So today they asked me if I believe in reincarnation. And it made me wonder just what it is that keeps this enormously complicated chemical reaction that we call life reacting? Science can reduce all of the things that we consider a human “life” to a series of chemical reactions. But we can’t seem to put our finger on why those reactions continue. Why do they continue to happen? And why do they stop, either abruptly, traumatically, or slowly, after a long period of time?
Just what is the “spark” of life? Is it just a collection of energy, in the physics sense of energy, in a higher energy state, slowly dissipating, over time, following the laws of thermodynamics? Are we simply closed thermodynamic systems, slowly, or rapidly, yielding to entropy? Or is there something to this spark?
We’ve grappled with this question since the dawn of sentience. Before we had the tools to analyze and understand the chemical processes, we devised the concept of the soul, or spirit, to explain why the fire went out in one of our ancestors, why someone died. And we devised different explanations of where the soul “went” when it “left” the body. The explanation depended on where you were in the world and at what time you were in the world.
In our struggles to understand how this reaction continued, and why it ended, we developed many different systems of understanding. Many of the early systems were associated with religion. Reincarnation is a part of one of those systems. You keep coming back until you get it right. If you really screw it up, you might come back in a way that makes you suffer for the transgressions of the previous attempt. Almost like aversion therapy. Instant karma’s gonna get you!
The Abrahamic concept of a heaven and hell is also a part of one of those systems. It’s a bit more like a reward therapy. Behave and you’ll be rewarded with eternal bliss. Not so good, and you’ll get eternal damnation. Seems like a pretty good method to regulate the chemical reaction.
Later systems, when we had evolved a bit, were associated with philosophy. But none of the systems seems to be able to answer the question of why the reaction continues, or ends, without relying on the acceptance of something that can’t be proved empirically. All the systems require us to take something on faith. It seems we can’t quite wrap our heads around the possibility that we are really just chemical reactions, a collection of energy going from a high entropic state to a low entropic state, to equilibrium.
I would like to think there’s something to the spark. I’d like to think that, because I’m doing good by all the other chemical reactions in my vicinity, because I’m treating all the other chemical reactions around me like I would want them to treat me, that I’ll achieve enlightenment, that I’ll be rewarded with eternal bliss, that I’ll reach nirvana, that I’ll spend eternity in Valhalla. But I guess I’ll have to wait until my chemical reaction stops to find out. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the ride.