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No definition of life works. So life doesn’t really exist.

Life doesn’t really exist? In a thought-provoking piece in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr mulls over the fact that we don’t really have a definition of life that works well in all cases, and ends up concluding that life is just a continuum from non-life and doesn’t really exist as a separate catgory:

If we could somehow see the underlying reality of our planet—to comprehend its structure on every scale simultaneously, from the microscopic to the macroscopic—we would see the world in innumerable grains of sand, a giant quivering sphere of atoms. Just as one can mold thousands of practically identical grains of sand on a beach into castles, mermaids or whatever one can imagine, the innumerable atoms that make up everything on the planet continually congregate and disassemble themselves, creating a ceaselessly shifting kaleidoscope of matter. Some of those flocks of particles would be what we have named mountains, oceans and clouds; others trees, fish and birds. Some would be relatively inert; others would be changing at inconceivable speed in bafflingly complex ways. Some would be roller coasters and others cats.

An alternative possibility is that we need to bring information into the picture to understand life, but for understandable reasons, the Scientific American maven would not want to go there (it raises issues around probability and design and stuff).

One thing he reports that is quite interesting is how NASA ended up with a definition of life: a self-sustaining system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution. It seems obviously wrong at the outset because Darwinian evolution was a theory developed to explain how life forms change over time. It would be, if correct, a characteristic of life, not its defining quality. Well, it seems,

In the early 1990s, Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute was a member of an advisory panel to John Rummel, manager of NASA’s exobiology program at the time. During discussions about how best to find life on other worlds, Joyce and his fellow panelists came up with a widely cited working definition of life: a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution. It’s lucid, concise and comprehensive. But does it work?

By this definition, Joyce says, viruses are not life forms. Despite pandoravirus, which is shaking the tree of life. Besides which, …

Defining life as a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution also forces us to admit that certain computer programs are alive. Genetic algorithms, for instance, imitate natural selection to arrive at the optimal solution to a problem: they are bit arrays that code traits, evolve, compete with one another to reproduce and even exchange information. Similarly, software platforms like Avida create “digital organisms” that “are made up of digital bits that can mutate in much the same way DNA mutates.” In other words they, too, evolve. “Avida is not a simulation of evolution; it is an instance of it,” Robert Pennock of Michigan State University told Carl Zimmer in Discover. “All the core parts of the Darwinian process are there. These things replicate, they mutate, they are competing with one another. The very process of natural selection is happening there. If that’s central to the definition of life, then these things count.”

Okay, so how did NASA end up with this bucket of cement of a definition?:

The working definition was really just a linguistic convenience. “We were trying to help NASA find extraterrestrial life,” he says. “We couldn’t use the word ‘life’ in every paragraph and not define it.”

Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy won. ;)

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5 Responses to No definition of life works. So life doesn’t really exist.

  1. Myself, I like the theological definition of life:

    John 1:4
    In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

    John 10:10
    The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.

    or as one theologian put it:

    “Only the life of God is life, and other lives are not counted as life, because only the life of God is divine and eternal.”

    Surprisingly, we can now even make a scientific argument, to back up the theological argument, that all life ultimately comes from God:

    In what I find to be a very fascinating discovery, it is found that photosynthetic life, which is an absolutely vital link that all higher life on earth is dependent on for food, uses ‘non-local’ quantum mechanical principles to accomplish photosynthesis. Moreover, this is direct evidence that a non-local, beyond space-time mass-energy, cause must be responsible for ‘feeding’ all life on earth, since all higher life on earth is eventually completely dependent on this non-local ‘photosynthetic energy’ in which to live their lives on this earth: At the 21:00 minute mark of the following video, Dr Suarez explains why photosynthesis needs a ‘non-local’, beyond space and time, cause to explain its effect:

    Nonlocality of Photosynthesis – Antoine Suarez – video – 2012

    Plants ‘seen doing quantum physics’ – By Jason Palmer – 21 June 2013
    Excerpt: “What you see here is this photon comes in, and it sees many energy pathways,” explained Prof van Hulst. “Where does it go? It goes to the one that’s most efficient, the one where this quantum effect tells you it has the highest probability (of being put to use),” he told BBC News.
    But the soft, flexible, warm conditions at room temperature mean that, as things move and jiggle – as life tends to do – that most efficient path can change. Remarkably, so did the evident path along the rings. ,,,- “this for me is something shocking,” Prof van Hulst continued.

    Light and Quantum Entanglement Reflect Some Characteristics Of God – video

    And although, at least in my book, the preceding is some pretty impressive evidence that all life comes from, and is dependent on, God, we can even, due to advances in science, make an even stronger case that all life is directly dependent on God:

    Quantum Information/Entanglement In DNA – Elisabeth Rieper – short video

    Quantum entanglement between the electron clouds of nucleic acids in DNA – Elisabeth Rieper, Janet Anders and Vlatko Vedral – February 2011

    Physicists Discover Quantum Law of Protein Folding – February 22, 2011
    Quantum mechanics finally explains why protein folding depends on temperature in such a strange way.
    Excerpt: First, a little background on protein folding. Proteins are long chains of amino acids that become biologically active only when they fold into specific, highly complex shapes. The puzzle is how proteins do this so quickly when they have so many possible configurations to choose from.
    To put this in perspective, a relatively small protein of only 100 amino acids can take some 10^100 different configurations. If it tried these shapes at the rate of 100 billion a second, it would take longer than the age of the universe to find the correct one. Just how these molecules do the job in nanoseconds, nobody knows.,,,
    Their astonishing result is that this quantum transition model fits the folding curves of 15 different proteins and even explains the difference in folding and unfolding rates of the same proteins.
    That’s a significant breakthrough. Luo and Lo’s equations amount to the first universal laws of protein folding. That’s the equivalent in biology to something like the thermodynamic laws in physics.

    Looking Beyond Space and Time to Cope With Quantum Theory – (Oct. 28, 2012)
    Excerpt: The remaining option is to accept that (quantum) influences must be infinitely fast,,,
    “Our result gives weight to the idea that quantum correlations somehow arise from outside spacetime, in the sense that no story in space and time can describe them,” says Nicolas Gisin, Professor at the University of Geneva, Switzerland,,,

    Quantum Entanglement and Information
    Quantum entanglement is a physical resource, like energy, associated with the peculiar nonclassical correlations that are possible between separated quantum systems. Entanglement can be measured, transformed, and purified. A pair of quantum systems in an entangled state can be used as a quantum information channel to perform computational and cryptographic tasks that are impossible for classical systems. The general study of the information-processing capabilities of quantum systems is the subject of quantum information theory.

    Does Quantum Biology Support A Quantum Soul? – Stuart Hameroff – video (notes in description)

  2. Darwinism is incompatible with materialism.

    No materialistic definition of life works, so Darwinism is incompatible with materialism. Darwin used ‘life’, ‘organisms’ and ‘beings’ as building blocks for his theory while no definition – compatible with materialism – was available. For a true materialist this is unacceptable.

    One and a half centuries since the first publication of “The Origin Of Species” and still there is no materialistic definition of life. At best Darwinism is compatible with holism – which has no problem with ‘life’, ‘organisms’ and ‘beings’.

    Suppose that ghosts sightings is a widespread and undeniable phenomenon and that all sorts of weird shapes and forms are being observed. How can any theory, which attempts to explain the various ghostly shapes and forms without a materialistic definition for ghosts, be compatible with materialism?

    Note that it is the wholeness of life, organisms and beings that renders it incompatible with any materialistic explanation : self-sustaining, self-organization …. What the heck is this self from a materialistic perspective?

  3. If life is too subtle to obtain any kind of intellectual purchase on it, conceptually kill it, reduce it to inanimate form. The inanimate life of rocks and other coarse conformations of matter is easier to study then. Isn’t that right, naturalists?

  4. OT: Dr. Eben Alexander Says It’s Time for Brain Science to Graduate From Kindergarten – 10/24/2013
    Excerpt: As long as scientists hold onto that simplistic (materialistic) thinking they are going to be mired down to never, ever explain consciousness or the enigmas of quantum mechanics. But there are a lot of scientists out there who do get it,,,
    The pure scientific materialist model that I worshiped for so many years has absolutely nothing to offer up in terms of explaining how consciousness might emerge from the physical brain.,,, consciousness is a far deeper, more profound mystery than “kindergarten level” scientific materialism offers up.
    Now that’s why I include in my book the hard problem of consciousness and the enigma of quantum mechanics.,,,
    It’s time for brain science, mind science, physics, cosmology, to move from kindergarten up into first grade and realize we will never truly understand consciousness with that simplistic materialist mindset.
    Of note: Dr. Alexander is working on a new book he says will unpack the science behind his recently adopted theories on brain, consciousness, and spirituality.

  5. Axel: If life is too subtle to obtain any kind of intellectual purchase on it, conceptually kill it, reduce it to inanimate form. The inanimate life of rocks and other coarse conformations of matter is easier to study then.

    In fact that is exactly what naturalists are allowed to do. What they are not allowed to do is using terms like ‘life’, ‘organisms’ and ‘beings’ as building blocks of a theory and claim that such a theory is compatible with materialism.
    There are some variables in the evolutionary algorithm that should not have been allowed in.

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