I am pondering on a work whose main theme is 'consciousness is fundamentally at odds with life and how it works'. Consciousness, sentience, self-awareness etc. values the individual, the self, and the connections it makes, while life is fragile, frail, and cares more about statistics: the individual is disposable so long as there's many more of it.

Ideally, i would embody that dilemma on an intelligence that isn't rooted in life, directly or indirectly (so not a machine built from living creatures or their works), or at least not life in any form we'd deem recognisable or relevant.

Any inspirations?

  • $\begingroup$ before, or without? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 8:35
  • $\begingroup$ That is a good question for philosophy.SE. How can sentience value the individual when, without life, there is no such thing. An individual snowflake is different but the same as all others and his self is hardly noticeable without others. THey even need other to show it's individuality. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ Do you really mean "sentience" there, since that's the ability to perceive things. See, hear, smell. So, sentience is not at all at odds with life - life is much harder without the ability to observe the environment. Certainly not impossible - plenty of organisms don't have sentience (e.g., single cell ones) but fundamentally sentience helps life have more of itself in the world. Did you perhaps mean "consciousness"? Because even then I'm not totally sure it's "at odds" with life but swapping "sentience" with that term makes the question ever so slightly more coherent. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 8:50
  • $\begingroup$ Further to @VLAZ's point, might you mean - sapience as your main featured objective? I suspect that you need to look somewhat deeper into the meanings of these concepts. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 9:01
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    $\begingroup$ See novel “High Wizardry” by Diane Duane. It is fantasy, but it has a scientific explanation for how its computer minds come about without life, starting from layered volcanic eruptions heavy with silicon and copper. Draws on some of the “natural Turing machine” research. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Wizardry $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 15:28

7 Answers 7


I've meet several times on internet with idea called "Boltzmann brain". The idea is around random fluctuation in thermodynamic equilibrium. From what I understand, there are constantly fluctuations on smallest scale of physic, string and similar stuff. Generally those changes are way to small to have any effect on "material world", aka things that in our size scale. But if you would have infinity amount of time, you would have infinity combinations of those fluctuations, that mean there is some combination that would lead to creation something material. This material thing could be anything allowed by physics laws, and we know that brains are allowed. So, there is chance that those fluctuations would create intact human brain with any memory you could imagine, and with that "consciousness, sentience, self-awareness etc.".

There is big chance I butchered something in my description, I'm no professional in those topics. Anyway, if you want any further read jump right in to wikipedia or SFIA video on this topic.

  • $\begingroup$ Hm, information, and much more intelligence, are very nearly the opposite of entropy. While information is entropic , every drop of water contains probably more entropy than the combined information stored in the brains of all mankind. And fluctuations cannot make a brain, because a brain is very stable in time. There is not enough time in infinity to create an infinite amount of constellations with a finite lifetime. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Karl, Fluctuations can make absolutely anything. Why do you believe that fluctuations can make absolutely anything except a brain? There is nothing special about a brain from a thermodynamic point of view. Also, what do constellations have to do with anything? $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ What can and what will happen are often two different things. Math explains many things that can "theoretically" be solved, but are completely intractable even by the most ridiculous of standards. The random generation of a Boltzmann brain is one such example. Even if the exact needed proportions of elements were in the right area of space all at once, you would have something stupid like a 1 in 10^3600 chance of everything being in the right spot. And even if you win that dice role, the brain still dies almost instantly. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ @cowlinator Creation of a stable brain out of fluctuations is a gross violation of the laws of thermodynamics. It does not happen. The wikipedia article says it in the first line: This "Boltzmann brain" can only exist for an instant. That also makes it inobservable, and its existence completely inconsequential. Epistomologically, that makes it totally irrelevant. It´s not worth pondering, scientifically. Art is of course free of such restrictions. ;) $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Karl It isn't really a violation of the laws of thermodynamics, especially in the vicinity of a large source of energy, such as the sun. We use thermodynamics to produce frustratingly stable things all the time. Diamonds are technically metastable (carbon's stable form is graphite), but the stability of diamond is so strong that we aren't even sure if one would ever transition within the lifespan of the universe. We make them synthetically, using thermodynamics. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 14:47

I have read somewhere (but I don't remember where, so cannot provide any reference) the idea about a sentient nebula.

Basically it all boils down to the sentiency emerging from the collective interaction of molecules and atomic species in a nebula in space, the same way as our sentiency emerges from the collective interactions of the neurons in our brain.

The interactions would happen via exchange of EM radiation, and considering the distances in a nebula would involve time scales so large that would make it hardly recognizable from sentient beings tuned on our time constant.

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    $\begingroup$ The starmakers are vast... $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ The Star Trek franchise is basically full with such less than solid lifeforms. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 19:10

You have consciousness without life by defining it that way.

Odd, but true. To really dig into this question we have to define what consciousness is. For most of us in our daily lives, we don't have to define it, merely identify it. We live in a world where very few things are conscious (typically only people are conscious, though some choose to describe it as something animals can have too).

Your challenge is that "consciousness" is a term which has famously defied being nailed down with a hard crisp definition for the last few thousand years. Your story gets to explore a concept of consciousness which is permitted without life.

One currently active solution to this would be the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT). In IIT, consciousness is defined to be a gestalt thing borne from capabilities present in the whole which are not obvious from the sum of the parts. It looks at information processing capabilities and defines Φ, which is a function describing this capability from several points of view. They tie ΦMax, the maximum amount if information stored in this integrated way, to the concept of consciousness, defining ΦMax to be a measure of consciousness. If ΦMax is 0, then an object is completely unconscious. Any non-zero value is conscious to some extent. Some objects are more conscious than others. This definition makes it trivial to argue why humans have a high level of consciousness compared to, say, rocks. It also offers a way to compare the levels of consciousness of an AI built in silicon to the levels of consciousness in a human being.

Speaking from a purely philosophical point of view, I find a very common thread in people's definitions of consciousness involve a reduction to infinity or a circular argument. The Aggripan trilemma famously declared that all logical arguments must depend on at least one of:

  • A "truth" that is not proven. In math and science we call these axioms. We're used to the idea that we don't prove everything. So used to it, in fact, that in physics we often forget that we're not proving details and arrive at the erroneous conclusion that something is actually proven, when it cannot possibly ever be.
  • A circular argument. This is a "truth" which is only proven by first assuming that it is true.
  • An infinite regression. This is when your smaller "truth" is only proven by assuming that a larger "truth" is also true. If you're familiar with mathematical induction, where we use f(n) to prove that something is true for f(n+1), an infinite regression is using f(n+1) to prove f(n).

I find that any theory of consciousness which tries to go prove things eventually comes across the latter two. That's not to say they're wrong, but our own concepts of logic tend to be founded on the assumption that we don't do those sorts of things.

You may be very interested in the story of the Positronic Man by Assimov, which got made into a movie called Bicentennial Man. Assimov took a different approach in that book, which is to have the robot in the story slowly demonstrate the behaviors associated with consciousness while asserting that it was, indeed, conscious.

Which, funnily, is exactly how humans declare themselves to be conscious to begin with.

  • $\begingroup$ A very interesting writeup, though it never circles back on topic... That said, it might be to my benefit that 'consciousness' is ill-defined, as this gives me a wide 'space' to fit my consciousnesses in! That said, I just want it to be recognizable as such, and that is, by your statement, doable. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ @ThanosMaravel I did somewhat avoid circling back intentionally. "How to make a non-life consciousness" is a thorny question. No sooner do you pen an answer than someone finds an objection to it. In The Positronic Man, Assimov avoids this by creating the "positronic brain," which the main character possesses. Never once does he say anything about how it was actually made, merely that it was made. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 1:41
  • $\begingroup$ Speaking of definitions, you could also have a different definition of what "life" is. In that case, you could have something that is not alive (as per the definition) possess what we can identify as consciousness. It's a similar process but focusing on the other part of "consciousness without life". $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 8:09

Neither sentience nor sapience is something that happens at random. It is a completely unnatural state. Having something that is complex is not enough.

Anybody who has looked at Artificial Intelligence can tell you this. It is very very difficult. And it breaks down at the slightest disturbance.

All known instances of sentience has come from life. Either evolved as part of life or designed by already smart humans.

You have tagged your question with magic. This gives you large room for saying "That's just how magic is". It would push the limits of suspension of disbelief for some readers, but most readers will probably just accept it.

  • $\begingroup$ In fact, I was not the one to tag it with 'magic', but rather 'fantasy'. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ Well, given particle physics and similar stuff, if you have infinite amount of time, anything actually can happen at random (if its allowed by laws of physics). $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 14:22

The fundamental function of consciousness is information processing. This sentence is significant because it talks about information so we define it.

What is information?

Information in its basest form is the answer to a yes or no question. Black or white, 0 or 1. But does the answer to a yes or no question exist if there is no physical substratum on which the question can be asked/answered? This is how I understand you question to be. You are asking that is consciousness possible without the human form and the quick answer to it is no, not capable of being experienced by anything anyway.

In other words, does a question exist if it's not written in paper? What about a mind? Awareness of the question predicates its existence, but at the same time, without a physical hard-drive or measurement or disturbance in the physical world, you cannot expect an answer from the same physical realm. It's like trying to use USD in Brazil, doesn't work but it doesn't invalidate it yet.

If consciousness is not in a human form without the human surface(skin) and human sensors(eyes, tongue etc), does it make sense to talk about a consciousness with humane properties without a human body? We enter the realm of the abstract. In abstract space, the most perfect circle exists, yet we know it's not possible to physically realise this circle the same way a thought exists in the superset of all thoughts that are possible to be thought about yet unless it pops into someone's human brain, it is not physically realized or become an object of awareness.

Human consciousness is strongly associated with the ego a person has built over the years. From object permanence to qualia associated with each wavelength of light, to the picture of their parents and pets, all of it plays a role in designing the lens through which the person is capable of seeing the world. If one really wants to let these go and enter in a state of pure consciousness, he must leave behind the physical markings too, because they are not required for consciousness. That includes memories, logic, and everything that was learned from the physical realm be returned to it.

Once that is done, the only consciousness that remains is that which is permitted by the laws of physics. Like a deep coma sleep where you are aware of the way your body is tumbling and handled yet you have no opinion about it or can do anything about it. You just observe that. When your body dies, the brain processes sustaining your consciousness cease too and now your consciousness is truly free from all kinds of physical contracts.

What would that look like? Again we can go back to our abstract space. We return to this space where the perfect circle exists too, but nobody ever knows what a perfect circle is. You might picture it in your head but if we were to print your thoughts, it would only give us an approximation of that circle. Your consciousness removed from everything physical is just like that circle. You cannot comprehend the infinite points in a circle, nor can you comprehend non-human consciousness.

You know there is a perfect chance that this is the only universe that is ever going to happen in all of eternity and that this universe well as might would have had all the perfect conditions to support life but yet, just by pure chance, every life starting chemical reaction somehow failed due to quantum accidents, just by pure statistical chance. If that was the case, then all consciousnesses would still remain in the abstract space and all questions and answers would still remain too. But if you don't write information in a universe or in a piece of paper can it really need an answer in writing?


The old books say, consciousness comes from god and is equivalent to our soul. Because consciousness is not attached physically to the body when we die it goes back from where it came. I'm not religious but I can't really argue with that because it has been proven nowadays by quantum physics that consciousness cannot simply dissolve upon our demise...the way a lot people would like to. Consciousness doesn't relate or report to the empirical laws. If what we see is what it is then we shouldn't be around in the first place. Do you have an apparatus or system in place to see or measure consciousness? Of course not and all scientists are utterly baffled by this particular subject. Most of them prefer not to talk about it because it's something so abstract and indefinable that better don't approach it. Nobody has the right answer. The only progress coming from this corner is done by quantum physics who basically said after long extensive research that consciousness simply cannot die along with the body. It's impossible and no other feasible explanation could be added as why that is. Bottom line we scratch the surface today year 2020 in all fields not just...metaphysics for lack of other name. Drink, eat and laugh because that's your only cut in this life...the wise Solomon was saying. I kind of agree with that.

  • $\begingroup$ Can I have a source about the consciousness-quantum physics thing? It sounds interesting. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ @ThanosMaravel Here's your source. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ @IndigoFenix I meant interesting from a fiction perspective, but I appreciate the reference :P $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 12:16

You might want to try looking into the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who theorized that everything- trees, rocks, animals, chemicals, etc.- are made up of substances with varying degrees of perceptions and consciousness. See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/leibniz/#MonWorPhe for details.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a good start to an answer: in addition to the link, please summarise his contents vis-a-vis the OP's query and also feel free to expand and expound all on your own. Take a look at the help center and tour so you can gain a better understanding how this forum works. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 21:26

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