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"


These ideas led to an approach to life, called "Bioenergetics", which consists in applying thermodynamic concepts (energy, temperature, entropy and information) and non-equilibrium (or irreversible) Thermodynamics to biological structures.

The starting point, in the 1920s, was Lotka’s assumption that ecosystems are networks of energy flows. In 1941 the German biologist Fritz Lipmann recognized the role of phosphates in biological systems. Then the US brothers Howard and Eugene Odum devised a thermodynamic model for the development of the ecosystem. That became the route followed by an entire branch of Bioenergetics: looking for the thermodynamic principle that guides the development of ecosystems.

In other words, first came the realization that biological systems (living organisms) are about the flow and transduction of energy, i.e. that life is about energy. Then biologists started employing Thermodynamics, the discipline that studies energy. This led to the realization that the Thermodynamics of biological systems is non-equilibrium Thermodynamics, that requires non-linear systems of equations. This led to the development of a new branch of Mathematics that studies non-linear dynamics.

Howard Odum, for example, coined the term "emergy" (for “embodied energy”) to refer to the "energy memory" of living systems (a measure of energy used in the past). To him living systems had been formed by an accumulation of past energy, and thus were memories of all that energy.

Eugene Odum viewed the entire Earth as a set of interconnected ecosystems.

The US biologist Harold Morowitz held that the flow of energy through a living system acts to organize the system: organization emerges spontaneously whenever energy flows through a system. The contradiction between the second law of Thermodynamics (the universe tends towards increasing disorder) and biological evolution (life tends towards increasing organization) is only apparent, because Thermodynamics applies to systems that are approaching equilibrium (either adiabatic, i.e. isolated, or isothermal), whereas natural systems are usually subject to flows of energy/matter to or from other systems.

First of all, life is the property of an ecological system, not of a single, individual, isolated organism. An isolated living organism is an oxymoron. Life of any organism depends on a flow of energy, and, ultimately, life "is" that flow of energy.

Morowitz proved two theorems that analyze what happens during that flow of energy through the chemical systems that living organisms are made of: 1. Those systems store energy in chemical bonds, i.e. their complexity steadily increases; and 2. Those systems undergo chemical cycles of the kind that pervade the biosphere (e.g., the carbon cycle).

 The flux of energy turns out to be the organizing factor in a dissipative system.  When energy flows in a system from a higher kinetic temperature, the upper energy levels of the system become occupied and take a finite time to decay into thermal modes. During this period energy is stored at a higher free energy than at equilibrium state. Systems of complex structures can store large amounts of energy and achieve a high amount of internal order.

The cyclic nature of dissipative systems allows them to develop stability and structure within themselves.

The bottom line is that a dissipative system develops an internal order. Morowitz proved that Lotka was right: the flow of energy through a (steady state) system yields cycles, which in turn yield structure.


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