To Be Aware of Being
Speculations by Stefan Stenudd
A Sunday brunch conversation with a stranger slips into the mysterious, soon to burst beyond the realm of possibility. Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).
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?
August 12, 2012
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I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both Swedish and English. I'm also an artist, an historian of ideas and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.