The 2009 BBC series narrated by David Attenborough is called Life. It seemed that ‘life’ meant plant and animal life to the makers of the program. So where does that leave the other substances we share the universe with, such as stars and seas, gases and mountains? These experience ‘natural laws’ and chemical reactions. Do they have life?
The dictionary says: life is “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death”. These are characteristics of both organic matter (to which they are usually applied) and inorganic matter (to which they are not). It seems the key word is ‘organic’. Organic compounds mean “relating to or denoting compounds containing carbon”.
That appears inclusive enough, as carbon is found throughout the universe. The distinction between organic and inorganic might not be so firmly drawn after all. Perhaps life includes all matter in the universe, and the so called Big Bang is the start of life? Maybe the universe itself is life. So stellar evolution and geological changes, as well as evolution of plant and animal life, could be the comprehensive meaning of life. “Let there be light!” should be “Let there be life!”.
Then ‘life’ would mean ‘the experience of change undergone by matter within the known universe’. One has to accept that hydrogen and helium ‘contain’ carbon and release it through nuclear reaction in stars, and that this carbon (and all the other elements) circulate throughout the universe through the interaction of gravity upon space. Gravity and space being also products of the Big Bang, along with change, which we call time. No sound at the Big Bang, despite the name, because no atmosphere to carry sound waves, and no ears to hear, either.
Then everything is alive. And life perhaps a process entered into in this universe, and possibly in others, as part of the process of avoiding entropy. There could be something outside the universe that needs order and structure, and the universe, and the life in it, creates such structure. This is the only clue we have to what there is outside the universe.
The dictionary goes on to mention under life, viruses and AI, sometimes defined as forms of life. Artificial life is a simulacrum, a machine, and so should not be considered as ‘life’. It looks as though one form of life cannot create another, except through mutation. But viruses? They can exist only within other life forms, which still make them life forms though destructive ones, or agents of change. Microbes (which include viruses and bacteria) have been found throughout the universe, in all regions above and below the earth’s surface. Microbes make up over one quarter of all life on earth. They are the major form of life here. Our perception that the major (often ‘higher’) forms of life are plants, animals and above all humans might be a misconception we make due to our inability to view the whole of life. We have a blind spot: us.
We tend to interpret natural history in ways that give the human species pre eminence. One way is the view, which was behind the BBC series on Life, that life is a struggle for existence in an evolutionary ‘niche’ for each species, and that only the fittest survive. This is supposedly seen in the relationship between predators and prey. In some undefined way predators are superior to prey, more fit to survive, because they end up alive and the prey end up dead. Death is a kind of failure, it follows. Species which predominate, such as mankind, must be superior. Life then is a kind of ladder, as Aristotle so imagined it, and Aquinas after him, in which mice and other small forms live at the bottom, and mankind exists at the top (then angels, and god).
The tendency to see mankind this way is reinforced by our insistence on looking at man’s complicated biological structure, while ignoring the environment which formed it and of which it is a part. We see the evolution of mankind’s intelligence, and ignore that it is a development of a sensory feedback mechanism needed to restore balance in the environment of species.
The ‘struggle for existence’ is often used with the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Herbert Spencer’s phrase was used first for his economic theories, then applied by him as a parallel process to Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Like many interpretations of ‘Darwinism’, it simplified what Darwin actually said. Evolution is the passing on of a genetic trait which enables the offspring of a species to adapt to a changing environment. It might not be obvious for several thousands of years that this has occurred. Obviously, if the genetic change produces characteristics which inhibit survival they won’t be inherited. But the environment, and the species, change at such a slow rate that evolutionary characteristics are not obvious unless measured over millennia.
In regarding the relationship between predators and prey it is quite possible to reverse the anthropomorphic value judgment that deems predators superior because of their survival. Predators in this view depend on prey. Some prey, like grasses, may have encouraged factors such as agriculture as part of a symbiotic relationship with mankind, so as to develop their own evolutionary changes. In other words the change in the environment creates the genetic change in species and the change in the species also creates the change in environment.
If life includes the environment of all life, of microbes, insect, plant and animal life (including humans) then evolution of life is a process of adaptation, primarily to the existence of space, then to chemical changes in stellar matter, then to the existence of chemical elements throughout the universe. The same process is continued, in molecular structures, species, environments, solar systems, galaxies and the universe itself, all because that process formed the universe at the beginning. The reorganisation of substance from entropy to order.
If life is part of the reorganisation of matter to avoid entropy, what is death? The usual way to define death is through lack of function e.g. lack of electrical activity (equated with ‘thought’) in the cerebral cortex. Hence contention in medical and legal circles as to when death occurs. Some organs can continue to function when others have ceased to. The actual substances that make, for example, an animal or human being, continue to exist after death. They are reorganised in a different way, with different functions. In this sense death is merely part of change. While the universe exists its matter will continue to reorganise itself in ways conducive to either entropy or order. In that sense there is no death. One might expect a ‘good’ life to result in a ‘good’ death, that is one helping to reduce entropy of that life’s components. It’s a kind of kaleidoscope in which evolution occurs as part of the process of order, and species die out as part of the process of entropy. Mutations occur like efil…lief…flie…feil…life.
The problem of defining both life and death lies in the way we define existence. We do this by becoming aware of a ‘self’. The self receives data from the senses and coordinates it through the brain, which then allows us to function effectively in an environment. Brain, sense data and data processing are all one process and in a sense one function, which could be called the self (and which also includes an environment). It seems as though the self may be unique, even though the data it manages is similar to that managed by all other human, and even some animal life forms. This is so because of functions of the brain not directly related to data processing, such as reflection, imagination and memory. With these functions added, each existence can seem unique.
So what is defined as life or death is the existence or lack of existence of this self, this perhaps unique way of experiencing life. It is the self which seems unique, not the process of life itself. Which means our way of reflecting and analysing experience may be valuable, and may cease to be with the death of our body.
It would seem unlikely that a function of the body such as the self would continue to exist after the organs that caused it to be self aware had ceased to operate. But we don’t know. This preoccupation with self makes death a subject of concern for humans (perhaps not for other life forms?), while processes such as evolution or mutation are treated more equitably.
Self has implied the existence of something immortal, called the soul. In other words, if there is life, there must be immortal life. The only trouble is, this is a contradiction in terms. The self explores its environment partly with the aid of tools called thoughts, ideas. These include things called concepts: we use our brain’s ability of imagination to conceive abstractions which we can’t directly experience. ‘Eternal’, ‘infinite’, ‘god’, are all imagined as the opposite of experienced values, such as ‘time’, ‘space’, ‘human’. We can’t of course define anything in terms of which it is not, so we can’t actually ‘realise’ infinity, for example. In the same way we have conceived of a soul in terms of something which, unlike the body, does not die. But we don’t, can’t, know what a soul is.
If we examine ‘soul’ and other religious ideas we find them a compound of descriptions of substances and conditions we cannot directly experience, like ‘eternal’, and moral concepts guiding our behaviour. Religions put these two classes of ideas together: following the moral behaviour leads us to experience of the states outside the boundaries of our experience, we are told. We can’t know this process actually takes place, hence we call it ‘faith’. The people who have attempted to define this union of comprehension of abstractions and moral behaviour have not been able to define it exactly, which is why each ‘faith’ is different to the other. Unfortunately one of the things faiths have in common is a propensity of some of their members to commit crimes should the correctness of their views be challenged.
There have been other attempts to comprehend and explain abstractions. Plato thought everything we experience was an inferior copy of an eternal and perfect original held somewhere, what he called an ‘Ideal’. That’s where we get the word ‘idealism’. His idea has some unfortunate spinoffs. Life, an inferior copy to the ideals, is itself inferior. Therefore amoral behaviour is acceptable. Tyranny, such as that exercised by his uncle Charmides in Athens, doesn’t matter. Wrong to the individual is justified by the common good.
Modern atomists believe (if I remember Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy correctly) that the world we experience consists of a continuous stream of atoms, organised differently but with the same basic structure. It is the mind which arranges these atoms into entities that make up the world we know. We live literally a life of the mind. This might make judgments less absolute, as a person we like/dislike is neither a monster nor a saint but our own creation from constituent atoms. This viewpoint is Buddhist in that it states that life is an illusion. Yet although this may be the nature of reality, we are forced to act as if illusion were in fact real in order to exist.
Yet another way to comprehend abstractions is to contemplate what is before the Big Bang. That created all matter, and dimensions later known as change (time) and space, and processes later known as nuclear fusion and gravity. Originally all these were contained in an infinitely small space which expanded to form the universe. All that is contained in the universe, matter, time, space, gravity and fusion, must have been part of existence before the Big Bang as well as the opposite conditions we try so hard to define, infinity, eternity and god. So if the Big Bang is life, then before the Big Bang must include life also. But a life infinite and eternal. A bit like we imagine heaven to be.
The question that comes to mind is simply, why? Why a Big Bang? Perhaps it was the need of order over entropy, but this indicates instability in Before the Big Bang. Perhaps Before the Big Bang did become unstable. One clue we can find is in the self. The self, like everything else, is contained in the Big Bang. And the self, in experiencing the Big Bang, has imagined the processes, as part of the world in which it lives. This is a kind of poetic projection of pre Big Bang existence. The self has invented myths which retrace the experience of life across space and time and evolution. Myth is one clue we have which takes us beyond existence and its examination through science.
One myth we know from the Hebrew bible, the story of Adam and Eve. It is a mix of myths from several Middle Eastern cultures and quite distinct from other matter about the Hebrew people recorded in the bible. We have, essentially, a temptress goddess, an Aphrodite figure, who evolves into the Great Mother, just another form of the Goddess, a goddess who triumphs over death, Mary the Mother, a version of Inanna, Demeter or Kybele. To do so she calls on the snake of wisdom. But she must deal with a jealous god, who has hidden the wisdom in a forbidden fruit. The Goddess is all giving, pandora, but the god wants us to evolve and change to a form where we can benefit from wisdom. To understand that myth we must follow its mantra, step into the sacred path of its process. And that’s as close to understanding the Big Bang as we can get to now, the search for wisdom in experience, a life before life began.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.