The Fysicalist View of Life, Consciousness, and Volition

And a Response to Reginald Firehammer's Objections Thereto

G. Stolyarov II

A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XXXIV-- April 28, 2005

Note: This essay is the eleventh chapter of Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive filosofical treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, which can be ordered in electronic format for only $2.50 at Free previews, descriptions, and information on A Rational Cosmology can be found at

The insightful filosofer and publisher Reginald Firehammer has recently released the latest installment in his colossal project to create an objective, rational ontology. This treatise, titled, “Life,” explores Mr. Firehammer’s ideas concerning the ontological nature of the process of the same name. As a purveyor of a different fundamental definition and thus a different theory on life, however, I intend to give Mr. Firehammer’s treatise a thorough analysis with the intention of demonstrating where he has erred. Using Mr. Firehammer’s language, I would be called a “[f]ysicalist,” who holds the view that “whatever is not physical does not really exist, or at least only exists as [f]enomena of the physical.”

To clarify, a fysicalist such as myself still considers life, consciousness, volition, ideas, abstractions, and concepts to have a real existence. However, he considers all of these fenomena as arising from certain fysical interactions, be they among parts of the body or cells of the brain; he recognizes that any concept must ultimately refer, however indirectly and by whatever multiplicity of steps, to properties of fysical existents and be formed by a fysical mind in a fysical brain. He recognizes that life, perception, and volition are the result of an immensely complex series of fysical interactions among the trillions of components of the human organism, a system so complex that it has attained the capacity to direct its own operations in a self-sustaining manner instead of just being passively manipulated from without. There are essential differences between this position and Mr. Firehammer’s, and I hope to demonstrate the greater accuracy of the fysicalist view in the course of this treatise.

Mr. Firehammer writes:

If consciousness were only physical matter as the physicalists maintain, we would not be entities of matter and conscious[ness], we would simply be entities of matter. But, we are not only beings of matter and consciousness, but volitional beings, and Ayn Rand makes it very clear, volition is not a physical attribute, that volition is impossible to physical matter alone.

"The day when [one] grasps that matter has no volition is the day when he grasps that he has—and this is his birth as a human being." ["Galt's Speech", For the New Intellectual, Page 156.] (Emphasis mine.)

What Rand was referring to is inert matter (for which the word “matter” is but convenient intellectual shorthand), i.e. matter that is 1) outside the human organism itself and 2) incapable of changing its state unless acted upon. Inert matter behaves as described by Newton’s First Law; if it is rest, it will remain at rest until something else moves it. If it is moving at a certain rate, it will keep moving at that rate until something else stops it. All matter follows Newton’s First Law, and it seems on face that this means that all matter is inert. However, we might consider the following system: particle A, in motion, pushes on particle B, which is thus put into motion from a former state of rest. All of A’s momentum is transferred to B, and thus A is now at rest. B similarly pushes on C and facilitates its motion while itself coming to rest. The paths on which these particles move are such that C’s motion is directed precisely toward A. C transfers its momentum to A, and the cycle repeats itself indefinitely. A, B, and C are discrete particles of matter that must have other particles act on them, but the system of A, B, and C, is entirely self-sustaining in that the action performed by the system, i.e., the perpetual motion of the particles, is not caused by any entity outside the system. This scenario runs into several problems, which preclude it from describing what is known as “life.” For example, friction and energy loss through heat in the course of the collisions would eventually bring the motion of the particles to a halt, and the particles are unable to actively respond to these external influences. But what if a system were to exist that was able to counteract its own losses of energy? What if, for every joule of energy lost, the system would take in a joule of energy to compensate for it? What if the system was able to actively seek out those sources of energy so that it would have a greater chance of experiencing no shortfall of them? What if it was able to, solely through the functioning of its constituent elements, manifest an adequate response to whatever external stimulus affected it (unless that stimulus were to grossly disrupt the response mechanisms themselves)?

Certainly, the system thus described would need to be of immense complexity, and no three-particle system would suffice to furnish all of these purposes. Therefore, no system of three particles, or even three million of them, has ever been observed to be alive. However, let us examine a typical human being whose body has about 1028 atoms in it, which, for all purposes of macroscopic analysis, can be considered fundamental discrete particles. Might it not be possible for a system of 1028 particles to be arranged in such a manner as to facilitate adequate and long-term responses to a multitude of external forces that would attempt to disrupt the system and its processes? Of course, not every system of 1028 particles will necessarily suffice for this purpose, as the spatial arrangement of specific particles in the proximity of specific others is essential to the functions such a system would need to undertake in order to be deemed alive. (For example, not every way that A pushes B will guarantee that B will come into contact with C.) Furthermore, the particles themselves and their specific natures are also crucial in determining the adequacy of the system for sustaining itself. The human body possesses an unparalleled diversity of atoms and molecules in it, many types of which are compartmentalized into particular cells, tissues, and organs so as to be more effectively devoted to the purpose with which they are most commensurate. A large metal ball, however, though it might even have more particles in it than a human body, is still inert matter, because its constituent elements are not diverse enough to facilitate the complex functions necessary for the metal ball to be able to resist external forces that preclude it from sustaining its activities indefinitely and on its own.

How, one might ask, is it possible to have constituents which are inert matter add up to a system that is not, i.e., a system that is alive? Would that not imply that the whole needs to be greater than the sum of its parts, or any other sort of creation ex nihilo? But this is not at all the case. One of the parts that constitutes the whole in this system is the sum of the spatial relationships among the various cells, tissues, and organs of the body. By themselves, the cells, tissues, and organs are indeed inert in most cases, as they do not exhibit the necessary spatial and motional relationships to other cells, tissues, and organs. When they do exhibit such relationships, however, another factor has been added into the equation, which makes the sum of its parts precisely equal to the sum of its parts, i.e., a living system.

Furthermore, might it not be possible to have a system that is not only capable of reacting to external stimuli in a self-perpetuating manner, but also acting in a certain manner at a certain time when it is fysically possible for another course of action to happen at that time? That is, might it be possible for the system to deliberately behave in a certain manner, and to know that it is deliberately behaving in this manner, and that it is thus behaving not because of any external compulsion, but because of the system’s own self-induced workings? Here, we have described a system that has both consciousness and volition—a system that is aware of its own existence and environment, and capable of choosing what to do with it. This system is a far cry from the discrete particles of inert matter that have no volition of their own, even though not a single particle within the system itself has any more volition than it would have had outside the system. Rather, what possesses volition is the sum of the particles, or the system itself. Qualities a system possesses that its constituents, in severance from one another, would not, are called emergent properties in biology, and are at the core of the biological hierarchy of existence—without emergent properties, tissues could not be more complicated than cells, organs could not be more complicated than tissues, and organisms could not be more complicated than organs. Since we know the contrary to be true, we know that emergent properties must exist. The highest emergent properties possible are life, consciousness, and volition, in ascending order. The reason that emergent properties can exist has already been stated as being the spatial synthesis of hitherto separate inert or less complex constituent parts.

Rand was correct to make a distinction between a mere chunk of inert matter and the most complex system of all, the human organism. Surely, the former has no volition, but the latter does, and the latter does precisely because of emergent properties as described by the fysicalist view.

Mr. Firehammer continues to make his argument on the separation of matter and consciousness:

Even if Ayn Rand had never specifically said the physical and consciousness were not the same thing, it is not logically possible that they be. Physical existence is that which consciousness is conscious of. That which consciousness is conscious of and the consciousness itself cannot be the same thing; if they were the same thing, that is if the consciousness itself were the physical, it would be conscious of itself, which leads either to extreme empiricism (essentially denying that consciousness exists) or idealism (essentially denying the physical exists, that is, solipsism). Existence and our consciousness of it cannot be the same thing, consciousness cannot be physical.

This argument is remarkably similar to Cartesian dualism, the idea that, by virtue of the mind being aware of the realm of fysical existence, it must be outside that realm entirely. Yet this argument falls into the same trap as the following line of reasoning: “That which the ball is pushing and the ball itself cannot be the same thing; if they were the same thing, that is, if the ball itself were fysical, it would be pushing itself, which leads you to either deny the ball or the fysical…” Yet we know very well that both the ball and what it is pushing are fysical. It is true that the ball and that which it is pushing are two different things. But nothing precludes them from having a similar attribute of being fysical! Similarly, nothing precludes something red from pushing something else that is red, or something big from pushing something else that is big. While it is true that what consciousness perceives is not consciousness itself, and that what it perceives is fysical, never in those facts is it implied that consciousness itself cannot be fysical. Consciousness is a fysical process that perceives other fysical things outside itself. Since “the fysical” is not one giant entity, but rather an attribute that trillions of distinct and discrete entities share, it is quite possible to perceive something fysical while still being fysical and not being a part of the entity one is perceiving.

In his argument above, Mr. Firehammer, has committed the fallacy of reification, which he defines as “Treating abstractions as actual existing entities or regarding them as causally efficacious and ontologically prior and superior to their referents.” (
The Autonomist Logic Fallacies). He is treating the word “fysical” as an entity in itself, ontologically prior to the discrete entities which all have the attribute of being fysical but are all separate from one another nonetheless.

Mr. Firehammer tries the following approach to disprove the fysicalist worldview:

The mistake made by those who are physicalists for that reason is the assumption that if we cannot be directly conscious of a thing, it cannot be. The danger of this mistake is that it leaves the door open to mysticism, because it is obvious to everyone that there are phenomena which we cannot directly perceive, but know, if no other way, at least from introspection.

The issue here is whom the pronoun “we” refers to. If “we” means any given single individual, then there are indeed things that that individual cannot be conscious of, such as the entirety of another person’s life, consciousness, and direct experiences. However, if “we” means all of the human beings who exist and have existed, then no such experience has ever been inherently barred from being fathomed by the sum of those people’s knowledge. Person A is aware of his own consciousness, Person B is aware of his own consciousness, and each of them can harness this knowledge in useful ways. The fysicalist view does not state that anybody can directly perceive everything (even the time limitations on this alone make this impossible), but rather that for anything that exists, there is the potential for somebody to perceive it directly. I would challenge the opponents of this view to name anything that they consider exclusive of such a designation, and I will be happy to demonstrate how it in fact fits it quite well.

Furthermore, Mr. Firehammer actually concedes the fysicalist point in a correct statement of his, as I will endeavor to show by logical extrapolation therefrom:

An organism is not just a piece of complex matter with a process running on or in it. An organism is an integration of physical substance and a process that maintains it as an organism. All that an organism does, as an organism, it does because it is living. The life process, as a process of the organism, is a purely physical process, obeying all the laws of physics, and requires the physical organism to function. One of the requirements of the life process (determined by its nature) is it must maintain the integrity of the physical organism it is the life of.

If the life process is a purely fysical process, then life must be purely fysical! The very frase, “Life is a fysical process” implies two things; the concept, “life,” is a subcategory of the concept “process,” and the concept “life” possesses the attribute, “fysical.” Just as inevitable would be the conclusion drawn from the frase, “Spike is a black dog,” that Spike possesses the attribute, “black.”

Furthermore, some of Mr. Firehammer’s other accurate observations are fully reconcilable with the fysicalist worldview, provided a certain clarification of terms:

Life does not exist independently of the organism, but it is the life, the self-generated and self-sustained process that creates (grows) and sustains the organisms as a living entity. An organism is not just a physical entity that behaves in an unusual way. An organism is a unique kind of existent. An organism no[t] only ceases to be an organism if the life process ceases, it begins immediately to change physically in response to the physical laws that govern the behavior of the merely physical.

This is another way of stating that an organism possesses a level of organization capable of resisting the external forces that would cause the organism to break down. Once this level of organization is somehow disrupted or destroyed, what was formerly the organism now becomes inert matter and is capable of being affected by those destructive forces without exhibiting an appropriate response to them. Why this fact precludes the organism from being “just a [f]ysical entity,” however, is not proved by Mr. Firehammer. His definition of the “fysical” seems to encompass only the outside processes that work to impose themselves on the organism, and not the processes of the organism that work to counter this imposition and thus maintain the organism. Yet this same distinction is contradicted by Mr. Firehammer’s own admission that life is a “purely fysical process.”

Mr. Firehammer further writes:

It is not a "system" that is alive. You may think of an organism is a "system," but if it is only the physical system, it is not alive itself. What is self-sustained is the process which uses the physical aspects of the "system" (organism) to sustain itself and the organism as an organism. It requires those physical aspects because a process must be a process of something. In that sense, it also maintains the organism as a living entity. As soon as the process ceases, the physical entity is no longer an organism.

A “process of fysical entities” is a relationship among those fysical entities whereby, in their spatial, motional, or other interactions, the entities affect each other’s qualities. That is all any process is; it is the sum of the entities that partake in it and the attributes and natures that those entities exhibit. To say that life requires fysical entities to be “a process of something” is to concede that the only things life is a process of are fysical things, and that life is therefore wholly fysical, since a process cannot be defined outside the things it is a process of.

Mr. Firehammer further tries to exclude life from the laws of fysical causality:

I have never said the life process is not subject to the laws of causality, but that it is not subject to physical causality. Cause is determined by the nature of the entity or existent doing the acting. Life does not have mass, a pH factor, a temperature, an electromagnetic state, or any other physical property or characteristic. Since the nature of life and the nature of the physical aspects of the organism share no qualities or properties their natures are entirely different and the specific causes that determine their behavior are entirely different.

It is true that life does not have the measurements Mr. Firehammer had described, just as motion does not have mass, or sound waves do not have temperature. Mass and temperature are qualities of entities, not relationships (or processes, which are types of relationships). Life, being a relationship, has different qualities associated with it, which are qualities defined in terms of how the relationship affects the entities partaking in it. But this does not mean that life does not follow the laws of fysics, especially since all the entities that partake in the process known as life are fysical and follow said laws. Mr. Firehammer’s mistake is in thinking that the laws of fysics are somehow deterministic with regard to all matter. However, the laws of fysics, even in their very formulation, have always been conditional. To parafrase Newton, if an object is at rest it will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force. If a force is acting on an object, it will be equal to the product of its mass and acceleration. If an object is pushed by another object with a certain force, it will exhibit an equal and opposite reaction force on that object. All the laws of fysics, properly refrased, entail an “if component to them, which renders them conditional on the given situation and begs the question: what brings about the situations wherein these laws can manifest themselves? It is true that the situation can be brought about by inert matter acting in certain ways in accord to its nature (such as a rock pushing on another rock), but it can just as easily be brought about by a complex system that deliberately seeks to exert forces on inert matter. This system has become so complex that it is capable of exerting forces both on entities external to itself (such as rocks) and internal to itself (such as its own limbs or its own mind). The life process not only follows the laws of fysics, it is essential to bringing about the conditionality requirements for its own components to fulfill the laws of fysics in a certain manner. The life process is brought about by fysical laws governing its constituent entities, and then becomes complex to the point of governing the conditions in which its constituent entities will be put so that those specific fysical laws will apply to those entities as are commensurate with the survival of the organism.  

Mr. Firehammer further tries to bring up “evidence” as to the non-fysical nature of life, volition, and consciousness:

Continuity—whether it is life or consciousness, an organism has the same one moment to moment, day to day, and year to year. It is the same life and the same consciousness from the moment it becomes conscious until it dies. It is because consciousness and life are not physical this is true. Notice, the physical characteristics of an organism can change. Hypothetically, all of the physical parts could be changed, but it would still be the same organism, because it would still be the same life process and the same consciousness. It is the life process that is the independent existence that identifies the organism as a particular organism, not the physical components, and consciousness is an attribute of life.

This is true because what is alive, conscious, and volitional is the system and not any one component. So long as one entity in the system is replaced by another fungible entity (i.e., one capable of performing the same functions and exhibiting the fundamentally same nature as the entity it replaces), the same system continues to function. This is very much in line with a fysicalist interpretation. Similarly, one can replace a gear in a clock and still have it remain the same clock; one can, over time, replace each single original part of the clock, yet still retain the same process functioning in the clock, i.e., the capacity to tell time using a certain mechanism. Living organisms are much more complex than clocks and are capable of replacing most of their worn-out or damaged components without significant impairments to their functionality. Thus, they indeed have a greater degree of continuity than less complex systems, but this is a difference of degree only and not indicative of any claim that life is not fysical.

Mr. Firehammer continues:

Unity—this aspect also pertains to both consciousness and life, but is more apparent as a characteristic of consciousness. Any organism has only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness that perceives what is seen, what is tasted, what is heard, smelled, and felt. It is the same consciousness that feels the wheel of the car with the hands, the accelerator pedal with the foot, sees the light change from red to green, and hears the music on the radio all simultaneously. This aspect of consciousness is almost never recognized. It is one reason, for example, no computer or computer program will ever create consciousness. It would be impossible, at the physical level, to make all the discrete physical events required for detection of separate phenomena be a single event. Because consciousness is an aspect of life, however, which is not physical and not limited by physical attributes, such as discreteness, the same consciousness can be conscious of an indefinite number of things at the same time.

But what consciousness perceives is in fact a series of discrete fysical entities and events! The fact that consciousness perceives them accurately by noting that they are simultaneous is no repudiation of its fysical nature. It is quite possible for a fysical system to run multiple simultaneous processes in unison, for the creation of a single effect or result which integrates the work of all those processes. (Consider even a car wash, where the car is subject to multiple treatments at the same time, all, however, working toward a single result: the cleanliness of the car.)

Mr. Firehammer writes:

Subjectiveness—consciousness in all other creatures except ourselves is inferred, because consciousness is a subjective experience. There is no doubt that this inference is correct, but consciousness, itself, cannot be directly perceived, even in other people, much less other animals.

This is true in the sense that nobody can experience what another conscious entity experiences at the exact same time that it experiences it, without being that entity. However, as the subsequent chapter will show, it is indeed possible to know what another's consciousness is like and to objectively verify the validity of certain experiences. Nothing, moreover, bars subjectiveness from being an emergent property as I had earlier described. The fact that a system is capable of directing itself, but in a way that no other external force is capable of directing it, means that the system must have some special and exclusive level of access to its own workings that no external entity or system can have. Subjectiveness is the manifestation of the level of access, and may well logically follow from the fact that a spatially integrated system has a far greater ability to control its own functions than another system spatially remote from it.

There is an essential twofold implication in the fysicalist worldview that necessitates its defense as a means of understanding and improving the future of human progress. First, the fysicalist worldview affirms the possibility of creating life out of non-life, given a sufficient degree of systematic complexity. Second, it supports the improvement of life processes using the laws of fysics. This is the only view of life, consciousness, and volition fully compatible with the idea that technological progress has no inherent limits which it cannot overcome, that progress will eventually bring about any capacity that human beings can conceive of. The fysicalist worldview supports the possibility that it might someday be possible to create electronic improvements upon human consciousness and thus expand the processing capacity of the human mind. It considers feasible the eventual integration of inert matter not originally in the body in order to enhance the body’s functions and render it less susceptible to external perils (through the use of disciplines such as nanotechnology). It even sees in the future the ability to extend human volition over presently involuntary body processes so as to direct them more efficiently. Above all, the fysicalist believes that the present forms of life, consciousness, and volition as manifested in human beings, though they are the highest and most advanced that ever existed, are not the highest and most advanced that could possibly exist. There is no such “ultimate limit,” according to the fysicalist. Since the only way in which human beings can create technology is by manipulating fysical entities, by acknowledging that life is fysical, the fysicalist admits the possibility of improving upon life by manipulating fysical elements. This is the only view that rids man of the tragic fatalism which would state that, no matter how sofisticated or advanced his life, consciousness, and volition are, he is doomed to perish, because even his most complex attributes are still extremely vulnerable, and nothing can be done to improve them. The fysicalist recognizes that no system is doomed to end unless it ceases to resist the destructive external forces that endeavor to break it apart. His is the endeavor of gathering what knowledge and resources he might to resist those forces indefinitely and to the best of his capacity.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician and composer, contributor to organizations such as Le Quebecois Libre, Enter Stage Right, the Autonomist, and Objective Medicine. Mr. Stolyarov is the Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He can be contacted at

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Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.

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