Careful Science
Living beings are subject to scientific investigation like the rest of the universe · But might we be missing a clear, unique and consequential attribute of living beings?
A Subtle, Striking Difference
The Universe's Third Category of Events
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Information = Improbability
Life Always Achieves the Arbitrarily Improbable
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Free Will
Determinism will now predict my next action.
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Retrospective Induction
Looking back in time for signs of living causes
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While much of the science related to living things focuses on biology and chemistry, which are related to and built on quantum physics, we'll take a somewhat higher-level look at living things in this panel. A little biochemistry will come in at one point in a hopefully highly-entertaining video, but there's another question we want to examine first.

It's a common scientific belief[1] that living things are at their core simply more of the stuff that composes the entirety of the "nonliving" universe. We're just carbon, nitrogen and oxygen when you get to the bottom of us. As a result, it's stated, all the laws that govern asteroids and stars and, yes, subatomic particles also completely govern every aspect of living beings.

Now science is a data-driven, mathematically exact, logically-bound intellectual discipline. It uses both synthesis (observing and exploring connections between things that might seem to be different) and analysis (distinguishing between things that might even seem the same but actually have differences). The synthesis side sends us to that biology and chemistry, but as we said, that's not our focus here. Perhaps it's possible, however, to discover the analysis side's fascinating results by looking at the science, math and logic of information, determinism vs. free will, and evidence of living causes going back in time.

Science has done a good job of that synthesis work, of highlighting the similarities between living things and the nonliving universe, and the observations hold up. But how well has Science done when it comes to the analysis side of the question? Is there a very visible, mathematically-clear, logically-solid difference between living things and the nonliving universe that somehow has escaped Science's notice? How easy might it be for us to illustrate this difference and explore its implications for Science?
You would probably not disagree with someone describing this picture of Cincinnati as an image of part of the natural world, consisting of a beautiful view of a river and rocks along its bank. Scientists might say that the river flows here because of gravity and the Earth's shape, which have channeled falling rain into a deep and wide flow, forcing the rainwater to take this specific route along the Earth's surface. The river's path, they'd say, is exactly-determined (nature's category 1) or at worst statistically-determined (nature's category 2).

Science is largely about classifying things according to their actual nature. When we do so, we discover that these things, like rivers and rocks, behave with such great regularity that we can even predict future effects, like water flow and rock location, accurately. That's the idea of a scientific "law". Something that behaves so predictably that we can write a law for it means that whenever the conditions are the same, the resulting behavior, the effect, will be exactly the same, will happen with 100% probability, will necessarily  occur. These results are experimentally repeatable, and therefore inevitable, or "deterministic" as scientists put it.

That said, can we practice some simple but careful science to discern scientifically-relevant differences among the things in our Cincinnati picture? The Ohio River in the foreground will be there in a hundred years, and so will the rocks on its banks. It seems like river and rocks are necessary, repeatable, inevitable, and deterministic natural objects. Can we say the same about the skyscrapers in the background? A hundred years ago, could we have predicted their exact character, location and details based on the laws of physics, as we might have with river and rocks? Like them, do our skyscrapers fit in either category 1 or 2? Unlike that river and those rocks, the probability these buildings would occur through natural processes without any living being's involvement seems astronomically small. These effects seem to need a third category desperately. Insert a living being into the cause-effect chain, then, and it seems like the world is soon filled with arbitrarily-improbable events and objects from tiny machines to giant skyscrapers. The 100% correlation between living beings and arbitrarily-improbable results does seem worth scientific attention.
If we think about natural processes, which all have 100% probability as we discussed under our first panel, how many bits of information would it take to specify such a process? In its simplest form, one bit containing either a 1 or a 0 would be too much! It would represent two options, where nature's 100% probabilities tell us there is only one option. So information is not needed to distinguish the behavior of a natural process from all other possibilities: there are no other possibilities. (Yes, quantum's a bit different.)

We presented the idea at left that civilization seems to be made up of scientifically-unpredictable results that always have living beings as the cause. Natural law at very least constrains living beings, but does not seem to control them as determinism argues. In fact, we living beings seem to have successfully carved a large space—called civilization—out of the natural world, in which space we can escape nature's irresistible, 100%-probability effects and do what we want to do, like build skyscrapers. (So what do we call events forced on us by natural law in our civilization? Auto accidents.) Civilization itself, then, seems to provide strong evidence that every living being (including scientists, significantly) pushes back natural law's constraints in order to make relatively-free, largely-unconstrained choices. We then use information to specify and evaluate the rich family of options we now have room to pursue, each highly improbable if we relied on natural law alone to cause it. Should I drive an electric or gasoline-powered vehicle? Should I use rubidium or strontium in my Bose-Einstein Condensate? We living beings use information to select any of a number of very low-probability options, then make it a reality.

It does seem curious that a world full of civilization's impossibly-improbable objects would not represent enough evidence to draw a meaningful distinction between deterministic, 100%-probability effects and living beings' routine achievement of arbitrarily-improbable outcomes. Would there perhaps be room for some careful analytical Science here?
"Which way should I go? To Muktinath or to Chhyonkhar? I don't care....I pick...." What way do you predict our hiker will pick? Not certain, you say? Some say you just don't have sufficient insight into the operation of deterministic cause-effect relationships in our Nepalese hiker's brain. Uncountable numbers of books and essays have been written on whether determinism is true or free will is true with regard to human beings' choices. When our knee is tapped, our body reflexively contracts a muscle and our leg kicks forward. We call this an involuntary reflex. If we had enough insight into our brains, determinists claim, we would understand that everything we do is an involuntary reflex. Living beings, we're told, are simply a complicated but in principle fully-predictable interface between the causes that impinge on us from the outside universe and our own resulting thoughts and actions. "Free Will" is an illusion.

Can we test this logically, performing careful Science? Let's try. Three premises: nonliving parts of the universe never seem to show either 1) unrepeatable behavior or 2) uncaused activity, and 3) effects always correlate 100% with their causes. Science relies on this to the last detail: cause-effect relationships are necessary  and therefore repeatable. Given these premises, if external natural causes govern living beings fully, then living beings' actions will follow necessarily from those external causes. This will be repeatable: living beings' actions will occur whenever their external causes occur. If you are indeed part of a deterministic cause-effect chain, the right external causes will always force you to produce a predictable outgoing action. Now you finish the test: how often do you find your actions to be externally-forced, like knee-taps? Our experience constantly contradicts this idea, it seems.

The common argument against this logic is that the brain's complexity makes it impossible to identify a direct cause-effect chain, and this explains the lack of repeatability of actions based on external inputs. This argument seems easy to disprove. How? Like this: This argument seems easy to disprove. So there's lots of repeatability, but no correlation of my actions with any external causes (see premise 3), eliminating them as causes. That leaves only causes internal to me, which do correlate 100% with my actions. This internal "Free Will" cause also seems able (as we showed at left) to create arbitrarily-improbable outcomes, distinguishing it from determinism's 100%-probable cause-effect chain.
Looking back in time retrospectively and examining improbable events' causes inductively
These three words1< 4.6x10-25living being's choices
# of books written this year (est.)125,000< 1x10-1010living beings' choices
# of books ever written (est.)150,000,000< 1x10-1011living beings' choices
All components of post-Renaissance Western civilization (est.)Uncountably largeEach: < 1x10-48living beings' choices
All components of world civilization throughout history (est.)Uncountably largeEach: < 1x10-50living beings' choices
First DNA-type molecule1about 1x10-109 (est.)
Our universe11x10-10124
We've shown that human beings create arbitrarily improbable things like buildings, tools, elec­tric grids, medications, and so on. All clearly seem too im­prob­a­ble for any nonliving process to create, but humans do it all the time. At right we look back in time and pick a few improbable effects to represent every such known event ever caused, all of which are evidently caused by living beings. We end with two significant im­prob­a­ble events predating biological life, and thus not caused by us. We're attempting an inductive proof (if something happens enough times without exception, we must logically expect it to happen again in the sequence) to provide indications of possible types of causes for those two items.
Here is no doubt the greatest challenge to Careful Science we've encountered so far. Our inductive proof argues, solely through known scientific principles and clear, standard, simple logic, that a nonliving explanation for DNA and even the universe as a whole fails to match what is known scientifically about how the universe works. The idea of rejecting nonliving causes in these cases is at best disconcerting and at worst in conflict with the fundamental naturalistic assumptions of modern Science. What should Careful Science do?
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