While pondering my planned post for today on how we define “life” ( as in life on other planets and indeed, life on our own planet ) , the most ironic thing happened. I was listening to a CBC radio show ( “The Current” ) while having breakfast and one of the featured stories was about ” Death Cafes” – an intriguing concept that I had not heard of before. People of all ages and backgrounds come to meetings at the café to discuss their thoughts, anxieties and fears about death. One of the folks being interviewed commented that most of the discussions about death ultimately become discussions about life. They are mutually interdependent on each other and you can’t have one without another –just like darkness and light. Two sides of the same coin, my Irish mother used to say–as she gestured with her palms and turned her hands to the other side. That must be the “death side’–the child that was me used to think. Mom was very pragmatic but being Irish, she could dish out the philosophy with equal measure and had had a metaphor for everything.
But on to talking about “life” and what it all means. The fact is that we are all still trying to figure that one out. So it might seem to be a bit of a moot point to be wondering about life elsewhere in the Universe—but the other fact is–it’s all interconnected.
The online Astrobiology course that I took last Fall ( and full disclosure-barely passed . Guess it helps if one has taken high school Biology 🙂 taught me many things but mostly that science, and this science in particular, is all about the questions. As it turns out, Astrobiology is the science that asks the question that this Blog is all about. My course textbook. ” Astrobiology: Understanding Life in the Universe” by Professor Charles S. Cockell from the University of Edinburgh ( also the course instructor) opens with a discussion of astrobiology and the 4 primary questions that it asks: How did life originate and diversify? How does life co-evolve on a planet? Does life exist beyond Earth? and finally – What is the future of life on Earth?
Dr. Cockell recognizes the importance of at least trying to define what it is we are talking about when we use the term “life”- whether it is life on Earth, life on Mars, life in the Universe etc. The question is asked frequently in this dialogue –by the media and indeed, by all of us who are discoursing on this topic. But are we all talking about the same thing? Dr. Cockell acknowledges in his introduction that “the multi century endeavour to define life is not going to be solved in this textbook ..”
He goes on to say ” However, we can at least engage in a useful debate about what we might mean by the term “life”, How do we define life through science and how is it defined by faith and religion? Are they, by definition, mutually exclusive of each other? Personally, I don’t think so but I understand and respect that many people who are firmly entrenched in both of those communities might not agree.
This is an oversimplification of colossal proportions but it seems to me that most religions attribute “life” directly to God ( or the Divine or Creator or whatever term is used in the doctrine of the particular faith ) as in God “breathes” life or endows it on to all living things. Whereas science ( and Astrobiology in particular ) recognizes the connection between life on Earth and the cosmic environment. The Earth and indeed we who “live” on it are made of the same matter and molecules that stars and planets are made of. We are inextricably linked. But yet we know that we are more than molecules and matter. We are endowed with consciousness and spirit which is much harder to quantify and explain. What a conundrum—I feel an existential crisis coming one:)
I am a person of faith but I have to confess that I am not guided by rigid doctrine but rather one that is fluid –constantly evolving and unfolding –much as, I believe, God intended. I take “Faith” from ” Science” – as strange as that might sound. I constantly marvel that nothing ever really dies in our Universe. Planets, including our own, live and then die when their Star ( Sun ) burns out and no longer gives light and warmth to the planet. But when a large star goes nova, a nebula ( large cloud of dust and gas ) is formed from the materials that are spewed out into space during the explosion. Many nebulae in turn become “stellar nurseries” where new stars and planetary systems form. How wondrous!!! From “death” comes new “Life”! 🙂
Just as people in the Death Cafes observed, a discussion about death ultimately becomes a discussion about life. And if life, whether it be bacteria, a single celled amoeba or an advanced civilization, is found elsewhere in our Universe, you can be sure that any conversation that we humans have as a result, will be informed just as much by our concepts and beliefs around death as much as our beliefs around life.
Would love to hear some other points of view on this.