Life! What is it? We all know inside of us what it is, we would not be alive without it. The best dictionary definition I can find reads: The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continuous change preceding death. Does that definition work for you? It does not work for me. While I agree with it wholeheartedly, I find it descriptive, but not definitive. To me it describes what we can do with life, but it does not get to the roots of what life actually is. This inability to express what life is instead of what it does is probably why I have spent most of my life from the time I was born until this very moment as I write this post to try to discover if I can better define what life is, or if it is even possible to define it using the English language, which is my mother tongue, and the only language I can use with any confidence.
Why? Because I have a need to know (or at least die trying).
As I have gone through life I have watched myself, other people, animals, plants, and thought long and hard about bacteria and viruses too. To the best of my ability, I think those four categories cover all known types of life on earth. And the bacteria and the viruses can probably be combined into one-celled organisms, but since not all viruses are complete cells a lot of scientists do not believe they are alive, or, at most, are a pre-cellular type of life. I, however, am not going to deal with such tiny limits for the purpose of this post. Viruses live and die, so for me they are living beings. In fact, viruses, if we can believe those who study them, are the most plentiful type of organic material on our planet. Second are the bacteria, with plant and animal cells coming in last, probably in that order. So does this help tell us anything about life? I guess it depends on how you look at life.
Most humans are happy to go through life content in the knowledge that they are the highest form of life on this planet. After all, we can imagine things, we can create things, we can use both spoken and written languages, we can build things (particularly tools), and we can force our will on all other things, to name just a few of the advantages humans seem to have over other life forms. But all those things are human-centric characteristics . Can we really judge our position in life by comparing all other living beings to our own specific abilities? I think we cannot. Yes, we do have one of the most complex physical metabolic systems in the world, we have opposable thumbs and fingers, we have large and convoluted brains (in every sense of that word), and again we can force our wills onto our physical systems, but still we are talking about human-centric attributes. How we judge other forms of life is almost always by comparing them to us. What if we were to compare ourselves to them? We would be inferior in as many categories as we would be superior. But is life really a competition? Survival is a competition, but again the survival techniques of animals like the chameleon and the stick-bugs, and the survival ability of the shark and cockroach all put us to shame. Be are not the be-all and end-all superior lifeforms that we think ourselves to be. And while we make life a contest between humans and other species, does it really have go be that way? I say no! There is no reason we cannot all get along together, and support each other, as the living beings we all are.
Does this really have anything to do with what life is? I think that answer is yes, but I need to throw a twist in here that most of you will not see coming.
What if I were to tell you that we humans, one of the most complex beings we know of, are not really who we think we are? Yup, rawgod really is off his rocker, insane to the nth degree. But before you cart me off to the inane asylum, let me tell you who I believe we are. We are group minds, the mental embodiment of all the cells in our bodies. Remember, and think about it, single-celled beings–animals, plants, or microbes–are all living beings. And the average human being has about 37.2 trillion (that is 37,200,000,000,000) cells in it. Science is quite clear about that. And that is not counting the almost 40 trillion bacteria that live inside us, and the uncountable number of viruses (life-supporting, life-enhancing, life-hurting, or life-destroying) that also live in our bodies. We are walking universes, and so are all other complex-bodied beings. What are all those tiny and /or microscopic living beings doing inside us? Just sitting around with their feet up on ottomans and watching TV while we, the group minds, do all the work? No!
No! No! No! No! No! They are all trying to work together (not counting destructive viruses and bacteria) to keep us alive and living! And we should be using them as shining beacons of cooperation and compassion to learn from. Life lives on life lIves on life, to be sure, but life also relies on life relies on life to persist and continue to persist. And we need life to exist, for without life nothing can be known to exist. And we cannot know life without life. We cannot know love without life. Simply put, we cannot know if there is no life.
But there is life. We are Life. Every living being in the universe is life. Yes, the universe. And it is completely necessary to live together and work together in order to sustain what we have, but could so easily lose!
Ah, it is time to calm down, and get back to our original question, what is life? If you can concede me that all single-celled beings are a part of life, we can now look a bit harder at what life is, at least in my mind. Life is a spark of energy, one that exists at the cellular level. And because it is energy, those sparks never die. We, the group minds, die, in a manner of speaking. As each cell in our bodies die, so do we. But the sparks, being energy, change into a different state that cannot exist on our plane of existence. Our physical reality is real, but it is not the only reality there is in the cosmos. The universe we live in will exist as long as there is life to know it. Should life ever end totally in our universe, it will subjectively end also. While objectively it may still be there, it will be of no consequence to any living being. So end of life in this universe = end of universe. But the cosmos, that place of living beings, will still survive, because (in human terms at least) it will always have some kind of life to be aware of it. We humans may not be there, but the sparks that are inside us now, will always be.
But I doubt at this time you are interested in cosmology. Probably you are most interested in life here on earth, more specifically human life, and still more specifically, your life, or if you will, the possible 500 trillion lives that make up your life.
You are special, you know, though you may not know it, or even feel it. You are special because these 500 trillion lives chose you to drive the bus for them. They are completely in your control. Before you read this, you thought your responsibility was only for yourself, a total of one living being. But, if I am correct, then you are actually responsible for a minimum of about 500 trillion living beings, give or take a billion or so. But does it stop there? I don’t think it does. Taking responsibility for yourself cannot be an isolated occurrence. Responsibility is a two-way street. In order to survive, we also need to depend on others, and those others need to depend on us. We have to interact together with other humans, with the animals from who we obtain protein, with the plants from whom we obtain our vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, etc. We even have to depend on insects to pollinate our plants to help those plants grow seeds, or to make different foods like honey. We have to depend on microbes too, they help us digest our foods, expel waste materials, as well as in food processes such as baking bread, or making yogurt. These are just the human interactions, everything else also interacts with all the others in ways we might not even know or understand yet. Life cannot survive without life. But everything, and I mean everything, can survive without us, without humans, and human intervention. What does that say to us? What does that say about us?
But, as usual, I digress. Our world is teeming with life, but it is only through teamwork that it all comes together. And teamwork is one of the things humans must learn. Right now we are only team players with those we choose to be on our teams, at least that is what we seem to think. But, in our global economy, we are actually teaming up in some ways with almost everyone, whether we admit it or not. We have no idea of the race, nationality, religion (or non-religion), gender, sexual persuasion, or any other distinguishing feature of those who grow our food, provide us with raw or manufactured goods, various services, or provide us so many of those things we now use and enjoy daily. Would you stop eating a particular food if you knew it was supplied to you by a gay, white, female, buddhist from North Korea? Or would you stop wearing your favourite article of clothing if you knew it was designed by a oriental muslim, sado-masochist ex-criminal man who was born in Cuba? I doubt it, in answer to either question. Yet if you ran into either person on the street, would you say “Hi, thank you for what you made it possible for me to enjoy.”? I highly doubt that too, though you may have some choice thoughts about even sharing a bit of space with them for even a moment. Teamwork! That is what life is all about.
Life is a particular type of energy, a special force that science mostly ignores. Life is a spark within us, something that every living being in existence has. And it is a spark that starts at the cellular level, and grows from there. But the funny thing about it, life is like a pregnancy, you either are alive, or you are not. The division between life and death is an instant. One second there is life, next second there is no life. Yes, you can sometimes see death happening, as when someone is slowly dying, but still, when death comes, it is undeniable that has happened. But, since life is a form if energy, it can be restarted, occasionally, with the addition of more energy. Whether it is manual energy, as in CPR, or electrical, as in defibrillation, it is possible to restart life. It is also possible to keep life going mechanically, or chemically, as in life support. You can keep a body alive when it would die without that support. But sometimes even that is not enough, because keeping the body alive does not ensure keeping the mind alive. That right there is a clue to tell us that life is NOT a physical energy or force. If the body can be maintained, can be kept alive, AFTER the mental ability of the person inside the body is gone, then they must be two seperate things. So suddenly (as far as this essay is concerned) we have two types of life, physical, and something else. While physical life is obviously important, it is the other kind of life that is the valuable one. But what can we call it?
Thanks to the internet, we have at hand a whole list of words that refer to an energy or force that is differentiated from physical life. We have mental energy, psychic energy, psionic energy, and life energy/life force. In other languages we have words like chi, qi, or prana. The first list, the ones in English, do not exist, according to our scientists, because “they cannot be measured. ” The last list, the feign words, cannot be adequately expressed in English for us to know whether they actually mean what we need them to say, because while they sound good, they are energies or forces that “have to be awakened” in us to be used, so it sounds like they are more of a super-energy, or super-force, that have more to do with consciousness than with life itself. So, I would like to coin the word mind-life to express the idea of the energy or force that makes a living being able to make the body usable.
Some people might question whether a microbe, or even an insect or a plant, could have mind-life, but that is asking a question that is virtually impossible for humans to answer at this point in our evolutionary process. As of this present time, we believe the difference between human and most other species is sentience, or the ability to think. We know that we are sentient, but we really have nothing to compare ourselves with. We believe whales and dolphins, for instance, are sentient, but it could be a different kind of sentience for all we know. Nor can we say without sureness that any lifeforms cannot think. What do spiders do while they are waiting for the signal that says food has arrived in their web? What does a turtle do while it is withdrawn into its shell waiting for danger to pass? And even more significantly, what does a male penguin do while it sits on its egg(s) for six months or more while the female is off resuppling its body with food off the coast of Antarctica? Do they just sit there doing absolutely nothing, not even thinking, waiting for instinct to kick them back into motion? I cannot accept such an idea. Nor can I did put it, of course, but truly it makes no sense to me. They have to be doing something, and some kind of thinking is what makes the most sense.
So now we have life and mind-life. Basic life, or physical life, we know can exist without mind-life, though it is not common. But can mind-life exist without physical life? Not as far as we know. But physical life without mind-life is has no real purpose or value, as far as we understand life. There is of, course, potential value, or potential value in this latter situation, if the physical life could somehow be revived by adding mental force to it, but to the best of my knowledge, once a living being has been proven to be brain-dead, mind-life has never been restarted.
When some people talk about what I am calling mind-life, they use words like vitality, and animation. Particularly medical people, and scientists, use this kind of language when dealing in life or death situations. Those can be very expressive words, but do even they describe life? I think they might describe life in very particular situations, but I for one do not feel comfortable with them. While talking about physicality, as in
You have 7.6 billion siblings to be responsible for, because they are all humans. That makes about approximately 282,720,000,000,000 000,000,000, or 282.72 sextillion (or maybe septillion, my mathematics is a bit rusty) lives connected to human beings alone. We could go on to add in all the animals, plants, free- floating bacteria, and unhosted viruses, and we don’t have the words for that kind of number, nor do we have the minds to conceive of such a number. And we haven’t even entered earth’s oceans yet. Earth is teeming with life, and we need to team with it.