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September 6, 2007 10:40 PM   Subscribe

The Meaning of Life. "We create life, we search for it, we manipulate and revere it. Is it possible that we haven't yet defined the term (PDF)?" [Via The Loom.]
posted by homunculus (43 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
A Shadow Biosphere
posted by homunculus at 10:42 PM on September 6, 2007


51 ... inflation, of course
posted by pyramid termite at 10:50 PM on September 6, 2007


Gather a room full of biologists and they will not agree on a common definition for life, for species, or for gene. Maybe not even for sex. For people that can't handle uncertainty, this can be very distressing. Not many such people become biologists. Cause, effect, or both?
posted by Llama-Lime at 10:55 PM on September 6, 2007


Like many such problems, this can be solved by considering the problem as a continuum rather than black and white.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:07 PM on September 6, 2007


To explode of course.
posted by scodger at 11:51 PM on September 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've figured out recently that one of the primary purposes of any group of people who gather around a given topic -- biology, science fiction, art, web communities, pretty much anything* -- is to argue about what exactly the definition of their chosen topic is.

* Well, maybe not bowling.
posted by jiawen at 12:17 AM on September 7, 2007


“I tell you, we are on earth to fart around and don’t let anybody tell you different” - Kurt Vonnegut


I'm sticking with that until I get a more reasonable answer.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:43 AM on September 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


Whoa, I thought the whole "meaning of life" question meant more giving meaning to live than what do we define life as.

More the "why am I here on Earth?" than "what properties does something have to have in order to be alive?" For the first one, science could only describe the physical properties of the universe that gave rise to life and say, "it is because of random chance you came to life." But it couldn't give meaning to a personal life, what you want to do with it, if you should continue it, if you should end it. That's where whatever spiritual/non spiritual motivation for giving purpose to your life comes in.

The latter question could be more answerable by science. Evolution seems to be a pretty good way to define life. But then, are that theoretical early RNA to be considered alive? Even viruses evolve. A continuum sounds good to me. Are computer programs that evolve alive?
posted by Mister Cheese at 12:57 AM on September 7, 2007


In which case, the answer might be "something that dies when you stomp on it." - Dave Barry.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:05 AM on September 7, 2007


The meaning of life is living. I didn't realise it was any more complicated than that?
posted by liquorice at 1:30 AM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I always wonder if it is a valid question, along the lines of 'Why is grass angry?'. Just because we can ask it, doesn't mean that there is an answer. Not that we can't try to do something with our lives, or aim to have a purpose, but meaning?
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 2:23 AM on September 7, 2007


Now that I think about it, the questioning of the meaning of life is probably more important than an actual answer. Holy moly, I think I just had a revelation about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
posted by Mister Cheese at 2:26 AM on September 7, 2007


So, I've only read the first page, and this is a self-serving observation, but I like that they need a philosopher to set them straight.
posted by oddman at 4:48 AM on September 7, 2007


I'm with liquorice. Why does life need a meaning other than existence? I love living a lot more than people around me who tend to think there's some sort of meaning to it all.

Don't worry, be happy.
posted by twistedonion at 5:40 AM on September 7, 2007


I have the answer to the meaning of life. I will share it with you after you convert your possessions to cash and send me all your money. email in profile.
posted by beelzbubba at 5:51 AM on September 7, 2007


I can't really say, but I'm gonna hazard a guess that the answer involves burgers and Hip Hop.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:35 AM on September 7, 2007


See 'Paradise Mislaid' by E. J. Applewhite, an entire book on the subject of the surplus of mutually exclusive definitions of life. It did not read smoothly to me but it did read as comprehensive.
posted by eccnineten at 6:48 AM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


When humans created the big words they had no clue of anything. And now we're struggling to fill ancient concepts with meaning.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 7:49 AM on September 7, 2007


"Life" is a process, not a thing*. It's what happens when organic machinery functions. It's analogous to

* No such thing as a "soul", sorry.

It's kinda cool to kick back and imagine my cat as an organic machine, perhaps an advanced version of the Sony Aibo. She takes in fuel & water when needed, excretes waste, complains when her needs aren't met, etc. Neat little 'bot! Contrast her with, say, my Roomba, which just isn't real good at all that stuff. Then again, the Roomba lacks the autonomy to, oh I dunno, dig through my trash for chicken bones...
posted by LordSludge at 9:25 AM on September 7, 2007


It's analogous to
posted by LordSludge at 9:26 AM on September 7, 2007


We used to do this fundraiser thing for Philosophy Club where we'd answer philosophical questions for donations. The most common one was "What is the meaning of life?"

My answer, "There is no inherent meaning, so if you want your life to mean something, you have to define it" was apparently not what they were looking for.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:52 AM on September 7, 2007


I liked erwin schrodinger's definition in his What is Life? for it's simplicity; life as a thermodynamic process that harnesses order from disorder, an anti-entropy of sorts.

Some have suggested (briefly mentioned in the article) that the question "What is Life?" can be reduced to: What is metabolism? in regards to the cell, organ, oragnism, etc. The hard part is defining life within the continuous deconstruction of context. Presumably, life exists in all these contexts: e.g. I am alive, my organs are alive, cells etc.

I find the mystery in where this conceptual construction of life begins and the inevitable deconstruction of context ends.
posted by kuatto at 10:26 AM on September 7, 2007


It's not "the meaning of life", it's the meaning of the word "life". This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question.

Suppose we find complex systems based on silicon instead of carbon, which seem to be self-sustaining in some way (the take in molecules from the environment and incorporate them for a time, and then excrete/release them). Should we say that such a system is a living thing?

If so, why shouldn't we say that a hurricane or similar non-organic self-sustaining complex system is literally alive?

If not, what's missing? Is it just that we (chauvinistically?) think all life has to be carbon-based? But why think that?
(etc)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:41 AM on September 7, 2007


LordSludge, I would suggest that you consider the underpinnings, the basis, of the functional, "biomechanical", structure of your cat. Life is an inherently metaphysical process, it will defy every logical framework that you construct around it.

Your roomba, on the other hand, when considered from a functional perspective, is the masturbatory fantasy of a 3rd year Electrical Engineering student.
posted by kuatto at 10:45 AM on September 7, 2007


LobsterMitten, Perhaps you're right about a non-organic form of life.



Question: Is an ant colony alive? In other words, is it an organism? Similarly, for bees, or human society etc.
posted by kuatto at 10:48 AM on September 7, 2007


Does it benefit science to abandon these working definitions, these milestones of life? Is it even possible? Can scientists make any progress without them? Will their search toward a theory of life advance more quickly without them?

Cleland, for one, thinks so. By arguing that scientists abandon definitions of life, she doesn't mean that they should throw their hands in the air. "Some scientists view my arguments as leaving them with nothing to constrain their search, but I don't think that's true," says Cleland.


Scientists use definitions because definitions are necessary when studying any system. In order to figure out how a machine works, you need to determine what its parts are and distinguish it from the floor, table, air, and light of your work space. It doesn't help much to say that the machine is a mass of atoms like everything else, true though that may be.

People seem worried about not being able to recognize life if it occurs in an unfamiliar form, but you have to draw your lines somewhere. Maybe we've already found "life" on Mars, but haven't recognized it. But in that case, does it matter? If we're honest with ourselves, we're really looking for life that's in some way like the life we recognize on earth. Fire meets most of the criteria for "life," but we don't count it as life and we're quite fine with that.

The article refers to the idea that life seems to disobey the laws of thermodynamics -- moving from disorder toward order, rather than the reverse. That's an illusion, however, just like the illusion that you, yourself, are really separate from your surroundings. Life doesn't even slow entropy down. If we didn't serve chaos, we wouldn't exist. So we have the answer to the question of why we are here.

The ultimate purpose of life is to facilitate entropy. We are the langoliers of the present reality. Kurt Vonnegut had something there.
posted by zennie at 10:51 AM on September 7, 2007


kuatto: Life is an inherently metaphysical process...

Errrr, huh? If I cut electricity to the Roomba, it stops working. If I cut oxygen to the cat, she stops working. A "living" organism is one that works. A "dead" organism is one that's broken.*

A fundamental difference, of course, is that when I restore electricity to the Roomba, it'll work again. If I restore oxygen to the cat, she won't -- but only because her cells have been damaged by lack of oxygen. (Imagine a Roomba whose circuitry dissolved when deprived of electricity for more than 10 minutes!)

* The distinction between organic vs. inorganic in labeling "alive" vs. "functioning" is fairly arbitrary, IMO.


Maybe we're talking past each other, or maybe I dunno what you mean by "metaphysical" in this context...?
posted by LordSludge at 11:14 AM on September 7, 2007


homunculus asks: Is it possible that we haven't yet defined the term?

Umh, no, that is actually not possible. In fact, it says right there in the very first one of the three links you posted:

In the course of researching his book, Popa started collecting definitions that have appeared in the scientific literature. He eventually lost count. "I've found at least three hundred, maybe four hundred definitions," he says.

So there. We have defined the term. Many hundred times. That we cannot agree on one definition is another problem, but then again, is there anything that we can agree on?
posted by sour cream at 1:10 PM on September 7, 2007


So then its a question of which definition of life is most useful for scientists, then?
posted by Mister Cheese at 1:27 PM on September 7, 2007


Lord Sludge: The functional aspects of the roomba that you admire are an expression of logic. It's true that this logical domain is implemented within the larger physical context, and in that sense is a part of the larger metaphysical process.

However, the functional behavior of a roomba is still just an expression of the specific logical conception. In "conception", "design", and "implementation", the cat is fundamentally linked to a larger context and in that universal sense is light years beyond the roomba.

While the roomba exists formally in logic, I accept it also exists as a physical implementation. I do not deny that electricity, energy, the materials it it composed of, gravitational mass etc, are mystical in some sense. However, the rumba's behavior still emanates from that purely logical domain.

Viewing cats as machines reminds me of the tales of Descarte going about kicking dogs and cats because he liked to here their "components" crunch. He too, viewed animals as machines--they had no souls.

Your cat dies when you deprive it of oxygen. Your roomba does not die when you cut the power. Look at my earlier comments on life as occurring over the greatest number of contextual shifts.
posted by kuatto at 1:48 PM on September 7, 2007


kuatto: Viewing cats as machines reminds me of the tales of Descarte going about kicking dogs and cats because he liked to here their "components" crunch. He too, viewed animals as machines--they had no souls.

What is a "soul", in your estimation?

Your cat dies when you deprive it of oxygen. Your roomba does not die when you cut the power.

They both cease to function. For the cat, it is irreversible because, when deprived from oxygen too long, enzymes in its cells turn them to mush.

(Indeed, if we could suppress this damage, I believe death could be made obsolete.)

But, honestly, if you're talking "souls", "metaphysics", and linkage to the universe (wtf?)..., we're not going to come to any kind of agreement here.
posted by LordSludge at 2:04 PM on September 7, 2007


homunculus asks: Is it possible that we haven't yet defined the term?

Umh, no, that is actually not possible. In fact, it says right there in the very first one of the three links you posted


No shit? Right there in the article I was quoting? Well how about that.
posted by homunculus at 2:09 PM on September 7, 2007


Mr Sludge,

No, I do not think we shall ever agree. I believe that cats and roombas are catagorically different beasts.

And no! The roomba does not die (if you consider it alive); it's logical essence is undisturbed; it hibernates. Death is the end of the organism, from the unknown to the unknown. Note the post about wittgenstein above, "whereof one cannot speak etc..."

Descartes believed animals had no souls, I said nothing about that.
posted by kuatto at 3:16 PM on September 7, 2007


"It's kinda cool to kick back and imagine my cat as an organic machine, perhaps an advanced version of the Sony Aibo. She takes in fuel & water when needed, excretes waste, complains when her needs aren't met, etc."

LordSludge, how do you define organic? Are the intake of water, etc. merely arbitrary examples or limits?
posted by oddman at 6:04 PM on September 7, 2007


The ultimate purpose of life is to facilitate entropy.

Perhaps life is ultimately about solving the puzzle of the universe's seemingly inevitable heat death, keeping the game going.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:15 AM on September 8, 2007


Fantastic article, homunculus. Thanks for the link.

I'm rather of the theory that life and death are just human constructs, so of course, we're all going to define them differently.

We "die" (by our definition), but energy processes continue to occur with our bodies, at least until the material has decomposed into another form of "life."

Can the universe "die"? Are we all not one giant organism that's existed ever since the big bang? That freaks me out a lot more than life or death....
posted by mrgrimm at 11:32 AM on September 8, 2007


oddman: [H]ow do you define organic?

Ummm, made of meat? Okay.. "carbon-based" (vs. silicon-based) is prolly a bit more precise.

Are the intake of water, etc. merely arbitrary examples or limits?

Yeah, just examples of "stuff my cat does" and "stuff it needs to function".

mrgrimm: I'm rather of the theory that life and death are just human constructs, so of course, we're all going to define them differently.

Agreed. Kinda like "consciousness", "sentience", "love", etc.

Can the universe "die"?

By my definition, which equates "death" to "ceasing to function", I don't think so. That would require a universally uniform distribution of energy. No energy potential difference = nothing happens (time stops!) = universe "ceases to function". I mean, maybe theorically possible, but when's that ever gonna happen?

Are we all not one giant organism that's existed ever since the big bang?

If you define "organism" that way... um... sure. Likewise wrt an ant colony, a city, teh planet Gaia, etc.

kuatto: A thought experiment: What if someday we make a robot out of meatware. It has muscles, blood, a heart/pump, a grey-matter neural network, "lungs" to extract oxygen from the air, the ability to communicate needs, pain, aggression, etc. Oh, and if you deprive it of oxygen, whether by draining its blood, blocking the air intake, or whatever, it not only ceases to function, but it enzymatically dissolves itself on a cellular level.

Now... Is that "alive"? Why or why not?

It might help if you smoke a little weed.
posted by LordSludge at 12:12 PM on September 8, 2007


So let's see what's what.

1) But there's no good reason to restrict life to carbon based systems.

2) Consciousness and sentience are certainly not human constructs, as that phrase is normally applied. For one thing consciousness and sentience are two of the things that give rise to human constructs (assuming you believe anything is a human or social construct, surely we must be conscious before we can create).
posted by oddman at 2:15 PM on September 8, 2007


oddman: So let's see what's what.

Sure, it's interesting to see the different perspectives we have.

1) But there's no good reason to restrict life to carbon based systems.

I agree. Take an (carbon-based) organism, and make the same exact thing out of silicon/aluminum/etc., and it's a "robot". "Life" is just meatware that functions.

2) Consciousness and sentience are certainly not human constructs, as that phrase is normally applied. For one thing consciousness and sentience are two of the things that give rise to human constructs...

I disagree -- they're absolutely human constructs, and about as difficult to define as "life" or "intelligence", but interestingly we all sorta know what we mean by "consciousness" and "sentience".

But I have a weird perspective on this. I believe animals are both conscious and sentient, just not as intelligent as humans. And, more to the point, they can't communicate their thoughts.

"I think, therefore I am" is bullshit. Okay, not so much "bullshit", as "useless". Great, so if my cat thinks, then she's conscious. But how in the hell can you tell if my cat thinks, unless she can tell me she thinks.

I mean, if my cat could literally walk up and say, "I want some food. Give me something to eat; I'm really hungry." instead of "meow! meooow..!", wouldn't you say she's conscious? Sentient?

For that matter, if another human cannot communicate with you in any way, shape, or form... I mean not even with body language... we're talking a vegetative state.... Would you say that the person is conscious? Sentient? I mean, he could have the Grand Unified Theory totally nailed, but if he can't tell anybody... who would know? He's a vegetable.

I prefer, "I communicate, therefore I am."

Remember Koko the gorilla? (She has her own website, btw, heh..) Remember how people were freaking out as she related, via sign language, stories about her past... like "OMG it can think!!!" Well yeah -- she has a pretty decent brain; why is anyone surprised? Because she could never communicate until she learned GSL*.

I think gorillas are sentient, cats are sentient, even bugs are sentient. They're just really dumb. And they can't communicate worth a damn.

(assuming you believe anything is a human or social construct, surely we must be conscious before we can create)

Disagree. Computers create. Robots create. Glaciers create (rivers). Clouds create (rain).

* GSL = Gorilla Sign Language (I can has CSL?)
posted by LordSludge at 9:29 PM on September 8, 2007


OK Mr Sludge, I must concede the point; the distinction between your "constructed" life form and it's natural counterpart with regards to the question of a life essence is ambiguous at best. In fact you may be right (in your own way).

Let us put aside, for the moment, the question of how to construct a neural net, a cohesive physiological system etc. (the reflexive idea of a neural net understanding another neural net promotes intellectual paralysis at best).

At the root of this discussion we're having is what some have termed a problem of induction; which is to say: How can we show that a thing is separate from it's cause. More generally, how can we show that a thing is seperate from anything else.

The reason, I think, is because we are arguing over definition.

We are discussing what this "thing" is and what "that" thing is and if they are the same or not.

Here is the problem with induction: It's an illusion of sorts; there is no separation of the thing you're considering and it's context.

Consider a empty space. Then consider a thing in empty space. But how can you consider a thing in no-space? So context is essential.

The reason that you recognize anything at all is because you have, by a cognitive process, separated this thing from its context. The separation is a manifestation of the scale and proportion of your senses and cognition. The reason that we can even have this conversation is because, evolutionarily, the cognitive space our minds inhabit overlaps.

When I see a cat or Roomba, I see a 'thing'. I think you do too. This is the overlap.

I will make this assertion:
I am categorically separating the cat and the Roomba. I am asserting that they are completely different things.

Here is why:

I believe that sentience, knowledge, knowing, in fact anything human, is a reflection of evolution. In that sense, our ability to acquire knowledge, to express and construct meaning, to build things, occupies a finite region of a vast, maybe infinite, space of possiblity.

But, as I mentioned above, when we both see a cat (or Roomba) we see a 'thing'. So, as a species that region in cognition-space is mostly shared across individuals (mostly!).

When we build a tool, it fits our hands. Likewise, our thoughts fit the structure of our minds.

Back to the question, I have constructed two catagories. One for things that are alive, one for things that are not.

In the "not-alive" catagory, I have placed the Roomba because it was constructed by humans. In the alive catagory, I have placed your cat, because it was constructed by a process of evolution.

The reason I have placed the Roomba into the "not-alive" catagory is because, as a human creation, it is constructed in a top-down fashion. The problem is defined, the logic is derived and formalized, the design emerges as a reflection of the logic, and the Roomba is manufactured. Every step of that creative process is fraught with difficulties. To summarize these difficulties:

Logic (and reason to a lesser extent) exist beyond any 'real' context. It's the simplifying assumptions in the Roomba design that explicitly deny, for instance, the existence of the Sun or the Moon or the Universe. Now, I think that is ridiculous. The logic is tuned, and fiddled with, but there is no deep connection within the logic to that which guides everything. Of course, in 'reality', if the roomba were to be struck by lighting, it would burn; but it knows nothing of lighting (can you say the same of a cat?).

Of course it could be said that we, as humans, are guided by evolution, guided by the sun and the moon etc, and thus guide the roomba. Except for this: The cognitive space which our minds inhabit is small compared to the infinite possibility presented by the universe. So are we shocked when our logical conceptions fail to live up to what the universe has to offer? Not really, humans are so lost in ourselves that what we can conceive of is routinely marveled at.
Do not be concerned that our very minds are composed of a fabric that's far more spectacular then what we can conceive. Well perhaps that's OK anyways; we are just human after all. A Roomba is a pathetic example of first-order approximation in an infinite order universe.

Our ability to conceive thought is an artifact of evolution. Logic always fails at some point.

But, back to the argument. A cat is a perfect reflection of a billion years of process, it's a singular entity that is harnessed upon an unfathomable universe. There is more complexity and "intelligence" in a single cell of a cat than in all the humanity's logical conceptions (IMHO).

That's why I put the cat in the "alive" bin.
posted by kuatto at 11:26 PM on September 8, 2007


Mr Sludge,

At what point does a cloud form a drop of rain?

At what point does ice become water, then become a torrent, then become a sea?

Does a rock have consciousness?

respectfully,
posted by kuatto at 11:30 PM on September 8, 2007


After reading, I am going to modify my above assertion about the space of human cognition.

It's my current opinion that human cognition exists in a region of a cognition-space that is infinite in size and uncountable dense in character.

The capability for human expression has no limit within the scope of a human's cognitive faculties.

Regards,
posted by kuatto at 11:52 PM on September 8, 2007


In common usage sentience and consciousness are synonyms, but for this discussion it would be best to separate them. When I use sentience I just mean having sensory impressions. When I use conscious I mean having ideas beyond sensations, something like volitions, intentions, beliefs, etc.

So, my cat is clearly sentient. It might be conscious, I can't say with certainty. Higher order primates and dolphins are very likely to be conscious. I certainly do think that they communicate with us. (The problem is knowing whether the communication is purely instinctive or intentional. That is do animals like dogs know what they are doing when they wag their tail.)

Another terminology problem. Computers do not create, so far as I know, in anything like the way humans create. Computers cannot go beyond their programing to make something completely unexpected and unprecedented, humans can and have. Let's agree to restrict using create to mean an intentional act, and use cause for things like glaciers and rivers. Volcanoes cause dust clouds, humans create seismic sensors. (It's a bit awkward I know, but it's useful to be precise.)

The question is, do you have any non-question begging reason for assimilating the results of a weather patterns and the actions of free-will agents? (I suspect that you'll deny the free-willed part, arguing that we're nothing but computers.)
posted by oddman at 4:39 AM on September 9, 2007


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