Saturday, 27 February 2010

What is life?

I have just lifted this comment from our companion discussion board 'Trent Philosophy'

The anonymous contributor makes a bold claim. In response to the question what makes something alive he/she claims:

'Being alive is a biological phenomenon. If it has living cells then it is alive, if not then it is not'

Two thoughts here.

1. What about viruses that don't have living cells?

2. Don't we need to, after Aristotle, recognise that what makes something alive is its ability to move under its own powers or energies. There are still, after all, lots of 'living cells' in the things that are dead!

Life is surely something that 'animates' matter in a particular way. The whole philsophical question of the nature life turns on how this is possible. Is it simply a question of how matter is organised, or it a question of the presence of some distinctive force or presence?

Neil Turnbull


  1. Two seemingly contradictory thoughts:

    1) I think a notion of life is important to maintain from a strategic point of view. It can defend the personal/social "rights" of life against being subsumed within the slightly chilling relative thinking which tends to flatten life into "just matter". From this point of view the specificity of human lives is not really important - it *is* simply a question of 'how matter is organised'.

    2) However, ontologically I find life an unhelpful concept. Precisely because it defends these "rights", it tends to segregate life from the rest of creation/existence in ways that obscure how enmeshed life is in "everything else" (geological, atmospheric, social, psychic, etc). Life as a 'distinctive force or presence' is the ruin of any attempt to think existence in a thoroughly immanent way (which I am, perhaps wrongly, assuming is the point of expanding out the definition of life in the way you describe?)

    So I think we need to find a way to maintain these two in tension. I guess it's a question of demonstrating how dispersed life is within complex and contingent creation, but doing that in such a way that we are still able to uphold the specificity and "right to life" (excuse the phrase!) of living beings as they emerge out of this complexity.

    Actual/virtual anyone...?

    PS There's a companion discussion board?

  2. Ah, so you don't have a problem with viewing a machine, computer or even, as some recent philosophers have claimed, 'information' as being in some sense 'alive'?

    If so, then the consequence of avoiding a strict definition of life is a 'weird pantheism' where everything can be viewed as alive - which, from a logical point of view, is the same as saying that 'nothing is'. Not even Spinoza thought that everything is alive!

    Also, one is still struck here by the force of what philosophers have termed 'the hard problem of consciousness'. How can consciousness exist in a body? It seems to possess qualities that cannot be understood as simply the result of a particular organisation of matter. Clearly, as consciousness is the preminent 'sub-category of life', then we need to answer this question before vitalism can be dismissed out of hand.

    Neil Turnbull

  3. Not quite. What I'm saying is that I think life is only really useful as a concept to describe biological life with living cells. I would use the term only to defend special social rights for biological life over other matter.

    I don't think a machine or information is alive, but I think they are 'animated' by the same processes as biological life. What I'm saying is that there is 'something' more fundamental than life which animates *everything*: information, computers, geology and biological life etc.

    For what it's worth though, I don't have a problem with the idea that consciousness may 'just' be a particular organisation of matter. Certainly it is more than that as it is experienced, in its affects and effects, and in a social context. But if the question is just what *generates* consciousness, I would say it is an arrangement of matter - which is itself part of the total arrangement of all matter/energy in creation. So perhaps it is a weird pantheism!

  4. The issue here, the really hard problem, is how the organisation of matter could ever produce anything like a point of view on the world, the subject as such.

    If matter itself is necessarily cognitively inert, then it is hard to see how any mere organisation of matter could produce subjectvity. Organisation can produce emergent properties, but not of a such a qualitatively different kind.

    Of course, the alternative is to say that matter is in some sense already conscious and conscious of itself. But this is a theological position in the end, and one wonders where it leads to ethically and politically. The Mars Bar liberation movement I guess!

    Neil Turnbull

  5. But don't other animals and indeed 'lower' forms of life like plants have a point of view on the world? I think the issue is one of complexity. Extremely complex systems can produce surprising emergent qualities, like life itself, and perhaps like consciousness.

  6. I think an understanding of what is alive and what is not, has always had something to do with anthropomorphism. We know that we are alive and it is a quality we inflict upon other things.

    Originally life was a honorific given to things we might consider to have a soul/spirit or some kind of will and this hasn't changed massively today. We still understand ourselves as determining the world around us and that's how we talk about other things that we consider to be alive.

    I think we're on to a dead-ender with the 'specific organisations of matter give rise to life' idea. If this were the case there's no reason to say that all life comes from the same organisation of matter, quite the contrary. It would be tantamount to going around making a list of all the things that appear alive and calling the different organisations of matter things like 'Frog', 'Human' or 'Virus'. Your just back where you started, no closer to a definition. That isn't to say I've got my own brilliant idea about what is alive, but i think it's a good question.

  7. The problems that Rob identifies are precisely why I think, to paraphrase Deleuze, 'What is Life?' is the wrong question.

    The more philosophically important question, as Neil suggested above, is what is it that is unique about human life? What (if anything) differentiates humans from other animals and from other matter?

    Animals and even plants have a point of view on the world (though it is of such a lower order of complexity that it could well be argued that it is a qualitatively different thing). Animals think.

    I would argue that human life is characterised by the capability for a very specific kind of thought. Thought which does not only pertain to present needs and desires, but goes beyond these through speculation, argument and creativity. Philosophical thought?

  8. This is a question that really interests me, and one I am engaging with at the moment, and it is a debate that I would be interested to hear your views on the following issues. In many ways, it is essential to the vocation of philosophy itself, and the specific role it ascribes to itself. If we take two examples of two major influences on philosophy in 20th
    century philosophy, phenomenology and vitalism, they both seem to sing of the same hymn sheet at least on point. The role of philosophy is resistant to mechanical reduction. In vitalism life is cannot be explained in terms of matter, in phenomenology, philosophical explanation concerns itself with the relationship of the human being with their world. Husserl’s utilization of the distinction between Leib and Korper is instructive here. This distinction is not heard as readily in English. Korper is that which refers to the physical body, its biological processes, whereas Leib refers to ‘lived’ experience, that is the world is experienced as it is lived.
    This distinction and these two trajectories imply one thing philosophy ought to be demarcated from a naturalistic account of life. In short, philosophy’s vocation is the question of what is the meaning of life rather than an explanation of life in terms of a mechanistic account, in terms of parts, elements, molecular relations etc. So for example, what Husserl calls lebenswelt or life world presents an understanding of life as a very dynamic affair. Life is an active horizon in which we live, experience our lives as lives, and our lives accompany all our decisions projects. Husserl, especially in the Crisis of the European Sciences, argues that we can have no sense of anything without it being related to a meaningful lifeword as lived. Living and life comes before a mechanistic explanation.
    Now I would like to hear what you all think about that? Can we go along with Husserl and say someone like Bergson who separates life itself and living from an explanation of biological life. Do you think this distinction is tenable? On the one hand we have brilliant and active life and on the other we have inert and lifeless matter, in another way death.

    The Hegelian in me would argue that this is a false dichotomy. One cannot separate life and death so easily and they are both mutually dependent. But this of course begs the question as to how we can think of matter or basic stuff, as being active and dynamic in the same way life is? How does stupid matter generate life as lived? There is a certainly a theological residue to this dichotomy. How can matter, our bodies and the stuff they are made of, have enough intelligence to create lived life? On the one sides we have exceptional and special human life and on the other stupid matter that requires some ‘animating spirit’ as the vitalists might say. We have a top down model rather than a bottom up.
    I think this is an interesting dilemma. I do think such a separation as a little silly though, so silly that we think of two moments of reality totally immune to each other. This repeats the crudest and most ill thought out types of Cartesianism; reality is comprised of two substances wholly distinct from each other.

  9. I would be interested in seeing how we can resolve this? I am not qualified, nor do I know enough about evolutionary biology to make an answer from that point of view. As I understand it, an evolutionary biologist would suggest that it is precisely the other way around, it is precisely matter which can generate life; evolutionary accounts of life are bottom up rather than top down. Whether we think of evolution as a philosophical question is another matter entirely.
    I do think it would be somewhat difficult to have an account of what Husserl or Bergson accounts for as life separate from the matter and stuff which we are at least on a minimal level. Death and matter is on some level implicit to our being. Indeed I think one of Heidegger’s great achievements was to bring the question of finitude and death back into the meaning of life; but as we know, Heidegger was no materialist, philosophy should not involve itself with the ‘regional ontologies’ of the sciences, despite for him that death is a phenomenon of life.
    This is such an interesting issue, it also begs ethical and political questions. If we are to give ethical guidance to someone should we recommend that someone should look to their life first and ignore their material being. Hmm, wonder what Marx would say????

  10. I guess I want to reach for my Wittgenstein here and suggest that as far as human beings are concerned life is always 'ordinary life'(the French of course already implicitly recognise this in the fact that they have two words for life: 'la vie' and 'la vecu').

    For us humans, life is only a biological phenomenon when it becomes a problem in some way (sickness etc). 'Life' in overall terms is thus simply 'what we do' - often without any reflexive deliberation. As Zen Buddhists are wont to say, 'when I eat, I eat; when I sleep, I sleep'. This is human life: it is simply the intersection of the ordinary but myserious patterns of living and the events that we have to deal with. Does this mean that 'life' is 'immaterial'? Well it certainly means that the concept is not a scientififc concept and thus is not easily translatable into scientific modes of theorisation.

    Of course the key question here is why life appears to us as ordinary, taken for granted, what is simply in front of our eyes etc. There are two ways of understanding this. One can either understand human life as some kind of 'gift'or simply as a historical 'given'. Wittgenstein opts for the latter.

    Of course this idea is also implicit in Heidegger, but in Wittgenstein it is the centrepiece of a philosophy that denies any significance to claims to transcend ordinary life.

    'Life' in this way is one of the central concepts in contemporary philosophy in many ways. For only in the context of 'life' do things possess meaning and significance.

    Neil Turnbull

  11. I think this is an interesting point. Other languages point out that the distinction between lived and biological life is not as palpable in English. The history of philosophy would also tell us that this is the case. Aristotle made a distinction between bios and zoe. For example, Agamben makes much of this. What he calls bare life is life reduced to the limits of biological determinism. It is life that is barely alive or living dead. This underlines Neil’s point except on a wider scale. Bare life is a phenomenon that is symptomatic of sickness, albeit the sickness of culture as manifested in nihilism.
    This does beg an important question. What is the role of science for philosophy? Is it something that should be kept entirely separate? I doubt even the most hard headed Cartesian immaterialist or phenomenologist would say that we should not take this into account. The contributions science and engineering has made to the world we live in are huge. By extension, the impact science has for who we are, what we do and the meaning of our lives is crucial. But in philosophical terms, how do integrate this into a philosophical mindset?

  12. It is probably not such a hard thing to do, we can think of the scientific worldview as part of our essential consideration of human life. Humans do science and participate in science and exist in relation to science. We can think of this outside of experimental science, reductionism or any activity that we account for as science. Put roughly in Heideggerean terms, life in philosophical terms is an integration of science, art and truth. What do you all think? Is there any reason ordinary life should be immune a scientific world-view.
    The key question then we talk of a soul in a material universe?

  13. I don't really understand this kind of neo-postivism. What has science to do 'with life'? Does science tell us how to live? Can it tell us how to live?

    Surely these questions are the province of the philosopher, not the scientist.

    The idea the everything has a scientific explanation is a modern hubris and it is high time it was debunked in my view.

    Neil Turnbull