The What of Life (2)

I want to like you, she thought, loudly.

Please don’t spoil it by picking on science in a stupid, fluffy way… but don’t stop challenging, either… find the villains…

She listened, intently, as he talked about the need to ‘see’ it all differently – Life, biological life, not separated from spirituality, but part of a bigger whole that encompassed them both…

“There is something in the human soul that formed and forms an angry and energetic response to reductionism: that the answers are to be found in the dissected, colourless and cold parts…”

He was right… so right. And biology had become the hidden champion of that. Late to the party, having spent a century emulating a physics-derived worldview from which physics was already trying to escape…

The problem was something called emergence. The beautiful patterns of a snowflake, seen under a microscope, were an example of emergence, but there were thousands more. Biologists were used to something ‘higher’ than the dissected bit emerging in front of their gazes. To the classical physicist, this was anathema. Everything, they said, could be solved by the bits… But even physics was changing, as the power of emergent forms began to grow in evidence and presence; but sadly not in time to prevent the widespread adoption of the ‘reductionist mindset’ in education, science in general and in life.

Seized upon by materialists, they used it to savage any example of the ‘mystical’ that dared say it was of the truth… And it took a hundred years before the ‘reductionist fundamentalists’ came to see that their own disciplines were, in this respect, crumbling beneath them. When that day came, the world of biological ‘form’ – the shapes and organisation that life takes, were seen to be a paramount example of how the whole was much greater than the sum of its parts… and this gave a new dimension to what was driving life along its mysterious road.

“Science’s models of how evolution works are incomplete,” said the speaker. “Or rather, the reductionist view of it – not the nonsense of Creationism – though, at the human level, we can understand the need for a compassionate view of our place in the universe, and the person who gives that away is a fool, for we – the human mind – invented that quest for understanding…..”

Dead right, she thought. Okay, I like you… Now, go where I haven’t … don’t blow it….

The session broke for coffee. She sat there, deep in thought, unaware that she was alone… until the woman in the red hat came over and gently touched her shoulder.

—————

Darwin’s theory of evolution was and is brilliant, but it is only half of a ‘ruling dynamic’ that plays the music against which our slow dance of evolution proceeds. The powerful idea of ‘natural selection’ destroyed much of religious thought – but not completely. Within us all, there is a burning need to reinforce our sense of belonging with the natural world – teacher and exterminator that it is.

With ‘reductionist’ thought, which seeks answers by breaking things into their smallest parts, we have trees – but no forests… The reductionists of biology found they had no language to describe them, so, metaphorically, disregarded their existence…

The ecosystem of the forest is as much a guiding principle as the tree. The huge advances in microbiology have shown the brilliance and the limitation of the reductionist view. So it is with the ‘natural selection’ model of evolution, which threw away any idea of a determining principle beyond random mutation of genes, resulting in a new creature that beat its competitors to the bed-chamber. Nature became a thrower of dice, where it didn’t matter what the result was.

But then there were the gaps in the fossils, in the timeline, where entire species came into existence ‘overnight’. Eventually, these became impossible to ignore and it was apparent that something was working alongside selection to change life.

But, before we look at that something, we need to admire what microbiology found in the small, the ‘atomic’, the reduced. What it discovered was the cell, the glorious ‘bubble’ of organic life in which the entire blueprint of the organism was written. This inner code was the gene: both ‘plan’ and ‘means of delivering the plan’ – gene and machine for the expression of gene.

Deep in those life-cradling ocean vents, where the gradient of heat to cold was so intense that something that became organic life had the energy to come into being, we find that the core principle behind what became life was ‘born. That ‘living’ principle was persistence.

Life does nothing if it cannot persist. ‘We’ persist – and yet we change, constantly. Something within us – related to and harvesting our experience of the world – stays ‘me’. This is true at the organic level and at the psychological level. Some ‘pattern’ that is me moves forward in time, with persistence. Imagine waking up each day and thinking we were a new-born.

We are vastly more complex than the first containers of life. We have memory and therefore identity. Yet the same principles are seen to apply. In the oceanic depths, there were no cells, only chemicals: atoms and atoms grouped into molecules. The forerunners of cellular life were chemical chains of proteins that could self-replicate. With self-replication, they could persist .

The fundamental principle of life had been established, but this was just the beginning. Our self-replicating molecules were still part of their environment. To become more ‘complex’ – more organised, they had to begin to separate themselves from the world around them – yet still feed from it… Next week we will look at the birth of a world within a world; as mysticism calls it, a ‘microcosm within the macrocosm’. In terms of organisation and complexity, two of the building blocks of the new picture of life were about to come into existence…

Other parts of this series:

Part One,

©️Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

The What of Life (1)

She was sitting in the front row – the car had mysteriously failed to start for the first five minutes of the would-be journey, as though projecting her future to this point with a mechanical will of its own. This point: the front row of a group of about twenty people, possessing a collective warmth – she had to admit – within which she was a complete stranger.

They had sounded interesting. Not presumptuous, not critical, just friendly and intelligent.

The speaker was talking; a man with kind eyes. He had the relaxed manner of one who had given many talks. He looked at her, smiled and asked the question, “What is Life?”

It was the end of a miserable event curve that had begun with the car’s idiocy. Now, she felt nineteen pairs of eyes and ears upon her and she wished herself away. Instead, she breathed, wishing to rise to this double challenge of being unknown and facing a question to which there was no complete answer – itself an unknown…

But his eyes – which had been on her – were moving away.. Had his question been rhetoric? The speaker raised his voice to address everyone. “We all need to ask ourselves that, for it is the basis of any spiritual exploration…” he said.

His head turned towards the back of the room, where she could feel someone straining to answer. There’s always a resident swot, she thought, recalling her school days…

“I would say that….” rose the voice from the back. Then it paused….

It was the pause that did it, she would later reflect. The pause that spoke to her and said here’s a gap. You can fill it with what you know. Damn it! She had studied biology in some depth; had created a synthesis in her own head, mixing it with her belief in universal kindness at apparent war with the eternal process that was the unfeeling universe…

“It’s a mysterious continuity,” she said, firmly – filling the gap.

She didn’t need to see to know that all eyes were upon she of the intervention. His eyes, too, restored to her – dancing with mirth at her interruption, nodding at the depth of her answer.

“Yes?” he said, inviting her…

She would apologise to the interrupted man at the back, later… For now, she had something to say… to share.

——————

So… what is life? It’s an obvious question that has taken us thousands of years to approach. Even philosophers have argued over its tangles, unable to frame the properties of ‘living’.

As a child, and keen on cheap horror films, we would go out into garden with old milk bottles filled from the kitchen tap and create coloured mixtures of soil, bits of plants and various other substances – bits of old cement from the builder’s yard next door, that sort of thing. We’d jam our palms over the neck and shake the contents for all we were worth. Eventually, and exhausted in arm, we’d watch the swirling mass of usually dark liquid spin like its own speeded-up universe.

Was it alive?

Of course not. But a billion years ago, above the broken fractures in the middle of the deep sea oceans, with their bubbling, muddy vents, powered by the intense heat from a gap in the Earth’s crust, something did live – according to the most likely theories on the origin of life.

What lived there that contrasted with our dead but sincerely shaken bottle soup? What was it that came into existence and sustained itself, miles from the surface of the sea, coaxed into life by the energy of the volcanic deep-sea trench?

The answer is fascinating and multi-faceted. One very good answer is that we did. We came into existence in that deep ocean trench, a billion years ago. The chain of life that began then resulted in us – a being that can actually look back, with some authority, on the history of life on Earth. But it doesn’t just look back; it asks whether this was a unique, freak event, or whether the universe is teaming with life…

The growing mind that resulted from that self-sustaining life-form can still only describe what life is, not why. The ‘what’ is wonderful and mysterious, but the why is either ignored with disdain or avoided. Science is not good at sharing the ‘truth’ with anything not based on its rigorous, but limiting principles. There are good reasons for this. The ages before the birth of rational thinking were marked by sheer fantasy and religious dogma as to what life was. The resulting materialistic swing of science was a natural reaction – and a good one. Perhaps now, though – as the questions of consciousness pile higher – there will be a loosening of what has become science’s own dogma, and a much deeper sharing of what it means to be human. After all, the human mind invented science, not the other way round.

Over the next few Thursday posts, we will take a journey from those ocean vents where life began, making the leap from chemical to organic – and watching it change its relationship with ‘the world’ forever.

©️Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.