The Nature of Life: The Synthesis Perspective Introduction

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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.

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