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Life, the Universe and Everything

So what is this “being alive” thing anyway? What does it really mean? And how is it different from other things that are not alive?

Our experience, so far, would tell us life itself is quite mysterious and probably very rare in the universe. To explain, let’s talk about some of the things we know about our existence. According to our observations, the universe seems to obey a set of rules or natural laws, as we call them.

One such rule is time.

We’re all very familiar with it, we never seem to have enough of it, yet strangely, we’re not really sure what it is exactly. It seems to be moving somehow in a forward direction at a fixed rate. But our more recent observations indicate that time’s rate of passing may not be so absolute after all. In fact, it may be somewhat different for other observers seeing it from different points of view.

Another interesting rule is gravity. Objects of mass, or substance in the universe seem to be somehow attracted to each other. Left alone in space, they will tend to coalesce into clumps–stars, planets, comets, asteroids, black holes and the like.

It seems fortunate that we are held by gravity to this large spinning globe we live on, along with an adequate and replenishable supply of oxygen, also held here by the same force. If not for gravity, we would be hurled off into space by our own inertia and be unable to obtain the food and oxygen needed to sustain our lives. Still, we hope gravity does not bring some other stray clump of matter crashing into our earth. If it does, we think we are unlikely to survive.

Another natural law has to do with energy. There seems to be a fixed, or finite amount of it out there. It can manifest itself as objects of mass such as the things we touch or feel, or it might just exist as heat or waves of electromagnetic radiation. At times, mass can become energy or energy can even become mass. But the total amount of the stuff in existence doesn’t seem to change over time.

With some objects, particularly very small ones, it is difficult to determine if they exist as mass or energy. Sometimes when we look at them, they behave as we would expect a mass to behave. Other times (particularly when we’re not “looking”) they behave more like energy, or waves. As we study things of smaller and smaller size, they behave less like what we are accustomed to in our normal experience, and more like something very different.

One of the most intriguing laws of the universe is related to time, and the way things tend to break down as time progresses. This phenomenon is called entropy. The law of entropy simply tells us that as time goes by, things seem to get more and more chaotic, or disorganized. In a way, it may be entropy that defines the forward direction in which time moves, or seems to move.

One classic example of entropy involves a jar filled with marbles of 3 different colors. If you carefully fill the jar first with a layer of red, then a layer of white and finally a layer of blue, the marbles could be said to be “organized” in some way–by color, for example. It would take a fair amount of work to get them organized in just this way. And if you then left the jar sitting around, particularly in an area with children in it, the most likely scenario when you came back later is, the marbles would no longer be organized.

If you just shake the jar yourself, the marbles will start to “disorganize” themselves into what we might call a random distribution. The marbles will eventually become so random that if you reach into the jar blindfolded and extract a marble, you will have a perfectly even probability of finding a marble of any of the three colors. In other words, one third of the time you will get a red marble, one third of the time a white marble, and one third of the time a blue marble.

The more times you repeat this experiment, the more exact this “one third” distribution can be measured. Theoretically, if you continued to shake the jar enough times, eventually the marbles could conceivably fall together back into their original and organized state, layered by color. But the chances of this happening seem so incredibly small and the outcome so rare, we would say it is practically impossible.

You may think this seems obvious or even trivial. Of course, when we shake a jar, it is extremely unlikely for the marbles to end up in evenly organized layers. Everyone knows, the more you shake things, the more mixed up they become. But why? And if everything always gets less organized over time, then how is it that anything ever got organized in the first place?

One reason entropy is so fascinating is because of the implications of what it means to be alive. However old the earth truly is, it seems to have been here much longer than we have. However long the universe has been around, there has clearly been a lot of time go by. And there has certainly been a lot of “shaking” going on.

How is it that anything is still organized at all after all this time? How could there still be a clump of hydrogen and helium burning nearby that gives us just the right amount of heat and energy to sustain life? Why is it that the globe we inhabit has a very different chemical composition–but just what we need to sustain life? And how is it there is life at all?

Anyone who has studied even elementary biology will recognize that living organisms are very organized and complex. Our DNA itself is perhaps the ultimate in organized matter, containing groups of atoms intricately arrayed in such a way that they can store, replicate and express every single characteristic of our physical embodiment, or what biologists would call our “phenotype.” The DNA molecule represents a much higher level of organization than the jar filled with organized rows of marbles. We said the chances of the marbles falling together by chance into a particular organized state is so rare, we would consider it impossible. But in reality it is billions of times more likely than if we shook a bunch of atoms together inside a jar and expected them to fall together into a functional DNA molecule.

Yet there it is, DNA exists. And here we are. And not only do we have DNA molecules, but we have all the physical manifestations of that DNA such as eyes, ears, lungs, heart, blood and bones. It all works together in amazing ways to keep us alive, eating, sleeping, reproducing and waiting. How did this all happen in a universe where things tend to get less and less orderly over time?

Again, the purpose of this book is to unite–not to divide. And historically, the attempt to answer these important questions has probably divided more people than it has brought together. So rather than attempting to answer it, let’s instead focus on how marvelous it is that we each exist as willful and sentient beings who can ask and answer such questions individually, and to our own satisfaction.

We can each have our own beliefs about what life is, whether it came from somewhere and if so, from where or from whom. The truth will not be changed depending on how many people believe one way or another. But truth can certainly be pursued in a variety of different ways, and no one has to worry that someone else may be pursuing it in his or her own, unique way. Isn’t it great, we each get to choose what we will believe and how we will arrive at those beliefs?

Most of us should be able to agree on the existence of entropy–the idea that the universe seems to be moving in a direction where things tend to break down and decay. Isn’t it interesting, living things appear somehow to move in the opposite direction? When a force such as wind or rain is applied to something dead like a mountain of stone, the result is erosion. The mountain eventually ends up in the valley and all things tend to flatten out over time.

But when a living thing encounters an opposing force, it often reacts by resisting and becoming stronger. And even when it doesn’t, often we can “zoom out” and look at things on a larger scale. For example, an organism’s species can be viewed as a kind of a macro-organism, and it too seems to be alive. Even as an opposing force may kill off an individual organism, still it often ends up strengthening the species itself, making it more resilient to that force in future generations. Even as the mountains are eroded by the weather, the earth itself is somehow alive with internal tectonic cycles gradually pushing up new mountains as the old ones fall away.

This is the basis for how evolution works. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. When you exercise, you are breaking down your muscles. You may even lose certain cells in the process. But your body builds back up even stronger so you will be better prepared for the next time. In the same way, when a predator or a virus picks off weaker organisms from a living population, the population itself becomes stronger, wiser or more resilient so it can propagate and better survive.

Dead things tend to erode and break down. Living things tend to organize, heal and strengthen themselves. They do tend to produce a net trail of entropy in their wake as they go through the process of staying alive, so the total disorder in the system is still increasing. But living things do seem to fight back in a way that dead things do not.

They do rise in the midst of adversity. They do progress and often become better and more organized over time. Whether this is an endowment from a divine creator or merely an artifact of the big bang and statistical chance, we may never settle to everyone’s satisfaction. But it is a critical fact of our existence which we should attempt to better understand as we determine how we will interact with one another in the context of social organizations.

So, let us recognize what we observe and see if there are some things we can agree on.

  • We live in an entropic world–things tend to break down over time.
  • Living things appear to reverse entropy, at least for a time and within some limited scope.
  • Living things require ongoing energy to continue living, adapting and organizing.
  • Some living things get their energy directly from the sun.
  • Others get their energy by exploiting other things that are, or have been alive.

Whether you call this “the plan of a supreme being,” “the circle of life,” “dog eat dog” or “a very rare and fortuitous coincidence,” this is the basis for your set of beliefs, or what we will call your Faith. This word is chosen purposely in order to make an important point. We will capitalize it when it is used in this context.

It doesn’t matter whether your Faith is expressed by membership in a religion, devotion to a political party, or confidence in a particular set of scientific theories. It is still a belief system.

It is ultimately a way of thinking about and explaining the phenomena of life and existence. It is an attempt to answer what we might call the “big questions” such as “what are we,” “where did we come from,” “why are we here,” and “what will happen to us when we die?”

So far in our experience, no one has been able to definitively prove their answers to the big questions in a way that satisfies everyone else. Rather, it seems, we all believe what we will, just because that is what we believe–not because it is the only, or perhaps even the most likely explanation.

We typically believe in things because we feel they are right. Some parts of our beliefs can be explained or perhaps even proven in some way. But other parts that are not yet explainable, we often just accept as axioms or tenets. These are the things we still have to “just believe” or “have faith in.” This constitutes our Faith.

In addition to laws of the universe, there are also laws of human behavior. For example:

  • Different people tend to answer the big questions differently.
  • Stated another way, different people have different Faiths.
  • Different people have varying desires, standards and ideas about how to live their lives.

This leads to another big question each of us has to answer for ourselves:

Are you OK with that?

What if the people around you subscribe to a different Faith? Does someone need to set them straight? Or is it possible to get along and even cooperate in the midst of this diversity of opinion?

We may answer that question in two ways:

  • The one we show by our words, or
  • The one we show by our actions.

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