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Ontological Hierarchy of Differentiation—Life

[This is the third of four parts—the first part introduces the basic concepts, the second part covers the first three levels of the hierarchy, position, motion, and acceleration; this third part covers the next level, life, and the final part covers the final two levels, consciousness and volition.]

Life

The fifth characteristic I listed under "The Existence We Actually Live In." is life.

Since existence includes living entities or organisms, life must be a possible attribute of existence. So far, the relative qualities of position, motion, and acceleration account for all the characteristics of material existence called physical, or what may be described as "dead matter." What they cannot account for is that aspect of material existence called life.

What is Life?

The existence of life is manifest as a process. A process is a complex action and all complex actions require many changes in motion, which is what acceleration is. All acceleration at the physical level (everything that can be described in terms of position, motion, and acceleration) can be accounted for by the laws of physics. Every action of the purely physical (non-living) must be started and stopped in relationship to other physical existents (including internal components of machines, for example). The life process is a new level of differentiation, because it is self-generated and self-sustained, that is, nothing outside the life itself starts it or or sustains it.

Life is a quality that differentiates between those entities we call organisms, and all other entities. As a self-sustained process, it is the life that maintains the organism, as an organism; so long as the process continues, the entity remains a living organism, but the moment the process ceases, the entity becomes a non-living one. What I mean by an organism is any entity with the self-sustained process we call, "life," and it is that process that differentiates the living entity (an organism) from a non-living entity, or plain dead physical matter.

The behavior of all entities, except living entities, can be described entirely in terms of their physical nature, that is, in terms of the laws of physics. It is because the behavior of living organisms cannot be adequately and completely describe without reference to the life which differentiates them from other entities as organisms that, ontologically, they belong to another level of differentiation.

As with all previous levels, life is a differentiation of the previous level (acceleration), and existents (organisms) with that attribute include all of the characteristics of those previous levels. Just as acceleration includes position and motion, and therefore direction, distance, velocity, and time, living entities include all of these, as well as acceleration, and therefore rate of acceleration, and mass. A living organism is a material entity with all of the physical attributes and qualities of any other physical entity, with the additional differentiating quality, life.

Each level of differentiation is manifest in reality by the kind of existent that differentiation is required for. The previous differentiations are manifest in actual material dynamic physical entities. The life differentiation pertains to those physical entities. It differentiates between those that behave in conformance with all of the relative qualities thus far described from that unique and much smaller class of physical entities that behave in ways all previous relative qualities cannot account for.

The popular materialist view of life is that it is just a very complex manifestation of the material qualities and might be described in those terms. An organism can be studied in terms of its physical/chemical/electrical behavior (as biology does), but such a study will not discover those aspects of an organism's behavior which is "living," because the behavior of a living organism, as an organism requires life, which the physical/chemical/electrical nature alone does not describe.

The differentiation of material existence by the quality "life" does not cause or allow any quality of physical existence to be compromised. In general, physics, and the other physical sciences, including biology, study material existence as comprehended by the first three levels of differentiation. It will never be discovered within an organism that any physical laws of matter will be violated. But the physical laws do not cause, or give rise to, or explain life. For that explanation, the organism must be understood as a phenomena of the fourth level of differentiation of existence.

Just as you cannot have acceleration unless there is already position and motion, because, if there is no position, what could be changed to produce motion, or if there is no motion, what can be changed to produce acceleration; in the same way, you cannot just have life, unless there is something to be alive, if there are no material entities what would be differentiated as living?

Conversely, just as you cannot get motion by any configuration or arrangement of positions, and must have another level of differentiation (change) and you cannot get acceleration by any configuration or arrangement of motions and must have another level of differentiation (again change), so there must be another level of differentiation to get life.

Like all the other ontologically differentiating qualities, life is not something "added" on or "injected" into an entity, but a whole new level of differentiation, the differentiation is another kind of "change" like motion and acceleration, but unlike the differentiation of the physical which is measurable, the differentiation that is life has no physical attributes and is not measurable.

Nevertheless, like the measurable qualities of position, motion, and acceleration, there are specific qualities by which any living organism is identified. They are sentience and purpose.

Unseen Life

Physical existence is that existence we directly perceive, the world we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. We cannot directly perceive life, we can only observe the unique behavior of living organism for which life is the cause, behavior not possible to non-living entities and which cannot be described in physical terms.

All of the physical parts of the process that is called life can be observed, and the physical behavior that it is caused can be observed, but the process itself, as an existing attribute, cannot be directly observed, because, as a process, it is not physical and has no perceivable qualities. It is this imperceivable aspect of life that makes it subject to mystical interpretations.

Life is a real material thing (because it exists independently of our consciousness of it), and a thing whose presence (in living organisms) and absence (in non-living entities) is apparent. But it is not, as the mystics and many philosophers mistakenly think, something added to the physical, it is a unique attribute of the physical which differentiates it into the living (when present) and non-living (when absent).

A Unique Process

The two identifying qualities of life, sentience and purpose, arise from the unique nature of the life process, which is self-generated and self-sustained. The process is not independent of the organism of which it is a quality, however. For the life process, sustaining itself means sustaining the organism as an organism.

My meaning for sentience is somewhat different from the meaning frequently attributed to it. Sentience, pertaining to the self-sustaining life process of an organism, refers to an organism's reaction to external stimuli which is dependent on that process.

A "response" to stimuli is not the same as a non-living physical "reaction" to an external influence. A container of water might react to an impact or sound waves impinging on it, but that reaction is entirely physical and totally explainable in terms of the first three levels of differentiation. The "response" of a living organism to outside influences called stimuli, is an action made possible and required by the life "process" of the organism. If for any reason, the life process should cease, that reaction to stimuli will cease, even though all the physical attributes of the entity remain the same. It is the process itself that reacts to the stimuli, indicating the process "senses" (detects the presence and nature of) the stimuli in order to react to it.

If an organism could not detect a stimuli, it could not react to it. If an organism could not distinguish the difference in the nature of stimuli, it would react in the same way to all stimuli, or react randomly without any connection between the nature of the stimuli and the action. This is what distinguishes a physical reaction from a living response. A response is the result of the organism in some way detecting the presence and nature of the stimuli, a reaction is an immediate action attributable directly to the external influence and laws of physics (even if the reaction is a very complex one involving a computer program, for example).

The particular things an organism will react to and the specific response the organism makes is determined by the organism's nature as an organism. If the life process ceases, the organism reverts to being a mere physical entity, and its behavior reverts to that of any other non-living entity, including its reactions to external influences.

[Note: By a process I mean a continuous action comprised of an integration of actions with the purpose of producing a particular effect or product. The life process is a self-caused process with itself as the product. Life is a self-caused action, the cause of life is life, the result of life is life. Life is the only process which produces more of itself.]

Purpose pertains to the fact that an organism's living behavior is to sustain itself as a living organism. Only organisms exist by virtue of their own action. All other entities exist entirely as a result of forces and laws acting without regard to the entity's existence or continuation, and no non-living entity acts to maintain its own existence and identity.

For all non-living action there is no connection between the cause of the action and the consequence of the action except for the physical one. Both the cause and the consequence of that action we call living is the same, sustaining the nature of the living organism. An organism's behavior is caused by and results in its own existence. An organism continues to exist only so long as it continues to sustain itself as the kind of organism it is. Only the action of living entities has a purpose, and that purpose is the sustaining of the living entity as the kind of entity it is.

Every kind of organism has a specific nature that determines what behavior is required and appropriate for that organism to continue to exist. Those requirements determine the character which the organism's primary purpose will take. Ultimately, then, the purpose of any organism is the continuation of itself as the kind of organism it is and the fulfillment of the requirements of its nature.

[Note: By purpose I do not mean an organism knows it has a purpose, or that the organism does anything in recognition of a purpose. Except for man, all organisms do whatever their nature requires them to do. The "purpose" is how the nature of life is conceived by man; it is not teleological.]

Life is the fourth level in the hierarchy of differentiation.

—Reginald Firehammer (02/09/05)

Summary

  1. Life is the attribute that differentiates a living organism from a mere non-living physical entity.
  2. Life is manifest as a process that is self-generated and self-sustained.
  3. The life of an organism no only sustains the entity as a living organism but as the kind of entity or organism it is.
  4. Living organisms belong to another level of differentiation because the behavior of living organisms cannot be adequately and completely describe in terms of their physical attributes without reference to the life of the organism which differentiates them from other entities, ontologically.
  5. The specific qualities by which any living organism are identified are sentience and purpose.
  6. An organisms sentience is exhibited by its response to stimuli in contrast to mere physical reaction.
  7. If an organism could not distinguish the difference in the nature of stimuli, it would react in the same way to all stimuli, or react randomly without any connection between the nature of the stimuli and the action. This is what distinguishes a physical reaction from a living response.
  8. Purpose pertains to the fact that an organism's living behavior is to sustain itself as a living organism.
  9. An organisms "purpose" does not mean an organism knows it has a purpose, or that the organism does anything in recognition of a purpose. Except for man, all organisms do whatever their nature requires them to do. The "purpose" is how the nature of life is conceived by man; it is not teleological.