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Life: Real and Artificial


Science: The Vedic View

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a group of scientists, mainly from the Los Alamos National Laboratories, once held a conference on “Artificial Life.” The theme of the conference, which I attended, was that the essence of life lies not in biological substance but in patterned organization.

If this idea is valid, the thinking goes, life forms should be able to set themselves up through many different types of material stuff. In particular, life should be able to exist as a pattern of electronic activity in a computer.

The conference organizers, casually dressed, long-haired men in their thirties and early forties, say that artificial, computer-based life forms are developing even now—and may evolve to dominate the earth.

According to this view, the evolutionary role of man is to give birth to silicon-based life patterns that will eventually look back on him as a primitive ancestor. The conference sponsors counseled a broad-minded attitude toward such evolutionary progress: we should transcend parochial anthropocentrism and welcome advanced life in whatever form it may emerge.

But some attending scientists doubted whether a program running on a computer could properly be thought of as alive. Philosopher Elliott Sober argued that when engineers make a computer simulation of a bridge, no one would think of it as a real bridge: the simulation merely shows a picture in which computations tell us something about bridges. In the same way, when a computer simulates an organism, we see a picture in which computations tell us something about life—we’re not seeing life itself.

Tommaso Toffoli, a computer scientist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, responded to this argument. Suppose, he said, that simulated people were driving in simulated cars on a simulated bridge. If the bridge were to collapse, the people would fall to their simulated deaths.

The patterns in a faithful simulation match the patterns found in reality: the simulated people cross the simulated bridge just as real people cross a real bridge. And since these patterns, Dr. Toffoli proposed, are the essence of what is happening, we can think of the simulation the same way we think of the original.

In principle, then, if a real material scene can exhibit life, so can a simulation.

In practice, of course, present computers, operating with a single processor, are weak at matching the patterns of reality.

But Toffoli suggested that the powerful computers of the future will consist of crystallike arrays of many thousands of microminiature processors, nearly atomic in size, all computing at once. Toffoli described such computers as “programmable matter.”

Indeed (though Toffoli didn’t say so), we might regard matter itself, with its interacting atomic subunits, as such a computer. According to this idea, life is already a computer simulation running on the “programmable matter” of the universe itself.

Now, if life is but a computer simulation, a series of computational states, then life too must be essentially unreal. Words such as “flower,” “dog,” and “human” are simply names, symbols we attach to patterns of matter. This, in fact, is the Vedic understanding not of life but of the material body. In the eleventh canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Krishna says to Uddhava that the gross and subtle forms of material bodies have no existence of their own; they are only temporary patterns manifested by the eternally existing reality, the Absolute Truth.

Krishna illustrates this idea with an example: “Gold exists before it is made into gold products, and the gold remains when the products have been destroyed. The gold alone is the reality while used under various names. Similarly, I alone exist before the universe is created and after it is destroyed, and I alone exist while it is maintained.…

“That which did not exist in the past and will not exist in the future has no existence of its own while it lasts.… Whatever is created and revealed by something else is ultimately only that other thing” (Bhagavatam 11.28.19, 21).

So we can look at the temporary forms of the material universe as patterns in Krishna’s energy to which various names have been assigned. In essence these patterns in Krishna’s material energy (bahiranga-shakti) are the same as the patterns of electrons that form and disappear in the circuitry of a computer during a simulation. So we can view the material universe as the ultimate computer sim- ulation, and Krishna as the ultimate simulator.

But seeing the material body as a succession of flickering patterns doesn’t mean we should view life the same way. Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita (2.20) that the soul, the individual conscious self, eternally exists: “For the soul there is never birth or death. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.”

Tommaso Toffoli’s simulated people on the simulated bridge lack one main element: consciousness. A series of computations might simulate the changes a person’s body undergoes, including those in the brain. But why should patterns of electric current generate the conscious experience of these changes?

We may easily imagine that the patterns of current that make up a machine’s computations may flow without conscious awareness. This suggests that if consciousness of the results of these computations exists in the computer, this must be due to some element that our understanding of computers has not yet taken into account.

Here’s how some might reply: It may be hard to understand how patterns of computer states could generate consciousness, but we already know that similar patterns generate consciousness in human brains. So why can’t this take place in a computer?

The answer is that we don’t know in any scientific sense that patterns of brain states do generate consciousness. Resolving how such patterns might do this in brains would be just as hard as figuring out how they might do it in computers.

Bhagavad-gita provides a simple solution by postulating that consciousness in the material body is due to the presence of an entity fundamentally different from matter. Given the difficulties philosophers and scientists have run into in trying to understand consciousness as patterns of material elements, they should think about this solution.

If we tentatively adopt this solution, then we may ask: How would the nonmaterial conscious entity be linked to the material body? We can understand how this link might work by returning to Toffoli’s story of the simulated bridge.

How could we introduce consciousness into the simulation? One way would be to make a “real-time” simulation, one in which the simulated events take place at the same pace as corresponding events in the real world. (One would simply need a fast enough computer.) Then one could put consciousness into the simulation by electronically linking the senses of real, conscious people with the simulated senses of the simulated people. The intentions of the conscious people would move the bodies of the people in the simulated world, and the conscious people would have the experiences the simulated people would have.

Far-fetched? Some people in computer science are already working on it. VPL Research in California is experimenting with “virtual realities” in which a person’s eyes, ears, and one hand are hooked up electronically with virtual eyes and ears and a virtual hand in a simulated world. The person looks through “eye-phones,” small TV screens placed directly in front of his eyes, and sees as though in the simulated world.

A “data-glove” electronically senses his hand movements, and another device the movements of his head; the resulting data control the movements of his simulated hand and head.

Thus the person experiences the simulated world through a simulated body, moves about in that body, and handles simulated objects in that world.

If it is possible to link human consciousness with an unreal, virtual body in a simulated world, why shouldn’t it be possible to link spiritual consciousness with similarly unreal bodies in the “real” material world?

The Vedic philosophy known as Sankhya describes the workings of such a communications link. The third canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam describes Krishna’s material energy as including an element called “false ego,” or ahankara, which serves as the interface between the nonmaterial soul and the material energy. This false ego serves like the eyephones and data gloves that link a human being with a computer running a virtual reality program.

Both the material body as understood in Vedic literature and the simulated body in a computer-generated world are merely temporary patterns in an underlying substrate. But the conscious self—the real essence of the living being—has a substantial reality outside the realm of transient patterns.

In the computer-generated reality this conscious self is a human being not part of the computer system, and in the Vedic philosophy this self is a transcendental entity distinct from matter.

One lesson we can learn from the thoughts and experiments of computer scientists is that such a relationship between the self and the material world is possible. And it just might be our actual situation.