Understanding Life

The following is the first chapter of We Can All Win!, published online April 15, 1999.

Timothy Wilken

Let us begin our journey towards understanding the human condition by examining life. Biology in 1999 uses a number of different terms to represent living entities. These terms include life forms, living organisms, and more recently living systems. These terms have subtle but important differences which I will discuss later in The Science section, but for now these terms may be considered as synonymous.

We humans are a form of life. This is a fact of reality paramount to understanding ourselves. And, yet this fact is so pervasive and constant that it rarely enters our consciousness. Our clear and distant superiority to all other forms of life have made it easy for us to neglect our biological basis.

As we have seen ourselves different and superior to all other forms of life, we have missed the point . While we differ from plants and animals, we share their aliveness—we are still forms of life—we are still living organisms —we are still living systems .

When we examine ourselves scientifically, we discover that humans are living systems, and it follows therefore that our powers and our problems will be those of life.

If we are to create a safe and comfortable future for ourselves and our children, we must understand our connection to life. Our life connection is not only relevant, it is the crucial factor in determining a safe passage through the current human crisis.

A fundamental way of understanding life is by examining needs and actions.

Needs and actions

All living organisms have needs and all living organisms act to meet those needs. The primary drive of all living organisms is to survive—to continue to live.

To accomplish survival, a living organism requires a zone of survivability. In science we call this zone of survivability the biosphere. The biosphere is that environmental zone wherein a living organism can meet its needs and act to survive.

Life on earth can be divided into three general classes—these are the plants, the animals, and we humans. These three classes of life each require a different biosphere to meet their needs.

Plants need sunlight, water, carbon dioxide from the air, and adequate minerals from the soil. Plants are able to grow and reproduce by utilizing sunlight in the process science calls photosynthesis. Photosynthesis allows plants to create organic tissue utilizing energy directly from sunlight.

Animals lack the plants’ power of photosynthesis. They cannot utilize sunlight to create organic tissue. They must ingest either plant or animal tissue which they then digest to release chemical energy and molecular nutrients. They further need water and oxygen from the air instead of carbon dioxide.

Humans share animal body and like the animals lack the power of photosynthesis. We too must ingest plant or animal tissue. And, we too need water and oxygen.

The biosphere for plants must therefore provide sunlight, carbon dioxide, water, and minerals. It must also be some shelter from environmental extremes. It must not be too hot or too cold.

The biosphere for the animals, and for our human bodies must provide food either plant or animal tissue, oxygen, and water .

And for the animals as well as we humans, there must be some shelter—a safe place and time for the process of life itself—to breathe, eat and drink, to eliminate bodily wastes, to rest, and restore the body’s energy from the stresses of living, and to procreate if the species is to continue.

The biosphere therefore must provide air, water, food, and shelter or neither animal nor human will survive. Biospheres are also specific to individual species. One particular biosphere might support one species of organism well, but not another.


In synergic science, a system of continuous pull balanced against discontinuous push is called a tension integrity or tensegrity.

Needs are continuously pulling on all living organisms to be met. To meet its needs, the living organism must take action.

Fourteen to Sixteen times a minute, I take a breath. Many times a day, I drink water. And two or three times a day, I eat food. My actions are discontinuous. Discontinuous means I have some control over when I act to meet my needs. I can eat now or a few hours from now.

Life and living then is all about the continuing pull of our needs and the discontinuous push of the actions we take to meet those needs.

Life is organized as a tensegrity. The tensegrity is the most powerful organizing pattern in universe and I will discuss it more completely in The Science section.

The needs of plants and animals are primarily physiological. Our human body shares the physiological needs of the animal. But what differentiates human from animal is our more powerful brain and mind. This dramatic difference in intelligence is reflected in our more complex human needs.

Human needs

To survive for 24 hours, scientists have determined that the average human adult body requires 1.84 pounds of oxygen, 1.36 pounds of food solids, and 6.86 pounds of water.

For the majority of humans these basic needs seem pretty easily met. But few humans are satisfied with the basic needs as one very wise man once said, “Man does not live by bread alone.” We humans need a lot more, and most of what we need has nothing to do with our bodies. Humans require a rich psychological and social life. In a word, humans require meaning in their lives. Plants and animals can just survive, but humans require meaningful survival.

An internet search for “human needs” results in lots of returns. As we examine these needs, we begin to realize that the relationship between other and self is enormously important for humans.

One internet page even divides human needs into two categories based upon whether they are related to other or to self.

A second internet page references scientists Wackernagel and Rees writing in 1993, stated that “basic human needs are not only physical in nature … but also psychological, such as dignity and self-esteem, love and social connectedness, self-realization and to have control over one’s life”.

And finally, a third internet page references the psychologist Henry Murray as identifying twenty human psychogenic needs. Again all of these can be broken down further into categories related to other and self.

Plants, animals and others

Plant survival does not require any relationship with other. The plants unique ability to utilize sunlight directly to synthesize organic tissue frees them from the need for others. This fact makes plants the independent class of life—independent of other.

Animal survival depends entirely on finding others to eat. The herbivores depend on finding plants to eat. The carnivores depend on finding other animals to eat. The animal’s inability to utilize sunlight to synthesize organic tissue means they must eat something. Animals survive by eating either plants or animals. Animals are completely dependent on other for survival. This fact makes animals the dependent class of life—dependent on other.

We humans share the animal body, to survive we must also eat. We are omnivores. We meet our basic needs and survive by eating both plants and animals. Physiologically, we humans are also a dependent class of life. But humans need more than basic needs. Sometimes we need other and sometimes other needs us. Some scientists have used the term “the social animal” in reference to these social-psychological needs of humanity. And it is these social-psychological needs that makes humans more than dependent upon each other. This means sometimes I depend on other and sometimes other depends on me. This fact makes us humans the interdependent class of life—interdependent on each other.

Stop reading

Take a few moment to examine the contents of your pockets or purse. …

Can you find any item there, that you obtained without the help of someone else? Look around you. What do you see? Did you make the clothes you wear? Did you grow the food you eat or the tools you use. Look around your home or workplace. Can you find anything that you made. Do you know the names of those who did make all these things? Do you ever know upon whom you depend. Can you find anything in your environment that was obtained without the help of someone else?

I am not talking about ownership here. I will grant that you own your possessions. But would you have them if they had not been for sale.I would argue that nearly everything modern humans possess was obtained with the help of others.

As I examine my world I discover that I depend on others to grow and produce my food. I depend on others to design and build my home. I depend on others to generate my electricity.

I depend on others to supply my water. I depend on others to deliver my mail. I depend on others to educate my children. I depend on others to entertain my family. I depend on others to manufacture my automobile. I depend on others to refine the gasoline for my car. I depend on others to care for my family when we are sick. I depend on others to protect us from crime and war. I depend on others to …. I depend on others. I depend.

Human interdependence is made less visible by our present economic exchange system. I go to work and help my employer. He depends on me. At the end of the month he pays me for my help. I depend on him. I can then take some of the money from my paycheck to pay my house rent. While I depend on my landlord for the roof over my head, he depends on me to pay the rent promptly. Sometimes I depend on others and sometimes others depend on me. When we buy and sell in the economic marketplace we are really exchanging help. When I help others they owe me. When others help me I owe them. Money is just the present accounting mechanism we use to settle up.

This will come as a surprise to most readers, but humans are not and can not be independent.

We are an interdependent species. We rely on each other for nearly all our wants and needs.

Independence from other is not available to the richest man with the most affluent life style. He is as dependent on the staff of servants who wait on him as they are dependent on him for their shelter and sustenance.

Independence from other humans is only available to the poorest of hermits. This hermit must gather and prepare all his own vegetables and fruits. He must hunt, kill, skin, dress, and cook all his own meat. He must find or build his own shelter using only the materials he can gather and prepare by himself aided only by the tools that he can manufacture by himself from the materials that he can find. He must shelter himself from all storms and natural disasters, and protect himself from all enemies. Only by committing 99+ percent of his waking time to basic survival can he achieve true independence from other humans.

And, what is the cost of this independence from other humans? His lot will be to live a life of abject poverty devoid of any meaning. His search for independence forces him to forsake his very humanness and de-evolve into an animal. And, even then, he can not achieve true independence. For, his body is still dependent on plant and animal tissue for its survival.

We humans are not an independent life form. Despite the common desire of most of us to be independent, human independence is not possible in any scientific sense. Our bodies do not contain chlorophyll and we cannot get our energy directly from the Sun. Other plants and animals serve as our source of energy. We are just as dependent on others for our survival as are the animals.

We can ignore this fact of science by calling the other plants and animals—food and cooking their bodies in ways so that we are not reminded of the source of our sustenance, but we are still not independent. When we further examine our relationships with other humans, we discover that even here we are not independent.

In summary then, we can say that in the lives of plants—the independent class of life, other plays no role .

In the lives of animals—the dependent class of life, other serves primarily as a source of food.And finally in the lives of humans, the interdependent class of life, other is very important. Our bodies are as dependent on others for food as the animals, but socially, psychologically and economically, we depend on others and others depend on us. We humans are interdependent.


All living systems act to meet their needs. Let us now examine action more carefully. Science1999 reveals that:

“What is most basic in universe is not material particles but activity. The older concept of a universe made up of physical particles interacting according to fixed laws is no longer tenable. It is implicit in present findings that action rather than matter is basic.” (1)

Science as of 1999 has discovered action to be fundamental in both nonliving universe which includes light, particles, atoms, and simple molecules as well as within living universe which is life itself—the living molecules, the plants, the animals, and we humans.

  • Action implies motion, movement, animation—process.
  • Actions require energy to occur. No energy—no action.
  • Actions have location in space. Actions always begin somewhere and end somewhere else. No location, no space—no action.
  • Actions have duration. Actions always have a beginning and an ending. While some actions may occur in a very short time, they all require some time. There are no instantaneous actions in universe. No time—no action.

Because actions require energy, location or space, and time, synergic science sometimes uses the term energy event to describe what we commonly call action. R. Buckminster Fuller explains:

“Two different energy events cannot pass through the same point at the same time. When one energy event is passing through a given point and another impinges upon it, there is an interference.

“We find experimentally that two lines cannot go through the same point at the same time. One can cross over or be superimposed upon another. Both Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries misassume that a plurality of lines can go through the same point at the same time. But we find experimentally that two or more lines cannot physically go through the same point at the same time.

“When a physicist bombards a group of atoms in a cloud chamber with a neutron, he gets an interference.

“When the neutron runs into a nuclear component: (1) it separates the latter into smaller components; (2) they bounce acutely apart (reflection); (3) they bounce obliquely (refraction); (4) they combine, mass attractively. The unique angles in which they separate or bounce off identify both known or unknown atomic-nucleus components.” (2)

Therefore actions can not and do not occur in isolation. If they impinge on the environment, they will effect or impact the environment. If they impinge on others, they will effect or impact on others. Therefore:

Actions can effect or impact environment and others in a negative and harmful way.

Actions can effect or impact environment and others in a neutral or negligible way.

Or, actions can effect or impact environment and others in a positive and beneficial way.Therefore actions that effect or impact on others can produce the following results, using the language of games:

  • Other can lose. They are hurt by the action. They are less after the action than before.
  • Other can draw. They are ignored by the action. They will be the same after the action as before.
  • Other can win. They are helped by the action. They are more after the action than before.

From the point of view of an individual effected or impacted by action, I can be hurt, I can be ignored, or I can be helped by the action.

  • Actions that hurt are adversary.
  • Actions that ignore are neutral.
  • Actions that help are synergic.

Because of the effect or impact that action always has on the environment or upon other, we discover that action is always accompanied by two other phenomena—the reaction, and the resultant.

The environment or other reacts at the beginning of the action. And the effect or impact on the environment or other occurs at the end of the action producing a resultant.

Action, reaction, and resultant are always found together.

In the following illustration (3), we see the man act by jumping from one boat to another. As he jumps, he pushes off causing a reaction in the boat he left. As he lands his impact effects a resultant on the boat he lands on.


The reaction occurs at the beginning of the action while the resultant occurs at the end.

By understanding that these three phenomena always and only coexist, we should not be surprised that since actions can be either adversary, neutral or synergic. So too, reactions and resultants can have the same three effects. Reactions can be adversary, neutral or synergic. And, resultants can also be adversary, neutral or synergic.

And while this is not always the case, we would expect and discover that:

  • adversary action usually provokes adversary reaction ending in an adversary resultant or loss, while
  • neutral action usually provokes neutral reaction ending in a neutral resultant or draw, and
  • synergic action usually provokes synergic reaction ending in a synergic resultant or gain.

Action implies a need for choice. The living system must choose which action or actions to take. The living system must decide when to act and where to act. Actions bring choices.


Choice is defined in the dictionary as deciding, picking, selecting. This would seem a type of pre-action, or for living organisms mental or intellectual action. The phenomena of choice begins even before the beginning of life. An Englishman, Thomas Young in 1803, focused science’s attention on the phenomenon of choice when he designed unique double slit light experiment. Some scientists interpret his experiment as demonstrating that photons make decisions.4 A photon of light seems to be making a choice as to where it will go in universe.

When a photon is released at a particular point in universe, one second later it can be anywhere within a sphere of 186,000 miles. We cannot predict where it will be at the end of that second, for its choice is random. But we see that it moves to only one place in that sphere. If we were to define choice mathematically, we would say that choice is that condition where a system moves from a point of multifaceted potentiality to a point of single actuality.

CHOICE —def—>Multifaceted potentiality —becoming—> single actuality.

The photon, once released at some point in universe has the multifaceted potential to be anywhere within a sphere of 186,000 miles within one second. But, it only goes to one place—it selects a single actuality.

Light is the simplest of universe’s phenomena and humans appear to be the most complex. If photons choose, then they must have a form of consciousness. But, this is not the complex form of consciousness we see in humans, consciousness at the stage of light must be the simplest of consciousnesses.

Science in 1999 reveals that universe contains no ‘things ‘. All in universe is process. All in universe is flux. All in universe is change. And change means change in energy. Change in energy is change in information. Universe is full of change and universe is made up of energy and information.

We humans know that when we are confronted by change, we respond by making choices. Every event—be it birth of a child or loss of a loved one, feast or famine, poverty or prosperity, peace or war—represents change. Every idea—be it a discovery that cures cancer or a decision to commit a crime—represents change. Every situation—be it getting a new job or losing a job, marriage or divorce, childhood or old age—represents change.

We humans adapt to these changes by making choices. This is what all living systems do from the time of conception until they perish. They make choices. They make decisions.

The human brain is estimated to be capable of 10 raised to the exponential power of 800 thoughts (10800)—multifaceted potential. The human brain will have only one thought at the time of decision—single actuality. At any moment I am capable of an enormous number of behaviors but I will choose only one—multifaceted potential becoming single actuality. With the power of action comes opportunity for choice.In summary then, life can be examined from the point of needs and actions. All living systems have needs and they meet those needs through actions. Living systems meet their needs within a zone of survivability called the biosphere. Biospheres differ for different species and different classes of life.

There are three classes of life on earth—plants, animals, and we humans. The plants are the independent class of life. They have no relationship with others. The animals are the dependent class of life. They depend on others to survive. And, we humans are physiologically dependent, but psychologically and socially interdependent. Our animal bodies require we eat the plants and animals to survive. Psychologically and socially, our relationships with other humans are interdependent. Sometimes we depend on others and sometimes others depend on us.

All needs of living systems are met with actions. All actions require energy and have duration and location. All actions effect or impact both environment and other. These effects or impacts can be adversary—negative and harmful, or they can be neutral—negligible, or they can be synergic—positive and beneficial.

All actions are always and only accompanied by reactions at the beginning of an action and a resultant at the ending of the action. Reactions and resultants are also either adversary, neutral, or synergic. Usually adversary actions provoke adversary reactions and end in adversary resultants. Usually, neutral actions provoke neutral reactions, and end in neutral resultants. And usually, synergic actions provoke synergic reactions and end in synergic resultants.

And finally, with action comes choice. Choice is deciding, picking or selecting an action to take. Choice is a pre-action. Choice is multipotentiality becoming single actuality. Choice made without knowledge is random. Choice made with knowledge is controlled.

Life makes controlled choices.

1 Arthur Young, The Foundations of Science: The Missing Parameter, Robert Briggs Associates, San Francisco, 1984

2 R. Buckminster Fuller, SYNERGETICS—Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, Volumes I & II, New York, Macmillan Publishing Co, 1975, 1979

3 R. Buckminster Fuller, ibid

4 Gary Zukav, Dancing Wu Li Masters, William Morrow & Co., 1979


UnCommon Sense Library


The BasicsWe Can All Win!-PDF

2—Three Ways
3—The Relationship Continuum
4—Three Classes of Life
5—Human Neutrality

The Science—UnCommon Science(PDF)

Intro—Science 2001
1—Knowing 2001
2—A Limit to Knowing
3—Scientific Mistakes
4—What Do We Know

5—Order (PDF)-New

The Present—Crisis: Danger & Opportunity

The Future — A Synergic Future