Tag Archives: nature

Life and Death in the Universe

It is quite common to think of life and death as two completely opposite realities; one revered and the other dreaded. However, if we thoroughly examine what is really going on, a different picture emerges. Life and death are more related than they first appear. These two realities actually co-exist in complex ways.

The chemistry necessary for life has its origins inside the core of stars, and the eventual death of stars is fundamental to life. The early universe consisted of atoms of hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of lithium. All other heavier elements were forged by stars.  For about 90% of a star’s life it generates its energy by fusing hydrogen to make helium. Eventually it runs out of hydrogen, and begins to fuse its stocks of helium, making yet heavier elements. The fusion process continues producing heavier and heavier elements until the star has nothing left to burn. Of course all this takes anywhere from about a million to hundreds of billions of years, depending on the size of the star. The larger the star the faster it burns, resulting in a shorter life span. When a large star runs out of fuel a delicate balance is lost between gravity, which wants to keep material in, and the outward pressure generated by thermonuclear fusion in the core of the star. It collapses in on itself and then recoils outward in a gigantic explosion called a supernova.

A supernova explosion releases the elements created within the star, and the extreme heat and energy of the explosion creates the remaining elements in the periodic table. Each generation of stars adds to the concentration of elements in the universe, until there are enough to support life like we have here on earth—essentially we are all made of star dust. If it were not for the death of stars, life as we know it could not be.

When life began on earth so did the evolutionary process, where death also plays a significant role. The complex and intricate web of life was made possible by about 3.8 billion years of evolution. The powerful forces of natural selection have shaped life according to its environment. Death is the means by which natural selection removes individuals within species and eventually entire species. Throughout the process of evolution death is there every step of the way. For species to evolve and diverge into more and more complex life, each generation must die, giving way for the next to live. Evolution is a multi-generational process. Without death, complex life—like human beings—could not have evolved from simpler life, and life as we know it could not be.

Death is also present within living organisms, in the form of cell death. Cells are the basic unit of all life. Some organisms consist of only one cell, however, plants and animals are made of numerous cells. For instance, the human body is composed of about 100 trillion cells. A cell is alive as you and me; it breathes, takes in food and gets rid of waste. It also grows and reproduces by dividing. Each new cell is created by a pre-existing cell, and like all other life, it dies. Each day several billion cells in the human body die and they are replaced by new cells. The life span of cells varies widely. White blood cells live about 13 days, red blood cells about 120 days. On the other hand, liver cells live about 18 months and nerve cells can live approximately 100 years. Even in a healthy living human body death is always present.

Contrary to conflicting emotions caused by life and death, they are clearly not opposites, but actually co-creators. All living things carry death with them, and eventually, they will all die. As much as death is dreaded, it is necessary for life and a completely natural process. Instead of thinking about death as some kind of cosmic accident—something that shouldn’t be—perhaps we can view death as something that is compatible with life. There are no free rides in life and regrettably, the price for life is death. If it were not for the reality of death, we could not have the experience of life. It’s that simple.

If one considers the universe as the source of all life, then what do we make of its parts? By labeling the parts we create individual forms that are not completely individual. Every part is related to other parts. The relationships amongst the parts are so intricate that they depend on each other for their very existence. The circle of life is relational between living and non-living things—non-living things such as sunlight, water, oxygen and living things like microorganisms, plants, animals and humans. We are humans, so it stands to reason that we are partial to our own kind. However, our affinity for the human species does not change the reality of life and death, which is natural to all living components of the whole. Why would nature make an exception for human possibilities after death, which is not granted to other species? All life comes into being from life and in the end, goes back into life—there are no exceptions.

From everything we can see it appears that the momentum of life sustains the whole and that individual life is expendable. The natural cycle of birth, growth, decline and death repeats indefinitely, all the while preserving the whole. Living organisms are necessary for a living planet, but no one organism is essential. You could think of individual life forms as leaves from the same tree. A living tree needs leaves, but no single leaf is crucial. As long as the falling leaves are replaced with new healthy leaves, then the tree is sustained. This does not mean that any given leaf is not valuable to the tree. Each leaf contributes to the well-being of the tree. It serves the tree (the whole), and then dies in order to allow other leaves to take its place. Keep in mind that it doesn’t stop there. The tree has a life span of its own. The tree serves the forest as the leaves serve the tree.

In the face of the observable facts of life and death, why then do we ask, what happens after death? Is it because the thought of nonexistence (for eternity) is just about unthinkable? How does one handle the possibility that “what we see is what we get”—that all individual life may be a “one shot deal.” Perhaps a change of perspective can be helpful. We need not dwell on nonexistence, but can be comforted by considering the improbability of us being here in the first place. Richard Dawkins, in the first lines of Unweaving the Rainbow, clearly points out that we have won the lottery of life. He writes:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

Then there is the approach taken by Mark Twain as he dismisses the fear of death altogether: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Obviously Twain was not expecting much after death. If one takes that view, there is no reason to be traumatized by the second stage of non-existence if the first stage caused us no harm.

However logically fitting, I am aware that for many people Twain’s perspective will not be emotionally satisfactory. If hope for an afterlife is not found in the empirical evidence, then where does one find it?  Despite mankind’s tremendous strides of knowledge, we still don’t know what we don’t know. Mystery will always be part of life. The unknown can be an uncomfortable place to be, however, when it comes to the afterlife; the unknown could provide a ray of hope. Nature may open the door just a bit to an otherwise seemingly bleak outcome. If we are to have any experiences after what we consider our life, then a transformation completely unknown to us (or science) must be in store.

If one looks to nature, amazing transformations happen all the time. I will highlight a few of them, but I am certain that you can think of many more. 1) There is perhaps no greater transformation than the life cycle of stars I described earlier. The fact that all life is made possible by exploding stars is astounding to say the least. 2) Imagine if an unborn child could be completely aware in the mother’s womb. There would be nothing in its surroundings that could possibly prepare it for the world to come. 3) If we did not have the experience of butterflies, we could never imagine the potential in a slow and grounded caterpillar. The transformation from caterpillar to a butterfly could not be predicted from everything we see in a caterpillar. 4) If we had no experience of spring, the falling leaves of autumn would be interpreted much differently. There would be no way of knowing that the trees would sprout fresh leaves after a long cold winter.

The belief in an afterlife is nothing new and it is still quite widespread today. Although I wonder how many people have actually thought it through, that is, what life after death might entail. Does it mean eternal life? If so, how do we account for the time before we were born—that period of time is also part of eternity. Where will we go? And what will we do if we get there? What are we going to do with all that time? There are some people that don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day; how will they handle eternity? After a few thousand years, might it get a little tedious? Also, I wonder what kind of experience we would have without a physical body—without a brain to think, eyes to see and hands to touch.

We all accept that life is a natural process, yet many people believe that something spooky takes over in the afterlife. They view life as natural, and the afterlife as supernatural. But is this a rational way of thinking about life and death? Life and death are both natural processes. So it stands to reason that a natural process will determine what happens after death. Regardless of our hopes or fears, our fate lies in what the universe has and will allow—how could it be otherwise? Acceptance of the mystery of death appears to be the only reasonable approach to the question of life after death.

I will conclude with a fitting gardening analogy. In the late fall, when the gardening season is winding down, it’s the time to plant tulip bulbs. From experience I know what the bulbs will bring to the gardens the following spring. Yet there is nothing in the dull brown bulbs that would indicate that colorful tulips are in the offing for next year’s gardens. The brown bulbs will transform into bright flowers after a long winter in the frozen ground. This transformation happens not because of any hope, belief or wish on my part, it happens as a result of a natural process. The bulbs will grow into the only thing they can become—tulips. On the other hand, if I were to bury a few small stones into the ground, they will remain lifeless, regardless of any wishes on my part.

 

References:  Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 1.

Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/25647,  August 27, 2011, October 29, 2011.


 

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What is Emergence?

emergenceEmergence is a general term that refers to a characteristic of complex systems. Typically, emergence is the result of a process, where smaller ingredients act together to form a larger pattern. The resulting emergent properties tend to be very different from the properties of the smaller components. We have all heard it expressed in everyday language: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The quote has been credited to Aristotle.

So the idea is not new, and like many ideas it has been refined and expanded on over time. The concept of emergence has been applied to a wide range of behaviors and structures (both living and nonliving). It seems to happen everywhere, giving the impression that it’s a fundamental property of nature. Therefore, is it inevitable that complex interactions eventually lead to new phenomena? 

An emergent property may be difficult to spot, because emergence is intertwined with our everyday world. At the scale of our experience the underlying causes for our observations are subtle and not always obvious. When something new or unexpected arises, and when order or organization comes about, it’s a good sign that emergence is involved.

Examples of Emergence

  • Solids, Liquids and Gases: All the states of matter for a given compound, such as water, emerge from the same fundamental particles. The different properties of air, water and ice result from changes in the arrangement of the particles. In this case, temperature is the key factor for the phase transitions of water. 
  • Ocean Waves: Individual water molecules make up water droplets. A single droplet cannot make a wave, but countless droplets (with help from environmental conditions) can move together and create ocean waves.
  • Ant Colonies: An ant has limited intelligence. The key to their evolutionary successes is their ability to work together. The communication and interconnections between the ants result in an overall intelligence of the colony, which far exceeds the intelligence of a single ant. Their survival needs can only be attained as a group.
  • Flock of Birds: As birds fly in flocks they move about in patterns. The patterns are mesmerizing to watch as they constantly change. These patterns are surely unplanned and no single bird is in charge. The patterns emerge as a result of birds following simple rules. The flock is moving in a general direction, and each bird stays close to other birds, but far enough to avoid a collision.
  • Movement of Crowds: Humans moving in crowds is an emergent property similar to the birds. No one is controlling the movement of people on city streets or gatherings at large events. Pedestrians are following each other and obeying general rules. Each person reacts to the people around them and their environment.
  • Consciousness: This is perhaps the most impressive example of emergence. Although neuroscience has identified brain functions as the cause of consciousness, the mechanisms tell use very little about what consciousness actually is. Connections of neurons in the brain are physical processes, and yet we experience consciousness as nonphysical. And how does self-awareness emerge from processes that are not self-aware (as far as we know)?

Who or What is in Control?

flock-of-birdsWith our human organizations we are accustomed to having a person or group in charge. It is a follow the leader mentality. This structure is rarely questioned, as it is the foundation of governments, religions, business entities and most organizations. We do, however, question the competency of the leaders at times. Nevertheless, the point is that nature operates differently. Most of the time, there is nothing in control; order and complexity emerges from the interactions of all the individual parts.

Generally, the emergent properties occur at the level we most identify with and experience. Broken down into its finer ingredients, the world around us is composed of different arrangements of atoms; all biology is controlled by the complex system of DNA and genes. Scientists have an extensive understanding of physics, chemistry and genetics, as well as many other specialized fields. Science can make progress by studying things in isolation; however, the behavior of the whole is still somewhat mysterious. Interactions of simple individual parts, lead to large-scale complexity and organization.

One of the fascinations with emergence is that the large-scale structures look nothing like the structures of the finer scales. And if one were to examine the ingredients, the net result would reveal a surprising outcome. Whether you look at the micro scale or the macro scale, emergence is counter intuitive. But it seems that nature is able to self-organize in multiple ways, without anyone or anything in control.

 

References: Systems Theory: 8 Emergence, Complexity Academy, Published on Mar 5, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pooxD8XF5Uw

NOVA science NOW: 34 – Emergence, aranial, Published on Aug 9, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEaZHWXmbRw


 

The Tao Does Nothing, But Leaves Nothing Undone

This is the opening line in the 37th verse of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom. The Tao (pronounced dow in English) is an indescribable force that permeates all things. The Tao does nothing in the sense that it can’t be identified in precise terms, but leaves nothing undone in the sense that all things contribute in an interconnected way. And speaking of way, the word Tao is generally translated as the way. The way, meaning a path that one follows, which is in harmony with nature. Te is translated as power or virtue, and Ching is a book.

The Tao is a mysterious concept and its true meaning is almost impossible to express in language. The 1st Verse of the Tao Te Ching begins as follows: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

Some contemporary spiritual teachers have written and lectured about the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. Although I am sure there are many, 3 influential figures come to my mind: Alan Watts, whose lectures from the sixties and seventies are still posted on You Tube. In recent years, Eckhart Tolle and Dr. Wayne W. Dyer have incorporated Tao philosophies into their teachings. In his book, Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life, Dyer describes his interpretation of the concept that is called “the Tao.”

“The Tao is the supreme reality, an all-pervasive Source of everything. The Tao never begins or ends, does nothing, and yet animates everything in the world of form and boundaries, which is called “the world of the 10,000 things.”

The Legend of Lao-tzu

Loa-TzuLegend has it that a wise old man, named Lao-tzu, wrote the Tao Te Ching (sometime between the 6th and 4th century B.C.). Lao-tzu was the keeper of the archives of imperial China. He became frustrated with the unrest in the empire. He decided to leave and headed west, where he was recognized by a border guard. Lao-tzu was asked to write down his wisdom before he left, which became the Tao Te Ching. Afterwards, he left the kingdom and was never seen again.

There is, however, no way to verify if this is historically accurate. Lao-tzu actually translates to old master. It could be that the original text is a collection of proverbs from various sources, or perhaps what has survived is an incomplete version. Nevertheless, the book has been translated thousands of times in many languages. A few centuries later a movement began, which became Taoism. There is also some speculation that the Tao Te Ching may have influenced the birth of Buddhism.

Religion or Philosophy

The core concept of the Tao has led to the development of the Taoist faith. I use the word faith as opposed to the word religion, because Taoism is fundamentally different from other world religions. The Tao is not a God in the traditional western sense. The concept of God as a controlling figure is absent in Taoism. In the Tao, there is no controlling center; everything is allowed to be, and each component is viewed as part of a harmonious system.

Based on the Tao, there are no prescribed directions to follow; it is left to individuals to find their own way. The Tao Te Ching is a guide for living in harmony with nature, but it is not a manual. Taoism is as much a philosophy as it is a religion.

The Way of Nature

The flow of water is a powerful symbol for the Tao. Flowing water finds the lowest or easiest path. There is also the inevitability of the direction of the water. Take for example, the flow of a river; much better to go with the current than to try to go against it. There is a way to nature and the universe, but it is difficult if not impossible to pinpoint. The main goal is to experience the Tao by allowing and accepting nature as it is, not by trying to control it.

Ying and YangThe Tao Te Ching also points out the paradoxes of nature. Even polar opposites are viewed as working together. Hence the terms and symbols of yin and yang, which represent opposite forces in nature; they are seen as complementary and interconnected. For example, there is a balance between high and low, soft and hard, hot and cold and light and dark. Or one could say there is no light without darkness. Following the way is living in balance.

The Way Forward

We could do worse than adopt an open philosophy of life that aligns with nature. When we consider the immense problems caused by extreme and competing religious dogmas, and financial greed and inequality that disregard the well-being of the environment, it should make us pause: “Where are we going?”  If humans are going to find their way in such confusing times, we will have to incorporate principles that are compatible with nature.

waterfallI find it refreshing that ancient concepts contained in the Tao Te Ching are lining up with a modern scientific view. Science has discovered a multitude of interconnected parts that make up our world. Life is so interconnected that it is sometimes difficult to determine when one living system begins or ends. The whole planet (or even the universe) can be viewed as one system or organism. Everything that exists is compatible with the whole. If it were not, it wouldn’t be here. Alan Watts summarizes the Tao in the following manner:

“The whole conception of nature is as a self-regulating, self-governing, indeed democratic organism. But it has a totality, it all goes together, and this totality is the Tao.”

 

References: Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life (United States: Hay House Inc., 2007).

Alan Watts – The Taoist Way, Published on Jan. 13, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iv9zocKASsM

In Our Time Philosophy: Daoism (Dec. 15, 2011).


 

The Abundance of Nature

wild flowersIn many respects planet Earth is a rare and unique place. This is partly due to the abundance of nature. There is abundant opportunity, quantity and diversity, as well as abundant time and space. No matter where we look, we will find that things come in large quantities. There is rarely just one of anything in nature; if there is, it probably won’t last for very long.

For our convenience, we separate and categorize the components of nature. Inanimate substances and living things make up two large categories, which are broken down into smaller subgroups. This is useful for us, but in reality the Earth is a living planet. What we consider as inanimate is shared and circulated to maintain all life on earth. For example: soil, water, air and sunlight are part of the living world (in a roundabout way).

Natural Selection and Exponential Growth

Natural selection, Darwin’s term for nature’s sorting process, has a subtle implication; similar patterns and forms are repeated over and over again. This is an unavoidable consequence of natural selection. In order for environmental conditions to serve as a shaping force, it must be favorable for numerous life forms. If only a few individuals are favored, then randomness necessitates that their genes will not be passed on in the long term. On the other hand, when selection acts positively on large numbers (of genes, individuals, groups or species), then the odds are high that they will prosper.

Success from an evolutionary standpoint means survival and replication. There is a constant competition for resources; there are always winners and losers. Once something gains an upper hand, exponential growth will lead to an abundance of that particular life form. It is similar to compound interest in a bank account. Of course, abundance does not entail permanent growth. All species will eventually decline or become extinct due to ever-changing conditions. Nevertheless, when anything survives the process it will do so in large numbers, otherwise it would not be here.

butterfliesFor example, if favorable conditions (such as a plentiful food supply, lack of predators and a temperate climate) are present for a particular species, then the numbers will likely grow. This may at some point lead to overpopulation and stress the survival needs of the species, which can create an opportunity for competing species. The growth of species will usually fluctuate; but most of the time a balance will develop, somewhat like the swinging of a pendulum. In the end the diversity of life will almost ensure that life as a whole will be plentiful.

Self-Organization, Order and Randomness

Both the living and non-living world has the ability to self-organize. That can partially explain how order emerges from a random and chaotic world. The process of self-organization in nature is messy, nothing like we organize our daily lives. With humans there is usually a clear direction or purpose when we make plans. But not all the time; humans also self-organize when groups of people act in a similar way, even if no one is in control.

In nature, the terms trial and error best describes how order and structure arises. There is a role for both order and randomness in this process. The order allows for stability, the random component creates opportunities for change. For example, if we think of how seeds from plants are dispersed, we can see that they fall to the ground in irregular patterns. There is no reason why any seed will come into contact with fertile soil. In fact, the majority of seeds will be wasted. Still, within each seed contains the information necessary to produce the plant. And due to the abundant production of seeds, by random factors alone some seeds will find a prosperous location.

treeFor instance, a mature tree can produce thousands of seeds, and yet, only a tiny fraction of those seeds will become trees. Looking at this process from an individual seed, it seems that the survival chance of a seed is extremely low. But if we account for all the seeds of a tree, there are bound to be seeds that are deposited in just the right location. This is just one example of many similar situations where the abundance of nature assures that life will go on and flourish.

 The Goldilocks Zone

The term Goldilocks Zone is often used to identify the location of the Earth. The idea being that our planet is just the right distance from the sun to support life. The Earth’s location allows for a narrow band of temperature variations (in relation to the universe), a range that can provide liquid water. For water to exist it cannot be too hot or too cold. For life as we know it to exist, liquid water is an absolute must.

At first glance the Earth’s precise location seems highly improbable; however, like the seeds from a tree, there are huge numbers of planets that can’t support life. Hundreds of planets outside our solar system have been discovered, and there are surely countless more. Thus far only a few exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) could be considered as earth like. Out of over 1800 that have already been found, most cannot support life as we know it.

Goldilocks Zones are applicable to situations on earth as well. All life is sustained by a narrow range of conditions. However, because nature allows for abundant opportunity, quantity and diversity something will always find the right location (or conditions). Clearly, from any perspective, there is abundance of every kind. This is what we observe when we examine the natural world. That is why in the grand scheme of things, nature always flourishes.


 

A Special Time

This blog site was inspired by our book, The Landscape of Reality (Nov. 18, 2014). The blog is an offshoot or extension from some of the themes in the book. The blog will focus on creative ideas and concepts from science, nature and philosophy. All with the intent of providing a perspective of life that is in line with the physical and natural world. The content will be tailored for a general audience. I define the three fields in the following manner:

  • Science is about a factual and logical understanding of the world and the universe. The foundation of science is verifiable evidence.
  • Nature is more closely associated to living things and how we experience the world, but not exclusively. One could also view nature as the source, and science as the field of study.
  • Philosophy is about how we think and apply the concepts, what it means for us.

 Why a Special Time?

In all of human history, no time compares to the last century in terms of change and increased knowledge. Aside from advancements in science that have eased many of life’s burdens, new and exciting discoveries are revealing the universe’s true colors. The scientific endeavor has uncovered explanations of our world and beyond, which call to question long-held beliefs. We, as individuals and as a species, have the opportunity to understand the nature of our existence in ways that past generations could not have imagined.

Galaxy Cluster

Galaxy Cluster

Lawrence M. Krauss and Bob Scherrer wrote concerning the picture of the large-scale universe:

“We live at a very special time…the only time when we can observationally verify that we live at a very special time!”

There is an intriguing implication behind this quote. According to Krauss, due to the expansion of the universe, galaxies will get increasingly farther apart. At some point in the far future, galaxies will become so isolated that all evidence of the cosmological picture of the universe will disappear. From any galaxy, potential observers will not detect anything beyond their own galaxy. They will arrive at the conclusion that the universe consists of only a single galaxy (the same view that people had before the last century), and they will be completely wrong.

 A Drastic Change of Perspective

  • Before the last century: The earth was viewed as part of a solar system, within a collection of stars (there were no known planets outside our solar system). All stars were contained within a single galaxy of a static universe.
  • After the last century: The earth is now known to be located on the outer edge of an ordinary galaxy (hundreds of planets outside our solar system have been discovered). The Milky Way is part of a huge conglomerate of billions of galaxies within an expanding universe.

 A Philosophical Angle

Before the development of modern science, natural philosophy was the term used to describe the study of nature and the physical universe. In this sense, science emerged out of philosophy. The critical difference that allowed science to branch out from philosophy was the requirement that science relied on experimentation to acquire knowledge. Still, the two have been closely linked for a long time.

In the early period of science the focus was on uncovering the laws that governed nature. The application of science came later as mankind learned they could manipulate nature for their own benefit. Now the applied sciences seem to have captured the imagination of the general population. Technologies of every kind are dominating our lives. But I caution that an opportunity to fully appreciate and understand the laws of nature is being missed. And that our excesses from modernization are growing faster than our ability to monitor the changes to our planet and ourselves.

Nevertheless, it is clear that science cannot be viewed solely as an applied field. The current scientific picture has philosophical implications as well. Learning about science can be an intellectual pursuit that has the power to enrich our lives at a philosophical and emotional level. The time is ripe for making science accessible and meaningful to the general population. Explanations from different areas of science are now merging well together, and form a view of reality that is utterly fascinating and awe-inspiring. Those are the feelings I hope to convey in the blog posts that will follow.

Ray of Sunlight

 

References: Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012)