Stories on Life

Toward the next common narrative(s)

It is becoming obvious that our future narrative will not be determined by a story from scripture or history, but by a story emerging from our common biological nature; a story which all the people regardless of geography and cultural differences, race or ethnicity, could identify with; a story in which “culture” will become part of the broader cultural concept called “nature”.  While the stories from various cultures were often separating and confronting people, a story that would have the Biosphere in its foundation could unite the entire humanity in one common narrative.(From The Biosphere as a Living Being, 2020)

Sometimes, while taking a regular walk with my little dog Toto through the neighborhood, I would let him to take the lead. Usually he  knows where he wants to go, but from time to time he stops as if he doesn’t have a clue what to do. This is how I have been feeling last couple of years, both personally and as a part of a broader society, and wrote about this in one of my earlier posts (“Personal Entropy”).

As if we have entered a dark room with “no gravity”, in which all the rules that we knew and grew up with are not useful any more. Seems the new rules we have to learn about by trial and error, and the story of that dark room that we have yet to  figure out. 

Main western stories about the past are either Christian based on the Bible and New Testament or secular called History. Although these two narratives have very different timelines, making each of them took many centuries. Interestingly, while The New Testament was telling the life story of a single person, another was about the entire humankind. One is about resurrection from dead and another about progress and better life in the future. One was offering immortality through faith and another was attempting to do the same but through knowledge. However, this second promise of better but not eternal life seems not to be good enough for everybody. This is how invention of exceptional humans came about, by which a special people would be selected to become “immortal” like, for example,  members of the French Academy.

Many years ago I read somewhere that cosmetic companies do not sell their products, instead what they sell us is hope. (from: Walter Seiler in Printer’s Ink , October 21 , 1955). And that is exactly what these two main narratives were doing as well. History is chronologically based narrative and has three parts: the story of the universe, of life (evolution) and of human society and in some ways echoes the Bible, but extended primarily to the western world.  In essence, one way or another, they are both “selling” us a hope of immortality.

If the Biosphere indeed becomes a single self-conscious being, humans will play perhaps the most important part in this development, but at the same time they might not be aware about the role they play in the process.  They might feel that something has changed fundamentally but perhaps not be able to understand exactly what. Nevertheless, regardless of the role(s) they will be playing within the Biosphere, humans will have to come up with a new narrative that will give them the meaning and purpose for their existence, since neither all the religious stories nor the (secular) History could be of much help any more.

This “new narrative” could be either some kind of a tale, mythical or chronological similar to History. The third option would be a timeless network (graph) of various mutually connected positions(vertices), each representing certain narrative about life, where one of them could be time based, beginning with the emergence of first life forms and follow the development of life forms from simplest and smallest to very complex and big, up to the entire Biosphere. Other vertices could represent other life-related themes such as: biology, anatomy, microbiome, exobiology, brain, metabolism, mitochondria, origin of life, RNA, DNA, etc. Together they will all build a complex narrative like all the cells forming a single organism, perhaps even achieving some kind of singularity of its own.

One of the stories could be also time based that would begin with development of science of life, beginning with van Leeuwenhoek and discovery of the microscope and follow the development of science known as Biology. The stores of life should be the most important and relevant for all cultures in every part of the world. This would be primarily stories on life on Earth but also extended to other extraterrestrial objects within the Solar system and even far beyond. This enormous effort and resources, especially in recent history, devoted for finding sings of extraterrestrial life and intelligence might be a sign of “loneliness” of the Biosphere and her “desire” to find out if there is some other life forms out there.

While looking for signs of life within the Solar system is understandable from the human prospective, but such enormous effort and resources dedicated to detect possible signs of life on the planets that are hundreds or thousands light years away, doesn’t make much sense. In my view it might be explained as an attempt by the Biosphere that could be done only through humans. In other words, while searching for extraterrestrial life we are first of all fulfilling the Biospheres desire to find out if it is alone in the Universe.

All this including the cosmology, origin of the Universe, the Big-Bang, as part of the new narrative will be interpreted as concepts that came out of the living matter – humans. In a way they would not make much sense without the existence of an observer/narrator which has to be alive.

While looking many diagrams illustrating the expanding Universe from the point of singularity, it seems as if the observer stands somewhere outside of the Universe. One could wonder where is the position of this observer, how big it is and what is its basic time unit, not to mention what might be its “sensors”?

Interestingly, the book of Genesis begins with similar kind of story where God first separates light from dark, then creates inorganic world(earth, stars) then comes living matter(plants, animals) and finally humans. But the question here is again: who is the observer/narrator and where it stands in relation to what is being observed-watching God creating?

Another question: If each living organism (life form) is a reflection/picture of its environment, then how to explain such a diversity of life forms we know? Does it mean that each of them lives in a different world? Are in fact as many different worlds as there are different observers?

Thus we could assume that the next common narrative will perhaps need in some way to include a certain kind of immortality promise as well. Perhaps, it will not be the immortality of individual living beings, but life as such. We have to keep in mind that states of higher organization of matter relate to life, while states of low organization(entropy) relate to death.

We have to distinguish the story itself from the narrative of the making of the story. These are two different narratives. Instead of the existing main narratives, that begins with the “creation of the world/universe” it is most likely that the new narrative will begin with the emergence of the first life, an entity that distinguished itself from its surrounding and on a certain order of magnitude acquired proprieties that separated it from the non-living matter and at the same time became its observer.

We are here assuming that there was non-living matter that existed before emergence of life, but this is in the category of belief not knowledge. There is no way to prove this without a living observer. Thus it might make sense that living and nonliving matter emerged simultaneously, and that are in fact inseparable. We could say that in this respect there are two mutually connected worlds/universes marked as “white” and “black”.

 One is time-based in which we live and could explore it, and another one which is timeless, where we end up when we die, about which we know nothing. From time-based universe it is possible to “see” or imagine timelessness/eternity, but from timeless universe it is not possible to see anything, that makes time-based universe in the meta-position in relation to timeless one. Between these two “worlds” there are three transitional stages that connect them. We could notice that some properties of “nonliving” are included in the “living” and vice versa, but the basic/fundamental stages (“white” and “black”) are completely separated and visually relate to each other as positive-negative”.  Within the time-based universe the main property is change that enables notions of time, space, life… By definition nothing of these could exist in the timeless universe, because existence itself is time-based. Even a concept/existence of God doesn’t make sense in the eternal universe. Timelessness, eternity or nonliving(dead) are different words for complete and universal state of entropy.

a) Living-nonliving, known-unknown, observer-observed, order-chaos, narrative – non narrative , remembering-forgetting, time-timeless. Can nonliving matter be(come) intelligent or even (self)conscious? In a way it already is but through the living matter since all known life on Earth below certain order of magnitude and complexity consist of nonliving matter. But it is hard to imagine an entity consisting only of nonliving matter that is not born, doesn’t live and thus could not  die, that becomes intelligent and (self)conscious observer.

b) Human life is time linear with beginning and end. Everything living must die.  “A l’Imortalite” – toward immortality (Academie  Francaise) – meaning  that only academicians will be immortal.  Then there is science based immortality – cosmism. And immortality through AI(digital immortality) – brain transfer, from living to nonliving. How will the Biosphere react when it becomes aware of its mortality?

c) Observing is changing what is being observed. When some, for us, new unknown object appears for the first time in our vision range, often we will even not notice it.

d) Observation is similar to metabolism, it is a kind of bringing outside world in(as images) while remembering these images has some parallels with replication process. There is no observation without memory and there are no narratives, both individual and collective, as well. Some kind of proto-RNA was probably the first “memory tape”.

e) If I would live in a barn with object I made using  a few tools made by blacksmith, carpenter, pottery maker, … But in my living room almost nothing I use is made by me, tables, carpets, dishes, books, computers. If by some miracle all the people that made the objects I am surrounded with, appears in person there will be no space for them in this room, even house.  The people that made just all the objects on my table would not fit into my entire neighborhood.

f) Huge quantity of information reading books, using computer, browsing internet, watching YouTube, lectures, conferences, audiobooks, social networks… there is no time and concentration for an individual to digest/absorb all this. The distinctions between important and unimportant, true and untrue, is fading away. This is definitely already producing relativization and cacophony of ideas that inevitably leads to the information entropy. Paradoxically in some way the more people are connected the less they will know/understand the world in and around them.

g) In one of the Lex Fridman’s conversations Manolis Kellis, gave this amazing information :  “…every single one of your cells contains two meters worth of DNA… there are about 30 trillion cells in your body…if you stretch together all the DNA in every one of your trillions cells you will basically reach all the way to Jupiter – hundred times”(!?) The fact that each of our bodies hides this amazing property sounds unbelievable to me. And what would be then the scale and complexity of all information stored and every second processed on this DNA mega-stretch “all the way to Jupiter –hundred times”? Not counting here all the bacteria that are on/in our body that are the as many as our own cells. And, in spite of this unimaginable complexity, each of us still manage to function as a single entity, as one living being

h) The existing notion of the uniqueness of individual identity is primarily a western invention and probably came out of the notion of ownership, and possible transactions (buy and sell).  Then it included public life: politics, entertainment, art and science. There is a possibility that this is going to change in different ways: multiple identities, collective identity, anonymity/no identity,…

i) Electronic tools we use, internet networks, online activities, communications, development of virtual worlds, etc. are all vitally dependent of electrical power. Without electricity all this would not be possible. In a way this resembles the vital process of any living cell, the proton –electron movements in and out across the membrane of any living cell (“Proton motive force”). All this makes electricity the most important property of all forms of life including human technological universe.

On the other hand, the more virtual reality becomes perfect, the more it will become apparent to what degree our reality is virtual. I remember realizing this for the first time 1982 while playing with “Put-That -There” algorithm at the Arch-Mach Lab, MIT. One day we will come to the point when the only clear distinction between real and virtual will become the separation between life and death.

j) When in 1965 Alexei Leonov took a spacewalk levitating in the vacuum outside of the spaceship,  within his space suit he was surrounded by a micro- atmosphere (gas) around him and carried a hydrosphere (water) within his body, and earth in his bones (solid body). As if each human being is a small version/model of the (conscious) Biosphere.

For some time now it is becoming  apparent that  concepts and phenomena called “science” and “art” as inventions of the modern era (of the West) which also defined it, have now become exhausted and can lead us no further. Considering everything what was happening in recent years, it is becoming necessary to identify and define some new basic categories that will help us understand / articulate the epoch that is coming (or that we are entering). If the narrative will be time based with some point of the beginning, it will not be about the Big-Bang, the emergence/birth of the Universe (nonliving) matter, but the story will start with the emergence of living matter – the birth of Life. Without observer there is no observed, without Life there is no Universe. But the Life and the Universe, the living and nonliving matter, are inseparable, since living matter consists of nonliving atoms and molecules.

Can nonliving matter be sentient, like in recent cases of artificial intelligence in the form of GPT-3 and LaMDA? Until recently being sentient seemed to be the property only of living matter in the form of humans and probably a few other complex living organisms.

However, on a certain order of magnitude, all known living forms consist of nonliving matter(atoms and molecules) which at some point acquires the properties of living matter. One of the key properties of living organisms is metabolism, an exchange of energy with its environment that keeps them to maintain their structural organization of being alive.

Here the input is some kind of food/energy that is processed inside the body and what is not digested comes out in the form of waste/feces. For the nonliving potentially sentient entities the key source of energy is electrical power, which seems to be consumed entirely, although the production of electricity itself usually comes with waste/pollution. It is also worth noticing that on the cellular level of any living organism the exchange between the inside and outside world is in the form of protons moving from inside-out and then returning back inside. In other words the cell metabolism is in essence also based on electricity(“proton motive force”).

The most important aspect of metabolism is how the input energy is used, for moving, thinking, communicating, maintaining its organization and processes… If a conscious but completely paralyzed blind human being, who can move only one finger to communicate is sentient, then it would make sense to consider a possibility that some nonliving entity like GPT-3 or LaMDA might have some sentient properties as well. Thus being intelligent or sentient would not be exclusive property of living matter. Although made by humans, unlike living beings, they can continue to exist/function and expand indefinitely as long as they have a sufficient energy supply.

As the distinction between living and nonliving is in one way binary, it could also be presented/understood as a gradual transition with different stages. Perhaps a similar gradual transition could be used in interpreting the sentient – non sentient relationship. 

It seems that growing interest, both in artificial intelligence and extraterrestrial life, might be signs of humans desire to find the “other” that would then help them to better understand phenomena such as life, intelligence, (self)consciousness, sentience, in other words – themselves.

The question is if these social/cultural phenomena have its origins in the human biology. For some time I thought that what we call “nature” is one of the expressions of “culture”. Simply, when we name “Sun”, “Moon”, “tree”, “mouse”, we are turning these phenomena that are around us into, what we call “culture”. In a way all what we perceive as natural phenomena are in fact a subset of a broader notion that is (human) culture. However, it seems that the relationship is inverse, that all what we call culture are one specific kind of expression of nature through living being called humans. Thus, it is not the “nature” that is “culture” but it is “culture” that is “nature”. In other words, all aspects of social organization of human beings: economy, politics, education, science, technology, communications, art, museums, sport,…are in essence biological categories, they are human components/tissue of the Biosphere. And the next main narrative/canon should not be based on the concepts of religion or nation, but to be interwoven around the story of life, including humans, as its backbone. It is also human tissue of the Biosphere that will stretch the tentacles of life beyond the Earth.(From The Anatomy of the Biosphere, 2021)

Perhaps the full title for this article should be “Stories on Life by Human for Humans”

Gregor Mobius July 2022

Appendix

Random selection of various Youtube lectures/talks related to life.

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