What Biophysics Underlies the Demarcation of Abiotic Matter from Living Matter?

biophysics living system origin-of-life william brown Aug 07, 2023
The International Space Federation has a new biophysics research paper in preprint. In this preliminary publication a key characteristic that distinguishes the living system from abiotic matter is discussed, and is identified as the primary criterion by which any material system can be unambiguously defined as either alive or as non-living matter. In addition to elucidating the nature of living systems, and what it means for an organization of matter and energy to be alive, the criterion serves as a methodology to unambiguously and positively identify a system as (1) alive, and (2) as conscious. In regards to the latter (2), the methodology outlined in the study is a significant advancement  over the Turing test, which does not distinguish a programmed automaton from a system with true stand-alone volition and consciousness, and hence is a substandard method to identify a system as conscious.
By: William Brown, scientist at the International Space Federation

What is life? This fundamental question has remained unresolved even nearly 80 years after the 1944 book by Erwin Schrödinger that posed this very question and catalyzed the theoretical development of the physics of life in the modern era [1]. Because the question “what is the nature of life?” is an inquiry at the foundational level it involves nearly all scientific fields (chemistry, geology, astrophysics, etc.); perhaps most significantly it is a question that looks to discern the physics that distinguishes abiotic matter from living systems, and hence it is a question that very much involves the field of physics. 

Schrödinger’s primary speculation in the book was the question of whether life may require new laws of physics. A the time, Schrödinger’s question into whether new physics would be necessitated to understand life was not fully apprised of the molecular mechanics underlying the living organism and hence was somewhat premature because his investigation into this topic preceded the delineation of the chemical base-pairing rules and double-helix geometrical configuration of DNA by Crick and Watson [2], by which heritable information is transmitted, and the further discovery and detailing of the mechanisms of transcription and translation by Crick; which are foundational to molecular biology and hence required to understand the informational basis of the living state. Interestingly, on the topic of the origins of life, which is inextricable from investigation of the question of the fundamental nature of life and the living system, Crick along with his colleague Orgel proposed that life on Earth was most likely engineered by an advanced civilization in another star system and “seeded” on Earth via directed panspermia [3]. Following the delineation of the nature of the living state postulated in this study, it is expected that living systems will arise throughout habitable systems in the universe (estimates place at least 6 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy [4]), supporting Crick and Orgel’s theory.

Schrödinger’s inquiry into whether life may necessitate new physics can be considered correct—from the perspective of what was known during his time—as quantum mechanical phenomena like quantum tunneling  of protons [5], spin selective filtering in conduction of electrons in dielectric organic molecules [6, 7, 8], enzyme kinematics [9], and exciton-condensate-like amplification of energy transport for 100% efficient electron transfer in oxidative phosphorylation and photosynthesis [10,11] are now known to be quintessential properties of the quantum behavior of molecular biology. Regarding the arbeitshypothese investigated here to move towards a deeper understanding of the nature of life, it could be considered a new principle in physics that in addition to “first-principles properties” of charge, mass, and spin, matter has a fundamental quality of basal awareness. In the concluding discussion of his book, Schrödinger speculated on the nature of determinism, free will, and consciousness and proffered the inference “that I – I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt 'I' – am the person, if any, who controls the 'motion of the atoms' according to the Laws of Nature". This illustrates two salient points: (1) the state of matter we call living has—at least in some instances undeniably—a quality of sentience and awareness, and (2) this sentience and awareness animates matter and “controls the motion of atoms”—which could be interpreted as an indication of the fundamental and even potential intrinsic nature of basal awareness.

Figure 1, DNA Double Helix.  Diagram from Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper on the “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids”. Delineation of the base-pairing rules for the four canonical nucleosides of DNA, referred to as Watson-Crick base-pairing, forms the foundation for understanding the informational nature of the biological organism.

The intrinsic form of awareness—basal awareness—is not cognitive awareness, the latter of which is associated with contemplative thought, comparative analysis, language, introspection, and other higher-order cognitive faculties. Basal awareness refers only to the inner experience that is the basis of awareness—that there are qualitative experiences associated with phenomena; this should not be conflated with thought and higher-order cognitive faculties. This postulate falls under the hypothesis of panprotopsychism [12, 13], theories of which posit that—to use the Diósi–Penrose model as an example—microscale superpositions of spacetime geometry result in objective reduction of the associated wavefunctions (a quantum gravitational mechanism) [14,15], which produces a non-computational permutation that is a protoconscious event [16]. When many such events are coordinated in a well-orchestrated fashion, for instance in the wavefunctions of polarizable dipoles in microtubules of the eukaryotic cell, it results in a gestalt of the protoconscious elements engendering awareness [17]. Quantum gravitational theories of consciousness, like the Penrose-Hameroff orchestrated objective reduction model have received strong empirical support from experiments performed by the Anirban research group [18,19,20].

Moreover, given that the Standard Model of physics is incomplete—currently unable to incorporate the fundamental force of gravity and to reconcile the theory of general relativity with quantum field theory—there is currently not sufficient understanding (within the consensus theory of the Standard Model) of the spacetime manifold and quantum fields to justifiably deny that there may be as-of-yet unidentified properties of these fields, such as memory, which follows from holographic principles of unified physics and which would confer support to the theoretical basis of the hypotheses of scale-free cognition and panprotopsychism (see our research paper The Unified Spacememory Network to learn more about the memory properties of space and its link with the living system and natural sentience). Such an inference would also logically correspond with and corroborate theories in which the universe is able to learn its own physical laws, such as the autodidactic universe [21], and the self-simulation hypothesis where the physical universe, as a strange loop, is a mental self-simulation that might exist as one of a broad class of possible code theoretic quantum gravity models of reality obeying the principle of efficient language axiom [22]. Herein, the definition of life is inextricably linked with awareness and the property of awareness to engender volitional behavior in living systems, and so this is a necessary and apt consideration regarding the following discussion.

The full discussion from the research manuscript can be accessed at the online open-access journal Qeios. Suffice to say, the utility of a clear and measurable criterion for when a system is alive and / or conscious is becoming increasingly imperative as human capabilities in synthetic engineering and generation of artificial life-like systems are rapidly increasing and nearing a demarcation point where synthetic living systems and artificial systems with sentience will be generated.

Universality of Life and Consciousness

The results of this analysis show that, as defined, life is not restricted only to what we identify as biological organisms, but instead can be extant in any system with the proper structural arrangement—an arrangement that enables the fine-control of atomic matter, like the transfer of electrons—and control of energy processes, which is to say ordering-functions of information processing, from which intelligence and goal-oriented behavior manifests and hence becomes observable properties of the system. 

Since these information processes are largely recursive in nature, such that information processed by the subsystem is fed-back into the larger global system— it suggests that life and consciousness are not merely trivial emergent phenomena of underlying “blind” processes of a random universe, but instead are integral factors of physical processes at all scales and are instrumental in the physics of the evolution of material systems, such as the role that integral awareness plays in animating living matter.

The full paper can be accessed via the open-source online journal Qeios. Download the full paper by clicking the link below

Note, this is a preprint article, and not the final manuscript, which may incorporate revisions and updates when prepared for final publishing. 


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