Monday, November 30, 2015

Quantum spookiness is nothing compared to biology's mysteries!

The news is properly filled these days with reports of studies documenting various very mysterious aspects of the cosmos, on scales large and small.  News media feed on stories of outer space's inner secrets.  We have dark matter and dark energy that, if models of gravitational effects and other phenomena are correct, comprise the majority of the cosmos's contents. We have relativity, that shows that space and even time itself are curved.  We have ideas that there may be infinitely many universes (there are various versions of this, some called the multiverse).  We have quantum uncertainty by which a particle or wave or whatever can be everywhere at once and have multiple superposed states that are characterized in part only when we observe it.  We have space itself inflating (maybe faster than the speed of light).  And then there's entanglement, by which there seem to be instant correlated actions at unlimited distances.  And there is some idea that everything is just a manifestation of many-dimensional vibrations ('strings').

The general explanations are that these things make no 'sense' in terms of normal human experience, using just our built in sensory systems (eyes, ears, touch-sense, smell, etc.) but that mathematically observable data fit the above sorts of explanations to a huge degree of accuracy.  You cannot understand these phenomena in any real natural way but only by accustoming yourself to accept the mathematical results, the read-outs of instrumentation, and their interpretation.  Even the most thoughtful physicists routinely tell us this.

These kinds of ideas rightfully make the news, and biologists (perhaps not wanting to be left out, especially those in human-related areas) are thus led to concocting other-worldly ideas of their own, making promises of miracle precision and more or less health immortality, based on genes and the like.  There is a difference, however: unlike physicists, biologists reduce things to concepts like individual genes and their enumerable effects, treating them as basically simple, primary and independent causes.

In physics, if we could enumerate the properties of all the molecules in an object, like a baseball, comet, or a specified set of such objects, we (physicists, that is!) could write formal equations to describe their interactions with great precision.  Some of the factors might be probabilistic if we wanted to go beyond gravity and momentum and so on, to describe quantum-scale properties, but everything would follow the same set of rules for contributing to every interaction.  Physics is to a great, and perhaps ultimate extent, about replicable complexity.  A region of space or an object may be made of countless individual bits, but each bit is the same (in terms of things like gravity per unit mass and so on).  Each pair, say, of interactions of similar particles etc. follows the same rules. Every electron is alike as far as is known.  That is why physics can be expressed confidently as a manifestation of laws of nature, laws that seem to hold true everywhere in our detectable cosmos.

Of cats and Schroedinger's cat
Biology is very different.  We're clearly made of molecules and use energy just as inanimate objects do, and the laws of chemistry and physics apply 100% of the time at the molecular and physics levels. But the nature of life is essentially the product of non-replicable complexity, of uniquely interacting interactions.  Life is composed strictly of identifiable elements and forces etc at the molecular level. Yet the essence of life is descent with modification from a common origin, Darwin's key phrase, and this is all about differences.  Differences are essential when it comes to the adaptation of organisms, whether by natural selection, genetic drift, or whatever, because adaptation means change.  Without life's constituent units being different, there would be no evolution beyond purely mechanical changes like the formation of crystals.  Even if life is, in a sense the assembling of molecular structures, it is the difference in their makeups that makes us different from crystals.

Evolution and its genetic basis are often described in assertively simple terms, as if we understood them in a profound ultimate sense.  But that is a great exaggeration: the fact that some simple molecules interacted 4 billion years ago, in ways that captured energy and enabled the accretion of molecular complexity to generate today's magnificent biosphere, is every bit as mysterious, in the subjective sense of the term at least, as anything quantum mechanics or relativity can throw at us. Indeed, the essential nature of life itself is equally as non-intuitive. And that's just a start.

The evolution of complex organisms, like cats, built through developmental interactions of awe-inspiring complexity, leading to units made up of associated organ systems that communicate internally in some molecular ways (physiology) and externally in basically different (sensory) ways is as easy to say as "it's genetic!", but again as mysterious as quantum entanglement.  Organisms are the self-assembly of an assemblage of traits with interlocking function, that can be achieved in countless ways (because the genomes and environments of every individual are at least slightly different).  An important difference is that quantum entanglement may simply happen, but we--evolved bags of molecular reactions--can discover that it happens!

The poor cat in the box.  Source: "Schrödinger cat" by File:Kamee01.jpg: Martin Bahmann, Wilimedia Commons

This self-assembly is wondrous, even more so than the dual existence of Schroedinger's famous cat in a box.  That cat is alive and dead at the same time depending on whether a probilistic event has happened inside the box (see this interesting discussion), until you open the box, in which case the cat is alive or dead. This humorous illustration of quantum superposition garnered a lot of attention, though not that much by Schroedinger himself for which it was just a whimsical way to make the point about quantum strangeness.

But nobody seems to give a thought beyond sympathy for the poor cat!  That's too bad, because what's really amazing is the cat itself.  That feline construct makes most of physics pale by comparison.  A cat is not just a thing, but a massively well-organized entity, a phenomenon of interactions, thanks to the incredible dance of embryonic development.  Yet even development and the lives that plants and animals (and, indeed, single-celled organisms) live, impressively elaborate as they are, pale by comparison with various aspects these organisms have of awareness, self-awareness, and consciousness.

This is worth thinking about (so to speak) when inundated by the fully justified media blitz that weird physics evokes, but then you should ask whether anything in the incomprehensibly grand physics and cosmology worlds are even close to the elusiveness and amazing reality of these properties of life and how these properties could possibly come about, how they evolved and how they develop in each individual--as particular traits, not just the result of some generic evolutionary process.

And there's even more:  If flies or cats are not 'conscious' in the way that we are, then it is perhaps as amazing that their behavior, which so seems to have aspects of those traits, could be achieved without conscious awareness.  But if that be so, then the mystery of the nature of consciousness having evolved, and the nature of its nature, are only augmented many-fold, and even farther from our intuition than quantum entanglement.

Caveat emptor
Of course, we may have evolved to perceive the world just the way the world really is (extending our native senses with sensitive instruments to do so).  Maybe what seems strange or weird is just our own misunderstanding or willingness to jump on strangeness bandwagons.  Here from Aeon Magazine is a recent and thoughtful expression of reservations about such concepts as dark matter and energy.

If quantum entanglement and superposition, or relativity's time dilation and length contraction, are inscrutable, and stump our intuition, then surely consciousness trumps those stumps.  Will anyone reading this blog live to see even a comparable level of understanding in biology to what we have in physics?

1 comment:

James Goetz said...

Excellent post, Ken.

"Will anyone reading this blog live to see even a comparable level of understanding in biology to what we have in physics?"

I suppose *no* because I suppose that all chemistry and biology derive or emerge from the fundamental forces of physics, so I expect that biological life is more complex than most topics in physics.

Also, I do some philosophy of science and would reject the existence of dark matter if a minor alteration of our understanding of gravity would consistently interpret all known phenomena, but I lack the mathematical background to analyze the respective models. I also suppose with many that dark energy and vacuum energy are one and the same while we do not know much else about vacuum energy.

We also have yet to detect the cause of gravity. Mathematical speculation indicates that gravity has something to do with the curvature of spacetime while consistent string theories and M-theory support the existence of gravitons, but we still do not directly observe the cause of gravity, which makes gravity theoretical science instead of proper science.