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What is Life?

August 2, 2015

There is a tremendous amount of confusion and obfuscation regarding this very simple question, which this short article will attempt to clear up in a scientific way. The science used here is the most advanced science known to humankind, which has only been discovered in the last 20 years. These recent discoveries of modern physics include the discovery of dark energy, the holographic principle and non-commutative geometry, and advance our knowledge of the world far beyond the earlier discoveries of quantum theory and relativity theory, but in a strange way make all other advancements in science, like molecular biology, totally irrelevant. A word of warning, however. There are many in the scientific world who will not like what these discoveries have to tell us, and will angrily react to these conclusions.

The scientific basis for these conclusions are discussed at length in other articles found at this site (for example How is the World Created from Nothing), and are only briefly reviewed in this article. Instead, the conclusions will be framed in the language of modern computer science, which is the best and closest analogy that corresponds to these recent scientific discoveries.

How is life defined? The critical distinction that is rarely made, or is confused and obfuscated, is between being and animation. This is the distinction between the being of consciousness (that which perceives the animation and has timeless existence) and the coherently organized animated life-form (that which only has an apparent time-bound animated existence, but with the ability to develop, self-replicate, defend and reproduce its form). To use the computer analogy, the life-form is like the animated image of something displayed on a computer viewing screen, while the being of the consciousness that perceives the animation is always present at the central point of view that arises in relation to the screen.

The Observer, the Screen and the Thing

What is the scientific evidence for this state of affairs? The scientific evidence begins with the holographic principle, which was discovered about 20 years ago. This discovery was made in an attempt to unify relativity theory with quantum theory and to explain the nature of entropy and other thermodynamic properties of black holes. The basic idea is every event horizon, like that of a black hole, acts as a holographic screen that encodes bits of information for the observation of things and projects the images of things from the screen to the central point of view of an observer, just like a computer screen that encodes bits of information and projects images to the point of view of an observer.

The images displayed on the screen are only composed of bits of information, but these images have a tendency to hold together and self-replicate their forms (a tendency called coherence that arises from the entanglement of information). Coherent organization or entanglement of information is a natural consequence of how bits of information are encoded on the screen in a binary code of 1’s and 0’s, which typically are encoded in terms of the n eigenvalues of an nxn matrix.

Information01

The holographic principle simply says n bits of information are encoded on the screen, where n=A/4ℓ2, A is the screen area, and ℓ2=ћG/c3 is the Planck area. This result is a natural consequence of a non-commutative geometry, where n non-commuting position coordinates (x, y) are defined on the screen (like latitude and longitude), but obey a non-commuting relation of the form ΔxΔy≥ℓ2, like an uncertainty relation in quantum theory. This uncertainty in position smears out the (x, y) points into n pixels of size ℓ2. Each pixel encodes a bit of information defined by the n eigenvalues of an nxn matrix. Although the holographic principle was initially discovered in string theory (now called M-theory), non-commutative geometry is much more general than any specific theory, and is the correct way to generically understand how bits of information are encoded on a holographic screen.

horizon information

Where does the holographic screen come from? The holographic screen is an event horizon, like that of a black hole. Since we’re interested in the world and not in black holes, we’ll have to discuss cosmic horizons rather than black holes.

Where does the cosmic horizon come from? The answer is dark energy. Dark energy is like a force of anti-gravity causing everything in the universe to repel everything else. Relativity theory tells us dark energy is actually the exponential expansion of space. When dark energy is expended, space appears to expand away from the observer at the central point of view at an accelerated rate. The farther out in space the observer looks, the faster space appears to expand away from the observer. At the cosmic horizon, space appears to expand away from the observer at the speed of light. Since nothing can travel faster that the speed of light, this is as far out in space as the observer can see things in space.

expanding universe

The cosmic horizon always surrounds the observer at the central point of view and acts as a holographic screen that encodes all the bits of information that define all the things the observer can perceive in its world, which is limited by the boundary of the cosmic horizon. The limiting speed of light is like the maximal rate of information transfer in a computer network, while the expansion of space (that gives rise to the creation of the holographic screen) is unlimited. In much the same way, the expenditure of dark energy is like the flow of energy through the computer network that energizes the network of screens.

exponential expansion of space

Space appears to expand with the repulsive force of dark energy, while space appears to contract with the attractive force of gravity. How do we understand this apparent expansion or contraction of space? The answer is the space-time metric of relativity theory, which is a measure of the curvature of space-time geometry. Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric (general relativity) describe how the curvature of space-time geometry is related to the expenditure of energy, whether that expenditure of energy is the expenditure of dark energy, gravitational energy, electromagnetic energy or nuclear energy.

How do the laws of physics that govern the world arise in a holographic world? The answer is called a duality. The laws of physics are dual to the holographic description of non-commuting position coordinates defined on the holographic screen. The laws of physics (usually expressed in the form of space-time field equations, like Einstein’s field equations for gravity, Maxwell’s field equations for electromagnetism, or the Dirac equation for the electron) govern the behavior of all the things observed in the bounded space, while the non-commuting position coordinates defined on the holographic screen specify how bits of information are encoded on the screen. To use of the computer analogy again, the observation of anything in that bounded space is like the projection of an image of that thing from the screen to the central point of view of the observer. Each observation of something in space is a like a screen output that occurs in a computer animation. The image of that thing is only animated over a sequence of screen outputs.

Black hole projection

The mega-discovery of modern theoretical physics is the laws of physics that govern the behavior of things in the bounded space arise as a thermodynamic average from the way bits of information are encoded on the holographic screen. This thermodynamic average is called a thermodynamic equation of state. Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric, which describe the force of gravity in the bounded space, arise from the way bits of information are encoded on the holographic screen bounding that space. Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric in the bounded space are dual to the holographic description defined on the screen.

Where do all the other laws of physics come from? The answer is the unification of the laws of physics. The only known mechanisms of unification are the Kaluza-Klein mechanism (extra compactified dimensions of space) and super-symmetry. If the Kaluza-Klein mechanism and super-symmetry are applied to Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric, the final result is called 11-dimensional super-gravity, which is a part of M-theory, and in the sense of a thermodynamic average is understood as a low energy limit. All the usual quantum fields of the standard model of particle physics are included in 11-dimensional super-gravity.

Compactified space

We now understand that the laws of physics that govern the behavior of things in the ordinary 3+1 dimensional space-time geometry of the observable world are a consequence of the holographic principle, but only arise as a thermodynamic average with a limited (low energy) range of validity. The observation of anything in that world is like the projection of an image of that thing from a holographic screen to the central point of view of the observer, while the animation of that thing can only arise in the flow of energy that energizes the network of screens.

We understand this network of screens is very much like an interactive computer network. Just like the information sharing that occurs in an interactive computer network, the network of screens can share information to the degree the screens overlap, like a Venn diagram. This information sharing allows many observers to share a consensual reality, like a virtual reality shared in an interactive computer network, but each observer observes its own world displayed on its own screen.

Overlapping bounded spaces

How do we understand the flow of energy that energizes the network of screens? The answer is found in relativity theory and thermodynamics. Relativity theory tells us the expenditure of energy that corresponds to the exertion of a force (such as the force of gravity or dark energy) only arises in the accelerated frame of reference of an observer, just like a rocket ship that must expend energy through the force of its thrusters as it accelerates through space.

gravity

The observer’s accelerated frame of reference then gives rise the creation of an event horizon that encodes bits of information and acts as a holographic screen that projects the images of all the things the observer can perceive in the space bounded by the screen. The observation of things in that bounded space are governed by the laws of physics, which we understand as all the usual quantum field theories of the standard model of particle physics. We also understand that all the usual quantum field theories arise from Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric when the Kaluza-Klein mechanism and super-symmetry are invoked. Einstein’s field equations only arise as a thermodynamic average from the way bits of information are encoded on the holographic screen, which is a consequence of defining non-commuting position coordinates on the screen. The dynamics of space-time geometry (and everything observed in that space-time geometry) only arises as a projection of images from the screen (animated over a sequence of screen outputs) to the central point of view of an observer (that appears to follow an accelerated world-line through that space-time geometry).

Observer's Horizon

The thermodynamics of this animation of the observer’s world is understood in terms of the big bang event that creates the observer’s world. The only credible theory of the big bang is inflationary cosmology, which tells us the big bang only arises due to an instability in the amount of dark energy that gives rise to the exponential expansion of space and the creation of the observer’s cosmic horizon that acts as a holographic screen. This tells us the normal flow of thermal energy through the observer’s world (and the network of screens that defines the consensual reality shared by many observers) arises from an instability in the amount of dark energy that gives rise to each observer’s holographic screen. This instability in the amount of dark energy in the observer’s world is like a phase transition from a meta-stable false vacuum state to an eventually stable true vacuum state.

quantum tunneling

As the phase transition occurs, the observer’s holographic screen inflates in size and cools in temperature. A thermal gradient arises as the screen inflates in size and cools in temperature. This thermal gradient drives the normal flow of thermal energy through the observer’s world. Eventually, this thermal process must come to an end when the screen size inflates in size to infinity and the temperature cools to absolute zero. At this point, the flow of energy through the network of screens comes to an end, and the animation of the observer’s world must also come to an end.

normal-flow-of-energy

The observer is only the consciousness present at the central point of view of the observer’s holographic screen. This central focal point of consciousness can be called the singularity of the observer’s world, just like the singularity of a black hole.

singularity

What happens to this central focal point of consciousness when the animation of the observer’s world comes to an end and the observer’s world disappears? The answer is called dissolution. The central focal point of consciousness dissolves back into the true vacuum state (the void) like a drop of water dissolves back into the ocean. This dissolution experience cannot be described or explained, but the non-dual wisdom of those undergoing this experience tells us the void is the nature of undifferentiated consciousness (Brahman), while the central focal point of consciousness of the observer is the nature of differentiated consciousness (Atman).

Atman Brahman

Ultimately, when the animation of the observer’s world comes to an end, the differentiated consciousness of the observer must return to the undifferentiated consciousness of the void.

In the words of Shankara:

Brahman is the only truth
The world is illusion
There is ultimately no difference between Atman and Brahman

With this scientific framework, it is finally possible to answer the question: What is life? We only have to clearly distinguish between the being of consciousness (that which perceives the animation and has timeless existence) and the animated life-form (that which only has an apparent time-bound animated existence, but with the coherently organized ability to develop, self-replicate, defend and reproduce its form). The life-form is like an animated image displayed on a viewing screen, while the being of consciousness that perceives the animation is always present at the central point of view (the singularity) that arises in relation to the screen.

eternal observer

The animated life-form has no real being, no more than an animated image displayed on a viewing screen. The animated life-form is coherently organized with the ability to develop, self-replicate, defend and reproduce its form (which we call the survival of form) and to utilize the flow of energy in its environment to accomplish these tasks (the same flow of energy that animates its form), but the life-form has no more being than an animated image displayed on a viewing screen. Only the consciousness present at the central point of view (the singularity that arises in relation to the viewing screen) has real being, with its own inherent sense of being present, but that being is timeless, which is to say it is not animated.

In the immortal words of the Bhagavad-Gita:

The unreal has no being
The real never ceases to be

Nisargadatta also describes the unreality of the animation of the images of all things in the world (as perceived on a screen from an ascended point of view), and the reality of the observer (the timeless being of the presence of consciousness at the central point of view that perceives those images):

Once you realize that there is nothing in this world which you can call your own you look at it from the outside as you look at a play on the stage or a picture on the screen.
To know the picture as the play of light on the screen gives freedom from the idea that the picture is real.
In reality I only look.
Whatever is done is done on the stage.
Joy and sorrow, life and death, they are real to the man in bondage.
To me they are all in the show, as unreal as the show itself.

Nothing perceivable is real.

Only the onlooker is real.
That which makes you think that you are a human is not human.
It is a dimensionless point of consciousness, a conscious nothing.
All you can say about yourself is ‘I am’.

Nisargadatta is explicitly telling us about the nature of life and death: “Life and death, they are real to the man in bondage. To me they are all in the show, as unreal as the show itself”.

Plato's cave

Confusion about this state of affairs only arises if the presence of consciousness observing the animation identifies itself with the animated life-form it perceives in its world, which it does because it really feels self-limited to the form of the life-form as it perceives the flow of emotional energy through the life-form animating the behaviors of the life-form in relation to the form of other things displayed on the screen. Those behaviors include the self-referential thoughts of the life-form, which emotionally relate the life-form to other things in the observer’s world, and in the process mentally construct the observer’s life-form based self-concept.

This animating flow of emotional energy (limited to the form of the life-form) is the expression of the desire to live, which makes the presence of consciousness feel like it really lives the animated life of the life-form. To paraphrase Jed McKenna, the expression of this emotional energy (the desire to live) is the nature of the emotional tethers that attaches the observer to its world and makes it feel like it is a part of something real (self-identified with the life-form).

The whole thing is a big illusion. Life is no more real than a computer generated animation of images displayed on a computer screen, like a virtual reality arising in an interactive computer network. The presence of consciousness has timeless existence and really does not live a time-bound animated life. This illusion of life depends on the presence of consciousness identifying itself with the life-form, which depends on it feeling like it is really self-limited to the form of the life-form, which depends on the emotional expression of the desire to live. The only way the illusion of life can come to an end is when the desire to live comes to an end, which is to become desireless. Only when the animating flow of emotional energy through the life-form (the desire to live) comes to an end can the illusion of life come to an end.

The Tao nicely describes this state of affairs:

Ever desireless one can see the mystery
Ever desiring one can see the manifestations
These two spring from the same source but differ in name
This appears as darkness
Darkness within darkness
The gate to all mystery

References:

1. Leonard Susskind (2014) Messenger Lectures “The Birth of the Universe and the Origin of Laws of Physics” http://www.cornell.edu/video/playlist/leonard-susskind-messenger-lectures

2. Amanda Gefter (2014) Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything (Random House)

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