Are all things, living and non-living, conscious?
What is consciousness? Are living and non-living things both conscious? What characteristics set living things apart from non-living things? These are the questions that have been on my mind.
First, let me define consciousness: according to the established definition, it is the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s environment. Sticking to this very definition of consciousness, I aim to expand upon this fact starting from a very simple non-living thing and moving on to more complex entities to illustrate the differences, one level at a time.
The simplest material I am considering here is copper wire. It responds to external stimuli in its surroundings, such as heat, by undergoing thermal expansion. If we use the definition I provided above, there is some sort of consciousness inherent to the copper wire. I would like to put it in the category of "first level of consciousness." Because the material responds to its environment, by definition, it is conscious. More specifically, these materials are aware of and react according to external stimuli they are bound to, like temperature, moisture, stress, moisture, electric field, magnetic field, and pH. We can classify them as "simple" materials as they can react but cannot perceive their environment and behave accordingly.
The second level of consciousness is found in materials that have the ability to perceive and behave to their environment (but not yet to optimize and improve). For example, some glassy materials developed recently by scientists are so smart that they respond to stimuli such as incoming light and, as a result, change their behavior – such materials are called "smart" materials. It is worth noting that these glassy materials let sunlight (specifically, the infrared part of its spectrum) in through the window. When light enters the room through the window, the glassy material actually plays a role in raising the temperature of the room to an optimum level. Once the temperature of the room is optimized, it undergoes that phase in reverse to reflect the light back to its surroundings. This way, room temperature is maintained at some optimum temperature. These materials know how to respond, perceive, and behave according to their situation. From this evidence and once again from the definition of consciousness above, we can gather that these materials also have some kind of consciousness.
Now, let us move onto the third level of consciousness found in "intelligent" materials. These materials have only been recently developed largely by the nano-technology industry. Such materials not only respond, perceive, and behave – they also analyze to summarize the experience and change its behavior to optimize the response. As a result, these materials are known to offer excellent performance. In recent years, intelligent materials have become central to AI systems and 4D printing. From this, we can infer that these materials are more conscious than the first and second types of materials I mentioned earlier. In essence, these materials have a deep level of consciousness to external stimuli – their environment – to which they are subjected to.
The question arises: what characteristics are not found in these materials that allow us to classify them as "non-living"? In my view, consciousness is as vast as the universe and as small as a simple response exhibited by low-level materials. If we stick to the definition of consciousness as being aware and responsive to external stimuli, this simple definition cannot adequately or comprehensively explain the characteristics and behaviors of other classes of materials. That said, the definition of consciousness should be expansive enough to cover a wider range of material, including living things.
The three types of materials I have discussed above lack the ability to cognitively read, analyze, and respond to stimuli for their continued benefit and survival. Thus, the fourth level of consciousness is inherent in biomaterials. This level can be defined as the cognitive ability to read the environment, analyze the information received, and execute necessary actions in order to continue their survival. Moreover, these materials should have genetic material called DNA embedded in them. These materials are simple bio-cells. The difference between the fourth level of consciousness and the other three types of consciousness outlined above is that the former lacks two important criteria: one, the ability to cognitively read the environment for their own benefit, and two, the lack of genetic materials inherent in them. There is a clear distinction between those materials – the former is non-living and the latter is living. So, the definition of consciousness has taken a different form, and as we add meaning and broaden its scope.
Furthermore, consciousness can become more and more vast – from tiny ants to human life forms. To our current knowledge, the tiny ant may have a limited consciousness, whereas a human being's consciousness as we can easily understand encompasses hunger, thirst, anger, love, affection, courage, ego, imagination, thought, and much more. All of them are part of a larger consciousness. They are like quantum states or qubits.
The exact definition of consciousness for a living material is a state of being aware and responsive to external stimuli, to have the ability to cognitively read the environment, analyze the information received, and execute necessary actions to continue their survival – in addition to having genetic information embedded in them, such as DNA. No genetic information exists in simple, smart, and intelligent materials. Perhaps this is the difference between humanoid robots and human beings. (However, the use of biochips in making robots may bring humanoid robots closer to human beings.)
In human beings and other eukaryotes, consciousness is spread throughout the body. Philosophers and scientists believe that consciousness is embedded in the brain in the form of neurons and nano-tubules that carry messages from the brain within and to other parts of the body. Consciousness exists in the form of energy, or energy of the wave that carries information to and fro. Consciousness is also non-local: although it is predominantly found in the brain, even cells in other parts of the body can exhibit consciousness.
Very recently, it is believed that consciousness is information localized primarily in the brain of a person. People think that it can be scanned and stored in computer-like devices for future use. This consciousness can be uploaded into a manufactured brain so that robots can take the state of a person. In my opinion, consciousness is a challenge to a super being. The human body consists of two parts. At its core level, the physical body is made out of five fundamental elements: earth, water, air, light, and space (gravity field). The other part of the human body is consciousness, which some call the "soul". A soul can never get destroyed, while a body without a soul decays back into the cosmos. However, some people believe that consciousness and soul are the same entity.
In this text, my argument is that the soul and consciousness are not the same, even though they are both information embedded in the form of energy waves. As a person dies, their soul (as a carrier wave) modulates the consciousness wave and both travel into the cosmos. Once oxygen supply to the body is interrupted, first consciousness is lost and then the soul leaves the body. The physical body goes into a ground state, losing all the energy it had when it was alive. The average power that our human system consumes is about 20 watts (20 J/sec), but to function our brain, the minimum power required is about 45 watts. The brain is believed to be an oxygen-hungry organ like the heart – therefore, significant energy is required to make it functional. When a person stops generating the power required to function, the human body stops. This power alone is not consciousness, as consciousness is a fundamental reality embedded in the human system when the body is alive.
I want to expand upon the three important entities: DNA, consciousness, and soul, which are all essential to our human body. DNA contains information to build our body, consciousness is mainly localized within the brain so that we can respond to stimuli, and the soul is responsible for driving the system of our body. Soul and consciousness disappear from our body when we die, but DNA remains in our body even after our death. For example, about 30 percent of genetic information is still contained in the fossil DNA of dinosaurs that went extinct some 100 million years back.
Let us look at what quantum mechanics tells us about consciousness. According to quantum mechanics, consciousness is an out-of-body experience. It is the highest state of experience. Quantum scientists regard the soul or consciousness as a complex network of entangled states. It is the energy of de-excitation of the animal or human brain. After a person's death, this energy merges into the vast ocean of the cosmos. As per Hindu belief, it enters back into the fertilized molecules in the later stages of the human embryo, putting it into excited higher states. It is in line with the Buddhist and Hindu concept of rebirth. Hindus put emphasis on reincarnation to be continued until that particular soul gets salvation. However, I am not sure doing good karma in our present life can salvage us to avoid going through the suffering of births and deaths. (This suffering may be inevitable.)
In my view, molecules found in human or animal cells can be excited and de-excited under proper conditions. Consciousness as energy can excite molecules to higher states when molecules absorb it, and the release of consciousness puts the molecule back into de-excited states.
As emphasized above, consciousness relies on quantum entanglement (see 2022 Physics Nobel Prize) and it is a reality. It is a quantum mechanical phenomenon. Here, let me explain what entanglement is in the simplest possible terms. Suppose four of you are sharing chats through WiFi. If you pass information to one of them, it is instantly shared by the other two – this way, four of you are entangled and information is simultaneously shared amongst the group. This is a rudimentary example of entanglement.
According to quantum mechanics, the wave function describes particles, containing all the information about the possible state of a particle. Two wave functions can become correlated in such a way that the state of one particle cannot be separated out independently of the states of other particles, even over infinitely large distances. This is the concept of entanglement, and it very much supports the principle of non-locality that I have identified earlier as a characteristic of consciousness. Non-locality is the fundamental principle of the foundation of quantum mechanics.
In this write up I have separated out awareness associated with living and non-living materials. For living materials, consciousness is about cognitive ability and genetic information present in the species; the lack of these factors in non-living materials is the key to why they are different from living materials. However, my pitch here is that there is consciousness, whether the material is living or non-living.
Let me point out that one entangled particle immediately passes information to another particle even when they are galaxies apart. This implies information between two entangled particles travels faster than the speed of light. This is a pure violation of the theory of relativity. According to Einstein’s theory, no particle can travel faster than the speed of light. If entanglement is related to consciousness, it is perhaps possible for consciousness to travel much faster than light (FTL).
On the question of DNA, consciousness, and soul: DNA is present even in non-living things like animal fossils. This means that a material simply having genetic information embedded in it does not make it living. However, one of the preconditions for a living thing is the presence of DNA. This is just one condition, but not enough to classify as living. When a live body goes into a coma, it has DNA in it alongside the person’s soul – but the one thing it has lost is its consciousness. So to be a living thing, we should find all three characteristics in it – DNA, consciousness, and soul. Only then can a body become functional. For non-living things, there could be DNA only or consciousness only – but not soul.
(Paudyal is an Academician of the Nepal Academy of Science & Technology and the Principal of the REHDON Education Foundation.)