Before launching out on the choppy waters of the fundamental question that
faces EveryMan, it is necessary to clarify what one is talking about. Before
asking about the meaning, significance, purpose or finality of a thing,
one should have some idea of what the thing in question is! Historically,
life (and especially human life) has been seen as something magical or
mystical; a substance extrinsic to or "over and above" to run of the mill
inanimate being. In the second Genesis story, God breathes His Spirit of
Life into the nostrils of the inanimate Adam, made only of base matter,
and Man awakes [Gen 2:7]. The same idea is
conveyed in the famous picture of God reaching out the finger of his right
hand towards Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Both images are, for me, very
similar to the modern myth of Dr Frankenstein infusing the dead matter
of his creation with "life-giving electricity".
The Aristotelian View.
The Thomist and Aristotelian tendency is to view the life, anima
or soul of a living being as its "organizing principal", and to insist
that every living being has such a thing over and against its material
constitution. In the case of all life other than human, this anima
is nevertheless considered to be material: inherent in the physicality
of the creature; but in the case of mankind it is considered to be immaterial:
a spirit, and it is said that it is the fact that Man's soul is a spirit
is the pre-eminent justification for saying that Man is created in the
image of God. The fact that the human soul is immaterial is linked to its
immortality, and the latter deduced (following Plato) from one's personal
experience of self-hood and consciousness.
A Platonic Physicist's View.
I believe that most of this analysis is simply mistaken. I think that reality
is much simpler than this, the answer to the question "What is life?" is
quite obvious. We shy away from it because we fear the implications; but
there is no need: we fright at shadows! My contention is this: life
is order (or constancy) in flux (or change), that is all. Life
is clearly characterized by order and organization. I shall refrain from
expounding this premise. However, just as clearly, not all that is ordered
is living! Obvious counter examples are a diamond crystal, a silicon integrated
circuit, and a virus outside a host cell. These are all static. That is
exactly why, I suggest, they are not living.
Constancy in Flux.
Life is also characterized by motion; not so much locomotion (as foxes
pursue rabbits for food or as plants turn their photosynthetic organs towards
the sun) but by the flow of matter and energy through them. Few
of the atoms of which my body is now composed were associated with my being
when I was born, yet I am the self-same entity that I was then. The constancy
of my being has been sustained by a continual sustenance of food, water
and oxygen; and left behind it a wake of waste products. I am "that which
stays the same" (or, better, has a persistent continuity) while that which
substantiates me does not. I am, just as the Aristotelians teach, an "organizing
"Hence it is not a bad name for the body
to call it a river. Possibly, to be exact, the existing substance does
not remain in our body for even two days. And yet Paul, let us say, or
Peter, is always the same, and this not only his soul, the substance of
which is not with us in a state of flux nor ever has fresh elements introduced:
he is the same, however fluid may be the nature ot the body, because the
form which distinguishes the body is the same."
[Origen: "Selections from the Psalms",
in "Selections from the Commentaries and Homilies of Origen" Tr R.B. Tollinton, p 232]
This is better described as myform,
Platonic terminology. The Platonic term is better as it has no connotation
of an extrinsic or additional or magical force that acts on and within
the matter of which my body is made. My form or pattern has two distinct
components. First it is my genome, my DNA; and the expression of
this in terms of the RNA and proteins that form the wondrous mechanism
that is my body. Second it is my mentality; more of this later. Note that
the first component of my form is, again just as the Aristotelians teach,
inherent in my material constitution. Although information (and so in principal
abstract), it is held physically. Apart from the DNA base-pair sequence
that encodes it,
it is not. Moreover, apart from its physical application
to the specification of enzymes and structural cell components it is devoid
of significance or meaning. In a different context (e.g. as a specification
for the "resurrection body") it would be entirely useless.
Solitons and Squirrels.
Most contentiously, I am now going to argue that any number of things that
are not generally thought of as living are in a sense, just as alive as
a squirrel or myself.
My first example is the Red Spot of Jupiter. This seems to be an unbelievably
extensive storm system that has been active in the atmosphere of the giant
planet for as long as humans have been able to observe it. I do not contend
that it is organic in character (i.e. made up of carbon based molecules),
nor that it is conscious. Consciousness is not a necessary characteristic
of life: a bacterium is not conscious! I do contend that the Red
Spot has a persistent identity that is clear and unequivocal, and that
this exi-stence (this standing-out from its context: the generality
of the atmosphere of Jupiter) is dynamic: dependent on a flow of energy
(it feeds off this flow) and is independent of the particular molecules
which happen to be participating in its form (more Platonic theory)
at any particular time.
At a lower level of being, the Severn Bore solitonic-wave (or
any "shock-wave" phenomenon, for that mater) is also alive, but
hardly so that it matters. Life, as such, is nothing more than an emergent
property of any moderately complex non-linear system! A quality-metric
for life might be established in terms, on the one hand, of the internal
complexity or intricacy of the persistent pattern; and on the other, in
terms of its external robustness: its ability to withstand outside
forces that tend to its dissolution. According to such (a) measure(s) a
squirrel is much more alive than a shock-wave!
From this perspective, the question "is it possible to make artificial
life?" is easily answered in the affirmative. In a trivial sense, every
time an explosion is set off, life is briefly created! Taking the question
more seriously, the answer is still yes. Even though a silicon integrated
circuit is inanimate, the patterns of data that it can substantiate may
easily gain an anima. For example, the "game of life" [Martin
Gardner: Scientific American, Jan/Feb 1971] now popularized as a
standard "screen-saver" on many unix Workstations can accommodate persistent
patterns in flux, even ones that reproduce themselves! These are, according
to my perspective, primitive informational life-forms. Moreover, contemporary
interest in micro-engineering may also give rise to entities that can construct
other examples of themselves from a suitable matrix, and so become building
blocks of a different form of artificial life.
The Ant Hill and the State
Although the individual ant is an organic life-form in its own right, I
believe that an ant Nest has its own anima, existing at a higher level
of being than organic life. If you want to call this hyperlife to distinguish
it from the base animation of the individual insects, then you may; but
I believe this to be misleading. Life is life; at whatever level of organization
its patterning is encountered. There is clearly a "principle of organization"
characteristic of the community of ants, of which the individual
insects are blissfully ignorant; just as there is a "principle of organization"
characteristic of an individual ant of which its proteins are ignorant.
When an ant Nest is attacked or disturbed, the commonality reacts en-mass:
as a coherent entity, in its own right. Of course, the organization here
is rooted in the shared
genome of the many individual ants;
but each insect is best seen as a part of a particular organ of a single
body, which communicate and co-orditate their actions by means of chemical
messengers, just as the co-ordination of the organs of a mammalian body
is largely mediated by hormonal signals.
The anima of an ant Nest is no more organic than that of the
Red Spot of Jupiter, or the Game of Life is organic. Moreover, if the individual
ants were replaced, one by one, by small robotic mechanisms that were constructed
and programmed to behave just as individual ants behave, the anima
of the ant Nest - its defining form - would be entirely unaltered as its
base composition gradually changed from biological to mechanical elements.
The State has a similar relationship to human society as the Nest has
to ant society. The main difference being that human individuals are conscious
of their own roles and to an extent are aware of the existence of the higher
level emergent anima. They can even feel that they belong to it,
and have a conscious care for its continuation: this is called patriotism.
Now one might argue that the anima of the Nest is more significant than
the anima of any number of individual ants. One might even half seriously
attribute such an evaluation to individual ants. After all, their animae
are entirely oriented towards, fulfilled in, and justified by the anima
of the Nest! To apply a similar analysis to human society is clearly Faschist.
Liberal political thought has always insisted that the State only
exists to further and prosper the lives of those human individuals whose
activity constitutes its being. At root, this conviction arises from a
belief that the human individual has a trencendent or spiritual significance.
The Life of Ideas.
Darwin's grand idea of the "survival of the fittest" can be applied to
the interaction and conflict of states, cultural norms and philosophical,
religious or political ideas. All such abstractions are instantiated by
humans who together as groups participate in their forms. The virtue and
utility of a state, norm or idea is established over time in terms of its
persistence. Some are helpful towards the individuals who constitute them,
enabling them to prosper in their own lives. Some are harmful, but persist
nevertheless by infecting and efficiently hijacking a society that is otherwise
sufficiently vital to tolerate the drain which such a pathological "virus-like"
or cultural norm represents. Some would say that (all) religion(s)
are examples of the second type of idea. Others would argue that although
"untrue", religion is necessary in order to give an apparent rational to
human life and prevent self-conscious beings from becoming suicidal
as they grasped the intrinsic futility of their existence.
Why ask the Question?
I suppose that most readers will by now have characterized me as a pure
"naturalist", entirely dismissive of the spiritual and supernatural in
any account of life. Moreover, it may seem that the kind of account I have
given of life: that it is nothing more than "order in flux", and that the
life of a (wo)man essentially the same kind of thing as the transient existence
of a solitonic ripple on the river Severn; inevitably results in the conclusion
that life is of no intrinsic value or worth or meaning. "The existentialists
have it", it would seem. Now, in fact I am not a "naturalist", but I believe
that one can go a great deal further without invoking any kind of non-physicality
or divinity, and in the interest of clarity one should do just that. In
particular, I now suggest that before tackling head-on the question "What
is the Meaning of It All?" one should reflect on how this question arises
in practice. I believe that this elucidates what the question really means
and generates the answer almost automatically.
The problem with Life is Death.
So, why do human beings ask the question "What is the meaning of life?"
I think that it is in response to a dawning on the consciousness of mortality.
Once they realize they are going to die, adults spend a lot of effort trying
to avoid the question of the meaning of their lives by immersing themselves
in activities: work, sex, sport, politics, family life or hobbies. The
aim is to distract themselves from the inevitability of their demise; but
still, hovering in the mid distance, the spectre of their mortality will
not be turned back by such amateurish wardings. None of these distractions
work, and the plight of Man is captured very well by Meatloaf's cry of
honest despair: "I want my money back!" [Bat
out of Hell II]
Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven
Children just get on with their busy lives. They don't stop to think why
they are bothering to do what they do. They just do it and have immense
fun doing so. Every experience is a welcome novelty to them, their lives
are sufficient unto themselves, not needing any justification. It is
just good to be. To be and to have fun: to delight in being. Behaviourally,
this is very similar to the adult attachment to distractions, but in its
origin and rationale it is very different. The child has no fear from which
it requires distraction. It has confidence that its parents have all the
answers and will provide all necessary goods: only when this faith is lost
can adult trepidation take centre stage.
You may notice that my account of the life of a child could be applied
almost without variation to God. God is outside
time, so everything that He knows is new and immediate to Him. God's justification
is only HimSelves. The Divine Being is utterly
sufficient for itself. God is a child. God simply is, and it is
I Am who Is
Ayn Rand's Obectivist philosophy (following, I suspect, Aristotle) ultimately
identifies "the good" with "being". There is no higher justification of
anything than its being so. When men try to justify their own lives in
terms of the purposes of God, they seek to give meaning to their mortality
in terms of the Immortal: but what is God's purpose except just to be?
When parents try to justify their own lives in terms of their children
they do something similar: but if their family line were to die out in
the distant future, what did all their nurturing amount to?
Rand, I suspect, thought that her identification of good with being
was a strong basis for atheism. She would have thought that it made Man
sufficient for himself and removed the necessity to rely on God to provide
meaning and value in human existence. I suppose that many fundamentalist
evangelicals would agree with her. They would want to seek to relate all
significance back to God, and would see my direct identification of good
with being as subversive of this programme. Now, I hope that I have adequately
established that such an identification is in fact the central core of
traditional Judaeo-Christian theism. In an orthodox analysis of the problem
of purpose, the role of God is that of ultimate guarantor of value; not
its arbitrator. What is good is so because it is (good), not
because God asserts arbitrarily that it is good. On the other hand, because
God is the Creator of All; what is is so because God chose to make
it so: as part of an overall coherent pattern, the Cosmos.
The Game of Life
So, the reason why (wo)men ask "What is the meaning of my life?" is because
they have realized that it is going to end. If they were immortal, the
question wouldn't arise. Of course, a certain quality of life would
be necessary to suppress the question. The prospect of spending an eternity
feeling hungry and thirsty and ill (or whatever) would likely raise the
question even more strongly! The "little death" of significant suffering
endured with no prospect of relief and no object in view is just as bad
in its own way as death proper.
One might get board, I suppose, if one took the wrong attitude to immortality.
In Anne Rice's vampire novels [e.g. Interview With
the Vampire: 1976], her undead heroes and heroines have to grapple
with the down-side of their imperishability; some do so more successfully
than others. Some go mad, but some achieve nobility on a grand scale. Perhaps
God gave Adam the gift of Death alongside the gift of Knowledge
in order to prevent his progeny succumbing to sloth, lethargy and ennui.
is a marvellous motivator! It seems to me, however, that (given the
right attitude: which would follow from being in a state of intimate friendship
with God, and the whole company of Heaven) if one's life had no termination,
one could happily spend an infinity of time exploring the Universe, unravelling
its secrets, creating and admiring works of art and so on; just as is envisaged
in the Catholic doctrine of "the Resurrection of the Body". There would
be no reason for doing so apart from the fun of the activity; no purpose
apart from the activity itself; no imperative except the simple child-
and God-like joy of being.
It follows that the true answer to the question is not to be framed in
terms of a specific purpose, as would seem proper. The true answer
is the remark of Our Lord: "I have come that they
may have life, and have it more abundantly" [Jn
10:10]. The whole point of the redemption was to re-establish Mankind's
immortality: once this was done, the question of the purpose of
EveryMan's existence ceased to arise. In particular, the purpose of Man's
life is not to serve God. God has no need of such service. Neither
to obey God. God's only command is that we love: Him (as our ultimate good,
the source and sustenance of our continued existence) and each other (as
secondary goods, helpmates in achieving the fulfilment of our plans and
aspirations). This command is nothing more than a Divine recall to our
own rational self-interest.
Without the prospect of ever-lasting life, no adequate answer can be
given to the fundamental question of "Life the Universe and Everything".
With it, the question does not need to arise.
Of course, according to Tradition (wo)man's immortality per se
was never in jeopardy. The spiritual soul of man (a concept that we have
not dealt with yet) is immortal: however, without the redemption its eternal
destiny was to be apart from God, in isolation, with no (adequate) context
to explore, or in which to achieve anything. Such an eternity is unthinkably
awful: the negative loss of fellowship with God most terrible, but the
positive "fires" of unremitting introspection
resulting in the endless exponential dissolution of the personality truly
Jesus tells us that "This is eternal life, that
they know thee the only true God" [Jn
17:3], for only in a state of friendship
with God, and in the context of the Communion of Saints, will life without
end be wonderfully tolerable: for in the New Jerusalem,
"God .... will be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and death shall be no more, neither shall there be any mourning nor crying
nor pain any more" [Apoc 21:4].
The astute reader will have noticed a glaring hole in what I have said
(perhaps more than one, but I am presently interested in one particular
hole!) I have said that the question "What is the Meaning of Life?" arises
when a (wo)man becomes conscious of mortality (or suffering). There is
one problematic word there, which may not be apparent because we are so
personally familiar with the problem that we dismiss or fail to see it.
The problem word is "conscious". On the account I have given of life as
Order in Flux, it has no role. It is possible to make some further progress
in a naturalistic vein, and to do so is surely worthwhile: but in the end
I think it becomes more and more starkly clear that "conscious" is a word
that signals the spiritual.
Memory and Truth.
The progress that can be made, naturalistically is as follows. In a sufficiently
complicated living system it is possible to conceive of internal
states that map onto and so represent aspects of the present and
past environment of the life-form. These states can be identified as impressions
and memories, they are the coinage of consciousness but are not
consciousness. A diary has such internal states, but is not conscious.
So does an exposed photographic film, and it has no awareness either. Arranging
to store data either in terms of solitonic waves or within a neural net
makes no significant difference. In each case, some representation of external
reality exists in the internal states of the system: making these states
transitory, or their persistence dependent on a flux of energy or matter
(ie living) doesn't add any mystical substance that would make the system
"conscious". We can however legitimately introduce a very important word
at this point. This word is "Truth", understood as "correspondence with
[Aristotle, A. Tarski, K.R. Popper].
The correlation of a memory or impression with the state of the environment
that gave rise to it is its verisimilitude or truth. Of course it is easy
to say this, quantifying such a metric is a quite different matter!
Conjectures and Refutations.
Another step can be reasonably be taken. It is quite conceivable that dynamic
internal states of a very complex living organism (c.f. unixprocesses
on a computer) might represent analogues of external systems, not just
memories or impressions of observables, but rather abstractions: ideas;
theories; and/or models of their future behaviours. Now we can legitimately
introduce the concept of falsifiability ["The Logic
of Scientific Discovery" K.R. Popper]. A theory that makes many
accurate and pertinent predictions is worthwhile: it may enable the life-form
that has developed it to anticipate external threats and opportunities
and so "live long and prosper". It is a "correct belief": "ortho-doxa"
A theory that makes a single wrong prediction, while perhaps still of some
(great) utility (e.g. Newtonian Physics) is "refuted" and must be
replaced, or adapted: generally speaking by some un-justified and arbitrary
"conjecture". Darwinian selection steps in at this point.
So it would seem that a naturalistic framework for some of the most
significant and remarkable activity of human-kind can be established with
little difficulty. Of course, unequivocally demonstrating that the human
brain is sufficiently complex and subtle to substantiate sense impressions,
memories, ideas and theories is a non-trivial endeavour. It should not
be presumed that because one can conceive it might be, that it is
The final step that I can propose in this programme is as follows. Just
as internal states of a living organism might represent external sense
impressions and constitute theories or models of objective reality: so
if the brain is in some way able to sense or monitor its own internal states,
then it is inevitable that it would develop internal processes that modelled
its own behaviour. In more conventional language, the mind would reflect
upon its own thinking. So if one understood what awareness or consciousness
was, one would have little difficulty in understanding (at least in principal)
Mind and Matter
I have no difficulty in attributing the whole of the mind: memory, reason
and imagination to the status of evolving
configurations of the brain. In particular, I see no theological reason
for not doing so. Human beings are, according to Tradition, composite
beings; part matter, part spirit. When we die, while we are "in Heaven",
awaiting the Final Trump and the resurrection of the body, we are not fully
When our brains are diseased, damaged or wear out, our minds are sadly
degraded. Now, it can be maintained that the mind is not substantiated
by the brain and such dementia should be explained in terms of a loss of
communication "between" the mind and brain and the breakdown of the control
of the latter by the former. However, it is fairly apparent that the higher
mammals have not only the faculty of memory, but also a degree of reason
and imagination, yet that their "souls" have traditionally been considered
to be material. While it is no more clear to me that this "traditional
view" is any more part of "Apostolic Tradition" than the "traditional view"
of human homosexuality, this is exactly the
state of affairs that I have been arguing for: in a good deal more detail
than the Scholastics, but still painting with very broad brush-strokes.
At this point my naturalism fails. I can see no way forward. Moreover,
I welcome this. On the one hand, I hardly know what I mean by consciousness.
I find it impossible to put into words. On the other hand, I am convinced
that I am conscious
and that this is the only thing about me that matters in the end. Without
awareness, my mind doesn't matter ["In Soft Garments"
Mgr Knox]. If I was not conscious, I doubt that mere knowledge of
my mortality would cause me to ask "What is the purpose of it all?"
It would be a revealing experiment to interact with an artificial intelligence
and see whether it ever originated the concept of consciousness or awareness
itself, without prompting. Neither outcome would be conclusive; for no
matter how long one waited without this happening, the delay could always
be explained by saying that the AI had never been provoked into mentioning
its own experience of awareness: after all, the experimentalists would
certainly have ensured that the AI had no clue that its human corespondents
were conscious! Equally, if the AI did claim to be conscious, one would
never be sure that it was. The main reason that I believe that other people
are conscious is that I know that I am and they seem to be things belonging
to the same category as myself, so I have a reasonable expectation that
their being and life is very similar to mine.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
One clue to the meaning, significance and explication of consciousness
is one's experience of sleep and dreaming. To an extent, one's consciousness
ceases to be when one sleeps. This suggests that it is a product of the
waking brain. On the other hand, when one dreams one has consciousness
of a sort: instead of being founded on sense impressions of objective reality,
the dream consciousness is focused on imaginary expressions of subjective
reality. Still, between dreams, one's best guess is that one has no consciousness
at all: though it is quite impossible to establish this. After all, memories
of dream consciousness are notoriously transitory, it is not unreasonable
to think that all memory of any consciousness between dreams would evaporate
instantly. Indeed, our experience of sleep would be as well explained
by a suspension of memory as by a suspension of consciousness!
Identity and Memory
It is impossible to conceive of self-consciousness in the absence of memory.
For me to have an idea of my self, it would seem necessary to know that
this "self" was a persistent entity, else as soon as I had grasped that
"I am", the "am" would have become "was" and be forgotten! Persistence
in Flux, yet again. To an extent, my idea of myself is caught up in
the memories that I have of my life story. I know that "that was me, back
then" because I remember those things happening to me.
Nevertheless, I am not my memory, still less my memories of me. Note
how "I" and "me" and "my" keep on appearing in the grammar as well as the
various aspects of my mind (in particular memory, though will and conscience
and imagination could feature in similar discussions).