Ah, the classical question. There are an infinite number of ways to answer it, and many of them make absolutely no sense. I have thought about it much and, with the arrogance of any philosopher sharing his thoughts, I believe I have the answer.
Before diving into the Universe and life, I would like to present a slightly different perspective on the Universe which is useful for considering many aspects of it. The Universe is essentially information. A given set of particles’ types and locations can be represented by encoding it as information. Information has a number of salient features; namely, complexity and order. Information of no complexity and no order is either nonexistent, or perfect noise. For example, the sequence of odd numbers up to 203 is a mildly complex sequence, but it has enough order to reduce it to 2x – 1 where 1 <= x <= 102 as a mathematical equation. A good example of information with some complexity and some order is a deck of cards. There are 52 cards so it has some complexity, but there is order in a deck of cards, so it is possible to “compress” the deck of cards down to a set of patterns. This eliminates the need to explicitly declare every last one of the 52 cards. For example, there are the 13 ranks in the 4 suits. The 13 ranks will compress even further, as they are 2 through 10 consecutively, followed by Jack, Queen, King, and Ace (which, I suppose, could compress further due to status associations or whatnot). The four suits will not compress, and the only way to represent them without losing any information is to outrightly list them: clubs, diamonds, spades, and hearts.
The non-living Universe is chaos; perfect noise. That is to say, any emergent order is the product of fundamental laws which do not reduce any further. Consider the background universe in terms of randomly encoded information. Beginning from chaos, basic laws eventually form a pattern which results in extenuating patterns. For example, a random conglomeration of matter somewhere in the universe draws more matter to itself, and this new, larger body draws still more matter to itself until you have stars, and then those stars follow simple nuclear laws and produce more diverse particles, they then explode and the gravity well cycle occurs again, only this time with diversified matter able to produce planets as well, etc. etc. Because these patterns are the product of fundamental laws, they are not alive. A rock in space is governed by fundamental laws only, and is affected by its environment, without any ability to control itself or its environment.
Now, on some planet somewhere in the Universe, let us call it Earth, a random conglomeration of acids somewhere in the ancient ocean exhibits the remarkable property of being able to reproduce itself. This is not a property of the fundamental laws of the universe, but an emergent order from its special arrangement. Though it’s not far above those fundamental laws, it exhibits a complexity a class above that of the rock. The microbe is a self-replicating pattern which converts the ambient random noise into further order which is also capable of replicating itself. It’s quite beautiful if you think about it.
The complexity involved in a system such as Earth’s fully developed ecosystem, continuously converting the matter of the ocean and the land into growing living patterns using only the power of the sun, is incredible. Also, the system itself is always growing more ordered, usually necessitating more complexity, but sometimes there is a watershed where an increase in order makes the system dramatically simpler. And to top the growing tower of life off, the system is always scaling the rungs and finding new levels of order to fill with patterns. First was the purely biological, when genes were the only method of encoding the information of life. Then, a system of encoding information in individuals evolved which now manifests itself in its most refined form as the human brain. The brain exhibits the incredible property of being able to understand itself, but that’s a different post. More importantly, the brain is capable of growing the information of life at an exponentially faster rate than genetic evolution. And the brain is better suited to creating the next stage of development. In fact, the brain had hardly been developed for two million years before we arrive at the cusp of the next stage: computers.
Development has taken the place of evolution simply because it is so much faster. And once computers have been developed to the point that they can control themselves and their environment to an equal extent as the human brain, it will be a matter of years before biological humans are obsolete as the cutting edge of life in the same way microbes are now. One human being produces more order and incorporates more information into the aggregate system of Life than all the microbes that have ever lived (that may be a stretch, just based on the sheer number of microbes…. but it makes the point). Not to say that microbes aren’t important, since 80% of the biomass of Earth is microbes. And that isn’t to say that human beings won’t be important once computers become “alive.” I would go so far as to say that once computers are alive, they will be humans.
In any case, I am getting off track into the idea of the future of life. The question this post was meant to address was “what is life?” The answer that I find to that question, at least right now, is that life is a self-replicating pattern which through a “supernatural transmutation” converts inanimate information into information that is alive.