What is life? What is death?

This is a pretty cool video showing the illusory distinction between life and non-life.

via Sean Carroll


17 thoughts on “What is life? What is death?

  1. Great video. Still, I believe that there is a subtle difference between live things and dead things. Whether life exists seems to be a similar argument to whether there is free will. Although, it is true that “living” things consist of “dead” matter and all “choices” are “predetermined” by something, it is still convenient to draw a distinction, just like it is convenient to separate in our mind contents from the book and software from hardware.


      1. After all, distinctions and similarities exist only in our mind. They make definitions and analysis possible. If we generalize too much, we can say that all universe is one. If we analyze too much, we will conclude that all atoms are different from one another. Although both statements may be considered technically true, they are hardly useful. The level of granularity or generalization depends on what we try to achieve.

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  2. Is it really possible to define life using ‘dead’ matter? There is another way to think of it, life is a process, not an aspect of the matter involved at all. If life can organize, it can also be seen as efficient ways to waste energy – more specifically, efficient ways to bring on the heat death of the universe – or – efficient ways to disipate the energy released at the big bang singularity. Life is chemical reactions designed to disipate energy efficiently. Sharks are good at this, mindless eating machines. Ants are pretty damned good at it too. That said, humans get a gold star for destroying (wasting/using) the stored energy of this planet in every way we can find.

    The process of energy decay post-singularity is … ermmm… life. That is why we see/find life in every nook and cranny on this planet and might have just found some evidence of past ‘life’ on Mars. Life is not designed, it is a natural effect of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. A universe such as the one we are in which had no life would be a cunundrum.


    1. I agree that life is a process, but so is a star, a hurricane, or many other natural phenomena. We tend to call complex natural processes that resemble us, “life”. My favorite definition of life is “reproduction with occasional variation”, but like all definitions, it’s not perfect, and is unavoidably arbitrary.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “The goal is…”

    There is no ‘goal’ that we know of. The appearance of a goal, in anything, is an anthropomorphic interpretation, as interpreted by an accumulation of dead stuff that defines itself as being alive; dead stuff that in a localised complex mass does stuff, including apparent decision making, acting. It’s brain stuff does things like, sensing and acting in the world, and then sensing and acting on its own sensing and acting. So, ‘what does if feel like’ to be a lump of brain stuff that self-monitors, that self-monitors its own self-monitoring, that formulates models of the world and of itself, that fails to see the physical process of this in detail in its own brain stuff, that cannot detect its own brain stuff working? It feels like THIS! Our self, identity, personhood – this is what it feels like to be a lump of living stuff that has fallen for its own delusion of its own agency. We are not something that has some magical agency; rather ‘agency’ is the label we give to stuff that does THIS, this thing that we do.

    Historically ‘life’ seemed an obvious barrier, when looking at animals. And plants seemed to be something along the same lines, but not quite. Some mystics may have imagined that plants had souls, as well as all animals. But throughout all this history we couldn’t see on a small enough scale to be aware of were the boundary lay in detail. The demarkation between life and non-life on the macro scale looks pretty obvious. But that’s because by the time life gets to a size we can see it is already way beyond where any real barrier might lie – everything we can see unaided is already very complex.

    Only examining the ever small scale does it become apparent that the barrier is arbitrary, unreal, or fuzzy. It becomes harder to define life the more we know about how fuzzy the boundary is.

    But still we wrestle with the ‘theory of mind’ that we may have evolved to use as a model for other humans and other species. It may simply be a difficulty of coming to terms with the arbitrary barrier when our brains are programmed by evolution to perceive a barrier.

    I agree that the ‘model’ of live v non-live may be useful. But we have many models that we appreciate are not universal representations of reality. There’s nothing wrong with using various models. We use models like sunsets and sunrises, even though now we know the earth rotates in front of a local star. As agrudzinsky says, free will is a convenient model, even though we think it makes no sense when used in the context of a mechanistic universe.


    1. Appreciate your detailed thoughts. I agree, particularly that there is no evident “goal” to reality. It’s always possible it has one, but if so there’s nothing in nature that we’ve found so far to indicate it. It’s why science long ago abandoned teleology as a useful pursuit.

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  4. The video challenged me. I confess I was not happy with its reductionism. Cells do not simply reproduce information, they produce entities. Nor does the initial presentation of the cell as animated machinery adequately account for single cell organisms that exhibit response to environmental stimuli. Finally, the suggestion in this initial presentation is that the cell as information replicator is a highly successful machine. Apparently it’s not; a large number of proteins it synthesizes need to be degenerated quickly because they aren’t quite what the blue-print calls for.

    Or at least that’s one thing I gleaned (and I may have misunderstood, not being a biologist), from some of the material I researched in response to the challenge of the video. This included several of the lectures presented at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden on the question “what is Life?” (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLnqQJI0EhuwwdoH18CnKcOC6j4qaU_yXI); one of which was given by Dennis Noble, apparently one of the developers of what is known as Systems Biology. Again, not being a biologist, I can’t judge the claim of the scientists involved that they are engaged in a ‘new paradigm’ of biology; but I found it intriguing that they incorporate much of the material assumed in the above video and come up with a far more complex understanding of life as a network of information and environmental interaction. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_biology) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjTQD6E3lH4, “The New Biology”)

    Personally, I like the concept of life as stochastic, imperfect, and finite in extension and duration, because this assures that mistakes were inevitable, but – I’ll never have to go through that again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, that’s an optimistic way to look at it! 🙂

      Thanks for the links. The Systems Biology approach seems interesting but doesn’t really strike me as incompatible with the video. The idea that life is both a complex system, but is also ultimately composed of natural processes, seems like simply two ways of looking at the same reality. But I’ll admit that I just scanned the wiki and didn’t watch the videos, so I might be missing some key concepts somewhere.


    1. Thanks. Of course, life keeps entropy at bay by having sources of energy (sunlight, oxygen, other life, etc), essentially increasing entropy elsewhere (or benefitting from natural increases from it such as in the core of the sun).


      1. Have you read Roger Penrose’s “Cycles of Time”? He gives a pretty good overview of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, and their implications for life and evolution of the universe.


  5. Thanks for providing this very interesting video.

    Sean Carroll was a diehard {Everett (many-worlds) formulation} supporter. Yet, on December 16, 2014, he wrote: “Now I have graduated from being a casual adherent [Everett (many-worlds) formulation] to a slightly more serious one.” This seems a major ‘retreat’ from his previous diehard position. If you have missed this, I have a detailed story at (http://tienzengong.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/the-certainty-principle/ ).


    1. Thanks Tienzen.

      I’ve seen that Carroll post and been meaning to read it when I had time and mental energy (both of which have lamentably been in short supply lately), particularly since I’m interested to know more about the new Many Interacting Worlds interpretation.

      I don’t think Carroll has changed his position though. He say in the preamble that he used to be a casual adherent years ago, but has since graduated to the “more serious” or hardcore belief that he has shown in recent posts.


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