If philosophy is not practical philosophy, it is not philosophy! Friends often ask me why I bother with subjects that are irrelevant to real life when I have this or that speculation posted here in mind. And by asking me such questions, they pretend to know what life is, otherwise they would not insinuate that I am engaged in something that is not part of real life.
To ask the question about life is a fundamental question of our existence. To be exact: It is a fundamental question only for the human being as a conscious being. We would be practically alive even if we did not understand what life really is. In fact, those who think (rationalize) too much often have a worse life compared to those who simply live and do not care. It is therefore not surprising that intellectuals are more like a stone (sturdy but not alive) than an amoeba. Life is antifragile, intellectuals are not.
This post will not answer the question of life‘s identity. Brandlife has humbly opened and partially closed the question of the life of brands. Homonism reveals the life specifications of individuals. So let us get a taste by asking a few questions.
Where do you find the boundary between the living part of nature and another part, which is called the dead part of nature? Just as Nassim Nicholas Taleb could not find an antonym (opposite) of fragile, life has no antonym. Death is not an antonym for life, that is for sure.
The definition of life is: “objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes” (Wikipedia) or, in more biological terms, objects with reproductive and autocatalytic functions.
Life is in the realm of multicellular organisms and extends down” to bacteria, viruses, genes, prions … and further down to computer viruses … Is it? Are computer viruses alive?
How low does life really reach down? (And how high, too.) Is the cosmos alive? We tend to think of rocks as robust, but not alive. We also tend not to think of computer programs as alive. Look at the interesting open-source program Golly game of life, which simulates life. Does it?
Intelligence is not an agent
If the output of a computer program is something living, and if that living acquires intelligence, then that artificial intelligence becomes an agent. And as has been demonstrated elsewhere in this blog, it is action that makes something a legal entity, not intelligence. So it is crucial to understand life for very practical reasons. Even if we avoid the question of when exactly does a fetus become alive? Or when it becomes an individual? I hope you can see that pro–life advocates can never agree with pro-abortion advocates. It is not the same issue they are addressing.
But let us make the question of where to find life even more interesting. If you relate the concept of extended phenotype to the behavior of complex systems, then it is not difficult to find life throughout matter, throughout the universe. Not metaphorically! If cell phones are our extended phenotypes (extended sensory system, extended memory, extended …), and their sensations are properties they have as complex systems, then life goes far beyond any graveyard.
In a parallel with decentralized brain functions (where do “I” live) and in a parallel with the question of the boundary between bodies (phenotype and extended phenotype), we should consider the Gaia concept (Lovelock) not only feasible, but even too unambitious. Even in this universe and of course even more so in the dimension of the multiverse.
While it is not yet possible to attribute agency to cell phones, Dawkins attributed agency to genes. And while Lovelock did not attribute any real agency to Gaia, various religions did. Such a parallel, however, proves nothing. But from the primordial soup the emergence of life could not be brought about at all. So it is wise to mock neither genes nor religions.
This is the fifth revision of the original text from 2010.