The first article of this series described consciousness as the capacity to have an inner experience based on sensations and feelings, what philosophers call qualia, and highlighted the characteristics of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual qualia. The second article explored the basic properties of qualia—perception, and comprehension—which allow us to experience life and get meaning and purpose out of conscious living. The third article made the case for consciousness being a fundamental property of nature, arguing for a new interpretation of the core assumptions of physics that could reconcile the existence of consciousness from the beginning of being. The fourth article further explored the nature of reality under the hypothesis that consciousness has always been in existence, concluding that consciousness must have influenced the evolution of the universe in a non-trivial way, otherwise it would simply be an unnecessary hypothesis. The last article presented a model of reality based on the idea that all that exists emerges from the communication of a vast hierarchy of conscious entities. This model envisions the matter, energy, space, and time of physics, as well as the laws of physics, as outer, informational aspects of ever-evolving organizations of communicating conscious entities.
The present article will explore the nature of life, a phenomenon like no other known, for life creates an interacting and evolving web of living and conscious organisms called ecosystem. And the ecosystem creates evermore complex forms with the capacity to change the very physical nature of the planet in which it exists.
The amazing phenomenon of life
Many years ago, I saw a short documentary of a paramecium happily swimming inside a drop of water. A paramecium is a protozoan, a single-cell animalcule, whose body is like a miniature short cigar, about 0.1 mm long, covered by thousands of villi: microscopic whiskers that beat in unison and can propel it in water. Well, this little “thing” could swim quite fast, avoid obstacles, seek, and find food, find a mate, and generally behave intelligently with clear purpose, like a little fish.
“But the paramecium is a single cell!” I exclaimed. “It has no nervous system!”, “How can just a bag of chemicals process information in such an exquisite manner? How can it reproduce by assembling a copy of itself within itself?” This is not a program that can copy itself within the computer memory. This is akin to a computer assembling another computer like itself within itself—hardware and software included—and then dividing into two complete computers! These are feats no engineer could match today. I concluded that there must be something fundamental going on that we do not yet understand.
Any living organism, from bacteria to man, is an open system, i.e. a system that exchanges matter, energy, and information with the environment in which it lives. To survive, an organism requires food, i.e., a continuing supply of matter and energy, and the ability to self-regulate. The capacity for self-regulation, called homeostasis, allows the organism to maintain internal stability by means of many interoperating dynamic processes that use negative feedback.
Stability is achieved via a dynamical equilibrium around some set points, just like what happens with a thermostat that automatically adjusts the temperature in a home. Of course, within a cell there are homeostatic cycles inside other homeostatic cycles in bewildering complexity, though the basic operating principle of each cycle is always the same, i.e. to feed back the value of the variable to be controlled, compare it to a set value, and drive the process until the difference between the two is negligible.
If we look closely at a eukaryotic cell, its operation is completely different than the way our machines work, including computers. Inside the cytoplasm of the cell there are electrons and protons (hydrogen ions); ions of simple atoms such as sodium, potassium, phosphorous, and so on; simple molecules like water, glucose, and amino acids; complex molecules like messenger RNA; proteins; organelles like ribosomes and DNA; and mitochondria that are like simple bacteria—living cells inside a larger cell.
The cell therefore contains many hierarchical organizational levels, all working seamlessly together in unbelievable complexity and with a single purpose. Each part of a cell can interact with very many other parts in both a feedforward and a feedback manner without permanent connections among them. This freedom is unlike any found in a computer, for in a computer the connections of its transistors are fixed once and for all by its designer, and its matter does not move in and out of its physical boundaries.
A cell is like an irreducible whole, a fundamental “atom” out of which complex living organisms can be constructed by using trillions of them organized in a remarkable way. In fact, when we manipulate life, we always start with a living cell, not with its component parts, and it’s only because of the robustness and fault-tolerance of cells that we can make certain invasive manipulations without killing the cell in the process.
Everything going on in a living organism intimates that such a physical structure cannot be completely understood within the logical framework of classical physics, even though much of what is happening can. There are many properties that require quantum physics to be understood, and even many of the properties we consider classical are approximations of quantum properties good enough to classically explain what happens. What we cannot account for classically is the fact that living organisms are conscious and autonomous with probabilistic behavior.
I think it will be impossible to explain life without the concept of consciousness because the two are inextricably linked in ways we have yet to comprehend. A living organism has purpose only because it can “host” a conscious entity and can thus act as a unit endowed with free will, intention, and meaning; properties that cannot arise from a bag of unconscious classical atoms and molecules interacting with each other. I think that consciousness must play not only the role of the “glue” that holds together the unity of the organism, while it constantly changes, but also be the “agent” behind its free-will actions.
Life exists in a deep and abiding symbiosis with the environment with which there is a constant exchange of matter, energy, and information in a profoundly dynamic equilibrium where the organism is never the same throughout its lifetime. And so is the environment never the same from the viewpoint of the organism. In fact, the two coevolve, and what is inside the organism at one time may be outside the next, and vice versa, like two complementary aspects of a single dynamic and holistic structure. I will now resort again to a metaphor to more clearly explain how I envision life straddling the quantum and the classical world.
What is real and what is virtual?
In the new framework I am developing, conscious entities exist entirely in the quantum world and each one has the qualia perception, comprehension, and free will to direct the physical body which is a quantum-classical structure. The quantum portion of the body interacts with the quantum conscious entity and the classical portion of the body interacts with the classical world of which it is part. The conscious entity is the “self” we really are, though we erroneously believe we are the body.
The classical portion of the body contains a sophisticated mechanism that controls the body as if it were an automaton, and the automaton is connected with the quantum portion of the body that is top-down controlled by the conscious entity. If we were to place the boundary of our body at the classical-quantum information boundary, which is what is relevant here, we may look quite different than we normally think because that boundary is not our skin and not necessarily a continuous surface in space, but is both inside and outside the body, and highly dynamic as well.
In this framework, the conscious entity may control the body both directly and indirectly. Direct or explicit control is when we consciously make a choice, therefore we explicitly know the choice we make. An indirect or implicit control is when a barely conscious desire (a quale) we never consciously examined—but we could have—may direct the classical machinery of the body without us being aware of. The important point is that the desire is a quantum property that controls the classical information of the body. When the conscious entity is identified with the body, meaning that it believes itself to be the body based on the data coming from the body’s classical senses, the entity loses contact with its vaster quantum reality thinking that all that exists is the physical world with the characteristics that are registered by the senses. At this point I will resort to a virtual reality metaphor to further illustrate the situation.
A virtual reality world
Imagine controlling an avatar in a virtual reality world created by a computer. You wear sophisticated goggles, earphones, and a costume that automatically captures the movements of your body. Your voice and your motions control the actions of the avatar, and through the simulated senses of the avatar you experience a virtual world as if you were the avatar you direct. In that virtual reality there are virtual classical objects and other avatars, each controlled by a different person. You interact with them using the laws of the virtual world and may experience a different world than the physical one you know.
The computer program that runs the virtual world includes the avatars as subroutines and is a completely classical informational structure. If you become engrossed in that virtual reality, you may almost believe for brief periods that you are the avatar and that the virtual world is real, forgetting that you exist in the physical world instead. The capacity of our consciousness to focus onto a portion of our experience about which we feel a strong interest is something we are all familiar with. In the game of life, most of us are completely identified with our body because we can only affect the world classically and therefore end up paying attention only to the classical information coming from the body. This conditioning occurs early in life, facilitated by the seamless interface between our consciousness and our body, contrary to the crude interface between our body and the avatar.
When you control the avatar, your body clearly exists outside the classical computer and the avatar is not who you are even when you are engrossed in the game. Your classical body controls top-down the avatar with classical information, but your quantum body is in turn controlled by the quantum conscious entity—the real you—that exists in the quantum world. Your experience of the virtual world occurs instead in the quantum world, not in the physical world. It is a quantum phenomenon occurring within the same “you” that controls the body that controls the avatar. Therefore, the avatar may perform actions that could not have originated digitally since they depend on your free-will decisions occurring in the quantum world.
I think that, just like your body does not exist inside the computer that creates the virtual reality, your consciousness and free will do not exist inside the physical world in which your body exists. The avatar is just an interface allowing you to interact and have an experience in the classical virtual reality created by the computer, but your experience exists neither inside the avatar nor inside the computer. Likewise, your body is just an interface to the physical world that contains your body and the computer, but your experience of body and world is neither inside the body nor inside the physical world. It is only because you believe the physical world is the only reality in existence that you attribute your experience to the body.
The real entity is not your body but your conscious self who is “wearing the body,” just like your body is “wearing the avatar.” You exist solely in the quantum world and inside the quantum world there is a quantum-classical physical world in which your body exists; and inside the physical world there is classical computer in which there is a virtual world that contains an avatar that your body can control. Like Russian dolls, there are virtual realities inside virtual realities, but it is nousym that contains your conscious experiences of all those dolls. And nousym is also what manifests the quantum information out of which all those dolls are physically made.
We simultaneously exist in two worlds
The above metaphor brings into focus that the world of events we can measure emerges from a more fundamental quantum world in which much more is happening than can be measured. The first world is the classical world characterized by Boolean or classical information and the second world is the quantum world characterized by quantum information. These two worlds interact, meaning that quantum information can be transformed into classical information and vice versa. Because of this interaction the two worlds are not separate, yet both worlds are real, and within each world there are entities that can exist only in one or in the other. There are also entities that simultaneously exist in both worlds, straddling the two, so to speak. These are the living organisms.
The entities that exist only in the classical world interact with deterministic laws using classical information and thus behave mechanically like our machines and our computers. The entities existing only in the quantum world interact with probabilistic quantum laws based on quantum information. Living organisms are special because they exist in both worlds. This interpretation of quantum physics assigns reality to the quantum world. It is unlike most other interpretations in which only the classical world of measurable events is considered real.
If we now go back to the large town square example described in the fourth article in which there are people and animals producing sounds, the vibrating air carrying the sounds made by the communicating entities would be analogous to the “vibrating” nousym carrying the superposition of the quantum information of the communicating entities. Like in the case of the square, the state or symbol manifested by a conscious quantum entity A, say, would be a free-will choice made by A and therefore known by A before its manifestation. Viewed by any other entity, however, the appearance of that symbol would have to obey probabilistic physical laws, since it was freely chosen by A. Something similar also happens when a scientist prepares an elementary particle in a particular state. The scientist can predict with confidence the state that will be measured, whereas any other observer who does not know about the preparation can only know the probability of measuring that state.
Only living organisms, as far as I know, possess the level of dynamism and the extraordinary interdependence with the environment necessary to interface quantumly with the conscious entities inhabiting the quantum world and classically with informational structures existing only in the physical world, like computer programs for example. Life exists in total symbiosis with the environment in such an intimate way that it is impossible to find a real boundary between the organism and the environment. The organism “extends” into the environment and the environment extends into the organism in a profoundly dynamic equilibrium in which both change at every instant; and change is a condition for existence.