Life is usually defined as an entity that has the capacity to perform certain functional activities including metabolism, growth, reproduction, responsiveness and adaptation to stimuli such as light, heat and sound. It is further characterised by the presence of complex transformations of organic molecules and by the organisation of such molecules into the successively larger units of protoplasm, cells, organs, and organisms.
Although the above mentioned abilities are obviously a very important part of the life process, it is questionable if they really define life. An organism that does not reproduce (e.g. mules that are born sterile) or has stopped reproducing or growing is still alive, thermometers can respond to heat yet they are not alive. These examples are brought up not to point out that such a definition is imprecise (after all, most definitions have fuzzy boundaries) but that something essential may be missing. What common-sensically seems fundamental to life are the abilities to experience and to be pro-active, and consequently, having a unique centre of experience and pro-activity (meaning that my experience cannot be your experience). In other words, awareness, intent and the self. A computer, for example, can perform certain operations that can be paralleled to mental processes. Yet, a computer has nothing that can be paralleled to awareness. A computer can perhaps simulate thinking, but it is not aware, it does not experience. It can beat a human being in chess, but it is not aware that it has won and it cannot feel happy about it.
There is, however, an epistemological problem with the above proposition. An ability to be aware may be a necessary characteristic of life, but due to the inherent limitations of observation, it cannot be easily verified. We phenomenologically know that we are aware. It can be also extrapolated from verbal reports and the behaviour of others that they also experience. Animals react in a similar way to situations that cause pain, pleasure or fear, so it is plausible that they have a similar capacity. But what about plants or bacteria or even individual cells in one's body? Do they experience at all? They may have some rudimentary experiences that are so different (e.g. temporally) that it is impossible to make any conclusions on the basis of observations, including transpersonal ones. The self is also non-observable. However, something that separates an organism from inanimate matter can be observed, and this is self-generated movement. Some believe that this will also eventually be traced back to physical causes, but nobody has ever managed to come close to proving it. Philosopher Teichman writes: ‘A human being is in a way a self-caused cause so far as his actions are concerned, unlike a stone' (1974, p.33). There is no reason why this should not be expanded to other living organisms. That innate activity is an important difference between the animate and inanimate has already been pointed out by Cicero, Thomas Aquinas and many others. While one of the main characteristics of the matter is inertia, agency is one of the main characteristics of life. Inanimate objects can undergo certain processes or be moved under the influence of various forces, but are not active. They are passive, acted upon. A stone does not fall, it is fallen by the combination of gravitational force and other physical factors. On the other hand, life can be proactive, as well as reactive. Many internal processes are the result of an organism's chemistry and some of its activities can be reduced to reflexes, but not all. Similarly, many processes in the car and its movement are the result of the car machinery and its interaction with the environment, but a driver is necessary to start and direct it. This distinction is quite clear in practice. The limbs of dead frogs can be made to twitch by applying an electric current, but nobody in shis right mind would confuse this with life. What is recognised as self-initiated movement is associated with life and only with life. As discussed earlier (and as is also evident from any introspective analysis), intent seems to be its most plausible source. Considering that intent is impossible without the self and awareness, they too can be linked to life. To put it simply, energy is alive if it is focused.
The self, awareness and intent are attributes of the One. If life forms are in the process of becoming the counterpart to the One, they must also have self and at least rudimentary intent and awareness, and consequently a non-material aspect - the soul. So, energy is alive if it has the self and the abilities of awareness and intent (they, of course, do not need to be always active - an unconscious person is not dead, just as a switched off radio is not broken). This is what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate. The soul brings the dynamic principle (inner movement) into that interaction, which enables life, development and evolution. This view was commonly held since antiquity. Thomas Aquinas wrote (using the Latin term anima for the soul):
Animate means living and inanimate non-living, so soul means that which first animates or makes alive the living things with which we are familiar. (in Thompson, 1997, p.120)
What does not have the self, awareness and intent does not have its own life. Only humans can conceptualise their intentions and what they are aware of, but it has been observed that even simple organisms possess a certain level of awareness and intent. This implies (contrary to what Descartes thought) that soul can be associated with all living organisms not only humans. Which is not to say that an individual soul always corresponds to an individual biological form. Almost certainly not every fruit-fly or ant has its own soul and self. Considering the highly synchronised nature of their societies it is more likely that most of the related non-material energy of single-cell organisms, some insects and plants is focused collectively, while individual selves constantly appear and disappear depending on the extent of separation from the collective that is happening at any point. Evidence for this is that an insect such as ant, for example, cannot learn from experience, but insect colonies can. Even in higher organisms some energy fibres may still be attached to a collective energy field, which could account for the cumulative learning of species mentioned earlier on (p.142).
Thus, the basic premise here is that life is a result of an interaction between two distinct types of energy (material and non-material) and therefore cannot be reduced only to the physical and chemical properties of the body. Reductionist attempts run into numerous difficulties, and also certain phenomena can be better explained otherwise. So, although the claim that all life forms (including one-cell organisms, plants, animals and humans) have a non-material aspect cannot be materially verified, it is not less rational than the belief that one day everything will be possible to understand in terms of physical and chemical properties. Such reasoning is not foreign to science. Gravitational fields, for example, (not to mention super-strings and other esoteria) cannot be detected directly either, but are postulated from their effects or the requirements for a coherent model of reality. It should be also taken into account that the above inference is supported by common sense (e.g. the notion of self) and cross-cultural transpersonal experiences.
- . The concern here is not with the nature of such experiences (which is the subject of Nagel's classic paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?'), but whether they experience anything at all.
- . If referring to these elements rather than to the physical body, humans and, in fact, all life forms reflect indeed ‘God's image' (in the case of the latter, of course, God merely reflects the human image).
- . These inactive states are temporary, so the above argument regarding reproduction, for example, does not apply. A permanent cessation of awareness and intent, for all practical purposes, indicates cessation of life (there are border cases though, when a person is artificially kept alive, but if there is no hope that such a person will regain at least some awareness, life support machines are usually turned off). Permanent cessation of reproductive ability, on the other hand, does not indicate cessation of life.
- . Polanyi and Prosch maintain that ‘...even paramecium is an individual that quite apparently strives... to adapt itself to its conditions and to stay alive and to reproduce' (1975, p.170).
- . Rather than bubbles, souls can be imagined as the crests of waves that are connected underneath.