Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In the Beginning...

…,there was nothing, depending on what you mean by it. Certainly there was nothing in the common everyday sense of the word – nothing that could shine or reflect visible light or other segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. Nor did the said spectrum itself exist, for photons themselves were not present  either. The same goes for the other fundamental building blocks of matter (i.e., quarks, leptons, gluons, etc.).  However, it is not like the beginning was a complete void. If nothing else, at least one definition of time existed.[1] Also existing in the beginning, according to the Inflationary Theory, there existed a "singularity" - a region of possibly infinite density. This singularity underwent "quantum fluctuations" - random changes in the state or nature of the singularity. One of those changes lead to the Big Bang itself.  Although disagreements currently exist about the details of the pre-Big Bang situation, one thing is clear:  there was not – could not even be - any conscious material entity in the beginning.  

Of course there are supernaturalism-based views to the contrary, but not all people agree that supernaturalism is based in truth. This is not a religion blog, so I will not touch on them at this point; for I want to start from a basis that the great majority of people agree with, or at least find highly plausible.  For now, it is enough to say that, even assuming that one supernatural belief system is true, I don’t find its claims strong enough to defeat antinatalism. 

Current cosmological theories state the singularity inflated about 13.75 billion years ago, plus or minus 0.945%. The “Inflationary Event” led directly to the Big Bang that we have come to know. Where it concerns the beginning of the tangible universe, there was in the beginning super-heated matter (the very building blocks of subatomic particles), energy, the fundamental forces of nature, the laws of physics, and little else.  For the next 10.25 billion years comes the “story” most of us are familiar with – the long chain of events linking the first collapsing clouds of hydrogen and helium to Earth’s first DNA molecule. 

This molecule could and did make, for the most part, very accurate (though not perfect) copies of itself.[2]  Eventually, after many evolutionary steps, one type of DNA arose that contained another set of molecular codes;  instructions for forming both the sensory and the motor systems. Which system evolved first is difficult to say.  Regardless, the resulting systems allowed the organism to crudely sense its environment plus react to changes in it - the very first steps in life being an active entity instead of a passive one.  These systems gave the organism a better than dumb luck chance of being in locales both safe and nutrient-rich. This increased the odds that the organism (and it’s DNA) would make multiple copies of itself. In other words, the creature, the vehicle through which the DNA would self-replicate, increased its odds of having offspring if it had impulses causing it to migrate to locales both safe and nutrient-rich.  Additional random mutations caused further developments in the organism’s descendants. Chief among these was the nervous system.  This created the ability to feel both pleasure and pain, the very beginning of the survival instinct. Thus came the first  true neurological lifeforms (if defined as lifeforms with at least a crude nervous system). 

So for at least semi-conscious self-awareness, in the beginning there was the survival instinct – the set of built-in mechanisms enabling the organism to survive with a probability better than mere dumb luck would allow (at least vis-à-vis less developed organisms).[3]  The organisms that could and did avoid environments not conducive to its survival survived and made further copies of themselves, those organisms that did not or could not did not survive and reproduce.[4]

The DNA apparently developed two different basic means to compel behavior that increased the probability of the organism surviving and reproducing: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain: pleasure to motivate the organism to acquire and consume resources for survival and for reproduction, pain in order to discourage venturing into environments that lessen the probability of continuing that living existence (and ultimately prevent the DNA molecules from making more copies of themselves). 

For hundreds of millions of years, the process continued. This is quite understandable given how deeply engrained the survival instinct is in the very nervous systems of animals, the animals themselves being merely the vehicles through which the DNA perpetuates itself. Never mind that the DNA molecule’s continued existence itself served no apparent purpose, let alone its replication.  The molecule was just passively following the laws of physics and chemistry, as if it had a conscious choice as to whether to follow them. Even the genes for the survival instincts (i.e. pleasure and pain nerves) were simply the product of chemistry and physics and nothing more.

Then, about 200,000 years ago somewhere in Africa, came an animal that could not only manipulate its environment but, thanks to its opposable thumb and fingers, could throw things great distances thanks to its well-developed ball-and-socket shoulder joints. Combine that with its uniquely intelligent brain, with its capacity for abstract thought and vocal chords to make precise sounds, which enabled it to precisely communicate these abstract thoughts, and this animal was destined to rise to become the Alpha species of the planet in a very short time.  Critical in this regard was, as mentioned, the animal's ability to capture highly complex ideas in words and transmit those words and the ideas they represent from one person to another - in other words, culture.  After this creature learned how to control its own food supply, civilization arose.  Shortly thereafter followed writing, and, a few thousands of years later, philosophy – the pursuit of truth in a logical, systematic manner.  The animal questioned the very nature of things, whether what it thought was true really was so, substances and laws of nature, what the right way to conduct ones self is, and many other things.

Eventually, some among these animals even questioned whether their own species ought to bring more offstpring into this world at all (or this kind of cosmos, for that matter), whether because they saw no objective purpose in the molecule's continued replication or because of the method the molecule used to better ensure its replication.  What does it mean that the current Alpha species most important competitive advantage eventually leads them to use that advantage to ask questions about whether their own existence itself has any point, or even moral standing? What does this imply about the very nature of advanced consciousness itself?


[1] I define time as “a non-spatial property of the universe that allows the potential for change - change in position, condition, or both". While this definition might not pass muster with many, if not most, physicists, this is relevant for real-world day-to-day human-scale interactions.  Regardless of the precise characteristics and details of the phenomenon known as time, it is difficult to see how time is not the phenomenon that allows for the potential for changes in position, condition or both.

[2]Here is the first real issue:  given that only neurological life can feel it has needs, feel desires, and even possess the concepts of “good” and “bad” (regardless of how you define each term), how can we say there was a need or desire for a molecule to reproduce when there was nobody around to care if it did or not?  In absence of a conscious entity that could or would care, the DNA molecule was just undergoing chemical interactions with its environment and nothing more.  What purpose did it serve then, or (by extension) even now?  Where it concerns neurological life - especially the more advanced varieties - what purpose does it serve to create a happy being? These questions form the basis of Teleological Antinatalism (i.e. antinatalism based on purpose, or in this case, the lack thereof). However, teleological arguments alone do not seem a sufficient basis for antinatalism. One can then ask “if it doesn’t matter whether or not DNA molecule reproduces, then why not have children anyway – especially if most people will be reasonably happy with their lives?” However, teleological arguments can be powerful supplementary evidence to the extent that people would suffer from a sense of purposelessness.

[3] There may be some question as to whether mobility organelles or the sensory ones came first. Some say mobility provided a better than dumb luck chance for an organism to survive.  While quite interesting to speculate about, this is ultimately a “Red Herring”. Regardless of which ones evolved first, the fact remains that both were already present when the first organism with even the slightest iota of self-awareness came into being. Therefore, from the antinatalism perspective, the issue of which organelles came first is only suitable for academic parlor debates.

[4] Here, we have to ask if merely allowing DNA to make copies of itself is sufficient justification for subjecting the organism to pain and suffering, even if without a life there could be no pleasures and happiness. More to the point, is it right to create a being who will inevitably suffer in some way even if it is overall happy?  This is the Ethical Argument, whether the Philanthropic or Ecological forms of it. Saying we just have a natural desire to reproduce assumes that the reproduction serves a purpose, which brings us back to the teleological arguments.


Shadow said...

This is a great post! Full of information and scientific facts. Good one! =)

filrabat said...

TY Shadow.

Sometimes it's just easier to wipe the slate clean and start at the very beginning.