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Essay competition 1st place: The Beginning of Life
Zooming out from the atom level, Ben Green gives a new perspective on learning, consciousness, and life itself.
Note on the essay competition
While not unanimously favored, in the end, the jury’s verdict converged and Ben Green’s essay “The Beginning of Life” emerged as the winner. Personally, I liked Ben’s essay for his controversial yet thought-provoking and well-argued claims and its concise and on-point explanations. Despite its huge ambition and density, it is still written with clarity. Enjoy his essay and let me know what you think in the comments!
The Beginning of Life
For me, biological physics contains the key to understanding how life developed. Biological physics is closely linked to chaos theory, and, unlike previous scientific areas, it uses an antireductionist approach. Antireductionism is based on the idea that sometimes a system is more than the sum of its parts (Kesić, 2016); properties may ‘emerge’ due to the connections and links within the system.
Think of the brain and how it learns, for example when learning to play an instrument. You play a sequence of notes, by moving your hands and activating your muscles in a certain way, which is triggered by electrical impulses travelling through specific neurons. The very act of firing these neurons strengthens them, making it easier for the same signal to travel through next time (Owens and Tanner, 2017). This synaptic plasticity increases the probability of moving your hands in the same way next time increases. You have learned.
This is a good description of learning, but it doesn’t fully explain, in a general way, how complex living things and phenomena arise. This is my view: the fact that neurons strengthen when impulses go through them is a completely random characteristic.
You could view prehistoric Earth as a collection of atoms, and the arrangement of these atoms is more complex now than it was previously. Some ‘cells' (any future reference to ‘cell’ simply means a collection of atoms) would be inanimate, so they might move around because of the wind or ocean currents but there would be no permanent change to their future behaviour. However, due to random variation, some of these cells may have been life-like. Our prehistoric cell may house a certain compound that moved towards areas of high light intensity, and those compounds may randomly have happened to have a high opacity. This means there would be lower levels of sunlight within the cell, which might affect other parts. For example, the lower temperature might freeze certain liquids. This means there is change within the cell that lasts. Another way of saying this is that information has been stored.
I believe this is how life started. Initially, there was a collection of atoms, then they formed compounds and molecules randomly, and these collections kept on getting more complex. After a while, there were many varied cells on Earth, and some randomly changed due to their environment, and this change was stored and affected the future of the cell. Obviously there can never be any direct evidence of how reproduction started, but it is simply a more complex example than the example above. Many complex interactions need to take place, each of which is unlikely to randomly occur, but if we wait long enough in a large enough universe there is a chance that all these interactions will happen at the right time.
As we imagine more and more complex cells, the probability they would appear decreases, as they may need multiple parts that change with the environment. Nevertheless, once we reach a certain level of complexity, we start to call these cells ‘plants’, ‘bacteria’, or any other recognizably living object. Due to random fluctuations, we have a population that looks a lot more standard.
This theory could be seen as an extension of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (Dimijian, 2012). Rather than only animals or plants competing to survive, it also includes less complex cells competing to have the most useful changes due to the environment.
However, there is one major problem. My theory suggests that the probability of life emerging is incomprehensibly small. We need countless random fluctuations, all occurring at the same time and all in the right environment. There are three possibilities that could explain this:
● We are a statistical fluke in a finite universe. It is simply luck we are here.
● We are a statistical inevitability in an infinite universe, possibly multiverse. When you have an infinite space, all these unlikely events will occur somewhere, sometime.
● Some form of a ‘God’ exists.
The first option seems like a bit of an anticlimax to all our efforts to solve the mystery of life, the second one makes sense but whether the universe is finite or infinite is hotly debated (for now, anyway), and forcing scientists to accept a God wouldn’t end well. We are here because of luck, because of statistical randomness, or because of a God, but none of these seem truly satisfactory.
This idea raises some other interesting points. If we are truly just a collection of atoms that are interacting in an incredibly complex way, in other words in a chaotic way, then the whole idea of ‘consciousness’ and human superiority is flawed. Consciousness cannot be binary, you are not either conscious or unconscious. Instead, as a cell becomes more complex, it becomes more ‘conscious’. Hence, everything has a certain ‘level’ of consciousness, and beings more conscious than us are possible.
The idea of consciousness as chaotic interactions also suggests that AI has the potential to be conscious, since if a Neural Network is large enough then the interactions within it may produce emergent properties similar to the ones inside the brain. If the brain’s amazing properties are simply a result of complex interactions between relatively simple neurons, then there’s no reason why complex interactions can’t exist within a similarly structured computer program. In other words, consciousness has nothing to do with the matter it is made from, only the complexity of the connections.
An even more radical view is that any property or characteristic of matter is an emergent property, and only the ‘true’ fundamental particles (currently believed to be the fundamental fermions and bosons) have inherent properties. Different arrangements of these lead to different emergent properties, for example, the volatility of an element. Hence, all properties of everything in the universe is an emergent property. This is perhaps a good basis for explaining Quantum Buddhism, since, if you believe in this chaos theory approach to our universe, then such definitions as ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ make no sense. Perhaps observing the universe as a whole is just the next ‘level’ of complexity? If a human is a collection of interconnected parts, then isn’t the universe as a whole just a further expansion of that? If that’s true, then everything is one, the core realization of Buddhism. Potentially we have just arrived at happiness as well as a scientific explanation.
In conclusion, the binary view of living and non-living may be flawed, since life may just be interacting parts that are so complex to describe it seems to be acting in a free-willed ‘living’ way. The idea of ‘consciousness’ or humans having a ‘soul’ may just be a simplified view of these complex interactions. If the emergence of life was just due to statistical randomness, then we are either lucky, living in an infinitely large universe, or created by a God. I hope soon that science realizes the true power of antireductionism, and perhaps one day our dream of a Grand Unified Theory can even include Buddhist insights that are thousands of years old. If Science wants the truth, and Buddhists believe they have arrived at it, then I see no reason why they aren’t connected.
Ball, P., 2008. Cellular memory hints at the origins of intelligence. Nature, 451(7177), pp.385-385.
Bruckner, N., 2010. There Are No Others: Buddhism And Oneness. [online] Patheos.com. Available at: <https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2010/07/there-are-no-others-buddhism-and-oneness> [Accessed 4 September 2020].
Dimijian, G., 2012. Darwinian Natural Selection: Its Enduring Explanatory Power. Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, 25(2), pp.139-147.
Kesić, S., 2016. Systems biology, emergence and antireductionism. Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences, 23(5), pp.584-591.
Liscum, E., Askinosie, S., Leuchtman, D., Morrow, J., Willenburg, K. and Coats, D., 2014. Phototropism: Growing towards an Understanding of Plant Movement. The Plant Cell, 26(1), pp.38-55.
Mercer, E., 2018. What Causes Swarming Ants?. [online] Sciencing. Available at: https://sciencing.com/causes-swarming-ants-8451046.html> [Accessed 4 September 2020].
Mitchell, M. 2011. Ubiquity Symposium: Biological Computation. Ubiquity, 2011 (February).
Owens, M. and Tanner, K., 2017. Teaching as Brain Changing: Exploring Connections between Neuroscience and Innovative Teaching. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(2), p.fe2.
 This idea is similar to plant hormones, more specifically the lateral redistribution of auxins. See Liscum et al., 2014)
 A good definition of emergent properties is: properties of a group of items, whether insects, atoms, or buildings, that you would not find in any of the individual items. (Mercer, 2018)
 Unless you are observing single fundamental particles.
 Bruckner, 2010 explains oneness well.
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It has been a while since you were able to read something from me, but rest assured that I have been experimenting a lot. Stay tuned!