It's said variety is the spice of life but is life the mother of variety?...
To begin this topic, lets imagine what our universe would be like without any living beings in it. A great deal is known about how bits of inaminate matter interact. A quick review of the interactions of material objects, in plain language without the mathematical details that often obscure the subject, is found in the Chapter 1 Section 2 of Volume 1 of the famous "Feynman Lectures on Physics" by Richard Feynman. Please read this excerpt, linked above, because I will be referring to it later. These lectures were presented in the early 1960s but nothing we have learned since then invalidates Feynman's explanation of how matter interacts. The full transcript of these lectures is still in print and
available at Amazon. If you have any idea of pursuing a career in science you should have at least Volume 1 of this series and start reading it as soon as you finish high school (or before if you have a talent for physics).
To make his explanation of the interaction of bits of matter understandable Feynman has necessarily glossed over a lot of detail. Hidden in this detail is what goes on in the interaction between matter and radiation. Also hidden is the uncertainty and statistical nature of quantum mechanical effects. Neither of these omissions affects the validity of Feynman's explanation of how matter interacts. There is one other simplification made by Feynman, ignoring the effects of gravity. Gravity is important in the large scale interactions of matter, holding the solar system together, making new stars out of the fragments of old stars and so on, but gravity is so weak compared to the forces between atoms that it may safely be ignored in interactions of such a local nature as Feynman talks about.
The point of all this discussion of how matter interacts, is that the interactions we are considering are governed by "laws of nature" that are expressible as mathematical relationships tying conditions after the interaction to conditions before the interaction. The implication of this mathematical binding of events is that every event in this lifeless universe lies on a stack of precursor events all the way back to the beginning of time and likewise all future events are fixed by events in the past locked in an unbroken chain of cause and effect. None of the interactions among bits of inanimate matter depend on any intervention by living beings. So if there were no living beings it seems that the universe would go along pretty much the way it does now.
Now lets introduce living beings into our previously lifeless universe, in particular let us say human beings. Humans have a peculiar property that is not evident in inaminate matter. They seem to have two levels of existence, the physical and the mental. This apparent duality shows up both when we humans examine our own thoughts and actions and when we observe the interactions of other humans with each other and with inaminate matter. It certainly appears that humans can make willful changes in the universe, precipitating events that are not clearly locked into a physical causal chain stretching back to the big bang.
In the preceding paragraph you may have noticed a certain amount of wishy washy language like: seems to, apparent and appears. That is what you get when a mathematician finds himself talking philosophy. Here is where the philosophy begins to come in. Clearly the human body is constructed from the same bits of matter as the rest of the universe. There has been a long, inconclusive investigation into the connection between the mind or consciousness, which is the seat of mental activity, and the brain, which is clearly part of the physical body.
At this point I guess I should address the principle of causal closure. Causal closure, the notion that in physics there are no causeless effects, implies that mental activity cannot cause physical effects unless the mental activity itself has a physical cause. The brain is a physical organ and its operation is presumably governed by physical laws so if mental activity like forming an intent arises entirely in the brain, causal closure is satisfied. My problem is that if a mental event is just another link in the chain of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, then that mental event was predetermined some 3.7 thousand million years ago, negating any sort of free will.
One approach to resolving the free will issue is to invoke some sort of dualism where consciousness has a reality of its own and the brain is just the organ that couples the consciousness to the body enabling the consciousness to affect the physical world. This notion is attractive to those of us who believe in an immortal soul. I am hesitant though to latch onto this issue as evidence of the soul's existence because we are taught that the soul is an article of faith, not of reason. Faith, the ability to know something that is beyond understanding, is a great comfort in times of trouble. Also it has value in allowing us to persevere in the face of slight chance of success... possibly an evolutionary advantage.
Modern physics is littered with concepts that lie outside our intuition, which was formed by our perception of a strictly classical universe. It may be that causal closure is valid and that our persistent notion that we can influence physical events is just an illusion. It is impossible to disprove an assertion of illusion because any disproving mechanism could just be absorbed in the illusion. Some serious scientists, particularly those who have had much success developing and using the "laws of nature", take a position that free will is an illusion. At the top of the last page of the Feynman excerpt is a hint of that sentiment. Naturally if the folks holding that notion are correct, they had no choice but to take that position, just as they had no choice but to investigate nature's laws... But wait, if every event is fixed at the beginning of time there is no choice at all in human activity so there can be no praise for good deeds nor blame for evil. If, on the other hand, living beings are able to willfully redirect the course of events, breaking causal closure, then consciousness cannot logically follow from only physical causes, physical events being subject to causal closure; there must be something else to explain consciousness. I have stretched my mind to accommodate the apparent nonsense of relativity and quantum mechanics but it rebels at the idea that we all are just spectators, not actors in life.
Dr. Henry P Stapp in his book Mindful Universe provided me with some additional insight into this causal closure mess. In the book referenced above, Dr. Stapp writes:
"It is the absence from orthodox quantum theory of any description on the workings of 'process zero' that constitutes the causal gap in contemporary orthodox quantum theory. It is this 'latitude' offered by the quantum formalism, in connection with the 'freedom of experimentation' (Bohr 1958, p. 73) that blocks the causal closure of the physical, and thereby releases human actions from the immediate bondage of the physically described aspects of reality."
The 'process zero' mentioned above is the process of deciding which experiment to perform. It is the first step in probing a quantum system to measure some aspect of the system. Dr Stapp also writes:
"Probing actions of this kind are performed not only by scientists. Every healthy and alert infant is engaged in making willful efforts that produce experiential feedbacks, and he or she soon begins to form expectations about what sorts of feedbacks are likely to follow some particular kind of felt effort."
In spite of centuries of effort by physicists, biologists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians and the common woman and man, the true nature of consciousness and existence of free will, remain open questions. Intuitively the existence of free will seems obvious to me. I feel myself making conscious choices throughout the day, some inconsequential, others portentous (full of unspecifiable significance, exciting wonder and awe); some well thought out, others less so. I am absolutely convinced that at any instant a different choice might have been made. Of course that conviction might be totally mistaken. Perhaps my causally closed brain is deceiving me. Nevertheless, there it is. I am more comfortable contemplating the "something else" that is the seat of my consciousness than confronting the futility that flows from the alternative of rigid causal closure.
So what do living beings bring to the universe that inanimate matter cannot? It is my conjecture that only living beings can serve to divert causal event chains so as to access possibilities that would be inaccessible if left to the laws of nature. Life being the mother of variety, so to speak. In effect the development of life changes the universe from an elaborate wind-up toy, interesting but in principle totally predictable, into a dynamic laboratory for exploring event chains not built into the universe from the beginning. In the absence of living beings with free will it seems to me that this diversity of events would not be possible. I observed in a previous essay that maintaining life requires constant effort to hold off the natural tendency of things to proceed from order to disorder. This seems like a modest price to pay for opening up an enormous number of possibilities not available in a lifeless universe.