What life wants

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What life wants

Animate object: Arctic Terns are among the species of migratory bird thought to use quantum effects to navigate. Photo by Paul Souders/Corbis

Dead matter has no goals of its own, yet life is constantly striving. That makes it a deep puzzle for physics

Vlatko Vedral is a professor of physics at the University of Oxford and the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Decoding Reality (2010).

1900 1,900 words
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The separation between sciences is crumbling. Nature doesn’t recognise disciplinary borders, and as we deepen our understanding, we see more of what these traditionally distinct branches of science have in common. There remain, however, curious hold-outs.

Physics deals with the basic properties of matter and energy and how they interact. Chemistry asks how atoms get together to form more complex molecules and what effect this has on the resulting substances. What both have in common is that they study inanimate matter.

Biology, on the other hand, studies living organisms. And here we encounter the central obstacle to seeing all of natural science as one big coherent whole. Inanimate matter seems to obey the laws of nature without exception and down to the last letter. Living things, by contrast, appear to have a will of their own. They are best understood — perhaps even best defined — by what might be called purposiveness. They try to do things, and while they cannot violate the laws of nature, they certainly can exploit them in order to realise their goals. You can't say the same for inanimate matter.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the links between physics and chemistry should be much better established than the links between either of these fields and biology. Very few scientists would deny that the laws of quantum physics (our most accurate fundamental laws of nature at present) also fully explain the laws of chemistry. Yes, it might be difficult to calculate all the intricate details of certain complex reactions using physics alone, but most scientists agree that chemistry does nevertheless follow in its entirety from quantum theory. Biology seems like a different matter, though. Some parts of biology look detached from chemistry, let alone reducible to quantum physics.

Some birds are thought to use odd quantum effects to detect the earth’s magnetic field during migration

Take the theory of evolution. Imagine that we start with some primitive living being, capable of reproduction. Its offspring display a certain rate of random mutations, and certain environmental features cause some of those mutations to fare better than others. Taken together, these conditions lead us to expect ever more complex organisms to spring up (though the simplest ones are still likely to predominate). Darwin’s idea is without doubt the best explanation for all the complexity of life we see around us. We know that species change through genetic mutations, and that new species survive because they are better adapted to their habitat than their rivals. But does the ‘law’ of the survival of the fittest follow, like chemistry, from the basic laws of quantum physics?

Before I tackle this question, let me make one thing clear. I am not merely asking whether living systems can exploit the stranger aspects of quantum physics to improve their chances of survival. The simple answer to that is, yes, it appears they do. There is evidence to suggest that even the quirkiest of quantum effects, quantum entanglement, is used by photosynthesising plants to channel light energy towards their energy-producing parts by the most efficient route. Similarly, some birds are thought to use odd quantum effects to detect the earth’s magnetic field during migration. The efficiency advantage that quantum physics could be giving these living systems is that it allows them to perform several tasks at the same time, something computer scientists call parallel information processing. Very few people expected that the full repertoire of quantum physics could survive in macroscopic, warm and wet, noisy environments such as plants and birds. Surprise and excitement at these hints that they do has inspired an emerging field called quantum biology, which captivates a growing body of scientists as much as the public.

But this has little to do with reducing biology to physics. Life also exploits classical mechanics and gravity, and that doesn’t mean that classical mechanics and gravity can explain the evolution of life itself. Life could be consistent with all the laws of physics and we still might require principles in addition to physics to explain it. In fact, most biologists would agree that it is indeed consistent with the laws of physics in the sense that it must obey all of them. It not only exploits physics, but is also affected by it: clearly enough, the environment affects living beings via physics.

Here, though, we are still thinking in terms of two domains – the animate and the inanimate – acting on one another while preserving their distinctness. What we want to know is whether the distinction itself holds up. The question is whether evolution, one of the pillars of biological theory, is fully a consequence of physics. In particular, is it a consequence of quantum physics, which explains everything we know about atoms and molecules?

At first sight this seems unlikely. The grandfather of quantum physics, a Dane called Niels Bohr, went even further in a famous 1932 lecture titled ‘Light and Life’. He argued that we cannot, even in principle, probe life in vivo to understand it. In Bohr’s words, ‘the existence of life must be considered as an elementary fact that cannot be explained’. Just as Planck’s constant — which, according to Bohr, ‘appears as an irrational element from the point of view of classical mechanical physics’ — nevertheless forms an irreducible foundation of atomic theory, so too must life be taken as an inexplicable starting point in biology.

Bohr’s opinion is a notably pessimistic one. Others have had higher hopes for the unification of scientific realms. In their upbeat spirit, here’s one possible angle to explore. Quantum physics uses randomness to help explain the behavior of events on the microscopic scale of single atoms and molecules. Perhaps we could link this insight to the biological notion of random genetic mutations — although the ‘biological random’ and the ‘quantum random’ might end up being very different.

One obvious distinction is that the evolutionary principle of natural selection does not have any physical counterpart: different states of inanimate matter are not selected according to any fitness parameter.

Or are they? Different equilibrium states of inanimate matter — that is, states that are stable over time — were first understood from the microscopic perspective by the Austrian physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann. In the 1870s, Boltzmann explained the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the level of disorder of an isolated system always increases. In his logic, the macroscopic state that matter assumes is simply the one with the highest number of microstates. Imagine rolling two ordinary dice. If you have to bet on a particular score, you should pick seven, for the simple reason that there are six different two-die combinations that give a score of seven, and every other score has a smaller number of possible combinations. Likewise, randomly jiggled collections of particles incline to disorder because, simply put, ways of being messy outnumber ways of being tidy. How might we connect this insight to living systems?

It is no accident that the first person to talk qualitatively about life within the confines of the Second Law was also Boltzmann. Here is what he said: ‘The general struggle for existence of animate beings is not a struggle for raw materials — these, for organisms, are air, water and soil, all abundantly available — nor for energy, which exists in plenty in any body in the form of heat, but a struggle for [negative] entropy, which becomes available through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth.’ For Boltzmann, life is trying to stay away from equilibrium, away from the state of inanimate (dead) matter. It does this by sucking in low-entropy stuff from the environment, thereby pushing its own levels of disorder away from the maximum. Another pioneer of quantum physics, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, also emphasised the idea that life tries to maximise free energy, namely the energy available to do useful work. This is another way of saying that it wants to stay away from equilibrium. In this respect it differs from, for example, a stone, which when left to its own devices just stays as it is and does not try to do anything useful.

Picture a bird flapping its wings only to stay suspended in one place in the air: though it is clearly dynamic, it still results in a stationary condition

Could this be our elusive fitness parameter? If so, it should suggest a way to restate the biological principle of the survival of the fittest. So let’s try this version: the faster we can achieve a state far from equilibrium, the fitter we are. In fact, this way of thinking about biology was anticipated by the 1977 chemistry Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine. He thought that nature selects the adaptations that maximise entropy production, the dynamics that generate disorder quickest. Beyond some theoretical arguments in its favour, there is little experimental evidence that this is indeed the case. There is, in fact, some evidence to the contrary. This might be due to the difficulty of measuring entropy production in any precise way. But it could also mean there’s something wrong with the principle.

The latest chapter in the attempt to derive biology from physics comes from an Israeli physicist, Addy Pross. He suggests that, very much as inanimate matter conforms to thermodynamics by maximising entropy, living beings strive to maximise what he calls ‘kinetic stability’. This is not the same as maximising entropy production. Rather than reaching a passive state of equilibrium, as all inanimate matter inevitably does according to the Second Law, living systems achieve a dynamically stable state, but they have to keep working in order to maintain it. The dynamically stable state is fragile and needs constant re-establishment. Picture a bird flapping its wings only to stay suspended in one place in the air: this requires careful balancing, and though it is clearly dynamic, it still results in a stationary condition.

If Pross is right, we might have the ingredients to reduce the key features of evolutionary biology to chemistry. And given that chemistry is reducible to quantum physics, it seems as though we might be able to go all the way from biology to quantum physics. This would be a great achievement. However, like any great achievement, it raises questions.

We started by saying that what discriminates living from non-living systems is a sense of purpose. If biology is reducible to quantum physics, and typical quantum objects such as atoms and molecules show no sense of purpose, where does the transition occur? Where does the ‘desire’ to achieve the state of kinetic stability come from? This, of course, brings us back to square one. One easy way out is to conclude that purposefulness is simply an illusion. Pross would probably say that it is an emergent property that arises when chemistry becomes complicated enough. But given that this sense of purposefulness is how we identify life in the first place, perhaps we should resist conclusions that seem to wave it away too easily.

I don’t pretend to have answers to any of these questions. On the other hand, the speed of progress in fields that cross the boundaries between natural sciences – not least quantum biology – makes me optimistic that we will get some, sooner or later. For now we’ll just have to keep trying. As living beings, that seems to come naturally to us.

Read more essays on biology, physics and quantum theory


  • Daniel N

    interesting indeed, I have always wondered why and how matter started to "stay alive" or "become more". these theorys satisfied some of my daily science checkup

    • Overleaf

      A bacteria or a C. elegans worm made out of 1000 cells has no idea what death is. But still strives.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Why life constantly striving?A simple answer in my opinion is life want to overcome the fear of death.Death give meaning to our life there is no other meaning to our life.

    • Overleaf

      A bacteria or a C. elegans worm made out of only 1000 cells has no idea what death is. But still strives.

      • http://www.mysticworship.com rameshraghuvanshi

        Can you explain why strives ?If there is no meaning in life why creature struggle to save himself and live even wretched condition.n one want death ready to extremely suffer but want to survive

        • Overleaf

          Simple. The DNA is programmed such that it has to replicate. In order to replicate, it needs energy and materials. So the organism strives to find the necessary materials and obtain the useful energy that allows the DNA to make copies of itself.

          • http://www.mysticworship.com rameshraghuvanshi

            What about old creature including human being who strive in extreme old age when he unable to replicated become impotent

          • Overleaf

            Humans is different because we have intelligence and consciousness. But worms and bacteria are programmed to make copies of themselves.

            Humans strive to escape hunger, pain, cold, etc. There are many more reasons why humans strive. But we are also programmed to make babies if we can. Population of world is exploding.

          • http://www.mysticworship.com rameshraghuvanshi

            I think your observation abut other animal limited giving birth to child is one part that also intended for immorality After that also all creature including man strive to over come the fear of death.Death only give meaning to our life

  • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

    You may find this interesting. Peter Hoffmann: "Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos." http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/2012/nov/29/vital-forces

    "You can't say the same for inanimate matter.
    How would you address the growth of crystals in this definition?

    "Where does the ‘desire’ to achieve the state of kinetic stability come from?"
    Could it be as simple as that there was nothing to deter that initial molecular interaction from replicating and advancing in complexity?
    And perhaps animate beings are thus negentropic systems or states in an entropic universe.

    ...." conclude that purposefulness is simply an illusion." now we would have to become embroiled in determinism.

  • http://twitter.com/lindhquist lindhquist

    This reminded me of the main "idea" in Teranesia (Greg Egan), where evolution worked (if I remember it right) through a sort of kaleidoscopic quantum repertoire of choices.

    • Overleaf

      Whenever I hear the word quantum out of context, "I reach for my holster".

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001027236509 Roy Niles

    "Its offspring display a certain rate of random mutations, and certain environmental features cause some of those mutations to fare better than others."

    Once you make that mistake, the rest of your quest is hopeless. Mutations don't cause us to choose among them. We essentially choose among those we've opted to internally cause. Additionally, we take advantage of any randomness that our experience advises us to. We don't just randomly try them out until one fits. Study the newer science of adaptive mutations, and your questions might be more easily answered. Plus don't assume the universe that can't otherwise make choices is dead. It makes intelligently evolved reactions all the time.

  • Luis Cayetano

    'If biology is reducible to quantum physics, and typical quantum objects
    such as atoms and molecules show no sense of purpose, where does the
    transition occur?'

    The whole power of Darwinian natural selection is that it links the world of meaningless, purposeless matter with the world of meaning and purpose. There's nothing 'mysterious' about this or how it does it. Here's the punchline: it's also old news. You're arguing for what Daniel Dennett calls 'greedy reductionism' (the lowest levels 'explain' the highest levels, with no pause along the way to take in the hierarchical nature of organisation), so that you can claim that there's some something 'puzzling', a gap in our knowledge that we need to fill with some as yet undiscovered 'transition'.

    An organism lives within a material context, and this material context involves quantum effects. To the extent that quantum effects could aid the propagation of certain types of matter (different genotypes/phenotypes), selection could favour the ability to exploit them. What's so 'puzzling' about that? It looks like you've just gone for the whole greedy reductionist shebang, mistaken it for something 'interesting', and then assumed that, golly, organisms are made of quantum-influenced components, so shouldn't quantum mechanics therefore 'explain' evolution?

    No, of course it shouldn't, and nor could it, for the same reason that it couldn't explain the difference between feudalism and capitalism, or traffic jams, or even the difference between cheese and bacon. If you think that it would be a fruitful enterprise to study a traffic jam by keeping track of every single quantum fluctuation that occurs in it, let me know, or at least let me know if you think that anything interesting over and above how we study them now is added when we throw quantum mechanics into the mix. We all know how traffic jams can and should be studied: at a higher level of abstraction, of large chunks of matter doing large-chunks-of-matter-type-things.

    'Where does the transition occur?'

    When a system arises that exhibits what we might call 'competence' at making approximations of itself, and when different variants of such a system show different competences in a particular set of environmental conditions. How this system initially arose is still a puzzle (though not an unmitigated mystery). But that's about as 'puzzling' as things get. Once you have that, you have the transition. Purpose and meaning can then be accumulated. Whether these systems exploit quantum effects adds not one jot of conceptual radical-ness to it.

    Sorry, but this article is banal claptrap, appealing to a sense of befuddlement that inevitably follows when one fails to appreciate levels of abstraction.

    'I don’t pretend to have answers to any of these questions.'

    I do. In fact, you can find them in standard Darwinian theory.

    • gcallah

      If a bunch of hand waving is an answer, then you've got one, Luis!

      • Luis Cayetano

        This article is brimming with conceptual errors about evolution and reductionism. There's no need for hand waving when a genuine problem hasn't been presented in the first place. Your own ignorance of Darwinian theory can't be laid at my door either.

        • Johnson

          There is no "new" information. Someone somewhere has done the research and explained the nature of all aspects of the world. It feels like a race to pick the carcass clean. Any "novel" idea will be pounced on; absorbed - and owned.

    • Protagonizzle


    • Jonathan

      Hi Luis
      In your comment to the sentence: "Where does the transition occur?" I fail to grasp in what sense you explain the transition - it appears you only posit that the transition had already happened earlier on, which does not really explain anything? It appears to be a circular argument where the 'product is already contained in the ground', so to speak.

      I read the article as a take on the question of how consciousness arises from matter. I guess I am with Niels Bohr on that one. He took mechanistic and teleological explanations to be complimentary to one another. He also insisted that there is a subjective side to being a living being - and if you favor the mechanistic mindset you risk loosing something very important, namely that all knowing is the doing of a subject.

      I think i agree with you, that a systems-type of thinking can explain a lot about how macro-forms continually redefine their boundaries at a certain level of description, but I do not see how it can explain the emergence of consciousness per se.


      • Overleaf

        "Transition" is just a play on the words. It is a semantic error. Like saying oxygen/hydrogen are gasses, while water is a liquid. So hydrogen somehow transitioned into a liquid. How did that happen?

        Little molecular machines aka DNA wish to make copies of themselves. To do that, they have to seek materials and energy. Otherwise they could not copy and they would not exist in the first place. That is your transition. The DNA now has a "purpose", a goal.

        There is a very good article here on Aeon on consciousness called the theory of Attention Schema. There are tens of theories of consciousness. Some give a better and some give a lesser explanation of this phenomenon. According to this theory, consciousness emerges when the brain is powerful enough to model itself. Our brain models a lot of things, such as how fast the rabbit is running so we can catch it and eat it. For same reasons, the brain needs to model its own body and its feeling and its thinking. When that happens, it becomes aware of itself.

  • Angus

    "Pross would probably say that it [purposefulness] is an emergent property that arises when chemistry becomes complicated enough. But given that this sense of purposefulness is how we identify life in the first place, perhaps we should resist conclusions that seem to wave it away too easily."

    Wave it away? Who's waving it away? That is exactly what purposefulness is. And there's your answer to the questions you've raised, even though you say you don't have the answers!

    • Overleaf

      "purposefulness" is a play on words and the author puts too much metaphysical meaning into it. A DNA molecule seeks amino acids and energy so it can replicate. So it has a purpose. So there we go.

  • http://twitter.com/ShimaBeigi Shima

    An interesting article.

    I think the desire part is a relative concept. Depending on the ability of an organism to sort out info from its surrounding, and matching it with the required configuration at that time (perhaps right amount of energy), the degree of purpose can change at least I think. I also feel that since organisms can learn they also can get addicted (stuck to some levels and then become eliminated)!

    I mean brain is not itself intelligent, it by virtue of fire and wire of neurones functions, It also uses same paths for different things, so here i feel there might be a chance of falsifying different types of information for the same thing and vice versa.

    The fittest in this context can be the one that has learned how its control mechanism works and thus has increased its competitive advantage and eventually it's outperformed others. This is my thinking on evolution, which at the end I feel it links everything to the second law.

    • Overleaf

      An article here in Aeon says the same thing and I think you are on the right track.

      But how does the second law come into this? The second law does not say that there is a moment to decrease entropy in complex objects.

  • Matt

    Once you get a discrete unit that can make copies of itself, natural selection takes over. It's not that deep a problem.

    • DeadlyDoug

      How do you get that discrete unit. Even DD has problems explaining this!

      • Overleaf

        Very easy. In the primordial soup, you need atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and phosphor to come together through statistical means, and create amino acids and sugars that can then assemble into lets say an RNA molecule. This molecule now starts replicating and mutating. Nothing mysterious about that.

  • ellen dayton

    physics laws of enthalpy and entropy. life must be purposely fed to avoid entropy. the only thing that reaches perfect entropy is a perfect crystal, and there are no perfect crystals in nature.

  • http://tournamentscheduler.net/ Eelke Spaak

    The relevant question the author seems to be addressing (although in a rather vague and 'deliberately-mysterious' way, uncharacteristic of Aeon) is whether a biological principle such as survival of the fittest can be understood to follow from purely physical laws.

    The principle of survival of the fittest does not follow from physics, it follows from logic. As soon as there is any system that creates copies of itself, whereby the copying process is ever so slightly imperfect, such that random mutations occur, the principle of survival of the fittest will hold. A particular mutation might enable individual system B to create copies at a faster rate than its parent A. Therefore, after a long time has passed, there will be far more systems like B than like A. This is survival of the fittest, it is a great logical insight from Darwin, with applications far beyond biology and, indeed, beyond physics. This article thus seems a bit superfluous to me.

    • Overleaf

      Very good points. You don't even need mutation. A RNA molecule can gobble up other RNA molecules in a way that it becomes a better molecule and fitter, and hence can dominate the primordial soup. It's a systems behaviour which can be modelled. It uses physical laws to execute, but the elements of the game is stacked in a way that it produces such beaviour in the objects.

      Humans don't go around normally kicking balls as they walk or sleep. But make up the rules for a football game, and now humans are kicking balls to achieve a purpose. The rules of the game is not physical - it is informatic. Same with survival of the fittest.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Physic and chemistry are dead on the contrary biology is concern with life of death living organism..Only intention of living organ is overcome the death in any condition.All living creature struggle on this theme.at least prolong death as possible as long.Real meaning of survival fittest is adjust yourself with changing circumstances only man is wise enough because of his developed brain is successful in this struggle.

  • john

    Our three pound brain is incapable of comprehending each and every step from a hydrogen atom emitting and absorbing light to H. Sapiens building Los Angeles. It behoves us to accept the limitations of our intelligence and use our imaginations to span the vast domains of our ignorance.

    • Overleaf

      So we can invent ghosts and gods and spirits when we fail an explanation?

  • http://thewayitis.info/ Derek Roche

    Might it not just be a question of your preconceptions?

    Who's to say that the formation of atoms is not "a struggle for [negative] entropy" by sub-atomic (quantum) particles; the result of their "desire" for "kinetic stability" or homeostasis?

    What if we turn the question on its head and make the puzzle one of "reducing" physics to biology?

    Might it not just be a question of whether you have a preconceived bias towards mechanistic or organic models of explanation?

    • Overleaf

      Sorry, reductionism works only one way. The other way has been tried forever, and we have gods, spirits, devils, jinns, magic, superstition, etc. And when we don't get these, we get category errors, conceptual errors, incoherence, subjectivity, etc.

      Top-down approach is counter-enlightenment.

  • selimibn

    I think that the characterization of life as 'purposeful matter' is a significant source of confusion, and that it should probably be avoided. It also seems to me that when people claims that we can't explain life, very often they mean that abiogenesis is unexplained. Given that life began on earth just once, it is not very likely that we can get the kind of detailed explanation that we have for, say, the periodic table. Rather, one would hope for something more akin to our understanding of the genesis of the solar system, or the geological history of our planet. As Hermann Bondi remarks in The lure of completeness, we cannot pretend, not even imagine, a theory of the Universe that tells us why the Virgo Cluster was formed in a region of space nearby to our own local group. In that sense we can always find something 'unexplained' in any historical science. But that doesn't mean that there is something 'unexplainable', that a new principle or law must be created. The distinction really is the same as the distinction between the laws of nature and initial (and boundary) conditions. While in this sense many features of the biological world will probably remain 'unexplained', I don't really think that we can claim they are 'unexplainable', that there is a gap in understanding that should be filled with 'something new'.

    I agree with Luis Cayetano when he says that greedy reductionism is unwarranted. In any case, I would add, when biology is concerned, is premature -we often cannot fully claim such hierarchical reductionism inside physics, while going from, say, quantum field theory to quantum mechanics. However, I think it is also worth remarking that there is no sharp boundary between the properties of life and nonlife: think, for example, of viruses. Or see Spiegelman's monster: nobody (so far as I know) claims that there is new physics or a new principle or law of nature involved in the binding of RNA replicase to the fifty or so nucleotides in Eigen's version of this self-replicating chain, and yet this seems to be an extremely simple example of the kind of process we call life.

    • Overleaf

      And the author's mystical "transition" and "purposefulness" is simply that of such replicating molecules following the rule of the game which is if you don't replicate you as a sequence of nucleotides will will stop to exist. Hence the need to seek energy and materials to replicate, and there you get your purpose and your transition.

  • David_LloydJones

    At the wavelength of television the Earth is a bright star. Humanity is filling the Universe with a sphere of first Hitler opening the 1936 Olympic Games, followed by a forty light-years long stream of I Love Lucy.

    If that isn't a major expansion in the generation of entropy, I don't know what is.

    Human life doing what life does best...


  • Richard Burnett Carter

    Read Adolf Portmann's Was bedeutet uns die lebendige Gestalt for a zoologist's take on these questions. As the late Jacob Klein--author of "Greek Mathematics and the Origin of Algebra pointed out to his audience of quantum physicists--A stone is easier to know than a dog; a dog is alive. (Phillip Frank related this story to me, chuckling as he did so.)

  • P.Krishna

    This article raises interesting questions that cannot be answered as yet. Here are a few more to ponder without answering:

    According to the
    standard model of the origin of the universe, it began with a Big Bang
    explosion in which energy was in the form of a plasma consisting of quarks,
    photons, electrons and such elementary particles in random motion. The
    explosion led to a rapid expansion of the universe and it has continued to
    expand till now. There could be no life
    at the origin of the universe since there was no structure and consequently no
    consciousness either. The universe of the physicist is a dead universe and the
    laws of physics do not predict or require the origin of either life or
    consciousness. According to present scientific knowledge life appears to have
    originated accidentally and not intentionally. Consciousness, as we know it is
    believed to have evolved gradually in the course of biological evolution as the
    structure of the brain became more and more complex.

    Religious thought fundamentally disagrees
    with this scenario. According to them it is impossible to generate the visible
    structure in the universe, including life-forms such as our own body, without
    any intelligence directing the phenomenon. They argue that if it takes
    intelligence and directed ingenuity to build a computer or a space-vehicle,
    does it not take intelligence to build a tree or a human body out of the
    chaotic state of the early universe? So according to religious philosophers
    intelligence was there first, in the form of a universal consciousness (as
    distinct from our personal psyche) which directed and structured the universe,
    producing life and eventually the human being. This philosophic debate whether
    matter is primary and generated consciousness by getting structured or
    consciousness is something apart from matter which directed the development of
    the structure is as yet an unsettled matter. Sir James Jeans wrote in the book “The
    Mysterious Universe’ that the probability of the structure in the universe
    arising spontaneously out of random motions of particles is about the same as
    the probability of a hundred monkeys strumming randomly at typewriters
    producing all the sonnets of Shakespeare!

    These are basic
    questions which are beyond science at present. There can not be anything that
    is anti-science because if one can disprove a scientific theorem, it ceases to
    exist and is no longer a part of science. However, there is a lot that is
    beyond science at present. Richard Feynman
    gave a beautiful definition of science saying, “Science is a body of knowledge,
    some of which is nearly certain, some rather uncertain but NONE of it is
    completely certain”. Since the law of conservation of energy has never been
    observed to be violated in any of the scientific experiments till now it
    follows that consciousness (if it does exist )
    does not carry energy. Otherwise one could by exerting one’s consciousness,
    add energy to a billiard ball undergoing collision with another and that would
    violate the law of conservation of energy. What then could be the nature of
    universal consciousness, if it does exist? Can it inform a system and direct it
    without contributing any energy to it? Can it be like the wave function in
    quantum mechanics whose development in time somehow directs or corresponds to
    the development of the physical system it represents, without contributing any
    energy to it?

    Take a simple example of a seed lying in the
    soil of the earth. If it has a single living cell in it, it lies dormant in the
    soil for months and when the rains come and the conditions are right there
    sprouts a little plant from it, becoming a huge tree in a few years. That single
    living cell in the seed is able to change the kinematics of all the atoms in
    the soil around it and in the atmosphere for may be a few hundred years! If
    that single living cell is not there, the seed just decays, becomes a part of
    the soil and the kinematics of the atoms in and around it is completely
    different. In both cases, the laws of science are not violated. So what gives
    direction to the kinematics of the atoms? That is the directive “intelligence”
    in a single living cell! Consider another hypothetical question. In a
    thought-experiment, imagine that a chemist is able to synthesize my entire body
    in his laboratory, starting from atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and so on present
    in my body. Would that synthesized body be living and have the consciousness
    (awareness) I have at present? Or would it be just a dead body? Scientists have
    not yet been able to synthesize even a living amoeba in the laboratory starting
    from dead chemicals. We do not know what life is and how it originated, we have
    some guesses but not proof as yet.
    Similarly, we use our consciousness to study the universe and do
    scientific experiments but our science cannot tell us what we are using! So, if
    we cannot even define what consciousness is, the entire gamut of
    consciousness-phenomena lies beyond the frontiers of present day science. It has been suggested speculatively by some
    scientists that the collapse of the wave-function in Quantum Mechanics is
    brought about by the observation of the system by a conscious observer and not
    by a camera, thereby trying to connect consciousness with Physics.

    distinguishes a human being from any machine or computer, however complex, is
    his or her capacity to be ‘aware’. This
    awareness is not a thought-process for one can be aware of one’s thinking too.
    Also one is aware even if one is not thinking.
    This awareness is the intrinsic quality of consciousness. It is what
    makes human beings capable of creativity.
    It is somewhat of a mystery how the human mind makes a totally new
    discovery. The capacity to wonder, to stay with a question or a problem and
    then suddenly have a deep insight which brings something that was not known
    already into the field of the known is this creative capacity. Thomas Kuhn in his book “The structure of
    scientific revolutions” talks of this sudden paradigm-shift as a leap in our
    understanding or perception, as distinct from the dogged addition of more
    information or data within that paradigm.
    The discoveries of relativity or quantum mechanics have been such
    creative leaps in Physics. Creativity in art and music is of a similar nature.
    But we have no explanation of how this awareness arises and functions.
    Otherwise, our brains can be likened to a very complex computer, programmed by
    our genes, language, experiences and culture, all of which are held in our

    • Overleaf

      So how do you explain the accidental chance of a few amino acids coming together and creating a replicating molecule? Given 7 billion years under favorable conditions, what are the chances this would NOT happen? Zero.

  • phalanges

    So then, viruses ARE alive …..

  • FreznoBob

    Actually, I believe, that life does not exist as a kinetically neutral thing, the increase in total entropy created by living, animate organisms far outweighs the reactive changes of the chemicals and elements on their own. Life is obviously an entropic engine, something integral to and natural within a framework where this is the norm for every quanta, particle, atom, molecule and all matter. Why can we not see that life is the penultimate expression of the Universe and all that it is can be found in it, we are a concentrated reflection of the Universe, the processes that rule it and the soul that made it. Life isn't an interesting by-product of Universes, it's a result of all the laws processes, matter and time that it takes to make life and the Universe is the exploded, used up detritus that is left, like so much spall and slag, in it's wake. A bit of diamond and gold in a burned and littered foundry that far outsizes the tiny ornament it designed to express itself and even more. An ornament that can grow and advance and one day see itself as separate from the foundry. Something different, just an observer, a random fluke of 'mutations' and 'environmental factors'. As if these are very specific and not just part of the Universe in general. It's a beautiful thing, this life, and to think it's all runs on the engines of entropy. We design complex machines, the maker of this universe designed simple rules and principles which give rise to complex, integrated machines. To understand that we are the creation of a Universe that was made with specific rules and laws that would code for our, and all life's creation is to understand where to find all the secrets of the Universe. Life is the goal and within life all that leads to it, science is the process of learning in a structured and verifiable way, should we really not be studying the learner and not the womb that created him.

  • get1949

    I once heard it said that ‘matter is energy gone berserk and life is matter infused with information from intelligence’. It does bode oddly to suppose that information comes from chaos—if it does, then how would one recognize it…(perhaps we can stumble onto information by chance but that would only mean we did not have the lessor information that would have allowed us the ability to find the information that we have just concluded was found by chance). We are very adept at: seeing patterns, structure, empirical abilities, extrapolations, symmetry, being imaginative, doing simple and complex math, realizing the value of Occam’s Razor and even
    the elusive concept of beauty. We are a strange bug and though one might find
    it nice to dismiss the ‘human’ as a monkey with Darwinian pants and humbled to
    the point of us being just a bag of chemistry; in all honesty we should ‘fit’ somewhere
    between: a complete fluke of science and the uniquely designed conscious observer
    and moral agent…that all realize when even the most ardent atheist screams unfair…like when some atrocity befalls us (such as a 911 or school shooting). Our being here is weird not just the “our” but even the “here”. Frankly, giving Darwin complete reign we have no reason to even be having such thoughts (these discussions/topics)—all
    we should be concerned about is not being eaten but having something to eat and
    surviving the elements and finding a mate to propagate. Weird indeed! Further, the
    default condition should be nothing rather than something.

  • Overleaf

    Inanimate objects also have a sense of purpose. A molecule of water that evaporates from the oceans, after precipitation, has this tendency to go downhill until it is back in the ocean. So it has a will to find the ocean, if you wish.

    The author is incorrect to say biology is not reducible to chemistry. It is via biochemistry. DNA and RNA and protein assembly and so on, can be explained by molecular biology, and thus life can be reduced to chemistry and physics.