Science and Philosophy and Religion are dedicated to the question: What is Life?
Has anyone came to a conclusive answer?
No, and never will.
Am I capable of providing an adequate working definition?
No. And here’s why.
Sprout! by Magic Madzik
Evolution of Human Thoughts on Life
I think what is said of the Tao of ancient Chinese philosophy can be said of life:
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery (1).”
However, Western culture has difficulty with such ambiguity — so tomes of philosophical, religious, and scientific manuscripts have been written on the subject and little consensus has come of any of it. As a result of this discourse, numerous disciplines and school of thought have emerged to give life meaning.
The ancient Greeks had many ideas about life, and gave us the foundation of much of western thought on the subject. In the 4th Century BCE, Empedocles deduced life consisted of four roots of fire, air, earth, and water (2). This sounds familiar because many modern pagan traditions are built around this idea and often include spirit, or something-of-the-like, to the equation. Meanwhile, back in ancient Greece, Democritus attributes the psyche composed of “fire atoms” (3). These ancient thinkers are two of the founders of the school of thought known as materialism, which is not to be confused with “being materialistic.” Further down the line, during the 3rd Century BCE, Aristotle was critical of Democritus and expanded the concept of psyche into what we might start recognizing as the idea of the soul. Uniting matter and form, he helped create the philosophy of Hylomophism (4).
Likewise, traditional Chinese knowledge has the Wu Xing consisting of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water (5). This concept and those in Western cultures all suggest that life, or spirit, or the soul, is comprised of physical and tangible material found in the natural environment. But fast-forward two millennia to 17th Century CE Germany, where the chemist and physician, Georg Ernst Stahl, planted a seed for the ideas of Vitalism. He concluded that the life principles of the soul were non-material (6). Now the idea of life has become more abstract and detached from the material world around us.
Since then, human knowledge has evolved into modern biology. In 2002 Daniel E. Koshland Jr wrote about Seven Pillars of Life. I am not a biologist, and so I will attempt to paraphrase what I understand of Koshlan’s statements:
- Program is how the physical materials of a living organism interact together, including anatomy, chemistry, and DNA.
- Improvisation is the way a living organism changes its program due to external environmental circumstances. For example human behavior adapted based on whether the environment was warm or cold.
- Compartmentalization is how a living organism is bound together. This can be the microscopic organization of a cell within the membrane, or the flesh and bone of an animal.
- Energy is the use of movement throughout the living organism. this can be a chemical reaction in the organism or neurological impulses that automate movement.
- Regeneration compensates for change in the condition of the living organism. An example of this is when we cut ourselves and the tissue is able to heal itself.
- Adaptability is when a class of organism changes over time and generations to survive their particular environment. This is how turtles have shells, insects have exoskeletons, fish have gills, etc . . .
- Seclusion is the way a single living organism is able to processes and prioritizes information from its environment to respond appropriately. This is what is happening when you place your hand on a hot surface and immediately withdraw due to the pain.
Koshland’s focus is primarily on the individual living organism; however, I think his method can be applied to General Systems Theory (GST). GTS is as an extension of biology interested in the bigger picture of how smaller systems interact with a larger system. GST seeks out patterns in the dynamic relationships between organisms, materiel, and environment. I find this thought parallels the idea behind the Gaia hypothesis as proposed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970′s (7). This is the idea that the Earth is an evolving system and this system comprises of many parts including animal, mineral, and plant (8).
The Xartus and My Take on Life
What do I think of all of these many thoughts on life and the nature of the soul?
Lao Tzu, Empedocles, Democritus, Aristotle, Stahl, Koshland, Brown, Lovelock and Margulis all make intriguing claims that help to comprise a larger understanding of life and, perhaps with the exception of Lao Tzu and Stahl, help us grapple with the ambiguity behind the mystery of life.
Yes, that is all fine and good, you might say, but what do I think?
I like the idea of life being comprised of physical materiel around us, despite its ambiguity. At the same time, I like embracing the ambiguity of the nameless qualities of life. I like to think of life as a broad spectrum of intersecting patterns growing from the cosmos. Think of it like a giant infinite fractal that is comprised of infinite smaller fractals. The more you attempt to narrow your focus on the fractal the larger the fractal seems, and the more you try to observe the fractal as whole you attention is drawn to the smaller details.
The Infinite in Between (YouTube upload by minghaoxu)
The fractal analogy reminds me of Ceisiwr Serith’s hypothesis of Proto-Indo-European religion, particulary the concept of Xartus. Serith describes Xartus as “the pattern of the universe” and brakes down the linguistics of the term:
“This word comes from the root *xar-, meaning “to fit together, particularly according to a pleasing pattern.” Both linguistically and ideologically Xartus is the root of the Vedic rta, and the concept is similar as well to the Germanic wyrd. The Xartus is the pattern of the cosmos, but not one that’s imposed from without. Instead it grows from the cosmos itself.”
Serith describes Xartus as a creative force which moves through The Tree of The Cosmos. The Xartus is that which forms the Cosmic Tree’s branches. It is a pattern and or process of creativity which reminds me of species evolution. Jacob Bronowski describes life as:
“a process of accurate copying….[It] is also and essentially an evolutionary process, which moves forward only because there are errors in the copy, and every so often one of these errors is successful enough to be incorporated as another step or threshold in its progression. (9)“
I find this to be a scientific explanation of the ambiguity of life. In Bronowski’s words I find hints of the sacred in the beautiful flaws of the world around us. Without those flaws, the cosmos would somehow feel less whole, less complete, less real, and less alive.
What was my point again?
Now that we’ve gone around in ideological circles, I would think you, as am I, are dizzy from the experience. What was my original point?
Ah yes, I remember! The first statement in The Seven:
“Life is not dictated by “ism”s, practices, doctrines or dogmas. Life is expansive, inclusive evolutionary creativity, and therefore sacred.”
So, What the hell do I mean by all of this rambling?
Life is ambiguous, and we humans are not always comfortable with ambiguity. To offset our discomfort we like to give meaning to the ambiguity of life. In this effort we have many traditions, ancient and new, which struggle to give meaning to life. However, these philosophies, theologies, principles, musings, writings, ramblings, and what-have-you, is not life.
No one has the answer to life. Anyone who claims they do is naive or tying to sell you something you don’t need or want. We need to be discerning about the meaning we give the ambiguity of life, but should not hold tightly to our beliefs. Life is a mystery. Our minds and hearts will be better off by embracing the ambiguity of life as it moves through us.
It is okay to think about the meaning of life and what life is; it is one of my favorite past times. However, it is far more important to embrace life, with all its ambiguity, and that is a far more difficult thing to do.
How does the ambiguity of life influence your spiritual practices and how does it play out in your interactions with the natural living-world?
When do you find it easy to embrace the ambiguity, and when do you find it most difficult?
Are there philosophies or traditions that have help you deal with the paradox and ambiguity of life?
Or do you think my ramblings are off base and I am a bit daft?
1. Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, chapter 1
Translatin by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English
2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (empedocles)
3. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (democritus)
4. Aristotle’s De Anima
5. Nathan Sivin, “Science and Medicine in Chinese History,” 1995
6. A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier, Elizabeth A Williams 2003
7. Molly Young Brown “Patterns, Flows, and Interrelationship” ©2002
8. Lovelock. The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Basic Books, 2009
9. New Concepts in the Evolution of Complexity: Stratified Stability, and Unbounded Plans. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science #5 (March 1979)