A number of recent scientific papers, some of which are listed in the “references” section below, have addressed the concept of a living universe. Let’s imagine for a moment that they are right. What would this mean for astrobiology’s perspective on the origin and nature of life, and for its exploration?
Our ability to characterize nature relies on our capacity to question it, which depends in part on the technology available at any given period of time. It also relies on the human mind, which is notoriously poor at grasping holistic perspectives and better at dividing objects of inquiry into intellectually chewable bites. Too often, we overlook that our own limitations, not nature, generate isolating boxes, definitions and boundaries.
With time, the boxes become the entire landscape when they were simply meant to be pieces of a puzzle that connect with one another. These boxes shape and challenge our approach to scientific questioning, the development of intellectual frameworks, the boldness of our hypotheses, and our perspectives. They set artificial boundaries of where answers can be found, but also their nature and scope.
The search for the origin and nature of life epitomizes this challenge. It is the ultimate thought experiment, one in which we are fully immersed, like drops of water wondering about the ocean, struggling to define our own boundaries, when there may be none. It could be that the definition of a drop is variable, the answer possibly residing more in the changing nature of the ocean at any given time than in a true separation of the part from the whole. Maybe the drop is the ability of the ocean to infinitely shape-shift.
Is the absence of a consensus for the definition of life a reflection of methodological and technical limitations, constrained intellectual frameworks—or both? Science is without a doubt increasingly better at characterizing what life does with each passing day but brings comparatively fewer advances to the identification of what life is and how it originates. In that respect, the current exploration of the question of life could be compared to plumbing, which masters piping, cares about the interactions between the water and the pipes but does not touch on the origin and nature of water.
Is it because the answer resides at scales and resolutions technology cannot yet achieve, or is it that life is the result of exotic physicochemical processes yet to be discovered—or none of those things? Maybe the issue does not reside so much here, but rather in the way we approach the question itself, which is the result of how we are conditioned to think. It may be that life actually is what life does, that the answer has been in front of us all along, so obvious that we just don’t recognize it because our intellectual frameworks do not allow the space for us to see it.
Astrobiology expresses this challenge in its strategic vision through key questions: What is life? How will we know when we have found it? Can we draw a boundary between prebiotic chemistry and life? The first two questions speak about the fundamental nature of life, and our ability to recognize it beyond Earth when we still cannot clearly define it on our own planet. The last one inquires about the separation between living and nonliving, opening a space to discuss whether the passage from prebiotic chemistry to life is a transition or a stochastic shift.
Two primary concepts help approach these questions. Habitability considers environments that may be conducive to an origin of life and its sustainability. It provides the physicochemical boundaries for life, and considers abiotic, prebiotic and biotic processes. Coevolution is what happens from the moment life comes into being. This concept envisions spatiotemporal interactions between life and environment, and how they modify each other. It is a systemic relationship that takes place through loops and feedback mechanisms and is measured by changes and adaptation. These two concepts are central to our views of life in the universe and how we explore, but they are not the only ones.
With the Gaia hypothesis, coevolution becomes a symbiotic relationship between life and environment, which evolve together as a single, self-regulating system maintaining the conditions for life on Earth. Gaia is a cybernetic feedback system operated unconsciously by the biota. Habitability, coevolution and Gaia approach life’s origin and its evolution from the astronomical, planetary and ecological perspectives.
Recent works bridging biology, neuroscience, cosmology and quantum physics turn these perspectives on their head. Among those, biocentrism proposes a unifying “theory of everything” and approaches life from a cosmological standpoint, where consciousness creates reality and life is not an end-product but a force that is key to the understanding of the universe.
Theories of consciousness and how consciousness relates to neural/homolog systems are being developed in the fields of physics, cognitive sciences and information theory. While their perspective is different from biocentrism, they provide pathways to explore the interaction between life, environment and the universe, and the relationship between life and consciousness. With consciousness shaping our perception of the environment and the universe, integrating information, organizing and interacting with it, and possibly transforming it, some of these theories, including biocentrism, bring the origin and nature of life to the quantum level.
Although they still need to be proven falsifiable, such theories invite us to shift our perception and consider what would happen to astrobiology’s questions when addressed from this viewpoint. If verified, a “theory of everything” takes life’s origin to the beginning of the universe. Because it involves interactions at the quantum level, it may also mean a theory of everywhere, in which the separation between living and nonliving is not a fundamental difference of nature between them, but a difference in the amount of energy and complexity of information that is being integrated, organized, stored, transformed and exchanged at any single moment. What separates living from nonliving is only the limit of our own awareness of these interactions.
In that frame of reference, Gaia is not a cybernetic feedback system operated unconsciously by the biota anymore but a conscious symbiosis at a planetary scale. Coevolution is not what happens when life comes into being. It merely defines the threshold of our awareness of life’s ability to shape the universe.
For centuries, the notion of a conscious universe has rested as an exercise in philosophy (panpsychism). These recent works based on scientific observations and experiments blur the boundaries between the humanities, biology, information technology, cognitive sciences and cosmology. Most importantly, they shift the frame of reference for exploration.
The search for life beyond Earth is not so much a search anymore if everything we are, we live on, interact with and observe is alive. Rather, it becomes an exploration of life’s expression of diversity and complexity– not in the universe but by the universe, and a search on how to connect and exchange information with it.
Yet the most profound aspect of these recent works might possibly be that they reposition us humans not as external observers anymore but as members of a universal symbiosis. This perspective is an end-member hypothesis for astrobiology, a paradigm shift that fundamentally changes our relationship to our planet, to our biosphere and to our universe.
- Oparin, A. I. The Origin of Life, 1st ed., New York: Macmillan (1938).
- Schrödinger, E. What is Life? Cambridge University Press, 194 pp. (1944).
- Jeuken, M. Acta Biotheorica 24, (1-2): 14-21 (1975).
Originally posted by: Nathalie A. Cabrol