Sunday, July 7, 2024

What is Life?

"The world you perceive is made of consciousness; what you call matter is consciousness itself." - Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Is the poppy alive?  How about the honey bee?

Hands and knees digging into the soil, face an inch or two above the ground, staring bewildered at a bright orange pumpkin that is perfectly centered on a 1 foot by 1 foot red brick on the very corner of the garden.  The pumpkin was not placed there by any human, it appears to have found the most perfect spot for it to grow, all on its own.  My eyes trace the 20 foot vine back to the main part of the plant.  The vine appears to have, over time, walked across the garden, bumped into the brick and just so happened to grow a pumpkin in the exact spot where the brick was.

Heart, blood, lungs, breathing, mind, and brains are the building blocks of what the vast majority of people consider to be life.  This is a very narrow definition that excludes quite a lot of what we know to be alive yet for some strange reason, not considered life.

All plants are most certainly alive and thus are life.  A seed is planted, covered in soil, given water, the seed then sprouts and grows into a full on plant that then produces leaves, fruits and other delicious goodies for us to devour.  It is true that these plants do not have brains like we do so they are likely not making conscious decisions on anything that they do but are merely a chain of chemical reactions in response to the environment they are in.

Looking back on ourselves though, we still cannot explain how consciousness arises nor where consciousness lives in us.  We assume it is in our brains but we do not know that.  We only know it exists because of our lived experiences.  If you crack open our brains and break down how everything works it is essentially a chain of chemical reactions in response to the environment.  Perhaps we're not so different from plants after all.

If one spends enough time in the garden, plants appear to develop their own personalities.  This is not to say that they are conscious or that they have personalities but that the chemical reactions of two otherwise identical plants to the exact same environmental factors can indeed vary slightly, giving the appearance to our brains (that are constantly trying to make sense of and assign meaning to everything) that they have different personalities.

In the human world, this is akin to two siblings born back to back or better yet, identical twins.  Those siblings (even the identical twins) will have completely different personalities from each other.  They will most certainly have a lot in common but at their very core they are most certainly their own person and they respond in completely different ways to the exact same changes in the environment - such as someone taking the last cookie out of the cookie jar.  If you trace these decisions back they are indeed powered and backed by chemical reactions and each child will have slightly different chemical reactions from each other (assuming the actual response is indeed different from the other).

We explain away plant life as merely being chemical reactions while failing to realize that we ourselves are also, merely chemical reactions.  If we can't yet explain consciousness in ourselves then who are we to say that other forms of life are or are not conscious.  We know plants can communicate with each other, trees are connected via their roots and the mycorrhizal fungi in-between the roots and they can indeed communicate between each other and warn each other of incoming pests, etc.  which then allows the surrounding trees to mount a pre-emptive defense.  This sounds eerily similar to our own behavior.

We communicate via a hole in the side of our head.  If plants can communicate via their roots then perhaps they have consciousness that lives in their roots.  They may not be able to walk around or talk like we can but they are not us and thus, they are their very own form of life and they have their own way of living.  I am not saying that plants or fungi do have consciousness, I'm merely posing the question, "What if?"

Plants may not have our same physical brains or lungs or circulatory system or thought system that we associate with life and consciousness.  This is a very narrow view of life though.  Life can indeed be alive without meeting those requirements.  As we explore the universe searching for other forms of life perhaps we should keep this in mind.  It's entirely possible that life outside of our own planet has evolved to live to breathe nitrogen or helium or hydrogen or something else entirely that we consider impossible for life since it does not suite our unique and personal needs for our own lives to persist.

Life can take many forms whether they be trees, vegetables, slime mold, fungi or even the wooden table you are sitting at.  A broader recognition of life is needed if we want to have any sort of shot at fully understanding the depths of the entire universe.  After all, if we can't even recognize all of the forms of life on our own planet that are clearly hiding in plain sight then we don't have a shot in hell of recognizing any form of life outside of our own planet.

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