A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book
In the real world death is subordinate to LIFE. It’s only in our heads that death dominates; religion helps us adjust to reality. LIFE exploits the energy of entropy, the descent to equilibrium, to launch its enterprises. LIFE has devised an effective ongoing strategy to transcend death, but it doesn’t live on in the individual; it lives on in the totality. Sexual reproduction not only insures that the living cells of the reproducing organisms pass unscathed under the wire to become new individuals built from the actual cells of their parents, but the natural genetic drift occurring at the time of reproduction provides the mutations which evolution uses to create new and unimagined organisms.
Evolution is a corollary to sexual reproduction and by means of evolution LIFE has produced this universe of living things creating a vast totality that is genetically interrelated. The family of living species is like an immense cosmic tree, every part connected to every other part by reason of a sharing that proceeds on two levels at once.
The first level is biological structure. Because of the homogeneity of the 27 principal proteins used by the three domains of living organisms, scientists believe that all living things are traceable to one original ancestor cell:
All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.
The second is the energy of LIFE. LIFE, it seems, does not arise spontaneously. Traditional beliefs in “spontaneous generation” have all been disproven, and modern reductionist attempts to find some “mechanism” that will turn LIFE on have failed. Where there is LIFE it has only been passed on from a living organism. This seems to confirm the single-cell origin of all living things on earth. That means, if we were to think of LIFE as a flame, all currently living things are alive with the same LIFE: they are the continued manifestations of the same fire that has been passed on from the first originating ancestor.
This image — of LIFE as fire — is helpful in another way. If we think of various materials, like paper, cardboard, wood, coal, we know that they all are combustible, i.e., they can all burn. Their “ability to burn” is an intrinsic property that lies dormant until a flame is brought near and for a long enough time that it causes the material to “catch” fire making “combustibility” visible. The property was there all along, but it needed to be activated by fire itself to become manifest. We can think of LIFE similarly. All matter has the potential for being part of living organisms. But it is only when LIFE transmits itself genetically that a new living thing is born and “matter” displays its viability. Once that happens, the “fire” widens and intensifies. It is still the very same fire, now shared among many without in any way being diminished. The fire burns until it exhausts fuel or oxygen or both.
The point of this imagery is that reality is a living totality. We are part and parcel of an ongoing organic process whereby LIFE’s power to exploit the energies of entropy expands continually. LIFE’s parasitism of death results in the continuous production of ever new living composites that transcend themselves creatively in unexpected directions by evolving. These new organisms enter into the ever larger totality of genetically related living things with which they themselves then interact anti-entropically. The infinitely variegated universe of matter is one “thing” with one dynamism by reason of a LIFE-that-plunders-death.
To be part of this universe, therefore, is to be part of a cosmic project of boundless proportions whose inherent dynamism exhibits no discernible reason why it should ever end. If entropy is the ultimate source of the energy that LIFE uses for its undertakings, and if the “dark energy” thought to be responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is actually new material (in disequilibrium) continually entering the system, the system is not closed; the process is open and potentially endless, and the capacities of the composites evolved by LIFE’s continued exploitation of the tension-toward-entropy, potentially infinite.
Here is where the “meaning” for humankind emerges from our analysis, and provides the substance — the raw material — for the poetry that naturalism by itself lacks. Death, the very source of our anguish, is simultaneously the wellspring of our participation in LIFE and the source of LIFE’s endless transcendent creativity. But please note well, there is a condition: living matter’s reproductive strategy is the only immortality there is. We must understand and be willing to embrace LIFE’s way of living endlessly. We have to let go of our way — fantasy projections like the Platonic paradigm whose historical time and place of birth are well known. We have to embrace the material conditions of our existence. How do we do that after millennia of conditioning?
The question comes down to this: which “self” do I identify with? An individual “self” struggling to live forever in another world as a “spiritual” entity after a lifetime of competition for material survival in this world? … or a “Self” that embraces its role in the Cosmic Project of matter-in-process for whose communitarian service it has been prepared?
We all spend our early years as helpless children experiencing firsthand the selfless service of others, parents, siblings, kindred, friends, on our behalf. When we mature we reproduce ourselves by joining in a partnership of selfless love with another, each partner prepared to provide years of selfless love to offspring. After a lifetime wherein such selflessness, experienced both coming and going, clearly constitutes the chief activity of our time on earth, it seems more than obvious that we, of all LIFE’s projects, are the most prepared for identifying ourselves with the LIFE-widening goals of the totality. We are communitarian in nature; we are the products of and active participants in a collective project that has preceded us by billions of years to which we now contribute and which will continue on for billions of years into the future evolving versions of LIFE as yet wholly unimaginable. For all our transience as individuals, we are fully reproductive members of this totality and so we participate in its work of self-perpetuation. The ontogenesis that infallibly guides individual development from infancy to maturity terminates when our organism is capable of reproducing itself by mating with another. Sex, and therefore gendered life, male and female, across the phyla in plants and insects as well as animals, are the totality’s tools for endless LIFE. Our gendered bodies are the agents of living matter’s immortality.
Each organism embodies the totality. Every part and parcel of us is constructed of the same material energy that constitutes everything else in the universe. The cells of our bodies are built from the materials gathered from the organisms — plants, animals, fish, fungus — we consume every day. Humans burn up 60 tons of food and two and a half tons of oxygen over the course of a lifetime in the combustion process of living metabolism. Our bodies are 60% water. The exchange of matter between us and the material environment is so great that, physically speaking, we are one and the same thing. The only thing that seems to be exclusively ours is the “self” — the individual “self” that the great mystics of all traditions counsel us to discount and discard — the “self” that dies.
It is the individual “self,” conjured by the impulses of the conatus, that seems to be the only thing that dies at death. The rest — all the matter of which we were constructed along with the contributions, virtual and reproductive that we have made to the totality — live on after us with the same capacity to catapult the collective project beyond our death into the future. So if detachment from the individual “self” is the crowning goal of LIFE, as the great mystics have said, that detachment seems an inevitable achievement. For the human life-cycle seems ordered to the eventual disintegration of the “self,” and the return of the substance of every individual to the living pool of matter’s energy from which we came. We are part of the Cosmic Project whether we like it or not.
Thus the meaning of LIFE reveals itself, not as some dramatic reversal of the material processes of organic life throughout the planet — an imaginary “spiritual” escape into another world not made of matter — but rather the convergence of the destinies of all living things spawned by living matter in a great Project into the future. That Project can be summed up simply as the exploitation of the energy of entropy to achieve the triumph of LIFE over death. Theoretically speaking, in principle there is nothing to prevent all matter, everywhere, from being incorporated into living organisms. The only condition is that it be matter.
Religion, especially in its efforts to help us cope with the human condition, need no longer create fairy tales of other “spiritual” worlds where we will live forever, and conjure up fictional conditions for entry. Religion can counsel our acceptance of death as inherent to life, the wellspring of our living energies, and it can hold up as great models for us those who embraced death fearlessly and even with joy. The central role of the cross in the Christian tradition is validated, not as disdain for this world and flight to another, or as punishment for being born human, but as the poetic symbol of the transformation of our “selves” from individual isolated selfishness to a selfless participation in LIFE’s Project.