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Conversations With Raymond

The Stuff of Life

Ray and Christy showed up just before eleven Friday morning. After my hug and kiss, Christy went to join Julie in the kitchen. Ray and I went out to the patio.

Ray began telling me about a new writer he had hired that he was very much impressed by. She was apparently very bright and worked with almost no instruction and seemed to have an almost uncanny understanding of what needed to be done and did it.

"The only thing is, Regi, before changing her major, she studied economics and believes economics is the answer to every social and political question. I don't really care what she believes about those things, but she's a good friend of Christy's, so we see her from time-to-time, but never without one of her economics speeches."

We didn't get to talk more about Christy's friend, because lunch was ready, and Christy was already champing at the bit to get going on our discussion of the nature of life.

"I think we concluded that life is the attribute that distinguishes living organisms from all other physical existents. What we are going to discuss is exactly what the attributes of life are."

I nodded to Julie.

"Oh, I'm sorry Mr. Firehammer. I'll get them," Julie said as she ran from the table into the kitchen, returning with a small white envelope, which she laid on the table.

"Well it wasn't an emergency, but so long as you have them please pass them out."

Julie passed each of us a printed card. The following is what was on them:

Unique Nature of Life

1. Self-starting
2. Self-sustaining
    (process and organism)
3. Response (not reaction)
    3a. detects stimuli
    3b. differentiates stimuli
4. Continuity
5. Unity
6. No physical description or attribute
7. Unpredictable
8. Purposive (metaphorically)

When everyone had looked at their card, I began. "Life is manifest in organisms as a kind of process with two unique characteristics: it is self-starting and self-sustaining.

"By self-starting I mean that life only comes from life. I'm not referring to evolutionary question here, only to the fact the only life ever observed is life that comes from other life." I paused. Then continued mostly to see the reaction:

"And that pertains to both prokaryotes and eukaryotes."

Both Ray and Julie were wearing question marks on their fact.

"Want to explain, Christy?"

"That means both single-celled organisms, and multiple-celled animals," she said looking to me for confirmation.

"That's right. It just means it is true of every form of life known. But of course implies much more, such as the fact that there can only be life if there is reproduction, and reproduction might be thought of as another aspect of the nature of life, in which case self-starting might just as well be called self-perpetuating.

"I did not choose to call it that because it is too similar to self-sustaining, by which I mean something quite different from self-starting. Are there any questions before I continue?"

Ray was scowling, but did not ask a question.

"By self-sustaining I mean two things: that life as a process sustains itself, and, more importantly, as the attribute that makes an entity a living organism it sustains the organism as the kind of organism it is."

"The first is more or less obvious. An organism lives only so long as the life process continues. If that process is interrupted the organism dies.

"The second is much less obvious but much more important. The life of an organism not only maintains itself as a process and thereby the organism as a living entity, it sustains the organism as a specific kind of organism with a specific nature. This first aspect of life that demonstrates life is not a physical attribute. No non-living entity performs any action to sustain itself as the kind of entity it is and it is physically impossible for it to do so. Only life makes the self-sustaining attribute of an organism possible.

"Any questions?" I paused.

Ray still looked like he had one, but he did not ask it, if he did.

"Self-starting and self-sustaining may be considered internal attributes of life in contrast to response, which is an external attribute of life, specifically how living organisms relate to all other existents.

"A living 'response to stimuli' is unlike a mere physical reaction precisely because it requires the two characteristics, detection and discrimination. A mere physical reaction does not require either.

"By detection I mean, an organism must be able to "sense" or "be aware" of some internal or external event, entity, or substance. By discrimination is meant, an organism must be able to distinguish between different detected events, entities, or substances.

"If an organism could not detect that which it reacts to, its actions would be mere physical reactions, not living responses. If an organism could not distinguish the differences in 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).

"While science will be able to discover the physical (chemical, electrical, etc.) aspects of an organisms behavior, the fact that a response is only possible if the organism is alive means that whatever aspects of the response are physical, they cannot be sufficient to explain the living aspects of that response, or how life makes those responses possible."

Here I stopped because Ray still had that scowl on his face.

"I know something is troubling you, Ray. If you have a question, please ask it."

"OK Regi. I'm not a physicalist, and I think consciousness cannot be explained physically, but even though I agree with your description of the nature of life, I do not see why all that you've described could not possibly be explained physically. I agree that life is extremely complex, but there does not seem to be in physical reason that complexity could not be physical. I know it is not possible to explain everything about life and living behavior in terms of physics and chemistry yet, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be does it?

"Actually, there is no reason the observable aspects of a living organism, that is the physical behavior of an organism cannot be explained, or at least described in physical terms. In fact, since the physical behavior must be able to at least described in physical terms, because that behavior is physical."

It will become clearer why life itself cannot be explained or even described in physical terms when we look at the next five characteristics of life. But there are some things we've already described that cannot be described in physical terms. For example when an organism responds to a stimulus, the physical aspects of the organisms detection of the stimulus and the physical behavior that we describe as the response can be described physically, but how the organism detects the stimulus and why it reacts to it as it does cannot be explained physically, as I think you'll see. Hang on to that question, though, Ray, so we can come back to it a little later.

"Fair enough," Ray said.

I asked if there were any other questions, and since there were not, I continued.

"Continuity and unity mean the same thing about life as they mean about consciousness. Continuity means for any organism, it's life is the same life from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year, from the moment it begins to live until the day it dies. Unity means for any organism, there is only one life and it is the same life. These may seem obvious but there are consequences. "It is an organism's life that makes it the specific organism it is. Hypothetically, all of the physical aspects of an organism could be replaced, but it would still be the same organism, because it would still be the same life that makes it an organism.

"Unity of life is especially interesting when you consider Eukaryotes," I started when Ray interrupted.

"Sorry, Regi. Just can't resist. 'Procaryotes and eukaryotes and liddle lamzy divey,' he sang, then was joined by Julie, "A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe-oe, a kiddley divey too, wooden shoe."

At which point Julie burst out laughing, then everyone laughed, because no one doesn't laugh when Julie laughs.

Christy laughed too, but admitted she had no idea why. "I know what prokaryotes and eukaryotes are, but have no idea what a lamzydivey or kiddleydivey is," she giggled. And of course everyone laughed again, and we decided it was a good time to take a break.

Julie was still giggling but managed to say to Christy, "It's a silly song. Come help me get some coffee and I'll explain it," as they left for the kitchen.

"Sorry to break up the conversation," Ray said when the girls were gone.

"Why? It was funny and I can see why those words kicked of the thought, but how do you happen to know that song? Your not old enough to have heard it."

"Had an uncle who used to sing it to me when I was a little boy," Ray explained. "He enjoyed my bewilderment at what it meant until one day he said the words correctly and I figured it out. Of course it's the original words that make it fun, and prokaryotes and eukaryotes just reminded me of mairzy doats and dozy doats."

Since we're taking a break, my reader, you might be interested to know, "Mairzy Doats," is an early 1940's novelty song with the following lyrics:

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey,
A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe,
A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe.

(It mimics the way a child might sing:
Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy,
a kid'll eat ivy too, wouldn't you?)

The idea for the song came to one of the writers, Milton Drake, when his four-year-old daughter came home singing:
"Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters."
(Cows eat wheat and sows eat wheat and little sharks eat oysters.)

Here's a link to "Mairzy Doats" if you've never heard it.

The girls returned with coffee and when everyone was settled, Christy took Ray's hand and patted it gently.

"Now, if my Darling can be serious for just a few minutes." She gave Ray a little kiss on the cheek. "I want to know what is so important about the unity of life and, err, multi-celled organisms."

"Eukaryotes," Ray said solemnly, to show how serious he could be. Julie just smirked at him.

"All cells are considered living," I began, "but a multi-celled creature like a turtle or human being is considered a single organism with its own life. If an organism has only one life, what is the nature of the life of the individual cells of a multi-celled creature?

"I can tell you how I view the life of the individual cells of multi-celled creatures, but it is only how I view it. It is not a principle, only a way of picturing it. Since the life of every individual cell of a multi-celled organism is intimately bound-up in the life of the organism, and the organism's death means the death of the individual cells as well, I regard the life of the individual cells as an extension of the life of the organism itself. In other words, the life of a multi-celled organism is also the life of every individual cell of the organism. The life of the cells are not separate lives, but the life of the organism itself manifest in each cell."

I paused for questions, but there were none, so continued.

"The reason the life of an organism and the life of individual cells cannot be separated in a complex organism is because life is not physical; and that is our next point.

"Life cannot be described in any physical terms in the same way and for the same reason, as we discussed, consciousness cannot be described physically, because it has no physical attributes.

"Life is not a physical thing like a substance or even like a 'field,' for example. It is only that which differentiates a living organism from a non-living physical entity but it has no physical properties. It does not have any shape, or size, or weight, or color, or temperature. It only exists as an attribute of living organisms and has no existence independent of the organisms it is the life of. It cannot be described as, "in," the organism, because location is a physical property.

"The only physical attributes one can associate with life are those of the physical aspects of the organism. The attributes of life itself are the five we've already discussed and the two additional ones we will discuss—unpredictable and purposive."

Here we took a little break before continuing. Ray and I had a smoke. I'm not sure what the girls did, though I did hear some giggling from the kitchen.

When everyone was settled again, I continued.

"The behavior of a living organism is unpredictable in the physical sense. The physical aspects of an organism obviously must conform to what is physically possible, but within those constraints what any organism will do in any particular instance cannot be predicted, because the behavior of an organism which we would call living behavior is not determined physically, but by its life. That is the reason an organism's behavior is completely different while it is alive and reverts to the totally predictable behavior of physical entity when it dies.

"Now, there is an aspect of what we call living behavior which leads us to the most important attribute of life, which is that it is, "purposive." On your list I added in parenthesis the word, 'metaphorically,' which is also very important. I'll explain them separately.

"The second attribute of life we discussed is the fact that life is manifest as a self-sustaining process, and I explained that, 'what is actually sustained,' is the living organism as the kind of organism it is. It is quite easy to see that living behavior can be viewed as having an objective or, "purpose," which is to sustain an organism, not only as the kind of organism it is, but as the most healthy and successful organism of its kind that is possible.

"While we can observe that all living behavior seems to be purposive in this way, and that all life acts to maintain itself as the kind of organism it is, and all higher organisms act as though their purpose were to be the best of the kind of organism they are or to live as fully as possible as the kind of organism they are, to literally attribute "purpose" to life would be a bad mistake. That is why I added the word, 'metaphorically.'

"That aspect of reality we call the natural world, the objective reality which is and has the nature it has independent of anyone's knowledge or consciousness of it, does not have purposes, objectives, or goals. What any of it is or does it simply is or does because that is its nature and it could not do anything else, including unpredictable life.

"The technical name for purposes, objectives, or goals, as an explanation of any behavior or action is called teleology."

Turning to Ray, I said, "No songs, please."

Ray just chuckled.

"The teleological pertains only to human beings because only human beings are capable of having purposes, objectives, or goals. Here is one more word about which we do not need to sing, reification, a common fallacy, one form of which attributes characteristics to things that don't have them, like purposes to nature.

"Though life does not have a teleological purpose, it always behaves as though it does have a purpose and that observable attribute of life which metaphorically identify a life's purpose is unique in the natural world. No physical thing, no entity, no substance, and no event behaves to sustain itself as the kind of thing it is, only living organisms exhibit such behavior, and there is no physical explanation for why anything would behave to sustain itself and its integrity, because the only explanation is a non-physical one, the attribute of life."

Ray had a question.

"There is one thing that has always bothered my about the non-physical view of life," Ray said. "One of the most important aspects of the physical sciences is the very fact that the physical is predictable. Wouldn't allowing something beyond the predictable physical allow for the possibility of the, 'magical,' and the, 'supernatural?' It seems to me without physical determinism, just anything is possible, that knowledge itself comes into doubt. If the unpredictable is allowed, how can one be sure anything one knows from the motion of the planets to the progress of disease will be true tomorrow?"

"If the unpredictability of life pertained to anything other than living organisms, it would definitely cast doubt on all knowledge. First of all, 'non-physical,' does not mean, 'supernatural,' 'magical,' or even, 'unnatural.'

"Just because something cannot be explained in terms of physical attributes, does not mean that a thing does not have attributes which determine its nature. Life is not without attributes. All that we've been discussing are the attributes of life, and those attributes determine and limit what is possible to life.

"Remember, life is an attribute of physical organisms and does not exist independently of the organisms it is the life of. Every organism is limited by its physical attributes. Life does not allow an organism to violate any physical principle or change any physical characteristics, life only augments the physical attributes which enable physical organisms to behave in way a mere non-living physical entities do not and cannot.

"It is true, that one aspect of life is that it is not predictable, at least in terms of any physical determinism, though no physical principle can be violated. But consider this: in the entire physical universe, even on this tiny planet, how much life is there? Compared to the merely physical, the actual quantity of unpredictable life is infinitesimal, and the unpredictability of it is insignificant. No knowledge is in any danger because of the limited unpredictability of living organisms."

"Oh, Regi, I just love these discussions," Christy said.

"Well that makes you very odd," I said. "I'm so glad you enjoy them, otherwise there would be no reason for them. Perhaps next time we could have a group sing," I said brightly.

Everyone groaned at that idea, so I had no idea when we'd get together again, but was pretty sure Christy and Julie were cooking up something.