What makes living things alive

The essence of awakening is living awareness, but what is the essence of "livingness"?

Here I use the idea of a self-evolving system as a thought-tool for framing more precisely the question of how living things differ from inanimate objects or machines.

The self-evolving system is an abstraction for non-mechanical processes that would not only replicate and evolve, but would also design their own evolution, choosing and inventing the direction of their own development.

Thinking about autocreative design leads us to seek a metric for the cost of design itself, and in particular, to ask how that cost is paid in biological evolution.

A remarkable characteristic of life is its creativity. Although creativity is hard to define in precise terms, the biome taken as a whole seems to be much more creative than we might superficially expect that it would have needed to be.

- Is the spontaneous emergence of design in nature quantifiable by analogy to thermodynamics?

The distinctions between living and non-living systems are difficult to describe without turning to human-centered criteria. The implication that living systems are more highly evolved than lifeless ones, and that some living things are more highly evolved than others, poses the dilemma of a qualitative arrow.

Thinking of living things in contrast to mechanisms, it is useful to more precisely understand what machines are in the context of natural processes. The distinction between machines and biology is in certain ways more difficult to draw than what might be casually expected.

- In what significant ways is information processing in biological systems not functionally equivalent to digital, algorithmic computation?
- How can theory of computation be generalized beyond algorithms and syntax to include information processing occurring in biological systems?
- In what crucial ways does software based on genetic algorithms differ from biological evolution?
- Why is a Turing machine an inappropriate abstraction for representing a self-evolving system?

Another characteristic of living things is their ability to step outside a deterministic framework and reorient operational objectives. The biome as a whole, and to an extent also an individual species or organism, can design and create itself or parts of itself. That is a process that we could call self-evolution.

- What information does a system need about itself in order to self-evolve?
- How would a self-evolving system construct its own selection framework?

Self-evolving systems require the emergence of new form to nourish their development. They thrive at the edge of formlessness, where the potential is high for surprising changes in direction. At the same time, self-evolving systems also require connection to other islands of form. Tension between the void and connectedness is part of what propels self-evolutionary processes.

- Are boundaries that distinguish one system from another more than merely semantic?
- What does it mean concretely for one form to merge with another?
- How does diffusion of form relate to emergence and novelty?
- To what extent must systems be open, and to what extent closed, for self-evolution to occur efficiently?
- Does a system depend on greater openness in order to self-evolve?
- Can considerations regarding the theoretical feasibility of self-replicating automata be extended and applied to self-designing systems?
- What particular types of protocol are necessary for self-evolution?

Self-evolving systems have a kind of intelligence, but not an intelligence based on mechanically processing symbols as programmable computers do. The paradox of self-evolution implies that self-evolving systems subsume symbols.

- What does it mean for information to reside entirely in the dynamics of a system rather than in any explicit representation?
- Can a digital space be rich enough to embody cognition?
- If the synthesis of concepts is not fundamentally sentential or reducible to abstract grammar, how can concepts be synthesized by cognition that is embodied in digital space?

As biomolecular technology verges on fusing life with non-life at the most fundamental level, it may be interesting to reflect on how information technology might someday look.

- Does evolution require an ergodic source for novelty, or does evolution in fact involve extracting implicate structures that are subtly embedded in randomness?
- Can software be used to provide selective pressure for ultra-rapid in vitro molecular evolution?
- Can quantum uncertainty pertaining to structures within macromolecules serve as an adequate source of novelty for evolutionary selection in self-evolving systems?
- Can self-evolving simulations, which are themselves complex systems, be used as instruments for studying other complex systems?
- How can self-evolving simulations be cultivated and queried?
- What uses do self-evolving systems have with respect to digital, programmable computers?

Reflecting on the self-evolutionary qualities of living things leads to questions about the precise nature of selfhood, particularly in the case of conscious living beings such as ourselves.

- Can self-evolution happen apart from consciousness?
- Are self-evolutionary processes essential to consciousness?

- What insights might Zen Buddhism offer into the nature of "self"?

Michael Webb

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