Mysterious shift from being a ‘thing’ to being ‘alive’

At some point, “things” become “alive.” No one knows for sure what life is exactly, but only in extreme circumstances do we have trouble telling something that is alive from something that is not.

Exactly when does a stack of material acquire that condition we call “alive?”

Most of us agree that electrons are not alive. Atoms do not appear to be alive. The interaction between electrons and atoms can make molecules like proteins.

But most people don’t think proteins are alive, even though proteins make up cells, which humans do think are alive. Some people don’t think a fetus is alive; yet it is made of functioning, living cells. We don’t always agree, but at some point, inanimate things start to be what we call “alive.”

At some point, “things” also become a “mind.” I don’t know of anyone who thinks that an atom has a mind. Molecules do not seem to fit the concept of something with a mind. It is less clear whether a cell has a mind.

This confusion arises because in many ways cells can do things you and I can do with our minds. Many cells move about in a purposeful way, detecting environmental conditions and responding to them. They seem to know what they like and don’t like, and how to meet their own needs.

A series of “things” can become more than just a collection of things if they are connected in a specific way.

For example, the steering wheel on your car is connected in such a way that it can alter the direction in which you are moving. The steering wheel does not know what “direction” is, yet it can change your direction. 

To do this, it must be connected to something else that it tells what to do. The steering wheel certainly doesn’t know how it does what it does. It simply turns a shaft, that turns a gear, that pulls a rod, that shifts the axle.

A collection of these “things” has become something besides what any of the things are separately.

Life and thoughts are kind of ghostly things. Life only occurs as lumps of stuff, and thoughts apparently only occur in brains — a lump of stuff within the living stuff. We express thoughts in words, but they are often just thoughts.

When my wife asks me, “What are you thinking?” it is sometimes hard to tell her. A “penny for one of my thoughts” is probably never much of a bargain. 

In the past, humans have treated “thinking” and being “alive” like a mysterious box. You can do something to the box, and then watch the result of what the box does in response. There is still no way of knowing what is going on in the box. 

We know a lot more about the pieces inside the box now than we have in the past.

But we still don’t know what the critical point is when the box ceases to be alive, or to think. Sometimes we can even lose the ability to think while still being alive. I’ve been accused of that.

In the last century, Kurt Godel, Alan Turing and others have tried building mechanical minds.

This line of exploration has given us computers. Computers are less ghostly than minds because we understand the things with which they are made and how they fit together.

But the things they are made of are organized in a very different way than our bodies and brains appear to be. 

So here I sit thinking, and I haven’t a clue as to how I am doing it.

I don’t know if humans will ever be able to understand how things become “alive” or how things can make a “mind” that thinks.

We still don’t know exactly how, at some point, living things stop living and become just “things” again.

When a mind stops thinking, what becomes of the thought?

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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