Here I will answer four questions that form the essence of existence:
(1) What is the meaning of life?
(2) What is consciousness?
(3) Do humans have free will?
The Meaning of Life
Life is the fabric of the universe that seeks order among the chaos. To appreciate this idea, it’s important to understand how matter and energy are governed by fundamental physical laws. Entropy is the thermodynamic property toward equilibrium, homogenization, and dissipation. The concept of entropy is defined phenomenologically by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of an isolated system always increases or remains constant. This means that the universe has a natural inclination toward the reduction of order of initial systems; therefore entropy is an expression of disorder, randomness, or chaos. For isolated systems, entropy never decreases. This fact has several important consequences in science: first, it prohibits “perpetual motion” machines; and second, it implies the arrow of entropy has the same direction as the arrow of time. Increases in entropy correspond to irreversible changes in a system, because some energy is expended as waste heat, limiting the amount of work a system can do.
Statistical mechanics demonstrates that entropy is governed by probability, thus allowing for a decrease in disorder even in a closed system. Although this is possible, such an event has a small probability of occurring, making it unlikely. Even if such an event were to occur, it would result in a transient decrease that would affect only a limited number of particles in the system. Given the definition of life: ‘the fabric of the universe that seeks order among the chaos’ it should be apparent that life is improbable, but not impossible.
For nearly a century and a half, beginning with a 1863 memoir by Rudolf Clausius, originator of the concept of entropy, “On the Concentration of Rays of Heat and Light, and on the Limits of its Action”, much writing and research has been devoted to the relationship between thermodynamic entropy and the evolution of life. The argument that life feeds on negative entropy or negentropy was asserted by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in a 1944 book What is Life?. He posed, “How does the living organism avoid decay?” The obvious answer is: “By eating, drinking, breathing and (in the case of plants) assimilating.” Recent writings have used the concept of Gibbs free energy to elaborate on this issue. While energy from nutrients is necessary to sustain an organism’s order, there is also the Schrödinger prescience: “An organism’s astonishing gift of concentrating a stream of order on itself and thus escaping the decay into atomic chaos – of drinking orderliness from a suitable environment – seems to be connected with the presence of the aperiodic solids…” We now know that the ‘aperiodic’ crystal is DNA and that the irregular arrangement is a form of information. “The DNA in the cell nucleus contains the master copy of the software, in duplicate. This software seems to control by “specifying an algorithm, or set of instructions, for creating and maintaining the entire organism containing the cell.” DNA and other macromolecules determine an organism’s life cycle: birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death. Nutrition is necessary but not sufficient to account for growth in size as genetics is the governing factor. At some point, organisms normally decline and die even while remaining in environments that contain sufficient nutrients to sustain life. The controlling factor must be internal and not nutrients or sunlight acting as causal exogenous variables. Organisms inherit the ability to create unique and complex biological structures; it is unlikely for those capabilities to be reinvented or be taught each generation. Therefore DNA must be operative as the prime cause in this characteristic as well. Applying Boltzmann’s perspective of the second law, the change of state from a more probable, less ordered and high entropy arrangement to one of less probability, more order, and lower entropy seen in biological ordering calls for a function like that known of DNA. DNA’s apparent information processing function provides a resolution of the paradox posed by life and the entropy requirement of the second law.
In 1982, American biochemist Albert Lehninger argued that the “order” produced within cells as they grow and divide is more than compensated for by the “disorder” they create in their surroundings in the course of growth and division. “Living organisms preserve their internal order by taking from their surroundings free energy, in the form of nutrients or sunlight, and returning to their surroundings an equal amount of energy as heat and entropy.” Ville Kaila and Arto Annila have described how the second law of thermodynamics can be written as an equation of motion to describe evolution, showing how natural selection and the principle of least action can be connected by expressing natural selection in terms of chemical thermodynamics. In this view, evolution explores possible paths to level differences in energy densities and so increase entropy most rapidly. Thus, an organism serves as an energy transfer mechanism, and beneficial mutations allow successive organisms to transfer more energy within their environment.
To summarize the information presented in the preceding paragraphs, the universe has a natural tendency to distribute matter and energy evenly throughout the backdrop of spacetime, whereas life seeks to purposefully orchestrate matter and energy. Life however, is rare, has not always existed, and is faced with the continual battle to sustain existence despite the natural laws of entropy. In somewhat of an antithetical sense, living organisms require both energy and stability; with these axioms in mind, let’s turn to the question of how, against all odds, life has emerged with sustained existence on Earth.
I would first like to emphasize the nonpareil importance of having the environmental conditions found on Earth. In the universe, planets are either violently chaotic or a vast frozen void – all planets that we know of except for Earth. Our planet is exceptional (for lack of a stronger word) because it is neither frozen nor chaotic. To put just a small part of Earth’s circumstances into perspective: The Earth is 1.00 AU from the Sun (~150 million kilometres). Neptune is ~30 AU from the sun and with a mean temperature of 72 degrees above absolute zero, it’s a giant ball of ice. Venus and Mars are the closest planets to Earth. Venus is 0.7 AU from the sun and it is sometimes called Earth’s “sister planet” because they are similar in size, gravity, and bulk composition. Venus is covered with opaque clouds of sulfuric acid, preventing visible light from reaching the surface. The water has most likely dissociated, and because of the lack of a planetary magnetic field, the hydrogen has been swept into interplanetary space by solar wind. At 1.6 AU, Mars is frozen. The hottest Mars gets is -5 C which is probably the result of having almost no atmosphere. Not to mention that 10,000 km-wide meteors slam into Mars’ surface on a regular basis. Earth on the other hand has a calm and thick atmosphere with a surface temperature conducive to the formation of all three physical states of water. On Earth, water regularly cycles back and forth between gas – liquid – solid. This is an uncommon feature for a planet to have; and by uncommon, I mean that no other element is known to do this, in an abundance whatsoever, on any other planet.
But to understand the real beauty of Earth as a harbor for life in a universe of randomness, let’s focus on several physical properties from which order seems to emerge. These two properties are the wave and the cycle.
In physics, a wave is a disturbance or oscillation that travels through spacetime, accompanied by a transfer of energy. Wave motion transfers energy from one point to another, often with no permanent displacement of the particles of the medium—that is, with little or no associated mass transport. They consist, instead, of oscillations or vibrations around almost fixed locations. Waves are described by a wave equation which sets out how the disturbance proceeds over time.
There are two main types of waves. Mechanical waves propagate through a medium, and the substance of this medium is deformed. The deformation reverses itself owing to restoring forces resulting from its deformation. For example, sound waves propagate via air molecules colliding with their neighbors. When air molecules collide, they also bounce away from each other (a restoring force). This keeps the molecules from continuing to travel in the direction of the wave. The second type of wave, electromagnetic waves, do not require a medium. Instead, they consist of periodic oscillations in electrical and magnetic fields generated by charged particles, and can therefore travel through a vacuum.
A single, all-encompassing definition for the term wave is not straightforward. A vibration can be defined as a back-and-forth motion around a reference value. However, a vibration is not necessarily a wave. An attempt to define the necessary and sufficient characteristics that qualify a phenomenon to be called a wave results in a fuzzy border line. Researchers believe that gravitational waves also travel through space, although gravitational waves have never been directly detected. Not to be confused with gravity waves, gravitational waves are disturbances in the curvature of spacetime, predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What seems to be the consistent property of waves is that they are orderly, oscillatory cycles, with a relatively high degree of predictability. What’s interesting is that waves give rise to circles. Perfect circular patterns of activity seem to be the most appropriate definition of order (contrasted with chaotic motion that stems from randomness).
Now back to Earth. Imagine Earth before there were any living organisms. It would still rain and snow, rivers flowed, and frost melted from the mountains every spring; but there were no trees or grass or animals of any sort. The Great Planes and Appalachia of North America, the Amazon Rain Forest, the Great Corel Reef.. all just rocks, water, and empty canvass. If only a group of alien visitors were to stumble upon such a magnificent planet as Earth, they may have had an opportunity to plant the most extravagant garden. Earth itself seems to pulse with cycles.
The most interesting organizational phenomena is when waves of energy meet liquid water. (This is where I shall end for now – Stay tuned for more).
(to be continued…)
What is Consciousness
The first notion that should be dispelled when it comes to consciousness is that it is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Consciousness is a graded capacity, where humans reside on the highest end of the spectrum (of known living things) for several important reasons to be discussed below. I posit that “consciousness” requires three features:
(1) meta-level attention
(2) working memory
(3) the ability to build novel concepts and store them as abstracted representations and then draw on and tinker with these symbolic representations.
Eliminate any one of these three features is to eliminate conscious thought. Right now, these faculties of consciousness are allowing this information to enter into your current awareness. Let’s work backwards to understand what is meant by these three faculties. First, let me provide an example of what is meant by novel concepts:
Imagine that after witnessing an exchange between a guy and a girl, we deduce that they are a couple. The girl seems to be slightly more attractive, she also seems to be more into him that he’s into her. You’ve also gleaned that he treats her rather poorly. It would not be logical for the more attractive girl to be with a less attractive partner unless he has somehow convinced her that he is a important but scarce resource, and there are only lesser options available. You might store this conceptual scenario in compressed fashion as: ‘sometimes girls are into guys who treat them like crap’. The next time you witness a scenario with these (now familiar) symptoms, you may readily draw on this heuristic, add information to it, and perhaps even information about the heuristic itself, meta data (e.g. this idea was formed while I was hung over and cranky) requiring meta level attention.
Can we define these capacities in a computer architecture? Perhaps. However, at this time even our most advanced computer systems function under a primitive subset of these abilities. On the other hand, the human mind does all these things beautifully, which is why we have a high level of conscious awareness. To improve any of these three features would act to heighten conscious faculties.
(to be continued…)
Do Humans have Free Will
There is something that has troubled me since I was first introduced to the arguments surrounding the “free will” debate; are the thoughts and ideas held in consciousness accurately represented by the physical substrates of this universe. That is, if we had the technology, could we take a brain, make careful measurements of all its physical features, and decipher what the brain is thinking. We are conditioned in science to say yes! We live in a universe with a rigid set of rules, and for something to exist in this universe, it must adhere to these fundamental axioms. Therefore, thoughts must have a representation in the physical universe. Yet, I have a visceral notion that thoughts and consciousness are not bound by the physical laws of this universe. When musing on this quandary, I often think about a scaling problem between two universes. The first universe being the universe that we physically live in, the second being the universe of the mind’s eye. To better visualize this disparity, think of the universe of the mind’s eye as a world that one conjures in a dream. The natural laws of a dream universe are whatever the dreamer conjures or perceives them to be. Of course, this is not discordant with the laws of our physical universe, that is, imaginary worlds can still be represented by physical neural correlates. But imagine this scenario (pun intended)… In the future we decide that a dream world is a superior alternative to our physical world (sort of like the matrix), and some people volunteer for a procedure that keeps them in an eternal dream-filled sleep state. Is it possible for these individuals to conduct empirical scientific experiments and formulate any meaningful conclusions to alternative hypotheses in their dream world that accurately reflect the physical laws that govern it. You can imagine how difficult this task might be, for the apparent physical properties of the dream world need not reflect any aspect of the actual universe. In fact, the dream world needn’t have any strict laws whatsoever (one minute there might be gravity, and the next people just float around). This is a paradox, for the dreamer cannot determine the natural laws which govern their perceived universe, even though they exist in rigid form.
Let me pose these questions: does it matter that the dreamer cannot determine (through any measurement whatsoever) the laws of a physical universe? Is it profound in any way, that this is because a dream universe is not bound by physical laws? How is something that is not bound by physical laws represented physically in our world? Important in answering questions, is determining how we scale information in the brain.
(to be continued…)
Did God create humans or did humans create God? Let me start by saying that no living human on this earth can definitively answer this question. If you thought I was going to provide a straight forward, yes or no answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. What I will do however, is provide a synopsis of how to appropriately contemplate things that are yet unknown.
(to be continued…)