Transcript of EP 232 – Matthew David Segall on Process Philosophy and the Origin of Life

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Matthew David Segall. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

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Today’s guest is Matt Segall, a transdisciplinary researcher, writer, teacher and philosopher, applying process relational thought across the natural and social sciences as well as to the study of consciousness. He’s an associate professor in philosophy, cosmology and consciousness program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and he is the chair of the Science Advisory Committee for the Cobb Institute. Welcome, Matt.

Matthew: Great to be here with you, Jim. Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this.

Jim: I think I discovered you on Twitter, where we did a little back and forth. I looked into it a little bit and said, “Hey, this guy got a few things to say.” And I dug a little bit more into what he’s up to and I found that he writes some interesting things and you can find many of his essays at or follow him on Twitter as I did at

I have to admit, I get a little giggle out of as I recall. I think it was Whitehead who described western philosophy as footnotes to Plato, which when I read it the first time, caused me to gag because I am definitely an Aristotelian and I would say, “If you want to say Footnotes to Aristotle, I could buy it,” but…

Matthew: Well, Aristotle’s the first Neoplatonist I like to say. So, you’re still part of the club.

Jim: He was certainly Plato’s student, no doubt about it. And of course, Plato’s had the huge unfair advantage and he was a vastly more talented writer. Reading Plato is a joy. Reading Aristotle is a chore. And I think that’s one of the reasons Plato has the regard that he does, but that would be a different argument for a different day.

Matthew: Yeah. Well, just to be fair to Aristotle, all we have really are his students’ lecture notes. And it’s known from other ancient authors that Aristotle did write some texts, but they’re lost to time, so we don’t actually know how articulate Aristotle may have been, so.

Jim: I did not know that. I mean because I do read his Poetics. Whenever I start a long writing project, I always read Aristotle’s Poetics first. I find that to be just a very good grounding. And that’s probably his best written long form piece, but I did not know that these were essentially the equivalent of lecture notes taken by students as opposed to things he wrote himself. That’s kind of cool. Anyway, today, what we’re going to be doing is we’re going to have a conversation probably a little bit wide-ranging, but it’s going to be grounded on a recent paper. I think it’s actually a chapter in an upcoming book. Is that right?

Matthew: That’s right, yeah.

Jim: It’s titled The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis, which Matt wrote with Bruce Damer. Now, regular listeners at the Jim Rutt Show know, Bruce has been a regular guest on the show where we’ve talked about origins of life and other things like his interests in psychedelics for stimulating creativity. This should be quite interesting.

The paper is actually divided up into two sections. One is a recapitulation of Bruce Damer’s and his collaborators hypotheses on origins of life. Now, we’ve gone into that in great depth with Bruce on EP 167 and 171 on the Origins of Life Part One and Part Two. So, I would suggest that we just do a relatively light gloss and reminder of the hot springs hypothesis and then get down to what looks like Matt’s main contribution to this paper, which is the metaphysical and cosmological context of life’s origin. How’s that sound?

Matthew: Excellent. Yeah, that’s a great procedure.

Jim: Before we move on, someone said metaphysics and it was me, so I have to pull out my pistol. I hear the word “metaphysics”, I reached for my pistol. This is a new one I just bought about two weeks ago. It’s a SIG P229, a 9 millimeter, and in fact, it’s a P229 LEGION, which is the high end model, and it’s the same pistol that the Navy SEALs use, so it’s a good one.

Matthew: Yeah, it looks dangerous.

Jim: Although I was very careful to check three times that it’s not loaded, nothing worse than to shoot yourself in the foot literally in the middle of a podcast. I managed to do it rhetorically quite often, but that doesn’t happen. Anyway, would you like to take a wing at doing a summary of hot springs origin of life hypothesis?

Matthew: Yeah, well, I mean it starts for me with my introduction to Bruce as a person. I think it was back in 2019, it was pre-pandemic and Bruce and I happened to be on a panel together and we were speaking to some artists that were trying to be inspired to do some cutting edge work. And Bruce started explaining this hot spring hypothesis that involved a process of wet and dry cycling that can drive the emergence of longer chain polymers. And this would be his, he and Dave Deamer at UC Santa Cruz’s alternative to the what has for decades, I suppose, been the leading abiogenesis hypothesis, the deep sea hydrothermal vent idea and variations on that idea.

What Bruce and Dave Deamer are proposing is that life emerges in freshwater volcanic hot springs that would be dehydrating and then rehydrated as a result of perhaps regular geysers going off to refill them. And that with organic molecules raining down from space, we know that they arrive here on meteorites. These ponds would concentrate organic material and that the process of dehydration is known to lead to polymerization, so you get longer and longer chains.

And with each wet and dry cycling, lipid bound protocells would form during the wet phase and act as a kind of opportunity for chemical selection, where each bilipid membrane would contain some packet of chemistry, which in a sense would run an experiment. And those which survived in the wet phase as they’re bumping around and being tested in various ways by that environment would then come back into this during the process of dehydration into the gel-like phase.

And Bruce in his visionary way would describe in this gel-like phase where the magic happens, that these are like lipid cities and these polymers would be zipping around in these tunnels that form and all sorts of more complex chemistry could begin to form. When the geyser grows off and the pond fills again, these lipid membranes bud off. And what you get here is before you have any RNA or DNA templating, you get a process of chemical selection.

And the idea is that over potentially millions of years, this leads to something approaching metabolism and something approaching the capacity for a chemical memory that can be passed on. And RNA and DNA forms of templating and reproduction would emerge later on after many millions of years of chemical selection.

Bruce is describing a progenitor environment, as he calls it, which would be a complex prebiotic medium that would have the capacity to give rise to the first living cell. So, he’s trying to close that gap between chemistry and life. And there’s a lot of other great science looking at that gap. I know you had Stu Kauffman on a few months ago talking about this.

And so when I heard this hypothesis, I thought immediately of Whitehead, who developed a process philosophy or philosophy of organism as he called it, he has this idea of concrescence, which is very much about a cycling process that produces novelty. And so, it felt like a match made well, if not in heaven, then at least on the early prebiotic earth. And so, Bruce and I have been collaborating on that for the last four years or so.

Jim: Yeah, to repeat for the listeners, you want to go into Bruce and his collaborators theory in more detail, EP 167 and 171, where we spent almost four hours going into the biogenesis theory of the warm hot pond in as much detail as anybody probably want. So, that’s in the land of science. What do we need to know about stinking metaphysics for?

Matthew: Well, I think metaphysics has a bad name because it’s often thought of as adding something extra to our physical knowledge and even sometimes conflated with the supernatural, the way that Borders and Barnes & Noble and other big bookstores organize their collections doesn’t do any great service to metaphysics because often on the metaphysics shelf, you’ll find things about crystal healing and tarot and all these sorts of things.

Metaphysics in my sense and the sense of the history of philosophy is an attempt to arrive at the most general description that we can of the nature of reality, which includes natural science, all the things that physics and chemistry and biology and psychology and sociology can tell us about how those special areas of inquiry work, what are the principles at play.

But metaphysics steps back from all of that and asks, how does this all hang together as a whole. Is there a language that we can develop that would allow us to understand systematically how every special science fits together? And not only how science in all of its disciplines fits together, but how science itself is possible? In other words, what are the epistemological and ontological presuppositions of scientific knowledge itself? What is it about the universe that makes science possible?

As soon as we start to ask questions like that, we’re doing metaphysics. So, it doesn’t need to be a bad word. I can understand your reaction because of the high amount of bullshit that pervades our increasingly interconnected web of content production. But as a philosopher, I think it is unavoidable. We all have a metaphysics. It’s just a matter of being as explicit about it as we can be.

Jim: Absolutely. And that is my objection to metaphysics, not itself, because obviously, we all have to have a metaphysics or why would we get out of bed? But it’s the proliferation of needless bullshit under the title of metaphysics. In fact, I will confess this on the air I think for the first time. I am working on another project called Towards a Minimum Viable Metaphysics with a group of Hegelian philosophers of all crazy things. I am attempting to come up with a metaphysics that I and they think is the absolute minimum necessary to get on with living in our universe.

And so, when I rail about metaphysics, it’s actually the lack of parsimony, lack of discipline that people bring to the metaphysical domain. Of course, the one I despise the most is religion. Why is our angels called for or divas or celestial spheres or reincarnation or any of this horseshit? We don’t need any of that crap to work in the universe, and yet it seems to be a libido that humans have to propagate, go back to their aboriginal religion, same thing, all these complicated explanations that are not necessary. They’re not a minimum viable metaphysics.

So, to the degree that we try that we focus on that metaphysics we need to operate in and explain the universe, yes, to the degree that it’s sort of these bizarre cultural accretions that I say flush up.

Matthew: Well, I would just say to that that historically, in order to understand where science came from coming out of the scientific revolution in Europe in the 17th century, you really do need to understand the whole history of religion in the west. And as Whitehead says, “The scientific devotion to truth is just a variant form of the religious devotion to what we call the divine.” All of the founding fathers of natural science were in fact theists, Christians, deists to be more precise. And they would’ve found it completely incredible as in unbelievable that the universe might be so rationally, mathematically ordered if there had not been a creator.

Now, I’m not an intelligent design theorist or anything. I don’t mean to scare you. I think without this theological context in the history of European thought, there wouldn’t be science as we understand it.

Jim: Yeah, I agree. I just finished reading a very good book called Dominion by Tom Holland, who takes the history of Christianity and a little bit of the stuff before Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, et cetera, throws in a little bit of Islam and shows how these currents led up to the scientific revolutions of the 17th century and the political and cultural revolutions of the very late 17th century, and then emerged into the enlightenment and then eventually brought us the modern world.

So, I’m absolutely with you that we needed the intellectual process as much of an assclown in some ways as Thomas Aquinas was, one of the smartest guys that ever lived spending his time on the most intricate ins and outs of Catholic theology. And by the way, I was raised a Catholic, so I can dunk on Catholicism if I feel like it.

And nonetheless, his method of reasoning is a very important antecedent to what came after. So, even though he was applying his methods to reordering and dissecting fairy tales, the tools that he used turned out to be more or less the right tools to set the ground for people like Descartes and Newton, et cetera. So, absolutely by that we needed that road, just like to say the, “Enlightenment was childhood’s end people, so don’t regress to childhood.”

But anyway, that’s getting off the topic a little bit. Let’s come back now and talk about metaphysics and the origin of life. One of the things early in that section of the paper as a quote, “There is nothing in physical law which implies the existence of biological organisms.” I believe this was a counterstatement to what Whitehead thought. So, the work that you’re doing would say, “Wait a minute, there’s something limited at least or incomplete about that statement.” So, let’s use that as a starting point. There’s nothing in physical law which implies the existence of biological organisms. What’s incomplete about that or what’s missing?

Matthew: Physicists are looking for a theory of everything or a grand unifying theory, which from their point of view would explain everything that needs to be explained about the nature of our universe. And the problem with that from my point of view would be that it doesn’t explain how there could be organisms capable of seeking and finding such an explanation. In other words, it’s not recursive enough. It doesn’t include its own conditions of possibility.

And so, if we’re going to have an explanation for the universe as a whole, including the conscious beings, the conscious biological organisms that are capable of explaining it, then it’s going to require a reference being made to more than just the laws of physics.

Jim: Yes, if you want to say that we will have books that are written down about the laws of physics, then we will have needed to evolve something that it’s capable of writing down books. But I would argue the laws of physics existed long before there were any conscious entities or anyone even slightly capable of writing down books.

Matthew: Well, what is a law of physics? It’s an abstraction developed in the minds of human beings. It’s written in the form of mathematical equations. And yes, there’s a referent. There is something real in the world being described by these equations, but the equations themselves ain’t it. And so, when we use a term like “physical law”, there’s so much metaphor baked into that. A law is a sociological concept that we’re projecting onto the natural world. I mean, this is part of the relational, part of process relational philosophy that I’m here to tell you all about.

We always have to keep in mind the extent to which our knowledge of the universe is, it’s as subjective as we can get it, but it also presupposes our own subjective perspective and point of view, the metaphors we draw. And I mean we can’t do science without metaphor. And it’s right there at the very foundations of physics when we talk about a law, right?

Jim: Yeah. Like guys like George Lakoff have shown, we can’t even speak without metaphor in about every single sentence. But my point is one step deeper than that. All that is true and I agree with it, but whatever it is that we describe what the phrase “natural law”, I will argue at least, and so does my minimum viable metaphysics is real.

For instance, the fact that every electron seems to be identical in the universe, an unbelievable level of precision, sufficiently precise, that John Wheeler, one of the great and most creative 20th century physicists came up with a wild conjecture that there was actually only one electron and that they were interconnected through some unbelievably complicated set of wormholes. And this one electron made its rounds at a speed that it’s hard to contemplate way, way faster than the speed of light. And that that was the only reasonable conjecture for why all these electrons are so damn identical.

Nonetheless, if indeed what we think we see is true that all electrons are absolutely identical, then that is something like a law that has been true long before we wrote down the law. So, where I just don’t buy this argument that the fact that we have laws somehow presupposes that there had to be a telos towards law writers is the fact that the thing that the laws are roughly approximating existed long before the law writers. So, it’s not like the writing of the law is brought into existence a reality, so therefore the theory that we need a telos to explain that lawfulness, I just don’t buy that argument.

Matthew: Yeah. Well, my argument is not a crass social constructionism or something. Actually, I would say as I argue in this chapter that what we call laws of physics are more like deep-seated cosmic habits, which have emerged in the course of cosmic evolution. And so, I wonder to throw a question back at you, whether or not you think physical laws are themselves emergent, historically emergent, even if long, long ago these laws were laid down and are very unlikely to change at this point.

Nonetheless, they weren’t just eternally there and that the emergence of matter space, time and energy sort of just conforms to them. I mean, that leaves us with a rather, I mean there’s a huge gap there for theists to come in and say, “Well, we know where those laws came from.” So, I wonder where did these laws originate? Do you think of them as evolutionary habits on the cosmic scale or how do you understand their origins?

Jim: This is an area I’ve been interested in since I was 10 years old, and I know a fair bit about it. I would suggest that we don’t know the answer to the why. And in fact, part of my denunciation of bad metaphysics is the seeming feel for a need to answer that question. I’ve lately been trying to promote the concept that the hero’s answer is, I don’t know. And it’s perfectly okay to say, “Why do the physical laws have the form that they have at this particular epoch in space and time?” Don’t know.

There does seem to be some decent theory and some empirical evidence that as you implied, what we think of now as a physical laws came into being over some period of time, a few seconds perhaps in the early days of the universe. Whether that was contingent or necessary, don’t know, nor do the physicists right.

And are there other universes sort of parallel like Lee Smolin’s work on evolutionary universes where universes are created from the back ends of black holes? And in his hypothesis, or I would say conjecture because at this point you don’t even have any experiments that could test it, he hypothesizes or conjecturizes that there’s the equivalent of Darwinian evolution in the natural laws between the parent universe and the emergent universe, might be. It’s a conjecture. No evidence one way or the other.

So, how the laws came into being? Don’t know. Though, the idea that they somehow formed up at the very early stages after the Big Bang or something that was sort of like the Big Bang, there’s some support for.

On the other hand, for a very long time, the laws seem to be there and to be solid in time and space. People will say, “How come you know they are invariant in time and space?” And I said, “There’s one actually very nice signal, and that is the use of the Type Ia supernova as the cosmic candle of distance.” This is a supernova star that explodes, that has a very characteristic way of exploding and then fading remarkably precise and in terms of its time. And we can see those things out a couple of billion lightyears at least because they’re so bright.

And we can also know from what we know about how stellar evolution and nuclear physics works, that for the Type Ia supernova to have this exact behavior requires perfect balance amongst the weak force and the strong force and quantum mechanics that’s exactly the same as we have here on earth. And so, we can use that as pretty strong inferential data that at least a subset of the natural law around particle physics is invariant, at least for a couple of billion years and a couple of billion lightyears in a circle. That’s sort of my take on all that.

The beginnings, don’t know. What happened that first couple of seconds, don’t know. Necessary contingent, don’t know. But it appears a long time, there are a lot of things which are essentially rock solid.

Matthew: Yeah, I appreciate the agnosticism and the admission of where the line of scientific knowledge and ignorance shades off one into the other. But I think as a speculative philosopher that this is the area where it’s my bread and butter really, and I like to be in close dialogue with scientists to know that difference between what’s knowledge and what’s speculation.

But I think the human mind is always going to want to ask these questions and attempt to provide at least tentative answers because if we don’t do so, then we, I think cede the territory to the crystal healers. And crystals are beautiful, and I’m not trying to put down anyone who tries to work with them in an aesthetic and whatever sorts of ways. But I think we can do better than the bookshelf at Barnes and Noble on these questions. And so, I wouldn’t want to cede that territory, but try to develop a rigorous and scientifically informed form of speculation.

Jim: And again, as long as people carefully label metaphysical speculations, I again have no problem with them. I love to do metaphysical speculations. Me and my buddies at MIT in 1971 sitting around a table smoking dope and drinking Colt 45 came up with a simulation hypothesis, for instance, which is a metaphysical speculation.

Matthew: And no offense, but I would say that’s just as bad a form of metaphysics as crystal healing and whatever, because I think it’s far too extravagant and not what I would say parsimonious in comparison to other forms.

Jim: Absolutely, which is why it is absolutely not in my minimum viable metaphysics. Listen, an example that I have a taste for the sport of metaphysical speculation, but I make sure that I label it red magic marker “speculation”. And that’s fine to have conjectures as long as we don’t claim that they’re true. And this is where humans go wrong with metaphysics was they actually think that they’re true and act upon it as if they were true.

And so, long as we can hold the discipline of understanding that many of these are conjectures, and even the ones that I hold fairly dear to my heart, like for instance, that within bounded time and space, some subset of what we think of as natural laws are pretty damn invariant. I could easily be wrong and I could be open to being disproven. And I know that there are conjecture. And so, that’s okay.

Let’s get back to our topic here. The next one from there’s nothing in net physical law, which implies the existence of biological organisms is somewhat incomplete. The next extension of that incomplete statement, people like Minaud’s claim that we just got lucky on Earth. That dice were rolled across. There’s 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars. On average, they have at least one planet. And all those rolls at a dice finally turned up the right sequence to generate life.

Now, of course, you can then adjust that by probabilities. Are there other planets that have life? And we’ll soon we’ll talk a little bit about the evidence that may be coming soon on that. But what’s wrong with the argument that Earth just got lucky?

Matthew: Well, I think that chance is certainly and contingency a part of the evolution of life on Earth, and indeed, I think the evolution of the entire universe. But to say that the emergence of life and by proxy mind is random chance I think is the opposite of what I would hope for from a scientific explanation. And this relates to the prior question about the way that the laws of physics are construed. Don’t give any indication that there should be life on any planets in this universe, much less conscious, intelligent life.

And so, if we do want a scientific account of the biological world, including how some transition may have occurred between physics and chemistry to what we think of as biological organization proper, then I think we need to do better than random chance or just say that, “Oh, it just enough tries and it happened to emerge.” That doesn’t seem like science to me. I want an explanation. I don’t want randomness as the account.

Jim: Yeah. Let me start with a small, maybe big step account, which is that the laws of physics, let’s say they’re a relatively modest set, but the universe then has an amazing amount of contingency in how those laws unfold. I think as you know, I have spent about the last 20 years digging into the science of complexity, and that’s a lot of what we study is how relatively simple laws, relatively simple structures, protons, electrons, protons, humans, planets, stars, can nonetheless through dynamics, particularly nonlinear dynamics, and then particularly in life’s case, cyclical dynamics unfold in ways that are entirely unpredictable, at least in practice, if not in theory, maybe in theory.

And that the nature of our universe is partially defined, let’s call it the laws part, and the amount of matter and energy that are in the universe, which seems to be an invariant, but the unfolding of the complex organization of both matter and energy over time is open and that the laws of physics cannot at least practically tell you what will happen. The only way to see what will happen is to run the program because this is the essence of Stuart Kauffman’s work, who we had on the show quite recently in EP 227 or what he calls the adjacent possible is not actually calculable and certainly not more than one or two steps.

And so, we can have room for a universe of contingency and unfolding where probability still comes into play. For instance, a star like our star, we actually have a fairly good idea of how probable a star like our star is of all stars in a galaxy more or less like ours. So, there are legitimate probabilistic statements one can make about the way that the abiotic evolution of the universe occurred. There’s a statistical distribution of galaxy sizes and galaxy types which appear to be pretty stable across long, long ranges in the universe.

Certainly within our galaxy, in our neighboring galaxies, we can say that a star like ours has probability of us and such of existing amongst a sample of 100,000 stars. And so, if those are true about galactic evolution and stellar evolution, it’s not obvious to me why they can’t be true about a biogenesis as well.

Matthew: No, absolutely. I mean, I’m very happy with analogies being drawn to these cosmological processes of evolution, the emergence of stars and galaxies, and even before that, the emergence atoms, hydrogen and helium, and then as a result of supernovas heavier elements, I want to make those sorts of analogies to the biological world. But the question becomes, and this is a metaphysical question, what is matter such that life and mind could emerge from it?

And I think chance, probability, contingency can go a long way and do go a long way in the diverse forms of expression that matter energy finds to organize and self-organize. But could matter as it is usually conceived of as devoid of aim and devoid of feeling or any modicum of subjectivity. I don’t mean consciousness by the way, and we can get into that later. But some minimal form of subjectivity could just dead inert matter just surfaces colliding with other surfaces according to fixed laws ever give rise to life and mind capable of then knowing about how that process occurred. I think that’s an absurd story to try to tell.

Jim: It’s interesting how people like Stuart Kauffman would say something which I don’t know on, but which he thinks pretty strongly that the laws of physics and laws of chemistry in particular strongly imply that life or something very much like life is very likely to emerge from any sufficiently rich and sufficiently energetic chemical soup through a process he calls autocatalysis, where a cycle of work exists A, B, C, D, E, F, G using different molecules. And during the process of this cycle, it makes all the molecules that are necessary for the process.

So, essentially, once you have probably accidentally triggered a cycle of the right sort that remanufactures itself continuously from the substrate, that’s all you need actually. And that his argument is this always happens when you have a sufficiently rich biological soup. If you want to hear my counterarguments on that, you can listen to EP 227 with Stuart Kauffman.

Matthew: I’ve listened to that one. Yeah.

Jim: And then I would say Bruce Damer, his work is similar. Though he adds some steps along the way and just as Stuart does, we all seem to think that at some point, membranes became important to increase these concentrations, et cetera. So, let’s take the Stuart version of the story, doesn’t need anything beyond the fact that the probability is high. Stuart would say, “Oh, yeah, most planets in the water zone are going to have life of some sort.” What does that do to your hypothesis that we need something else?

Matthew: Well, I’ve met Stu a few times and had this conversation with him actually at the 2015 Whitehead conference down in Claremont. Stuart Kauffman was there. Terrence Deacon was there. And after I presented a paper proposing Whitehead’s account of cosmological evolution, Stu and Terry proceeded to get into a long argument about the viability of panpsychism and panexperientialism and the sort of view, and Stu seemed to be defending it, and Terry Deacon was saying, “No, it’s a homuncular explanation,” as he goes into that in his book, Incomplete Nature.

So, actually what I love about Stu Kauffman’s perspective is the way in which he describes this adjacent possible, which the biological world is especially adept at harvesting. And he’s done some work with a philosopher of science of quantum physics, Ruth Kastner, and another philosopher of quantum physics, Michael Epperson, they published a paper a few years ago called Taking Heisenberg’s Potentia Seriously. And this is related to Stu’s idea of the adjacent possible.

And basically they’re saying, look, matter as we’ve usually conceived of it or science has usually conceived of it, res extensa is an incomplete picture of nature. There’s also res potentia. And when you bring in this picture of res potentia, in other words the realm of potentialities that the quantum revolution has sort of forced physical science to contend with, when you bring that into our understanding of the material world, that’s pretty much all that I’m arguing for when I talk about in Whitehead’s terms, aims and feelings or this minimal form of experience.

It’s about the tension that begins to exist between the actual and the possible. That’s really all that experience means in Whitehead sense. And when you have that tension, you have this searching process whereby the way that causal processes unfold is not just a push from the past. There’s also a pool from the future.

And if that tension between the actual and the possible goes all the way down in some sense, which I take to be what Stu Kauffman is proposing and his co-authors in that paper, then we’re already there into a process relational ontology or metaphysics. So, I’m actually very happy with Stu’s approach here. I think yes, life is expected if we have this sort of understanding of physics already. So, I’m on board with his proposal.

Jim: Yeah. And I’ll put forth the hero’s answer, don’t know on that one. And I’ve talked with him for countless hours over the 20 years I’ve known him on this topic. And he has acknowledged that I have some good arguments as well. I actually pull out one here. Before I go on though, I’m going to reference for people who want to check out Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature. I did a great podcast, one of my best I will say with him in EP 157, where we went into that book in great detail and did not hold back. In fact, when it was done, I told my wife, “I think I’ve gone too far this time. I don’t think anyone’s going to understand what we were talking about.”

But sure enough, it’s in one of my top 15 most popular podcasts of all times. So, the audience is capable of going pretty deep. So, that’s an interesting thing.

Let me throw out the discussion I’ve been having with Stuart for 20 years about this issue. And it has to do with something that allows us to draw something of a line between the abiotic and the biotic world. And that is the rate at which evolution can operate. And it comes around to something that was developed by Manfred Eigen, and it’s a mathematical set of theorems which shows that if there’s an error rate above X in an evolutionary system, the ability to build through evolution is quite limited.

And I have checked this. I’m not a mathematician, but I have checked this with evolutionary programming, which is my evolutionary computation, which is my academic field. And it sure enough there if the mutation rate, the noise rate and evolution is too high, there’s a cutoff where evolution just can only raise things a little bit. The prebiotic world never achieved error correction. Any copying that happens in the prebiotic world is either driven by brute physical laws or it only raises the world a teeny bit because whatever information or structure is created gets wiped out by entropy pretty rapidly.

The earliest forms of pre-life or proto-life may have ratcheted the fidelity of information copying up some. For instance, the RNA world that people talk about. The RNA world had some ability and some fidelity of information that typical, let’s say the organization of pebbles on the beach don’t have.

But if you use those to model even the simplest organism, they don’t appear to be high enough in terms of their information copying fidelity between generations to not get crushed by the error catastrophe. Only once we have gotten to DNA plus the error correcting machinery that’s around the DNA replication, and it’s not just the raw DNA, it’s a whole bunch of complicated processes, do we get the math to give us fidelity numbers that are high enough to escape the error catastrophe.

And so, my discussions with Stuart and others for 20 years has been we can draw a relatively clean line between regimes of the universe, those that were before systems of information copying that were high enough to get past the error catastrophe and that realm of world before that, which then gets us to my argument on why life might be exceedingly rare, that the prebiotic kinds of autocatalytic networks that Stuart talks about may well be very common, but how often do they find their way to the sets of processes that give us not just DNA, but DNA, its replication machinery, and most importantly its error correction machinery.

And that might be exceedingly difficult. And I still recall to this day a conversation I had with Stuart about 18 years ago, four hours on this topic, and we ended up describing this very thin knife’s edge that evolution would’ve had to have taken to have somehow stumbled its way from low error correction to high error correction. And that might just be you have to run the thing a zillion times before somebody makes it over this very narrow, like an arch bridge in some adventure movie, they have to walk one foot in front of your other and most likely you’re going to fall off.

So, that would be a counter where Stuart can be right at the level of producing a prebiotic soup, which has a lot of potential. But to get past the error catastrophe in evolution may be what’s really, really hard.

Matthew: Yeah, I mean in dialogue with Bruce Damer, he will often say that before life, the universe gets a D in creativity, which is to say that there is if not a line, there’s at least an intense difference in degree in terms of which the biological world really can accelerate this process of creativity and exploring the adjacent possible and so on. But still, a D is not an F. There’s already a great deal of self-organization or what Stuart would call order for free in the prebiotic world.

Jim: Absolutely, lots of it, more than we think. For instance, a river valley is a self-organizing system. The weather is an amazing self-organizing system, totally prebiotic.

Matthew: Well, the weather we know today on the Earth is very much a function of life, but there was an atmosphere and stuff going on before life, but I don’t think weather as we know it today would be anything like what it is without life.

Jim: Well, the weather on Jupiter or Venus or something. Clearly, life has modified free oxygen did not exist in our atmosphere, and therefore, the ratio of water is bunch of big differences. But the concept of weather applies to any system that is out of equilibrium. And this gets to another organizing principle, which is the ideas for Prigogine about dissipative systems. His argument is that complex systems that are out of equilibrium and have energy flowing through them will develop complex mechanisms, and maybe the teleology is only about the fact that they’re more efficient in dissipating energy.

For instance, a whirlpool in your bathtub, when you pull the plug out, the water will go down faster with the whirlpool than it’ll be if it’s in the glug, glug, glug mode. It’s also true that an equivalent amount of chemicals to what’s in your body, if you put them in a blender and pour them into a trash can, the rate at which they dissipate energy will be much lower than if you are alive and are running in a far from equilibrium system taking in oxygen and nutrients, doing metabolisms, sticking out CO2 and other stuff.

And so, perhaps the minimum teleology necessary is the universe wants to run down as fast as possible and that this organization of complex systems out of equilibrium to be maximally dissipative may be an example of the only thing that’s pulling the system forward.

Matthew: Paradoxically, I would say the second law of thermodynamics or this entropy is one of the most primordial examples we have of teleology. Or if you prefer directionality, there’s an arrow to time, as Prigogine would say. And by the way, he was quite deeply influenced by Whitehead, as was one of his collaborators, Isabelle Stengers. They wrote a couple books together.

And so, this idea of the irreversibility of time that’s written into the second law I think gets us pretty close to a foundational justification for some minimal form of, let’s just call it directionality. Now, the universe running down, it’s one of the most well-established laws of physics, but it does presuppose that the whole thing started with a very low state of entropy somehow.

And so, I think we have an incomplete picture of the laws of thermodynamics. And to only characterize the universe as an entropic system without any kind of counteragency, yeah, is only half the picture. There’s something else going on that lends the universe an arc toward complexity. And it’s perfectly compatible with the second law, as we know, this tendency to dissipate gradients increases the global entropy even if locally there seems to be a negentropic process, which emerges temporarily.

But I just would say I think we have an incomplete picture when we emphasize only the entropic tendency of things. But nonetheless, there is a directionality already implicit in the laws of thermodynamics.

Jim: Okay, let’s hop on that because that’s actually a very interesting topic to drill on a little bit. So, we have an overall second law, but then we have this odd quirk Prigogine described of the tendency to create complex systems that are negentropic locally while they increase globally entropy. And one of those, a star as an example of that, it doesn’t have to be a biological system, but biological systems by adding to that getting across the error catastrophe border so they can explore vastly more rapidly than abiotic matter can.

We’ve developed this system, very complex system, think of a food web as an ultimate dissipative system. A food web can dissipate the sun’s energy way faster than a bunch of rocks can, for instance. And so, that perhaps the game of life is something that was available once dissipative systems stumbled onto crossing the error catastrophe and then using the magic of Darwinian evolution operating at life speed rather than abiotic speed to find even higher levels of organization such as food webs. And maybe that’s all you need.

Matthew: I like that phrase, life speed. We think light speed is pretty fast, but actually the abiotic rate of evolution is far slower than life speed. That’s good.

Jim: So much so. I mean, it’s like nine decibel points. It’s huge. Totally different. Just think about what life has accomplished, particularly let’s say animal life for instance, which is us, 550 million years old, not that old really on the history of the universe and how far we’ve come from things like jellyfish to things like us and even more of the things that we now have created all in a relatively short period of time.

Matthew: Right. And I think this error correction and the measure of how error rates cannot exceed a certain amount for evolution to occur effectively is a very important point you’re making. But I also think, have you had the biologist from Tufts, Michael Levin on your show yet?

Jim: Everybody keeps pointing me to Levin, and I’ve got a couple of his books, but I haven’t read them yet, and I am very interested in doing so. It’s annoying that his main book is not available on Kindle. And I actually prefer to do podcast prep on Kindle or PDF. I probably should write off to him, get a PDF of his book. So, no, I do not know his argument. Bottom line.

Matthew: Well, he’s working with what he calls bioelectric fields. And he’s a developmental biologist. And a lot of his research and it’s experimental research, he’s not a theorizer. He does the experiments to show this. It just points out the extent to which DNA is really not a blueprint for the phenotype of an organism, that there are other forms of memory, and epigenetics is making a name for itself nowadays, but this is even beyond that, that just by changing the structure of this bioelectric field, by messing with the ion gates and cells, he can change the form that flatworms and whatnot will take, giving them multiple heads and multiple arms and whatnot.

The DNA is the same, and that will be persistent through generations after the organism that he works on. And so, there’s something more mysterious about biological memory than simply a code in the DNA.

Jim: That’s right, and I am absolutely down with that. As you said, the work in the last 30 years on epigenetics has made it very clear that DNA is certainly not a blueprint. It’s essentially something like a recipe, but a recipe that’s very dependent on the environment in which it finds itself in. And at the epigenetic level, you can talk about what cytoplasm does it find itself and what chemistry of the cell does it find itself in? And this is part of the reasons why pretty close relatives whose DNA is 98% the same can be very different because the cytoplasm can be quite different as well.

People talk about things like intergenerational trauma, which could be the psychological, the Jungian variety of that I think is utter horseshit, but the idea that trauma could produce changes in the chemistry of the cells of being and that those changes in chemistry could persist through the gamete production process. So, the same DNA is now in a cellular medium, which is different than the normal human one, but which is more like its mother in particular than one could imagine something like intergenerational trauma being transmitted through the cytoplasmic chemistry.

I think those are just an extended understanding of biological evolution. And one could imagine things like electric fields disrupting how DNA and the cytoplasm interact to cook what comes next. So, none of those are particularly surprising to me. Those are what I would describe as nice extensions to thinking about what is the full set of machinery, machinery note meaning of course it’s not a machine, but I’ll use machinery anyway. It’s a bad word, but I’ll use it anyway for the things that allow-

Matthew: As long as you know it’s a metaphor.

Jim: And a bad one, and a bad one that allows the gamete to express itself as a phenotype. We’re in agreement there. And this is what I’ve taken away from people who have told me about Levin. And I say, as long as he’s got the data, it doesn’t surprise me nothing about that result that is any way a violation of how we think about going from genotype to phenotype. Just some more things turn out to have an influence, right?

Matthew: Right. So, whenever we talk about information in the context of biology, it’s just, I would say flat wrong to say that information is stored in the DNA molecule. If you’re going to talk about information storage, it’s the DNA, the cell, the organism, its environment, and the whole historical sequence of environments in which that species has developed back to the origin of life. Information is non-locally extended to that extent. And that’s quite an extent.

Jim: This is really good. I like this conversation. However, the cytoplasmic information is not subject to error correction. It is random chemistry and mixing and all kinds of crazy accidents, et cetera.

Matthew: Chemistry has laws. It’s not totally random.

Jim: Yeah, it’s not totally random, but it’s way far away into the error catastrophe range. And so, we think about this, this is kind of cool. This is some thoughts I’ve never had before. That’s always good to have.

Matthew: Philosophers are good for something. Okay, yeah, go ahead.

Jim: Feeding them goddamn philosophers for all these years, not a total waste of food. You have various kinds of information, cytoplasmic information, electric field information, the chemistry in the environment, whatever, they’re conserved to a degree, but they are well below the error catastrophe. And you add in a chunk of information that’s above the error catastrophe in the form of DNA and its error correction machinery, and you have a new domain of emergence where these weaker forms of information, but in many ways more plastic, they can change them quicker.

DNA can only change generationally. These other things, you can change on the fly in a Lamarckian sense that our evolution is perhaps more complicated dance of this relatively stable other side of the error catastrophe information as held in DNA and the more plastic, more dynamic, more adaptive in real time information that’s held in things like cytoplasm and the environment and even our social systems. There’s information held at our social systems, for instance.

Think about the whole thing as an ensemble of different kinds of information which have different kinds of attributes and affordances. And the emergent result is the interaction of all these different kinds of information and processes.

Matthew: Yeah. Now, there’s another biologist who has been in dialogue with Levin, Richard Watson, who basically describes the genome as a musical score. And I would go even a step further and say the central dogma that Crick and Watson came up with great breakthrough. It’s almost the reverse that ends up being true rather than the DNA making the organism. The organism as a result of all this error correction activity that’s done by the proteins that shouldn’t exist before the DNA creates them. Actually, the DNA wouldn’t exist without the protein machinery there to do the error correction in. So, in some sense, the organism makes the DNA not the other way around.

Jim: Or actually they make each other, right? This is why it’s so hard to get across that ridge I talked about, because all that has to happen simultaneously. Now, Eric Smith is another leading researcher, one of the most brilliant. He and Harold Morowitz wrote an incredible book on the origin of life. He was on my show long time ago. And he actually came up with his argument, which is worth checking out on how metal catalysis helped get across the bridge, but that’s another topic for another day.

But absolutely correct, that all this stuff had to happen simultaneously, which is one of the reasons I’m willing to contemplate that it only happened once. As a 14-year-old nerd who read a lot of science fiction, of course, I assumed that there had to be tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of sentient species in the Milky Way alone. But the more I’ve meditated on the Fermi paradox, the more I’ve been able to say it is possible that we are it. Not to say that we are it, but it is possible that we are it.

Matthew: Yeah. Two things to say about that. I mean, one is if there is life elsewhere, we might discover it and we could discover it at least inferentially just by looking at the spectrum of light that comes to us from exoplanets. If the atmosphere is sufficiently beyond far from equilibrium, that’s a good suggestion at least that there’s probably metabolic activity and living organisms there. So, we could potentially prove or at least strongly infer that there is life elsewhere any day now. But if we don’t make that discovery, we can’t prove the reverse that there is no life elsewhere.

Jim: I talk this all the time. We may well get positives. Some other ones, too. Mars, for instance. Elon Musk will be on Mars one day, he says, and have enough equipment to determine whether there is life or was life on Mars. And then of course, there’ll be the really interesting question, is it the same life as ours? I’m putting down a 50% probability, and I’ll put money on it, that if there is life on Mars, it’ll turn out to be the same life as us. And that our life actually evolved on Mars first and was dispersed to the Earth by a meteor strike. But 50% could be the other way.

If it’s unique life, then aha, Kauffman’s right. Two planets side by side, same sun evolved independent life, that would be a giant huge vote for Kauffman. And then we also have other things in the solar system. Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn has huge subsurface oceans that are at least in part in the right temperature zone.

Io and Europa, moons of Jupiter, these lives are going to be probably more different than Mars life would be from Earth because it’s totally different chemical structures and such. But if we were to find life there, again, another big vote for Kauffman and the ubiquity of life. And then as you point out, the exoplanet atmosphere studies, which are happening right now, will provide us at least clues.

But if we don’t find them, all it starts to do is provide an error bar, move the error bars a little bit in on how hard it is. Now, if we keep looking for 100,000 years, including sending probes to other stars and things, and we don’t find any, then we start saying more convincingly that maybe we are it.

And then of course, the other outcome, which we may find a whole bunch of prebiotic stuff, but not much that made it across the bridge to solve the error catastrophe. There are several more. If you think about the Fermi paradox, how could they not be there? What are some ways they cannot be there? There could be some other bridges that are very hard to get across. For instance, in our evolutionary stack, for most of our history, we were prokaryotes, bacteria-like, archaea-like things.

Matthew: We’re still mostly prokaryotes, by the way, right?

Jim: By number count, for sure.

Matthew: Even our own bodies though, I mean, yeah.

Jim: Yeah, in terms of number count. But by biomass, we’re mostly not. I think it’s 90% that were prokaryotes. Somewhere along the line, the eukaryotes came along. I mean, that was a miraculous, huge change that it happened twice. It looks like it may have happened twice, but it certainly happened at least once. And if you didn’t make the transition to eukaryotes, interesting bigger life that can manipulate physical things at the scale that we do probably doesn’t come into being, or at least not for a very long time.

And then another one happened more recently, about 600 million years ago, was the evolution, which appeared to have occurred only once, was the evolution of the neuron. The idea of using essentially digital means to communicate information within an organism. And if that didn’t happen, it may well have put a very major cap on what life would’ve been capable of doing, at least with the kind of speed that we’ve seen over the last 600 million years.

So, you add all these filters up, and the chances to get to a technological civilization, I don’t know, but I’m willing to stipulate that it might only be once. And this is where the ethics come in some of my work in alternative social operating systems. To my mind, as long as we don’t know, we better assume that we’re it.

If we are it, if we are the only general intelligence in the universe, then we have a tremendous obligation not to fuck that up. If we turned out there were 10,000 other intelligent species in the galaxy, I’d say, yeah, take some chances. We blow ourselves up. What the fuck, right? Somebody else will fill our ecological niche and the things that we would’ve done to bring the universe to life and make the universe more interesting, somebody else will do them. They’ll be a bit different. But it’s not a binary about bringing the universe to life or not bringing the universe to life.

And so, that’s where some of my pondering on these questions lead me quite specifically to that ethical statement.

Matthew: Absolutely. And Bruce and I don’t dwell on the ethical or social implications of origin of life or the cosmology, which would contextualize the origin of life in this chapter, but we do hint at it. And I think those sorts of connections are actually very important because the stories that we tell, the theories that we develop to explain how life originated and its place in the universe very much influence the sorts of motivational structures and the psychology of human existence by which we would find ways of organizing ourselves and deriving purpose from our existence.

And so, it’s not incidental what the facts are about the universe and how human values congeal around and make sense of those facts. There’s an integral connection between the two of them. And it’s not that our values should drive our interpretation of the facts. But at the same time, there’s a two-way street here. And so, the sorts of facts that become salient for human beings and human observers, scientists, artists, engineers depend on that worldview that we have.

If you look at the difference between Soviet science and biology 100 years ago and American or western science, you can see the ways that world view can play into whether you focus on say competition of individuals versus cooperatives and the broader ecology and so on. And so, I think these sorts of connections between the social and the scientific should not be overlooked. And I’m glad that you’ve been bridging between these realms yourself.

Jim: Yeah, I mean, it seems to me that as thinking entities, we have the obligation of trying to cross the disciplines as often as we can to find how they inform each other. And in fact, it’s unfortunate that the way the western university system and the formal academic system has evolved into these tight little silos, I think has limited quite a bit of that horizontal work. Certainly, at the Santa Fe Institute, we work very strongly to try to break down those things and I strongly encourage more and more people to go in those directions.

So, let’s get back to the chapter again here. Whitehead and Friends talk about what sounds an awful like panpsychism. What can you say about that? Or am I wrong?

Matthew: I wouldn’t say you’re wrong, but we have to be careful here because panpsychism has all of a sudden come into vogue in analytic philosophy of all things with people like Philip Goff in particular popularizing the idea as an alternative to both materialism and dualism as well as idealism, mostly stemming from the difficulty of what’s called the hard problem of consciousness, which is a framework that David Chalmers developed, which basically says that we can learn as much about the function of the brain as we want, but none of that account of the functionality of the brain would ever give us any reason to think there should be a consciousness there undergoing those functions. And so, it leaves open this question of why should there be consciousness?

And so, Goff has a particular approach to panpsychism, which tries to describe consciousness as the intrinsic nature of physical matter. And he’ll draw on Bertrand Russell, who has one paper I think where he argues that basically physics tells us using mathematics, the relational properties of the material world, but what the intrinsic property of matter is, is sort of this open question and Russell says, “Well, maybe that’s where our consciousness fits in.”

We are material beings with our own case, the benefit of having that interior perspective. And so, Russell proposes that maybe the intrinsic nature of matter is something akin to our own consciousness.

Now, Whitehead, of course, was originally Russell’s tutor and then they became collaborators. They wrote the Principia Mathematica together in the first decade of the 20th century. Whitehead went on to develop his own form of panpsychism. Though I should be crystal clear, he never uses that word to describe his philosophy.

A later philosopher, David Ray Griffin coined the term panexperientialism to get at the difference because Whitehead doesn’t want to say “consciousness” goes all the way down. He distinguishes experience as such, which becomes a technical term for him, which I got into earlier. It’s maybe more approachable as the tension that exists between the actualized past and the possible future. That’s his technical definition of experience.

But that tension, that experiential tension would go all the way down for Whitehead, and I would say he is a species of panpsychist, but it’s quite distinct from Philip Goff’s form of it. So distinct in fact that I would almost say they need to be understood as opposed metaphysical perspectives, but broadly construed. You’re not wrong to say that Whitehead is a species of panpsychist. But don’t think of Goff’s version of it when you say that word.

Jim: Yeah, I must confess, I don’t know Goff at all. I avoid analytical philosophers like the plague. Much rather talk to a process philosopher any day of the week. Now, the other form of panpsychism, which is getting a lot of attention in both the scientific and pseudo-scientific realm is integrated information theory.

This is a formalism that’s developed by Tononi. Yeah, of course. And others, one of the core crafters, Christof Koch, I’ve actually had on my podcast EP 105, where we talked about IIT mostly as part of my series of talking to the leading thinkers in the science of consciousness. I’ve talked to many of the leading thinkers on the show now who come from the scientific side.

And IIT claims that a light switch or actually a photoelectric cell that turns a light on and off at sundown is conscious, that anything that would’ve exactly one bit of consciousness, and it can be calculated though it’s not actually calculable realistically for any sufficiently complex system to give you a single number on how much consciousness something has. Surprise, surprise. I think that’s total hooey, though I am willing to go so far as to say perhaps integrated information is a necessary but not sufficient condition for consciousness.

I’m a John Searle consciousness guy, who believes that consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon that was evolved by living systems somewhere along the way, probably around the time of amphibians. And this attempt to generalize it just doesn’t really make any sense. It is a specific lineage of biological process and value. And it is actually quite expensive. The amount of circuitry in the brain necessary to support consciousness could be as much as 20% of all the circuitry in the brain, which is a lot. The whole brain is 20% of our energy consumption, 20% of that’s still a pretty big number.

So, consciousness is not a free rider. It’s got to be there for some purpose. [inaudible 01:05:14] nature to have been willing to expend that kind of both genetic encoding and energetic costs to maintain it then as to could there be something more general. The Searle approach is yes. Machine consciousness could be like animal consciousness, but wouldn’t be the same thing. The analogy he gives, which I love, says that consciousness in animals is like digestion. You can’t put your finger on it. I can’t go to you and say, “Oh, there’s your digestion.” Your digestion includes your teeth and your mouth and your esophagus, your liver, your stomach, et cetera.

And the same is true of consciousness, a mixture of circuitry in the brain up in the cortex and the cerebellum and the midbrain, and also things in your gut, your bodily signals, et cetera. They all come together to be a fancy dance of rhythms, which an emergent result is that we have the experience, it’s called consciousness. And just as the food industry, the chemical industry and the pharmaceutical industry create things called digesters, where they take usually big stainless steel tanks and put yeast or bacteria in them and use those to process chemicals from less valuable to more valuable state. Very much like our digestive systems do.

They are quite different, but they nonetheless have a similar process and a generally similar shape to the work that they’re doing. One could imagine machine consciousness in the same way. It won’t be the same as ours, but it could have many of the same attributes made out of different material, but we shouldn’t expect it to be the same as ours. It could be analogous to or like our consciousness.

And that would say that things that don’t have architectures similar or analogous to at least biological animal, specifically animal consciousness, it may not be meaningful to say that they are conscious like a rock doesn’t have anything like the architectures of a human or an animal, say an animal brain. And so, it seems absurd to say that a rock has consciousness that is like that of an animal.

Matthew: I don’t personally find David Chalmers framing of the hard problem of consciousness to be, it’s not a solvable problem. In other words, the way he frames it in his account of what matter is and how physics, biology, neuroscience can study the way that matter moves in various domains of complexity and his account of mind as interior as what it’s like to be in all of these things. I think that framework puts us in a position of, if anything, having to unask the question and go back to the drawing board and revisit some of our priors.

And so, the thing about the analogy with digestion is that there’s no need for an experiential horizon for the process of digestion to be studied from a third person objective point of view. We can know much of what we need to know about that just from the outside studying organic chemistry and biology.

But the thing about consciousness, it can’t be studied from a third person point of view. It simply doesn’t appear in the objective measurable domain that natural science studies. We can measure glucose levels in the blood and use functional magnetic resonance imaging and pet scanners and all these things to see the third person sort of expression of or the way that brains function and try to correlate that with first person reports of what that person says they’re experiencing.

But consciousness as such simply doesn’t appear anywhere in the physical world. I don’t mean to say that I’m a dualist or that it’s some spooky, supernatural thing, but we just have to keep in mind the difference between first person and third person. You have a feeling of your butt on the chair. You have a feeling of the air coming into your lungs as you inhale. There’s thinking activity going on. You’re probably coming up with refutations of the things that I’m saying right now. And you have this sense of will that may or may not be free as we say, but nonetheless, it feels to you as though you can have some influence over what you’re going to do or say next.

These sorts of first person conscious phenomena of thinking, feeling, willing, and whatnot, we have to treat them as I would say, very real. I mean, they’re the most intimate aspect of who and what we are before we experience anything out there called nature, we are thinking, feeling, willing beings. And so, this puts us in a situation where I think we have to take very seriously this inner experience at the same time that we take very seriously the objective knowledge of science and try to come up with a metaphysical account of how the two can hang together.

And for me, some version of let’s say process relational panpsychism or panexperientialism, just to add a couple extra syllables to distinguish it from panpsychism, I think it goes a long way towards reconciling these two perspectives, which I would say are both irreducible one to the other. So, the challenge becomes how do we find a more generic language for articulating what reality is like such that it has these two sides to it.

Jim: Again, I meditated on Chalmers quite a bit and I’ve come away along with Anil Seth, who’s another leading thinker. We’ve had him on the podcast, too. Goddamn, all these people have been on the podcast, forget the episode that he was on, that maybe Chalmers is wrong and there isn’t actually a hard problem, that there is a somewhat hard problem, but it’s analogous to what is life.

Remember it wasn’t that long ago, less than 200 years ago, science had no idea what life was, and there was a hypothesis called élan vital that there was some magic essence that was the difference between inorganic matter and living matter. And that living things had this life forcey élan vital and non-living things didn’t.

I thought quite a lot of reading and talking with people in the area of consciousness science. And I suspect that the so-called hard problem will end up being like élan vital. Once we actually understand much more deeply than we do today, the architectural components and the dynamics that produce consciousness, and we’re making progress on that. The fact that we have subjective experience will sort of be, “Well, of course that’s what a structure like this will produce, the sense of being a character in your own movie essentially.” And there’s nothing particularly special there.

Matthew: I would just say we overcame that sort of 19th century split between vitalism and mechanism and to understand the biological world really by as a result of needing to understand biological self-organization, rethinking our understanding of the material of what matter is, and similarly to understand how there is no real gap between consciousness and life or living matter. I think again, it’s going to involve reimagining what we think that matter is.

And so, I don’t think of consciousness as some sort of vital spirit, but I would say the only reason we overcame that 19th century debate is because we revisited this idea of matter as being a mere mechanism. There’s self-organization going all the way down. Therefore, there’s no need for a gap between physics, chemistry, and biology. And so, vitalism simply lose that debate. It’s that we reimagined the terms of the debate. And I think something similar is going to need to happen to overcome this hard problem framework.

Jim: So, let’s go back again to the chapter. You said not panpsychism, but you had another word.

Matthew: Oh, panexperientialism.

Jim: Let’s dig into that a little bit more about what that might be actually about and how that might relate to the origin of life. So, take Whitehead’s and say your own refinements to that of panexperientialism and see if you can link that in a meaningful way to the origin of life.

Matthew: You’ve laid out how in your discussions with Stu Kauffman that it may be that there’s actually a very narrow bridge between physics and chemistry and the emergence of life, so narrow in fact that it only was crossed on this particular planet. Whereas the vision that I’m laying out, and this is at least to some degree, a hypothesis that could be at least made more improbable if we over the next centuries are able to analyze, do a spectral analysis of all these exoplanetary atmospheres. And it seems that they’re all in chemical equilibrium. And so, life is increasingly understood to be rare.

The more rare we can refine our sense of life’s prominence in the universe, then the less likely this hypothesis would be. But if the universe is in the business of complexifying, which as we said in the abiotic world, the universe gets a D in creativity, but nonetheless it’s not an F. It is evolving from electrons to atoms to stars and galaxies and so on, which seems to be a very widespread trajectory. There are galaxies, very highly ordered spiral galaxies in every direction we can look. And so, there does seem to be an arc already in the abiotic world.

And so, if we are to think that the universe is consistent in its trajectory and in its level of order and tendency towards complexity, then I would expect to see that life biological organization is not in fact rare. And so, then the question becomes what is it about the nature of matter? I mean, this is the question I asked earlier. What is matter and energy such that life and mind could emerge from it?

And even if it’s just in our one case, we can still ask that question. And I think there are certain metaphysical presuppositions that would be baked into the answer of the question, what is matter? But it becomes far more significant, I think if it turns out that there is life on other planets.

And so, I would say matter and energy must have some form of intrinsic telos. And this is not exogenous as you were saying, but endogenous telos, some form of aim, subjective aim would be Whitehead’s phrase for it, and some form of feeling or experience. And again, when we talk about a word like feeling, Whitehead has a very technical definition. In fact, he invents his own concept, prehension.

One of the most important metaphysical innovations in 2000 years, I would even say. Prehension is Whitehead’s attempt to come up with one concept that is applicable across various domains from causation through to perception. And so, for Whitehead, our perception as conscious organisms is just a further elaboration upon causal transmission as such. And so, for him, efficient causation in the prebiotic world is a form of what he would say, he would call it conformal feeling so that the past is felt in the present and repeated. And most of the abiotic world is highly repetitive in this sense, which is why it gets a D in creativity.

When we talk about the vibrations of electromagnetic radiation, there’s obviously a high degree of reiteration and conformal feeling, but there’s also this oscillation which occurs. And for Whitehead, that oscillation in the waveforms of energetic pulses is the earliest expression or germ of what he wants to call subjective aim.

And over the course of billions of years, you get these harmonies which form out of these vibrational patterns, and they complexify. And that what is driving that complexification Whitehead would say the aim at satisfaction. And it’s an aesthetic satisfaction. And as we know from our own appreciation of music, these experiences are an end in themselves. And we seek to intensify those experiences of aesthetic harmonization just because they feel good.

And so, a poet like William Blake would say energy is eternal delight. And that the reason that anything exists at all, the reason that the universe came to be is because it has this intrinsic joy that finds expression as it moves through these various forms of complexity. Now, this is obviously a metaphysical account. This is highly speculative. But in an attempt to explain what must the material world be like such that life and mind could eventually be possible, I’m led to take this sort of an account seriously that the universe is engaged in the effort at producing more and more intense forms of beautiful experience.

And there’s plenty of suffering along the way, no doubt about that. But it seems that in the course of let’s just take the history of life on Earth, more complex organisms that are comparatively deficient in survival power have continued to emerge with more refined sense organs, greater capacity for suffering, but also a greater capacity for aesthetic delight and joy and the expression of creativity.

And so, there’s something else going on here than just survival. Life doesn’t want to just survive. And by the way, even in Darwinian evolution, the fact that there is this survival instinct, it’s like a presupposition that drives the process of natural selection. But I would say, and I’m drawing on Whitehead here, life doesn’t want to just live. It wants to live better. There’s a telos here that I would try and have tried in this chapter to articulate in the minimal form.

I am like you seeking a minimal metaphysics here, but what are the conditions of possibility that would allow for something like our own curious scientific inquiry and indeed scientific knowledge of the universe to be possible? Science itself is as profound in expression of purpose as one might imagine. We want to understand ourselves. Where does that drive to understand ourselves come from? And so, I ask those questions and I’m led to this type of story.

Jim: By the way, I am with you, that survival of the fittest is a not very satisfactory term. If you look at it hard enough, it’s just a tautology actually, that what survived in a given co-evolutionary context is what survived. And that’s about all you can say. You can say, however, that that is a force field which is probabilistically selective on genotype and genotype-phenotype co-evolution including the non-genetic elements such as epigenetics environment, and even the social, once you get to larger animals like fish, it delivers less than a lot of people think it does, I guess is my point. So, I suspect we probably agree with that.

Matthew: It’s necessary but not sufficient to explain the evolution of complexity.

Jim: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. And so, I guess I would say that I like your story. It’s kind of cool. It’d be nice if it were true, but whether it is or not, I haven’t a clue. I do believe that our universe was either fortuitously or intentionally designed with a combination of necessity and openness. And that this openness has allowed the evolution of complexity. And whether that high road to more and more complexity perhaps by Prigogine dissipative systems necessarily led to life or not, don’t know. Whether life necessarily led to consciousness, don’t know. Whether consciousness necessarily led to technological civilization, don’t know. And that’s about as far as I can go.

Matthew: Yeah, I wouldn’t say any of that is necessary, but it’s possible clearly because here we are. And so, just to account for the possibility of it is where this story comes from.

Jim: The minimalist, and I think too minimal probably is the weekend anthropic principle. By definition, we are here, so therefore we must be in a universe that allows us to occur. Again, that’s just word salad basically that goes in a circle.

Matthew: It’s a tautology.

Jim: It’s a classic tautology, a true tautology, even more of a tautology than survival of the fittest. But it is a minimal statement about that leaves intention, necessity, and contingency. And so, that leaves me to believe that the universe has both necessity and contingency in it, can’t prove it. But that’s about all I have to say.

So, now let’s turn this around. You put forth your concept that this may be a little too brutal, but that the universe has some aesthetic taste. It’d be cool if angels and divas and cosmic spheres and all that shit existed, but I just don’t think they do. I’ve never seen any evidence for it. So, this conjecture that the universe has aesthetics, what should we be on the lookout for that could turn this from metaphysics to physics?

Matthew: Symmetries and symmetry breaking as the emergence of new regimes of organization in order. We should be on the lookout for things like spiral galaxies and Type Ia supernova that seem to follow a very predictable trajectory through their processes of going supernova. And we should expect exactly the universe that we observe.

Jim: That we have. That doesn’t provide me any information, though unfortunately. How do we falsify the conjecture?

Matthew: The thing about metaphysics is that it’s unlike a scientific hypothesis, which would be falsifiable and Popperian philosophy of science could even be questioned whether there are plenty of the Big Bang model, which is really a meta model kludging together a bunch of smaller models has itself been falsified times, but you adjust the free parameters as the new data comes in. And good is new, right?

Jim: At least it may be closer, or either that or we’re just fooling ourselves in a more extravagant fashion.

Matthew: Sure. Falsifiability even in science isn’t necessarily the only gauge of a successful hypothesis. And so, in metaphysics, we’re always working with interpretations of the existing data. And so, the question for me isn’t so much, “Well, what would we expect the universe to be like if this metaphysical picture were true?” It’s, “Given the picture that we do have the observable universe, what sort of metaphysical generalizations can we distill from that?” And so, for me, it’s what would falsify it is not really the operative criterion for determining whether it’s a likely story or not.

Jim: Okay. Well, I think we probably just leave it there, unless you have any final words you would like to say.

Matthew: I would just say, Jim, I think we agree on almost everything. And I appreciate your caution and your agnosticism on some of these bigger questions. But as far as I can tell, you’re a process metaphysician and you didn’t know it yet, or maybe you did, but you were just holding your cards close. I’m not sure.

Jim: I think I said in the pregame after reading your chapter twice, I wasn’t sure if we agreed or disagreed. And I suspect we agree about a whole lot and where the differences are, I’m not yet sure, but there probably are some. I’ll have to go back and actually I don’t know that much. In fact, I know very little about process philosophy as a formal discipline.

I did have a hilarious podcast with Bonnitta Roy one time, where we just talked by each other for 90 minutes, and I don’t believe either of us had any idea what the other was talking about. She is very much about process philosophy, and I was probably less open to … It was an amazing conversation and a terrible conversation at the same time.

And this conversation I thought was a great conversation from top to bottom. So, I didn’t have any of that, felt like we were talking past each other. May finally motivate me to go back and read a little Whitehead or something like that. If you could maybe email me a couple of places to start, that would be great.

Matthew: I’m happy to do that. And I would actually say the Stanford Encyclopedia Philosophy entry on process philosophy is excellent. And it’s broader than just Whitehead. There’s plenty of Whitehead in that. But it shows that this is actually a robust approach to philosophy going back to Heraclitus. But in the 20th century, increasingly it’s being recognized as the right way to do metaphysics and to understand the physical world, the biological world, and so on. So, check out that article. It’s a good place to start.

Jim: You mentioned Heraclitus. I just read his fragments about a month ago, and I was not impressed. But again, you have to read between the fragments, I suppose. And I’m not particularly much of a philosopher.

Matthew: It might’ve been a bad translation.

Jim: It could have been. I mean, not that it was terrible. I’ll do the, you never go into the same river twice and all that stuff. That sort seems pretty cool. But anyway, Matt Segall and Bruce Damer, and the name of the chapter is…

Matthew: The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis.

Jim: Just Google that. And of course, as always, links to that and most of the other things we talked about will be on the episode page at the Matt I, want to thank you for a extremely interesting conversation.

Matthew: It was a lot of fun, Jim. Thank you.

Jim: All right.