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Introduction
& Prolog
Part 1.
Metabolic Metaphysics
Part 2.
Star Larvae
Part 3.
Space Brains
Addenda
Epilog

The Star Larvae Hypothesis
Nature's Plan for Humankind
Prolog

Prolog: The Nature of Meaning and the Meaning of Nature

If nature is divine artifice, as religious faith supposes, then nature is of a kind with technology. Nature is somebody's science project . . . or?



A peculiar virus struck the world of ideas in the fall of 1998. A lot of people perceived suddenly that science and religion had become reconciled.

A flurry of books and articles announced the reconciliation. The two rivals had buried the hatchet, finally.

The New Republic, not to miss a trend, featured as its October 12 cover story an excerpt from Greg Easterbrook’s "Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt." In December, Astronomy magazine ran its own article on the "rapprochement" between science and religion. The same issue carried a review of Chet Raymo's "Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Spirituality." Even stately George Will got into the act, drawing on Easterbrook’s ideas, in his November 9 Newsweek column, "The Gospel from Science." This was a formative time for the star larvae hypothesis, which welcomed the passing focus on the science-religion integration meme as a nod of encouragement. Commentary pro and con the rapprochement continued into 2012. And even today A web search will bring up dozens of institutes pursuing an integration of science and religion.

The urge to reconcile the rival worldviews and present them as chummy is understandable. But no matter the earnestness of the conciliatory mood, without a new conceptual framework the rivals likely will clash again and head deeper into extremes of the doctrinaire and the sanctimonious. The star larvae hypothesis hopes to redirect these impulses. The hypothesis is a disruptive proposition. It disrupts the ideological dichotomy framed on one side by the mythemes of religion and on the other by the doctrines and equations of science.

"All varieties of organicists trace themselves back to Aristotle, especially to his intense appreciation of teleological explanation as a complement to material explanation, but recent organicists see their immediate lineage in diverse sources. Morton Beckner maintains that only in the twentieth century has it been possible to distinguish organicism as a doctrine from the varieties of vitalism [ . . . ] Vitalism and organicism share basic questions and positions. From a negative point of view, both maintain that the study of the parts does not suffice to explain the behavior of the whole. The methods and conclusions of other sciences, in particular physics and chemistry, are held to be applicable to organisms but radically insufficient. Second, the form of the whole is important in embryological development, animal behavior, reproduction, and physiology. By whatever means, the properties of the whole are as essential in determining the nature and behavior of the parts at each stage in the life cycle as vice versa. Last, both organicists and vitalists stress the teleological behavior of organisms: there is at least the appearance of goal-directedness and design in biological phenomena. These properties ensure that biology is an autonomous science, not a postscript to physics."

— Donna Haraway
Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos

A New Organicism

With regard to religion, the hypothesis is ecumenical. It integrates motifs from across the spectrum, from shamanism to "The Tao of Physics." It is Catholic in its emphasis on ascension to the celestial. It is Jewish in casting humankind as Godís partner in the ongoing project of Creation. It is Gnostic in its burdening of humankind with the task of engineering its own salvation. It is Pagan in that it regards nature as ensouled. It is syncretic with regard to many brands of religion, because it shares with them a teleological view of history—a faith that natural and human history proceed purposefully, according to a plan.

With regard to science, the hypothesis adopts biology, rather than physics, as the paradigmatic discipline. This move is justified by the universality of metabolism, the linkage of anabolic and catabolic (or complexifying and entropic, or excitatory and inhibitory, or expressive and repressive) processes into regulatory feedback loops. Because human beings are biological organisms, biology is that cross section of natureís metabolism that most easily reveals her habits, because biology operates roughly at a human scale—as compared to the subatomic and astronomical extremes of physics. Habits of nature identified on the biological scale apply generally to the larger and smaller scales of nature, given the unifying universality of metabolism across spatial and temporal scales.

The hypothesis, then, situates itself within the philosophical tradition of organicism, the view that nature per se is animate, not just in its particulars, such as individual organisms, but in its essential character. The universe and its parts form a continuum of interwoven processes that constitutes the metabolism of physical being, with small ecologies being called bodies and large bodies being called ecologies. The organicism of the hypothesis is not (merely) metaphorical—it is not satisfied with saying that stars, galaxies, and atoms and electrons, and so on, and the universe as a whole are similar to, or can be seen as, organisms. Rather, it sees all as participating in the ongoing business of a living universe. Normal physics, calling on the principle of entropy, declares that the universe as a whole is running down, in a sense dying, despite matter and energy having become increasingly organized since the universe's initially undifferentiated infancy at its Big Birth. The observational evidence for an on-average increase in entropy is lacking, despite science's insistence on the "fact" of its occurring. It may be an inevitability, as is the demise of any living creature, but science has yet to muster the empirical evidence. The universe continues to develop.

The essentially religious notion of "Intelligent Design" casts nature in the role of a mechanism, a product that was engineered and manufactured. This way of understanding nature has an understandable appeal. The universe easily is perceived as being a big machine. In contrast, the star larvae hypothesis regards the universe as an organism, also an appealing way in which it can be perceived. As Marshall McLuhan and others have noted, technology looks to be a collection of extensions of the human organism. And the organic and the mechanical seem to be to a degree congruent. The Intelligent Design contingent can claim as theirs the mechanical side of the coin. The star larvae hypothesis claims as its own the organic side. The universe was born, and it owes its life not to a cosmic tinkerer, but to a parent in the multiverse.



Courtship Dance of The Spiral Galaxy.Courtship Dance of The Spiral Galaxy.

Courtship Dances of The Spiral Galaxy.


Archaic Meets Avant Garde

In his New Republic excerpt, Easterbrook reviews scientific advances, such as the Big Bang, the discovery of DNA, and the concept of the Higgs Field. Based on his review, he concludes, "Regardless of whether our mettle is natural or supernatural, purpose is something people can make by leading moral lives and helping carry one another’s burdens." Whether or not humankind has a purpose, it is incumbent upon humans to, in Easterbrook’s words, "treat one another lovingly and with justice." What such ethical bromides have to do with the achievements of science is anybody's guess. Nonetheless, New Republic hyped the story as "Science Sees the Light—The Rediscovery of Higher Meaning." The editors are guilty of conflating virtue with meaning.

"According to the Timaeus, we on earth live at the center of one unique perfect cosmic organism, in whose image we have been created, and whose nature and destiny has been ordained by imperceptible transcendent forces from eternity. When we look up at the night sky, we are not seeing mere physical bodies moving in accord with blind mechanical laws, but, rather, are, quite literally, seeing the radiant airy periphery of that single perfect cosmic life, the image of our own (better) selves, from which we draw our being, our guidance, and our destiny."

— Richard McDonough
Plato: Organicism

in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Virtuous behavior doesn't connect science with "Higher Meaning." Only involvement with a teleological program will do that. Any hoped-for integration of science and religion will have to deal squarely with the need for an overarching plan, inherent in nature, that gives human existence a necessary role—and not gloss over the issue with ethics talk.

The star larvae hypothesis presents itself as a candidate for an integration that meets that requirement. It assigns a specific purpose to humankind within cosmic nature. It draws from science and religion, but not always from their orthodoxies. It leans equally on science’s fringes and religion’s roots. The fringes include self-organization, quantum theories of mind, panspermia and other technical and theoretical conjectures. The roots include belief in a machinery of cosmic fate
fueled by the starswithin which humans operate. These seemingly unrelated branches of understanding, innovative science and archaic religion, inform essential aspects of the hypothesis.

"An organism can respond to its parts, if it has them, or its neighbors, if it has them, or to both, if it has both. An electron has only neighbors, the universe, only parts, to respond to; but both may be responsive, and in so far, organic, entities."

— Charles Hartshorne
The Logic of Perfection

Among scientific advancements, the theory of complex systems provides an obvious access point through which religious ideas can flow into the scientific worldview. The theory invites notions of an animate universe to re-enter the marketplace of ideas. Central to this about-face in scientific thinking is the concept of spontaneous self-organization. This is science’s new term for the tendency of matter and energy, under the right circumstances, to arrange themselves into complex, dynamic processes. These processes, kept stable metabolically, persist in states that are far from equilibrium. By legitimizing the concept of nature’s spontaneous self-ordering, science acknowledges the occurrence of miracles, even if it tries to conceal the discovery under a shroud of technical argot. But spontaneous self organization by any other name still smells like a miracle. This is because complexity theorists cannot articulate the necessary and sufficient conditions under which a box of stuff will self organize into a dynamic system that persists stably in a state of disequilibrium. What components are necessary? In what configurations? How much energy is necessary? Input by what means?

The most ancient understanding of nature, so far as anyone can determine, was in a commonsensical way a deeper understanding than is today’s scientific view. Science since Descartes has regarded nature as dead and living organisms as guests in that dead world. But conceiving of nature on the whole as being an integrated living system is more true to humankind’s experience than is science’s conception of nature as inanimate particles and fields sinking into equilibrium from which unlikely context biological life emerged. Complex systems theory revives the ancient conception, in which biology is only one expression of life in an animate cosmos.

Toward Radical Organicism: A Rant on the Philosophy of Nature as Creature

The processes that operate inside a living cell might tempt us to credit for their organized complexity some kind of executive intelligence. And any such intelligence as might be involved in the metabolic churnings of a cell must reside either beyond this world (i.e., in deity) or within this world (e.g., in DNA). Admittedly, the former conjecture asserts intelligence literally, while the latter attributes it more or less figuratively.

Nonetheless, such speculations invite philosophizing:

  • Can a nonphysical anything wield intelligence?
  • Can intelligence reside in a mere, albeit complex, molecule?

Cutaway of a living cell. Neither divine artifact nor chemical improbability.

Point is (aside from the prospect that intelligence is no natural kind at all but a construct of human definitions and usages) recommending either approach toward understanding nature’s organized processes is to anthropomorphize: Both approaches, metaphysical and merely material, project human capacities onto things that are not human. To project intelligence onto supernatural entities or onto master molecules is to anthropomorphize, a conceit that inquiries into nature ought to avoid.

To suppose that a deliberating mind is needed to design or operate the biochemical levers that trigger or impede processes inside a cell is to anthropomorphize. To suppose that somewhere physically inside the cell is a something that makes such decisions as are made is to anthropomorphize. This latter observation is particularly the case now that research into gene regulatory networks demonstrates that the biochemistry inside a cell operates as an organic whole. There are dependencies and interdependencies, but no executive intelligence sits atop a hierarchy of control.

We have “intelligent” and “design,” “master genes,” “control switches,” “codes” and “programs” from which to construct an understanding of the cell as a representative organism. Such concepts are fine work-a-day metaphors, but literalizing and projecting them with their connotations intact onto nature is a detour into anthropomorphism. Nature is not designed or programmed by an intelligence or anything else. Nature is not a whew! of chance. Nature is not of gods or fortunate happenstance. Nature is neither a miracle nor a machine.

Peel back the curtain, and there’s nothing to see. Nature, in all its messiness, in all its nurturing and desolation, in all its unlikely satisfactions is all there is: Organism. Nature earns its living by weaving novelty, habit, objects and subjects into ever more intense, elaborate and sublime aesthetic processes and experiences. It suffers the setbacks inherent in being alive. Its animate soul inspires each new universe it bears. Nature is ontologically animate, exuberant, irreducible, and non-contingent. This is the broad sense of organicism, the last philosophy left standing once dumb dead matter and disembodied consciousness have slapped each other silly.

Given science’s unfulfilled promise of a grand unified theory and the unlikelihood of ever fulfilling that promise (given obstacles such as Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, and the conundrum of conscious experience), religion can only feel increasingly emboldened to challenge the suppositions and authority of science. But religion performs no better than science when it comes to presenting a grand unified theory. Religious doctrines provide moral instruction, but they are weak technical guides.

"I think it not improbable that man, like the grub that prepares a chamber for the winged thing it never has seen but is to become—that man may have cosmic destinies he does not understand"

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Address, Harvard Law Association, February 1913

Science, for all its technical successes, has failed to find a necessary place for human beings in nature. Science describes a pragmatic worldview but one within which humankind has no particular purpose or historical destiny. That should not bother scientists, because it is not the mission of science to find any particular purpose for people (other than employment). But insofar as science provides an account of the workings of nature, and insofar as human beings are products of and participants in the workings of nature, it might seem by now that science would have something to say about human purpose and destiny within the context of nature’s doings.

The inability of science to find a necessary role for humankind has at least something to do with the ideology of science itself. That ideology regards questions of meaning and purpose as psychological questions, which have to do with the workings of the mind, which are epiphenomenal to, or contingent upon, or derivative of the workings of the brain, and which therefore cannot be fundamental to—cannot a priori be built into, or be necessary to—the workings of nature. Mind is epiphenomenal.

Therefore, science fails to, and possibly never can, locate for humankind any natural meaning, purpose, or destiny. Science in this sense continues the project of Gnosticism. It throws the prospect of any kind of redemption for humankind back onto human beings themselves. (The Gnostic scheme regarded nature as the creation of a deliberative, purposeful mind. But human redemption was something to be engineered by humans, because the mind behind nature was insane.)

Any apparently purposeful design in nature, any seemingly necessary patterning, say the scientists, is merely a coincidence of contingent patterns drawn by the universe’s various physical laws, undirected, intersecting this way and that. The religious sensibility takes issue, perceiving the coincidence of patterns as evidence of a creative mind at work behind the scenes. Religion, in contradiction to science, places human meaning at the center of a purposeful creation. It grants humankind a special place in nature—but provides only a folkloric understanding of the technical details.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

— T. S. Eliot
Little Gidding

Science, unlike religion and at least since Darwin, perceives nature as designless. A bird’s beak, for example, being shaped necessarily in a particular way, has no purpose as such, no matter how well it serves the bird as a tool for acquiring food, attracting a mate, or any other use to which the bird might put it. Purpose can be assigned only by a conscious mind making choices in pursuit of an outcome. The beak serves the bird, but it was not designed intentionally to do so, according to science. The religious sensibility, in contrast, assigns to the beak a purpose that embodies the intent of a conscious mind, that of the creator of nature. The presumptions of science and religion can be distinguished in greater detail, but these broad characterizations cover them well enough to establish their fundamental incompatibility—at least within their normal exegeses and insofar as they campaign for the same office.

The star larvae hypothesis proposes to subordinate and supersede scientific and religious orthodoxies. It repositions scientific and religious descriptions into a common context. This repositioning involves pulling the scientific, religious, and historical data from their neat files, spreading the facts messily around and linking and configuring them in new ways. The need for a novel interpretation of the facts is demonstrated, for example, by the uncanny number of coincidences in physics that science declares necessary to keep our particular universe’s house in order. Religious sensibilities point to these coincidences as evidence of a grand design. And so the debate wraps itself around itself over and again.

If nature is divine artifice, as religious faith supposes, then nature is of a kind with technology.

Nature is somebody's science project . . . or?

NEXT > Complexity and the Retrieval of Vitalism

 

Welcome to the Star Larvae Hypothesis

Astrotheology: Humankind Chained to the Cosmic Machinery

 

 

The Star Larvae Hypothesis:

Stars constitute a genus of organism. The stellar life cycle includes a larval phase. Biological life constitutes the larval phase of the stellar life cycle.

Elaboration: The hypothesis presents a teleological model of nature, in which††

 

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