Why Life Does Not Really Exist | Brainwaves, Scientific American Blog Network

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.

via Why Life Does Not Really Exist | Brainwaves, Scientific American Blog Network.

Like so many things, I think the correct way to put this is that thinking of life as a distinct process is a mistake.  Life definitely exists, but the dividing line between what is and is not alive, like what is and is not conscious, is a convention rather than an ontological reality.


5 thoughts on “Why Life Does Not Really Exist | Brainwaves, Scientific American Blog Network

  1. Reblogged this on Hunt FOR Truth on wordpress and commented:
    isn’t this interesting that so many article pop up stating that life may not be real. Of course its real. We are living it. Living is reality. We may study living forever is how I prefer to understand living. I like that living is infinitely complex enough to always be fascinating.
    ~ Eric


  2. Reminiscent of the taste of philosophical deconconstructionism I got reading Peter Rollins at HP. Not to my taste, but I did find a site that promises to break philosophy down into “manageable chunks”. There may be hope for me yet.


  3. Well, of course “life” is a concept in the sense that it is a word with a cluster of associations. Just as “tree” is a concept because of its association with many objects that share certain properties. But that doesn’t mean that “life” and “tree” don’t exist. Similarly, the dividing line between “life” and “not-life” may be fuzzy in some instances–viruses for instance–but that also doesn’t mean life doesn’t exist, much as the divider between “tall” and “short” may be debatable but the terms are still meaningful. The nature and limits of language should not be confused with the nature and limits of what is real, it seems to me.


    1. I agree, but I also understand what Jabr is trying to say. Life isn’t a fundamental aspect of reality. Of course, you could say that for just about anything. A tree is a collection of atoms, which are collections of elementary particles, which themselves may be strings, field excitations, or who knows what. Ultimately it may all be emergent; it may be structure all the way down.

      None of that means concepts like ‘life’ and ‘tree’ aren’t productive. Just that they’re natural processes like stars, crystals, or clay, albeit more complex in some ways.


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