Book Excerpt: To not know

Not knowing. We’ve all had the religious try to shoehorn in their preferred deity where science has had the humility to admit it doesn’t know. The arrogance may even have struck and annoyed many of us. So, I thought it would earn a full place in my book, and here are the 3,000 words I’ve written to that end: why is not knowing superior? I know I need to expand on this, slightly. But, as always, I’d love for any feedback.

Something that is often touted as a strength of religion is its ability to assume, posit and assert answers to all areas of questioning. It grants an escape from the difficult questions and investigations. It used to answer the questions of seasons, harvests, lightning. In some areas of society it continues to answer the question of biological diversity, although this is an untenable position. It is much more prevalent as answer to questions science has not been able to answer―the beginning of life; the start of the universe―or things that don’t require an answer, but people feel they do―luck. Religion is not the only culprit, and New Age ideas abound with topics such as psychics, affecting natural processes with emotions, crystal healing and moon farming. These form the basis of what is often called ‘pseudoscience’. Pseudoscience is the label applied to explanations that superficially share the aesthetics of science, but on examination are not scientific at all. The issue is often one of breaking rules of what it means to be reasonable: Occam’s razor, plausibility and the relationship between evidence and the gravity of claims. The Cosmological Argument for the existence of God falls prey to this, creating a facade of scientific claims and trying to sneak unwarranted claims in: personal creation, immense power.

In 1898, Morgan Robertson published a novella called Futility. In it, a ship called Titan sinks, bearing resemblance to the real life events of the HMS Titanic, which sank 14 April 1912. Both ship hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic in April, both travelling in excess of 20 knots, both 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland; more than half the 2,000+ passengers died. If we demanded an explanation for the similarity, where fiction seems to foreshadow truth, we would probably have to concoct elaborate narratives: psychics, time travel or government insurance policies. Two of these are extraordinary, in that they violate known principles of science, and the other remains unsupported by the evidence. But, if we demand an explanation we must accept one of them. The only way not to descend into absurdity when dealing with coincidences is to be able to admit that you simply don’t have the answer: I don’t know.

One of the great elements of the Titan story is that it is a work of fiction. That means it lends brilliant flexibility to the potential flexibility. Consider if I wanted to assert that The Wreck of the Titan is evidence of time travel. The first rebuttal is that there are quite major differences between Titan and the Titanic: there are 25 meter, 2.5 knot top speed, 300 passenger and four lifeboat discrepancies to consider. Given that a time traveller would have the advantage of the exact fact, this puts a large dent in the hull of my speculation. Robertson was an author, and that means I can blame the difference on creativity: a time traveller brought the exact story back, but Robertson dismissed the truth of the claims and then plagiarised the message to make a novella. That accounts for all the discrepancies. Flexibility in a claim is a wonderful tool for trying to prop up bad claims; they will bend to fit any evidence or criticism. Notice: the evidence doesn’t change―it is still the similarity between the fiction and the real―but the nature of the claim alters subtly to absorb criticism; speculation and assumption is weaved into the narrative. That is the very quality that makes flexible claims bad claims when trying to establish truth or reason. Inflexible claims make for robust and precise predictions about what you will find. No explanation exists (nor is one needed) for the similarity between Titan and the Titanic; it was just a coincidence.

The idea of admitting you don’t know can seem uncomfortable to many, but science necessarily has to make this confession. “Science knows it doesn’t know everything, else it would stop.” This humility is necessary, as it stops scientists from guessing or promoting patently bad ideas. It is noble and liberating to be able to concede ignorance. In the same way that being able to provide any answer is touted as a strength of religion, having the humility to acknowledge one does not have all the answers right now is attacked as a weakness of science. The assumption of those touted the any answer will do nature of religion make the implicit declaration that into any unknown we can call any speculation reasonable. This is particularly true when the source of the speculation is pre-scientific antiquity.

All answers are not equal just because science has not yet established an answer. All hypotheses differ on plausibility and complexity, which affects their likelihood even before evidence is appropriately gathered. The likelihood of each claim is reevaluated as new evidence is discovered, but in the absence of all evidence “psychics” are more likely to have hacked your Facebook account or mined for your information than to communicate with your dead relative at the very moment you are near said psychic, which supposes an afterlife, disembodied consciousness and a mechanism by which only a select few can communicate across these realms.

You can speculate that psychics are applying a genuine skill. Again, the persistence of this claim is the flexibility of the afterlife: no one can claim to know anything about it. The spookiness of the afterlife lends itself to communication being cut, dropping out like bad Wifi signal, or certain people (particularly sceptics) never receive specific information. However, truly open minded people are open to the possibility of both the failure and the success of a claim, so the method needs to be unbiased. One such method would be to control the circumstances under which a psychic can operate: captive audiences, who may have filled in forms before a performance, are not ways of establishing the validity of a psychic because they have had opportunity to do research on named individuals attending. If the psychic is applying a real skill, then they should be able to make specific comments about anybody. That would be the experiment: get a psychic to walk through the streets and have relevant communication with pedestrians. The control would be someone who does not claim to be a psychic making similar statements. The hypothesis that psychics are a theatrical piece, not really implementing a skill, is more plausible. The Barnum effect is a bias we have to read something personal into generically written statements and gives a ‘false positive’, meaning that it appears to be specifically about us when it isn’t. This inflates the perceived success rate of a psychic. Couple this with cold-reading, a hypersocial skill where the performer will rely on cues from the audience to provide meaning, and the hit rate of statements coming out of psychics mouths seems too high to be mere coincidence. Lastly, brush over all the misses and suddenly the illusion of a fully-fledged psychic is complete.

Although the plausibility and repeatability of each element of the hypothesis that psychics are performing theatre and not supernatural feats is very convincing, that’s not the real point. The real point is that the hypothesis of real psychics doesn’t stand up by itself; there is insufficient evidence to accept the claim of psychics. Even if you were entirely unaware of Barnum statements, false positives and cold reading, you could simply assert that you don’t know how psychics do what they do. It is not disingenuous to feel that a claim has not met its burden of evidence, doesn’t meet with reasoned predictions, yet still not have an alternative theory. “I don’t know” would be the right answer.

Faced with incredible claims, we find ourselves comforted by plausible alternatives that join up evidence, even when the evidence is scant. This is particularly true in hypothetical areas of science, like theoretical physics or hypothetical biochemistry. In 1809, Lamarck published his theory of evolution by acquired traits. The theory was that different parts of the anatomy of any individual were either used, and thus strengthened, or not used and thus weakened; it is these states of strength and weakness that could be inherited from one generation to the next. This theory, despite the fact that amputees did not have amputated children, gained considerable traction. In the 1930s it even formed part of the Soviet dogma. This was a bad theory, but the existence of a plausible explanation comforted many who had doubts about the religious answer to the question. This is unreasonable thinking. Reasonable thinking would be able to dismiss Lamarckian evolution and Creation simultaneously―neither met the requirement of evidence―and instead hold that a sufficient answer is simply not available yet.

Perhaps it is easy to say that from a modern perspective, knowing as we do that 50 years later Darwin would publish a more plausible account of evolution. From our comfortable position of knowing, perhaps it is immature for me to assume that the reasonable mind could have accepted ignorance for just half a century. But we are still in this position today, not with biology but with cosmogony and cosmology. We have plausible answers as to where the universe came from: the instability of nothing. The only comfort that should be available to us, though, it that we can tell our understanding is headed in the right direction. It seems doubtful that we have the right answer right now, but the kind of mechanisms that might be implicated are coming to light. By recognising that science, in fact, does not know the answer to the question of where the universe came from, science can enthusiastically continue our investigations at the frontier of knowledge and honestly reflect upon it.

Abiogenesis is another area of science where very high confidence explanations and good quality evidence are not abundant in the same way it is for evolution. Neither is it as easily repeatable as chemistry. However, abiogenesis―which is the discipline of studying of how nonliving processes can lead to life―still has plausible explanations. Graham Cairns-Smith explored the Clay Hypothesis (1987), investigating silicate crystal behaviour. This hypothesis is borne from the observation that silicate crystals preserve some of their form as they grow, snap and the continue growing. The narrative this would go on to support is this: growth, snapping and then continued growth creates many crystals from one; if there is some type of preservation of form between a parent crystal and all the crystals it spawns, then this is a type of replication. It is not just replication that mirrors what we know about genetics and life: the crystals can go on to change their environment. For example, certain crystal shapes are more likely to silt a river bed than others, meaning that particular crystal and its ‘family’ would be the most likely ‘colonisers’ of a river bed. This is a type of natural selection. This replicating and naturally selecting process was thought to be a precursor to genetic behaviour, although how that transition may happen was an entirely unknown process. An experiment by Bullard et al in 2007 took “mother” crystals with an identifiable imperfection. If the Cairns-Smith hypothesis is correct, that identifiable imperfection should behave analogously to genetic information. Bullard et al found that the crystals “were not faithful enough to store and transfer information from one generation to the next”. If the information is not reliably being passed from one generation to the next, then the Cairns-Smith hypothesis is not a good contender for the start of replicating life. However, that the theory was plausible should never be overlooked.

Since the Cairns-Smith hypothesis, many others have been put forward. The one that I feel is currently the best―in that it has elements that are repeatable, functions within a framework of science already well established (instead of positing new behaviours), and makes few assumptions beyond the evidence to pull the whole narrative together―is the work by Jack Szostak. The picture it builds is a simple one. But first to dispel a common (perhaps intentional) misconception: first life does not have to be as complex as a single modern cell. Cells are highly complex and are, themselves, the product of 3.5 billion years of evolution, just like all of life. First life would have been simpler than a modern cell. To understand that jump in complexity, we need to make some effort to navigate the path between life and nonlife. That begins to open up the philosophical question of what life is. Clay crystals, like the ones Cairns-Smith discusses in the Clay Hypothesis, actually have a metabolic surface which RNA associates with; it is a simple body, but is chemically active; the crystals are even self-assembled, taking ordered form without intelligent interference. Similarly simple, but still lifelike, systems can be made from a simple collection of chemicals. Martin Hanczyc has been investigating the behaviour of simple chemical systems, that exist on the border between life and nonlife. The simple oil-based chemicals, protocells, react to their environment, creating a disequilibrium in that they utilise part of their environment (analogous to nutrition) to fuel their behaviour. In one experiment, two protocells were put into the same calorific environment. Protocell A vibrates or “dances” and protocell B merges with other protocell Bs. On one recorded event, protocell B merged with a protocell A. The resultant protocell AB both danced and merged. There was then a self-replication event, where a merged protocell diverged into two protocells. This clearly illuminates the spectrum (not the step) between life and nonlife.

This pathway, that Hanczyc’s work illuminates, is supported and expanded upon by Szostak. Szostak’s model account for the incremental steps along the pathway between life and nonlife. Starting with simple fatty acids, under certain environmental conditions they self-arrange (much in the way that Hanczyc’s oils and crystals do) into organic containers, called vesicles. These vesicles are semi-permeable and small organic compounds can freely move in and out. The vesicle can utilise other fatty acids to form a part of itself, and grow. This is simultaneous eating and growth. As they grow they self-arrange into tubular shapes, meaning their surface area expands faster than their volume. This leaves them susceptible to mechanical erosion (from waves and tides or impact against rocks). This is a possible body for life. It has growth and replication.

Genetic material is slightly different. It relies on polymerising compounds. A polymerising chemical is chemical that can exist as one small molecule (called a monomer) or it can bind to other monomer to create a repeating chain (a giant molecule called a polymer), like phosphoramidate DNA. In solution, this chemical will polymerise under the basic laws of chemistry. The long chain polymers form with strong bonds between each monomer, but can pair up via a weaker bond to other polymers. This creates a pair of polymers loosely bonded together. This process of polymerisation and pairing is an important precursor to genetic information. The body (made of fatty acids) and the polymers (that could be the precursor to genetics) combine; the polymer forms inside the body. This is possible because of the semi-permeability of the body to the small organic molecules. If monomers get inside the body (which they freely can) and polymerise inside (which some chemicals do) then the larger polymer will not be able to escape the body (which monomers could). The body, container polymers, also has property that allow it to undergo further process that are analogous to metabolic functions. The bodies can get cause in thermal vents, rising and falling with the temperature of the water. Higher temperatures increase the permeability of the body, allowing more monomers in, and also overpower the weak bond between monomer pairs. As the body cools the monomers polymerise and form a bond with other polymers, reforming polymer pairs. But there will be more pairs now that before the heating.

Bodies with more polymer pairs will be forced to expand by pressure. If an expanding body encounters a stable body the fatty acids that make up the stable body will be attracted to the expanding body, under the laws of thermodynamics. This is the start of predation or competition: the expanding body ‘eats’ the stable one, fuelling its growth. Bigger bodies ‘eat’ smaller ones, meaning that the number of polymers inside the body is an evolutionary advantage; the laws of Darwinian evolution start to take hold here. There is no reason to assume at this stage that the polymers contained ‘information’ as the chemical order is random. The advantage is is simply in numbers of polymers. Other advantages would include having a polymer sequence that uses more common monomers, polymer pairs that are stable at low temperatures but separate at higher temperatures (which increases the formation of more polymers). These are dictated by chemistry, but would constitute ‘information’: a dictation to the order to future polymers and replication. From here, more elaborate advantages could form. A catalyst that can make lipids, make the body’s surface more secure against ‘predation’ or encourage polymerisation would be greater advantages. These catalysts would be proto-cell machinery, which are very complex in modern cells as advantages continue to appear and propagate.

Through understood thermodynamic, mechanical and electrical processes, Szostak’s work can take the prebiotic environment into an environment where bodies can grow, eat, metabolise and evolve. This is the start of a map from nonlife to life. Although it might not be the the way nature navigated this journey, the existence of a plausible natural mechanism conforms to our rules of reasonableness. We have no reliance on extraordinary claims or assumptions we can’t support with evidence. The existence of a reasonable natural explanation should convince us we can comfortably surrender the magical answers of God and religion. Although, we should maintain our honesty and remember that we don’t know this is the real answer to the question; this is an answer.

2 thoughts on “Book Excerpt: To not know”

  1. In Europe a Lottery was won by someone with the exact six numbers produced. The very next week the lottery was won with the exact same sic numbers. magic? Voodoo? How about … coincidence. Someone writes a book about the sinking of an unsinkable ship … sinking and then a dozen years later, it happens! Amazing! Ignore are the facts that industrialists all over were touting this and that “unbreakable” product and ships were described often as “unsinkable.” Someone looking for a story of fiction to write–should they write about an unsinkable ship not sinking? Where’s the story in that?

    If the author was located in Tierra del Fuego, then setting the scene of the sinking where he did might be interesting, but where was the author located? Any where near the northern Atlantic, maybe? Where were most of the passenger ships traveling at that time? Between the northeastern US and Europe … maybe? Doesn’t sound so far fetched now does it.

    Too often people see patterns where none exists. Our brains are basically pattern recognition machines and we are fooled over and over by false patterns.

    And then we invent entirely fictional gods to explain the patterns that do not exist.

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