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Death, Free Will, Value

by Jürgen Lawrenz

1. Death and Value

"To be or not to be..."

Where would we be without death to remind us of life?

There would be no more occasion for literature's heroes. Macbeth would not rail about life's "brief candle"; Dostoyevski's Kirillov, gun at his temples, would not be savouring the prospect of becoming one with God. Nor would Wagner's Tristan and Isolde swoon to their death in love; we would not crumble in grief before Michelangelo's Pieta; and Gilgamesh, in the 4000-year-old poem, would not be sailing into the Atlantic to seek rhyme or reason for his friend Enkidu being cut down in the prime of life.

How much of the world's great art and philosophy exists only because we must die? I think all of it, in every culture. And I think what art seeks is not the "meaning of life", as we tend to surmise rather too casually, but the meaning of death.

All great art is impregnated with the inviolability of life and therefore the meaning of death.

Art is not alone, of course. All our science is predicated on the notion that the world is intelligible, as death is not. Science, properly understood, is the second arm of our striving to come to terms with death. We peer into the dark heavens and probe the subnuclear realm to find the elusive ultimate particle, the one item which we hope will sit firm against all contamination with mutability. Forever we seek origins, eternity: and explanations of the paradox why mere matter is eternal and we, beings imbued with spirit, mortal.

And so, at our first probing, we recognise that death provokes in us a rebellion against the impassivity of our mere matter cocoon. We strive against its meaningless with creative rebellion, by putting up artefacts made of matter but with form that testifies to a mind which made it, and which can be revived as often as we desire — deputies for an immortality which is not ours to have. Art and science comprise a documentation of our thirst for knowledge, understanding and light.

Death, looked at in cold blood, has no meaning at all. It is an impartial fact. But our creative response to it becomes meaningful by pitting the concept of meaning against its implacability. Thus death serves as the catalyst for something in life that is not an intrinsic property of life: the idea of value. Death is a context, a scaffolding on which we construct a value system that reflects our belief in the inalienable and non-negotiable worth of life itself.

2. Free Will

The debate, pro and con, persists. Between the surmise that we are ultimately just a collection of atoms and particles set in motion, which look the same to a physicist whether they build a nebula or a neuron, and the claim of special privilege and the uniqueness of human agency, yawns a gulf of seemingly utter incompatibility. But I shall try to put a perspective on this — to highlight a crucial feature of the constitution of the universe and its components that may serve to undermine the first of these claims and furnish a contrapost all the more valuable in that it is sourced from within science itself. I shall propose that the universe (or rather what we understand by the concept of 'universe') comprises two partitions within the one system, namely first the quasi-homogeneous dead-matter state of reductionist determinism as promoted by Laplace (1821) and still binding on exact sciences, and second the biochemical domain, in which the laws applicable to the first are susceptible in surprising ways to manipulation.

Let me begin by stating what is an undisputed fact: that there is no life form so primitive as not have laid in its cradle a will to live and some means of preserving it against threats. Thus on the very bottom rung of the animate domain, we find a principle in operation that is not measurable or even detectable by objective assay, but only by 'analog' ('empathic') observation. When the most poorly endowed microbe, for example a pleuronoma, visibly strives to escape a chemically harmful environment, it gives expression to it — that life itself is a non-negotiable value. The pleuronoma has no nerves or brain, but it represents survival from an era when life first began to stir on earth and thus serves to remind us that the free will in which we glory had its modest origins in an attribute that put its bearers into one of the two partitions I just referred to.

But to explain this 'partitioning'.

When you look into the sky on a clear night and see stars, galaxies, nebulae etc., you would not normally comment: "Incandescent matter burning itself to a cinder." It would seem quite unwarranted. Yet this is really the crux of the issue.

All that spectacle 'up there' is matter and energy interconverting on a slow path towards degradation. Cinders, debris are the toll paid by matter "acting" its part. When you burn a match, what's left is ash. A terminal state of exhausted matter. Science refers to the totality of exhausted matter in the universe as entropy. It is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics that the entropy in the universe is steadily increasing, irreversibly, every second of time.

With some justice, one could speak of the universe as a great thermodynamic morgue in the making.

To this grim scenario the pleuronoma (no less than we do) makes objection. Concede me some poetic licence and I'll express it in the thought that the autochthonic flagbearers of life, the so-called 'archebacteria', while still dripping with the plasma of primordial creation, hatched out a 'plot' to defeat this thermodynamic law. At the very instant of its creation, life segregated itself within the universe in its own partition by a functional alteration of its chemical dynamics. The technical terms for these are metabolism and homeostasis.

Now to a biochemist, metabolism is just an exchange of atoms between a biochemical system and the outside world. But this only half the story, and the lesser one at that. For metabolic activity gives evidence of an entity having 'solved' some important problems related to integrated work cycles, anentropy and autonomous agency — quite a quiverful of accomplishments, worth spending a moment's discussion.

Although metabolism seems much the same as burning fuel (lighting a match, igniting petroleum to drive a car; in our case: burning up food to drive our heart and kidneys and brains), the intrinsic difference captured in the phrase 'integrated work cycle' points to a non-mechanical feature, specifically the ability to burn fuel without adding to entropy. This is intriguing, for it signifies an alienation of chemical norms which is altogether incapable of explanation without recourse to the notion of 'agency'; and its most significant aspect is the use of embers from other entropy producing processes, in this case the Sun's light, to drive the processes of life. As a result, our fuel, the debris from the sun's thermonuclear processes, is purchased free of charge. The entropy bill has already been paid!

The situation with homeostasis, or maintenance and self-repair, is analogous. Part of an organism's metabolic energy is devoted to repairing any damage that might occur to its integrity, and another part to the constant monitoring of the chemical balance between all the structures that make up living tissue, which again makes little sense unless the organism 'knows' about its self-integrity and acts 'knowingly'. So as not to read too much into this, I'll stop here and return to origins, so as to outline in brief what is scientifically tenable and philosophically meaningful.

If we are to take the term 'exact science' in its most stringent meaning, then neither metabolism nor homeostasis occur among scientific objects. Between material and biological entities a fundamental discrepancy prevails, met in the adjective 'exact': and this disparity is the crack into which a philosophical wedge can be driven. We leave science behind at the precise juncture where these processes reveal themselves not as results of chemical processes, but of the incipience of autonomy. This must be understood as the emergence of a foundational property that was and remains the unique prerogative of life forms; and the point to which science (biochemistry) has been able to penetrate suffices to indicate that carbonaceous polymers of an eligible species, en route to the state of supercriticality which determines on which side of the animate/ inanimate partition they land, faced a choice of futures from (to us) indiscernible alternatives: but when taken, it resulted in animate existence and became a critical element — an inscribed resource — of its new constitution. Consequently it is of the essence in any juxtaposition of organisms with inanimate polymers, to observe the utter incompatibility of chemical function even in almost identical specimens; and one of those differences represents a nascent 'free will' in the meaning of 'choice'. Accordingly, life is fundamentally characterised by free will from the moment of its inception. [1]

I might summarise the foregoing as saying that all things must have a beginning and that the question about free will alias 'choice' is an issue of capital importance to it. What I have suggested here may be understood as the resolution (if you like: high probability) of free will as one of an ensemble of features absolutely constitutive of life; and by tracing it to its origins to reaffirm that it must be, of necessity, alive in its immensely advanced manifestation among humans. It is therefore at once a foundational, constitutive and permanent resource. Thus, to be alive and to have free will is nothing less than an a priori condition of existence in the universe's 'bio' partition.

This is not to say that free will has only this one dimension. It is to say that all disputes about the exercise of choice are pseudo-problems; but also that, as we advance towards more complex organisms, via nervous systems and brains, that same resource is not likely to remain monodimensional as just the will to live and nothing else.

3. Consciousness and Creativity

I'm now going to take a leap across 2,000 million years and take the evolution of species up to man as read.

Humans have evolved into self-reflectively, self-referentially and self-consciously aware individuals. With the sheer number of endosymbiont cells that make up our brains (between 10-100 million of them) it stands to reason that something would happen with the characteristics mentioned above. However, biological acquirements are rarely additive; at a certain level of complexity, the 'runaway' phenomenon sets in, which in the case of the brain continued to keep running away from thingness and transform itself into a new type of entity, a brain with mind, which owing to our lack of an adequate vocabulary we call 'a process', though it would be just as apt to acknowledge a previously unknown ontological species.

Creativity in the human sense is one of its hallmarks, and so are values, which must be understood as the drive motor for self-assertion of our kind of life not only against other forms of life but against non-life. We pit those values we create against a universe of immense proportions, and we do it in the certain belief that our values are the only values contained in that whole universe. But this gives at length a cue to the question, 'What is value?'

In the first instance, a value is a judgment by an intelligent agent, who decides about good, bad or indifferent. But this is an issue of considerable breadth with a plethora of notions attached to it according to which department of thought or research applies it. I prefer metaphysical assertion, with the deliberate intention of anchoring the notion to a bedrock criterion of privilege. Value is initially an analogue of free will in the meaning of choice; but it confers novel and specific powers on mind-endowed creatures, that are tantamount to an act of liberation from the dead-matter condition described by physics. These powers involve a capacity for evaluating types of contexts that remain the sole prerogatives of humans, e.g. ethical standards, the notion of responsibility, the concept of mind as an active, contemplative as well as creative agency, and ideas of metaphysical truths and/ or transcendence, including notions of God and immortality, and finally such intangible concepts as justice, freedom, truth, beauty, love, soul, reason. Note that none of these are things and none susceptible to entropic degradation.

Values in the human sense may be regarded as creative tokens. Confucius taught that anything done for its own sake (other than from necessity or habit) is a free gift to mankind; and this profound little observation matches the idea exactly. For any such 'free gift' has a two-fold potential. Firstly, longevity; for in transcending necessity, it may become an item of value for more than one person, one community, one generation — it is potentially 'everlasting'; and secondly, sensitisation; for values freely created harbour a potential for the enlargement of our perceptive and cognitive horizons.

With these principles, we can now tie a loop back to the 'entropy cheat', for plainly values are 'entropy free'. The products of art and creativity are offspring of a mind and engage other minds, and in this interaction the physical or material dimension is involved purely in the capacity of incidentally embodying these immaterial products; so that self-conscious awareness and the mind's activity figure centrally in the ascent from the matter /entropy state to that mastery of anentropy which is (thus far?) the supreme exemplification of the power of spirit to transcend those material conditions.

One might be tempted from these deliberations to wonder how it came about that we so easily succumbed to castigations of metaphysics as a disreputable brand of philosophy, when in plain fact the whole cosmos of human values has no other anchoring site. For it must also be said that reason is not our sole guide and companion in the ascent: for surely passion precedes reason and an argument may be put for reason to be nothing other than one of its offspring (this in fact is argued by Schopenhauer). For it is passion which drives inventiveness, exploration, creativity etc. Once again an interesting variation on the underlying theme here: passion, too, is 'entropy free'; a source of tremendous energy, but whatever it 'consumes' has no bearing on the material state!

This brings us face to face with an old philosophical standby. It is no secret that the idea of telos has been eroded from philosophical discourse. We have allowed ourselves to be bulldozed by science into believing there is no such thing. But this, I'm afraid, is just cowardly submission to 'political correctness'. For telos designates what an organism strives to become. It means: an acorn will grow to be an oak. Science frowns on this because it insinuates a plan, a purpose to life. However, teleology is an avenue toward understanding something basic about life and death, inter alia a way of looking at structures from the point of view of the structure. Let me put this into a little cameo of contrasts:

The method of science is to dismantle a structure and note on the way down the exact place occupied by each item, so as to facilitate precise reconstruction. A great deal of the real knowledge we possess has been acquired this way, so the method has proved efficacious. However, it cannot be denied that what is being laid bare by such reductive methodology is the dead-matter skeleton of the structure. A living thing can likewise be taken apart and the same atoms and molecules be noted down, so that the conclusion seems to stare us in the face that life and non-life are certainly ultimately made of matter. But the fly in the ointment of this neat little theory is that a body, dismantled, is a corpse. Whereas in virtue of technological accomplishment any dead-matter skeleton can easily be 'fleshed out' to replicate whatever structure is aimed at, a corpse cannot be revived. It has been one of the longest standing errors to believe the contrary, to believe that a living body should 'in principle' be constructible atom by atom from any normative model. That 'hope' is now terminally shattered; the simple truth having dawned at last that living things are not (somehow) made of matter, but use matter to essentially make themselves.

This is a story for another day; but it relates intimately to telos in a manner which I would at least tentatively sketch in for my final peroration. — Consider a human being: initially it is but a single cell, but by the time it is full-grown, these have multiplied to the number of more than 6 billion. Each of these cells must have 'known' its place in the scheme of this structure. But an equivalent heap of bricks is not going to assemble Versailles, nor (to quote Hoyle) is a tornado rushing through a junk yard likely to build a ready-to-fly Boeing 707: palaces and planes have no telos. So the drip of water which builds a stalagmite, the wind lashing dunes, gravity churning matter into spiroform galaxies, have no purpose and hence no telos. But every thing alive, and everything that is of life, starts as an acorn.

In speculating on the telos of anentropic autonomy, it has to be conceded that our vision is restricted, so what this acorn may grow into is largely an unwritten leaf. Yet as we follow its growth passage, as we gaze on while it unfolds its kernel among the archebacteria of elementary discrimination from among a small range of choices; via the first tremblings of co-operativeness among the initial endosymbionts; to that astonishing exploitation of the principle of economy in data storage (DNA); then on to the first meagre conveyances of sentition (nerves); their complexification into systems of vastly interconnected domains of evaluation which culminates in the evolution of brains as quasi-standalone modules devoted to converting these already tremendously sophisticated and compartmentalised perceptions into overarching intuitions; we arrive at length at the supreme master module of cognition, the mind: bringer of self-awareness, of self-consciousness, of self-reflective mentality and of the psychological dimension where concepts of destiny and responsibility, justice and beauty take up residence, where the 'triumph of mind over matter' is accomplished in the anentropic command over autonomous creativity, which leaves us at length with a metaphysical partition of our own creation, of which the universe knows nothing and which, in any objective sense exists nowhere and nowhen except in the human mind.

All the more ironical, then, that the most advanced civilisation yet to arise one earth should be seeking its salvation in an unslakeable thirst for material power — despite our full awareness of the cost of attaining and harnessing it. For the downside of this striving is that it effectively bows to the ineluctable exactions imposed by entropy; and there can be little doubt that the general disquiet, the corrosive doubt about the value of so much affluence and power, and worry about its destructive propensity, is an unconscious response to the danger of having voluntarily relinquished some of that infinitely precious gift of creativity, which is the legacy of our ascent from the entropical furnace.

Life and death are an anentropic 'partnership'. Death itself is a means of perpetuating the anentropic conditions in which life can unfold, by making us painfully aware of our fragile condition and mortality. But matter has no telos and in one important sense, no 'Dasein' (Heidegger). "To be" implies "to be present and accounted for to oneself" and ultimately (as exemplified by the mind) to participate in the conscious cosmos. In this enclave of anentropy, the human mind is ever aware of the challenge posed by death, indeed its invincibility: but while there is no bargaining with it, the calamity offers these possibilities to a conscious being.

The tale of Orpheus mirrors this and may suitably close proceedings. Cerberus, the implacable guardian of the Underworld, could not be cajoled by cries or tears, bribes or force: but the creative spirit of the artist overwhelmed him. When Orpheus sang, the beast was lulled to sleep. What does this myth say other than: that entropy-free values, products of mind power, have it in them to prevail against death. Death has only one, and always the same answer. But when you or I succumb, the next in line is already born, who will receive and in turn pass on, the torch.


1. Recommended reading on this subject includes the pioneering studies in biochemical complexity by Ilya Prigogine and Isabella Stenger, Order out of Chaos and Stuart Kauffman, The Origins of Order. In Prigogine and Stenger's discussion of strange attractor situations, they remember a famous Kantian phrase and write (I paraphrase), "chemical systems in equilibrium are blind, but far from equilibrium they begin to see"; by which a rationale is offered for my assertion of a 'choice taken'.

© Jurgen Lawrenz 2003, Sydney