Monday, August 20, 2007

Odds of No Catastrophic End to Life


Much has been written, even a well argued post here, about the question of the precise aspects needed to sustain life on this planet. More to the point, I have argued here that it is beyond comprehension that this status has been maintained for billions of years without intelligent intervention to keep the systems within a life-sustaining range.

Those arguing against such a proposition say that it is just so. Others suggest that this is flawed logic. One commentor said that we have had a least 4 near wipe-outs of life, but life came back.

Call the following a falacy if you like. However:

1. With so many mindless species having lived and gone extinct, how is it that none has ever been so successful at destroying other life that all but its own species was destroyed, leaving it with no food supply?

2. How is it that nature has such balance that even in the most inhospitable places, life finds a way?

3. How is it that life did recover from the 4 great catastrophes that we believe may have destroyed up to 96% of life?

4. Why life at all? Doesn't it appear that there is something about life which has a huge drive to survive? What is that about? In humans, we have self awareness that might cause us to want to keep living for the things we desire, even in the face of great difficulty. But why does a cockroach have that built into him? What is the source of that drive?

If I was playing serious money poker with you, and you were dealt two straight flushes in a row with no draw, I would want to find out what "magic" you possessed. You could tell me until the end of time that you just got lucky, but I'd never quite believe it, no matter how much evidence there was to back up your claim.

10 comments:

Hey Skipper said...

Randy:

The answer to all your questions is this:

Living is what life does.

NB: life is recursive.

With so many mindless species having lived and gone extinct, how is it that none has ever been so successful at destroying other life that all but its own species was destroyed, leaving it with no food supply?

Two reasons.

1. Because of that fiddly little thing called "time."

2. Because none of those species come into existence out of whole cloth. (See "recursive", above).

Your questions are freighted with a cart-load of implicit assumptions that do not withstand even cursory examination.

bernardo said...

1. As Hey skipper said (I think), because as a species becomes more destructive, at some point it becomes too destructive for its own good, which would cause it to die out. In order to destroy all other life on Earth, a species would have to populate the entire globe first, and then become extremely destructive everywhere at once, otherwise some life would survive.

2. No place on Earth is as inhospitable as Venus or the Moon. But you're right, the Earth has great variability in temperature and in surface composition, but life is pretty much ubiquitous. The chemistry that makes up "life" can happen at a pretty wide range of temperatures, and a living thing can survive beyond those ranges (pretty much anywhere on Earth, which again is not as hot or as cold as other planets) if it evolves insulation. And all that life really needs is sunlight and water, which are ubiquitous on Earth. Some life, though, has given up sunlight in favor of deep-sea chemicals coming out of vents, but still, you get my point.

3. As long as each catastrophe did not wipe out ALL life (and they shouldn't, since life evolves to fill very different niches in different conditions), whatever life is left will probably (if given enough time to mutate) take the opportunity to evolve to fill vacant niches in places that have different conditions.

4. Remember Dawkin's "replicators" and "survival machines". The very dawn of life can be equated to the accidental formation of a self-copying molecule. From there, natural selection chooses the life that is best at surviving. A drive to survive is what life is all about. There is nothing deeper or more primitive in life's decision-making processes (from people to bacteria) than "Dying is bad". Correlating "bad" with behaviors likely to lead to death (or just having processes that happen to avoid those behaviors, which are different in different conditions) is what allowed our ancestors to beat their competitors in the game of natural selection.

So Hey skipper is exactly right. When you think about what makes life alive, about how ruthless natural selection is, and about the diversity of conditions on Earth (they're not as diverse as they may seem to wimpy hairless primates like ourselves), it should not be surprising that life is so hardy, persistent, versatile, and good at what it does.

And, like I said, conditions all over the world are pretty good for life. This may seem like an incredible coincidence, but the fact is, of all the billions of planets in the universe, life can only arise (and evolve to the point where it's smart enough to observe all this) in the planets that could suit it to begin with. Same thing for the constants of the universe supposedly being fine-tuned. When you have enough events, an extremely unlikely event is just about bound to happen. But yeah, it's still pretty cool, and I'm happy to be alive on this Earth in this universe. It's a good place to be. (Even though I realize that the almost-inevitable result of evolution is beings who are well-suited for their environments and thus who think that, wherever they are, that's a good place to be, for them).

Randy Kirk said...

Let me see if I understand. We have a monumental desire to survive because that is how life started out. Seems a bit circular. I do get that but for some kind of inclination on the part of some completely brainless, and basically non-living thing, to become alive, Dawkins approach is stillborn. That is so impossible to ponder that I wonder why an eternal God is more difficult for you. The drive to survive would seem far more likely to have been purposefully instilled in living things by an intelligent creator than to be some kind of characteristic that is self sustaining at the level of genes.

No one really addresses the poker game issue.

bernardo said...

All right, the poker game issue.

Given an infinity of monkey sitting in front of an infinity of typewriters, one of them will produce the works of Shakespeare.

Given an infinity of poker games, at one point someone is bound to get unbelievably lucky.

Given an infinity of universes, one of them is bound to generate life. And it's going to be the one where circumstances happen to be favorable for this.

"We have a monumental desire to survive because that is how life started out. Seems a bit circular."

Why does it seem circular?

"...for some kind of inclination on the part of some completely brainless, and basically non-living thing, to become alive..."

Not to become alive. Just to copy itself. This will be a natural tendency of a molecule of a certain shape, once this molecule is first randomly formed, which it will be given enough time (and possibly enough planets on enough universes). Life, and the desire for life to preserve itself, follows from the consequences of this chemical property of self replication. We don't go from dirt to thinking in the blink of an eye. We go from dirt to self-replicating dirt, and from self-replicating dirt to dirt-eating dirt, and from dirt-eating dirt to predation-resistant dirt, and THEN we're pretty close to life as we know it.

Hey Skipper said...

Randy:

We have a monumental desire to survive because that is how life started out. Seems a bit circular.

Ummm, life is circular. Next time you see an appeal to design argument, please note that appeal is always to something that completely fails to share life's most salient difference from non-live: recursiveness.

I do get that but for some kind of inclination on the part of some completely brainless, and basically non-living thing, to become alive, Dawkins approach is stillborn.

Appeal to credulity.

How non-living matter became living matter, thereby, at that point, adding recursion to the list of the Universe's phenomena (excluding, perhaps, star formation), is indeed a mystery.

However, the best answer to a mystery is "dunno."

That is so impossible to ponder that I wonder why an eternal God is more difficult for you.

First reason: Occam's razor. Adding the G-d entity advances provides nothing in comparison to its absence.

NB: G-d could have meddled in the process anywhere to achieve the existing outcome, not just at those places you prefer: you are putting G-d in a box of your own making.

After all, G-d could have rained comets on Earth for long enough that, in combination with other, fortuitous circumstances, life started and proceeded completely autonomously.

Your invoking G-d in no way eliminates that possibility, yet it renders your invocation unjustified.

Hence, Occam's razor.

Second reason: adding an entity that begs even more incredulity than the original problem achieves absolutely nothing, other than numbing credulity.


Perhaps more importantly, though, is that with respect to G-d, none of us can say anything.

G-d != religion.

It isn't G-d that is the problem, it is religion.

Randy Kirk said...

I have just run down the battery on my laptop in an attempt to understand recursion. I still have absolutely no idea what it means. My best short study understanding would lead me to believe that it is considered as valid in math, but still open to debate in philosophy. If I don't know what it is, I'm guessing that a very large percentage of those visiting here will have even less of an idea. Skipper, maybe you can post on this if you have the inclination and the time.

Randy Kirk said...

Leaving recursion aside, the answer to life's mysteries, "I dunno," is fine if there is absolutely -0- evidence for a solution. We have gone on about this endlessly in other posts here, but the jury has decided, based on the weight of the evidence, in favor of some kind of supernatural creator having a hand in the generation and maintenance of all we see. That very decision might be seen as recursive in that the concurrence itself is evidence.

Personally, I have an easier time believing in the primordial soup/lightening explanation for life's appearance on this planet than I do the Dawkins approach.

As to Bernardo and the large number theory of life: It doesn't do justice to the issue. This isn't about whether you might have honestly drawn that poker hand twice in a row, it is about whether I would ever believe you. There is a major distinction between those two issues.

Hey Skipper said...

Randy:

Any system where the output of one cycle of a process is the input to the next cycle of the same process.

Parents have chilrdren who become parents who have children who become parents ...

Hence, life is circular.

In contrast to, say, cars.

Randy Kirk said...

Skipper,

Recursive seems to mean more than that, although it might mean that in part. However, that part would not seem to be very helpful in understanding why living things ALL strongly strive to survive.

Hey Skipper said...

Randy:

Here are a couple definitions for recursion:

A programming technique in which a program or routine calls itself to perform successive steps in an operation, with each step using the output of the preceding step.

Characterized by processes which can be indefinitely repeatedly applied to their own output, such as algorithms which create branching and subdivision.

While both are with respect to programming, that really isn't relevant. What does count is that a recursive system is one in which a process is applied to its own output.

However, that part would not seem to be very helpful in understanding why living things ALL strongly strive to survive.

Why?

Gobis are a particular kind of fish where the males have prominent spots whose sole goal is to attract females.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects is to make the male more visible to predators.

As it turns out, specifics about those spots (visibility in various light wavelengths and average prominence among them) vary based upon both the kind and number of predators.

Now. Please tell me why adding God to the mix helps you in any way to ascertain why.

It does not; it cannot. Relying upon argument by incredulity is not helped by invoking something even more incredulous.

What is worse, it deprives you of the ability to find any non-God answer to the question. Once you throw God into the mix, you have your answer, and nothing more need be said.

Should you wish to contradict me on this, then you are in effect saying that God should be set aside until such time as God becomes the only possible answer; that is to say, when we know that deus ex machina must be the cause, because all other explanations have been totally exhausted.

Not only is the state of human knowledge nowhere near to that conclusion in any area you might wish to cite, the more knowledge we gain in any area only serves to highlight how much we don't know.


You have made several such mistakes here.

First, absolutely implicit in your initial question, ... how is it that none has ever been so successful at destroying other life that all but its own species was destroyed, leaving it with no food supply? is the discarding, or ignorance of, life's most salient characteristic: the output of each cycle of the process is the input to the next.

As opposed to religious accounts, which poof all species into existence, and have no relationship to natural history at all, except where humans introduce -- as if by poof -- completely novel species into a new environment.

In which cases, the outcome is just what you ask: a species deprives itself of the means to survive.

But those examples serve only to graphically illustrate how inappropriate your question is to life as it exists.

Additionally, when you say "I dunno," is fine if there is absolutely -0- evidence for a solution. We have gone on about this endlessly in other posts here, but the jury has decided, based on the weight of the evidence, in favor of some kind of supernatural creator having a hand in the generation and maintenance of all we see.

I don't know to which jury you refer, but the weight of evidence points only in the direction of most humans preferring some variant of the word God to dunno, and who, if humans were more honest in this regard, would all change the spelling of God to Oaob: on account of because.

Invoking God does not answer any question at all; rather, invoking God means you still have all your work still in front of you. Not only have you failed to specify how God did some thing, you are left completely winded in explaining how something even more incredible than the thing you are trying to explain came into being in the first place.

In other words, you are using God to say Oaob, where Oaob answers your incredulity, and, thereby, creating a God of the gaps.