What is Life?

Only by answering questions that challenge our limitations can we truly reinforce and validate our understanding of both ourselves and the world around us. One such question is this: “What is life?”. Stated more precisely, it is: “What distinguishes living things from nonliving things?”.

First, we’ll establish restrictions. Life cannot be described as the set of all animated beings consisting of cells which perform certain functions, containing specific features. This characterization of life is satisfactory as far as we know but there is no reason to suppose that the absence of cell necessarily means that the being or object in question is not alive. As such, this answer is not really pertinent to the fundamental understanding of life and is instead an easy experimental and experimentally obtained way to determine if an object in question is life as we know it. While we are interested in many interpretations of the concept “life”, to get anywhere with logic we must have a concrete definition to base arguments upon. So I will use Dictionary.com‘s definition of life, as follows.

the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally.

And I provide the definition of organisms as well.

a form of life composed of mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes.

And life, the premise of this post.

any complex thing or system having properties and functions determined not only by the properties and relations of its individual parts, but by the character of the whole that they compose and by the relations of the parts to the whole.

From this, I wish to say that humans can create life from nonliving material. For instance, we can build a robot that is, under this definition, considered living. First, this creation must manifest the definition of life: Growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally. This is all possible for a robot to achieve, albeit a very sophisticated one. Second, this creation must be “organic”. We can only conclude that human beings with sufficient technology can synthesize what can only be considered life itself.

We already have huge advancements in artificial intelligence, robotic, and genetics. We understand the fundamental workings of cellular life and manipulate DNA as well as functions. We have bits of code that can generate its own mathematical discoveries (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automated_Mathematician). Our robots are now able to do jobs that were originally reserved for only the most skilled workers. With these advances in mind, it is reasonable that we will eventually be able to merge this knowledge together to create something that satisfies the above definition of life.

There is a fundamental and disconcerting thing here. I personally believe in the notion of a supreme being, of there existing a God. The creation of life seems to be something inextricably tied to God, and when we think of this supreme being we usually think primarily of them as our creator. So to claim that humans are able to create life is to put humans on the level of God, no? Part of an argument for the existence of God is that, because we have the idea of a supreme being, therefore we must have been created by a supreme being so as to possess that idea. In other words, a being cannot create another being (or an idea) that is more perfect than itself. From this framework, then, it is not unreasonable to assert that humans are capable of creating life, for this is just stating that we have the ability to extend this hierarchy one step further. God can create anything but we can only create life that is inferior to us.

The point of all this is to illustrate that the definition of life as given by the dictionary above is both satisfactory and complete. For certainly it encompasses cellular life, including all the life on Earth. The digression on our ability to create life served to give more evidence of the plausibility of this definition and debunk a possible criticism. We have only to give a definition that is satisfactory and complete in order to answer the question. And I have not completely resolved (I would have to consider the infinite number of cases where the definition could fail) but have given evidence that the definition is indeed true and satisfactory.


2 thoughts on “What is Life?

  1. Pingback: Can you touch an idea? | le Panacea

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