What is Life?


If you ask scientists what life is you will get some very flawed and very pedantic responses. Some will say something is alive if it can reproduce. But mules can’t reproduce. They’re dead? Viruses can reproduce. How can simple molecules like viruses be compared with the awesome complexity of even the simplest single celled creatures? Others will try to fix the flawed definition by claiming that something is alive if it is borne of parents that can reproduce. However, it is not hard to imagine that someday a simple life form like a yeast cell could be created in a lab. This organism is almost identical to other living organisms yet it isn’t alive?

It can also be argued that reproduction is not just sexual but also protein synthesis and growth. Living things then not only reproduce themselves but proteins they need. This is a good definition but only for a subset of life: organic life. This definition cannot be used for life in general because it sidesteps a massive problem. It implies that life magically arose out of nothing at a certain point. This notion, called emergence, is completely absurd. Note however that after the big bang the Universe made identical copies of hydrogen atoms out of plasma. So according to this argument the Universe is alive because it reproduces.

The usual counter argument is that life is just a term used to designate a particular point in the evolutionary history. To deal with this objection you just need to create a new word say: xlife. All organic life forms are xlife. So are atoms, subatomic particles, quarks etc. Energy is xlife. All the non-illusory properties of organic life forms are properties of xlife. Illusory properties can be explained in terms of non-illusory properties using deep analysis. Magic involves mistaking illusions as non-illusions. Really though, xlife is just life without the bolted on qualifications to exclude things like atoms and the Universe from being alive.

The best explanation of life seems to be the following. Life involves a highly complex state of organizational structure intimately coupled with intrinsic animation.You and a pile of rocks are made of the exact same energy and nothing more. The difference between a living system and a non-living system is that living systems are energized or intrinsically animated. Suppose a person dies. When the person is living you have a system with a complex state of organizational structure intimately coupled with intrinsic animation. When that person dies the complex structure remains for a time but the animation is gone. The animation is really just energy. This definition explains why you are alive but the rocks are not. Other definitions can’t because they limit themselves to the primitive world of chemicals.

But how can the Universe be alive? The real question is actually how can life arise from non-life. This is what most scientists seem to believe, that life magically arises from non-living matter. This is of course does not make sense at all. The concept of spontaneous generation was supposedly dismissed several hundred years ago. Yet believing that life magically arises at a certain point in the evolutionary process is just as difficult to believe. All complex living organisms are composed of highly integrated systems of smaller living things or cells. It is quite logical to continue in this line by saying that simple cells are also composed of other smaller living things. To refute this undeniable conclusion is to invoke magic.

Now if cells are composed of smaller living things what are these things? Well atoms seem to be quite complex and certainly do have intrinsic animation. The same also seems to apply to what we know of the particles that make up atoms. Science tells us that ultimately everything is composed of energy. According to Einstein’s famous equation E=MC², energy is equivalent to mass or matter. Mass can be converted into energy and energy can be converted into mass. The law of conservation of energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, just changed from one form to another. Therefore since energy can be converted into matter, matter is just a form of energy. The entire foundation of modern physics is based on these principles. Matter then is energy bound up by forces into “containers”. You break the “container” and the energy is released. You create a “container” to ensnare energy and you get matter. Ultimately all you are is a massively complex system of energy. You are alive and therefore this energy must also be alive. So energy is life. To deny this is to deny science and invoke magic. Life cannot arise from non-life because energy must be preserved. Energy can interact with organic molecules to create a higher life form. But life cannot magically arise without energy. To do so would require some sort of magic that violates the known laws of physics. When energy is built up into complex systems with feedback loops amongst all its subsystems we call that a “living thing”.

So if atoms are alive does that mean rocks are alive? Rocks would be an amalgam, a group of living things, like a vat of yogurt. Saying a vat of yogurt is alive is like saying a vat of people is alive. The individual people are alive but the group of people is not a living entity in itself.

All living things are self aware. In order for an organic living system to obtain nourishment it has to be aware of its own systemness so it can distinguish between itself and the food. Organisms are complex systems of organic molecules. The more complex the system the more they can do. There is nothing special about humans except that we are more complex than most other organisms.

Life then is a continuum. Life is energy, all is energy so all is alive. Energy drives organic life. Energy is the essence of life so why should it not be called life? Physics tells us there is only energy, all matter is just energy bound up into systems. This means the capacity for organic life is ubiquitous given the right conditions. So the Universe is ultimately a teeming mass of living energy. The Universe is alive.

Life then is an illusion but that’s OK. When you think you’ve figured out the illusory world you realize its all an illusion and now you try to figure out the true reality. Its just another step in the evolution of the mind. One illusion of the illusory world of our senses is determinism. Quantum mechanics shows us that the true reality is non-deterministic.

Is There Free Will?