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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Two-in-One

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana

At my level of understanding , it appears that matter, energy, time and space are the basic units of the physical universe. When you add “life” to the universe, awareness becomes an additional essential element. When I take the liberty of equating awareness with “information” (a code for complex organisms) and add it as another unit, I see a “wholeness”.

When you strip away all complexities, it appears that in Nature, all these elemental units are interconnected and interdependent. It appears to me, a non-physicist, that these units pair up as three sets of two-in-one items. They appear to be two separate entities; but they go together. One cannot be without the other. The pairs are: matter and energy; space and time; and source of information and outcome of information.

Information implies a source, a medium for transmission, the process of transmission and reception. This is the absolute basis of life, starting with reproduction (DNA and genes), exchange of energy (breath and metabolism), exchange of information with external world (all the senses and the mind/brain functions), internal messages (chemicals, hormones etc) and maintenance of integrity of the physical self (immune functions). All these have a message source and a receptor mechanism, some simple and some complicated. The source determines the output, but with plenty of variations.

To start with, let us look at matter and energy duality. It appears that matter as we define is different from the way physicists define. Matter has mass and energy. The relationship between mass and energy in a space-time continuum is the famous equation of Einstein. Mass and energy are interchangeable, it seems. At a subatomic particle level, the bosons (transmit forces) and fermions (constitute matter) are actually two phases of the same fundamental matter. We also know that photon is a particle and a wave.

Next pair is space-time. Even at an atomic level, we have to speak of space. There is a relatively vast amount of space between the nucleus and the electron orbits. Energy transfer implies movement which implies space between two “objects” however small that may be. It also implies time for the movement through that space, however short that may be. At macro-level, space and time are clearly visible. Space and time form one unit. They are inter-dependent. Buddha knew it. Physicists know it.

Living forms (objects) are made of “matter”. Once the forms get “animated”, we get life forms. At a basic level, life is energy exchange. Life depends on energy exchange depending ultimately on the sun. Life cannot exist without energy exchange; but energy exchange can go on without life.

All living creatures are “aware”. They all react to the environment. This is possible only if there is a “receiver” and a “responder”. This is “awareness” at a fundamental level. Awareness is information exchange, dependent on energy exchange. Without awareness and ability to respond to internal and external signals, life cannot exist.

Enter higher life forms and human beings with their special brains and their capacities. Their awareness is different. Their brains are capable of meta-awareness, an awareness of awareness. When this is explained and understood through the use of symbols of language and of concepts, we reach the highest form of awareness (third-order) in the humans.

I wonder whether it is logical to think of information as inherent in matter to act in space and time at the micro and macro levels. Seth Lloyd is quoted as saying: "To do anything requires energy.To specify what is done requires information".

I am not qualified to talk about atomic physics. I do not even understand those concepts. But I know as a biologist that information is fundamental to the existence of life-forms. Every cell, every tissue, every virus, bacterium, plant, animal and human live by exchanging information within oneself and with the other living and non-living entities in our environment. Information exchange is the basis of metabolism, immunity, reproduction, genetics , memory, and communication.

It appears that physicists have been discussing information as a third fundamental unit – after matter and energy. Stuart Umpleby, a Systems Scientist has attempted to bring these three concepts together although our knowledge about units of information is not as rich as on physical objects. He points out how information is recognition of signal difference and how Leo Szilard has described relationship between energy and information as early as 1929. More recently Bremermann has suggested a triangular relationship between matter, energy and information at an atomic level. (Systems and Behavioral Science 24:369, 2007)

More recently, Hans Bremermann and others have suggested that combining the relationship between matter and energy with the relationship between energy and information, a new relationship between matter and information may be revealed at an atomic level. Indeed Bremermman has calculated a constant (1047 bits/gm/sec) as the limit at which symbols can be processed by matter.

Information is inherent in the universe and information exchange is a fundamental requirement for life forms to exist. But exchange of information requires the receiver to have a receptor and a responder system. This is a chemical servo system like a thermostat in lower forms of life. It is a complicated nervous system in higher animals. The nervous system acts through electrical messages and chemical messages.

There is no “brain” in unicellular organisms or trees. But there has to be “awareness” at some level to sense the environment and respond, as pointed out in an earlier essay. Awareness by definition denotes information reception and response. Awareness is “about” information. It also denotes sending signals or messages or bits of information and receiving such bits of information. Information exists inside and outside each life-form. This has to be exchanged for survival.

In higher forms of life, awareness implies that there is a subject and an object. Higher animals know and also know they know. This is because of the ability of the brain to make second order neural map, a “strange loop” as Hofstadter pointed out.

This gets even more complicated with evolution of the human brain. Human consciousness is a higher order of awareness in which a subject is always present. Subject, object and the process of knowing form one unit, as pointed out by Buddha. In Vedic literature it is called dhrk-dhryshya viveka. There cannot be one without the other. In addition, humans can make a third order representation by the use of language.

Whether there is a supernatural or supra-natural consciousness above and beyond the third-order awareness is a philosophical question. Even if there is one, it has to depend on a functioning brain in a living body.

Brain is the hardware on which this matter-energy-information software acts. This triad is a fundamental unit of this universe and therefore may be capable of understanding its “origins” as suggested by Charles Pierce and others. Pierce is quoted by Walker Percy as follows: “since the reasoning mind is a product of the universe”, it is natural to suppose that the laws and uniformities that prevail throughout the universe should also be “incorporated in his own being”. This has been emphasized in the spiritual literature and myths of all traditions.

Human mind is bound to keep asking questions and exploring. There is no forbidden territory for an inquisitive mind. But, the mystery of the universe will be there always. We may be able to figure out the “how”. But not the “why”.