THE MEANING

THE ORIGIN OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD

The existing views

Religious - the origin of the world in most religious texts is described in essentially teleological terms, which means that this subject is intertwined with the issue of meaning or purpose, and usually implies the involvement of an agency. Such views are possibly based on genuine spiritual insights, but they are interpreted within historically and culturally specific constructs. So, it is not surprising that religious explanations often appear to be in conflict with facts and reasoning. To bring just one example, in Genesis, it is claimed that the Sun was created after the planet Earth, contrary to the accepted fact that stars must have appeared before planets. Nor does the image of an anthropomorphosised creator and his actions seems to be helpful. Of course, these descriptions can be taken as merely metaphorical expressions, but it is not clear what these metaphors stand for, beyond acknowledging the necessity of an agency.

 

Philosophical - philosophy seems at a loss regarding the question of the beginning. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers believed that the universe is infinite and therefore does not have a beginning, it has existed and it will exist forever, but this standpoint has been heavily criticised from both rational and empirical perspectives[1]. Philosopher Kant called the question of origin an antinome because apparently both possibilities, that the universe has the beginning and that it does not, seem to contradict reason (this is true, however, only under certain assumptions, such as that time continues back for ever in each case).

 

Materialistic - science has avoided the incongruences present in religious interpretations, but some fundamental questions, such as how and why the universe came into existence and why it has certain properties, may not been within the reach of its method. Starting from an a priori assumption that the whole of reality can be reduced to its physical aspect (which is required in order to fit the materialistic framework) may lead to an impossible situation. It is comparable to a chick inside an egg that tries to find out how the egg was created, ignoring the possibility that anything outside the egg may exist. The commonly accepted interpretation in scientific circles at the moment, that everything came from nothing, in no time and for no reason, and yet in a very orderly and precise manner, seems as absurd as the claim that an all powerful anthropomorphic being created the universe in six equal time periods[2]. The Big Bang and quantum singularity (a single point of infinite compression from which the Big Bang started) do not dispose of the questions of how and why the universe was born - only of science as it is, because the laws of physics break down near a singularity. And, closing the case just because of methodological limitations cannot be justified. Some scientists try to get away with the answer that nothing could have existed before and caused the Big Bang because time itself started with it. Even if time, as presently conceptualised, had not existed (the idea first expressed by theologian St. Augustine) this ‘solution' is not satisfactory. Imagine that you dream two people discussing how the dream came to existence. One may claim that because the ‘dream-time' started with the dream, nothing could exist before the dream and therefore cause the dream. But this, of course, would be mistaken. The starting premise only implies that dream-time is different from awake time. By the same token, it can be postulated, for example, that the universe is contained in reality with a different time (e.g. non-entropic one) or more radically, that in reality without matter, movement may not be bound to the concept of time at all. In other words, movement may exist without time - recognised as such in relation to other events, rather than to an abstract notion of time. There is also another problem. It is probably true that if one starts from a mathematical description of the universe as it is and goes backwards, everything can lead to a point from which the process began. However, that the universe can be traced in such a manner does not necessarily mean that the events unravelled forward in the same way. For instance, a glass can be mathematically traced back to the chemical components of the material and the way they combine, without taking into account that, in order to produce a glass from these components, a glass maker is necessary.

 

Neither of the above viewpoints seem to offer a fully satisfactory interpretation. This is probably the case because they stick to ideological frameworks that are inherently limited. Before considering an alternative though, certain features of the physical world need to be examined first.

  • [1]. Not all these criticisms have been justified, though. For instance, philosopher Heinrich Olbers' objection that an infinite static universe would have so many stars that the sky should be bright at night as if it was daylight, does not hold water: the light of far stars would be in the invisible infra-red spectrum. This example is worth mentioning because it highlights the need for philosophy to pay attention to science.
  • [2]. The advocates of both views can claim that they seem absurd only to outsiders because they lack a full understanding. This would mean though, that one has to accept a certain framework first, to become a believer (in materialism or a monotheistic religion). But, why would anybody wish to do so, if these frameworks do not look credible in the first place?

Some characteristics of the physical world

The issue of the origin of the physical world is important, because it can cast the light on the question of whether it is purposeful. A purposefulness would imply that sentience is not only necessary to investigate reality, but is also its essential ingredient. On the other hand, if the universe is the result of random meaningless events, sentience may be only an accidental by-product. Examining some characteristics of the physical world can help in determining the likelihood of the above possibilities.

One striking feature of the universe relevant to this question is its orderliness, conformity to formula and rational laws perfectly suited for life. It is often (somewhat inaccurately) referred to as the Anthropic principle. The universe could have been chaotic, but it is not - it is very orderly. The Big Bang theory does not predict that all its properties have to be so finely tuned. There are infinite possibilities of bad balance that were far more likely to emerge if it was only down to chance. Any of them could have produced a universe that was incapable of generating stable stars, planets and life. Some examples will be highlighted to bring home how remarkable this is.

 

The Big Bang

To have a universe that will sustain galaxies, stars, planets and life, the conditions at the beginning must be right within very narrow ranges. The universe had to start with the right density, amount of inhomogeneity of radiation, and the initial rate of expansion.

Apparently, there was a slight excess of matter over antimatter (baryons over anti-baryons, electrons over positrons, etc.) at the initial stages of the universe. If this excess had been smaller, there would have not been enough matter for galaxies and stars to be formed. If it had been greater, there would have been too much radiation for planets to emerge.

The initial inhomogeneity (‘lumpiness') in the distribution of radiation was also necessary for the appearance of stars and galaxies. However, too much inhomogeneity would have led to black holes being created before stars.

If the original velocity of expansion had been one millionth greater, the heavier elements and stars would never have come into existence; if it had been one million millionth smaller, the universe would have collapsed before it was cool enough for the elements to form.

The present theories do not imply that this set of conditions had to exist. There are many other possible combinations that would not support stars, planets and life.

 

Subatomic particles

Each particle has a few defining properties which determine its behaviour. These properties are always and everywhere the same. For example, all electrons have a charge of -1 and a spin of ½; all positrons have identical properties to electrons, but a charge of +1; all protons have also the same charge and spin, but a much greater mass. There are a countless number of particles with these characteristics, but no known particles with intermediate features between the two kinds. Moreover, their features seem to be mutually tuned. For example, despite their huge difference in mass, for a reason unknown to science, the electrical charges of electrons and protons match precisely. If they did not, all material configurations would be unstable and the universe would consist of nothing more than radiation and a relatively uniform mixture of gases. This can hardly be just an accident. The celebrated scientist Hawking writes:

The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. For example, if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded... One can take this either as evidence of a divine purpose in Creation and the choice of the laws of science or as support for the strong anthropic principle[3]. (1988, p.138-139)

 

Four forces

Present day science claims that the four forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces) govern all events in the physical universe. These too are, for inexplicable reasons, finely tuned. If any of them was slightly different, the universe (and, therefore, life) could not exist.

If gravity was just a little bit weaker, galaxies would fly apart and stars would burn out prematurely. There would not be enough gravity to pull the debris from dead stars into new interstellar dust clouds. The formation of new suns and planets would be impossible. On the other hand, if gravity had started out even a fraction stronger, then the rate of collisions between stars would have been so great that any typical solar system, such as this one, would not have survived long enough to produce stable planets and life.

If the exertion of electromagnetic force altered in any way, chemistry would not exist, which again means no stars and planets, and no physical life.

The same applies to the strong force that holds the core of atoms together. If it was slightly weaker, the particles would not be able to form the nucleus of an atom. If it was a little stronger, protons would coalesce without the necessity of neutrons being around. The single proton that forms the nucleus of hydrogen, would be unstable. So, hydrogen, one of the basic building blocks of the universe, would not exist. Moreover, in the first case the stars would not be able to shine, and in the second they would inflate and explode before there was any chance to form planets and life on them.

If the weak nuclear force (responsible for various forms of radioactive decay) had slightly different properties the stars could not burn and the elements necessary for life, such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, could not be formed inside them.

This is not all. If these four forces were not mutually aligned in the way they are, the universe also could not exist. Any change in the relationship between these forces would result in the complete impossibility of material reality.

 

Stellar objects

Supernovae, or stellar explosions, are important for life. All the necessary elements (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, etc.) are manufactured in the interior of the stars. If these elements are to accumulate in planets such as the Earth, they must be released from the stellar interiors and disperse throughout the cosmos. This is one of the results of supernova explosions (moreover, the shock waves that they generate are probably important in initiating the condensation of interstellar gas and dust into planetary systems). However, supernovae are also highly destructive. If they were too close to a planetary system, their radiation would obliterate any life. So, supernovae must occur at a very precise rate, and the average distance between them and between all stars must be within a relatively narrow range. The distance between stars in this galaxy is about 30 million miles. If this distance was smaller, planetary orbits would be destabilised. If it was greater, the debris thrown out by a supernova would be so diffusely distributed that planetary systems (like this one) would never be formed. Interestingly, as a great number of stellar objects have been created, the universe appears to be speeding up (the present science cannot explain why), which minimises the destructive effects of supernovae.

The same precision is also apparent with regard to the ratio of longevity between galaxies and stars. Galaxies last several times longer than the lifetime of an average star, which allows the atoms scattered by an earlier generation of supernovae within a galaxy to be gathered into second-generation solar systems.

 

Complex structures

Not only are the properties of the universe precisely ordered to allow the formation of stellar bodies, but they are also synchronised to allow the formation of complex structures, such as molecules (which, of course, must come later). If this was not the case, the creation of the chemical compounds instrumental for life and planetary systems capable of sustaining life would be impossible. Here are some examples:

Chemistry is the process of building up different molecular structures that need to be relatively stable to interact and to form new structures. This could not have happened if some nuclear constants such as the fine structure constant (α) and the electron-to-proton mass ratio (β) were slightly different. If these constants had a higher value, the long chains of molecules such as DNA, could not be formed; if they had a lower value, atoms would not be stable.

Other constants are also crucial: the fact that protons and neutrons have almost, but not quite the same mass, also turns out to be essential. If this value was much different, protons would decay before they could form stable nuclei. A neutron is heavier than a proton by 0.14%, but this small difference is important because it exceeds the total mass of an electron. If it had not, electrons would combine with protons to form neutrons, leaving no hydrogen. Moreover, if the neutron did not outweigh the proton in the nucleus, the active lifetime of the sun and similar stars would be reduced to a few hundred years, not enough for the formation of planets and life. Similarly, that electrons weigh so much less than protons or neutrons is crucial for the existence of chemicals essential for life. Otherwise, molecules like DNA could not maintain their precise and distinctive structures (the electron mass determines the overall size of atoms, and the spacing between the atoms in a molecule).

If the nuclear constant force increased by only 0.3%, it would bind two neutrons; an increase of 3.4% would bind two protons, in which case all the hydrogen would have burned to helium in the early stages of the Big Bang, and so no hydrogen compounds or stable stars could have been formed. On the other hand, a decrease of 9% would unbind protons and neutrons, which would prevent the formation of elements heavier than hydrogen. The consequence of either variation would be that larger elements, including carbon (the basis for organic life), could not exist. A small increase in electromagnetic force would have the same effect.

There is exactly the right amount of heavy subatomic particles (baryons) in the universe to allow the formation of planets. If this amount was marginally greater, the higher density of stars would substantially increase the probability of interstellar encounters that would affect the stability of planetary orbits and by doing so destroy any possible life.

The creation of complex atoms and molecules was also only possible because the properties of the basic elements were well synchronised, and there is no known reason why it should be so. The first nuclei to be formed were those of hydrogen and subsequently helium, but they are too inert to create more complex atomic structures. Carbon served as a catalyst enabling the formation of heavier elements. This required large amounts of carbon in the first place. If two helium nuclei react, they can produce a nucleus of beryllium, a highly unstable isotope that almost immediately disintegrates into helium. To produce carbon, beryllium needs to enter into reaction with helium, which is only possible because the combined energy of the beryllium and helium nuclei is slightly smaller than the energy of carbon - the product of that reaction. However, if so produced carbon reacted with helium, it would be reduced to oxygen. This does not happen because their combined energy is slightly higher then that of oxygen, so it is not a ‘resonance reaction'. Here again is a most improbable fine-tuning of energy levels for four entirely different elements, but without it, more complex structures (including planets, and life forms) could not emerge.

 

Symmetries

The very existence of consistent and rational physical laws (that follow certain mathematical rules) is not something that should be taken for granted and begs a question. But this is not all. Precision and regularity does not apply only to physical laws. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann discovered that when the properties of sub-atomic particles like protons and neutrons are plotted on graphs, they take the form of hexagons and triangles, with the known particles sitting at various points within them. Gell-Mann predicted other sub-atomic particles that science had yet to discover, on the basis of gaps in these patterns. He also predicted that particles in fact consist of ‘sub-sub-atomic' particles (now known as quarks). All his predictions proved correct. Similar patterns, generally know as ‘symmetries', have since turned up often in successive theories of physics.

  • [3]. The strong anthropic principle implies in this case the multiple universes hypothesis, which will be discussed later on.

Possible explanations for the 'anthropic principle'

The above examples show that the universe has some striking properties, discovered but not fully explained by science. At present, some scientists are hoping that GUT (Grand Unified Theory) may provide an answer to the above consistencies, but this is not likely. Even if found, the cosmological constant makes it doubtful that GUT will yield an explanation for the precision and elegance of all these laws and features. Moreover, as the systems theorist and writer Ervin Laszlo points out, ‘...the problem with GUTs is that they cannot satisfactorily explain the progressive structuration of matter in space and time' (1993, p.66).

There are several speculative attempts to account for at least some of these regularities, for example, various inflationary models (that propose rapid expansion of the universe in its initial stages). These models do not always fit well with some observable facts though, and also, as Hawking points out, ‘the inflationary model does not tell us why the initial configuration was not such as to produce something very different from what we observe' (1988, p.148). Hawking proposed his own theory that disposes of singularities and boundaries and involves imaginary time, so the universe ‘would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE' (ibid., p.151)[4]. He concludes: ‘So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?' (ibid., p.157). It is interesting that not only does such a universe in imaginary time make mathematical sense, but is also remarkably similar to descriptions of ‘the other world' found in various spiritual traditions from Buddhism to Christianity (stripped, of course, from their anthropomorphised embellishments). The problem is, however, that the universe familiar to human beings and that operates within real time, still exists. Hawking admits: ‘When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities...' (ibid. p.154). The question is then, what is the factor that brings about the transition from the ‘time-less' universe to the familiar one? In other words, why did the universe with singularities, the Big Bang, and the time that goes only in one direction come to existence? If the above view is correct, it seems that there still might be a place for a ‘creator'.

Another attempt to explain the above regularities is the ‘evolving universe' proposed by cosmologist Lee Smolin. It claims that new universes are created on the other side of black holes. Our universe has black holes and life, and therefore black holes are supposed to be able to produce new universes with the right properties. ‘Bad' universes will not be able to form a black hole and therefore not ‘reproduce' - similar to natural selection processes. However, this concept has some fatal flaws. There is not any indication that these universes exist. They may be in different dimensions, but there is no reason why they should be, if created by black holes in this universe. Secondly, it seems that the energy trapped in a black hole does not go anywhere, but in fact eventually gives birth to galaxies in this universe. And finally, the concept in fact does not provide an answer, only moves the question further down the line. The issue remains where the first ancestor universe came from to start this reproductive cycle.

There are, however, two other interpretations of the ‘anthropic principle' that are both rationally consistent, although one operates within the materialistic framework, while the other does not.

 

The multiple universes theory (advocated, for example, by David Deutsch) can account for the precision and regularity of physical phenomena, and is consistent with materialism. The idea is that universes are constantly formed independently from each other. It is possible that a practically infinite number of universes come into existence. Most of them instantly collapse, but a few survive. If there is an infinite number of universes in becoming, some of them are bound to have the right properties however unlikely they are. The additional advantage of this interpretation is that it can explain some seemingly illogical experimental data in quantum physics. Although a speculation (multiple universes can never be empirically proven), this interpretation is a valid rational candidate to explain why this universe has the features that it has[5].

 

The teleological interpretation - considering all the above mentioned regularities, the other possibility, that the physical universe is intentional, needs to be take into account. This is called the teleological (not to be confused with theological) interpretation which implies purposefulness. The universe is as it is in order to enable the development of phenomena such as life and consciousness. Materialism has not yet come up with a convincing argument about why chemistry emerged from physics, why biology emerged from chemistry, and why the brain and the mind emerged from biology. A teleological view is that a particular type of physics emerged in order to enable the development of chemistry, a particular type of chemistry emerged in order to enable the development of biology, a particular type of biology emerged in order to enable the development of the brain, a particular type of the brain emerged in order to enable the development of the mind. Teleological interpretation (although as speculative as the ‘multiple universe' one) is not irrational, so it should not be discarded outright. The materialistic perspective rejects this possibility for ideological reasons, not because it conflicts with reason or evidence. The statements below show that some contemporary theologians, philosophers and physicists have come to remarkably similar conclusions. The theologian Swinburne writes:

That there should be material bodies is strange enough; but that they should all have such similar powers which they inevitably exercise, seems passing strange. It is strange enough that physical objects should have powers at all - why should they not just be, without being able to make a difference to the world? But that they should all, throughout infinite time and space, have some general powers identical to those of all other objects (and they all be made of components of very few fundamental kinds, each component of a given kind being identical in all characteristics with each other such component) and yet there be no cause of this at all seems incredible.' (1991, p.145)

This statement comes from philosophers Polanyi and Prosch:

...our modern science cannot properly be understood to tell us that the world is meaningless and pointless, that it is absurd. The supposition that it is absurd is a modern myth, created imaginatively from the clues produced by a profound misunderstanding of what science and knowledge are and what they require, a misunderstanding spawned by positivistic leftovers in our thinking and by allegiance to the false ideal of objectivity from which we have been unable to shake ourselves quite free. These are the stoppages in our ears that we must pull out if we are ever once more to experience the full range of meanings possible to man. (1975, p.181)

The physicist Paul Davies makes a comparable point:

...certain crucial structures, such as solar-type stars, depend for their characteristic features on wildly improbable numerical accidents that combine together fundamental constants from distinct branches of physics. And when one goes on to study cosmology - the overall structure and evolution of the universe - incredulity mounts. Recent discoveries about the primeval cosmos oblige us to accept that the expanding universe has been set up in its motion with a cooperation of astonishing precision.' (1982, foreword)

  • [4]. Some theologicians seized upon this hypothesis to conclude that the creator is also the sustainer. If the beginning has no special status, the creator creates/sustains the universe at all times. But this is unnecessary. The creator would need to sustain the universe only up to the point when time separates from space and starts behaving ‘normally' (which is until the size of the universe reaches 10-33cm).
  • [5]. This is not to say that this hypothesis is without controversy. For its criticism see, for example, Davis, 1992, p.215-221, and more recently ibid., 2007, 295-304, where the author evaluate the above two and some other possibilities. Those that Davis himself favours are not included here because of their bizarre and paradox prone requirements (e.g. backwards causation or causal loops).

THE SYNTHESIS PERSPECTIVE

One implication of both possibilities, the purposefully created universe and multi-universes, is that there is ‘supra-reality' containing the physical world (and possibly other worlds). Thus, it is proposed that physical reality is only one level, a sub-system of a larger framework (multiple universes must be created in some other reality that contains all of them[1]).

This view is supported by universal (in the sense that they appear in practically all cultures) spiritual experiences of a greater whole within which the material world is embedded. Although its glimpses may be fleeting and difficult to interpret, they seem to be in the root of all religions, even non-theistic ones. It is true that religion sometimes serves a purpose to alleviate fears and increase sense of control, but these factors cannot be a full explanation for the ubiquitous nature of this belief. A human need to reach beyond immediate sensory experience (that often finds its expression in fantasies, art or mythology, but is also related to genuine transpersonal insights) cannot be easily dismissed as a sort of psychological defence mechanism. There are other (even more conducive) ways to produce similar results, and yet they have not rendered beliefs in supra-reality redundant. By claiming that there is nothing beyond, that humans live in a meaningless self-sufficient bubble, materialism closes the window for satisfying this need. There is no reason to deny the possibility that at least some of these experiences are genuine and correspond to something real. This, of course, does not mean that their various interpretations are valid, but the core of these interpretations should not be undermined.

Some scientists have also come to the conclusion that reducing everything to the world of matter is inadequate, that reality stretches beyond the physical. It is implied for example, in Bohm's theory of ‘implicate order' and earlier, in De Broglie's model. The latter proposed that reality is built in levels of size and organisation, each level containing its own causal and statistical laws. As already mentioned, some implications of Hawking's theory also hint in this direction.

So-called realistic sceptics, of course, might not be satisfied, because it is not possible to provide material evidence for this aspect of reality, which can only be extrapolated or experienced (in terms of transpersonal experiences). However, those who demand such evidence neglect the fact that solipsistic and historical sceptics can use the same argument against the existence of physical reality. Ultimately the existence of the material world cannot be proven either. It cannot be proven (to a solipsistic sceptic) that the world is not just a figment of one's imagination as a dream is, or (to a historical sceptic) that it existed a moment ago, and yet these are accepted as facts. Thus, material proof is here not considered decisive. However, there is indirect support for this notion. For instance, some findings in quantum physics suggests that ‘the world of matter-energy appears to float, rather as a thin precipitate, on a deep sea of almost infinite energies' (Laszlo, 1993, p.87). This is not the same kind of energy that forms matter. The energies in question, also known as zero-point energies, although not ‘real' undoubtedly exist and cannot be ignored. The following may be a case in point. Electromagnetic fields propagate in a vacuum, but there is not an obvious source for this field (the electron cannot be a field source). Nevertheless, the field in which the electron appears stores a large amount of energy. That energy must be, as it were, non-material (meaning without a mass) because otherwise it would have created a gravitational potential that would have collapsed all matter in the universe to a singularity shortly after the Big Bang. And yet, the universe is still expanding. In fact, the very existence of matter can be questioned. What appears as matter are in effect highly condensed (and relatively unstable) energy fields. Popper writes:

Matter turns out to be highly packed energy, transformable into other forms of energy; and therefore something of the nature of a process, since it can be converted into other processes such as light and, of course, motion and heat... The universe now appears to be not a collection of things, but an interacting set of events or processes... [atoms have] a structure that can hardly be described as ‘material', and certainly not as ‘substantial': with the programme of explaining the structure of matter, physics had to transcend materialism. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.7)

This all indicates that if the methodological and ideological limitations of scientific and spiritual approaches are overcome, there is no insurmountable conflict between them. They both point at the possibility that reality is made of at least two levels or planes. The familiar one, consisting of a huge amount of very dense and relatively slow energy that appears as matter. It can be defined as an aspect of reality determined by the physical laws. In other words, physical reality and the laws that govern it can be considered a special case, a subset of a larger reality (as Newtonian physics is assumed to be a special case of Einsteinian physics, and valid within a limited range). The boundaries of physical reality are twofold: on one hand, singularities, allegedly in the centre of black holes where the laws of physics break down, so they can be taken as ‘out of this word'; and on the other, the speed of light - anything faster than the speed of light would violate the General Theory of Relativity and therefore be again ‘out of this world'. Considering that the material reality includes entities of maximum density and minimal movement (black holes) it is likely to be the lowest possible level. It is proposed that the other reality consists of faster, less dense but more refined energy, not bound by all the laws of physics applicable in the material world. Although this may be difficult to imagine, all the evidence suggests that energy is best conceived as the process itself, pure movement (without necessarily something that moves). In this case it is possible that there are movements with speed beyond that of light. A science and spiritual writer, David Ash, who advocates this view, writes:

Modern physics may have established that particles cannot move faster than the speed of light, but this does not mean that movement is constrained to this speed. The speed of light is the upper limit of velocity if it is assumed that movement can only exist as the property of particles. However, this classical assumption of the atomic hypothesis is merely a reflection of outmoded materialism.' (1995, p.139)

The implication is that such energy does not operate within the space-time continuum (which is relative to the speed of light) and it can consist only of forms that do not have mass, so it can be called non-material reality[2]. Such reality has no stable ground state, no equilibrium condition, no space-time framework; hence, there is no beginning and there can be no end[3].

This is not to say that this realm can be interpreted in such a way to allow the breaking of the laws that operate within the physical world (as the Theory of Relativity would not have been valid if it had contradicted Newtonian physics within its range). Even fields and waves, as long as they are linked to physical objects and their interactions, have to be interpreted in compliance with the laws of physics. Nevertheless, on the level of sub-atomic particles (that can be conceived as waves too) some strange behaviour can already be detected: for example, if two photons that have been ‘entangled' (meaning essentially that they spin in the same direction) are separated, and one of them changes the direction of the spin, the other will also change direction irrespective of their distance - and instantaneously, indicating that they are still somehow connected and that the space-time framework is already losing its grip.[4]

It is likely that these two realties are in constant interaction. After all, subatomic particles seem to appear from ‘nowhere' and disappear all the time, but this interaction can be ignored in most of cases (except perhaps in the sub-atomic sphere and in complex wave generating systems such as the brain). Human beings normally perceive only the material world. Phenomenologically, the relation between reality as a whole and the material one can be compared to the relation between an awake state and a dream - regarding inclusiveness and non-presence. A dream state is situated within a larger framework of the awake state, but while in a dream, the dreamer is usually not aware of it (except in so-called lucid dreams). Of course, this parallel has its limits. A dream is typically subjective - meaning that dream events depend on the dreamer, while the material world is objective - other agents and objects exist independently from the observer. Nevertheless, it may not be completely off the mark to say that in this world all sentient beings share a collective dream.

The question may be asked why one should be concerned with reality beyond our immediate reality. In most situations, indeed, it does not need to be taken into account (as, for all practical purposes, Newtonian physics suffices and Relativity can be ignored). However, if non-material reality is in a causal relationship to the physical world - in other words, if the physical world is rooted in it, non-material reality is necessary for the existence of material one. Therefore, only a larger perspective that includes the notion of such reality can offer some hope of finding a rational explanation to some fundamental questions relevant to this world.

The real issue, however, is not the existence of this supra-reality. What separates the materialist perspective from the non-materialist one is that the former denies the role of  an agency and purpose, while the latter accepts this possibility. Thus, what needs to be considered is whether the necessity of sentience makes sense and can be justified.

  • [1]. Nothingness is non-referential and cannot be an option (vacuum is not nothingness, it only lacks matter). Empty space, if such a thing exists, is also not an alternative because, as science teaches us, space was created in the Big Bang, so it could not have existed before. It is possible that cosmological constants and some laws of nature vary within physical world, thus creating may universes. However, in this case they would all still depend on the specific mathematical and theoretical model, so the problem would not be resolved, just moved on a different level. If this theory is to be taken as a serious candidate, it must be assumed that multi-universes are created in reality that does not depend on the rules that operate within them.
  • [2]. Even in the material universe not everything has to have mass; fields do not have mass as well as light and other waves, and they may play an essential role in linking the two realms. However, electro-magnetic or gravitational fields are vector fields (having both, magnitude and direction) rather than standing scalar fields, so they really belong to the world of matter.
  • [3]. Note that if the beginning is not required, the problem that the Big Bang theory faces in relation to the material world, namely what was before, is not an issue anymore.
  • [4]. This does not violate the General Theory of Relativity that claims that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, because it is not an informational exchange - there is no cause and effect.

The One

We do not only make constructs but also discover them, so it seems that reality itself is, to a degree, constructed. This begs an even more fundamental question than why the properties of the universe are finely tuned; namely, why there are laws at all, why the universe is orderly, rather than chaotic and disorderly. The principles of constructing reality (such as the laws of physics) could not emerge spontaneously unless there were certain pre-set conditions that severely limit all possible options. If one of the basic such laws, the second law of thermodynamics, is correct and universal (and there is no reason to believe that this is not the case) entropy or disorder constantly increases, which implies that the universe was at the beginning even more orderly then now. High entropy is completely random, a state of zero information. The universe, therefore, could not have started from a high-entropy state, or it would not have its present complex structure. It had to begin as a low-entropy, high information state (entropy and information are inversely proportional). This means that a great amount of potential information was condensed in an extremely small space. That would make the spontaneous formation of the laws of physics through the interplay of matter and forces as they go along, extremely unlikely. These configurations must have already been in-built (as a potential) at the beginning. The physicist and philosopher Edward Milne concludes:

One cannot study cosmology without having a religious attitude to the universe. Cosmology assumes the rationality of the universe, but can give no reason for it short of a creator of the laws of nature being a rational creator. (in Hazen, 1997, p.31)

The orderliness of the universe renders the possibility that reality is purposeful and that some sort of sentience is involved conceivable. However, this by all means should not be interpreted as a definitive proof (such a proof would not be conducive any way, which will be elaborated shortly). It only shows that a belief in a meaningful reality is rational and at least as plausible as a belief in a meaningless one. Neither the teleological nor multiple universes explanations can be proven; nor is one less reasonable than the other. So, the answer to the question of whether the universe was purposefully built or not, remains in the realm of personal choice (it is significant that reasoning does not remove choice). True, if the high improbability of an accidental occurrence of the other events that enable human beings to contemplate these questions (the onset of organic life, the process of biological evolution and the appearance of consciousness) is added to the above, the teleological interpretation may seem more plausible - but the other one is not impossible.

There is, of course, the third standpoint of an agnostic, undecided (the one who is waiting for a proof). This position is, however, highly problematic and inconsistent. One inconsistency is between the belief and action. Although the person may claim to be undecided, shis actions, at least in some instances, have to be either congruent with a meaningless reality or a meaningful one (this is because either possibility eliminates some rational choices). So, even if s/he refuses to take a stand, s/he must act as if s/he believes that life is either meaningful or meaningless (it cannot be neither or both at the same time). Furthermore, the immediacy of the material world (within which meaning remains elusive) creates an asymmetry that in practice often reduces this position to an unacknowledged materialist one. And this is not all. Many propositions have their roots in and can be traced back to this fundamental question, and therefore cannot be justified unless one of the options is accepted. The bottom line is that neither of the above two positions can be definitely proven, so there is no point in waiting for a proof. A materialist and a non-materialist may be right or may be wrong; an agnostic cannot be right in any case.

Given that both explanations cannot be logically or empirically excluded, a modified version of Pascal's wager may be relevant here. Assuming that both options are rational and possible, it can be deduced that a person who errs in shis belief that reality is not purposeful loses more than a person who errs in the belief that reality is. By the same token, a person who is correct believing that reality is purposeful gains more than a person who is correct believing that it is not[5]. Thus, it is sensible to consider the option that reality is meaningful. If the other one is taken, nothing more needs to be said. It can be left to scientists to fill in any gaps that they can, and ascribe to chance or ignore those aspects of reality that are inaccessible to their method. This would, however, go against common sense. Humans have an inherent need to interpret their existence in a meaningful way, and although such a coherence may be an illusion, the need cannot be. Therefore, all plausible avenues that could meet this need should be explored. First though, a possible objection that purpose violates the criterion of cohesiveness needs to be addressed. If a cohesive interpretation can be provided without it, then purpose is superfluous. Yet, this does not seem to be the case. Both interpretations that offer a rationale for origin and orderliness of the universe involve an additional factor. Materialist interpretation relies on chance (and infinity that makes chance plausible), while a teleological interpretation implies purpose. Chance, however, has a lower level of explanatory power than purpose (in fact, chance has an explanatory power of next to nothing). So, all other things being equal, incorporating meaning is likely to provide a more cohesive interpretation than otherwise.

The purposeful universe has to be intentional, therefore it requires intent, and intent requires awareness (it does not make sense to consider intent without awareness). Both require that which is aware and intends. In other words, there must be a source of the intent and the awareness. Experience of any kind can hardly be of much help in contemplating such an entity. Throughout history people may have been able to intuit but, as most theologicians agree, not directly experience the existence of such a source, even in the context of transpersonal experiences that in the best case may be limited to ‘emanations' or associated feelings of bliss or unity[6]. Thus, any conjectures in this respect can be only deduced.

If intent is instrumental for the birth of the universe, its source cannot be in material reality, so it must be in non-material reality. It is reasonable to suppose that the energy in non-material reality has the focal point. Movement is always relative to something, either a medium or a point (e.g. the movement of a car is relative to the road or to a starting point). Considering that non-material reality does not operate within the space-time framework (it is accepted that time and space started with the Big Bang), it can be concluded that energy must have at least a reference point[7]. In other words, because in that realm there is no medium (such as space), the pure movement, which is arguably the best description of energy, starts from and converges on one point. That point can be called the One. Even polytheistic religions, such as the Hindu and the Ancient Greek, are familiar with this concept. The One can be conceived as the indivisible, non-dimensional (meaning of no size, infinitely small) focusing point of non-material energy that, in turn, makes ‘the body' of the One. The One and the associated energy are, therefore, two aspects of the same. Thus, the One is not just another object that can be discovered, found or proved. As already recognised in many spiritual traditions, the One is beyond words and images (a point cannot be defined, and even a drawn point is a crude approximation consisting of an infinite number of points).

 

So, what would be the necessary characteristics of the One? The One resembles the notion of God. The concept of God can be, indeed, seen as the imaginative expression of an intuition about the existence of the One[8]. Traditionally (especially in Christianity) the following properties are put forward: omnipresence (all present), omnipotence (all powerful) and omniscience (all knowing). However, this seems to contradict common sense and in some instances even logic[9]. Something else is necessary though: that the One is and that the One does - in other words, existence and agency. This is the basis for the two properties already mentioned: awareness and intent.

 

Awareness generally can be considered an ability to focus possibilities or actualise potentials (as, for example, in the case of the collapse of the quantum wave function). Considering that in this instance there is no distinction between the subject and the object (awareness amounts to self-awareness), the minimum requirement is that the focused energy is aware of its own being, its own existence. Thus, it can be postulated that awareness is an intrinsic property of focused energy or energy ‘loops', as gravitational force is, for example, an intrinsic property of matter (in the physical world energy can only be transformed from one form to another, it does not have the focus or source, hence no awareness). Awareness does not presuppose and cannot be equated with the mind and its materials (conceptual knowledge, thoughts, language, memory, imagination etc.). These are all normally indirect constructs that are not necessary (for example, it is possible to be aware of a change, without having to conceptualise what is changing). Metaphorically speaking, awareness can be compared to the light from a movie projector, that enables the materials projected (a movie) to be distinguished or actualised, but it cannot be identified with them.

Intent is another essential property. It also does not require the mind and thinking in human terms. The universe that operates on the basis of finely tuned and consistent laws and principles does not necessitate theoretical knowledge, it only necessitates an intent. To make an analogy, when a person moves shis arm, a set of relatively regular principles and alignments are involved that can be rationally discerned. However, s/he does not need to know them in order to move shis arm, s/he only needs the intent to do so (providing that the muscles, nerves, brain and bones are functional, which is in this case beside the point). Similarly, directing the flow of water does not require knowing and positioning every water molecule, but only setting the boundaries to its flow. As Polanyi and Prosch put it, ‘... some sort of intelligible directional tendencies may be operative in the world without our having to suppose that they determine all things' (1975, p.162). This global directional tendency can be called the Intent[10]. The Intent does two things: it provides direction by setting the boundaries and also encourages energy to move in that direction. To make a parallel with the above mentioned example, this is similar to what a river-bed and gravitational force do for water. The Intent sets, to use Polanyi's term, the ‘boundary conditions' that are conducive to the purpose, and like a funnel, forces energy in a certain direction (in fact, a more accurate analogy would be a reversed funnel that starts from a very narrow point and then gradually expands). Therefore, the One does not need to create the individual laws of physics and material objects (galaxies, stars, planets etc.). It is sufficient to intend the particular behaviour of energy, and the physical laws are spontaneously created and tuned to accommodate the Intent[11]. Because the energy can be considered ‘the body' or ‘the mind' of the One (there is no separation between the subject and the object) it is enough to intend and that intent becomes realisation - intention is creation. Like when a person chooses to imagine something, it immediately appears in shis mind and becomes a mental event. Many spiritual traditions are familiar with the notion of the Intent. What is common to Brahman in the Upanishads, Rita in the Rig Veda or the Chinese concept of Tao is the notion of a dynamic force that permeates reality.

  • [5]. These losses and gains do not refer to material or possible after-life losses and gains, but losses and gains related to the understanding and conceptualisation of human existence in a coherent way. The original Pascal's wager is criticised by Dawkins (2006, p.103), but his argument does not apply in this case.
  • [6]. This is not to say that such experiences are irrelevant. Einstein himself acknowledged their value. He writes that ‘scientist's religious feelings take the form of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection' (1949, p.29).
  • [7]. Space too depends on a point. As represented in a coordinate system, it requires three dimensions that cross at one point (0, 0, 0).
  • [8]. The term God is avoided because it is too firmly imbedded in existing religious interpretations, which has undesirable implications: it is difficult to avoid anthropomorphisation, and certain attributes that are commonly ascribed to God can hardly be justified (such as that God is the judge of human acts, open to direct communication, and mostly concerned with human affairs).
  • [9]. Here are some examples: omniscience implies knowing the future, including God's own future interventions; but this would mean that God cannot change his mind and choose to act differently, which means that he is not omnipotent. Omniscience also does not go well with the notion of free will, important in all monotheistic religions, while omnipotence cannot be easily reconciled with the suffering of innocent. Omnipresence too conflicts with the traditional view that God is outside time.
  • [10]. Capitalisation is used to distinguish this term from other possible intents.
  • [11]. This means that miracles, if they are defined as violations of the laws of nature by an intervention of a supernatural being, are out of question. If the natural laws are not created individually, they cannot be broken individually. However, some so-called miracles (e.g. certain forms of healing), may not violate natural laws, but only limited interpretations of these laws.

The Two

Just saying that there is a purpose is not enough. Any teleological explanation would be incomplete if a possible purpose itself is not examined. A reasonable starting point in this case is to consider what the One could possibly seek. To address this issue adequately, two fundamental principles, static and dynamic, need to be brought to attention first. States and processes, rather than matter, seem to be fundamental properties of reality, and they are manifestations of these two underlying principles. They are widely recognised in spirituality (e.g. yin and yang in the East) and permeate every aspect of reality. In human life, for example, static and dynamic principles are manifested as tendencies towards security and freedom (but apparently even subatomic particles, such as electrons, get agitated, speed up, when they are confined to a small region of space). Not any movement, though, represents the dynamic principle. A degree of indeterminacy or change must be involved. Predetermined, regular movements are essentially static. For instance, if the rotation of a planet around a star is observed from a four dimensional perspective (including time), it will look like a relatively stable spiral (although even this movement is to some extent chaotic and not fully predictable). From this perspective, it could be said that Newtonian physics is essentially static, while modern physics takes into account the dynamic principle.

The static and dynamic principles are intrinsic characteristics of non-material energy and must be in a relative balance. This necessity for balance indicates that there are limitations to the One. The One is not born and cannot die (energy did not at one point become focused, but simply is). However, if the static principle prevails, it could lead to stagnation and uniform movement only, which would be an equivalent of death. On the other hand, if the changes involved are completely chaotic, the dynamic principle could take over, which could lead to disintegration (resembling, in human terms, madness). But everything the One does becomes straight away is, so the static principle is likely to dominate[12] (the nearest phenomenological parallel in human life would be the sense of boredom). One way out of it could be to act in an unpredictable manner, but that would lead to chaos and the prevalence of the dynamic principle. So, in order to strengthen the dynamic principle in a non-chaotic way, something that is not the One is needed. A non-chaotic, and yet not completely predictable entity that will be able to enter into an interaction with the One. Therefore, another agency is necessary, something that can be pro-active not only reactive, something that has freedom (otherwise doing turns into being). Something that will develop its own independent awareness and intent and will eventually grow to be an active counterpart to the One. This could establish a permanent balance between the dynamic and static principle. In other words, the Other needs to become. The One is one, and the only thing that the One may seek is the Other. Thus, the purpose of life can be formulated as the development of the Other that will enable an infinite interplay with the One. From this perspective, humanity presents one form, at one stage, in this process. This purpose was already recognised at the dawn of spiritual development. One of the oldest Hindu myths (Hinduism being one of the oldest religions) is that the world was created because the original being was lonely. The ancient Egyptian religion makes a similar point.

How infinitely creative this solution is can only be grasped if it is considered that the ‘otherness' does not exist at all to start off. The question may be asked, though, why the One simply does not split into two. However, in such a case every part would be fully aware of the other (like looking at a mirror), and because these parts could only interact with each other, the dynamic principle would not be strengthened[13]. The Other, the counterpart, must start from the state of minimal awareness and intent.

Before moving on, it may be worthwhile to briefly consider alternative propositions regarding the meaning. The most popular one, even nowadays, is the attainment of unity with God in one form or another. But this proposition neglects that such a solution still refers to the ‘meaning in life' rather than the ‘meaning of life'. In other words, even if it is accepted that such unity may provide the meaning in the lives of human beings, why would God want unity with vastly inferior creatures? And even if this question is somehow bypassed, would such a state be desirable at all? Not even Dante managed to make heaven appealing. A non-theistic equivalent, nirvana, may be free from pains, but it seems unbearably dull. It is unlikely that the end of everything is some homogeneous state. However, this notion does not miss the target completely. It may reflect the longing for lost unity, but it may also be based on a recognition that transcending the separation between individuals is necessary before The Other is fully formed.

Another proposition is linked to the idea of evolution (which existed well before Darwin). Its relatively recent proponent was a maverick theologician Teilhard de Chardin, but perhaps the best known case is the philosopher Hegel's evolution of the absolute spirit. He lucidly married the evolutionary process with dialectics (popularised since as ‘thesis - antithesis - synthesis', although Hegel himself rarely used these terms). Hegel's philosophy is too complex to be analysed here, a general comment will have to suffice. The final goal of evolution, according to Hegel, is that Geist (Mind or Spirit) understands itself, in other words, a full self-actualisation. Hegel has been often seen (by Popper and others) as overly optimistic, but the real problem is that this view is ultimately pessimistic. Even if the absolute spirit (or the collective mind) cognises itself, what then? Lacking an answer to this question renders this possibility, in fact, meaningless. However, as in the first case, it seems that the above proposition also contains something important. Where else could this evolutionary process head if not towards creating a god? But a lonely god indeed.

To summarise, although both above possibilities make some significant points, they are incomplete. While in the first case the relation is overemphasised (at the expense of the evolutionary process), in the second the relation is neglected. Perhaps combining them, the synthesis between being and doing, would be closer to the mark.

To achieve the purpose, the development of independent awareness and intent is needed. This requires alienating, separating some energy so that it can grow on its own. A direct influence would be counterproductive. If the One interfered directly, such a development would be reduced to mere conditioning, which would constrain awareness and intent beyond the pale. Aligning with the purpose must be an act of free choice, rather than the result of the fear of punishment or the expectation of a reward. Thus, the One must stay mostly hidden, providing only a possibility (symbolised, for example, by the tree of knowledge in the biblical tradition). For this reason the One cannot even be conclusively proven - that would remove the choice, which would not be conducive to the Intent. Even if the meaning of life is accepted, separateness and uncertainty are still necessary in order to recognise the ontological independence of the One (and oneself). Otherwise the whole process could amount to a blind and lazy following. The importance of separation, God's withdrawal, was already hinted at in some spiritual traditions such as the Cabalist doctrine of tsimtsum.

However, separation cannot be enough. To prevent the prevalence of the dynamic principle, to prevent freedom from becoming a chaos, the separated energy must be restricted and protected until it matures. This ‘slowing down' enables a gradual gaining of self-control. Such a restriction cannot come directly from the One though, so it must be embodied in the environmental conditions. This is the purpose of the material world: to enable the separation of some energy from the One and to provide the stage for the gradual development of awareness and intent independent from the One. As poet John Keats eloquently put it, ‘call the world if you please "the vale of soul-making" then you will find out the use of the world... How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them - so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this?' (from the letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 14th of February - 3rd of May, 1819).

So, in order to eventually strengthen the dynamic principle, the static principle is, in fact, first maximised by condensing and slowing down some energy to the point of nearly absolute stillness. This is the parent Black Hole that spontaneously bursts out into the physical universe (the Big Bang) following the flow determined by the Intent[14].  The two principles (static and dynamic) can be imagined like the sides of a seesaw. Instead of adding weight to the ‘lighter' side (by increasing uncertainty and chaos), the other side is pushed down to the lowest point, so that the seesaw bounces back into a balanced position. This is why the material world, as we know it, is as it is. It is best perceived as a sheet or plane (known in physics as the M-brane) that separates some non-material energy from the rest. To use an analogy, matter is like a balloon, while the air in the balloon is energy separated from the rest (the air outside the balloon). The basic constructs of the world (its coordinates) on which all the others rely, are time and space. Time does not really exist, it is derived from the relation between the dynamic and static principle (as in the formula t = v/l)[15]. Nevertheless, time and space construct reality, and by doing so protect and at the same time limit freedom, that would have otherwise been an unbearable burden. The best boundaries are infinite boundaries.

The above indicates that not only the physical universe but also life is intended. The next chapter will examine this possibility.

  • [12]. If everything one wants immediately became reality, it would eventually lead to a cessation of wanting.
  • [13]. For the same reason, polytheism of any kind is not an option, for without a difference that can come only from different experiences or processes, it would be reduced to cloning the same.
  • [14]. The tendency of energy trapped in matter to return to its ‘natural' (non-material) state is expressed as an attempt to escape gravitational force (that is a property of matter). The weaker the gravitational force is (with distance), the stronger this tendency is, which is maybe why the universe expands faster and faster.
  • [15]. No-time is often confused with ever lasting present, but the present is still a concept of time, not no-time. In fact, a process can exist without time altogether. However, this is difficult to imagine. The best way to do so is to think that such processes happen in an imaginary time (as proposed by Hawking).

THE ORIGIN OF LIFE

The existing interpretations

Creationism (reinvented recently as ‘Intelligent design') that adheres to the Biblical account of the origin of life is still seen in some places as an alternative to the materialist view, so it is worth briefly addressing this position. Creationists are very good at criticising the opposite standpoint, but not in providing a coherent support for their own. Genesis is clear that the creation of life is a deliberate act, but the way it is presented has many problems. Without getting into details, a general one is the claim that an agency assembled various species as discrete units. This does not seem plausible. All paleontological and micro-biological evidence indicates that life, in all its diversity, originated from very simple forms and evolved through a long period of time. Contrary to the creationist account, it is evident that more complex organisms have derived from simpler ones, and that there are big time gaps between the appearance of various species. This is not to say that life is an accident, as materialists would like to believe. The following is an attempt to show that such a claim is also problematic.

 

Materialism - from the materialistic perspective, the origin of life is explained as a chance event that occurred through the interplay of physical forces and chemical reactions. The idea that life came about accidentally from inanimate matter should not be taken for granted, though[1]. Contrary to popular belief, this account is not proven, empirically or rationally. It has never been demonstrated in a laboratory or anywhere else that a complex structure such as a living cell could arise spontaneously (or through human intervention) from inorganic stuff.  Honest scientists are ready to admit this:

We have not yet come up with a convincing mechanism for abiogenesis... And we have come nowhere near creating life in the laboratory. (Silver, 1998, p.339)

In the 1950s Stanley Miller recreated the conditions believed to exist on prebiotic Earth (a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water was exposed to heat and occasional spark-discharges). In a relatively short time Miller found some amino-acids in the apparatus (amino-acids are the building blocks of proteins that are in turn the basis of organic life). Recent findings suggest, though, that life arose in an environment far less hospitable than Miller's glass apparatus. Moreover, many experiments since have not gone much further. Apparently, some researchers managed to create a synthetic organic molecule that could replicate itself, but this should not be confused with procreation. They only replicate in highly artificial, unnatural conditions, and they reproduce only exact replicas. Yet, without mutations the molecules could not evolve.

Not only has materialism failed to produce a convincing support for its position, but it is also internally inconsistent. Biogenesis is an accepted doctrine in biology, which states that living organisms are produced only by other living organisms, and that the parent organism's offspring are always of the same kind. Abiogenesis (the notion that life can appear from non-life) is only assumed for the beginning of life, when apparently the first living organism was accidentally generated from inanimate matter. This inconsistency is accepted not because the available data is in its favour, but because it fits current ideology. In his book The Intelligent Universe mathematician and astronomer Fred Hoyle asks:

...there is not a shred of objective evidence to support the hypothesis that life began in an organic soup here on the Earth. Indeed, Francis Crick, who shared a Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, is one biophysicist who finds this theory unconvincing. So, why do biologists indulge in unsubstantiated fantasies in order to deny what is so patently obvious, that the 200 000 amino acid chains, and hence life, did not appear by chance? (1983, p.21)

Indeed, it has been calculated that accidental abiogenesis is extremely unlikely, even if millions of years were available (see, for example, Overman, 1997). According to palaeontologist Fondi, ‘a spontaneous assemblage of molecules driven by chance cannot account for the emergence of complex organisms - even the oldest algae and bacteria are too complex to have resulted from chance processes in the observed time frames' (in Laszlo, 1993, p.100). In order to survive and reproduce, a one-cell organism, however simple, requires at least several components, RNA, (and/or DNA), some proteins and a cell membrane. Furthermore, they all need to function in a synchronous way. Let us consider how likely this is if left to chance.

  • [1]. Silver, a biochemist himself, comments: ‘One can believe that a complex system like the living cell is capable of manufacturing large, complex molecules from small, simple precursors, but the original manufacturing mechanism has to come from somewhere' (1998, p.340).

The necessary conditions for the cell formation

Molecular properties - a functional cell requires many polymers, large long-chain molecules, built from a number of simple molecules (monomers). These molecules can hardly form spontaneously for several reasons. The formation of polymers requires bifunctional monomers (i.e. those that can combine with two others), and can be stopped by a small fraction of unifunctional monomers (those that can combine with only one other, thus blocking one end of the growing chain). Prebiotic simulation experiments produce five times more unifunctional molecules than bifunctional ones. Furthermore, many polymers (such as proteins, DNA or RNA) come in two forms, ‘left-handed' and ‘right-handed'. The building blocks of polymers essential for life need to have the same ‘handedness' - proteins consist of amino acids that are all ‘left handed', while DNA and RNA contain sugars that are only ‘right-handed'. Under the right conditions, an undirected environment that operates solely on the principles of physical chemistry can produce amino acids, but they are wrong for life. So created molecules are a blend of left and right hand forms, not the pure ones needed in living things. They could not form the specific shapes required for proteins, and DNA could not be stabilised in a helix and support life if just a small proportion of the wrong-handed kind was present. To produce the correct types of amino acids and sugars, life requires a certain type of proteins called enzymes. However, these complex molecules do not appear spontaneously, they can only be manufactured in a living cell. An equivalent of such a molecular machinery though, did not exist in the pre-life environment.

 

The cell components - even if all the right ingredients are present, there is still the problem of forming a functional cell components by random processes. Proteins and other structures necessary for life consist of many building blocks which must be instantly put together in a certain order. Out of a total number of possible protein structures (within an appropriate size range) only a tiny set have the correct properties from which a simple bacterium can be successfully built. The odds that they will be formed purely by chance is infinitely small. Let us consider the above mentioned enzymes. Just one is typically comprised of 300 amino acids. Even if it is assumed that a much smaller number of amino acids is needed to form a ‘primitive' enzyme, the probability of the required order in a single functional protein molecule arising randomly is estimated at 1043 (this is a modest estimate, some go as far as 10195). The simplest living cell must have at least several hundred enzymes and other proteins, which makes a chance arrangement of these molecules extremely unlikely. Silver writes that ‘the probability of a crowd of small molecules forming the needed large molecules to start the long, complex path to a single cell seems to be almost zero' (1998, p.349).

 

The cell membrane - the other necessary component of a living cell is the cell membrane. A universal ingredient of all cell membranes is the phospholipid molecule. This molecule can spontaneously form vesicles in water (‘bubbles' that resemble in shape the cell membrane), but no one has managed to reproduce this in the experiments that attempt to simulate conditions on the Earth when life began. Moreover, the cell membrane does not only maintain the physical unity of the cell, but also performs other vital functions (e.g. allowing energy exchange)[2]. This all requires a relatively complex structure even for the simplest imaginable functional cells that is highly unlikely to be a result of random chemical reactions.

 

Functioning of a cell - the above evaluates only the necessary parts, not a functional arrangement, i.e. one that works. Even if it is accepted that the components of a living cell were somehow formed accidentally, that would not be enough[3].

The simplest one-cell organism represents a level of complexity not found anywhere in the inanimate world including that created by humans (viruses, that  are, roughly speaking, DNA coated in a protein, do not count, because they need other more complex cells to reproduce, so they could only appear or degenerate to this simplicity later in evolution).

All the components of a living cell need to be synchronised, to act in a union in order to maintain a cell. So, a cell cannot be built piecemeal, all the major constituents must have been created and assembled instantaneously for the cell to function. Without elaborate mechanisms that enable energy intake, chemical distribution, processing of proteins, and storing of genetic information to be passed on to the next generation, life could not exist.

So, the components on which these processes depend could not have evolved separately. Proteins cannot form without DNA, but neither can DNA form without proteins.  Moreover, they could not exist independently for very long:

The large and complex molecules essential to life - proteins with dozens of hundreds of amino acids, RNA and DNA formed with long chains of nucleotides - do not appear spontaneously, even in carefully devised environments with high concentrations of monomers. Indeed, these macromolecules appear to be quite unstable. Even when two monomers link up or polymerise, they often will just as quickly disintegrate or depolymerise under water-rich conditions. (Hazen, 1997, p.165)

Most nucleotides (essential cell components) degrade fast at the temperatures that apparently existed on the early Earth. Polymers also quickly break down in water (water absorbing chemicals or evaporating water by high temperature would require either unrealistic conditions or would lead to the destruction of the polymers necessary to form a cell). This means that not only did they all need to be produced close to each other, but also within a very short period of time. DNA (and/or RNA), some proteins and cell membrane need to be formed at the right time and place and under the right conditions. However, as Silver point out:

It stretches even the credulity of a materialistic abiogenesis fanatic to believe that proteins and nucleotides persistently emerged simultaneously, and at the same point in space, from the primeval soup. We are in trouble enough without adding events of an astronomical improbability (1998, p.347).

Even if this was the case, many of the important biochemicals would, in fact, destroy each other (i.e. sugars and amino acids mutually react). Living organisms are well-structured to avoid this, but the ‘primordial soup' would not be. In other words, the cell is born out of co-ordinated complexity, not out of chaotic complexity.

The above indicates that an accidental beginning of life is implausible. Even a hard-line  materialist, such as Crick, admits that ‘the origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to be satisfied to get it going' (in Silver, 1998, p.349).

  • [2]. Some of its properties seem to even anticipate complex life forms: ‘...the cell membrane is uniquely and ideally fit for its role of bounding the cell's contents and conferring on the cells of higher organisms the ability to move and adhere selectively to one another. These critical properties are also dependent on the size of the average cell being approximately what it is and on the viscosity of cytoplasm being close to what it is. The membrane is also fit, in that its selective impermeability to changed particles confers additional electrical properties, which form the basis of nerve conduction' (Denton, 1998, p.209).
  • [3]. To quote Silver again, ‘the basic problem facing anyone who is looking for the origin of life is to account for the formation of a complex, very highly organized, self-sustaining and self-replicating system out of a mixture of chemicals that, certainly in the early days of the soup, displayed none of these characteristics' (1998, p.340).

Some current hypotheses

The popular argument is that, given a very long period of time, life would occur, even if the chance of its appearance is minuscule. However, ‘it seems that life appeared almost as soon as the planetary hydrosphere had cooled sufficiently to support it. The time available is certainly short - nothing like the supposed thousands of millions of years that was once assumed to be available’ (Denton, 1998, p.295). Not surprisingly, many scientists are at a pain to find an explanation which would overcome the problems that the above facts create for the materialistic perspective. Crick, for example, hypothesises that life came from outer space (as the Sumerians and a Greek philosopher Anaxagoras believed much before him). Even if this is true, it does not solve the problem, but only moves it elsewhere. Some scientists speculate that the original cell or cells were much simpler than the simplest existing one-cell organisms. For example, it could be the case that RNA at one point was not only a messenger but also a replicator (therefore assuming the role of DNA too). However, this possibility faces several difficulties. RNA is hard to synthesise even under controlled circumstances, with all the help of scientists, let alone in the conditions in which biological life was formed. Even when RNA is manufactured, it requires much tinkering to make new copies of itself: ‘...the synthesis of RNA by chance is a highly improbable process, and as yet no one has presented a mechanism by which it might have occurred... even when you do have RNA, the process of self-replication in the laboratory is not at all straightforward, and it requires considerable intervention on the part of the experimenter’ (Silver, 1998, p.348). Intervention, however, is exactly what materialists deny in regard to the origin of life. There are a number of other alternatives, but none of them is very credible. It is not possible to examine all of them here, so the final comment is left to an evolutionary biologist who already did so:

Although many exotic hypotheses far more speculative than the RNA world have been proposed to close the gap between chemistry and life, none are convincing. (Denton 1998, p.294)

That an accidental appearance of life is extremely unlikely seems to be the inevitable inference. Polanyi and Prosch conclude that ‘every living organism is a meaningful organization of meaningless matter and that it is very highly improbable that these meaningful organizations should all have occurred entirely by chance’ (1975, p.172). The above does not, of course, provide a definitive proof that a teleological explanation is correct. This is not essential though. Declaring that life must have come about by chance simply because there is no concrete evidence for an agency, would be like declaring that a sculpture is the result of a natural process because the sculptor cannot be seen. In the words of the astronomer Carl Sagan, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. On the other hand, however dismally small the chance of accidental abiogenesis is, it is not entirely impossible that such a fluke may have happened. There might be some purely physical factors, not yet discovered, that could greatly increase the probability of a spontaneous formation of life. Thus, although the involvement of an agency seems a more plausible explanation, it cannot be conclusively proven, so the choice to accept this possibility or not is preserved. What is important, however, if a teleological position is to be taken seriously, is to examine whether it can be interpreted in a rational way.

THE SYNTHESIS PERSPECTIVE

It seems equally unlikely that life was created accidentally and that an agent acted/acts like an engineer, putting various parts together or programming DNA sequences. A more plausible explanation that combines spiritual and scientific insights (without their religious and materialistic baggage) is that life was intended. As suggested earlier in relation to the tuning of the four forces and other physical properties, ‘design' or the direct involvement of an external agency need not to be invoked. In accord with the criterion of cohesiveness, it is sufficient to postulate as the most likely explanation an intended abiogenesis. The Intent acts, on one hand, as a driving force pushing the matter into more complex organisation and, on the other, as a restricting force, a ‘funnel' that converges a huge number of possibilities into one point - the appearance of life[1]. Of course, there could not be direct evidence for such an intent (it cannot be expected that the One would leave ‘fingerprints'). However, there are some suggestive indicators, making this explanation more likely than highly improbable chance. They include the distinctive properties of the building blocks that enable the formation of complex forms conducive to life, and finely tuned (physical, chemical and environmental) conditions. Several examples will be brought up to illustrate this.

It is not only the physical forces, constants and solar objects that are precisely adjusted to enable life, but also many physical and chemical properties, established much before life appeared, are uniquely fit for carbon-based organisms. Biologist Denton (who is not associated with Creationism or similar movements) should be credited for collecting comprehensive and compelling evidence that life is unlikely to be an accident. He points out that life could not exist if ‘various constituents - water, carbon dioxide, carbon acid, the DNA helix, proteins, phosphates, sugars, lipids, the carbon atom the oxygen atom, the transitional metal atoms and the other metal atoms from groups 1 and 2 of the periodic table: sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium - did not possess precisely those chemical and physical properties they exhibit in an aqueous solution ranging in temperature from 0ºC and about 75ºC' (1998, p.382).

Let us consider water, for example, arguably the most important substance for life. Water is very unusual. While most substances shrink when cooled, water starts expanding (below 4°C) so solid ice is atypically less dense than liquid water. Water is also extraordinary slow in warming up - another anomaly. What is amazing is that all this and many other characteristics of water (e.g. the low viscosity, the surface tension, the capacity to dissolve a vast number of different substances, etc.[2]) are beneficial to life. For example, if ice was heavier (more dense) than water, the oceans would have frozen completely, killing all marine life; the slow warming up of water protects organisms against massive swings in temperature, and so on. Scientists find it hard to explain many of these properties. They are most likely linked to hydrogen bonds between water molecules, and they again depend on zero-point vibration energy - energy from ‘nowhere'.

Many other physical and chemical features are also well adjusted for life. For example, carbon (the building block of organic matter) has a whole range of such properties: maximum utility of both the strong covalent bonds (that keep atoms together) and the weak bonds (e.g. hydrogen bonds) in the same temperature range at which water is fluid; the perfect fit between the α helix of the protein with the large groove of the DNA; the relative stability of organic molecules below 100°C; the relatively un-reactive nature of oxygen, a source of energy for carbon-based life, below 50°C; the fact that carbon dioxide is a gas (which enables the excretion of the products of carbon oxidation); the sufficient strength of hydrogen and other weak bonds to hold proteins and DNA at temper­atures conducive to life, and so on. Moreover, atmospheric gases (including water vapour) and liquid water, absorb virtually all the harmful radiation from space and transmit only a tiny band that is of visual range and is at the same time, fit for photochemistry. Also, all the classes of atoms in the periodic table play a harmonious role in the formation and sustenance of life. Adaptation of life to these circumstances is not a sufficient explanation. If only a few of them had not been already there, life would not have had a chance to adapt to anything. In addition, these properties are not only conducive to the appearance of microorganisms, but seem to anticipate more complex multicellular life forms. To quote Denton again:

Many of the properties and characteristics of life's constituents seem to be specifically arranged for large, complex, multicellular organisms like ourselves. The coincidences do not stop at the cell but extend right on into higher forms of life. These include the packaging properties of DNA, which enable a vast amount of DNA and hence biological information to be packed into the tiny volume of the cell nucleus in higher organisms, the electrical properties of cells, which depend ultimately on the insulating character of the cell membrane, which provides the basis for nerve conduction and for the coordination of the activities of multicellular organisms; the very nature of the cell, particularly its feeling and crawling activities, which seem so ideally adapted for assembling a multicellular organism during development; the fact that oxygen and carbon dioxide are both gases at ambient temperatures and the peculiar and unique character of the bicarbonate buffer, which together greatly facilitate the life of large air-breathing macroscopic organisms. (1998, p.381-2)

One can also add to the list the decrease in the viscosity of the blood when blood pressure rises, which increases the blood flow to the metabolically active muscles of higher organisms (without it, the circulatory system would be unworkable); the quite slow hydration of carbon dioxide, which prevents a fatally high level of acidity in the body of complex organisms in anaerobic exercises (that require increased pace or greater effort). Curiously, only atmospheres with between 10 and 20% oxygen can support an oxidative metabolism in a higher organism; and it is only within that range that fire - hence technology - is possible. As Denton puts it,

...for every new constituent we required, there was a ready-made solution that seemed ideally and uniquely prefabricated, as if by design, for the biological end it serves... (1998, p.230)

Even those phenomena that are taken as calamities, are, in fact, often purposeful. For example, volcanic eruptions bring water and metals to the surface, contribute to the atmosphere, regulate heat, and finally, fertilise the land, enabling agriculture.

Without going into further details, it can be concluded that it is consistent with the Synthesis perspective that life started from very simple forms, as scientists claim too. Whether it originated in a ‘primeval soup', in hot-water vents at the bottom of the ocean, in clay sediments, or on Mars, is a technical issue that does not affect the basic assertion, which is that life being intended is not only congruent with the known facts, but highly probable. The above indicates that life could hardly appear by chance, and that the funnelling of randomness was necessary.[3] This is all that can be claimed at this point (the process that led to the beginning of life will be considered on p.149). To make further inferences about the appearance of life as we know it, the question of what life is, what it consists of, needs to be addressed first. This issue (that will require the examination of some complex aspects of human life) will be the subject of the following part.

  • [1]. Later on, in evolution, a divergent process takes place (analogous to the Big Bang explosion, after the energy had been first compressed into singularity). So, different principles govern the proliferation of various life forms (see chapter 16).
  • [2]. Professor Martin Chaplin listed over 40 anomalous characteristics of water.
  • [3]. It is sometimes claimed (e.g. Dawkins, 2006, p.138) that even if the chance is one in a billion, providing that there are a billion planets in the universe, life will appear at least on one of them. This argument is based on either misunderstanding or misuse of statistics, so it does not deserve a serious consideration.