One of the things I think is that the world we see is an afterimage, or representation, of an invisible one. I don’t really know the details such that I could draw them out, but I do think this. And even though there may be no objective merit to my thinking like this, it is the conception of the universe that resonates most truly with me.
There are several of ways to conceive of what I’ve just said and I think all of them are to some extent valid. For instance, one thing I think is that physical matter of the type our senses can detect is like the skin shed by the invisible and ever-moving snake of energetic exchange that forms the fabric of the observable world. Not that anything is static, per se. But what appears static is the product of the invisible and continuous motion of existence. This is not really controversial.
Another way to conceive of it, which is more controversial in some corners, is to suggest that the types of organization and patterns found in the physical universe are replications, or expressions, of underlying truths or realities about the way things are and must be and cannot otherwise be. In other words, the physical world is a representation of what exists in silence, outside of all motion and polarity, outside of time. This is the idea that what arises in form is the coming into being of what is formless.
While this idea is not accepted by the scientific mainstream, it is generally accepted in religious circles, where (unfortunately) it is generally expressed in just one particular form: the idea of a supernatural God. This is in my opinion a very limited form of the idea. In particular, this God often possesses traits undesirable in one another– judgmentalism, elitism, selfishness, capriciousness, etc. What I think of as formless has nothing to do with such a God, and everything to do with suggesting the formless is as natural as the formed–that they in fact are inseparable and intimately linked– and therefore neither one is “supernatural.” When one says a thing is supernatural they are in essence saying it is magical. Its effects are the whimsical movements of a power that transcends the natural laws of this world.
I don’t believe in such a whimsical power, but I do believe the limits of the natural laws of this world are only incompletely understood, so this places me in something of a no man’s land. I don’t believe what I think can rightly be categorized as either religious or scientific per se.
One of the most interesting things we’ve discovered in this universe is ourselves. To say it another way, the most interesting phenomenon I think we have found so far is life. I like to read about what we call life because I sense that, like my vague and weakly antithetical thought system, life doesn’t quite fit the molds given it. The extremes are reductionism and physicalism on the one hand, and bearded, lightning-throwing gods on the other. It appears to me that life defies them both.
To me, the general idea of physicalism is that nature is a closed system of mutually interchangeable matter and energy that unfolds in accordance with natural laws. Said another way, it is a system of objective and measurable quantities whose unfolding takes place without the influence of any external (or supernatural) causes. Reductionism is the idea that complicated things can be explained in terms of their far simpler parts, and that very simple physical propensities–when allowed to behave as they must, in conformance to the natural physical laws of this universe–can explain everything. They can explain life, for instance.
I would say that very generally speaking then the view of the world that is considered scientific is one that says everything we see can be explained by the operation of fundamental principles, or natural laws, upon fundamental quantities, e.g. upon the smallest bits of energy, the smallest bits of matter, the smallest ingots of space, and the smallest slices of time.
Key to all of this is the idea held in the scientific sphere that there should be no resort to any external organizing factor or intelligence. Though the fundamental parameters of physical existence appear to be quite precisely tuned to produce novelty and life, it can be said that we simply haven’t learned how the system of nature works yet, and so one day we will be able to explain those beguiling initial conditions without resort to any external condition as well. The most important thing in the scientific explanation of the universe is to provide a plausible explanation of its current state, expressed in terms of the very simplest, most concise mathematical laws and measurable quantities possible.
In such a conception of life, all biology should be reducible to physics, as physics is inherently more fundamental than chemistry and biology. There are in fact countless examples of this. The growth of the human cell, for instance, has been shown to occur in very regular periods of growth and rest, and in researching this a protein containing copper was found that modulates the naturally-occurring sinusoidal cycle of redox potential in water such that the modified cycle has a period of 24 minutes. Exactly 60 such cycles equals a twenty-four hour day. Living matter in other words, has built a clock from the physics of things more or less “laying around”: amino acids, copper, and water. This clock functions because of the action of the fundamental laws of nature on the fundamental quantities of nature, meaning that it necessarily functions as it does because it cannot do otherwise, given the physical properties of the atoms in the system.
Similarly, it has been shown that E. Coli bacteria resist the stress of heat–which causes otherwise precisely folded proteins to come apart–by forming a particular, additional heat-resistant protein that acts as a brace to keep other proteins from wilting in the heat. The feedback loop in regulating the production of the heat-resistant protein is quite amazing, and is also at least conceptually understood in terms of the underlying physics. For instance, the shape and composition of the heat-resistant protein is surely one which, unlike that of other proteins, is less affected by an increase in temperature. It takes a lot of resources to make these proteins, though, so they’re not made all the time. What happens is that the gene that calls for the heat-resistant protein has the opposite problem: it produces RNA that does wilt at safe temperatures. So even though the cell is always producing the RNA molecule that contains the genetic sequence for the heat-resistant protein, generally speaking it wilts and is subsumed before it can be used to actually transcribe the protein. When it gets warmer, the RNA doesn’t wilt, and great quantities of the heat-resisting protein are manufactured very swiftly. All of the properties of the molecules that make this system work can (and should) be explainable in terms of the underlying physics of the molecules in question. In other words, those molecules are what they are necessarily–they cannot be something else–because of their unique arrangement of atoms and their fundamental quantities.
I find this type of thing absolutely fascinating. The complexity and uncanny perfection at work here boggles the mind. That aside, an important question is whether or not the operation of the fundamental principles of nature (natural laws) upon the fundamental quantities of nature (things like the strength of gravity, the charge of the electron, the mass of the proton, etc.) could explain all that we observe today. The answer in many ways is yes, but there is one very interesting facet of this process that is not reducible solely to those fundamentals, and that is the genetic code. Something very interesting is happening continuously in living organisms, and that is this: linear information contained in the genetic material (e.g. DNA) results in the assembly, by molecular machines, of three dimensional proteins. There are only four bases in the genetic code, and yet this is sufficient to produce 20+ amino acids in varying combinations and lengths, yielding a vast array of possible proteins.
It is a code in the sense that within the context of the living organism, particular sequences of DNA “code” for particular proteins. There are molecular machines in between the world of DNA and the world of proteins that have a specific relationship between the two worlds, a relationship that is not necessary because of the operation of the fundamental laws of nature upon the fundamental quantities of the universe. In other words, the bridge between the world of DNA and the world of proteins is one of meaning. It doesn’t have to be that way physically–it could be some other way entirely. A house key certainly depends upon the natural bond between atoms to function, but the shape of the house key is an arbitrary one that must correspond to the lock, and there is nothing necessary about the shapes that are chosen. A code is in essence a two-sided key–an interface between symbols on the one hand, and meanings on the other.
If I was deposited in an alien civilization and I said, “Oh, shit,” there would be nothing in the physics of the sounds I produced to suggest the meaning I ascribe to them. That’s because language is a code. Many languages use very different sounds to convey a particular meaning. This is what the genetic code is like, along with many other codes that have been discovered to be actively at work within living matter. The meaning (protein) that results from a particular symbol (a gene) does not necessarily arise from the physical properties of the atoms and molecules involved. It has more or less been determined that the biological system of information (e.g. DNA) and its corresponding meanings (e.g. synthesized proteins) represent a quantity or property at work in the physical world that is neither reducible, nor measurable, and thus is fundamental in some way.
What we call life therefore cannot be understood in terms of physicalism or reductionism, though it is remarkably adept at leveraging the basic and inalterable properties of nature’s fundamental elements to its use. There is a really interesting question here about whether or not life itself could be producing content in the universe that is not only new, but fundamental. This idea is remarkable to me. It suggests that life could be producing content in the universe that is not only new, but irreducible and necessary to explain the phenomenal world as we objectively comprehend it. Creation in other words, is ongoing, through the manifest dynamics of unity and relationship.
While it is not my aim in this piece to leap to the assertion that the presence of codes and irreducible information in biological systems implies the existence of a God or gods–for I have added nothing to one side or the other of that discussion–I do wish to point out one analogue between what we observe at work in biological life, and the idea expressed in A Course of Love that we, as beings, share a common root—a unity of being—that is made known through the continuous and open-ended exploration of relationship. Life is in essence “revealed” through relationship. For myself there is a beautiful reconciliation here of the idea that the visible and the invisible are echoes of one another, and that all life represents the unfolding of simple principles that are not only natural, but eternal. What we see around us, in other words, are the reflections in material form of those specific and timeless principles which are inherent to the reality of being, and thus to the reality of life.
* Some of the ideas here were taken from two papers by Marcello Barbieri, one entitled “Biosemiotics: a New Understanding of Life” and a second entitled “Origin and Evolution of the Brain.”
** The E. Coli description was taken from the book Microcosm by Carl Zimmer, which is a fascinating read.