January 13, 2009

Speculations on Life

Let's start at the beginning.

In the Book of Genesis, Adam was formed out of the dust of the earth (hence his name, which means "red earth"), and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. In the Korah, God created man out of clay and told him to "Be!" and he was. (wikipedia told me so.)

In my opinion, these symbolic texts are closely linked with the current views on the more scientifically derived speculations on the origin of life. The panspermia/exogenesis theory proposes that life drifted down from the stars on the dust of comets. These lumps of ice and rock are known to have biological precursor molecules. The silicate theory claims that the slow accumulation of the right rudimentary particles on the surface of clay gave rise to life. Of course, there are problems with these theories.

Despite Biology's current insistence that there is no such thing as "spontaneous generation," which was a belief carried into Medieval times that things like flies were created from dead meat... the question of First Life begs the question. How did life derive from non-life?

Does it have to? How do we define life? Here are a few biological requirements:
1) metabolism -- processing of chemicals for sustenance
2) growth -- gaining complexity/maturity
3) reproduction -- generation of offspring
4) response to environment -- reacting appropriately to situations
5) made of cells

However, this is not all encompassing. It still has embarrassing holes. If it could exist, what would we consider artificial life? What about digital, artificial, manufactured intelligence? Why do we sometimes confuse dead things, or inanimate objects with live ones? What about viruses? They fulfill the first four pre-requisites, but it is not a cell. Perhaps our scientific definition works for our world, but it needs revising to match the more basic, simpler world when life as we know it did not exist.

A few years ago, a friend asked me to fill in the blank for "Life is ___." It took me a while to come up with a thoughtful definition that I liked, but I decided on "Life is directed, anti-entropic force."

I still find it to be the most relevant and striking definition I've ever come up with... reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller's definition of the universe:
"Universe is the aggregate of all humanity's consciously apprehended and communicated nonsimultaneous and only partially overlapping experiences."

`` `Aggregate' means sum-totally but nonunitarily conceptual as of any one moment. `Consciousness' means an awareness of the otherness. `Apprehension' means information furnished by those wave frequencies tunable within man's limited sensorial spectrum. `Communicated' means informing self or others. `Nonsimultaneous' means not occurring at the same time. `Overlapping' is used because every event has a duration, and their initiatings and teminatings are most often of different duration. Neither the set of all `experiences' nor the set of all the words used to describe them are instantly reviewable nor are they of the same length. Experiences are either involuntary (subjective) or voluntary (objective), and all experiences, both physical and metaphysical, are finite because each begins and ends.''
Some might find this overly technical... but in my mind, its pure philosophical poetry.

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