Every morning you wake up from sleep, open your eyes and find that … yes … you are still here. Another day on the planet – breathe, eat, and work so you can keep breathing, eating, and working. Basically, you’re trying to keep it all together and have a little fun at the same time. Then, after about 16 hours, you will fall back to bed with one day less in your life inventory, knowing that you will have to repeat all of the exertion again tomorrow. This is reality, in one form or another, for you, me, and every other person on the planet. It is also the reality, in one form or another, for every human being since we emerged as a separate species about 300,000 years ago. All in all, it looks pretty strange. Why is? What is it all for? Is there a secret in life?
The secret of life
Today I want to look at these questions through the lens of another question. Can science answer this basic madness, or is there some basic mystery of life?
I once had a public debate with a guy who was interested in transhumanism (which essentially says that one day we will merge with computers). He insisted that science would ultimately explain all facets of the world. In the end, nothing would be hidden from his all-illuminating gaze. Although I have spent my life living – and loving – science, I felt that something really essential was missing from his point of view. To me, his omission is an understanding of what Explanations are and the limits of what they can do.
If the question is, “Can science explain life?” Then I think the answer will one day be “mostly yes” if we seek the processes in life. Science has already successfully used the reduction technique to see the building blocks of life. Reduction means looking for explanations or successful predictive descriptions of a system by focusing on its smaller constitutive elements. If you are interested in a human body, then reductions from organs to cells to DNA to genes to biomolecules and so on. This approach has obviously been spectacularly successful.
Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.
However, it was not enough. The frontier now seems to understand life as a complex adaptive system, that is, one in which organization and cause appear on many levels. It’s not just the atomic building blocks that matter; Influences spread up and down the scale, with multiple interconnected networks from genes to the environment and back. As I wrote earlier, information can play an essential role here that does not exist in non-living systems.
But the deeper question remains: will this ongoing process of explanatory refinement exhaust the strangeness of life or the mystery of life I described earlier? I do not think so.
Explanation vs. experience
The reason I take this position is that there is a profound and (literally) existential difference between an explanation and an experience. We humans invented the wonderful process called science to understand the patterns we experience around us. We did this because we are naturally curious beings and because we hope to gain some control over the world around us as well. But here’s the key point: Experience is always more than just an explanation. (This is the insight from a philosophical thought experiment called Mary’s Room.) The direct, unmediated totality of the experience can never be limited by an explanation. Why? Because experience is the source of explanations.
“Experience” can be a difficult place for discussion. It’s so close and so obvious that it doesn’t even look like it to some people. But for many in all of existence it has been a central concern. It has always been the starting point for the philosophies of classical India and Asia. For Western philosophers it reappeared as a theme in the works of. on William James and “phenomenologists” like Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. For all these thinkers and writers, experience was not a matter of course – it was the ground from which all other questions became possible.
Sometimes it was called “presence”. Sometimes it was called “self-luminosity”. Stephen Hawking even acknowledges this when he asks, “What makes the fire in the equations?” That fire is Experience. It is the verb “to be” and the only way into being is through experience.
The point is that direct, lived experience cannot be explained. I can theorize about perception and cognition. I can run experiments to test these theories. But even if I gave you a report on what every nerve cell in your brain is doing every nanosecond, it still wouldn’t be an experience. It would be nothing more than a list of words and numbers. Her actual and direct experience of the world – the bitter taste of an apple or looking into the eyes of a loved one – would always flood the list. There would always be more.
Because explanations always take on a certain aspect of the lived experience and separate it out. Explanation is like the foreground. But experience is beyond foreground and background. It is an inseparable holism, a totality that does not atomize. It’s not something that you think in your head; it is what you live as a body that is embedded in the environment. In this way, every moment of our strange, beautiful, sad, tragic and utterly amazing life is revealed from moment to moment. Explanations can be helpful in certain circumstances, but they can never exhaust the continual revelation that is the secret of life.
The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved
Let us return to our question: Is life a mystery? It is good to remember Søren Kierkegaard’s famous admonition: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” This perspective in no way diminishes science. That’s because our experience is in science self increases our appreciation for the world, as does the rush you feel when you understand why the sky appears blue or blood appears red.
So yes, life is a mystery, but that doesn’t mean we are left in ignorance. Like a skier who effortlessly descends a steep slope or a pianist who brings us a beautiful sonata, we can discover this secret, but not with words, equations and explanations, but by living it thoroughly with body, heart and mind.