Life by any other name


Life by any other name, so I am told, is still life. How much of it exists beyond our world, a world held in place by the paperweight that is our home star, is as yet unknown. If we were to find life ‘out there’ somewhere, this would be one of the biggest scientific discoveries in human history. How big a discovery? Let’s just say that if it were a jig-saw puzzle, you could stare at it for centuries and never find where its edges are; that’s how big. The question for many is: Should we care?

The answer to that question is, of course, YES! Well, that’s my answer to the question, and my opinion is worth at least the same as everybody else’s. Which is to say, it’s either valid or worth exactly nothing at all. But, perhaps the question is not so much whether or not we should care, but more, would we? To my mind, such as it is, this is the more interesting query. Again, I think the answer to this would probably be yes. Many people would care – perhaps everybody – but not necessarily for the same reasons. For instance, my reason for caring is simply that I think that stuff is really cool. That’s a pretty shallow reason, but I have no pretensions to being very deep.

But why do I think people besides myself would care about the discovery of life in other parts of the near or distant universe? Some, just like me, will also think that it is really cool. Others, will care because it will enhance feelings of awe and wonder about the strange and vast cosmic spacetime we inhabit; they may even find something spiritual in that revelation. There will also be those that will be happy about it because they knew that such life existed the whole time, and can now go around smugly playing the ‘I-told-you-so’ game with friends, enemies, and strangers.

Still others will care because it produces an ontological anxiety about their ‘special place’ in the universe, and will have to devote much intellectual labor to denying that the evidence of life elsewhere is really evidence at all. The true essence of caring, however, will be because a discovery of that nature will be fertile ground for the production of meaning. Be it meaning produced around coolness, awe inspired spirituality, smugness, sweaty ontological anxiety, or whatever floats an individual’s unmanned space probe. We are all, whatever else we may be, ‘meaning machines’. We even have our own binary language through which to create meaning: a language of oppositions.

Now, many might object that this assertion has more than just the whiff of structuralism about it; the bastard child of a linguistic theory that breaks down under close scrutiny. And they are right. They would also be right to point out that a language of binaries fails to capture all the vagaries and nuances of existence. There are always exceptions, and exceptions can never prove a rule, they can only make a rule look suspect. Fortunately, I have a neat conceptual tool for getting around these legitimate objections. I call this the ‘let-us-assume-multiphasic-wrench’. I use it all the time, especially for writing fiction. For example, I deployed it to create the character of Justin Tempo. (He was a bit annoyed about that, actually.) I also used it to create a version of myself, although it operated behind the text in that instance (and I was completely okay with it). Perhaps I should take a little detour from the main discussion to explain how my ‘let-us-assume-multiphasic-wrench’ works.

My wrench is a complicated wrench. It is capable of aiding me in the completion of almost any conceptual task, ranging from the practical to the fantastical. It has many gears – a complex array of interlocking cogs, operated by levers (because I think levers, like discoveries that haven’t happened yet, are cool). As an integral mechanical component, the wrench also has a governor – a way to help regulate the movement of gears and levers so that they do not explode, scattering smoking pieces of abstraction all over the place. I call this governing mechanism ‘the suspension of disbelief’. It is necessary to have such a mechanism, because for the whole tool to be useful, I have to assume certain premises, initial conditions, or connections that might otherwise be unsustainable if I let the ‘facts’ get in the way. At present, the main way I use this tool is to conduct ‘Thought Experiments’, or play games of ‘What If’, although it is capable of much more sophistication, as well as much less. To turn the wrench on, all I have to do is think the phase “let us assume that,” followed by the assumptions I am making, and a preliminary list of all the things that I am not going to pay any attention to at all. (This last, the ‘list’, has to be constantly updated while the wrench is working.) For my purposes here, I am going to use the wrench in its least sophisticated mode. I am now going to turn the wrench on by writing out the the phrase: “Let us assume that everything I say is true, that humans really do produce meaning through use of binaries, and that any objections to this point of view do not exist.” (Hold on, I can hear you objecting, I’ll give the governor a little tweak… right, that should do it.)

The binary that is central to this discussion has, conveniently, two forms. The first form is quasi-singular: Self/Other. The reason it is quasi-singular, is that although there is generally believed to be only one ‘Self’, there is normally a multitude of ‘Others’ at the opposite binary pole: a multitude of ‘not-selves’ to the singular self in opposition. In this form, it is the singular self that is engaged in the act of meaning making. For example, I am the ‘self’ writing this post and being meaningful, in opposition to all the ‘other selves’ reading this post. Frankly, that is disconcerting for me, and so I collapse all of you into a singular amorphous ‘Other’ that becomes a blue sparkly shape with a smiley face. This makes you seem less threatening. The ‘meaning’ produced in this conversion, is simply that people that are not me are friendly – we might even go out to dinner and a movie – and the world is a ‘nice’, manageable place where everyone will like me. Thus, I have also defined ‘myself’ as likable. (Wait a second, the wrench’s governor is playing up again, I’ll just make a quick adjustment… there, that’s better.) Alternatively, I could have defined the amorphous ‘other’ as a zombie, in which case the world would be dangerous, and I would be a zombie slaying bad-ass. Also, we probably wouldn’t be having dinner together any time soon.

The second form of the binary, is the ‘Us/Them’. This form is less tricky, since it involves a plurality of beings, or the sorting of ‘collectives’ into two categories. Which is to say, there is a collective ‘Us’ (Self) opposed to a collective ‘Them’ (Other). Yet things still get complicated, especially as regards the production of meaning. Here, it is the Us that is the meaning making agent, and the first move that has to be made is sorting out exactly who the Us are – the ‘We’ of ‘Us’. To borrow from my previous example, it is possible to have an us composed of me, sparkly blue smiley things, and zombies. Yet it does not necessarily follow that all members of these three groups will make the final cut into a collective We – although the me will always make it in. (It’s my bullshit theory, so I’m not ever going to put myself in the opposite group.) For the ‘sparkly-blues’ and zombies to be in the Us, there has to be a sense in which there are shared ‘values’; values that are considered meaningful to the ‘Collective-Of-We’, or the ‘COW’. For the sake of the argument, let us assume that the COW’s core value is that they like having dinner with me. This pretty much makes me the President of the COW, but that’s not important right now. What is important, is that any zomblue-spark-thingy that doesn’t, is them. This is only natural, since we all agree that dinner with me is the highest good, and because we agree together this is clearly the meaningful truth of the world. Because we are the right and righteous State of COW, anyone within our ranks who dissents, is clearly one of them, and must be exiled. (Or publicly shamed enough to leave the dinner table of their own accord.)

The upshot of this sorting of collectives, is that the group composed of ‘them’ is always much larger than ‘we’ are, can never agree on anything, and are therefore always dangerous. We can pretend to be friends with them, but they’ll only ever get to sit at the kids table. Moreover, a condition of the friendly pretense is that they must be signatories to trade agreements that will only really benefit us. Which is only right, since at least we are forcing some sort of agreement on them; for we are also a civilizing force. Civilization being another meaningful value for us, since we always sit down to eat together in a civilized way.

There is more than the a tasteful amount of hyperbole present in what I have just written, but since I have my let-us-assume-multiphasic-wrench on, we can just assume that it does not exist. The point is to illustrate how binary thinking helps to produce meaning, and how the creation of an ‘Other’ is an integral part of such thinking. The Other is the negative example, the reflection of everything we think we are not. Through its creation, we are forced to think about who we are, which then reveals to us more about what we deem to be especially valuable.

In my exaggeration, I managed to hint a little at how this works. The COW’s core value was dinner with me, which revealed the value of agreement, which in turn revealed a particular construction of what civilization means – highlighting its own importance as another key organizational collective value – and the value of operating as a collective. I’d try to untangle this point a bit more, but all this talk of dinner has made me hungry, so I’d like to wrap this up pretty soon. Suffice it to say that the existence of an ‘imagined’ Other is necessary to recognize the existence of anything that has pretensions towards being a self. For a self is always, to some extent, differentiated. And this brings us back to why we would care if life was discovered outside our home world.

The discovery of life elsewhere presents the human collectivity with a potentially dangerous ‘Other’. We wouldn’t even be able to help ourselves, we would immediately try to figure out just how different that life is, or to what extent it is the same. As a consequence, there would be an intense reflection on what it means to be an us; a reflection that will reveal new things, consolidate or dissolve old ones, and perhaps even shift the parameters of who counts as being a COW.

That all sounds very lovely, but I have one caveat to add, one that is also a reason why we would care. Should that life turn out to be intelligent, we might well worry that it too is a meaning machine with a binary operating language. Because, well, you’ve seen how well that works out for us. I mean, you just have to turn the news on, or read history. Alternatively, you could just turn on the History Channel.

Okay, I’ll just turn off this wrench. [CLICK.] So… who’s in the mood for some dinner?

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Arthur Wingsmith
    October 26

    Comments are useful things to have; especially when they mention things that happened in the post. I particularly like the bit about COW – it makes sense that I would like that, since I’m the COW’s president. The ‘wrench’ is also cool. And the stuff about binary thinking, that’s cool too.

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