• TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    Whenever we discuss the meaning of words, I do not think we are trying to figure out the objective meaning of those words. After all, words do not seem to have objective meaning. Rather, words are tools that we use to draw significance to certain phenomena and associations. A misuse of language is more similar to a misuse of a hammer than a logical error or an inaccurate observation. Because of this, it seems that what we should consider a living thing is not a question that could be answered through scientific experiments or logical deductions. It is a question of value. When we call something a living thing, we are putting it into a category above all other types of things.

    Biologists define living things as organisms and emphasize their ability to maintain homeostasis and replicate its genetic information. But, are those things actually important? Should we really think of living things as just a collection of cells which replicate themselves? I think of life as the process of being alive and as a state of animation. I do not understand why we consider trees and fungi to be alive. They appear to have no mental activity or display any interesting or complex behavior. On the other hand, I do not understand why we don’t consider certain AI Programs to be living things. Some AI Programs are capable of complex information processing, sensory detection, learning, understanding of spoken language, and list goes on. When I think about the key characteristics of life, I do not think about the stuff about organic matter that I learned in Biology class, I think about the animation of the mind and body present in animals and certain machinery. I think about the ability to experience pain and joy, and the ability to perform a variety of fascinating activities. Of course, I do not think that we should stop studying non-living organisms or over-study living non-organisms but simply stop making the assumption that only organisms are alive and that every organism is alive. I think such conception of life is often forcing us to ignore what exactly is significant about life.

    Imagine that scientists discover 2 planets. The 1st planet contains rich vegetation and some bacteria but for some reason has no animals and cannot possibly support complex animals. The 2nd planet is a barren Mars-like planet with interesting robot beings which do not require oxygen or water. These robot beings are capable of complex behavior patterns and may even be conscious(depending on whether you believe that this is physically possible). While the 1st planet contains organisms, it does not seem to be alive. It’s hard to see why this planet is any more important than any other planet(aside from the potential of colonizing this planet). Why are trees more interesting than rocks? The 2nd planet, on the other hand, seems pretty important and alive. There is an interesting animation of the inhabitants of this planet despite the fact that the inhabitants are not made of organic materials. It does not seem that state of being alive can only come about from organic compounds. Rather, there are probably countless of possible configurations of matter which could potentially produce life. It seems simply biased and short-sighted to assume that only organisms should be associated with the process of life. Although, one might accuse me of bias and shortsightedness for excluding non-animal organisms as life. But, it’s hard to know what is exactly so special about those organisms that makes them worthy of being called life. It might be argued that the ability to reproduce should be a classification for life as well. I would dispute this claim because a rock that can replicate doesn’t seem nearly as alive as an infertile animal or an AI Program that does not replicate. So, what are your thoughts on this? Should plants be considered life? Should AI Programs be considered alive?
  • fresco
    280
    I agree with your analysis which places 'value' of the concept of 'alive' at the centre of the debate.
    And since that 'value' tends to be negotiable, it boils down to questions like 'how do we differently deal with 'living' versus 'non living' entities. (The Startrek series has played on that dilemma via their android character Data). The fact that general views of 'life' range from 'abiogenetic mechanist' to 'the spiritually sacrosanct' is the subtext to those negotiations.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    View it from an evolutionary perspective. Life presumably evolved from simple to complex. It began as single-celled organisms and then into complex multicellular life. This is the accepted model in evolutionary theory.

    So, even though complex life like humans is drastically different from a bacteria, closer inspection reveals that our bodies are a collection of these unicellular organisms. This connection between a single cell and a complex life form is one of necessity by which I mean: no single cell no human possible. We share this connection with ALL life, plants too, and it seems like wilful ignorance to think plants aren't alive.
  • TheGreatArcanum
    186
    that which creates change within itself or the world by means of its own volition. one cannot be alive and be without will; now there is a difference between a being that is aware that it is willing and a being which does not, a being can only have a subjectivity of its own if it is the active agent of its will and not the passive watcher of its own instinctual will. there are different levels of being alive, but the base level involves willing and subjectivity.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147

    Well, it’s true that there is a connection between the presence of organic matter and the possibility of life but it’s not clear to me why we should start on a cellular level. Some scientists think that viruses should be considered life despite the fact that it’s less complex than a cell. What about amino acids? You can’t create cells without animo acids. Does this mean amino acids should be considered life as well? We can go further back than that. Without the molecules of water, carbon, and phosphorus we couldn’t create amino acids which means we can’t create cells which means we can’t create humans. Why not say that a water molecule is a simple life form? You would need to show that the beginning of evolution started with unicellular organisms rather than viruses or primordial soup. Of course, we could also say that the elements necessary for primordial soup formation is the first form of life by this logic as well. Now, I actually think it makes sense to say that being alive falls on a spectrum perhaps. For example, I imagine that a human is more alive than a typical robot not because it is made of organic material but rather because it displays more complex and animated behavior and we have more reason to think that humans are usually conscious. I also think that we should entertain a possibility of life that was designed rather than evolved. I think that we have created new life forms by the invention of machinery and software that seems more animated and more likely to have mental activity than a tree. I think there has to be something said about that.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    there are different levels of being alive, but the base level involves willing and subjectivity.TheGreatArcanum

    I don’t know if I agree with that. It depends on what you mean by willing. Suppose that I lost all my limbs and received severe brain damage from a terrible car accident. I lack the ability to move in any way and I have lost my personality and memories. I also lost the ability to control my mental activity and seem to no longer be self aware. But I’m still the container of experience which has to endure the suffering involved in my state of being(I understand that this might not be physically possible though). Would I still be alive? My intuition seems to be that so long as I can enjoy positive experiences or have to endure negative experiences, then I would still be alive even if I seem to lack agency. On the other hand, perhaps AI Programs which appear to lack mental activity could be considered alive because of their appearance of agency(this is mainly because we could never know if our current AI Programs truly lack mental activity).
  • Terrapin Station
    10.4k
    I agree with you that meaning isn't objective, but "importance," "what's interesting," and "what makes x so special" certainly aren't objective.

    The conventional categorization of life stems from a concern with what makes the ontological difference that evolutionarily leads to us, and a concern with how those sorts of processes get started.

    Re AI, you seem to be attributing mentality to something where it's not clear that mentality obtains.

    "Organism" is simply conventionally defined as referring to living things. It could be defined differently, of course, but that's why "organisms" are considered living.

    If we were to find robots on a planet, the first question most scientists would have is "How did they get there/where did they come from" because as far as we know something like humans are required to at least initially make them. They don't develop on their own.
  • Wayfarer
    7.7k
    'how do we differently deal with 'living' versus 'non living' entitiesfresco

    If you physically damaged a computer, do you think it would be owed an apology?
  • Mww
    775


    If you enjoy positive experiences and endure negative experiences, mustn’t you have active rational agency, insofar as your faculty of judgement appears to be fully functional?

    Maybe it’s no more complicated than..... if you’re not dead, then you’re alive.
  • Wayfarer
    7.7k
    The 2nd planet is a barren Mars-like planet with interesting robot beings which do not require oxygen or wateTheHedoMinimalist

    Built by whom, is the obvious question. And, it’s question begging to refer to robots as ‘beings’.

    On that note, why are we called ‘beings’? What other entities are called ‘beings’? Is ‘being’ a verb or is it a noun? (Actually I suppose it’s a gerund, which is interesting in its own right!)
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    Why not say that a water molecule is a simple life form?TheHedoMinimalist

    Because water doesn't fit the definition of life. It (water) doesn't nourish itself, neither does it reproduce, etc.

    Of course you could ask for the definition of life to be expanded to include water but you'd need to give good reasons for it. Likewise for amino acids; they don't reproduce or respond to the environment in any life-like manner.
  • Harry Hindu
    2.1k
    Whenever we discuss the meaning of words, I do not think we are trying to figure out the objective meaning of those words. After all, words do not seem to have objective meaning.TheHedoMinimalist
    If words didn't have some degree of objectivity then we would always be talking past each other. We would never communicate at all. How could we lie to each other if the meaning of my words in my mind didn't mean the same thing in your mind? We would create our own arbitrary categories of our individual perceptions and never be able to communicate them to others. How would you expect me to understand the scribbles you put up on a screen if we didn't have some shared understanding of what those scribbles mean? Who would you be "talking to"? It seems that we would all be only talking ourselves. So, why didn't you just say your post to yourself in your mind? Why did you type it out and submit it on a philosophy forum? Isn't it because you wanted to share your idea with others who have a shared understanding of the meaning of the scribbles that you put on the screen? The scribbles mean your ideas and your intent to communicate them.


    Rather, words are tools that we use to draw significance to certain phenomena and associations.TheHedoMinimalist
    I would use the term, "attention" instead of "significance".


    A misuse of language is more similar to a misuse of a hammer than a logical error or an inaccurate observation.TheHedoMinimalist
    A misuse of language is a logical error in the sense that terms do have an agreed on, or shared, meaning. Someone misuses a term when they take an existing term with an agreed-upon meaning and use it in a different way without a coherent definition of how they are using it. The term is either incompatible with the other ways they use language (they are inconsistent) or the way we understand the world (our observations).


    Because of this, it seems that what we should consider a living thing is not a question that could be answered through scientific experiments or logical deductions. It is a question of value. When we call something a living thing, we are putting it into a category above all other types of things.

    Biologists define living things as organisms and emphasize their ability to maintain homeostasis and replicate its genetic information. But, are those things actually important? Should we really think of living things as just a collection of cells which replicate themselves? I think of life as the process of being alive and as a state of animation. I do not understand why we consider trees and fungi to be alive. They appear to have no mental activity or display any interesting or complex behavior. On the other hand, I do not understand why we don’t consider certain AI Programs to be living things. Some AI Programs are capable of complex information processing, sensory detection, learning, understanding of spoken language, and list goes on. When I think about the key characteristics of life, I do not think about the stuff about organic matter that I learned in Biology class, I think about the animation of the mind and body present in animals and certain machinery. I think about the ability to experience pain and joy, and the ability to perform a variety of fascinating activities. Of course, I do not think that we should stop studying non-living organisms or over-study living non-organisms but simply stop making the assumption that only organisms are alive and that every organism is alive. I think such conception of life is often forcing us to ignore what exactly is significant about life.
    TheHedoMinimalist
    So what you have done here is question the agreed-upon meaning of "living thing". Sure, we could use the boundary of organisms evolving central nervous systems as what defines "living thing", but we've agreed upon the boundary where complex molecules began to replicate.

    What we will disagree on is the boundary at which to distinguish living things from non-living things - not the fact that there are things that have certain properties inherited from prior things in prior states. These inheritences are modified by interacting with the environment and are copied into the next generation of things. At which point of change in inheritence we choose to define "living things" from "non-living" things can be arbitrary in the sense that it doesn't really matter to anything else but us humans who have the need to communicate with each other, but it does matter if you are a human who has the need, or intent, to communicate their ideas with others, so it helps to know how humans interpret the meaning of certain scribbles or sounds.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    I suppose you could have an active rational agency if you can experience things. But, my understanding is that organisms as simple as fish can experience things. We don’t normally think of fish as having an active rational agency(or at least a philosopher like Aristotle would probably object to that classification). Of course, I do think that fish should undoubtedly be classified as living things. I also think that deeper levels of mental activity are designed for deeper levels of agency. For example, humans have a longer memory span than a squirrel which allows them to make more long term plans than squirrels. It also allows them to enjoy or suffer while thinking about their past experiences(although I’m not sure if squirrels can be nostalgic or traumatized. It kind of hard to imagine how that would work without a good memory).
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    Built by whom, is the obvious question. And, it’s question begging to refer to robots as ‘beings’.Wayfarer

    Well, I imagine that it’s likely that intelligent life could come about through evolution perhaps through different compound mixtures than the one which produced the first organisms on Earth. While the robots were not likely to have evolved and were obviously created(they might also not be reproducing and simply die out once the machinery breaks). It not clear if these robots were created by beings who were made of roughly the same chemical composition as us or if they were made of a completely different chemical composition. Nonetheless, it seems that the fact that they were created doesn’t make them any less alive. After all, I don’t think we would be less of a living thing if we were created by an intelligent designer rather than evolution.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    Because water doesn't fit the definition of life. It (water) doesn't nourish itself, neither does it reproduce, etc.

    Of course you could ask for the definition of life to be expanded to include water but you'd need to give good reasons for it. Likewise for amino acids; they don't reproduce or respond to the environment in any life-like manner.
    TheMadFool

    Well, I think I gave a good reason for why AI Programs should be regarded as life. I argued that it seems more important to think of life as the process of being alive or the state of animation. Some AI Programs do seem to be alive and be in a state of animation. Whereas, trees do not seem to have those characteristics. My question is why is the ability to nourish yourself and reproduce more important to what makes life special than the state of aliveness which really seems to be the thing which makes living things more interesting than non-living things?
  • Relativist
    718
    Whenever we discuss the meaning of words, I do not think we are trying to figure out the objective meaning of those words. After all, words do not seem to have objective meaning.TheHedoMinimalist
    Words refer to concepts, most of which are fuzzy, but still have a core of agreed meaning. You noted the biological definition of life - and I see nothing wrong with that, and no reason to change it. Indeed "living" sets certain things apart (you said, "above" - but that's a subjective judgment, so it seems moot).

    You're setting apart a different set of things, overlapping somewhat between the living and unliving. That's a fine analysis, albeit that it's also fuzzy. But I just see no need to redefine words to draw the distinction.

    It seems simply biased and short-sighted to assume that only organisms should be associated with the process of life.TheHedoMinimalist

    It's not bias, per se, - it's trying to keep the fuzzy concept "life" from getting any fuzzier. You're right that it's conceivable that there could exist something akin to biological life that is vastly different from what we call "life", and that would challenge the fuzzy boundaries of the concept. If we cross that bridge, we can create new terminology based on whatever draws the least fuzzy boundaries.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    If words didn't have some degree of objectivity then we would always be talking past each other. We would never communicate at all. How could we lie to each other if the meaning of my words in my mind didn't mean the same thing in your mind? We would create our own arbitrary categories of our individual perceptions and never be able to communicate them to others. How would you expect me to understand the scribbles you put up on a screen if we didn't have some shared understanding of what those scribbles mean? Who would you be "talking to"? It seems that we would all be only talking ourselves. So, why didn't you just say your post to yourself in your mind? Why did you type it out and submit it on a philosophy forum? Isn't it because you wanted to share your idea with others who have a shared understanding of the meaning of the scribbles that you put on the screen? The scribbles mean your ideas and your intent to communicate them.Harry Hindu

    There is a difference between objectivity and near-universal acceptance of a particular meaning of a word. I don’t deny that you should use the conventional meaning of the word “life” if you are having a discussion with your friend about bacteria. For better or worse, sometimes you have to use the meaning that is accepted by most. But that doesn’t mean that the classification for what is alive cannot possibly change. For example, in the past, Pluto used to be considered a planet. Now, it is no longer considered a planet. This is simply because the scientific community decided to change their classification for what is a planet. If the scientific community were to decide to agree with my classification of living things tomorrow, then it’s somewhat likely that the public will change its use of the word as well(just as they did with Pluto). But sometimes there is a conflict between the scientific definition of a word and it’s conventional usage. For example, cucumbers are classified as both fruits and vegetables by scientists(fruits are considered to be any seed bearing structure in a flowering plant which a subcategory of vegetables which seems to refer to any sort of edible vegetation). But we don’t think of a cucumber as a fruit and we don’t think of fruits as subcategories of vegetables. The question then becomes, which conceptual structure should we adopt? It might be argued that we should just adopt both but this might actually make communication more confusing. Imagine that I’m a botanist asking about what is the favorite fruit of my botanist coworker. He might legitimately be confused about what I’m referring to by fruit. So, I actually think it would be beneficial if we could encourage a more consistent use of language for communication. In addition, the way we organize our categorical structures could a massive impact on how we think about certain ethical dilemmas. For example, if fetuses are not only non-persons but also non-living, then this would probably shift our opinion on abortion. Of course, it could still be argued that the potential for life is enough reason to protect the fetus by law, but this would perhaps imply that sperm and ovaries should have some moral importance as well(which seems rather implausible). It could also have implications about how we should treat robots of sufficient complexity.
  • Wayfarer
    7.7k
    Nonetheless, it seems that the fact that they were created doesn’t make them any less alive. After all, I don’t think we would be less of a living thing if we were created by an intelligent designer rather than evolution.TheHedoMinimalist

    You’re conflating ‘created’ and ‘manufactured’ here. But then, it’s a distinction modern culture doesn’t recognise - hence, the thread.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    You're setting apart a different set of things, overlapping somewhat between the living and unliving. That's a fine analysis, albeit that it's also fuzzy. But I just see no need to redefine words to draw the distinction.Relativist

    I think this redefinition of words can be relevant to issues concerning value and ethics. For example, if everyone had agreed with my distinction between living and non-living things rather than the traditional conception, then this might have some implications for issues like abortion and the ethical treatment of conscious robots. This is because we tend give greater priority to living things over non-living things. Now, of course, there is a seeming explanation for why we think of living things as more important than non-living things and it has to do with 2 main factors:

    1. The Presence of Mental Activity

    2. The Presence of Complex Behavior Patterns

    Of course, not all organisms have these important characteristics and some non-organisms have those characteristics. I think it would be helpful to reunite what we think is valuable about life as the definition of life itself. For example, if it is more probable that certain AI Programs are capable of mental activity than fetuses, then this would give me more reason to be concerned with the welfare of AI Programs than of fetuses. Although, I don’t think either one of those things have mental activity yet, the presence of complex behavior patterns in AI seems to be at least one indicator of potential mental activity. This is because there is a plausible belief that mental activity came about through evolution in order to enable greater agency. Without mental activity, complex behavior patterns might be an impossibility. Thus my redefining of what it means to be a living thing seems to help shift the discussion of these topics in the right direction and it would help direct the “Sanctity of Life” arguments against abortion to non-human animals and perhaps the futuristic conscious AI Programs. This is because fetuses do not qualify as life in my definition of life while non-animals and some AI perhaps would.
  • Wayfarer
    7.7k
    I think rather than a definition of ‘life’ as a phenomenon, think about a definition of ‘being’ and then whether computers (no matter how complex) can be considered as ‘beings’.

    Of course you might then respond ‘how do you define “being”? ‘ - but that is the precise meaning of the term ‘ontology’, and it’s a very difficult subject. Consideration of the nature of being is central to philosophy, but hardly considered by science. Think about why that is the case: science is objective, it is the method par excellence for the disclosure of facts about objective phenomena. But ‘being’ or ‘beings’ are not simply objects - they’re subjects of experience. And what is it that makes them subjects of experience? That is the question, and it might not even be resolvable in strictly objective terms.

    Hardcore materialists such as Daniel Dennett deny that there is any fundamental distinction between beings and computers. But they are obliged to deny it, because in their view there’s only one real substance, and that’s matter (or matter~energy). So if you argue that ‘being’ is not something that can be understood In terms of matter~energy, then you’re essentially assuming some type of dualism (or pluralism). In other words, you admit defeat for materialism.

    But Daniel Dennett’s work is valuable in this respect, although ironically perhaps not in the way that he intended. Why? Because his critics have been pointing out for his entire career that there is something preposterous in it. For instance, his first book on philosophy of mind was called ‘Consciousness Explained’; but his critics (among them other leading philosophers) quickly dubbed it ‘Consciousness Ignored’, as that is what his work does. He argues throughout his work that the first-person reality of mind - the immediate knowledge of one’s own being - is an illusion.

    Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.” — Thomas Nagel

    Review of recent Dennett title.

    I think the reason distinctions between ‘beings’ and ‘devices’ can’t be drawn is on the same grounds: that if you draw that distinction, then it shows that scientific materialism must be incomplete, that there must be something else, beside matter~energy, to be considered a constituent of being: but that, as scientific materialism is so influential in our culture, then we don’t have the means and metaphors to conceive of it. So we’re left floundering and wondering about robots on other planets.

    That’s what I think you’re grappling with, although I know you probably won’t agree. ;-)
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    Of course you might then respond ‘how do you define “being”? ‘ - but that is the precise meaning of the term ‘ontology’, and it’s a very difficult subject. Consideration of the nature of being is central to philosophy, but hardly considered by science. Think about why that is the case: science is objective, it is the method par excellence for the disclosure of facts about objective phenomena. But ‘being’ or ‘beings’ are not simply objects - they’re subjects of experience. And what is it that makes them subjects of experience? That is the question, and it might not even be resolvable in strictly objective terms.Wayfarer

    It’s actually hard for me to understand what exactly is the distinction between “objective” and “subjective”. Many cognitive scientists and psychologists do try to study subjective experiences like suffering, anxiety, nostalgia, joy, despair, and so on. I think they have had some success. It seems that the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity perhaps rests on the supposed distinction between primary and secondary qualities of objects. Primary qualities like solidity, size, weight, and shape are thought as being more objective than secondary qualities like taste, sound, color, and emotion. It’s not clear to me if there is any meaningful distinction between primary and secondary qualities though. Is weight an actual property of an object or is it just sensations of heaviness? It’s not clear to me if the heaviness of my bed is an objective property of my bed or just a feeling of heaviness if I attempt to lift it up. Similarly, it seems to me that only mental states can have undeniable observed properties. For example, if I cut my arm and cause myself pain, then the painful mental state seems to have an undeniable property of badness. This property of badness would likely be labeled as subjective but if I could transfer the exact same painful mental state to any other subject, I think it would be impossible to have a different attitude towards that mental state as I would have in the moment that the mental state occurs. This is because the attitude about the mental state(if there is an attitudinal judgement made in the same moment as the mental state) seems to be part of the mental state itself. If the mental state can be said to be existent, then it seems that it is an undeniable part of reality itself.
    I suppose I would conceptualize a “being” as a “container of experience”. It is to be the one who has to endure one’s future negative experiences and the one who has the opportunity to enjoy his future positive experiences. The problem is that we do not know if anyone other than our current self contains experiences. If my 2 year old self had suffered on a particular day, I cannot know if I was the container of experience who had to endure that suffering. This is because I lack the memory of my 2 year old life. It’s almost as if the 2 year old me never really existed in my mind(or perhaps it was a different container of experience). Similarly, if I get dementia as I age, would I still be a container of experience? I think the answer is probably yes. I imagine that I will still be the stakeholder of the future suffering of my demented self. As for the question about whether computers could have experiences, there seems to be good evidence that mental activity came about as an adaptation which allowed for us to have greater control and agency over our body and environment. If robots can be capable of such agency, I would hypothesize that such complex agency would be impossible without positive and negative experiences.

    Hardcore materialists such as Daniel Dennett deny that there is any fundamental distinction between beings and computers. But they are obliged to deny it, because in their view there’s only one real substance, and that’s matter (or matter~energy). So if you argue that ‘being’ is not something that can be understood In terms of matter~energy, then you’re essentially assuming some type of dualism (or pluralism). In other words, you admit defeat for materialismWayfarer

    My understanding of dualism is that it is a belief that a mind could exist independent of any body. I do not hold such view myself. It seems that the existence and quality of mental states is dependent on the functioning of the nervous system and various sensory organs. If I gouge out my eyes, then I could not have sight sensation anymore. If I receive severe brain damage, then it seems that I could lose my memories, personality, self awareness, and even my ability to experience anything at all. If there is this dependence on the functioning of the body in order to have a mental life, then it seems that the mind is coexistent with the body. This is what makes me doubt that there is an afterlife. Of course, I do not think the activity of the mind is necessarily perfectly projected onto the body. This is why we might have difficulty of studying mental activity by looking at the brain. I cannot speak for Daniel Dennett due to the fact that I’m relatively unfamiliar with his work but from the several talks I heard from him, he didn’t seem to deny that consciousness existed. He seemed to have a different idea of what it was from my understanding but it’s been awhile since I watched one of his videos.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    Well, I think I gave a good reason for why AI Programs should be regarded as life. I argued that it seems more important to think of life as the process of being alive or the state of animation. Some AI Programs do seem to be alive and be in a state of animation. Whereas, trees do not seem to have those characteristics. My question is why is the ability to nourish yourself and reproduce more important to what makes life special than the state of aliveness which really seems to be the thing which makes living things more interesting than non-living things?TheHedoMinimalist

    Good question. It's an analogical perspective we have to take. Plants, animals and humans share a lot of characteristics. So, the argument goes, we're similar in being alive.

    You seem to focus on ''animation'', which I'll interpret as consciousness, and consider AI to be more alive than animals or plants. Well, consciousness is a very important feature of animals, especially so with humans, creating the division human-nonhuman. Surely if AI is conscious then it'll be definitely more human than a dog or a rose.

    I think it's a question of numbers and significance. If we take the number of similarities plants are closer to humans but if you consider signficance and consciousness is a distinctive human property then AI is more human or alive.
  • creativesoul
    5.6k
    What is the argument and/or reasoning offered to reject the common notion of what it takes to be alive?

    Stick puppets are animated. Some stick puppets have rocks for heads. Some rocks are animated.
  • creativesoul
    5.6k
    Rather, words are tools that we use to draw significance to certain phenomena and associations.TheHedoMinimalist

    And the word "alive" picks out all the things that self-replicate, maintain homeostasis, etc.

    But, are those things actually important?TheHedoMinimalist

    Of course those things are important. They are what one is talking about when s/he says that some thing or another is alive.
  • creativesoul
    5.6k
    Why would human consciousness be a pre-requisite for being alive?

    What we call human consciousness typically includes self identity and other socially constructed notions. If we attempt to employ that sort of criterion for what it takes to be alive, then we would be forced to say either that human consciousness is completely intact at the moment of conception, replete with a sense of self(which is impossible due to it's social content), or we must admit that not all humans are alive, because not all humans have a socially constructed sense of self.

    Either being alive doesn't require human consciousness or not all humans are alive.

    Human consciousness begins simply and gains in it's complexity. It is not a necessary pre-requisite for being alive.
  • StreetlightX
    3.8k
    Is the OP anything more than a linguistic quibble? It reads: 'people call life this. I think we should call life that instead'. But then, nothing is said about the concept of life at all: just a matter of personal preference. And a strange, idiosyncratic one at that. What philosophy is being debated here, other than 'this is what I like to call things and think people should also call things like I do'? There are no stakes to the OP. If one were to agree, or disagree, nothing about our understanding of the world, or of life would change. Only our understanding of how we are to use langauge. Trivial.
  • tom111
    2
    I think there obviously needs to be a distinction made between "life" and "something that is conscious". Most agree that there will be life that isn't conscious, at least to a level where it's clearly distinguishable from non-conscious matter. Considering that all life basically came from self-replicating molecules with a capacity to imperfectly replicate occasionally (mutation), the least arbitrary definition of "life" I can think of is just a set of molecules with the capacity to self-replicate.

    As for "consciousness" that's clearly a different matter. There are many theories on consciousness (try researching integrated information theory, Penrose-hameroff etc) that take a number of different approaches to the problem but one fact always remains missing. There's no way to quantify and measure consciousness, so how will we ever know what truly causes it? And how will we ever know if a certain system (an artificial intelligence for example) actually contains consciousness? It's quite impossible it seems to objectively measure a phenomenon which is purely subjective in its contents.

    Therefore surely, the only way to verify if a system is conscious (with a reasonable degree of certainty) or not is to see if the system displays classic characteristics of something that would be considered 'alive' and to see if the system behaves in a similar matter to the one system we know is conscious- the brain. if these two boxes are ticked, we can assume the system is alive (although not its 100% certainty).

    As a side note I think there are some interesting ethical implications to your question, if we were truly to come up with a way of determining whether something is alive or not, does that mean certain things will have different levels of 'aliveness' than others? What impact will this have on animal rights? Are they conscious enough so that the killing of them for food is morally wrong? What cutoff point do we set ourselves? Is it only ethically sound to kill something with 0 consciousness or do we set some arbitrary threshold level on the scale of consciousness to decide what's moral to kill and what's not? What about a foetus, is that conscious? What will that mean for abortion law? The possibilities are endless.

    Very good question though.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    I think there obviously needs to be a distinction made between "life" and "something that is conscious". Most agree that there will be life that isn't conscious, at least to a level where it's clearly distinguishable from non-conscious matter. Considering that all life basically came from self-replicating molecules with a capacity to imperfectly replicate occasionally (mutation), the least arbitrary definition of "life" I can think of is just a set of molecules with the capacity to self-replicate.tom111

    I must say that this is the most thoughtful response I have gotten on my thread thus far. I will try my best to give a detailed response because you brought up a lot of very valid points. To start with the 1st sentence of the post. It seems rather tricky to distinguish between what is alive and what is considered conscious. This is because as you have stated later in the post, it’s impossible to show whether or not a particular type of thing is conscious. Rather, when we hypothesize that a being appears conscious, it is due to the observation of the ability of the being to display autonomous behavior and decision-making capabilities. The types of things that we believe to be conscious tend to be the types of beings that display what is sometimes regarded as autonomy. So, perhaps it would be better to distinguish between living things and autonomous things rather than distinguishing between living things and conscious things. While this may be an acceptable path, I think there is a case to be made for bridging the divide between the 2 categories of things of interest to us.
    What I think gives us a potential invitation to do this is the double meaning of the word “life”. We tend to use the word scientifically to refer to any organism. But in everyday life, we only treat animals as living and perhaps we shall treat AI as such in the future. For example, imagine that you have a plant in a pot in your house. The plant likely seems like any other object in the house to you. It’s just like a decorative statue that you have to water every once in a while. But imagine that one day, you saw the plant branches moving on their own and suddenly the plant pulls itself out of the pot and starts walking on its roots. It would makes sense to say that the plant had just came to life, even though it was classified as a living thing prior to that event. Of course, I am using 2 different senses of the word “life” here. Nonetheless, I tend to think that if there are 2 distinct definitions of a particular word, then we should either select one understanding of the term over the other or take an either/or approach . The either/or approach would be to define living things as either those things which appear to be alive or those things which replicate themselves and have a metabolism.
    I find this approach somewhat problematic though. It seems that many robots could still qualify as life by the scientific definition for relatively arbitrary reasons. Hypothetically, there could be a robot whose only 2 functions are to build other “daughter robots” which share some inherited characteristics with the “mother robot” and to repair itself with materials found in the environment(aka “robot metabolism”). Imagine that they built those daughter robots without appearing alive but rather almost like a boring stationary 3D printer. There could be an eventual evolution of these robots through this process over the course of millions of years. Eventually, these robots might be more complex than humans in their behavior patterns. These robots would appear to fulfill all the requirements for the scientific definition of life except they are not composed of cells. But, this seems like a rather unnecessary requirement. If we were composed of something other than cells, we would probably not make cellular composition one of the requirements for life. But we can also challenge more of the scientific requirements of life. For example, should a self-replicating and self-repairing non-autonomous AI which performs its reproductive and metabolic functions like a plant be considered closer to a living thing than a non-replicating and non-metabolic autonomous AI which behaves like an animal? I tend to think that the latter type of robot appears to be more of a living thing.

    As a side note I think there are some interesting ethical implications to your question, if we were truly to come up with a way of determining whether something is alive or not, does that mean certain things will have different levels of 'aliveness' than others? What impact will this have on animal rights? Are they conscious enough so that the killing of them for food is morally wrong? What cutoff point do we set ourselves? Is it only ethically sound to kill something with 0 consciousness or do we set some arbitrary threshold level on the scale of consciousness to decide what's moral to kill and what's not? What about a foetus, is that conscious? What will that mean for abortion law? The possibilities are endless.tom111

    I do think that this question poses some serious ethical implications. But, our current scientific definition of life seems to also be ignored in many of these dilemmas though. When some social conservatives speak of the sanctity of life and the need to protect the lives of fetuses and comatose patients, they are sometimes not being consistent with either of the definitions of life that we are discussing. With the scientific definition of life, some of these social conservatives are being needlessly exclusive with the types of things they categorize as moral patients. They consider fetuses and comatose patients as living things which are sacred yet exclude all the other types of living things which are not human. I simply find this to be unjustly prejudice towards members of your particular group. If such prejudice is justified when it’s not clear why racism is not. Though, as a counterargument, you could perhaps justify the prejudice for fetuses over non-human animals. This is because most fetuses have the potential to become a human being with greater complexity than an animal. Though, it’s hard to see how we would justify spending a millions of dollars of taxpayer money to cover the medical costs of a single comatose patient who has no loved ones and is extremely unlikely to ever be conscious of autonomous especially since we could use that money to improve the welfare of other beings which can likely experience things and have autonomy. If we were to accept my definition of life alongside the belief in the sanctity of life though, then we could exclude both never-conscious humans and plants as moral patience(unless we have some other reason to include them). On the other hand, we might have to include some robots in the future as moral patients. By my definition, only humans and non-human animals can possibly be regarded as moral patients to date. If we reject the sanctity of life beliefs, then we could evaluate moral patience on the basis of other properties. Philosophers like Peter Singer and Shelly Kagan, who reject sanctity of life arguments, generally conceptualize moral patience hierarchies on 2 qualities which I have claimed are indicative of being alive. These 2 qualities are, of course, consciousness and autonomy. I think my definition of life helps bridge together the sanctity of life belief with what is regarded as the most value relevant properties of life by the rejectors of the sanctity of life claims. Of course, I cannot answer whether or not eating meat, abortion, or the mistreatment of future robots is morally permissible without writing you another essay about those topics. I will say that the debate seems to revolve around whether the interests of sufficiently mature humans can override the interests of less complex beings that are believed to have some amount of moral patience. This question is quite complicated.
  • Shamshir
    425
    That which motions - lives.
    Of course, what about that which motions not of its own accord - like a corpse rolling down a hill? It too lives - perhaps in a different way, it still remains an active participant.

    I suppose you could, given the aforementioned, deduce life is interactive.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    147
    Well, I would limit the definition of life to autonomous things which move on their own. For example, imagine that you’re walking down the street and you see a human corpse then suddenly someone throws it across the street and another person yells “It’s a alive!”. You would probably be confused as fuck. Not only because you just saw someone throwing a corpse for no reason but also because the other person yelled “it’s alive!” for some reason. This seems like an inappropriate thing to yell at that moment. Whereas, you can imagine a different scenario. Imagine that your walking down the street and you see another corpse but this time the corpse suddenly stands up on its own and starts walking. Then someone yells “It’s alive!”. In the later scenario, screaming “it’s alive!” makes more sense than in the former scenario. This suggests that autonomous motion is necessary for us to normally think of something as being alive.
  • Shamshir
    425
    Hence
    It too lives - perhaps in a different wayShamshir

    The corpse lives on, imperceptibly so - if we should compare its life with a non-corpse's.

    On the side, you should consider the consequences of autonomous motion as extensions of the autonomous; simply put, vivifying the possibly otherwise dead.
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