Life: Chance or Design?
By The Theosophy-Science Group
Theosophy-Science Group Newsletter
September 2003 p4
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Life: Chance or Design?

By The Theosophy-Science Group

What is the origin of life and of consciousness? Is it all chaos—a matter of chance, or is there some inherent order in the apparent randomness?

The burning question long debated by theologians, philosophers and scientists is whether the existence of life indicates intelligent design—perhaps the hand of a supreme Being—or whether life has evolved purely by random processes. Until recently biologists have argued that the complex chain of evolutionary changes giving rise to life and consciousness could not be repeated. A number of discoveries now challenge this view.

Recollecting his student days in the 1960s, Paul Davies, author of The Mind of God[1] and The Origin of Life[2], noted[3] that the origin of life was then ‘considered to be such an unlikely chemical fluke that if chance were responsible then surely life [on Earth] would be unique.’ The alternative, in his words, is that ‘life may be written into the laws of nature and emerge more or less automatically on most earth-like planets.’ This represents a significant change in scientific attitude over recent decades.

What has brought about this change? First there was the discovery of fossilised primitive life forms at a very early stage in the Earth’s history. Next was the discovery of living organisms in the most improbable places, such as deep underground in sandstone and in extremely hot upwelling thermal vents in the ocean depths. It now seems that a few simple chemical elements, water, and a source of energy such as heat or chemical energy, are all that is necessary to generate life. Even sunlight is not required for some forms of life to exist.

As these prerequisites are known to exist in gas clouds in interstellar space, some have speculated that life might have originated there and arrived on Earth transported by comets or meteorites. However, the gas clouds in space are extremely cold, and it had been assumed that any water would be in the form of ice crystals that cannot support life. Yet recent experiments on Earth found that, at temperatures that occur in space, ice becomes amorphous, losing its crystalline structure. This led to the conclusion that[4]: ‘In its interstellar form, water ice can harbour the kind of simple organic compounds from which life arose—and may even encourage their formation. As a result, this interstellar ice may have played an intrinsic role in the origin of life, and since it is from these clouds that new planetary systems are made, it is reasonable to expect that all new planets should have some of this material fall on them.’

There has also been significant progress on the theoretical front. It has long been taken for granted that the evolution of life, including the evolution of intelligent human beings, can only occur as the result of the Darwinian process of natural selection acting over time on a multiplicity of random changes. However, modern complexity theory has shown that part of this process consists of fairly rapid changes to a higher level of order. Prominent complexity theorist, Stuart Kauffman, in his book At Home in the Universe[5], argues that ‘selection has always had a handmaiden’ in the laws of complexity, leading to his conclusion regarding humanity: ‘Not we the accidental, but we the expected.’ Similarly, leading palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University, argues in his recent book that the great tapestry of evolution is not unpredictable but shows the same patterns emerging over and over again (Life’s Solution – Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe)[6]. Excellent examples of this evolutionary convergence are the development of the eye, the brain and sophisticated communication systems. Conway Morris argues that evolution leading to human beings is thus inevitable.

Progressive discoveries throughout the last century have broadened our horizons beyond our solar system and the multitude of stars in the ‘Milky Way’, to beyond the furthermost galaxies our telescopes can detect. The concept of a universe designed for life must surely encompass the universality of life throughout the vast universe. For many years, scientists have been engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (the SETI project), listening for possible radio signals from civilisations on unseen planets associated with distant stars. Astronomical observations have so far shown that over 100 stars can be inferred to have planets, but most are atypical of our Solar System. Major new telescopes in space are planned to expand the search for Earth-like planets, and to investigate potentially life-supporting environments.

Physicists today recognise that the fundamental laws are finely tuned to enable the evolution of a universe in which organic life can develop. Even minor variations would have resulted in a universe that would have evolved very differently and life as we know it would have been impossible. This recognition has been dubbed ‘the anthropic principle’ meaning that were it not precisely so, we would not be here to ask the question. Paul Davies, now professor of natural philosophy at the multi-disciplinary Astrobiolo­gy Centre at Macquarie University, argues strongly on this basis that the universe is ‘biofriendly­’. But is this situation a matter of chance or of design?

At this point we inevitably leave the domain of evidence-based science and enter the world of religion and metaphysics. Here we find, for example, talk of a Creator God as in Christianity or the periodical manifestation and reabsorption of worlds by Brahma as in Hinduism. Yet there are also scientists who, arising out of their scientific quest, seek a deeper fundamental reality. Examples are Wolfgang Pauli who embraced mysticism, Erwin Schrödinger who wrote What is Life?[7] and who embraced the Hindu Vedanta, and David Bohm who affirmed the fundamental nature of consciousness. All three were quantum physicists.

Einstein asked the question: ‘Did God have any choice when He created the Universe?’ When asked did he believe in God, he said he believed in the God of Spinoza ‘who regarded all Nature as one’. Spinoza regarded the Universe and God as one, and both as eternal and necessarily existing. These views are consonant with the ‘perennial philosophy’ (which inspired H P Blavatsky’s presentation of Theosophy). This tradition posits life and mind as fundamental universal entities along with matter. Plato, for example, regarded the universe as a product of both chance and necessity, with consciousness and purpose being primary[8]. The existence of pattern, purpose and design throughout the universe is the consensus of the world’s spiritual traditions. Some of the more advanced scientific thought would seem to concur.

Cosmologist George Smoot who led the large team operating the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite that discovered the tiny initial fluctuations from which all structure in the universe arose, has this to say[9]: ‘As we study the universe as a whole, we realise that the “microcosm” and the “macrocosm” are, increasingly, the same subject. More and more, the universe appears to be as it is, because it must be that way, its evolution was written in its beginnings—in its cosmic DNA if you will. … Though individual events happen as a matter of chance, there is an overall inevitability to the development of sophisticated complex systems. The development of beings capable of questioning and understanding the universe seems quite natural. I would be quite surprised if such intelligence has not arisen at many places in our large universe.’

Footnotes

[1] Paul Davies, The Mind of God, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992.

[2] Paul Davies, The Origin of Life, Penguin, London, 2003.

[3] Paul Davies, ABC Science Show, 2001, January 20.

[4] David Blake and Peter Jenniskens, Scientific American, August 2001, pp 37-41.

[5] Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, Viking (Penguin), 1995.

[6] Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution — Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003

[7] Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994/1967.

[8] Plato, Timaeus and Critias, Translated Desmond Lee, Penguin, London and New York, 1965/8­1.

[9] George Smoot (with Keay Davidson), Wrinkles in Time, Little Brown and Co, London, 1993

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