A Philosopher's Blog

The Probability of Life

Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2008

One fundamental scientific and philosophical problem is determining how life began on earth as well as the probability of such a thing happening. Those who favor a purposeful universe point to the existence of life as evidence for said purpose-they claim that the odds of life just happening are far too long to explain otherwise. Those who favor that life just happened need to provide an account of how it just happened and typically want to discuss the probability of the event.

In 1970 Jacques Monod (a biologist and winner of a Nobel prize) wrote “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.” This quote nicely expressed the dominant scientific view of the time: the emergence of life on earth was 1) the result of chance and 2) a matter of such amazingly low probability that it most likely never occurred elsewhere. Of course, even if the probability of life were extremely low, it would still be a hasty inference to conclude what Monod concluded. It is, after all, a big universe.

While this view still enjoys some popularity, some scientists have started accepting the view expressed by Christian de Duve (a biochemist) who calls life a “cosmic imperative” and asserts that it should appear on any earth like world. Given that he has a sample of one (earth) to work with, his assertion is amazingly bold. This hypothesis is sometimes called “biological determinism” (not to be confused with the determinism in the free will debate, of course).

Finding life on another world, such as Mars, or even finding signs that life appeared multiple times on one world (such as earth) would help support the biological determinism hypothesis. Of course, it would require finding multiple worlds like earth with life on them to make accepting the hypothesis reasonabl. After all, finding a few worlds with life in a vast universe would be consistent with the claim that life arises by pure chance and at a very low probability.

As a philosopher, I find the debate quite interesting. After all, it is replaying debates that occurred centuries ago in philosophy regarding the nature of reality. It will be interesting to see the proposed mechanism for biological determinism. Naturally, it does seem to stray into the area of classic, Aristotelian style teleology. Of course, I think humans find that irresistible. For example, even those devoted to evolution find it almost impossible to avoid straying into talk of purpose.

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3 Responses

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  1. trbpublising said, on January 18, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    I am working on formulating some augmentation to this line of reasoning as it relates to new concepts and math of modern physics. It would seem to me that STRING THEORY illuminates the possible understandings of life and it’s abundance.

    Within the framwork of multiple dimensions, and infinite membranes of energy, that form the super string structure of particle physics – life may only need to originate once. The the undulating membranes and harmonics of the vibration of an infinte number of strings – resonate throughout space and time. The order out of chaos, the reptetitive biogenesis of life, the unending spectacle of life and death appear to mirror far deeper realities than our current simple notions of biology, philosopy or religion can adequatly interpret.

    A good discussion.


  2. The Probability of Life | ZAVibes said, on March 5, 2008 at 11:06 pm

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  3. ratheesh said, on October 21, 2008 at 3:57 am

    How life originated, where it originated, its primitive forms, the reasons and ambience that nurtured it, the theology/philosophy/science etc behind it…..could be well debated upon as long as man exists in this universe. But what actually is life? Any idea? Does it have a tangible form….like any state of matter?? Or is it something to be believed like Air….we knw its there but cant see or catch it (but atleast air can be traced out scientifically). Afterall, is it the much proclaimed “internal fire” or “energy”?? If so from where does this energy originate…and if it really is energy, then does the Law of Conservation of Energy be free from criticism?? Every one seems to rely on the universe and the infinite space regarding matters of mystery and enigma. Afterall, where does this life of a particular person end up? Or is it unending?? If science can trace out implulses and stimulus and nerve transmissions and read it through specific instruments, then cant this life be read in its full identity….and cant this migration be explained?? Like in Frankenstein story…then cant this life be trapped and impregnated under suitable ambient conditions to create a living from a dead?? If its some form of energy, then why isnt it coming under the scanner of the numerous energy detecting/measuring devices that this mankind has developed?? A common doubt tht may arise in any curious and questioning mind abt the various life-originating theories is….if life originated from various matter, gaseous particles by some big bang or so, then cant such a situation be recreated?? Or is there something like Life??

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