Why one is Needed and How it might be Derived

НазваниеWhy one is Needed and How it might be Derived
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The major points in this chapter may be summarized as follows.

* We don't know where life started, but we do know how it developed once it took root on this planet.

* Evolution, meaning change over time, is a fact. Natural Selection is a theory, and it very satisfactorily explains why evolution occurs.266

* There is a high probability that life exists wherever conditions permit, in likely countless billions of habitats throughout the universe.

* Life's history parallels that of the universe in its change from simple to complex, because the same laws of physics govern the behaviour of both.267

"Origin Theory Modifications" is a postscript to this chapter.


The previous two chapter's survey was conducted because, as emphasized in Chapter Three, a purpose is needed before one can make any decision rationally. Furthermore, to head a moral code or religion of universal significance we need a purpose of universal significance. We therefore seek a purpose that applies beyond our culture, our species and our planet--one that is ubiquitous, timeless, consequential and fundamental, immediately recognizable as worthy of unfettered support, one that is eternally compelling, able to attract and hold followers for many generations to come.

This chapter looks for such a purpose. If one can be found it should rectify two shortages: one, provide a basis for the rationale used when making moral decisions, and two, provide a solid foundation upon which a logical future universal religion might be built should this eventually be deemed desirable.

1. Can we adopt the Universe's Purpose?

Would the universe's purpose be such a candidate? The short answer is, no, because we know of no such purpose. The universe exists and functions and we can explain and predict much of what we observe. Nothing known to us requires its operation to be subject to the constraints of some purpose.

A number of writers have suggested that God, or some god equivalent, could have programmed the universe before it began, before the initiating singularity existed. This god could have bestowed the initial parameters and laws that would force it to ultimately achieve a precisely predetermined purpose.268 This, these writers state, would explain why everything is "just right" for us to be here.269

Borrow and Tipler, two eminent scientists, have attempted to prove this proposition. In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle,270 they provide their rationale for stating that this universe was designed to produce intelligent life. Further, they try to show that Homo sapiens is the only form of intelligent life that can exist within this universe, and that our descendants have a specific task to perform (to regulate all matter contained within the universe). Their book makes interesting (although complex) reading.

If we want we can choose to adopt the assumption that a god predetermined a purpose for our universe and the life that it spawned. However, when doing so we should remember that this is just what was done several thousands of years ago, and those assumptions led to today's religious beliefs. Implementing current knowledge to resurrect the same assumption ends up reintroducing the same god of old. This doesn't help us tackle current moral questions because these questions were never asked, and so never answered, in times when our current religious texts were written. We just don't know how prophets of old might have replied, so any statement made today is necessarily an extrapolation from what was reportedly said in the past--as such, it is simply an interpretation, and thus sure to be disputed by one religion or another.

If we are unable to know what a designing god wants, then there is little point in thinking about the possibility that a god existed (or exists) and had (or has) a purpose in its mind. This is primarily because, in our lack of knowledge, there are no bounds to what we could imagine. For example, the god could have been (or is) a spiteful monster (and a world-destroying comet could be right now on its way, because we are not turning out to be as malicious as he intended us to be . . . ). Whatever we conjure up will be drawn by the pencil of our desires and fears, and limited only by the scope of our imaginations. We gain nothing by postulating the existence of a "designer" god as Borrow and Tipler have done. We allege several gods already, and different religions' interpretations of what each one wants seems to be adding to current confusions, not helping us rise above them.

If looking to the universe's past to find a purpose leaves us empty-handed, what about looking to its future? We know that the universe changes. It has evolved since its time and point of origin from the very simplest that such a thing could be, to what we see today--something vast and complex. Might this change be purpose-directed?

Again, no, it does not appear to be, or at least leading authorities find no reason to think so. As far as can be determined, the contents of the universe are simply obeying known laws of physics when they change from one form to another. These laws control matter-energy interchanges, and force certain physical properties to be conserved during interactions (see "The Conservation Laws," a postscript to Chapter Seven). As a result, the universe unfolds in a strictly rational manner, predictable effect following deducible cause every time. (Predictable, that is, in the sense that actuaries can accurately calculate insurance risks. For instance, we can predict that life will experience more catastrophes, such as the extinctions it has endured in the past, but we cannot say exactly what will happen, nor when it will occur. Predictions can become certainties if the number of variables are reduced--for instance, I can predict that my computer will show an "a" on its monitor when I depress the "A" key.271)

The changes that do occur throughout the universe are not directed toward any purpose that can be discovered from within. From analyzing the universe's overall behaviour, we can expect only one of two outcomes. Either gravitational attraction between its contents will slow, stop, then reverse its current expansion, and everything will be pulled back again to ultimately disappear into one tiny, hot hole; or, as recent observations suggest, our universe will continue to expand forever, eventually fading into a vast, black, dead frigidity.

Thus, the answer remains no; there is no purpose to be found by examining the universe's past, or its future. And it doesn't help to imagine that the universe was designed before its beginning with a purpose in an external god's mind, because we have no way of finding out what this god had in mind at the time.

No; unfortunately, the physical universe, although meeting the conditions of being virtually infinite and everlasting, seems devoid of the kind of purpose we seek.

The next obvious arena to examine is the biological universe. Let's take a look at life itself, and ask if its presence or behaviour suggests the existence of any kind of purpose.

2. Can we use Life's Purpose?

Again, the short answer is no; life exists, and its various forms and capabilities change, as shifting environmental conditions favour first one, then another, chance mutation. And that's all that appears to be happening, as generation after generation meanders its way between birth and death. Biologists do not think that life is on a journey to anywhere. Evolution, they say, is natural selection and survival of the fittest, nothing more.

Some two centuries ago, Reverend William Paley wrote that life's complexity necessitated a creator (saying that, just as a found watch would require a watchmaker to explain its existence, so, too, do the complexities of life require a Maker). Although the concepts of mutations and natural selection readily explain how simple becomes complex over time, Paley's misconception still exists. This impelled Richard Dawkins to write a book to put an end to this mystification.272 Dawkins' text reminds us that although complex life might seem designed to non-biologists, it is simply the result of many mutational advantages being piled one upon another, generation after generation--the successful remnants of environment-surviving adaptations.

Most biologists maintain that life provides no evidence of being directed toward a purpose of any kind. However, they usually have no reason to look much beyond the collection and analysis of facts, and the formulation and testing of theories (this, after all, is their chosen mission in life). But we do have a reason to look further. It behooves us to take a second look at what is known about the origins and development of the biological universe, to see if a purpose might be hidden within the larger picture.

At least two factors that most biologists don't usually concern themselves with can be added to our considerations. First, as discussed earlier, we can be fairly certain that life exists in many forms, all over the universe. Second, if life is so prolific (and if scientists are likely to be able to construct it in the laboratory in the not-too-distant future273), then life itself may be nothing very special.

But, what might this be suggesting? If anything, it seems to be saying just the opposite of what we might like to hear. The probable abundance and possible triviality of life seems to imply the lack, rather than the presence, of a purpose.

If life's existence and behaviour seems purposeless, then let's see if life's beginning shows signs of being purpose-directed.

We earlier mentioned what is known about life's beginning. As far as we can tell, it is simply a matter of physical laws giving rise to chemical molecules that interact, with some of these interactions eventually creating molecules that develop into living entities.274 There's no more purpose to be found in such a process than there is to be found in the mere physical presence of the molecules that assemble during that process. The presence and behaviour of all matter is just another result of the presence and behaviour of the universe, and can have no more built-in purpose than the universe itself has.

Well, if the past and present tells us nothing about life having a purpose, then there is only one other place to examine--the future. As we have just mentioned, biologists usually say that they can predict nothing about life's possible future. They know the mechanics of evolution; the fittest generally survive to parent fit offspring in greater abundance than those less fit. This behaviour doesn't have to go anywhere; it need have no future other than to favour life's continuation. In fact, the whole process of evolution, as it is usually described, appears to be a very laid-back process: evolve when conditions change, otherwise stay the same.

But, if we dig a little deeper, we do actually find that something more may be happening. Let me elaborate.

Evolution itself seems to be evolving. Evolution, we know, depends upon the occurrence of one or more chemical or physical happenstance's that reshape a few of life's molecules, which then occasionally give rise to descendants better fitted to survive environmental changes. But, this process seems to have become more than solely accidental in advanced animals. Evolution, once a passive occurrence, now occasionally seems to be an active one.

Active evolution involves two events. The first event is always passive: the occasional, random, unavoidable incident that produces a DNA nucleotide change in sperm, ovum, or zygote. A genetic mutation, which (together with its outcome--good, bad or inconsequential) will be carried into descendent generations, should they survive. These descendants may, or may not, be able to utilize this change.

Natural selection tells us that the environment provides the criteria that determines if the inherited change will be beneficial or harmful (dark stripes help to camouflage a zebra in dappled woods, for instance; they may make the animal visible to predators on sunlit plains. Thus, whether a gene mutation helps the animal to hide and survive to procreate depends upon where that animal lives.) However, there can be more going on than just passive use of an inherited feature.

Sometimes the modification to a body structure or system is passed on but lies dormant, unused, perhaps eventually to atrophy from neglect. However, occasionally, the evolutionary process is taken to a second level. Some circumstance (almost always an environmental change) causes the organism to discover how a latent ability might put to use. But, only organisms capable of learning can experience this second step, as will be illustrated.

This two-step evolutionary process seldom takes place in one generation. Mutations that are immediately beneficial are those that do not require learning anything new. Millions of these have occurred throughout life's evolution--for example, more appropriate body structure, more efficient energy conversion, more attractive plumage, more effective camouflage, etc. These and other such changes benefit with little or no learning curve to conquer. But some parental DNA mutations bring no immediate benefit (or penalty), and these may be passed on unused and un-noticed through many generations. Only when an environmental change offers a niche where these changes might be put to profitable use, may they benefit the bearer. Thus, for example, the uses to which an opposable thumb may be put, or the advantages vocal chords offer language users, must be learned before they can benefit the possessor. Steven Pinker provides an example that illustrates how an ability most take for granted is actually the result of learning how to use an inherited capability.275 He notes that we are able to see stereoscopically because we grow two, spatially separated eyes, but we each must first train our brain to use them efficiently, and then train our mind to interpret what has been seen. Bear in mind that eyes evolved from light-sensitive cells. When these first developed, no creature possessing them would "know" how they might best be put to use; each slight advantage would have to be discovered, then experimented with, to learn how to interpret the new perceptions. Evolved change by itself is insufficient in such cases.

"Learn" is an active verb, and learning occurs in animals, but not in plants. Animals use their brains and minds to direct their bodies to obtain food and mates, and to avoid predators. What an animal learns276 and puts into practice can be copied by peers, and by offspring as they emulate their parent's behaviour. Learned beneficial changes in both mental outlook and physical ability are thus passed on to successive generations.277

Simple organisms like plants have not been able to evolve in this manner. Thus, the evolutionary process has itself evolved over time. In its original form, evolution benefits (or harms) future generations without their active participation. But in its later form, evolution can be a two-stage active process that operates only if animals learn how to take advantage of latent abilities.

Recently, evolution added a third capability and level to its repertoire: it can now plan its own future. Let me explain.

Two things happened after humans learned how to speak and write. First, we dramatically increased the speed at which we acquire knowledge, adapt, and change our behaviour. We learn how to extract metals, then build tools and weapons. We learn about genetics, then breed hardier crops and livestock. We learn about fats and cholesterol, then modify our diet. We learn how to survive in space, then go to the moon. What one discovers, others put into effect--increasingly within the same generation.

Second, we became able to plan our future. We have learned how to apply our knowledge to envision a desirable future, then chart a path toward that future. That is how we reached the moon; that is how we might one day reach other planets.

In essence, we now use our third-level thinking ability to consciously consider what the future holds possible. We then use it again to plan the actions necessary to obtain our desired goal.

This ability, I contend, is significant enough to be thought of as a third-stage in the evolutionary process. We have evolved to the stage of being able to take charge of--to be responsible for--our own future. Indeed, humans are verging upon the ability to take control of evolution itself. In short, we are no longer animals to whom change simply happens, or that must learn to take advantage of a latent ability before we can benefit. We have now become animals that can use words to select, far ahead of time, the kind of benefits we want evolutionary change to produce: we can then produce that change.

Is it not ironic that, just as we are learning how to plan and achieve our own future, this future can seem meaningless? If the universe and life exist with no discernible purpose, then everything subsumed within these two concepts also lacks purpose. No purpose, ergo, no meaning. What are we to do?

The answer is clear to me. If neither the universe nor life itself evince a purpose, if there is nothing anywhere that provides rational and universal direction and meaning, and if, as has been many times stated, we simply must have a purpose if we are to make decisions rationally, then we must invent one. To avoid stagnating in a moral quagmire, we must formulate a proxy purpose.278 Our history of developing religions when searching for nonexistent answers demonstrates that we have done this many times in the past. We can do so again. Therefore, if, as concluded in Chapter Six, the invented purposes of past religions can no longer guide our contemporary moral decision making, then it is time to contrive a new purpose that will.

The question, nevertheless, remains: what purpose do we devise?

3. Learning and Purpose

To better understand the rationale behind the choice of purpose that I will be proposing, it is necessary to first say a little more about the nature and consequences of learning.

Learning brings understanding, and understanding opens doors toward modifying and controlling events and things. When humans first lit fires in caves to keep warm, they were using what they had learned. These days, just about every aspect of our environment can be modified using our knowledge. However, while we have become adept at modifying, our ability to control is still in its infancy.

Just think what we might be able to control in the future. Scientists may soon be able to use stem cells and a patient's DNA to grow body tissues and organs for "rejection-less" transplants, and physicians may be able to suppress the development of (perhaps even eradicate) most or all of the approximately 1,500 diseases thought to be genetically induced. Before long, we expect to be mining our neighbouring planets for rare minerals (NASA is already investigating the techniques needed), then manufacturing products on those planets. This increases the probability of eventually doing the same on exoplanets orbiting neighbouring stars. One day, perhaps not long now, physicists will learn how to build machines that will control nuclear fusion (the process that drives the stars) and so obtain virtually unlimited amounts of energy.279 Some day we might even be able to scan and map the position of each atom within a living entity. All we will then need is a means of fashioning atoms to such a blueprint, to recreate the exact creature, with its entire memory intact, anywhere we position a receiver.280

Learning, then controlling, is limited by only two things: by our mind's capabilities and the constraints of the universe. There will always be facts we do not know and events we cannot control, but these will become fewer and fewer in number over the centuries and millennia ahead. Someday, perhaps a billion years into the future, perhaps sooner, life forms--possibly even remote descendants of humankind--may learn how to control the behaviour of the stars. Maybe even reposition galaxies! No law of physics prohibits such activities.

Learning how to progressively exploit our environment will not stop until life itself ceases. (We will see why this is so in the next chapter.) The extinction of one species does not prevent life from continuing. If, for example, all species upon an island are eradicated, the life continuing in the surrounding seas, the air above, on other lands, will soon encroach to colonize the empty niches. If we annihilate ourselves, other species will survive and fill the void we leave. The story of life would continue, and we would not even be missed, a few thousand years into the future. If some occurrence were to obliterate every living thing upon this planet, life would begin again once conditions permit. This is because all the while, everywhere throughout the universe, life explores and exploits its inherited options.

Inevitably, ultimately, life will learn enough to be able to control all that can be controlled from its position within the universe. Evolution will culminate in a life form that seemingly possesses god-like powers.281 It won't be a god--it will still be just life. But what an entity!

It is easy to understand why this must be so: to those living just a few hundred years ago, people of this century would appear to have abilities approaching omnipotence. Any inexplicable controlling ability may confer such a title, and impart a mystical awe--ask any successful magician. If electronic, medical and technological progress continue at today's pace (to say nothing of the many other fields currently being exploited), then in no more than one or two hundred years time humans will certainly possess abilities that would be incomprehensible and astonishing if witnessed today. But think ahead another two thousand, or two million years. How would such powers not seem omnipotent, and where does this accumulation end?

Yet, we cannot say that it is life's purpose to develop such abilities. Evolution's consequences may produce a seemingly omnipotent282 entity, but we cannot state that this endpoint must therefore be the inherent purpose that guides life's evolution. Immense competencies accrue simply because life compiles useful abilities, compounding one upon another as it evolves--progeny taking synergistic advantage of its inheritances. As previously stated, we cannot say that life is purpose-driven because we would first have to say that life's supersystem, the universe, was purpose-driven. And, since we can't position ourselves outside of our universe, this can never be determined.

This omnipotent consequence of evolution is just that--a consequence. It is not, and should not be considered, an ordained purpose.

4. What Purpose can we use?

So, life and our universe have no discernable purpose. Let us return to where we started this chapter and discuss what alternative purpose, if selected, might give us a vision that we can live with and, more importantly, live for.

Please do not misunderstand what I am about to propose. Life, as I have said, cannot be proven to be directed toward a purpose. Neither existing nor evolving is a purpose--these are simply states of affairs. Demonstrating a trend toward complexity does not demonstrate purpose--it demonstrates only what happens when something new is added to something old. Nor does the ability to learn then apply what has been learned prove that life has a purpose.

But we need a purpose to rationally make the many moral decisions thrust upon us by scientific and technological advances. And we need a universally accepted one if we are to achieve any degree of unanimity. So, one must be contrived.

What I am about to propose we adopt is based upon what we now know about the universe and about our abilities within that universe. Two millennia ago, we knew little and could control next to nothing. With ideas inherited from the Pharaohs and earlier civilizations, the only future we could imagine preparing for was our personal entry into an assumed afterlife. Times are much different now. Today, we think about the future of others, including other species, as much as we think about our own. And we are beginning to realize that, collectively, we have the potential to achieve and control almost anything we care to dream about.

A word of caution before we proceed. In selecting a purpose to guide us, we must be careful not to separate ourselves from life. Past religions did this--humans held themselves different from, and superior to, all other forms of life. We know better than this, nowadays. Life itself is our parent. Other living entities are our siblings. We have no more, and no less, purpose for living than life itself has. Thus, whatever we select to be a purpose for humans, must be a purpose that applies to all other living entities, including those beyond our planet.

What, then, do we choose to be our universal purpose?

Given that there is no detectable purpose pre-designed into life or the universe, then, if we must have one, we must adopt a surrogate.

To my mind, the only viable option is to support life's continual evolution and focus upon helping it to achieve an omnipotent ability. Such a purpose is universal and rational; it is a purpose that will last as long as life itself lasts. It accommodates the whole of life, and shows that we care about more than just our own well-being. It declares that we value life for its own sake and think little about the death that must follow, taking it simply as the price to be paid for living.

Such a choice, if made, would be so all-encompassing it would warrant being called a "meta-purpose."283 If we indeed determine that all evidence points to life's evolution ultimately possessing omnipotent abilities, if selecting such an outcome could clear the way to making decisions that are both moral and beneficial to all forms of life (and this claim has yet to be substantiated, but we will examine both ideas later), then how can this not be the most logical "surrogate purpose" to choose?

(Indeed, we don't really have any other choice if the review conducted in Part Four has any merit, for, as we will see, no other purpose is as likely to ensure our future survival.)

What this might mean, and how we might obtain benefit by adopting it, must wait to be explored until Part Four. One other matter should be presented first; a speculation about what could be causing life to evolve toward such an end.

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