Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Aspects that we didn’t touch – Aspects that you liked the most
Lead: E. Möbius, T. Davis, W. deVries


Summary by Lauren Maurice

The Meaning of Life

The final discussion of the class on April 28th, 2015 focused on the questions of whether we have value as conscious beings, the meaning of life, and the existence of god. The discussion was class led, with no formal presenter or designated discussion leader. The discussion began with the concept of value and its meaning.

Questions, whether value was intrinsic and imbued within something or subjectively given, were discussed. The conclusion the class drew was that in order for something to have value, it must be valuable to someone/something. The objective meaning of “valuable” was defined as something that is good for or necessary for something else. For example, it would apply to plants seeking the sun or a bear seeking berries on a mountain. A member of the class proposed that the mountain can be considered valuable to the bear since it can find berries there, and the sun can be considered valuable to a plant since it needs it to survive. As a follow-up, the meaning of what is ‘good for’ something was brought into question, bringing up the point that it doesn’t make sense to talk about “what is good for a carbon atom or a molecule”, and is therefore restricted to life. The question “what does it mean to be good for something” was asked, and whether we can say for certain what is good for something. It was proposed that something that is good for something is assumed to be good or meet necessary conditions for an organism’s survival. 

The discussion of life continued with the class considering the wording used to describe life’s processes. Most living things will do certain things and adjust themselves to be able to survive, but are living things trying to survive? Or is it merely instinct? Broadening on this, we discussed the problems associated with using language like ‘try’ and ‘strives’ when discussing life. Terms like these imply intention, and inevitably project human qualities onto organisms without consciousness. Intention implies consciousness, and it becomes tricky to talk about even the simplest of cells and life without using these terms. Subsequently, the discussion moved to whether or not life tries to preserve itself, or if there are automatic reactions and mechanisms in place that make it appear so. A point was brought up that we can program robots to preserve themselves, and we know there is no intention on the part of the robot necessary for that to be so. Would we be able to distinguish something actively trying to accomplish a goal from something programmed to do the same? A class member brought up that life must have self-preserving traits, or else it would not have survived very long, and certainly not for the billions of years it has. Responses to defend itself and adaptation to environmental conditions are necessary for life to persist. Life by definition must have these traits, or we would not be around to have this discussion. This occurred through natural selection and evolution, natural processes that do not require intention.

A few more examples of drive, the urge to achieve a certain goal or satisfy a need, without mental complexity were given, one being a mosquito attracted to blood. Does a mosquito actively try to seek and suck blood, or is it seeking it by virtue of being a mosquito with the behaviors innately there, free of intention?
The discussion then moved to the topic of life and its origins. Since all life that we know of now is cellular, we assume that the first living beings would be simple cells. The first living things had to be complex in certain ways to be able to replicate and undergo evolution. The class considered what the first life may have been like. Maybe the first life was simpler than we can imagine, or maybe it was more complex. The idea that the first life may have been more complex and then devolved, rather than starting from simple to more complex, stirred up the conversation. There is the phenomenon of life‘devolving’ and unloading some of its needs onto its environment. A tapeworm is given as an example, as it has given up much of its functions and is very simple, but it thrives in its special environment.

The discussion shifted to vestigial organs and unnecessary traits. The class talks about negative selection of traits at length. Negative selection is the elimination of a trait that is disadvantageous or of no advantage to the organism. Deep-sea fish living in a lightless environment have no need for eyes, and therefore they have lost all but basic vestigial eyes. Maintaining eyes requires energy, and since they are of no advantage to the organism, they are eventually selected out of the gene pool. We then turned to the human appendix as an example of a vestigial organ, and the class debated whether we’d eventually lose the organ. Due to modern medicine, appendices are no longer a threat to our health or survival since they can be easily removed. The removal of appendices doesn’t affect the genetic code of the human or their reproductive capabilities. Thus modern medicine artificially removes a natural selection filter against appendices. If medicine wasn’t available and appendices were still prone to burst, it would be a disadvantage to a population to retain it. Over time the appendix would ultimately be eliminated by natural selection. Negative selection and vestigial structures were discussed further at length, as well as the appendix’ original function.

The conversation was redirected towards the meaning of life. The class revisited the question of value and concluded that value comes into play only with living things. Moreover, consciousness is a prerequisite of meaning. There is no meaning without conscious beings to assign it. Whether there is a meaning to life was contemplated. The history of life’s origins in relation to its meaning was questioned. If life and consciousness had arisen from random chemical processes and the laws of physics, would life be meaningless? After all, the same chemical processes and laws of physics dictate the life and death of stars, though we don’t ask what their meaning is. Or is there an underlying intention behind life, making it meaningful?

The discussion turned its focus onto a talk on the Big Bang and the Christian creation story attended by some of the class a few days prior. Members of the class shared their opinions on the talk and the speaker’s methods. The focus was on how arguments not factually derived can be presented as such, and in a very convincing manner. The class debated upon the validity the Watchmaker argument, one of the arguments made by the speaker. The Watchmaker argument is that since a device as complicated as a watch requires a watchmaker then the complexity of living things must imply a designer. Problems of infinite regression arise, with the watchmaker having to be much more complicated than the watch in order to create it, and thus needing a maker as well. Infinite regression doesn’t necessarily rule the designer argument out, as a member of the class supposed. The class pondered the starting point of creation, and if there needs to be a start to make sense.

The class discussed the existence of God, what ‘god’ means to them or could mean, and where God could exist if it does. Quantum events were proposed as a way for God to interact with the universe. The definition of god was deliberated upon. The class agreed that the definition of god requires that you don’t understand it. God, if it does exist, is by definition ineffable. Different concepts of god were reflected upon. The class finished the discussion with the ultimate question “Why is there something instead of nothing?. The class concluded that this question may not be one that can ever be answered, and might always remain shrouded in mystery.