the meaning of life at the molecular level
October 6, 2019 8:54 AM   Subscribe

What are your favorite books that blend science and spirituality/theory to understand topics like consciousness, abiogenesis, and quorum sensing?

Assuming that any theories are going to veer away from "hard science" a bit- what are some books or papers (preferably somewhat recent) that you find stick more closely to the science and are more willing to point out flaws in various theories and multiple viewpoints- i.e. they acknowledge they are presenting ideas that are conjecture. A lot written on the subject is just pure philosophy, or is philosophers talking about the science without seeming to have a specialty in it. I'm most interested in those with more science background willing to at least discuss how that research impacts our theories in understanding of the emergence of life and consciousness at the molecular level.

I understand that for many physicist/science leaning folks there's just no reason to form theories because it's too subjective, but that is just no fun at all! Assuming we're allowed to use our minds to try to understand the world and it's worthwhile to at least wonder and bring in current research-- which are the least goofy of books and papers written on these subjects?
posted by xarnop to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Blindsight gave me a lot to think about. Intelligence without consciousness?

Arrival likewise made me think. Am I just the product of my limited world-view? If I could see the end of my decisions, would I make the same choices?

Perhaps HP Lovecraft is shrouded in doubt because he said the quiet words out loud:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

This is the horror that we confront every day. We are ruled by monsters and doubt, who are themselves ruled by horror and doubt.
posted by SPrintF at 11:00 AM on October 6 [3 favorites]

Gödel, Escher, Bach is the canonical reply. It's a slog - it took me literal years to get through because every chapter needs two re-reads and a trashy novel to let your brain recuperate - but the legion of topics, written with giddy joy, work together to, well, create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
posted by notsnot at 11:13 AM on October 6 [3 favorites]

I'll go out on a limb and say the most important book on "the emergence of life at a molecular level" is by Erwin Schrodinger.

Originally delivered as a series of lectures, the book discusses the nature of complex biological activity from the perspective of a quantum physicist. These lectures were attended by Watson and Crick and credited with inspiring them in the work that eventually lead to the discovery of DNA.

Schrodinger's ideas are still present, for example in the work of Jeremy England who has developed theories on the role of basic physics (and in particular, the law of entropy) in the emergence of life and the direction of biological evolution.

This stuff is very much hard science and not woo, but it considers life from a very different vantage than what we are used to. For example, while we colloquially think that "we eat to get energy", from the standpoint of Schrodinger, eating and digesting is the process of shedding entropy by increasing the entropy of something else.

Highly recommended.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 1:06 PM on October 6 [4 favorites]

Apologies for the typo in my previous comment. The book is What is Life?.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 1:25 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]

My favorite almost maybe woo but interesting none the less take on human consciousness is still : Bicameralism (psychology).

The original 1976 work sorta has some issues here and there, especially along the lines of new studies, archeological finds, etc. that have happened since then. But the idea still mostly holds up to the question of 'what happened between humans being upright walking apes and writing poetry and becoming philosophers'. When and How and Why did we humans start overthinking plates of beans?

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind - Google Search - there are many opinions for you to wade through. But it's still worth reading one way or the other.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:04 PM on October 6 [2 favorites]

Dennett's Consciousness Explained and more recently Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel
posted by crocomancer at 2:22 PM on October 6 [3 favorites]

I hated it so much that I didn't finish it and sold it back to the bookstore at a loss, but a lot of other people seemed to like A Big Bang in a Little Room: The Quest to Create New Universes by Zeeya Merali.
posted by wintersweet at 3:10 PM on October 6

There was a book in the 90s called Artificial Life that, while not a survey like you seem to be seeking, was technical and kind of inspiring in it's own amazement at the way simple patterns would always seem to evolve into a kind of complexity with it's own emerging patterns, and speculated (I don't remember precisely how) about this force of complexity as a kind of life force, or something.

I think this is it, by Steven Levy. It was a good read.
posted by amtho at 12:03 AM on October 7

This sounds like Rupert Sheldrake territory, but I confess to not having read any of his books (on my list, though!)
posted by Bron at 8:02 AM on October 7

The Quantum and the Lotus sounds right up your alley.
posted by Old Kentucky Shark at 12:54 PM on October 7

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