What is life?

Bios, anima, psyche or zoe?

Re-Assembling Reality #24, by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt

What is the meaning of life?

I’m not asking a deep question here, just a literal question: What does the word, life, mean?

Can life be objectively defined?

If not, can we meaningfully talk about life? And can life be said to exist?

If not, can we do anything with life?

A textbook biological definition of life goes as follows:

A distinctive characteristic of a living organism from dead organisms or non-living things as specifically distinguished by the capacity to grow, metabolize, respond (to stimuli), adapt and reproduce.

Using this definition, how do we identify if a being has life? We can use observations to objectively verify if these capacities are present:

  • capacity to grow
  • capacity to metabolize
  • capacity to respond to stimuli
  • capacity to adapt
  • capacity to reproduce.

If we can tick all of the check-boxes, we can confirm that it’s a living being. If any of these capacities are absent, the thing is not alive, or it is dead.

The existence of life, then, is a yes/no question, corresponding to the presence or otherwise of a set of observable phenomena. The being is either alive or not. Life has no other meaning.

This definition helps us to answer the question, is this a living being?

Amoebae. Photo credit: Janice Haney Carr & Rodney Donlan via pixnio.com

Let’s consider a few examples: are these living beings?

  1. An amoeba

2. A virus

3. A banana tree

4. A root system giving rise to many trees

5. A beehive

6. An ecosystem

7. A human

8. A tribe

9. A city

10. A corporation

11. A university

12. A state

13. An economy

14. A civilization

15. The United Nations

16. A theory

It’s rare to consider items 8–16 as living beings. And yet, items 8–15 meet all the criteria of life: they can grow, they can metabolise (in the sense that they can absorb and transform energy and information for the functioning of the organism), they can respond to stimuli, they can adapt, they can reproduce.

Theories (item 16) can’t do any of these things all on their own, if we define the theory as consisting of only of words and symbols. But theories draw on the mental energy of their hosts to do all of the things that living things do.

Items 1–7 are studied by biologists, while items 7–16 are studied by social scientists. The latter items are forms of society and/or culture.

A textbook definition of “society” is “A large group of interacting people in a defined territory, sharing a common culture.” A “social organization” is “the complete set of social relationships among members of a society or other group, which determines the structure of the group and the place of individuals within it.” None of these definitions includes notions of life.

Why do we usually consider items 1–7 to be living beings, but not items 8–16?

We’ll discuss this in class.

And we’ll discuss social life in a future essay.


Let’s consider the following uses of the word life, and some related terms.

Sam is so full of life that everyone enjoys being in his company.

Liu was the life of the party.

The neighborhood comes to life on a market day.

It was a lifeless performance.

The financial district is dead on Sundays.

These statements using the word life refer to a certain energy or vitality.

We speak, for example, of youthful vitality or economic vitality. These would contrast with lethargy, lifelessness, apathy.

Now let’s consider the following questions:

How should I live my life?

How should we live our lives together?

What should I do with my life?

Are we living the right life?

Are we living the good life?

Why do I want others to live well too?

These questions refer to the things we do in life, to living with other people, and to the purpose and meaning of life.

So far, we have considered three different conceptions of life: life as biological processes; life as vitality; life as living together with meaning and purpose.

The three are quite distinct; and yet there are connections between them.

We’ll discuss the relationships between them in class.

Dragons Rise over the Divine Land (龙腾神州). Designer: Yang Liqun via Landsberger Collection


For now, let’s think a little more of the notion of life as vitality. Consider this passage:

The baby cries with a piercing voice, not with a weak whimper. The children are clever and tumble around with joy and are quick to answer riddles; they aren’t listlessly standing and looking at the floor. The youth are full of vigor and courage as they confront the challenges of growing up. Young married couples are full of passion in bed and give birth to many squealing babes. Whether it’s in the farm or in the business, they work hard and the efforts bring in a bountiful harvest. The money flows in. Husband and wife tirelessly manage the affairs of the family, work and business, while taking good care of their parents. They carry out their obligations to other family members and help out in their community. Children run around the house, guests drop in. Matters are pressing, but they stay above it all with decisiveness and authority, but also with good humour. They enjoy a good laugh in the evenings. And they remain full of energy and vigour into a ripe old age.

For millennia, in many human societies, something akin to this description was the ideal of the good life. And yet doing all of these things sounds exhausting. Doesn’t it make you tired? The necessary condition to living a good life is to have energy and vitality. It can’t be done if you’re lifeless, lethargic, sickly or dull. How can vitality be enhanced then? This is a question that has been a central concern of much of the knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples and traditional cultures around the world. Perhaps this knowledge could be called an art of vitality.

In many cosmologies, notions similar or equivalent to vitality are core ideas. Understanding how to capture, cultivate and express vitality is a core concern of many religious traditions. This understanding of vitality can subsume everything from fertility to prosperity.

In Chinese cosmology, vitality is the object and purpose of numerous systems of knowledge. Some of the core concepts expressing vitality are sheng 生 (life or vitality in modern English), ling 靈 (spirit), qi (vital energy) and xing 性 (nature or character). Each person is born with an original vitality or energy. This is a quality inherent to each person and is also inherited from one’s parents and ancestors. Thus, everyone at birth has their own unique, energetic quality. In the course of life, we both absorb vitality outside the body, through food and the environment, and we expend vitality through our energy consuming activities. In a nutshell, we’re born with vitality, and in the course of life we both gain and lose vitality. Death represents the moment when vitality completely leaves the body. But vitality isn’t something that can simply be augmented quantitatively.

Vitality has different qualities. The quality of the vitality of an infant is different from that of a teenager or of an old person. It’s different for each person based on their bodily and psychological constitution. It’s different in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter. It’s different at the crack of dawn and on a sunny mid-afternoon. It’s different in different places. The quality of the vitality in the darkness of Canada’s winter is different from the sweltering humid days of summer in Hong Kong. It’s different in a Swiss Alpine village or in a tropical forest in Borneo. Depending on who you are, where you are, the time and the season, you experience a different vitality. In some places, at some times, at some seasons, you feel full of energy, and at others you feel flat.

And yet vitality can be adjusted and cultivated. Obviously, food is essential to your vitality, but some foods may greatly enhance it, while others in the long term could deplete you. The quality of the air you breathe has an influence, as does the environment that you live in, the disposition of your room or your office, the types of plants, trees, flowers, or materials that surround you. The quality of your relationships with people also influences your vitality: some relationships are draining; others are invigorating. The type of social life you lead also matters: some gatherings might invigorate you; others might leave you exhausted and depressed. Your own mental state and your bodily state also influence your vitality. A positive outlook is more energizing than a consistently negative one; a well trained and fit body more than that of a couch potato.

Living a good and healthy life then consists in avoiding depleting one’s vitality and to absorb healthy vitality.

Aristotle. Vienna Museum of Art History via Wikimedia

The psyche and anima

While there are various Chinese terms to describe aspects of vitality and vital force, one of the ancient Greek equivalents is psyche. The English meaning of this term is rendered as “life”, “animating force” or “soul.” Psyche is the root of the name of the science of psychology. It’s interesting that while Chinese conceptions of vitality are nowadays associated with the vitality and health of the body, the Greek conception of vitality has evolved over the centuries into ideas about the soul and eventually about the mind.

Aristotle wrote one of the first systematic treatments of the psyche in his book Peri Psychēs (Περὶ Ψυχῆς) which is now known by its Latin name, De Anima, often translated into English as Treatise on the Soul. In most English translations of Aristotle’s theory, we learn that the philosopher spoke of many types of souls: the nutritive or vegetative soul, the sensitive or animal soul and the rational soul.

The word soul nowadays has connotations of a disembodied ghost-like entity. But if we translate psyche as animating force or vitality as per the original meaning, we may reach a different understanding. Aristotle thus posited three types of vitality, animating force, or faculty.

The nutritive faculty is the animating force or vitality characteristic of plants which absorb nutrients from the sunlight and the soil and grow. Thus, plants are distinguished from inanimate beings by this capacity to grow. Plants are attracted by sunlight and nutrients, and they grow in the direction of their attraction.

The sentient faculty is the capacity that distinguishes animals from plants. The faculty of sense perception allows the animal to acquire sense consciousness of its surroundings and to respond to sensual stimulation. This includes emotional stimulation, which can arise in response to what is perceived by the senses.

The rational faculty is the capacity that distinguishes humans from animals — the capacity to perceive abstract intellectual objects and to reflect on the invisible, logical connections between them. Thus, while animals are limited to the knowledge of the immediate world of sense perception, humans can derive abstractions from perceived objects, create concepts and postulate systematic relationships between abstractions, draw implications, and make models of the world extending far beyond the senses and extending into the past and into the future. This faculty manifests itself in the reasoning and intellectual life of humanity.

In Aristotle’s scheme, these different faculties are cumulative. The animal possesses both the nutritive and sentient faculties, while the human possesses the nutritive, sentient and rational faculties.

Psyche, goddess of the soul, and Eros, god of love. Via pixabay

For Aristotle, the purpose of life is to flourish, to “live the good life”. The good life involves the “bodily goods” of health, vitality, vigour and pleasure; the “external goods” of food, drink, shelter, clothing and sleep; and the “goods of the soul”: knowledge, skill, love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment, self-esteem, and honour.

There have been many discussions and elaborations of the Aristotelian scheme over the centuries. The Aristotelian vision had been forgotten in Europe during the Middle Ages, but remained influential in Islamic philosophy and through contacts with the Islamic world, was reintroduced into Christian Europe around the 12th century, where it became dominant until the 17th century. Since then, it has lost currency again in mainstream Western thought.

In the early 20th century, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá Abbas (1844 -1927) proposed a scheme that builds on Aristotle’s, but to which he added an additional spiritual faculty, which he called the “spirit of faith”, and which may be similar to the “sensus divinitatis” or “divine sense” discussed by John Calvin in his Institutes of Christian Religion (1536). This faculty manifests in the attraction to divine perfections or to God Himself.

Some of these perfections are, for example, goodness, beauty and truth. From time immemorial, to the extent that people have been drawn toward goodness, have appreciated beauty and have sought after the truth, they have manifested this spiritual faculty. This faculty manifests in an increasing capacity of discernment — for example, the perception that a pure heart and sincere motives may be more beautiful than a powdered and perfumed face that conceal a corrupt intention. It manifests in the desire to attain after pure goodness, beauty and truth; the desire to know these divine qualities and to be in the company of people with these qualities; and to manifest these divine perfections in one’s own life.

Just as the faculties of nutrience, sentience and rationality are actualized through interaction with external elements such as sunlight, nutrients, sensible objects or intellectual objects, the spiritual faculty is actualised through conscious interaction with persons with divine qualities, who exemplify divine virtues in their lives.

To the extent that we are attracted to God or to divine perfection, we tend to exercise our rational faculty to understand divine perfection or the manifestation of the divine will and perfections in this world. And to the extent that we wish to manifest these perfections, such as goodness, beauty and truth in our own lives, we will tend to exercise our rational faculties to such an end.

In this frame, human life involves developing of our capacities of nutritive growth, of embodied perception, of rational reflection, and of spiritual attraction and discernment.

photo credit: tuan86 via pixabay

All of the things that have been called “souls” in modern translations of Aristotle’s psyche could also be called “faculties.” Thus, in the scheme just described, we as humans have a nutritive faculty, a sentient faculty, a rational faculty, and a spiritual faculty.

These “souls” can also be understood as different forms of life, or vitality. A plant has vegetal life; an animal has sentient life; a human has intellectual (rational) life and spiritual life. An animal has sentient life, but does not have intellectual life. It is possible for a human to have an intellectual life while lacking a spiritual life. On the other hand, many people say that they have found a “new life” when their thirst for God or for spiritual reality has been awakened, often through certain “life-changing” experiences, readings, or encounters. Prayer, reflection, meditation, communion, fellowship, virtuous conduct, and service then become means of cultivating spiritual life. For those who are animated by this spiritual life, it may manifest in a certain energy, in what some people may call a certain “enthusiasm” or even “zeal”.

Aristotle considered beings to be teleological, meaning that each being or faculty has an intrinsic purpose and direction of development. The growth of a plant, for instance, is not a random movement. It has inherent direction and purpose, leading to the full development and flowering of the plant through multiple stages. Similarly, a healthy and flourishing animal life is one in which its sensory capacities are fully developed and used in the service of the healthy growth and maintenance of its body. Human life involves developing our rational and intellectual capacities. These capacities have an innate tendency to express themselves. Thus, we’re always seeking for explanations, always curious to know more, always rationalizing, and these capacities can be trained. These capacities have an intrinsic value and purpose.

Similarly, our spiritual capacity has an innate capacity to express itself: leading us to ponder questions on our place in the universe, to seek expressions of divine beauty and perfection, to seek to transcend ourselves, to seek to connect with and to love others.

Now let’s look into the meanings and etymology of different words related to life.

Life comes from the German Leib, which means “body”.

Vitality comes from the Latin vitalitatem, which means “vital force”.

Animation comes from the Latin anima, which means “a current of air, wind, air, breath, the vital principle, life, soul.”

Bio in biology comes from the Greek bios, which means “one’s life, course or way of living, lifetime” — in the sense of biography.

This term is contrasted in Greek to zoe, which refers to “animal life” or “organic life”, and is the root of zoology.

In the Hebrew Bible, we find the term nephesh which refers to the basic process of living; and the term khahee for fullness of life, vitality and vigour. “The Lord God… breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (khahee), and the man became a living (khahee) creature (nephesh).” (Gen 2:7.)

In the New Testament, the meaning of the Greek zoe is expanded to acquire a spiritual meaning, as when Jesus said, “I came that they may have life (zoe) and have it abundantly.” (Jn. 10:10.) Here, zoe refers to be active, blessed, endless in the kingdom of God.

So far, we have presented several different conceptions of life.

They seem very different at first glance, but there are many overlaps between them too. Where they differ, they may be in tension, but just as often they add to each other.

But biology, the science of life, only studies bios as it has defined it, and none of the other aspects of life.

In academic philosophy, we were astonished to find that there sub-disciplines such as the “philosophy of science”, the “philosophy of mind” and so on — but there is no academic field of the “philosophy of life”!


Has life been divided according to the “two lists”, with biology taking charge of the biochemical body, and all other kinds of life being the domain of religion?

We’ll discuss this in the next essay.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer


I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.