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Friday, June 4, 2021

Life cannot be defined

 Carl Zimmer is a famous science writer. He writes columns for The New York Times, National Geographic and other journals and has published several books. The latest book is Life’s Edge, The Search for what it means to be alive (Dutton. 2021). It is an extremely interesting book exploring humanity’s quest to understand what Life is. Obviously, it is an important question but defining life is an impossible task. In one passage he quotes a scientist – philosopher by the name of Carol Cleland as saying: “ We do not want to know what the word life means to us. We want to know what life is”. She follows that statement by saying: “ we need to give up our search for a definition”.

Reading this book stimulated my thoughts about life. I have written about this topic in my blogs and in my book on “Our Shared Sacred Space”. I am not a scientist or a philosopher. But I believe that all of us should be able to think about this question. We are alive, we want to live forever, we want to look for life in other planets and we are afraid of death. Don’t we want to know what life is?

The earliest awareness of a living creature must have been one of “being” and of “hunger”, which indirectly must have meant to that individual creature “ I am” and “alive” at a non-verbal level. The next awareness must have been “that other one is also alive” or “not alive”. That awareness is required at a primitive level for preservation of its own “life”. Life, awareness, hunger, and fear seem to be the order of evolution of the sense of self.

That means the earliest creatures were capable of “knowing” a living from a non-living “other”. They probably also knew intuitively a living “other” who stopped being “alive”, which means “death” in our language. “Non-living” could have never been a living thing (was always inanimate in our words) or a living thing which ended up not being alive (dead). Even animals and birds seem to have a sense of what death is, by knowing that the dead one was with life, earlier.

Life is manifest in a form limited by time and duration. Humans understand end of life to be inevitable. In a sense, death defines life. Is death the other end of birth, de-limiting the duration of life and part of a cycle or is it the end of life? Cultures differ in their answers to this question.

We cannot define life. But can understand it when it ends with death in an individual by observing the absence of some activities: Not moving even to feed or avoid danger; Not seeking food; Not exchanging energy and not reproducing by itself or by other means. Absence of all of these is not essential to define death. Nor can any one item in isolation define death. A recent report documents the existence of a bacterium which remained dormant under the seabed for millions of years and then came to “life” and reproduced when it was “fed”. (Scientific American June 2021, page 78)

In other words, we cannot define death. And we know life cannot be defined either.

Life is a phenomenon. It requires an individual “body” to manifest when “causes and conditions” are there. Life has an end in an individual. But as a phenomenon, Life was always there; will always be there, here on this planet. Also “life” probably exists in other parts of the universe in different forms with different characteristics.  That is why Astrobiologists are trying to define life so they can recognize it when they find one!

Life is a mystery. It is a gift.  It will remain so even after scientists and philosophers find a suitable definition and list its characteristics.

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