AWARENESS and LIFE
The Ontological Distinction of Biological Life
by Dwight Harris
What exactly is organic matter?
When I was about 5 years old, I asked my mother if worms went to heaven. I was told some version of "don't be ridiculous." But why did I ask that question? I didn't wonder if rocks went to heaven. Why did I sometimes hear the phrase "Bad dog?" Nobody would say "Bad rock. Don't do it again." Did the rock do anything? What if a worm took food from another worm? What if a tree blocked the sun allowing small seedlings to die? What do we have in common with the rest of the living world? Life? We are all alive? Life is alive. But what is it exactly?
A few years ago I took a course on the meaning of awareness. The professor mentioned "consciousness," "conscious awareness" and what struck me, "unconscious awareness." Awareness. Living beings are aware. The rock is not.
When we look out at the night sky what do we see? Galaxies? No. Stars? No. We see shining lights. Do we see a moon? We see something with lines in a shiny object, and a shape that changes from a sliver to a full circle every 30 days or so. Do we see a sun? No. We see a circular fire, or maybe just a bright light, crossing from horizon to horizon followed by about an equal time of darkness repeating once every 24 hours. Do we see an hour? No. People have divided the time the sun crosses and disappears and then reappears by 24 time sections. What did ancient man see? A god? Dead people in the stars? Stories in the stars written by gods? Only in the 20th century did humans begin to understand how the universe had a beginning. Before that it was assumed it went back forever. Only in the 19th century did people begin to see evolution. Before that it was assumed man, animals, plants and the world were created pretty much at once. This was the thought at least in much of the Western world. It was assumed we went someplace else after death.
But what do cats see? What do cows see? What does a tree see? What do bacteria see? What is the true world? A dog smells about as many things as we see. A dolphin uses hearing like we use sight. A bat can hear in the dark maybe even more than we can see or hear in the light. Are humans more "intelligent" than other animals? We supposedly see galaxies and atoms. Except that I don't see either. I'm told they exist. I see a big fire in the sky. And that's because I've seen small fires here on the ground and I think the sun looks like fire. Is the world the universe, or is the world what we see and hear?
What does the world really look like? If you could put all the living beings in the world into one mind, what would the world look like? Imagine being able to sense the world from every species' point of view. If you could be a bacterium for one day, would you have any idea what you were doing? Could you survive in a bacterial world? Is the human world better or more accurate or true than the bacterial world? Or is it merely more imaginative. Is there something true for all living beings? Undefined by any single living being or species but confronted by every one? What is there without words? What is there before interest, before need? What is essential that cannot be ignored?
I also asked my mother when I was about 5, "Why is the school bus taking so long?" My mother said, "Don't stare at the clock. The time will go faster." I thought, "Wow. We can control time."
IN A NUTSHELL
On one side is unfathomable expanse
"We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." - Werner Heisenberg.
Scientists and scientific thinkers have often concluded that there are two areas beyond physical description that science cannot explain: Life and Consciousness.
Is everything that is alive conscious, or at least, aware? Is everything that is aware alive? If they were the same thing, perhaps that one thing could be explained. Do we have one thing in common with a tree that we don't have with a rock?
My purpose is to explain life and consciousness without resorting to or invoking spiritual intervention. God is not an explanation. What I say in the poem about God being Life is my belief, but as a belief it is not defensible and I have no interest in defending it. I will say, however, that it is not inconsistent with what I have to say about life and consciousness. Since God is not an explanation, maybe life and awareness are. Maybe they explain themselves.
The second part of the poem, about living inside time, actually living time, is essential to my overall thesis. But first, what is that which all life confronts? The basic paradox of existence is the only something that is given to us. The given is what we can't go beyond. Everything else is how our organism, indeed all organisms, organize and come to life with this paradox.
I describe it as the discrete point and the continuum and the necessary but impossible choice as to which is more fundamental. Existence presents us with the fundamental paradox of infinity: The infinite (as far as we can know or imagine) totality of discrete entities and the infinite (as far as we can know or imagine), endless continuum. In other words, individual things and the in between. It is the necessary choice that cannot be made yet must be made. It is unavoidable. It is choice itself.
The two infinities reach out to one another. The smallest imaginable point leads to infinite mutual externality, point after point, never reaching the largest imaginable continuum, which in turn leads infinitely into itself toward the point.
Whether it is motion, point and distance, the need for limit in calculus or current measurement vs. observation disputes, from Zeno to Quantum/General Relativity unification, this paradox is central. The history of Western human thought from the ancient Greek philosophers to current quantum field theory has been essentially dealing with the same dichotomy. From Zeno's paradox of time and distance to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, how one gets from here to there through infinitely divisible here-and-now's remains the question. Quantum electromagnetic particle forces rise up to, but not quite reaching, Einstein's spacetime gravitational continuum.
"Both the largest and the smallest structures of the universe are astonishingly simple. It is here that we find the two 'standard models,' of particle physics and cosmology."- Robbert Dijkgraff 1
Though Descartes divided the world into internal Consciousness and External matter, Science chose the road of mathematically predicted matter. What has been unveiled is a remarkably coherent and vastly scaled universe, but so far culminating in the mathematical deadlock between Quantum mechanics and General Relativity, thereby preventing a complete Theory of Everything. Science has come close in different ways to unify the two theories, (Stephen Hawking is noted for his theory that black holes, which are predicted by General Relativity, dissipate at the edges via quantum randomness, rather than pull themselves down to 0 with infinite gravity. The Bose particle is also theorized to unite quantum mechanics and gravity.) but quantum gravity, if proven, is merely a means to understand the smallest possible and the largest possible in terms of one another. And exactly where in this Everything equation are the life and consciousness variables?
The philosopher Hegel begins his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences with what he sees as the most general, fundamental idea that can be conceived, "Being and Nothing are one and the same." Yet at the same time they are not the same. For Hegel, the paradox is expressed by the back and forth of Becoming. I see this as point and continuum expressed in the blur of pure change.
Jean-Paul Sartre argues that Nothing is not one side in the relation of Being and Nothing, but is the pure nothingness at the center of current experience. Alfred North Whitehead sees the problems of consciousness from Descartes to the early Twentieth Century as attempts to apply a subject/predicate division on what is truly organic existence. The relation between subject and predicate is itself for Whitehead primary. Hans Jonas, in his important philosophical work, "The Phenomena of Life," takes Whitehead's insight and sees it manifested in the difference between life and non-life. Life is a constancy of form through a changing flow of matter.
Materialistic causation reduces either to a before pushing the after, or an uncaused randomness. But Aristotle, long ago, insisted on another type of causation, Final Cause, which is purpose. But purpose invokes a causation from ahead, from the future. Action caused by a goal. Scientifically off limits. Not allowed by deterministic material reductionism.
The paradox of point or continuum changing back and forth is resolved by a unity in life. How might living awareness create or be created by, its own future? Life is not just form flowing through matter, but matter flowing through form. Life is at the nexus giving infinite change a specific direction. Matter alone would have either a future without a past (randomness) or a past without a future (determinism), or both. But direction is both where it is going and where it came from. Time is change with direction. In directional time there is awareness. Which way is past and which is future? It doesn't matter. Life chose. And faces one way.
Time is usually thought of as the 4th dimension of four dimensional spacetime. The smallest measurable length allowed by quantum mechanics is called the Planck Length (1.6×10-35 meters). The Planck Time, beneath which time is said to be meaningless, is the time it takes for light to travel across the Planck length. Physicists claim there is no such thing as now, because what we confront is a series of photon hits, each occurring at and for a separate miniscule undeterminable time. Yet between the photons, beneath Planck Time, somehow in some way we are living through it. Imagine a 3D sphere, a 2D plane, a 1D line and a point. That point has no spatial dimension. If we are living at that point, it is in pure time. Time in itself has no space. It has an inside-out. It is the 0 dimension.
The book is divided into Parts, Chapters and Sections. The five Parts are I. Matter, II. Form, III. Form Awareness, IV. Matter Awareness and V. Life. Part I,"Matter," traces the philosophical and scientific progression that mirrors the evolving relationship of matter and form. With Part II, "Form," this progression culminates in the concept of information when form frees itself from matter, becoming life as awareness of information from the inside/outside of the living cell. With Part III, "Form Awareness," the forms of awareness as such, including consciousness are examined. With Part IV, "Matter Awareness, " the forms of living matter such as the brain, animals, plants and artificial intelligence are shown in their awareness context. Part V, "Life," is a philosophical overview, including my theory of time and its fundamental role in living awareness.