Does life exist?

I’ve mentioned that I often find myself musing on an original thought only to find, after a month or so, that someone grabs attention by publishing the same idea, usually in some sort of “respected” journal or web site. A lesser man might be upset with the psychic theft of his ideas, but not me. I’m happy to provide my musings for the good of mankind.

Not long ago I was thinking about how we define the notion of life. For instance, we define a grasshopper as alive and a rock as not. But, the more you reduce living things to their tiny components, the more they appear similar to non-living things. All of us—living and dead—are made up of molecules which themselves are made up of atoms which can be broken down to quantum particles. If we are all made up of essentially the same stuff, why are some things alive and some dead?

You might say, “because living things move,” but of course so do remote controlled cars. And some non-living things don’t move for eons.

In a blog entitled “Why Life Does Not Really Exist” science writer Ferris Jabr takes this ball and runs with it, doing a much better job with the topic than I could. Ultimately here arrives here:

Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.

My sentiments exactly! But Jabr then fails to explore the dark questions this raises. Modern ethics and morality are all based on the assumption that life is something… a vital force, a soul, whatever. How do we then accommodate our moral concepts with the view that life is not real. Why is it wrong for me to roll a steamroller over a baby (e.g. a collection of molecules) but not a log (e.g. a collection of molecules)? These sorts of questions are, I think, going to be the difficult problems of the coming centuries.

You could accuse me of being willfully ignorant here. I don’t, of course, go through life equating people with rocks and logs. But I do ask why I don’t. Is the distinction an essentially meaningless (though, from an evolutionary perspective, useful) one built into the human mind? Or is there a real qualitative difference between the living and non-living?


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