Is Earth a living being?

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    Ciprian Begu

    There is a debate in environmentalist and Christian conservative circles about whether the Earth planet should be treated like a living being, deserving of rights and protection (see also Gaia hypothesis). In this recent article denouncing this trend, Wesley J. Smith, an Intelligent Design proponent from Discovery Institute is very indignant about the prospect of giving rights to lakes, rivers and to the planet itself. He seems to be threatened by this idea, in the sense that if people do this, then humans would be seen as just ordinary beings and the planet could even take precedence over humans in some decisions.
    What is Vedic philosophy have to say about the planet as a living being? And what should be our attitude towards our planet?

    Ashish Dalela

    It is natural for Christians to be threatened by this idea because it harks back to paganism. If they allow Earth to be recognized as a living entity, then trees, mountains, rivers, etc. will all become living beings. And once that happens, then animals would also be living beings. Then they will have to answer the question of why there are many kinds of living beings, which will then bring in karma and reincarnation, the collapse of eternal hell and heaven, and chaos ensues.

    On the other hand, if we say that trees and mountains are living entities, then why don’t we acknowledge that tables and chairs are also living beings? How about cars and trucks? So, the question comes down to at what point do we recognize something living vs. non-living?

    Let’s take a detour in mathematics, specifically into the idea of sets. A set is a collection of objects, and you can take some marbles and draw an imaginary boundary around those marbles. Factually, it does nothing to the marbles within the boundary as they continue to behave the same as the marbles outside the boundary. We can call this a classical collection.

    Now contrast this to a quantum collection where a boundary is called an ensemble. The state of the quantum particle inside and outside the ensemble is different; specifically, within the ensemble, each particle behaves like a dimension rather than an object. If you change one particle’s state, every other particle’s state would be modified at the same time. This curious property of the quantum particles is called their entanglement. The quantum particles are entangled inside the boundary but the classical particles are not entangled.

    The classical materialist would like to think that the Earth is a classical collection — i.e. each part is independent of the other. The Gaia claimant is saying that these parts are entangled, due to which we can treat them as a single whole, rather than just a collection of independent parts.

    The difference arises simply because in the quantum case, the boundary is real although we cannot see it. In the classical case, the boundary is unreal, and hence we cannot see it. In the case of tables and chairs, the boundary is unreal, but in the case of living things, the boundary is real.

    This boundary — which creates an identity or individual body — is produced by the presence of a subtle body. Its result is that the body parts become functional due to the existence of senses, mind, intellect, etc. When this subtle body leaves, the gross body loses its functionality. It becomes pretty much like the collection of marbles rather than a quantum entangled system.

    So, is Earth a living system? Yes, it is. And that means it evolves collectively; changes to one part of the system will cause changes to other parts in ways that we cannot predict if we simply think about interaction as the propagation of classical forces from one end to another. Today we don’t understand the true structure of the Earth — i.e. how the different parts are interconnected. We are modeling it like a classical system — a collection of marbles. But there is a more sophisticated understanding of geography in which the Earth is modeled as a single living body.

    • This reply was modified 2 months, 4 weeks ago by Ashish Dalela.
    Sitalatma Das

    Tables and chairs have visible boundaries so they are not classical in that sense, but they don’t seem to be like entangled collections either – because they don’t react to modification to their parts. And they can also be completely destroyed, like if you go to an old neighborhood that had been “developed” and none of what you remember about it is there anymore. What to speak of chairs, entire streets with houses are gone without a trace as if they never existed.
    The best I can make sense of these type of objects is that they are vestiges of someone’s prana. That person might be long “dead” but prana still keeps these things together, until it doesn’t. The person also does not maintain it, meaning it doesn’t interact with it anymore and whatever happens happens. And yet these objects encode ideas that an be perceived and take a new life on their own, like old paintings that inspire people create new art.
    The exact science of it, however, is unclear to me so any insights and clarifications would be appreciated.
    If we can have dead leftover objects like tables and chairs, why not dead planets or dead parts of the planet? We already have dead rivers, for example.

    Ashish Dalela

    The symptom of life is the possession of a goal, a purpose. At the most basic level, this symptom manifests in the desire to live, survive, persist. We call this self-defense, immunity, and regeneration. When a living entity is under attack or threat, it will retaliate in self-preservation. It may or may not succeed, but it will try. Whenever disorder is created, it will restore some order. Inanimate matter naturally moves toward disorder, but life overcomes this disorder and creates a new order, sometimes restoring old order, and at other times creating new forms of order.

    So, to say that the earth is a living entity is simply saying that it has the power of regeneration. It will heal and rejuvenate. Tables and chairs can’t do that. If some rivers have died, it means their power of healing and rejuvenation has disappeared and they are no longer living.

    Therefore, the existence of a boundary isn’t the only thing that identifies a living being. It is also the ability to speak about the ‘health’ and ‘disease’ of that organism. A healthy system is defined as one that can ingest, digest, circulate, eliminate, and create. This is what we mean by prana, but ultimately all this points towards the ability to regenerate and remain healthy.

    We don’t understand enough about our environment to say how the earth is working. Somebody who knows geography and ecology should spend time and explain how the earth survives despite millions of years of changes. If a society or civilization had that power of endurance we would certainly be studying what makes them tick and survive. Why not the same for the earth?

    Sitalatma Das

    “Jada” or dull matter, is an often mentioned category in our literature but I don’t think we have a good theory of it. Tables and chairs are certainly not living but they maintain their boundary and maintain their integrity. Dull objects, like sculptures, also clearly encode ideas which can be decoded and copied and so live on for hundreds and thousands of years.
    So we need a good explanation of what keeps dull objects together and what keeps the ideas encoded in them preserved even as the object itself might begin to crumble. Some objects lose their color under sunlight or get corroded in damp conditions, some resist external elements very well. Some, like amulets, have “magic powers”.
    I still have no better explanation that vestiges of someone else’s prana. But whose? The immediate author might have already died. On the other hand, ideas don’t die with people, people are just carriers or tools of expressing them, so somebody else’s prana, somebody from a subtle level, might still be present in dull objects.

    Ashish Dalela

    Our experience has three components — objective, subjective, and intersubjective. They are combined by prana. Without prana they are just possibilities, but with prana they become an experience. The intersubjective has two parts — the observer and the observed. In the dead body, the objective, and the observed part of the intersubjective is present. The subjective (the senses, desires in the senses, etc.) and the prana which combines all three components are missing. So, the dead body cannot have the experience, but it can be experienced. Since the objective component is present, even the dead body can participate in physical interactions if someone wants to interact with that body. But a world devoid of all prana will have no interactions whatsoever.

    Sitalatma Das

    So what holds “dead” objects together? Even if we say they exist only as possibility unless they are being observed – what maintains and controls this possibility?
    On some platforms I can set for a message to be deleted after one day, for example. On other platforms I can estimate how long a message will be practically available before it gets pushed down and buried (possibility of being retrieved gets low). I can estimate how long a painting would last, or a graffiti. It’s not eternal, it’s not random, and it’s obviously controlled.
    Any change to it means some prana is involved, right?

    Ashish Dalela

    You are still thinking in terms of material substance and something ‘holds’ things together. You are not thinking that it is manifest and unmanifest. Nothing is holding anything together. It is eternal. That’s one thing very hard for people to digest — that matter is eternal.

    We keep thinking that matter is changing. And science is about why it is together or changing. That’s a wrong way of thinking. It is not together and it is not changing. It is eternal. But it becomes manifest and unmanifest to our vision. It has been manifest by the effect of time, and it will be unmanifest by the effect of time. The people are just instruments in this. As Krishna says to Arjuna, I have already killed all these people, you just become an instrument.

    To the extent that some instrument is involved, some prana is involved. That prana is my choice of what situation I want to be an instrument of. It is my participation that involves prana. But otherwise, nature doesn’t depend on my prana. Prana is carrying me, not matter. If nobody was around, it will still happen. When Krishna wanted his family to be destroyed, ordinary grass or seaweed became an instrument for destroying the entire family. These are just incidental causes. The real cause is time. According to time things will happen or not happen. It is fixed. But if you participate as an instrument you get the credit or responsibility for doing it.

    People think that free will means I can change the world. So, everybody wants to be a hero. We are saying that you are irrelevant to what is going to happen. Your free will is for your uplift or downgrade, depending on what you participate in. It is not about changing the world, making it a better place, or making it a worse place. Those things will happen with or without you. And the science is how they will happen automatically with time. It is totally predictable in terms of the events and occurrences. But it is not predictable in terms of the people who do it.

    Time manifested the table, time will destroy and disperse it. Every state through which the table goes is eternal. There is an eternal beautiful table, and there is an eternal broken table. But you don’t see them at the same time. You see them one by one. Your young childhood body is eternal, and your old fragile body is eternal. But you don’t see it at the same time. Time drags your prana through the succession of these bodies, so we think that the young became old. But it was always there and it will always be there. It is all enfolded in the body of Parvati. By the will of Lord Shiva, it is unfolded, and then by His will, it will become enfolded again.

    Sitalatma Das

    I guess you missed the sentence where I talked about “dead objects” as possibilities rather than actual things.
    If you take a marble out of a classical set nothing happens to the rest of it, but if you pull a table by the leg the whole thing moves. In this way it IS entangled like a quantum set, ie has a real boundary which is also maintained, which means a “subtle body” of some sorts must be there, too.
    Talking about possibilities selected by Siva to become reality, or experience, is not relevant here. This selection happens to both living and non-living things equally. None of it is living anyway – senses, prana, mind – those are all “dead” things.

    Ashish Dalela

    I don’t know what the issue or the question is anymore. I don’t know how to respond.

    Sitalatma Das

    It’s about theory of “dead matter”, the objective part of experience. Say there’s a wedding and someone brings a toaster as a gift. He thinks a toaster is useful but the receiving couple might think it’s useless and try to return to the store so that they could buy something else.
    Subjectively, their experiences of the toaster are different but objectively it’s the same toaster. Same color, same weight, same specs, same packaging. It’s dead, but it is an “entangled set” because messing with parts of it (removing warranty sticker, for example) affects the whole set as well.
    I think that “objective toaster” is a vestige of someone’s prana, or maybe some collective prana because many people contributed to making this toaster.
    I can accept the argument that objectively this toaster exists only as a possibility and so there are millions possible states of that toaster eternally present, but all these possibilities are not equally likely and there must be a theory of how they are selected for each observation. Each time some objective information is provided to the senses to create a sense objects. What governs this information?
    We can say it’s governed by Siva/Time but this doesn’t sound satisfying to me. It’s like if I, out of very uncharacteristic goodness of my heart, decide to make “Lord’s dearest devotee” mug for you. While it’s in my hands it’s my prana that adds colors, shapes of the letters etc, all according to directions of my mind, intelligence, ego and so on, but once it’s out of my hands Siva takes over? Doesn’t he have better things to do? Shouldn’t there be a better theory of dead objects other than “Siva does it”?

    Ashish Dalela

    You have asked many questions, so let me try to answer them one by one.

    First, what is a dead body? It is the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. These elements are ‘descriptions’ of experience. They are objective like a book. In the living body there is also experience of these meanings, but not in the dead body. We can distinguish these two things as ‘words’ and ‘meanings’. The dead body is words, living body is words and meanings.

    The meaning comes in five forms — sensationalization (senses), contextualization (mind), universalization (intellect), personalization (ego), and idealization (mahattattva or chitta). For example, if someone says: “He is a beast”. The first thing is the sensation of sound. Then comes contextualization — i.e. who is “He”? There is also contextualization of whether this is being said in a sports context, or a family context, etc. Then comes universalization — what is the meaning of ‘beast’? The connotation derived previously is used to nuance the denotation. Then comes personalization — do I like this characterization? Or am I offended by this description? Finally, comes idealization, is this something considered ideal behavior by me and others?

    A dead body cannot derive all these meanings. Only a living body can do that. That subjective and objective description you are referring to is the personalization of meaning.

    As far as prana is concerned, it is used to create an object, for a certain purpose, to be used in certain contexts. But once that is done, prana is no longer there. Prana is the force by which you did things, and the force gets embedded in the object as the process by which things were done, but force creates a process, but the process is not the force. So, prana is not present in the object.

    You can distinguish between the force that pushes an object and the path the object takes. Prana is the force that pushes and creates things. But after a thing has been created, the force has ended. However, by analyzing the object, you can still uncover the path by which it was created. This uncovering is always flawed because there are many paths through which a thing could be created. This is the problem with the study of history — you can see some outcomes, but how do you know the order in which things were done to produce an outcome? Did the carpenter of a table make the legs before the top, or vice versa? Which leg did he bolt first?

    You just assume that things were done through the shortest path or the easiest and simplest path, but that is not necessarily true. If you are not an expert, you will write and rewrite some book, and the final form that the book has taken has consumed a lot of prana but you can’t make out whether it reached the final state through many iterations or just the first iteration. So, the ‘effort’ that goes into creating something is not available in the object. You can only guess, and mostly that guess would be inaccurate. Your guess is probably as good as someone else’s guess.

    Now comes the question of why some possibilities are more likely than others. A dinosaur is a possibility but you don’t see it. Why? The reason is that between unmanifest and manifest is the third state called ‘about to manifest’. Time converts the unmanifest into ‘about to manifest’. So, the dinosaurs become possible. Then some soul converts the ‘about to manifest’ into the manifest. Then time slowly destroys this manifest state back to the unmanifest state. So, everything possible is not always visible because time is acting on these things. It is not just the choice of the soul, but the choice of God which is the primary actor in manifesting experiences.

    Doesn’t God have better things to do? Yes, He does. He takes different forms to do different things. Doesn’t God have better things to do than kill demons? They can be simply vanquished by His energies. But He comes personally to do that. He likes doing it, He wants to do it.

    Sitalatma Das

    When I see a table I don’t care which leg was bolted on first and the table would behave the same way regardless of assembly order when I put something on top of it or pull it by one leg. It *is* a system and it is entangled, meaning there’s objective boundary and objective relationships between parts. It is also not easy to take it apart, peel the paint off, pull a leg out etc – it resists tampering, meaning there is something that “holds it together”.
    The easiest and the most obvious answer is that it was designed that way, ie it was done by somebody’s prana and these design ideas are still there, which I called “vestiges of prana” here but maybe there’s a better word for it.
    A table also has a lot of “meaning” encoded in it – by studying it we can determine it was meant to be used in the office or in the kitchen, how much weight it can take, how long it will last, whether it was crude and home made or a sophisticated factory production following latest design trends and meant to convey sense of modernity or, perhaps, antiquity, or wealth vs utility.
    All these subtle things are there, it’s not simply a collection of five primary elements.
    The person who made the table will simply say “I designed it this way” and he will make certain predictions about how it will behave in the future. He could say: “After xxx number of years if you pull it by the leg the leg will come off and the table will collapse because legs are held in place by a kind of glue that loses its properties after xxx amount of time”.
    He certainly doesn’t know everything about his design and can make many mistakes in his predictions but, in any case, this model doesn’t require handing off future management of the thing to Lord Siva as if Siva was some third, unrelated party with his own ideas and his own schedule. Rather it’s the same trajectory and the same schedule that was present during creation of the thing, we are just not fully aware of it.
    During creation of an object we talk about five forms of meaning and workings of five winds of prana and all kinds of other things, but as soon as it’s out of our hands all these considerations are dismissed and only “Siva” remains? Even as the object follows the same trajectory as was set during the creation?

    Ashish Dalela

    A general comment — your tone is generally disrespectful toward Lord Shiva. It should not be. He is Sankarsana, a form of Lord Vishnu. Vaishnavas revere Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva is also the original Acharya of one of the four Vaishnava sampradayas. So I request you to be respectful. He is not a demigod. These demigods are in their position temporarily. Lord Shiva is eternally in His position.

    The term prana has a very specific meaning. It is a technical term. It is either there or not there. “Vestiges of prana” or whatever you mean by that is inventing a new type of usage. The presence of prana is established by the five types of symptoms namely ingestion, digestion, circulation, elimination, and expression. If these things are not happening, there is no prana.

    Prana is the agency by which the free will of the soul is expressed. If there is no soul, there is no pranaPrana carries the soul from one body to another. This means prana is the connection between the gross and the subtle body. In the Srimad Bhagavatam, a triad called manasprana, and vak is described. The vak is the sound expression, manas is the meaning, and prana is the connection between the two. So, by the presence of prana the body is experienced as meaning, or we can say that experience is created. This experience is being something. For example, in the human body, you get the experience of being a human. There is no such thing as being a table. The table exists, but nobody can say “I am table”. A table is not a valid species of life. Prana exists only in certain forms because there are some fixed species of life. I can create a bottle, but I’m not creating a species of life, so no prana exists.

    Prana is the cause and the table is an effect. From the effect, you can infer the cause. But the cause is not present in the effect. If you want to use the term ‘vestige of prana‘ all you need to say that there is an effect created by the presence of prana and hence the soul under whose control that prana was acting. Yes, the creator’s personality is embedded in the creation. The form of the creation is similar to the form of the personality of the creator. To that extent, if you read an author you can associate with their personality because they have a similar form.

    Nobody is denying the existence of meaning in things. We are disputing the experience of meaning. A painting has meaning, but it doesn’t experience the meaning. Similarly, the dead body of a saint has a meaning, the form of the personality, but it is not being experienced.

    There is a very old argument in Western philosophy regarding the reality of the world. It was advanced by Bishop Berkeley. He said something similar to Sāńkhya — namely, esse est percipi. The essence of something is to be perceived. So, the world exists to be perceived. Now that leads to the problem — what if something is not being perceived? Does it disappear? Berkeley argued that when something is not being perceived, God still perceives it. It exists because of God’s perception. We also say the same thing — when the body is sleeping, or the baby in a mother’s womb, God maintains the life. Some Western philosophers, like John Locke, did not like this argument. So they said that the world doesn’t exist to be perceived. It is primary properties, which can exist on their own, and then the atheistic roots of modern science were born in which first the world’s properties were divorced from the nature of perception. Now, if you want to bring back perception into science, you have to retrace the steps that have been lost.

    So, when you say that once it gets out of my hand, it is being perceived by God, and that seems a problem to you — you need to go back to the reason why Berkeley’s position on esse est percepi led to the necessity of God perceiving the world. This is a really deep issue.

    I’m trying to draw your attention to these issues, because I’m afraid we tend to go fast and loose with some ideas, and that does more damage than good. Your position is getting dangerously close to pantheism, and that may be unintentional, but still. Let’s make the conversation rigorous, precise, and technical. If that takes time we have to spend it. Otherwise, there are so many people running fast and loose with these ideas that how can we differentiate? There has to be some source of knowledge where the rare few serious people will come to seek. Let the masses run fast and loose with whatever they want to do. This is only for the rarest of rare.

    Sitalatma Das

    In one of Indiana Jones movies there’s a famous scene where he steals some valuable artifact from a cave in South America. That artifact was protected by all kinds of booby traps. There were shooting arrows, falling floor tiles, rolling boulders etc. Indiana Jones avoided all those and, on the way, saw skeletons of those who were not so lucky.
    Of course it’s a movie, but this system could be made in real life and it had some very important features – it could detect an intruder and separate him from a maintenance engineer, it had various measures to reject intruders and dispose of their bodies, and to absorb and distribute substances needed for its operation – things like oil and grease to keep moving parts ready to operate. All this functions are functions of prana, but we all generally agree that the system is not alive and those who built it long time ago are dead. And yet “vestiges of prana” are still there.
    If you don’t like this word, how about “projection of one’s will” – because that’s what prana does. These days everything is becoming automated and so acts apparently independently, but according to the will of its creators, even though we all understand it’s dead matter.
    Speaking of wills – when a person dies his will is effected in the world. His wealth gets redistributed for better preservation, some parts of it are given away/rejected, there are specific plans to be followed etc. Again, all of these are functions of prana and they are carried out even if the person himself is deceased.
    We won’t convince anyone of anything if we don’t have a theory of how these automations, these extensions of one’s will, work, and, I’m afraid, you can’t exclude prana from this process.
    Whose prana? That is a real question. Most of the time we are just instruments of projecting someone else’s will, often the will of personalities who are not even alive in a common sense – like that artifact in a cave was guarded by its deity and attending priests just carried out the deity’s plans, which were originally manifested through the ancient engineer. Likewise, when a potter dies the “deity” of pots still keeps his creations intact, but then the “deity” of clay might say “my prana is weakened, it’s time to disintegrate” and prana of the deity of pots won’t be able to keep it together because clay is not cooperating.
    There’s obvious difference between these “vestiges of prana” present in dead matter and prana of the living beings, and this needs to be investigated. There should be a theory of it.
    That fact that nothing ever moves but paths are assembled as a trajectory of possibilities converted to a reality doesn’t really matter here. It’s like every computer operating system has hardware abstraction layer, HAL, so that all programs in the computer treat printers, speakers, hard drives etc as pieces of software even though they are not – thanks to HAL which flawlessly converts analog electrical connections to their digital representations.

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