Mystery of Consciousness: Life versus Non-life


Gaurachandra Das, B. Tech, M.Tech, Electrical Engineer - TRANSCEND Media Service

General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanical Theory (QM) are the two most prominent theories in the field of Physics. General Theory of Relativity given by Einstein in 1915 states that direction of light propagation should be changed in a gravitational field. It predicts that “light coming from a strong gravitational field should have its wavelength shifted to larger values (a red shift). The electromagnetic field can have waves in it that carry energy that we call light. Likewise, the gravitational field can have waves that carry energy and are called gravitational waves. These may be thought of as ripples in the curvature of space-time that travel at the speed of light.”1 On the other hand Quantum Mechanical Theory predicts the behavior of particles as waves as they drift away from the classical domain. Both these stalwart theories till date have been unable to predict the function of consciousness in living bodies. In fact, they do not even stand unwaveringly and are subject to reformations, time and again. Albert Einstein himself stated in this regard in 1954-“I consider it quite possible that physics cannot be based on the field concept, i.e., on continuous structures. In that case, nothing remains of my entire castle in the air, gravitation theory included, and of the rest of modern physics.”

In the words of Roger Penrose – “I definitely believe that Quantum Mechanics is not a final theory and it is incomplete. I agree with Einstein in that sense.” Quantum Mechanics has proved insufficient to describe the nature of reality so far. He further says-“Quantum Mechanics has two parts: the first is Schroedinger’s equation, which tells how a system evolves, it is a very precise equation yet it does not tell you how the world behaves. The second part of QM is the measurement process. The measurement process is inconsistent with Schroedinger equation. It is non-deterministic, probabilistic, etc. Although these two parts are inconsistent with each other, they do fit together in a rather remarkable way. To me, it suggests that QM is not perfectly correct.” 2  Another is the famous Schroedinger’s cat example. (Experiment parallel to it is being done in Santa Barbara, California under Dirk Bouwmeester.) Penrose remarks – “Schroedinger pointed out that his own equation tells that you could produce a cat that is both alive and dead at the same time. It is ridiculous because in reality you don’t see cats that are both alive and dead at the same time. This means there is something wrong with the equations at the level when the objects become big enough”.2

Along with Hameroff, Penrose constructed a theory of human consciousness in which human consciousness is pointed to as being the result of a quantum gravity effect in microtubules. That was presented in his “Orchestrated Reduction of Quantum Coherence in Brain Microtubules: A Model for Consciousness”. However, he also says “Our present scientific knowledge cannot describe consciousness. On the other hand, boundaries of what we call scientific are not fixed on this view. Perhaps we may never be able to understand the Ultimate Reality through a rigorous scientific approach. Some fundamentally new insights are needed. If perhaps there will eventually emerge some kind of ultimate theory that may explain part of the reality, that theory must differ enormously from what we have seen in physical theories so far” 2. So as per his opinion, a fundamentally new theory with remarkably different features is needed to explain the paradigm of consciousness. Thus, what is this consciousness, a mystery to the world of physics, so far?

Robots are another field in which distinction between life and non-life can be seen approaching a border-line. Nowadays robots are quoted to be even writing poems. But such collection of words is an artificial attempt from the word-bank fed to computers and arranged with algorithms. The machine has no feelings and emotions and the purpose of poetry –“to satisfy the poet’s heart” remains forever absent to a machine. The computer may also play chess but that is the computational (mechanistic) part done by it from the strategies fed by the programmer. A machine may also pass the Turing’s test3 but the Chinese room argument4 by John Searle refutes the conscious sense coming from this resemblance. Actually to prove computers intelligent, one needs to design a robot that can play any surprise or unexpected game brought before it, not just the chess game. It should be able to learn any game by speech or text inputs and then play that game reasonably well. But it is not possible to design such a robot because playing a surprise game requires understanding in both learning and devising strategy. A robot can do computation, but it will never have understanding because it can’t be conscious.

After the tragic event of 9/11 many scientists have shown remarkable interest in these ideas concerning search of an Ultimate Theory, absolute Reality and depths of the conscious paradigm. They look for a scientific clue from the known sources of scientific knowledge. This brings them closer to the ideas of fine-tuning and intelligent design in the universe which have a valid and very reasonable role in the creation. The fine-tuning of water molecule (H2O) and preciseness of universal constants verify this claim.

There are various directions to proceed on the basis of the Anthropic Principle.5 One of the interesting insights is that Vedantic literature points in this direction about the presence of different universes which have life and are also spiritual in nature. This idea is feasible from the strong Anthropic principle as Roger Penrose says – “This is the argument that only the physical constants of nature which have specific values may be suitable for life. Only in the world where the numbers are suitable for consciousness we will find beings present in that world. It may be a completely different kind of life, which is not like us at all, which does not depend on chemistry the way we do. So that may open up the possibility of a world or spiritual world.” 2

Looking into Einstein’s life, we all admire his great insights for a scientific world view having mathematical foundations. At same time he also had some profound feeling for religion. In other words, he tried to relate both scientific and religious worldviews in his life. He said-“Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” Another of his famous quotes is –“God doesn’t cast dice.” This may be a serious question posed to the propaganda that life is a chance phenomenon. Roger Penrose remarks in this connection – “There are remarkable interrelations between truth and beauty. Even there is a mystery of our perceptions of mathematical truths. I would say that these are higher and deeper aspects of reality of which we have little conception at the present time.”2 Einstein didn’t see any conflict between science and religion while he considered them complementary. He could live happily by synthesizing both the worldviews. It is from this religious paradigm, especially Vedantic paradigm where we get a precisely correct understanding of consciousness which is a mystery for the modern thinkers.

Universe and life is not originally created by humans so the proposal to study and demarcate its ingredients and intricacies by research-based approach may not be well-placed and successful. It may actually be like an ant’s attempt to study the architecture of Mercedes Benz, which is quite too much for the ant! However the religious side in this direction, particularly the Vedantic conception offers interesting comprehensive facts and insights…for example, Bhagavad Gita says that “the soul (atma) or spirit is the cause of consciousness. This spirit or atma interacts with matter through the agency of the Paramatma or the all pervading conscious aspect of the absolute truth. This interaction depends on higher order, non-mathematical laws relating to psychological principles such as desire and free-will.”6 Bhagavad Gita mentions that “the size of spirit or atma is 1/10000 of the tip of a hair; it is inconceivable or spiritual in nature and it is eternal and unborn.”7 In fact, our present science cannot explain this. As some prominent scientists (as Max Born, Roger Penrose and William D. Phillips) say – “We need a new science, a higher dimensional science to explain this subtle conception of the source of life.” Yet, its presence in the form of consciousness can be experienced by us all. Max Born says – “I saw in the atom the key to the deepest secret of nature and it revealed to me the greatness of creation and the Creator.”8

So, probably, the sincere mind of a great scientist would need to blurr these boundaries between science and religion and sincerely take up this quest to understand life and conscious paradigm. This has been the attitude of a galaxy of prominent thinkers, scientists and vastly learned men such as Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kelper, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein, Max Born, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Werner Heisenberg, Charles Townes, William D. Phillips and hundreds more. Albert Einstein says-“I sense these things deeply…the most beautiful and profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mysticality is the power of all true science. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power which is revealed in the comprehensible universe forms my idea of God.”9 In the words of Charles Townes-“I believe there is no long-range question more important than the purpose and meaning of our lives and of the universe.” 8 Indeed, such a positive and synthesized approach offers a key to solve this mystery of life and consciousness, to know the distinction between life and non-life and to delve deeper into Absolute Reality.


  1. General Theory of Relativity
    1. Discussion between Sir Roger Penrose and Dr  T.D. Singh entitled “Science, Spirituality and Nature of reality”, Bhaktivedanta Institute, 2005.
    2. Turing Test :
    3. Chinese room Argument :
      1. Anthropic Principle – see Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, Bantam Trade Paperback, 1996.
      2. “Life, Matter and their Interactions “ by Dr T.D. Singh, Bhaktivedanta Institute, 2006.
      3. “Bhagavad Gita As It Is” by A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. New York: Macmillan 1972.
        1. “God is a Person”, Reflections of two Noble Laureates, Bhaktivedanta Institute, 2006.
        2. Lincoln Barnett, “The Universe and Dr. Einstein, 2nd Edition, New York, 1957, pp.108-109.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Feb 2013.

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