Did Mortality Salience Trigger the Cognitive Revolution?
Dr Anthony HJ Lewis May 2015
It is proposed that the emergence of mortality salience and the resulting existential terror has been one of the most powerful drivers of recent accelerated human evolution of Homo Sapiens and is the key driver of the Cognitive Revolution around 100-70k years ago.
Something transformative happened about 100-70k years ago to an ape called Homo Sapiens in southern Africa that led them to develop complex language and culture and to emerge to conquer the world with little evidence of any related evolution of physiology. Such a rapid and accelerated runaway process of evolution must have been caused by a set of survival pressures and feedback processes unique in evolutionary history. Most thinkers to date see mortality salience as an emergent property of the progressive steady evolution of cognitive abilities, self awareness and consciousness by the usual processes of adaptation and survival of the fittest. However it is proposed that it is actually the reverse that has happened.
It is proposed that the emergence of early self awareness, piggy backing on primitive language skills, led to a runaway process of evolution at the individual and group level. The shocking realisation and terror associated with mortality salience added an important and unique element to the instinctual will to survive and the primeval fear of death taking both into new realms of explicit shared cognitive recognition at both the individual and group level, which was without precedent. The self realisation of death led to positive feedback for group bonding with language improving to allow better collective planning of how to delay the inevitable, leading directly to the rapid development of ever higher levels of cognitive abilities for communciation, with related internal restructuring and rewiring of the brain, leading in turn to improved language and communication skills.
At sometime before 100-70kya there was a primeval ‘Human’ who first started the process of communicating to themselves and others that ‘we are all going to die’. It is the ultimate ‘meme’ that resonates loudly still today and for which we still have no answers, but remains one of the greatest drivers to strive, thrive and survive. The huge cultural edifices of the arts, religions, and even the sciences stand testament to our struggles with mortality salience and have been built to help us unlock and cope with the mystery of existence and assuage ‘the terror’ by diverting us from our understandable fear of our own demise. Where else do we have to hide when faced with the ‘great brute absurdity of our own non existence’?
There must have come a point in human evolution where there was the first shocking cognitive realisation and connection with mortality salience which represented a one way ratchet once formed, shared effectively and communicated within the wider group. The psychological impact would have been profound and led directly to the emergence of culture and improved survival that is observed in the archeological record as the Cognitive Revolution 100-70k years ago.
The Human Condition Since the Cognitive Revolution
About 40 billion humans have ever existed, so far.... and its a safe bet that every single one struggled with the great existential mystery of their own existence, the ‘Why me?' refrain?
It is difficult to contemplate our own non-existence the 'Shock of non being' . Our subjective experience as delivered through our bodily senses limits our insights into the true nature of reality as they have evolved to prolong our existence not to contemplate our demise. By definition our perceptions provide only a limited capacity for understanding reality which have evolved to give us the minimum view of reality necessary for our continued survival!
Never the less many of us ask the same questions. Why am I here? Why is there something rather than nothing? The insane are obsessed with the question! The answers to this profound existential question often rapidly descend into paradoxical twaddle which test the limits of our language and cognitive abilities. However the mystery of existence and our individual and collective struggles with our own mortality remain unresolved. Man has developed many different strands of thought when grappling with this the ultimate ‘Big Question’ from Religion, Philosophy, Mathematics, Science and ongoing esoteric ‘Many Worlds Hypotheses’ which are summarised in Appendix A.
All suffer from the circular problem, the ‘first cause’ issue with some being more useful endeavours than others! But all demonstrate the huge effort invested into coping with the mystery of existence and are provided as evidence illustrating the past and continued impact of mortality salience.
There is one brute fact that the physical universe does indeed exist, despite the efforts of many historic great thinkers who doubted even that fact! Hume asked ‘Is there an I or not’? Descartes pointed out 'I think therefore I am’ to re-assure himself that he did indeed exist! Modern Science has proven that there is an objective reality outside our internal subjective perceptions. However there is an ongoing fierce debate and research about the nature of consciousness and the mind/brain distinction which is currently dividing opinion between modern scientists and some philosophers.
Dennett, Tononi and others argue that all of reality is physical with the internal mind stuff and consciousness being an emergent property of complex systems and the brains physical and chemical architecture. Advances in neurology is demonstrating that the ‘Self’ is a club whose membership evolves with time throughout life depending on the constant shifting sands of perceptions, physical capabilities and mental capacities, and is biased and incomplete and easily tricked. Nozick argues that the self is ‘self creating’ putting itself at the centre of its own subjective world - the 'me' evolving in order to survive. What is emerging is a consensus that our minds create our view of reality and of ourselves as a construction to help us survive and live useful lives, so that our perception of reality is a mind created illusion and we can be easily fooled in our partial biased perceptions into believing that we are a free agent with free will and that the world is indeed as we see it! Or not?
Descartes and more recently Penrose have split reality into physical stuff and mind stuff - the external and internal worlds. They argue that there is a difference between brain and mind & that there is a realm of the abstract and spiritual which will remain untouched by science that is just as important as physical reality. Until there is a satisfactory explanation of consciousness these arguments about the nature of existence are likely to continue. These debates stand testament to the power of mortality salience to energise our efforts even today.
Holt in his excellent whimsical book concludes that 'Existential Alienation' is inherent in being born as a human being into an uncaring indifferent world and moving out from the safety of the family to experience life in all its random brutal reality. Nozick concludes that the only purpose is 'I exist, to live, we are a fleeting organic bubble of cosmic unimportance in the ocean of reality'. Clearly after pondering the ultimate questions both thinkers ended up pessimists with Holt lamenting - 'I am an accidental contingent thing whose being has neither meaning nor purpose nor necessity’. It appears that thinking too deep about existence ends up depressing the thinker as they come face to face with their own 'deep brute absurd’. Holt succinctly concluded - ‘Our birth is contingent, our death is a necessity’
I think that in this one very profound statement he hit the nail on the head. The secret missing ingredient in our strivings to understand consciousness is we need somehow to incorporate the shocking realisation of our own mortality! At some point in human evolution there had to be a period when early man first connected cognitively with his own mortality and definitive demise and without doubt this realisation must have come as a bit of a shock. It was probably the first time that this had happened in evolutionary terms for any life form on earth? Such a unique and profound insight when it emerged must have created a huge paradigm shift in consciousness which it is proposed had a powerful impact accelerating the course of human evolution and driving the development of superior cognitive abilities.
Cognitive Connection to Mortality Salience
This insight that the cognitive connection with mortality salience must have had a huge evolutionary impact on early man may not be original, but intuitively feels right to me. I have struggled to find anything written in recently published books or online that resembles this hypothesis but would be keen to discover other sources if they exist? It may be its simply stating the obvious? Most writers (Harari, Dunbar et al) describe the Cognitive Revolution around 100-70k years ago but currently offer only partial explanations for what caused this e.g. Gossip Theory etc. But surely such a unique moment in evolutionary history must have had a unique cause?
I recall the terrors I had as a 7 year old when I personally first became aware of my own mortality. A journey that we all undertake in childhood and one where most of us rarely find satisfactory resolution throughout our lives. Most of us cope by ignoring the brutal fact and diverting our attention to other things rather than flounder and descend into a pit of existential despair!
Social psychologists and others have postulated that mortality salience and the resulting terror are by products from the development of our higher conscious cognitive abilities but appear not to have postulated the reverse that it is emergence of a sense of personal mortality that drives a runaway evolutionary process leading to rapid improvements in cognitive abilities. What is clear to me from recent research is that absolutely fundamental to the emergence of higher consciousness and related cognitive abilities is first possessing embodied self awareness with our senses interacting with our surrounding physical reality, second social bonding and interacting with our fellow groups of Homo Sapiens and finally the ability to contemplate and share our emerging awareness of our own and others future ‘death'.
Many other creatures appear to be ‘self aware’ but Humans seem to be unique in being able to contemplate and communicate with each other about our own mortality rather than just experience grief and death instinctually when it occurs around us. This explicit ability to anticipate our own mortality appears to be unique to humans and without precedent for life on earth.
This is the ultimate 'meta' feedback loop missing from current thinking regarding consciousness. As early self awareness, use of tools, language and planning abilities evolved in tandem with the physical development of the cerebral cortex eventually the development of these capabilities got to the point where the self became explicitly aware of its own ultimate demise. We are a self referential embodied system that is forced to face the conscious awareness of our own destruction and mortality. It is the horror of this contemplation as our growing self awareness evolved in a primeval early Human sometime around 100Ky that somehow provides the spark forcing the emergence of our higher consciousness. The resulting improved brain architecture and cognitive abilities transformed our primitive plain self awareness of self and basic instincts to a more conscious awareness of mortality which was without precedent in evolutionary terms.
This explicit and unique sense of existential terror directly drove the evolutionary development of our higher cognitive and social behavioural abilities providing a step change in survival for early hominids. This lead to the cognitive explosion and emergence of more complex cultures observed in the archaeological record after 70kya. Being able to contemplate and be aware of our own individual existence and ultimate demise focuses our attention enormously in the present. It provides a further powerful incentive to strive, thrive and survive which drived us to co-operate and plan for the longer term adding enormously to the collective survival instincts for primitive man. The development of better behavioural abilities to co-operate, to improve social communication skills and language abilities led directly to the emergence of culture which early man developed in order to cope collectively with the most powerful unresolvable cognitive dissonance that has ever existed!
The development of these softer psychological & behavioural skills created a massive positive feedback loop between development of improved cognitive abilities with further development of the physical brain and the cerebral cortex towards greater survival at both individual and group levels. In other words, the emergence of the conscious shocking realisation of personal mortality triggered a runaway positive evolutionary feedback process between cognitive abilities and the further ongoing development of the physical brain and the cerebral cortex. It created a new element in evolution where the evolution of brain architecture for improved cognition (the hardware), led to the process of evolution acting on competing group behaviours or ‘culture’ (the software) which is separate but in tandem to the evolution of genes.
So the fear we feel when contemplating our own demise is to be expected because the evolution of our higher conscious abilities in this regard are still primitive and it scares the 'bejesus' out of all of us. The irony of this is huge - that we have to die to be conscious - it’s our pack with the devil! This fear and inability to cope emotionally with our own mortality is universal and for me explains the power and grip of superstition and religion on mankind as they help us cope with the enormity of this brutal experience and awareness of our own demise. The enormous existential terror drives many to look for solace in myths, invented doctrines and religion, to escape the brutal truth that our death is final. Given how powerful these unresolved feelings are even today illustrates the powerful impact they still have on our behaviour and interactions. It is impacting hugely still on our ongoing evolution and powerfully drove the emergence of culture which created a new element to the evolutionary process independent but reliant on gene evolution.
But here's the rub, it’s the fact that we will die that has allowed our higher conscious abilities to evolve. The stark brutal conscious awareness of our own ultimate demise has been amplified as we have continued to evolve our higher cognitive abilities with our mortality salience driving directly improved survival for those who possess it. A heavy existential irony indeed! It is only because we will die and are aware of our own mortality that we have the conscious abilities to contemplate and discuss our own demise. It’s almost like a sick joke! The terror thus generated drives us to work to delay indefinitely the inevitable. We have evolved a 'meta survival instinct’ i.e. the brutal awareness of our own mortality which is without an evolutionary precedent.
But what is clear to me is that our language, words and current thinking abilities are not easily up to the job of studying and modelling the emergence of mortality salience, consciousness and higher intelligence. It is very difficult for the ‘eye’ to see itself but we can all look inside ourselves to acknowledge that our own mortality is a hugely difficult subject for all of us? The above is a hunch and as a non expert in this scientific area I can offer no concrete evidence at present! But I think this hypothesis is as valid as the currently proposed causes for the Cognitive Revolution at around 100-70k year ago. To develop this rather counter intuitive hypothesis further will require pulling together ongoing thinking in neuroscience, AI, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, and a range of other related scientific disciplines. In due course I suspect we will be be able to test the idea that mortality salience has driven the evolution of our cognitive abilities and higher consciousness which drove early man to strive, thrive and survive through culture, creating a huge meta evolutionary positive feedback loop, without precedent. Enjoy being conscious, its the gift you are given by death!
Dennett Daniel C 2013 - Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
Dunbar Robin 2014 - Human Evolution - A Pelican Introduction
Grayling AC 2013 - The God Argument
Harari Yuval Noah 2015 - Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind
Holt Jim 2012 - Why Does the World Exist - An Existential Detective Story
Peters Stephen 2012 - The Chimp Paradox: Mind Management Programme to help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness
Tolle Eckhardt 2004 - The Power of Now
Tononi Giulio 2012 Phi - A Voyage from Brain to the Soul
Various to 2015 - Articles and reviews in New Scientist, The Institute of Arts and Ideas Website & Wikipedia on Human Evolution, Mortality Salience, Terror Management etc
Appendix A - Mans Quest to Explain the Mystery of Existence
An indication of how powerful a driver to human evolution the initial cognitive connection to our own mortality must have been we only have to look at the huge edifices of religion, philosophy, science and the recent plethora of ‘Many World Hypotheses’ to see that we are still struggling emotionally, intellectually and cognitively to cope. The summaries below are based heavily on Holts gem of a book and are provided here to illustrate what a powerful driver dealing and coping with mortality salience continues to be. All stand as a testament to our continued struggles to come to terms with reality and I present them as exhibit A!
Philosophical Explanations of Existence - Think it up
Philosophers down the ages have grappled with the ultimate question rather fruitlessly with most explanations for existence descending quickly into infinite regress and circular arguments that push the limits of language and meaning into ‘turgid ontological orgies of meaningless verbiage'.
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that tries to characterise reality as a whole. 'Absolute nothing' is a metaphysical concept which is teleological in nature as it implies that for something to exist requires a purpose. ‘Nothing’ is a noun not an adjective so using it quickly produces meaningless and circular reasoning. Introducing the concept of ‘Nothingness’ as the state of reality where nothing exists does tend to simplify the twaddle somewhat when used instead of ‘Nothing’. But using ‘nothingness’ then exposes 'the container problem' of where does reality exist even if it is ‘nothing’?! And thus another infinite regress and circular loop has been set up!
Philosophers can be divided into three broad approaches to explaining existence:-
Optimists - argue that there has to be a reason for existence - Gods, religion, science, maths, or philosophy all pursue suitable explanations of varying degrees of soophistication. The Greek Philosopher Spinoza concluded at its simplest that the universe is the cause of itself as it manifestly does exist!
Pessimists - argue that there might be a reason but we will never know due to limits to our understanding and our brains. The author Updike concluded that the current state of the human mind means the mystery of being will remain a permeant mystery and that the 'goodness of being on balance in his opinion is better than the evil of nothingness' but that’s as far as he goes.
Modern Existentialists sort of prove the pessimists point as they emphasise the pointlessness of life that 'Nothingness haunts being' that the 'sheer contingency of the the world is obscene' (Satre) and that there is an 'emptiness of being' (Schopenhauer). Heiddegger the Nazi German philosopher argued that 'the concept of nothing menaces the realm of being with annihilation’. He ended up in nonsensical dead end verbiage and pathos under Hitler. Wittengstein the UK philosopher concluded that 'we are seduced by the mystery of existence which takes us beyond the limits of language'. Schopenhauer pointed out that just as the eye cannot see itself so we can never experience our own non existence. He thought that the universe is a manifestation of striving leading to dismay, distress and suffering. All took a pessimistic view of reality and existence - and all of them need to lighten up!
Rejectionists - argue that there is no reason for existence and that the question is meaningless as clearly the universe does exist. Greenbaum argues that the questions about existence arise as religion requires a creation myth so that we are all indoctrinated in childhood that the world needs a God in order for the world to exist. It's an invented problem used to market the existence of God ie there would be nothing without a Creator. The need for a creation myth is equivalent to the fictitious problem of 'winter hair' created recently to market a new shampoo. The Religious argue that there needs to be a 'first cause' but rejectionists counter with the question why does there need to be a first cause?
Many famous philosophers struggled with non existence eg Freud, Goethe etc. Cicero concluded that 'to philosophize is to learn how to die'. The Devil’s Dictionary defines Philosophy as a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing…. having just dipped my toe in at the shallow I must agree.
The Religious Approach to Existence - Make it Up
The God Hypothesis as an explanation for existence will always suffer from the circular problem - who created God?! Swinburne in Oxford argues that God is the simplest explanation for existence QED which is not really an explanation at all of anything! The Deists a hundred years ago postulated that God created the universe then disappeared, but have no explanation of why and to where?! Thinkers have sought to find a logical rational proof for the existence of God which has been refined over the centuries to provide a fairly water 'proof' based on logic!
Aquinas first developed the Ontological Argument in the Middle Ages that if God is perfect then he must exist as a real perfect being is better than an imagined one, and we can imagine a perfect God QED. Of course the argument can be reversed ie I can contemplate the non existence of God therefore he cannot be perfect and so the perfect being does not exist - which just illustrates how stupid the argument actually is .... why does the world need a God to prevail, especially one who is the universal champion at hide and seek!
Leibniz refined the logical arguments for God with the Cosmological Argument during the renaissance that if everything has an explanation based on his scientific concept the Principal of Sufficient Reason then given that the world is contingent then God must be a necessary divine being or entity in order to cause the world, and given God is perfect he is the cause of his own existence. An ontological cheat as Hume and Kant concluded as it does not really explain where God came from!
Godel refined the Cosmological argument using his modal logic and showed that it could be proved that if a 'maximally great being' is even remotely possible then he must exist in all worlds no matter how small the likelihood. However, the logic is symmetric and can just as easily be reversed to prove that God does not exist. Godel concluded that it was all a pointless tautological merry go round that does not move us forward, as the arguments are symmetric and can be used in both directions!
Nozick argued that logic can be used to show that the existence of God is a tautological truth based on pure reasoning but that does not mean God exists in the real world! Round and round we go! Logic can be similarly used to prove that the existence of the Null world is possible but the arguments are always circular and not really conclusive. He has argued that any explanation for existence has to be 'self subsuming' ie contain an explanation for the existence of the explanation itself so that it will have to be a 'crane' or a self selector, similar to Darwin's Theory of evolution by natural selection which removes the need of a designer for all the complexity of life on earth. Not all self subsuming explanations are true though but the ultimate explanation will have to be, to avoid the circular problem of what came before?
Most people of faith believe in the spirit realm and/or afterlife as a solution to their internal struggle contemplating their own non existence and demise which leaves them open to belief in all sorts of invented nonsensical unproven doctrines and explanations of the nature of reality that belies objective experience, observation and evidence. Their feelings of existential dread are so powerful that they will literally believe anything, in order not to have to think too hard about their own and their loved ones non existence, and in order to provide them with meaning and a basis for living their lives. This rather widespread inability to cope with the brute truth about death without the crutch of make believe must have evolved as a protection mechanism to ensure survival. Perhaps the illusion of infallibility and a belief in an afterlife is what makes us human after all?
Weinberg has put it best 'evil men do evil things, but for good people to do evil things, requires religion', understandable given the rubbish that is believed based 'on faith'. Personally the fact we have to seek to prove the existence of God actually perhaps proves that God does not exist - where can he be hiding!?
World of Mathematics & ‘Form' - Add it Up
Pythagoras thought that 'all is number' in the transcendental realm of maths with pi, e, i, all existing independent of humans. Aristotle his pupil coined the term the Platonic Reality of Mathematical Forms which were considered to be distinct entities to the physical world. Plato considered maths as the fundamental driver of reality acting on the universe as a 'selector' of what happens in the physical world.
Plato concluded based on the intellectual beauty and simplicity of much of maths that the underlying driver on reality was the pursuit of 'goodness' and beauty, and other abstract forms. Axiarchists took this platonic ideal further surmising that the world exists because its better than nothing! John Leslie a UK philosopher argues that reality is governed by abstract concepts such as ethics or goodness as the universe is an infinite mind so such concepts in this infinite mind actually cause the world to exist! Hume counters that in this approach there are no clear definitions of terms, whilst Dawkins that this is rubbish! Hume argues that there is no objective definition of goodness possible that is independent of humans!
Many continue to consider mathematical concepts profound and timeless. Roger Penrose considered that mathematical entities are 'discovered' with Hume arguing that mathematics contains 'the hidden algebra of being'. However, Russell thought maths was a system built on tautology as not all maths is applicable to the real world and questioned whether maths is really independent of the human brain? Is the mapping of some mathematical concepts onto reality by humans conditioned by our evolution, senses and mental capacity? Humans have evolved a powerful system for seeing patterns to survive so do we force fit our maths to our observed realities and observations, and continually refine our models to fit with new observations, constantly improving our models to make better predictions but no less nearer to solving the ultimate question. Reality is a lot more complex than simple mathematical forms and our 'simplified' scientific laws. All is approximation!
Another key unresolved issue is how mathematical forms and concepts end up controlling reality? A fundamental question that is neatly sidestepped at present by science and maths, at least the Axiarchists tried to developed an explanation!
Science - Evidence Based on Observation - Test it
The fundamental principal underpinning science is Leibniz's Principal of Sufficient Reason where everything that exists has an explanation or reason. This bedrock of science has been very successful and very powerful.
Wittgenstein has pointed out that it is an illusion that scientific laws are inviolate. Weinberg considered 'science a self consistent edifice internally consistent via deduction based on ever expanding limits to observations, and, an ever growing edifice of evidence'. Science also suffers from the circular problem in that it does not try to explain why the rules and laws of maths and the sciences are as they are?
Science has not really tackled the ultimate 'Why' question of existence to avoid the circular problem, and has been content to avoid the ultimate question in favour of fine tuning the current laws and models to improve their predictive power. This has been an incredibly successful strategy and continues to improve the lot of mankind through the development of science and technology. Despite these obvious shortcomings the scientific approach of building pragmatic usable models for the workings within the universe based on observation and evidence has been very successful and hugely beneficial. The best recent examples are the Big Bang Theory and Darwin's Theory of evolution:-
Big Bang Theory - Science has proven that the universe erupted into existence in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, creating space & time plus a 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. The term Big Bang was invented by Fred Hoyle as an insult! The predicted background radiation from the Big Bang has been observed, although it is still uncertain if the universe will be steady state, end up in the 'Big Chill', or collapse again. Science cannot explain the nature of the void that existed before the Big Bang and so remains subject to the circular problem of what there was before the Big Bang?
Darwin's Theory of Evolution - based on the empirical observations and descriptions of biological morphology Darwin developed his theory of natural selection by survival of the fittest to explain the observed morphologies. This simple concept explains the entire complexity of life on earth, with no need for a first cause, designer or God. There is now overwhelming evidence from multiple disciplines to support Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The variety of life on earth has been demonstrated conclusively to have been a product of normal chemical and evolutionary processes since the earliest stages of the primordial earth! The theory of evolution by natural selection is an example of a crane which removes the need for a 'designer' and explains at the molecular level how 'non life' chemistry becomes 'life' via the repeated operation of the selector of 'the survival of the fittest', without the need for a supreme being or a God.
Science is a self consistent edifice based on observation that allows us to predict future events building ever broader scope and generality illustrated by the progressive development of scientific knowledge. For example, Kepler devised laws to predict the observed motion of planets within our solar system using the telescope invented by Gallileo. Newton's Laws widened the scope of Kepler's work to predict the motion of planets within any solar system, in the process defining the concept of action at a distance of the gravity field acting on planetary matter or mass. Newton's Laws do not define or explain what mass or gravity actually are but just describes their relationships so we can make very accurate predictions about the movement of the planets and satellites etc in any solar system! It is interesting to note that Newtons Laws can be re-crafted without using mathematics, although maths makes things easier to compute.
Newton and others have speculated on the nature of time and space with Newton proposing that space was separate to time with both existing independently of each other (Substantivists). Leibniz on the other hand considered space as a web of relationships of constituent parts, and that time and space were intertwined with time being a relational by-product, defined by the gap between events (Relationists). Einstein eventually demonstrated that space and time were both relative and part of the same space time continuum which was warped by gravity to produce the movements we observe. Einstein's Theories improve further the predictions of Newtons Laws.
The above illustrates that science is built on a network of relationships and equations between force, matter, empty space, fields, fundamental quantum particles etc but does not currently provide an explanation of why these entities exist, and why they are subject to fixed scientific laws. Science describes various overlapping models and laws that predict how the distribution, interaction, and variations of these entities by field gradients and forces interact, but has to date not explained why the laws and entities are as observed. Science still has not defined what space, nor time, nor mass nor gravity actually are, but are still developing further refinements and alternative hypothesis to eventually improve on current Laws and Theories.
Science Laws and Models are always approximations and all require both initial and boundary conditions, but also universal constants in the various equations, to fit them to current observations. These models can be used to predict and model reality, but only within the constraints of the given IC and BCs, and universal constants. Science has not been able to explain why the IC, universal constants and BCs have the values as observed. Small changes in these universal constants would fundamentally change the observed universe, and the chances of life evolving.
Many scientists invoke the Anthropic principle - that the universe is just so otherwise we would not be here to observe it, and, that is why the universal constants and laws are finely balanced to produce our existence! However this is a blatant cheat equivalent to invoking God and still suffers from the circular problem, why are the laws as they are, and not something different, what drives the existence of the forces, fields and particles to be as they are observed? Science provides the how, and currently sidesteps the why!
At the frontiers of current scientific thinking across multiple disciplines like physics, neurology, artificial intelligence etc etc it is becoming harder and harder to avoid the why questions. Some scientific laws appear to prevent absolute nothingness eg Conservation of energy and of charge, hinting perhaps that there can never have been a first cause? Science often assumes the simplest explanation is best based on Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient reason - which hides an implicit assumption that simpler means more probable and therefore more likely. The underlying assumption in favour of parsimony is that probability drives what exists, with a prevailing backdrop of randomness so that what survives ends up existing. But why should probability be such a driver to existence?
What this means is that even at the frontiers of current thought the circular problem cannot now be side stepped - what is the ‘void', why is probability such a fundamental driver for existence, why is our observed reality adhering to discoverable laws? Many strands of science from Cosmology to neuroscience now require facing up to such big questions of existence and reality if they are to progress further. Some argue that we have to understand better our own consciousness and resulting biased perceptions of reality to push the boundaries of scientific research further - is there a limit to the scientific method due to our own limited thinking abilities? Should all scientist be ‘pessimists’?
Any scientific explanations for existence and the emergence of consciousness will have to be self subsuming and provide a 'crane' or selector similar to the theory of evolution by natural selection, to avoid the ever present 'circular problem’.
Many Worlds Hypotheses - Select it
Various cranes or 'selectors' are emerging in different areas of science and thought. There is growing convergence in four key overlapping areas of frontier research areas which is likely to throw up new insights into the mystery of existence. These are summarised below in order of increasing levels of the esoteric!
Many Worlds Hypothesis - links the very large in Cosmology to the very small in Quantum Mechanics. Quantum mechanics appears to suggest that new universes can spontaneously emerge out of the random quantum flux in the 'void' - as there are many ways for something and only a single nothingness. What survives from this random flux being what 'works' which then self perpetuates and 'survives' - very akin to evolution! A probability driven reality? Physicists now postulate that multiple universes can spontaneously appear anywhere creating many parallel universes - some suggest that our Big Bang was just such an event in a parent universe rather than from a void! This 'Quantum Cosmology' postulates many multiple and complexly branching parallel universes. What works survives so eventually all plausible worlds that can exist will come into existence ie the Principle of Fecundity. But this leads to the existence of many inconsistent worlds and many paradoxes if all worlds exist - the Russell Paradox. Paul Davis has pointed out that there is no evidence or possibility at present to test for multiple realities and universes so these musings at present are no better than the God Hypothesis in moving our understanding forward on the mystery of existence!
Emergence of Consciousness - the Mind Brain Divide! Advances in neurology and brain scanning using imaging tools such as MRI are revealing how our brains work. Tononi and others are developing theories of consciousness linked to complex hierarchies of inter locking feedback loops that happen at many levels in our brains and bodies. Parallel to these developments work at developing artificial intelligence in computers and robots is providing further insights into how consciousness might emerge from complex systems. The new science of consciousness is highly multidisciplinary. A fierce debate continues between materialists who argue that the mind and consciousness is an emergent property of physical processes in the organic brain, versus the dualists such as Popper and Eccles who argue that mind stuff and consciousness require something else such as ‘qualia' to be conscious which are independent of the physical brain. Materialists such as Tononi and Dennett argue that consciousness could emerge in non brains given enough complexity whilst the Dualists argue that this is not possible as there is an ethereal quality that is required. As with most arguments with entrenched positions I suspect that we will eventually find that both are half right with consciousness requiring much more than ‘just a brain’?
Maths to Matter - It from Bit! Many thinkers are grappling with the link between pure maths to physical laws, addressing the issue of how maths controls reality - Maths to Matter. There are several variants on this with most building on our current knowledge of computational technology and postulating whether given enough computing power and the correct mathematical description of reality the whole universe could be simulated in a giant computer. Others take an alternative approach by developing novel maths to describe the action of a 'Selector' operating on reality.
In his book Fabric of Reality David Deutch argues that we could be living in a simulation within an Ultimate Universal Reality machine, a quantum Turing Machine. John Archibald concluded that the world ' is a a flux of pure difference... a summation of information states with no underlying substance - the 'It from Bit'. But again these types of explanations are still highly ontological suffering from a severe case of the 'circular problem' . What and where is the world where these ultimate simulations are running?! Holt based on an approach developed by Parfitt develops a logical argument with two levels of self selecting 'Meta Selectors'. His model demonstrates that reality must be either mediocre or average depending on whether you assume the meta selector is 'Simplicity' or 'Fullness' respectively ie just like the bloody messed up universe we actually experience - a messy mediocre indifferent average world in an imperfect universe …. or our existence is one of many worlds of infinite mediocrity ……. ad infinitum!
A lot of this thinking derives from advances in AI and Computing and as a result is modelling reality and existence in a very mechanical linear rule driven way, side stepping such issues as the apparent complete contingency of existence - these models look suspiciously like an engineers views of the universe, building on concepts from their favourite science fiction films.
Panpsychism - some thinkers combine the above concepts together to postulate that as the brain is made up of matter with consciousness emerging when enough complexity has evolved, so given an infinite universe and enough time or given an infinite number of universes then consciousness must pervade the universe and reality because consciousness will spontaneously emerge anywhere, with or without a body. These disembodied ephemeral consciousnesses would exist for varying lengths of time but how would they interact or let us know they exist if they had no physical form?Roger Searle states this is a case of 'reductio as absurdum', and taking us back to the realms of the ethereal spirit world. But is Panpsychism anymore esoteric than that we are living in a simulated world or one of many infinitely possible worlds?
All the above debates suffer from severe inconsistency problems, and from the ever present circular problem . As Paul Davies has pointed out - how on earth (literally) will we ever be able to test any of the above thinking empirically? I end with the expressions coined by recent thinkers on the mystery of existence - the ‘Riddle of Being’, the Abyss, ‘Deep Incomprehensibilities’, a ‘Hole at the Centre of Our Being’ (Satre), the agony of human existence (Woody Allen)………need I say more?