The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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


The ultimate meaning of the modern synthesis for the role of humans in nature is open to interpretation. One particular, devastatingly pessimistic, interpretation came from the French biologist Jacques Monod: humans are a mere accident of nature.

To Monod, living beings are characterized by three properties: teleonomy (organisms are endowed with a purpose which is inherent in their structure and determines their behavior); autonomous morphogenesis (the structure of a living organism is due to interactions within the organism itself); and reproductive invariance (the source of information expressed in a living organism is another structurally identical object - it is the information corresponding to its own structure).

A species' teleonomic level is the quantity of information that must be transferred to the next generation in order to assure transmission of the content of reproductive invariance. Invariance precedes teleonomy. Teleonomy is a secondary property stemming from invariance.

All three pose, according to Monod, insurmountable problems.

The birth of teleonomic systems is improbable. The development of the metabolic system is a superlative feat. And the origin of the genetic code and its translation mechanism is an even greater riddle.

Monodconcluded that humans are the product of chance, an accident in the universe.

The paradox of DNA is that a mono-dimensional structure like the genome could specify the function of a three-dimensional structure like the body: the function of a protein is under-specified in the code. Therefore it must be the environment that determines a unique interpretation. There is no causal connection between the syntactic (genetic) information and the semantic (phenotypic) information that results from it.

Then the growth of our body, the spontaneous and autonomous morphogenesis, rests upon the properties of proteins.

Monodconcluded that life was born by accident. Then Darwin's natural selection made it evolve, and that process too relied on chance. Biological information is inherently determined by chance.

Life is not the consequence of a plan embodied in the laws of nature: it is a mere accident of chance. It can only be understood existentially. Monodreduces "Necessity", i.e. the laws of nature, to natural selection.

In the 19th century the French physicist Pierre Laplacesuggested that, known the position and motion of all the particles in the universe, Physics could predict the evolution of the universe into the future.Laplaceformulated the ultimate version of classical determinism: that the behavior of a system depends on the behavior of its parts, and its parts obey the deterministic laws of Physics. Once the initial conditions are known, the whole story of a particle is known. Once all the stories of all the particles are known, the story of the whole system is known. For Laplace, necessity ruled and there was no room for chance. Monodshattered this vision of reality and made it even worse for humans: we are not robots, deterministic products of universal laws, but mere products of chance. In Monod's world, chance plays the role of rationality: chance is the best strategy to play the game of life. Chance is necessary for life to exist and evolve.

Chance alone is the source of all innovation and creation in the biosphere.The biosphere is a unique occurrence non reducible from first principles.DNA is a registry of chance.The universe has no purpose and no meaning.

Monodcommented: "Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity out of which he emerged only by chance".

In reality, what Monodhighlighted is that the structures and processes on the lower level of an organism do not place any restrictions on higher-level structures and processes. Reality is layered into many levels, and the higher levels are free from determinism from the lower levels. What this means is that high-level processes can be influenced as much from "above" as they are from "below".Monod's "chance" could simply mean "environment" (which even leaves open the possibility of the super-environment of a god influencing all systems).

The German biophysicist Bernd-Olaf Kuppersthinks that there is nothing special about life: all living phenomena, such as metabolism and inheritance, can be reduced to the interaction of biological macromolecules, i.e. to the laws of Physics and Chemistry. In particular, the living cell originated from the iterative application of the same fundamental rules that preside to all physical and chemical processes. Kuppersfavors the hypothesis that the origin of life from inorganic matter is due to emergent processes of self-organization and evolution of macromolecules. But, in the balance between law and chance, only the general direction of evolution is determined by natural law: the detailed path is mainly determined by chance.Natural law entails biological structures, but does not specify which biological structures.

To contrast Monodís existential pessimism, Freeman Dysonwrote: "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming."


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