Since the English translation of my Concluding Remarks was published I received a few comments and questions regarding my rather unconventional definition of “life” as it obviously does not conform to the traditional view that life came about with the “birth” of the first cell. One question was how I could define brainless animals and vegetables as being without life.
Here is my answer:
As I have no academic background in biology or chemistry I realise that I am out on very thin ice. As you noticed, my starting point was Descartes’ revelation that he “is” because he thinks. Well, I am no expert on Decartes either, but the little that I have read about him has puzzled me. – If Descartes sees himself in a mirror, he cannot be sure, that what he sees is real, because his eyes may deceive him, but if he thinks that he sees himself in the mirror, then he can be certain that he exists! To my simple mind, that seems to be more like a play with words than deep philosophy.
So, that made me “think”, not to prove for myself that I exist, but to see whether I could improve on that revolutionising statement “cogito, ergo sum”.
The first question is what “cogito” actually means? What is the “I” in “I think” and subesequently included in “I am”? – Am “I” the thought produced by my thinking or some sort of consciousness, i.e. a pure abstraction? Or am “I” the thinking person consisting of a brain, a head and a body of flesh and blood?
If we assume – as I do – that Descartes had this latter definition in mind, then he must have also been convinced of having or having had parents. Thus, if Descartes exists, something else must also exist. Otherwise, he would have neither been created nor sustained in his existence. It follows from this that Decartes did not exist in a vacuum. There must have been an environment.
To discover this environment and what is in it we can use our intellect and our senses. These can deceive us, so we can never be sure of what it really is that we perceive as our environment, but following from the above, there must be something or some things around us that actually exist. Some of it may be alive, the rest may be dead materia, but it all exists.
Decartes’ conclusion “ergo sum” does not say anything as to whether Decartes is part of the world that lives or in that which does not.
Now back to the second leg of “cogito”. What is actually the meaning of the word “think”? - According to my way of “thinking” there is an important difference between simply reacting on stimuli and thinking, which is to assess stimuli, envisage options, form concepts and draw conclusions. (I am aware that this is only one of all possible definitions, but I believe it is sufficient in this context).
For a thinking process a brain is required. At the beginning of the evolution there was no brain and consequently, no thinking. Bio-chemical organisms reacted on changes in their environment, moved around and adapted themselves to changing circumstances. The world got gradually covered by grass, flowers and trees and inhabited by mussels, corals, worms and insects.
Later on some animal species developed brains capable of carrying out a thinking process. The first thought was born! - Reacting on stimuli continued, however, to be the predominant activity.
It is my personal view that it was not the appearance of the first single cell organism but the beginning of “thinking” that marked the beginning of life on earth. All there was, before the first thought was thought, was simply varying forms of bio-chemical machineries. – Therefore I reformulated Descartes’ phrase to read “cogito, ergo vivo”.
Thinking is, however, not the only indication of life. The other one is the “awareness” of our emotions, such as love, hate, fear, etc. This awareness is also inconceivable without a brain. Although the brain’s rational functionality is often severely impaired by very strong emotions, the awareness of loving and being loved is undoubtedly an indication of life. Thus, we can also say, “amo, ergo vivo”.
What it all boils down to is my perception that life is a spiritual phenomenon, not a bio-chemical one. This has led me to the conclusion that without “thinking” or “awareness” there is no life but materia only and various bio-chemical processes. Therefore, the inception of life did not come – as is generally stated - with the appearance of the first single cell organism but with the evolution of the first brains capable of enabling their bearers to “think” and/or reach at least some level of “awareness”.