Re: life vs. non-life

From: Technotranscendence (
Date: Thu Jan 25 2001 - 00:05:05 MST

On Wednesday, January 24, 2001 5:02 PM denis bider
> > associate different functional characteristics
> > with "life" and "nonlife".
> Oh yes, another question. What would these different functional
> characteristics be? Ie, how does 'life' differ from 'non-life', other than
> by definition?

I would offer one, at least. Life is self-generated, goal-directed action.
I'm only putting this out as a working definition. I would say that the
self-generated part is to distinguish life from, say, a rock rolling
downhill. The rock is acting, but not in a self-generated fashion. It's
motion is very unlike, e.g., that of plant turning it leaves toward the
light. "Goal-directed" because some actions have no goal, such as, to use
the same example, the rock's internal changes as it ages. The plant's
turning of leaves is directed toward its continued flourishing. Whether the
rock reaches the bottom of the hill or undergoes chemical changes really
does not change it much as a rock.

Anyway, this my offering, actually borrowed much from Rand, Binswanger, and

> To me, it seems that things are the way they are; little more can be said
> about them. If you label something 'life' or 'non-life', that doesn't seem
> to me to mean a thing. Labeling something as 'alive' only means that you
> view it another way, in a way that might facilitate deeper insight (or
> it doesn't change the nature of that thing.

Labeling something does not change its nature. Big surprise!:) The thing
is one classifies things in hopes of understanding something about them
better. And one does not always have to have an explicit definition to do
this. For instance, though I do not have a rock solid definition of
"planet," I can classify Mars and Earth as planets and not, say, stars.
Surely, there are borderline cases. Is a brown dwarf really a planet or a
star? What about transneptunian objects? Still, even with this rough
categorization, I can see there are certain salient differences -- such as
mass, energy production, composition -- between planets and stars -- even if
the line between them is hard to draw.

Also, as more information is gathered, I might have to change my
classifications a little or a lot. For instance, I started with Mars and
Earth. How would Jupiter fit into this scheme? It's mass is much more than
that of either Mars or Earth. Its composition is very different too. Does
this suddenly nullify the differences I noticed between the Earth/Mars and
stars like the Sun? No, but it puts them in a wider context. As my
knowledge [hopefully] grows, my definitions will become better -- more
finely tuned.

One should not start with the notion that definitions are only good if they
are some kind of static, eternal, Platonic Forms that must be offered up a
priori or not at all.

> Or am I wrong? Is there a fundamental difference between 'life' and
> 'non-life'? If so, what is the magic limit between 'life' and 'non-life'?
> I'm not aware of any definition that provides a clean cut. But maybe that
> just my lack of knowledge, maybe there is such a magical definition?

Using "magical" here kind of tells me you are not serious.

Definitions need not be clear cut to be helpful or to reflect real
differences. It may be hard to show where the valley ends and the mountain
begins, but this doesn't negate that there is a difference.


Daniel Ust
    Film recommendation: "The Color of Paradise."

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