Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Potentially Unsolvable Enigma of Life & Love

What is life?
I wrote a thought experiment a while back, which still gives me cause to ponder sometimes. Think of the notion of removing atoms one by one in the physical world, and imagine we have a method of physically doing so with ultimate computational precision and high speed capacity.

If I reduce bit by bit a plane or a car or a microwave to a random aggregation of atoms and then reassemble them exactly as they were, then I would have a fully working plane or a car or a microwave, because neither of these systems is biologically alive. But if I did the same to an insect, a bird or a human (at several trillion atoms at a time), there would come a point when its being 'alive' would cease.

If I reassembled those atoms exactly as they were I would never reconstitute life, because once a thing dies it cannot be brought back to life. At least that is our current understanding of biological systems. But do we believe this only because of our limitations in reassembling the atomic or sub-atomic structure back to full constitution?

In other words, if, when a young bird died by hitting a tree, I had the apparatus to reassemble its structure into the exact atomic form before it flew into the tree, would it be alive as it was before? I think the idea of life as being explicable in terms of matter, information and computation is interesting, because it leads to the question of whether it can be reconstituted with the ability to reassemble matter, or whether there is some law in nature that would preclude this.

What is love?
I also had a similar thought about love in a book on love I work on from time to time.  In the distant future when technology is much more advanced than now - suppose neuroscientists John and Jill work together for 20 years as friends, and in that time they completely map the neuroscientific definitions of love after studying hundreds of couples in love.  At the end of this, with regard to brain states that map feelings and emotions, they find 'love' is entirely reducible to physical neuroscientific descriptions. 

John and Jill have dedicated their lives to this work, and as a consequence, they have never been in love themselves.  Now if one day John and Jill experience a series of events which culminate in their falling in love with each other, they will have experienced something other than the aforementioned feelings and emotions reducible to physical neuroscientific descriptions. 

John and Jill have a complete scientific definition of love in the physical sense, but having now fallen in love with each other they have now experienced something new about love, which causes us to question whether love is more than the physical, as they already have a complete physical description.  Could that suggest that, if what they are experiencing is not amenable to the same physical neuroscientific activity as before, this means love isn't entirely reducible to the physical?  

I'm not sure, but I suspect it doesn't undermine the physical - I would think it simply means that love is still physical, but that the distinction between the conceptual first person perspective is a different (and much more intractable) object of study than the third person physical neuroscientific descriptions that define love from the perspective of the neurological observer, rather than the person experiencing the love.  In other words, when John maps love in his studies of other couples, he is mapping a complete third person physiological description, but not a first personal conceptual description, which is an entirely different lens of physical perspective.

When falling in love on that special day, John may experience some kind of inner 'circuit board of experience' sensation, where lights that had never lit up before, suddenly do so with new connectivity - which makes sense, given that friendship is the natural precursor to love (something he had for 20 years with Jill). 

But on top of that, there is further intractability, because love from the first person perspective isn't a singular fait accompli 'circuit board of experience' sensation - it is a journey of discovery with a beloved over time, in which each learns and grows with the other, and where each conflates that learning and growth with the newness of fresh experiences, changing social climates, and the evolving intellects, emotional wisdom and knowledge of each party.

This suggests that even John and Jill's initial completely mapped physical neuroscientific description of third person love is incomplete, as love is dynamically evolving, not statically reducible to any present tense conjunctions.  So I conclude that love probably is entirely physical, it's just that the 'entirely physical' nature of anything mental is a hugely intractable object of study, not just because there is empirical discontinuity between the first person concepts and the third person neuroscientific mapping, but also because the mind is on the whole probably too complex to reveal all its topographical secrets.