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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, March 5, 2017

It's As If Many Types of Natural Things Know What They Never Learned

In the history of the universe extremely improbable things seem to happen very frequently, to a degree that seems to defy conventional explanations. There are various ways commonly used to describe such wonders. One way is to talk about fine-tuning of the universe. Another is to talk about complexity emergence. But there's an interesting rarely-used type of description that we can use to describe a very wide range of phenomena, from the ultra-large to the ultra-small. We can describe such phenomena by saying: natural things often behave as if they knew things they never learned.

Let's start at an extremely large scale, and consider galaxies. Scientists have not adequately explained either the formation of spiral galaxies, or their persistence over billions of years. The revolution of galaxies every 200 million years or so should cause the spiral arms of spiral galaxies to “unwind,” which should cause galaxies to lose their spiral arms in less than a billion years. Instead, galaxies keep their beautiful spiral shapes for as long as 10 billion years or longer. One way to describe these facts is to say that is as if protogalaxies (clouds of gas and dust that form into galaxies) know how to form spiral galaxies, and it is as if spiral galaxies know how to keep their spiral structure preserved.

Galaxies are made mainly of stars, stars that burn brightly for billions of years. There are a large number of requirements for stars like the sun, and you can describe the appearance of stars like ours by discussing fine-tuning requirements. But an alternate narrative is to say: very large masses of matter somehow knew how to perform the difficult trick of performing thermonuclear fusion, and they also knew how to keep doing this at a slow, steady rate continuing for billions of years. This is a very precise balancing act, because if it is not done just right, a star will either burn up its nuclear fuel quickly, or collapse in on itself because of its own gravitational contraction.

In order to have planets and life, you need atoms – not just hydrogen atoms, but more complicated atoms such as carbon atoms and oxygen atoms. Every carbon atom is a little system consisting of 18 parts: 6 neutrons, 6 protons, and 6 electrons organized in a particular way. They can't just clump all together into a dense ball, as that would not allow carbon atoms to connect to other carbon atoms in such a way so that complicated molecules can be formed. You can describe the organization of something like a carbon atom as being the product of various complicated laws and forces, but a simpler way to describe it is just say that is as if protons, neutrons and electrons knew how to form into the systems we call atoms.

The origin of life is an unsolved mystery. For reasons discussed here and here, for life to appear from non-life seems to involve almost miraculous luck. One way to describe such a thing is to say: it is as if non-life knew how to turn into life.

After life appears, it seems to undergo an astonishing series of progressions. One way to describe such progressions is to hypothesize that simple prokaryotic cells knew how to turn into complex eukaryotic cells, that aquatic life knew how to change into land-based life, and that land-based life knew how to change into air-based life.

At a certain time perhaps 100,000 years ago or earlier, we see an astonishing transformation that we cannot explain. Humans started using language, the origin of which is still unexplained. We could describe this by saying humans who did not know how to speak somehow knew how to start building languages they had never been taught. A similar description might be applied to the beginning of agriculture, mathematics, and city building. It is as if humans somehow acquired all kinds of skills they had never been taught.

Are these cases of “natural objects that seem to know things they were never taught” all cases in the past? No, we seem to see continued examples of such a thing, and our existence depends on it. One dramatic example seems to be morphogenesis, the process by which a newly fertilized speck-sized ovum progresses to become a full human baby. How this happens is a great unsolved scientific mystery.

It is not at all correct to say that what is going on is simply that some list of instructions is being read from DNA. DNA is written in a bare-bones “poor man's” language consisting of 20 nouns (all amino acids), and no more than a handful of verbs (such as the equivalent of “start,” “stop,” and “use.”) Contrary to the unwarranted claims of some, there is in DNA no list of instructions of the steps to follow to progress from a fertilized ovum to a full baby, nor is there any blueprint laying out a three-dimensional body plan of humans. So in describing the mysterious progression from a fertilized ovum to a human baby, we can again say that it as if a natural object seems to know something that it never learned.

There is still another dramatic example on which our existence depends: protein folding. Proteins are made of amino acids, and the linear sequence of amino acids that make up a protein is specified by DNA. But proteins have very elaborate three-dimensional shapes, and their functionality depends on them having such shapes. DNA has no capability for specifying three-dimensional shapes. What happens is that somehow protein molecules are able to form into intricate three-dimensional shapes through what is called protein folding.

How this happens is a mystery that scientists have been struggling to learn for decades, with very little success. It does not seem to be true that the mere linear arrangement of amino acids in DNA is sufficient to specify the three-dimensional shape of a protein molecule. One way to describe the situation is as follows: linear polypeptide sequences of amino acids seem to act as if they know how to form themselves into suitable three-dimensional protein molecules, even though we can't explain how such knowledge was acquired.

protein folding

When we study the mysterious subject of instincts, we seem to find many other examples of natural things that seem to know things they never learned. Bees know how to make hives; birds know how to fly with other birds in perfectly synchronized formations; beavers know how to build dams; and so on. Most of the more dramatic cases of instinct cannot be explained by a mother animal teaching a child. Nor can we properly explain animals having instincts by appealing to DNA, which uses merely a minimal language for expressing the contents of proteins, not the infinitely more sophisticated language needed to state behavioral rules. These cases of instinctive skills in animals seem to be further cases of natural things acting as if they knew things they never learned.

Another example of natural things that seem to know things they never learned is what occurs when a young child first learns to speak. We take this for granted, but it seems quite the little miracle. How does a very young child pick up the rules that are needed to form sentences, rules that can never be explained to the child until the child has first learned how to speak? Again, we have a case where it is as if a natural thing (the child) knew something it had never learned: the rules of grammar and language.

When we study savants, we find many dramatic examples of people who seemed to somehow know things they never learned. There are many examples of people with dramatic deficiencies (such as very low IQ, blindness, autism, or birth defects) who displayed astonishing musical abilities, drawing abilities or calculation abilities. In Darold A. Treffert's excellent book Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome, we hear of quite a few cases of savants who picked up skills almost instantly: piano playing, first-rate artistic skills, or esoteric mathematical calculation skills. Acquisition of skills so rapidly seems inexplicable in people with normal bodies, and seems doubly inexplicable in people with dramatic handicaps. Treffert describes some examples in this online essay. Below is an excerpt:

Leslie Lemke is a musical virtuoso even though he has never had a music lesson in his life. Like “Blind Tom” Wiggins a century before him, his musical genius erupted so early and spontaneously as an infant that it could not possibly have been learned. It came ‘factory installed’. In both cases professional musicians witnessed and confirmed that Lemke and Wiggins somehow, even in the absence of formal training, had innate access to what can be called “the rules” or vast syntax of music.

To explain some of these anomalies, Treffert proposes an idea of what he calls “genetic memory.” He seems to think that perhaps our genes are storing all kinds of secret elaborate instructions, and suggests that maybe savants are able to somehow access such instructions. Treffert has done some great work in documenting savants, and I recommend his books on the topic. But this hypothesis doesn't work.

DNA and genes are basically just instructions specifying the ingredients of proteins. DNA is written in a minimalist language in which the nouns are only the names of amino acids. So DNA couldn't store something like rules of musical proficiency. Nor can we explain how it is that such rules could possibly have come to be stored in DNA, certainly something that would not have any survival value or Darwinian explanation. And if we were to explain some of the cases I have discussed by imagining some mysterious “genetic memory,” it would still leave most of the cases I have discussed unexplained, as most of these cases involve things that don't have DNA.

To reasonably account for all of the very many ways in which natural things act as if they knew skills they have never learned, we would need to break out of the straight-jacket of mechanistic and materialistic thinking, and consider explanations involving one or more things that have unreasonably been declared taboo by our mainstream professors: things such as teleology, a cosmic life force, or mysterious spiritual or psychic drivers of cosmic phenomena. 

Postscript: A new scientific study tells us that protein folding is "surprisingly more complex than previously known."  We are told, "The JILA team identified 14 intermediate states—seven times as many as previously observed—in just one part of bacteriorhodopsin, a protein in microbes that converts light to chemical energy and is widely studied in research." So look at my visual above, and imagine not a single transition, but something like a 14-step process going on, which happens in seconds. How does a mere chain of amino acids know how to do such choreography culminating in an elaborate 3D form, like some origami sculpture? The answer can't be in DNA alone. We have no explanation for what is going on here. It's as astonishing as someone throwing a bucket of sand on the ground, and then watching it self-assemble into a sand castle. 

Post-postscript: In this post I was not trying to suggest any theory that very small things have consciousness. It is possible, though, that such things have a kind of programming. A piece of software is not itself conscious