What Is Life?

While we know more and more about the forces of nature and develop new ways of controlling and channelizing them to our advantage, have we become wise enough to understand what we are and how are we different from things not considered live. Maybe, in the daily rush of life, it is last thing we are bothered about.
What is life?
Source - Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEukaryote_DNA.svg)

It Depends on the Perspective

One can try to understand life from various perspectives. The perspective of a scientist will not be same as that of a poet, or a philosopher, or an artiste, or a religious preacher. They are all different, and yet all of them are relevant for understanding the issue.

From the point of view of an objective analyzer, life can be defined by two characteristics: one is a 'functional system', and the other is 'consciousness'.

Life as a Functioning System

Life is nothing but a system that is functioning. Once that system stops functioning, life is gone! That is the

difference between the dead and the living human body. That is also the difference between a dead and living bacteria or insect, or bird, or animal. Notably, in between death and living, lies the state of hibernation, where the system stops functioning temporarily.

Since there are other functioning systems in this universe, can we call them living? For example, there are monsoons that keep happening regularly. There are solar systems, where planets keep moving, and have a certain life span. Then there are water cycles that maintain a flow of water around us regularly. All these are functional systems. So can they also be considered living? In a sense they are. In fact, many ancient philosophies of the East actually consider them living, though they are not similar to our form of life.

Self-Consciousness as a Characteristic of Life or is it ?

Our definition of life requires one more characteristic, in addition to functionality. It is consciousness about the existence of the self. As a human being I am conscious of the fact that I exist. If I become unconscious temporarily, it is a temporary state of damage, which sooner or later gets repaired


and I regain my consciousness. Even animals are conscious about their existence, so they protect themselves when faced with danger. Same with insects, and fish and other reptiles. But what about bacteria, who have no brain? And what about plants? Are they conscious of their existence. Their are some studies and claims that they have some degree of consciousness, but as of now these are more in the realm of adventurous speculation, rather than having a solid scientific basis.

So it would appear that all living beings, as we consider them today, do not have consciousness. Then if we look for other characteristics of life, there are many we can think about. Living beings are borne, they grow, they have a survival instinct, and finally they have a limited life span, and they finally succumb to death. However, if you think deeply about them, many of these characteristics are shared by many other things in universe whom we do not consider as living. Planets are also borne in a way. so are stars, and they too have a life span., after which they get destroyed. Even the machines made in the factories are borne in a way, and die when they get destroyed. So these characteristics do not necessarily define life.

Thus it would be appropriate to say that the primary characteristic of life is that it is a system that functions during the period the system retains its integrity. The higher forms of life have another special characteristic called "consciousness" which completely differentiate it from the non-living.



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