COVID and the Meaning of Life
At first blush, it seems presumptuous to invoke the meaning of life in a political discussion, but in my defense, a few hundred years ago, it was presumptuous for a slaver named Thomas Jefferson to invoke the meaning of self-government, yet here we are. Freedom requires the courage to be presumptuous. Even life itself, as will be demonstrated shortly, is presumptuous in standing up for itself and rebelling against the laws of mechanical causation, electromagnetism, and chemistry.
Life is that first moment that bodies in motion, instead of reacting in an equal and opposite relation upon contact, find themselves organized in such an arrangement among themselves that they can react selectively, excluding and admitting certain other members of the external biosphere for the sake of maintaining the in-group’s arrangement, and do so in a way that is relatively immune to noxious outside penetration. Rather than succumbing to impact from outside forces, the bodies constituting an organism involve selectively reacting to external impacts and charges in a way that realizes a certain arrangement of chemicals and chemical reactions within the organism, letting in the nutrients that were useful to the organism and excluding the ones that were not useful. And in this moment, the universe goes from bodies in motion without purpose to one populated with beings with the purpose of self-realization: rudimentary selves.
This qualified emancipation from the mechanical laws of matter in motion is characterized by an organization of chemicals that not only renews its formal arrangement through the rhythmic interaction of its composite chemicals, but the organism renews itself against what is outside of its boundary composed of a semipermeable membrane that crusts the chemicals within. Life introduces a differentiated “inside” and “outer” that did not exist before, with an inside that sustains itself by contriving the means to selectively feed from and expel waste into the outer. What particles are allowed through the membrane are not won admittance in accordance with the force with which the particles strike the membrane; rather, entrance into the body is determined by the needs of the inner chemicals to sustain their organizational form and the relative power of the membrane to police entry. The organism doesn’t happen to let in the chemicals that sustain its form; rather, in its rudimentary purposiveness, the organism lets in chemical because these are the means to sustain its form, even as the initial chemical matter is expelled as waste. The form that is the self remains. The living thing, through its selective metabolism, is the cause and effect of its being and sustenance.
Winfield writes that it is this self-centered character that distinguishes the purposiveness of a living body, as an organization of chemicals, from other forces like the attraction of matter towards a gravitational center or the electromagnetic charge. This organizational form is the seat of purpose or purposiveness in its most minimal form of self-concern.
With perception and locomotion, life gets the power to perceive the object of its need from a distance and expend itself to close that distance. Instead of the object of desire impacting the semi-permeable membrane, light may be reflected from the object in way that strikes the organism, without overwhelming it, but rather, alerting the organism that the means to satisfy its need is over there.
All of this happens within a narrow spectrum of interactions. The biosphere within which life wars against, yet feeds off of, cannot be so noxious as to bombard or otherwise pollute the semipermeable membrane or frustrate the sense organs or impede locomotion for life to exercise its power to fulfill its needs. Yet in the Goldilocks biosphere, where things are not too hot nor too cold, life can exercise its qualified purposiveness.
Yet the sensory organs used to excite locomotion for the organism to anticipate and expect energy to satisfy its desires are not yet perfect. Sometimes the morsel of sustenance that is sensed to be over there is, by the time I have expended the energy to move to consume it, snatched by faster organism. In which case, we find the biological origin of frustration that emerges from the capacity to sense and move. Maybe another animal has developed the capacity to fool my sensory organs to lure me to be consumed by it, and in this realization, we find the mortal stakes of naïve decision making for an organism. Put the possibilities of frustration and danger together, and we have a rudimentary account of the basis of the organic development of the capacity of perception that does not determine action, in which case, forbearance is rewarded. Clear thinking and sound strategy become its own reward for the organism, just as frustration becomes its own kind of degradation, that is distinct from hunger. Not only is the organism hungry, it is betrayed by its own sense organs and processing. All of this emerges from life’s plot that is realized in an organized set of chemicals with the power to sustain their form and selectively resist the impact of alien bodies. What you have in this minimal account of life’s emancipation from the laws of mechanism of matter in motion is an account of the realization of freedom, and it is upon this initial realization of freedom that further realizations of different kinds of freedom are developed, e.g., now that I can exercise forbearance, I can keep promises. If I can keep promises, and I fulfill contracts or lay of other people’s possessions. If I can lay off other people’s possessions, then I can enable property rights. All of these forms of freedom emerge through life, yet are distinct from the freedom of life.
At this stage in the argument, life itself has shown itself to be an expression of freedom, and it also the enabling condition of more developed expressions of freedom: it is good in itself and good as useful for freedom’s further development.
The autonomy and specificity of life is important because in its autonomy, the living organism can negate the purposes of other living organisms. The autonomy of life is that in its expression, it is strictly determined by the laws of matter in motion nor the needs of other organisms. Also the concerns for life can overrun more developed forms of freedom. For example, animal life depends on the world’s lawlike regularity between objects and their perception. This respect for law like regularity, and the fear of frustration precipitates the concern for law like regularity, is qualitatively different than the satisfaction of consumption. Through life and life’s frustration’s, we find the biological origin of morality. Yet morality is specific development of freedom because, through the need to be moral, the organism can negate that satisfaction of life and sacrifice life, or refuse to live in world that would not abide the law like regularity upon which the non-frustration exercise of life depends. It’s an open question as to whether a life where none of your life plans were secured in any way is a life worth living.
Not merely in morality, but property, civil, cultural, and political rights can all be developed from this, life’s first emancipation from the mechanism of the laws of matter in motion, a purposive concern for itself as a bounded, unified organism, and the power and need to exercise this concern amid an indifferent to hostile world out of which the organism has emerged and upon which the organism requires for it to feed.
So life itself is an expression of freedom, in addition to being an enabling condition of more developed freedoms. If we forget that life itself is a specific expression of freedom, then the legitimate dignity and concern for life operates in an unregulated fashion. If we forget that life is but one specific variety of freedom, and it is freedom that grants life its dignity, then the problem is forget this, the concern for life becomes the authoritative concern that, with absolute reign, governs all institutions of freedom.
“Even one person dying of COVID is too many” is only a horrifying statement because we aren’t culturally prepared to account for why that’s an absurd and pernicious idea.
That you would shut down schools, civil society, churches, weddings, political gatherings, and cultural events for everyone to avoid one person dying from COVID is a life fetish. If life is so important, we should mandate that everyone become vegetarian. But even the life of plants would have to be negotiated as a compromise. This absolute concern for life chokes out the realization of freedom through institutions that makes human life especially meaningful, substituting the most paltry version of freedom in its stead. Sure, life is necessary, but so is brushing your teeth. We need to hash out life’s role as a one of the mutually reinforcing expressions of freedom that make for a meaningful existence, not use life to strangle the existence of the cultural institutions that enable meaningful expressions of freedom that happen to also include life.
Freedom isn’t dignified as the mere means to support life; life is but one of a handful of specifications of freedom. If we care about freedom, and not merely in its narrow specificaton of life, we can’t let our concern for life cannibalize our other institutions of freedom.