Why life on Mars may help change the paradigm

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Mars. Source: Wikipedia.

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.

Pragmatism, applications, and the meaning of life

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

© vladgrin - Fotolia.com

When talking to people about my ideas and writings, be them friends, radio hosts, or event managers prior to a talk, I often hear the following question at the end of the conversation: 'OK, but now, how can people apply all this in practice?' In the beginning, the question struck me as very reasonable and legitimate, so I felt a little guilty and embarrassed for having to think about the answer. But as I stepped back to ponder about the motivations behind the question, a whole new avenue of insight regarding our culture opened up before me. To anticipate the conclusion of this article, and without for a moment meaning to blame or criticise anyone who has ever asked me this, I think the question reflects a generalized state of psychic imbalance in our culture; so generalized that it comes across not only as perfectly normal, but appropriate and even smart.

Ultimately, all human reality is an internal phenomenon unfolding in mind. Even if there were indeed an outside world independent of mind, all of our experiences of that world would still be entirely in mind. Without the dynamics of mind, the whole universe might as well not exist. Therefore, any interaction we may have with the 'outside world' in the form of pragmatic applications or actions ultimately only has any meaning insofar as it translates back into something unfolding in mind. For instance, as a technology marketer, if I apply a new marketing technique that leads to more revenues for my company, such result will have human reality only insofar as it is experienced in my and other people's minds. At the end of the day, it all comes back to an internal phenomenon in the medium of mind. The 'outside world' is just an intermediary step; a means to an end. Only the internal reality of mind can confer any meaning to human life.

Now, my work is an expedition into the land of understanding, whether valid or not. It seeks to address the question: 'What the heck is going on?' And understanding is already an internal reality; a gestalt unfolding in the human psyche, not in the so-called 'outside world.' As such, my own journey, which I invite others to join through my writings and talks, is already a journey in mind. It requires no 'applications' for it is not a means to an end, but addresses the end-goal directly. It enriches life (or so I hope) not in a round-about, indirect way, but by nurturing the very matrix of life itself: the psyche. Asking about the 'applications' of what I do is akin to asking how to get the bus home when you are already at home. Why did you get an education? To be able to work. Why do you work? To make money. Why do you want to make money? To buy things. Why do you want to buy things? To live and be able to have certain experiences. Yes, exactly! At the end of the day, it's all about experience; that is, what unfolds in mind. Everything else are means to arriving at experiences. And since understanding is a primary experience that frames, shapes, and colors most – if not all – other experiences, why wonder about its applications as far as people's actions in the world 'outside?' We're already dealing with the core issue; already sitting comfortably on the couch at home. So why ask about the bus?

Even after reading the above, I bet you still feel that something is off with my argument; that everything should have some kind of concrete, pragmatic application in order to have any value or meaning. There is a kind of uneasiness associated to embarking on an intellectual journey when the journey's guide tells you upfront that he doesn't care at all whether the journey will have any practical application. But fear not, you aren't alone in this feeling. It is shared by our entire Western culture; a culture that has now infected the entire world, the East included, like a virus.

The problem is that we, Westerners, project all meaning onto the outside. We stopped living the inner-life of human beings and begun living the 'outer life' of things and mechanisms. The answers to all why's must lie somewhere without and never within. I even dare venture an explanation for how this came to pass: Because of Western materialism, we believe we are finite beings who will, unavoidably, eventually cease to exist. Only the 'outside world' will endure and have continuity. As I argue in my fourth book, which I am now writing, this is nothing but a fairytale. But fairytale or not, it causes us to project all the meaning of life onto the 'outside world,' for only things that endure can have any significance. The world within, though remaining the only carrier of reality we can ever know, is seen as ephemeral and, therefore, meaningless. Such is the unsustainable imbalance of our way to relate to life. We emptied ourselves of all meaning and placed it all outside. Yet, even that 'outside world' is, ultimately, an abstraction of mind; an abstraction of the world within.

When people talk to me about my ideas and their own philosophical speculations, I sense that, intuitively and deep inside, they know that life, ultimately, is a journey in mind and nowhere else. They know that what we are talking about is already it; it's already all that matters. But towards the end of the conversation, when the enchantment of the discussion wanes and concedes ground to the analytical ego, they seek the reassurance the ego requires in terms of finding 'practical applications.' It is as though they needed to cover that ground for completeness sake, even though their intuitive minds know that everything of real importance has already been covered. They need to tick the box, like a compulsion or obsession that endures despite lacking any substance.

Life is a laboratory for exploration along only two paths: feeling (as in love and fear) and understanding. Nothing else exists but as evocative devices; 'tricks' to evoke feeling and understanding. All meaning resides in the emotions and comprehension unfolding within. While I, as a human being, also walk the path of feeling like the rest of us, my writing focuses on the path of understanding. Are there practical applications for my philosophy? Probably there are many. However, in my current phase, I can't care to elaborate on them, because I see them as means to an end that I am already tackling directly. So if you are looking for recipes, techniques, and other pragmatic procedures to apply to the world 'outside,' I am not your man. But if you think the world can only change when human beings make peace with, and nurture, their feelings while advancing their understanding of self and reality, then let's have a beer.