An interview with Andrés Moya

This post is also available in: Spanish

In your last book you say scientists are prone to melancholy.

We are used to thinking about the optimistic or positive component associated to scientific discovery. That version of the positive science who is happy with discovery is real. But, when one places what discovery in science means into context, the unraveling of the laws of nature, one realizes -this is a personal reflection- that, in a certain way, the capacity to understand everything, precisely by resorting to science, leads some scientists who think deeply (the great majority are people who perform their duty without a deep reflection on the reach of their work) to realize we are probably alone. Probably. I was going to say we are unique, but I have no guarantee, although the probability of contacting other intelligent beings is relatively limited. They could exist and that reinforces the idea of melancholy. During a great fraction of the time I devoted to this book, I was under the impression that science leads us to melancholy, because we don’t know the reasons that lead us to know why we’re here. We are a more or less contingent product of the laws of Nature. Just as we exist, we could also not. There’s quite a lot of debate about this. In fact it’s the reason behind a second book that will be published at the end of 2011, which I have titled Naturaleza y futuro del hombre, and where I discuss where we are going to at some length. In Pensar desde la ciencia I raised the question of where we are now and where we may walk to next. Always with science as a nuclear element. Probably our future depends on our capacity to modify our nature and our future depends greatly on science. In this aspect, I’m a fervent advocate of science: I don’t think we have a future without it.

This presupposes the idea of progress

I don’t have a clear opinion about this, but it may seem -because of what I’m going to say- that I state there’s a certain progress in the dynamics of our own species, in the dynamics of biological evolution itself. Whether we are a contingent product of Nature or not, and I think we are. I always say this to my students: if dinosaurs hadn’t become extinct, today the planet would be populated by intelligent dinosaurs. How would the future have been if a cataclysm hadn’t obliterated them? We cannot exclude the possibility, a priori, that those beings could have evolved into intelligent beings. They became extinct and, coexisting with them, there were those kind of rodents which could survive and then exploded in an incredibly fast evolution, in very few millions of years. We are a product of that evolution. I won’t say there is an intrinsic progress there, but one realizes that the dynamics of the evolution of beings keeps making them more complex. Is that progress? If we focus on the progress of our own species that’s a different matter. Our species is characterized by a certain capacity, at the beginning not very intelligent, of intervening in Nature. And that capacity is becoming more intelligent. We intervene naturally in everything that surrounds us. In a certain way we are a species that makes decisions based on a set of future possibilities. On a set of options, which is related to our notion of freedom. Returning to the idea of progress: our species has intervened, is progressively intervening in Nature, with effects that have been unimportant while we haven’t been abundant. Now we’re very abundant and the effects are much more dramatic. Many of them are negative, but many others are not. I am hopeful about our capacity to intervene intelligently in Nature and, therefore, in ourselves. There’s a paper published recently which talks about these things. What’s the future of humanity? It’s in our own hands. The capacity to intervene intelligently in Nature is growing. Until now we have transformed the world with more or less intelligence, but we have no choice but to use more of it if we don’t want to disappear from the planet. Deep down, what we need to do is take the intervention to its final consequences. This could mean a frontal clash with ecologist movements or groups which talk about preserving natural spaces, about a primal Nature and about humans as an element which has been degrading the planet. But I’m under the impression that, even though there have been negative consequences and a certain degradation, we have no choice but to intervene because in an intelligent intervention lies the basis of our own preservation. I cannot predict what our species will be like in 100 or 150 years, I can’t even imagine, precisely because of the intervention capacity we’re going to have. In Genetics, which is the field I work on, there are new disciplines, new subjects such as synthetic biology, the artificial synthesis of organisms, new technologies which will allow us to act on ourselves, robotics, computation… it sounds like science fiction but I think we will witness deep transformations. I don’t know what their nature will be, socially, because I haven’t thought deeply about that. I’ve reflected on the great advancements in science. Many of them were not foreseeable by far. For example, the Internet, the connection between all the people in the world, was unpredictable and is having immense transforming consequences with effects on sociology and human behavior. Is that progress? Transformation and change in a given direction, yes. And my impression is that this capacity to intervene will only increase. To intervene and modify. Which requires deep social transformations.

Which increases with information fluxes.

We are immersed in a world of information. In computational biology we distinguish between data and information. Processing data in an intelligent way is a complex exercise. There’s a scary amount of data. It’s overwhelming but, on the plus side, we have a surplus of data which demands filtering, because we don’t have the capacity to process everything the new technologies transmit to us. In fact, this can be considered an element of human intervention in society, probably also in Nature. I start from there and I take into account the emergent sciences, particularly synthetic biology, which combines the most advanced aspects of biology with the most advanced aspects of engineering and computation, which allow us to design organisms à la carte. People are already talking about new entities, which didn’t exist before: living entities which have never existed. A product of human activity. Setting aside the ethics of this actions, where can we get to? That’s an important transformative principle. In the history of human societies, many of the changes have come from technical discoveries which could seem irrelevant. The wheel is not irrelevant, neither is the printing press. And they lie at the core of important social transformations.

You ask yourself questions that may be considered metaphysical and you add a reflection: what is the meaning of doing that from the evolutionary perspective?

To what extent is one capable of formulating certain questions and, once the answers have been obtained, reach the conclusion that it may not make a lot of sense, from the existential point of view, to answer that we could just as well not exist? I have commented this in some forums and people have told me this vision contrasts in some way with religion. Many times people say science is not incompatible with religion. In the book I don’t make reference to this, but if you take that train of thought to its last consequences, there is a substitution. The thesis I sustain are rational thesis. With science I’m in a position to explain -not prove- questions such as why religious thought appears or why religion or societies appear. In an evolutionary context. A bit like Richard Dawkins said in his most recent books. Science makes you prone to atheism. You’re capable of progressively answering many questions because you learn more and more laws of Nature, but at the end of the way we still don’t know why we’re here. Science does give me an explanation, that’s the paradox. The thesis that stems from the text is that I can say, more or less, why I’m here, that I’m a contingent product of evolution; that just as we’re here, we could not be, other equally intelligent forms could have evolved. We have the capability to look retrospectively. From Physics, we can explain how something could come out of nothing. And from the point of view of the emergence of life, we have progressively stronger convictions, empirically justified, of how it can have come to be, in certain planets; of how multicellular organisms can have appeared, organisms with a very basic development of language, and so on until we reach this beings, us, who can look back. We know how we’ve been able to reach this stage and we’re in a position to explain more or less complex behaviors of our own species. This is important, because here there’s some disagreement with some versions of sociobiology, which may be rational explanations but don’t have to be definitive or scientifically proven, even though they may be sensible. It’s in this sense that I think there may be a certain antagonism between science and religion. Sociologically it’s interesting to recreate the debate between both instances. From the point of view of sociology, of course, because, as I say in the second text, we can disguise it a little saying science deals with some things and theology with some others. But if we take scientific thought to its last consequences, I think it collides with the thesis from theology, which are the object of faith, while science isn’t. If one stays in the are of scientific thesis, probably one may reach a certain existential melancholy.

For a biologist, the question of what life is seems capital, but it could be posed from pure biology or from individuality.

That’s true. The definition of what can be understood by life is complicated. From the more philosophical, conceptual point of view, there’s a certain idea that the vital phenomenon is associated to some capability of being autonomous from one’s environment. There’s a philosopher I particularly like, Hans Jonas. He studied with Heidegger and has developed a very peculiar philosophy of life: life as a fundamental principle to understand the dynamism of matter. Life forces us to separate mind from spirit. As evolution happens, the spirit seems to emerge, it becomes more present as we approach our species. If we look at the history of philosophy we can see people say there’s only spirit in our species. Jonas denies that. In order not to separate what life is from what matter is, he wants to see a certain stuttering spirit in the fact that an organism, a simple bacterium -which is not so simple- has a certain capacity of sensory response. One could say that can’t be called spirit, because it’s very mechanical, but what’s curious about the dynamics of life is that it becomes progressively more complex, until what we call spirit takes bigger and bigger proportions, reaching our species where it has an enormous transcendence. But it’s not something that appears overnight. It can be scientifically ascribed to biological evolution. The only thing we need is a slight conceptual change to speak about very elementary manifestations of the spirit from the first moments in which life emerges. That’s Jonas’s idea. He does that in order to overcome the antagonism between mind and matter, mind and spirit. In our species, I would call the manifestations of spirit manifestations of mind, they implode and explode. We are beings which use the mind a lot and its properties are very clear. With our mind we have been able to put forward very important transformations. There’s a question that’s not resolved and it’s fascinating, and which I think may be solved at some stage: how can our spirit, in a conscious way, move matter? I give my body instructions to move the fingers. This is, philosophically speaking, a first magnitude problem. How can something which is, in principle, not material, exert an action on matter? The brain, an enormous complex net of interactions between neurons, a certain non-material entity, gives instructions in order to move something which is material. But what we cannot say is this only happens with our species. I’ll place it again in the context of evolution. Another question is whether we are more or less aware that these actions are triggered by a non-material entity. In my book I say the spirit is the interaction of matter. It’s quite a strong sentence which tries to overcome the dichotomy between mind and matter and to place everything in an evolutionary context. The processes of generation of the superior activities of the brain, particularly the human brain, are a product of evolution. They’re not exclusive of our species. We can understand how these complex categories have come to be. Thought, amorous feelings, many activities which seem unique to our species admit a reading in the context of the dynamics of the life of other beings which haven’t reach the levels of spirituality we may have reached, but there’s a certain continuation.

The awareness of oneself is self-awareness.

I call these properties self-awareness. I think we have particularities compared to other species. I’ll go back to the evolutionary frame. Every species has its own characteristics. When one see the tree of life, one sees that, if species are created, it’s because they have developed genuine, unique characteristics. Every species has them. If not, one wouldn’t be able to tell between them. One can tell between them because they have similar characteristics. And we, of course, have them, and probably exacerbated by comparison to other species. There’s still a lot of research to be done regarding self-awareness. Many organisms are aware of belonging to a certain species. In fact, they don’t attack members of their own species, but those of others; one could say those are innate mechanisms which lead them to recognize other members of their species, for example those with which they mate. Our species, even though there’s research to be done, is a species which is aware of who belongs to it or not, which is common to the rest of species, but it’s also aware of itself. That’s self-awareness. That consciousness of singularity, is it generalized to other species? It has to be researched. The separations aren’t always clear and maybe one can speak about a certain degree of self-awareness in other species which are philogenetically close to us, but not at the same level. Awareness of freedom, of death, to what extent can we say those are properties unique to us and not others? Probably some are. Language. Communication happens in many species, I would say in all of them, no matter how elementary. There are very mechanical forms of communication, of signaling. And other, mechanical too, very elaborated forms of communication between members of species. What we do goes beyond that, because language is more than communication. Language is a tool which is, probably, genuinely human. I say language, not communication. In the dynamics of life, our species has evolved unique characteristics. A very important one is self-awareness. It’s a double-edged sword, as Dawkins says. It’s a great tool for saving those replicators, our genes. Dawkin’s message is that it’s a great evolutionary invention that genes have created beings which are able to think, since they are good systems that allow for the transmission of the replicators we have inside, which are the genes. In The selfish gene, he says we are slaves to our own genes and we’re not willing to recognize it because this property, self-awareness, has been generated in us which is apparently over them. This way they make sure they can be transmitted, because being self-aware leads you to say you’d like to stay alive, leave an offspring, which deep down means passing forward your replicators. I’m not sure if it is a good thesis, of course, there’s no way to prove it, but it’s quite interesting.

You claim we are aware of freedom, time and death.

The subject of freedom is key. It’s fundamental because it has to do with science itself, in the sense of whether we’re going to be able to give an explanation of its existence or not. I don’t have a criterion set in stone, because sometimes I think we’re not free and sometimes I think we are. What I believe is it’s possible we may arrive to a scientific resolution of the problem. Daniel Denett has written a lot about this. If we think about the brain’s organization, which is where everything is, it’s possible certain laws exists which, should we know them, would allow us to predict the decision that will be made before any act. If the decision is determined, it’s not free; if it’s not, it is. Could we reach a scientific explanation of free will? The answer could stem from the fact that some laws of nature may exist -exist in fact- (for example, those related to the half-life of a radioactive element or in the realm of quantum mechanics, which has indeterministic laws) and that probably in the case of freedom we could end up formulating some kind of laws which would enable to predict the answer, by applying that law, which would allow us to say the answer is unpredictable. It’s not easy to understand, it’s even hard for me to explain. There’s a famous cellular automaton game, called the game of life. It was developed by a mathematician and Daniel Denett works on it a lot. It’s a computer grid, with some cells where some interaction rules are defined. The cells are occupied by some entities which are either alive or not. The grid is made up by cells, alive of not. The rules that define the game are totally deterministic. But you start playing and you can’t tell what the ending of the game will be, because the nature of the interactions is totally unpredictable and the final structure of the interactions at the end of 200, 300, 1,000 or 2,000 cycles cannot be predicted. Denett says that, even with deterministic laws, chaos and a certain indeterminacy may appear. He tries -and I in a certain way follow him- to see that somewhere out there, there’s an explanation to the freedom in our species, not necessarily compatible with the discovery of more or less deterministic laws. This, in what concerns freedom because, of course, we’re talking about our awareness that we’re free human beings and we say we’re totally determined beings, there’s no room for freedom. It’s possible that a certain principle of freedom may exist, in the sense of unpredictability. It would be a certain answer to the problem of free will in our species. How indeterminate to say whether the freedom is greater in us than in other species is a matter to be studied.

How about death?

First, there’s a question: life is very persistent. From the point of view of personal self-awareness, a conflict is generated because one is aware of one’s own limitations in the sense that, sooner or later, we disappear. Well, I, as a finite being, disappear, but my heritage can go on, because I leave an offspring. If one thought about the genes as those little devils that control everything, then they have it pretty good because they remain, they never die. In that perspective, those beings are kind of immortal. It’s true they haven’t always existed, they appeared some three billion years ago. Life has also appeared. Can it disappear? One may talk about life and death, thinking about life in general. One can talk about life and death, thinking about his amazing evolutionary products, the genes. And one may talk about life and death talking about oneself and about the self-awareness that, as a physical being, one will disappear at a certain moment. And, even if we don’t leave any offspring, our genes are out there because we come from our parents and there are ramifications, in such a way that genes remain, somewhere out there. The exist. From the evolutionary perspective, we’re a pretty genuine product to the extent that we developed a self-awareness and that we know we have certain physical limitations. Our reproductive age is adequate at certain times, we can exert or not the capability to reproduce, and we know that, after a certain period, we will disappear. That, in the perspective I was talking about before, that of atheism. But from the point of view of how persistent life is or how persistent genes are, one may speak of a certain immortality. It’s worth thinking about. In my next book I reflect on our capacity to self-intervene. Self-intervention is all the rage: everybody talks about prolonging our lives. Of improving sociosanitary conditions or the capacity to intervene ourselves genetically, in such a way that our individuality may survive for much longer. Can we reflect on a certain immortality, the way I did before, of life and the genes, but in this case of ourselves? I don’t know if it would be good for us, to be honest, but we should think about it. The average lifespan in western societies is dramatically increasing. The human species, when it appeared on the planet, had a lifespan of 25 years. Now it’s between 75 and 80. The lifespan has been increasing. This, without intervening in a way such as I mentioned before. How far can we get? Here we start with exercises akin to science-fiction. Let’s imagine: will we be able to reproduce a being from cells? Will we be able to perform brain transplants? And what will the transplanted entity be? Because it may be transplanted to a mechanical entity, made from materials which will not be necessarily biological, like some kind of robot. A cyborg. There’s some science-fiction in this, but not so much. 15 years ago, nobody could imagine the Internet emerging with the characteristics it has nowadays. Can we go against individual death? Technically, we can approach it. We can think about the possibility of avoiding it. We can think about it, though historically we can’t avoid it. It would be an exercise of supreme intervention in ourselves, in the times to come.

Would that imply replicating consciousness and memory?

A transplant of that kind… if I talk about the spirit, which is the interaction of matter, it’s true there’s a certain context of interaction with the environment and that individuals are absolutely singular. There aren’t two individuals, no matter how similar, even genetically identical, who are exactly the same. Their vital and developmental experiences are of such nature that they end up with different consciousness. Now, the same way Einstein did, let’s imagine one of those hypothetical experiments that will never be carried out. What would happen if we could transplant a brain? What would that new being be? Because, what do we move with it? All the complex mental operations reside in this box we have in our heads. I see consciousness as something, some kind of permanent emergency, as a consequence of an extraordinarily complex interaction that happens in cerebral processes. Many people have argued about whether it will be possible to transplant one’s brain to a new physical medium. I have doubts. Probably we will need to know a lot more about the brain’s biology, about its cells, in order to decide whether we will be able to carry out this kind of experiment. The times will change so much that things like that may actually come.

You say love is a superior feeling. In what sense?

It’s not strictly a superior feeling if one follows the line suggested by Jonas, where all the manifestations of the spirit are something which keeps developing throughout the history of life. We can dissect the amorous phenomenon throughout that history. Love carries, associated with it, behaviors which are related to the evolution of sexuality. Bacteria have sex. Is there love amongst bacteria? It’s very convenient, with this exercise and precisely to naturalize humans, to not talk about categories which are exclusive to the human species and to try to make an effort to see to what extent we have more or less exacerbated characteristics. Species, to the extent that they have evolved, have been able to develop their spirit increasingly. So the amorous behavior in our spirit is an exacerbated behavior for other species. This is important in order to naturalize humankind. Jesús Mosterín sometimes says that humans haven’t had a nature. In the traditional view, we were beings who had to reject the idea of matter. The body was something abominable. Even in a certain recent tradition, to the extent to which our brain was set up to assimilate the culture of the society where it developed, there was no place for biology, for the physical nature of our own body. This is terrible and it’s hard to understand how we’ve lived for so long with this stubborn view. The view that our species is not just one more species. It is. We are just one more species, with some unique characteristics. The statement about superior categories can help us understand. Does love have very curious manifestations? It does. It’s a state where the person absolutely loses the notion of reality, but associated with it there’s the need for interaction with the loved one, which can be tracked to the dawn of times and are also reproduced in other beings which don’t suffer from this dumbfoundedness of the amorous state. The one of our species has certain particular characteristics, but also many things which are common to other beings. In my books I’ve tried to show the evolutionary context and to overcome dualism.

See this author’s biography.


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