Why life on Mars may help change the paradigm

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There has been growing speculation this weekend that NASA has discovered complex organic molecules in the soil of Mars, or perhaps made an even more significant discovery. See this article on space.com. I've asked people around me whether they thought the possible confirmation of microbial life on Mars would be a paradigm-breaking event. The response was mostly on the 'no' camp. This is completely understandable, for scientists have been acknowledging for years that life may be common and widespread in the universe. So why would the discovery of life in a neighboring celestial body break any paradigms? Yet, I think we are missing something here. Below, I will argue that such a discovery would not only be extraordinary, it would also pose difficult questions to our reigning scientific paradigm.

Our culture's mainstream view is that life is a mechanistic phenomenon explainable entirely by the known laws of physics. In other words, life is not a fundamental aspect of nature, but an epiphenomenon of dead matter. There is supposedly nothing to life but the movements of subatomic particles; the same kind of movements behind erosioncrystallization, the weather, etc. As such, life is supposedly no different from erosion or crystallization, except in that metabolism operates a little faster. Biological organisms are supposedly mere 'robots,' entirely analogous to the computer or handheld electronic device you are using to read this. Life supposedly arose by mere chance, through the random collisions of atoms and molecules in a primordial chemical soup on primitive Earth. So the question is: If life were to be discovered in a planet next door, would that raise new and difficult questions for such a mechanistic view of life? I think it would.

Nobody knows today how life could have emerged from dead matter. There are dozens of theories and even more avenues of speculation, but no one has ever managed to create life from dead matter in a laboratory. Therefore, there isn't even proof-of-principle that life could arise from non-life through purely mechanistic means – so-called 'abiogenesis' – let alone proof that abiogenesis actually happened in the remote past. Yet, abiogenesis is essential for the paradigmatic view that life is merely a mechanistic epiphenomenon of physics. Otherwise, the implication would be that there must necessarily be something extra – something fundamental, irreducible – behind the phenomenon of life.

The problem is that not only all the structures absolutely necessary for the processes of life – like metabolism – need to arise together in an organism, but very complicated mechanisms for the replication  of all these structures – that is, reproduction – need to arise along with them. Otherwise, life would arise and disappear within one generation. Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize laureate and co-discoverer of DNA, once thought it impossible for the self-replication mechanisms essential to life to arise spontaneously, by chance, from a chemical soup on primitive Earth. He thought the complexity required was just too great. Although Crick later felt that he had been a little too pessimistic in his original assessment, the key point stands: Abiogenesis, if at all possible, is extraordinarily unlikely by pure chance. Anyone willing to disagree with this statement has an enormous burden of justification, worth of a Nobel Prize.

Now, how does all this tie in with our story about the possible discovery of microbial life on Mars? Well, if we were to find independently-arisen life on our immediate cosmic neighbor – right here, next door – the obvious implication would be that the rise of life is a very common occurrence in the cosmos. After all, what are the chances that a hugely unlikely event would happen, independently, twice within the distance between the sun and the asteroid belt? This would make it yet more difficult to defend the notion that life is merely a chance, mechanistic epiphenomenon of matter, for all scenarios behind such notion require exceedingly unlikely circumstances on Earth, let alone on Mars. It would just compound an already excruciatingly difficult problem. As such, if the independent rise of life is indeed a common affair in nature, one would be forced to take seriously the possibility that life isn't merely an epiphenomenon of mechanistic physics, but is itself built into the fabric of nature as a primary, fundamental aspect of the cosmos. This, by any measure, would be a paradigm-breaking notion.

Naturally, a possible way out would be if it could be shown that life on both Mars and Earth had a common origin. This is not unthinkable, for planetary impact could theoretically have thrown life-infested rocks into space, seeding life from one planet into the other. But such scenario would itself be yet another layer of speculation and contrivance necessary in order to argue for the validity of the current paradigm. As it is today, the argument seems to have enough layers of speculation and contrivance already.

This article is, in a way, jumping the gun: There is no official discovery yet of microbial life on Mars. As such, I am just speculating about the implications of possible future developments. Be it as it may, if the independent rise of life can eventually be shown to be commonplace in the universe, it will certainly pose yet more serious challenges to the reigning view that life is but a chance, mechanistic organization of dead matter. For this reason, I believe that a possible announcement in the coming weeks or months may indeed bear significance to the question of whether a new scientific paradigm may be imminently required.


UPDATE 3-Dec-2012 ~19:00h CET: I am watching the live broadcast of the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, where NASA is announcing the much-hyped 'historical discovery on Mars,' as I write this. As most people, I had expected at least a conclusive measurement of various, complex organic compounds in multiple soil samples. Instead, they announced inconclusive trace measurements of very simple carbon compounds, whose origin they can't even determine to be really Mars yet. These results aren't even interesting, for we knew from previous missions that simple organics exist on Mars (as well as in many other places in the solar system). Now, I understand that what a scientist considers amazing is not necessarily what lay people would find even interesting. I also understand that scientists get carried away in their enthusiasm sometimes. But even taking all this into account, I cannot wrap my ahead around why lead investigator John Grotzinger would have described these results as 'one for the history books,' as he did in an earlier interview a few days ago. If the results presented today are all there is, there is just no conceivable reason for Grotzinger's original assessment. He has just been confronted by a journalist about this and his answer was, frankly, more evasive and hollow than political rhetoric. He looks uncomfortable and awkward on that podium. I am at a loss, but will stop here not to get carried away myself into a kind of speculation that I don't like to touch even with a ten-foot pole...

Space.com just released their own update here.

Copyright © 2012 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

Comments

  1. Don't forget that there are meteorites on Earth that have been shown to have a Martian origin by virtue of the contents of their gas bubbles. So transfer of material is possible - though whether life could somehow survive a re-entry, I don't know.

    The other big question, is how similar the alien biochemistry is to our own - I don't suppose we will learn the answer to that immediately!

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    1. Agreed. Be it as it may, it would all still pose new challenges to the current mechanistic view of life. For instance, were the existence of microbial Martians to be confirmed, one would need to show that they had a common origin with life on Earth. That's an extra layer of speculation.

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  2. Bernardo, this is bedazzling reasoning, particularly at the second paragraph, where you bring off a momentous encapsulation with unnervingly simple moves. There's just one thing I'd like to ask you, in a series of little questions (since I cannot mount my broad question otherwise): Would the extant paradigm stay in place if life on another planet were explainable by that paradigm in exactly the same way it explains, at least to the satisfaction of materialists, life on earth? In other words, what would compel the abandonment of the extant paradigm – perhaps the discovery on another planet of an intelligent life-form that is demonstrably EVOLVED from microbial earth life? Or would even that not compel its abandonment, if, say, the 'evolved from microbial earth life' proposition were contested? Might it then not all resolve as a 'there is life and there is life' postulation that will not admit a kinship between earth life and other-planet life? Not admitting kinship would, would it not, be a strategy that allows the retaining of the extant paradigm?

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    1. >> Would the extant paradigm stay in place if life on another planet were explainable by that paradigm in exactly the same way it explains, at least to the satisfaction of materialists, life on earth? <<

      Since the current paradigm only offers speculative and tentative hypotheses, but no specific and spelled out explanation for the origin of life, the discovery that life arose in another planet independently of life on Earth would not necessarily disprove the current paradigm insofar as open hypotheses are hard to disprove! Can we disprove that there is no teapot in orbit around jupiter? :-) One can still apply the same contrived speculations about abiogenesis on Earth if life unrelated to Earth life were found elsewhere. But these speculations would become VERY HARD TO SUBSTANTIATE, which is the point I am raising in the post (Can we really substantiate that there is a teapot in orbit around Jupiter?).

      >> In other words, what would compel the abandonment of the extant paradigm – perhaps the discovery on another planet of an intelligent life-form that is demonstrably EVOLVED from microbial earth life? <<

      That's a different thing altogether. If life elsewhere evolved from Earth life, then we are NOT talking about independent abiogenesis happening elsewhere, but simply a transference of biological material from Earth to e.g. Mars. This could conceivably have happened. Meteor impacts on Earth could have caused the ejection of Earth rocks into space, containing e.g. fungal spores or hardy bacteria deep inside the rocks. These rocks could then have found their way to Mars by pure chance, and deposited Earth life there. This Earth life could then have evolved further on Mars. Naturally, it could have happened the other way around as well: Life could have arisen on Mars and then been transferred to Earth, where it evolved into us.

      If there is life on Mars, then the best scenario for the current paradigm is what I just said above: Life both on Mars and Earth had the same origin, so we do NOT have two independent instances of abiogenesis happening so close together. But if life is found on Mars that is biochemically different from that on Earth, then it would be very hard to explain, under the current paradigm, how a supposedly astronomically unlikely event -- abiogenesis -- could have happened independently in two planets so close to one another. This would suggest that abiogenesis is common, which contradicts the implication of the current paradigm that abiogenesis is extremely rare and unlikely.

      To be continued below...

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    2. ...continued from above:

      >> Or would even that not compel its abandonment, if, say, the 'evolved from microbial earth life' proposition were contested? <<

      The current paradigm cannot be 100% disproven merely because it is a set of relatively open-ended hypotheses. But these hypotheses can be rendered unlikely to the point that they no longer can be taken seriously. The scenario that would compel us to consider them extremely unlikely would be, in my view, if it could be demonstrated that life pops up independently everywhere, in multiple planets. This would prove that the rise of life is very common and likely. The implication of the current paradigm, on the other hand, is that the rise of life from inorganic matter, if at all possible, should be extremely unlikely and rare. So, under this scenario, the current paradigm would be contradicted. That's the key point of the post.

      >> Not admitting kinship would, would it not, be a strategy that allows the retaining of the extant paradigm? <<

      In my view, on the contrary. Not admitting kinship would require that life arose independently elsewhere right around the corner. This is what is hard for the current paradigm. It suggests that the rise of life is extremely common, which contradicts the current paradigm, as I argued above.

      If we admit kinship, on the other hand, things are easier for the current paradigm, for we just need to postulate that biological material was transferred, by natural phenomena, from one planet to another. There would be no implication that life arises 'easily and frequently' everywhere. The latter is what is most problematic for the current paradigm, in my view.

      Of course, kinship must be demonstrated, not just speculated. That's why it adds another layer of difficulty to defend the current paradigm.

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    3. 'If we admit kinship, on the other hand, things are easier for the current paradigm ...'

      Ah, I see now. Thanks, Bernardo. Very, very impressive reeasoning.

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  3. I do not agree that if we find living being on Mars, then this would be a problem for the modern mechanistic paradigm, because I do not see that the mechanistic paradigm implies that life has to be a rare and unusual phenomenon in the universe. Let's see why. The mechanistic paradigm implies that life has arisen only under chance and the laws of motion, so that if we discover that life is not a rare phenomenon in the universe, then the defenders of mechanism will have to consider that the laws of motion are more relevant to the origin of life that chance, but none of this would force them to consider that life is not an epiphenomenon or may not be entirely explicable in terms of physics and chemistry or that is a fundamental force in the structure of the cosmos.

    What would you claim as a claim that the encounter with an alien civilization would be a paranormal phenomenon. No, such a encounter would be extraordinary, but would not be paranormal or anomalous because the existence of aliens is compatible or contemplated in the current scientific paradigm widespread. In contrast, for example, contact with deceased human intelligences is paranormal because something similar is not contemplated in the current scientific paradigm.

    Juan.

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    1. Hi Juan,
      I can only repeat what I said in the post: Nobody knows how life could arise mechanistically from dead matter (there is no proof of principle on this), but all theories currently postulated imply that, if it's possible at all, it is an extremely unlikely event. So I stand by my claim.
      I do not understand what you mean by having "to consider that the laws of motion are more relevant to the origin of life that chance," if life is found to have independently arisen in our cosmic neighborhood.
      I also do not understand the comments about intelligent aliens and the paranormal. Nothing in my post has anything to do with the paranormal, neither do I claim anything related to intelligent aliens (I'm talking about microbial life).
      Cheers, Bernardo.

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    2. According to the mechanism, life is merely the result of chance and natural laws, right? And as to the mechanism the natural laws are the laws of motion, then according to the mechanism, life is merely the result of chance and the laws of motion. So if we discover that life is a common phenomenon in the universe, then the mechanists have to put more importance on natural laws and less on chance to account for the origin of life. It is as if life was involved in natural law. But this makes life in a fundamental reality? Not necessarily, because although life may be involved in natural law, could continue affirming that life is entirely explicable in terms of physical and chemical, no phenomena of downward causation, as free will, and that consciousness can not be separated of organic body. That is, the mechanism could be maintained even if discover that life is common in the universe, but it would be untenable if any of those last three statements is false.

      And about the paranormal, I think so. Despite its diferent connotations, paranormal is the same as anomalous, ie it does not fit our paradigm or worldview. So discover the existence of extraterrestrial life is not something paranormal or anomalous because it fits with the currently most recognized scientific paradigm, but discover the existence of intelligences of human deceaced is paranormal to the current scientific paradigm.

      Juan.

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    3. >> then the mechanists have to put more importance on natural laws and less on chance to account for the origin of life. It is as if life was involved in natural law. <<

      Yes, that's what I argued. We would need to consider the possibility that life is not only a secondary phenomenon of mechanistic laws, but is woven into the fabric of reality as a primary drive.

      >> But this makes life in a fundamental reality? Not necessarily, because although life may be involved in natural law, could continue affirming that life is entirely explicable in terms of physical and chemical <<

      Well, but this is purely a matter of semantics. If you embed a life telos into the laws of physics, you are admitting that life is a primary phenomenon and then simply choosing to still call it by the name 'physics.' That's OK with me but, fundamentally, it's still quite a revolution.

      >> no phenomena of downward causation, as free will, and that consciousness can not be separated of organic body <<

      Again, this is just semantics. If you embed life as a fundamental drive on nature right into the laws of physics, it's a revolution of paradigm whatever you want to call it.

      >> So discover the existence of extraterrestrial life is not something paranormal or anomalous <<

      I never argued that it was. My argument is simply that, if life is COMMON and WIDESPREAD, it poses a problem to the current speculations about mechanistic abiogenesis and may require us to embed a drive or telos for life right into the fabric of nature.

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  4. Yes, I agree with my friend Matt. So disappointed in the pedestrian announcement from NASA, oh well, one can hope.

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