Life Creates Disequilibrium–But How?

As living creatures on this planet, we go through our daily lives dealing with the unexpected (whether welcome or unwelcome), the surprising, the awkward, the astonishing, the frustrating. Even if we are able to ‘go on a vacation’ to try to escape from all the chaos, we never really leave it behind. (Is there ever a real ‘vacation’ free from the same sorts of challenges? How many times has the motel lost your reservation, or the airline lost your luggage, or your flight been delayed, or the weather not cooperated with your plan to decompress on the beach?) Well, there is a very good reason for all the chaos and disequilibrium (both good and bad) in our daily lives: in order to be alive, one must create disequilibrium.

An equilibrium condition means that nothing happens. A box of gas in equilibrium stays in the same condition indefinitely, until some external factor comes along to change it. In contrast, living things make things happen: first and foremost, they initiate actions internally in order to consume what they need to grow, to evade threats, and to procreate. In order to carry out these functions, they must create disequilibrium. So the price of being alive is that one must create and live in a state of ongoing disequilibrium.

It’s a very important and unanswered question as to just how living things like ourselves create the disequilibrium conditions that sustain and develop us. If you put a small pebble in the ground, it will just sit there. On the other hand, if you put a seed in the ground, it will immediately start creating disequilibrium conditions around itself. Nobody really knows how or why this works, although references are usually made to ‘information’ in the form of the seed’s complex molecular structures. This just begs the question of how those informational structures got there in the first place; there are no such structures in the pebble. Of course, the pebble also has no necessary functions to carry out! As Stuart Kauffman has pointed out (Kauffman 2014, see note 2), in order to define a ‘function,’ one implicitly needs reference to an entity served by that function—in short, a “Self.”

Meanwhile, a complex biological organism like a human being—a Self, since it has functions requiring fulfillment– continually maintains a base ‘resting’ state of disequilibrium just to stay alive. Then, in order to do anything besides rest, we must create a change in that resting state. For example, it is known that if we want to initiate an action such as raising our arm, an electrical signal must be sent from the brain to the relevant muscles, so that they will contract appropriately. How is such a signal generated? A famous experiment by Benjamin Libet seemed to show that the brain generates the necessary conditions for the signal without our conscious awareness, but that interpretation has since been largely debunked.[1] Something that neuroscientists do seem to generally agree on is that the ‘resting’ state of the brain has a constant level of ‘noise’—apparently random electrical activity that constitutes a sort of critical or ‘poised’ state–and perhaps a quantum ‘ready state.’[2] The initiation of an action requires disturbing that base state, resulting in the sending of an electrical signal from neurons to the muscles.

But nobody knows how that disturbance of the resting state is created. In neuroscience, it is usually tacitly assumed that all such disturbances result from ‘external stimuli.’ This view models living things as a stack of (very complicated) dominoes, and begs the question of what distinguishes biological entities from rocks.  Along these lines, one thing that might be hampering progress in solving this problem is the usual “physicalist” assumption that the material brain (our ‘wetware’) is the ultimate source of our conscious awareness, as well as our thoughts and choices. If we rule out the question-begging appeal to ‘external stimuli,’ then assuming that everything we think or do must be initiated by the material brain is much like assuming that a stack of dominoes (no matter how tenuously balanced) will somehow generate the necessary push against the first one–which of course does not happen. If the dominoes fall, it’s always due to some outside disturbance, not anything originating from the dominoes themselves. So the relationship of our minds to our brains is something that we must be more imaginative about–we must be prepared to explore other options besides the above idea that ‘the buck starts/stops at the brain (or the ‘external stimulus’).

The computer analogy implied by the term ‘wetware’ is a useful one for exploring some other options. Of course, ‘wetware’ is the analog of computer hardware. It does nothing without programming (software). And no software comes into being or gets loaded onto a computer without a programmer. In this context, we are not allowed to think of the programmer as defined by a brain–since the brain is only passive wetware/hardware (like a stack of dominoes ready to fall). No, the programmer can only be something outside or beyond the wetware/hardware. As scientists, entertaining the idea of something ‘outside’ the usual concept of matter makes us very uncomfortable, but if we’re going to do our jobs, we must yield to the logic: a stack of dominoes will never do anything without an external factor. (And this discomfort is to be expected–it’s part of our disequilibrium condition that proves we’re alive!) So let us call this external factor Mind.

In fact, many researchers have been exploring this very issue of a possible connection between Mind and ordinary matter (e.g., Harald Atmanspacher, Max Velmans; see Atmanspacher’s entry on this topic in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more details and references). This is necessarily a metaphysical exploration, since it goes beyond what can be empirically corroborated. Of course, empirical observations can and do contribute to guiding the exploration, suggesting some options and ruling out others.

Moreover, since the quantum level is a necessary and important aspect of this exploration, we do need to be wary of a common metaphysical inference based on quantum theory: that “measurement” requires an “outside conscious observer.” This very common supposition is actually unnecessary (and doesn’t really work anyway[3]), as discussed in this post (and in my books, 2012 and 2015). Nevertheless, we can consider the measurement transition as a real process that establishes in-principle observable spacetime events, by transforming quantum possibilities into spacetime actualities. (This proposal is discussed in Chapter 8 of my 2012 book, linked above, as well as here.)

I noted above that the famous Libet experiments, which purported to show that people’s brains ‘choose’ for them before they become aware of their choices, has been largely debunked by subsequent neuroscientific findings. However, as Velmans notes,[4] it is true that we often undertake actions without being fully aware (or at all aware!) of why or how we are doing them. He proposes that this does not rule out our having the capacity for volition (free will), but points to the idea that our volitional Selves encompass more than our “fully conscious selves”. By the latter (with a lower case ‘s’), I mean that aspect of us that signals to an experimenter that we are aware of something in the experimental setting. Thus, our volitional Self is at least partially “preconscious” (Velmans’ term).

How might we understand this, with the help of quantum theory? I have argued elsewhere (and in the above-linked books) that quantum theory instructs us that reality is larger than we thought–larger than the “spacetime theater” in which our empirical data is collected. Specifically, I’ve proposed that the set of events that we call “spacetime” is emergent from the quantum level, which is more tenuous and fluid, and therefore more Mind-like. In fact, as suggested in Chapter 4 of this book, we can think of spacetime as crystalizing out of the quantum “raw possibilities,” just as a geode crystal forms from its surrounding raw materials. This brings us back to the above idea to consider that perhaps there is Mind (a conscious, intentional aspect of the quantum level of possibilities) beyond the wetware brain, which can affect it through the above-mentioned transformation of quantum possibilities into spacetime actualities.

While I don’t pretend to have a specific theory of how this Quantum Mind can ‘program’ or trigger our wetware brain to create the necessary physical states for choices and actions, we can at least begin to consider the possibility of a real connection between the brain and Mind by visualizing the situation in a geometric sense. As a rudimentary first approximation, think of our 3-D world (plus one dimension of time which we’ll disregard for now) as only a small portion of a larger space with more dimensions, say 4 (it’s actually 3N-dimensional, where N is the number of quantum ‘particles,’ or degrees of freedom, that exist). So, in other words, 3-D space is embedded in a larger 4-D space, just as the 2-D surface of a balloon is embedded in 3-D space. Now imagine that our wetware brain is a cube, but it is only part of a 4-dimensional cube that we cannot see in our 3-D realm of experience: a ‘tesseract’. Though we cannot see the whole tesseract, we can visualize it by projecting it down into our 3-D space, where we can draw its portrait:


Figure 1. A drawing of projection of a tesseract into 3 dimensions.[5]

Now, see that little cube in the center? Figuratively speaking, that represents your wetware brain. But your Self (including your Mind–both preconscious and conscious) is the entire structure. So we can think of the mental aspects of your Self as everything beyond the central cube.[6] Topologically, everything is connected–even though the connections are not by way of the usual classical fields. In this situation, the brain-part of you might not be “conscious” enough to be able to signal to an experimenter that you’re aware of something–but other aspects of your Self may be quite busy attending to other issues that cannot be represented at the 3-D level. In other words, behavior that the experimenter will record as “Subject not conscious” might actually mean “Subject’s attention is elsewhere.”

There’s another interesting way to explore this idea that our empirical wetware brain and body are lower-dimensional, partial manifestations of our Selves. This makes use of the “Flatland” allegory by Edwin Abbott (discussed in Chapter 1 of this book). Flatland is a 2-dimensional world (a plane), with 2-D inhabitants like squares, triangles, circles, etc. But unbeknownst to them, they are embedded in a larger 3-D world. One day they are visited by a 3-D visitor, a Sphere, who wreaks nonlocal havoc on their usually “local realistic” 2-D world.

If we imagine a sphere interacting with Flatland, he can only do it by intersecting with it in different ways, so that only a circle (of varying size) is visible at any one time in Flatland. Similarly, a cube could only appear as a square that might suddenly appear or disappear (by descending or rising in the dimension perpendicular to Flatland). Such phenomena are comparable to the way in which quantum theory challenges our local realist preconceptions.

For our present purposes, let’s focus on the fact that every lower space is ‘open,’ in the above sense, to interaction with a higher space. This openness includes regions within the boundaries of the lower-dimensional shapes themselves. For example, at one point in the Flatland story, an inhabitant of Flatland (a Square) is poked in his interior by the visiting Sphere. From the Sphere’s perspective, he simply hovers above Flatland and touches the Square with one external point of his spherical surface:

Sphere touching Square

Figure 2. The Sphere pokes the Square in his interior.

Thus, in a purely geometric sense, an inhabitant of lower-dimensional space can ‘perceive’ beings in higher dimensions through what seems like an internal sensation in their lower dimensional space–one which would not be viewed as “empirical” on that level. So unfortunately, fellow Flatland inhabitants would view the Square’s reported experiences as suspect, at the very least ‘unscientific’ and at worst delusional, even if they were in fact veridical (i.e. accurate and based on something real). While certainly speculative at this point, this line of reasoning (as well as the previous example in which our empirical selves might only be partial aspects of higher-dimensional Selves) provides a logical basis for ‘intuitive’ senses of a ‘higher reality’ that are often reflected in mythology, psychology, and spiritual traditions. And more prosaically, it also provides an ontological basis for our internal experience that we are conscious and thinking–which is not necessarily an empirically demonstrable thing (as exemplified by a famous survivor of ‘locked-in syndrome,’ Martin Pistorius [7]).

Returning to our entry point: how then is the condition created in a brain such that a signal can be sent to move a muscle and raise an arm? Each neuron in the brain is being maintained in a very precise state of disequilibrium–that’s a basic requirement for us to be alive. A signal is triggered by a specific kind of change in that disequilibrium, which still has to be internally generated to account for a volitional act. According to the above line of reasoning, the brain is not the entire relevant system. Consider the brain as figuratively only one ‘cube’; that is, only one three-dimensional cross-section of the tesseract (the latter including the volitional aspects associated with Mind), and let some component of the Mind (which is beyond the spacetime realm of the cube/brain) initiate the influence that gives rise to a potential difference in the brain that did not exist before. In physics terms, as far as the Mind/brain interaction goes, this would correspond to an indeterministic transition from a quantum ‘ready state’ e.g., ‘ready for charge separation’ to an actual state of charge separation–which creates the appropriate electric field in the relevant neuron(s) so that it/they can generate a signal. [8] It would be a ‘measurement’-type transformation from a state of possibility to state of actuality, as mentioned earlier.

Here, we have to be wary of the usual assumption that “indeterminism” equates to “randomness”. The role of Mind here would be to exert the volitional impulse that triggers the transition, so that it is not ‘random’ — but it is also not deterministic in a classical sense–since Mind could choose otherwise! Now, the astute reader might worry: wouldn’t this violate the quantum probability law? No, it need not do so, as argued here.

In conclusion, allowing that the Selves of living things encompass more than their empirically verifiable, 3+1 spacetime aspects can provide a way out of the impasse in accounting for how living things can initiate the disequilibrium conditions that are required for them to exist. Perhaps our brains are only the ‘tip of the iceberg.’


[1] See references in this post:

[2] S. Kauffman and collaborators have independently proposed the existence of a ‘poised realm’ defined by measures of quantum coherence and classical complexity (see Stuart Kauffman, Humanity in a Creative Universe, Oxford University Press (2014)); this may apply to the brain’s resting state.

[3] This is because the ‘Heisenberg Cut’ between system and apparatus (or observer) is ill-defined and arbitrary in the usual approach, and is only a ‘FAPP’ (for all practical purposes) calculational procedure. In contrast, the transactional model in the above-referenced books overcomes this shortcoming by defining measurement from within the theory in a non-arbitrary way.

[4] Velmans, M. “How could conscious experience affect brains?”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(11), 2002, pp.3-29

[5] Tesseract Schlegel diagram, wireframe. Robert Webb’s Stella software is the creator of this image;


[6] Of course, as seen in four dimensions, there is no ‘central cube’—none of the cubes making up the tesseract is distinguished in this way. We just designate one of the cubes as corresponding to the 3 spatial dimensions in which our brain has its existence.


[8] We don’t go into specific details here of the physiological conditions needed for a neuron to signal. Ultimately, the condition boils down to the creation of a specific electromagnetic field configuration. Also, note that here we consider the possibility for Mind, as an aspect of the quantum level, to initiate the ‘measurement’ transition. But in the transactional interpretation, the transition itself is defined in physical terms, by absorber response. So one does not need to invoke an ‘external conscious observer’ in order to define the measurement transition.

15 thoughts on “Life Creates Disequilibrium–But How?

  1. Dear Dr Kastner,
    I have recently become aware of Leonard Susskind and others ‘ sugestion that the whole universe might be a holography and how this hypothesis could help explain some of the mysteries of quantum mechanics.Could it it be possible to relate your ideas to that sugestion?

  2. Thanks Lineu. IMHO, saying the universe is a holographic projection begs the question of what is doing the projecting and how. So I’m not sure that really solves anything regarding the nature of reality. But if you have a specific model in mind that you can point me to, I’m happy to take a closer look.

    1. Since flatland is a two-dimensional world imersed in a bigger three-dimensional reality,I was just wondering if the holographic sugestion(a three-dimensional world which is a projection of a “lesser”two-dimensional reality)could somehow be related to PTI.

      1. Ah I see what you’re getting at. Well a holograph is different from a simple geometric projection, but I do agree with the general idea that what we perceive in 3+1 spacetime is only part of the story.

  3. So.. I have no problem believing that the finely tuned disequilibrium of life as such involves quantum behavior, perhaps constraints on the probability space (an attractor) as in Terrance Deacon “Incomplete Nature”. This includes brains of course which may well impose additional constraints on quantum behavior that have something to do with consciousness. But none of that gets across “the gap”. Why is the result *subjective*?

    1. You refer to the hard problem of consciousness which is not quite what I address here–I address a different problem, namely –how can an ‘ordinary matter’ brain initiate motion in an ordinary matter body without reference to an ‘outside stimulus’ (it can’t, something more is needed). This could be seen as related to the hard problem, so I understand why you’re asking. As I discussed with Jeffrey Mishlove (“New Thinking Allowed”), one probably needs to take consciousness as a basic quality of all ‘substance’. The hard problem is only a problem if one presupposes that the basic substance is ‘dead matter’.

  4. Dear Dr Kastner,
    How could our thoughts or inspirations be possibly caused by the interference of a higher dimensional entity?The Square in Flatland was poked by the Sphere.However,the Square would have to possess some kind of brain which would have to make some sort of interaction with the higher-dimensional world.How could such interaction occur,without messing with everything we Know about the Standard Model and its forces?

    1. The Sphere can intersect with the Square, yes? So the square can sense the sphere internally–from his standpoint, he gets a veridical (accurate) sensation, even though he can’t account for that sensation using his ‘external’ senses. In this analogy, there is nothing necessarily in conflict with the standard model, only our usual interpretation of it, which assumes that all the interactions described by the model take place within a 3+1 spacetime ‘theater’. If I’m missing any of your concern, perhaps you can give a specific example where you think there might be a conflict.

    1. The point of contact of the Sphere with the Square is not in ‘another dimension’–it’s in Flatland. Right? So whatever might be going on in the higher dimension, it’s only in intersections with the lower dimension that there can be any ‘information transfer’.
      Now, I do understand that your question involves ‘how would such information get transferred’, and the relationship of the brain to the mind. As I indicated in the post, I don’t pretend to have a specific model of that. But here’s an example of how this might work in a very general sense. According to traditional scientific approaches, the following would be counted as a coincidence, bogus ‘New-Age thinking’, or as at the very least ‘unscientific’: Mr. X has a vivid dream in which his brother is killed in a car accident. The next day, he gets a phone call and finds out that this has happened. The dream was a strictly internal process, so nobody can corroborate his story. His brain is presumably involved somehow, since dreams are associated with brain activity. But the ‘information’ (if that’s what it really was) did not come from any of his 5 senses. Could his mind a higher-dimensional entity, capable of perceiving (on that higher level, not at the ‘Flatland’ level,) what is going on in a nonlocal sense, and then ‘intersecting’ with the brain at the lower dimensional level? Again, I don’t have a specific model of how the mind interacts with the brain. But this is not the usual ‘mind-body problem’ if the brain is a lower-diimensional ‘slice’ of the mind, not something separate from it. And yes, the Mind/brain interaction would have to be at the quantum level. There is an entry point for this if QM really is indeterministic; then it’s natural to see a need for volitional/intentional aspects of the Mind in order for anything to be manifest at the ‘body’ level. The latter provides the missing ‘asymmetric cause’ for Curie’s Principle (see Chapter 4 of my 2012 CUP book).

      1. Thanks a lot.But if these interactions with another dimension really happened,wouldn’t they also come across with our external reality,I mean,wouldn’t we usually be perceiving parts of the Sphere that suddenly disappear in our daily lives?

  5. Aha, i think we are seeing these exactly these nonlocal phenomena, but only at the quantum level. This is where the Flatland analogy can’t capture the real physics, which really depends on the ‘sum over paths’ picture to see why we get the weird effects only at small scales. It’s because of the wave nature of matter which is really hidden from us at the macro level.

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