The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Iain McGilchrist. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Before we get started with today’s episode, I’d like to remind our listeners that our ability to get great guests depends on us getting good ratings and good reviews, et cetera, on the podcasting apps. The podcasting ecosystem is a little weird that way. So when you’re finished listening today, if you like the show, please consider giving us a five-star rating on your favorite podcast app. And if you have the time, write us a review. It really helps lets us keep getting these great guests that make the show so good.
Jim: Today’s guest is a part two with Iain McGilchrist. Just as a reminder, he’s an associate fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and for many years, he was a clinical psychiatrist. You can learn more about his work at channelmcgilchrist.com. When I mentioned this is a part two, this is a little unusual part two. Regular listeners know sometimes I’ll have decided after having read a book that we can’t get through it in one episode, or on the fly during the episode, the guest and I will make that call, but this case is a little different.
Jim: I thought the first episode with Iain was actually pretty good, but as I thought about it the weekend afterwards, I realized I really hadn’t done justice to the final third of the book. Iain and I had some dialogue back and forth about various substantive topics about artificial intelligence and consciousness and stuff. I started feeling guilty that I had not really done my usual comprehensive job on the final third of the book. It’s a massive book, 1,200 pages in print, 2,000 pages on Kindle, and trying to pack all that into 90 minutes ended up not doing justice on some of the most interesting stuff. So I reached out to Iain and he very graciously agreed to come back and take another whack at it. So, welcome back, Iain McGilchrist.
Iain: Oh, thanks, Jim. I’m ready for another whack at it, as you say.
Jim: Yeah. I mean, there’s all tremendous amount of tremendously interesting things. I was prepping for this episode, I realized even another 90 minutes isn’t going to be enough to get to everything, but we’re going to hit what we can hit. Just to wrap up a couple items from last week’s show, one, as I fairly often do, I think I use one of my catchphrases when I hear the word metaphysics, I reach for my pistol. Iain thought that was from Goebbels or Göring or something as a modification of the old one. I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol. I didn’t think so. I looked it up, and sure enough, it was Hans Jost, who was a dramatist in the ’20s, but he was also kind of a bad guy, kind of a fascist.
Jim: And then, also, we talked about scotch a little bit in the previous episode. I noted that Iain lives on the island of Skye, the home of Talisker, which in the past, at least, had been one of my least favorite SCOs. But that evening, I went home and poured myself a triple of Talisker 10 from a bottle we had in our scotch cabinet and I’ll say it had good flavor and good body. The smoke was not quite as obnoxious as I remembered. I kind of enjoyed it, but the damn iodine after taste lingered for a few hours afterwards. So my reaction was, “All right. Front end, pretty good, back end, I’m not so impressed with.”
Iain: There’s something wrong with your bottle. I think, Jim, I’m afraid.
Jim: It’s been there for a few years, so you know it, but I’m going to try the Talisker 18. Let’s see what I think about that.
Iain: That has been voted the best whiskey in the world. So if you don’t like that, I can’t help.
Jim: Yeah. My regulars is Oban 18. I like Oban 14 also, but the 18 is like orders of magnitude better. And so, we’ll give Talisker one more shot on the 18. We’ll give a report back.
Jim: So, again, we’re going to get into part three of The Matter with Things, which is a name of Iain’s book. Part three is titled What Then is True? For those who did listen to the previous episode, I’m going to try to steer the conversation to minimize the overlap and focus more on things that we didn’t get to in the previous show, but inevitably there’ll be some overlap, so apologize in advance. So, let’s see here. Where’s a good place to jump in?
Jim: Last time we talked a bit about time and the issues between discreet time and continuous time. Iain’s belief is that continuous time is philosophically important. I think I pushed back that from the physicist perspective, we’re not yet sure, but the discontinuities are at such a tiny, fine scale, so-called Planck length, like 40 orders of magnitude smaller than the time it takes light to fly across a proton. Maybe time is discontinuous at that range, or as I like to think, the distinction between continuous and discontinuous disappears into a fog of confusion at that scale, but I think my takeaway is that things that occur at this ultra micro level do not matter at the level of us. And so, if you have some final thoughts on time, we’ll then move on to space.
Iain: Yes, you are right in one sense that when we’re dealing with daily life, we don’t have to be thinking about whether there is continuity or not. I’m really making a point about the way we think about time. But it’s also true that as I understand from, say, David Tong, who’s a professor of physics at Cambridge here, that there is no evidence for discontinuity anywhere in the cosmos, neither in time nor in space and that Planck lengths are an artifact of ability to measure things.
Jim: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of argument about that. This is another, I think, theme that’s going to come throughout the show today is that there’s a lot of things, particularly in the quantum space, so-called quantum interpretations or quantum foundations, where very peculiarly, even though quantum theory has been the most accurate scientific theory for the last a hundred years and make unbelievably useful predictions about real things, like computer chips today would not operate unless quantum mechanics was correct, what it actually means is still in great argument. In fact, there’s at least a dozen so-called quantum interpretations, which described rather different worlds. I mean, radically different worlds. We’ll get into this a little bit in the next comment.
Jim: There is zero experimental evidence that allows you to distinguish between these dozen live interpretations. A few interpretations have been knocked off by evidence, but even ones that describe radically, radically different universes, we cannot tell. I often caution guests to don’t be picking and choosing quantum interpretations because we don’t have a basis to tell this quantum interpretation from this one and we’ll soon get onto that. So, we talked about time. Let’s move on to space and essentially the quantum nature of reality. As I mentioned, there are these numerous quantum interpretations and even fundamental things, like is randomness of fundamental value of the universe or not is actually still in dispute. I think Iain takes the position that randomness is a real attribute of the universe. Maybe talk about that a little bit.
Iain: Well, I take randomness to be an asymptotic element that we can only approach ever nearer to, but never actually to achieve, that order is the principle that is visible everywhere and that true randomness is not a reality. Although degrees of chaos, degrees of disorder are very, very important to the functioning of almost anything that we can think of, especially of life.
Jim: Yeah, that’s interesting. Again, this is a scale issue. At the quantum mechanical levels, which you actually do talk about quite a bit in the book and I think you do come down on the side of stochasticity at the quantum level, that there’s a fundamentally unpredictability. About 70% of physicist would agree with you that the universe is fundamentally random at lowest, lowest level, but about 30% disagree. Some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics are still deterministic, the de Broglie–Bohm pilot wave theory, for instance, and that bugaboo, which we’ll talk about later, the quantum metaverse both are deterministic. But I think you were making the point that at higher scales, other forces come into play that in some sense smooth out that underlying randomness. Is that fair enough?
Iain: Well, I think one has to differentiate between unpredictability and randomness. They’re not equivalent, obviously. As I say, systems rely on a degree of something that gets close to randomness of disorder, as well as order. The systems are fragile if they don’t have that disorder available within them.
Jim: It’s certainly true that the chemistry of the cell would not work if it wasn’t for what seemed to be at that scale of randomness. It requires certain low probability, but energetic events to cause reactions to occur, for instance.
Iain: Well, yes, but again, I’m not sure whether we’re talking about exactly the same thing because unpredictability, intrinsic unpredictability is not necessarily the same as complete randomness. So, an example I rather like of unpredictability at the non-quantum level is it’s a point that sometimes made, that, yes, okay, at enormously reduced level, you can find unpredictability in a chain of reactions. You can also do so at the everyday level. I quote in the book or paper by a couple of physicists saying that even at the level of the physical billiard ball, which is often brought up as the metaphor for causality since the 18th century, that the movement of the billiard balls on the table become fundamentally unpredictable after a certain number of collisions and I thought, “Well, yes, okay, maybe, but you’re going to say it’s millions or billions of collisions, but in fact it’s eight.”
Jim: Yeah. It’s called deterministic chaos and it’s one of the most important ideas that most people don’t understand, which is that even very simple systems, the so-called three-body problem, for instance. Imagine a empty universe with three balls orbiting each other. This is a very critical distinction. You use the word fundamentally. Actually, it turns out fundamentally at the Newtonian scale, it is theoretically possible to actually predict their trajectories forever. However, and this is so subtly important, as a practical matter, it’s impossible because even the tiniest mistakes in measurement of position or velocity very quickly cascade into what’s called deterministic chaos and the system becomes unpredictable.
Jim: Even systems as well-studied as our solar system with really big objects, we think about this as the clockwork universe. Well, actually, the astrophysicists cannot predict the orbits of the planets more than maybe 50 million years out into space, not into time. It may have some fundamental randomness to it too, but due to this issue of deterministic chaos, that it’s a practical matter. Even if the whole universe were made out of computers, you could not do the calculations even though in principle, it would be possible, if there were some larger universe with larger computers maybe, which is kind of interesting.
Iain: Yeah. Fundamental to this conversation, I guess, is the fact that I’m not a physicist. So, in talking about these matters, and if we’re going to talk about the nature of reality, you can’t really avoid it. I have run whatever I’ve written past physicists that I know who contacted me after reading The Master and His Emissary saying, “This is incredibly important for our work.” I was a bit surprised. I didn’t really expect to get that reaction, but I have. And so, before I say anything about these things in writing, I get them vetted as it were by physicists who know more than I do.
Jim: Yeah. And that, which is good, but one key thing to remember is that in these fundamental questions, there is split views amongst physicists.
Iain: Of course, there is. Yeah.
Jim: Which I think it’s so interesting that these fundamental questions, Ma Nature refuses to cough up the answer. I think that alone is actually significant and that’s something I’ve talked with people like Lee Smolin about. Let’s get onto the next one.
Iain: You mentioned Lee Smolin and he’s one of the people that I rely on most heavily in physics.
Jim: Yep, he’s been on our show before. In fact, he was my fifth guest way back yonder, and he’s going to be back on this summer. We’re going to talk about one of his recent papers about time, which will be fun.
Iain: There we go.
Jim: So let’s move on to the next point, that some of this is reviewing, we talked about before, but I think this is a new topic and this is the so-called measurement problem in quantum mechanics. You claim down, I think, pretty strongly with the minority of physicists, though not a tiny minority, it might be 15 or 20%, who believe that consciousness is somehow entangled with quantum mechanics and the conscious observation of quantum systems is involved in their decoherence. I either return the movement from the quantum state to the classical state, and I would point out that the vast majority of physicists, probably 85%, disagree with that, and that the so-called quantum to measurement problem has to do with size and probabilities rather than consciousness, but let’s make the argument for how the conscious observer may actually be involved in forming the world as it is.
Iain: Well, to reiterate, Jim, and it may be a problem for this particular podcast, so I’m not a physicist. My book doesn’t depend on physics. It’s just that the conclusions I’ve come to through neuroscience and philosophy are born out by certain fairly strong strands in philosophy. It was really drawing attention to that more than anything that I meant to do in the chapters on time and space, which do obviously involve physics. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know how minor it is. You may be measuring these things more accurately than I do, but my impression is that it’s not a controversial position, that consciousness is involved with matter and that changing one’s attention, moving one’s consciousness at it, where it can also produce changes in whatever is observed. I like to think of the distinction as being perhaps not between quantum and classical, but simply the matter of the collapse of a field into a measurable point for the purposes of whatever’s happening at the time, but that collapse is less substantive than the field out of which it comes.
Jim: Yep. Again, there is still a legitimate minority that agree with that, but it’s been shrinking. I would say the view by the majority, the vast majority of physicists today is that consciousness is not relevant to that field collapse. It’s just worth keeping in mind that most of these quantum questions are fundamentals of physics, where physics meets philosophy, essentially, are less well defined than many of the people who write about it think they are. They always like to-
Jim: … keep that out there.
Iain: No, that’s very, very clear. Richard Feynman said words to the effect of, “If you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” That partly explains the extraordinary range of views held by physicists. You’re completely right. Also, quantum mechanics is a bit of misnomer. As David Bohm suggested, it could better be called unquantum unmechanics. So, the field is not one in which one can find certainties, which is rather nice loop back at a matter level.
Jim: Indeed. Okay. Let’s move on to the next one, where I think we had a truly interesting conversation last time, which was about the nature of consciousness. I went back and reread our discussion on consciousness. It’s in the transcript, as we always provide a good high quality transcript on the episode page. I think we were into some degree talking past each other, but I’m not sure. In fact, I proposed during the podcast that our are differences about what is the nature of consciousness were definitional. To recap, my view is that the John Searle view that consciousness is a specifically biological phenomena that evolved at least twice in life on Earth. It’s the essence of a way of being for certain classes of organisms that have the right neuronal support for it to essentially create a movie of which they are the subjective participant in.
Jim: It appears to that creature that they are making choices within this movie that impact the world, even though we now know from neuroscience that 99-plus percent of what’s going on is happening unconsciously. It may just be that we have a very short veto window within the conscious frame, but that this biological, very specific architectural framework is what consciousness is, and that to talk about other things as consciousness, for instance, the integrated information theory of Tononi and Koch, et cetera, where a light switch is conscious, for instance, I think, is abusing the term consciousness. We ought to use some other term for it. And that in intelligence and consciousness are by no means the same thing. I think you were making a broader argument. So why don’t you give your view on a broader definition of consciousness?
Iain: Well, consciousness is one of the hardest things in existence to define. It’s something we all know well because we are in it, but quite what it is is another matter. So, inevitably, in this sort of an area where one is dealing with the fundamental building blocks of reality, it’s very hard to be sure of anything and there’s just a range of opinions about it, I guess. My own view is that consciousness can’t evolve out of unconsciousness, that it’s inconceivable that something that is wholly unconscious can give rise to consciousness. This leads to a problem of how it originates. You find, as I think I mentioned, even in the Oxford Handbook of Science, where the editors V.S. Ramachandran and Colin Blakemore, two very mainstream neuroscientists, say that we may just have to accept that consciousness is an ontological primitive, that it is something that exists and it is part of the constitution of the cosmos. You can’t get behind it and find it coming out of anything at all.
Jim: It’s certainly possible. On the other hand, it’s also quite possible that consciousness is like what John Searle would say, it’s like digestion. It’s just a series of biological processes, which are actually important for the animal. It’s expensive to maintain consciousness as it turns out. It is this very specific thing that you can say that something is conscious or not, approximately. Of course, it always can be boundary cases. But it’s fairly using the Searle concept, you’d say that a self-driving car is not conscious because it has no architecture to create the sense of a subjective state or the actor being embedded in a subjective state. That’s like being the star of your own movie, even though a self-driving car is very intelligent. In fact, at some point in the future, our self-driving cars will be better drivers than we are and are dealing with an amazing amount of randomness or unpredictability and game theory, even in all kinds of things. They can be very intelligent, but not conscious.
Iain: Yes. In relation to those mechanisms, I accept that the aggregate is probably not conscious, not in any way that we would recognize by comparison with our own consciousness. But when you talk about unpredictability and the ability to respond to it, I think, again, one needs to distinguish between two things. One is that this particular situation could not have been predicted and the other is that any situation like this could have been predicted. So, it may well be true that it’s constantly reacting to things, to sets of circumstances that can’t in themselves be predicted, but that doesn’t mean that it’s essentially making up a response that is intelligent to the situation. It is simply using some form of schematized behavior, which comes into action when some particular set of circumstances is not predictable.
Iain: I’m trying to make a distinction between this and the ability of organisms to, under certain extraordinary circumstances, which they can be artificially subjected to in a laboratory, making an intelligent response to it, for which they couldn’t be in any sense program, not for that or not for anything like it. So that’s a different phenomenon. And I think that organisms, even single cells have intelligence.
Jim: Yep, no doubt about that. Again, I think there’s a… At least in the Rutt model, making a clear distinction between intelligence and consciousness is important to think about them in a straight fashion, because yes, you can say that cells are very intelligent. Yes, E. coli, which is a very primitive bacteria, the one that lives in our gut, can follow a glucose gradient to move up a slope of increasing sugar and can also avoid certain kinds of acids that are bad to it, right? How does it do that? It does it chemically, right?
Jim: It does not have neurons. It does not have a subjective stage. And so, to say that E. coli is conscious, I would say no, but to say E. coli is intelligent, it’s a complex adaptive system reacting to stimuli and producing action is-
Iain: But what about the-
Jim: … intelligent the same way of self-
Jim: Go ahead.
Iain: What about a situation in which an organism, however primitive, retains memory and learns from experience, including experiences for which there is no way that it could have been prepared or programmed? Even more striking than E. coli, which is relatively complex is a slime mold. A slime mold can solve a maze. If you take a piece of the slime mold and break it off, get rid of the rest, the piece will have a memory of how to solve the maze. That’s extraordinary to me.
Jim: Yeah. Although, of course, slime molds are way more advanced than E. coli. They’re eukaryotes. They’re the big cells with nuclei, et cetera. E. coli is prokaryotes. It’s a bacteria. It doesn’t even have a nucleus. It’s extremely simple.
Jim: Memory and the ability to learn is certainly not a distinction about consciousness. For instance, self-driving cars can learn. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this when I was preparing for this last week, self-driving cars learn in a strange way, which is for instance, the Teslas are recording every motion that the driver makes and they’re playing their self-driving algorithm in the background and comparing what the algorithm did to what the driver did. And then they’re capturing the difference and they’re sending it back to Tesla headquarters, which are then processing. And then in the next batch update, they send the learnings from that out to all the software.
Jim: So instead of one Tesla learning, all the Teslas together are doing a swarm learning. And then the computers, the central office are figuring out the commonalities between all these learnings that came from running the self-driving car software in parallel with the human doing the driving and essentially inform us. So it is a form of learning. It’s just not the same architecture that we use. Certainly, the next three or four generations out of self-driving cars will probably learn specific things about the routes that they take, et cetera. So there’s nothing special about memory, memory and learning. We have this whole discipline called machine learning. Literally, what it does is learn things from interacting with the environment. So I don’t think that’s a distinction that gets you to consciousness.
Iain: No, I agree that memory is not peculiar to a living organism, but the fact that a slime mold, you can cut a piece off and it will have the memory suggests it’s somewhat different from a car, where you wouldn’t expect one of the doors or the wheels to have the memory that the whole thing has because it has to have that coherent system with which it’s programmed, but the cell doesn’t have any such system that with which it’s programmed. As you know, DNA contains very little information.
Jim: Yeah, it certainly does not. As we talked about last time, and this is, again, something most people don’t seem to know is DNA is not a blueprint, right? It does not say put five fingers on the end of an arm. It’s a whole series of lower level processes, which emergently result in which is a very important distinction. It’s what makes life at least so far different than any human engineered device, in that human devices, even very, very complicated ones, like a nuclear power plant or a 787, can be decomposed into understandable components that taken apart and put back together again. You literally cannot take a cell apart and put it back together again and expect it to work because it’s a series of unbelievably complicated processes. DNA just defines some relatively low level components of those processes and it’s that interaction which then emerges to produce the behavior of the cell and then the organism.
Iain: Yes, it’s sometimes formulated as the difference between a complicated system and a complex system.
Jim: Exactly. That’s a language I use quite a bit. Dave Snowden uses that language quite a bit. He’s another very good thinker in this domain, which we’ve had him on the podcast as well. He’s a good guy. Now, you also talk about life having this similar attribute to consciousness. I make the argument the other way, which is consciousness is like life. We now understand life well enough to know there’s no magic there and that it emerged from biochemistry. Biochemistry emerged from physical chemistry and physical chemistry emerged from physics. But you make, I think, a little different argument that life may be stranger than I think and that it may be more innate to the universe in some sense.
Iain: Well, it’s just very difficult to see how you can make an argument that consciousness emerges from biochemistry, which I think you were suggesting. It just doesn’t seem to me that it’s got much power to convince how. Nobody has the slightest idea how that could happen, which is why the view that it’s an ontological primitive avoids that problem effectively by.
Jim: What I was arguing there was that life emerged from biochemistry, and then consciousness emerged from life via Darwinian evolution, which is somewhat different argument.
Iain: It is a different argument, but it also includes the idea that consciousness emerges. I think using the word emerge in those circumstance is a way of saying, “And now a miracle happens.”
Jim: Or I might say, “And we don’t quite understand what happened.” The science of emergence is complexity science. It’s a brand new science. It’s really only about 35 years old and it is true that emergence is pointing at… And we don’t really understand what happened here, but we do have a sense that lower level things interacted together to produce a higher level thing, which was not easily predictable from the nature of the lower level thing. For instance, if you looked at tubs full of carbon oxygen, hydrogen, and the other little trace elements, to imagine that’s you or me, it would be a gigantic leap of imagination that nobody is really capable of doing, but somehow life emerged from these single cells to multi-cells, to complicated creatures, to animals, to bigger creatures, food chains. The word we use for that in the complexity field is emergence. Do we understand how emergence really works? No, but I think we can point to it as something that least seems to have happened.
Iain: Yes. There are, of course, complex systems in the inanimate world, as well as the living world. So I don’t actually make a hard and fast distinction between the inanimate and the animate. I think that the animate is a difference of degree, a massive difference of degree, but still a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind. What is it a difference of degree in? Well, first of all, speed of development. So things that would take billions of years might, in the case of a living organism, take a second or less. So, it speeds things up. It speeds what develops within the system up. The other thing I think is that it increases the responsive nature of whatever it is that emerges. Inanimate substances are much less responsive to the circumstances than living ones are.
Iain: So those are the two important distinctions in my mind between animacy and inanimacy, but there isn’t really a hard line, which makes it easier for me to argue that consciousness is not confined to living things, but is a constituent of the cosmos. It may be manifested in entirely different ways in different parts. It may be virtually absent in very much of the universe, but it can’t be something that emerged out of matter unless, like me, you take matter to be a complex thing that is absolutely unknown, like consciousness. I mean, a lot of physicists say it’s a mistake for biologists to imagine they can explain consciousness by saying, “Well, it emerges from matter.” That’s a hangover from about a hundred years ago when people thought they understood matter directly and could model consciousness on something that emerged from it. But no, physicists are as much as at loss to tell us what matter is as to tell us what consciousness is.
Jim: Yeah, which is actually true at the microscopic scale, exactly how energy and matter convert from one to the other. When you start looking at an atom very, very closely, it’s not nearly as simple as our old high school chemistry.
Jim: But again, this comes back to my main critique is that scale matters. While deciding what matter is like at the level of an atom or molecule becomes more murky the closer you get, when you get aggregate behaviors, more does matter. When you get my coffee cup here, which I’m holding up, we can predict very high level. Even at the scale of organic chemistry, there are the fact that we can’t understand what’s going on inside of a atom doesn’t mean we can’t understand reasonably well what’s going on at the level of organic chemistry.
Jim: And so, the question is, do these emerge… The whole of emergence is it produces a new layer in which interactions occur and that the details of the lower level no longer become significant. So that the fact that what an atom is exactly and what exactly an electron is actually doesn’t turn out to matter much with respect to how organic chemicals interact with each other when they are emergent aggregates of these fundamental particles, and that goes all the way up the stack. I think that’s a really important distinction that allows us to, I keep saying, not worry much about these deep issues because emergence has produced higher level phenomena that we interact with at our scale.
Iain: Yes. You’ll probably remember that in chapter 27, I have a section called scale matters, in which I deal with precisely the problem of why we make mistakes when we don’t realize that scale does matter. I talk a bit about the very interesting to me series of Mike Abramowitz, which also depends on the idea of differences of scale, but while there are… Obviously, we know what we mean by an emergent property. For example, the fluid and slippery notion of water can be said to emerge from the structure of hydrogen and oxygen as formed together to make water molecules. So that’s an example of where emergence is proper to speak of, because there is a property at the lower level in view of which, and in view of which alone, it is enough to be able to that some higher level of complexity that there will be appreciation of a certain characteristic, but the emergence can’t be used when there is no such element.
Iain: This is the problem with consciousness, that there is no sort of little bit of consciousness or foreshadowing of consciousness, or as William James says, nascent consciousness. It doesn’t have a meaning, so we can’t really use this argument, unless all we’re doing is blackboxing a difficult area, and as I say, waving our hands and going, “A miracle happens here.”
Jim: I think we talked about this a little bit, the study of non-human consciousness on our tree takes us back at least as far as the amphibians, where there may be just a very rudimentary consciousness. I think I described the fact that people who’ve looked into it believe that like a frog has extremely rudimentary consciousness, which essentially is like a very primitive 1982 computer screen with black things moving around on the screen. It’s consciousness, it’s been basically saying, “Is that a fly or not that’s close enough for me to stick my tongue out?” And if you take a paper cut out of a fly and make it three times bigger and hold it three times further away than the length of its tongue, the simple-minded frog will flick at it anyway. That level of consciousness is obviously useful to help a frog eat flies.
Jim: And so, this is like the idea of eyes. Eyes have evolved like a dozen times in various lineages. The argument there is how could something as complicated as an eye, it’s very expensive, how could that investment makes sense? The argument is that an eye or a very simple photo receptor that can tell a difference between darkness and lightness itself is useful and that every step along the way was also useful, plus or minus a small amount of room for randomness. I don’t see any reason that it couldn’t be true. I won’t say that it has to be true, that consciousness couldn’t have bootstrap the same way from very rudimentary consciousness that just is a 1982 very primitive, homemade computer game to allow frogs to catch flies better, to a step at a time gradually evolve what we have today.
Iain: Well, the bit that I agree with there, you will not be surprised to learn, is that I believe frogs are conscious. Certainly, I believe that certain plants are conscious. Perhaps all plants are conscious, in fact. So, it is not a problem about that, but I don’t buy the metaphor of the computer screen and I don’t buy the comparison with the emergence of the eye. The problem with the emergence of eye is a different problem, I think. Simon Conway Morris suggests that it’s probably emerged 12 times separately. It is a remarkable fact that helped the worst time for what needed to happen to come together to make an eye, to make an eye, but it’s not as though the ability to create an eye is a piece of magic when compared with of what it’s actually emerged from, whereas consciousness, I keep saying, is a different phenomenon altogether.
Iain: It’s not just very complex like an eye or complicated like an eye, but it is something that is that its essence is foreign to unconscious whatever. So unconsciousness or the lack of consciousness can’t be remedied by saying that you can get two consciousness out of it, whereas you can say that an eye came out of various components that you can imagine at a simple level, just becoming more and more complex, as you suggest. So, I don’t think they are parallel arguments.
Jim: I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. We could probably talk about consciousness for five days, but I don’t want to do what we did last time. I just get too bogged down to it. Let’s go on to the another topic, which I thought you did a really interesting job of and has left me thinking, I don’t know what to think, but it certainly made me think, and that’s the section on what is purpose?
Iain: Yeah. Well, what can I say briefly about this? I think that one of the things one needs to clear out of the way is the idea of purpose as a predetermined plan, that some engineering force, possibly God or something of the kind, makes it happen and that’s certainly not what I mean. In fact, the idea of a predictable control system oiled and set in motion by an engineer is exactly the way in which I believe the left hemisphere would think about it because this is its great skill, is putting things together for utility. So it tends to think everything is like that, including living organisms, which I argue earlier in the book that they’re not.
Iain: So, what can we say about purpose? I think it’s almost absurd to be reduced to the state of having to say a turtle comes ashore and lay its eggs rather than a turtle comes ashore to lay its eggs, which is the sort of problem you get into if you deny any kind of purpose. I think that an enormous number of biologists accept that there is purpose. They don’t want to say so in public in case they’re accused of bringing in an engineering God, but that doesn’t have to happen at all. There needs only to be a tendency in the universe, and there are tendencies, I think, towards greater complexity, towards beauty that are… And just a further, the business of life itself that hard to understand, unless you some idea of a purpose.
Iain: Perhaps I could just gloss purpose in relation to a game. So, James Carse has a distinction between finite games and infinite games. A finite game is a game that’s played because there is a goal to this game, which is as it were to pot all the billiard balls and win. But there are other games in life which are absolutely not pointless or purposeless, but don’t have any interior purpose. What is the purpose of playing music? What is the purpose of a play? It’s not something external that it has utilitarian value in reaching. It’s that the process itself is the purpose and the continuing of it infinitely would be a fulfillment to that purpose. So it’s quite different from the finite situation in which you’re closing down on one particular outcome.
Jim: Yeah. You make another very nice distinction with respect to purposes between intrinsic purpose and extrinsic purposes.
Iain: Yes, which is similar really to what I’m saying because the infinite games have intrinsic purpose, whereas the finite games have extrinsic purpose. They have a goal that’s definable. The purpose of the system is only fulfilled once it reaches that particular goal, whereas many purposes are not of that nature. They don’t have to have reached a certain point or certain goal, but their purpose lies within them. When you come to think of animals, I think this is rather important, because the tendency is to think that somehow the purpose of living is to pass on life. Well, it depends how you think of that. If you think of life as a celebratory entity that we don’t understand, that we are part of and wish to continue being in and to continue making, then yes, but not in the sense that it’s purpose of life is to propagate your genes by copulation. This is to reduce things to enormous absurd level.
Jim: As I mentioned last time, I used the white-tailed deer as my thought animal.
Iain: Oh, yes, you did.
Jim: I was studying it for 50 years as a deer hunter. One of the interest thing about it is the Fish and Game scientists have published vast amounts on their behavior. So it’s a tremendous amount of literature. I’m going to use the white-tailed deer to think about this because this is where I’m just trying to get my head around the idea. I think you’re onto something here, which is at one level, because of the way Darwinian evolution works, evolution is selecting for deer that are successful to reproduce and pass on its genes. The bucks with the big antlers dominate the sex. One deer gets to mate with all the does. One buck gets all the does. Everybody else that’s there and waits their time for a few years till the old guy dies off. And so, it’s a macro level.
Jim: Evolutionary’s purpose is to reproduce, to have more, but the deer himself, as he lives day to day, he has purposes like, “I’m hungry. I need to move from where I am to a place where I think there might be better food.” Right? He has a purpose, as kind of a lower level purpose that informs his movement or her movement that day. “I am thirsty. Oh yeah, there’s a pond back over here. But to get there, I have to cross the road. That could be dangerous, but there’s another route that if I go this way, it’s further and I can still get to the water.” And then, literally, the deers do seem to know whether it’s hunting season or not. If it’s hunting season, they’ll take the long way around. If it’s not hunting season, they’ll cross the road. Those are purposes. I think those are purposes in your sense. Maybe you could talk about the different scales of purpose that an animal might have.
Iain: Well, that’s definitely part of it. I believe there are different levels of purpose. In one sense you can say a daily purpose might be to get food and no longer be hungry, but that is not to exhaust the purposes of an animal. It seems unsatisfactory to say that the purpose of the animal is just to make other animals like itself. It seems more that there must be something purposeful about being a deer, that it demonstrates one of the ways in which the verb to be can be inflected. It creates a much richer idea of what it means to be, and that seems to me close to the purpose of an animal, that the lioness is not just killing and eating, which is certainly a daily purpose, and not just producing more lioness cubs or lion cubs, but actually just being the lion is the purpose of a lion.
Jim: Yeah. Deer play, for instance. It’s quite interesting to watch them play, particularly young ones, but occasionally older ones will get up and stand on their high legs and box with each other in kind of a playful way. I would say that part of the being of a white-tailed deer, at least for those who appreciate them, is we find them beautiful as well or something about their form that’s really quite elegant, the coloring, the shape, athleticism and all that. But is that a purpose? I guess a purpose from what perspective? What’s the perspective of the purpose of the deer who plays and the deer that is beautiful?
Iain: Well, obviously not a utilitarian purpose, and that’s why I begin by differentiating intrinsic purposes from manipulation that reaches a certain goal at a lower level and at a utilitarian level and as an external extrinsic purpose. So, there seems to be something about the way evolution works, that it’s not just about creating a creature that can last longer, has better survival power, because there are, for example, actinobacteria at the bottom of the sea. Single examples of which may be a million years old. Human beings do rather poorly in this competition because we live through only 70 years old. Trees can live to be a thousand years old. But as you get more complex, you find that actually the survival value of the individual and even its ability to propagate many examples of itself may be diminishing. So it seems to me that the idea of fitness must encourage us to think in terms of something other than mere mathematically calculable survival.
Jim: Yeah. Well, let’s jump ahead a little bit here because we’re closely related. Again, it’s an area that I could really use some help in thinking through because I think you’re onto something, but I’m not quite sure what, even after reading the book, and that is you use the word teleology. As you know, that causes a knee-jerk reaction in many scientists. “God, you’re using teleology, bad. Down, boy, down.” I did a little googling around on it and I did find the Catholic dictionary defines teleology and this is the official Catholic dictionary, amazing, they have their own dictionary, the doctrine that there is purpose for finality in the world that nothing ever happens merely by chance and that no complete account of the universe is possible without final reference to an all-wise God. I’m quite sure that’s not what you mean.
Jim: Take it slowly here because I think this is a very interesting word. Some very important thinkers have used it, but I don’t think anybody much understands it, but I think you’re maybe made more progress than some. So give us your thoughts on what it means when you say teleology.
Iain: Well, the definition you came up with is what you get for going to the Catholic dictionary.
Jim: I intentionally picked that, of course, to be an extreme definition, right?
Iain: But I quote from Darwin himself as saying that what people had realized in his work and what most important was that he reconciled morphology with teleology, and that was also the argument of T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s so-called bulldog. What I think Darwin meant was exactly what I’m trying to convey, which is not a deterministic thing that there is a purpose in the sense of to make something that we know in advance what it is and we know why we’re making it, but that there is a tendency for certain outcomes to be achievable, which can’t be achieved without a movement in a certain direction, and by taking steps to be in a certain place or a certain space, certain things might happen, but you can’t in any way specify when or what they might be.
Iain: I mean, I’ll give the example of somebody who wants to marry. You can’t just purpose to marry and go out and find somebody and do it, but you can put yourself in the way of finding somebody to marry or you can make your life such that you certainly never will find anyone to marry. So, in that sense, there is a purpose, but it’s not a purpose that is anything more than a desire of the person and you cannot specify how exactly to achieve it or when or where it will be achieved if it is achieved.
Jim: Yeah. Say for instance a kid decides he wants to go to college, so he better do good in his studies versus a kid who makes a decision or early in life not to go to college. I remember making that decision when I was in ninth grade and it quite did change my behavior in that regard.
Jim: Is that an example of what you mean by a teleology is a created goal that changes behavior in a systematic fashion?
Iain: Yes. I mean, it would be an overarching purpose, so it couldn’t be summed up in a certain sentence in the way that… Well, it might be able to be summed up in a sentence, but it would have a very broad reference because we are not here talking about a specific outcome of an event. We’re talking about a general drive. In you, there was obviously a drive to knowledge and understanding because that seems to be how you spent your life. As we remember, we are exactly the same age, so that’s good news for both of us, but what you saw was that there was another way of achieving this. And so, you were drawn forward by that concept of a purpose. I think a distinction I’d like to make is between a purpose, which is mechanically produced from behind, in which steps propel you like a mechanism into a certain state, and a purpose that draws you in front, so an ideal or a tendency that draws you towards the circumstances to be fulfilled.
Jim: Now, that’s true. My own personal history here might actually be an interesting platform. I grew up in a fairly rough working class community, where I would say half the adults were high school dropouts. Most of them worked in the construction trades or in things like printing or baking, the higher end manual trades, et cetera. I was seriously considered going into carpentry. I always enjoyed that, but I was also a book reader. My parents were book readers also, even though my father dropped out of high school after ninth grade and my mother was high school grad. So we were about the average 50% high school grad rate in our household, but they both were big readers. I started reading voraciously from a young age and unfairly convinced that books is what drew me forward, if you want to call that, the thing that drew me. If the push, I would’ve become a carpenter probably, right?
Iain: Yeah, that’s lovely. Yeah.
Jim: But considering an honorable trade in my family and my neighborhood and would’ve made a good living in those days, but somehow having read all these books, particularly science fiction and science books somehow drew me on a completely different trajectory.
Iain: Yes. Yes. That’s a lovely example of what I’m meaning, that you don’t take certain steps in a narrowly determined way, but you see a goal towards which you are drawn and that’s the meaning in which I would use the concept of teleology. There is something that draws us forward as a form that is attractive. We know that there are in physics form fields that are attractive, so why there shouldn’t be in relation to biology? I wouldn’t know.
Jim: Well, I mean, I’m going to put a little challenge to you. Can we frame something about the life of a deer in the framework of teleology?
Iain: Well, I’d be repeating myself really, but what I’m drawing attention to is that animals and humans and plants and so on don’t just in order to anything in the sense of there is a scheme here and they must follow certain path, but that they fulfill something, which is in itself an end, a goal, a purpose, and therefore could be seen teleologically, which is a purpose of the wider field of life, and ultimately wider than that, of the nature of the cosmos, because the cosmos is such that life can emerge from it. There is no two ways about that.
Iain: Whatever it is, it is a fascinating thing that out of this cosmos that some people think is completely pointless, completely purposeless, random, chaotic, fragmentary and so on, that out of this cosmos can come something as amazing as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I mean, there’s no questioning the fact that it has emerged from it. So then we have which qualities in that thing can emerge. But to come back to your deer, the deer is in a way like a poem or like a piece of music. It is a phenomenon that is itself a fulfillment of something that is vital and beautiful and complex.
Jim: And to your point, you were getting at, let’s go down this road a little bit, it is obvious because it exists that the capacity of the universe allows for white-tailed deer, right?
Jim: And all their behavior and et cetera, because they exist, so therefore the capacity for the universe to support white-tailed deer is a given. But what does that actually mean?
Iain: What it very definitely doesn’t mean is that the cosmos had in it any kind of idea of a white deer or an extrinsic purpose to create a white deer. It’s not like that. I keep coming back to the idea that our left hemisphere dominated way of thinking images everything in the end as a machine produced by a machine maker, even if the machine maker is certainly not a God. So, for example, Richard Dawkins calls himself a Paleyite, but a Paleyite without a God, but it’s that Paleyiteness that matters to me because really what that is saying is this thing must have been designed in some way. I’m not saying it was designed directly. I’m just saying that the possibility of something was not ruled out.
Iain: So there is a negative potential or a negative possibility, which is that such a thing is not ruled out by existence, but it’s not ruled in either. So what actually exists is something that couldn’t be precisely foreseen. I don’t believe that however much we examine the state of the universe at some point in the past, we could have predicted the white-tailed deer or you, Jim. So, I think that these are things that exemplify the potential within the cosmos. I think this idea of potential is very interesting because we make an assumption that only what is actualized has value, whereas I think that potential has extraordinary value, maybe even more value than what is actualized.
Jim: The universe has many, many paths which have not been explored, but could have been. Stephen Jay Gould famously said, “If we replayed the tape of evolution a million times from 3.5 billion years ago,” he says, this is direct quote, “And I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would’ve ever evolved again.”
Iain: Well, he might be right. Since it’s an experiment we can’t carry out, I don’t know. But as you know, my broad conclusion is in agreement with that, that no one particular outcome could be predicted, however, that nothing like is a further step. We’ve seen that certain things seem to be so important that they do evolve, the eye being a perfect example, because if it can be evolve 12 times separately, there seems to be something important about an eye and it probably would come up again if we replayed the tape of evolution or set things back 3.5 billion years and started it over again. I’d put some money on whatever evolved having eyes.
Jim: Yep, I think it’s probably a pretty good bet for… As you said, it’s been done 12 or 13 times. Obviously, it has value for survival. At the end of the day, that is the cash account for Darwinism. But on the other hand, it may have evolved from an animal more like a raccoon than like a monkey, for instance, which would make it very different.
Iain: No, definitely.
Jim: Or may have been waterborne and such. Of course, then the question is, and this is a really interesting question and one that I think the world does not really know the answer to, though there’s some thinking about it, which there does seem to be, maybe this is a teleology-ish thing, a drive towards increased complexity in life.
Jim: It started off tiny and simple and has gotten more and more complicated though, and more complex. So it’s also important to realize that it also sometimes moves the other way. Some forms of life have gotten simpler. For instance, the parasites in your stomach no longer can do a lot of metabolism that their ancestors could because they don’t need to. They just hijack the stuff in your stomach. But this drive towards complexity overlaying with the idea of playing the tape again probably says we end up with some pretty complex things that are fairly smart, but they may not be at all like humans.
Iain: Yeah, that’s perfectly possible. As I say, it’s when we can’t confirm or deny really. But yes, on your point that things may get less complex, something that seems to me rather interesting is that domesticated animals have smaller brains than their wild counterparts. You put that together with the fact that modern Homo sapiens has a smaller brain than Homo heidelbergensis had. There may be something about living in this protected way that we do, which actually decreases neuronal complexity and perhaps our intelligence.
Jim: Yeah. I actually looked that up, that question up yesterday. Even Homo sapiens himself has lost somewhere between 10 and 20% of his neuronal count in the last 40,000 years. That was right about the time that we’ve started to be able to create culture and advanced tools. And so, getting smarter, actually in some sense, we don’t need so many neurons, so that the problems of being birthed, for instance, we can give up 10% of our neurons. Even in the last 3,000 years have been immeasurable, but not as large decline in the number of neurons the archeologists now believe, which is quite interesting. And so, anthropologists describe that effect as the self-domestication of humans-
Iain: Yep. Yep. Yep.
Jim: … Which is kind of interesting. I’m going to skip over this and that. Yeah. Let’s go back to this idea of the universe and our place in it. There’s two theories. There are other variants of these, but two main theories are the so-called the weak anthropic principle and the strong anthropic principle. Because as you talk about in the book, the universe is very fine-tuned in terms of its fundamental parameters or what we think of as fundamental. They’re probably not, but that’s far down as we’ve been able to drill into the nature of the universe, that if the weak force was slightly different, biochemistry wouldn’t be possible. If, gee, the universal gravitational constant or different, stars would not form, et cetera. And so, seemingly the weak anthropic principle, which is we find ourself in a universe in which it’s tuned correctly for life like us is obviously true.
Jim: Now, then some people take it to a further argument, and that’s because of selection effect that there’s many, many, many, many, many, many, many universes and we just happened to be in one that worked for us. And then the other version is the so-called strong anthropic principle, where some external forces is literally an extrinsic power set the settings in such a way that eventually this complex system from let’s call it 13 fundamental numbers set right was an open enough game with enough freedom to eventually lead to something interesting like Homo sapiens. Do you have any view on thinking around weak anthropic principles, strong anthropic principle, or some of the other alternatives that have been proposed on how it is we find ourself in a universe with the right settings?
Iain: Well, I would come back to I don’t find the solution that have to be an infinite number of universe is very intellectually satisfying, is really saying, “Search me. I have no idea. Let’s just do it a billion infinite number of times,” because an infinite number is such that the universe would have to be created, not only this universe, but this universe exactly an infinite number of times and so on. Once you start introducing this concept of infinity statements about it mean nothing effectively. So you haven’t really resolved the problem. You’ve just turned it into nonsense. I think I quote there that there are, I think, 10 to the 80 subatomic particles in the observable universe, but Lee Smolin says that just to get to a universe with stars is one chance in 10 to the 229.
Iain: I quote Eugene Koonin, again, a mainstream scientist who makes the point that to get to a transcription system such as RNA is a chance of one in 10 to the 1,118, which is a completely unimaginable number. What one’s really doing is throwing one’s hands up in despair and saying, “I can’t explain this, so it must be that there is an infinite number of universes.” But another way of looking at it is that the universe is such that it has tendencies, which as it were put their hands in the scale and makes certain outcomes more common. That doesn’t have to be any conventionally imagined God, like an old man with a beard fiddling with a computer, but it might be that however this universe comes into being, and nobody knows that and nobody ever will, it contains within it the potential for these things to happen.
Jim: What does that mean? It obviously does have within it the potential for it to happen. A reductionist argument, at least argument that starts with reductionism and then lays on complexity is that the parameters were set right, which was a playing field that allowed eventually things to occur that eventually led to us, but the question about how those 13 parameters or whatever number it is were set-
Iain: Doesn’t go away.
Jim: … still remains entirely unanswered.
Iain: Exactly. I mean, that problem doesn’t go away. In the book, I also make some comments about the ways in which our theories about how things happen for a neuropsychiatrist mimic various conditions the human brain can find itself in. So I deal with the many worlds’ idea that whenever there is an action, the universe splits in two and two different outcomes become possible. But of course, this is another example of something that means nothing because if every single time any action took place… First of all, what is an action? Is it the movement of an atomic particle? And if so, how many universes have to be created at that moment to accommodate all the possible outcomes? You are back at effectively infinity. So, it’s not logically or rationally or intellectually satisfying as an answer, but it does look awfully like something that happens to people when they have right hemisphere damage, which is they start to see things exactly like that.
Iain: Patients report things like, “I have an idea that there was a moment when I either clean my teeth or I don’t, and in one universe I do and in another, I don’t.” This is not a philosopher. This is actually, I think, a schizophrenic patient. Schizophrenic subjects have a very similar phenomenological world to those who have right hemisphere damage. That to me is interesting because earlier on in the book, I’ve suggested throughout the whole of part one that whatever measure you look at for the ability to give us the radical information that we can rely on in our interactions with the world, the right hemisphere is superior to the left, very largely so.
Jim: Yeah. Very interesting. Yeah. I’m with you, actually. Whenever I hear a theory that requires infinity, I just say no. Frankly, it’s just on aesthetic grounds because if you take true infinity, everything that could possibly allowably happen in the universe did happen an infinite number of times, including weird shit like Boltzmann brain and I love to talk about… I say, “Don’t ever think about Boltzmann brains while doing LSD or you will go insane.” So if you’re on LSD right now, please turn off the podcast. The idea of a Boltzmann brain is that a random quantum fluctuation can bring into existence at random a brain powerful enough to simulate the universe that we can see as the visible universe, which goes back 13.6 billion years and is about yay big. It’s very, very, very, very big, but it’s far from infinite, right?
Jim: And so, in an infinite universe, we’d have an infinite number of Boltzmann brains. Each of which is enough, powerful enough to simulate with a computer simulation, our whole universe and plus every small difference between the exact same universe and one subtly different. So, my take from that is the concept of infinity and the physical world is absurd, just get rid of it. Now that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Just because I don’t like it on aesthetic grounds doesn’t mean it’s logically impossible. It turns out to be logically possible, but I just choose to reject any infinity-based arguments on aesthetic grounds. But we get to things like multiverse, even the quantum multiverse, which produces a ridiculously large number of universes. It’s not infinite. It’s very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very large, and very, very, very, very, very, very large is qualitatively different from infinite. So while I don’t really love the quantum multiverse, it has not been ruled out. Some extremely smart people like Sean Carroll championing it very strongly. In fact, if anything, it seems to be growing in popularity among physicists at the moment.
Iain: Maybe that’s the case. To predict which way physics is going would be a foolish thing for anyone to try and that there is no way that most of these enormously speculative theories can be either validated or invalidated, certainly not during our lifetime. But I think I would support your idea of rejecting an argument that requires infinity because it does actually stop us from reasoning. I suppose the reason we do think about these things is to see which outcomes would be more reasonable. I think if you suppose ones that require infinity or already throwing up your hands and saying, “I really don’t like pursuing this and I’m going to go away,” which isn’t fair enough, but don’t think you’ve said anything profound. You haven’t. You’ve just said, “I’m going to play the infinity card.” Of course, nobody can argue way or the other with that. It’s just like sort of-
Jim: Yeah, truthfully.
Iain: … pressing the off button, really.
Jim: And you point out actually that playing the infinity card is not dissimilar from playing the guy with the beard in the cloud card, right?
Jim: It’s essentially logically equivalent.
Iain: It is logically equivalent.
Jim: But we don’t know so we’re going to make up something that can do whatever we want. All right. This has been very interesting conversation. We still didn’t get to everything on my list, but I want to exit here with two questions that I’m really interested in your thoughts. My take away from reading the book is that there is a sense that the universe is… Is pregnant the right… fertile for life at some level, and then for consciousness and what that means exactly you confess, you don’t know and I certainly don’t know, but it somehow the potentia, I think is the word you use, is there in our universe.
Jim: So, regular listeners can predict what my question. I promise you, I was going to ask you a left field question. I’d love to hear you. I didn’t tell you what it was. I didn’t give chance to prepare, but my audience will know what probably this is. One of my obsessions is the Fermi paradox. The Fermi paradox being that Enrico Fermi, when he was out at Los Alamos in World War II, working in atomic bomb, there was a table full of young physicists speculating about how many alien intelligence species there were in the universe and they were, “A hundred thousand, millions,” right? And Fermi came up to them and said, “Well, where are they?” Right? And that’s called the Fermi paradox.
Jim: If there’s lots and lots of intelligence species out in the universe, how come we haven’t seen any? Certainly, many of them are likely to be older than us and have accomplished much more than us. So, with your idea of potentia for life and in consciousness being implicit in the universe, what does that lens tell us, if anything, about is there other advanced forms of life and specifically advanced forms of consciousness out there somewhere? Does your lens give you something to say about that question?
Iain: Well, yes. First of all, the fact that we don’t see it is not necessarily, of course, an argument that it doesn’t exist, especially if the universe is very large and the people are intelligent enough to stay put where they are. I don’t know. Then there are, of course, people who would say just as an incidental comment that they have met these creatures. I mean, of course, I rather doubt it, but there you are. Now, the important point is that for the universe to be as it were propitious to life doesn’t mean that it has to be propitious to life everywhere. In fact, the size of the universe is sometimes used by people to suggest that life was hardly something that could be in potentia or could have been in any way predicted because there’s the rest of the universe as far as we know it, and of course we don’t know much about it, looks very different and doesn’t look as though it does support life.
Iain: But the point that was made by John Polkinghorne is that the universe is exactly the right size for there to be one planet on which life could arise, because after all, we are talking about an enormous number of things happening to come together. So the fact that there is a place where there is life confirms that there is that in potentia in the cosmos, but it doesn’t have anything really to say about other aliens or there may or may not be. I have no idea.
Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting. The so-called Drake equation is what the people use, who study search for extraterrestrial intelligence. One of the key questions, one of the key terms in the polynomial, or actually it’s a series, that’s a product, actually, I take it back, is what’s the probability of life emerging in a planet like Earth, right? Because part of the other terms are how likely our planets like Earth to exist? We now know, which we did not know 40 years ago, that planets like Earth are common in the universe. There’s many, many, many of them fairly close to us. And so, that one of the questions in this question of the Fermi paradox and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is what’s the probability of life emerging?
Jim: There are arguments that say it is so improbable, that only happened once. We know what happened once. Then there are others, like Stuart Kauffman, who will say that autocatalytic networks that will then reduce-produce autopoiesis, which is a self-replicating set of chemistry, will inevitably lead to life. Stewart would expect there to be at least primitive life on a large percentage of Earth-like planets that are around Earth-like stars. And then there’s the arguments that, all right, let’s say you get to the equivalent of bacteria, how hard is the road up? How unlikely was the Cambrian explosion that led to multicellularity or even moving from bacteria to eukaryotes, where we had nucleus? So many questions. We don’t know. I don’t know.
Jim: That’s why after reading your book, I’m one of these ones… As a 12-year-old nerd, I was sure the universe was full of intelligences, right? Otherwise, why would all these Heinlein and Asimov science fictions books exist, right? But as I’ve gotten older and wiser, and especially as I learned more about complexity and probability, I’ve become agnostic on the question and say, “We just don’t know.” There’s great books that argue at great lengths both ways. What I would say, reading your book made me think, I think that your idea of potentia is a pointer towards more likely than less likely. If the universe really does have a strong tendency towards life and consciousness, then the chemistry arguments actually get some reinforcement from the teleology, I guess, I would say.
Iain: Well, as you know, I don’t believe that consciousness is necessarily confined to life. I think it’s a building block of the cosmos. But generally speaking, I agree with you. There is no way to answer these questions and they form a harmless way for people to pass their time. I prefer to do cryptic crosswords myself, but we can’t get the final answer to any of these questions. But what I hope in the book is to show tendencies in the way we think and how we can, for the first time in the history of philosophy, find two different ways of thinking about something and not just go, “Well, people have argued this and they’ve argued that, and there’s no way to resolve it. That’s just the way it is.”
Iain: When we’re dealing with most of the problems of philosophy that aren’t concerned with something like the exact nature and state of the cosmos, you can actually discriminate. You can say, “Look, this argument is typical of how the left hemisphere would guide our thinking. This argument is more like the way the right hemisphere would guide our thinking. We can see that the way that the right hemisphere guides the thinking is more veridical than the other.” This doesn’t involve us having a third hemisphere or something from which to judge the first two. It’s quite simple.
Iain: The test is following which path are we more likely to be taken by surprise, by experience. So for example, I have a whole chapter on paradox, as you probably know, and take a very famous paradox, the Achilles and the tortoise paradox, in which by breaking down a space and time to slices, the tortoise can convince itself that Achilles can never catch up with him, nevermind overtake him, which is very amusing way of thinking of time and space. But what it actually demonstrates is that cutting it up into slices leads you to false conclusions, like that Achilles can’t overtake the tortoise. If you go around the world thinking like that, you’re going to be very, very sadly mistaken.
Jim: Great. Well, you know what, I had one more question, but let’s wrap it here. I think we reached the time that we agreed to. I think it has been a very interesting conversation. That’s Iain McGilchrist and the book, The Matter with Things. It is just such an interesting book. I just really enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed our conversation. It’s been great to get exposed to a mind that’s capable of this broad of thought about our universe and our place in it.
Iain: Well, thanks very much, Jim.