We started by saying that what discriminates living from non-living systems is a sense of purpose. If biology is…

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We started by saying that what discriminates living from non-living systems is a sense of purpose. If biology is reducible to quantum physics, and typical quantum objects such as atoms and molecules show no sense of purpose, where does the transition occur? Where does the ‘desire’ to achieve the state of kinetic stability come from? This, of course, brings us back to square one. One easy way out is to conclude that purposefulness is simply an illusion. Pross would probably say that it is an emergent property that arises when chemistry becomes complicated enough. But given that this sense of purposefulness is how we identify life in the first place, perhaps we should resist conclusions that seem to wave it away too easily.



  1. This is both à very interesting and deep question but impossible.Might be asking an impossible question is the only way to get an “impossible ” answer. I’d rather have questions which cannot be answered than answers which cannot be questionned.

  2. I dunno…maybe I’m being simplistic about it, but ‘dead’ matter certainly has physical properties, gravity, electricity, chemistry and from what I see (which is somewhat difficult to put into words — though I have tried a few times in a simple manner) those basic forces (Eli Fennell would invoke the self vs environment) which I do as well and for my simplistic thoughts this leads directly to things like crystal formations, chains of chemicals and the rudimentary building blocks of life of which biological and Darwinistic life and evolution is based and naturally results from. I see no disconnect between ‘dead’ matter and the physics which it follows and its extension into ‘living’ things.

  3. Eli Fennell I think we’re on the same page. Things can get confusing with all the different words that get thrown around – awareness, consciousness, self-awareness, self-consciousness, not to mention qualia and all that. For me everything is built upon awareness of self vs environment. — the boundary of a cell for example. …

  4. In the beginning (square one)…

    …partly from the Koine and Byzantine Greek πνεῠμο- (pneumo-), a rare combining form of both the Ancient Greek πνεῠ́μων (pneúmōn, “lung”) and the Ancient Greek πνεῦμᾰ (pneûma, “air”, “wind”, “breath”, “spirit”)

    en.wiktionary.org – pneum- – Wiktionary

  5. Eli Fennell A virus is certainly aware of itself and its surroundings. It knows exactly what to do to survive and evolve. 🙂

  6. P.S. we humans are certainly dependent on our environment and use it to live, we need oxygen, water, food, etc. Not that different than viruses ‘dependent’ on cells….

  7. There is ever the desire of science to address meaning. Science is–by design–incapable of answering any question that begins with why. Objectivity is its goal.

    So, we observe that energy is not created or destroyed, entropy increases, etc. But we cannot use the method that gives us that knowledge to understand the meaning of the laws of thermodynamics (or evolution, or any of the scientific theories).

    Instead, we are required to do something else. What that ‘something else’ is is different for for different people. For Galileo, the inventor of the scientific method, his thinking went like this: we make the assumption that because God is rational, everything He creates will also be rational. Therefore, if we examine creation with as much objectivity as we can muster, ever aware of our human limits ( why experiments have to be repeated, why meta-analysis, etc. ), then we will discover the laws underpinning nature are rational.

    BUT, note that we have no reason to expect to find rational laws except the original faith that God is rational.

    But we forget about the faith after we find the laws. We discover nature ( physis in Ancient Greek) is rational, then we drop God and look to nature for meaning.

    Galileo would say that we have missed the point of the story of science. Paradoxically, he was punished for being irreligious by the fundamentalists who reduced Scripture to science (the sun cannot be the center of the solar system because the Bible tells me so). When, in fact, Galileo saw science as a way to praise God.

    The Bible, IMO, is a book about meaning and is NOT a scientific book, but one that is a basis for creating the scientific method in the first place (to understand God’s great rationality). It is a book that is higher than science can be.

    Best book on this distinction I know of is Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truths . I did an attempt at explaining his book through his three-dimensional cross here:

    docs.google.com – Forgotten Truths

  8. Meg Tufano Except that….before rationality, it was Gods that explained everything. That WAS the explanation. Why does the Sun rise? Because the gods say so, because the sun god carries it across the sky. Why does the sky rain and thunder? The gods are angry. It was only when we imposed rationality on the things we observed that we came to say, “AH god must be rational’ and therefore the things we observe must be rational…. but it wasn’t because god was rational, it was because we humans came to that conclusion and applied it TO god.

  9. Eli Fennell, I just responded with a comment on the post you linked to above. In short, I agree with you that sensing other comes before sensing self.

    There are so many different threads to pick up on here. The one that stands out to me though is this question of purpose. Is there some underlying proto-purpose embedded all the way down in physics? Christian de Quincey’s Soul of Matter is a deep dive into this question, a kind of scientific exploration of panpsychism.

    The other alternative is that purpose or meaning is something extra, something perhaps unique to biology.

    I personally like the idea that there is a sense of interiority that goes all the way down, a kind of internal structure as counterpart to the physical structure. As cognition grows, so too does our ability to sense that interiority. The other important point to remember, of course, is that that ability to project imagery inside our head is not really all that different from the projection we do when we are looking at the real world. Neither is an accurate reflection of what is really happening outside of us. These are just maps that we create within us to represent the signals we process from outside.

    books.google.com – Radical Nature

  10. Responding to your first two comments, Eli Fennell:

    Yes!! Exactly. This is precisely what has been floating around in my mind since having a kind of epiphany in a deep meditative state a few weeks back. This internal simulation is something that Antonio Damasio writes about from a neurological perspective. I think this is also what Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela were getting at in their classic book, The Tree of Knowledge, when they wrote that “every act of knowing brings forth a world.”

    This idea also goes by other, older names, of course, names like “Maya” and the Astral Realm. These intuitive insights predate modern biological understandings, but I think they are getting at the same thing.

  11. Eli Fennell, and this also gets to the relationship between volition and experience, which are also bidirectional and intimately tied to this interiority.

  12. Eli Fennell, conversing with you, I’m realizing that it’s probably time for me to brush up on my understanding of quantum effects. That’s especially true given the rise of quantum computing.

  13. Gideon Rosenblatt Very thought provoking, thanks…

  14. Eli Fennell, I remember reading Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind when it came out in ’89 or so, and actually feeling pretty lost at the time. I do remember that being a large part of his argument in that book, however. Looking back, I see that his other argument was that the mind is fundamentally not algorithmic, which would have some important implications for our efforts to synthesize the mind.

  15. Eli Fennell Thanks for pinging me into this discussion. It looks fascinating. I’ve been away for a while, so I have to put it in my “To Read” category so that I can fully digest what has been shared before commenting further.

  16. Eli Fennell, yeah, I’m with you. Just because we humans have these models doesn’t mean that’s how nature actually does it. 😉

    I also think it’s really interesting to see this dynamic relationship between the digital and the analog. Brains clearly use both with the on-off signalling of neurons and the waves of oscillations that wash across the brain at the macro level. Same thing with the underlying nature of reality and particles/waves.

  17. Agreed. What interests me is how the analog blends into the digital and vice versa., Eli Fennell, and how it hands on different scales. Yeah, and waste doesn’t tend to last very long, at least in evolutionary time.

  18. Kenny Chaffin “Before rationality gods explained everything…” Well, I do not think that believing in gods is entirely irrational in a pre-scientific era. And I know that science is derived from Galileo’s extension of the rationality of God to all of his creation (and we do indeed find rational explanations in, for example, The Periodic Table of the Elements, and most of science . . . to a point…after which there be dragons here .) So, back to the OP, what is the purpose of life? Believers say the purpose is to know God and to enjoy him forever. Non-believers have a wide variety of purposive concepts, existential consciousness may be a purpose in itself. “If eyes were made for seeing then beauty is its own excuse for being.” Meaning that the “purpose” of life is never separate from life. Heaven and earth are one.

  19. Meg Tufano Of course ‘believing in gods’ is irrational, by definition.

  20. Eli Fennell We are in a quandary about the word irrational… Let us imagine that there are rational areas we can know through rigorous steps that are repeatable by others (the scientific method). Those areas which can be addressed by these steps are limited to time and space. How many? How much? And even there we make (important) use of irrational numbers (pi).

    But we can know other KINDS of things, those kinds of things that are outside of time and space, outside of numbers. We call them irrational because they cannot be addressed by numbers but they are not quite unknowable. Love. Ecstasy. A soft spring morning. Emotion.

    Knowledge is roomier than just scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is one kind…

  21. Eli Fennell Agreed. This is all there is. There is nothing else. Emotions are a result of physical processes as are thoughts, beliefs, etc..

  22. Eli Fennell What is it you envision as being beyond time and space?

  23. Eli Fennell AH, You are saying the ‘other’ parts of the multiverse (assuming they exist 🙂 ) are not part of time-space. I disagree. If multiverses exist then our ‘verse’ is just one part of time-space (at perhaps a higher level of understanding of what time-space IS).

  24. Eastern philosophies include the idea of both conceptual and nonconceptual knowledge whereas western approaches essentially rejected the idea of nonconceptual knowledge long ago. A few things distinguish nonconceptual knowledge from conceptual knowledge. While you can realize you have nonconceptual knowledge, it is more like an awareness that something is there than awareness of conceptual knowledge. More significantly, nonconceptual knowledge cannot be put into words and therefore cannot be articulated. The most you can do is sort of characterize the knowledge but not describe it. Theoretical physicists have reported a similar thing as they study things at the quantum level.

    I first became fully aware of nonconceptual knowledge in my study of the classical Chinese medical system known as Qi Healing or Medical Qi Gong. During the training, the instructors often told us that we needed what was (probably loosely) translated as “profound understanding.” They tried to characterize it, but nothing quite made sense. Then one day I got it because I became aware of it myself. When I then characterized it as a different form of understanding and knowledge that couldn’t be put into words, the instructors smiled and told me that was it. It’s very strange in many ways. I can apply that knowledge, but not put it into words or even process it in my mind in the same way that I process conceptual knowledge. And yet it is there, it is available to me, and it grows as I nurture it.

  25. Eli Fennell I agree that conceptual vs non-conceptual knowledge does not equate to rational vs irrational.

  26. Eli Fennell It’s all about perspective. You are certainly welcome to disagree, but if you disagree with that then you must disagree with the reality of bat’s navigating by ultrasonic waves when they don’t exist for humans. 🙂

    Not to mention quantum entanglement.

  27. Kenny Chaffin The ability to navigate by sound waves is not unique to bats. The video below shows an example of human using echolocation to navigate while riding a bicycle.

    youtube.com – Blind as a Bat: Seeing Without Eyesight

  28. Eli Fennell and different types of knowledge don’t have anything to do with being able to put it into words or not. Animals clearly have knowledge but can’t talk. In my perspective even DNA has and maintains ‘knowledge’ that is not verbal or mental but physical.

  29. Eli Fennell I think of it more as humans having an underdeveloped capability as a result of being able to use vision rather than needing to use echolocation. The fact that the bicycle rider has been able to train many people to use echolocation as well as he does suggests that we all have the same latent ability as well as the necessary physiology.

  30. Eli Fennell I did not mean emotions are outside “time and space” but that they are not measurable in time and space. ( What percentage more do you love your child than I love mine. ) Knowing emotions is outside rationality. We can know irrational things, we just cannot prove our knowledge rationally (as we can, say, a scientific hypothesis). For example, what “knowing” a woman means in the Old Testament. ;’) These different domains of knowing are getting lost because of a wide variety of epistemological problems, one especially is that people of faith are mixing faith with knowledge: when, if one has faith (and NOT knowledge), one must have doubt. …But this conversation has gone on too many levels to respond adequately in the thread.

  31. Meg Tufano Of course they are ‘measurable’ depending on how you define ‘measurable’ — you are just playing word games now.

  32. I did not know some of the things that being said it’s amazing and learning experience I like to know more of things that I did not know

  33. Normen Felicia That is the sign of great intelligence. Intelligent people are the first to admit they do not know, and then they have a thirst to learn!

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