Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is Life? Absent-Minded Science, Part VII

"Science … is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms."
~Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925)

What is life? Do we, as with art and obscenity, “know it when we see it?” This intuitive approach may be good enough for many people, but science seeks definitions in order to get a better handle on the phenomena being studied.

The last couple of essays in this series have discussed theories of evolution without stopping to establish what the heck we are talking about in discussing “life.”

Unfortunately, every definition of life provided thus far runs into serious problems. Aristotle perhaps said it best: “Nothing is true of that which is changing.” In other words, if all is in flux – as all things are – then static definitions of physical phenomena are literally impossible, including life. This is a fundamental limitation that is too rarely acknowledged in modern science and philosophy. We may carve out generally workable definitions, as rules of thumb (heuristics) for deeper study, but we must always acknowledge that any definition regarding physical phenomena that ignores the truth of flux fails from the outset.

Read the rest at the Independent