This is probably as close as I’ll get to an actual review of Tim Bollands “Life the Universe and Consciousness”. I’ve made significant comments and references here three times already:
And in that time there have also been half a dozen Twitter threads, and as many personal message threads, attempting to unpick or clarify one aspect or another. Twitter is not the best medium for such dialogue. Brevity means a blurring between explicit questions and cryptic rhetorical statements and my own style (after Dennett / Rappaport) is to test (my own) understanding by making statements of what I think I’ve heard / read “in my own words” – only to elicit the amusing response “nowhere do I say that”. Oh well. This difficulty is compounded for me by my own prejudiced position to cut to the chase and compare what I’m reading with positions I’ve already taken on much the same source references. But we got there in the end and I’m sure it will prove to be worth it. So here goes:
For such an all encompassing topic – the “Life the Universe and …” meme is a clue – the book is comprehensive in scope and meticulous in structure and detail. Sure, for every source quoted to support some aspect of Bollands’ solution or argument, or illustrate some problem he’s describing, you might consider an omission you would have chosen as an alternative yourself, but this is one 400 page book where whole libraries have been written; whole civilisations have arisen and fallen.
The meticulous nature is embodied by Bollands’ methodology that runs through the entire first half of the book and which involves repeated use of the same 4 part syllogistic structure. He proceeds by progressively changing the premises and the wording of apparent conclusions as he works through the 12 problems he is seeking to solve with his Universal Life thesis in the last 3 chapters.
The strictures of the chosen structure cry out maybe for some matrix or graphical representation, a map of the territory we’re traversing. As it is, the near repetition demands concentration on what exactly is being said differently at each iteration. Another consequence is that so many of the statements developing the argument along the way, of what might be said from some philosophical or scientific position, are not assertions Bollands is positing. The mix of bold and italic emphasis helps but, in the first half and second chapter, even much of that represents extensions to the problem statements and not necessarily the assertions Bollands is in fact wishing to make. I had to double check a few of my readings of those, I can tell you.
At the risk of labouring this difficulty, the structure of the work is crucial to understanding what is being said. As Bollands has tweeted – publicly, not just in response to my clarifications – it really is necessary to follow the entire logic as laid-out in order. Fair to say it’s not a book for the casual reader, nor any faint-heart challenged by reading many statements they disagree with along the way.
Bollands is addressing “the big problem” with science in the 21st C – enumerated as twelve distinct problems across Life, the Universe and Consciousness. I reviewed these in the “Problems Problems” piece so won’t repeat here, even though they are obviously elaborated in a great deal more detail in the text. So here, what of his Universal Life solution?
The idea that objects in the world exhibit qualities of life and conscious awareness is not new. Intelligent-life-like. As “a way of talking” the intentional stance is applied routinely to objects we wouldn’t conventionally think of as alive or intelligent in any biological or wilful, purposeful sense. Some (eg Dennett) would go beyond seeing this as simply a way of talking, and insist we suspend disbelief in the reality of conscious will as we evolve our understanding of what it really is. Bollands goes further and posits that life and consciousness, as we know them intuitively, really are much more universal in reality. That is, they’re not just a feature of more highly evolved complex structures, but extend right back to those things we might think of as (fundamental physical) particles, (chemically elemental) atoms and (chemically compound) molecules. Components of the world more generally.
Two things are apparent about Bollands’ position very early on. Firstly, his intuitive conception of life, despite also addressing many different incomplete and overlapping – and hence never fully agreeable – scientific definitions of life, is fairly conventional, concerning maintenance of the individual and species in the face of environmental attrition. His Universal Life definition goes beyond this, but this core feature is non-contentious, if hard to pin down objectively.
Secondly, pretty much everything we can say about life, we need to say something about consciousness too. They go hand in hand. Problems with the one, in some sense, involve solutions with the other. In (my) summary:
- The stuff we call life (and indeed consciousness) resides universally in many of those things we rational and scientifically-informed inhabitants of the 21st C would call physics and chemistry, not just biology.
- The nearest thing we have to an objective science-friendly definition of that stuff we call life (and consciousness) – beyond conventional incomplete definitions about its reproduction and maintenance against environmental attrition – is the fundamental circular process idea that living things create themselves from other living things.
- (Taken together, this doesn’t say every “thing” is alive, simply that every living thing is in some real sense self-assembled from other living things, for its living purposes. Other non-living objects are structured from the same components but only via the action of external forces and processes, for no purpose attributable to the thing.)
So what is the point of a review? Sell more books? Criticise the intellectual content?
Bollands is in good company in that there is many an important book where turning my critical annotations into coherent sentences would result in a critique longer than the book itself. To what end?
Bollands is in good company also in that I’d place him firmly in the “close but no cigar” camp. A category that includes: the modern panpsychists, Goff, Kastrup and Strawson; many an evolutionary philosopher Dennett, Hofstadter, James, Whitehead, Pirsig, McGilchrist and the EES crowd; some of the free-thinking scientists Smolin, Rovelli, Tegmark, Deutsch & Marletto, Verlinde, England and the IIT crowd. Am I saying that if Bollands, like all these other illustrious people, were to change their theses to accommodate words to suit me, then we would have the one true metaphysics, the one grand unified theory? Nope.
What I’m saying is I 99% agree with Bollands both in terms of the problems with 21st C science and in terms of the validity of his proposed solution. My important criticism is primarily linguistic. It’s about the audience that needs to hear the message in order to consider modifying their world-view as a result, and it’s about what they will hear in the choice of words. It’s not about being right, it’s about successful communication, understanding and outcomes. Bollands first objective is understanding.
In the same way as I say to the panpsychists, I could agree with everything you say if you said it was proto-conscious-stuff that permeates the world (pan-proto-psychism) rather than “consciousness” itself, I say to Bollands why not say universal-proto-life rather than purposeful “life as we know it” that permeates the whole world? The fact I have my own pet-theory, built on the shoulders of giants who’ve said it all before, about what that proto-stuff really might be, is neither here nor there.
The language problem is how will 21st C century scientists respond when a philosopher tries to tell them life and consciousness are more fundamental than the objects of their science? Ridicule. (Even Dennett, a hero of mine on the right side of this topic has been known to respond with ridicule in the name of “pan-niftiness”. He nevertheless entertains pan-proto-psychic ideas. Strawson tries the opposite linguistic tack, suggesting all will be well if simply use the familiar word “physical” to describe conscious life, then the physical scientists will give the idea an easier ride. He’s nevertheless transparent that this is simply a tactical, linguistic convenience; your equally valid choice may differ.)
Life, like consciousness, is problematic in science in achieving a single agreed objective definition not because it is vague, but because it is many different things evolved on multi-variate spectra in many layers of increasing complexity (*). I happen to think it’s more honest to acknowledge this before projecting intuitive human scale experience of life and consciousness on prehistoric, primordial elements of the cosmos.
(* One difference of understanding and credibility here, despite the evolutionary model, Bollands appears to suggest the same “infinite complexity” at all levels.)
Like Bollands, and like Hofstadter and Dennett jointly and individually, I have no problem with “circular” definitions either. Knowledge and understanding of the world, like the world itself, evolves through “strange loops”. True definitions, like all species, arise only with hindsight.
Also, like Bollands, I see that life and consciousness, whatever they are in any definitive sense, they go hand in hand. Bollands explicitly posits there is no distinction between the behaviours of living and conscious things. They are inseparable. Although distinct from fundamental / metaphysical considerations of life and consciousness, imagined applications of AI and A-Life often turn up in thought experiments about what we really mean by them. Unsurprisingly Bollands also mentions some aspects of these. I have been of the firm opinion that we will never have anything deserving of the name Artificial Intelligence (beyond complex self-learning algorithmic behaviour) until we also have Artificial Life. And, when we do, we will have created or helped to evolve new instances of real life and real intelligence. But we digress.
Life the Universe and Consciousness is worth the read, and Bollands’ Universal Life is worth the effort it will take to understand. Even if ultimately you don’t agree with it and can’t see how empirical evidence could ever bring it into the body of objective scientific knowledge, I would hope some of the more open-minded scientists and scientific philosophers give it head-space. Like Dennett’s last epistle to the scientists, we need you to read this, and then read it again … we need it to change your world view.
Without that change of world-view it’s hard to imagine how any scientist could entertain a sentence like this from Bollands’ final summary of Universal Life being applied to things living at the level of physical science:
“When a living thing acts freely,
selectively and purposefully,
it is acting consciously,
motivated by its experiences,
values and beliefs.”
Even a sympathetic reader such as myself might baulk at beliefs, at a level below higher evolved intelligence. You can already hear the updated mocking response “What, you’re not only saying an electron is conscious (and alive) but now you’re saying it has beliefs? Pull the other one.” This linguistic issue remains my main – only – reservation. Pulling so many words from the level of existing human experience – with all their baggage – into this fundamental physical / metaphysical space seems to greatly diminish the chances of successful communication to its target audience. (I shall probably come back to this sentence in a future post, relating it to the similar work of others.)
Unlike quite a few of the books I’ve put in that “close but no cigar” category, Life the Universe and Consciousness is not “a book I feel I could have written”. If nothing else, I wouldn’t have had the patience to construct it so carefully and follow it through. Indeed, I almost ran out of the patience to properly read it.
It’s not as much fun to read as Douglas Adams, but I’m glad Bollands wrote it. I hope enough will take it seriously enough to follow the logic. It’s a valuable extension to the current panpsychist movement.