Sunday, April 8, 2012

Foster, Easter, and the Meaning of Life


Although there is nothing - so far as I know! - "supernatural" about him, I've decided to write my final blog post of the semester on my cat, Foster. He is actually one of five that I have at home, along with a dog (Jake) and six various birds, from a sparrow to a green wing macaw. Foster is the newest addition to the brood, and I've chosen to write about him because today is Easter, and I am therefore in a somewhat contemplative mood, and Foster is a perfect example of what's on my mind.

Here's what I mean. Foster was born in an animal shelter in Newark, NJ. His mother had been turned in to the shelter by a person who couldn't take care of the cat, much less the soon-to-arrive kittens. So the cat gave birth to her litter "in captivity," so to speak. The kitten who would come to be known as Foster was, however, rejected by his mother. He was born with slight deformities in both of his front legs, as well as an almost unnoticeable bend in his tail. He may have been the so-called "runt" of the litter too, but in any event, the mother refused to nurse him. As the facility in Newark is connected organizationally to the one in Forked River (where my mother works), and as there was insufficient staff to attempt to bottle feed the newborn kitten in Newark, soon-to-be Foster was sent south, and was kept alive by the staff at the Forked River Associated Humane Society. However, his difficult days were not yet over.

There was concern among the staff and management that the kitten's leg problems would require major surgery to correct, and that no one would be willing to adopt him knowing what was necessary cost-wise to keep him ambulatory. Therefore, as a matter of expense, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for euthanasia. He had managed to survive long enough to be weaned from his bottle, only to face lethal injection for his potential leg problems. It was at this point that my mom stepped in and decided to adopt him. He was probably seven or eight weeks old when she brought him home.

A cat in a basket.

From the moment we felt safe in letting the new kitten among the older cats (and the dog), Foster was like a force of nature. He ran everywhere that he went at top speed. Having spent virtually his entire life in cages up to that point - except when he was able to escape momentarily to run around the office at the shelter like a banshee - Foster took every advantage of his new found freedom and his wildly entertaining surroundings and (generally less than willing) playmates. What I witnessed when this tiny animal was for the first time able to act more or less as he naturally desired to act is the actual topic of this post: the force that we call "life." Foster had survived all sorts of trials and tribulations and was simply expressing his natural will to live and to be in the world. As it turned out, none of his physical issues would be problematic; he is now more than a year and a half old and he still runs with no trouble and has never had any negative side effects as a result of his off-kilter gait (only noticeable when he walks... which is seldom!).

So, at long last, my question is this: what is life? What animates this world? Is it true that there is life and there is non-living matter, and that there is a clear distinction between the two? That is to say, did life come into being at some distinct point in time, or is life an essential, indistinguishable property of the universe? We generally take for granted without much questioning that life as we know it is a brute fact of the universe. The fact that we are here to question it at all establishes life as central to our experience and to our understanding of what "experience" is in the first place. But we are willing to accept the obvious reality that life as such extends far beyond human experience...

There is a common thread connecting you and I and Foster and the other pets that I mentioned and every other living being ever and everywhere... So what is this thing called "life"?

The information we have regarding the nature of life is life itself in all of its splendid diversity. We can begin with the basic criteria that define life: "Life is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes (i.e., living organisms) from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased (death), or else because they lack such functions and are classified as inanimate... Living organisms undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce and, through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations." (source = Wikipedia). In recent centuries, the position of humanity within the physical, i.e., spatio-temporal, universe has gone through a number of wrenching conceptual shifts. While we have not yet passed beyond the stage of defining ourselves as the central fact of reality, we have been in for a long, steady accumulation of evidence that suggests that this may not be at all the case. Unfortunately, our negative influence on the surrounding, sustaining environment that we of necessity share with non-human life has grown disproportionately to the rate of our ability to understand and positively affect this influence, and so we live in what often amounts to a state of perpetual war with much of the rest of life on Earth. But this, too, is an element that life itself seems always to present: there is plenty of brutality and horror in nature without even having to mention the acts of humanity.

The main point that I have hoped to bring out, especially with the example of Foster, is the idea that life is in some sense an unfathomable mystery at its fundamental level. While we are able in theory to imagine a universe (or an infinite number of them) with no life whatsoever, we can hardly investigate one. So this is an unfalsifiable prospect. We can only finally theorize about the universe that has us as a part of it. It may or may not be clear that this was, as I have mentioned, on my mind because today is Easter, and because for Christians, today is the single most significant day in the year in terms of the meaning of life as thus interpreted. Although I was baptized as a Catholic, I am not a practicing religious person. I am, rather, a devoutly agnostic person, secure in the belief that neither I nor anyone else knows anything at all. Thus, the implications and consequences of the topic under discussion are, basically, cosmic, though, of course, purely speculative.

If we define life as above and come to accept this strange phenomenon as more or less simply an unquestioned given, we may be missing something truly essential about existence. We have found life to be a shared set of behaviors and distinguishing characteristics, but we are unable to include in this working definition another central facet of living: it is always, at least so far as we know, subjective. Our truest concern with the implications of the nature of life is with its defining aspect: our own subject-hood. Theories that place God in a central role stress his relationship with humanity and, by implication, with each of us as individuals, as subjective beings. Theories that focus on humanity's place within the far greater sphere of life by necessity decentralize our place in the scheme of things and thereby decrease the apparent significance of our individual subjective experience, without extinguishing its intensity. We are, we feel, in Alan Watts' memorable term, "skin-encapsulated egos," with ever-mixed feelings about our "encapsulation."

It has been said that through life, the universe comes to know itself. This notion of cosmic awareness neither implies nor precludes "God." It does, however, beg the question of the nature of life. If life is elemental to the universe itself, we have merely pushed back the question one level. This, to me, does seem to be the case, and this regress may be infinite. I believe that we are "merely" one of the uncountable forms of being that inhabit the universe, and that we are in no way "special." Paradoxically, though, it all seems kind of special in and of itself. It is all, at the very least, absurdly unlikely. My personal inferences with regard to this fundamental question come down to this: we are at sea in a mystery that utterly defies the possibility of unraveling. What seems "clear" to me, however, is that the missing ingredient in the rational approach is the second-most distinctively defining human characteristic (after subjectivity): the emotional. Because it is essentially the single most unscientific mode of behavior, the part of humanity that is dedicated to emotion is all but completely barred from the lab and the theorist's conceptualizations. But it has been at the heart of the spiritual quest for as long as there has been such a quest. The mystic and the meditator are no less interested in answering the question "What is life?" than is the scientist. However, two aspects of this methodology fail the test of scientific testability. First, the method is subjective. And second, the emotional, non-rational facet of the individual is not abstracted out of the experience. These, however, I have argued, are actually crucial aspects to any real effort to get to the proverbial bottom of things. The emotional is not merely pre-rational and thus inferior. It is a meaningful guide, whatever its nature. And subjectivity cannot, whatever efforts are made, be abstracted out of any human-derived theory, so it is important to recognize its presence.

I don't know how Foster's mind works. I do know, however, that he has a mind, no doubt in some ways like mine. He seeks out and relishes the experience of living. He can no more say why he is here than can I. Perhaps it's best to say he just is. And so am I. And so are you.

And love is all you need. Happy Easter.

Foster and Jake


  1. I liked your post because of the personality I saw in it. It was very well written, and thoughtful. The adorable kitten was a bonus.