THE MEANING OF LIFE
When contemplating the question “what is the meaning of life”, most people are actually concerned with a more precise query: “what is the meaning of my own existence within the greater scheme of things?” The answer to the broader question is not all that difficult to uncover, and as we focus on progressively more specific levels of life, it becomes clear that each complements the whole.
Three words represent the basic concepts which allow us to understand existence: ‘intent’, ‘component’, and ‘enough’. Intent is what defines the difference between living and non-living, everything is ultimately a component of something greater, and ‘enough’ is the measure of things.
Meaning is found in purpose, and the purpose of life-in-general is to perpetuate. Every living thing on this planet, and presumably throughout the universe, functions with this core intent, and all other attributes exist to enable it. This drive to ensure continued existence is inherent to life, which includes the most basic of life-forms comprising each increasingly complex creature or “level”.
Earlier, we drew a parallel between the behaviour of cells in your body, and your place within the human race. Cells are basically self-contained entities functioning within, and usually dependent upon, a greater organism. Single cells also exist in nature as individual life-forms, which illustrates their capacity for autonomy. On a fundamental level, both situations are the same, in that each is a community of cells. All live and die for the good of the greater organism, whether it be the body or species.
Do your cells possess an awareness? They respond to needs, and communicate these needs to one another. They react to circumstances using innate and empirical input, and are therefore “aware”. These simple entities recognize that they are part of a community because they make, and entertain, requests from other cells. When first constructing a viable human being in the womb, they must be conscious of when there are enough cells of any particular type. When in distress, they relay messages to the brain.
Our perception of awareness is subjective, so likening it with that of another form of life is inappropriate; human reality is uniquely “human”. To go a step further, we can ask if basic living things are sentient. Sentience is defined as the ability to feel, and some reserve this attribute for humans alone; yet we can see that animals experience happiness and sadness, suffer pain, and have desires. We cannot confine sentience to a capacity to discern the full range of human emotions and sensations: we do not refer to sociopaths or blind people as non-sentient, simply because they do not experience all that others do.
The capacity to “feel” is relative to the needs of the life-form, and we interpret it from a perspective alien to all other living things. Because emotion and sensation are encoded within the DNA, and since they exist for the purpose of ensuring survival, we must conclude that all life is sentient on some level. Again, we cannot project human values onto non-human forms. Our experiencing of fear, for example, is similar to that of many other animals, yet incomparable to that of creatures where the “fight or flight” response is irrelevant; for what is a basic feeling other than a programmed reaction to stimuli?
When cells in your body are suffering damage, they are experiencing the equivalent of pain. Their response is to send a message to the brain via a chain of nerve cells. The nerve cells are not feeling the pain, since you obviously do not sense a line of discomfort from the point of injury to your head; they are experiencing an awareness of it. The cells in distress are calling out for help, and the others are taking their message to a higher level of sentience.
As we know, your awareness as an individual is the sum of the fragments of information held by your cells. If the source of the aforementioned pain is having your hand too close to a flame, you will draw your hand away. If the problem is the onset of a viral attack, you will not consciously detect the distress signal from your cells, but your brain will release chemicals and dispatch cells to deal with the situation. Here we see that there are three levels of awareness present within a complex life-form: cellular, conscious, and subconscious; each existing as the total of its components.
A cell is self-aware; “eating”, “breathing”, and reproducing, while interacting with its environment and others of its kind. It apparently knows that there is something greater than itself, for it must “believe” in the existence of the mind, to ask assistance from it. We can be somewhat safe in assuming that a cell does not “think” about the entity that responds to its messages, being that the capacity to reason abstractly would serve no purpose for a life-form existing on this level. The knowledge pertaining to these stages of awareness is innate, and because every cell contains the blueprint used to create this system, all know their function within it.
We can make a comparison between the cellular community and government. In theory, government exists as a representation of the will of the people, serving the best interests of the masses. Of course in practice it is usually quite the opposite, with the population subservient to a monolithic system of controls meant to primarily benefit a select few. Nevertheless, ideally a group of people were intended to respond to the needs of the whole, maintaining the best possible conditions for the community, while directing the actions of the various components of it in order to accomplish this. A government exists because the community is relatively healthy; for if there is no society to serve, there is nobody to govern.
Government is perceived as an entity unto itself, yet it is actually the sum of the portions of knowledge held by each of its components. Almost all systems have a specific leader, yet in most cases this is a symbolic position, and in situations where one person appears to wield authoritarian power, there are always thousands of people at lower levels who are making the system function; without their input, a ruler would be unable to hold such a position.
Political institutions reflect innate programming, and are a representation of our primate clan behaviour. We can compare it with cellular activity only in a perfunctory way, since the competitive nature of politics separates it from the purely logical order of the body.
The cellular level of awareness resembles the interaction among people in general. The members of either community commonly cooperate to maintain the vibrancy of the whole, while dysfunctional individuals are removed, whether it be through the destruction of defective cells, or segregation of antisocial humans. Sacrifices are made by some for the betterment of all, and though this psychological altruism is evident in both microbiology and social animals, it is also where man can differ from the cellular model. The human capacity for selfishness allows an individual to prioritize their own desires over the needs of all others. Clearly, if your cells were capable of such actions, the result would be the demise of the entire organism: meaning you and every cell you are comprised of.
The communal nature of living things is innate, and the responses on this level of awareness are by design; that is to say, they are preprogrammed into the components of each species or level of life, in order to ensure perpetuation. Although humans are aberrant due to their aptitude for self-serving behaviour, overall, we have been altruistic enough to permit our continued survival.
Putting aside the competition amid various denominations, the fundamental concept of religion is the belief in a superior force which controls existence. While individual cells “cry out” to a higher level of awareness when in need, many humans likewise beseech their god. The sentience of the body is the sum of its components: similarly, Eastern beliefs consider everything to be a part of God, while Western faiths use omnipresence, considering God as being everywhere. Religion mimics a natural hierarchy, but is this coincidence, an innate comprehension of structure, or something more?
It could be suggested that the concept of God is a reflection of our natural tendency to establish a pecking order; that our herd instinct leads us to create an ultimate Alpha male. But this would be contrary to primate intent, because each individual innately strives to be the Alpha. If you acknowledge a perpetually superior “male”, all others cannot supplant him. Most male animals spend a lifetime attempting to establish that they are the best of their kind, to ensure mating opportunities; and regardless of how we manifest this drive, humans all live by this rule.
All societies, past and present, have created a version of a sentience beyond our own, even in complete isolation. Obviously, the Western proclivity for fashioning gods in man’s image is a cultural phenomenon without empirical substance, and although much the same can be said of Eastern pantheistic-like beliefs, it is also obvious that they contain a logical element.
As discussed earlier, we cannot detect life-force. Bacteria and other simple organisms can appear to be dead, even for centuries, yet reanimate when conditions are favourable. Capable of existing independently of biological functions, once this force returns to an organism, the life-form continues on with its innate agenda, and in the case of frozen human reproductive cells, construct a perfectly normal being of phenomenal complexity. The difference between a cocktail of elements, and a living thing, is this animating catalyst.
Is religion the manifestation of our conscious level of awareness of a life-enabling energy? A force of a generic nature could account for how species direction is determined, and just as your sentience is made up of the information contained in each of your cells, the sum of human knowledge could be considered as another level of sentience.
When the brain reacts to input from other parts of the body, it is still a case of cells responding to cells. Innate programming enables a simple cause and effect reaction on a subconscious level, the brain cells assigned the duty of applying the instinctive information hard-wired into every cell. Conscious response is based on empirical data; no one cell in the body has enough knowledge to respond to such stimuli, and in a complex organism, only the brain cells store that which is learned. For you to react to a situation that requires applying knowledge gained from experience, you must do so as the entity which is the absolute sum of the contributions made by the lesser entities comprising your individuality.
Even if cells were able to contemplate the significance of being components of a greater whole, the fact that each retains only a minuscule piece of the knowledge necessary to understand this reality means that it would be impossible to fully comprehend its intricacies. Projecting this onto human constituents of a “species awareness” yields the same conclusion.
But your cells are part of a community, all living in close proximity to one another, and the synaptic gaps are infinitesimal; how can we compare this contained bio-system to a species distributed across an entire planet? Yet what is ‘close’, when distance is subject to human perception? We can communicate over great expanses via wireless technology, transferring vast amounts of data using a minimal amount of energy. Mere watts of power allow people on Earth to interact with probes in the far reaches of our solar system. Considering the incredible potential energy harnessed within a single atom, distance is not a hindrance to biological communication beyond a microscopic level.
Proximity is relative to the time it takes energy to cross a given space. Thought processes in your mind seem instantaneous, but are actually restricted by the speed of light, which limits known forms of energy to approximately three hundred thousand kilometres per second. Although ensuring the survival of an individual sometimes requires an almost instantaneous reaction, the perpetuation of a species does not. A species reacts via evolution, and this is accomplished generation by generation. Speed is not a factor when response intervals substantially exceed the time it would take to communicate. This is assuming that all energy obeys the velocity-of-light limitation, otherwise the argument is unnecessary.
Is it possible that mankind, and similarly other types of life, function as components of a “species sentience” without our being fully aware of the role each of us fulfills? Being that our participation would be on a subconscious level, and each of us is the repository for mere billionths of the knowledge required to create the sum of such an awareness, comprehending it would be logically impossible.
Continued as Part 26.