DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Life

The pace of change in our expanding local worlds is increasing rapidly. As it does, many are becoming more aware of the great varieties of life on our planet. Television programs about nature have raised the profile of the natural world, while economic globalisation is ensuring greater contact between cultures. Pressures on the environment are posing the possibility that our planet may be under threat. Suddenly life itself is pushing to the forefront of our concerns.

The slogan "pro-life" has been seriously devalued of late. It has been perverted to refer to a narrow band of human concern - namely, the anti-abortion lobby. The pity of the devaluation is that the phrase could be used to refer to Life with a capital L, arguably the most important aspect of the universe we live in.

Until very recently the word "life" has usually referred to a mysterious force which activates otherwise dead matter. Aristotle, some 2 300 years ago, thought that life generated itself spontaneously. His opinion prevailed until the middle of the 19th century, before which it was thought that some mysterious "vital principle" was behind the observed growth of bacteria in various scientific experiments.

Many theories were advanced about how life began on earth, including that of Svante Arrhenius who in 1907 proposed that life had always existed in spores floating in space, driven across the universe by solar winds and eventually landing in earth's atmosphere. This theory mutates into various forms from time-to-time even today.

Since then it has been shown, conclusively in my opinion, that it's probably impossible to specify an exact on-off line between life and non-life. The origin of life is almost certainly the gradual build-up of complex chemicals which, at some unknown point, display characteristics of what we usually call "life". That is, they

  • replicate themselves;
  • they swap energy with their surroundings; 
  • and in the process they gradually increase levels of self-organisation.

Viruses pose a problem to this definition. This is because they are fundamentally non-living chemicals which do reproduce - but only when in contact with certain other chemicals, usually those within a biological system. An influenza virus is not activated until it lodges in a living being. Some complex chemicals display characteristics of life, but can't easily be called alive in the usual sense of the word [1].

Eventually, over some 2.5 billion years, simple living entities (single-cell amoeba and the like) on earth have increased the levels of organisation and developed into human beings, the most complex form of life we know. (This statement is less profound than it appears. The chances of humans being able to recognise living systems significantly more complex than themselves may be slight. Does a chimpanzee think you're human, or just a strange type of chimp?)

There is a sense in which, given that it consists mostly of non-living matter, the otherwise inanimate universe has, through human beings, begun to "think" and be self-reflective. But it's worth noting at this point that we don't know what comprises some ninety percent of the universe. When we add up the mass of all known matter and compare it with other measurements, about four-fifths of "everything" is missing. At present this is called "dark energy" - which, as far as I can tell, really means that nobody knows what it is.

The above starting point for the huge subject of life was chosen to eliminate the likelihood that life can be created, ended or manipulated by magic or by other ritualistic or mental powers. The bottom line is that life is chemically-based. Even in the most sophisticated forms of living organism, the disruption of certain simple but key chemical processes can be lethal.

Before discussing the possible meaning and value of life, it's useful to pay a short visit to a very new way of perceiving life - that of life as a type of electro-chemical system. Some think that this way of perceiving the universe is about to revolutionise human thought and society. Be that as it may, a systems view of life is profound at one level, and practically useful at another.

The possibility of describing reality in terms of systems was first proposed in the early 1920s by biologists. But it had been foreshadowed by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, whose new ways of describing the planets implied a complex solar system, even though they didn't think of it exactly in that way. A living system can be described like this (covering only the basic aspects) [2]:

  • A living system, like all other systems, consists of a number of elements which combine and interact to produce an entity which is more than merely the adding together of those elements (i.e. "more than the sum of the parts"). So a human being is more than its arms and legs and all its other parts.
  • Like all other systems, living entities seek a state of equilibrium ("homeostasis"). That is, when they are disturbed or unbalanced they attempt to restore the state which existed before the disturbance. Few, if any, living systems ever achieve absolute homeostasis. Rather, they constantly seek to approximate it as an ideal state.
  • When a living entity is disturbed far enough from its ideal state, the interactions between its parts may cease to be viable. That which enables it's parts to interact can no longer function and the the entity ceases to operate as a working system. We usually call this state "death", and it implies the dissolution of the living being into its basic constituent parts.
  • Sustained homeostasis can spell the end of life because the environment is always changing. That is, while individual systems seek to maintain themselves in a state of equilibrium, constant adaptation by an entire species to changes in the environment is critical. Environmental change is a given constant. If environmental changes are too great to adapt to, an entire species of living systems may disappear. In short, all systems and especially living systems tend towards greater complexity.
  • All life exists through a process of negative-entropy. That is, it survives by drawing energy from its environment and so increasing the rate at which energy gradients in matter are constantly being evened out. Negative entropy is, I would propose, the one aspect by which one can differentiate life from non-life.
  • All living (negatively-entropic) entities are therefore open to their respective environments. They affect and are affected by their surroundings. But not all open systems are alive. A rock satisfies this criterion and (although some would consequently describe rocks as "alive") is not usually thought of as living.

This brief excursion into systems theory has, I hope, served to illustrate that radically new ways of understanding life are still evolving in the mind of mankind. Neither Darwin's theory of natural selection nor any other is likely, I would say, to bring this process to an end.

If life as we know it is an entirely natural phenomenon, and it cannot satisfactorily be explained by reference to some internal "spirit" or "life force" or "soul" as Aristotle and other ancients thought, then the question of its meaning and value becomes even more pressing than before. The presence of an indestructible "inner person" is a type of dualism (animism) which allows some to minimise the value of the material and exalt the value of the so-called "spiritual". 

But if humans are perceived as electro-chemical systems and no more, it becomes easier to define them as therefore of no more value than any other physical system. 

Why should life be valued more than anything else? Is a person intrinsically more valuable than a dog and is an amoeba intrinsically more valuable than a grain of sand? Is humanity to be more valued than the entire Amazon forest? And if so, what might justify an assertion that life is more valuable than non-life, that negatively-entropic systems are intrinsically more valuable than entropic ones? Would it matter in the greater scheme of things if all life on earth were wiped out tomorrow?

The traditional Christian position is that life is to be valued because it was created by God, and because it continues after death - even when everything else may have disappeared. 

On the other side of the fence, Bertrand Russell wrote in the early twentieth-century that

... all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins [3].

C H D Clark thought that Bertrand Russell's assertion is a "doctrine of despair":

If we are asked to believe that all our striving is without final consequence, [then] life is meaningless and it scarcely matters how we live if all will end in the dust of death ... God's grand design is life eternal for those who walk in the steps of Christ ... As life is seen to have purpose and meaning, men find release from despair and the fear of death. [3]

Arthur Schopenhauer sums the opposite position up by:

That which has been exists no more; it exists as little as that which has never been ... [so] nothing at all is worth our striving, our efforts and struggles ... All good things are vanity, the world in all its ends bankrupt, and life a business which does not cover its expenses [3].

The novelist Leo Tolstoy thought there were four possible responses to this pessimistic assessment of life's value:

  1. Ignore the problem, as do women, the very young and the dull.
  2. Enjoy life's pleasures at full blast until the end.
  3. Commit suicide.
  4. Acknowledge the truth, and cling to life because you're too afraid to do anything else (which was his position).

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