So Don’t Stop

This post is being expanded. Last edit: 9/19/18

“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” – Carl Sagan

To my younger self, life was nothing short of a divine miracle. Sixty thousand miles of blood vessels in my body, and all of it from one cell! God truly was an awesome Creator. But now, I look at a tree outside, even more amazed by the fact that it and I came from the same cell roughly 4 billion years ago. I’ve always had a deep fascination with life. But without my faith to explain its origin or purpose, I turned to reason. As an engineering student, I was taught to view everything as a system, a relationship between inputs and outputs that can be described by some mathematical function. We use systems to understand everything from atoms to computers to galaxies, but what about life? Can biology be reduced to a bunch of equations?


“We cannot fathom the marvelous complexity of an organic being. Each living creature must be looked at as a microcosm―a little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars in heaven.” – Charles Darwin

The complexity of life is one reason why some scientists attribute our existence to intelligent design. Life, at its essence, is intelligent. One person very creatively—but quite accurately—described a cell as “a high-tech factory, complete with artificial languages and decoding systems; central memory banks that store and retrieve impressive amounts of information; precision control systems that regulate the automatic assembly of components; proof-reading and quality-control mechanisms that safeguard against errors; assembly systems that use principles of prefabrication and modular construction; and a complete replication system that allows the organism to duplicate itself at bewildering speeds.”

An animation of real-time DNA replication.
An animation of real-time DNA replication.

“Biology is the study of complicated things that have the appearance of having been designed with a purpose.” – Charles Darwin

The origin of life remains one of the most perplexing mysteries of science. Because the processes of a cell are overwhelmingly interdependent, considering which came first is like an unsolvable puzzle of chicken or the egg. Genes are needed to build proteins, but proteins are needed to make genes. However, neither genes nor proteins can function if they are not contained by lipid membranes, which are also made by proteins. Moreover, proteins cannot work without energy from metabolic reactions that rely on proteins and lipid membranes. How did all this result from a soup of chemicals? Most theories propose a concrete sequence of events that may have led to the first cell. Many scientists say that life began with the formation of RNA molecules or giant viruses, while others think that metabolism or lipid protocells arose first. But in their search for these physical pathways, biologists have overlooked a metaphysical mystery in the emergence of life: a determination to exist.

The following claim will be controversial, but my logic does not violate any proven principle of nature. And, given the mind’s tendency towards meaning and purpose, such an assumption might be particularly useful for the survival of our species.

A white blood cell pursues and engulfs bacteria. Image source.

Apart from the terminally or mentally ill, we all strive to exist—a biological tendency to sustain oneself. Arising with the first cell, this will to survive is a major distinction between living and nonliving matter. Indeed, the origin of life must involve the origin of its purpose—to live. And purpose must involve a mental aspect, because purpose implies intent, and intent demonstrates the presence of a mind, however primitive it may be. That is, the very concept of survival requires a determination that can only be explained by a sense of agency. This “struggle for existence” necessitates a motivation that may constitute the very beginnings of consciousness.

But some argue that this “awareness” and its “purpose” are not what they seem to be. Having evolved from nonliving matter, all biological phenomena must be derived from the mindless, purposeless laws of nature. Since life is nothing but a coincidental sequence of chemical events, mind and purpose are just confusions of molecular interactions, and the metaphysical is just an aimless byproduct of a purely physical system. In other words, your consciousness is an illusion—an illusion that loves, an illusion that laughs, an illusion so self-aware that it has realized itself to be an illusion.

Tardigrades are the most durable of known organisms: they can survive temperatures near absolute zero, the vacuum of outer space, and radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human.

For obvious reasons, this physical assumption remains unverifiable. Besides, its implications are demoralizing. Explaining our desire to exist as some delusion is a depressing thought, even for most stable minds. But if our survival instinct isn’t an illusion, then how real is it? Supposing that life’s striving cannot be fully reduced to its physical components, then it must be emergent from or intrinsic to its physical components. And in the latter case, our will to live may be as real as the ground beneath our feet. Our desire to exist may be fundamental to the nature of the Universe. After all, we’re made of the Universe.

The Milky Way galactic center above the ESO 3.6-meter telescope. Image source: ESO

Maybe the only reason we ask “why do we exist?” is because we want to exist.
Maybe the better question is, “why do we want to exist?”

Evolution may be chance, but evolution cannot occur without a replicating entity. Natural selection cannot happen without this “struggle for existence,” this self-sustaining tendency that is innate to all of life. But how do self-sustaining molecular systems evolve from interstellar dust? My theory, like any discussion on the origin of life, remains speculative. And while this is unimportant for the remainder of my philosophy, I do think it’s an idea worth exploring: perhaps this existential drive is inherent to our concept of dark energy and the arrow of time. That is, the propagation of spacetime also perpetuates every oscillation in nature, from the spins of galaxies to the spins of electrons. When these cosmic and quantum cycles intersect, they align and resonate, producing the self-sustaining cycle of chemical energy that we call biological life. Simply put, life is the resonant frequency of the Universe.

NASA time-lapse showing the 12-month cycle of all plant life on Earth.

Whether or not my theory holds, I will continue with this assumption: survival is somehow fundamental to the nature of reality. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And there is no evidence more compelling than the absurdity of your very being and its desire to be. Extrapolating this motivation of life to all of nature may seem rather unscientific. But we evolved from nature, and the laws that govern the evolution of life are the same laws that govern the evolution of stars. So when you see life and its struggle for existence, it seems possible that this struggle is innate to existence. Perhaps life itself is testimony to an influence beyond our present understanding of physics. Our survival instinct may reveal a truth greater than the outcome of any experiment: there is, underlying the laws of nature, a perpetual drive that is manifested through life and its awareness. Simply put, nature has one purpose: existence has a tendency to exist; being is bound with a will to be (axiom 2a).

Kidney cells in culture. Image source.

“Bottomless wonders spring from simple rules,
which are
repeated without end.
– Benoit Mandelbrot    

Bacteria in culture. Image source.

In a sheaf of notes intended for an unfinished book, Carl Sagan printed the following quote by philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz:

“Why does something exist rather than nothing? For ‘nothing’ is simpler than ‘something.’ Now this sufficient reason for the existence of the Universe…which has no need of any other reason…must be a necessary being, else we should not have a sufficient reason with which we could stop.”

And just beneath the typed quote,
three small handwritten words in red pen,
a message from Sagan to Leibniz and to us:

“So don’t stop.”


“Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors. Therefore it is by no means an idle game if we become practiced in analyzing long-held commonplace concepts and showing the circumstances on which their justification and usefulness depend.” – Albert Einstein

NEXT:   A Cosmic Purpose   |   CONTENTS   |   ABOUT

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