Thursday, September 17, 2009

What is life?

I did a brief search on Google, (which happens to be my personal secretary) on what is the definition of life and here is what I found on Wikipedia:

Life (cf. biota) is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have self-sustaining biological processes ("alive," "living"), from those which do not[1][2] —either because such functions have ceased (death), or else because they lack such functions and are classified as "inanimate."

I also read in my psychology course that children before developing the cognitive skills have a phase of life during which they believe in animism. Animism refers to the belief that everything is alive. That’s probably why my two-and-half year old nephew shouts “mama, the door hit me”.

For a long time, I was perplexed with this question as to what is “alive” and what is “not-alive”. Pondering over it for years, I proposed some axioms to define what can be called “alive”:

  • It should grow
  • It should cease to exist after certain time
  • It should have intent or the experience of being alive or the self-identity which identifies itself from the surrounding environment

I was very happy when I formulated these three axioms because they seemed to fit the bill exactly. Before you read any further, stop and test these axioms. Take any living organisms and see if they fit these three properties. Years passed in bliss until I went back to studying my favorite subject once again from fundamentals; Physics.

When you read physics in conjunction with philosophy and then read any literature on mysticism, your brain gets the same experience that a lump of meat gets in pressure cooker while it is happily blowing its own whistle. That’s when I realized the fallacy of the axioms I postulated in defining life.

Growth is not necessary in terms of the macro-world. Even a single cell division can be regarded as growth. Similarly, even nuclear fission can be considered as growth. If my basic physics is right, the basic principles behind cell division and nuclear fission are the same. There is an external catalytic source of energy which causes the cell or atomic particle to get charged and start splitting. So, there is a problem with this axiom as well.

The second axiom is even more complex. Yes, all living organisms cease to exist. What we call as the organism is defined by its characteristic features such as shape, form, structure, pattern, etc. But, these features cease to exist in anything under the sun (even inside the sun). Nothing in this universe remains in the same shape, form, size, or pattern. The time involved in transformation is different, that’s all. Humans take about 100 years to transform from one pattern of energy system to another; a star takes about a billion years.

Intent and consciousness are subjective realities and can never be detected by someone else unless expressed by the organism that is experiencing them. The expression requires certain apparatus like language, or gestures, or behaviors, or something else. What if the organism does not have any of the required apparatus to express its experiences? Let’s say there is an organism which does not have muscles, which cannot move, which cannot express what it is feeling if it is feeling anything. How will you ever know that it is alive?

However, if you observe the above drawbacks, the axioms do not fail in fitting with all living organisms. They actually fit for everything in the universe! Let’s explore how.

If you approve big bang theory, the universe as a whole is growing; from a point of singularity to an ever increasing entropic system. All the atomic and sub-atomic particles are continuously bonding and forming new relationships, and systems. A single-proton hydrogen atom acquires energy along with some more protons and electrons, and forms helium and grows henceforth towards higher states (or complex states).

All the shapes, forms, and patterns of all the things in the universe are constantly changing and transforming. Nothing exists as it exists in the “here and now”.

Coming to the last postulate, to understand this it might help if you know about double-slit experiment of Quantum mechanics. In a classic experiment to unravel the wave-particle duality of electrons and photons, a physics experiment was conducted where electrons were fired from an electron gun towards the other end of the apparatus where the pattern is detected on a screen. They placed a filter in between the source and destination which has a slit in it. When the electrons are fired, the electrons behave like Good Samaritan particles and form a single straight line patterns on the screen. Now, when the filter is changed and replaced with one that has two slits, the electrons suddenly behave like waves and show an interference pattern on the detector screen. This is interesting. But, there is something more which is bamboozling. When the experimenter decides to see what actually is happening at the filter and places a detector there, the electrons behave like particles when there are two slits and show straight line patterns on the detector screen. I know it is little confusing to imagine all this. So, I suggest you see this vide here to understand the exact scene. Click here for the video

Now, I wonder what makes the electron “aware” that it is being watched. There are physicists out there who argue that it is the existence of the additional apparatus that change the interaction between the particles and changes the outcome of the experiment. However, I fail to understand how the electron suddenly recognizes the observer? This experiment has been conduced thousands of times by thousands of physicists and it yielded the same results. This has swindled the western scientists and philosophers. But for us great souls in the east, it is easy to understand the concept because it has been long told in Vedas that everything is conscious and this is very much reflected in our culture, tradition, and rituals.

So, if all particles in the universe are conscious and have their intent, grow, and cease to exist after some time, is there any point in debating what is alive and what is not? Don’t you think this whole universe is one gigantic living system with so many organs and sub-systems? Can any one part be “living” and other “non-living”? If one part of my body can communicate to the other, and express its desires or despairs, don’t you think that all the systems in the universe also communicate with each other in languages not known to us at this level? Do we understand what our heart is currently talking to our left hand little finger? Why are we so fixated in this “dead” world? Is it our search for meaning as unique and special creatures in the universe? Or is it the restlessness to attribute value to our seemingly purposeless “lives”. For me, this understanding has changed the way I use the words “live”, “life”, or “alive”. They don’t seem to have the same meaning as they had earlier. Now, to me, “transformation” precedes “life”…


  1. This is a good research. How long did it take you to get this report...
    Seems interesting...

  2. hi yashwant, the double-slit experiment is kind of the core mysteries of Quantum Physics.. its there everywhere when you take a peek at the quantum world where everything is so amazing. if you have doubts, post it and i will try to answer in detail :-) i have been reading lot of quantum consciousness literature for a long time...

  3. Hey.. Welcome back.. Sateesh.. good post..! now, I understand the double-slit experiment of quantum mechanics.. coming to the core insights you have given here.. Convincing..!! but, why can not one organism know.. its next transformation? I wish to know… if possible.. :-) And, why doesn’t every organism understand what other communicates? How would it be if everything can be understood? How can one develop such skills? Hehe… all weird questions... right? but, I wish to get answers.. :-)

  4. well, see the next post for your answers :-)

  5. Well, its great to see such an excellent post.. :-)