Prompt #2: What is the one aspect of your faith/belief system that troubles you the most?

In Letter 1, I asked you to introduce yourself to me and tell me about your belief system, whether religious or not. But no matter how strong you believe in something, there are always bits and pieces that cause us doubt. In Letter 2, I’d like you to tell me about the aspect of your personal belief that gives you the most trouble. This should be specific. Don’t be general. I want to hear what you struggle with, and why that struggle is so hard for you. I believe we learn as much about people by listening to what causes them to struggle as we do by listening to what causes them to celebrate.

Please remember to send your responses as both a snail mail letter (please!) and as an email. I’ll use the email to post your response on the website and cross-post them on the Faith, Fully Facebook page. The snail mail letters will be used for a physical project that’s coming later! 

You can read every Letter 2 starting in September 19, and you can find out more about the Faith, Fully project here.

Dear Friends:

Thank you so much for your first letters. I’ve enjoyed getting to know each of you through your words. This is a rarity these days (although maybe it’s always been a rarity even in those days as well). I am appreciative that so many of you poured so much energy into introducing yourselves and your belief systems. As you’re finding out, distilling down what you believe can be challenging.

However, our systems of belief, whether objective or faith-based, are more than just ideas we hold to be true. They are the lens through which we interact with the world. But the world poses so many more questions than it provides answers. And so I hoped we might have a discussion about those things we don’t know.

This month, I’m asking you to share with me the idea or concept that vexes you the most, the one that runs most counter to your own belief system.

For me, as an atheist, there are innumerable questions that science hasn’t answered yet: How did the universe begin? What is consciousness, and what’s it’s relationship to the brain? What makes us human?

And the big question, for me, is this: What is life?

* * *

I believe in science. I believe in empirically-based data. I believe in the scientific process. While I don’t imagine that we’ll solve every question posed by the universe, I do believe we have the capacity to find answers to hard questions and to understand how our universe came into being.

I believe in those ideas because I have studied the rise of reason throughout history, and I know that the scientific process works to distill fact from fiction. And yet, the most fundamental question about what we are has gone unanswered. Science has not yet provided us an answer to what life is, nor has it made much headway in understanding how life began (at least in a testable sense).

This idea greatly troubles me.

The best that we have been able to do is describe some of the basic functions of life, although even those don’t necessarily shed light on what it means to be alive. For instance, we learned in science classes that there are seven basic components of life (and I’ve looked these up because I didn’t remember them):

  1. Homeostasis: an ability to regulate internally, e.g. temperature.
  2. Organization: one or more cells
  3. Metabolism: converting chemicals into energy
  4. Growth: increasing in size
  5. Adaptation: changing over time in response to stimuli
  6. Response to stimuli: a catch all for “some time of response” to outside forces
  7. Reproduction: making new versions from one or two parents

What troubles me about the list is that it’s merely descriptive elements of what life may do. There’s nothing in this list that tells us what life is, or how life came into being. (And if you really want to get a scientist worked up, ask them: “Is a virus alive?”)

The idea that we only understand the components of the process of life is troubling. Not because we don’t know the answer yet, but that we don’t even know enough about the process to really ask the types of questions that would lead to a deeper understanding of what life is.

Of course, I’m not an expert in this field. Not even close. I’m a writer who has been around scientists, which is a far cry from actually understanding these debates in meaningful way. However, I’ve listened to enough discussion amongst scientists and read enough about the subject to know that the science of life is still in its infancy.

Because there is so much we don’t know that we don’t know, answering the questions about life seems like the most likely path to discovering something that radically alters how we perceive of the universe.

* * *

But the fact that we can’t define life is just the first part of my concern.

You’ll notice on the list that consciousness isn’t a component of life. When scientists look for life, they aren’t looking for the ability to generate experience and knowledge, and communicate that externally (or internally, for that matter). If it seems like we’ve failed at understanding what life is, it seems doubly so that we’ve dropped the ball on understanding what it means to be conscious.

This isn’t because we haven’t tried. The failure is tied to the fact that brains are inherently difficult to understand. Brains are not, despite the comparison, computers. They don’t operate in the same binary fashion as our technology. And so trying to understand how “consciousness” — which is broadly the thing that makes each of unique — arises from the function of the brain, when we understand neither what consciousness is nor how the brain operates, has proven exceptionally difficult.

* * *

And so when I reflect upon what troubles me most about my belief system, I always find my way back to the most basic question: What is life?

This answer, if we ever unravel it, will fundamentally reshape much of what we know about the universe.

We might, in that question, find empirical proof of a divine being. The idea that we might never find the spark of consciousness is troubling to me because that leaves a mighty unanswered question. This is doubly so because the testable subjects are so near at hand.

This isn’t cosmology that seeks to understand how our universe began. This is about understanding who the person is that looks back at us from the mirror. That subject matter proximity means the question always casts a long shadow over science and empirical knowledge.

Or we may find just the opposite.

We may find that life is simple and basic and fundamental to our universe. When we can create life from nothing within a lab (something we’ve not yet done) and when we can unravel consciousness, we will have gone a long way towards proving that life, the universe, and everything can exist — empirically speaking — on its own. Without any intervention at all.

And yet until we have an answer to those two ideas — life and consciousness — I am left with a great big giant mystery at the center of my empirical system of understanding the world around me.