What is life?

Let me return to the Owen Flanagan quote (first posted here), now including a few additional sentences:

Three of the greatest perplexities are these: First, why is there something rather than nothing? How is it possible that there is anything at all? Second, how is it possible that among the stuff that exists there is life? Third, how is it possible that some living things are conscious?

Alongside and intimately related to the questions of how these things are possible in the first place are questions about the nature of these things: what is the nature of what there is (the stuff comprising the universe), of life, and of consciousness?
(The Science of the Mind, 2nd ed., chapter 8.)

Unexamined assumptions lie in back of many of our disagreements. In this case, we have been discussing the origins of life, implicitly assuming that we all know what life is. But, as Flanagan points out, the nature of the things under discussion (matter, life, consciousness) are not self-evident.

The naturalist view of life is articulated in accessible language by Maitland Edey and Donald Johanson. There is precious little difference between life and non-life, they claim:

There is no edge, only a gray area, a continuum. The slide from the nonliving to the living is not sudden. It is plaguingly gradual, and it is noticed in chemistry by the coming together of certain elements that are labeled — for definition’s sake — organic molecules, although they are far from being alive. However they are the precursors.

Life appears to depend, not on some magic elixir, but on the organization of those chemicals in new ways, in slightly more complex ways in which atoms would not ordinarily glue themselves together. They do so when they have picked up bits of energy to hold them together in those unusual ways — and even attract to them other units. …

Once life is seen as an artificial holding together of matter that otherwise would not be so held, then the nature of death becomes easier to comprehend. It is broken bonds. …

Life, it may be said, starts with odd chemical assemblages and is kept in business by supplies of raw materials and energy to hold those assemblages together.
(Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution, pp. 256-57)

Naturalists reduce life to this: “an artificial holding together of matter that otherwise would not be so held”. Implicit here is an awareness of complexity: organic molecules are mysteriously held together in unusually complex combinations.

The problem of life’s origins thus reduces to, How did this degree of complexity get established in the first place?

In response, I can only observe that such a definition of life is counterintuitive: i.e., contrary to our everyday assumptions. Most of us think in dualistic terms. For most of us, life consists where matter is joined to an immaterial element: a “self” (spirit, soul, mind, consciousness — pick your preferred term).

The concept is neatly captured in the phrase, “the ghost in the machine”. This is “British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s derogatory description for René Descartes’ mind-body dualism,” according to Wikipedia.

The phrase may have been intended as a slight, but it expresses the intuition most of us have about life. It doesn’t utilize the language of any specific religion (which would beg too many questions). And it also hints at an important point: that the naturalist account of life reduces man to a mere machine. Man does not possess even the dignity of an animal, which is the usual charge levelled against against evolutionists.

In this post, I merely want to point out that we’ve been discussing the origins of life without first determining what life is.

For life to arise naturally1 is improbable enough even if we assume the naturalist’s arguably reductionist definition of life. If, on the other hand, the dualistic notion of “the ghost in the machine” is accurate, naturalism would seem to be completely without foundation.

In his comments on a previous post, John argued that there is some probability (albeit vanishingly small) that life could come about naturally. Jamie and I replied that any such calculation of probability rested on a prior, unproven assumption about what life is.


1Michael (aka Snaars) has objected to my use of the word “naturally”, and the alternative, “spontaneously”, which was also used in a few comments. Here I continue to use “natural” as a convenient way to refer to naturalist explanation of life’s origins. Substitute another term if you prefer.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 24, 2007 @ 20:55:37

    I don’t remember objecting to the use of the word “naturally.” Maybe there was some contextual reason for my doing so. When I objected to the word “spontaneously,” my point was that in arguments from probability many people neglect to hold in mind that scientific explanations presuppose that nature operates non-randomly, according to fixed laws we can discover.

    I don’t know if describing life as “an artificial holding together of matter” is very useful for the purposes of answering the question of how life arises. There’s a lot of vagueness built in to the definition. What is “artificial?” Doesn’t the use of the word presuppose that life is non-natural?

    What is “holding together?” Are we saying that organic molecules are held together in a fundamentally different way, or by different forces, than are non-living molecules? It doesn’t seem like that’s what Flanigan means, since that would fly in the face of known science, and he notes that not all organic molecules are “alive.” There may be an equivocation here – he notes that the molecules are held together in a complex way, and then focuses on the actual holding together as the relevant characteristic, rather than the complexity, itself.

    The fascinating thing about consciousness is that it is so disassociated from the processes that seem to sustain it. I don’t identify my thoughts with the bioelectrical activity of my brain, and yet science tells me that my thoughts are dependent on this activity, of which I am totally unaware. The best explanation probably has to do with supervenience.


  2. Jamie
    Jan 27, 2007 @ 11:09:10

    There is no edge, only a gray area, a continuum. The slide from the nonliving to the living is not sudden. It is plaguingly gradual […].

    I can see this in one sense, but in another sense, the difference between life and non-life is decidedly NOT just a matter of a continuum. As I understand it, there are certain points on the “continuum” that involve significant leaps that can’t easily be smoothed out.

    For example, all living things have DNA. Is there a gradual slide from no DNA to actually having DNA? I’m not aware of anything like that. But if there is no gradual slide, then the appearance of DNA is a major jump. How would something like DNA just occur? How would something non-living spontaneously start replicating itself? And would information suddenly appear out of a void of information?

    Painting life as a mere continuum is rather misleading, and seems to me to obscure the fundamental problems at issue.


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