What’s the point?

By april 19, 2023 Algemeen

I have always been led by a desire to understand life; I went from ecosystems to biophysics to quantum physics and on my way life slipped through my fingers.

What’s the point? If the universe is just machinery, a set of differential equations acting on initial conditions, and we are but blips of complexity in an uncaring universe, temporarily self-aware conglomerates of particles that will soon be washed away by entropy increase, then why spend time figuring out just exactly how insignificant our existence is? What’s the meaning of life if there’s no purpose to it? We all have to find our own answer.

Life must struggle against the second law of thermodynamics, against the tyranny of time. Living beings always loose this battle against entropy and time. A central property of living systems is an internal power of transformation, movement, and evolution; a dynamic peculiar to it. They also raise formidable questions: what is the origin of this dynamic? How can we comprehend the order and permanence of living forms, and ours in particular, considering the dynamics that characterize their development, their incessantly renewed organization, and their history? How does an organism and all biological structures retain a constant physiological state, that is, homeostasis? Where does the stable geometry of the living come from?  How does the biological order emerge from the chaos present on the molecular level? Revolutionary innovations have shed light on the unfathomed extent of these dynamics, allowing us to renew our understanding of the particularity of living matter and its complex self-organization.

To survive in the world, living organisms must convert energy from one form to another, sense their environment, and move through the world. Understanding the physics of living systems requires us to understand how information flows across many scales, from single molecules to groups of organisms. From harnessing energy dissipation for more reliable information transmission on the molecular scale to using novel network dynamics as a neural code in the brain, life has found unexpected realizations of the physics of information.

The complexity of ecosystems, the process by which life creates conditions conducive to life seems to be so much more symbiotic and symphonic all together, optimizing the whole system than it is about competing individuals one against the other. If you understand life as a network, then biodiversity means higher complexity of the network, more connections. Since this living network is a network of processes of metabolic, cognitive processes and ecological processes, every new connection can be seen as information and cooperation. Connections are cooperations and greater diversity means more cooperation.

Random mutations are only part of evolution. Bacteria can mutate very fast and multiply very fast, but they have another way of changing the genome. That is by a horizontal gene transfer. They trade genes. They spill out. The bacterium will in day to day, in its day-to-day life, it will spill out a certain proportion of its genes and other bacteria will absorb it. There’s a constant trading of genes to the extent that some microbiologists think that one should not talk about species of bacteria, because the genome is so fluid and always changing that you can’t define species. The third avenue of evolution is something that is symbiosis. There are two organisms living in close proximity to the extent that they ended up completely, depending on one another and forming a new organism. So you have random mutation, gene trading and symbiogenesis.

With the Gaia hypothesis, coevolution becomes a symbiotic relationship between life and environment, which evolve together as a single, self-regulating system maintaining the conditions for life on Earth. Gaia is a cybernetic feedback system operated unconsciously by the biota. Habitability, coevolution and Gaia approach life’s origin and its evolution from the astronomical, planetary and ecological perspectives.

Recent works bridging biology, neuroscience, cosmology and quantum physics turn these perspectives on their head. Among those, biocentrism proposes a unifying theory of everything  and approaches life from a cosmological standpoint, where consciousness creates reality and life is not an end-product but a force that is key to the understanding of the universe.

Theories of consciousness and how consciousness relates to neural/homolog systems are being developed in the fields of physics, cognitive sciences and information theory. While their perspective is different from biocentrism, they provide pathways to explore the interaction between life, environment and the universe, and the relationship between life and consciousness. With consciousness shaping our perception of the environment and the universe, integrating information, organizing and interacting with it, and possibly transforming it, some of these theories, including biocentrism, bring the origin and nature of life to the quantum level.

Although they still need to be proven falsifiable, such theories invite us to shift our perception and consider what would happen to astrobiology’s questions when addressed from this viewpoint. If verified, a  theory of everything  takes life’s origin to the beginning of the universe. Because it involves interactions at the quantum level, it may also mean a theory of everywhere, in which the separation between living and nonliving is not a fundamental difference of nature between them, but a difference in the amount of energy and complexity of information that is being integrated, organized, stored, transformed and exchanged at any single moment. What separates living from nonliving is only the limit of our own awareness of these interactions.

In that frame of reference, Gaia is not a cybernetic feedback system operated unconsciously by the biota anymore but a conscious symbiosis at a planetary scale. Coevolution is not what happens when life comes into being. It merely defines the threshold of our awareness of life’s ability to shape the universe.

For centuries, the notion of a conscious universe has rested as an exercise in philosophy  (panpsychism). These recent works based on scientific observations and experiments blur the boundaries between the humanities, biology, information technology, cognitive sciences and cosmology. Most importantly, they shift the frame of reference for exploration.

The search for life beyond Earth is not so much a search anymore if everything we are, we live on, interact with and observe is alive. Rather, it becomes an exploration of life’s expression of diversity and complexity– not in the universe but by the universe, and a search on how to connect and exchange information with it.

Yet the most profound aspect of these recent works might possibly be that they reposition us humans not as external observers anymore but as members of a universal symbiosis. This perspective is an end-member hypothesis for astrobiology, a paradigm shift that fundamentally changes our relationship to our planet, to our biosphere and to our universe.



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