The Continuum Between the Living and Nonliving

In the course of a rambling chat session with my old, old friend, who is currently in Southeast Asia now, the subjects of some of my past entries here and some recent mail I sent to him came up, namely vitalism, atheism and my contradictory, and rather embarrassing, impulses towards a kind of historical determinism. So I’ve decided to start some entries where I could clarify my views and, more importantly, expose their shortcomings. It’s the shortcomings that are more illuminating.

I’m opening comments on these entries so, you’ll be allowed to comment and raise arguments and I’ll do my best to answer them or admit defeat. To prevent comment and backtrack spam, all comments and backtracks entered will be delayed from display until I approve them. This should be within a few hours of your entry, I beseech patience. In fits and starts the comments will grow.

The main thing is that I just want to explain why I think the way I do. Everyone has opinions and many of these opinions don’t agree; that’s just life. But everyone wants a chance to explain themselves and to see what other people think of the views they hold. It’s a kind of vanity we seem to hold to one degree or another. We all seem to pick certain things to care about and to become vehemently convinced we’re right about. I don’t know if that’s really strange; I’d argue it’s a necessary pain of life to function as a sapient creature. So here I am. Let’s get started.

I believe that there is no clear division between life and death, between dead matter and a living organism. Atoms, molecules, complex molecules, crystals, prions, DNA, software worms and viruses, coma victims, bacteria and so on all lie on some point in that continuum between death and life. Maybe you might disagree with this and here’s your chance to poke holes in this assumption.

Maybe we can agree to write a list of criteria for life. We have to start somewhere–what processes or features must be present for a thing to be considered alive or dead?

Here is my list, it is be no means complete:

  1. It has to grow in size or change in shape or structure.
  2. It has to heal from damage.
  3. It has to eat or convert matter or energy into more of itself.
  4. It has to have a means of distinguishing itself from its environment.
  5. It has to evolve.
  6. It has to reproduce perfect or imperfect copies of itself.
  7. It has to react to changes and stimulation from its environment.

How’s that? I think most will agree with these. Perhaps some will say I’m being too specific and that I could even leave a few off but, let’s start with this.

But already I can see, if I start thinking seriously about any one of these criteria, that things start getting hopelessly blurry. What about chain letters or spam? Don’t they reproduce? What about economic systems? Don’t they grow, evolve and change structure? What about biological viruses? If they are not parasitizing a cell aren’t they just a complex, yet dead, crystal of protein and RNA? What about snowflakes? Don’t they grow? Prions are just malformed proteins but, if the theory is right, they too can reproduce by slipping by a cell’s defenses and damaging the cell’s machinery.

If a coma patient is removed from artificial sustenance, won’t they die? At what point is a person really dead? The legal definition has centered on lack of brain activity, but that’s really an artificial line. Decades before it was when the heart stopped and couldn’t be restarted. Doctors now accept that death is actually a very long and complicated process that eventually ends in a hollow, dry bones and perhaps petrifaction or mummification perhaps less. By that point most of the atoms that composed the flesh of the body have long since migrated into the bodies of mold, insects, bacteria, water vapor and so on.

Think of a piece of paper that has, “Photocopy ten of me and give them to your friends or else!” printed on in large threatening letters. Is that alive? What happens when some gullible people come along, grow worried and, just to be safe, do just exactly what the paper instructs them to do? Is this a system that the paper is only one part of? Is it a reproduction system? One can image copies of this paper spreading from office to office until there are large number of copies lying around. With some variation you could appeal to a person’s greed or other motives to get them to reproduce paper. I won’t belabor this point further since we’ve all seen how mail worms and spam work.

The point is that there really is no dividing line. Or at least I don’t think there is and this is one of the reason why I dismiss vitalism. So let’s start here before moving on to other points of my philosophy. Is there something I missing?

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