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


  1. Tam - Great to see you last weekend. This is interesting stuff. Raises lots of questions for me:

    1. I don't know much about sexual selection as a lamarckian process....Are you implying that - since women prefer tall men - that a man might grow taller and then pass that trait on to his offspring?

    2. Keep in mind that homo sapiens - as a species showing relatively high levels of Male Parental Investment (MPI) - show a great deal of male selection, as well as female, especially regarding long-term mates.

    3. Your arguments against "absent-minded science" are interesting...but I'm not sure I understand the implications for scientists.
    Should scientists be formulating different types of hypotheses? Or testing them differently? Or explaining the results differently?

    4. Also, since you seem to imply that these shortcomings cut across disciplines and apply to the general processes of science, I would be curious to hear you put them in the context of Kuhn and other philosphers of science.

    I haven't read all X essays, so you may have covered some of this...but thought I would riff a little bit on my reactions, just for fun.

    Tim D

  2. Hi Tim, just saw this comment of yours! Why don't we get together and discuss over a beer next time you're in town?