An Alternate Definition of Life and Self

Many of my older posts have explored the concept of reciprocity (or the lack thereof) as it applies to the function of human societies. In my opinion the function/dysfunction index of any society is directly linked to the type of relationship between that society and individuals in it. While I am not suggesting that a functional society has to treat every individual equally, it is rather obvious that there are levels of social benefit below which no rational individual can be expected to keep acting in good faith.

But who, or what, is the ‘individual’? In an older post, I had talked a bit about my views on the nature of self. Let us continue that discussion. In the graphic comic/movie “Watchmen” one of the protagonists says-

A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned.

In the comic/movie this is supposed to convey the profound detachment towards the rest of humanity felt by the trans-human character of Dr. Manhattan . But let us take this idea a bit further and ask ourselves what this statement implies about the nature of self. Here is a thought experiment-

Imagine you had a machine that could identify, enumerate and pinpoint the location of every atom of a given human body at any given instant. Now take a person dying of some disease or complications of old age and put him/her in this machine. If you kept taking all-atom snapshots of the person till a few minutes after death, would you see any drastic change in the number, position or arrangement of atoms in the molecules that make up that person’s body? More importantly- could you use a database made of the atomic snapshots of a number of dying people to ascertain whether a given person was dead or not?

Given the wording of my thought experiment you have probably realized that there is no dramatic shift in the number of atoms or change in their arrangements between life and death. Indeed the very existence of the bacterial and fungal spores or the cryptobiotic forms of tardigrades and rotifers suggests that the line between being alive or not is far more nebulous than most people realize.

Having said that, there are fairly straightforward ways to determine if something or somebody is alive or not.

While the existence of atoms which make us up is clearly a necessary condition to being alive, it is not sufficient. So what makes being alive possible? I propose that it is the exchange of energy (information) between these particles that defines being alive. An aggregation of water, ions, lipids , proteins etc could have the potential for life but it is not alive until the components of this system interact with each other in a manner that transfers energy (information) through the system without destroying it.

Life then is conditional to both the existence of its chemical constituents as well as a self-sustaining transfer of energy (information) amongst them.

The mind, and self, require the existence of a functional (live) brain and therefore are just an extension of the same underlying process. Therefore both can be defined as patterns of energy (information) transfer amongst the atoms and molecules which make up the brain and its supporting organ systems. While there are likely to be general trends and common patterns of such energy (information) transfer between individuals, it is unlikely that two people will share the same exact pattern.

Some of you might ask- Why are you conflating energy and information? Are they not different from each other?

Let explain my view on that with another thought experiment. Imagine a volume of space at absolute zero and devoid of anything a few thousand molecules of hydrogen. How could you ascertain their existence? The easiest, and probably only, way to do that involves getting some form of energy to interact with those molecules such that they absorb and or emit energy in a manner that signals their existence. We can take this idea one step further and ask how molecules in a living organism can recognize and interact with other molecules to make life possible. It is rather unlikely that each molecule in our body has a little demigod controlling it in an intelligent manner and therefore we have to consider a more plausible explanation. While energy transfer between two constituent molecules in an isolated cell might look somewhat mechanistic and probability driven in isolation, a series of such couplings could form a self-sustaining chain of energy transfer that could run that particular cell and by extension all other cells in a given body.

The self is then an ephemeral yet highly complex summation of such inter-molecular energy transfer cycles- not unlike the sum of all binary data being processed inside a computer at any given moment.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. EvilOne
    November 4, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Read Michael Crichton’s “Travels”. The self is probably a non-physical entity of some sort. Consciousness doesn’t arise in the brain. The brain channels it. There is probably merit in all those ‘out of body’ stories where a patient hovers above its dead body and sees details that it could not possibly know otherwise.

    The practical worth of this – no idea.

    • Sandi
      November 4, 2012 at 10:31 am

      We know that the brain “channels” consciousness we just don’t know from where…

      Unless of course you believe in God or a “source”

      • EvilOne
        November 4, 2012 at 12:58 pm


  2. bringthemovies
    November 4, 2012 at 8:38 am

    very interesting post…

    by the way AD… would you mind deleting the comments I made on your u samo post (and subsequently this very one) ?

    thinking back I gave away a little too much personal info for my comfort..

    take care

    I would not be worried about anything that does not explicitly state who you are. The other stuff is too generic to matter. In any case, the link at a forum which brought me lots of aspy traffic is more important than your comments here.

  3. medal
    November 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm
  4. Cody
    December 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Who wrote this ? There is no author description

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