Search for an Alternative Paradigm of Life

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

|| By: Srila Bhaktisvarupa Damodara
Maharaja, (T. D. Singh, Ph.D.) ||

Founding Director of
Bhaktivedanta Institute

Many thoughtful scientists will agree that chemical evolution do not actually study life. They only study how biomolecules such as RNA, DNA, proteins, etc., might have formed early on earth. But their combinations do not seem to lead to life and it is highly doubtful that scientists will ever be able to create life from the interactions of lifeless molecules.

Leslie Orgel, in a 1998 review article entitled, “The Origin of Life-a review of facts and speculations” has summarized our current state of affairs in regard to life and its origin as – “There are several tenable theories about the origin of organic material on the primitive earth, but in no case is the supporting evidence compelling. Similarly, several alternative scenarios might account for the self-organization of a self-replicating entity from pre-biotic organic material, but all of those that are well formulated are based on hypothetical chemical synthesis that are problematic.” [1]

Thus it seems that the scientists are not able to generate life by a combination of biomolecules in the laboratory. It suggests that knowledge of DNA or any bio-molecule will not be able to explain what life is. Rather life could be beyond the assembly of biomolecules. Werner Arber, a well-known microbiologist and Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology from the University of Basel, Switzerland has commented as, “It is an important discovery of Thomas R. Cech and Sidney Altman…. that RNA could act as a catalyst. However, I am not sure about its significance with regard to the study of origin of life. RNA alone is not life…. for me it may always remain as a mystery that how many different molecules could come together to form a primordial cell. . . . I think that life could be beyond the assembly of biomolecules.” [2]

It would be, therefore, worthwhile to examine alternative paradigms of life. Schrödinger, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, also felt that life required some extraordinary laws to explain it. He said, “We must be prepared to find a new kind of physical law prevailing.” [3]

Michael Polanyi, a scientist and thinker of the twentieth century expressed more profoundly: “The recognition of certain basic impossibilities has laid the foundations of some major principles of physics and chemistry; similarly, recognition of the impossibility of understanding living things in terms of physics and chemistry, far from setting limits to our understanding of life, will guide it in the right direction…. such a demonstration would help to draw a truer image of life and man than that given us by the present concepts of biology.” [4]

“The recognition of certain basic impossibilities has laid the foundations of some major principles of physics and chemistry; similarly, recognition of the impossibility of understanding living things in terms of physics and chemistry, far from setting limits to our understanding of life, will guide it in the right direction…. such a demonstration would help to draw a truer image of life and man than that given us by the present concepts of biology.”

– Michael Polanyi

Life: Spiritual particle or Spiriton

According to Vedanta, the ancient spiritual science of India, all living beings are animated by the presence of a non-chemical or non-molecular fundamental spiritual particle – “spiriton” (called atman in Vedantic terminology; the term ‘spiriton’ is coined by the author). Vedanta mentions that ‘spiriton’ or the spiritual particle has the following properties: [5]

a) It is the spiritual energy as opposed to the material energy of God.

b) It is a transcendental particle and is ontologically different from matter. [6]

c) It is only due to the interaction between the spiriton and material elements that the material body appears to be active and lively.

d) Its fundamental qualities are: (i) Consciousness (ii) Free will (iii) Intention and (iv) Purpose.

e) It is beyond ordinary sense perception but it can be inferred. Consciousness is the most visible symptom of life, spiriton. Matter, however complex it may be, can never be conscious.

f) It exists eternally and it cannot be created or destroyed.

g) It has a will to acquire knowledge.

h) It has a will to be blissful.

i) It has attractive powers not only with individual beings but also with matter. The attractive power or force between a mother and her baby is due to the interaction of spiritons. However, when the baby is dead, the attractive power will be lost because the spiriton is no longer there within the body of the child.

Further, when someone dies, one can experience the symptoms of the passing of the “spiriton” through the eyes, mouth, rectum, or through the skin holes of the head along with life air.

In Vedanta there are two aspects of reality-the spiritual nature and the material nature. It should be noted that the activities of the living beings are not simply physical. Many scientists face great difficulty explaining human behavior only in mechanical or material terms and feel such limitations intuitively. James Watson, the co-discover of double helix model of DNA structure, says, “There are still very major problems to solve on how information is stored and retrieved and used in the brain. It’s a bigger problem than DNA, and more a difficult one…. You can find genes for behaviors, but that doesn’t tell you how brain works…. we still don’t know how the brain works ….” [7] Recently, Stephen Hawking also expressed in a lecture; “As Dirac remarked, Maxwell’s equations of light, and the relativistic wave equation … govern most of physics, and all of chemistry and biology. So in principle, we ought to be able to predict human behavior, though I can’t say I have had much success myself. The trouble is that the human brain contains far too many particles, for us to be able to solve the equations.” [8]

According to Vedanta, the brain in developed living beings is an important organ of the body machinery in which the symptom of consciousness is transmitted. The conscious energy is transmitted from the spiritual soul or ‘spiriton’.

In biology textbooks, life or living beings are generally defined as having potential to grow, reproduce, move, respond to such stimuli as light, heat and sound and are sustained by the processes of nutrition, respiration and excretion. But what makes these living systems grow? Biologically, we explain that growth is due to multiplication of cells through various types of divisions like mitosis or meiosis. But why any cell starts dividing at the first place? Why a fertilized egg (after the sperm cell unites with egg cell) undergoes divisions which results in the formation of the whole body? Vedanta describes that due to the presence ‘spiriton’ the body is animated and active and undergoes six types of transformations. [9] It takes birth, lives for some time, grows, produces some offspring, gradually dwindles, and at last vanishes into oblivion. [10]

It is just like the analogy of a car and the driver inside. When the driver goes away, the car cannot move. Similarly, when the spirit soul, spiriton goes away, or what we call death, the body can no longer be animated in spite of the fact that all the molecular machineries that make up the body are still intact.

Srimad Bhagavad-Gita mentions about ‘spiriton’ being different from matter as follows:  

bhumir apo ‘nalo vayuh kham mano buddhir eva ca
ahankara itiyam me bhinna prakrtir astadha

Translation: “Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego-all together these eight constitute My (Lord Krishna’s) separated material energies. Besides these, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is another, superior energy of Mine, which comprises the living entities (spiritons) who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature.” [11]

According to Vedanta, the science of the soul or spiriton (atman) is the sublime essence of spirituality. The Bhagavad-Gita refers to this science as-raja-vidya raja-guhyam pavitram idam uttamam pratyaksavagamam dharmyam su-sukham kartum avyayam, meaning, “This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed. [12] According to Vedanta, the ultimate purpose of human life is to find our real spiritual identity and our relationship with the Supreme.

References


[1] Orget L. E., “The origin of life -a review of facts and speculations”, Trends in Biochemical Sciences, 1998, Volume 23, pp.491-495.

[2] T. D. Singh & W. Arber, “Dialogue on Life and its Origin”, Savijfiiinam Scientific Exploration for a Spiritual Paradigm, Volume l, Kolkata, 2002, p.8 & p.16.

[3] E. Schrodinger, What is Life?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1944, p.8l.

[4] M. Polanyi, “Life’s Irreducible Structure”, Science, 1968, 160:1308-1312.

[5] Refer A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Bombay, 1997.

[6] Ibid., verse 2.23- nainam chindanti sastrani nainam dahati pavakah na cainam kledayanty apo na sosayati marutah, meaning, “the soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”

[7] A Conversation with James Watson, Scientific American, 2003, 288(4):66-70. Also refer to the extended version of this conversation at Scientific American’s website www.sciam.com

[8] Lecture by Stephen Hawking on “Gödel and the End of Physics” at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, March 8, 2003; adapted from http://www.damtp.cam.ac.uk/strtst/dirac/hawking

[9] We should note that some religious traditions do not accept the existence of the soul and some others proclaim that the soul is present in human beings only. However, ancient Vedic science of India does not accept such statements and states very firmly that all living entities have spirit souls.

[10] Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, verse 2.20 purport, Ibid.

[11] Ibid., verses 7.4-5.

[12] Ibid., verse 9.2.

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