About Life

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. —Albert Einstein

Take your pick.

Preamble Reductionist science has been profoundly wrong about the nature of life ever since reductionist science got off the ground. What most of us learned about the life at school, or absorbed from our western culture more generally – about it being without meaning and reducible to chemistry and physics – has done more, I wager, to blight the future of today’s young people than any other bright idea ever spawned by the Devil.

In point of fact, life is matter that matters and, as such, the ground floor of meaning, hence its own moral substrate. At the same time, life is also its own ground floor, which is to say it is physical and chemical without at the same time being in the least reducible to physics or chemistry. More than this, living things are intrinsically, unpredictably creative, sense-making entities whose subjectivity and capacity for decision-making shape the unfolding of the biosphere.

First Approximation


hey say that modern physics can predict the precise position of Jupiter relative to Earth on any particular Sunday morning a thousand years out. If true, which probably it is, then this is impressive. They also say that modern physics cannot predict, sixty seconds after take-off, the precise position of a Canada Goose relative to the guy standing knee-deep in cold water on a chill Sunday morning in October with a shotgun in his arms. If true, which certainly it is, then this astounding.

Such then are the utterly disparate natures of the only two universes we’re so far aware of: one inanimate, the other alive.

germinating seed

Now it is sometimes said that science progresses one funeral at a time – a telling insight in light of the breathtaking speed at which revolutionary new insights have lately begun to take root in the biological sciences.

Of course, revolutions in science aren’t unheard of, though usually they’re rather slow off the mark. Against that tendency, physics underwent its own breakneck conceptual revolution about a century ago, with such breakthroughs as Relativity and Quantum mechanics.

Now it’s biology’s turn: a revolution in real time that opens space for emergence, lived experience and meaning.

Here’s a CliffNotes-style summary of the subject as of 28 March 2024:

  • Life can be helpfully thought of as a deep-emergent outcome of physics and chemistry – a thesis recently brilliantly expounded by Stuart Kaufman in this 2024 podcast, and with implications for meaning and engagement with the Living World summarized by Andreas Weber in his 2013 online manifesto.
  • Emergence being what it is, this implies that that life is never strictly reducible to its parts and in this sense constitutes its own ground floor.
  • As an aside, it’s interesting to note that biology is the only hands-on scientific discipline that can never directly touch the thing it studies, namely life.
  • Life has purpose, namely to continue, whence evolutionary process.
  • More generally, life is the presence in the universe of mind, will, meaning and, from these, moral substrate.
  • In other words, life is matter that matters.
  • Prolonged cultural suppression of a moral dimension in our human dealings with life sooner or later undermines resilience for both.
  • As outlined in the preceding essay, it’s now possible to point to (seemingly) sound, science-based arguments for active design in organizing a universe conducive to life.
  • From there, we’re faced with at least two possibilities concerning the origin of life: either life popped up sui generis out of nowhere, in which case life is “magical” by definition, or else it’s continuous with tendencies inherent in the universe itself.
  • If the latter, which seems more likely, then the “tendencies” in question must involve some basic level of awareness.
  • Further, this “awareness” is likely operable at the quantum level, failing which we’re faced again with the problematic notion that something can come from nothing.
  • Of course one could alternatively posit that awareness at the quantum level is itself an emergent property of something deeper still; but this only kicks the can farther down the road.
  • Another possibility, inherently more satisfying, is that awareness itself is a fundamental property of the universe and, more than this, that it’s in some way prerequisite to the existence of the universe.
  • In this latter view, quanta must be endowed with some level of awareness.
  • If so, then to be animate is to seamlessly arise from or continuously link to the quantum level.
  • By contrast, inanimate matter – a rock, say – would be linked only discontinuously to the quantum level, i.e., via one or more “emergent” phase transitions on the way up.
  • What’s compelling about this view is that life, far from being an anomaly in a mechanistic universe, is actually a concretization of a fundamental property of the universe itself.
  • Thus, far from being co-extensive with “star dust” of which we are necessarily comprised, we are what happens when awareness in the universe “bubbles up” into will and meaning.
  • To repeat, we are matter that matters – a state of affairs that leaves plenty of room for enchantment with life.
  • Anybody for whom this “science-inspired” interpretation of life is unconvincing should kindly propose an alternative model, one that fits more closely with the overall shape of the universe as currently understood.

Next up: About Emergence