Nature of Life

A review of Nature of Life by Rob Mason

Conrad Hal Waddington was born in Evesham on 8 November 1905 to Hal and Mary Ellen (Warner) Waddington. He spent his first few years on a tea estate in South India, where his father was a tea planter. He was educated at Clifton College, a coeducational public school in Bristol, England, and at the University of Cambridge.
The 1971 Gifford Lectures given at the University of Edinburgh by C. H. Waddington, A. J. P. Kenny, H. C. Longuet-Higgins and J. R. Lucas resulted in two books: The Nature of Mind (1972) and The Development of Mind (1973)

Chance (the occurrence of events in the absence of any obvious intention or cause)

The emphasis on the importance of chance has been one of the most profound and far-reaching of Darwin’s influences on human thought.  It spread into fields far removed from those which Darwin discussed.  As we all know there has been a strong tendency to frame the laws of physics in terms of probability or chance events, rather than in terms of the type of simple causation which had been relied on by Isaac Newton.
Within the field of evolution the rival type of hypothesis which the reliance on chance superseded, was one which depended on the operations of an intelligent designer. Darwin himself, to some extent at least, shared the feelings of many of his contemporaries that the substitution of chance for design as an explanatory principle tended to undermine one of the major intellectual reasons for a belief in God.
Many of Darwin’s readers, particularly those that were not scientists, could not bring themselves to adopt such a neutral attitude, and felt deeply shocked. Many who were willing to believe in an evolving Deity could not believe in one who dealt in random variations.  They could accept an evolving universe but not a universe shaken out of a dice box. Present day evolutionary theory is firmly based on the postulate that the process of mutation (the changing of the structure of a gene), recombination and fertilization are essentially random. Now it is probably true that nothing worthy of being considered creative can occur in a fully deterministic universe ruled by the operation of simple causation. It was a major service of Darwinism, though one that he probably did not anticipate and possibly would not completely approve, to have broken the hold on our minds of notions of simple causation.

We confront, in the phenomenon of self-awareness, a basic mystery which lies at the heart of our life.  It is not only the experience of free-will which is inextricably involved with self-awareness; our whole understanding of the external world is deduced from what we consciously perceive.  We can explain to ourselves some of the mechanisms by which, for instance, light waves emitted from an object are focused on our retina, and there cause electrical disturbances which travel into and around our brains.  But the most essential step in the whole process is that these events cause us to be aware of something; and so long as we have not the faintest idea what this awareness means, and cannot envisage any way in which the phenomenon of awareness could be expressed in terms of anything else, the act of perception and the whole observable world which it depends on it contains an inescapable element of mysteriousness.