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Defining Life is Worldview Dependent...Duh! And It's Useful!
in the news: Yesterday's New York Times carried the op-ed piece "Why Nothing Is Truly Alive" by Ferris Jabr. After providing many examples--involving crystals that seemingly reproduce, tiny viruses that evolve but can't reproduce without latching on to cells' machinery, much tinier pieces of RNA that can reproduce and evolve, very big fungi and worms that like viruses are dependent on others to reproduce, brine shrimp that are long dormant and seemingly dead, trees, etc--he concludes, "We have insisted that all matter naturally segregates into two categories ó life and nonlife ó and have searched in vain for the dividing line. Itís not there." He feels that, "Life is a concept, not a reality. "
commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org): Based on the examples he cites, I can imagine Jabr has some training in science and embraces (or once embraced) Scientific Materialism (worldview theme #5A). Such folks, who think of life in terms of physical and chemical processes, have argued since the mid 19th century that there there is no evidence to support using the possession of a divine spirit to distinguish living and non-living. Certainly those in the Vitalism (theme #5B) camp, shamans--see Magic (theme #7B), those believing in Reincarnation (theme #14B) and others would disagree and cite a host of weird / paranormal phenomena (ghosts, healing by touch, stories of the clinically dead who returned to life, etc.) to bolster their contention that spirit is everywhere!
I find it interesting that Jabr's position in what could be seen as simply another aspect of the long-time materialists vs. vitalists battle, might find supporters from the New Age camp. I'm specifically thinking of those who value Mysticism (theme #7A). These folks feel that ultimately "Reality is One" and the matter/spirit distinction is not needed. From this perspective it is easy to see the living / non-living distinction as artificial and not needed. Certainly using labels in conceiving of the world as full of separate objects seriously gets in the way of the feeling of oneness at the heart of mystical experience! (Eckert Tolle in books like The Power of Now teaches this!)
Some would argue that in the practical matter of living one's life day to day it doesn't really matter how one conceives of life--whether from the viewpoint of scientific materialist, vitalist, mystic, etc. I would strongly disagree! Certainly it matters to a doctor, giving women a choice as he facilitates their terminating an unwanted pregnancy, who fears his own life could be ended by some fanatical anti-abortion activist who believes life begins at the moment of conception and that abortion is murder. (Many of these people are vitalists who supposedly embrace the Sanctity and Dignity of Life (theme #44A))
Seems that Jabr is also saying what scientist turned author (Jurassic Park, etc.) turned New Ager Michael Crichton said wonderfully in many pages of his 1988 autobiographical book Travels: that accurately describing anything above a certain degree of complexity is impossible because contradictions to statements used in the description can typically be found. (Crichton used the example of trying to describe a friend named "George."). Jabr writes, "We find it useful to think of some things as alive and others as inanimate, but this division exists only in our heads."
"It's useful!" This gets at the heart of why thousands of concepts and mental models live in our brains in links between neurons: they help us understand the world in a way that enables us to make successful predictions. Put another way: our entire conception of how the world works--that is our worldview--is what we use to base predictions about the future on. Clearly that is important! But to be able to do it requires conceptualizing, discriminating, putting things into categories each described in a certain way, etc. Certainly the vast conceptual framework behind the definition of life obviously these days has great practical value in terms of medicine, biotechnology, genetic engineering, etc. So I am uncomfortable when Jabr writes, "Not only is defining life futile, but it is also unnecessary to understanding how living things work." I'll end by replying, "Some things may be futile but they are necessary if other not so futile possibilities are to be realized."
Additional Comments: Updated 4/17/2014: Those in black font were contributed by EW; those in green by LS; those in red by SPC
1) Jabr doesn't argue that it doesn't matter how one "conceives" of life. Rather he points out that labeling and defining things as "life" or "not life" is simply not possible. Isn't it truly amazing that as science uncovers more about the natural world, the lines between "life" and "non-life" get blurry and, he argues, actually disappear. It turns out that labels, definitions and categories may actually hamper, rather than help, the development of our understanding of how the world works. Jabr wants us to understand the world, and argues that how we conceive of/understand life will be advanced if we first stop trying (futilely) to label things, and accept that there is a continuum rather than a bunch of separate categories.
I pretty much agree with this! Where you and I may disagree is in the utility of labeling and defining things. I'm saying it makes good communication possible--as in the common sense notion that before two people can discuss complicated things they at least should agree on the basics (simple definitions) of what it is they are talking about! Now, imagine if you will comments from a narrow-minded vitalist type anti-abortion activist joining our discussion. I suspect it wouldn't last long because such a person would have a black and white view of life. They might say something like, "This is alive because God breathed life into it and it is full of the holy spirit. The spirit leaves at death"
[Re: back to original article] I would think this would be a unifying idea that would inform all world views, foster discussion, and spur them to "evolve" as you say they do. Could this, indeed, portend the blurring of lines between world views and perhaps the evolution towards a single unified world view? I know that is a long way off and perhaps unattainable, but it's sure worth working towards.
I pretty much share this hope of yours--especially the idea that lines between worldviews become blurred, but given all kinds of factors (cultural, socioeconomic, religious, political, genetic, etc) doubt it will ever happen. As far as converging on a single unified worldview I would hope that the best possible description of reality (based on all of the learning that our senses, their technological extensions, and our preserving that learning in our genes and culture) would be arrived at--one that facilitates the best possible long-range outcomes (i.e. makes good predictions). Again, I doubt this will ever happen--and in a way I'm not sure I want it to: certainly it would rob the world of lots of interesting diversity (kind of like McDonalds replacing local traditional cuisine!)
[Re: back to original article]Stephen, I agree with you; well said. It's not that life either is a "real" category or is "just a concept"; human understanding of what life is naturally emerges from the kind of life we are!
Good point! Given our sensory system, neural connections/brain makeup, DNA/genetic code, etc we are obviously prejudiced in how we conceive of life and what's alive!
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