Atheism is often portrayed as being materialistic so when I came across a debate on life or life essence or life force or whatever you want to call it, I was immediately intrigued. Here were two enigineers, one based in the US and the other in Jordan discussing the nature of life. The two "protagonists" are Libb Thims an American chemical engineer, electrical engineer, and thermodynamicist known for his work and research in the development of the newly emerging sciences of human chemistry, the study of reactions between human molecules, and human thermodynamics, the study of energy, work, and heat aspects of systems of human molecules and DMR Sekhar a Mineral Process Engineer at JPMC Ltd.

So let's start with Libb Thims' argument. You can find a pdf of his letter that I'm quoting from here: He makes a compelling argument for the materialist point of view - claiming that the concept of "life" is a defunct theory. Quoting the pertinent paragraph from his letter:

"You agree with me that the single atom is not alive. What about two atoms? What about three?
Does a bound state of atoms have to have a certain movement to be considered alive? What if we
heat a system of four atoms, do they suddenly become alive? What if we subject a system of
atoms to both gravitational and electromagnetic forces, does that suddenly make them alive?
What if the two forces act to move smaller atoms through the cavities of larger atoms on a
cyclical basis, thus activating reactions in the process, does that make them alive? What if the
two forces begin to arrange the atoms into hierarchies, and that smaller atoms and bundles of
atoms begin to more between the hierarchies, does that make them alive? What if a structure of
atoms, begin to turnover their internal atoms, with those of the surrounding space, on a cyclical
basis, does that make it alive?"

A very logical, rational and totally convincing arguemnt indeed. When I first read it, it certainly made me think about my views and understanding of the experience of existence or conscousness (ie life?) that I began to doubt my understanding of it.

Next, I came across Sekhar's response to Thims' argument and I have to say that is just as compelling and maybe even a bit more so. You can find the full transcript of his short "thesis" on the subject here: He gets straight to the point in his first paragraph:

"Let us consider an experiment where a jar of water and a conscious man were placed on two hot plates of two feet by two feet size and let us switch on the hot plates. What we will observe is that in the first case the jar remains on the hot plate and the water will become hot. In the second case the man will jump out of the hot plate trying to preserve himself and hence he is alive unlike the water molecules."

He develops his argument by examining the behaviour of a "living" being just before the moment of death and just after the moment of death. Even though Sekhar doesn't explicitly state so, I'm assuming that these points in time are compared since it can be said that the material state of the body just before death and just after death can ostensibly be considered that same. There are the same number of atoms, molecules and cells just before death as just after. However, the behaviour of the body is different. In fact, he uses the following equation to describe the behaviour:

f(L) – f(D) = f(g)


f(L) = the state of a being that is alive
f(D) = the state of a being that has just died
f(g) = 0 to x

Now, if the behaviour of a live being equates to that of a dead being, then f(g) = 0, otherwise, it could be any other value. A value of 0 would support Thims' contention that there is no such thing as "life" - there is only the material world. However, we have observed in our theoretical experiment that a living object will display different behaviour to a recently dead object therefore it is abundantly clear that f(g) is not in fact equal to zero.

Hence, Sekhar has conclucively shown that there is some sort of life out there (call it consciousness, mind, etc) but science cannot as yet quantify or observe this "substance". Yes, it is life, Jim, but it remains unknown to science.

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Comment by Dr. Terence Meaden on November 16, 2010 at 6:46am
Dear Vangelis: You have raised philosophical points that merit consideration and discussion, but forgive me for not analyzing them. I am simply too overwhelmed with work [research and report writing] that I am already not meeting imposed deadlines, so I can do no more than acknowledge receipt of your message with thanks. If you wish, do raise this matter of 'life and death' with the "Origins" group for others to comment. Terry

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