- a non-reflexive examination of what it means to be alive -
Non-reflexive here meaning that I have consciously resisted back-editing based on conclusions reached later in the essay.
A definition of life as we may hope to encounter it independent of our own ancestry has three conditions: life must be a set of chemical reactions capable of
2. Birth and death such that it can be said to have substance and life in the substance
3. Movement (caused by the life in the substance) independent of gravitational and geologic forces.
Fire, that is the combustion of organic matter instigated by human activity and electrical storms, can be considered life, but one that is only partially separate from our life. Fire lacks DNA, and therefore a carbon based body and any of the characteristics of the life of our ancestors. In fact, fire lacks a material body of any kind, which accounts for its relative fragility. Fire cannot endure and passes in and out of existence far more easily than we. Yet fire satisfies the definition of life laid out previously as long as a pure chemical reaction, independent of any enduring form, can be said to have substance.
Does fire then have life and substance, soul and body in the Aristotelian sense? That fire has life - soul - is obvious, it moves independently of gravitational and geologic forces, but its substance can only be detected if the life is removed: when what remains is found to have the peculiar, vacuous, expired quality of the body of a once-living thing.
If then, in creating fire we create life, our offspring take two forms - organic and fiery. To the organic we pass both body and soul, but the fiery only soul - its substance, though present, is immaterial.
If offspring derive their soul, their life, their movement against gravitational and geologic forces, from their parents (as must be the case, for where else could they get it?) are fires not of our making likewise ensouled? These fires are lit by lightening - could the storm too be alive? This cannot be the case - storms do not propagate themselves, they are created by the unequal distribution of the sun’s energy on the earth’s curved surface, and are therefore gravitational and geological in movement. The sun’s movement, though superficially similar to fire, is purely gravitational. Additionally, storms give no evidence of substance, either in life or in death. Therefore, despite its similarities to the domestic fire, the wild fire cannot be alive, for there is no where for it to get its life.
But this is impossible, though they begin in different manners, the wild fire and the domestic fire are chemically identical, the only difference between them is that the former cannot be considered truly independent of geological and gravitational forces for its movement.
Is life then wholly dependent upon its genesis and not its qualities? Could the first and second conditions be removed entirely?
Here it should be noted that geological movement is actually derived from and can be included in gravitational movement (the heat of the earth is a result of the great internal pressures, which are caused by gravity - the exploding volcano is thus, ironically, a gravitational movement).
Reducing the conditions of life to merely movement independent of gravity would not seem to alter the set of “living” things, but this is true only on a macro level. The movement of charged particles is in defiance of gravitational forces, but substances whose movement are dependent upon such forces (molecules, atoms, and smaller particles) cannot be called life because they are not born and cannot die - the forces that give them movement cannot leave them. The only exception might be nuclear fission, but as this is instigated by another living thing it is not problematic.
Thus the third condition could be amended to movement independent of gravity and other forces predicted by the laws of physics. The claim could be made that should the laws of physics be fully understood, no movement could be seen to be outside of them; and therefore there could be no life in the sense that it is meant here, which is entirely possible but not useful for this line of enquiry at this time.
Therefore the problem remains: life must be defined by both its origin and its qualities, yet domestic fire - a living thing - differs from wild fire - a non-living thing - only in its origin.
[see note at conclusion]
The possibility that wild fire is alive must be further examined. Because wild fire shares all of its qualities with domestic fire, it seems reasonable that it too is alive and another explanation must be found for how it could come to be ensouled without a living thing having produced it.
There must have been a point, assuming an expanding universe, at which there was no life. Therefore, given that we are alive, there must be a means by which the non-living becomes the living; and, unless there are multiple means, that same means must be found within a lightening strike.
We have thus far assumed that any life given to the fire came from an external source, (human efforts or lightening) but it would seem possible that the life of the wild fire comes not from the lightening but from the living thing that is struck. In this case the lightening would cause whatever it is that it strikes - say, a tree - to give birth to another form of life, just as we do when we strike a match. But this is impossible, for a dead man cannot strike a match but a dead tree stuck by lightening still brings forth fire. So unless a dead thing can cause life, a non-living thing is still the cause of the life of the wild fire.
We should then return to the issue of the non-living begetting life. It must have happened, if not in every wild fire then in the genesis of our ancestors, yet where could this contra-physical movement have come from?
Only five-hundred years ago a thinker face with this dilemma would have leapt upon the answer of God - big g God, the Judeo-Christian deity. But this disguises the issue, the claim behind the appeal to a higher power is the impossibility of the phenomenon under consideration. It appears then that unless this entire enquiry has been for naught and there is no contra-physical movement, a miracle is required - an instance in which a soul springs into being.
There is another option, if the third condition is removed but the first and second retained, there can be “life” in a radically deterministic (solely and utterly determined by physical laws) universe. In which case there is no sharp distinction between the living and the non-living, “life” is simply a human term for anything that propagates in a cycle of life and death.
We see now that life has no significance without the third condition, the term “life” creates no real distinction without it. The man may well be the popping ember, be the rock tumbling off the mountain; physical movement is physical movement, against which there can be no movement with out a miraculous occurrence.
Returning one last time to the fire, if there was a miracle that took non-living matter and brought forth our ancestors, then we may see the same miracle in the birth of every wild fire. This would be to admit the possibility of the impossible and to hint at movements we have no mechanism to detect or understand. Which would be a rather heinous mother-of-all-paradoxes unless we admit, like Socrates, that we may know nothing at all and that therefore there could be levels of the possible far above anything we currently understand.
Which is still to posit an unexplainable sort of biological singularity instead of admitting that our movement cannot be contra-physical.
In simpler terms, we - the living - might assume what we know to be impossible in order to placate our arrogance. The arrogance being the claim that the existence of the living is more significant, more extraordinary, and more meaningful than the existence of the non-living.
Or more reduced - pride versus objectivity.
Given the stakes (I don’t know how to be a person in a truly objective world), I’m honestly not sure.
The solution to the life of fire, by the way, is not all that complex -
The wild fire has the first two conditions but not the third, its movement is due solely to physical forces despite that that same movement can be caused by contra-physical forces in domestic fire. So in effect, if the third condition is amended the other two can be dropped. And if then the third condition is shown to be impossible to meet, if there are no contra-physical forces, if to be living does not mean as much as was previously assumed, the entire definition of life breaks down.
If there cannot be contra-physical movement, tracking the continuity of the life in the substance becomes meaningless. Robbed of their metaphysical distinction, life and death cannot be states of being with any significance and the distinction between man, ember and stone becomes purely semantic.