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 as Non-equilibrium

In the 1960s the Belgian (but Russian-born) physicist Ilya Prigogine had a fundamental intuition: living organisms function as “dissipative structures” (a term first introduced by the Ukrainian chemist Alfred Lotka). These are structures that form as patterns in the energy flow and that have the capacity for self-organization in the face of environmental fluctuations. In other words, they maintain their structure by continuously dissipating energy.  Such dissipative structures reside permanently in states of non-equilibrium, unlike inanimate matter.

Life maintains itself far from equilibrium: the form stays pretty much the same, while the material is constantly being replaced by new material, part of which comes from matter (food, air, water) and part of which comes from energy (sun). The flow of matter and energy “through” the body of the living organisms is what makes it possible for the organism to maintain a (relatively) stable form. In order to stay alive, they have to be always in this state far from equilibrium.

Equilibrium is death, non-equilibrium is life.

And here is the solution of the riddle. Equilibrium is the state of maximum entropy: uniform temperature and maximum disorder. A system that is not in equilibrium exhibits a variation of entropy which is the sum of the variations of entropy due to the internal source of entropy (which tends to increase towards equilibrium) plus the variation of entropy due to the interaction with the external world. The former is positive, but the latter can equally be negative. Therefore total entropy can decrease. 

An organism "lives" because it absorbs energy from the external world and processes it to generate an internal state of lower entropy.  An organism "lives" as long as it can avoid falling in the equilibrium state.

(In a sense, organisms die because this process is not perfect: if our bodies could be made to keep their shape exactly the same, they would always remain far from the equilibrium and they would never die).

(But then there is a reason why it is not perfect and we have to die: a stable immutable form of life would have scant chances of surviving the continuous changes in the environment, whereas a form of life that continuously reshapes itself has a chance to “evolve” with the environment).

Thanks to the advent of non-equilibrium Thermodynamics, it is now possible to bridge Thermodynamics and evolutionary Biology.  By focusing on entropy, structure and information, it is now possible to shed some light on the relationship between cosmological evolution and biological evolution.  Biological phenomena can be viewed as governed by laws that are purely physical.  This step might prove as powerful as the synthetic theory of evolution.

Prigogine’s non-equilibrium approach to evolution, i.e. that biological systems (from bacteria to entire ecological systems) are non-equilibrium systems, has become a powerful paradigm to study life in the context of Physics. Life can finally be reduced to a natural phenomenon just like electromagnetism and gravity.

The Austrian physicist Erich Jansch has extended Prigogine’s vision of life to the entire universe: the universe as a gigantic self-organizing system subject to the laws of non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

The US chemist Jeffrey Wicken went as far as to state that “Thermodynamics is above all the science of spontaneous processes”, and link life with the expansion of the universe.


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