Following on from a debate I had some time ago, in relation to alternative medicine (see my "Life Energy" rant) I tried to summarise the materialist view of the universe, to try and explain the reasoning behind my objection to use of the term "life energy".

It was written as a stream of consciousness and not researched or planned, so it is far from rigorous, but I think it works well enough as a rough outline, despite its many flaws. Here it is for your viewing pleasure.... I hope you're sitting comfortably, this is a long one ;-)

In the Beginning there was the Universe. Before that time didn’t exist so “before that” doesn’t have any meaning. The universe consisted of simple rules, and energy which obeyed them (indeed the rules and the energy are the same thing in a sense, each can only exist with the other and each is only defined in terms of the other).

This is physics, the rules on which our universe is based.

Before physics, there was metaphysics, which would explain why these particular rules came to be rather than different rules; perhaps the rules of physics are the organised structures that came about from some lower-level recursion, or from interactions between branes.

These rules were (and are) very simple, and so at the start, the energy was arranged simply. Over time, these rules caused the energy to become more complex….just as the simple rule in the Recursion example (this refers to an example in one of the Science of Discworld books, and to the "Game of Life" simulation that we had been discussing) develops into extremely complex yet seemingly orderly patterns when the results are viewed from a massively macroscopic viewpoint.

As the complexity increased, larger scale patterns emerged. Viewed from sufficient distance, these patterns were what we identify as superstrings. These continued to interact with one another following the same original rules, causing further increases in complexity, perhaps giving us the sub-atomic particles, and then these interacted together, adding another level of complexity, and becoming perhaps atomic particles.

As more time passed, these interacted further, still following the same simple rules but now on a massively more complex scale – the interactions of interactions of interactions (and so on). The simple rules at this stage (this level of recursion) are, at our current best guess, visible as the “forces” in modern physics – gravity, magnetism, “weak force” and “strong force”.

These forces are merely expressions of the underlying simpler rules at the atomic level. Atoms are merely expressions of the original energy after it has obeyed the original rules recursively to reach such a level of complexity where the pattern we call atoms emerged.

Once atoms (all hydrogen at this point) emerged, they interacted, again due to only the original simple rules but followed recursively, clumping together to form stars, whereupon the gravity (itself just a manifestation of the original rule zoomed out recursively to the atomic scale of things) caused them to fuse.

Fusion gave rise to further complexity and other elements were formed. All of this has happened simply due to energy following the original simple rules, but on successively more and more complex levels (more levels of recursion).

Each level of recursion adds more complexity, and each increase in complexity allows more complex interactions. In this sense, it’s a “self-driving” process. Complexity spawns further complexity. Following just the same rules, over and over again, leads to ever-increasing complexity, with apparently orderly patterns at higher and higher levels. The original rules cause complexity to spring from simple beginnings, and that complexity increases recursively.

At this point, we now have lots of different patterns at a scale we call atomic. We now have all the different elements. These complex things can now engage in interactions of a correspondingly further degree of complexity. Physics itself, the simple rules, has taken us from simplicity right through to Chemistry.

Further application of physics will take us from Chemistry to Biology, and Biology takes us all the way to Consciousness, where thoughts themselves can be recursive.

Chemicals interact together, and eventually, as time passes, chemical structures can form that just so happen to interact with other chemical structures in such a way as to copy themselves.

This triggers yet another level of complexity, another level of recursion, as these replicators interact together and with their surroundings. We’ve got to this point just from the same rules of physics applied again and again and again, recursively. Interactions of interactions of interactions of interactions.

At the scale of the replicators, natural selection occurs – replicators that replicate well become more numerous, not for any external reason but simply because they replicate well. Natural selection, itself just a manifestation of the original rules, then drives further increases in complexity and we get the development of cells, and then the interactions of cells with each other and their surroundings results in multi-cellular things coming into existence, which again interact and interactions between these increasingly complex entities can produce even more complex entities.

Natural selection takes these complex entities through more levels of complexity, and has caused some entities to develop a mental model of the world that includes itself, recursion again. This is consciousness, we can think not only thoughts, but thoughts about thoughts, and thoughts about thoughts about thoughts.

This consciousness is just a result of the original simple rules applied again and again and again over time, at each level of recursion the rules are being applied to a successively more complex universe.

There is no definite point where we go from “not alive” to “alive”, people argue various definitions, but it seems that really there is no cut-off point, it’s a continuous scale rather than a discrete one.

Therefore what we generally call “life” is just a result of the original simple rules.

There is no specific point when “life” becomes life, and no new force, no unique force in any meaningful sense.

There is no “life energy”, there is only the original energy manifest in more and more complex forms on successively higher scales of recursion.

Perhaps, to put some arbitrary labels on the scale of complexity, we could imagine the following as the results of the recursion of the fundamental, simple rules of physics:

Energy – superstrings – subatomic particles (at this scale the rules are manifest as the four forces known to physics but they are working on trying to find out what the rules are at a more fundamental level) – atomic particles – chemicals – replicators – cells – multi-celled life – consciousness.

(this is also partly why I don’t think its meangful to separate the material "physical" universe and the immaterial "energy" universe, as this distinction seems somewhat artificial when you consider things on the single continuous scale above)

More complex things can interact in more complex ways, leading to the possibility of even more complex things, leading to even more complex interactions. This is the closest comparison I can think of to the “driving force” you mentioned, other than at the higher level of complexity in life, when natural selection is a better way to describe the “driving force”.
(This "driving force" was a term he used to describe what moved living things, the mysterious "something" possessed by a living creature but not present in a dead one)

Energy and life (let alone consciousness) are far apart on the scale. To talk of “life energy” is meaningless, life is just a particular manifestation of energy after recursive following of the basic rules. There’s no difference between the energy in a human to the energy in a rock, it’s the same energy.

At the level of a spider, it makes no sense to say that some “energy” disappears from the spider when it dies, as energy is far far down the scale. The difference between a living spider and a dead one is on a level of complexity far above “energy”.

The difference is that the massively complex structure of chemical interactions is disrupted and can no longer function in that self-sustaining, reproducing way we call “life”. There is no “category change” though, no mysterious “life energy” has departed from the spider, the energy is all still there, but has lost part of its organised complexity. As a result, it slides down the scale again and the spider is no longer a spider it is just chemicals (without the complex chemical interactions between components it breaks down physically breaks down). What has been lost is complexity and organisation, not energy.

The ultimate goal of physics is to identify the original simple rules that started this whole process. If they ever find those, physics is done. Then it would be time for metaphysics to investigate where those rules came from, and why they were as they happened to be rather than something else

The End