What is Life? (A Scientific Perspective)

The answer tells us about what’s necessary for staying healthy and alive as long as possible

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

What’s the difference between the living and the dead according to science? And what does the answer tell us about what’s necessary for staying healthy and alive as long as possible? To answer, it will help to first see what science says about death, and where something called entropy fits in the picture.

What Science Says About Death

The Second Law of Thermodynamics in physics has sometimes been called the scientific equivalent of the works of Shakespeare. This law of nature says that any physical system that is not alive will go from a state of orderliness or coherence to a state of increasing entropy, which means disorder or decay. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the law of nature that results in foods decaying, cars and machines breaking down, and houses falling into disrepair. This famous law says that anything not alive always become moredisorderly (entropic) over time, and it is a law with no exceptions. It never happens that over time junk heaps form themselves into beautiful cars or buildings. It never happens that over time the food on the table becomes more purified of harmful bacteria.

Moreover, because the environment, and what’s in it what we eat, drink and breathe and gain entropy over time, it affects all of us in our everyday lives. Much time and energy is spent fighting the disordering influence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Being health conscious we try to eat the right foods, and get enough sleep and exercise, all to maintain health and prevent disorders from arising.  Yet, our experience is that decline and disease inevitably do creep in over time, just as what is not alive is decaying all around us. What can we do then, if anything, to postpone this decline and maintain our health and performance at optimum levels as we age? The antidote is in how science looks at what it means to be alive.

What is Life?

In his 1944 classic book, What is Life?, Nobel Laureate physicist Erwin Schrödinger analyzed what it means to be alive. He was among the first modern scientists to address this issue. His analysis looked at how living organisms alone could maintain order (the opposite of the inevitable entropy and decay that occurs in non-living systems) and even grow and evolve in the midst of a decaying environment brought about by nature’s Second Law of Thermodynamics. Schrödinger made the obvious point that living systems avoid entropy and decay by eating, drinking, and breathing, and for plants, assimilating, but he said that this is not the whole story. He said that for a while we were told we feed on energy, but if that was all there was to it, he said any unit of energy, any calorie, should be as good as any other, and that this is not the case when it comes to the calories we need to keep us healthy and alive. We don’t eat rotten food, for example, although it is plant life and has lots of calories, and in some contexts is an excellent source of energy. However, food that is no longer fresh becomes subject to the disordering effect of the Second Law.

Schrödinger said that the “precious something” contained in our food that keeps us from death is orderliness or coherence. In other words, we feed on orderliness. Schrödinger’s actual words were that we feed on “negative entropy,” which is just another name for orderliness. Entropy means disorder or decay, so negative entropy is order. We feed on the order or coherence in other living systems.

Although not commonly appreciated, our need for orderly inputs to overcome the disordering effect of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is why we avoid eating plants or animals that are diseased (disordered), and eat food that is “fresh from the farm,” meaning food that is as fresh as possible. And we refrigerate our foods, because another law of nature, the Third Law of Thermodynamics, says that lowering the temperature preserves orderliness. With this analysis, we can understand how consuming orderliness  plays a crucial role in staying alive and maintaining our health. But we need to look at what else we can do to generate the coherence that is necessary to overcome entropy, stay alive, and be healthy.

More Recent Understandings of What is Life

In the 75 years since Schrödinger wrote his book, we have come to understand  that living systems (plant and animal life)have another means of overcoming the Second Law of Thermodynamics and growing and evolving. This is also based on maintaining order or coherence by keeping the body’s innate coherence-generating systems in good working order. The body is programmed with many such systems to fight infections and ward off disease and death.

We have natural regulators (“homeostats”) within the body that act like thermostats to maintain the body’s temperature at or near 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, maintain the pH levels of the fluids outside our cells, and maintain the concentrations of sodium, potassium, and glucose in the blood no matter what we eat and despite changes in the environment.

In addition, when we have at least a normal level of coherence, our immune systems  prevent germs from entering the body and kill those that do gain entry. And we have chemical-generating systems that produce hundreds of chemicals each day to keep us alive and well. We naturally produce melatonin at night for sleep, pepsin and hydrochloric acid to aid digestion, and other chemicals to make us hungry when we need nutrition, and so on.

So, if the body is naturally programmed to keep us healthy, what is the cause of the relative lack of health that Americans experience: 133 million adults in the U.S. are  suffering from chronic diseases (long-term, generally incurable disorders), and the U.S. generally ranks last among the developed nations in healthcare statistics, despite having the most expensive healthcare system. Those of us who wrote a new book on this issue argue that the problem is that we aren’t   focusing our health strategies on those that reliably produce coherence in the brain and body.

Allopathic medicine applies the coherence principle in its pharmaceuticals and treatments, which seek to  bring order or coherence to a disordered part of the physiology. But pharmaceuticals don’t keep us healthy; they’re for when we’re already in a disordered state. What’s necessary is to apply the coherence principle to the everyday things that keep us healthy and alive—to what we eat, to promoting good digestion, to our meditation or relaxation strategies, to getting good sleep, and to our exercise and Yoga strategies.

Why should meditation be part of our health strategies? Again, it’s for coherence. The Third Law of Thermodynamics that we mentioned earlier says that we gain coherence by reducing the temperature, and it says the lower the temperature, the more the order (this is why foods keep for longer in the freezer). And temperature is just a synonym for activity; the lower the activity of molecules, the lower the temperature. We don’t, of course, freeze the body for coherence.  The body needs to remain at a relatively constant temperature, but if we can lower the activity level of the mind through meditation, it is the  functional equivalent of lowering the temperature and, predictably, it  results in greater orderliness in the mind and body. This is why calmness leads to coherence.

I’ve been practicing and teaching the ancient Vedic health strategies (Transcendental Meditation and Ayurveda) for almost 50 years now. These strategies teach  that to eat and exercise for coherence, we need to select our foods and choose our levels of exercise according to our body type (e.g., not all fresh foods are good for all people). And we need to select a meditation program like TM that generates brain wave coherence, which is the new frontier of brain science.  Scientists are now studying brain wave coherence extensively because it is associated with creativity, memory, and reduced anxiety and depression, while a lack of coherence is associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders, autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s.  

The Vedic strategies can work. They aren’t the only ones that create coherence, but they do appear to be the best researched, and we don’t know of other natural health strategies that work as well. But whether we use the Vedic strategies or others, if we use coherence as the criterion for our  natural health choices, we can benefit greatly.  

    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

    You might also like...

    ESB Professional / Shutterstock
    Wisdom//

    Entropy: Why Life Seems So Hard and Complicated.

    by Mayo Oshin
    Community//

    Is free will real, or is it just an illusion?

    by Wayne Delfino
    Community//

    How To Rise Above Grief And Guilt

    by Grace de Rond
    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.