Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Mechanism of Life

This is something that's been bothering me for a while now. It's something I completely can't explain, and something which I've been unable to find an explanation for that I can understand and agree with. If anyone has any opinions on this, either scientific or philosophical, I'd be really interested to hear them.

We are living, sentient creatures. We appear to have free will, we appear to be in control of our own actions. As far as we are concerned we have choice over what we do, and we have the ability to change our own future. However, firstly we are made out of cells. These cells do not have their own brains and do not have their own sentient thoughts or emotions (at least as far as we know), yet together they make up entire human bodies, capable of independent thought.

Even further, the cells themselves are made up of molecules and atoms. These molecules are essentially inert, and individually are definitely not "living" by any definition I would accept. When we think, when we choose to do something, it all boils down to the interactions and movements of individual molecules which at their level have no fucking clue what is going on and can't influence it. We are somehow a group of completely unthinking objects which are combined in such a way that on the larger scale gives the impression of thought.

If you consider the molecules themselves, they're not able to change their own interactions. They're just obeying the laws of physics and chemistry. Surely their interactions are merely pre-determined by their own, random-but-obeying-laws motion? How the hell can we change how we think, how we act, if we're just a collection of objects obeying the fundamental laws of the universe?

I suspect quantum mechanics breaks a lot of what I've just said to an extent, but it's still extremely bizarre to think that I am supposedly in control of what I do when by my knowledge of physics all the movements and interactions of my component parts are already defined by classical mechanics. If a molecule can't change it's own movement path, how can I ever possibly think or do something which I wasn't always pre-determined to do.

It doesn't seem that weird for me to think that a set of components which are 'dead' on their own can make something which is 'living' - the same sort of thing can easily be seen to be feasible in a car engine or something. All of the valves, crankshafts, fluids and the like are completely immobile when just considered individually, but can come to life when combined, but an engine still just works within the laws set by mechanics and the chemical reactions inside. An engine can't just choose to turn itself off, or do something different, which is what I really don't comprehend. Set in motion any non-living contraption will obey entirely predicable behaviour. It might not actually be predictable in practice due to chaos theory, but in theory it could be entirely predicted. Given all the millions of initial conditions, you could predict the behaviour until the end of time perfectly.

Does this apply to people and other living objects? Given the exact parameters of me, given every single detail and initial condition, would my behaviour be predictable? Am I in true control of my own destiny, or am I merely the macroscopic result of billions of predictable microscopic interactions?

So please, opinions really welcome on this. Especially if someone actually has a decent explanation. I'm pretty sure that it lies in quantum mechanics and the like, but I don't have a good enough understanding to figure it out for myself.


  1. short answer, yes, this applies to people and other living objects too. long answer probably has too many holes in it to be valid. what are your issues with believing that living sentient creatures are deterministic?

  2. Because in my opinion we wouldn't be living and sentient if we were also just running through pre-determined motions. We'd be animate objects, but at the same time I wouldn't call it "life".

    If everything I think and do, down to writing this blog entry, was pre-determined, then it means I'm no more alive than a pendulum or internal combustion engine. I'm not alive, I'm just a fairly complex biological machine.

  3. I completely agree... Mindfuck every time I think about it!


  4. I don't know if this is an overused term in your parts... but "chaos theory" springs to mind. If I didn't have other things needing my attention right now, I'd try to elaborate.

  5. Chaos theory doesn't do anything to explain this. Chaos theory basically can be stripped down to the idea that an undetectable change in initial conditions can give a totally different final result. Chaos theory is what makes long-term weather prediction impossible, because we can't ever measure temperature and pressure accurately enough and at a close enough spacing on the ground to give an accurate prediction.

    A good example would be raising a number around 1 to the power of a million. If you measure the number, then round it and get one, then your final result for 1^1000000 is going to be one.
    However, if the actual figure was 0.999, then you get 3*10^-345, which is basically zero. If the actual figure was 1.001, again only a deviation of 0.1% in the initial measurement, then your final result is in the order of 10^434, which is massively different to both 1 and 0 (for reference, number of atoms in the universe is ~10^80).

    Such a tiny almost unmeasurable difference in the initial input produces such large differences in the output that our mind can't really comprehend the differences in magnitude. That's the essence of chaos theory, and it applies to a lot of real-world systems. Things like double-pendulums, where a difference in starting position that's unnoticeable to the naked eye will produce entirely different behaviour on release.

    So in a sense, chaos theory explains why we wouldn't be able to feasibly ever predict our own actions, because we'd never be able to get the degree of accuracy in measuring the initial conditions to beat the inevitable effects of chaos theory. However, things which are unpredictable because of chaos theory are still technically predictable if you can make near-infinite measurements to an infinite degree of accuracy. If that's the case for us, then our actions are still predictable and pre-determined by the physics of interactions at a microscopic level, not ourselves, which is what I don't comprehend.

  6. There's no ready answer I'm afraid. The problem of free will is an oldy but a goodie. If a rule based universe is what we've got then where is the room for free will? If God created it all but knows it all, how can we choose? Quantum theory at least gives us room for randomness, but that's just wiggle room as compared to effecting a system. Though it also has interesting things to say about an observer.

    There are many "short cut" answers. For instance, the idea that the mind is a causal mechanism isn't accepted by everyone. There is some science that backs up the notion that we don't actually make decisions. The decisions happen, then we have the perception that we were the ones that made it. The many worlds theory says something similar. Choices aren't made, everything happens, we just experience a singular outcome.

    From the scientific side I see no room for free will. Yet from my everyday experience I know it must be true. Hell, according to Descrates, is the ONLY thing I can know to be true. I've read multiple excellent arguments from my philosophy side, convincing me that there is no such thing as free will. I've read multiple excellent papers from my psychology side showing me the power of the mind over the body. I see no way for free will to exist but I have to think about it as a possibility because I experience it as such.

    We don't know how the mind arises from the body. We don't know what the limits of the mind on the body are. We don't know where the mind is in the body. Honestly, we know nothing. We barely have theories. That's why I am in school. I personally believe I have free will; I have no choice but to believe that.

  7. Awesome answer, as expected Dave ;)

    You basically sum up how I feel. I have a contradiction in thinking that somehow I must have free will, because it's all I can experience, but at the same time I have no explanation whatsoever as to how I could possibly have it.

    What's really fucking weird is that there's no escape from a pre-determined existence either. Even if I committed suicide to escape, that would still be pre-determined molecular interactions making me do that.

  8. "Because in my opinion we wouldn't be living and sentient if we were also just running through pre-determined motions. We'd be animate objects, but at the same time I wouldn't call it "life".

    If everything I think and do, down to writing this blog entry, was pre-determined, then it means I'm no more alive than a pendulum or internal combustion engine. I'm not alive, I'm just a fairly complex biological machine."

    Okay, that's fair enough. I can understand the problem with being able to think and have a consciousness the way that we do, since that seems like something that is fundamentally different than being a biological machine. The ability to experience things as we do, as opposed to just being a complex combination of elements that acts deterministically.

    I won't pretend that I can answer that one.

  9. Well, Rosti, there is a certain degree of non-determinism, or at least un-determinism. The Uncertainty Principle ensures that you can't have total information about any initial state, so you can only predict actions so far. It's not freedom of will, but it's wiggle room. Schopenhauer put it rather well when he said "man can do as he wishes, but he can't wish as he wishes." Even as agents we are bound by our environment.

    I'm doing my best to find an answer from as many paths as I can through my university. I'm in Cognitive Control (psych 413d) to see the limits of agency; I'm in Minds and Machines (phil 362) to try and get to the essence of the mind by replicating it. I hope to quiz my Evolutionary Psych (psych 320) prof on it next year. The idea that consciousness arises in a system of a given complexity so as to give it an evolutionary drive seems plausible. And any sentient system should believe in their own free will almost necessarily to keep them from suicidal behaviour. Hell, I'm even in Existentialist Thinkers (phil 311) to try and get a grip on how one should comport themselves to a meaningless existence.

    tl;dr No one knows, no physicist, philosopher, biologist, or psychologist. When (if) I figure out, I'll make sure to left you know.

  10. So, at the suggestion of my friend Kylie, I read this thread thinking that it would simply be a repeat of the things I've read in philosophical texts and online.

    To be frank, it sort of is. I hate to sound arrogant in my opinion of philosophical knowledge, but at a cursory glance that's my impression.

    And yet, reviewing this, there are things I took great delight in reading. For one, I get really tired of just reading a large volume of academia so I can understand things that could have just been put in basic English. It's refreshing to read this from a viewpoint of somebody that's closer to my age than many of the old farts that write about this. Reading it in the way one might talk verbally? Excellent.

    And I think that that is why, though perhaps contrary to my introduction, this is precisely why I found this entire debate here so fascinating.

    I'm a total stranger on this blog, and I won't pretend to be any sort of authority on the scientific aspect of this subject, but...I do have a small measure of knowledge in basic chemistry and physics, as well as a heart for philosophy.

    When I read your original post, I did indeed remember the Uncertainty Principle, and the interesting points brought up by quantum mechanics. However, as far as I have known and read, the debate within quantum mechanics is merely that of belief in "hidden variables". Proponents for this concept state that because an arbitrary precision for measuring events in the universe cannot exist, we cannot predict things in practice. Thus, by this theory all behaviors of all things are indeed predetermined by everything else within the preexisting condition, but practically are impossible to deduce (at least with current technology and that of the foreseeable future).

    Those that disagree with determinism tend to rely on the uncertainty of the science as a whole. The most well-known arguments for free will currently point out that until we uncover and validate this theory, science may learn that there is something that is not predictable by any means in the physical world. Now, I can't elaborate from that point, because I don't know how to explain it simpler than they have (a curse of quantum physicists). However, I think if you understand their basic logic, which will indeed take time and effort, you'll be able to achieve an understanding that is sufficient for the purposes of philosophy.

    I don't mean to wander from this particular branch of thought, but you might want to connect these mechanics you're discussing with philosophies that relate to the purpose of their existence.

    Or, simply put, I think it would make an interesting addition to this discussion to ask yourself one of the basic questions in what most people call "religion":
    1. WHY would such a mechanism come to be, unless there is no purpose?

    2. If there is a purpose for such, then what is it?

    Really, right now it comes down to belief. And I know that no matter where you go, that's a sticky thing, and quite unscientific. I wouldn't blame you for dismissing the points I'm trying to make, but I at least hope that I've helped to answer your query for definition in this debate.

    I must say, though, this is much more sophisticated discussion than what I'm used to. XD That would probably have to do with being just a random teenager.

  11. You ask "why" a mechanism would come to be, if there was no purpose, and that's a paradoxical question. If there's a "why" then there's a purpose. If there's no purpose, then the question is far more "how" than "why.

    The mechanism has come to exist just because it has. There's no purpose, and there's no reason why there should or would have to be a purpose. We exist by chance, and because nature has allowed us to.

    Religious and spiritual answers to these sort of questions never actually ever solve anything. Ever. All they do is gloss over the question and replace it with an even more difficult question to answer, but one that rarely gets asked.

    If, for example, we all exist to serve or somehow entertain some higher being, then that would explain our existence. But what about the existence of the higher power? We can ask why we exist, and struggle to find a solution, and you can also ask the exact same of a God or other superior being. Why and how do they exist, assuming they do?

    The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that our decisions aren't deterministic, and aren't governed by basic fundamental interactions and movements of particles. I also don't think that the bullshit cop-out answer of "we are made of inanimate particles but have free will because God gave it to us" is true either. The answer lies beyond classical and possibly even quantum mechanics, but I believe it's still a scientific answer relating to physics, microbiology, chemistry and probably neurology. I don't think that our ability for us to be made up of millions of individual organisms and yet still have a single collective sentience is anything that would be described as "spiritual" once it's understood.

    My main reason for thinking this is rationality. Humans can act irrationally, but for the most part we do things logically. We eat and drink, we reproduce, we do various things that are crucial for our survival and yet can't be labelled simply as being a biological mechanism (such as breathing or our heartbeat). If we were controlled by the random interactions of insentient particles, then I think our actions would be similarly random, and that there'd be vary little appearance of control or free will.

    I still don't understand how we can have free will, but I've at least satisfied myself that we do, past the religious "well I'd rather that was the case, so that's how I think it must be" line of argument.

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