What is Life?
Let us consider some of the direct quotes, or occasionally the recast statements that infer certain positions uttered by Professor Brian Cox in the What is Life first installment of his Wonders of Life series for BBC TV, which commenced on Sunday 27th January 2013.
Elsewhere, this writer has written a review of this programme, but the exact meanings of part’s of Cox’s narration really do need to be revealed as exactly as possible as he delivered them, because they do reveal exactly where he is coming from, and what he actually believes, not only about Life, but about the true nature of Reality in general, which he is certain resides primarily in his own specialist subject – Physics.
For Brian Cox is most certainly a fully paid up member of the current consensus in Sub Atomic Physics, He agrees completely with the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory, originally put forward by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and this puts him, and all his colleagues, into a particular and surprising philosophical position.
For the whole group are what are usually termed “shamefaced materialists”, who have steadfastly embraced a purely idealist philosophical position, beloved of such people, which has physical Reality being wholly determined by abstract, disembodied and purely formal laws. These are so pure that they can be most perfectly represented by mathematical equations.
Now, let us be quite clear exactly what is involved in such a position. These laws have to be eternal – in existence throughout the duration of our Universe, and act as driving essences, actually making the concrete material World behave as it does. Now, you may find it hard to believe that there is anyone at all who subscribes to such a position, and especially professional scientists, but I assure you, it is entirely true. They do have reasons, of course, for such a profound retreat from the once steadfastly maintained materialist standpoint, but that will become clearer as this exercise proceeds, along with just a little history of 20th century Physics.
For, this position has been around for some considerable time, and is usually termed as Positivism when applied within Science. But, a much more descriptive label is the philosophical term Agnosticism (“I do not know”), for though the position purports to be materialist, it also says that there are many things not only that we do not yet know, BUT that we can never know: things that are “Unknowable Things in Themselves”.
Clearly, this was the stance made famous by the philosopher Kant, though it has resurfaced several times – a fairly recent interlude being at the end of the 19th century, with what were sometimes called the Empirio-Criticists. This group included both of the scientists Max Ernst and Henri Poincaré.
When, a little later, something like this position was considered necessary to paper over the ever widening cracks in 20th century Sub Atomic Physics, there was already in existence (and fairly “modern”) a body of philosophical suggestions that these physicists could subscribe to, and indeed tailor to their particular needs in their very esoteric area.
Now, in taking what Brian Cox actually says about The Wonders of Life, you certainly must see clearly where he is coming from. He is “in one way” a materialist, stressing the development of Reality without recourse to any spiritual or supernatural input, while, at the same time, rejecting the longstanding purpose of Science to explain why it is as it is. And, to cap it all, he surrenders all impetus in development entirely to a set of eternal Natural Laws – abstract relations (or Forms), which he insists actually “cause” the World to behave as it does, and even develop as it has.
So, nice easy put-downs will not suffice in dealing with such post-modernist eclecticism. The positions taken do NOT form a single coherent standpoint, but a variously based one, with either omissions (not spoken about), or a papering over the cracks (spoken about at length). So, the reason for these extractions from the programme should be clear. If you think that this universally commended paragon has been misquoted by this critic, you can make up your own mind by studying these important quotes. You may find many of his throw away lines more than a little difficult to accept. This fairly extensive collection will reveal many questions, which Cox does not answer, and many arguments that are certainly invalid.
- “Are wonderful products of evolution like dragonflies simply complex machines, for when they die nothing remains of what would be called Life?”
- “The idea of the Spirit is understandable, because otherwise we would have to accept that Life emerges from an inanimate bag of stuff”
- “It is incumbent on Science to explain what animates Life”
- “What is the difference between a lump of rock and me?”
- “It is only recently that Science has begun to answer these deepest of questions”
- “Life is the result of the same laws which govern everything else”
- It is how Life uses energy!”
- Energy is indestructible: it only ever changes from one form to another”
- “What is true for the waterfall, is true for everything in nature. It is a fundamental law of nature. The First Law of Thermodynamics – the conservation of energy law!”
- “Energy is eternal!”
- “The story of the evolution of the Universe, is just the story of the transformation of eternal energy from one form to another”
- “And at some point that transformation of energy led to the Origin of Life on earth!”
- “Volcanoes transferring energy from the very depths to the surface can produce chemicals and their reactions, which are very similar to those that produced the Origin of Life”
- “Hydrogen ions (H+) instead of balancing the Hydroxyl ions (OH-) as in neutral water, can be increased in number by energy, hence storing that potential in the heightened number of Hydrogen ions.”
- “And such a produced proton gradient can do work, and it is through that, somehow, that early Life was able to use that source to drive its necessary processes”
- “Now there are alkaline sub-ocean volcanic vents, and it is thought that, at the time if the Origin of Life, the oceans themselves were mildly acidic. Hence there was the possibility of a ready source of energy for Life to exploit.”
- “And the vents are also rich in the chemicals that Life needs”
- “Now, the energy currency for Life even today is still in that same sort of proton gradient, and it occurs in Mitochondria in every cell of every living thing”.
- “So, if you are looking for a universal Spark of Life this proton gradient is it”
- “But, Life doesn’t use energy up. So what does it do?”
- “The evolution of the Universe involves the changing of energy from one form to another. But, that energy becomes less and less useful. It becomes more and more disordered. It’s the quality of energy that is changed. Light can be absorbed, but it is then re-emitted as Heat. The energy of a lower quality: it can do less. It becomes Heat which is of a very low quality of energy indeed”
- Life takes highly ordered, high quality energy from the Sun, and converts it to an equal amount of low quality, disordered energy”
- “This descent into disorder is happening across the entire Universe”
- “Everything is converted to Heat, and the Universe cools down to absolute zero, and with NO ordered energy left, and everything comes to a halt, and everything decays away”
- “Yet, while the Universe is dying, everywhere you look, Life goes on”
- “How can it be that Life continues to build increasingly complex structures, while the rest of the Universe is falling to bits – decaying away?
- (It is) “according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics!”
- “The key is to look at the energy Life takes in, and the energy that it gives out. Heat is a highly disordered form of energy, and that is what Life gives out, but Life can hang on to a tiny amount of order, just enough to resist the inevitable decay”
- “Living things borrow order from the wider Universe and export it again as disorder, but they have to export more disorder than the amount of order that they import.”
- “Living things, being physical structures, must obey the laws of Physics, so they must obey the Second Law.”
- “Just by being alive, we are part of the energy transformation that drives the Universe.”
- “All living things share the same fate. Each individual will die, but Life itself endures!”
- “Something separates Life from every other process in the Universe”
Now, I originally thought of countering every single quote, but let’s face it, they do speak for themselves! I cannot imagine many reading them with a genuine realisation of their truth, and with real pleasure. I am sure that they don’t need me to explain which orifice he is talking out of.
NOTE: For those who might like to hear a more explicit alternative to Brian Cox’s conception of Life, this author has written another parallel paper attempting to do exactly that.