Sunday, August 12, 2012

To Be Aware of Being

I'm watching episodes of Through the Wormhole, reminding me of the cosmological speculations that have been a kind of background radiation in my brain since I was a tiny kid. I'm sure we all have them. This time, the subject is life and its origin.

I wonder about the definition of life. Scientists talk about an entity separate from the world around it, by some kind of membrane, surface, skin, whatever. That entity must be able to reproduce. And that's about it.

The old Greeks were more interested in the ability to move and do something. What makes me able to go where I want to go, instead of just lying there like a stone on the ground? That was the mystery to them. Aristotle talked about a first mover, sort of getting that stone rolling.

Life is hard to define, because it's an old concept that emerged from ancient perceptions of the world. To primordial man you lived or you were dead. In case of the latter they believed that the something making you alive had left the body, for example as a spirit of some kind. How else to explain that someone who was so lively suddenly does nothing and starts to decay?

That gave birth to ideas of an afterlife. Also the fact that dead people were still present in the memories and dreams of the ones still alive. So, death was just as much a mystery as life, and the border between them unclear.

But contemporary science asks the question about life from a biochemical perspective. Amino acids and so on. DNA. That's all fine, but it's far from life as we experience it, and even farther from how our predecessors saw it.

The universe is full of chemical processes, many of them very intricate even without DNA. Movement and change are everywhere. What really stands out is not the complexity of the chemical process, but the fact that we humans are aware of our own existence.

That's the essence of life to us, that's the root to mystery and miracle. We are aware of ourselves. As far as we know, the stone on the ground is not. Nor is the river floating through the landscape, not even the earth and the sun. Probably not DNA either, or any one of the millions of cells in our bodies.

Regarding other animals, I don't know, but I suspect that they have some kind of self-awareness. Anyway, we humans definitely do, and wrestle with it from cradle to grave. That's what makes us alive: we know we are. Otherwise we would not ever be able to ask ourselves what life is.

I think there are very intriguing things to discover if the search for the origin of life is modified into one for the origin of beings becoming aware of themselves. How did that awareness come about and what is its real nature?


  1. I like the thought of afterlife, our body disappears but we remain: our energy.., whatever. If not, how can you explain the little boy, actual Dalai Lama choosing the belongings of the previous Lama

    1. Oh, I can think of a lot of explanations. There are many uncertainties in human interaction.

    2. Anyway, from experimenting I have the impression that awareness is not limited to bodily form.

    3. I have the same impression but with a twist.
      What if we are not an individual but rather a collection of influences that shape our sense of self?

    4. I initially included the question: "Is the universe aware of itself?" But I thought that would be too much in one blog post.
      Still, the thought intrigues me. If the universe is self-aware, every awareness within the universe might just be part of that.