Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum

What is Life?

What is Life?


There is simply no way to answer this question. When you take life away, what is left? I suppose that when you take it away, you still have matter, constantly arranging and rearranging, but what would be the difference between the different arrangements? How is one arrangement of matter any different from any other arrangement? What is it that I am comparing? It is all the same—just arrangements of matter, each as fleeting as every other. Is there anything at all within the all-encompassing oneness of being, when there is no life? It seems that if there is anything that is not just everything, then there is life. Otherwise, there is nothing, or everything. But not something. How could there possibly be a definition of why there is something rather than just everything? Any definition already assumes that there is something.

This is why not only the being of persons, the being of someone, is beyond our ability to define. The being of something is also beyond our ability to define, as we have to know it before we do any of the defining. It is one of the two categories that we know by being, rather than by understanding being: someone and something, the being of persons and being alive.

The other day, I came across an article about the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, and I wondered whether it was an example of life elsewhere. It does meet the definition that I had tentatively accepted for the hallmark of life: homeostasis, or the persistent maintenance of an ordered state within a state of chaos. The Great Red Spot is a giant whirlpool within the outer layers of Jupiter. It has been there for centuries, growing and shrinking at times, almost disappearing at times but then reappearing again. It is rather deeper than what people had thought, which was recently discovered and occasioned the article that caught my attention and made me wonder about whether this spot might be considered alive, on account of its persistence of existing in a chaotic environment.

On further thought, the answer could only be “no.” The lack of procreation is part of the argument, but not the most important (to me, anyhow; after all, I made a vow of celibacy). If the Great Red Spot would disappear, nothing would be lost. We would still have the photographs, we would still have the measurements that would, one day, tell us why there was this phenomenon for some time but now is no more. The Great Red Spot exists as what it is in our observing of it, but not in itself. We recognize it as a feature, almost like us in its persistence of being, but not quite there on itself. Its existence is derivative to our own. It is truly real only as a figment of our imagination. But it is not alive, it is not like us. We keep looking.