defining life

There are smart people working very hard to say for sure what can and cannot be known. They deserve credit for this effort, and since Glenn Beck is busy doing other things (maybe trying to invent a meat popsicle!), I'll just give them a mention here.

One of the chief problems with the modern world is deciding what is credible. With every side being treated equally so as not to say, insult someone's irrational belief that they will vanish from their bumper sticker-bedecked Astro van, it's easy to imagine a young mind that looks around it and wonders what secret currency it is that allows so much fractious logic. Is this the force of history bearing down like a heavy stone?

The part of credibility I find most fearsome comes in the form of a question: are these questions resolved in young minds before they can be properly comprehended? And I have to assume based on what people grow up into that the answer isn't no. Before I knew the word "cloying", I just had a vague bad feeling sometimes. Later I found out that it was because the music of Air Supply is not the natural state of things and I could sense the disconnection between it and my life, and it was bad, but in a way that wasn't personal; it just made me want to destroy radio stations. This is a great example of how destruction and blaming others is semi-positive and healthy, and also that words mean something. And without a modicum of intellectual rigor to navigate meaning in different senses and situations, all that's left is a vague bad feeling. I have no love for anyone who chooses the latter over the former, but can they be blamed? This is as yet unresolved, but what's not unresolved is right here in this 2002 paper which was news to me. The abstract:

There is no broadly accepted definition of ‘life.’ Suggested definitions face problems, often in the form of robust counter-examples. Here we use insights from philosophical investigations into language to argue that defining ‘life’ currently poses a dilemma analogous to that faced by those hoping to define ‘water’ before the existence of molecular theory. In the absence of an analogous theory of the nature of living systems, interminable controversy over the definition of life is inescapable.

...interminable controversy over the definition of life is inescapable. We can send the parade of ethics panelists and commentators from news "shows" (the new 64,000 dollar pyramid?) back to the cow states from which they so enthusiastically barnstormed.

The paper


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