its life forms the signature of a carefully constructed universe containing a variety of life forms designed by some unknown, perhaps divine power. To make that determination requires a review of the great scientific theories of today.

There are currently three competing scientific viewpoints to explain the creation of the universe: the Big Bang theory; the Steady State theory and more recently the Dark Hole theory, however all are based on the shared assumption that the universe came into existence spontaneously and that random combinations of universe components gave rise, over time, to the inanimate and the animate that exist in the world today. The prevailing scientific account is the Big Bang theory. It maintains that about 10 – 20 billion years ago the universe, which was then extremely hot and dense, experienced a massive blast causing the existing matter and energy to expand, and following this expansion began to cool peripherally. Proponents of the theory use Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which identifies the ability of energy to convert to matter, to explain the mechanisms by which the energy driving the expansion of the universe gradually 'cooled' giving rise to stars and galaxies.

Now stars consist primarily of the element hydrogen. At the center of each hydrogen atom is the nucleus. Energy generated by stars comes about when these nuclei join - fusion. Such fusions generate the other elements, such as helium, the second lightest element and the second most abundant element in the observable universe. Heavier elements such as iron come about as a result of fusion that occurs when massive stars die at which time they explode. Over time peripheral cooling took place leading to element combinations called molecules that with further cooling combined to give rise to a variety of inanimate forms.

Over unimaginable periods of time, specific elements and molecules in some inanimate forms combined and rearranged themselves gradually giving rise to simple life forms. Of course, this perspective regarding the origins of life dovetails nicely with Darwinian perspectives of evolution, which seeks to account for the eventual emergence of the human species from these simple life forms. Today, most scientists accept the Big Bang Theory, certainly as it relates to the creation of both inanimate and animate forms. However, in order to explain the origins of living forms developing from non-living forms they rely upon another Ancient idea, that was theory promoted (but not invented) by Aristotle. This is the theory called Spontaneous Generation. The theory assumes that life forms can arise from non-living things: for example, that worms and flies spring into life from mud and water.

Naive though the Ancient theory is (nowadays we know that there is microscopic universe of bacteria, eggs and DNA present even in many supposedly inanimate things) Spontaneous Generation remains, in another sense, the only possible explanation for the origin of life in its most basic form - if the physicists explanations of the start of the universe are correct. But what if they are not? After all, here, the Divine Force Theory, the basis of all religions, has, in a sense, an explanatory advantage. It simply identifies God as creator both of the universe and the animate and inanimate forms in it. Is there proof that such a force exists? Truly religious individuals accept God's existence on faith and require no further proof.

Yet, even so, Saint Thomas Aquinas found it worthwhile to try to prove God's existence using another of the philosophical perspectives associated with Aristotle. The basis of that perspective is the truism that every effect has a cause.  That is to say, when something happens, something must have made it happen. 

When a specific cause always produces the same effect a causal relationship is assumed to exist between them. Aristotle's view was that the cause of an effect can also be an effect. For example, consider the question as to what is causes ice to melt? Higher temperatures cause ice to melt. (The effect). But what caused the temperature to rise? Let’s say that exceptional sunlight caused the temperatures to rise (so what was previously a cause has now become also an effect). There exists a cascade of causal relationships. In fact, Aristotle believed that all causal relationships could be traced back to a single one., which he named 'the Prime Mover', an approach to understanding causal relationships sometimes called 'retrograde analysis’. Aquinas was using retrograde analysis of causal relationships when he identified God as the Prime Mover. However, there may be a way to reconcile the Vital Force and Big Bang Theories as regarding living things. But before I explain how I think this approach can be used, two areas important to their study must be briefly addressed. These concern the operation of computers and human genetics.

First of all, computers. Computer science speaks of three essential components for the machine to function: hardware, software and input data. Of course, hardware has components of its own. However, the only hardware component of interest to us is the so-called Central Processing Unit located inside the computer. The CPU typically consists of electronic boards which process the programs - the 'Software' - required to accomplish the specific tasks the computer must perform.

Now consider a second area of importance to our question of origins - human genetics. Over the last forty to fifty years research has provided a much more detailed understanding of human genetics. It is increasingly clear that the development of human beings from conception to death is precisely programmed. I have a particular sense of this, as in my professional life, I specialised in the study of Pediatrics, Neurology and Psychiatry and Human Behavior. I cared for children with Developmental Disabilities, which was defined as children with Epilepsy, Autism, Mental Retardation, and Cerebral Palsy and 'other conditions requiring similar programs’ in the state of California. Many of these children had genetic disorders.

Anyway, what can unambiguously be stated is that genes consist of a chemical structure called Deoxyribonucleic Acid - or DNA. To understand DNA's function in life requires us to always remember that the human body is composed of proteins. Proteins are incorporated into the structures and functions of every organ in the human body. These organs in turn are composed of thousand of microscopic entities - the cells. Proteins with different shapes, compositions, and functions are manufactured in the organ in which they are found. Thus, proteins determine how human beings will look and how we function. They are involved in the initiation, performance, and termination of all human activities. Now what I want to argue is that at least in one sense, DNA is humanity's central processing unit, one containing all the programs that create, shape and modify proteins so that they can perform their function.

The inputs to this biological CPU come from signals either within the cells or from outside of them. These signals trigger the DNA programs to initiate manufacture of the proteins necessary to perform the required activity. When whatever was required is completed another signal terminates the program. But back to cosmology. Scientific theories increasingly hold to the notion that there is no vital force controlling the universe, that it arose as a result of cooling down from an extremely high temperature soon after the Big Bang and that the effects of that cooling are as described by the Theory of Relativity.

Yet, as we saw, Epicurus also believed that the universe came about as a result of combinations of atoms, small discrete particles that were the basic building blocks of all things even if there is no reason to suppose that he considered them in the same sense as we do today, with our theories of the specific structure of atoms and of the conversion of energy to matter (or vice versa). Equally, the Vital Force theory too accepts the fact that when the universe was first created first it consisted only of inanimate structures. So, in some ways there is agreement between Epicurus and modern theories regarding the origins of life. There is agreement that living forms (including human beings) came into existence by chance combinations of specific elements and molecules.

Epicurus sees a specific atomic structure - the soul - bestowing life on an inanimate form while scientists see all living things as containing DNA, or something similar, that stores genetic codes which allow those living things to develop and survive in their environments. The key assumption that must be made by those who hold to the notion that animate forms developed from inanimate ones is that early life forms programmed themselves. Yet no living thing exists without some genetic code to initiate its growth and development and there is no evidence indicating that any inanimate object ever established its own genetic code which then converted it to a living form. Similarly, all computers developed by human beings require someone to program them, or at least to create the computer chips that will allow them to process inputs and perform the function for which they were designed. Even so-called expert systems that generate new programs have had to be programmed originally.

So, rather than ask the old question, How did life begin? I suggest that the better question we should be asking is: How can the Big Bang and Vital Force theories be reconciled? To start to do this requires a separate discussion of the two components of the creation theories that exist today: inanimate forms and animate forms.

First of all, consider inanimate forms. the Big Bang theory offered to explain the origin of the universe is based on mathematical and physical laws. much work has been done that strongly suggests that it is an accurate account in as much as it is in accordance with mathematical and physical laws, although questions remain, for example about the role of so-called Dark Matter in the equations. The theory offers a sequence of events in which first stars and galaxies come into existence and in turn create the atoms and molecules which make up all the inanimate forms that exist in the universe.

There is also some compatibility between the Big Bang and Vital Force theories when it comes to explaining the creation of animate life. both agree that DNA exists in living things. The conventional, 'scientific', approach explains the origins of DNA much the same way as any other molecule and inanimate form, that is by random combination of the four specific compounds (adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine) with other components arranged in such a way as to form strands. The explanation regarding origin of the 22 amino acids, which are the building of proteins, is the same as that of DNA.  The scientific perspective is that early strands had simple structures, perhaps precursors, of the more complicated genetic structures existing today that underlie all life forms. Over time, through the processes of mutation and natural selection, ever more complex forms developed.

There are several problems with this explanation. First and foremost of which is that the notion of DNA mutating in such a way as to eventually create new species lacks validation on science's own terms. Existing evidence instead indicates that mutations in DNA either creates a variety of genetic diseases (such as muscular dystrophy or sickle cell anemia) or, conversely, produce a genetic advantage - for example, people with the sickle cell trait show increased resistance to malaria. However, at the present time, there is no evidence to support the notion that mutations could have created DNA molecules of such variance as to produce a new species.

So, although the Big Bang theory does explain the creation of DNA and amino acids it does not explain how proteins came to be. Proteins, in essence, consist of amino acids that connect to each other to form very long chains. The amino acids sequences determine what specific protein is made. Amino acids, by themselves, cannot combine to form chains, never mind in specific arrangements.

Instead, it is the five compounds arranged on DNA strands that start the process that will allow very specific amino acids to be placed in the very specific sequences that produce in turn very specific proteins with correspondingly very specific functions. It is difficult to reconcile the creation of this function of DNA with the explanations provided by the mathematical logic of the theory of the Big Bang. The approach may provide an acceptable level of explanation for the development of DNA and amino acid structure, but it falls far short when it comes to the creation of these functional aspects of DNA.

There may be a way to address the question asked earlier concerning the reconciliation of the two theories. The first thing that must be done is to change the term 'vital force' for that of 'life force'. To understand what I mean by this, consider the cases of the physical phenomena sound and light. We know that sound and light exist, usually in the form of waves around us, but we only experience them when there is a specific structure that allows them to be expressed. For example, with sound, the human hearing apparatus and the radio are two such structures; with light, the human visual system and television are examples. Is it possible that whatever life force exists in the universe is experienced only when it enters a specific structure? If so, such a structure must have DNA and the various components that permit it to express life.

In this sense. the 'life force' would program, or perhaps we should say activate, the structure's components - just as light and sound activate eyes to see and ears to hear. When the life force enters the structure, it lives but should the structure be severely damaged or destroyed, then the life force can no longer be expressed. From this perspective, function overrides structure when it comes to life forms. And perhaps the most striking thing in this is how, in more than one way, such views recall those ancient notions of Epicurus regarding creation, life and death.


*The original text can be read at http://classics.mit.edu/Carus/nature_things.html

Contact details:
Alvin S. Yusin

Email: <Tmy222 [at] aol.com>

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