Life at the Cusp of Complexity

I believe that we have yet to grasp the fundamental difference between living systems and our computers.

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federico-faggin

In my opinion the difference lies in the much higher level of holistic complexity of a living system compared to our machines. This holistic complexity may allow also a much tighter coupling between consciousness and living organisms. Life, any life, from cellular life on, is much more than a machine, as we now understand mechanical systems. Intuitively this difference is expressed by the realization that our machines are all made of independent parts, whereas life relies on the quantum properties of matter, as we will see next.

I believe we are not machines. We are also machines of course, but we are much more than mechanisms. Our machines can be disassembled, part after part, and all the separated parts can then be reassembled, recreating a perfectly working original. If you try to take apart all the elementary particles (like protons and electrons), the atoms, and the molecules that make up a living cell, can you then put them back together and recreate a living cell? No, because these “parts” are in such intimate contact that the essential dynamical properties arising out of their interaction cannot be restarted in this manner.

The cell is a dynamic system of a far higher order than our machines, and as such, before taking the cell apart and while the cell is still living, one should take a “snapshot” to determine the position and the velocity of each and every part, in order to later reconstitute a fully living cell. That’s impossible to do, even in principle, if the precision with which one needs to know position and velocity exceeds the limits imposed by the Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle.

Presently we do not know the precision necessary to measure the initial conditions in order to reconstitute a cell from its separated parts. However, if the needed precision were to violate the Heisenberg’s principle, then we could say that it is impossible – even in principle — to synthesize a living cell by “assembling” all its elementary parts as we can assemble a machine. We would then have to consider a living cell like an irreducible whole, and use cells as if they were elementary particles to construct more complex living systems!

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A few years ago, I saw a movie of a paramecium happily swimming inside a drop of water. A paramecium is a protozoan, a single cell animalcule with the diameter of about 0.1 mm, whose body is covered by thousands of villi: microscopic whiskers that beat in unison and can propel the paramecium in water.

Well, this little thing could swim very fast, avoid obstacles, seek and find food, find a mate, and generally behave intelligently like a little fish. But the paramecium is a single cell! It has no nervous system! How could just a bag of chemicals doing their metabolic magic, process information in such an exquisite manner? A feat no AI computer programmer could match today, even using the most powerful computer?

Seeing this movie convinced me that life goes far beyond the algorithmic structures used by computers, not to mention our much simpler mechanical systems. Life must use processes that we do not yet understand or even guess, deeply connected with the quantum nature of reality at the atomic and molecular scale, at the least. And yet I suspect that consciousness may go even beyond quantum physics and the physics we currently know. Consciousness lights up information somehow, and information enlightened by consciousness becomes meaning, and meaning is relative to the self or identity.

Information theory does not recognize meaning: a bit is a bit, it’s just the smallest quantum of information, and we can only measure the quantity of information when we look at a system from the outside. Meaning is an inner property of consciousness, and meaning is meaningless for a system that has no interiority, like a computer. And sure enough, if we were robots our life would have no meaning. We would walk around like zombies and our life would have absolutely no relevance to us, or to the life of the cosmos. But there is meaning for living systems, as we can verify for ourselves!

The bottom line here is that a computer is for sure a machine – it can be taken apart and reassembled – while a living cell is more than a machine, and therefore it can support a far higher level of consciousness than our most complex machine. But this is still a preliminary conclusion that needs to be further investigated.

Meaning resides within the self or identity aspect of consciousness. A conscious self can cause meaning to be encoded into a series of physical symbols through the physical body — for example, by speaking a word – and the symbols are then received by another physical body that hands the result of its information processing to the identity where the processed symbols are transformed or decoded into meaning by the self. Our information theory ends at the edge of consciousness; but the magic occurs at the encoding and decoding points where meaning is converted into a word by a sending self, and where a word is converted back into meaning by a receiving self.

When engineers talk about encoding, they start with a symbol already (not with meaning) and they transform it into another symbol. This is a purely mechanical translation, and it is has nothing to do with what happens within us. Our information theory has cleverly sidestepped the issue of meaning because it is only interested in the purely technical aspects of obtaining efficient communications. But to a living system, what good is information without meaning? And meaning, of course, is relative to the self. The same sound waveform that carries a meaningful word to us, may mean something entirely different to a chicken or a worm.

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Some scientists would like us to believe that the universe is a giant machine and if so, it follows that we are robots. They deny the existence of consciousness and thus of meaning, perhaps only because they can only deal with a mechanistic view of the universe and are unwilling or incapable to explore the inner reality where meaning is central, thus pronouncing the pointlessness of our universe.

In my opinion, this position is very unfortunate. There is much more to know about reality, and the history of science is the best proof of it. For example, just in the last 30 years we have discovered that the ordinary matter and energy filling our universe that we thought accounted for all that existed, is actually less than 5% of the total matter and energy that exists, the rest being dark matter and dark energy whose obscure origins are currently being investigated. Unfortunately any inner experience, no matter how significant or extraordinary to the experiencer it may be, is considered anecdotal evidence because it cannot be duplicated in a laboratory.

But who says that only what can be reproduced in a laboratory is real? Let’s be clear that what some call anecdotal evidence is not lack of evidence, and it should be scientifically pursued, particularly when there is much at stake, like in the case of consciousness.

I would like to use a thought experiment now to illustrate the kind of prejudice that exists with regard to the nature of consciousness:

If only isolated elementary particles far from each other existed, for example electrons, we could never measure their gravitational field because it would be far too small. The only reason we can say that an elementary particle with mass generates a gravitational field is because we have measured the field of ensembles containing a vast number of particles in close proximity, and found that the strength of the field is proportional to the total mass of the ensemble. Therefore, it is reasonable to assert that a single particle generates a field, even if that field cannot be measured directly at the level of a particle.

Now, in a world where there are no large ensembles of particles, no observer could ever measure a gravitational field, and if someone were to claim that elementary particles with mass produce a gravitational field, the local physicists would strongly deny its existence on account of having made the proper experiments and never having found any evidence of its existence.

The above thought experiment can be useful to justify saying that some infinitesimal level of consciousness has to exist even at the level of the elementary particles, given that consciousness is observed to clearly exist at the level of a human being who is composed of approximately 1029 elementary particles. It is true that we don’t know how to measure consciousness, but just because we don’t know how to measure it, we cannot say that it doesn’t physically exist, that it is an epiphenomenon, or an emergent property of a complex system. If consciousness exists at our scale of complexity, it must exist also, in a much more elementary form at the level of the elementary particles, thus justifying the claim that the non-physical energy of the Big Bang must also contain the seed of consciousness.

In other words, the existence of consciousness for elementary particles can be inferred in exactly the same manner in which scientists have already established that an elementary particle produces a gravitational field without ever having measured it directly on an isolated particle. This conclusion means that consciousness should be accepted as a fundamental property of nature, a property that exists at the lowest organizational level of matter and therefore it should be scientifically studied.

Knowing whether or not consciousness is ontological, or an epiphenomenon, is of fundamental importance, with the potential to change the direction of science, and the direction of human destiny. Yet surprisingly there is almost no research money to study the physics of consciousness.

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It may be worth noting here that I expect the rules of aggregation of consciousness to be far different than the rules of aggregation of mass. Mass grows linearly with the sum of the masses of the component parts that join together. The total mass of an object, however, is independent of the specific organization of its parts. Consciousness, on the other hand, grows with the number and the level of integration of the interacting parts; where integration is another word for organizational complexity. Therefore, if we take a man and a disorganized pile of atoms with the same number and types of atoms that compose that man, the two objects will have the same gravitational mass. However, the consciousness of the pile of atoms will be infinitesimal in comparison with the consciousness of the man.

The concept of integration is critical here, and refers to the degree to which the component parts work together as a unity, as wholeness. This point will be explored further down in this paper, but for now, think of a cell where each atom and molecule interact in many different ways with its respective neighbors in a holistic, dynamical system full of adaptive and dynamical feed-forward and feedback paths.

Presently, we don’t know how to measure consciousness and how consciousness relates to physical structure. Furthermore, the organizational complexity of a physical system that correlates with a certain level of consciousness may have discontinuous values separating different orders of consciousness. For example, a human being may belong to a higher order of consciousness than all the other animals (or at least we like to think so), and different species of animals may belong to different bands of values, all lower than the band belonging to humans.

It may also be possible that consciousness itself cannot be measured, although we may be able to measure the complexity of a material system that can support a certain order of consciousness. And in that case the complexity may be measurable with just one number, or with several independent numbers, just like we do with vectors where we use several numbers, each specifying a unique independent variable. Organizational complexity must also critically depend on whether the parts interact in accordance with the rules of quantum physics or the rules of classical physics. And for sure the parts inside a cell obey QP rules, while the parts inside a computer obey CP rules.

Therefore, we can already state that a computer will be far less conscious than a cell with the same number of atoms as there are transistors in a computer. This is because a transistor interacts only with the few transistors to which it is permanently interconnected — mostly in a feed-forward manner — whereas in a cell, atoms are free to move and interact with a far larger number of atoms, and with many dynamic and adaptive feed-forward and feedback paths possible.

When you consider that the average number of elementary particles in a human eukaryotic cell is just shy of 1016, this means that the complexity of a single human cell is far more than one million microprocessors with each microprocessor containing 5 to 10 billion transistors, which is the state of the art in 2014.

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The difference between the two will be even more striking if it turns out that living systems use QP rules in a way similar to how we envision our future quantum computers working. But this is still an open issue.

Another key factor to determine the degree of complexity of a system may be connected with its ability to sustain several hierarchical orders of coherence, starting at the first level with the coherence of quantum interactions among atoms, moving to a second level where coherence is among first-level subsystems, and on with additional levels, each new level exponentially adding representational power to the previous one.

Conclusion

In this paper I hope to make a convincing case that consciousness is central to the nature of reality rather than being an appendage of little importance in a world dominated by physical matter.

I believe that the scientific study of consciousness will open a new vast field for science with the potential to mend the Cartesian split now existing between science and spirituality, between matter and mind. To only investigate consciousness under the assumption that it is the exclusive product of matter is completely unsupported by the existing evidence.

We must also consider the possibility that consciousness is a primary aspect of nature and see where this assumption might lead us. The unquestionable evidence that we have an inner life made of feelings cannot be swept under the rug of a materialistic view of reality that cannot explain at all how such inner reality can possibly come about.

We cannot consider the most important aspect of being human as an inconsequential property of matter. Our future depends on a deep understanding of the nature of what makes us human within a unified worldview.

That’s the reason my wife and I started the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation; to support scientific research about the nature of consciousness under the assumption that consciousness is primary, given that little financial support is available to researchers who believe this view to be closer to the truth.

We need a new conceptual framework that can lead to a mathematical theory of consciousness capable of making testable predictions; a new unified theory that may explain the nature of reality, not just outer reality but inner reality as well.

This is a tall order, but we must investigate properly this possibility rather than assuming that consciousness must be a product of matter simply because we believe that everything is matter, and thus it cannot be otherwise. Science must be open to investigate all reasonable possibilities and there is much at stake on correctly understanding the nature of what alone gives meaning to existence.