Life, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

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Life, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

Life is literally a biological term but extends by metaphor across a spectrum of key concerns in philosophy and religion. Life is a perennial experience, prescientific and universal in cultures ancient and contemporary, though recent advances in the biological sciences have recast classical ideas about life in new perspectives. By some accounts, molecular biologists decoding the human genome have discovered the "secret of life"; by other accounts evolutionary biologists have discovered the "secret of life" in natural selection. Philosophers, ethicists, and theologians reply with claims that, though science may teach much descriptively about life, it cannot teach how to value life and what one ought to do.

From the dawn of religious impulses, in the only animal capable of such reflection, this vitality has been experienced as sacred. Such experience has often been fragmentary and confused, as has every other form of knowledge that humans have struggled to gain, but at its core the insight developed that religion was about an abundant life, about life in its abundance. Classical monotheismto take the Hebrew form of itheld that the divine Spirit or Wind (Greek: pneuma ) breathes the breath of life into the dust of the earth and animates it to generate swarms of living beings (Genesis 2:7). Eastern religious forms can be significantly different: Maya spun over Brahman, or samsara over sunyata ; but they too detect the sacred in, with, and under the profuse phenomena of life.

If anything is sacred, life is sacred. For theists, life, above all, is a gift from God. Elemental necessities, such as bread, water, blood, breath (pneuma ), and birth are often taken up as symbols in religions. Native traditions may regard Earth, soil, waters, everything as alive. Scientists may now dismiss this as an innate tendency to be animistic, to ascribe living properties to inanimate forces. But quite sophisticated philosophical systems, such as panpsychism, pantheism, and forms of idealism, have held that ultimate reality is organic or spirit-like.

Organic life

Philosophical and religious concerns about life can be broadly divided into those involving life generically and those focusing on human life. One intense debate arising in the last half century has been over intrinsic value in life, whether organisms have value in themselves, and not simply instrumental value for humans. The background to this debate is an Enlightenment tradition of a value-free nature, seemingly plausible in the inanimate world of stars, asteroids, rocks, or dirt, an account continued by many biologists in a mechanistic biology, which views organisms as nothing but machines. However, contemporary biologists have not only described but come to celebrate the diverse array of forms of life (species, families, phyla), to systematize these, and then lament that humans are placing so many of them in jeopardy. Conservation biology today is as dominant and remarkable as is molecular or evolutionary biology.

The panorama of life on Earth, biologically described, raises issues of whether the species can also be ranked or graded for their worth. Levels of life move from microbes to multicellular plant and animals, with "higher" animals sentient, many of them capable of acquired learning during their lifetimes, and the "higher" of these enjoying psychological experiences, the "highest" of all human life with self-conscious experience, capable of generating meaningful communities gathering into cumulative transmissible cultures. Other thinkers, claiming a more egalitarian and less biased account, object to such hierarchy and anthropocentrism, advocating a biocentrism where all are valued with respect to their multiple and differing achievements and skills, including humans, but not preferential to humans. The capacity for photo-synthesis is as valuable on Earth as is the capacity for ethics.

Darwinian natural history reveals an ambiguity in life, often taken to be problematic. Life is a ceaseless struggle; new life is generated by blasting the old. Darwinians may focus on the survival of the fittest, accentuating the competition in life, famously described by the nineteenth century English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson as "Nature, red in tooth and claw." Charles Darwin as well portrays connectedness in life, common ancestry, survival of the best adapted, life support in ecosystems, life persisting in the midst of its perpetual perishing, life generated and regenerated in spectacular biodiversity and complexity, with exuberance displayed over 3.5 billion years, an "abundance of life." Such a view of life echoes ancient religious motifs: Life is a table prepared in the midst of enemies, green pastures in the valley of the shadow of death.

Debate continues over whether the natural history of life on Earth is orderly, probable, inevitable, or contingent; over what mixture of law and openness characterizes it; and whether biological processes are adequate to account for life's origin and evolving diversity and complexity. Molecular biologists have discovered hitherto unsuspected intricacy and complexity at the molecular level, also endorsing life with its unity in diversity, and leaving as intense as ever the religious concerns about what to make of life, and what abundant life is possible and appropriate for humans.

The distinctiveness of human life

Turning to human life, a recurrent issue is whether and how human life is distinctive. The biological sciences evidently supply connections; humans differ in their protein molecules from chimpanzees by only a fraction of a percent. But the startling successes of humans doing biological sciences can as readily prove human distinctiveness: Chimpanzees have no capacities for cumulative transmissible cultures leading to a science by which they can decode their own genes, much less can they debate the ethics of cloning or have their religious convictions challenged by reading Darwin's Origin of Species.

Various human activities have their parallels and precursors in animal behaviors; animals get sleepy, angry, suffer pains, enjoy pleasures. Equally, myriads of human capacities are sui generis; animals do not pray, or seek forgiveness for sin, or worry whether the theory of relativity relativizes ethics. Humans are persons, made (as theologians like to say) "in the image of God." They have Existenz (as the Existentialists say). Humans anticipate death; they sense their finitude; they face limit questions. They know guilt, forgiveness, shame, remorse, glory, pride. They suffer angst and alienation. They build symbols with which they interpret their place and role in their world. They create ideologies, affirm creeds, and debate their rights and responsibilities. They are capable of religious faith and the worship of God. Many of them sense the sacred, worry about communion with the ultimate, or atonement of their sins. All of this can be summed up in the one word: spirit. In this life of the spirit, humans, late-coming on the planet, remain remarkably distinctive from the other millions of species, indeed the billions that have come and gone over evolutionary time.

One distinctive characteristic of human life is its brokenness, and here the religions classically offer salvation, or the good life. "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Jesus says "I am the way, the truth, and the life" ( John 14:6). The metaphor may be of new life; one is born again, or regenerated. This re-forming of life appears to many philosophers, ethicists, and theologians to be the area in which biology has so little purchasethe "ought to be"however much biology has decoded what is describing the metabolisms and evolution of life, or perhaps found so-called selfish genes that dispose our behavior.

The relevance of religion to scientific explanations

Humanists may resist claims that biology explains religion, finding the secret of life in genes or in natural section, or finding that religion is (nothing but) a mythical belief system that favors survival. Theologians turn the tables, arguing that religion is needed to explain biology, that the prolific genesis of life on Earth, documented in natural history, generates religious responses. The prolific earthen fertility, or generative capacity, in which humans find themselves immersed, is what most needs to be explained. Humans alone confront the ethical duty of appropriate respect for such life, including their own human life. Nothing in biology settles questions about the meaning of life.

Advances in our biological understanding of life, as well as medical and technological capacities to intervene, have raised new issues that involve the beginning and ending of life (such as cloning, abortion, and euthanasia). Other advances make life more of a commodity (as with farm agriculture, genetically modified crops, stem cell lines, or patented genes).

Ethicists frequently claim that our concern ought to be for quality of life, not just lifeand again religious convictions can seem as relevant as biological facts. Biology can set some standards for whether organisms are flourishing or diseased; quasi-evaluative terms such as "health" or "integrity" do have a foundation in biology. Beyond that, the quality of life demands evaluative judgments about right and wrong, censure and blame, good and evil. Life requires choosing a lifestyle. Life demands respect, and this respect passes over, often imperceptibly, to reverence. Though a secular science, biology invites an inquiry into the sacred.

Life has death as its opposite, or complement. Life survives death on Earth by reproducing biologically. Religions ask about the quality of life on Earth, but the inevitable earthen death of individuals raises the question of life after death, of eternal life, of what survives the bodily demise of an individual. Religions answer this question variously. Some, especially Eastern religions, suppose rebirth and reincarnation, a sequence of lives on Earth or in other worlds. Western monotheism, in Islam and Christianity, has favored life on Earth consummated in life in heaven, perhaps by a continuing immortal soul, or spirit, outliving the body, perhaps by a resurrection of the body. A perennial faith expects continued life in the spirit gathered into the Divine Spirit.

See also Life, Biological Aspects; Life Sciences


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Life, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

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