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Latest issue of Synthese: Should scientists even try to define life?

Synthese 185: “Philosophical problems about life” looks interesting

Here, for example, is “Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life… and why you should as well” by Edouard Machery:

In several disciplines within science—evolutionary biology, molecular biology, astrobiology, synthetic biology, artificial life—and outside science—primarily ethics—efforts to define life have recently multiplied. However, no consensus has emerged. In this article, I argue that this is no accident. I propose a dilemma showing that the project of defining life is either impossible or pointless. The notion of life at stake in this project is either the folk concept of life or a scientific concept. In the former case, empirical evidence shows that life cannot be defined. In the latter case, I argue that, although defining life may be possible, it is pointless. I conclude that scientists, philosophers, and ethicists should discard the project of defining life.

Warning: Clinical cases of the “What is life?” virus – heaven forbid you should catch it – spend the rest of their days swinging gently in hammocks, and progress to wondering, why, why, why, without adding any terms to the question. Recently, cold shower therapy has been demonstrated to help borderline cases.

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4 Responses to Latest issue of Synthese: Should scientists even try to define life?

  1. If we don’t define “life”, it’s going to make things a lot more complicated for right for lifers.

    “Ban abortions! Foetuses are alive!”

    “What do you mean by ‘alive’?”

    “Errr, we’re not allowed to ask that question”.

    I’ll admit to being silly, but my serious point is that definitions do matter, and even if we don’t get a good answer to the question, we can (by asking it) avoid bad answers.

  2. What about biology? Err, biology is the science that studies, we aren’t allowed to define it!!! Give me a break! and they call it peer-reviewed literature!!!

  3. H’mm: In this case, it is relevant to ask: what would a definition look like, and how would it avoid being arbitrary or question-begging? Looks like we need to first and foremost try to pull together our concept of life on a good enough cross section of cases. I suspect we are going to run into the problem Feyerabend noted with cases of “good” science — there is no consistent cluster of features. Maybe, some sort of most of these rule of thumb? Mules and worker bees generally don’t reproduce but are alive, the hibernating and comatose are alive, bacteria and plants are alive, viruses seem not to be. And, until computers and robots start to reproduce themselves, and to be autonomous entities, I would not even entertain them as reasonable candidates. KF

  4. KF –

    As far as we know, all living things are intelligent, and all intelligent things are alive. In our experience, then, these two words are co-referential.

    Neither of these words have explanations that allow them to serve as explanatory constructs in any field of science. Biology is certainly defined as the study of living things, and Psychology is the study of intelligent things, but neither “life” nor “intelligence” has ever been offered as an explanation of any phenomena. That is, until ID, which attempts to explain other phenomena (the structure and function of living things) by appeal to this ill-defined concept, “intelligence”.

    Attempting to explain one concept (life) by a concept that is co-referential (intelligence) is fruitless.

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