The Scope of Life

LifeOur search for answers begins with a question that often creates the most inner turmoil. In a sense, we implicitly feel that we should know the answer for we have our own sense of being alive. However, when we come to articulate the fundamental essence of what separates the living from the non-living, we often only succeed in raising further questions of a theological, philosophical and/or scientific nature.

So what is life?

This is not a rhetorical question, but rather a simple inquiry into the nature of life, i.e. what is it? Unfortunately, this simple question does not appear to have any simple answers, but clearly this issue must be confronted if our search for answers is to consider further important questions that are predicated on our perceptions as living entities. Therefore, we need to try and make some attempt to answer it and here is my initial 1-line summation:

 Life is defined by self-determined action.  

In this context, self-determined action is something that cannot be directly explained by the laws of nature. For example, a simple cell may only have the ability to move left or right, which action is selected might be described as self-determined by the individual cell. Of course, such decisions in very simple forms of life may be little more than cause and effect. However, if you pick up a pebble in your hand, your decision as to when and where to drop the pebble might be seen as a more tangible example of a self-determined action. In comparison,  the sum total of all the complexity associated with nuclear fusion within a star appears to be determined solely by the laws of physics, not the individual star. However, as we forward even preliminary answers to such fundamental questions, they will lead to others equally problematic, e.g.

What is the nature of intelligence?
Does intelligence explain sentience?
I think, therefore I am. Why?

Somewhere along the path of evolution on Earth, the attributes we call intelligence and sentience started to appear. While humanity may consider itself the end-result of this process, this is hopefully a premature conclusion.

So how might intelligent life continue to evolve?

Subsequent subsections will consider this question both in terms of an emerging ability to alter the blueprint of our own DNA and the continuing exponential growth in computer power towards the concept of artificial intelligence (AI). On the other hand, the development of scientific knowledge is also giving us a greater insight to  a universe that has a scale and complexity that seemingly defies our practical experience and possibly even our intelligence to comprehend. So, at this point, it may not be unreasonable to ask another fairly basic, albeit expansive question:

Is humanity the only intelligence looking out at the Universe?

Science would seem to suggest that, in an almost infinite universe, the answer to this question must logically be - NO. But, if this is the case, we need to understand why we have not detected any verifiable signs of extraterrestrial life in the course of humanities search of the night skies over the last couple of thousand years. If we restrict this search to just the last 100 years, and G-class stars like our own sun, then any technical activity within some 500+ solar systems should now be detectable. Of course, there is still the issue of how life was created, irrespective of where. At the beginning of the 21st century, there are some who believe that science may be at the threshold of creating Artificial Intelligence that could ultimately lead to a form of artificial life. However, in the end, it may be that all these questions will only be answerable after we have truly faced up to the next question:

Can we really expect to understand the universe without first accepting the limitations of present-day humanity?