Home » Intelligent Design » What a living thing is, what an artifact is, and why the first living thing would have been one (Part One of a Response to the Smithy)

What a living thing is, what an artifact is, and why the first living thing would have been one (Part One of a Response to the Smithy)

The Smithy, a Web site devoted to the life, times, and thought of the Subtle Doctor, the Blessed John Duns Scotus, has recently weighed in on the ID controversy, with three recent posts by Michael Sullivan in response to my post, In Praise of Subtlety. Before I continue, I would like to congratulate Michael Sullivan for successfully defending his dissertation on Friday, April 23.

Reading Michael Sullivan’s latest blog posts, I realized that I had not been precise enough in my definitions of what a living thing is, and of what an artifact is. It would be a terrible thing if we ended up talking past each other in what promises to be an interesting philosophical exchange, so I shall do my best to prevent that happening.

The views I present below are my own, and I take full responsibility for them. In formulating them, I have endeavored to marry the best insights of Aristotle’s philosophy and modern science.

What is a living thing?

Specifically, I claim that:

(i) having a “good of its own” is a property of all living things, and only living things, and that it defines the meaning of “life”; and

(ii) for biological organisms, having a “good of its own” goes hand-in-hand with unique formal features which characterize living things. In other words, a material object is alive and has a good of its own if, and only if, it possesses these formal features.

However, the formal features cannot be understood without reference to finalistic concepts, which is why a purely formal characterization of life could never succeed.

First, we can define a living thing in terms of its unique kind of finality. A living thing is a thing with a good of its own.

All kinds of natural objects have a built-in tendency to produce certain determinate effects, under the right circumstances. This is evident from the fact that they behave in accordance with scientific laws. Insofar as these objects consistently tend towards determinate effects, again and again, they are displaying future-oriented behavior. The effect they tend towards can be called their telos. Additionally, these things possess an internal unity, and may resist being taken apart. The atoms in crystals, for instance, are bound together by strong chemical bonds. However, this internal unity of natural objects does not mean that we can speak of anything as being good for them. For example, soil, water and sunlight are good for a plant; but it simply makes no sense to say that anything is “good for” soil, good for water, or good for sunlight. These things are not the sort of things that can meaningfully be said to benefit from anything. Only living things can properly be said to benefit, because they possess a good of their own.

Still, we might ask: how do we know which things have a “good of their own”? Empirically, what distinguishes them from other things? Our first definition captures the essence of a living thing, but it is far too vague for scientists to use.

Second, we can define a living thing in terms of its form. I contend that a living thing is a thing possessing all of the following features:

(i) a master program controlling the organism’s internal parts and their internal interactions from the top down, and also governing the organism’s vital processes and biological functions – especially nutrition, growth and reproduction;

(ii) a nested hierarchy of organization (in which macromolecules are nested into organelles, organelles into cells, cells are nested into tissues, tissues into organs, and organs into an organism), whose formation and maintenance is governed by the master program; and

(iii) embedded functionality: living things are built from the bottom up, by intrinsically adapted parts whose entire repertoire of functionality is “dedicated” to supporting the functionality of the whole unit which they comprise. This embedded functionality starts all the way down at the bottom, at the level of atoms and molecules. It is thus part of the very “warp and woof” of a living thing.

The first two features would commonly be regarded as formal features of organisms, but as we shall see, they cannot be adequately characterized without reference to the telos of the organisms possessing them, so actually they could be described as both formal and finalistic; while the attribute of embedded functionality can be viewed as an empirical manifestation of both formal and final causality, insofar as it describes the manner in which the structured parts of an organism subserve the interests of the whole.

By “master program” I mean a single, unified set of instructions. An assortment of low-level programs working independently of one another, in the absence of any kind of central co-ordination, would be unable to accomplish their respective tasks smoothly and harmoniously, as they would be liable to interfere with one another. In particular, an assortment of independent programs could not be relied upon to accomplish two vital tasks: first, directing the formation of the organism’s bodily structures during its development; and second, preserving the organism as a single, viable entity and co-ordinating its activities.

This master program, I believe, is where the functional complex specified information that is found in each living thing resides.

However, the mere presence of a master program per se does not confer life on an entity, as it fails to explain why the entity should possess ends. I claim that in order to give rise to ends, the master program needs to be a very specific kind of program: one which generates a nested hierarchy of structure within the organism, and which also allows the functionality of the lowest levels to subserve that of the highest levels. Then and only then can we speak of the structure-as-a-whole as having a good of of its own.

A nested hierarchy is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for an organism’s having a good of its own, because it is impossible to ascribe ends to an organism unless its parts work together for the benefit of the whole. To do this, the parts need to be hierarchically ordered. Finally, the hierarchy needs to be nested, in order for the parts to be intrinsically ordered towards the well-being of the whole. In a non-nested hierarchy, each part would be directed by some other part above and outside it; thus the part-whole finality would be merely extrinsic.

(Some definitions: Nested hierarchies involve levels which consist of, and contain, lower levels. Non-nested hierarchies are more general in that the requirement of containment of lower levels is relaxed. For example, an army consists of a collection of soldiers and is made up of them. Thus an army is a nested hierarchy. On the other hand, the general at the top of a military command does not consist of his soldiers and so the military command is a non-nested hierarchy with regard to the soldiers in the army. Pecking orders and a food chains are also non-nested hierarchies.)

The nested hierarchy of living things reflects a functionality in which the entire repertoire of the functionality of the parts is “dedicated” to supporting the functionality of the whole unit which they comprise. (By “the entire repertoire”, I mean everything that the parts actually do.)

Dr. James Tour illustrates the concept of embedded functionality as follows:

[Let's say that] you see a tree [and] you want to make a table, [so] you chop down the tree [and] you make a table – that’s [building] top down. But, the tree and I and everything else in nature are built from the bottom up. Molecules have certain embedded interactions between them and embedded functionality. Those come together to form higher-order structures called cells and those form higher-order structures and here we are.” You might also envision this as building from the inside out, or by forming the required traits in the smallest conceivable building blocks first. (Geer, D. “Organic Computing: Life that Computes.” In “Techworthy” computer magazine, Bedford Communications, 2002.)

This “dedicated” functionality can be seen at every level of organization of a living thing, from the bottom up. Living things are built from the bottom up, by “dedicated”, intrinsically adapted parts; today’s human-built computers are designed from the top down, out of parts which have to be modified in some way, to suit the designers’ ends.

Embedded functionality is by no means unique to living things: as Dr. Tour points out in the above quote, it is found in molecules too. However, what I am suggesting is that all organisms, and only organisms, possess the combination of a master program that directs the generation of a nested hierarchical structure with the property of embedded functionality.

The reason why any reductive identification of final ends with any lower-level properties is bound to fail is that the ends possessed by organisms are holistic ends, and no lower-level description of a biological process, however complete it may be, can be equated in meaning with a holistic description of the same process, even if the two descriptions are truth-functionally equivalent. It is for this reason that Mayr (1982) rejects the simplistic assertion by what he calls strong mechanists, that organisms are nothing but chemical machines, whose properties and parts are wholly reductively identifiable with and explicable in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry. (See Mayr, J. 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.)

An additional reason why final explanations are not reducible to formal ones is that such a reduction incorrectly assumes that we can describe the formal features of a living organism using non-teleological terminology. But when we are talking about organisms, it is impossible to compartmentalize our language regarding formal and final causality in this way: the two forms of causality are inextricable. We cannot, for instance, properly describe an embedded functionality without reference to its ends. And although an inanimate object could contain a master program or nested hierarchy of organization in the absence of embedded functionality, even these formal features, when realized in an organism, cannot be properly described without reference to the ends that they enable the organism to achieve.

Thus the fact that an organism’s master program governs its process of development and maturation does not mean that we can “reduce” this long-term biological goal to the program that codes for it. Indeed, we cannot properly understand the master program regulating an organism’s development unless we first grasp what the development is for – a future state (maturation), which is a holistic goal of the organism.

What is an artifact?

I’ll begin with the etymology of the word “artifact,” a noun which dates from 1821.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the word “artifact” is of Latin etymology, derived from the Latin arte, by skill (ablative of art-, ars skill), and factum, neuter of factus, past participle of facere, to do.

Unfortunately, the definitions listed in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary all contain some reference to being made by human beings. This is rather unhelpful for our purposes, as it would imply that anything created by aliens, for instance, is not an artifact! So I’m going to put forward my own definition, which I hope will strike most people as a sensible one.

Before I define what an artifact is, I’d better say what it is not.

(1) An artifact is not a kind of thing, like “water.” An artifact, as the etymology of the word shows, is something made with skill; thus anything made with the requisite skill might qualify as an artifact.

(2) An artifact is not a thing made in a particular way. What characterizes an artifact is the skill (or art) that goes into the making of it, rather than the technique with which it was made.

(3) An artifact is not a thing possessing only extrinsic finality, like a car or a mousetrap – i.e. made solely for the benefit of another, and possessing no good of its own. For there is no reason in principle why a living thing could not be made in a laboratory in the same way that human artifacts are made in factories – by assembling one piece at a time – although in practice, it would be extremely difficult. If a living thing was made with the same set of laboratory skills as a human artifact, then it would make sense to call the living thing an artifact too.

(4) An artifact is not simply a thing made by an intelligent agent. That would be too broad. For an intelligent agent might make something haphazardly, without applying skill, or alternatively, as a result of applying very little skill – “Just add water.” Things made in this fashion would not deserve to be called artifacts.

So, what is an artifact?

An artifact can be defined broadly as:
(i) a thing that was made with skill (even if it could have been reliably produced through a process where no skill was applied),

or more narrowly as:
(ii) a thing whose form is such that it could only have been reliably made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process.

(I’ve added the word “reliably” to exclude freakish events that might just happen to generate something on a particular occasion, but which cannot be reliably counted on to do so – e.g. a tornado just happening to blow the parts of an artifact together. Obviously, tornadoes are not a reliable way to generate artifacts.)

Next question: what is skill?

By “skill” I mean any activity (a) performed by an intelligent agent acting intentionally, and (b) resulting in information which helps generate a specific pattern or form, that can perform one or more functions.

Alternatively, skill could also be defined as any activity that inputs functional complex specified information, as defined by Dembski, W. A. and Wells, J. The Design of Life. 2008. Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas. (See pages 311-320.)

Skill does not have to include the physical activity of assembling the parts of an artifact, piece by piece. Obviously, a Being that could make all the parts of an artifact at once (e.g. a 747, to use one of Sullivan’s examples) would be at least as skillful as a being that assembled the parts, one piece at a time.

The Scriptures tell us that God made all things by His Word. For instance, in Genesis 1:3, God says, “Let there be light.” That’s skill, by my definition, even if it took place by creation ex nihilo. Later, in Genesis 2:7, God forms a man from the dust of the ground, which sounds more like assembly. If that account is literally true, then that’s skill, too.

In saying that the first living thing was an artifact, I mean that it was an artifact in the narrow sense. Because it was the first living thing, it could not have been generated naturally from another living thing. Thus it must have either been generated from non-living matter, without the application of skill, or it must have been generated (somehow) through the application of skill. However, I would contend that the form of the first living thing was such that it could only have been made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process. (I will explain why below. Briefly: its master program was too rich in what Dembski calls functional complex specified information to have been generated in any other way. Putting it another way: living things instantiate recipes, and neither the laws of nature nor chance are capable of creating recipes.)

However, I would add that the first living thing need not have been assembled piece by piece, by God, although it might have been. If it was made by God from pre-exisiting parts, then those parts must have been assembled in a particular order.

Thus the first living thing could only have been produced through an activity performed by an intelligent agent, acting intentionally. This intelligent activity resulted in information which helped generate a specific form: a master program that could perform the biological functions required by the first living thing. This form satisfied all the requirements listed above for a thing to qualify as having a good of its own (master program, nested hierarchy and embedded functionality).

Now let us compare a living thing with a water molecule. Water molecules are naturally generated all the time, as a result of matter (hydrogen and oxygen, under the appropriate conditions) behaving in accordance with the laws of nature. Is skill required here? Certainly, skill (more specifically, God’s Word and Wisdom) was required to create the laws of nature. The fine-tuning argument illustrates this point beautifully. But was skill required to create this particular water molecule? No. Once the laws are up and running, no extra input of intelligence is required.

Living things are naturally generated all the time, too. Is skill required here? Certainly, skill (more specifically, God’s Word and Wisdom) was required to create the laws that allow biological organisms to function, and I will argue below that it was also required to create the first living thing. But is skill required to create each and every new organism that pops into existence? No. Reproduction is a natural process; once this process is in place, no extra input of intelligence is required to create new organisms that come into existence.

Why abiogenesis is theologically objectionable to ID proponents

Some Thomists believe that God could have created a cosmos that generated life through the laws of nature. They insist that in such a cosmos, final causality would still be universal, as it would be found in every law-governed process. Because things obeying the laws of nature exhibit a consistent tendency towards certain effects, they can be said to be directed by God at ends. In addition, God would be required to conserve such a cosmos in being; He did not just create it and walk away.

However, what many ID proponents find offensive about the proposal that the laws of nature alone, operating on inanimate matter, could have accounted for the origin of the first living organism is that laws, being general in scope, cannot be said to be aimed at the production of any particular individual. Thus if the above proposal were correct, the first living thing would have been generated without any skill. Sure, God would have used His skills to “set up the show” by creating the universe with its laws, and continuing to conserve everything in existence. But the actual generation of the first living thing would have been accomplished via automatic processes (laws) that were not specifically aimed at the production of that particular thing. Thus no extra input of intelligence would have been required to create the first living organism that came into existence. I have to say that sounds rather godless to me. It just doesn’t smell right. It’s too “hands-off” – not much better than Deism.

What about Professor Michael Behe’s proposal that God set up the universe at the beginning of time with an extremely finely tuned set of initial conditions, so that all He had to do was press “Play,” as it were, and the universe then unfolded naturally, resulting in the first living organism? Now, that proposal doesn’t bother me at all. Why not? Because God still explicitly designed the initial conditions, with a view to producing the first living thing. What’s more, He explicitly intended the production of that living thing, and no other. Thus on this scenario, God’s skill was applied in creating the first organism was applied in the very specific initial conditions set up by God at the beginning of time. No problem.

What I do object to is the proposal that the laws of nature, combined with just about any old set of initial conditions, could have generated the first living thing. First, it’s too impersonal a process to generate something as significant (and as splendid) as the first living thing. Second, it denies that any skill went into the making of the first living thing (which is scientifically absurd, for reasons I’ll explain below). Third, it makes life itself sound like an accident – which implies that you and I are accidents too.

Why abiogenesis is scientifically absurd

Here’s the argument, in a nutshell.

A living thing, as we have seen, contains a master program that governs all its vital activities – including reproduction.

Thus a living thing embodies a recipe for its own creation. Normally, a living thing is created from another living thing, according to the recipe in its master program.

What about the first living thing? How was it generated? Could the laws of nature and/or chance events have generated it? No.

The laws of nature are not directed at the creation of recipes. Recipes have meanings: they have a very highly specific semantic content. The laws of nature are directed at the generation of things (e.g. water from hydrogen and oxygen), rather than meanings. However, a living organism isn’t merely a kind of thing, like water: it actually embodies a message in its master program. The laws of nature are not directed at the production of messages.

That’s why the laws of nature cannot explain the origin of the first living thing.

Chance doesn’t create recipes, either. Recipes have meaning. Chance doesn’t produce meaning.

That’s why chance cannot create a living thing.

Since there was a first living thing, it must have been created by something that can generate meaning.

Only intelligence is reliably capable of generating meaning. Neither laws nor chance will do the trick. Both are too non-specific to generate the specified complexity that characterizes life.

Intelligence is the only reliable explanation of the origin of the first living thing.

Why we should be glad that we’re descended from artifacts

An artifact in the strict sense of the word, as I have defined it, is a thing that could only have been made with skill. Machines are artifacts, but they lack a good of their own. Living things are blessed with a good of their own, but they can only be said to possess this good by virtue of possessing certain formal features, among which is a master program. It takes skill to write a program. Thus the first living thing must have been a Divine artifact, in addition to having a good of its own.

I for one am glad that I’m descended from that artifact. It means that God did a good job of making something which gave rise to me. Now who could possibly object to that?

Part Two of my reply will be posted later today.

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27 Responses to What a living thing is, what an artifact is, and why the first living thing would have been one (Part One of a Response to the Smithy)

  1. Very nice, vjtorley.

    With regard to defining life how about an event unable to self-repair?

  2. 2

    A very interesting post, Mr. Torley.

    However, it strikes me that a definition of life that omits self-replication is woefully incomplete. This is an omission is of the single feature that has the potential to naturally originate, through replication and selection, the other “formal features” to which you refer.

    The problem of the origin of life is the problem of attaining self-replication. Self-replication does not necessarily entail all of the complexity to which you refer, complexity that characterizes organisms in the present day (e.g. nested hierarchies and top-down control.)

    You’ve essentially built definitions such that a gradual progression from non-life to life as it is now characterized is in principle impossible, and therefore forced your conclusion that the origin of life requires teleological input. That is not scientific reasoning.

  3. 3

    Pardon this: I should have said Dr. Torley.

  4. vjtorley;
    It seems to me that your definition of “living thing”,,,

    “First, we can define a living thing in terms of its unique kind of finality. A living thing is a thing with a good of its own.,,,, Thus the first living thing must have been a Divine artifact, in addition to having a good of its own.

    I for one am glad that I’m descended from that artifact.”

    ,,, is somewhat drastically different from the Theistic definition of “living thing”,,,,

    The Mystery Of Life – God’s Creation & Providence – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4193364

    Genesis 2:7
    the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

    ,,, and thus your definition seems very, for lack of a better word, rudimentary, and leaves out a very important quality of life for humans that should not be overlooked in a proper definition of “living thing”,,,

  5. Merthin Builder

    Thank you for your posts. By the way, vjtorley is fine.

    Most of the material I’ve included here on the definition of life is adapted from an e-book that I wrote a few years ago, while completing my Ph.D. (Back in those days, my views were more Darwinistic than they are now; this was before I became involved with ID. I have modified some of my views since writing my e-book.)

    Chapter 1 of the e-book, which deals with life, can be accessed online at
    http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....final.html

    and the Appendix to Part B, which deals with the necessary conditions for something’s being alive (including the ability to reproduce), can be accessed at http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....lbapp.html .

    In my post, I don’t spend much time discussing self-replication, because I am focusing on the defining formal and final characteristics of living organisms. However, if you scroll up, you will notice that I mentioned as one of the necessary conditions of being alive:

    (i) a master program controlling the organism’s internal parts and their internal interactions from the top down, and also governing the organism’s vital processes and biological functions – especially nutrition, growth and reproduction.

    Later on, I wrote:

    A living thing, as we have seen, contains a master program that governs all its vital activities – including reproduction.

    However, I don’t think that self-replication is the central defining characteristic of life for several reasons.

    1. The ability to reproduce is itself a consequence of the organism’s having a master program. Thus the master program is the more fundamental characteristic.

    2. The ability to reproduce is not a necessary condition for being alive. What about mules?

    3. The ability to reproduce is not a sufficient condition for being alive. As J.B.S. Haldane (1947, p. 56) pointed out, if we accept that life is essentially a pattern of chemical processes, it follows that any pattern that begets a pattern similar to itself – as a flame does, for instance – can be described as reproducing. See Haldane, J. B. S. 1947. What is Life? New York: Boni and Gaer. Web address of critical excerpt: http://www.marxists.org/archiv.....s/life.htm.

    Moreover, reproduction is found in a host of systems, including abstract computational systems, that “bear no other resemblance to ordinary living systems” (Wolfram, “A New Science of Life,” 2002, Steve Wolfram LLC, p. 824.)

    4. In any case, for sexually reproducing organisms, it’s quite misleading to say that any particular individual has the “ability to reproduce.” Even a fertile individual will be unable to reproduce in the absence of a fertile individual of the opposite sex.

    Nevertheless, I conclude in my Appendix to Part B of chapter 1 (cited above) that reproduction, while not an essential feature of living individuals, is an essential feature of living species. This is partly for thermodynamic reasons: in my e-book, I cite a scientist named Daniel Koshland, who argues that reproduction is necessary to counter the accumulation of slight imperfections in the constant re-synthesis of bodily constituents during an individual’s lifetime (in other words, ageing). Reproduction gives a living system the opportunity to start over.

    In addition, there are evolutionary reasons why a species requires the ability to reproduce.

    Finally, I’d like to address your comment:

    You’ve essentially built definitions such that a gradual progression from non-life to life as it is now characterized is in principle impossible, and therefore forced your conclusion that the origin of life requires teleological input. That is not scientific reasoning.

    Not so, if you read the fine print. My narrow definition of artifact read as follows:

    (ii) a thing whose form is such that it could only have been reliably made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process.

    (I’ve added the word “reliably” to exclude freakish events that might just happen to generate something on a particular occasion, but which cannot be reliably counted on to do so – e.g. a tornado just happening to blow the parts of an artifact together. Obviously, tornadoes are not a reliable way to generate artifacts.)

    Thus I do not exclude the theoretical possibility that a freakish event could bring a living cell into existence. What I do maintain is that such an event could not do so reliably, and that it would be irrational to posit such an event as an explanation of life.

    Later, when discussing whether laws of nature could generate life, I explicitly leave open Professor Behe’s scenario that God set up the universe at the beginning of time with an extremely finely tuned set of initial conditions, so that all He had to do was press “Play,” as it were, and the universe then unfolded naturally, resulting in the first living organism. No miracles are required here, and there might well have been “a gradual progression from non-life to life,” as you suggest. However, there is still a need for Intelligence.

    Finally, I set forth my simple argument for why the laws of nature cannot explain the origin of life:

    Every living thing embodies a recipe. However, the laws of nature are not directed at the creation of recipes. That’s why the laws of nature cannot explain the origin of the first living thing.

    I also add that since chance doesn’t produce meaning, chance cannot create a living thing. I then conclude:

    Only intelligence is reliably capable of generating meaning. Neither laws nor chance will do the trick. Both are too non-specific to generate the specified complexity that characterizes life.

    Intelligence is the only reliable explanation of the origin of the first living thing.

    Living things do indeed require the input of functional complex specified information for their creation. This information is contained in their internal recipe. That’s a teleological point about life. Life is essentially teleological, and there are solid teleological reasons why we should not expect the laws of nature to be capable of generating living cells.

    Nowhere in my post do I categorically rule out the astronomically unlikely theoretical possibility that a freakish series of events could have generated the first living cell. That would be too dogmatic.

    What I insist, however, is that if you’re looking for a reliable mechanism for generating life, there’s only one: intelligence. Only intelligence is capable of creating recipes. Hypothesizing that an unreliable mechanism (e.g. some combination of chance and the laws of nature) produced the recipe for the first living cell is a sign of desperation. And preferring such an unreliable mechanism to the only reliable mechanism for producing life is a sign of irrationality.

  6. tribune7

    Thank you for your comment. I discuss self-repair briefly in the Appendix to Part B of Chapter 1 of my online e-book, at http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....lbapp.html .

    In my e-book, I mentioned an article entitled “The Seven Pillars of Life” by Dr. Daniel E. Koshland, in Science (March 22, 2002), pp. 2215-2216. Concerning self-repair, I wrote:

    The fourth and fifth “pillars of life” listed by Koshland (2002, pp. 2215-2216) are energy (to keep living systems metabolising) and regeneration (including reproduction) to compensate for wear and tear on the system. Since the intrinsic end or “purpose” of these features is to hold back the inexorable march of time, they may be considered as temporal conditions for life – more specifically, as thermodynamic requirements.

    I’d agree with Dr. Koshland that these are necessary conditions for life.

  7. bornagain77

    Thank you for your post.

    I looked at the video you recommended, and I have to say I’m skeptical of the narrator’s contention that the Hebrews did not think of plants as being alive. Instead, I’d be more inclined to say that they didn’t have a word for what we mean by alive, and that they only had a word for “able to move around.”

    Another reason I’d be skeptical of the view that for the Hebrews, plants were not alive is that Jesus and His followers grew up in a Hellenistic milieu, where it was generally believed that plants were indeed alive. How did Greek-speaking Jews straddle the tension between these two thought systems?

    Finally, when Jesus said “I am the vine” (John 15:1), are we to suppose that he thought of vines as inanimate?

  8. vjtorley, fair enough in your foundational premise, yet, though I surely have no theological backing to make a concise defense of my position, I still feel very strongly something rather large has been overlooked in your definition of “living thing” and your fairly strong correlation directly to humans in that definition,,,,

    “I for one am glad that I’m descended from that artifact. It means that God did a good job of making something which gave rise to me. Now who could possibly object to that?”

  9. bornagain77,

    You have a valid point, as regards human beings in particular. My post is mostly about what it means to be a biological organism. Humans are biological organisms, but they are also spiritual beings, who are capable of transcending their biology.

    How does this relate to the definition of life? The first definition of life which I put forward was a finalistic one. Living things are things that have a good of their own. For humans, this good includes knowing and loving God, and eventually seeing Him face to face. No other animal can have a personal relationship with God.

    The second definition I proposed was a formal definition of life, but here I was writing about biological organisms as such. Human beings are biological organisms, but not every act of a human being is a bodily act. Knowing, choosing and loving are non-bodily acts which transcend the biological domain, and they are not governed by any master program. Humans are genuinely free agents.

    Finally, being descended from an artifact designed by God makes me well-designed, but that does not explain my humanity. The form of a human being is immaterial, as some of the soul’s acts are non-bodily acts. Each human soul is created by God at conception.

    I hope this clears things up.

  10. 10

    Dr. Torley

    “No other animal can have a personal relationship with God.”

    There are many faithful Christians who would adamantly disagree with you here. What is the basis for this conviction of yours?

  11. 11

    Artifice is constrained by the material with which and upon which the artificer works. There is ultimately no constraint whatsoever on the Creator of all material and all constraints. It is a category error to treat creation ex nihilo as artifice.

    That the Genesis accounts of creation make God seem to be a human-like artificer is due to the limitations of human language and conceptualization. It is spiritually pernicious to reduce God to our inescapably anthropomorphic terms, i.e., to make God as small as we are. In particular, God is not a programmer.

    Some IDers say that God farmed out the implementation of life to the heavenly host. How would one ever know the constraints under which the angels operate in their putative artifice? It is vacuous to say that an entity is constrained in its operation upon the material world, but that it is not constrained as humans are, and that the constraints are unknowable to humans.

  12. vjtorley,
    Thanks it did clear the Theistic issue up somewhat, though I still don’t buy common descent from scientific evidence alone, which I find to be growing stronger. Plus if I read you right, and please correct me if I’m wrong, it seems to me that, taken to its logical conclusion, you would think it would subtract from the creative glory of God if He were to do more than one creative act in creating humans in this universe? Whereas I would hold that God would have a more direct cause in forming humans, not regulated to some final effect in a “recipe”, in that He calls us His children. Indeed we are instructed to call Him father by Jesus Himself,,,

    Our Father, Who art in heaven
    Hallowed be Thy Name;

    ,,, thus, though I can see the reasonableness of your point, I don’t really think it necessarily follows for a creator who is also immanently personal (caring) to each one of us as well as infinitely powerful to all of us.. Do you see my concern?

  13. Sooner Emeritus #10

    God is not a programmer

    Life eminently implies software (= programs = sets of instructions). The Great Designer had to develop a lot of programs to make living beings. As such He is *also* a programmer. Of course He is not *only* a programmer.

  14. 14

    niwrad,

    In your last article, you argued that God is but does not exist. I would tweak ever so slightly, suggesting that Tillich’s identification of God as the “ground of being” avoids some linguistic traps.

    Here you seem to forget what you previously wrote. There is no programmer without programming [present progressive], i.e., existence.

  15. Sooner Emeritus #14

    God’s programs are transcendent Plato ideas and Pythagorean numbers. In principle and potentially they are inside God and outside existence. Only when God makes them pass from potency to act they run into the existence. Therefore God’s programming doesn’t contradict my previous claim about God’s non-existence.

  16. Just Thinking (#10)

    Thank you for your post. You cited a remark of mine (1) and commented (2):

    (1) “No other animal can have a personal relationship with God.”

    (2) There are many faithful Christians who would adamantly disagree with you here. What is the basis for this conviction of yours?

    We know from the words of Christ that God notices even the fall of a sparrow, so I do not wish to imply that God does not care about animals. What I do mean is that animals (apart from human beings) do not and cannot know God. This is a pretty non-controversial assumption, I would think. Ever seen a cat praying?

    And if that doesn’t convince you, ask yourself this: how would a cat form a concept of God, anyway? God is invisible, the maker of heaven and earth, and transcendent. Difficult concepts for a cat to grasp.

    Mystical knowledge, I hear some suggest? Ever seen a cat meditating? And even a mystic has some concept of the Being whom he/she is praying to. Purely non-conceptual knowledge of God seems utterly incoherent.

    Lastly: if cats can know God, then they are capable of moral good and evil as well – and so are their cousins, lions. Would anyone here care to argue a lion out of killing a gazelle? And how would you do that? What about jail for predators, then? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

    Let’s face it: people are unique.

  17. Sooner Emeritus (#11)

    Thank you for your post. You write:

    Artifice is constrained by the material with which and upon which the artificer works. There is ultimately no constraint whatsoever on the Creator of all material and all constraints. It is a category error to treat creation ex nihilo as artifice.

    I’d say that from a God’s-eye point of view, it makes no practical difference whether He works with pre-existing material or not. As the author of matter and energy, God can manipulate the stuff He works with, any way He likes. Thus the distinction between artifice and creation ex nihilo simply collapses in God’s case: either way, there are no limits.

    Christians believe that Jesus Christ became incarnate from the Virgin Mary. They also believe that Jesus turned water into wine, and turned several dead bodies into living ones. Orthodox Jews believe that Elijah and Elisha raised the dead, that Moses turned rods into snakes, and that He literally took some dust and turned it into a man, and then took the rib (or side) of that man, and turned it into a woman. It doesn’t sound like there were too many “material constraints” in all these cases, does it?

    If you want to look down on these people as simple-minded folk who worship a small God, then that is your prerogative. For my part, I envy them their unshakable faith.

    Calling God a programmer is a big improvement on calling Him a clockmaker, I’d say – especially when the programs He has written in living things are so complex that they baffle the world’s scientists , who uncover layer upon layer of complexity within the genome. Those “gaps” are growing , not shrinking, and it was hubris to think that we’d ever close them all. Now that’s small.

  18. @vjtorley

    “Let’s face it: people are unique.”

    Amen to that brother. Not only I’d say humans are unique, I’d say each individual human is unique.

    Brilliant article btw.

  19. 19

    I have learned to respect your thinking on scholastic vs modern descriptions of reality.

    I am not at all with you on the subjective experiences had by (and knowable only to) other creatures.

    For here and now we may disagree. Can you say what your dissertation on animal cognition covers, and is it online?

    Thanks

    (P S, Part 2 to Dr. Sullivan was very good)

  20. 20

    Vjtorely:

    However, I don’t think that self-replication is the central defining characteristic of life for several reasons.

    It seems to me that the question posed by the origin of life is not “what are the minimal features that define a single living organism,” but rather, “what processes were set in motion with the origination of living organisms generally.” An enumeration of the former, when answered with respect to a single organism, may omit reproduction, but an enumeration of the latter must, I would argue, include self-replication. Therefore, while there certainly are many living organisms that themselves may not or even cannot reproduce (mules, individual instances of sexually reproducing organisms, etc.), all such individual organisms are extensions of historical processes within biology that certainly must have included self-replication. Self-replication is a sine qua non for the historical process the beginning of which we denote as “the origin of life.”

    BTW, I haven’t suggested that self-replication is necessarily “THE central defining characteristic of life,” sufficient alone. Hence your examples of phenomena that self-replicate but are not living are off point. So far as we can tell there is no single central defining characteristic. Rather, most have argued for a collection of properties all of which are necessary – no one alone sufficient – for life. Reproduction, metabolism (also absent from your list), growth, sensitivity to the environmental stimuli, and Darwinian evolvability have all been proposed as candidates for that list.

    Further, it does not follow from the fact that something like a “master control program” or something akin to a recipe are now universal features of life that such was the case at the outset of this process. Obviously, the Darwinian argument is that many of these absent features will have been amenable to emergence through natural selection once self-replication was underway. It would follow that self replication, while not the “central defining characteristic of life,” may be been historically prior to and necessary for the emergence of the other features you enumerate.

    The above are unsettled empirical questions, not issues that can be settled by an armchair enumeration of formal features.

  21. Does God have to be a ‘he’?

  22. Critter, does God have to be a “he”?

    With regard to ID, no.

    One of the great mistakes, however, commonly repeated throughout history by man (a zinger for you) is the attempt to make God in his image rather than recognize that it is we who are made in His image.

    So how do we know what the image of God is? I believe most deeply that it is Jesus who is a “he”.

    So why get upset about a pronoun, unless, of course, you are going to use the pronoun to distort the meaning of something by claiming that Jesus really is not God or that you shouldn’t pray to God as “Our Father”.

    The New Testament, btw, is pretty direct about one’s sex not being important regarding spiritual worth or one’s ultimate fate.

    Paul says in Galatians that in Christ there is neither male nor female.

    The Lord Himself says that at the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage.

  23. vjtorley: “First, we can define a living thing in terms of its unique kind of finality. A living thing is a thing with a good of its own.”

    An interesting definition. So, assume that Star War’s C-3PO was real. He shows many instances of valuing his self-preservation in the series. Staying functional is obviously a Good Thing to him. Would that make him a mechanical robot or would he be alive?

  24. Just Thinking (#19)

    Thank you for your post. Although I don’t think animals are capable of knowing God, either conceptually or mystically, or of controlling their predatory impulses, I do think that some animals are capable of genuine friendship – both with each other and with human beings.

    For this reason, I’m inclined to think there is some sort of after-life for animals who are capable of loving. Which animals? I’d say mammals and birds. (The only other animals that might be sentient are reptiles and cephalopods, such as squid and octopuses.) But I don’t envisage this after-life as akin to the Beatific Vision. Animals can know and love each other, but they are not in the least curious about God.

    About twelve years ago, I came across a book entitled “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Life of Animals” (Delta Books, 1995) by Dr. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It was a fascinating book. Dr. Masson chronicled a wealth of data supporting his contention that animals (especially mammals) possessed rich emotional lives.

    Another book that influenced me greatly while I was working on my thesis was “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions” by Jaak Panksepp, (New York, 1998: Oxford University Press). Panksepp amassed an abundance of data showing that there were seven different kinds of emotional responses in mammals, which were easily distinguishable on neurological grounds.

    I was heartened when The Catechism of the Catholic Church finally acknowledged in 1995 that humans have duties towards animals: “men owe them kindness” (paragraph 2416; see http://www.vatican.va/archive/.....2a7.htm#II ). Paragraph 2418 acknowledges:

    2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.

    So although I don’t think other animals can have a personal relationship with God, I do think that God cares about them in a special way, if they are capable of love and friendship.

    By the way, my dissertation is about animal minds, but it’s more about the simplest kinds of minds there could possibly be – which is why I focus more on animals like worms and insects, rather than mammals. My thesis can be read online at http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....natomy.pdf . I also wrote an e-book a few years ago, which is still online at http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....ndex2.html , but it’s a bit of a curate’s egg – good in parts. Chapter one (on the definition of life) is one of the best parts; chapters two and four relate to animal minds; chapter three has something on animal emotions, but mostly in the context of discussing Panksepp’s work. Chapters five and six are related to ethical matters. I’d probably modify a few of my conclusions if I were writing those chapters now. Anyway, I hope that helps.

  25. Mr. Torley-

    There is also work being done on a potential form of language between elephants as well as whales or dolphins (I forget which, maybe it’s both). What do you think about that work if you’ve heard of it?

  26. warehuff (#23)

    Thank you for your post. You ask:

    So, assume that Star War’s C-3PO was real. He shows many instances of valuing his self-preservation in the series. Staying functional is obviously a Good Thing to him. Would that make him a mechanical robot or would he be alive?

    A very interesting question. My response (from looking at the photo of him in Wikipedia) would be that he isn’t built the right way: there’s too much metal, and he appears to be more of an assemblage than a genuine organism. His body doesn’t show embedded functionality all the way down to the molecular level. The nested hierarchy, if there is one, only goes so far. Also, his master program probably doesn’t enable him to self-replicate or nourish himself. I’m not sure whether his neural architecture has a nested hierarchy of function, either.

    Now if all those obstacles could be overcome and somebody could build a robot with a body, with the requisite formal/finalistic features I listed (master program, nested hierarchy and embedded functionality) then it would certainly be alive. It would also be capable of learning, too, so it would have a mind of sorts. Would it be conscious, in some sense? If you think (as I’m inclined to do) that having qualia is caused by having a sufficiently well-organized brain, then it would. But would it be capable of genuine thinking and choosing? I’d say no. I don’t think these are thins we do with our bodies, as they involve not just behaving in accordance with a rule, but adhering to a norm. Adhering to a norm is not a physical activity. So the robot wouldn’t be rational.

  27. 27

    Thank you sooo much, Dr. Torley!

    You have risen to the apex of my favorite Catholic philosophers simply for being open for at least a modest afterlife for some animals.

    With our shared mammalian limbic (emotions) brain and certain higher cortex lobes, I have always maintained that it is a degree-only difference in our creaturely souls.

    Thanks so much, I will look into your links.

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