Friday, April 18, 2014

Strange Lifeforms

With our expanded definition of Life Itself, a lot of unsuspected things join us in the club, while many formerly living things -- books, people, ideas -- fall on the inanimate side. I suppose Aristotle is the one who first defined the discipline of biology, and it hasn't changed much since then. Or has it?

We are told that untutored children come equipped with the ability to distinguish animate from inanimate -- just as they are able to distinguish between human and nonhuman or mother and all nonmothers, who are second place or lower.

Which is interesting, because it seems to me that biology must be rooted in this unstated and implicit assumption that we already know what Life is without ever consciously thinking about it. I mentioned in the book that no biologist works inductively or additively, examining the particulars and then concluding that the thing is alive. Rather, it's something we are born knowing.

Which is a shaky foundation for a science if this preconception is not examined, or if it is subtly altered. In other words, you can't start with a preconception that needs no justification, and then arbitrarily change it. I'm trying to think of an analogy. Imagine I have the unexamined preconception that Jews are inferior. I then build an ideology around what to do about them, without ever examining the initial assumption. Not a very good example, but let's move on.

Aristotle, like the human child, has a much more general and expansive definition of Life. He maintains that "From the biological perspective, soul demarcates three sorts of living things: plants, animals, and human beings. In this way soul acts as the [formal and final] cause of a body’s being alive. This amalgamation (soul and body) exhibits itself through the presentation of a particular power that characterizes what it means to be alive for that sort of living thing."

But even this is begging the question, because he begins with an intuitive preconception of life, and then tries to account for it, i.e., it is something with soul (or better, anima, to distinguish it from its purely human connotations):

"The [anima] is the form of a living body thus constituting its first actuality. Together the body and soul form an amalgamation. This is because when we analyze the whole into its component parts the particular power of the amalgamation is lost."

I remember reading in The Phenomenon of Life -- my books are still stored away, so I can't get to it -- that for early man (man in his childhood?), Life was the rule, not the exception. For us it is the other way around; we might say that physics is the rule, life the infinitesimally rare exception, and mind an impossibility.

The secular world would call this "progress," but is it necessarily so? Have we lost anything in coming to regard the cosmos as fundamentally dead as a doornail?

I can't help thinking that this is what motivates those extra-terrestriologists to hope beyond hope that there must be life somewhere else, please!!! For to fulfill this hope would be a roundabout way of reverting to the primordial notion that life must be much more general, not just an inconceivably rare exception. If it pops up everywhere, why then it must be built into the nature of things.

Which I believe it is and must be, regardless. Remember a few posts back, about our right to Truth? I think this is one of those rights: you have the right to know that this is a fundamentally living and breathing cosmos with throbbing arteries running hither & yon and up & down, not just an iron mathcage or oneway physics machine.

In the past -- who knows, maybe even in this context -- I have mentioned the crack that it must not have been difficult for Shakespeare to produce his works, for if it were difficult, it would have been impossible. Get it? No one could have struggled to achieve such transcendent excellence, because no amount of mere struggling would cut it. There had to be something else going on, even if we have no idea what it was.

Well, I would say the same of Life. If Life is completely reducible to physics without remainder, then no amount of material shuffling, whether random or determined, could have resulted in Life: you can't get here from there.

Lifewise, if the mind is reducible to neurology, then it couldn't have happened and is not happening now. Rather, it is ultimately just atoms flying about in a statistically rare manner, nothing more, nothing less.

Yesterday I mentioned how certain texts are more alive than others. How can this be? Is there some mysterious force, an elan vital, animating the living text from the outside? No, I don't think so. It's much weirder, and yet, more plausible than that. Again, if Life is everywhere, in this case it would be a matter of arranging words in such a way that they render latent Life present. Hello, noumenon!

Er, how does one go about doing that? Well, for starters, if it were a struggle, it couldn't be done! Let's examine that quintessentially living text, Genesis. It's been with us for a few thousand years, and yet, folks never tire of it. What's going on?

One of the virtues of this translation is that it tries to answer that question by attempting to approximate the original Hebrew much more closely, as the sound itself -- the rhythms, alliterations, wordplay, echoes and reverberations -- conveys the experience of Life before we even undertake an analysis of its meaning. Much of this is lost in, for example, the stately language of the King James version. The latter conveys, say, majesty, but is often stilted where it should sing or scat.

According to Alter, various translations "have placed readers at a grotesque disadvantage from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language." He notes that translators have generally been preoccupied with conceptual clarity at the expense of this more direct transmission of meaning. Furthermore, the clarity or closure is often superimposed on what is intended to be mysterious, open, and unsaturated. The Bible

"cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audience guessing about motives and connections, and above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and image against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution." I've mentioned before that if in the beginning is the Word, then Wordplay comes right after.

In short, some things are better lifed nonexplained, which is not to say unexplained, but rather, explained in a more nonlinear, or right-brained, or imagistic, or playful, or musical fashion. The language is not necessarily wideawake and cutandry, but rather, provokes vertical remesmering, or maybe facilitates a trancelight of its preverberation.

16 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

For to fulfill this hope would be a roundabout way of reverting to the primordial notion that life must be much more general, not just an inconceivably rare exception. If it pops up everywhere, why then it must be built into the nature of things.

I agree, it must be in the nature of things. And yet even so, I wouldn't be surprised if we never find other life - much less intelligence - for as long as we search. Mainly because I don't think it's enough to find a planet in the "Goldilocks zone" of a hospitable star. Nor enough to find a planet in the right zone with the right combination of elements present. It needs the right spin, the right amount of inner activity, the right kind of moon to influence tides and stabilize the orbit, the right kind of neighborhood so that it isn't too often pelted by neighboring bits of debris, etc.

It would be kind of wonderful if we did find other life out there. I just don't think it's likely. And until we discover otherwise, in a way we truly are the center of the universe.

Come to think of it, it would be hilarious in a way if we did find other intelligent life, and it turned out to look remarkably like us, for the simple reason that this is the form most likely to host intelligence...

4/18/2014 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

I have mentioned the crack that it must not have been difficult for Shakespeare to produce his works, for if it were difficult, it would have been impossible.

Just so - which is why I don't believe even an infinite quantity of monkeys with an infinite interest in banging on keyboards would ever be able to produce even a page of Shakespeare, much less the collected works.

Randomness simply cannot generate meaning, because meaning is not random.

4/18/2014 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Looks like Goldilocks just got a little more picky.

4/18/2014 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

...it must not have been difficult for Shakespeare to produce his works, for if it were difficult, it would have been impossible ...

I can kind of see Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar, not to mention Falstaff, all out there waiting around for Shakespeare to show up.

Life is always looking to roll away the stone.

4/18/2014 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger John Lien said...

Randomness simply cannot generate meaning, because meaning is not random.

Very nice.

4/18/2014 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

"don't believe even an infinite quantity of monkeys with an infinite interest in banging on keyboards would ever be able to produce even a page of Shakespeare, much less the collected works."

T'which I say HA!
Doesn't even require infinite monkeys. Infinite monkeys would EXCEED the works of Shakespeare and Christ combined!
...so say some people (if you carry it out all the way to the end). I mean, why stop at infinity?

4/18/2014 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Speaking of Person-stuff, I think we can say that Christ is made of that and no small portion of Divine-stuff.

4/18/2014 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

But I think divine stuff must be the quintessence of person-stuff. Furthermore, non-person stuff would have to be an impossibility, or the very definition of non-existence, because it could not be known or even conceived. It would be totally alien. Maybe evil is non-person stuff, which is why it is so repulsive.

4/18/2014 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Come to think of it, most evil results from treating persons like objects -- the reverse of idolatry, which is to treat an object like the Person.

4/18/2014 04:02:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I think this is a joke:
The other day you said "gender theory" and I was going to say you spelled theology wrong. But then I thought, what's the difference?

4/18/2014 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"Hello neumenon."

Heh!

4/19/2014 06:35:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I notice Rod Dreher has done a canto by canto riff on The Divine Comedy. Haven't sampled it yet, but it might be worthwhile.

4/20/2014 07:29:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Better link.

4/20/2014 07:30:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Both good links, though.

Thanks, and Happy Easter to everyone!

4/20/2014 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/20/2014 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

From the main link:
"Why did I need Dante to gain this knowledge? After all, my confessor had a lot to say about bondage to false idols and about how humility and prayer can unleash the power of God to help us overcome it. And at our first meeting, my therapist told me that I couldn't control other people or events, but, by the exercise of my free will, I could control my response to them. None of the basic lessons of the Comedy was exactly new to me.

But when embodied in this brilliant poem, these truths inflamed my moral imagination as never before. For me, the Comedy became an icon through which the serene light of the divine pierced the turbulent darkness of my heart. As the Dante scholar Charles Williams wrote of the supreme poet's art: "A thousand preachers have said all that Dante says and left their hearers discontented; why does Dante content? Because an image of profundity is there."

That image is what Christian theologians call a "theophany"—a manifestation of God. Standing in my little country church this past January on the Feast of the Theophany, the poet's impact on my life became clear. Nothing external had changed, but everything in my heart had. I was settled. For the first time since returning to my hometown, I felt that I had come home.
"

Ahh. Yep.

4/20/2014 09:11:00 AM  

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