At the end of my previous post on Happiness, I expressed my new surmising that life is the force that responds when too much energy is poured into a closed, complex system. When such a system receives enough energy to start breaking down bonds and reducing complexity, life responds by using up that energy in a pattern of rhythmic movements rather than letting it blaze through the system willy-nilly and tear everything apart. It’s kind of a strange idea, at one level, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking on it further.
Think of how the sun drives life on our planet, for example. The majority of the sun’s energy falls on our oceans, since they cover the greater part of the planet, so we’ll start there. What does all that energy do? Well, single-celled life forms called algae soak it up and use it to form their bodies and carry out their life rhythms. Vast algae fields bloom, pouring tons of oxygen into our air, which we and our animal cousins have found a use for. The algae consume enough energy to keep the ocean from being turned into a steam cooker that isn’t conducive to life at all.
But think about what would happen if the story ended there. Algae would swarm all over the oceans, using up all the resources they need. Soon, everything would be covered by a festering, dying, green goo. Without the whole ecosystem, algae as we know them couldn’t survive for long. In the meantime, the sun would keep pouring energy in, which would break down the old algae bodies then continue to heat up the ocean, until you had a pressure cooker after all. The first green beautiful swirl of algae would be an impulse of life, but algae alone wouldn’t be able to harness so much energy.
But life doesn’t stop with algae. As energy continues to pour into those blooms, life continues to blossom. Soon you have the ordered complexity and beauty of plankton swirling rhythmically and gracefully through their business of consuming algae fields. These swarming plankton are consumed by gracefully swarming krill, which are consumed by majestic whales on one hand; or by fish which are eaten by seals which are eaten by sharks on the other hand. I read once that at each level of the food chain, energy is lost by an order of magnitude – it takes ten times more energy to grow a pound of plankton by consuming algae than it takes to grow a pound of algae by consuming sunlight. And it takes ten times more energy than that to grow a pound of krill by consuming the plankton, and so on.
So it makes my mind wonder, where did all that energy go? And the only answer I find is that it must have gone into the beautiful motions and patterns of swarming life. That’s what I mean when I say that life takes energy and lays it out in patterns of beautiful movement. In a way, life is music. Life is the amazing complexity of single-celled and multi-celled organisms played out through the oldest song and dance in the world, that of predator and prey. Where does all the sun’s energy go? Into the whole saga of beautiful motions acted out in the dance of cheetah vs. antelope or shark vs. seal or krill and humpback whale. There’s a kind of music in that saga. And I wonder if life, fundamentally, is the music that guides our rhythms, enabling us to use energy for ordered complexity, rather than destruction resulting in chaotic formlessness.
This makes me wonder if there really is, by some law of physics, a pervasive life force in our universe, not unlike the force of gravity. Gravity is a force that keeps matter from drifting apart and being reduced to ever simpler and less dense clouds of free-floating atoms. It clumps things together tighter so complexity can occur. As far as I know, the gravitational constant isn’t well understood, but it’s clearly observed – we don’t know why there’s gravity, we just know that there is.
So if gravity is the inexplicable natural law that clumps matter together, maybe life is the inexplicable natural reaction you get when you pour energy into the complex worlds that gravity has clumped together. Maybe life is just the force that resists being destroyed or blown apart. It’s the force that wants to cling together in ever and ever more complex molecules and arrangements of molecules, colonies of cells, ecosystems of predator and prey, all dancing together in an infinitely varied but fundamentally unified goal of using up excess energy without sacrificing the complexity of togetherness. The song of life is gritty and realistic. The sagas lived out through generations are full of wars and ferocity and predation and parasitism. But through it all, life is fundamentally about sticking together to beat the natural ferocity of the forces trying to tear everything back down to its barest elements. Life is what says, no, we’re sticking together, we’re stronger together…and then creates a beautiful dance in doing so, and tames the savage elements. It’s what brings harmony into a world without form and void.
In a way, the whole saga of our rhythmically swarming world is life. It’s impossible to experience alone. We all share in it. And when you think about it, the dance of planets and stars and galaxies and clusters – the whole universe – has the same sort of beauty. Maybe there’s a life force pervading the universe, a constant as fundamental as gravity, a natural law that says matter is living, that it tries to contain and subdue energy, to bind it together into the four-dimensional space-time dance of complexity. Maybe it’s the law that says, when there’s a system full of diverse, complex molecules that are able to freely associate and replicate using the nutrients of their environment, and you pour energy into that complex system at just the right rate, about what you’ve had through the history of Earth and I suspect a great many other planets, you get a dance of reproducing and competing and consuming and uniting and dividing that assumes greater and greater complexity until it’s as complex as the operations of a human brain – no, as complex as human history and society, as complex as the global network of human brains. But it’s still just a natural law of how matter and energy behaves, the natural life force of the universe.
I further wonder that if you tune your own measure of the life force well, that is, if you lay out your own life history and choices and patterns in beautiful ways, your example may be repeated indefinitely, sort of like how a crystal grows, each next layer copying the one that came before it. Maybe your life really has an influence far beyond what you can see. Maybe the life force is expressed as a fractal pattern, where each part examined individually looks the same as the whole functioning together at a broader scale. Maybe you’re your own microcosm, a fractal part of the whole. If that’s so, then maybe the more you understand and better yourself, since you have in the diverse parts of yourself and your psyche the pattern of the universe as a whole, the more broadly you’ll have an influence for good. If you live your life beautifully, and the pattern begins to replicate around you, it can bring your own part of the fractal pattern more into harmony with the whole universe. Maybe you can tap into the life force and use it for the healing of the world. Maybe that’s what artists and poets and musicians have always done.
And that’s what happens when I try to think too much.