Life – by Andrés Moya

This post is also available in: Spanish

For a biologist, the question of what life is seems capital, but it could be posed from pure biology or from individuality.

That’s true. The definition of what can be understood by life is complicated. From the more philosophical, conceptual point of view, there’s a certain idea that the vital phenomenon is associated to some capability of being autonomous from one’s environment. There’s a philosopher I particularly like, Hans Jonas. He studied with Heidegger and has developed a very peculiar philosophy of life: life as a fundamental principle to understand the dynamism of matter. Life forces us to separate mind from spirit. As evolution happens, the spirit seems to emerge, it becomes more present as we approach our species. If we look at the history of philosophy we can see people say there’s only spirit in our species. Jonas denies that. In order not to separate what life is from what matter is, he wants to see a certain stuttering spirit in the fact that an organism, a simple bacterium -which is not so simple- has a certain capacity of sensory response. One could say that can’t be called spirit, because it’s very mechanical, but what’s curious about the dynamics of life is that it becomes progressively more complex, until what we call spirit takes bigger and bigger proportions, reaching our species where it has an enormous transcendence. But it’s not something that appears overnight. It can be scientifically ascribed to biological evolution. The only thing we need is a slight conceptual change to speak about very elementary manifestations of the spirit from the first moments in which life emerges. That’s Jonas’s idea. He does that in order to overcome the antagonism between mind and matter, mind and spirit. In our species, I would call the manifestations of spirit manifestations of mind, they implode and explode. We are beings which use the mind a lot and its properties are very clear. With our mind we have been able to put forward very important transformations. There’s a question that’s not resolved and it’s fascinating, and which I think may be solved at some stage: how can our spirit, in a conscious way, move matter? I give my body instructions to move the fingers. This is, philosophically speaking, a first magnitude problem. How can something which is, in principle, not material, exert an action on matter? The brain, an enormous complex net of interactions between neurons, a certain non-material entity, gives instructions in order to move something which is material. But what we cannot say is this only happens with our species. I’ll place it again in the context of evolution. Another question is whether we are more or less aware that these actions are triggered by a non-material entity. In my book I say the spirit is the interaction of matter. It’s quite a strong sentence which tries to overcome the dichotomy between mind and matter and to place everything in an evolutionary context. The processes of generation of the superior activities of the brain, particularly the human brain, are a product of evolution. They’re not exclusive of our species. We can understand how these complex categories have come to be. Thought, amorous feelings, many activities which seem unique to our species admit a reading in the context of the dynamics of the life of other beings which haven’t reach the levels of spirituality we may have reached, but there’s a certain continuation.

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