The Nature of Life: The Synthesis Perspective

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

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 these abilities are obviously a very important part of the life process, it is questionable if they really define life. Organisms that do not reproduce (e.g. mules that are born sterile) or have stopped reproducing or growing are 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 from a common sense viewpoint 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 (awareness and intent, of course, do not always need to be operational – a temporarily unconscious person is not dead[1]). A computer, for example, can perform certain operations similar to thinking. Yet, it has nothing that can be paralleled to awareness or intent. A computer is not aware, it does not experience, nor does it have intentions. It can beat a human being in chess, but it is not aware that it has won and it cannot even start a game when it pleases.

There is, however, an epistemological challenge to 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 know phenomenologically 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 comparable 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 so different from ours that it is impossible to draw any conclusions on the basis of observations, including transpersonal ones[2]. As awareness, the self too is non-observable. However, there is something that separates organisms from inanimate matter and can be observed – intentional, self-generated activity[3].

That innate activity is an important difference between the animate and inanimate. We already mentioned that every living cell produces vibrations, but there is more to it. While one of the main characteristics of 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 they 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 electro-chemical processes and some of its activities can be reduced to reflexes, but not all.

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 their right mind would confuse this with life. What is recognised as self-initiated movement is associated with life, and only with life. 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 could not be expanded to other living organisms. It is true that only humans can talk about their intentions, but it has been observed that simple organisms are also capable of intentional activity. 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). More recently, Björn Brembs and his colleagues of the Free Uni­ver­si­ty Ber­lin, us­ing be­hav­iour re­cord­ings and math­e­mat­i­cal anal­y­ses, convincingly eliminated randomness and pure determinism as an explanation of fruit fly behaviour, strongly indicating that fruit flies have rudimentary free will. The scientists at the University of California, San Diego and Tel Aviv University found that bacteria under stress can make very complex decisions. A single cell organism known as the Blob (Physarum polycephalum) can make choices and solve complex problems. Plants too, show signs of intent. This implies that intentional activity can be associated with all living organisms, not only humans. Considering that intent is impossible without the self and awareness, they too can be linked to life.

We already argued that the self, awareness and intent are not material, so we propose that all life (including one-cell organisms, plants, animals and humans) is a result of an interaction between two distinct types of energy (material and non-material) and cannot therefore be reduced only to the physical and chemical properties of the body. The claim that all life forms have a non-material aspect, of course, cannot be directly verified by material means and can be only deduced, but this does not invalidate such a claim. Even science is doing sometimes the same. Gravitational fields, for example, (not to mention super-strings and other esotery) cannot be detected directly either, but are postulated from their effects or from the requirements for a coherent model of reality. We have seen that reductionist accounts run into too many difficulties, and many phenomena can be better explained on a different basis. Furthermore, this kind of interactionism is more in line with common sense intuition, cross-cultural transpersonal experiences, and the reasoning criteria, than the unfounded belief that one day it will be possible to understand everything in terms of physical and chemical properties.

We can now turn to examining more closely the self, awareness and intent, and also the non-material aspect of life that they belong to. As a matter of convenience will use a more traditional term for this aspect – the soul.

[1] Note that these inactive states are passing, so the above argument against, for example, reproduction defining life, does not apply in this case. A permanent cessation of awareness and intent, for all practical purposes, indicates cessation of physical life (when a person is artificially kept alive, if there is no hope that they 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.
[2] 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.
[3] An activity is self-generated if it is more variable than the stimuli that precede it.