Matter and Life

Two articles about matter and life have been on my mind for a while. The first is Life Helps Make Almost Half of All Minerals on Earth, in Quanta magazine. The second is this article in Nature, Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass.

We rarely think about matter as a first-class subject of philosophical inquiry, the way we do space and time. Or about the divide between non-living and living matter except through the lens of the presumptive specialness of living matter. Physics, in a way, has been a centuries-long exercise in trying to subordinate matter to time and space (and more recently, waves, fields, and information which are all spatio-temporal flavored abstractions). Non-living matter, of course, likely comprises the vast majority of all matter, even if the universe is teeming with life. But life likely accounts for the vast majority of the variety in matter. Stars make all the heavier atoms when they go supernova (a fact that some people make way too much of). But then when you get to molecules, I suspect most molecules are either themselves organic, or have their macro-structures shaped by life. The Quanta article is about minerals and rocks, which we don’t think of as organic matter — and they’re not in compositional terms, since they’re not complex carbon compounds — but in a procedural sense, which seems more fundamental, they might be. And we’re not just talking simpler examples like sand being made of sea-shell powder or oil from ancient marine organisms. It looks like lots of rocks are shaped by life. Basically half of the material variety you see around you is connected to life and its cycles.

The Nature article takes it one level of abstraction higher. The built environment is also shaped by life. We normally focus on the spatio-temporal; aspect, the geometries and the lifecycles, but consider the material aspect of the majority of the built-environment mass:

  1. Concrete
  2. Reinforced concrete
  3. Asphalt
  4. Glass
  5. Metals and alloys

None of these materials are “non-living” per se. Some, like metals, wouldn’t exist in pure-ish form in an oxygen atmosphere without life. We find pure-ish metals in meteorites of course, but on a planet, except for a few precious metals like gold and silver, pure metals don’t exist. And even the precious ones don’t occur as bulk masses. Arguably reinforced concrete is an “organic” material — a composite that wouldn’t arise in matter without life.

Speaking of oxygen, that too of course, only exists in free form because of life. Several natural cycles of simpler atoms — oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, calcium — are pumped by life. Without life, the cycles of these atoms would be pretty dead (heh!)

Of course, pure non-living processes help. Life as we know it can’t form without tectonic activity starting the churn.

The point of this discussion is that where life exists (based on our n=1 case) living matter is a significant phase in the cycles of all matter, perhaps even the dominant phase. We often talk of life as though it’s a fragile bit of material poetry that is alienated from, and in thrall to, the far vaster non-living processes of matter, but it isn’t. We talk as though the processes of life are less powerful than those of non-living matter, such as wind, rain, or earthquakes. They’re not. Life punches in the same weight class as non-life where the two touch. We should think of “life” as a material-energetic-spatial-temporal phenomenon with the same sort of raw, irresistible power as wind or waves. We say earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but we could say, with equal justice, life to life as the karmic destiny of non-living matter. Under the right conditions, non-living matter can no more resist the irresistible tug of life than living matter can resist death. We lament that there have been half-a-dozen mass extinctions on the planet. We might equally say, there have been half-a-dozen mass vivifications of non-living matter.

Yes, “life” is a lower entropy (but higher-information) more complex emergent state, so non-living matter is in some broad sense “lower,” but the Earth, bathing in the rays of the sun, is not a closed thermodynamic system. Entropy-increase is not the defining feature of life and non-life on Earth.

This macro-scale balance of power between the forces of life and non-life seems to me at least as important as the specific details that define the boundary, like the structure of viruses (which are between living and non-living). I suspect we need a science of macro-scale life comparable to the science of weather. It will be to virology what weather is to basic statistical mechanics.

There are two practical reasons to be interested in the philosophy of matter and life today. The first is climate change. The second is computing.

We talk of the Anthropocene as though life reshaping non-life is “new” but it is as old as geology; as old as sand and free oxygen. We have to get our terms of reference right to think straight about climate action, or as I prefer to think of it, terraforming 101. What’s new is life consciously embracing its material nature and its entanglement with the non-living beyond the mere cosmetic layers of “built” environments. Our material natures run deeper than our inclination to build things.

The materiality of computing is perhaps even more consequential. Computers are, as the line goes, “rocks that we zapped with lightning and tricked into thinking.” I find the fact that you can skip life altogether and make “thinking” a property of all matter — living or non-living — to be more interesting than the fact that the “thinking” can be “intelligent.” It seems to take life to get matter to “thinking” states but this is just a limited perspective. This is more like the fact that it takes life to produce free oxygen than it is a fact about technology and invention. Non-living processes first produced life that produced thought, but that thinking in turn gave rise to new kinds of rocks that can think.

But more than these practical concerns, I think there is a deeper point here about the materiality of life and the vivifiability of matter. Our estrangement from non-living matter, with which we are so obviously entangled at all scales by powerful processes, is the perhaps the last bit of our anthropocentrism (or biocentrism rather) that remains to be broken down before we can truly feel at home in the universe. We are not in the universe, we are the universe.

We’ve already embraced our spatiotemporal nature. We aren’t in space, we are space. Our bodies have volumes; they have extent. Crushed too close together, bodies flow like fluids. That’s what a “stampede” is. We don’t exist in time, we are time. Memories are life and those are just another face of time.

Curiously, it’s been harder for us to achieve this sort of explicit, conscious awareness of our material natures. Many science fiction writers handle space and time well. Few handle matter well (Iain M. Banks and J. G. Ballard come to mind). Many artists do amazing things with space and time through audiovisual media. Materiality has been a harder dimension of life to explore. What’s the Mona Lisa of density? The Beethoven’s Fifth of porosity? (I find most modern explorations of materiality in the fine arts rather underwhelming compared to explorations of space and time). Much of our sense of materiality has remained at the level of craft (weaving, pottery, metalwork) and unexamined felt experiences (have you ever wondered much about “solidity” the way you’ve likely wondered about “time”?). Matter is hard to intellectualize, perhaps because variety is its very essence, especially when life gets involved. Platonic geometry is a very successful philosophical abstraction of space. Music is a very successful philosophical abstraction of time. But earth, fire, water, wind, ether kinda misses the point of matter. The point of matter is variety. Which is, in some ways, the antithesis of abstraction. To try identify 5 “basic” substances is to miss the point.

And life is perhaps just matter’s way of creating more varieties of matter, which makes it even harder to think about, because that just seems to make the variety explode even faster.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Paradoxically, Your Rhapsody on “matter“ feels like the closest I’ve gotten to understanding your latent spirituality: :-)

  2. I liked your point about the essence of matter (and thus of life) being variety.

    Somebody described life to me (and “emergence” per se) as a flowering of entropy.

    I like that notion and think of it often. Wish I could recall who it was…

    Entropy is often conceived of as a cold, inescapable march toward bland uniformity; it’s that implicit part of the 2nd law which makes the heat death of the universe seem a plausible (though impossibly-distant) eventuality.

    Actually, though, the inevitable dissipation of energy in any given system implies local, if temporary, increases in order. Life is exactly that; it’s a kind of happy accident of the universe’s cooling and diffusion. It’s like the ephemeral patterns of milk mixing into tea, or of coronal loops on the sun, or of snowflakes, or or or…

    It’s difficult to explain, but I am oddly calmed and reassured by the notion that we (and everything else in the biosphere, and all of our culture, knowledge and infrastructure) are randomly-seeded offshoots of arbitrary processes, little bulwarks of order in a cooling cosmic stew, doomed to eventual cessation but momentarily distinct.

    Thinking of such things also reinforces in my mind the enormous role of luck in life, which is something most of the strivers and tryhards I know rarely consider (and sometimes outright downplay).

    This comic comes as close as anything ever has to encapsulating this feeling:

    I wouldn’t say such thoughts are uplifting or heartening. They just induce a kind of contentedness, like… idly marveling at a sunset? Hard to communicate the feeling.

  3. The use of the word to mean something more in phrases like “what’s the matter” or “it doesn’t matter”, seems to suggest some collective cultural understanding of matters worth. Also as it seems to derive from “Mater” the latin for mother, mother earth then comes to mind. Not sure where I’m going with this but your writing certainly provoked something

  4. pumpikano says

    The idea of giving more metaphysical weight to configurations of matter and the configurability of matter itself recalls assembly theory for me: I suspect it would resonate.

Leave a Comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.