Is Unraveling of the Mystery of Life and Death Possible Through Science?

Jan - Feb 2003

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During the last two centuries, science has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity. Amazing scientific discoveries have enthralled generations and increased materialistic comforts beyond the public imagination. As a result, people increasingly view science as the holder of unequalled power capable of achieving anything. Therefore, one may argue that we should turn to science for obtaining solutions to the present day problems. However, the current state of scientific knowledge is full of gaps and blanks. Therefore any beliefs and inferences based on it are liable to be changed. Science has been incapable of providing definite conclusions in many areas.

For example, initial theories regarding the nature of atoms and molecules had to be modified as new discoveries provided novel insights into their structure and function. The science of matter is yet to be completely elucidated. The author of On the Limitations of Science, J. W. N. Sullivan, writes that although our present knowledge of Nature is much richer than in any previous era, it is insufficient because no matter where we turn, we are faced with ambiguities and contradictions. This reality becomes strikingly apparent when we consider the obscure scientific views on the definition of life, the origin of life, the evolution of various organisms, consciousness and personality development.

What is life?

More often than not science has left many questions unanswered. One of them is defining and understanding the process of life and death. The issue of an unequivocal distinction between living and non-living, animate and inanimate has confused scientists for centuries and is still unresolved. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines life as: "The condition which distinguishes active animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, functional activity and the continual change preceding death."

1 In The Penguin Dictionary of Biology, we find:" Life. Complex physico-chemical systems whose two main peculiarities are
(1) storage and replication of molecular information in the form of nucleic acid, and
(2) the presence of (or in viruses perhaps merely the potential for) enzyme catalysis.

2 Perhaps if we ask the expert scientists who study the origins of life, we may get a clear view on the definition of life. But even they are confused about it. As Antonio Lazcano writes in Early Life on Earth, "An all-embracing, generally agreed-upon definition of life has proven to be an elusive intellectual endeavour"

3 The book The Molecular Origins of Life contains a comprehensive scientific discussion, by leading experts in the field, of how life might have evolved, but nowhere does it define life. If we review the scientific literature on this subject, we find that scientists only speculate as to how life could be defined but are never sure of their own view. They give a very general and broad description of life in terms of growth, reproduction, metabolism, motion and response. Scientists seem to be following the attitude "it is sometimes easier to study a subject than to define it" of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, avoiding a consensus on defining life.

Exceptional cases:

A very crude and superficial classification of living and non-living that appears in standard textbooks is that humans, animals and plants appear and behave differently than stones, sand, etc. This line of distinction becomes blurred when stationary, lifeless objects exhibit occasional life-like features and living organisms exhibit lifelessness. Thus, problems in exactly classifying systems as living and non-living arise because

(1) there are systems which are considered to be alive but do not exhibit all of the classical properties, and

(2) there are non-living systems that display these properties. Organisms that exhibit "cryptobiosis" belong to the first set. Examples from the second set are fire and atoms of matter.

Let us consider these systems briefly. The phenomenon whereby living organisms that exhibit lifelessness during their life cycle is described as cryptobiosis (Latin; meaning "hidden life"), a puzzling natural phenomenon. When an animal or plant becomes so inactive that its life processes almost come to a halt, it is said to enter cryptobiosis. There are a surprising number of organisms that undergo cryptobiosis, including plants (as seeds), the eggs of some crustaceans and small water creatures called tardigrades. Inactive tardigrades can be preserved in a bottle for many years, where they would appear to be dead. Movements can be elicited in them by the addition of water to the bottle.

An article published in March 1983 issue of Science Digest magazine described a study of the time lapse photographic snaps of the bottom of the sea, which revealed some amazing facts. An inanimate object like a stone remained motionless at the bottom of the sea for three months. Then it suddenly ascended one foot above the bottom surface and remained stationary for few hours. It then descended back to its original position. A hand-like texture appeared in another stone. It displayed movements for 12 hours and then remained motionless for 6 months.

Viruses are organisms that defy classification into either of the above two sets. Some scientists say that viruses are not living organisms because they are incapable of independent existence since they use the host cells metabolic machinery to reproduce. Other scientists hold that it is unreasonable to deny that viruses are living simply because they need help to do so.

Problems with current definitions of life:

The present concepts on understanding the theme "what is life?" are either too narrow or too broad. For example, the presence of motion cannot be taken as evidence for the existence of life. Elementary particles of an atom such as electrons are in motion in an electric wire, but an electric wire cannot be classified as a living organism. Such a concept is too liberal to be acceptable. Some scientists believe that life is associated with body architecture and its movements. A living being would demonstrate the phases of growth, movement, activation and reproduction. Others consider this concept too narrow, as it excludes the possibility of the existence of life on other planets. Another concept is that living beings are a systematic and a fine union of matter and energy, which maintains its balance by means of an energy store present in the environment.

Various life forms are classified as living because they display activity, according to this theory. But psychics argue that there are souls in Nature that do not possess a visible physical form, and yet they manifest their presence from time to time. The confusion about what is life becomes even more glaring when one reviews the scientific literature on the origin of life and the evolution of species and the dissimilar views of different scientists.

Extraterrestrial Life?

Life scientists consider proteins and nucleic acids as essential components of living organisms. Some scientists disagree with this, arguing that on planets other than Earth, proteins and nucleic acids may not necessarily be required for the propagation of life. Life may exist in another form on these planets and the current techniques and methods used to detect the presence of these life forms may be inadequate to discover them.

Problems in defining death:

 Like life, a complete understanding of death has also baffled scientists. An article titled Panel Asks: "When is a Person Dead? " published in Science journal (August 1980) reported the proceedings of a conference in which scientists, physicians and priests from different countries discussed questions surrounding the exact nature of death. The discussion remained inconclusive because certain unconventional cases raised controversy over the exact nature of death. A person is considered dead when the physician detects a complete stoppage of heartbeats, respiration or brain activities. Some people declared dead based on these criteria have been found to be alive later. "Life After Life" by Raymond Moody and other books on this subject contain many such examples. In the USA, brain death is taken as an evidence of death in certain states, whereas in other states the cessation of the functioning of the heart and respiratory system is considered as clinical death. Also, law approves such diverse views. However, the issue is not as straightforward as it seems. There is a sense of uncertainty arising from using brain death alone as a tool for deciding the death of a person.4 Brain death experts say that there should be a general definition of death that covers the features of brain death, failure of heart as well as other medical symptoms.

Many believe that medical care should not be terminated on the basis of brain death alone. Unconsciousness should not be mistaken for death because there have been cases where people were found to be alive while being unconscious or brain dead. There are also examples of many yogis whose practice of spiritually motivated severe self-discipline enables them to stop and control the activities of brain, heart, respiratory systems etc. at their own will. It seems that the current definitions of death are inconclusive. A myriad of telltale signs should thus be examined before declaring a person dead. Clinging on to one feature as being the hallmark of death would be erroneous; e.g., EEG (electroencephalogram) is a very good device for measuring brain activities, but it can give false results when a person is unconscious.

Life and death:

The spiritual viewpoint:
A complete understanding of life and death seems to be a great mystery to scientists, but things start becoming clearer once we step into the domain of spirituality. Life and death are simply two stages of the perennial flow of the supreme, divine consciousness. Life never ceases to exist and death comes as a body-transfer process. Death is merely a resting place in the long journey of the soul. As this view of death is not widely known, it appears to be complex and scary. Man has acquired immense knowledge with the progress of time and civilization, but it is trivial compared to the knowledge that has yet to be discovered. Science cannot help him in this venture. Spiritual quest must begin where science starts to fumble and falter. Spiritual knowledge is capable of explaining the mysteries relating to human nature and beyond.


1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Eighth edition. R. E. Allen, ed. Oxford University Press, 1991.
2. The Penguin Dictionary of Biology. Eighth Edition, M. Abercrombie et al., eds., Penguin, London, 1992.
3. Stefan Bengston, ed. (1994). Early Life on Earth. Nobel Symposium No. 84. Columbia University Press, New York. p.61. 4. Joyce, Alan (1996). Brain-Death Dilemmas. Community Ethics, Volume 4, number 1. University of Pittsburgh

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