• Theologian
    104

    I couldn't resist. I suggest you blame auto-correct!
  • Terrapin Station
    9.7k
    Oh dear. Sorry for missing the typo!Pattern-chaser

    Quacking is the male equivalent of queefing?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.3k
    I couldn't resist. I suggest you blame auto-correct!Theologian

    I can do better than that! :wink: Coming back on topic, I claim that my keyboard is possessed by demons. Living demons! :smile: :snicker:
  • Theologian
    104

    [Heavily edited because I realized there were a few things I flubbed when I originally posted the below. I was just waking up.]

    Again, it's important to begin by distinguishing between attempting something like a scientific definition that gets at the heart of what we are dealing with when we call things alive (or at least, tries to), and attempting to get at what's inside people's heads when they use the word "alive." They're two different things, and they call for two entirely different responses.

    So when you say:

    that concept of life has been around long before the theory of evolution was accepted by anyoneTheHedoMinimalist

    Yes, you're perfectly correct. But then, my tree and node definition wasn't an attempt at lexicography. Science, and scholarship more broadly, will always define and redefine its terms utilizing its current understanding of the world.

    Surely you would agree that a scientific concept can accurately describe something that existed long before that concept was defined? Cuz if you don't... we're in major trouble with that whole "big bang" thing!!! :gasp:

    Sooo... I hope we're in agreement that this is a purely lexical argument. And I wasn't attempting to do lexicography in this instance. In terms of the ordinary sense of the word, I think Cookie Monster did a better job than I did. Which is why I quoted him in the first place! :wink:

    If you want to do lexicography, as opposed to biology, one point I would make is that natural languages frequently have their words redefined too. Can't you think of a term whose meaning has changed significantly just over the course of your own lifetime? It's not that long ago that the term "geek" had far more negative connotations than it does now. And originally it referred to a person in a freak show whose act was to bite the heads off live chickens!

    Also, in the technical meta-language of linguistics, I think it's clear that the term "life" seems to be polysemous. "Poly" as in many (or at least more than one), "sem" as in semantics. By which I mean it has more than one meaning, and no-one is going to be able to reconcile them all. In fact, polysemous words are really more than one word that just happens to share the same surface form. They sound the same, and we may or may not spell them the same.

    Think of the word "spring." We have the season of that name, we have a coiled, usually metal thing, and we have the verb "to spring." All may share in common the idea of pent up energy that is being, or can be released. But you won't be able to come up with a comprehensive definition that applies to all three; and you won't get very far if you don't understand that a season is not the same thing as a coiled piece of metal. Similarly, the term "life" may have a kind of semantic core that all meanings share... or, we may be stuck with something more like Wittgenstein's "family resemblance." Or there may be usages that share no discernible commonality at all.

    But my main point being, from a linguistics perspective, the sense in which your plant may "come alive"


    ...and the sense in which it always was alive, are essentially different words with the same surface form. I think that is, ultimately, the only way you can make coherent sense of the proposition that something that is alive became alive.

    Of course, as you say, there's also metaphor, but I don't off the top of my head have anything especially interesting to say about how metaphor works! :razz: I'm only going to observe that distinguishing between a commonly used metaphor and a different meaning of the same surface form is a fairly challenging task in linguistic research, and I'm really not sure how you would go about addressing that. So when we say that a thread is "alive," is that a different meaning, or are we just using the word "alive" in a metaphorical sense? I'm not sure, and I'm not even entirely sure how we would go about resolving the question.

    Having mulled over it some more, my gut feeling - and it's only a gut feeling - is that there is a word "alive" that is the noun form of "lively." That's the word you're using when your plant comes "alive," the thread is "alive," and so on. Of course, linguistic research is done purely on the gut feelings of native speakers, but it takes more than just the one speaker. Also, they don't call them "gut feelings" but "intuitions," which sounds a little more academically respectable. :smile:

    Okay, there's a bunch of stuff you raised that I still haven't addressed, but I'm now going to start a new post to deal with them to try to keep each individual post at a reasonable length...
  • Theologian
    104
    I must say that I’m impressed with your ability to philosophize. You are definitely the most impressive person who has responded to me thus far.TheHedoMinimalist

    Wow... thank you! :grin:
  • Stephen Cook
    8
    well, it appears as though infertile humans wouldn’t qualify as life by the 4 requirements you have listedTheHedoMinimalist
    Fair point.
    Okay, I should qualify my argument by stating that the above entity is an abstraction of all of the entities of a given population of such entities and, as such, need only probabilistically posses all of the said characteristics
  • Stephen Cook
    8
    I’ve been thinking about how I might myself deal with this objection. Of course, it applies not just to biologically infertile humans, but to all organisms that do not self-replicate. Worker ants, and for that matter any organism that simply fails in the evolutionary game. Could we say that a mayfly that died without ever managing to breed was never alive? There seems to be something wrong with this.

    So to offer a slightly more refined version of my definition, I’d say that once you start with a complex thing that self replicates, evolution is ignited. Once that happens, you generate a tree structure that continues to exists because at least some nodes do self replicate.

    Once you have that, each node on that tree – each individual organism – qualifies as alive. Regardless of whether it, as an individual node, self replicates or not.

    Indeed, we may even recognize that the very fact that many nodes do not self replicate is itself a vital aspect of the evolutionary process that creates and maintains life.
    Theologian

    I like that. I like it a lot. Put far better than me.
  • Theologian
    104
    I like that. I like it a lot. Put far better than me.Stephen Cook

    Wow... thank you also, Stephen! I seem to be doing really well on this thread! :grin:
  • Theologian
    104

    You've raised a few objections/questions that I think show that my attempt at a scientific definition needs to go through another round of refinement.

    Would this imply that our current software is alive? Software is both complex and self-replicating.TheHedoMinimalist

    There are a few issues here. Superficially shareware seems to be a virus (depending on us, as life forms, to replicate it). So as such I would deem it alive, even though many biologists would disagree that viruses qualify as life. If computers are not themselves alive, then what we call computer "viruses" are not viruses at all, but are straightforwardly alive. Again, at least superficially. But in both cases I do have a concern.

    One reason that in my first post I didn't feel it necessary to include Stephen Cook's point:
    2) The replication process should not, in all circumstances, produce perfect copies and should, instead, allow for a tiny amount of random variationStephen Cook
    ...is that I figured that thermodynamics would take care of that automatically. No pattern will ever be able to self-replicate perfectly all of the time.

    But now that I think about shareware and computer "viruses," I now see the need to investigate this a bit more closely. I am quite sure that in both cases, given enough generations, shareware and "viruses" would begin to evolve, thus becoming life by my current definition.

    BUT, excepting those "viruses" that were intentionally designed by their programmers to evolve, and considering only code designed to be replicated perfectly, I can see that the number of generations required for meaningful evolution will in many cases exceed, even vastly exceed, the number of generations over which the code is actually copied.

    So given that my definition of life is basically that it ignites evolution, and that all nodes on the evolutionary tree are alive, if we want to address the question as to what ignites evolution, we clearly have more variables to contend with than just complexity. I can see now that it was simplistic of me to focus exclusively on complexity alone.

    As my previous example of computer "viruses" intentionally designed to be evolutionary also shows, we also have to look at particular complex structures that supercharge evolution. In the world of wet biology, sex is the obvious example: nodes swap complex code structures with other nodes that have at least been successful enough to reach the point of mating. I'm no computer expert, much less an expert in "viruses," but I believe evolutionary "viruses" (yes, I'm still persisting with the quotation marks!) simulate sex to some degree by copying into themselves, or into their progeny, fragments of code taken from other programs.

    So to offer a slightly expanded view on what it takes to ignite evolution, we now have a certain base level of complexity as a necessary feature of life. Plus we also have the fidelity of the copying process (there's almost certainly a sweet spot here, but it may not be absolute, but rather relate to other factors like environment), the number of generations over which the tree persists, and particular complex structures, such as being coded for sex, that supercharge the process.

    Finally, there are two questions you ask that I want to consider in the opposite order that you ask them.

    First,

    What if there was just one bacteria cell on Mars which almost replicated but got killed by an unlikely natural disaster the moment before successfully doing so?TheHedoMinimalist

    I think that in having previously admitted that all nodes on an evolutionary tree are "alive," where I'm ultimately headed is toward the idea that evolution produces certain kinds of order, and that we may recognize these ordered forms even when they do not reproduce. So we may apply the same principle to your hypothetical Martian bacteria. We could also apply the same principle to a cell of artificial life that was constructed in a laboratory but then just never transported to a nutrient-rich environment in which it could grow and ultimately reproduce.

    The internal organizational structure of something is what marks it as alive. It does not have to reproduce, or even be able to reproduce in order to qualify as alive; eunuchs, worker ants, and organisms that simply die before the point of reproduction are all still alive. But nodes on an evolutionary tree are what provide our paradigmatic example of what a life form is.

    If there was just one alien being on a distant plant that can live forever, would he need to reproduce to be considered alive?TheHedoMinimalist

    Well, you have already said that the being "lives" forever, which does rather imply that it is alive! :wink:

    But... ignoring that (Freudian?) slip, I think what we have is that it is a "being" and that it at least persists forever. Personally, I don't think that on its own that's enough for the concept of life that I've been working towards. There are a lot of things that seem to last forever - or at least, virtually so in human terms. But we don't consider them alive.

    My answer may come down to what you mean by a "being." If you mean only that it is sentient, then I think it would be a mistake to automatically equate sentience with biology. I'm not ready to rule out the idea that there may be other ways to achieve sentience.

    If, however, you equate a "being" with something like us, then we're back to my previous answer re the Martian bacteria. We may indeed find that we recognize the basic structures of life in this being.
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    109
    Sooo... I hope we're in agreement that this is a purely lexical argument. And I wasn't attempting to do lexicography in this instance. In terms of the ordinary sense of the word, I think Cookie Monster did a better job than I did. Which is why I quoted him in the first place! :wink:Theologian

    Sorry it took me a while to respond. I’ve been working too much lately. Well, there is actually a 3rd perspective which I think we should consider and that is the value perspective. We have to ask the question of why exactly we decided to the make the distinction between the living and the non-living in the first place. Here is my hypothesis. Imagine that you are a caveman. From a young age, you likely recognized a drastic difference between self-moving entities like humans and animals and all the other stuff which simply sits there and offers no companionship or threat to you. This discernment was likely the first motivation and need behind the division between the living and the non-living. Living things are almost always thought to fall higher up in the hierarchy of things in the world. I think my classification of living things is useful for resolving many prudential, ethical, and political dilemmas which I think are needlessly encouraged by the scientific classifications of life. For example, many philosophers believe that life is intrinsically valuable for its own sake. They act on that belief morally, prudentially, and politically. I think that there is a very good intention built into the belief but it often leads to highly harmful consequences. For example, if you have an unwanted child who is born and will remain perpetually in a coma, should we treat it like a human being who is capable of experience and autonomy? This could cost close to a million dollars a year as maintaining a comatose patient is very expensive. This money could be used to improve the lives of sentient beings capable of autonomous action. Of course, many secular proponents of the sanctity of life belief would point out that it’s unjustified for us to treat a never-sentient human better than a tree because they are both life forms and it’s simply prejudice to prefer the never-sentient human. The more religious proponents of the sanctity of life belief would sometimes justify this prejudice as we humans are specifically the special beings made in God’s image. Of course, most of these religious sanctity of life believers assume the scientific understanding of what a human life is. I imagine that an earlier religious proponent of the sanctity of life belief like Thomas Aquinas might not think of a child who will never experience anything as being alive. It is likely that the earlier Christians though of life as the opportunity to experience things and act in an autonomous manner. This precisely would seem like the point of God bringing humans into existence in the first place. So, I think valuing life for its own sake only makes sense if you value experience of being human for its own sake. It doesn’t make sense if you value the presence of functioning cells for it own sake. It also doesn’t make sense if you value having a human metabolism for its own sake. In conclusion, I think definitions of words should be both lexically intuitive and serve us to make better decisions. It tend to think that classifying trees and never conscious humans as alive fits neither one of these criteria too well.

    Also, in the technical meta-language of linguistics, I think it's clear that the term "life" seems to be polysemous. "Poly" as in many (or at least more than one), "sem" as in semantics. By which I mean it has more than one meaning, and no-one is going to be able to reconcile them all. In fact, polysemous words are really more than one word that just happens to share the same surface form. They sound the same, and we may or may not spell them the same.Theologian

    Although, many words have more than one meaning. This can sometimes cause communication problems and I think it’s useful for us to have a language where there is some consistent and unifying theme that unites all the meanings of a word such that there isn’t too many confusing paradoxes. For example, I find it unhelpful that cooks would classify a cucumber as a vegetable and botanists would classify it as a fruit. It would be good if the committee of botanists and cooks could come together and work this conceptual mess out. This way we know what we are supposed to teach our children about cucumbers lol

    My answer may come down to what you mean by a "being." If you mean only that it is sentient, then I think it would be a mistake to automatically equate sentience with biology. I'm not ready to rule out the idea that there may be other ways to achieve sentienceTheologian

    What I meant by an immortal being was a being which is both sentient and capable of autonomous action. The whole point of my view on life is to equate biology with sentience and autonomy on the grounds that I find it both lexically intuitive and useful for promoting the good. For example, if there is an eternal God who never replicates himself, I think it would make sense to say that he is a living thing.
  • Theologian
    104

    Sorry it took me a while to respond.TheHedoMinimalist

    Not to worry. But now you are going to have to wait for me as I'm actually quite sleepy and about to log off. Sorry! :gasp:
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    109
    It’s all good, I probably will only be able to respond late at night
  • Sculptor
    41

    There are oddities, though
    Mitochondria are semi-automomous "beings" that live inside everyone of our cells. They migrate from the mother's cells to the unborn foetus in the early stages of "life", but are themselves no living because they can have no existence outside of the cell.
    They have their own DNA , and that never mixes with the human genome, yet no human can live without them, and no mitochondrion can exist without a living cell host.
    These are organelles. But are they living?
  • TheHedoMinimalist
    109
    I think that in having previously admitted that all nodes on an evolutionary tree are "alive," where I'm ultimately headed is toward the idea that evolution produces certain kinds of order, and that we may recognize these ordered forms even when they do not reproduce. So we may apply the same principle to your hypothetical Martian bacteria. We could also apply the same principle to a cell of artificial life that was constructed in a laboratory but then just never transported to a nutrient-rich environment in which it could grow and ultimately reproduce.Theologian

    That’s interesting, I never thought of life as operating within an order. I always thought of evolution as being a bit of a chaotic mess. Species constantly are going in and out of existence with no straightforward pattern of progression. Although there was a gradual progression towards greater mental complexity from reptiles to mammals to primates, in the past, there was a higher number of species of humans and today’s chimpanzees can be regarded as our dumber cousin almost. This is due to the fact that chimps are only 2 million years older than the first human species and we had a common ancestor species which is now extinct and was almost like a human and chimp hybrid. It seems that we haven’t got more complex over time but simply split into 2 species oriented towards certain extremes of our ancestor species(we oriented towards intellect and chimps oriented to strength). Another weird thing about our evolutionary history is that there was likely sea monsters swimming in the Earth before we even had trees or life on land. For awhile, it seems almost like we had a cool water planet with large and complex sea creatures and it became a boring land planet until dinosaurs. I suppose that there doesn’t have to be perfect positive linear progress in complexity of life for it to be part of an orderly process. But, what if we have a situation where the climate drove the evolution completely backwards? For example, imagine a planet that in the beginning was so well suited for life that it quickly evolves human level complex life in a matter of 100 million years(which may sound slow but it’s actually incredibly fast for human level life to evolve). Over time, the planet becomes less suited for life and life becomes less complex to adapt to the harsher climate(assuming that simpler life forms are better for the particular harsh climate of that planet). It very quickly evolves to sapient beings but then gradually reduces down to very simple sentient beings and then to merely vegetation and finally to single cell bacteria. Would such descending evolution be representative of life also? Would the single cell bacteria which is the last organism to survive in the end count as life?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.3k
    Mitochondria are semi-automomous "beings" that live inside everyone of our cells. They migrate from the mother's cells to the unborn foetus in the early stages of "life", but are themselves no living because they can have no existence outside of the cell.Sculptor

    So is it fair to observe that humans cannot be alive, because they can have no existence outside of an oxygen-rich atmosphere?
  • Sculptor
    41
    What are you talking about?
    Is this some sort of twisted attempt at an analogy?
    If that is the case it is very poor indeed.
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.3k
    No, it's an application of your reasoning to a slightly different circumstance. That something cannot be considered alive if it can't live outside the environment it needs to survive (!) is something from which I can wrest no sense.
  • Sculptor
    41
    No the analogy is poor since oxygen is common to all things, and quite different from the co-dependancy of mitochondria and animals.
    Oxygen is not dependent on life, nor is it a candidate for life in any sense.
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.3k
    the analogy is poorSculptor

    I wasn't offering an analogy, but only applying your ideas elsewhere to see if they work there.

    oxygen is common to all things, and quite different from the co-dependancy of mitochondria and animalsSculptor

    Then we humans are not alive, by your reckoning, for we cannot survive without the various foreign living creatures that share 'our' bodies with us*. It's so text-book it's almost a definition of symbiosis (co-dependency)! :smile:

    * - I don't only mean mitochondria, although my reasoning applies there too, but (for example) gut bacteria, without which we cannot digest the food we eat.
  • Matias
    42
    One could say that X is alive if X is capable of Darwinian evolution (with its three basic principles "Variation - reproduction - selection")
  • Sculptor
    41
    Please have the courtesy to read what I said.

    Oxygen is not a candidate. The question is mitochondria?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.3k
    Oxygen is not a candidate. The question is mitochondria?Sculptor

    Mitochondria are semi-automomous "beings" that live inside everyone of our cells. They migrate from the mother's cells to the unborn foetus in the early stages of "life", but are themselves no living because they can have no existence outside of the cell.Sculptor

    You stated that mitochondria are "no living" because they cannot exist outside of the conditions they need to survive. I responded by suggesting that this applies to humans too.

    So is it fair to observe that humans cannot be alive, because they can have no existence outside of an oxygen-rich atmosphere?Pattern-chaser

    Maybe I erred in providing too much detail? I mentioned an "oxygen-rich atmosphere" when perhaps I should only have referred generally to an environment which contains the things necessary for human survival. Of course oxygen is not a candidate! :roll:
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