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Alan Lightman: Life has meaning even if we are mere brains, atoms

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From Nautilus:

Is Life Special Just Because It’s Rare?

For centuries, we human beings have speculated on the possible existence and prevalence of life elsewhere in the universe. For the first time in history, we can begin to answer that profound question. At this point, the results of the Kepler mission can be extrapolated to suggest that something like 10 percent of all stars have a habitable planet in orbit. That fraction is large. With 100 billion stars just in our galaxy alone, and so many other galaxies out there, it is highly probable that there are many, many other solar systems with life. From this perspective, life in the cosmos is common.

However, there’s another, grander perspective from which life in the cosmos is rare. That perspective considers all forms of matter, both animate and inanimate. Even if all “habitable” planets (as determined by Kepler) do indeed harbor life, the fraction of all material in the universe in living form is fantastically small. Assuming that the fraction of planet Earth in living form, called the biosphere, is typical of other life-sustaining planets, I have estimated that the fraction of all matter in the universe in living form is roughly one-billionth of one-billionth. Here’s a way to visualize such a tiny fraction. If the Gobi Desert represents all of the matter flung across the cosmos, living matter is a single grain of sand on that desert. How should we think about this extreme rarity of life?

Find us just one extraterrestrial life form, however simple, just a cell, and this discussion could go somewhere.

Stuck for that, author Lightman then goes on about the evils of vitalism and belief in life after death, and the way to find meaning in a fully natural universe

I realize that there is a certain amount of circularity in the above comments. For meaning is relevant, perhaps, only in the context of minds and intelligence. If the minds don’t exist, then neither does meaning. However, the fact is that we do exist. And we have minds. We have thoughts. The physicists may contemplate billions of self-consistent universes that do not have planets or stars or living material, but we should not neglect our own modest universe and the fact of our own existence. And even though I have argued that our bodies and brains are nothing more than material atoms and molecules, we have created our own cosmos of meaning. We make societies. We create values. We make cities. We make science and art. And we have done so as far back as recorded history. More.

He also thinks space aliens have done so.

Space aliens? We are stuck for a single ET cell. But never for abstruse thoughts about these matters.

Do you ever get the feeling that naturalism is stuck too far down in a rut to be rescued before it goes into orbit from China?

See also:

But surely we can’t conjure an entire advanced civilization?

and

How do we grapple with the idea that ET might not be out there?

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9 Replies to “Alan Lightman: Life has meaning even if we are mere brains, atoms

  1. 1
    daveS says:

    Do you ever get the feeling that naturalism is stuck too far down in a rut to be rescued before it goes into orbit from China?

    Not yet, and certainly not based on the three quoted paragraphs. Even if it’s just us, no deities, and little hope of contacting alien civilizations if any exist, then we still have the opportunity to lead a fulfilling life here on Earth. At least those of us fortunate enough to live in developed and stable countries.

  2. 2
    tjguy says:

    I like what crev.info has to say about this type of Materialistic rhetoric:

    “There are two arguments you can make right off the bat with a believer in brain evolution, even with no knowledge of neurons or hominids. One is an adaptation of Gödel’s theorem: a system cannot be proved within its own axioms. A system, like mathematics, requires external presuppositions for verification. Any reductionist theory of mind that invokes only particles in motion is doomed to failure. You can study all the electrons in a cathode ray tube till the cows come home, and never discern that a story is being projected from a writer’s mind to a receiver’s mind. C. S. Lewis argued that to “see through” something is not the same as to see it. Similarly, we can study neurons forever in finer detail than ever, and fail to see what is really going on. Sure, the neurons react in response to whatever is moving them, but you cannot find the mover in the physical components. Only by inferring the presence of an agent external to the system are you able to uncover the true explanation for the system.

    The second argument is that evolutionary explanations for the brain are self-refuting. Recall the Yoda Complex from the 09/25/2006 commentary. A Darwinist cannot sneak outside his brain and propose a theory he expects to be taken rationally as something that might be true, if he or she is claiming that the brain is only molecules molded by evolutionary forces. It matters not whether the forces are ecological or social; as long as they are materialistic, evolutionary rationality collapses under its own assumptions; it vanishes into smoke. Only by proposing the external existence of immaterial realities like Truth and the laws of logic can anyone propose a rational proof of anything. Christians, naturally, have such assumptions as their preconditions of argument. Evolutionists have none, and must be rebuked when caught plagiarizing the axioms of their opponents. – See more at: http://crev.info/2007/11/the_b.....WBAti.dpuf

  3. 3
    daveS says:

    One is an adaptation of Gödel’s theorem: a system cannot be proved within its own axioms.

    I’m not sure what this means. Is it claimed to be an actual theorem?

  4. 4
    Andre says:

    Dave

    Yes it is called Godel’s incompleteness theorem and if I am not mistaken it’s about 90 years old and unrefuted. Godel was Einstein’s go to man.

  5. 5
    daveS says:

    Andre,

    Yes, I know about Gödel’s (presumably) Second Incompleteness Theorem, which applies to formal systems. It’s this “adaptation” that seems to apply to “systems” in general that I’m asking about.

  6. 6
    Seversky says:

    Do you ever get the feeling that naturalism is stuck too far down in a rut to be rescued before it goes into orbit from China?

    All the scientific and technological advances that we have come to take for granted are the product of a naturalistic/materialistic view of the universe. It is what will put a rocket into orbit from China or anywhere else on the planet. By that measure, it looks a really good rut to be stuck in.

  7. 7
    EvilSnack says:

    All the scientific and technological advances that we have come to take for granted are the product of a naturalistic/materialistic view of the universe.

    Show me how a naturalistic/materialistic view of the universe was a necessary element in any scientific discovery, and I’ll believe you.

    You can’t. You can certainly show me that the person who made this discovery or that discovery held to a naturalistic/materialistic view of the universe, but you cannot prove, or even give an explanation that passes the laugh-out-loud test, that any departure from the naturalistic/materialistic view of the universe would have prevented or even delayed that discovery.

    What is necessary for scientific discovery, however, is the belief that the world of our experience operates according to laws that we can infer, because scientific discovery is nothing more than the inference of such laws. This belief has no necessary requirement of belief in any particular explanation about how that world, or its laws, came be as we presently observe them to be.

    You can object, saying that research is impossible if the researcher thinks that angels or demons will fiddle with his apparatus; but you would be attacking a straw man, or at the very least a view that many of us here do not hold. The vast majority of Christians do not go about their lives dwelling upon the possibility that divine intervention may strike at any moment, and most of us are quite convinced that all the purposes of miraculous intervention have been accomplished and that there will be no more during our lifetimes.

  8. 8
    sean samis says:

    In the OP, I saw this:

    Space aliens? We are stuck for a single ET cell. But never for abstruse thoughts about these matters.

    Ironic.

    We are stuck for a single fragment of evidence for an ID of life, but that does not seem to get in the way of much thought about that uber-mysterious ID.

    … and yes, even if all we are is matter and energy, Life has meaning.

    sean s.

  9. 9
    KRock says:

    @ sean s

    “and yes, even if all we are is matter and energy, Life has meaning.”

    Yes, keep telling yourself that… lol…

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