Zbigniew R. Struzik
Contrary to non-living matter, to date life as a phenomenon has evaded attempts at satisfactory explanations of its very origin, development and future fate.
However, it seems that the advance of the exact sciences in the past century could break their conceptual monopoly of focus and open the debate on life within the tractable and verifiable domains of exact sciences previously restricted to non-living matter.
Indeed, since the turn of the millennium, the science of living systems has steadily been becoming dominant, with several disciplines raising questions considered to be intractable – as were the fundamental building blocks of matter, two hundred years ago, or the evolution of the universe, a hundred years ago.
Recent advances in bioinformatics, in particular neuroscience and information science as applied to the genetic make-up of life, the science of modelling and explaining adaptation, evolution and emergence, have advanced our conceptual understanding of life’s mechanisms, possibly revealing an opportunity to interpret life’s very meaning.
Physics is essential to these developments, I will argue. In particular applications of physics to exotic domains, such as the physics of human interactions – sociophysics, or the monetary aspect of such interactions – econophysics, have been flourishing in recent times. This is not surprising – arguably, the most complex ingredient of the complex system of life at present is the most ‘universal automaton’ life has produced to date: Homo sapiens.
In addition to its superior adaptation skills, it is capable of reflecting upon its very existence, through conscious cognition – a phenomenon that – possibly through sociocultural interactions – apparently emerged as a result of Homo sapiens’ universal adaptability, yet which to date lacks adequate explanation, both theoretical and experimental.
Likely inherent to the adaptive success of Homo sapiens is its ability both to solve problems by reductionist approaches and to abstract, posing theories – including those concerning its own existence. The extraordinary span of the levels of abstraction utilised by Homo sapiens is possibly congruent with the span of conscious awareness this species has developed.
The borders between the disciplines involved in the ‘physics of life’ have become less clear-cut than we were used to in the science of the 20th century. With recent advances in the exchange of scientific information, a Renaissance polymath type of science is not only possible, but required. Indeed, the early 21st century has already been dubbed the century of ‘the renaissance of science’.
But, given this, will it be possible in our lifetime to ask the profound question – the title of this talk – in the context of science? Or should we leave it to intelligent machines, which in a couple of decades will likely overtake Homo sapiens in our ability to reason and to abstract, to build and verify models, and possibly to run off copies of themselves, superior to the originals?
Or – in a nutshell – after the period of neo-romanticism in science, still dominant since the turn of the millennium, are we to expect the advent of neo-positivism to follow, with its sceptical ‘nay’ in answer to the question posed by this talk’s title?