What this web site is not about

'What is Life' is not about the meaning of life and how life is understood from a spiritual, religious, or metaphysical perspective, but neither questions their importance nor reality. 'What is Life' promotes a biological, i.e., scientific view of life, acknowledges the limitations of this view, and furthers public interest in the scientific method. 

We know life when we see it.  Not only are we able to tell if something is alive, but this includes our ability to identify a dead body as having been alive. We can call it organic or being of natural (as long as it is not a mineral like stones, metals, or crystals) origin as opposed to being artificial or synthetic. This distinction separates the objects of the natural sciences from the objects of the humanities. The latter deal with human artifacts and yet again we are able to tell, if an artifact is man-made as opposed to being shaped by the forces of nature. This is true for plants and animals as well as rocks. The latter are the embodiment of inorganic matter, yet we can tell if someone has carved a symbol on its surface or sculpted a figure. Further, no living organism is man made, and live originates only from live.

There are two interesting questions associated with these observations. One, what is the quality which we perceive as "life" and how do we know, if something has been designed by man, used as a tool, symbol, or artistic expression? Second, how did life first come into existence (prebiotic evolution) and how do we, as biologists, deal with the complex self-reproducing morphology of living organisms as something distinctly different from a design?

Why to separate the how from the why and how to do it.  While science asks what happens and how it happens, it cannot give answers as to the 'why' things exist. We are used to ask questions like 'why is the sky blue?' and yet we have to be aware that asking this question to a scientist is really asking for a how. How come the sky appears blue? A physicist may be able to give a complete quantum mechanical description of the light scattering phenomenon in the upper atmosphere. Where physicists talks about a wavelength of say 420 nm (nanometers or one billionth of a meter), cognitive scientists would talk about the qualia of blue, the phenomenon behind our visual perception that allows as to 'see' certain electromagnetic radiation as blue.  It could be easily speculated that for the same reason that we see blue as blue,  we can have a thought. This is the mind-body problem and is one of  the current frontiers in science where why questions are not easily separated from the how, simply because we know of no mechanism that links consciousness to the biological properties of our body.

Scientific questions are tuned to the elucidation of relationships of properties of comparable objects like a large and a small stone. The large stone is heavier than the small one, which tells us about mass, volume and density of stones. So we define two irreducible properties and one relational property (which expresses a relationship between the two irreducible ones).  Measuring these properties allows us to compare different objects of different composition. The small stone may be heavier than a similarly sized piece of fire wood. Why is wood lighter than stone, why does wood burn and stones don't? Again, a chemist would explain it by referring to the different atomic composition of stones and wood and this would simply be an explanation of how the different atomic composition cause a stone to react differently from wood when thrown into a fire.

Now it seems innocent enough to ask why wood burns while stones don't. To understand the limitations of science as to which questions it can answer, it is wise to uphold the distinction between the why and the how. So we reserve the why for questions about the existence of things, while we use how and what for the scientific interpretation of the same things. Scientific answers give us a relational framework, not why they are different, but how they differ, while the metaphysical why asks for the absolute. Adhering to this rule allows us on one hand to admit that science cannot be used to answer all of our questions while on the other hand to assert that metaphysical and spiritual answers are not scientific.

If you are looking for reading material about religion and spirituality, please check out this Web site .....

 The One Behind the Many

This site is offering a large and useful collection of links on science (evolution, neurobiology), philosophy (consciousness), spirituality, purposeful evolution and supernatural consciousness. This site is organized around an "understanding of the nature of consciousness" and represents a good example of editorial work that is necessary to make the Internet and World Wide Web useful as a library of knowledge.

DISCLAIMER: whatislife.com does neither support the notion of purposeful evolution nor supernatural consciousness. 

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Copyright © 2000-2009 Lukas K. Buehler