In order to even begin to solve the age-old question concerning the meaning of life, one must understand what life is. Any opinion or philosophy that does not get to grips with the actual nature of life itself will not capture life’s meaning and may reflect little more than anthropomorphic wishful thinking and/or religious dogma and such. For we—and by ‘we’ I mean to include human consciousness—are undoubtedly an intrinsic part of all life on earth. As Alan Watts rightly pointed out, we do not come into the world, rather we come out of it. The human species, endowed as we are with nervous systems and brains capable of facilitating consciousness, are an extension of the rest of the web of life which has covered planet earth for four billion years. So what is life exactly? What are we an evolved and extended expression of? If we can grasp the essence of what life actually is, what life actually represents, then we may come to understand something of its significance and meaning.
Unlike dead matter which is inert, inanimate and passive, life is active and highly animate. Living systems do things. Which is to say that living organisms behave in a specific and non-arbitrary way. How do we characterize this specific behaviour evinced by living things? Is life simply ‘stuff doing interesting things’ or does the ‘stuff that it does’ warrant a more discerning appraisal? Well, the life expressed in living systems ensures that they maintain themselves. Any organism—be that a bacterium, a fungus, a plant or an animal—is essentially a complex pattern that continually builds itself and continually sustains itself. This is primarily achieved through the clever use of energy—which is known as metabolism. In fact, if we want to define living things then metabolism is a key, if not the key, ingredient. Reproduction and the inheritance of genetic information are also key features but they can only transpire with the aid of metabolism. Metabolism enables organisms to literally live and be. Without the ability to live and be there can be no reproduction and no passing on of genetic information.
Through metabolism an organism garners energy from its environment and uses that energy to maintain its pattern and its integrity. When it ceases to do this it is dead—although its constituent parts will likely eventually be incorporated into other living systems. The key issue here is to understand what metabolic activity represents and what makes it so special. By getting to grips with this essential feature of life we might go on to understand the nature and significance of human life (and human consciousness). In other words, we may be able to detect a trend, or theme, that we are an evolved expression of. And then we might know what we really represent within the bigger theme of which we are an orchestrated part.
In thinking about the way in which life cleverly uses energy, we might be tempted to see life as somehow violating the second law of thermodynamics which dictates that closed systems lose energy and eventually run down. But, of course, living things are open systems that continually take in high grade energy and excrete lower grade energy. That is what metabolism involves. Moreover, it is precisely the natural flow of energy in the universe (such as suns continually pouring forth high grade energy) that life taps into and makes clever use of.
A useful analogy here is that of a watermill. The river next to which a watermill is built flows according to the second law of thermodynamics. If it can, water will, for example, move from a high energy state at the top of a mountain (where it has potential gravitational energy) to a lower energy state at the bottom of the mountain. This flow, this unfailing spreading out of energy from a high energy state to a lower energy state, causes an energetic flow of water to form and this is exactly what the wheels of a watermill tap into. The natural law-abiding movement of water from a high energy state to a lower energy state therefore ensures that there is a current of energy. This current is what can be tapped into to drive useful work—which is, of course, what a watermill involves. Wheels will rotate, cogs can be driven, and thence specific movements can be made to perform useful work.
With this principle in mind, one can see that living things contain within themselves what are akin to miniature water wheels. On a microscopic level, organelles within cells like mitochondria act like waterwheels in as much as they are tapping into, in this case, not a water current, but a chemical current whereby chemical reactions take place in which highly energetic chemicals break down into simpler ones with a concurrent release of energy. It is precisely the controlled and organized release of chemical and molecular energy that drives living things. Watermills can mill flour into existence, cells ‘mill life’.
Now, with our analogy, it is obvious that a watermill is an intelligent system, or at least it embodies smart design and smart behaviour. So how about the microscopic watermill-like systems within living organisms? How did this sophisticated organic nanotechnology come to be? Well, this is what evolution does. Over immense lengths of time evolution, by way of the contextual hand of nature, builds the smartly behaving structures and smart behaviours that constitute living things. Biological systems might not be consciously intelligent but they are nonetheless smart, far smarter and far more impressive in fact than watermills (the burgeoning biomimicry movement in which engineering solutions are sought by studying how nature does things attests to the natural design acumen of living systems). One can think of ‘bio-logic’ as a natural unconscious intelligence. If, therefore, we are in the business of trying to ascertain what life is, we can conclude that it is a natural intelligence in action (and bear in mind that I only touched on metabolism—there are any number of life behaviours that are smart). Natural intelligence might not be exactly like human intelligence—which is conscious and which can anticipate the future and such—but it is an intelligence in terms of the specific smart and astute behaviour that it evinces and which underlies our existence and even our brain-based ability to read and comprehend these words.
With this in mind, we are now in a position to grapple with the meaning of life. If we agree that life is an evolving organic intelligence that has learned to plug itself into the flow of energy within nature, then the human race is an evolved expression of this fundamental creative imperative (it is fundamental because life was always a potential written into the lawful jigsaw-like fabric of nature). Moreover, human consciousness is likewise an expression of natural intelligence in as much as human consciousness is bound up with the bio-logic of our highly evolved brains and highly evolved nervous systems. In fact, I would surmise that what we are witness to with the birth and evolution of human consciousness is the transition of natural intelligence from a primarily unconscious state to a conscious state. In other words, consciousness, wherever it should arise, is the means by which the universe, or nature, wakes up to its own innate potential. Which likely indicates a teleological aspect to the reality process. The meaning of life is therefore unfolding over time and the human experience is, perhaps, the leading edge of this creative cosmic process. But I’ll wager that such a process, such an ‘awakening’, is still in its infancy (certainly the human race is in a dangerously volatile immature phase) and only in the fullness of time will the translational process be complete.
~Simon G. Powell is a British writer, film-maker and musician. His work has been primarily concerned with the use of psilocybin in human history and the present day and with the relationship between humanity and nature as well as the philosophical questions regarding the underlying intelligence behind the universe.
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