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Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Life & Death Are Not Opposites

It just occurred to me last night that life and death are not actually opposites. Life is a complex system, meaning that it is made up of several diverse components which are interacting at the borderline between complete order and complete chaos. There are many types of complex systems and biological complex systems (i.e. life) are one type.

Linguistics and the common use of certain words in English are stacked against me here so you'll have to get past that to see what I'm saying. What I mean is that death is one half of the continual life process - a component of it.

Of course, on the scale of the ecology, this is obvious. Living things must die so that others can be born and live - thus the process functions. A chicken had to die for me yesterday, as did the wheat plants my cereal was made out of.

But more than that, within a single healthy organism you have the continual death of millions of cells on a regular basis. This allows for their replacement by new cells and the organism as a whole functions.

So, death is but one part of the overall function. In terms of ancient philosophy it might be called destruction or disorder. Opposite to that would be another activity which might be called order or creation. But this order/creation is not life.

To explain I will first take the example of a mud puddle. Here you have all sorts of elements, materials, etc. all swirling together. However the entire body is based on disorder and is not living. Opposite to that are something like crystals forming, where you have order and creation, but very little destruction or disorder inherent in the system. Thus crystals are not living either. So, pure creation/order does not lead to life. Life is the process of balance between these activities.

What we call death would seem at first glance to be the cessation of this balance, thus showing that life and death are indeed opposites. However, when it comes to organisms, death results in the system becoming more disordered. This is not merely a stopping of the balance, but in this process one side "wins out". That side of the balance is actually death.

Furthermore, that one side of the life process (disorder/death) is inherent within a single living organism, and necessary to its functioning. Therefore, life and death cannot be opposites.

What seems to have happened here is a crude happenstance of the English language which has lead to a word for the balanced process (life) and a word for the disorder/chaotic element within that process (death) but no commonly used word for the opposite of the disorder/chaos/death element. There is also no commonly used word for the lack of a life process, which does not speak only of the disorder/chaos side of life. For example, one wouldn't call a mud puddle or a crystal "dead", but rather simply "not living". Using the word "dead" implies that it was once alive - that there was once a balance between two elements and the death-side of that won out.

So death is a part of life and even essential to it. Of course, none of this is really new, but I just realized how our use of language mingled with these concepts to give us a somewhat distorted view. Furthermore, it seems even more obvious to me now, that when we curse death or wish for life without death, what we are doing is irrational. We are cursing a part of the very process we are trying to preserve, and a part that if absent would end that process. In doing so, we are trying to make ourselves into inert crystals, captured in perfect order for all time - and this, of course, is not life. When considering the true nature of life and death as an element of life, it seems that our desires concerning death are as foolish and contradictory as trying to open a door by pulling on the knob, and pushing the door with our foot at the same time.

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