Nor is anything gained by running the difficulty farther back.... Our going back, ever so far, brings us no nearer to the least degree of satisfaction upon the subject. — William Paley (1)
How did life begin in the first place? It's a natural question. Yet we have no idea how life began in the first place. Science is nowhere near the answer to this question. In fact, the question may be flawed. Maybe there was no beginning. This possibility cannot be logically ruled out.
This possible consequence of Cosmic Ancestry is not new. In 1873, the great German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz said, "if failure attends all of our efforts to obtain a generation of organisms from lifeless matter, it seems to me a thoroughly correct scientific procedure to inquire whether there has ever been an origination of life, or whether it is not as old as matter..." (2). Contemporaneously with Helmholtz, Louis Pasteur wrote (3):
I have been looking for spontaneous generation during twenty years without discovering it. No, I do not judge it impossible.... You place matter before life, and you decide that matter has existed for all eternity. How do you know that the incessant progress of science will not compel scientists... to consider that life has existed during eternity and not matter?
Early in the 20th century, Russian geochemist V. I. Vernadskii observed (4):
None of the exact relationships between facts which we know will be changed if this problem has a negative solution, that is, if we admit that life always existed and had no beginning, that living organisms never arose at any time from inert material....
By any mathematical analysis, life is unlikely to have arisen by chance from nonliving chemicals here on Earth. The likelihood is so tiny that it remains negligible even if we expand the range of possible origination sites to include the entire known universe. It seems unlikely that life would originate in any universe. Fewer miracles are required if life has always existed. Alternating between long quiescent periods of waiting in space as mere wispy potential, and eventual emergence on planets everywhere, life may have always been.
|We are aware of the argument that the big bang requires life to have an origin. Our response is given at, for example, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.|
If the physical universe begins with a cosmological big bang, the potential for the big bang had to exist already. If many universes are created continually by many big bangs, how can that process have a beginning? With or without a beginning, the physical world is a miracle. Life seems the same way. How could we possibly explain its origin? Life is a miracle, too.
If life has lasted since forever, that would imply that it will last forevermore. So even if life on our own planet were to expire before we became Cosmic Ancestors, somewhere, probably, life will continue.
If life has always existed, and may always exist in the future, does that make our part infinitely small? Are we nothing again, after all? The progress of science has had a humbling effect before, as when we found out that we are descended from lower animals. It was humbling for people to learn that the earth goes around the sun, that there are other planets, other suns, other galaxies, now maybe other universes. But are we, after all, robbed of dignity? No. By Cosmic Ancestry, we're connected to the whole. We belong here.
Even if life is eternal in both directions, mustn't there be some logical ground on which it stands? Or some supernatural god, outside of time or before time, behind it all? It is natural to wonder about these things. But how could we know? Such questions take us beyond the reach of scientific knowledge. "We must stop somewhere...," says David Hume. "Nor is it ever within the reach of human capacity to explain ultimate causes or show the last connection of any object. It is sufficient if any steps, so far as we go, are supported by experience and observation" (5).
We are up against the limit initially exposed by Gödel's incompleteness theorem. As a consequence of work begun by philosopher Kurt Gödel in the 1930s, we now know that knowledge can't be both complete and grounded in something else. For example, the rules of chess are complete, but they don't depend on anything else. Chess is a complete and ungrounded system. The laws of science, on the other hand, are grounded in the physical world, but they can never be completely known. Every answer in science begets new questions.
In the early twentieth century, some mathematicians wanted to place mathematics on firm ground, to perfectly secure the footings of mathematics. In January, 1931, with a precise technical proof using arithmetized syntax, Kurt Gödel showed that it can't be done. Mathematics is inherently incomplete. This logical principle supports the broader understanding that completeness and groundedness are incompatible. We cannot get around this problem. This is, perhaps, the difference between religion and science: religion seeks completeness, science seeks groundedness.
Cosmic Ancestry gives groundedness to our existence. If one still sometimes feels a deep wonder and longing, perhaps Walt Whitman's poetry is sufficient consolation:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
13 Sep 2013: A major problem with all origin-of-life theories — how did biological "self-preservation" arise?
Troy Day, "Computability, Gödel's incompleteness theorem, and an inherent limit on the predictability of evolution" [abstract], doi:10.1098/rsif.2011.0479, Journal of The Royal Society, 17 Aug 2012.
19 Mar 2012: ...Whether the course of Evolution can at all reasonably be represented as an unpacking of an original complex.... — William Bateson
Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel [review], Atlas Books, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
Brig Klyce, "Who Is Kurt Gödel?"
[14-page .doc], 20 Mar 2008.
Palle Yourgrau, "A Spy in the House of Logic," p 50-76, A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein, Basic Books, 2005.
Douglas Hofstadter, "Gödel's Quintessential Strange Loop," p 125-145, I Am a Strange Loop, Basic Books, 2007.
Profile of the life of Kurt Gödel, moderated by Pauline Newman, ABC Radio, 9 Dec 2006.
22 Apr 2005: Jeffrey Bada is optimistic about the origin-of-life problem.
24 Mar 2005: Evidence for very old life is questioned.
What were Einstein and Gödel talking about? by Jim Holt, The New Yorker, 28 Feb 2005.
John L. Casti and Werner DePauli, Gödel: A Life of Logic, Perseus Publishing, 2000."...Dashing the human dream of complete, contradiction-free knowledge.... Gödel confirms the triumph and necessity of the human spirit and of human intuition" (p 195).
Keith Devlin, "Kurt Gödel—Separating Truth from Proof in Mathematics," p 1899-1900 v 298, Science, 6 Dec 2002.
Gregory A. Irwin says that I've got Gödel wrong, 1 Nov 97.
1. William Paley, Natural Theology (1802), New York: The American Tract Society. p 19.
2. John G. Burke, Cosmic Debris: Meteorites in History, University of California Press, 1986. p 170.
3. René Dubos, Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, Da Capo Press, Inc., 1950. p 396.
4. V. I. Vernadskii, Biosfera, Leningrad, 1926: cited in The Origin of Life, 3rd edition, by Aleksandr I. Oparin, Academic Press, Inc., Publishers, 1957. p 48.
5. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Hafner Publishing Company, 1969. p 48.