Deep Time Journey Forum Is the universe a "living system"?

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    Profile photo of Mike Bell
    Mike Bell



    Considering all of these arguments, here is my conclusion at this time which is the best “common ground” that I can muster. We must allow science the categories of “living organism” and “non-living matter” for them to do their work. However there is also room for the “big philosophical view” of an interconnected universe where living and non-living matter (in the scientific sense) are inseparable and part of larger phenomena that we are only starting to understand.” 


    I quite like this summary. It is a step forward. But, though it leads us in the direction of a common ground it still distinguishes between “life” in the universe and life on Earth. I was wondering if we could take our pursuit for a common ground a little further.


    Thomas Berry often noted that we need a new language to describe the new realities we are confronting. The problem here is with the word “living.” Perhaps the solution is not to use the term living at all but instead to talk about the manifestations of life that are shared both by the Earth and the universe. This is what Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist, and Berry, a cultural historian, do in Chapter Four of their book The Universe Story.


    They start with Einstein’s Cosmological Principle defined in 1931. It states that all places are alike in the Universe. This is an assumption rather than a scientific fact as we define it in the traditional scientific method because no one has ever done any actual testing in the 100 billion galaxies.


    From there Swimme and Berry move to what they call the Cosmogenetic Principle. It assumes that every point in the universe is the same as every other point and, additionally, that the dynamics of evolution are the same at every other point in the universe. In a word they are the same on Earth as they are in the universe.


    Thus, as they note:


    “Cosmogenesis, as well as its micro phase complement epigenesis, refer to structures evolving in time. Comogenesis pertains generally to large scale structures such as galaxies and stellar systems, while epigenesis refers to the development of forms within the life world…The fact that form-producing powers are latent everywhere in the universe is the first feature of the cosmological principle…The second principle is the relationship of such powers through time.”


    This Cosmogenetic Principle states that the universe can be characterized by differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion, and these three features are, themselves, features of each other.


    Differentiation is the energy to create diverse forms of existence both in the galaxies and in the species of earth. It establishes the unique identities of species and individuals. No two galaxies are the same, no two species are the same, and so forth.


    Autopoeisis, the term the borrowed from Maturana and Varela, is applied to the whole universe. It refers to an internal subjectivity or awareness and is manifest in the ability to self-organize. Autopoeisis refers not just to living beings but to self-organizing powers in general.”


    Community deals with relationships. “Nothing is itself without everything else.” It refers to the relationship between galaxies as is manifest by the entangled elements in non locality and it is also manifest in the relationships between all species on Earth.  


    I think the cosmogenisis approach outlined by Swimme and Berry has three benefits.


    First it moves us closer to a common ground. It should be noted that it is based upon assumptions rather than scientific tests. But so was Einstein’ Cosmological Principle that the scientific world has accepted as reality. We simply can’t do “scientific tests for life in the universe.” But we can recognize creative energy forces that are similar to what we call ‘life” on Earth.


    Second it provides a new context and avoids the problem of two kinds of life. Using the term “Life” analogously inevitably refers to two kinds of “life”


    Third, it seems to me more logical to answer the question, “Is the Universe a living system?” by going from the creative force in the universe to the creative force on Earth rather than denying life in the universe because it is not like life on Earth.    Earth didn’t create the Universe. The universe created Earth.


    Swimme and Berry’s approach seems to allow us to think about our question in a different way. I think it moves us closer to the common ground we are seeking.






    Profile photo of Ed Lantz
    Ed Lantz

    Mike, I think that Swimme and Berry’s Cosmogenesis concept holds promise for intellectual common ground as you suggest. The term is not as pithy and self-explanatory as the expression “living universe,” however.


    Duane, the term “trans-biological life” is intriguing and self-explanatory. However you still may run into philosophical issues since you continue to equate biological attributes to the universe (similar to the Gaia Hypothesis), albeit there is the differentiation from biological life and cosmogenetic life. 


    In seeking terms for classifying the “living universe” concept while differentiating it from biological life (and not over-ascribing biological life-like attributes to the universe), I explored the field of scientific cosmology for similar concepts. “Living universe” itself would be considered a cosmological concept. While I did not find a good fit, this is good reading nonetheless:


    It also occurred to me that, rather than attempting to nail down a particular flavor or concept of “living universe” (because I am sure there are many concepts and lots of room for debate), that it might be better to leave it open as a conversation and think of this as a general field of study – that is, the scientific cosmological study of the life-like nature of the universe.


    So with this in mind, here is one term I came up with:


    cosmovitology – a branch of scientific cosmology that studies macroscopic life-like properties of the universe, including concepts such as Swimme and Berry’s Cosmogenetic Principle that the universe can be characterized by properties of differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion and Elgin’s concept of a Living Universe.


    Yea, it’s also not very pithy…  I tried… Perhaps our pedagogists can help out here?


    Finally, in my research into philosophical schools of thought regarding life and the universe (and everything), I ran across this philosophical overview of the debate regarding the definition of life that may interest some of you: It left me wondering how the  “living universe” concept differs from “vitalists.” Are we saying that there is “something more” to the universe – some vital factor – that makes it special, or that the observable universe is already special without having to invoke properties beyond known mechanical laws?


    Wishing you all a Happy New Year!!!

    Profile photo of Karen Chaffee
    Karen Chaffee

    Hi, Ed, Mike and Jon, after reading the back and forth of your last three posts, I’d like to  reiterate that Lee Smolin has done the heavy lifting for you regarding these topics in his book “The Life of the Cosmos.”  The book is available in my local library and probably yours.  



    He is an established physicist who examined the similarities between biological life (including various definitions)  and the structure of our universe, going back to the big bang. In other words, he actually set out to do (and did) all the various research we discussed doing in the first pages of this thread! If you read only the chapters I outlined, you will get the gist.  I hesitate to outline the entire book, but I can do more if there is interest. 



    His ideas are updated and discussed on line (by various people).  



    Smolin is more well known for by introducing the idea that physics ideas ought to be testable, and that a lot of publicly funded physics research doesn’t rise to that standard.  He made his case in “The Trouble with Physics,” a best seller.   This ‘testability’  idea is prominent  in “The Life of the Cosmos” as well, and whenever introducing an idea, Smolin discusses whether it is testable  and allows you to judge its merits on that basis.  (He feels the Gaia hypothesis is fully testable and therefore non controversial–nothing that can be tested and validated can be controversial.  He says the tests haven’t been done however (as of the publication date of the book).  Other ideas you three have talked of are discussed in this light.




    Smolin is a proponent of quantum loop theory.  The character “Leslie Winkle” on the Big Bang Theory is scientifically based on him (something I read online).



    Happy New Year to all and many thanks for this invigorating discussion!







    Profile photo of Karen Chaffee
    Karen Chaffee

    Duane, I didn’t leave you out, I just knew you already purchased the book!

    Profile photo of Ed Lantz
    Ed Lantz

    Thanks Karen!  Just ordered it…  E

    Profile photo of Karen Chaffee
    Karen Chaffee

    Hi, Ed, how good of you read my suggestion.  I’d be very, very interested to see what you think and I hope you didn’t pay too much! As I suggested to Duane, you might want to start in the middle and work forward and backward, as the book opens with a survey of physics that is probably familiar to you but on the other hand, there is a lot of philosophy, too.  I suggested a few chapters already to Duane, see my posts from a few weeks back. 


    There is an intriguing discussion of time in the final chapters that I might attempt to outline for others.





    Profile photo of Mike Bell
    Mike Bell


    In recent discussions about whether or not the universe is living, several of us have focused on the problem with the word “living.” It explains life on Earth but just doesn’t work very well for explaining “life” in the universe. In the course of discussion we have been seeking some kind of common ground. One suggestion has been to focus on the manifestations of life in the universe rather than the word “life” itself.

    Last week I discovered that we are in good company. Others have been down this same road before and have arrived at a similar conclusion.

    I received my copy of the book “The Systems Views of Life: A Unifying Vision.” It was written by Fritjof Capra, a physicist and systems theorist, and Pier Luigi Luisi, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Rome. I looked over the Table of Contents and was immediately attracted to Section 111 A NEW CONCEPTION OF LIFE: “Chapter 7, What is life? Here is most of the first paragraph.
    “It is a common understanding that it is impossible to provide a scientific definition of life which is universally accepted. This stems from the fact that the background of scientists dealing with the questions—biologists, chemists, computer scientists, philosophers, astrobiologists, engineers, theologians, social scientists, ecologists (to name just a few)—differs considerably from one another, depending on one’s conceptual framework. In this book we will not dwell so much on the question of a unique definition of life—a single sentence catching all the various characteristics of life—but rather, we will consider the more general question: what are the essential characteristics of a living system. This task is more amenable to a scientific inquiry and we will show that the systems view of life represents a step forward within the horizon of the life sciences.” (p.129)

    Could this approach be the basis for the common ground we have been seeking?

    Profile photo of Dr Jude Currivan
    Dr Jude Currivan

    Dear forum members,

    I posted this reply in early January but due to website problems it was duplicated and then completely removed – hey ho. So I'm posting again in hope that this time all is OK with the site admin.

    It seems to me that the schism is between Duane's paradigm of the Living Universe and one which refutes it, lies at least in a significant degree between a definition of ‘living’ as essentially the entirety of a conscious Cosmos and a definition of ‘living’ in solely biological terms; with the Universe thus non-living in its entirety.

    Duane uses the term living in an all-encompassing way. His fundamental premise, which I agree with, is that our Universe is essentially conscious and evolves as a unified and coherent whole.

    We both describe consciousness in the widest sense whilst acknowledging that progressively self-reflective levels of it are embodied through evolutionary processes in increasing complexities; including but not limited to, biological forms.

    A developing paradigm of leading edge science across many fields of research and progressively supported by numerous discoveries and experimental results, may, I feel, offer a way of reconciling the two view-points of a ‘living’ versus a ‘non-living’ Universe. Its basic premise is that:
     * Not only is information more fundamental than energy-matter and space-time but indeed all physical reality is informational; expressing itself energetically and entropically. Our universe is literally in-formed.
     * In-formation expressed as energy-matter is universally conserved; in-formation expressed as space-time is entropic.
     * All the in-formation embodied by our Universe is embedded on the holographic boundary of space-time with one bit encoded in each Planck scale area.
     * From the minute Planck scale and extremely ordered beginning of space-time, the entropic process that is the life-cycle of our Universe thus requires that space must expand as ever more in-formation is expressed through its evolution.
     * Not only is the ‘arrow’ of time an entropic imperative from the Big Bang (due to its initial ordered state), but time itself is the entropic accumulation of in-formation throughout our Universal life-cycle.
     * Whilst within space-time, the maximum light-speed of information transfer ensures the preservation of causality our Universe is also innately and nonlocally interconnected, evolving as a coherent, integral and essentially intelligent entity.
     * It is finite in both space and time – yet its finite life-cycle is played out within an infinite and eternal multi-versal cosmic plenum.
     * Our Universe was also incredibly fine-tuned from its beginning of space-time, informationally embodying the ‘instructions’ ‘recipe’ and ‘ingredients’ to evolve progressively complex structures and eventual biological and increasingly self-aware life-forms.
     * Physical reality is played out holographically at all scales of existence; not only throughout the ‘natural’ world but also collective biological and human behaviours.

    I would suggest that this emerging perspective of an informationally all-pervasive and holographically expressed Universe may, as it continues to develop, offer a resolution between the two world-views.

    Such a Universe, that is innately in-formed and essentially evolving as an integral entity, surely calls us to expand the definition of ‘living’ way beyond its hitherto limited biological expression to encompass the entire nature of physical reality.

    With warmest regards and all best wishes,

    Dr Jude Currivan

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    Jennifer Morgan

    Hi Jude,

    Sorry for the trouble. I had a copy of your earlier post and we were going to re-post it today after deleting the persistent three duplicates. But now you've taken care of that. We just moved the site to a new much better host but there were some glitches in the transition. Thanks so much for your contributions to this stunning conversation, and please please if you have any trouble on the site whatsoever contact the site directly at [email protected] or write to me personally at [email protected]. We're on it! 🙂


    Profile photo of James MacAllister
    James MacAllister

    I offered my best argument long ago in this forum, but return because I think that Prof. Denis Noble’s new book, “Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity”, which argues for a new viewpoint from which to view evolution and biology is a must-read. For anyone who has been interested in this forum topic in whole or part: those who were interested in a scientific definition of life (verb) or those that felt that matter was somehow being disparaged if not imbued with some spirit or quality of life. Noble is enlightening because he is thorough in his explication of the scales and organization of nature. Here are two excerpts from his new book.

    “The body [of a living organism] is therefore formed of very large numbers of a few of the most common small
    atoms in the universe, with a tiny sprinkling of a few larger atoms that play a role in enabling certain key molecules to perform their special functions. … It is not the atoms themselves [the stuff of matter] which make organisms special, it is how they are arranged and controlled that defines a living organism. The quantities of many other ions and molecules are also controlled within certain limits. Organisms can detect what the levels are and use this to determine whether to raise or lower the levels.”

    Matter within or outside of living systems is indistinguishable. It is the organization and control of the system (i.e., the system’s emergent properties) that are recognized by science as the process called life.

    Profile photo of Jonathan Tweet
    Jonathan Tweet

    Hi Duane,

    Several commenters have said that if the universe is a “living, conscious” system, it’s not “living” or “conscious” in the scientific sense. I’d agree with them. My comment, however, is more about the poetry or spiritual meaning of this idea. As a great big fan of evolution, I am amazed at the bewilderingly complex things that evolved through natural selection, especially in comparison to the mind-numbingly empty and simple vastness that is the bulk of our universe. To me, life and evolution are miraculous, and to attribute the qualities of life and evolution to the universe is unfair. To some people, I’m sure it feels elevating to think of the universe as alive and conscious, but to me it feels like denying how special life is in our vast universe. Luckily there’s room for different ideas in this world.

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