By Aparthib

It is appropriate to look at the issues on Life, death, Life after death (Immortality) from an alternate angle, that is not based on faith (Like the existence of Life after death, day of judgment etc), or obvious observations not requiring any thought (Like we will all die, we are mortal etc), or armchair philosophizing, but based on the hard earned objective insights gained through painstaking scientific observations and scientific thinking that has and continues to revolutionize our thoughts and paradigms. It must be understood in clear terms that scientific insights are consensus based as they are rooted in objective evidence and rational thinking and hence crosses cultural, religious and racial boundaries. Most of our contemporary understanding of Life and the universe are based on these universal natural principles and hence not the product of any specific culture or bias. Let me now proceed with these profound questions, What is Life? What is the purpose of life? Is there life after death? Why do we die? These are old questions although the meaning of the questions (and of course the answers) have changed over the years in view of a wealth of insights gained thanks to the revolutionary way scientific thinking has changed human perceptions and knowledge and the remarkable discoveries and insights that it has led to and is still leading to. To briefly phrase the best known scientific answer today in scientific jargon : "Life is a dissipative structure that has achieved the threshold of complexity to become an autopoietic system." The purpose of life is to faithfully obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics by increasing entropy (Even eating and sex are dictated by this requirement, although our brain translates it into a sense of desire and pleasure for us, hiding the real underlying purpose from our conscious mind). Why do we die? In short because we (i.e most plants and animals) have inherited through evolution death genes from our protist (single celled organisms with nucleus) ancestors that took to reproduction through sex purely due to a better evolutionary survival strategy in tough primitive environments. Death is brought about in a programmed way by certain genes (death genes). Those few life forms (bacteria) that did not and still do not reproduce sexually are immortal, barring accidental deaths. Is there life after death? How can one define life AFTER death to begin with? If that new Life after death must require the same material body then what age should that body be? What if someone dies at age 6. Will he/she be resurrected at 6? What if someone dies at 90? Will he/she be resurrected at 90? Will the resurrected body age again? If not then what is the meaning to be alive at 90 forever or at 6? Unless one can answer these questions, the vague concept of Life after death will be a product of refusal to accept death as a permanent destruction of one's self. All scientific and logical reasoning points to an absurdity of resurrection in the way humans wish to look at it. Some form of simulation of one's life (Virtual reality) is however, possible to envisage within scientific framework, but that would be pure science without any theosophical basis. This has been speculated by Physicist Frank Tipler in his book "The Physics of Immortality", although latest observations point to an unlikely prospect for its coming true (scientifically). (See reference 13 at the end for links to this book). As mentioned before, the question of Life after death is rooted in the human refusal to accept death as the ultimate termination of their identity. This fear of death and urge for immortality results from Self-Awareness, a necessary attribute of human consciousness which makes us distinct from other species, whose primary instincts are propagation, and avoiding dangers so as to successfully pass their genes to net generation. A conscious anxiety due to awareness of death is not present in other animals. Now If life is defined as the genetic code (Which after all directs growth of our body and brain), the program of our living body then yes there is life after death, just as a software program exists independent of the physical computer and after the program has stopped running. Our bodies die, but our genes (and thus genetic code) live on through propagation. And if one does not leave any offspring, one can preserve his/her life by doing a complete genome sequence and saving it for eternity as an information in a database. Someday if biotechnology is sufficiently advanced, a resurrection may not be that far fetched an idea. Although the resurrected human will not be an exact replica of the original, since the brain wiring is shaped principally by environmental stimulus, which can never be the same in every rerun of the program of life. That's why we say that human nature is part(mostly) genetic, part environmental. A similar analogy of software running on a hardware is a nuclear bomb. The spectacular mushroom cloud, the blast, the destruction is just nothing but a materialization of an information or code (The laws of nuclear physics and relativity) with some hardware ingredients (uranium etc). Behind any natural or artificial wonders are nothing but some code (ultimately reducible to the laws of Physics) at work. Some programs need human intervention to run (Like nuclear bomb), others (like life, snowflakes, stars etc) are initiated by nature itself through chaotic effects. But it is only a matter of perspective. If we take the big picture of humans as being part of nature obeying laws of physics then every materialization of code in nature is spontaneous, and human intervention is also a result of natural laws at work. The ultimate example of materialization of physical laws is the Big Bang which created the entire universe together with all its life forms and other structures. The Big Bang was the materialization of the Physical laws (Software) using the hardware of tiny quantum bubble created through fluctuations of quantum vacuum. Thus a tiny Quantum Bubble ended up as the observable universe we wonder at today, thanks to the laws of Physics. Big Bang is certainly a speculation, albeit a scientific one. It is predicted by the same principles of Physics that predicted nuclear bomb which was also successfully tested(Any doubter?). Do we dare question the reality of nuclear bomb? We cannot question the validity of the laws of Physics while placing complete unquestioning confidence in the reality of a nuclear bomb whenever one is built, since the latter is nothing but a materialization of the former. So Big Bang, or some possible variation thereof in future (As dictated by Physics), which is predicted by the same laws of Physics that gave rise to nuclear bomb cannot be dismissed using non-scientific reasoning. Back to the main theme. The questions of life, death and immortality have intrigued humanity since the dawn of civilization when consciousness evolved to a mature state in the human brain from the more primitive reptilian brain. This is a question whose complete answer has not and will not be answered in one sweeping breakthrough or by one human in a finite time. Neither should this profound question of humanity be curtly dismissed with "It is God's miracle, its beyond human comprehension" type of answers. The fundamental fact is that the answer lies in an incremental approach to THE truth rather than a complete grasp of it. Like the geometric idea of an asymptote, to which a curve gets closer and closer to but never quite reaches it, truth about the nature of life and death is a slowly unravelling secret/insight. One can get closer and closer to the truth. A lot has been learned already. Very few of us laymen actually are aware of the rapid increase in understanding that has been going on. We only get a jolt when a flash of news are thrown at us, for example, cloning of the sheep Dolly, the completion of the human genome project, continued development of gene therapy etc. First of all it must be understood that saying that Life is the miraculous work of a Divine creator does not "explain" life, it only puts a closure to the quest for the answer and allows human to go about mundane pursuits so as not to be distressed by the failure to understand it. It is a common human instinct to put a closure to any unresolved questions. one feels uneasy living with mysteries and unanswered questions. A scientific inquiry must go against this instinct and strive for further insights, incremental advance being the goal, not a closure necessarily. That was then, millennia ago when our intellects were primitive that such simplistic answers were put forth. But humanity have come a long way since then. Engaging in vague metaphysics does not get us much further in the quest for truth. Now a genuine understanding should involve a scientific study spanning across a host of disciplines. Although we don't know the full answer to these questions we do know that a lot of insight into life has been gained and also know where to look for them. And it is in the sciences. As I said before, the complete answer will never be known but we can certainly get the best answer available at the current time. And science provides that. One has to look into the sciences with all its modern insights. Every day a new insight is being added to the knowledge base and getting us incrementally closer to the final understanding. Quantum jumps of insight do occur in history. For example Darwin's Theory of Evolution, Mendel's theory of heredity and most importantly the almost legendary discovery of DNA and deciphering of the genetic code in 1953. The experiments of Urey and Miller showed how chemical and physical process can create the ingredients of life if not life itself(as yet). These are facts of life that are universal and crosses all religious boundaries, unlike religious "explanations" of life. Although Darwin explained beautifully how life evolved from simple to the complex but only vaguely mentioned about a possible mechanism of the origin of life itself (The primitive pond). The first scientific attempt to understand the origin of Life was by the Russian scientist Oparin in his 1929 classic "The Origin of Life". He extended the Darwinian theory of evolution backward in time to explain how simple organic and inorganic materials might have combined into complex organic compounds and how the latter might have formed the primordial organism. The first attempt to understand life in a more fundamental way was by the nobel laureate physicist none other than the founder of quantum physics Erwin Schroedinger in his epoch making book "What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell With Mind and Matter" written more than fifty years ago. He anticipated DNA in that book even before its discovery (He called it some kind of aperiodic crystal). Although now dated, it is a mark of amazing insight for its time. This book was the inspiration for all later generation biologists and physicists interested in life's mystery like Watson and Crick who materialized their inspiration into discovering the "DNA", Schrodinger's aperiodic crystal. About fifty years later another physicist from Princeton, Freeman Dyson improved upon Schrodinger's idea and wrote the book "Origins of Life". His ideas have been based on much more insights gained in Biology and Physics since Schrodinger and others. There has been a continued increase in our understanding of life and its origins by scientists all around the world. One of the most creative of them all was the Sri Lankan born American chemist/biologist Ponnamperuma, who was the director of the laboratory of the chemical evolution of life at the University of Maryland until his premature death in 1995. He along with Carl Sagan and Ruth Martiner was able to produce ATP, one of the fundamental building block of DNA, and thus life. His insights into the chemical nature of life's evolution signifies a quantum jump from the days of Schroedinger and Oparin. Incidentally, Ponnaperuma was also the founder of the Third World Foundation, an organization dedicated to the promotion of scientific minds of the third world countries. Ponnamperuma said if God exists then he must be a organic chemist. He called HCN molecule "GOD molecule" because the intriguing way this molecule gives rise to more complex molecules of life. A nice article on the origin of life with some description of Ponnamperuma's work can be found at the site: http://www.rit.edu/~flwstv/biology.html. Another pioneer in life research is Nobel Laureate Eigen. He was able to induce (chemically) RNA molecules to replicate in the lab. This is very close to producing a virus. Viruses are in between living and non-living. Two more pioneers that should be mentioned are Stuart Kauffman (A Biochemist) and Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine (A physical chemist) both of whom have shown how order can spring out of chaos. At the base of it all is the most profound aspect of life which is the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the law of increase of entropy. In fact the purpose of life if one has to find one is to satisfy the second law and to maximize entropy production as I said before. The main attribute of life is autopoiesis, a tendency of aggregate molecules of matter to maintain its identity through metabolism and replication/reproduction. And autopoiesis is the inevitable result of a dissipative system trying to maintain its far from equilibrium (thermodynamic) state to maximize entropy generation. A dissipative system is one that requires continuous input of energy to maintain itself. The more advanced life becomes the more it will have to generate entropy (through waste products). This is the mystery of life. Our desire to live, lust, hunger is nothing but a very advanced manifestation of the laws of physics at work at the cell level. About death, biologists have found that death is the result of sex. As Richard Dawkins, author of the legendary "The selfish Gene" says, death is the first sexually transmitted disease. Bacteria are not sexual. They reproduce asexually. They never die. They are truly immortal. When the primitive unicellular bacterial ancestor of all animals (protists) first switched to sexual mode of reproduction death was an inevitable consequence. We have traded immortality for sexual pleasure. While current insight from molecular bilogy do suggest that longevity may be controlled by the telomerese in chromosomes, but deat cannot be completely prevented. Life is not simply an entity created from scratch from conception to birth. Life is an evolving process that has been going on over billions of years in an incremental way. Our body may have been formed in matter of years after conception, but the program (our genome sequence) that builds us (our body+mind) has taken billions of years to perfect. The most insightful discovery by Darwin was that natural selection and mutation can give rise to a complex life form as human through a prolonged and cumulative action of those laws. The complicated body and brain of ours are not just a creation from our birth to date. We have inherited the blueprint of life (the genetic code) that has evolved and perfected through billions of years of evolution. That's why life is so precious. It contains huge information collected over an incredibly long span of time. Our genome sequence will take thousands of pages to write down in paper. Like a complex software that starts with few simple lines but eventually is perfected into a sophisticated program of millions of lines with contributions from many people over a long time, the genetic code of life took billions of years to be developed and is still evolving. Life will look different and more advanced in another million years. We can never understand life without understanding the history of how life has evolved from the primordial earth with single cells becoming more and more complex by incremental steps. But the process of this evolution of life from simple to complex is purely natural. Down at the bottom it is nothing but physics. Natural selection and mutation is nothing more than a manifestation of the laws of Physics at work on cell/gene level. As Nobel Laureate Watson of DNA fame said "In the last analysis, there are only atoms. There's just one science, Physics; everything else is social work" in his lecture at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1985. This view is also echoed by Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg. Hawking nicely summarizes this view as: Biology->Chemistry-> Physics. Steven Weinberg says in his book "Facing Up", p-22-3: "No biologist today will be content with an axiom about biological behaviours that could not be imagined to have a more fundamental level. That more fundamental level would have to be the level of Physics and chemistry, and the contigency that the earth is billions of years old" Biologist Richard Dawkins (in "The Blind Watchmaker") states that Physicists have to come into the scene at the end of the long chain of reasoning to explain evolution of life to complete the last but not the least significant step. (In this context also refer to reference 7 at the end ). Renowned biologist Earnst Mayr wrote in his book "The growth of Biological Thoughts ('82)": "Every biologist is fully aware of the fact that moleculr biology has demonstrated decisively that all processes in living organisms can be explained in terms of Physics and chemistry" (As cited in Weinberg,"Facing Up", p-19) Physicist Heinz Pagels wrote in his book "The Dreams of Reason",p-49: "Biological systems are extremely complex Qunatum mechanical entities functioning according to well-defined rules."

A caveat must be issued that it is never implied that Physics is complete and all that can be known is known already. There will certainly be insights gained in Physics in future and current concepts and laws may be revised or subsumed under a more comprehensive scheme of laws (Theory of Everything). But it will not at least invalidate what is certainly known and tested today, like nuclear Physics and relativity since nuclear bomb is the litmus test of its validity, among many others. We are misled by apparent beauty and complexity of a product to immediately conceive of a designer with a human attribute. But it is nature which is the designer. Sure, humans as yet cannot create life, but that does not automatically imply life must be a direct product of a divine act. Humans cannot make a naturally beautiful snowflake or a natural gemstone with beautiful patterns either. But we know these are all results of the Laws of Physics. Similarly, life, in all its complexity, impossible for humans to create, is nothing but the result of the laws of Physics, although acting over a long (billions of years) period of time, unlike snowflakes where it acts over a much shorter time span. If there has to be a divine designer for life then it is the Laws of Physics. A beautiful snowflake with its artistic and symmetric pattern is just a result of the laws of thermodynamics and Quantum mechanics. So is life. Life is an EMERGENT behaviour of matter. Life is a result of self organization of matter driven by the requirements to maximize entropy and reduce the gradient of temperature difference between sun and earth. What is the origin of the laws of physics? Here we reach the wall. Nobody knows. If one really has to contemplate a designer, then its the law of Physics that one has to wonder who is the designer of. But at this primal level it hardly matters whether one postulates a grand designer that exists necessarily without itself(himself?) requiring a creator, or postulates that the the Law of Physics exists necessarily without a creator. The former just provides a consolation to mortals in the form of a promise of a personal God looking after each human who will resurrect him someday and bestow eternal life along with the fulfillment of all desires unfulfilled in this life. So this question of the designer of the Laws of Physics has no answer, or better yet, it is not a meaningful question even. Just saying "God" made these laws is another way of saying we don't know. It sounds better than admitting ignorance. But it does not increase our insight by phrasing it that way. Its a pretentious cop out. We can "label" the unknown as "GOD", but that's an affirmation of our ignorance, not a deep realization. But we as human can still spend our lifetime learning and discovering just the natural laws that exist and understand how it (Natural Laws) works and give rise to the marvelous phenomena of evolution, formation of stars, galaxies, snowflakes etc and try to understand life in an incremental way. There is no reason (other than faith, which does not require reason) to assume that the phenomenon of life cannot be ever understood in terms of natural laws. The fact that we do not completely understand it now does not imply that it is not understandable in physical terms. We don't understand weather too, in spite of all the technical advances. This lack of understanding is rooted in the complexity of weather and life. The chain of reasoning based on laws of physics that links a simple molecule to a living organism is broken in the middle due to the enormous complexity of cumulative effects of over billions of years of evolution. In weather, it is the enormous number of air molecules that is at the root of complexity preventing an exact understanding. Trying to understand life however in itself is no trivial a task. After all, its the journey, not the destination that is fulfilling. If there at all one has to find any meaning of this finite life then the best candidate for meaning is the search to find the answers to how life has evolved and will evolve. This is the best use humans can make of their "gift" of consciousness, a gift since it was after all not required by evolution for survival, but came as a by product. If one has to speak of teleology then I think it is best to say we have acquired consciousness so that we can ask how we came about and answer it by understanding the very laws of nature that are at work behind all this marvelous creations (including ourselves) and evolution. Even if one insists on believing in a personal God, what could be a better pursuit than to try to understand and discover the wonderful Laws of nature, reading the mind of God in the words of Stephen Hawking? Surely its a more appropriate tribute to "God" than worshipping. The most intriguing thing about consciousness is that it satisfies a consistency loop (Here "->" means gives rise to or explains):

Physical laws -> matter -> Life ->Consciousness -> Physical Laws.

In other words our minds and consciousness have discovered (through scientific search) the very same physical laws that created it(consciousness) in the first place through creation of matter, life and evolution! Many top physicists, biologists, chemists (some Nobel laureates) are in the forefront of the research into the origin and evolution of life. Now they are being joined in this search by computer scientists (specially artificial life/intelligence people who view life as a software running on the hardware of human body. Some even believe that one day a fully conscious machine can be built!). We are witnessing an amazing synthesis of human knowledge and insights in the dawn of 21st century. Gone are the days when arm chair philosophers were idly talking about their pet theories of life, consciousness etc. Without the new language of genes, DNAs, entropy, Second Law, autocatalysis, autopoiesis any talk of life would now sound like childish babble, trapped in words going in circles, getting one nowhere. It would require a super philosopher today (There are a handful, Paul Davies, Daniel Dennett to name a couple) well versed in all these disciplines to pool together all these separate insights into a coherent story of life. Thousands of pages of results of scientific research into consciousness, mind, life are being published monthly in journals of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, biomathematics, biophysics, molecular genetics, artificial intelligence, quantum consciousness etc. The best approximations to date of the truth of life are distributed among these separate database of knowledge that is rapidly expanding. Some of the key words vital to the understanding of life are: COMPLEXITY, EMERGENT PHENOMENA, CHAOS, SELF ORGANIZATION, DISSIPATIVE SYSTEMS, AUTOPOIETIC SYSTEMS, AUTOCATALYTIC PROCESS. etc. For us, not actively engaged in this quest, the only way to learn about the insights that have been achieved in the search for the answer to the question of life is through reading. Its frustrating to realize that despite reading enough in one's life time one will only get to know only a fraction. But again, learning the truth is a journey, and its the journey, not the destination that should give meaning to our finite life. I will suggest the following books as a start in addition to the the two books above by Schrodinger and Dyson. All these books are written by top scientists (Some Nobel laureates)in the forefront of research. Even reading all these books will only provide the tip of the iceberg (sigh).

1. What is Life? - Lyn Margulis and Dorion Sagan [A book of incredible
insight in to life. A very appropriate title]

2. What is Sex? - Lyn Margulis and Dorion Sagan [This is not a book
on ordinary sex as most understand it. But an evolutionary explanation
of how sexual reproduction evolved from bacteria to higher organisms over
billions of years and how genders became separated over time. Lyn Margulis
is a distinguished scientist with hundreds of publication and is affiliated
with many Nasa projects in exobiology. She has original ideas in biology
and is also in touch with Dyson and other physicists about the latest research
in life and evolution. By the way she was married to Late Carl Sagan. Dorion
Sagan is her son]

3. The Selfish gene - Dawkins. (An eye opener, take a gene's eye view
of life)

4. The Blind Watchmaker - Dawkins (Clearly shows how complex life can
evolve from simple through small natural steps)

5. Climbing Mount Improbable - Dawkins (up todate and more convincing
than above)

6. Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative - Christian De Duve(Nobe
laureate) . Written both in a scientific and philosophical way

7. Life's Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World - Ian
Stewart Below is a summary of a talk by Ian Stewart with the same title
as the book above ( Given on 4/23/98 at the Univ. of Minnesota):

What is life? Why is the world of living creatures so different from
the inorganic world? The discovery of the first secret of life, the molecular
structure of DNA, in the middle of this century, showed that Life is a
form of chemistry - but chemistry unlike any that ever graced a test tube.
Some secrets, however, lie deeper that the genetic code. It is the mathematical
law of physics and chemistry that control the growing organism's response
to its genetic instructions. That is Life's OTHER Secret. Its full understanding
will come only when we combine the mathematical and physical sciences with
biochemistry, genetics, and developmental biology. One of the most exciting
growth areas of twenty-first century science will be biomathematics. The
next century will witness an explosion of new mathematical concepts, of
new kinds of mathematics, brought into being by the need to understand
the patterns of the living world.

8. Seven Clues to the Origin of Life : A Scientific Detective Story
- A. G. Cairns-Smith [A pioneer in lifee's origin. Originator of the clay
theory of Life]

9. At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-organization
and Complexity - Stuart Kauffman

10. The Fifth Miracle - Paul Davies (Speculates on life's possible extraterrestrial

11. Life Itself - Francis Crick(Nobel Laureate)

12. Steps Towards Life : A Perspective on Evolution - Manfred Eigen(Nobel

13. Physics of Immortality - Frank Tipler [An intriguing book that postulates
on the possibility of immortality based on pure physics]. For a review
click on: http://niazi.com/resurrec.htm
or http://www.doesgodexist.org/JanFeb96/PhysicsOfImmorality.html 

14. Web Link: http://www.historyoftheuniverse.com/origlife.html 


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