Life on other planets may, or may not, exist. Yet an even greater mystery is why there is life at all and just what is what we call “life” anyway?
And, yes, I know there’s a definition in every biology text—but it’s not very satisfying. At the most basic level, we humans are a bunch of atoms (actually a really big bunch, roughly 10^27 of them) none of which are alive in any definition. Yet assemble the right proportions of a basic mix of atoms in the right way and you get something alive. Whether something basic like a bacterium or something far more complex like a human, everything alive is a combination of things that aren’t alive.
Now if that last sentence doesn’t strike you as an incredible puzzle, then you and I have at least one fundamental difference. Sure, lots of the religions shrug it off with their version of God adding various versions of animation/spirit/soul/whatever. Actually, I think there’s truth in that thought—truth, yes, explanation, no.
When just the right combinations come together in just the right ways, something essential happens that we humans, right now, cannot explain or understand. What happens, of course, is what we call ‘life.’
What’s going on here—how can an assemblage of non-living stuff end up alive? Is there something inherent in matter itself that is finding expression here? Is there something motivating the universe to fight the second law of thermodynamics to create the kind of order we call life in the midst of the chaos? Or is life really a fundamental characteristic of the universe itself?
Religion claims to have answers for this, but despite my own convictions, I still look for the ‘how’ and, especially, the ‘why’ and I don’t find the religious answers satisfying.
For me, the simplest, most sensible explanation is that there is an underlying purpose to the universe and that purpose involves life and intelligence. Without debating the nature of God, I’m happy with the notion that there’s a purpose to all of this and part of that purpose means the universe is built to create us living things.
It’s a satisfying idea but I’d still love to better understand both the how and the why!