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The Biology of Free Will*
Open University, Walton Hall,
Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, U.K.
Journal of Consciousness Studies 3, 231-244, 1996.
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
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
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 outlook.
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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 constituent parts.
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
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. Freeman, 1990).
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
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
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 Gnaiger, 1994.
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 formal considerations.
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 (1995c).
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, M.W. (1996d).
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,
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 lost.
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Figure 2. The many-fold cycles of life coupled to energy flow.
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conservation and the second law of thermodynamics.