The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Meaning of Life

A more scientific way of asking "what is the meaning of life" is: "what is responsible for my existence?" Which law in the universe has caused some molecules to assemble and become my body and then grow to the stage I am at now?

The law of entropy has widely been considered the "smoking gun" of the situation. Unfortunately, nobody seems to really know what "entropy" means. Macroscopically, entropy is the ratio of heat to temperature, which is not a very intuitive definition. Microscopically, it is the number of micro-states that implement a macro-state (Boltzmann's definition), an even less intuitive concept. The law of entropy is even less well understood. Macroscopically, it states that the entropy of the universe can never decrease. This statement is not very easy to relate to our daily lives. Its more microscopic formulation as "heat can never be completely converted into work" is much more useful for practical purposes. In other fields, it can be better understood as "order cannot be created, unless at the expense of creating disorder somewhere else" (as the chemist John Holmsted put it, "the creation of local order requires generation of global disorder").

Prigogine showed that the law of entropy is useful to classify in which ways a system can evolve: a "closed" system (one that is fully isolated from the rest of the universe) can only evolve towards increased entropy, i.e. increased disorder (but, needless to say, no system in nature is really closed); an "open" system that expels energy (or matter) can evolve to ever-higher levels of order in a state of equilibrium (a star is an example of such an open system); an "open" system that both expels and absorbs energy can evolve to ever-higher levels of order while always being far from equilibrium.

From this, one can perceive a similarity between the last category and living systems, and therefore be tempted to infer that living systems "are" in fact that category. One problem is that the complexity of living systems is not easily reduced to an abstract category. Another problem is that many physical systems belong to the same category that we would not like to consider living. A dishwasher absorbs energy/matter from an outlet and a pipe and expels energy in the form of hot water down a drain, but that doesn't automatically entitle it to the rank of living system.

But then a dishwasher was manually built, whereas living systems build themselves from virtually nothing. That "encoding" of information is really the clue to the meaning of life. That's why information has become more and more the focus of attention. What sets living systems apart from physical systems is not the flow of energy/matter: it is the fact that whatever they do is to some extent due to a "program". Living systems are machines programmed to perform the tasks of growth, reproduction and evolution. The downside of this argument is that any information-based simulation of life (including one performed into a computer) qualifies as life itself.

But this still doesn't answer the question: "which natural law is responsible for my existence?"

Any living system is built on top of physical systems, of matter, of "stuff". There is no reason why its natural laws should be any different than the natural laws that work on stuff. We feel that the answer to that question must lie in a general property of the universe. Possibly the reason Physics still doesn't know the answer is that Physics still doesn't know the general properties of the universe.


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