'The Meaning of Life' in the title of this volume alludes to the core of the tensions addressed by this collection of papers, delivered by an international community of scientists and philosophers at a 2005 conference outside of Osaka in Japan. This phrase typically refers to the many dimensions that make our lives seem meaningful—religious beliefs; the pursuit of love and service; a devotion to one's work, and many others. But in the past few decades, the phrase has taken another set of meanings in the wake of the breathtakingly rapid advances of the biological sciences into the intricate building blocks of what we have called living organisms as distinct from non-living. Evolutionary and cellular biologists have brought us to the point where it is easy to believe that the so-called unique characteristics of human life are soon to be completely accounted for by material structures expressed in mathematical relationships. 'Life,' in that view, is simply a loose term referring to the fact that organisms are more complex organizations of material components than non-organic materials. In this context, struggles over defining and establishing regions of consensus about 'The Meaning of Life' take on new urgency. Science and technology increasingly affect the decisions we have to make everyday: medical interventions to deal with health problems; our daily relationships to refuse, water, and automobiles; crucial decisions surrounding birth and death; ongoing choices about our self-development; and communal political decisions about these matters.
The authors of this collection come at the issues from three arenas: one is rooted in ancient spiritual traditions about life; a second is the modern scientific evolutionary understanding of life; a third is global capitalism which presses everywhere upon living organisms for profit, ranging from genetic modifications, to drilling for oil in fragile ecosystems, to the privatization of water sauces. A cooperative work of an extremely diverse group of scholars, scientists, and activists from around the world, it is a microcosm of hope for the macrocosm; a serious respectful conversation about how to help one another thread our ways through these world- and life-endangering confusions.