Every Life Is On Fire | Reflections & Notes

Jeremy England. Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things. Basic Books, 2020. (258 pages)


REFLECTIONS


If you’re looking for an explication of the thermodynamics of biology that also inserts biblical references in a perplexing and sometimes awkward manner, this is your book.

The general declarations England makes of life’s interconnectedness, complexity, and developments were well put, but are, for the most part, generally accepted perspectives in the scientific community. The one exception being the philosophical proposition that the concept and definition of “life” precedes biology. This is no doubt more complicated and intricate than England explains in his book as it hints at some “metaphysical substrate” as a more foundational pathway for understanding. No doubt, if we press on this idea further, we will run into the perennial problem of philosophy fading back into the biological and physical components of our world as the generative elements for even defining “life” in the first place. But that cyclical reasoning is a bit too much for now, and for the scope of this book.

Regarding England’s references to biblical passages, it is really difficult to know how to reflect, as it is unclear even what he is saying in those references, especially in light of what the thrust of the book is about. For example, on page 150, England writes:

Fascinatingly, the biblical text offers additional connotations in another passage. The first mention of blacksmithing, in Genesis 4:22, attributes its invention to a man named Tubal-Cain, son of Lamech, but the same passage also mentions his brothers Yaval and Yuval. This pair were equally inventive, as it turns out: we are told the first discovered the herding of animals (4:20), and the second invented musical instruments (4:21). In a stunningly precise combination, we therefore encounter three related ideas: collective behavior (herds), irreversible reshaping by an external drive (blacksmithing), and shape-dependent energy absorption through resonance (music). These concepts all attach to the emblem of the sword, which in turn is the name given to the mountain where Moses comes to understand something of where life begins and ends. (p. 150).

In all honesty, What?

On page 181, England writes:

Flame mirrors the fragility of life, in that it is a process that needs to keep eating regularly so as not to be snuffed out into something cold and motionless. At the same time, the notion of a fragile living thing that survives fire is marvelous to us, because we expect flames to take something carefully constructed and devour it, tearing it to tiny pieces until all that is left is smoke and scattered ash. All forms of energy can cause as much damage as a flame if released in the wrong context, and the real marvel is always that there can be such a thing as the “right” context, where the flow of energy heals and repairs rather than causing damage. In the vision presented to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3), the text emphasizes the destructive potential of the very energy flow by which life is sustained. It poses the all-important question of how it is that this particular life (the bush) can withstand a maelstrom that could take so many other orderly structures to pieces. The implicit answer, as we now can realize, is that from the perspective of the living thing, the particular set of driving forces that swirl around it and constantly impinge on it do not look like a flame because they have a pattern to them that the life was born to recognize. Far from a randomizing, disassembling influence, the environment to which an organism is adapted is integral to it; in this sense, every life is on fire, wreathed in that familiar flame which helped coax it into being. (p.181)

I really appreciated England’s explication of fire in concert with his ideas of understanding life, energy, and environment. Recognizing that we see life in a plant but not in fire is a really helpful thought experiment to tease out the elements of life that we’re talking about. But what the heck does that have to do with the burning bush?! Is he suggesting that the bush didn’t burn because it was created within the environment of fire, and that is the point of the text?! It is a wonderful insight to consider the environment in which life sprang, and the adaptiveness of life to those environmental forces. But the point of the biblical text is that the bush and fire are working in full contradiction of what is “normally” supposed to happen in our natural, physical world. If anything, the burning bush incident is proposing the complete opposite of what England’s midrashic interpretation is suggesting.

We get a slight clue as to England’s hermeneutical approach on page 217:

If there is some essay on natural philosophy hidden in its verses, then why cloak this understanding in cryptic poetry when the same ideas could be put more directly? … Does science remain the pinnacle toward which all other forms of understanding must strain? (p.217)

YES! It, science, does! Why can’t the bible have some say in the matter? Because the bible is not written to explicate “essay[s] on natural philosophy”! Is there coherence between the ideas that shape the biblical narrative and the philosophies of science? Sure! But that is to be expected if we’re all humans doing our best to explain our place, and our world, and our place in this world.

Regardless of the perplexities above, this book is still an insightful read into the intersection of physics and biology. It is a helpful stepping stone on the journey of discovering what life is, how it works, and how that understanding can help us function better in this world. The biblical insertions are simply too forced, too aggressive, and too truncated to make sense of their inclusion in this book. Perhaps some will see this as a challenge to offer a different reading using original languages, history, and culture, to bring these worlds together in a more refined conversation. If you write that book, let me know.


NOTES


ONE | INTRODUCTION

The puzzle breaks down as follows: every living thing we know of sprang from another living thing, yet we have reason to think that there was no life at all anywhere when the world first got going. (1)

Emphasizing recent progress in a rapidly growing offshoot of thermodynamics known as nonequilibrium statistical mechanics, this text will build up all the concepts needed to construct a clear argument for when and how the physical properties of inanimate matter might first give rise to the kinds of activities that life is particularly good at. The key point will be to realize that, just as living things have specialized properties determined by their genes that they have inherited from their ancestors, so, too, do collections of physically interacting particles have specialized properties that come from the past shapes into which they’ve been assembled. By continually getting pushed and knocked around by patterns presented in the environment, matter can undergo a continual exploration of the space of possible shapes whose rhythm and form become matched to those patterns in ways that look an awful lot like living. (4)

…the way the Bible treats the subject of how matter comes to life turns out to be wondrously useful as an explanatory tool, because scripture addresses itself to the unenhanced perspective of a human (6) being observing and assaying the world with little beyond his or her five senses. (7)

[via: I felt skeptical at the aim of this book at the beginning, but this sentence captures a good sentiment for it outlines both scope and limitations.]

The God who reveals Himself in that moment speaks to Moses of his nation’s ancestry and the promise of their redemption from slavery, but He also provides three signs for Moses to bring to the Hebrews in Egypt. The first sign is a staff that turns into a serpent. The second is a “snowy” growth on his skin. The last is a mixture of river water and dirt that turns into blood. (7)

Each of these signs can be read as a comment about the border between life and non-life. (7) … Viewed in these terms, this passage from Exodus hammers home the question of where life comes from and how we can distinguish it from the inanimate material background from which it might have emerged. (8)

No one is foolish enough to try to comb the beach sand at Coney Island trying to reconstruct what a child’s castle might have looked like for a few hours one summer day a hundred years ago, and reconstructing the molecular origins of life as we know it by trying to detect its leftover debris is a fool’s errand. (10)

Central to this discussion will be an idea I have called dissipative adaptation, which essentially is a fancy way of saying that when matter gets knocked around by the patterns in its surroundings, it ends up getting stuck in shapes that look specially suited to respond to those patters. (12)

TWO | STAFF AND SNAKE

There is just something obvious reasonable about the following notion: if all life is built from atoms that obey precise equations we know–which seems to be true–then the existence of life might just be some downstream consequence of these laws we haven’t yet gotten around to calculating. (13)

As we have gained an ever more accurate picture of how life’s tiniest and simplest building blocks fit together to form the whole, it has become increasingly tempting to imagine that biology’s toughest puzzles may only be solved once we figure out how to tackle them on physics’ terms. (14)

| But approaching the subject of life with this attitude will fail us, for at least two reasons. The first reason we might call the fallacy of reductionism. Reductionism is the presumption that any piece of the universe we might choose to study works like some specimen of antique, windup clockwork, so that it is easy (or at least eminently possible) to predict the behavior of the whole once you know the rules governing how each of its parts pushes on and moves with the others. (14)

You cannot use Newton’s laws or quantum theory to predict the stock market, nor to predict even much simpler properties of “many-particle” systems, such as a turbulent fluid or a supercooled magnet. In all such cases, the physical laws supposedly “governing” it all are swamped with the immensity of what we do not know, cannot measure, or lack the ability to compute directly. (15)

The second mistake in how people have viewed the boundary between life and non-life is still rampant in the present day and originates in the way we use language. (15) …our own role in giving names to the phenomena of the world precedes our ability to say with any clarity what it means to even call something alive. …the boundary between what is alive and what is not is something that already got drawn at the outset, through a different way of talking than physics provides. The proper goal for a physicist’s account of things should therefore be to find a way of describing that boundary in precise physical terms, so that we can get new insight into how matter might be gotten to move from one side of the borderline to the other. (16)

[via: “Taxonomy precede comprehension?”]

…there are many ways (26) in which the extreme reductionist, armed with a powerful supercomputer, is going to miss the mark by miles when trying to compute the behavior of the whole directly from the simple rules obeyed by its parts. (27)

More is different. – P.W. Anderson

…in a phenomenon known as universality, which arises from deep mathematical identities between different kinds of models that can be made of various many-body systems, these exponents turn out to pop up with precisely the same values in very different settings: for example, magnetic crystals, lipid bilayers, and superheated fluids. (28)

…the idea from Newtonian mechanics that energy is “conserved,” meaning that the total amount of it int he world has to stay the same. (29)

The important thing (29) about energy is that Newtonian mechanics does not allow it to be created or destroyed; it can only be transformed from one form to another. (30)

So it is that the field of statistical thermodynamics, and more broadly a field called condensed matter theory, has tackled an enormous range of hidden predictabilities describing different kinds of systems–whether in the heat capacity of crystals or the patchiness of a lipid membrane, in the clumping of micro-sized beads or the magnetism of cold metals. (31)

Once upon a time, the transformation of liquids into solids was mysterious, but now we know it’s all about temperature and the forces between molecules. Could there be a similarly pat explanation for when and how inert building blocks join together and come to life? (33)

Niels Bohr believed life should be thought of as more than its constituent pieces, but struggled to explain why. Erwin Schrödinger, meanwhile, authored a monograph titled What Is Life?, in which he ruminated on what life must look like on the atomic scale. (33)

Schrödinger’s speculations became famous for at least two insights. First, in a stunning leap of intuition, he suggested that in order for inheritance of traits from parent to offspring to be physically possible, there had to be a molecule in cells that was best described as an “aperiodic crystal,” much like the linearly ordered (“crystal”) but nonrepeating (“aperiodic”) sequence of chemical bases that has since been discovered in DNA. Second, he pointed out that life had to “feed on negative entropy,”… (34)

Life is a grab bag of different pieces, some of whose physical properties are easier to predict mechanistically than others, and it is certainly the case that at least some of the factors that matter a great deal to how a living thing works will fail into the category of highly nonuniversal emergent properties that are impossible to derive from first principles. (36)

Physics is an approach to science that roots itself in the measurement of particular quantities: distance, mass, duration, charge, temperature, and the like. Whether we are talking about making empirical observations or developing theories to make predictions, the language of physics is inherently metrical and mathematical. (36)

This is not how the science of biology works. …there is nothing fundamentally quantitative about the scientific study of life. Instead, biology takes the categories of living and nonliving things for granted as a starting point, and then uses the scientific method to investigate what is predictable about the behavior and qualities of life. …in much the same way that it is quite popular across the length and breadth of human language to coin terms for commonplace things like stars, rivers, and trees, the difference between being alive and not being alive gets denoted with vocabulary. (37)

| In short, biology could not have been invented without the preexisting concept of life to inspire it, and all it needed to get going was for someone to realize that there were things to be discovered by reasoning scientifically about things that were alive. (37)

If we are honest with ourselves, the ability to make this judgment was not taught to us by scientists, but comes from a more common kind of knowledge: we are alive ourselves, and constantly mete out life and death to bugs and flowers in our surroundings. Science may help us to discover new ways to make things live or die, but only once we tell the scientists what those words mean. (38)

…the borders of my language are the borders of my world. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

…we cannot expect a theory couched entirely in terms of physical quantities to tell us the exact moment when life emerges. … We did not know any physics when we invited the word “life,” and it would be strange if physics only now began suddenly to start dictating to us what the word means. (39)

Much of biophysics proceeds in this way: it starts by taking for granted the problem a living thing is trying to solve and then studies how molecules or cells achieve an impressive solution. But what if we are interested not in what life does, but rather, in how it got that way? (42)

As we have said, there is no physical property that is the same thing as being alive, but there certainly are behaviors that are distinctive of life that have exact physical definitions. Living things self-replicate–that is, they make copies of themselves. They also harvest energy from their surroundings and use it to repair themselves and to grow. Most intriguingly, they behave in ways that often seem to reflect accurate predictions about their future environment that have been inferred from what already happened in the past. While it may be nonsense to try to derive a definition for life from physical laws, it is useful to ask well-defined questions about the conditions under which particles that are initially bad at such harvesting and predicting start to get good at it. This is an investigation that is inspired by what we find remarkable about life, but that can be undertaken entirely within the domain of physics–and, while it may not tell us at the end where life as we know it came from, it promises at least to open our eyes to the physics of what may be lifelike about any pile of particle we see in the world… (43)

[via: See Paul Nurse’s What Is Life, for the MRS GREN acronym: Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion, and Nutrition.]

cf. Exodus 4:3

…the close similarity in shape between this yardstick and a snake should get us thinking that part of the point is to recognize (44) that this is really bout looking at the same object from a new perspective, perhaps by talking about it with different words. A staff is a dead stick, but what, specifically, is true about a snake that makes it so much more alive? (45)

…once we realize that the lens of physics reduces every living thing to looking like a specially configured pile of inanimate sticks, we confront the vast expanse of gray area stretching between the obviously alive and the obviously inanimate. (46)

…the word “life” admits many imperfect translations into the language of physics, and in order to hone our skills as translators, we may be well advised to spend some time pondering life’s highly ambiguous boundary. (46)

THREE | SNOW AND DUST

…the truly coherent way of talking about what being alive consists of, physically, starts with noticing that all living things have certain behaviors and features in common. (48)

A reasonable starting point is to observe that all living things are born from a parent or progenitor of some kind. In other words, self-replication, or the production of a faithful copy of oneself, is a dynamical behavior that is distinctive of life. (49)

One could also make the case for the importance of self-repair to any concept of life. (50)

Livin things also harvest and consume matter and energy from their surroundings that serve as fuel for their activities. (51)

Lastly, …living things sense, predict, and react deliberately to the world (51) around them. … Still, in another sense, prediction and sensing are the most difficult features to define precisely. (52)

In the broadest sensible definition, a self-replicator is just any patterned clump of matter whose presence in a certain environment will increase the rate of formation of other clumps with the same pattern. (53)

…the feedback loop is one of the most powerful way of bringing about a sudden and dramatic transformation of the organization of a system with many components. Moreover, all feedback has the same distinctive signature of energy flow and mus be hooked up to some kind of power supply in its surroundings,… (58)

…putting matter together by hand so that it will act like it is alive is difficult. (58)

…it is worth our time to think carefully about the typical reason that materials with the potential to combine in lifelike ways fail to do so. (59)

The first concept is called macroscopic coarse-graining, which is really nothing more complicated than the idea that (59) there are many ways that two arrangements of the same matter can be identical in their coarser features while differing in their microscopic details. … To tabulate the “microstate,” as it is called, of a flake of snow made of 1021 atoms, you would need to know 6 x 1021 numbers: three numbers for each position in three-dimensional space, and three numbers to say where each particle is going and how fast. (60)

Put another way, using a device to measure a quantity like the average density determines the value of that coarse-grained macroscopic quantity, but it does not reveal enough information to know which microstate the system is in, because all the microstates in this coarse-grained group look the same from the perspective of the measuring device.  (61)

| In the world of everyday life, our senses relate directly to coarse-grained features of matter. (61)

Simply put, entropy just measures the number of microscopic ways a given coarse-grained outcome can be achieved. … There are lots of ways microscopically arranging the vast number of individual molecules in the gas, and only some of those ways spread the molecules out over the whole room; others instead cram the whole mess of particles into a much smaller volume. The reason we do not see the latter happen is not because the molecules cannot fit into the corner of the room; there’s plenty of empty space to go around! Rather, the entropic argument is that there are just tremendously many more ways of spreading the molecules out uniformly across the whole room than there are of confining them to a smaller volume, and if we assume that all microscopic arrangements for the molecules are equally likely, then the most numerous type of arrangement wins. Put another way, we could say that (65) an atmosphere that abhors vacuums has greater entropy than one that does not. But it is arguably clearer and more precise just to say that observing a spontaneous vacuum is very improbable because there are comparatively few ways at the microscopic level for such a coarse-grained outcome to happen. (66)

| It has to be noted, though, that the above argument only works if we assume that all microstates are equally likely. (66)

…it only makes sense to start to talk about the probabilities of microstates once you define the physical conditions under which your hunk of matter is trying out different states. (67)

If molecules get to sit at constant temperature and, so to speak, let the ball explore the whole mountain range this way for a long time, things reach a condition we call thermal equilibrium, and we can assign a probability to the ball’s location with an elegantly simple formula known as the Boltzmann distribution: at a temperature T, any microstate for the molecule–that is, any location in the mountain range–will be visited with probability proportional to 1/a(E/T), where a is a physical constant and E is the energy of that microstate. (69) …states with higher energy are always exponentially less likely to be visited than ones with lower energy, but the steepness of this exponential drop sets more gradual as the temperature increases and the uphill jots get stronger. (70)

More generally, the simple fact is that virtually every piece of a living thing should be thought of as a very low-entropy arrangement of its constituent parts, because the overwhelming majority of alternative arrangements just would not “work” nearly as well. (79)

…disassembling and objectifying the various parts of the living whole has an erosive effect on our confidence that life is so qualitatively different from non-life; in the eyes of the one doing the bit-by-bit dissection, everything starts to look like one or another pile of particles, whether it’s alive or not. (82)

FOUR | RIVER AND BLOOD

All life moves. …living things change their shape and location over the course of time in order to grow, develop, and behave. At the same time, it is clear that lots of things that move are not alive,… (85)

At least part of what life seems to be doing, dynamically, is a thoroughly one-way street, and the key question is whether this is a mere case of happenstance, or it somehow reveals something central to us about what life is accomplishing at a physical level. (86)

…keeping track of energy will help us explain why life is so bad at running backward, and start to reveal a special role for energy in the physics of living things. (87)

…energy is not something that you directly measure or manipulate in experiments; instead, you calculate it from other, more basic quantities, such as position, mass, and time, that you do measure. The beginning idea for Newton is that of force: pieces of matter exert forces on each other that can give rise to motion. Energy comes into the picture because the basic forces that typically act among the different pieces of any assemblage of matter have the special mathematical property of being conservative. A conservative force simply has (87) the property that if it is used to halt motion, then it must be able to set the same amount of motion going again. (88)

A straightforward study of the mathematical structure of Newton’s laws demonstrates that this symmetry is not accidental, but rather, a fundamental requirement. Whatever can happen according to the equations of motion implied by F = ma (again, where F is force, m is mass, and a is acceleration), there is a rewind version that is no less possible. (90)

Whether at the molecular, cellular, or organismal level, many aspects of life involve cycles. (97)

Why does life have to consume energy in the first place? (101)

| The simplest reason that life needs energy is that it grows. (100)

In truth, self-replication is just a broader class of behaviors that all face the same kind of energetic constraints because they all amount to going somewhere fast and then staying there a long time. (103)

The inescapable conclusion is that engaging in the kinds of sensing and information processing that we so much associate with lifelike robots, or with the clever behaviors of living things, will always require the dissipative flow of energy through the system, since that is what permits us to sharpen time’s arrow int he right direction. (109)

…life has a strikingly fine-tuned and specific relationship to the sources of energy that power it. The question is whether we can understand how this kind of specificity might emerge from a physical principle. (120)

Like the blood in our bodies, the cyclical flow in a driven nonequilibrium system–such as a rainfall-powered network of water channels–is directional, and carries matter and energy in an onward march that never runs in reverse. And, just as a choked limb denied access to blood flow cannot remain alive, so, too, do the patterns of self-organized nonequilibrium systems need to be fed by the continual (121) nudging of their externally driven flows in order to sustain and repair themselves. (122)

FIVE | MOUNTAIN AND SWORD

Every physical interaction between one piece of matter and another carries with it the possibility that energy will be exchanged. (123)

Resonance is about a match between the environmental energy source and the matter that acts as a receiver for it,… Accordingly, the same pile of atoms can be prepared in different initial states, and some of these may be better than others at resonating with an oscillation in their surroundings. The upshot is that the question of how much energy gets absorbed (129) from the environment by an assemblage of matter can be a sensitive question of what state the matter is currently in. (130)

We have said it before, but it bears reiterating: all energy is either motion or the potential to bring about motion. If the driving forces in the environment are strong enough, the energy-absorption properties of matter currently in the form of shape A might determine whether it later transforms into shape B. So the way matter explores its space of possible shapes over time is going to be biased, sometimes in highly consequential ways, by the extent to which particular shapes do or do not get good access to energy sources in their environment. (130)

The question we have come to is how are we supposed to know which configurations for a given assemblage (131) are going to be good or bad at soaking up energy from a given environment. (132)

Perhaps the simplest question one can ask along these lines is how readily heat can flow in one end and out the other. Thermal conductivity is a measure of a material’s ability to act as a conduit for the flow of heat from hot to cold, and it can differ dramatically from one material to another depending on how the constituent atoms are arrayed together. (139)

SIX | FLAME AND TREE

Where did the first self-copying, biologically complex selves come from? (152)

| There are at least two ways of trying to handle this conundrum. The first, more obvious one essentially amounts to waving it away by rejecting its main premise. (152) …it might also be the case that there is a gray spectrum of complexity in self-replicators all the way down to the bottom, and that jump-starting some kind of process of reproduction at the beginning need not be thought of as difficult. (153)

The other way out of the woods is to reject a different premise of the puzzle, namely, that emergent lifelike complexity can’t start emerging until the effect of natural selection is brought to bear. … Did every single one of those pieces only start to look well built for some particular functional purpose once it was a part of a living whole that needed to copy itself? Or might some of them already have gotten “good at” part of what we now call their purpose even before being a piece of something that might be called alive? (153)

…both of these explanations may be true to some extent. Self-replication is a process that has the potential to spring up surprisingly easily in contexts that seem quite generic and unstructured, in ways that make grandiose talk of eggs and chickens moot. At the same time, making copies of oneself is just one of any number of distinctively lifelike behaviors one might like to understand, and we shall see shortly that a good number of other ones can sometimes emerge spontaneously in systems where the normal Darwinian mechanism is completely absent. (154)

Is fire alive? Surely not. Nonetheless, the physics of how it works is the same physics we need to make sense of self-replication more generally. (157)

…the incompleteness of success is not the same thing as failure. (164)

Why do we not find it satisfying to say “the first life must have just coalesced from atomic building blocks through a random fluke collision of disorderly pieces”? Only because we assign such a laughably low probability to such an event do we dismiss it out of hand as the opposite of an explanation. Accordingly, the question to ask now is whether new insight into (164) how matter gets knocked into lifelike shapes might alter our sense of how likely or unlikely life’s ultimate emergence should be judged. (165)

We usually think of life as being good at absorbing energy: everyone has to eat, after all. However, there is equal reason to talk about a kind of self-organization that seems to be the opposite sort of phenomenon: a tendency in driven matter to self-assemble in ways that cause energy absorption to be exceptionally low. (165)

It is certainly true that life requires a wide variety of kinds of motion in order to sustain itself …it is equally true that all living things (165) would not be able to remain who and what they were unless certain parts of themselves tended not to move very much. Organs need to stay properly connected to each other, tissues need to maintain their integrity at the cellular level, and well-functioning proteins need to stay properly folded in the shapes that enable them to engage in their distinct activities. To put it more bluntly, there is such a thing as getting smashed, broken, or damaged, and all the motions of that type are clearly not ones that help a living things stay alive. (166)

…it is therefore interesting, about any given organism, not only that there exists a source of energy to which it was well matched, but also that this invariably happens to be the set of environmental drives we observe it to experience in nature. (167) …we can ask whether such matching between an organized structure and its external energy source could be an example of a more general physical phenomenon that does not need Darwin to explain its emergence. (168)

Thus far, this whole book has been devoted in large part to building the conceptual framework needed in order to lay out an argument couched in the physical terms for a mechanism of emergent lifelike behavior that does not found itself on self-replication and natural selection. (168)

The first point was to try to be precise in the language of physics about what living things do that seems most distinctive, for lifelikeness actually breaks down into a number of separate activities. Living organisms make copies of themselves and harvest energy from sources in their environment that are difficult to access;… (168)

To have a chance at understanding these phenomena in a new light, we introduced the idea of coarse-graining, which is nothing more than lumping a bunch of microscopic shapes together according to some grosser property that they all share. Out of this discussion emerged the idea that some coarse properties of large collectives of particulate matter are very rare, and can only be achieved when the building blocks are arranged with respect to each other in highly atypical ways that would not be easily discovered at random. (169)

Flame mirrors the fragility of life, in that it is a process that needs to keep eating regularly so as not to be snuffed out into something cold and motionless. At the same time, the notion of a fragile living thing that survives fire is marvelous to us, because we expect flames to take something carefully constructed and devour it, tearing it to tiny pieces until all that is left is smoke and scattered ash. All forms of energy can cause as much damage as a flame if released in the wrong context, and the real marvel is always that there can be such a thing as the “right” context, where the flow of energy heals and repairs rather than causing damage. In the vision presented to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3), the text emphasizes the destructive potential of the very energy flow by which life is sustained. It poses the all-important question of how it is that this particular life (the bush) can withstand a maelstrom that could take so many other orderly structures to pieces. The implicit answer, as we now can realize, is that from the perspective of the living thing, the particular set of driving forces that swirl around it and constantly impinge on it do not look like a flame because they have a pattern to them that the life was born to recognize. Far from a randomizing, disassembling influence, the environment to which an organism is adapted is integral to it; in this sense, every life is on fire, wreathed in that familiar flame which helped coax it into being. (181)

SEVEN | WIND AND BREATH

If we had been given the task of (190) discerning the pattern ourselves, either we would have had to engage in some form of intuition or abstract mathematical manipulation, or we would have had to write a computer program that could use numerical calculation to substitute for those activities. In any event, whether human or artificial, we’d be inclined to say some kind of intelligence was being brought to bear. Here, the question that suddenly confronts us is whether, in the absence of any brain, equation, or algorithm, an emergently fine-tuned assembly of particles can fairly be said to be doing something called computing-or better yet, learning. (191)

The classic way of thinking in biochemistry is to attribute specific functions to particular proteins that have to do with their interactions with a few other specific partner proteins they will randomly encounter in the well-mixed cellular interior. However, we have just been discussing the possibility that any such strongly driven collective of different macromolecular building blocks might be spurred by dissipative adaptation effects to exhibit group-level behaviors that have solved global energy flow problems in ways (202) that may amount to computing something nontrivial about the eternal environment. This conception of cell behavior has more in common with an economist’s understanding of the free market than it does with an engineer’s understanding of the blueprint of a skyscraper: suddenly, there is room for a lot more spontaneous creativity and adaptive capability int he system’s behavior. (203)

If you change the few dozen atoms in the DNA of one cell, you might give the whole organism cancer and ultimately kill it, whereas changing a thousand or so protein atoms in one cell could easily go unnoticed in any biological sense. DNA is the master controller, and in that light, it is notable that dissipative adaptation predicts the emergence of a slow subset of features in da driven collective that exhibit outsize influence on the faster dynamics of the remaining particles. This does not prove where DNA came from, but should at least make us pause to ask whether the precursor to DNA must have first emerged as a coded message, as we often (205) imagine, or if it was more like a molecular brain governing some precellular structure that was not yet capable of copying itself. Identifying opportunities of this kind may leave many questions open for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, it should simultaneously instill in us both new excitement about yet-to-be-dreamed-of possibilities for how things might have gone and a greater humility about what we might previously have rushed to declare impossible. (206)

Life comes into being by rising to the challenges presented by the world around it, but to be aware of the subtlest challenges out there, one has to be able to sniff out the complex predictability that may be hiding in plain sight. (208)

EIGHT | VOICE AND WORD

Before, we might have asked, “Does physics explain how life could have begun?” But a more precise formulation may get closer to the essence of things: “What physical conditions are needed for lifelike behaviors to emerge reliably in matter where they were initially absent?” (209)

Ultimately, it is this relationship–between how energy flows, on the one hand, and how the medium it flows through becomes transformed by it, on the other–that explains the emergence of structures that recapitulate a number of different behaviors that we associate with the distinctive qualities of a living organism. (210)

Of course, the Bible is not in any way, shape, or form a compendium of physics knowledge, and undoubtedly it speaks its own distinct language(s). However, in it characteristic fashion of addressing itself principally to the qualitative features of everyday experience that are familiar to a technically unsophisticated audience, scripture turns out to contain a dense and multifaceted commentary on what the material basis of life is, described using a language in which most regular people are fluent. The staff and serpent point out that the same thing can look different depending on how one talks about it. The snowy skin provokes us to think about boundaries between categories, as well as between living things and their surroundings, and reminds us that complicated structures can get assembled (211) from simpler parts that condense together. Equating river muck with blood lifts our sights to the diversity of possible outcomes when different material ingredients are kept in perpetual motion, and the swordsmith’s forge reminds us how piles of matter get knocked into new situations in ways that can depend strongly on their current one. (212)

The natural phenomenon of life is the polar opposite of abstract and otherworldly things like quantum tunneling and gravitational waves. Every person who has ever thought much about what life is also happens to be very much alive, and is therefore constantly privy to an extremely rich stream of sensory data about what life consists of. (213)

And inasmuch as the question of what life is made of may matter greatly to how one ponders the human condition as a whole, it suddenly seems obvious that the Bible should be not only able, but even eager, to provide a comment. (216)

Far from providing any kind of primer in the difference between physical and spiritual materials, the biblical text repeatedly indicates an opposite attitude by making the distinction as ambiguous as possible. Any apparent reference to supposedly spiritual things involves the (220) use of an everyday Hebrew word–e.g., wind, breath, vapor, smoke, steam, cloud, fog–that always has clear natural and material correspondents. (221)

Dividing the whole of creation into physical and spiritual domains simply begs the question of how these two kinds of things are supposed to interact, and what can possibly be known about the way spiritual things are supposed to work. If spiritual things do not behave in knowable and predictable ways, then their introduction in a description is a purely magical one that simply aims to shut down attempts to understand. (221)

What is the soul, exactly, if the mere fact of its being there can successfully imbue everything with ultimate significance while never having to explain at all what is being signified? (222)

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, then, we find ourselves in the position of saying that although Hebrew scripture most certainly does aim to push back against the nihilism that can spring from contemplating life’s material makeup, it resists the temptation to wave the problem away by invoking the idea of dualistic spirituality. Instead, within the very same signs given to Moses at Horeb that we have already been using to ponder in qualitative terms how life gets assembled, it also weaves a parallel commentary on how to react to this biophysical perspective. (222)

Looking at things this way, one might suddenly notice that sending Moses on a mission of liberation may even require teaching him how to argue against the dehumanizing slant of some versions of physical materialism. (223)

Unavoidably, therefore, the serpent that gets presented to Moses recalls at least two things: first, that a seemingly mute part of nature might turn out to have something meaningful to say, and second, that people are capable of choosing to do things that their Creator wants them not to do. The serpent’s appearance is telling us that there is sometimes meaning to be found in what might at first seem meaningless, and moreover, that questions of moral significance about what one should do–as opposed to what one merely could do–can form a part of this meaning. (224)

On the one hand, it roots itself in the empirical observation of a living thing and its tactile and visual properties; on the other, tzara’at’s only concern is the application of human judgment and the regulation of human activity within the context of specific assigned roles. The point is: one does not do this thing or that thing because of what tzara’at already is (in the way that one would quarantine ill people to prevent a spreading infection because of what a virus is). Rather, the things one does and says, according to the rule of the game, provide the only definition of what tzara’at is: the pivotal concept in a complex social framework of practices. (228)

…it is common for us to prefer to think that the reason we forbid and punish murder is because of something intrinsically objectionable about what it naturally is, rather than to say it is just another contrivance like marriage or taxes. (229)

What tzara’at helps to point out is how the so-called value of human life is not a fact we assume at the outset in order to know why we should act in certain ways; instead, the way in which we insist on speaking and acting (whether that be behaving differently because of a priest’s declaration about someone’s skin, or catching and arraigning murderers) serves to establish the meaning of our existence. Put another way, our humanity gains value and meaning to the extent that we work together in an agreed-upon way to treat it as valuable and meaningful. (230)

What we are bumping up against here is that the hardest part of all is deciding what kind of symbols to traffic in when confronted by vast possibility. … The ring of moral relativism is unmistakable in an account of morality that portrays it as an arbitrary game of social conventions that happen to be popular at the current moment. (230)

| For some, a blank canvas for the creation of new kinds of meaning in a society must seem thrilling, whereas others may fairly wonder whether a society is possible at all unless some things get nailed down at the outset. This latter tack is the one taken by the Hebrew Bible itself, which aims to be a detailed road map for a nation seeking to define itself in relation to God, with every law and ritual within bent toward this purpose. The audacious claim is that these laws are not just one of many ways of having a culture and some commonality in practice with one’s neighbors. Instead, they are specific terms of a contract given from the hand of our Creator, and the things that happen in this created world are meant to be our way of judging whether or not He is keeping His side of the bargain. (231)

The flame that does not consume speaks to Moses as he looks on with awe. Unexpectedly, and marvelously, this strange fire therefore reminds us that if we start by being willing to recognize something not so random after all in the way the world’s threads are being woven together, we may just get the chance to hear something–a voice, a message–that we otherwise could not have sensed. (232)

About VIA

www.kevinneuner.com

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