Monday, 31 December 2012

The biological soul, rationalising the body-mind duality.

Human beings have evolved, there is no way round it. This means that everything we perceive comes to us through senses which evolved, into a mind which has evolved, eliciting emotions which have evolved because of what they make us do.  After bodily health it is our behaviour which determines the evolution of our genes. Our purposes are the purposes of the survivors of billions of years of evolution. To understand ourselves we must understand evolution.

When I was young I frequently encountered a school of thought which dwelt on the "body - mind duality". The idea was simple, that human beings had a body and they had a mind which were different and separate. It made assumptions underpinning common attitudes and professional paradigms. It was a hangover from prescientific religion and many people I met were perplexed by it because they knew deep down that it doesnt make sense. But people would not bother to question it openly, there was too great a disadvantage in stepping outside the norms and questioning fundamental assumptions. It was best for each individual to proceed on the basis of the common culture and not to go against the flow.

This dichotomy stemmed from the even older metaphysical notion of flesh and spirit, giving rise to the idea that human beings have a distinct soul. This is not a scientific idea, but is a very old shamanic concept which always has subserved political reality as a metaphor for "the big picture" by which means the human conscience has been projected as the soul and its deliberations portrayed as metaphysical phenomena. Inevitably it has been used for political purposes and reformed by the machinations of religious academia attempting to conceive of an ideology sufficient to serve the struggle for power. The differentiation between body and soul has been elaborated on in the attempt to come to an arrangement between individuals over relationships of power expressed in theocratic terms.

This explains why the notion is so firmly entrenched in the culture of my country. It has been a way of discussing the surrender of individualism to a culture of negotiated mutual support. You can understand why negotiations backed by force of arms were handled by displacing the discussion into a spiritual context. Religion was the diplomatic alternative to open war and preferrable to many who might otherwise die on the battlefield.

The legacy is long lasting. Even today works of popular fiction like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a slew of similar cryptoreligious works still reflect the same dichotomy of body and soul and everyone seems to know what they are going on about even though it makes little sense to a rational eye.

As a scientist other perspectives were available to me in youth but I had no way to know which was truest because in science truth requires hypothesis testing and all attempts to discover quantifiable aspects to spirituality had been discredited. There was no data, which is itself mystifying. The subtext was that spirituality was bunkum even though that is not a scientific position to hold without evidence. To a child that is perplexing, it takes the perspective of adulthood to unravel the complexities of human politics which created the spiritual dichotomy of body and soul. But like most people I wondered why so many believed, or at least acted though they believed, something which others denied as bunkum without evidence, based apparently on a subculture of prejudiced scepticism.

It struck me that both traditions of belief and scepticism rely on received wisdom by virtue of being traditions, in that people tend to adopt one or other attitude under the influence of someone older who they emulate and repeat the arguments of the past and try to develope them. So they constitute competing cultures developing alongside each other, but the fact is the sceptical culture exists as a reaction to the religious culture since it has nothing to say other than that these people are mistaken. So it can never win, it can only dimiss the attempt to pacify those bent on conflict by spiritual means. This is not an entirely constructive thing to do if one has no better means of conflict resolution available.

So people of my generation have looked to other cultures to understand their religions and means of conflict resolution and methods in the persuit of peace. I took an interest in hinduism and buddhism for example, a bit like the Beatles. The hippy era was all about peace, the punk reaction tried to be honest about base human emotion and antagonism because ideals werent working. The 90s just tried to cover it all up again. In the 2000's we started a new war and are back to square zero. I am not sure if we learned anything at all.

I think future progress lies in the direction that we need to take responsibility for ourselves and stop projecting good and evil outside ourselves and accept them as our subjective perceptions of a real world. Its going to be an educational necessity in a future where tribalism and territoriality dissolve in a world wide community of humanity. So little by little we must try to develope our culture, both the believers and the skeptics.

There are other perspectives we could try. For example it is more likely the body and mind are one thing, the difference between them imaginary. The evidence of science supports that idea and so does the philosophical method of Occam. In this view both body and mind are objects created in the minds eye by the mind itself to encapsulate and discuss different aspects of our experience.

So from where I sit the soul is not separate from the living body but is in truth one's own concept of one's reputation in the eyes of others. The division between them is not due to two items coexisting in the same place, or a split mind, it is the interruption of volition by cognition, the regulation of desire by thought. Thoughts which are as much a part of oneself as the desires they govern and the foundation of a moral relationship with the rest of humanity. The metaphor of the soul has been used to educate generations of people to listen to their conscience by reminding them that even if they appear to get away with offences against other people i.e. they survive an action without injury, there is still something of their action which persists even once an action is over, something which can have repercussions later on. In other words the impression you make on other people can return to haunt you. This is the nature of your soul and the reason it is true that it persists even after death is because those who live on can still remember you and their memories can influence the way they treat your surviving relatives eg children. For evolutionary purposes this matters, which is why it matters to us as individuals. We know that what is precious in life is greater than our own individuality but to date we do not have the intellectual framework to recognise why. The reason why is that evolution makes us altruists, we cannot help it, the genes in our fellow humans are as precious to us as our own, sometimes moreso and evolution has endowed us with the equanimity to recognise this and the inclination to act upon it and the sympathy to feel the pain of others as if it were our own. This is the truth about the legacy of evolution in the human heart and the dogma of selfishness and competition is not the whole truth about human nature but is merely one pole of the entire world of human motivation, the other pole is our awareness of the rest of humanity and their importance to us.

The idea of the soul has long been a moral metaphor which attempts to discuss the feelings we have about our reputation and has validity in that context but taken too far this idea has been mistakenly interpreted as suggesting consciousness was separate from the body and persisted after the body had ceased to live. The elements of that idea have their roots in reality but then the stems grew twisted in confusion, by which I mean the elements are not put together right, yet they are close enough to truth that despite the confusion they can guide actions sufficiently well that the confusion can continue despite the inevitable contradictions that attempting to live by these mistaken ideas reveals.

The reason such errors of thought persist is that they cause pleasure of a kind and this addicts the minds of some people and addiction of this subtle kind can turn delusion into psychosis which can then spread itself by immitation and sympathy. This is the problem and each such delusion is the beginning of a new cult. The idea of a distinct soul implies that you can escape death which is a great relief to aging humans. Yet most people know you shouldn't take it literally. As deep down we understand it is a vanity, a private conceit and an overestimate of ones true capabilities but some people prefer to live in hopeful delusion because the idea of death is troubling and painful and this creates an aversion. These two, addictive pleasure and repellant aversion, are enough to turn the mind from sanity to ever more grotesque delusion.

If one accounts for the repulsion of morbid fear and the attractive fantasy of eternal life one can begin to appreciate that the separated soul is truely the delusion of a single living being with a neurologically integrated mind which is moved by its instincts to maintain constructive relations with the rest of its kind in preference over conflict and enmity which might lead to its own demise, providing its evolutionarily set requirements are met. Yet even after the scientific enlightenment many thinkers and academics of all shades were for centuries confounded by the difference between the mental and physical self, for example with respect to mental and physical illness and the legacy of that remains with us today in the way mental patients are treated with a different paradigm to the way patients with other illnesses are treated. I have come to the conclusion that there is something about the way our brain functions biologically which perpetuates that perceptual dichotomy.

If one looks on the body and the mind as both sensory experiences within a consciousness created by a more or less coordinated and self aware nervous system, the difference between the two is in reality a difference of perceived location. The sensations arising from the body are referred to the body's form as we conceive of it because it is in our biological nature to grow up with the sense of a body. It is through this that we learn to coordinate our physical actions with our senses and appetites and our nervous system is hardwired (somatotopically) to facillitate that process, the spatial relationships in the pattern of bodily innervation are reflected within the pattern of sensory and motor nerve fibers in the brain. We evolved to have a very strong awareness of our own body and the instincts to keep it alive, so this naturally has the priority over other forms of cogitation and dominates our perceptions.

The sensations arising in the mind as abstract thoughts and ideas by definition do not have the same strong sense of location as sensations arising from the body, so it is possible but mistaken to conceive of them as occurring somewhere else than the body, on some other 'plane' for example, which would explain much historical philosophy and metaphysics. The observations of science tell us they are not really somewhere else at all, even though sometimes people believe they are. The true location of such thoughts is inside the body, inside the nervous system but without the same kind of certainty about their location that bodily perceptions evoke it is possible for us to imagine all kinds of things about their nature and place in the cosmos which are unreal. This is why cults of delusion arise and persist and why humanity continues to struggle with the body mind duality when in reality these are simply two aspects of the same awareness, both occurring in the same location, one aspect of awareness dedicated to coordinating the body the other dedicated to considering what our senses tell us exists outside it and how it might be useful in the task of staying alive and fulfilling the purposes of our evolved being.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Origin of Life.

An article appeared in The Independent newspaper entitled ...

(by John von Radowitz)

... summarising recent research lead by Dr Jennifer Blank (Nasa/Ames Research Centre) showing that comets could have delivered amines to the surface of the newly created Earth.

My take on this was that while interesting, the bigger question is whether bacterial cysts could also make the journey because the climatic variations in the environment of a small dying planet, losing its atmosphere and subject to harsh seasonal extremes, would lead to evolution by natural selection preadapting bacterial cysts for survival in deep space, as stated below. In addition it seemed worth discussing the chemistry of self replication since the more we know about it (eg Philipp Holliger et al's recently publicised XNA experiments at the MRC molecular biology lab) the less of an inexplicable or unpredictable event the origin of life appears to have been.

In 1989 Thomas Cech and Sidney Altman were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA. Since RNA has both self replicatory and enzymatic powers this makes it, or something like it, a good candidate for having been the living molecule which preceded the evolution of the cell. Since pyrimidines (the building blocks of RNA) can be synthesized from amines and amines are known to be synthesised from the simple molecules which abound in the universe and collect on the surface of planets, this implies that in the huge expanse of cosmological time preceding the formation of the Earth it is very credible that life evolved elsewhere first and raises the possibility that some of this may have seeded Earth before life had time to evolve here of its own accord. So I joined in the comments section and reproduce my arguments here with a few embellishments.

In short it seems possible to me that given the relatively short time between the hypothesised planetary collision which created the Earth-Moon system and the beginnings of life, the Earth was seeded by an intact organism which first evolved on a planet in a different star system. 


Life origin theories still dogmatically avoid any consideration of undirected panspermia as once favoured by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe. I would have thought it was not impossible for comets to first preserve and then disperse entire bacterial cysts when passing between the Earth and the Sun. Cysts might enter the interstellar medium from, impacts with or directly from the outer atmosphere of, dying planets slightly smaller than Mars, gradually losing their atmosphere and water, with harsh seasonal extremes, where bacteria would naturally evolve durable cysts and become preadapted for surviving space travel on the stellar winds. A cyst moved by the solar wind and cushioned by the magnetosphere has a vanishingly small chance of reaching the Earth's atmosphere intact at a speed which would allow it to fall to Earth and live again, but billions of such cysts would make that event an inevitability and it only needed to happen once.

Fellow commentator 'derekcolman' asked me this...

Nice theory, but it begs the question, how did that bacterial life evolve on those other planets?

So I replied...

Aha ! Polypeptides show no replication ability in isolation, its not in their nature, whereas the sense-antisense structure of RNA makes it intrinsically capable of replicating its own polymeric sequences which may themselves have enzymatic capabilities as in the ribosomes today. So RNA is the best candidate for protolife. Amines alone cannot make life, but they can react with each other to make pyrimidines and these can make RNA like molecules in which circumstances RNA sequences might evolve to use amines in their environment and begin the process of evolution. This can happen anywhere the chemistry and energy balance is right, for long enough or in large enough quantities.

The question is why would one consider that more likely to have happened elsewhere. One reason is timing. "Other planets" existed long before the Earth did, so if living molecules can spontaneously arise at all, they were likely to arise there first. Judging from the estimated age of universe 13.75 bn years (assuming for now this isn't a Kelvinesque underestimate) compared to the estimated time it took for life to be established on Earth by whatever means ie approximately 1 bn years (and one can argue for a time period much less than this), the other planets had at least ten times as long to evolve life as Earth had so the probability is that at least one planet somewhere in the vicinity of Earth did based on time alone. But the chances of life beginning on other planets first are astronomically higher than the likelihood that life arose first on Earth, due to the enormity of the number of other planets.

The very large number of candidate planets implies a huge diversity of chemical environments. e.g. planets akin to warm Titans with massive amounts of hydrocarbons and ammonia and water on the surface with strong tidal heating to provide volcanic energy to compliment the light of its sun may have had ideal chemistry to act as an incubator for living molecules in the first generation of chemically diversified solar systems following the earliest supernovas long before the Earth existed.

The likelihood that life from one of these seeded the early Earth depends in part on how many life generating planets exist or have existed close enough to allow physical debris from them to have drifted to this solar system. Allowing for speeds with a magnitude in the range of the solar wind speed of 400km/s over 10bn years the upper range of over 13.3 million light years easily includes all of the local group of galaxies. Whether a bacterial cyst could stay viable for that long is another matter but that depends on the preadaptive evolution of the phenotype of the cyst and its travelling environment, which are highly variable factors. All known bacteria are adapted to the Earth environment and one cannot dismiss the possibility of seeding based on their vulnerabilies as a bacterium evolving on a dying planet would develope very different qualities more suited to space travel and lose them again once it arrived somewhere safer to live.

If one contends life evolved on Earth one has to accept it is more than likely that it evolved elsewhere first. The question is whether it can travel from there to here, between star systems and for the reasons given in my previous post I would consider it possible. What is wonderful about the Earth is that it has remained hospitable to life for so very long compared to its neighbours, due to plate tectonics and the constant tidal massage received from the moon in orbit which has (just barely) maintained an atmospheric balance sufficient to allow creatures like us to evolve who will one day carry life to other planets and whatever we evolve into will do so for as long as the universe will support life I am sure. So the Earth is a champ with great staying power and we owe it everything we have as well as our deepest respect for our own sake and the sake of life in the future, but it seems likely to me that it was given life from somewhere else even if NASA haven't dug anything up on Mars...yet!

Someone else mentioned Zecheria Sitchin as though he was a credible authority at which point I felt obliged to put a different perspective, while discussing the nature of the very early Earth just after the formation of the Moon...

That would not be my choice of reference for the impact theory.

Reginald Aldworth Daly (Harvard) proposed the impact hypothesis for lunar formation in 1946 and it was more widely discussed in scientific circles in 1974-5.

Sitchin began his pseudoscience publishing career in 1976 and like Von Daniken et al, simply incorporated elements of current progressive science into a mythical, mystical, cosmological mishmash to give his books superficial credibility and entertainment value in order to make money.

Nevertheless planetary collision has been widely accepted as a bonafide hypothesis which explains real observations of identical isotopic signatures for the Earth's and Moon's surface compositions. The only problem with it as a mechanism for the propagation of life (from one planet to another via collision) is the surface temperature of Earth after the collision. Pahlevan et al 2007 (CalTech) suggest that the collision was so energetic that in the aftermath there was an atmosphere of high temperature silicon vapour over a molten surface. This kind of temperature would vapourise any bacterial life no matter how hardy it had become and would have sterilised the Earth and Moon.

So it would not be possible for planetary collision to be a means for the propagation of viable organisms. This might only have occurred after the surface solidified and atmosphere cooled sufficiently to permit liquid water.