Sunday, November 6, 2016

Wanted: a simple explanation of abiogenesis

On the right, science. On the left, incredulity.

On Sun, Nov 6, 2016, I awoke to find this email in my American Atheists mailbox, from a gentleman writing from India:

Dear Sir, 
Good day to you.
                     
I would like to reintroduce myself as an independent researcher in philosophy and modern science. I gratefully acknowledge your previous evidence-based reply that helped me a lot to improve my critical thinking skills. 
Being an open-minded, unbiased researcher, it is my pleasure to share one of my concerns- as expressed below, hoping a satisfactory explanation: 
When we talk about consciousness, we all know that consciousness is the result of certain evolutionary arrangement of atoms. How can a specific 'collection of atoms' in the universe alone  'think', 'aware' and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence while all the sub-atomic particles in the universe are governed by the same laws of physics? 
I mean, what is the logical and rational plausibility of our assumption that physical objects (obviously they are made up of atoms and atoms don't have any self-awareness and consciousness) , for example, a rock ( or any inorganic, non-living matter of choice ) of certain mass (Kg), when subjected to blind, unconscious, unplanned and unintelligent evolutionary forces of magnitude of certain Newtons (N) for trillion, trillion, trillions of years or even infinite time , the original rock will become 'self-aware' in such a way that now the rock is able to 'think', 'aware', and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence and 'its' surroundings, able to grasp the laws of physics, mathematics, able to involve in logical reasoning, able to draw logical conclusions, able to feel sense of justice, sense of purpose and sense of existence, able to involve in rational thinking, able to feel pain and sorrow etc.?

Is there any logical fallacy in looking beyond the theory of abiogenesis?

Appreciate your kind feedback.
Please ignore and forgive me if this e-mail is an offence.

Thanks and regards,
F---- V----- P----------,
Electrical Engineer,
INDIA. 
When I read his question -- 
I mean, what is the logical and rational plausibility of our assumption that physical objects... when subjected to blind evolutionary forces... will become 'self-aware'?
-- I was tempted to write in reply, simply, "1.0", reflecting the 100% plausibility of the emergence of consciousness from non-living precursors, in light of the evidence of the physical world around us and the conscious being (myself) typing in response. I decided in the end to give him a less trivial reply. 

For your reading pleasure, here is my Sunday morning armchair musing on abiogenesis, and the emergence of thinky out of rocky, and all that jazz. 

Dear F----: 
Excellent to hear from you. I'll copy you from my personal email account, so our conversation doesn't clutter up my official inbox.  
Let me address out two points I see in your message that create a lot of confusion. 
The first objection I have has to do with your analogy likening the emergence of consciousness to a rock manifesting the ability to think. This is an error of analogy, akin to an error in understanding what is meant BY abiogenesis, and indeed, by consciousness.  
No theory of abiogenesis posits that a solid solitary object (such as: a rock!) would within its own geological lifetime undergo such physical changes that allow it eventually to think, while also retaining its identity AS a rock. 
Abiogeneis as it is currently conceived is not a local phenomenon that occurs WITHIN an ecology -- today you have no life, and tomorrow, there it is, there is life, isolated and localized within, and somehow separate from, the ecology. Rather, abiogeneis is a process that occurs over geological timescales, and in a manner distributed throughout systems that span an entire ecology. Further, it is conceived of as an incremental process, with manifold different simultaneous instantiations.  
The popular image of abiogenesis as having to do with a puddle of slime on a rocky shore, as isolated in its reaction space as a glass beaker in a lab, is wildly misleading. Although there needs to be a certain degree of concentration of reagents and stock materials, and a certain patterning to the encounters different chemical (and eventually, biological!) materials undergo, this does not bear comparison to the slime puddle image. Things are altogether more dynamic, and take place at scales that are at the same time much smaller (microscopic clay templating! RNA self-catalysis!) and much larger (ocean depth gradients of iron- and sulfur-bearing isoclines! or, according to a different model, iuron- and sulfur-bearing surface deposits such as those surrounding ocean floor vents).  
In other words, I fear that your metaphor of abiogenesis operates at the wrong levels of scale, and with the wrong impression of dynamism. 
The other point I'd wish to address briefly, in response to your kind invitation, has to do with your presentation of the concept of "consciousness." This, like abiogenesis, is a complicated subject which is sometimes disfavored by limiting metaphors. 
You write:  
now the rock is able to 'think', 'aware', and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence and 'its' surroundings, able to grasp the laws of physics, mathematics, able to involve in logical reasoning, able to draw logical conclusions, able to feel sense of justice, sense of purpose and sense of existence, able to involve in rational thinking, able to feel pain and sorrow etc.?
This, on its surface, sounds like a plainly ludicrous proposition. But I'd never describe consciousness in this manner. Instead, I might translate your description this way:
the original rock may be subjected to the processes of weathering and erosion, such that it is reduced to sediment. The minerals and chemicals which constituted that rock are now available to circulate in the (aqueous, likely) ecosystem, where they may be involved in chemical reactions we believe to be preliminary to the abiotic formation of biological monomers, such as carbon fixation, chemical reduction, or (to give a more complex example), pyramidine formation.  
Over time, an ecology which has produced biological monomers, may enter into a state of conditions conducive to the formation of biological polymers, some of which are self-catalyzing. The abiogenesis really heats up then!
An ecology which features concentrations of self-catalyzing biological polymers may give rise to autocatalytic chemical networks and structures such as micelles and vesicles. These molecular-scale phenomena may interact and form more complex structures and systems, which we begin to recognize as rudimentary "proto-life."  
Over eons of chemical, and then biological, and then ecological, evolution, this proto-life may develop adaptive systems which "record" life experience, in the form of chemical changes in the cell, or taxic changes in behavior, or changes in genetic expression, or charge potential changes in nerve cells. As this system of record-keeping (memory, you could call it) becomes more sophisticated, the organism benefits from the ability to predict appropriate behavior for future conditions which resemble past conditions it has a record of. This is a significant part of what we call learning.   
The organism continues to become more sophisticated. But keep in mind, we aren't talking here about a single individual. We are speaking in evolutionary terms, so this change takes place over countless generations, across the somatic instances of countless individuals.  
Eventually, the learning/memory systems of the organism become so sophisticated, and recursive, and powerful, that the organism is able to model future potential behavior! This does bear comparison to the way that a computer program using patterns of charge distribution in an electronic system, to model the world of a computer game. We don't think there's anything magical about that, do we? Likewise, the pattern of charge distribution in the nervous system of the organism, are able to run a model of the world. And this model may contain sub-programs we can label as "thinking", "awareness", "reasoning about its own existence and its surroundings", "pondering the the laws of physics", "mulling over maths", "fiddling about with logical reasoning", "the drawing of conclusions", "the sense of justice", "a sense of purpose" , "a sense of existence", and "the experience of pain and sorrow."  
All of these thoughts and feelings are 1) simply patterns of charge distribution changing across the vastly complex representational network of a nervous system, and 2) amazing. 
Voila! From rock to mind. Now, I am kidding, of course. But I hope that my "translation" of your description of the origin of consciousness, even as briefly as I describe it, is enough to make the point I intend -- namely, that while there is so much that we have yet to measure, verify, and truly understand about the way life emerges from non-life, and how mind emerges from minerals, the nature of the mystery isn't, any longer, metaphysical, if we come to terms with the vast scales of complexity involved in a naturalistic explanation.  
Seen from a distance, the complexity of the naturalistic explanation may look supernatural. But we don't have to keep our distance. We can zoom in, get our hands and minds dirty, and engage with data, and models, and articles and animations and questions and answers, and so on, through the technology of information and communication which frees us from the backwaters of our ignorance as separate individuals. (That internet -- she's amazing.) 
Thank you for the stimulating questions; these were fun things to think about on a Sunday morning here in New England. 
With warm regards from Boston, 
Zachary "the Thinking Rock" Bos
Massachusetts State Director for American Atheists
To the extent that we atheists want to have our materialist apologetics in order, I think it would be useful to have a "best practices" way of responding to questions like, ah, but, rocks can't think, can they.

Do you have any suggestions for concise and accessible explanations of abiogenesis, of the sort we could share with persons like this Indian engineer when they have questions about the plausibility of that theory? I'd love to know what you recommend. (How great if there was a really brilliant YouTube animation going through this stuff... )

The graphic above, interestingly enough, comes from the blog of a Christian defending creationism as a plausible theory. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Grassroots wisdom... from Cracked.com?

Those of you who know about Cracked.com probably know it as a platform for wacky, even sophomoric, humor writing. However: from time to time, their contributors sneak in content with some real wisdom. When reading a recent post, I came across a few paragraphs that seem really, really relevant to the kind of cultural activism many of us are involved in as organizers in the secular movement. The title of the section gives the short take:  


America was born from a revolution. It's in our DNA. If you want your blockbuster movie to get asses in the seats, make it about a few common folk taking down an advanced, oppressive force. In the third act, when the hero nobly declines to kill the Emperor, that's OK -- somebody else will toss him down a bottomless shaft. What matters is the unquestioned assumption that abrupt and/or violent upheaval of the current system is the only way to affect change, and that anything less is a de facto stamp of approval for the status quo.
  
In reality, sudden upheaval usually results in an even more brutal asshole taking power (See: the Middle East, China, Russia ... most of the world throughout history, in fact). This is because the people who shout loudest for abrupt change -- particularly those who promise to restore the greatness of the nation to some imagined idyllic past -- are often either short-sighted idealists or power-hungry sociopaths looking to exploit scared people. It's the political version of a get-rich-quick scheme.

But real change is usually as tedious as watching a game of chess played by two fungus colonies. Slavery didn't vanish with the stroke of Abe Lincoln's pen; abolitionists had been chipping away for 45 damned years, changing public opinion inch by inch. The gay rights movement has been banging its head against the wall since the 1890s and still hasn't broken all the way through. A lawsuit here, a board meeting there, a petition here, a city council candidate there. A step forward, a step back. The kind of grinding, unsatisfying slog that wouldn't even get a montage in a movie adaptation.

In other words: Small gains add up. The failure to make a huge win every calendar year doesn't mean we're somehow not making progress. And the sex appeal of dismantling the current system, in order to build a brave new world, may be distracting us from the wholly intolerable cost of such revolution.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fly your flags high


Proposed (but never officially adopted) logo for the now defunct Atheist Discussion Group, a Boston-area enterprise active from 1998 on. The Latin above means "Christians for the flavor's sake."

A charming limerick from the young Saki (H.H. Munro, 1870-1916):
There was a young lady O'Brien,
Who sang Sunday hymns to a lion.
Of that lady there's some
In the lion's tum-tum,
And the rest is an angel in Zion.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Skeptical of the Bible? Have I got a book for you.

If I told you of a book that included the following topics, would you be interested?

  • "Contradictions and Errors in the Biblical Text"
  • "Distortion and Abrogation in the Bible:
  • "Refutation of Misleading Protestant Statements Regarding the Authenticity of the Bible"

You are interested, aren't you, you skeptics and revelation-scoffers. Well, let me not tantalize you cruelly. The book exists! In fact, it's a foundational text in the world of Muslim apologetics.

The six-volume Izhar ul-Haqq, Rahmatullah Kairanawi's magnum opus, was written (in Arabic, naturally) in 1864. Christine Schirrmacher describes the work thusly:
'The Demonstration of the Truth' (izhâr al-haqq) served as a summary of all possible charges against Christianity and was therefore used after al-Kairânawî's death as a sort of encyclopaedia since al-Kairânawî extended the material of former polemicists like 'Ali Tabarî, Ibn Hazm or Ibn Taymiyya to a great extent.
Check it out in English translation here. Don't be surprised if you have to pick around some bits that defend the existence of the Islamic god, even as you enjoy the take-down of the Christian one.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Religious typographical taboo: six points of contention


  1. While cleaning out some files earlier this week, I deleted an .epub version of the Koran from my desktop. And I wondered as I did it, would a believing Muslim have any difficulty doing the same, in light of the prohibition on destroying that book? (Because of that prohibition, Muslims in Iraq haven't destroyed the abhorrent Blood Koran created by Saddam Hussein. However, since it's "unclean" as well, they also can't put it on public display. Twixt a rock and a hard place, they are. The full-on theological debate over what to do with the damn thing rages on.
  2. My friend the religious scholar notes, when I shared the above thought with him, that there really isn't any issue of consequence of the copies being destroyed or threatened with destruction are in a language other than the Koranic Arabic of Muhammad. In Islam, it can be thought a kind of sin to read from a translated Koran. 
  3. My friend also points out: A better question is what happens to misprinted pages in Arabic editions..."
  4. An acquaintance had this to share. "My nephews went to Hebrew school in a Conservative (not even Orthodox) synagogue. Like in any school, there were plenty of handouts. Being about Judaism, the word 'G-d' showed up a lot. The kids were not allowed to throw out or recycle any handouts with "God" on them. The handouts had to be brought to some special place, where most likely a Rabbi got bribed (read: paid) to dispose of them "properly". These were #$%^&* handouts for kids in a $%^&* little school! I wish I were making this up."
  5. This same acquaintance alerts us to the religious trespass inherent in reading this on screen. "Look what we typed -- the word 'GOD' instead of 'G-d'! Who knew that an errant keystroke could hurt the feelings of the omnipotent creator of the Universe."
  6. From WP: "In Jewish tradition the sacredness of the divine name or titles must be recognized by the professional sofer (scribe) who writes Torah scrolls, or tefillin and mezuzah. Before transcribing any of the divine titles or name he prepares mentally to sanctify them. Once he begins a name he does not stop until it is finished, and he must not be interrupted while writing it, even to greet a king. If an error is made in writing it may not be erased, but a line must be drawn round it to show that it is canceled, and the whole page must be put in a genizah (burial place for scripture) and a new page begun."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Do theological divisions stick in your craw?

Over at the Interpath Conversations group on Facebook, a forum member had a question to ask about the attitude of Richard Dawkins toward believers:
This video was shot in 2007, at around the 55:30 mark he begins a comment in which he ends up saying that it "sticks in his craw" to work with "decent moderate religious people." But in more recent years, I've heard him talk quite happily about working with progressive/liberal religious people and even called them something-like his "comrades in arms against ignorance."  
Earlier in the same comment he talks about belief in a supernatural creator being incompatible with science. But I know that many (if not most!) liberal/progressive religious people are not "supernatural theists" but rather 'pan-en-theists', even if they're unfamiliar with the term. 
So, my question is, does it still stick in his craw? Or, is he now more okay with working with liberal/progressive religious folk who aren't supernatural theists? I'm merely trying to understand his point of view, not looking for an argument. Thanks!
That's a pretty fair question! I thought it deserved to be brought outside of the silo of Facebook and added to the ongoing workings-out here of topics in belief, nonbelief, and interaction across those questions that divide us.

My answer to the forum member was as follows:
Thinking about his books and public comments, I would say that what sticks in Dawkins' craw is not working with such people (the 'softcore theists', we might say), but with the idea that persons committed to making society more welcoming of scientific/skeptical ways of looking at the world should be allying with persons committed to making the work more welcoming of supernaturalistic belief.  
That is to say, it is the organizational "working with" which is problematic -- which leads to issues of conflict over incompatible commitments -- rather than interpersonal "working with."  
You've likely heard the reasoning that by helping to normalize supernaturalistic belief of the sort that Dawkins finds unwarranted, moderate or liberal believers help to create safe conditions in society where more radical or dangerous strains of belief can find an entrance point and eventually flourish. This, too, is an organizational (or societal) dynamic, and not an interpersonal one.  
Compare this attitude to, say, Sam Harris' recommendation that nonbelievers be conversationally intolerant of supernaturalistic belief, when we encounter it in our personal lives. Now, Dawkins may well be impatient with the believers in his personal life; but as I understand it, his public and written comments along the lines of this "sticks in my craw" remark aren't expressions of interpersonal animosity.
Or did I get it backwards? Is Dawkins in his personal life someone who finds theists backward or foolish? Does he go out of his way to avoid dealing with them? On the other hand, does he see the value in forging organizational alliances with theistic groups who are working toward a shared goal? You know what, I don't think it matters, not in the case of Dawkins specifically.

What matters is that we recognize this as a fair question, and an important one. If you're a believer/nonbeliever, how do you feel about interacting with nonbelievers/believers? Do these feelings get in the way of opportunities to work together? Does working together mean we are compromising our principled commitment to endorsing and proliferating a worldview?

There's a conversation we need to have about how to work with people you think are wrong in some aspect of their thinking. It would have to touch on issues of humility, cooperativeness, conviction, civility, and good will. It might even be a conversation to have with folks at a young age, since as part of your interpersonal, social skill too;-kit the ability to work alongside and in productive cooperation with people you think are wrong is indispensable. So add this topic to the syllabus for secular Sunday School. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hey, SCOTUS: faith ain't internally consistent

From Slate's coverage of the Hobby Lobby trial:
Kagan questions [the] claim that one tenet of the Green family’s faith requires that they provide all their employees with health care while another tenet requires that they deny contraception.
What's to question? I am unaware of any reason from epistemology or philosophy of religion to assume, prima facie, that the tenets we commit to when we adopt a worldview to our purposes won't be mutually exclusive. It is fruitless to look for a hidden consistency in any ethics, be it supernaturalistic or not.

Yeats recognized early on that the challenge in life was to hammer his thoughts into unity; we all face the same difficulty. Sure, a person who wishes to live  "rationally"* is going to pursue self-consistency in their ethical and epistemic commitments. But the trick is in realizing that epistemic unity is only ever imperfectly obtained. With that insight, one realizes the needful thing for humans to learn is how to be comfortable and ethical even  with that limitation.

This paradox at the heart of a self-aware life reminds me of a line from David Milch's wonderful television series Deadwood: "I believe in God's purpose, not knowing it." I'm content, atheist that I am, to let the word "God" suffice here for the illusion of a predetermined course of a events in the universe. I believe: in not knowing the point of my life. I believe: I'm free to determine a purpose for myself, in that absence of a higher plan. I believe: there's no reason to think my purpose-driven commitments will be, on first or second or further consideration, consistent among themselves. I believe: a good person embraces this state of affairs, and learns to muddle through, seeking their purpose, despite their self-contradictions.

* and we mean by this, pace Clifford, to live according to a system of beliefs each of which was acquired in a sufficiently informed fashion.