The Process is Life

Scriptures say that creation testifies to God. Science is simply the study of creation. It is the gathering and studying of the testimony of creation. Which is why I think that it is important for people of faith to be using science to deepen our understanding of God and his ways.

We see Jesus doing this, for example, in his teachings about seeds dying and bearing much fruit. It’s not just that Jesus was using a process which people were familiar with in order to explain something. It’s that this familiar process of creation is actually a living illustration of a much deeper, mysterious spiritual truth. It’s not just a coincidence that a seed works the same way that our spiritual life does. Rather, it’s reflects something purposeful in creation that testifies to God’s creation.

When you learn to see creation this way, all of life becomes imbued with deeper meaning. And it provides a corrective to our erroneous ideas. What we believe about God and his ways must be consistent with this universe he made.

That might seem to be a big claim to make, however, allow me to share something I read recently which illustrates just how deep this rabbit hole goes. I’m going to get all sciency with y’all for a bit. But I’ll make it simple and if you bear with me, I think you’ll see how taking creation’s testimony seriously can be a spiritually fruitful endeavor.

So, what I’m going to be talking about today has to do with the very origins of life. Not necessarily how life began – that’s a mystery we are rapidly closing in on. But the why. Why is there life at all?

That seems like a dumb question to some people. We tend to start with the fact of life and move backwards. There is life because God wanted life and therefor he made the universe so that life could exist. Which is likely true, but in order for this to be, God set a process in motion which would seem to work perfectly well without life at at. If there was no life in the universe, there could still be stars and galaxies and quasars and nebula’s. Yet the more we look at life, the more it seems likely that life is a ubiquitous part of the universe. What is it about the material world which would lead to life itself?

The study of life is biology, as you likely know. The other two branches of science which all the other non-biological sciences branch off of are physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry work together nicely and can be used together to explain the various phenomena we observe. In fact, what we observe through the lens of chemistry and physics is so orderly that much of it is able to be explained through mathematical formulas which presumably function in the same way throughout all of creation.

Biology, on the other hand, appears to a whole other ball of wax. While it of course uses and is shaped by chemistry and physics, it is far more variable than the rest of the material world. It doesn’t appear to be governed by the sort of consistent physical laws which govern the workings of the rest of the physical universe. A star is a fairly predictable outcome based on what we know about both chemistry and physics. But there’s no obvious cause and effect relationship between, say, the way carbon bonds with other elements and the existence of dragonflies.

But the physical world exists as a whole. Which means that biology can not be properly understood outside of the rest of the physical universe. Which leads to the question of how biological life is connected to the rest of the material world. For people who believe that God just popped in and brought biological life into being, this isn’t really a problem, of course. But for people who believe that the world is essentially self-assembling, this has been a puzzling conundrum.

Further, non-biological creation seems to be largely the random outcome of the physical processes described by physics and chemistry. So our sun exists because there just happened to be a gas and dust cloud with the right conditions needed to produce a star the size of our sun. But if the cloud had been slightly bigger, slightly denser or in a slightly different spot, our sun wouldn’t exist. The fact that our sun does exist is governed by consistent laws which lead to some rather random outcomes.

On the other hand, science has long noted that while biological life is far more variable (ie unpredictable) than the rest of the universe, the process by which life first arose and sustains itself appears to be driven by identifiable forces. These forces have the appearance of being designed to serve a purpose. For example, a drive toward greater complexity. For this reason, even scientists who are atheists will speak of evolution as have having “teleological” tendencies.

Teleological is a word which means something has an end purpose it is moving towards. So if I’m going to work, getting in a car serves that end purpose of getting to work. Getting in the car isn’t something I do just for its own sake, but as part of moving towards my end goal. Likewise, evolution appears to be moving to some end goal.

So strong are the forces driving evolution that it can even be said that unlike the sun, human beings are not the result of a predictable process under just the right conditions. Rather, given evolution’s drive towards ever greater complexity, survival and reproduction, some scientific theorists argue that it was inevitable that a creature with our abilities would inevitably arise. If you believe in a creation designed to work the way it does by God, this makes sense. If you don’t, then you are left with a seemingly purposeful process – evolution – which arose out of a purposeless universe.

Now, that’s a lot of background philosophy of science to wade through, but stick with me just a bit longer. We’re about to get to the good part. Hopefully I haven’t confused y’all too badly.

So, getting back to the why of biological life. I recently read an article written by Addy Pross, a theoretical chemist working in systems chemistry. (Who knew such fields even existed?) He has been working and thinking about this problem and makes the claim that biology fits is connected with the other sciences when it is understood as a means by which matter can achieve stability.

He starts with this truism which is recognized in both physics and chemistry: “Unchanging things don’t change, and changing things do change – until they change into things that don’t.”

In other words, all matter is seeking a stable state which will allow it to persist without further change. At least for as long as possible. For example, if you recall your high school chemistry, a molecule which has a positive or negative charge is less stable than one with a neutral charge. By bonding with other molecules which neutralize the positive or negative charge of the molecule, matter which is very stable and can exist unchanged over the course of a great deal of time is formed. A star is a lot of material which exists in a steady state for billions of years at a time. Things like that.

Biological life appears to be an aberration from this tendency. Material which exists in biological form is continually changing and dying and reforming. Biological life is not self-sustaining in the way that a star or galaxy or granite is, but rather is constantly consuming energy and expelling it in very inefficient ways. Rather than seeking a steady state at which change no longer occurs, life is characterized by change at every level.

However, Poss notes that although biological life is ever changing, it is also extremely persistent:

Living things . . . can still be remarkably stable in the sense of persisting over time. Some replicating populations (certain bacterial strains, for example) have maintained themselves with little change over astonishing periods – millions, even a billion, years.

Thus while individual living things are unstable, life itself turns out to be very stable. Further, much like we see in physics and chemistry, life itself relies on mathematics to succeed in achieving its stability. In particular, life works according to the rules of exponential growth:

Suppose you start with a dollar. Double it every week and, in well under a year, you’ll be the world’s richest person (assuming no one else discovers your secret). Keep going for another five years and you’ll have more dollars than there are atoms in the observable universe. Self-replicating molecular systems can, in the right circumstances, start off on the same explosive path.

We see the results of this all the time when dealing with things like bacterial or yeast infections. Under the right circumstances, life can reproduce and grow out of control. However, over the course of time, this exponential growth leads to greater chemical complexity. Things which can replicate themselves do not do so perfectly every time. Variations sneak in. The environment in which life exists changes, triggering further variations in more complex life forms.

All of these variations share the same potential for exponential growth. None of them will stop growing until forced to do so by a lack of resources in its environment. Since the environment on a planet like earth is always changing, sometimes rapidly and sometimes over the course of millions or billions of years, life forms which can succeed in new environments will continue on the path of exponential growth and replace other life forms which can no longer take advantage of the environment to sustain themselves.

Thus, life is able to sustain its existence, not through the sort of unchanging steady state that mountains or stars do, but through this ongoing process of change. We know this process as evolution. Thus, it is the process of change itself allows life to achieve stability. Thus, the why of biological life is that it a means by which matter in a dynamic, changing environment achieves the stability that is the end goal of all physical processes at work in the universe.

OK, if you are still with me and I haven’t completely confused you, I would just like to say that I love you very much and you are special to me. Because most people would have found something else to read about three paragraphs in. So here’s your pay-off.

Perhaps you remember a post I wrote a few weeks back called “The Process is the Solution”. In it I shared the story of a family that eschewed Santa Claus because they thought it could introduce doubt which could undermine their kid’s belief in God. In their minds, anything which could threaten the stability of the unchanging faith they were passing on to their kids was a danger to their children’s faith. I explained that this was not the way to achieve the sort of stable faith that can be passed on through the ages:

We want a once-and-for-all [solution, theology, faith], but God gave us a process. There’s a Way of doing things. It’s why Christianity was called The Way very early in its development. It’s a way of doing life. A process for challenging the powers and principalities which rule this world. The process IS the once-and-for-all solution we’ve been looking for.

The process works when we are continually looking for a better way. We can always love better. We can always find better solutions. We can always learn from errors. We can always go deeper into God. We can always become more of who He created us to be. We can always experience our salvation more fully. We can always grow in deeper unity with each other. To embrace this process of continually learning better ways to follow Jesus’ teachings is to embrace God’s once-and-for-all solution.

Now, if you want to really understand life, you need to look for the dynamics which underlie everything else. In this case, the process by which we change and grow is the solution to the problem of passing on a durable faith. Which is the exact same dynamic which Poss is proposing for why life exists to begin with. The process of evolution leads to the stability and persistence of life. The Christian way – the process of continual spiritual growth and development as taught by Jesus – is what brings stable, persistent spiritual life as well. It’s the exact same dynamic.

That is how deep the connections are between the spiritual truths of Christianity and this created world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our spiritual development ought to take a similar path to life’s evolutionary development. We start with very simple things – faith, hope and love. And as we face the various challenges of life in this dynamic world, our expressions of these basic building blocks of spiritual life become more complex, refined and adaptable.

Further, for most of the history of life on Earth, life remained very simple. It took a long time to work up to the sort of complexity which gave rise to dinosaurs and mammals and eventually us. It seems to me that part of our problem all along is that we’ve been moving backwards. We want to start with the law and through that figure understand the basics. But this would be like trying to understand how bacteria work by studying human beings. (This post is already way too long and complex, so I will leave aside the question of how and why that is for now.)

Perhaps, as with the development of life on earth, our faith needs an extended period in which everything is simple. Where we don’t try to suss out complex, refined responses to the challenges we face, but just keep to the basics of faith, hope and love. To revert back to spiritual childhood as Jesus said we needed to.

And that, my friends, is how deep the rabbit hole goes. Actually, it certainly goes deeper, but you know. I have to leave some exploring for the rest of y’all to enjoy, right? 😉

If you would like to read more about Addy Pross’ ideas regarding the purpose and mechanics biological life, go check out his article Life’s Restlessness.

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One thought on “The Process is Life

  1. Ok my friend, this is one of the moments that occur when. I read something from you and I go “holy crap, she makes a lot of sense!” As you know, I am full of doubts about theology, a part of it is because I know next to nothing about it. But you have beautifully described aspects of what life as a phenomenon is. The one thing that I would take with a grain of salt is the apparent drive towards greater complexity. Yes, complexity has appeared, but not in every class of organisms. Bacteria are still around and are as successfull as ever. Also, exponential growth does not automatically generates complexity, just sheer numbers. That being said, yes, these sheer numbers will increase the variability of the population and that, if the environment changes, different genes will prevail in the population. I loved your description of life as a proccess. I recently read a book “Weird Life” by Dave Toomey, that describes it in a really cool way, as a juggler. You see, the process of life must not be too stable, it will then be static, essentially not different from inanimate matter, but on the other hand if the process life is too “fast” or unstable, the juggler will drop whatever is up in the air. A steady state keep the system nimble and active without being disorganized… Sorry for the long comment. I loved your post!!!

    Like

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