[Paleopsych] Mae-Wan Ho: The Biology of Free Will
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Mae-Wan Ho: The Biology of Free Will
Open University, Walton Hall,
Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, U.K.
Journal of Consciousness Studies 3, 231-244, 1996.
[Thanks to Roxanne for this, who did not supply a URL but who remarks: "Hope
it's not allready in your archives, really enjoyed the read as a regular folk,
hope you do too, nice flowery language, many pictures come to mind and the free
style is nice too."]
Abstract: According to Bergson (1916), the traditional problem of free will
is misconceived and arises from a mismatch between the quality of
authentic, subjective experience and its description in language, in
particular, the language of the mechanistic science of psychology.
Contemporary western scientific concepts of the organism, on the other
hand, are leading us beyond conventional thermodynamics as well as quantum
theory and offering rigorous insights which reaffirm and extend our
intuitive, poetic, and even romantic notions of spontaneity and free will.
I shall describe some new views of the organism arising from new findings
in biology, in order to show how, in freeing itself from the 'laws' of
physics, from mechanical determinism and mechanistic control, the organism
becomes a sentient, coherent being that is free, from moment to moment, to
explore and create its possible futures.
*Based on a lecture delievered at the 6th Mind & Brain Symposium, The
Science of Consciousness - The Nature of Free Will, November 4, 1995,
Institute of Psychiatry, London.
Distinguished neurophysiologist Walter Freeman (1995) begins his latest
book by declaring brain science "in crisis": his personal quest to define
constant psycho-logical states arising from given stimuli has ended in
failure after 33 years. Patterns of brain activity are simply unrepeatable,
every perception is influenced by all that has gone before. The impasse, he
adds, is conceptual, not experimental or logical. This acknowledged
breakdown of mechanical determinism in brain science is really long
overdue, but it should not be miscontrued as the triumph of vitalism. As
Freeman goes on to show, recent developments in nonlinear mathematics can
contribute to some understanding of these non-repeatable brain activities.
The traditional opposition between mechanists and vitalists already began
to dissolve at the turn of the present century, when Newtonian physics gave
way to quantum theory at the very small scales of elementary particles and
to general relativity at the large scales of planetary motion. The static,
deterministic universe of absolute space and time is replaced by a
multitude of contingent, observer-dependent space-time frames. Instead of
mechanical objects with simple locations in space and time, one finds
delocalized, mutually entangled quantum entities that carry their histories
with them, like evolving organisms. These developments in contemporary
western science gave birth to organicist philosophy.
A key figure in organicist philosophy was the French philosopher, Henri
Bergson (1916), who showed how Newtonian concepts - which dominate
biological sciences then and now - negate psychology's claims to understand
our inner experience at the very outset. In particular, he drew attention
to the inseparability of space and time, both tied to real processes that
have characteristic durations. The other major figure in organicist
philosophy was the English mathematician-philosopher, Alfred North
Whitehead (1925) who saw physics itself and all of nature, as
unintelligible without a thorough-going theory of the organism that
participates in knowing.
Organicist philosophy was taken very seriously by a remarkable group of
people who formed the multidisciplinary Theoretical Biology Club.1 Its
membership included Joseph Needham, eminent embryologist/biochemist later
to be renowned for his work on the history of Chinese science; Dorothy
Needham, muscle physiologist and biochemist, geneticist C.H. Waddington,
crystallographer J.D. Bernal, mathematician Dorothy Wrinch, philosopher,
J.H. Woodger and physicist, Neville Mott. They acknowledged the full
complexity of living organization, not as axiomatic, but as something to be
explained and understood with the help of philosophy as well as physics,
chemistry, biology and mathematics, as those sciences advance, and in the
spirit of free enquiry, leaving open whether new concepts or laws may be
discovered in the process.
A lot has happened since the project of the Theoretical Biology Club was
brought to a premature end when they failed to obtain funding from the
Rockefeller Foundation. Organicism has not survived as such, but its
invisible ripples have spread and touched the hearts and minds, and the
imagination of many who remain drawn to the central enigma that Erwin
Schrödinger (1944) later posed: What is Life?
In the intervening years, the transistor radio, the computer and lasers
have been invented. Whole new disciplines have been created, nonequilibrium
thermodynamics, solid state physics and quantum optics to name but a few.
In mathematics, nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory took off in a big way
during the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps partly on account of that, many nonlinear
physical and physicochemical phenomena are being actively investigated only
within the past ten years, as physics become more and more organic in its
In a way, the whole of science is now tinged with organicist philosophy, as
even "consciousness" and "free will" are on the scientific agenda. Bergson
(1916) has made a persuasive case that the traditional problem of free will
is simply misconceived and arises from a mismatch between the quality of
authentic, subjective experience and its description in language, in
particular, the language of the mechanistic science of psychology. In a
recent book, I have shown how contemporary western scientific concepts of
the organism are leading us beyond conventional thermodynamics as well as
quantum theory (Ho, 1993), and offering rigorous insights which reaffirm
and extend our intuitive, poetic, and even romantic notions of spontaneity
and free will.
The new organicism
I am making a case for organicist science. It is not yet a conscious
movement but a Zeitgeist I personally embrace, so I really mean to persuade
you to do likewise by giving it a more tangible shape. The new organicism,
like the old, is dedicated to the knowledge of the organic whole, hence, it
does not recognize any discipline boundaries. It is to be found between all
disciplines. Ultimately, it is an unfragmented knowledge system by which
one lives. There is no escape clause allowing one to plead knowledge 'pure'
or 'objective', and hence having nothing to do with life. As with the old
organicism, the knowing being participates in knowing as much as in living.
Participation implies responsibility, which is consistent with the truism
that there can be no freedom without responsibility, and conversely, no
responsiblity without freedom. There is no placing mind outside nature as
Descartes has done, the knowing being is wholeheartedly within nature:
heart and mind, intellect and feeling (Ho, 1994a). It is non-dualist and
holistic. In all those respects, its affinities are with the participatory
knowledge systems of traditional indigenous cultures all over the world.
From a thorough-going organicist perspective, one does not ask, "What is life?"
but, "What is it to be alive?". Indeed, the best way to know life is to live it
fully. It must be said that we do not yet have a fully fledged organicist
science. But I shall describe some new images of the organism, starting from
the more familiar and working up, perhaps to the most sublime, from which a
picture of the organism as a free, spontaneous being will begin to emerge. I
shall show how the organism succeeds in freeing itself from the 'laws' of
physics, from mechanical determinism and mechanistic control, thereby becoming
a sentient, coherent being that, from moment to moment, freely explores and
creates its possible futures.
II. The organism frees itself from the 'laws' of physics
I put 'laws' in quotation marks in order to emphasize that they are not
laid down once and for all, and especially not to dictate what we can or
cannot think. They are tools for helping us think; and most of all, to be
transcended if necessary.
Many physicists have marvelled at how organisms seem able to defy the
Second Law of Thermodynamics, starting from Lord Kelvin, co-inventor of the
Second Law, who nevertheless excluded organisms from its dominion:
"The animal body does not act as a thermodynamic engine...consciousness
teaches every individual that they are, to some extent, subject to the
direction of his will. It appears therefore that animated creatures have
the power of immediately applying to certain moving particles of matter
within their bodies, forces by which the motions of these particles are
directed to produce derived mechanical effects."2
What impresses Lord Kelvin is how organisms seem to have energy at will,
whenever and wherever required, and in a perfectly coordinated way. Another
equally puzzling feature is that, contrary to the Second Law, which says
all systems should decay into equilibrium and disorder, organisms develop
and evolve towards ever increasing organization. Of course, there is no
contradiction, as the Second Law applies to isolated systems, whereas
organisms are open systems. But how do organisms manage to maintain
themselves far away from thermodynamic equilibrium and to produce
increasing organization? Schrödinger writes:
"It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state of 'equilibrium'
that an organism appears so enigmatic....What an organism feeds upon is
negative entropy, or, to put it less paradoxically, the essential thing in
metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the
entropy it cannot help producing while alive."3
Schrödinger was severely reprimanded,4 by Linus Pauling and others, for
using the term 'negative entropy', for it really does not correspond to any
rigorous thermodynamic entity. However, the idea that open systems can
"self-organize" under energy flow became more concrete in the discovery of
"dissipative structures" (Prigogine, 1967). An example is the Bénard
convection cells that arise in a pan of water heated uniformly from below.
At a critical temperature difference between the top and the bottom, a
phase transition occurs: bulk flow begins as the lighter, warm water rises
from the bottom and the denser, cool water sinks. The whole pan eventually
settles down to a regular honeycomb array of flow cells. Before phase
transition, all the molecules move randomly with respect to one another.
However, at a critical rate of energy supply, the system self-organizes
into global dynamic order in which all the astronomical numbers of
molecules are moving in formation as though choreographed to do so.
A still more illuminating physical metaphor for the living system is the
laser (Haken, 1977), in which energy is pumped into a cavity containing
atoms capable of emitting light. At low levels of pumping, the atoms emit
randomly as in an ordinary lamp. As the pumping rate is increased, a
threshold is reached when all the atoms oscillate together in phase, and
send out a giant light track that is a million times as long as that
emitted by individual atoms. Both examples illustrate how energy input or
energy pumping and dynamic order are intimately linked.
These and other considerations led me to identify Schrödinger's "negative
entropy" as "stored mobilizable energy in a space-time structured system"
(Ho, 1994b, 1995a). The key to understanding the thermodynamics of living
systems turns out not so much to be energy flow but energy storage under
energy flow (Fig. 1). Energy flow is of no consequence unless the energy
can be trapped and stored within the system where it circulates to do work
before dissipating. A reproducing life cycle, i.e., an organism, arises
when the loop of circulating energy is closed. At that point, we have a
life cycle, within which stored energy is mobilized, remaining largely
stored as it is mobilized.
Figure 1 here
The life cycle is a highly differentiated space-time structure, the
predomi-nant modes of activity are themselves cycles spanning an entire
gamut of space-times from the local and fast (or slow) to the global and
slow (or fast), all of which are coupled together. These cycles are most
familiar to us in the form of biological rhythms extending over 20 orders
of magnitude of time, from electrical activities of neurons and other cells
to circadian and circa-annual rhythms and beyond. An intuitive picture is
given in Figure 2, where coupled cycles of different sizes are fed by the
one-way energy flow. This complex, entangled space-time structure is
strongly reminiscent of Bergson's "durations" of organic processes, which
necessitates a different way of conceptualizing space-time as
heterogeneous, nonlinear, multidimensional and nonlocal (see Ho, 1993).5
Figure 2 here
On account of the complete spectrum of coupled cycles, energy is stored and
mobilized over all space-times according to the relaxation times (and
volumes) of the processes involved. So, organisms can take advantage of two
different ways of mobilizing energy with maximum efficiency - nonequilbrium
transfer in which stored energy is transferred before it is thermalized,
and quasi-equilibrium transfer, for which the free energy change approaches
zero according to conventional thermodynamic considerations (McClare,
1971). Energy input into any mode can be readily delocalized over all
modes, and conversely, energy from all modes can become concentrated into
any mode. In other words, energy coupling in the living system is
symmetrical, which is why we can have energy at will, whenever and wherever
required (see Ho, 1993, 1994b, 1995a,b). The organism is, in effect, a
closed, self-sufficient energetic domain of cyclic non-dissipative
processes coupled to the dissipative processes. In the formalism of
conventional thermodynamics, the life cycle can be considered, to first
approximation, to consist of all those cyclic processes - for which the net
entropy change balances out to zero - coupled to those dissipative
processes necessary for keeping it going, for which the net entropy change
is greater than zero (see Figure 3). This representation, justified in
detail elsewhere (Ho, 1996a), is derived from the thermodynamics of the
steady state (see Denbigh, 1951).
Figure 3 here
Consequently, the organism has freed itself from the immediate constraints
of energy conservation - the First Law - as well as the Second Law of
thermodynamics. There is always energy available within the system, which
is mobilized at close to maximum efficiency and over all space-time modes. 6
III. The organism is free from mechanical determinism
It was geneticist/embryologist C.H. Waddington (1957) who first introduced
nonlinear dynamical ideas into developmental biology in the form of the
'epigenetic landscape' - a general metaphor for the dynamics of the
develop-mental process. The developmental paths of tissues and cells are
seen to be constrained or canalized to 'flow' along certain valleys and not
others due to the 'force' exerted on the landscape by the various gene
products which define the fluid topography of the landscape.7 This fluid
topography contains multiple potential developmental pathways that may be
realized as the result of "fluctuations", or if the environmental
conditions, the genes or gene products change. This metaphor has been made
much more explicit recently by mathematician Peter Saunders (1992) who
shows that the properties of the epigenetic landscape are "common not just
to developing organisms but to most nonlinear dynamical systems."
The polychromatic organism
A particular kind of nonlinearity which has made headlines recently is
'deterministic chaos': a complex dynamical behaviour that is locally
unpredictable and irregular, which has been used to describe many living
functions including the collective behaviour of ant colonies (see Goodwin,
1994). The unrepeatable patterns of brain activities that persuaded Freeman
(1995) to declare brain science in crisis are typical of systems exhibiting
deterministic chaos. Another putative example is the heart beat, which is
found to be much more irregular in healthy people than in cardiac
patients.8 Physiologist Goldberger (1991) came to the conclusion that
healthy heartbeat has "a type of variability called chaos", and that loss
of this "complex variability" is associated with pathology and with aging.
Similarly, the electrical activities of the functioning brain, apart from
being unrepeatable from moment to moment, also contain many frequencies.
But during epileptic fits, the spectrum is greatly impoverished (Kandel,
Schwartz and Jessell, 1991). There is much current debate as to whether
these complex variabilities associated with the healthy, functional state
constitute chaos in the technical sense, so the question is by no means
settled (Glass and Mackey, 1988).
A different understanding of the complex activity spectrum of the healthy
state is that it is polychromatic (Ho, 1996c), approaching 'white' in the
ideal, in which all the modes of energy storage are equally represented. It
corresponds to the so-called f(l) = const. rule that Popp (1986) has
generalized from the spectrum of light or "biophotons" found to be emitted
from all living systems. I have proposed that this polychromatic ideal
distribution of stored energy is the state towards which all open systems
capable of energy storage naturally evolve (Ho, 1994b). It is a state of
both maximum and minimum in entropy content: maximum because energy becomes
equally distributed over all the space-time modes (hence the 'white'
ideal), and minimum because the modes are all coupled or linked together to
give a coherent whole, in other words, to a single degree of freedom (Popp,
1986; Ho, 1993). In a system where there is no impedance to energy
mobilization, all the modes are intercommunicating and hence all the
frequencies will be represented. Instead, when coupling is imperfect, or
when the subsystem, say, the heart, or the brain, is not communicating
properly, it falls back on its own modes, leading to impoverishment of its
activity spectrum. Living systems are necessarily a polychromatic whole,
they are full of colour and variegated complexity that nevertheless cohere
into a singular being.
The organism is a free sentient being and hence able to decide its own fate
One distinguishing feature of the living system is its exquisite
sensitivity to weak signals. For example, the eye can detect single photons
falling on the retina, and the presence of several molecules of pheromones
in the air is sufficient to attract male insects to their appropriate
mates. That extreme sensitivity of the organism applies to all levels and
is the direct consequence of its energy self-sufficiency. No part of the
system has to be pushed or pulled into action, nor be subjected to
mechanical regulation and control. Instead, coordinated action of all the
parts depends on rapid intercommunication throughout the system. The
organism is a system of "excitable media" (see Goodwin, 1994,1995), or
excitable cells and tissues poised to respond specifically and
disproportionately (i.e., nonlinearly) to weak signals because of the large
amount of energy stored, which can thus amplify the weak signal into
macroscopic action. It is by virtue of its energy self-sufficiency,
therefore, that an organism is a sentient being - a system of sensitive
parts all set to intercommunicate, to respond and to act appropriately as a
whole to any contingency.
The organism is indeed free from mechanical determinism, but it does not
thereby fall prey to indeterminacy. Far from surrendering its fate to the
indeterminacy of nonlinear dynamics (or quantum theory, for that matter),
the organism maximizes its opportunities inherent in the multiplicity of
futures available to it. I have argued elsewhere that indeterminacy is
really the problem of the ignorance of the external observer, and not
experienced by the being itself, who has full knowledge of its own state,
and can readily adjust, respond and act in the most appropriate manner (Ho,
1993). In a very real sense, the organism is free to decide its own fate
because it is a sentient being who has moment to moment, up-to-date
knowledge of its own internal milieu as well as the external environment.
IV. The organism frees itself from mechanistic control as an
interconnected, intercommunicating whole
This idea has become very concrete as the result of recent advances in
biochemistry, cell biology and genetics. A molecular democracy of
There are thousands of enzymes catalyzing thousands of energy transactions
and metabolic transformations in our body. The product of one enzyme is
acted on by one or more other enzymes, resulting in a highly interconnected
metabolic network. Henrik Kacser (1988) was among the first to realize that
once we have a network, especially one as complicated as the metabolic
network, it is unrealistic to think that there could be special enzymes
controlling the flow of metabolites under all circumstances. He and a
colleague pioneered metabolic control analysis, to discover how the network
is actually regulated under different conditions.
After more than 20 years of investigation by many biochemists and cell
biologists, it is now generally recognized that so-called 'control' is
invariably distributed over many enzymes (and metabolites) in the network,
and moreover, the distribution of control differs under different
conditions. The metabolic network turns out to be a "molecular democracy"
of distributed control.
Long-range energy continua in cells and tissues
Recent studies have also revealed that energy mobilization in living
systems is achieved by protein or enzyme molecules acting as "flexible
molecular energy machines" (see Ho, 1995a), which transfer energy directly
from the point of release to the point of utilization, without
thermalization or dissipation. These direct energy transfers are carried
out in collective modes extending from the molecular to the macroscopic
domain. The flow of metabolites is channeled coherently at the molecular
level, from one enzyme to the next in sequence, in multi-enzyme complexes
(see Welch and Clegg, 1987). At the same time, high voltage electron
microscopy and other physical measurement techniques reveal that the cell
is more like a 'solid state' than the 'bag of dissolved enzymes' that
generations of biochemists had previously supposed (Clegg, 1984). Not only
are almost all enzymes bound to an intricate "microtrabecular lattice", but
a large proportion of metabolites as well as water molecules are also
structured on the enormous surfaces available. Aqueous channels are now
thought to be involved in the active transport of solutes within the cell
in the same way that the blood stream transport metabolites and chemical
messengers within the organism (Wheatley and Clegg, 1991). Joseph Needham
(1935) and his colleagues were already aware of all that some sixty years
As Welch and Berry (1985) propose, the whole cell is linked up by
"long-range energy continua" of mechanical interactions, electric and
eletrochemical fluxes and in particular, proton currents that form a
"protoneural network", whereby metabolism is regulated instantly and down
to minute detail. In addition, the possibility that cells and tissues are
also linked by electromagnetic phonons and photons is increasingly
entertained (see Popp, Li and Gu, 1992; Ho, 1993; Ho, Popp and Warnke,
1994). As I shall show later, the cell (as well as organism) is not so much
a "solid state" as liquid crystalline. Living systems, therefore, possess
just the conditions that favour the rapid propagation of influences in all
directions, so that local and global can no longer be easily distinguished.
Global phase transitions may often take place, which can be initiated at
any point within the system or subsystem. Freeman and Barrie (1994) have
described abrupt, phase-transition like changes that typically occur in the
eeg of whole areas of the brain, recorded simultaneously with a large array
of electrodes, for which no definite centre(s) of origin can be identified.9
Organism and environment - a mutual partnership
Biology today remains dominated by the genetic paradigm. Genes are seen to
be the repository of information that controls the development of the
organism, but are otherwise insulated from the environment, and passed on
unchanged to the next generation except for rare random mutations. The much
publicized Human Genome Project is being promoted on that very basis.10
Yet, the genetic paradigm has already been fatally undermined at least ten
years ago, when a plethora of 'fluid genome' processes were first
discovered, and many more have come to light since. These processes
destabilize and alter genes and genomes in the course of development, some
of the genetic changes are so well correlated with the environment that
they are referred to as "directed mutations". Many of the genetic changes
are then passed on to the next generation. I pointed out at the time that
heredity can no longer be seen to reside solely in the DNA passed on from
one generation to the next. Instead, the stability and repeatability of
development - which we recognize as heredity - is distributed in the whole
gamut of dynamic feedback interrelationships between organism and
environment, from the socioecological to the genetic. All these may leave
imprints that are passed on to subsequent generations, in the form of
cultural traditions or artefacts, maternal or cytoplasmic effects, gene
expression states, as well as genetic (DNA sequence) changes.
The organism is highly interconnected and intercommunicating at all levels
extending from within the cell to the socioecological environment. It is on
that account that the organism has freed itself from mechanistic controls
of any kind. It is not a passive object at the mercy of random variation
and natural selection, but an active participants in the evolutionary
drama.11 In constantly responding to and transforming its environment, it
partakes in creating the possible futures of generations to come.
V. The organism as an autonomous coherent whole
The concept of coherence has emerged within the past 20 years to describe
the wholeness of the organism. The first detailed theory of coherence of
the organism was presented by Herbert Fröhlich (1968; 1980) who argued that
as organisms are made up of strongly dipolar molecules packed rather
densely together (c.f. the 'solid state' cell), electric and elastic forces
will constantly interact. Metabolic pumping will excite macromolecules such
as proteins and nucleic acids as well as cellular membranes (which
typically have an enormous electric field of some 107V/m across them).
These will start to vibrate and eventually build up into collective modes,
or coherent excitations, of both phonons and photons (sound and light) that
extend over macroscopic distances within the organism and perhaps also
outside the organism. The emission of electromagnetic radiation from
coherent lattice vibrations in a solid-state semi-conductor has recently
been experimentally demonstrated for the first time (Dekorsy et al, 1995).
The possibility that organisms may use electromagnetic radiations to
communicate between cells was already entertained by Soviet biologist
Gurwitsch (1925) early this century.This hypothesis was revived by Popp and
his coworkers in the late 1970s, and there is now a large and rapidly
growing literature on "biophotons" that are believed to be emitted from a
coherent photon field (or energy storage field) within the living system
(see Popp, Li and Gu, 1992).
We have indeed found that a single, one minute, exposure of synchronously
developing early fruitfly embryos to white light results in the re-emission
of relatively intense and prolonged flashes of light, some tens of minutes
and even hours after the light exposure (Ho et al, 1992b). This is
reminiscent of phase-correlated collective emission, or superradiance, in
physical systems, although the timescale is orders of magnitude longer. For
phase-correlation to build up over the entire population, one must assume
that each embryo has a collective phase of all its activities, in other
words, each embryo must be considered a highly coherent domain, despite its
multiplicity of activities (Ho, Zhou and Haffegee, 1995). Actually, this is
no different from the macroscopic phase correlations that are involved in
the synchronous flashing of huge populations of fireflies (Strogatz and
Mirollo, 1988), and in many physiological functions, such as limb
coordination during locomotion (Collin and Stewart, 1992; Kelso, 1991) and
coupling between heart rate and respiratory rate (Breithaupt, 1989). Under
those conditions, whole limbs or entire circulatory and respiratory systems
must be considered coherent domains which can maintain definite phase
relationships with respect to one another.
During the same early period of development in Drosophila, exposure of the
embryos to weak static magnetic fields also cause characteristic global
transformation of the normal segmental body pattern to helical
configurations in the larvae emerging 24 hours later (Ho et al, 1992a). As
the energies involved are well below the thermal threshold, we conclude
that there can be no effect unless the external field is acting on a
coherent field where charges are moving in phase, or where magnetically
sensitive liquid crystals are undergoing phase alignment globally (Ho, et
al, 1994). Liquid crystals may indeed be the material basis of many, if not
all aspects of biological organization (Ho et al, 1996).
Organisms are polyphasic liquid crystals
Liquid crystals are phases of matter between the solid and the liquid
states, hence the term, mesophases (DeGennes, 1974). Liquid crystalline
mesophases possess long range orientational order (all the molecules
pointing in the same direction), and often also varying degrees of
translational order (the individual molecules keep to their positions to
varying extents). In contrast to solid crystals, liquid crystals are mobile
and flexible, and above all, highly responsive. They undergo rapid changes
in orientation or phase transitions when exposed to electric or magnetic
fields (Blinov, 1983) or to changes in temperature, pressure, pH,
hydration, and concentrations of inorganic ions (Collings, 1990; Knight,
1993). These properties are ideal for organisms (Gray, 1993; Knight, 1993).
Liquid crystals in organisms include all its major constituents; the lipids
of cellular membranes, the DNA in chromosomes, all proteins, especially
cytoskeletal proteins, muscle proteins, collagens and other macromolecules
of connective tissues. These adopt a multiplicity of different mesophases
that may be crucial for biological structure and function at all levels of
organization (Ho et al, 1996) from channeling metabolites in the cell to
pattern determination and the coordinated locomotion of whole organisms.
The importance of liquid crystals for living organization was recognized by
Joseph Needham (1935) among others. He suggested that living systems
actually are liquid crystals, and that many liquid crystalline mesophases
may exist in the cell although they cannot then be detected. Indeed, there
has been no direct evidence that extensive liquid crystalline mesophases
exist in living organisms or in the cytoplasm until our recent discovery of
a noninvasive optical technique (Ho and Lawrence, 1993; Ho and Saunders,
1994; Newton, Haffegee and Ho, 1995). This enables us to obtain high
resolution and high contrast coloured images of live organisms based on
visualizing just the kind of coherent liquid crystalline mesophases which
Needham and others had predicted.
The technique effectively allows us to see the whole of the living organism
at once from its macroscopic activities down to the phase alignment of the
molecules that make up its tissues. Brilliant optical colours are generated
which are specific for each tissue, dependent on the molecular structure
and the degree of coherent alignment of all the molecules, even as the
molecules are moving about busily transforming energy. This is possible
because visible light vibrates much faster than the molecules can move, so
the tissues will appear indistinguishable from static crystals to the light
passing through so long as the movements of the constituent molecules are
sufficiently coherent. With this imaging technique, one can see that the
organism is thick with activities at all levels, which are coordinated in a
continuum from the macroscopic to the molecular. And that is what the
coherence of the organism entails.
These images also bring out another aspect of the wholeness of the
organism: all organisms, from protozoa to vertebrates without exception,
are polarized along the anteroposterior axis, so that all the colours in
the different tissues of the body are at a maximum when the anteroposterior
axis is appropriately aligned, and they change in concert as the organism
is rotated from that position. The anteroposterior axis acts as the optical
axis for the whole organism, which behaves in effect, as a single crystal.
This leaves us in little doubt that the organism is a singular whole,
despite the diverse multiplicity and polychromatic nature of its
The tissues not only maintain their crystalline order when they are
actively transforming energy, the degree of order seems to depend on energy
transformation, in that the more active and energetic the organism, the
more intensely colorful it is, implying that the molecular motions are all
the more coherent (Ho and Saunders, 1994; Ho et al, 1996). The coherence of
the organism is therefore closely tied up with its energetic status, as
argued in the beginning of this essay: the coherent whole is full of energy
- it is a vibrant coherent whole.
Quantum coherence in living organisms
The above considerations and observations show that the essence of organic
wholeness is that it is distributed throughout its constituent parts so
that local and global, part and whole are completely indistinguishable -
the organism's activities being always fully coordinated in a continuum
from the molecular to the macroscopic. That convinces me (as argued in
detail in Ho, 1993, also Ho, 1996a) that there is something very special
about the wholeness of organisms that is only fully captured by quantum
coherence.12 An intuitive appreciation of quantum coherence is to think of
the 'I' that each and every one of us experience of our own being. We know
that our body is a multiplicity of organs and tissues, composed of many
billions of cells and astronomical numbers of molecules of many different
kinds, all capable of working autonomously, and yet somehow cohering into
the singular being of our private experience. That is just the stuff of
quantum coherence. Quantum coherence does not mean that everybody or every
element of the system must be doing the same thing all the time, it is more
akin to a grand ballet, or better yet, a very large jazz band where
everyone is doing his or her own thing while being perfectly in step and in
tune with the whole.
A quantum coherent system maximizes both global cohesion and local freedom
(Ho, 1993). This property is technically referred to as factorizability,
the correlations between subsystems resolving neatly into self-correlations
so that the subsystems behave as though they are independent of one
another. It enables the body to be performing all sorts of different but
coordinated functions simultaneously (Ho, 1995b). It also enables
instantaneous, as well as noiseless intercommunication to take place
throughout the system.13 As I am writing, my digestive system is working
independently, my metabolism busily transforming chemical energy in all my
cells, putting some away in the longer term stores of fat and glycogen,
while converting most of it into readily utilizable forms such as ATP.
Similarly, my muscles are keeping in tone and allowing me to work the
keyboard, while, hopefully, my neurons are firing in wonderfully coherent
patterns in my brain. Nevertheless, if the telephone should ring in the
middle of all this, I would turn to pick it up without hesitation.
The importance of factorizability is evoked by the movie character, Dr.
Strangelove, portrayed by Peter Sellers as a megalomaniac scientist who
wanted to rule the world. He was a wheelchair-bound paraplegiac, who could
not speak without raising his arm in the manner of a Nazi salute. That is
just the symptom of the loss of factorizability which is the hallmark of
The coherent organism is, in the ideal, a quantum superposition of
activities - organized according to their characteristic space-times - each
itself coherent, so that it can couple coherently to the rest (Ho, 1995b;
1996a). This picture is fully consistent with the earlier proposal that the
organism stores energy over all space-time domains each intercommunicating
(or coupled) with the rest. Quantum superposition also enables the system
to maximize its potential degrees of freedom so that the single degree of
freedom required for coherent action can be instantaneously accessed.
The freedom of organisms
The organism maximizes both local freedom and global intercommunication.
One comes to the startling discovery that the coherent organism is in a
very real sense completely free. Nothing is in control, and yet everything
is in control. Thus, it is the failure to transcend the mechanistic
framework that makes people persist in enquiring which parts are in
control, or issuing instructions; or whether free will exists, and who
choreographs the dance of molecules. Does "consciousness" control matter or
vice versa? These questions are meaningless when one understands what it is
to be a coherent, organic whole. An organic whole is an entangled whole,
where part and whole, global and local are so thoroughly implicated as to
be indistinguishable, and each part is as much in control as it is
sensitive and responsive. Choreographer and dancer are one and the same.
The 'self' is a domain of coherent activities, in the ideal, a pure state
that permeates the whole of our being with no definite localizations or
boundaries, as Bergson has described.
The positing of 'self' as a domain of coherent activities implies the
existence of an active whole agent who is free. I must stress that freedom
does not entail the breakdown of causality as many commentators have
mistakenly supposed. On the contrary, an acausal world would be one where
it is impossible to be free, as nothing would be intelligible.
Nevertheless, freedom does entail a new kind of organic causality that is
nonlocal, and posited with the organism itself. It is the experience of
perceptual feedback consequent on one's actions that is responsible for the
intuition of causality (Freeman, 1990). However, it must not be supposed
that the cause or consciousness is secreted from some definite location in
the brain, it is distributed and delocalized throughout the system (c.f.
Freedom in the present context means being true to 'self', in other words,
being coherent. A free act is a coherent act. Of course not all acts are
free, as one is seldom fully coherent. Yet the mere possiblity of being
unfree affirms the opposite, that freedom is real,
"..we are free when our acts spring from our whole personality, when they
express it, when they have that indefinable resemblance to it which one
sometimes finds between the artist and his work."14
The coherent 'self' is distributed and nonlocal - being implicated in a
community of other entities with which one is entangled (Whitehead, 1925;
see also Ho, 1993). Thus, being true to self does not imply acting against
others. On the contrary, sustaining others sustains the self, so being true
to others is also being true to self. It is only within a mechanistic
Darwinian perspective that freedom becomes perverted into acts against
others (see Ho, 1996e). The coherent 'self' can also couple coherently to
the environment so that one becomes as much in control of the environment
as one is responsive. The organism thereby partici-pates in creating its
own possible futures as well as those of the entire community of organisms
in the universe, much as Whitehead (1925) has envisaged.
I venture to suggest, therefore, that a truly free individual is a coherent
being that lives life fully and spontaneously, without fragmentation or
hesitation, who is at peace with herself and at ease with the universe as
she participates in creating, from moment to moment, its possible futures.
An earlier draft of this paper was written for the occasion of the 6th Mind
& Brain Conference, and I am grateful to Brian Goodwin and Peter Fenwick
for making it happen. Afterwards, I felt so inspired by the discussions
with the participants that I decided to write it up for publication. Thanks
are also due to Geoffrey Sewell for stimulating discussions on coherence
and bioenergetics and for keeping track of my physics; to Peter Saunders,
Brian Goodwin, Michael Brown and Michael Clarke for their encouragement and
support, and for drawing my attention to crucial publications and
preprints. Invaluable suggestions for improving the manuscript came from
the reviewers, Walter Freeman and Joseph Goguen.
1. The Theoretical Biology Club was an informal association of academics
based in Cambridge University in the 1930s. Its membership was probably
more extensive than I have indicated(see Mackay, 1994). Their project
continued, to some extent, in a series of meetings organized by C.H.
Waddington in the 1960s and 70s. The proceedings, published under the
title,Towards a Theoretical Biology (Edinburgh University Press) were very
influential among critics of mainstream neo-Darwinian theory of evolution,
including myself. Four recent Waddington Memorial Conferences have been
organized by Waddington's student, Brian Goodwin, and published as
collected volumes (see Goodwin and Saunders, 1989; Stein and Varela, 1992).
These helped to keep the project of the Theoretical Biology Club alive, and
I count myself among the intellectual beneficiaries.
2. Cited in Ehrenber, 1967, p103.
3. Schrödinger, 1944, pp.70-71.
4. Schrödinger was criticized by both Pauling and Perutz over his
non-rigorous use of "negative entropy". The exchanges are described by
5. I explore the consequences of organic space-time for understanding some
of the more paradoxical "states of consciousness" in my book (Ho, 1993) and
also in a forth-coming paper (Ho and Marcer, 1996).
6. The present conceptualization, based on thermodynamics, converges with
the notion of autopoesis describing the living system as a unitary,
self-producing entity, which Maturana and Varela (1987) derived from purely
7. Waddington's ideas in evolutionary theory is reviewed recently by Ho,
8. This is comprehensively described by Goodwin (1995) in our Open
University Third Level Course and accompanying video.
9. Elsewhere, it is argued that nonlocal intercommunication based on
quantum coherence is involved in these simultaneous changes in brain
activities (Ho and Marcer, 1996).
10. I have dealt with the socioeconomic implications as well as scientific
issues of gene biotechnology and the Human Genome Project elsewhere Ho
11. My colleagues and I have written against the reductionist tendencies of
mainstream evolutionary theory since 1976, but see in particular, Ho and
Saunders (1984); Pollard, J.W. (1984); Ho, M.W. (1986); Ho and Fox (1988).
The issue of epigenetic, or Lamarckian inheritance has been thoroughly
reviewed and documented recently by Jablonka and Lamb (1995). See also, Ho,
12. Some aspects of brain activity can best be understood in terms of
quantum coherence, independently of arguments given by Hameroff and Penrose
(1995) who offer a specific mechanism for mediating coherence. The quantum
coherence described in the present paper involves the whole system. When
the system is coherent, nonlocal correlations can be established
instantaneously, i.e., without delay. The largescale spatial coherence of
brain activities observed by Freeman and Barrie (1994) may be indicative of
such instantaneous intercom-munication. The relationship between quantum
coherence, organic space-time and conscious experience is the subject of
another paper (Ho and Marcer, 1966).
13. The coherent pure state (which is factorizable) is the prerequisite for
instantaneous, lossless intercommunication, because the slightest change
will give rise to a 'signal' passing between the uncorrelated factorizable
parts. However, during intercommunication, factorizability is temporarily
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