The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


Life has three dimensions. One is the evolutionary dimension: living organisms evolve over time. Two is the reproduction dimension: living organisms are capable of reproducing. Three is the metabolic dimension: living organisms change shape during their life.

Each dimension can be studied with the mathematical tools that Physics has traditionally employed to study matter. But it is apparent that traditional Physics cannot explain life. Life exhibits properties that rewrite Physics.


The Origin Of Self-organization: Life As Negative Entropy

The paradox underlying natural selection (from the point of view of physicists) is that on one hand it proceeds in a blind and purpose-less way and on the other hand produces the illusion of more and more complex design. This continuous increase in information (i.e., the spontaneous emergence of order) seems to violate the second law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy borrowed the term "anamorphosis" from the German biologist Richard Woltereck to describe the natural trend towards emergent forms of increasing complexity.

Entropy is a measure of disorder and it can only increase, according to the second law of Thermodynamics. Information moves in the opposite direction.

Most things in this universe, if left alone, simply decay and disintegrate. Biological systems, instead, appear from nowhere, then organize themselves, and even grow!

This leads to the "two arrows of time": the behavior of inanimate matter pointing towards entropy increase and therefore disorder increase, and the behavior of biological systems pointing the other way by building increasingly complex structures of order.

 When you drop a sugar cube in your coffee, it dissolves: while no physical law forbids the re-composition of the sugar cube, in practice it never occurs, and we intuitively know that it cannot occur. Order is destroyed and cannot be recreated. That's a manifestation of the second law of Thermodynamics. On the other hand, a teenager develops into an adult, and, while no biological law forbids it, and as much as they would like to, adults never regress to youth. This is a manifestation of  the opposite arrow of time: order is created and cannot be undone.

Since organisms are made of chemicals, there is no reason why living systems should behave differently than inanimate systems. This is a paradox that puzzled not only biologists, but physicists too.

The German physicist Ludwig von Boltzmann was possibly the first scientist to realize the importance of entropy for life. He reasoned that there is plenty of energy on Earth (air, water, minerals). Life is not driven by energy, or there would be no need for competition: life is driven by competition for entropy. Entropy (created by the transfer of energy from a hot Sun to the cold Earth) is much scarcer.

In the 1940s the Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger, one of the founders of Quantum Mechanics, first proposed the idea that biological organization is created and maintained at the expense of thermodynamic order.  Life displays two fundamental processes: creating order from order (the progeny has the same order as the parent) and creating order from disorder (as every living system does at every metabolic step, eating and growing).  Living systems seem to defy the second law of Thermodynamics. In reality, they live in a world of  energy flux that does not conform to the closed-world assumptions of Thermodynamics. An organism stays alive in its highly organized state by absorbing energy from the environment and processing it to produce a lower entropy state within itself. "Living organisms feed upon negative entropy": they attract "negative entropy" in order to compensate for the entropy increase they create by living. Life is "negentropic". The existence of a living organism depends on increasing the entropy of the rest of the universe.

In 1974 the Hungarian biologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi proposed to replace "negentropy" with the positive term "syntropy", so as to represent the "innate drive in living matter to perfect itself". This has a correspondent on the psychological level, "a drive towards synthesis, towards growth, towards wholeness and self-perfection".


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