Definition of life: Currently we do not have a definition for life.

Discussion on definition of life.

Hi Darshan,

You may be aware, but Erwin Schrodinger wrote What is Life?, a fairly famous inquiry into the nature of life (he was of course among the most famous ‘wave theorists’ to have ever lived :slight_smile: ). I think I read somewhere that book supposedly inspired Crick and Watson to some degree (can’t seem to remember the reference…so may be wrong).

I think you have to be careful when using some of these terms. For instance there are differences between say quantum and classical waves. Also, as De Broglie showed, we have known about matter waves for a long time. So in some sense, at a deep enough level, you could say everything is a ‘wave’ or ‘wave function’ (at least prior to observation), but this I think doesn’t explain much about life in particular. In a technical sense, one could explain life in terms of QED (assuming infinite computational power), but this doesn’t do us much good right now. So somehow you have to have a reducible theory that can make predictions which can be tested (or…you could do as the string theorists do and not worry about making testable predictions :slight_smile: …in which case you will need a whole boatload of fancy math!).

I suppose I am just encouraging you to try to formalize your definition (in mathematical terms). Part of your definition is: ‘has a system that fetches energy from the environment’, this I think requires further definition. What is a ‘system’, what is the boundary between that which ‘has’ and the ‘environment’?

Overall, without a mathematical formalization, I would find these types of definitions hard to reason about in a precise way.

I’m happy to provide a few comments (though I am quite overburdened time wise currently and so cannot comment in depth). In general, I think these definitions (of life) are often too broad. For instance a self driving car would I think fit your description: it certainly creates a disturbance, and it’s easy to see how it could pump its own gas, and so also has a system for harnessing energy from the environment…so is it alive? Typically the definition of system is more specific, alluding to some idea of metabolism.

Words mean different things to different people, and so while I think it’s a great exercise to build these concepts conceptually with natural language, I would not call these precise scientific definitions (even NASA’s definition would change if we found new or better explanations of life–for example it might include CRN’s (chemical reaction networks) as a more precise description).

So as an independent researcher (and there are many of us here), if this is something you are passionate about, I would encourage you to learn some of these other languages, maybe CRN’s in particular. I would not worry about academic contacts, I have them, and they are of little if any help! :slight_smile:

I did not read your article, but your definition sounds very similar to the one proposed by Lovelok: something that takes energy from the environment to preserve itself and locally reduces entropy. :slightly_smiling_face:

Your definition is great and you’re right to be confident, but it’s not new. As far as I know, NASA already uses this definition to detect life in other planets.

there should be a number of islamic scientific definitions… would find them out in my next reading cycle of this forum… :slight_smile:

Did the professor reply?

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Hello, I don’t feel competent to comment on your definition, @Darshan_Govindaraj but since I have also been looking for definitions of life (and continuing to do so) it might be helpful or interesting for you if I share some sources here. The order is random and I’d like to increase the list with more references if that is okay and meaningful for those reading this.

  • Erwin Schrödinger was already mentioned by @grant
  • James Lovelock’s definition was referred to by @lucia.tamburino
  • Lynn Margulis wrote a book with Dorion Sagan called “What is life?” where they end each chapter with a different definition of life.
  • Guenter Witzany defines life in terms of Biocommunication:

“Primarily, life is a process. …Living nature is structured and organized by language and communication within and among organisms, viruses, and RNA networks.”

Biocommunication is an elaboration of Biosemiotics, see e.g. Kalevi Kull.

  • Evan Thompson explains why he refrains from defining life as a thing:

"By asking “what is living?” instead of “what is life?” I mean to build on these analyses [by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Ezequiel Di Paolo, John Protevi, Donn Welton] by shifting attention away from life as an object or natural kind or abstract pattern, in order to focus on living as a process. By “process” I mean modes of change having phases and rhythms, in which we can recognize dynamic patterns of individuation and behavior—following Merleau-Ponty and Simondon —as well as existential structures—following Jonas.]

and defines:

“living is sense-making in precarious conditions”

with the conclusion:

What is important to me is not to fix the meanings of the words or concepts “matter,” “life,” “mind,” “cognition,” and so on— this effort would be misguided, since the richness of these words comes from their irreducible polysemy. Rather, my aim is to see whether we can chart multiple passages back and forth between those orders that we conceptualize, in different ways and at different times, as matter, life, and mind.

  • Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela come from systems theory and coined the term autopoiesis:

“Living systems are units of interactions; they exist in an ambience. From a purely biological point of view they cannot be understood independently of that part of the ambience with which they interact: the niche; nor can the niche be defined independently of the living system that specifies it.” (from: Autopoiesis and Cognition The Realization of the Living, 1980)

This and the following quote come from a recent article by Natalia Zdorovtsova in Varsity: “What is Life? A Crash Course to Autopoiesis”:

According to Maturana and Varela, something that is autopoietic, and therefore living, possesses the following qualities (as detailed in Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi’s book “The Systems View of Life”):

  1. Self-maintenance: living things exist as bounded systems that regulate their own internal states. Aside from the incoming of nutrients from the environment and the expulsion of waste, living things autonomously maintain their own structural integrity.
  2. Nonlocalisation (and emergence): living things are not defined by their units; it is not our cells which make us alive, but rather, the properties that emerge from interactions between units at every level of our biological makeup (proteins, cells, organs, etc.).
  3. Interaction with the environment: living things take information from their environments and integrate it within the context of their own structural constraints.

Bergson’s primary question [in Creative Evolution and Creative Mind] concerns what constitutes organic life. (…) Life is, for Bergson, an extension and elaboration of matter through attenuating divergence or difference. Matter functions through the capacity of objects to be placed side-by-side, to be compared, contrasted, aligned, returned to their previous states. Relations between objects are external, a reflection of their relative positions in space. By contrast, in life, Bergson suggests, states are never external to each other, readily separable through a kind of discontinuity or connected only by juxtaposition. They are never directly divisible or separable, they do not admit degrees of magnitude, they interpenetrate without clear distinction. Bergson suggest that within consciousness – to which all forms of life tend in varying degrees – there can be no prolongation of a state which is not at the same time a change in state. (…) Life is not some mysterious alternative force, an other to matter, but the elaboration and expansion of matter, the force of concentration, winding or folding up that matter unwinds or unfolds. Organic life is a difference in kind from matter, but a difference that utilizes the same resources, the same forces, the same mobilities characterizing the material order.

Deleuze seems to be seeking a new understanding of life that does not tie it to recognizable forms and contours but to its own outside. He is concerned with the ‘life’ of events, and the continuities and connection that run between what is conventionally divided between the living and the non-living rather than those which distinguish them. He is less interested in life as lived, experienced, than he is in that part of life which cannot be lived by a subject. (…)

He seeks a concept of life that elaborates a pure impersonality, a singularity without identity. This is the kind of singularity a life shares, not with the material world as a whole, but with non-living events, self-actualized and unpredictable emergences, which are also absolutely singular without individuality, without identity or given form. This is the life the living share with the weather, the ocean, gravitational forces, even the chemical transformations out of which they are formed and to which they return; and it is this shared life, aligning life with non-living forces, that provides the condition under which life creates, makes, invents, that is, adds to the non-living a new force of virtuality, new singularities.

For Simondon, individuation is a concept of being in which becoming is the most fundamental force. Individuation is the working out of a quasi-Bergsonian ontology that extends non-life into life itself, that regards life and its relations to non-life not through its substance or form but through its temporality or becoming (…) (T)he individual is only one stage, a provisional product, within a larger movement of elaboration which gathers forces of disparate and incompatible, sometimes incommensurable dimensions that can only be resolved, if at all, in the creation of an individual which narrows down and provisionally harmonizes these disparities through a kind of unification, a ‘metastable equilibrium,’ a systematization or cohesion of some of their forces.

  • Ivan Illich (p.227) as a historian brings a completely new perspective by tracing back the origins of the word bios:

The concept of life does not exist in Greco-Roman antiquity: bios means the course of a destiny and zoe something close to the brilliance of aliveness. In Hebrew, the concept is utterly theo-centric, an implication of god`s breath.

The term ‘biology’ was coined early in the nineteenth century by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. (…) He postulated the existence of life that distinguished living beings from inorganic matter, not by visible structure but by organization. Since Lamarck, biology searches for the ‘stimulating cause of organization’ and its localization in tissues, cells, protoplasm, the genetic code or morphogenetic fields. ‘What is life?’ is, therefore, not a perennial question but the pop-science counterfoil to scientific research reports on a mixed bag of phenomena such as reproduction, physiology, heredity, organization, evolution and, more recently, feedback and morphogenesis.

  • In his book Modes of Thought (lectures seven and eight) Alfred North Whitehead comes to a similar conclusion - that the question “what is life?” is to be seen in a historical context rather than in an ontological:

The status of life in nature (…) is the modern problem of philosophy and of science. Indeed it is the central meeting point of all the strains of systematic thought, humanistic, naturalistic, philosophic. The very meaning of life is in doubt. When we understand it, we shall also understand its status in the world. But its essence and its status are alike baffling.

A dead nature aims at nothing. It is the essence of life that it exists for its own sake, as the intrinsic reaping of value. (…) Now as a first approximation the notion of life implies a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment. This must mean a certain immediate individuality, which is a complex process of appropriating into a unity of existence the many data presented as relevant by the physical processes of nature. Life implies the absolute, individual self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation. I have, in my recent writings, used the word ‘prehension’ to express this process of appropriation. Also I have termed each individual act of immediate self-enjoyment an ‘occasion of experience’.

We must add yet another character to our description of life. This missing characteristic is ‘aim’. By this term ‘aim’ is meant the exclusion of the boundless wealth of alternative potentiality, and the inclusion of that definite factor of novelty which constitutes the selected way of entertaining those data in that process of unification.

Thus the characteristics of life are absolute self-enjoyment, creative activity, aim. (…)

Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature: Science can find no aim in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. These negations are true of Natural Science. They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of Physical Science lies in the fact that such Science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience. It (…) examines the coat, which is superficial, and neglects the body which is fundamental.

Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding. Yet there is a danger in such reflections. An immediate good is apt to be thought of in the degenerate form of a passive enjoyment. Existence is activity ever merging into the future. The aim at philosophic understanding is the aim at piercing the blindness of activity in respect to its transcendent functions.

And here I think one should take a look at Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism”. One might e.g. start here with Peter Sjöstedt-H’s article The Philosophy of Organism in Philosophy Now:

For Whitehead the bifurcation of the world into organic and inorganic is also false. Consider descending a line of complexity from Homo sapiens to starfish, to cells, to DNA molecules, to less complex molecules, to atoms, and then to the subatomic. For Whitehead this descent is towards what he calls ‘actual entities’ or ‘actual occasions’, or ‘occasions of experience’, which we might think of as ontologically non-composite events.

Whitehead asserts everything to be organic. As he succinctly puts it: “Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms” (Science and the Modern World, VI, 1925). The in/organic division is then ultimately false, sanctioned by the purported mechanical universe idea, once again resulting from Descartes’ mind/matter split. Most importantly here, to Whitehead, actual entities have a degree of sentience – of awareness, feeling and purpose – as do systems, or ‘societies’ as he names them, that are organically constructed from actual entities.