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Ed Lantz

Duane writes: “…I have one, core question that keeps nagging at me: Can something be consciousness without being alive? If something is conscious then can it be considered “alive”? What connection do you see between these two?”


Excellent question!  This line of thinking challenges our notion of what life is. I do not have a snappy answer, but will raise some questions that might help clarify the question.


Most people would agree that computers are not “alive” in the sense that biological organisms are alive. However they do exhibit intelligent behaviors at times. So where does this intelligence originate – from the silicon chips, or from the software applications that are running on the chips? If you think about it, you’ll realize that it is the software applications that bring the computer to life. Furthermore, these software applications can migrate from one machine to another. They are bounded, self-maintaining entities that “live” on the substrate of silicon chips, but are not “of” silicon. Without functioning software applications, a computer is little more than a box with wires and lights. Software programs can live on, however, even if the computer is damaged, passing from computer to computer over network connections. So we might say that it is the software that gives life to an otherwise inanimate computer.


Likewise, the human body is an amazing “machine.” But it is largely inanimate without consciousness. Like the computer, the human body is a host to “software applications” or consciousness. Like a computer, the body has many peripheral devices allowing input/output (I/O) operations (sensory/motor functions). All of the phenomena of mind, however (thoughts, dreams, memories, etc.) are more akin to software. Most sensory/motor functions can be localized to specific neural circuits in the brain, but consciousness itself (and memories) do not seem to have a centralized location.


Could it be that the substrate for consciousness might extend beyond the brain itself? Clearly we need the brain and body to interface with the physical world – our sensory organs, motor functions, and sensory/motor processing all are neural processes in the brain. However we now know that matter itself – even the vacuum – has vast quantum computational capacity.  What “software applications” are running on this computational substrate?  Is it all really just random noise as most quantum physicists would assert?  Or could some portion of our consciousness exist as a software application in the “quantum foam,” with our human body simply an I/O device allowing out consciousness to express itself in the physical domain?


Such a notion is admittedly speculative. However there is actually a great deal of evidence in support of this line of thinking. Shaman, mystics, monks and sages have all said that there are other dimensional realms within us, that the entire physical universe is infused with consciousness, and that there are disembodied entities that can move about and interact with us mentally if not physically. Science has had a hard time measuring or substantiating these claims. Of course, up to now, science has focused on the study of matter and how matter behaves. What we have not yet done is study the recently discovered quantum informational properties of matter. We have until now assumed that quantum information – unless properly prepared in a lab – is a meaningless soup of random interactions, and any computational capacity within matter cannot possibly be performing useful operations. 


If inert matter turns out to be a substrate for consciousness, then does that mean that all matter is “alive?” Well not in the biological sense. However biological life might one day be seen as nothing more than a means for consciousness to express itself in the physical domain. In this sense, the human body is alive in the same sense that a computer is alive.  It is a host for software applications or consciousness. The spark of life could turn out to be informational in nature, not physical. If the source if life is indeed consciousness – “software” applications running in the quantum foam – then it is also conceivable that this consciousness could “tip the scales” in quantum interactions (wavefunction collapse), nudging up the probabilities of the emergence of biological life in nature. That is, perhaps biological life is not the result of random interactions, but is instead an outward expression of “intelligence” that is inherent within what we think of as ordinary matter.


If this turned out to be the case, I would have to say that the universe is “alive” – not biologically, but informationally.