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"

The Laws Of Nature Revisited

How biology relates to the rest of the universe is less clear.

This universe exhibits an impressive spectrum of natural phenomena, some of which undergo spectacular mutations over macro or micro-time (long periods of time, or short periods of time). Life deserves a special status among them for the sheer quantity and quality of physical and chemical transformations that are involved. Nonetheless, ultimately life has to be just one of them.

Indirectly, it was Charles Darwin who started this train of thought, when he identified simple rules that Nature follows in determining how life proceeds over macro-time. While those “rules” greatly differ from the laws of Physics that (we think) govern the universe, they are natural laws of equal importance to the laws of electromagnetism or gravitation.

Why they differ so much from the others is a matter of debate. It could be that Darwin’s laws are gross approximations of laws that, when discovered, will bear striking resemblance to the laws of Physics; or, conversely, maybe the laws of Physics are gross approximations of laws that, when discovered, will bear striking resemblance to the laws of evolution; or maybe they are just two different levels of explanation, one set of laws applying only to the micro-world, the other set applying to the macro-world.

A key aspect of life is that all living systems are made of the same fundamental constituents, molecules that are capable of catalyzing (speeding up) chemical reactions. But these molecules cannot move and cannot grow. Still, when they are combined in systems, they grow and move. New properties emerge. The first new property is the ability to self-assemble, to join other molecules and form new structures which are in turn able to self-assemble, triggering a cycle that leads to cells, tissues, organs, bodies, and possibly, societies and ecosystems.

In order to approach the subject of “life” in a scientific manner, we first need to discriminate among the various meanings of that term. What we normally call “life” is actually three separate phenomena. Precisely, in nature we observe three levels of organization: the phylogenetic level, which concerns the evolution over time of the genetic programs within individuals and species (and therefore the evolution of species); the ontogenetic level, which concerns the developmental process (or “growth”) of a single multicellular organism; and the epigenetic level, which concerns the learning processes during an individual organism's lifetime (in particular, the nervous system, but also the immune system).

In other words, life occurs at three levels: organisms evolve into other organisms, each organism changes (or grows) from birth till death, and finally the behavior of each organism changes during its lifetime (the organism “learns”).

There are therefore two aspects to the word "life". Because of the way life evolved and came to be what it is today, life is both reproduction and metabolism: it is both information that survives from one individual to another ("genotype"), and information about the individual ("phenotype"). When we say that "ants are alive" and "I am alive" we mean two different things, even if we use the same word. To unify those two meanings it takes a theory that explains both life as reproduction and life as growth.


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