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What is life? Can You Define it Through Science?

Vishwas Purohit May 12, 2019
The universal question that nobody has been able to answer satisfactory―'what is life?' Is science really capable of defining it? Or do we have to depend on proof given by spirituality to obtain an answer?
During the last two years, science has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity. Amazing scientific discoveries have enthralled generations and increased materialistic comforts beyond the public imagination. As a result, people increasingly view science as a holder of unequaled power capable of achieving anything.
Therefore, one may argue that we should turn to science for obtaining solutions to the present day problems. However, the current state of scientific knowledge is full of gaps and blanks. Therefore, any beliefs and interferences based on it are liable to be changed.
Science has been incapable of providing definite conclusions in many areas. For example, initial theories regarding the nature of atoms and molecules had to be modified as new discoveries provided novel insights into their structure and function. The science of matter is yet to be completely elucidated.
The author of 'On the Limitations of Science', J.W.N. Sullivan, writes that, although our present knowledge of nature is much richer than in any previous era, it is inefficient, because no matter where we turn, we are faced with ambiguities and contradictions.
This reality becomes strikingly apparent when we consider the obscure scientific views on the definitions of life, the origin of life, the evolution of various organisms, consciousness, and personality development.

What is Life?

This is one of the questions that science has left unanswered for a long time. What exactly is the process required in explaining the cycle of life and death? The issue of an unequivocal distinction between living and non-living, animate and inanimate has confused scientists for centuries and is still unresolved.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines life as: 'The condition which distinguishes active animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, functional activity and the continual change preceding death'.
In the Penguin Dictionary of Biology, we find: 'Life: Complex physico-chemical systems whose two main peculiarities are 1) storage and replication of molecular information in the form of nucleic acid, and 2) the presence of (or in viruses perhaps merely the potential for) enzyme catalyst'.
Perhaps if we ask the expert scientists who study the origin of life, we may get a clear view on the definition of life. But even they are confused about it. As Antionio Lazcano writes in Early Life on Earth, 'An all embracing, generally agreed upon definition of life has proven to be an elusive intellectual endeavor...'.
The book 'The molecular Origins of Life' contains a comprehensive scientific discussion, by leading experts in the field, of how life might have evolved, but nowhere does it define life. If we review the scientific literature on this subject, we find that scientists only speculate as how life could be defined but are never sure of their own view. 
They give a very general and broad description of life in terms of growth, reproduction, metabolism, motion and response. Scientists seem to be following the attitude 'it is sometimes easier to study a subject than to define it' of Nobel prizewinner Linus Pauling, avoiding a consensus on defining life.

Exceptional Cases

A very crude and superficial classification of living and nonliving that appears in standard textbooks is that humans, animals and plants appear and behave differently than stones, sands, soils etc. this line of distinction becomes blurred when stationary, lifeless objects exhibit occasional life-like features and living organisms exhibit lifelessness.
Thus, problems in exactly classifying systems as living and nonliving arise because:

1) There are systems which are considered to be alive but do not exhibit all the classical properties and
2) There are non-living systems that exhibit all these properties.
Organisms that exhibit 'cryptobiosis' belong to the first set. Examples from the second set are fire and atoms of matter. Let us consider these systems briefly.
The phenomenon whereby living organisms that exhibit lifelessness during their cycle is described as cryptobiosis (Latin; meaning 'hidden life'), a puzzling natural phenomenon. When an animal or plant becomes so inactive that its life process almost comes to a halt, it is said to enter cryptobiosis.
There are surprising number of organisms that undergoes cryptobiosis, including plants (as seeds), the eggs of some crustaceans and small water creatures called tardigrades. Inactive tardigrades can be preserved in a bottle for many years, where they would appear dead. Movements can be elicited in them by the addition of water to the bottle.
An article published in the March 1983 issue of Science Digest magazine described a study of time lapse photographic snaps of the bottom of the sea, which revealed some amazing facts. An inanimate object like a stone remained motionless at the bottom of the sea for three months.
Then it suddenly ascended one foot above the bottom surface and remained stationary for few hours. It then descended back to its original position. A hand-like texture appeared on another stone. It displayed movement for 12 hours and then remained motionless for 6 months.
Viruses are organisms that defy classification into any of the given two sets. Some scientists say that viruses are not living organisms as they're incapable of independent existence as they use the host cell's metabolic machinery to reproduce. Other scientists say that it's unreasonable to deny that viruses are living simply because they need help to do so.

Problems with the Current Definitions of Life

The present concepts on understanding 'what is life?' are too narrow or too broad. For example, the presence of motion cannot be taken as evidence for existence of life. Elementary particles of an atom such as electrons are in motion in an electric wire, but electricity cannot be classified as a living organism. Such a concept is too liberal to be accepted.
Some scientists believe that life is associated with body architecture and it's movements. A living being would demonstrate the phases of growth, movement, activation and reproduction. Others consider this concept too narrow, as it excludes the possibility of the existence of life on other planets.
Another concept is that living beings are a systematic and a fine union of matter and energy, which maintains its balance by means of an energy store present in the environment. Various life forms are classified as 'living' because they display activity, according to this theory.
But psychics argue that there are souls in nature that do not possess a visible physical form, and yet, they manifest their presence from time to time. The confusion about what is life becomes even more glaring when one reviews the scientific literature on the origin of life, and the evolution of species and the dissimilar views of different scientists.

Extraterrestrial Life?

Life scientists consider proteins and nucleic acids as essential components of living organisms. Some scientists disagree with this, arguing that on other planets, proteins and nucleic acids may not be necessary for propagating life.
Life may exist in other form on these planets and the current techniques and methods used to detect the presence of these life forms may be inadequate to discover them.

Problems in Defining Death

Like life, a complete understanding of death has baffled scientists. And article titled 'Panel Asks: When is a person dead?' published in Science Journal (Aug. 1980) reported the proceedings of a conference in which scientists, physicians and priests from different countries discussed questions surrounding the exact nature of death.
A person is considered dead when the physician detects a complete stoppage of heartbeats, respiration or heartbeats. Some people declared dead based on these criteria have been found to be alive later. 'Life after Life' by Raymond Moody, and other books on this subject, contain many such examples.
In the US, brain death is taken as an evidence of death in certain states, whereas, in other states, the cessation of the functioning of the heart and respiratory system is considered as clinical death. Also, law approves such diverse views. However, the issue is not as straightforward as it seems.
There is a sense of uncertainty arising from using brain death alone as a tool for deciding the death of a person. Brain death experts say that there should be a general definition of death, that covers the failure of heart as well as other medical symptoms. Many believe that medical care should not be terminated on the basis of brain death alone.
Unconsciousness must not be mistaken for death, as there have been cases where people were found to be alive while being unconscious or brain dead. There are examples of many yogis whose practice of spirituality motivates severe self-discipline, enables them to stop and control the activities of the brain, heart, respiratory system, etc., at their own will.
It seems that current definitions of death are inconclusive. A myriad of telltale signs should thus be examined before declaring a person dead. Clinging on to one feature as being hallmark of death would be erroneous; e.g. EEG (electroencephalogram) is a good device for measuring brain activities, but it can give false results when a person is unconscious.

Life and Death: From a Spiritual Point of View

A complete understanding of life and death seems to be a great mystery to scientists, but things start becoming clearer once we step into the domain of spirituality. Life and death are simply two stages of the perennial flow of the supreme, divine consciousness (Bhagvad Geeta).
Life never ceases to exist and death is merely a resting place in the long journey of the soul. As this view of death is not widely known, it appears to be complex and scary.
Man has acquired immense knowledge with the progress of time and civilization, but it is trivial compared to the knowledge that has yet to be discovered. Science cannot help him in this venture. Spiritual quest must begin where science starts to fumble and falter. Spiritual knowledge is capable of explaining the mysteries relating to human nature and beyond.
1) The Concise Oxford Dictionary. English Edition 1991
2) The penguin dictionary of biology. English edition 1992
3) Stefan Bengston, ed. (1994) Early life on Earth. Nobel Symposium No 84. Columbus University Press
4) Joyce, Alan (1996) Brain Death Dilemmas. Community Ethics, Vol. 4, number 1. University of Pittsburgh.