Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


The Gaia Hypothesis, Systems Theory & their Religious Aspects ,
Lead: Gita George, Shayle Reed, Dan Vorosmarty


Summary by Kevin Rehberg:


Gaia Hypothesis: Systems Approach, Religious Connection, New Age

Note: For this discussion, the class was divided into groups of 6 or 7. The presenters were each responsible for one of the above topics and moved from group to group introducing their topic and fostering its discussion (~15min. each). After all groups had discussed the three subjects, the class came together for presentation of conclusions and further discussion.

What is Systems Theory?

Systems Theory proposes that groups or sets with very different material components can have the same functions or interrelating groups of functions, that is, serve the same purpose. A graphic example of this is the similarities between our vascular system and the branching of trees. Vastly different forces are at play, but the behavior is similar.

Systems Theorists try to develop transferable models, models that are independent of the material or medium they operate in. Some people suggested that such an approach is anti-reductionist because it favors knowledge about the function and purpose over the fundamental parts. It appears to be a study of ever more complex relationships. Others, myself included, thought that it's reductionist because it tries to reduce/distill different phenomena to more basic patterns and principles.

The question of whether systems theory implies a “goal” or intelligence was brought up, though not really discussed. Several times questions were raised but then not addressed. The question was essentially whether any “order” or apparent rules in nature suggest intelligence, a designer. It might then be asked if Newton's Second Law, F_Net=d(P_Net)/dt, suggests a creator with at least a first year calculus background. (More on this topic in the Science and Religion Seminar 4/29)

Fractals were brought up as having order on all scales and therefore a design somehow independent of the exact parts at hand. We looked at how feedback (in this case mathematical) can lead to very complex relations not unlike nature. Tom Davis (I think) asked if it's possible (practical) to deduce the instructions (the system or model) from the fractal (the phenomenon). Could we be clever enough to guess a fractal's defining instruction from its “output”? This is, after all, how science in general appears to work. Connor brought up the good point that we may be able to describe a system in several, exclusive ways, that is, the same system could be qualified differently and then have different functions. Also, it may not always be clear what causes what. If results can cause their causes, which came first?

What is the Gaia Hypothesis?

It is the hypothesis that the planet earth has the capacity to keep itself fit for life. It was proposed in the West by Lovelock in 1979 -I say “in the West” because it can be argued to be a very old idea.

For many in the group it raised the question of whether this means that the earth is conscious or intelligent. But since life, even as we commonly define it, needn't be intelligent or conscious, (e.g. plants, bacteria), saying the earth is “alive” isn't the same as saying it's conscious. Still, one of the interpretations of the G.H. is that the earth achieves consciousness through the human race. The evolution of human beings is then the evolution of the consciousness of the earth. We may be the way in which the earth and perhaps even the universe experiences itself.

Among the evidence for the G.H. is the long term temperature and atmospheric stability despite changing factors like total solar energy flux. Daisyworld was a model Lovelock made to support his hypothesis. In its simplest form, Daisyworld is populated by dark and light daisies whose populations react to changes in solar energy flux to stabilize the temperature of their world. The model uses negative feedback, not intelligence to keep Daisyworld habitable. Critics argue against its simplicity pointing out, among other things, that there’s no mention of evolution. Group members were quick to point out that evolution is a theory and not a prerequisite for life.

It was mentioned that the Gaia Hypothesis should encourage us to explore our relationship to the planet as a whole. Are we negligent in our duties if we do not consciously work for the benefit of all life? Tom Davis (I believe) pointed out that cells don't have “goals” - they don't want to do anything. Still, they perform tasks crucial to the survival of the whole organism. As I said in class, they do what they do because they did it and it didn't kill them. In the same way, picture a line of cars side by side with no drivers. If they’re all heading for a narrow bridge, only one may make it across, the others driving straight of a cliff or into a river or whatever. The surviving car didn’t make it across because it “wanted to”. The cliff and bridge were a selection mechanism and the surviving car was just doing what it was doing. In a similar way, perhaps cells (or humans) can exist, struggle, be selected from, etc… all for the good of the organism (the earth), without consciously striving to benefit it.

Religious Aspects/Implications

Religion and science have always been related because both seek to explain the way things are and why things happen. In our search for meaning it is hard to avoid probing for spiritual or moral implications in scientific work. Someone reminded the group that Lovelock maintained that the G.H. was a falsifiable scientific theory and needn't carry any moral or spiritual implications (more on this in the full class discussion).

A question that arose is whether religion is strictly a human phenomenon. How would we know? One possibility is to look for widely practiced behaviors that are taught but serve no discernable survival purpose, e.g. If chimpanzees placed the bodies of dead family members at the base of the largest tree in the area where they died.

The prevalence of the number 3 (three laws of thermodynamics/Newton, the holy trinity) in both science and religion was brought up but as a group we didn’t agree on any significance.

The Big Circle: Questions, Comments, and Conclusions

Question: Is it useful to ask if the earth is alive?

Answer: It might have ethical implications.

Comment: But that is similar to inventing a god to make people do good.

C: But you take care of your house, even thought it's dead. A dead earth doesn't mean you wouldn't take care of it.

C: The G.H. doesn't require any behavior of us. It's a scientific theory and as such, you can't derive any obligations from it. If there appear to be some then they were slipped in by people along the way. It's like the saying, “you can't get a `ought' from an `is'”.

A (to first question): We may be able to draw on our knowledge of how bodies work if we thought the earth was alive.

A: Who cares if it's alive? We can't definitively test for that sort of thing anyway. It's its properties that are important.

A: Poets will see it differently from scientists.

I mentioned the theory that in the G.H., viruses existing in safe reservoirs in the rainforest are a sort of planetary immune system. Should a part of the earth's “body” become destructive and start to destroy this vital “organ”, the viruses are released and kill the offending “cells”, protecting the rest of the “body”. The idea drew strong reactions from people in class. (I apologize for not having recorded them.)

I thought of, but didn’t get to ask the question of whether there are (or would need to be) highly pathogenic viruses in the rainforest for every species. If only viruses pathogenic in mammals are found, then what would that mean for the viral immune system theory? Since viruses like Ebola are devastating to higher mammals, especially primates, it makes one wonder if primates are “expected” to be a risk to the planet.