We Are Not Alive: Defining Life and Non-Life

Saying, “We are not alive!” might seem not only odd but downright unscientific, but you might be wrong and under the assumption that life can be explained. If you think Life is bound to the Principle of Sufficient Reason in that as Spinoza once affirmed “For every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case.” Then Life is closer to a Principle of Insufficient Reason, instead. In that Life is experiential rather than a fact, a perception rather than knowledge, an affective response to a state of affairs rather than an explanandum.

Now before you dismiss me out of hand. Read this article on Scientific America: Why Life Does Not Really Exist. In it Ferris Jabr will describe his love of life and natural things, but that he recently had an epiphany, saying: “For as long as people have studied life they have struggled to define it. Even today, scientists have no satisfactory or universally accepted definition of life.” Then he proceeds to try to see what others have done to define Life. Read the article yourself, I’m not going to explicate it for you, only that his final conclusion is the absurdity that in the end Life cannot be defined because “it doesn’t exist”.

Ultimately after seeking out a small history of definitions of Life he’ll end with NASA’s basic definition: a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution. He’ll add: “It’s lucid, concise and comprehensive. But does it work?” Already he’ll see a problem in this definition, telling us that NASA’s working definition will banish viruses from the realm of life, and, that we must further exclude all manner of much larger parasites including worms, fungi and plants. So NASA’s definition is not wide enough to include all these other forms and modes of being in existence?

If this is true, then what else has NASA’s definition excluded? He’ll ask if computer programs might have been left out, too. “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.” He’ll cite Robert Pennock  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.”

He’ll offer us a look at how life might have come about, speaking of RNA molecules that reproduce, mutate, and evolve. And, that ribozymes have altered small segments of their genetic code to adapt to fluctuating environmental conditions. Then he’ll ask Joyce that if this is true then does it meet his criteria of Life. Joyce will say,

“They meet the working definition of life,” Joyce says. “It’s self-sustaining Darwinian evolution.” But he hesitates to say that the ribozymes are truly alive. Before he goes all Dr. Frankenstein, he wants to see his creation innovate a completely new behavior, not just modify something it can already do. “I think what’s missing is that it needs to be inventive, needs to come up with new solutions,” he says.

Joyce’s hesitation according to Jabr is not justified. As he tells it if we define life as a “self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution, I cannot see any legitimate reason to deny self-replicating ribozymes or viruses the moniker of life. But I do see a reason to ditch this working definition and all other definitions of life altogether.” If this is so then he comes to the crux of his argument, saying,

Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.

He’ll speak to Joyce on the phone who agrees that life cannot have a definitive definition, that it is more a “linguistic convenience” or working hypothesis than a definitive conclusion to what life is. Jabr will also bring in the work of Carol Cleland, a philosopher at the University of Colorado Boulder who tells him its “premature to reach the conclusion that there is no intrinsic nature to life as it is to define life, and she thinks the best attitude is to treat what are normally taken as the definitive criteria of life as tentative criteria.”

Yet, for Jabr it comes down to the notion there’s no material difference between living things and the inanimate; rather, we will never find some clean dividing line between the two because the notion of life and non-life as distinct categories is just that—a notion, not a reality. Ultimately as he states it:

I think what truly unites the things we say are alive is not any property intrinsic to those things themselves; rather, it is our perception of them, our love of them and—frankly—our hubris and narcissism.


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