This post is part of a series on what we want from definitions of life. It stands alone, but if you want to see the whole series, it starts here. I’ve already spoken about visceral approaches to life – as threat and opportunity. Now we turn to broader and more abstract evaluative approaches.
Is life good? Are some kinds of life better than others?
We call life good, perhaps because we are alive. How do we connect the two concepts? This approach also opens questions about how different types of life – biological, mental, spiritual – relate to one another. Is one more alive than another? Does that mean it’s better?
Version A: The Progressive Approach – Is the cosmos moving toward better life? Are agents and thinkers better forms of life?
The progressive approach seeks to understand the universe as a ladder of life states. The lowest are good, but the highest are better. Plato spoke of biological, emotional, and intellectual life as tiers in a process aimed at logos or cosmic harmony. Medieval philosophers spoke of a pyramid or ladder of nature (scala naturae) reaching from the creeping things in the dirt up to the angels in heaven, each more complex and valuable than the things below. More recent models speak of a historical progression from disorder, through plant life, animal life, rational life, and social life to spiritual or technological fulfillment. Chardin’s “noosphere,” Lovelock’s “Gaia,” and Kurzweil’s “Singularity” appear as inevitable products of cosmic evolution. Sometimes manifest destiny appears as well, as we can see in Star Trek and Interstellar.
Jewish and Christian thinkers often use physical development and evolution as a metaphor for salvation history. Paul’s “groaning of creation” (Rom 8:22) links childbirth to the coming kingdom, while Moses’ exhortation to “choose life” (Deu 30:19) links obedience to fruitfulness. Paul Tillich explicitly takes this approach (Systematic Theology III p26).
In a slightly different perspective, some modern “pro-life” perspectives suggest that more life – in this case more children – is always better. They go beyond asserting that killing is bad to asserting a moral obligation to generate more humans. Many advocates have a more sophisticated approach, but the label in itself suggests that life is always good and more life is always better.
Version B: The Romantic Approach – Are agents and thinkers worse forms of life? Do our action, thoughts, technology, etc. draw us away from natural goodness?
Biological life is (almost) always framed as good, but sometimes other life – the higher life of the progressive frame – is seen as a move away from natural order. Artifice becomes associated with evil. Intellect becomes less than – or potentially less than – life. This romanticism appears blatantly as a nature versus technology motif in Star Wars, but also in countless other works – from Lord of the Rings to Avatar. In theology, I believe this has roots in concepts of the Fall. Humans default to goodness, nature, and life, but our will allows us to choose other options. It occurs very commonly in arguments against “playing God” or “tampering with the natural order” (e.g., in response to genetic engineering, cloning, and reproductive technologies).
Version C: The Warfare Approach – Is life at war with death?
A third issue arises, when we consider a cosmic struggle between the forces of life and death. Life and death are characterized as active forces – perhaps even personalities – competing for control of the universe. This usually comes paired with versions A or B, but it can also appear on it’s own. We can view life as the inevitable winner – as in the Chronicles of Narnia and other Christian narratives of fall and redemption. Or we can view the two sides as evenly matched – as in the classic battles between Chaos and Cosmos in Babylonian mythology and between Light and Darkness in Manichaeism. Life might even be the the inevitable loser, as we can see in personifications of increasing entropy or talk of life (or reason) as a flickering candle in the dark. This last position appears Battlestar Galactica and the recent movies Gravity and The Martian.
Mythic approaches requires value orientation like the visceral approach, but it is universal value and always associated with life (as opposed to non-life or artifice). A mythic frame research program would involve looking at things of value and determining in what way life was present in them. Alternately, one might look at all things identified as living and try to find value.