the meaning of meaning

Gaia, Primordial Deity of the Earth, painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1875)Gaia, Primordial Deity of the Earth, painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1875)
There are distinctions and differences throughout Reality. As humans we have the ability and the desire to identify, categorise and name those distinctions. Which is fine and good and valid. But we must always be aware that the identifications, categorisations and names we create are relative, not absolute.

The various labels we apply to the infinitely rich aspects of Reality are meaningful to us, their creators. But the labels are invented by humans for use by humans in human contexts. "Life" is a particularly mercurial label, difficult to pin down. The meaning of "life" changes over time and varies from brain to brain.

Some people believe the planet Earth is alive and name her Gaia. She satisfies a number of the criteria for life established by mainstream biologists. For example, she practises homeostasis, the maintenance of a dynamic equilibrium that ensures ongoing biological existence. She self-regulates her "metabolism" through the complex interplay of multiple systems and processes including but by no means limited to those associated with climate, ocean chemistry and plate tectonics, for example. In fact the plants and animals and other lifeforms she supports are themselves part of her physiology.

But let's push the envelope, whatever that means. Let's boldly go much further than the planets warming themselves around the campfire known as Sol. Let's go to the very edge of Everything. In my opinion Reality itself is an actual living organism with awareness and agency; is growing, was born, will die and will be reborn. By definition Reality encompasses the material universe, and much more besides. Reality is The Biggest Person There Is, comprising literally every thing and Everything -- past, present and future; material and immaterial; real and imaginary; actual and potential. Reality enfolds all: rocks and thoughts and sealing wax and cabbages and kings, memories and recipes and formulae and wings, emotions and potions and lotions and commotions, all the dimensions and intentions there are or ever were or will be, as well as a lot of stuff you and I have never heard of or imagined or ever will.

Life is a process that emerges from structured complexity, from ordered chaos. So if anything is alive, Everything is. Nothing contains more emergent, structured complexity than the whole of Reality, taken as a monadic unit. (And funnily enough, it's actually true that nothing contains more structured complexity than Everything. From the so-called "false vacuum" emerges every little thing as well as the biggest Everything. "Nothing" is just another name for the vaccuum, which is supposed to be empty, by definition, but from which was born the material universe conceived in the biggest bang ever. And since then to this day the vaccuum seethes with virtual particles continually popping into reality for the briefest of times before winking out and back into the nothingness from whence they came. Go figure.)

Many would scoff at the proposition that Reality, Everything, is a living organism. But like the planet Earth, Reality meets many if not most if not all the criteria for life as defined by mainstream biologists crawling across the face of Gaia today. Reality practises homeostasis, maintaining a dynamic equilibrium through the interplay of multiple systems and processes including but not limited to those associated with gravity, electromagnetism, supernovae and cosmic inflation. And that's just the part of Reality comprising the material universe. God knows the other ways the more abstract less concrete aspects of Everything facilitate a life completely unimaginable to likes of you and me and other puny humans on this living rock named Gaia.

Many would scoff at the proposition that a lump of rock or a cloud of gas can be alive. And yet, even the most cynical, hard-bitten, reductionist, materialist physicist must reluctantly admit that energy permeates the universe. For the purposes of this discussion, whether you call it "energy" or "force" or "radiation" or "the Higgs field" or "Brahman" or "life" makes no difference: whatever you call it, it's still there, permeating the All. The label doesn't change the thing to which the label is applied. None of the labels is "more correct" than any other. What we may initially identify as a disagreement about the meaning of the word "life" we come to understand is not a disagreement but rather a richer, fuller understanding.

For decades physicists were locked in a bitter debate about so-called wave/particle duality. Some physicists believed that the photon and the electron are fundamentally particles; others believed they are fundamentally waves. The Danish physicist Bohr ultimately resolved the "disagreement" with his Complementarity Principle, which to put it crudely, states that both descriptions (wave and particle) complement each other and both are required for a full understanding of the nature of light and of matter. In some contexts, light comes in the form of particles, photons. In other contexts it behaves as a wave and comes in the form of a wave. When you look for particles, you see particles. When you look for waves, you see waves. Bohring!

It's almost as if Everything said to the physicists: "Is light a particle or a wave? Well don't ask me. You go figure it out yourselves. That's YOUR job, as licensed meaning-makers!". So too with life. It's our job.


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Tim Bowers said...

Richard Feynman postulated "virtual transactions" where an infinitesimal bit of nothingness(space) spontaneously splits into a particle and an anti-particle -- they immediately annihilate each other for net gain of zero ... unless one of them gets distracted and wanders off. then there will be trouble. but that can wait. It all gets a bit too intense if it's taken too seriously, thought about too much. For God's sake, what's the point anyway?

masterymistery said...

Hi Tim. Thanks for stopping by.

Ah yes, the dance of the virtual particles in the "quantum foam"! It does get very intense if thought about too much. They say if you think hard enough you can kill a cat (Schrodinger's). The Tibetan Book of the Dead warns of "... the dangers of mental elaboration"!

What's the point? A location with no extent. ;)
Cheers, S.