2002 – X

The Nature of Matter, The Nature of Life

September 30-October 4, 2002
Dharamsala, India

At the outset of his famous 1943 lectures What is Life?, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger posed the question, Can that which takes place inside a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry? In the 2002 Mind & LIfe meeting we explore the perennial question concerning the nature of life and its relationship to matter. Schrödinger’s question is asked once again, but within a broader and modern context. We explore his question through those sciences – physics, chemistry, and biology – that have occupied themselves directly with this inquiry.

In addition, however, we include the important voices of Western and Buddhist philosophy as well. On the one hand we examine the current scientific views on the emergence of life, the important role of evolution, and the extraordinary moral challenges confronted today because of biotechnology. Remarkable developments have taken place in the sciences that underpin all these areas. But in addition we also examine the foundational assumptions on which the modern theories of life depend, and the implications of these for the very definition of life we employ and the ethics we adopt for the use of the awesome biological technologies under development.

In physics and biophysics the detailed mechanisms of life are finding exact description, while at the same time quantum physics is fashioning a new, precise and non-mechanistic notion of holism as an essential feature of matter. What are the implications of this holism for the foundations of biology? In the new science of complexity, suggestive models are being developed for the rich array of processes that yield order from chaos and support life. The concept of emergence is often used in this science to account for the novel properties that arise from complex physical systems as they become the elements of structure and function that operate in living cells.

What is emergence, and can it really account for the distinctive features of life? Evolution through natural selection is science’s explanation of the development of higher life forms (including sentient beings) from its humble predecessors. How can we understand the dynamics of causation in these accounts? Finally, in recent years human control of the genetic material at the kernel of life has become a reality. The clumsy means of eugenics of the past are being replaced with powerful new biotech methods that promise great benefit for human health and food production, but the risks of unintended harm are also high. To these moral and philosophical issues we bring both the best thinking of science and of Buddhist philosophy.

Scientific Coordinator

Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics at Amherst College


Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the XIVth Dalai Lama of Tibet
Michel Bitbol, M.D., Ph.D., Directeur de recherché at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, France
Steven Chu, Theodore and Frances Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Stanford University
Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., Professor of Biology at Washington University
Eric Lander, Ph.D., geneticist, molecular biologist, mathematician, and the founder and director of the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research
Prof. Dr. Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., Author and Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu and French interpreter since 1989 for His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics at Amherst College


Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., President and chief editor for The Classics of Tibet Series produced by the Institute of Tibetan Classics in Montreal, Canada
B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., Visiting Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

Day 1: Concerning the Origin of Life on Earth

Pier Luigi Luisi
The main assumption of the scientific research on the origin of life is that life originated from the inanimate matter throughout a series of spontaneous steps of increasing molecular complexity, up to the onset of the first self-replicating cells. The experimental data supporting this view (including prebiotic chemistry) are critically reviewed. The overall mechanism implies that the prebiotic steps leading to life are deterministically regulated and the relation between determinism and contingency is then discussed in this framework.

The assumption that minimal cellular life arose from a series of chemical reactions entails several significant implications that are usually taken for granted by mainstream science: for example that transition to life can be re-constructed in the laboratory; also, that cellular life is constituted only by molecules and their energetic interactions. This view brings also to a definition of life that is presented within the framework of the autopoiesis of Varela and Maturana. It is also shown that the view of the Santiago Authors permits making a bridge between biology and cognitive science and up to the domain of consciousness – so that these domains are no longer severed from molecular biological sciences – although nothing “transcendental” has been inserted in the picture.

The consequences of all these statements are discussed, including questions that concern the dialogue with Buddhism. Finally, the experimental work carried out in some leading groups towards the construction of semi-synthetic cellular models of life (minimal living cells) is presented. The final question is about the meaning of constructing synthetic cellular life in a lab, both for the fundamental and applied sciences, and for the advancement of our knowledge in general.

Day 2: Biological Evolution

Ursula Goodenough
Organisms are endowed with genetic instructions for producing traits that collectively enable them to carry on and reproduce in particular environments (niches). Each trait, in turn, is the emergent property of a few core biological “ideas” – cell division, control of gene expression, perception and signal transduction, uptake and secretion, and motility – that are mixed and matched in time and space, and each core idea is, in turn, ultimately emergent from molecular shapes. Running this sequence in reverse, genetic instructions generate molecular shapes that interact to generate core ideas that interact to generate traits that interact to generate organisms. Each of these transitions in complexity entails the emergence of numerous properties that were not operant at “lower levels,” where emergence describes the generation of something more from nothing but.

In my talk I first describe these five biological levels – genetic instructions, molecular shape, core idea, trait, and organism – using both simple cartoons and real images, the goal being to render understandable how an organism comes into being. Once this is in place, then an understanding of biological evolution becomes straightforward: during evolution, genetic instructions are changed such that different molecular shapes generate variants on core ideas, and hence variant traits, and hence variant organisms able to survive and reproduce in novel niches – a sequence that can also be run in reverse. These transitions will be illustrated with examples from embryology and neurobiology. Major emphasis will be given to the genetic interrelatedness and the interdependence of all creatures.

I will close by indicating a way that the concept of emergence, biology’s most interesting mode of creativity, can be applied to the evolution of our basal human forms of mentality. Just as the evolution of the beaver has occurred in a novel niche of the beaver’s own construction, so has human evolution occurred in the context of the novel cultural niches we create. Indeed, human mental development has become dependent on information obtained from culture. Our cultures are the constructs of human language, which co-evolved with brains that can understand/transmit language. Human language entails abstract symbolic mentation, and sometime along the way there emerged as well the mental capacity for abstract representation of experience and self-experience, these being the neural operations that undergird basal “human consciousness” or awareness of awareness.

Day 3: The Human Genome and Beyond

Eric Lander
The sequence of the human genome and of other organisms such as the fly, worm, yeast, and fungi are generating more data than ever before, and it is only going to increase as we build maps of the genetic variation and analyze DNA arrays. This presentation will address how managing the avalanche of biological information is requiring the marriage of information technology and biology, leading to a new paradigm in biology, and allowing us to ask questions that we could not have conceived of ten years ago.

The first applications of the new genetic information pose important ethical issues for the scientist and biotechnologist. While scientific research has often raised ethical dilemmas in the past, they have rarely been of comparable significance. We will engage these issues together, sharing the methods of ethical analysis used in Buddhist philosophy and in the West.

Day 4: What is Matter, What is Life from a Physicist’s Perspective

Steve Chu
Feynman has made the claim that “everything that living things can do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms.” “Understanding” to a physical scientist means that a host of phenomena can be described with a simple set of laws. Furthermore, if the initial starting conditions are known, these laws should enable us to make quantitative predictions of future behavior. By contrast, all of the other sciences (e.g. biology and neuroscience) do not have a set of broadly applicable laws capable of making quantitative predictions. The distinctions between a “descriptive” biological understanding and a “physics” understanding will be discussed. Oddly, physics, considered the paradigm of all sciences, may be unique among the sciences.

Can quantum mechanics, our theory of the atomic world, describe a living object? Is it possible that our quantum theory is overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, and the time evolution quantum system as large as a single cell cannot be calculated? Thus, do we have a situation analogous to the laws of statistical physics: while no known physical law forbids the violation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the probability that a violation of this law will happen during a trillion lifetimes of our universe is negligible.

In order to develop a physical (quantitative) understanding of life, we must find a way to include the essential features of a living entity while omitting many of the details that a fundamental quantum theory demands. Physics has been able to make transitions to higher levels of complexity. Our description of the known “fundamental particles” that comprise the nucleus (quarks and gluons) can be largely ignored in our description of an atom. The properties of the most deeply bound electrons of atoms are not important in our quantum mechanical description of solids.

Despite these allowable simplifications, we also know that higher levels of complexity introduce fundamentally new properties and phenomena that are absent in simple systems. “More is different”, and historically, the scientific community has not had a distinguished track record in predicting new phenomena that emerges from collective behavior. What are our prospects that a physical, mechanistic theory of life can be developed? Ultimately, are there foreseeable limits to our ability to understand the physical world?

Day 5: The Sciences of Complexity

Arthur Zajonc
Another and complementary approach to the emergence life has been offered by mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists who work with self-organization in complex systems. We can ask, how many of the features of life, for example form, pattern, and development, can be understood in terms of the physical and chemical dynamics of complex systems? In the final morning presentation I will review the clasic work of Turing and von Neumann in their search for the mathematics of life in reaction-diffusion processes and cellular automata.

Through a set of examples, I will demonstrate the rich array of forms, both inorganic and organic, that emerge via self-organization from modern models of these types. Clearly the molecular mechanisms of life and the approach of mathematical modeling offer complementary insights into the orgins of life and the concepts of self-organization and emergence.

Philosophical Presentation:
On Two Methodological Breakthroughs of Science, and their Consequences for our Conception of Matter and Life

Michel Bitbol
Science arose from two basic methodological assumptions. The first one is objectification, namely detachment of scientific descriptions from any kind of subjective or situated data. The second one is finiteness, namely the attempt at encapsulating knowledge within a small number of symbols and laws, out of which phenomena can be derived in a finite number of logical steps entirely mastered by scientists. But these two methodological assumptions have been put under strong pressure during the last century. They are growingly perceived as oversimplifications, and new methods are progressively enacted.

  1. In quantum physics, detached descriptions of nature are willy-nilly replaced by predictive rules valid for entangled experimental situations. Quantum theories are then easier to understand under the presupposition of a participatory theory of knowledge than within the usual frame of subject-object dualism. Moreover, these theories exhibit a very strong form of relational holism (non-separability) which is more immediately consistent with a participatory stance than with any other conception of knowledge.Accordingly, the traditional view of matter as a set of individual bodies endowed with properties is replaced, at the microscopic level, by abstract structures of relational dispositions. And at the macroscopic level, “material bodies” are construed as coarse appearances which co-emerge, together with viable knowers, from a background of dispositions in flux.
  2. In the life sciences, it is the assumption of finiteness that has shown its limits. Reference to (algorithmic) complexity is an explicit statement of the impossibility of accounting for certain occurrences by means of a restricted set of symbols defined once and for all. As for the concepts of emergence and evolutionary contingency, they partake of a new, more modest, idea of what biological science should do. Not deriving structures from premises and laws, but showing the means by which they are self-generated. Not mastering every step of the processes, but identifying a way of triggering them.We will try to identify the sources of the enduring philosophical resistance to these two rising trends of physical and life sciences. We will especially discuss the possibility that, after having favored the birth of the modern science of nature during the 17th century, the Western view of the world has turned out to be too narrow to accommodate the latest developments of this science.