Last night I read a very interesting chapter in Deepak Chopra’s new book with Leonard Mlodinow, War of the Worldviews. The book is a series of answers that each author gives to questions about the nature of the universe. This particular chapter was called “What Is life?” Talk about an age-old question.
Mlodinow’s answer is interesting in that it seemed to reflect the general approach to this question, as far as I can tell, in the scientific community at the moment, which is to say, dismissive. Dismissive of it as an important issue, or a critical unsolved dilemma. “Biologists don’t agree on the best way to define life,” he points out. And then he goes on to suggest that perhaps the best approach is to just accept that there are multiple way to think about life depending on what kind of life we are talking about. He lists many of the attributes that we see in life—homeostasis, metabolism, reproduction, etc. That’s fine, but listing a series of characteristics does not necessarily get you closer to capturing what life is all about. I’ve read several of his essays in the book, and find him an engaging writer, but this wasn’t one of his better efforts. He just doesn’t seem to make much effort to really get at the question. And to the extent that he did, it was the question “What is Life?” seen through the eyes of a physicist—“if I tell you the physical processes that make up the characteristics of life, then I think I have more or less explained the issue.” But whatever life is, it’s not fully captured by appealing to physics and chemistry. I was surprised that he didn’t even mention agency, which Stuart Kaufmann likes to say is perhaps the essence of what distinguishes life from non-life. I don’t know if Kaufmann is right or even if there ever could be one right answer to such a question, but at least his answer feels more satisfying in identifying one quality we often see when we recognize something to be alive.
Chopra criticizes Mlodinow for relentlessly confusing levels when it comes to reaching for an explanation to this fundamental question. For example, we don’t think gasoline drives a car, he points out. Such a conclusion would be confusing levels of causation, assuming that all answers are to be found in the physics and chemistry of cars rather than in the agency of the driver and the car designer. Or that the products of thought—such as literature or poetry or invention—can be captured or explained by appealing merely to the firing of neuronal connections in the brain. The meaning of poetry and the subtlety of brain chemistry represent difference levels of existence, different levels of causation, different levels of explanation.
So, good for Chopra on that front. But then he goes further, making, to my mind, the exact opposite mistake to Mlodinow. Deepak’s spiritual worldview asserts that consciousness is foundational in the cosmos. That’s all well and good, but in an effort to assert that intelligence, consciousness, and life are not merely the product of evolution but are intrinsic to the universe itself (and to counter those who dismiss these qualities altogether as fundamentally important) he tends to overstep. He has a habit of attributing higher expressions of these qualities to lower levels in the process, as if intelligence in a fairly advanced form can be found at more basic levels of the universe. Is an electron alive? Well, only if we really change our definition of the term. Otherwise, we may be short-shrifting the actual evolutionary breakthrough that biological life represents.
Instead of life and consciousness being the disrespected byproducts of a material universe, Deepak wants to see them as foundational, having been there all along. “Life has always been,” he observes. But to my mind, he is inserting too much intelligence and consciousness into the origin and not leaving enough to develop in the process itself. So I find myself somewhere in the middle of this debate. Let’s make room for evolution, for emergence, for the novelties of life and consciousness to have slowly emerged over time in all their glory as the universe has developed. And if we want to claim they were there at the origin (which is a spiritually understandable thing to claim), then let’s at the very least acknowledge that they would have to have been such proto-versions of life and consciousness, such early precursors of what these qualities are today, that we don’t confuse them with actual biological life or human intelligence. Let’s not make the mistake of trying to insert higher qualities at lower levels of the process. That’s when you start trying to say that stars might be intelligent or Gaia might have a high level of awareness. In the name of standing for consciousness, it’s easy to go overboard and implicate intelligence too far down in the evolutionary chain. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, whose work I respect a great deal, can make the same error, speculating about the consciousness of the sun or planets in ways that are, to my mind, are an unnecessary over-response to reductionism. Not only do I think such claims are false, but they also just embolden those, like Mlodinow, who already want to undervalue things like consciousness altogether and their importance in our understanding of the universe. And it also undervalues the role that evolution plays in the development of all of these qualities, even qualities we might call spiritual.
So, what is Life? To me it seems clear that we barely understand the question. But it’s also true that fascinating things emerge as we try to give answers. Kudos to Mlodinow and Chopra for giving us more food for thought.