A possible definition of life.

James Foster foster at skink.cs.uidaho.edu
Mon Apr 21 11:11:20 EST 1997


In article <m0wJE9u-0004XxC at uctmail2.uct.ac.za> ed at MOLBIOL.UCT.AC.ZA ("Ed Rybicki") writes:


   > In article <m0wHUt6-0004OBC at uctmail2.uct.ac.za> ed at MOLBIOL.UCT.AC.ZA ("Ed Rybicki") writes:
   > 

   The phenomenon is life: it is associated with the very act of 
   replication of entities that encode themselves - like us, or viruses 
   (analogue or digital).  

What is this "it" that is associated with "the very act"?  You say
you're proposing a definition, but instead give us a description of
something associated with the thing being defined.

	Your photocopier is not alive as it does 
   nothing except transcribe - it certainly doesn't make more 
   photocopiers.  Your copy programme probably can't copy itself (you 
   would almost certainly get an error to do with it being active while 
   was trying to copy itself).  It can copy another copy of itself, but 
   that isn't the same, is it?

Enter this on your unix workstation: mv 'which mv' new.copy.mv
That will replicate your copy command.  Or on DOS "copy copy.com
new.copy.com".  Your last question begs the quesion...how does another
"copy of itself" arise if not by replication? 

   > Personally, I think defining life is a fool's errand.  We're not
   > really interested in "what is life".  Ed is interested in how viruses
   > do what they do.  Alife people are interested in algorithms which
   > display interesting behaviors.  You don't have to define the term to
   > justify what you do, or even as a prerequisite to doing it.

   Of course you don't: but as intelligent apes, we are driven 
   inexorably to try to find reasons for things, and definitions to 
   order things.  Personally I don't give a damn, but it is an 
   interesting philosophical exercise (Damn!  There went the P word, 
   after I've been rubbishing it these many years.  Ah, well, and I used 
   not to be a taxonomist, either...).

Actually, I think the need to "define" is a holdover from our anal age
of enlightenment.  The idea that definition has to precede discover
is, too.  Taxonomy has it's place, but it is inherently a posteriori!

btw...I used to be a philosopher, and I got out of it precisely
because of this sort of stuff.  It's easy to spend your whole life
talking about what you should be talking about, and in the end the
only thing that gets done is...lots of talking.
-- 
James A. Foster			email: foster at cs.uidaho.edu
Laboratory for Applied Logic	Dept. of Computer Science
University of Idaho		http://www.cs.uidaho.edu/~foster

pgp key available at: ftp://ftp.cs.uidaho.edu/pub/foster/pgp-key.asc



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