Numinations — March, 1999

Life—A Quick Overview

© 1999, by Gary D. Campbell

Life is a living entity’s opportunity to exist. Evidence suggests that our human existence is confined to lucid, waking moments, beginning when we are about one or two years old, and ending when our brain ceases a minimum level of functioning. No evidence suggests that life begins before conception or continues after death.

OK, “we’re entities—we exist.” But, beyond existence you might ask, “What does life offer me?”

Well, my Numinating reader, life’s opportunities come in two major themes: You can consume other things, and you can propagate yourself. Everything you or any other entity does is in a direct or indirect effort to consume or reproduce. As humans, we have evolved some pretty fancy variations on these themes, but we really haven’t evolved any activities completely unrelated to them either. Name any activity, and I’ll bet you can find one or both of these themes in it, if you try.

Consumption is more than eating. It can be a process of building, destruction, or even play. Exercise for its own sake is nothing more than the final stages of finishing a meal. Reproduction, as we all know, isn’t only about sex. It could be as widely removed from that as, for example, the propagation of our ideas in the forms of speech, art, and literature.

In the process of consuming other things and propagating itself, each entity finds itself in more or less conflict with every other entity that it contacts. The negative effects of conflict can be overcome with the positive effects of cooperation. Most interaction combines both conflict and cooperation (such as coerced, and even forced, cooperation). Each entity has evolved a set of potential abilities. Through learning, abilities are developed into skills. The exercise of a skill allows an entity to interact with its environment and bring about whatever it can.

The evidence also suggests that life is governed by the necessities of physical laws operating in a background of random chance. At the outset of life, no two entities have precisely the same abilities and opportunities. Therefore, no two entities are “equal” any more than they are identical. Entities may, however, be treated equally by physical laws. They may also strive, with more or less success, for equal treatment in cooperation with other entities. The only rules are those adopted by the entities themselves. The only “rights” are those afforded by cooperating entities. Your rights may vary.

An event is something that occurs at a given moment in time. An outcome is the result of a sequence of related events—events which affect, or are affected by, each other. There is seldom any meaning or purpose in the relationship of the events that produce an outcome. The process of evolution produces outcomes that may have meaning within their local evolutionary context, but they are not guided by purpose. Some outcomes are brought about with intention. These may be guided by purpose; they are the result of the skill of a living entity.

Each living entity has a set of sensors and a set of effectors. An entity synthesizes information from the interaction of its sensors with its environment. It produces change by acting on its environment with its effectors. An entity’s success involves its ability to use the information it is able to synthesize, and its skills to carry out courses of action. If its skills are sufficient to allow it to reproduce, the potential for those skills is propagated. Obviously, each of us is a living entity. Each of us has developed a set of skills. The outcomes we help bring about are a product of our skills, chance, and the cooperation of others.

Skills and the information used in their performance may be compared to computers and their software. It is not stretching the concept of “skill” too much to compare it to a program running in a computer. The effective use of a program to input data and bring about a result is very much like a skill in many respects. The behavior of inanimate objects may be predicted and described by the laws of physics, but the behavior of objects animated by skills (or software) cannot be described or predicted simply, by the same laws (or even the same kinds of laws), except on the most trivial levels. Physical laws are not disobeyed in any way, they are simply incomplete for a description or an effective prediction of the overall behavior of an animate object.

Skills and information are not incorporeal, they must be instantiated in some combination of matter and energy. Matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, although each may be converted into the other. New arrangements of matter and energy can come about in only two ways: By chance (following physical laws), or in a copying process. A copying process may, of course, introduce change. Change may occur either by chance or by intention. When intention is involved, the skill of design will have been a part of the copying process. When chance alone is responsible for change, the copying process is part of the standard evolutionary paradigm. Apart from new arrangements of matter and energy, the only things truly created are new skills (programs), and new expressions (information).

Every concept we have is in the context of our conflict and cooperation with our environment. The most important entities in the environment of any given entity are often other entities of its own kind. These are the entities whose cooperation is the most likely to have evolved and be the most effective. Yes, birds of a feather flock together for a reason.

Let’s jump up the evolutionary ladder to the entities we call human beings. Let’s focus this Numination on ourselves. Each of us tends to wonder from time to time, “Why am I here.” “Does my life have any meaning or purpose?” “What should I try to do with my life?” “Why does that person have so much authority over me?” “Why is that person so wealthy?” “Why don’t I deserve more?” “Why did that person have to die?” “What will happen to me when I die?” People seek comfort with these issues. Family, religion, schools, the government, and many other institutions try to contribute to that comfort. We cooperate in the hope of gaining that comfort. Much of our discomfort arises from conflicts involving these questions. It’s all about our skill in handling conflict and cooperation.

Meaning and purpose are evolved. They are invented a bit at a time. They are copied and adapted. Your life has only the meaning and purpose that you copy or invent. You are not here for a reason, you are here by chance. You should take life one step at a time. Each passing year of your life has its special opportunities, as hinted at by something George Herbert once said: “He that is not handsome at twenty, nor strong at thirty, nor rich at forty, nor wise at fifty, will never be handsome, strong, rich, or wise.” This, of course, is only one man’s opinion about a very small number of the things that matter, but it illustrates the theme.

Answers to the remaining questions are very complex. When an outcome is governed by a mixture of chance and necessity, with only an occasional pinch of intention or purpose, a complete explanation can be too complex for human understanding, and an incomplete answer may be too simplistic to do you any good. Looking for an easy answer to a complex question is like looking under a street lamp for a key dropped elsewhere in the dark. And it’s even more futile to search for a key unless you need what it unlocks, and know where to find the lock. First, increase, elaborate, and refine your needs. Then, learn about locks. Having done this, the keys will begin to appear of their own accord.

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