It’s Life Jim, But Not As We Know It – Life and the Soul in Vedanta, Samkhya and Science

Recently, by inserting a complete artificially synthesized “bacterial Artificial Chromosome” (BAC) into an empty (i.e. devoid of nucleic acid) so-called “Ghost cell”, a cell has been obtained which in every aspect qualifies as “living”. So is there a Godly spark, a soul at cellular level? Or is it within the structure of the artificial DNA (certain people believe that the DNA is the seat of the soul). It’s hard to follow that argument as a BAC is synthesised from simple molecular building blocks. So if there is a “animai-type” (cf. Lucretius in the Rerum Natura) of proto-soul in a cell, it is at lower aggregation level: the energy captured at molecular level. Then also the so-called dead matter should be considered as having an animai-type soul”. In fact, this amounts to “animism”: All matter is in fact living.

Peter Russell, a famous philosopher and scientist arrived at the notion of the “primacy of consciousness”, which is in fact the same as “panpsychism”. All is consciousness. Matter, energy, are of temporary and illusory nature and are embedded within the all-pervading consciousness. This is also the view of a number of Vedantists, who call this all pervading consciousness jnana or Paramatma or Brahman.

The following counter arguments were presented by an adept of the dualist school of Samkhya:

Still, even if you accept the idea of aggregation, there is still a problem with the monist view. If Brahman is present in everything, inanimate as well as animate objects, how do you explain why some parts of Brahman develop into living aggregates and others don’t?

What I’ve quoted above is the part that I disagree with. We can take it as a given that Paramatma is living, as we are. We may also take it as self evident that we are living because there is something inside us that is life, which may be Paramatma, to use your terminology. It causes us to think and grow and feel and perceive our environment and react to it. And we can also see that life is not in things like rocks.

You are making an assumption that Paramatma is in everything and therefore everything must be living. But that assumption is not borne out by observation. We observe that there are both living and non-living entities, and so whatever is in us that is the source of our life is not present in the non-living. So one of two things must be true, either Paramatma is not present in the non-living, or Paramatma is not the source of our life. Somewhere along the line, we have gotten something wrong.

I do not at all agree that atomic and subatomic particles react to each other in an intelligent way. The extent of my knowledge of science is very limited, but I’m fairly sure that the reactions of these particles are just the forces of nature. They are not meeting on the street, exchanging pleasantries and making arrangements to meet later for drinks. I have not at all come to the conclusion that particulate matter is illusory.

From the above it can be concluded that the meaning of terminologies “living”, “inanimate” and “intelligent”, are used and interpreted in a different way than what was intended. It is perhaps a matter of semantics, definitions. Or perhaps we can even by using the commonplace definitions arrive at my original understanding. It is not the purpose of this post to give a convincing conclusive reasoning. It is rather intended to shed doubt about usual accepted paradigms concerning the above mentioned terminologies. So I do not claim to prove monism, but I do claim to be able to draw dualism into doubt.

So let’s put these terminologies to the test:

Firstly it should be noted that the term “inanimate” derives from the Latin in- and anima: “without soul”. For me this term is a contradictio in terminis. If the omnipresent soul is all pervading, than following the reasoning of the Samkhya school (by virtue of the law of the nature of the effect is the same as the cause), the nature of this All must be soul as well.

Now it is true that in for instance in Vedantic texts as the Bhagavad Gita, but also many other texts a difference is made between prakrti and purusha and that these terms are often translated with “the material nature” and “living being/ enjoyer”, respectively. If we adhere to these translations and accept the Gita as an authoritative texts (which I do), it would appear that the dichotomy animate-inanimate is a valid one. However, the translation is burdened with meaning which has been given by scholars who perhaps saw certain analogies between English and Sanskrit terms, but this does not necessarily mean that they have been given the right translation. But before we go into that further inquiry let’s first see if in the light of present day knowledge and science, that what has always been called “inanimate” is really so different from what is called “living”.

The ontological definition of “life” in a dictionary can be the following (note that I took out those definitions relating to time artistic views etc.)

“The property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism.

The characteristic state or condition of a living organism.

  • A source of vitality; an animating force.
  • Liveliness or vitality; animation.
  • Actual environment or reality; nature.”

Of course definitions stating that living is the antonym of dead or inanimate, will by definition not be able to show that there might be some “living”characteristics to the “inanimate”. We would enter the realm of tautologies. I am not interested in that.

But the functional definition “manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism” is something we can use to probe to see if the existence of the term “inanimate” was justified.

Biological cellular organisms certainly pass the test. They have all these characteristics. This includes the artificially synthesized bacterium I mentioned at the beginning of this article. So there is no need to add a “Godly spark”, to these aggregated macromolecular entities. If we follow the law of conservation of the nature of a phenomenon from cause to effect (as explained by Samkhya), life must then be present at a lower aggregation level. On the other hand, there is the law of complexity and emergent properties, where the whole is more than the sum of parts. This law defies some of the principles of law of conservation of the nature of a phenomenon from cause to effect, as an emergent property is by definition a property which is not present in the constituents of the lower aggregation levels, but emerges at a higher aggregation level.

So either “life” is

1. a property which emerges from the structured and functionalised aggregation of macromolecular entities such as DNA,RNA, proteins, lipids etc. or

2. a property which is already present at one or more lower aggregation levels.

As it is easier to show 2. than 1. let’s start to see if “manifestations in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism” are present at a lower aggregation level.

At the macromolecular level many of these functions can indeed be recognised:

Wikipedia defines metabolism as “the set of chemical reactions that happen in living organisms to maintain life. These processes allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments. Metabolism is usually divided into two categories. Catabolism breaks down organic matter, for example to harvest energy in cellular respiration. Anabolism uses energy to construct components of cells such as proteins and nucleic acids”

Admitted, the definition is given here too much on the cellular level, but if we equate living organism with macromolecule and ignore the definitions which are by definition only intended for life as commonly defined at cellular or organism level only, it is fair to reduce the term metabolism to the capability to construct and breakdown and to harvest energy and to dispose thereof.

Macromolecular entities capable of growth, aggregation, clustering do exist. Prion proteins and other proteins involved in brain diseases all share this property. Construction cannot be denied.

Self/splicing RNA and protease enzymes that are capable of degrading other macromolecules, but also themselves have been demonstrated. Breakdown cannot be denied.

Proteins that harvest energy directly from light (rhodopsin etc.) have been demonstrated. Otherwise enzyme proteins harvest energy from redox reactions etc. The disposal of energy is self-evident from self-degradation or catalysis of reactions by enzymes.

So a form of proto-metabolism at molecular level (because macromolecules are molecules after all) can be demonstrated. Growth in the form of aggregation, clustering, concatenation or even polymerisation etc. can also be acknowledged.

Reproduction, generation of offspring with the same characteristics as the parents is more difficult. Disease prions transform healthy prions into diseased prions and thus are capable of a rudimentary form of reproduction. Viruses are reproduced by their hosts. DNA and RNA under the right conditions can achieve a certain level of reproduction. Note that asexual reproduction, which is quite common in the animal and plant kingdom, in fact is merely the result of the growing of the original species, which then splits off identical offspring. Smaller molecules are of course not capable of reproduction by themselves, but then again, reproduction is not necessarily vital to survival. The restriction of life to entities which are capable of active self-reproduction is a very narrow and arbitrary one. A definition given by scholars.

What is a more interesting definition of life as it is much closer to the concept of consciousness, which is the ultimate reality of being, is the notion that a life being is capable of response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism.

Proteins and DNA do react to the environment in response to stimuli from the environment. Enzymes engage in different types of catalysis dependent on the stimuli from the environment. DNA duplexes separate in individual strings in response to stimuli from the environment. It can even adapt by virtue of mutation.

Smaller molecules will dependent on the parameters of the environment engage in a reaction or fail to do so if conditions (stimuli) are not right. The ability to react also depends on the inner parameters of the entity, its conformation, its energy content (molecular orbitals) etc.

So characteristics of proto-life are already present at the lower aggregation levels even if we follow the narrow scholar definitions. For the moment I will not repeat this analysis in the same level of detail at the next aggregation levels (atomic and subatomic) as it is not my purpose to give an exhaustive theory. I just want to shed doubt on the preconceived paradigms that there would be something such as inanimate nature.

Shortly, particles do exchange energy and sub-particulate matter (neutrinos etc.) So far as to metabolism. Bombardment of large nuclei results in the falling apart in smaller nuclei. So does radioactivity. So far as to reproduction. Fusion of nuclei results in aggregated larger nuclei. So far as to growth. Particles do react to stimuli from the environment: electromagnetic fields, absorption and expulsion of photons, repulsion, attraction etc.

It was then alleged that atomic and subatomic particles were not capable of intelligent behaviour. Basically this amounts to the hypothesis that as long as behaviour is an automatic predictable algorithm, it is not intelligence as we know it.

Particulate entities cannot be said to behave as automatons. That would presuppose that given a set of exact parameters you can predict the behaviour of the particle. At this level you cannot.

The characteristics of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles are usually studied in the form of ensembles. We cannot know some much about an individual molecule, but we can know a lot about the behaviour of a large group of the same molecules, an ensemble. But then it is also not fair to deny certain characteristics to individual particulate entities as we cannot know whether these characteristics are there or not. At atomic level and subatomic level (and even at molecular level) the phenomena can presently only be properly described by quantum mechanics. This involves the Heisenberg principle: We cannot perfectly know simultaneously the location and the speed of a particle at this dimension. Knowing one excludes knowledge of the other. At these dimensions behaviour is of the particulate entities is non-deterministic. Only the behaviour of ensembles can be predicted with a certain degree of certainty.

The definition of intelligence as given by the great Artificial Intelligence developer Ben Goertzel, which is a practical functional definition, which is suitable enough for my present shedding of doubt is the following:

Intelligence is the ability to achieve complex goals. Or put otherwise the greater the complexity of the set of goals an entity can deal with, the greater the intelligence.

The processes described above of growth, metabolism, reproduction, and response to environment stimuli cannot a priori be denied for particulate matter. These processes are a landmark achievement of complexity by definition. How minute it may be, it is unfair to deny these processes the quality of complexity. Hence to deny particulate matter intelligence is a matter of definition.

The phrase “but I’m fairly sure that the reactions of these particles are just the forces of nature. They are not meeting on the street, exchanging pleasantries and making arrangements to meet later for drinks” presupposes a very high level of intelligence as definition of intelligence. Well most of the species of the animal kingdom cannot be demonstrated to achieve this high level of human (or primate) intelligence either. Yet we do not deny the animal kingdom a certain level of intelligence.

As I already stated the behaviour of individual particles is non-deterministic. The behaviour of the ensemble of these molecules appears to obey the more deterministic “laws of nature”, but the same cannot be said of the individual particulate entity. At these dimensions the laws of nature become rather statistical, difficult to understand, chaotic yet with a certain degree of order.

So what do we know of the following of laws of these entities? Are they really like automatons?

I wouldn’t dare to say so. Note that large groups of human beings also obey certain patterns, which are not necessarily present at the individual level. Isaac Asimov reflected a lot on this topic in his “foundation” series. The predictability of large group behaviour. So what do we know? Perhaps certain nuclei do go for a pint of neutrinos – that is just as fantastic as to say that they do not have any intelligent behaviour.

But there is more to the story. How stupid are automatons? Artificial Intelligence is progressing at a rapid speed calling into question many of our preconceived ideas on intelligence. It is not within the framework of this argument, but I promise that it can be convincingly be shown that the majority of our “intelligent processes” are algorithms. Fixed reaction patterns as the neuroscientist R.Llinas puts it. So to a great extent even we are automatons. Where the higher level of intelligence comes into play is creativity. Bacteria can be shown to have this aspect of intelligence. Read my article “Bloom’s beehive -intelligence is an algorithm”. And even the process of creativity is subject to laws, rules and patterns. It is not a random process. We’re presently disentangling these rules. What is left is that there are certain moments of choices to be made. Now an automaton programmed in an ideal way would try to achieve the best solution.

However in many AI applications it is realised that the algorithms either cannot always achieve the best solution, can end up in fruitless loops or it would take an eternity to get to the solution. This is why current AI applications settle for relatively “good solutions” and jump out of pathways which lead to fruitless efforts. Just like the human or animal brain, AI is more and more programmed to make an “educated guess”. Moreover, AIbots or AI agents are more and more capable of processes such as exchange of information, merging, splitting, disposal of waste features, procreation and mutation (genetic algorithms, Artificial Life:Alife etc. see Ben Goertzel’s “Creating Internet Intelligence”, chapter 11: Webworld).

Surely within the world of AI even the traditional definition of life cannot be denied.

Yet we continue to claim that they are automatons, that they have no self-consciousness or awareness. Do bacteria have self-consciousness? Yet we have no doubt as to the life of a bacterium.

It’s all again semantics. Where do you draw the line?

What I am particularly interested in as a technology developer is to see what happens once computers or the internet as a whole, is endowed with Artificial Intelligence which can mimic all our fixed reaction patterns and in addition has rules for creativity.

The point I am struggling with is the phenomenon of “initiative” and “free will”. This is the point where not solely action is undertaken because environmental parameters dictate to do so, but where action is undertaken because the conscious entity wants to make his will manifest. A free will, which can ignore the rational, which can deny its inner parameters an act to the contrary. A free will, which is capable of denying itself joy, deny its optimisation functions.

But do we really have such a free will? Are we not also secretly or subconsciously in the end carrying out a choice of the best educated guess (so a relative optimisation)? When we deny ourselves joy, indulgence in certain passions, when we control our behaviour so as not to give in to fixed action patterns, are we not doing this because we have programmed ourselves at a different aggregation level to ignore the motives of the lower mental aggregation levels? Is it not that we have calculated that the pursuit of these higher mystical goals may in the end be a better way of functioning of our organism? Is that really free will or is the term “free will” just another fooling of the mind?

Until we have reached the so-called “liberation”, are we not just as dead as the presumed dead matter?

Before we can really assert that we’re not automatons ourselves or that presumed automatons or dead matter is not living or is to be denied a level of consciousness, we should dispose of more parameters. Starting from the logical conclusion of the primacy of consciousness, the monist, panpsychism view appears to me the most promising starting point.

What the right translation of Prakrti? According to wikipedia “Prakrti or Prakriti or Prakruti (from Sanskrit language prakrti) means “nature”. It is, according to the hindi, the basic nature of intelligence by which the Universe exists and functions. It is described in Bhagavad Gita as the “primal motive force”. It is the essential constituent of the universe and is at the basis of all the activity of the creation.”

It does not sound very dead to me. It does not sound like “dead particulate inanimate matter” either.

This is how I understand it. Purusha is the aspect of Brahman or consciousness as ultimate enjoyer and knower of the field. The observing principle of consciousness. Prakrti is the aspect of Brahman or consciousness what is enjoyed, observed and the field of knowledge. Speaking in analogies, it is God’s mindstuff. What is consciousness without an object of observation (even if the object of observation is itself)? Even if there is no concrete object of observation, at least there is the being aware of itself, the being aware of being aware. Otherwise there is no consciousness or awareness. So consciousness cannot be defined by the knower alone. It is the interaction between the knower and the known.

What we call life is also an interaction between these aspects of knower and known. To assume that anything can manifest itself (even in the form of an illusion) as the one without the other is the materialistic viewpoint. In quantum mechanics the act of observing leads to the observation of certain manifested aspects of entities. The possible becomes being by the act of observation.

There is no known without knower and the knower cannot exist without known. That is the mystery of the universe.

There is nothing in the present understanding of science and philosophy that points to an objective reality independent of an observer. Wittgenstein states that the facts are the relations between the phenomena, but does not attribute an independent existence to the phenomena themselves. Nietzsche also denies the objective reality. So does Buddha. Howard Bloom describes “reality” as a mass hallucination (Global Brain 2002).

How long will people continue to believe in an objective reality? In inanimate particulate matter?

They are merely representations within the mind. Mind which itself is a collection of connections and algorithms i.e. relations only. In the mind there is no “cow”. Yet the connections between the neurons build up the image and meaning of what we call a “cow”. It’s all an illusion.

Prakrti can be described as Brahman’s mindstuff of relations alone and by virtue of his observation thereof as Purusha, his consciousness and awareness are the sole existence.

artificial intelligence definition

Source by Antonin Tuynman




Recent Comments

    [quform id="1" name="seo multistep"]