I was surprised to learn that there is no universally agreed definition of life:


The definition of life is growing in importance. We want to know when human life begins for lots of ethical, legal, and religious reasons. We want to know that if we find something crawling around on Mars it can be classified as life. As artificial intelligence evolves, we want to know when to start granting androids rights. And if a human is in a coma, we want to know at what point that individual could be considered no longer alive.

So I was noodling with a functional definition of life that aims to solve our current and future ethical dilemmas. How about defining life as any discreet entity with the following qualities:

  1. Potential to feel pain.
  2. Potential to learn.

This definition keeps our future androids from getting full legal rights, since they can't feel pain. And it would let you pull the plug on anyone who doctor's say has no potential to ever feel pain or learn again. So far, so good.

One thorny issue is that life would begin at conception by this definition. It would be a separate argument as to whether the woman carrying the life has a right to terminate it while it is still in the early potential phase.

My definition keeps a virus from being considered life. And plants too, I think. That feels right. I don't think lettuce needs to be "alive" any more than my watch.

I haven't thought this idea through. I'm just throwing it out there for consideration.

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Feb 25, 2009
I believe that any functional definition of life is too broad of a scope when considering the vast majority of ethical and legal issues. The potential for self-consciousness, on the other hand, will be of utmost importance in coming to a moral resolution to many present and future ethical dilemmas.

Without an entity’s awareness of self, such outside stimuli as pain, satiation, and elements of injustice are merely unregistered sensations. I’m not advocating the wholesale torture of dung beetles, but if you poke a stick through one, it will hurt, but if there’s no “I” (or even self) in it, what exactly hurts? The sensation of hurt disembodied doesn’t quite fit systematically, because there is a body; rather said sensation is dis-minded.

Though there’s a physical entity to attach that momentary attribute to, since there’s no potential for self-consciousness within its ganglia, the attribute is, for the purpose of morality, almost a sole existence. Mere nerves forwarding messages to a ganglion should not be accorded full legal rights.

As far as androids go, when they’re self-conscious, they must be accorded full legal rights, because that’s why we’re accorded full legal rights (and that’s why concepts such as “legal” and “rights” even exist). If androids can think, then they are, and that’s why the two elements of your life definition matter.

Regarding “Caricature’s” 1/31 response to your post, Scott, know that it’s the easiest thing in the world to be a critic. And a commonality of all innovators—theoretical and practical—is that they were at some point criticized.

To try and objectively rebut a few of his counterclaims, I’ll first take issue with the hypothesis that a simulation of a feeling is no different than the feeling itself. If we’re speaking of the nature of things, then yes, it is. The latter is dictated by existence, whereas the former is nonetheless dictated by the programmer, or, a consciousness. Such would have legal ramifications if androids were to be our tools, as opposed to our friends and equals (and hence reprogramming may be needed).

As far as the question of when an organism becomes aware of its own existence, I would guess from amphibians on up. Of course, there is a true answer to that question. And don’t let the fact that we may not be able to answer it yet make you think that we never will.

Lastly, learning is the acquisition of knowledge, and knowledge is a fact of reality. How are we different from birds and bees? Let reality be the judge, and note the difference in crystallized intelligence between the heights of New York City and the crackling buzz of Silicon Valley, and a bird’s nest or a bee’s honeycomb. Is it the same? Must I have the power to defy the laws of physics to be considered different than a shrew? Caricature’s very ability to proffer his argument refutes it itself.

-Texas Inmate-
Prison Proxy
Jan 31, 2009
I agree strongly that our definitions of life are far too narrow. You've unfortunately narrowed them down even further. How is lettuce not alive? That is the most absurd sentence I've read in a long time. Secondly, why shouldn't androids get rights? And why would it be impossible for an android to feel pain? Is the simulation of a feeling any different than the feeling itself? You're just trying to make convenient definitions to match your own interests and preferences and its disgusting.

Also, conscious experience is more of a spectrum than a yes/no thing. At what point do you consider an animal to be conscious? At what point is an organism aware of its own existence?

Also "discreet entity" is a !$%*!$%* term and you know it. Are you a discreet entity, Scott? Or are you one piece in a much larger system with which you could not live without.

Also, an organism may be self-aware and conscious, but not feel pain. CIPA is a disease that prevents people from feeling pain. Are they not alive? Are insects not alive? They do not have the nociceptors which detect tissue and cell damage, which denies them the ability to feel pain.

And finally ability to learn?

How do you define learning, or knowledge? How do you know that you actually "know" anything? How are you different from birds, bees, plants, microbes, algae, etc. you're all just molecules arranged in a self-perpetuation low-entropy system, all subject to the laws of physics. I can't even describe all the things that are wrong with your definition of life. It's just absurd on every level. Please think stuff out before you say it. That's two really stupid posts in a row.
Jan 28, 2009
language Jan 27, 2009 misread and misunderstood and then raved.

You need to learn how to read and paraphrase more accurately. Nowhere in my post did I use the word "superstitious": you used that word and then tried to make it seem as if I had. That's dishonest. I used the word "theocrat". Theocrats are people who want clerics to run their lives and their country. Learn how to use a dictionary and you might learn something of value.

I don't know what you mean by "'dumb and dumber'", except that it is a movie that I've never had any desire to watch. I don't have time to waste on frivolities, as you apparently do.

You might want to read the history of the tyrannical theocracy that ran Massachusetts Bay Colony from the 1620s to the mercantile era, when the business community realized that it had more money and, therefore, more power than the tyrannical clergy -- the Puritans used to murder Quakers who had accidentally strayed into their colony, by the way, just as the zealots of the religious right today murder homosexuals and abortion providers. If you don't know history, you shouldn't bring it up. If you want to talk about religious freedom, don't talk about the history of it until you've read Perry Miller and the history of Joseph Smith and the history of the Catholic Church both in Europe and in all its many colonies throughout the world.

There wasn't an "atheist russia" [sic] when Jefferson introduced the idea of the separation of church and state, so what is the point of your being anachronistic? Had he and Franklin declared themselves atheists, they surely would have become instant pariahs in a land -- nay, a world -- that assumed the existence of a deity and expected everyone to believe it.

Nor did I use the phrase "a theocracy-seeking populace". I said that the people who were anti-choice were theocrats. They are not the entire population of the USA, merely the shrillest and most censorious and most intolerant subculture in that unfortunate country. Again your intellectual dishonesty gets in the way of your risible attempts to argue what are merely straw-man points of your own invention.

You make an incredible claim, that the USA is "a country that discriminates against religion in public policy". I guess you've forgotten Faith-based George W "The Decider" Bush -- he was the POTUS for the previous 8 years of national and international wrack and ruin, in case you'd like to know -- who said something about God wanting him to be president on 9/11. And maybe you missed the disgusting presidential campaigns of all the candidates for POTUS -- Republicans and Democrats alike (I don't know about the candidates of the other parties because I couldn't bear to listen to most of the campaign speeches) -- all the candidates felt compelled to bare their souls and the nature of their religious beliefs because the American public and media demanded it. Religious beliefs are private, as far as I'm concerned, so my beliefs are none of your business, and yours are none of mine. I don't care what you believe. I care only about how you behave in public. The theocrats, however, care about how everyone behaves in private, and that's because they can't trust their own omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent deity to punish the "immoral" and the "sinners", so, like the equally Utopian Marxists, they feel a need to help forces stronger than themselves. Such arrogance! Zealots everywhere claim to know the truth and demand that everyone else accept their version of it. But that's not a new story, just a human story that has been repeated every day in every way throughout history.

I think I know what you mean by "liberalism", but I do not subscribe to your definition of the term. I would call those ideological tyrants "political police" akin to the religious police in Saudi Arabia who are constantly on the prowl for women driving cars, people wearing religious symbols, and American soldiers with Christmas trees set up in their barracks. I was always under the impression that "liberalism" was an 18th-century economic theory first given life by Adam Smith, the darling of today's fiscal "conservatives". That, at least, is what historians tell me.

I don't know where you get the idea that I called myself a theist or an atheist in my post, or where I claimed to know that deities do or do not in fact exist -- perhaps you'd like to quote that line. Better yet, I'll try this one to see whether you really failed to read and understand what I said: "When they see that their deity does not in fact strike down dead those who violate its moral 'laws', they are confronted by evidence (not proof, but strong evidence) that their deity is either inconsistent or nonexistent." Notice that I said "not proof" and "either inconsistent or nonexistent". Where do I declare the content of my religious beliefs in that sentence? You created another straw man to beat up.

Nor do I know where you get the brass to imply that I would be a more worthy human being were I to claim that I am an agnostic. I never claimed anything about what I believe. The ontological question frankly leaves me cold. I have no proof that allows me to answer it, and I believe that without such proof, the question is merely moot ("adjective_2 : deprived of practical significance : made abstract or purely academic" -- Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary on CD-ROM, version 3.0).

I am perfectly happy to let everyone believe as they wish to believe, as long as they don't attempt to convert me or to force me to their set of beliefs. I'm quite capable of arriving at my own conclusions about matters of moment.

The problem with your assertion that "separation of state and all ideologies is necessary, religious or 'irreligulous'" is that politics is all about ideology and, according to a shrill and vocal segment of the American population, "values", which only those who believe in the "one true way" possess. I suspect that you are one of those who believes that he (you can't possibly be a "she": you're much too aggressive) knows the "one true way" to be in this world.

I have no ideas about "dark matter". I have not set science and scientific knowledge up as a quasi-religion, as you seem to assume that I have. When scientists predict that B will happen in a set of conditions C because A exists, and then show that B does, in fact, happen in a set of conditions C, then I tend to believe that A exists. But my belief is based on evidence, not blind faith. On the other hand, science has proved itself wrong on many points, corrected its mistakes, and restated what scientists think (notice that important word) is true. I don't know whether scientists have shown anything about the existence of dark matter. The issue isn't a priority for me. Should it be?

Maybe you'd like to define "goth 'non-conformity'" for me? I have no idea what it means. I'm not a slave to American popular culture, as you seem to be. That's probably because I no longer live there. I certainly don't condemn you for the level of your intellectual interests and accomplishments, whatever they may be. Just read Huxley's _Brave New World_ and you will understand why the world needs a range of human beings from Alpha to Delta-.
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Jan 28, 2009
I would have to go with "having negative entropy".
Everything is going to hell (positive entropy) except life which actually increases order.
Jan 28, 2009
Why "the ability to feel PAIN" and not "the ability to feel JOY"?

and then again - what about fish?
Jan 28, 2009
I think what Mr. Adams is really trying to define is conscious life A.K.A. intelligence. I could agree with his definition though.
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Jan 27, 2009
I believe you meant to write "discrete" and not "discreet" when referring to discrete !$%*!$%* in your second paragraph, but you probably don't care so much about that stuff in your blog posts.
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Jan 27, 2009
"And it would let you pull the plug on anyone who doctor's say has no potential to ever feel pain or learn again."

Apostrophe abuse on "doctor's". No possessive there Scott. Plural is not indicated by an apostrophe. I'm surprised at you.

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Jan 27, 2009
I guess if you’re a vegetarian if something is alive, you don’t want to kill it. So your post in that light makes since. For the rest of us just because something is alive doesn’t mean squat. If it looks good kill it and eat it.

Ok, so not humans. So when are we human? If it where not possible for a women to give her parasitic young children away, I would say she had a right to kill them. In a hypothetical sense, if it was impossible to give them away, would you condemn the act? Consider that we are only a few thousand years away from being in that situation. A culture where food is wealth, and it is very hard to feed a family of four…

Watch the movie The Ballad of Narayama which sets up the situation quite well, along with other related situations.
Jan 27, 2009
About the lettuce...

I'd like to eat lettuce that's at least somewhat close to still being alive, thank you very much. Because if it's not alive, then it's dead. And I imagine dead lettuce to be quite shrivelled, with other living things growing on it.

Perhaps instead of defining life, you could just try for "intelligent life"? Of course most of us wouldn't qualify, but at least our vegatables would be fresh.
Jan 27, 2009
I think the definition of biological life as-is works well enough.

A virus is technically not covered by the definition, even though it has life-like qualities, but the definition works well enough and is useful. It will tell you if the things crawling around on Mars are alive or not, if you find them.

You don't need to classify an android as life or non-life to discuss person-hood. We already grant legal person-hood to non-living !$%*!$%* such as corporations, and there are movements to grant person-hood status to non-human species such as the other Great Apes.

If we bother to build a sentient android, or meet a sentient alien, we can make something up for that too without bothering to contort the definition of life.

Life can, too, have multiple definitions. Scientists, lawyers and laymen don't need to be using the same definition.

A single, contorted definition of life for everyone, to satisfy everyone's ideals, is superfluous.

P.S. Were you _really_ surprised there was no definition??
Jan 27, 2009
"Pro choise supporters offten classify a fetus as not a human being"

That was what I'm referring to.

Regardless, I don't like Scott seeing it as a !$%*!$ issue for defining life simply because it'd be inconvenient for things we want to do.
Jan 27, 2009
You should probably resist the urge to create a complex, contorted definition of life with the sole purpose of letting you kill who you want and pretend you're not killing.

It reminds me of something very similar. Whenever someone wants to kill or subjugate another group, but don't want to see themselves as killing humans, they redefine the other group as non-human.

It's a kind of cognitive dissonance.

I see it a lot with the abortion thing. The fetus is reclassified as not human.

I'm not against abortion. But that is dishonest thinking.

People may complain that, if we accept that we can kill things classified as human, that would be a slippery slope.

But accepting that you can simply reclassify something you want to kill is just as slippery.

Besides; the US has capital punishment, which means we already legally kill humans in our own society.

Not that I'm against capital punishment either. If I'm gonna allow killing babies, I'm not gonna pretend killing a tripple-murderer is so much more wrong. That's nonsensical.
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Jan 27, 2009
@dontbother has good arguments on theocrats and non-theocrats.

However, he's off on the subjects of this blog. This blog should have exciting and controvertial subjects of all kinds, not a boring blog where no one thinks differently than the others.

In the future when kids are not brain-washed with religion stuff, there will be no religion any more: kids love science.

Jan 27, 2009
I'm with Wittgenstein. Meaning just is use - words are not defined by reference to the objects or things which they designate, nor by the thoughts, ideas, or mental representations that one might associate with them, but rather by how they are used in effective, ordinary communication. There is no fixed, all-encompassing definition for 'game' was the argument he made in Philosophical Investigations. If he thinks so then I am going to agree.
Jan 27, 2009

you brought up subject of religion then condemned it as topic of discussion after bashing the superstitious.

nice one. reminds me of 'dumb and dumber' when arguing and they call 'no do-overs, no reversies, no anti-quitsies'.

might want to look at history about belief system of those who authored religious freedom. (it wasn't atheist russia) your delusions of a theocracy-seeking populace are sheer fantasy. if that was the case, america would be just like medival europe with a tyrannical theocracy from the start at plymouth rock.

vacuums don't exist forever though, the tyrannical value system that is filling the void is liberalism. it is evolutionarily adapted to a country that discriminates against religion in public policy.

USA is ripe for secular dogma. separation of church and state did not go far enough. separation of state and all ideologies is necessary, religious or 'irreligulous'.

i'm guessing you accept dark matter but deny god, right? bill maher atleast has intellectual honesty to say he cannot possibly know. its called being an agnostic, not atheist. atheism takes that special leap of faith they decry.

very reminiscent of goth 'non-conformity'.
Jan 27, 2009
I frankly think your definition of Life has really not been thought through... And for me it essentially replaces one definition problem by two new ones.

Depending on how you define pain, you will either have to exclude a whole series of living animals from your definition or will have to include plants. Some plants have been shown to react to browsing by animals, "crying out" their "pain" by means of chemical signals, to warn nearby plants so that those can prepare to defend by synthetising toxic chemicals. I guess that, depending on your preferred definition of pain, robots and AI may or may not be considered to be able to feel pain

The same thing goes for learning. A definition of learning is likely to include concepts such as adaptation, monitoring the environment and reacting to it. Again, a broad definition is likely to include viruses, plants and machines, a narrow one will exlude many living animals.

All in all, I guess that most biologists agree on what defines life, at least conceptually. And although they may disagree on the actual words and interpretation, their definition does a very good job.
Jan 27, 2009
# Potential to feel pain.
# Potential to learn.

So we can kill all the lawyers then?
Jan 26, 2009
This is not a reasonable question to ask. It ranks with "Does God exist?" It cannot be answered in a meaningful way.

The sperm and the egg are both alive when they merge at conception. Their union produces a new organism that is teleologically destined to become a human being. About that there can be no argument. Whether that little clump of cells is actually a human being entitled to the hyperprotection of a bunch of zealots who have no problem killing mosquitoes or !$%*!$%*!$%* supporting the death penalty, and cheering soldiers with a rousing chorus of "onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war" is a separate question. This second question is what the pro- and anti-choice debate is all about.

On the one hand, we have a bunch of theocratically oriented dictators who insist that they are the only possessors of truth and values in the world attempting to dictate to others how they must and must not live their private lives. On the other, we have a bunch of non-theocratically oriented people who insist that individual rights and freedoms be respected and that pregnant women and their fetuses not be considered the property of the theocrats and the state.

A fetus is a dependent being and incapable of living on its own. It is not a separate being until it can live without being nourished by its mother. Therefore, it is logically part of the mother and not a human being but only a potential human being.

The question only seems to be "Should abortion be permitted?" The real questions being asked are these: "Should I allow anyone to believe anything that I don't believe? Should I allow anyone to do anything that I would not want to do? Should I allow anyone to be different from me?" The theocrats are naysayers and answer "No!" to all of these questions. The non-theocrats are yeasayers and answer "Yes!" to all of these questions.

Why are the theocrats and non-theocrats so different? Because the former fear that which is different from them and are threatened by reality. When they see that their deity does not in fact strike down dead those who violate its moral "laws", they are confronted by evidence (not proof, but strong evidence) that their deity is either inconsistent or nonexistent. The latter do not fear those who are different from them. They recognize that everyone else in the world is different from them and do not care that the universe seems so random and inconsistent. That is the way life is. Enjoy it while you are alive.

The non-theocrats may also have their own deities, but they don't find it necessary to force everyone else in the world to believe in and worship those deities. It is enough for them to be allowed to believe what they choose to believe and to behave as they wish to behave in their private lives. Enjoy life while you are alive.

I don't think you need to elicit on a philosotainment blog the kind of vitriolic arguments that this topic always generates. They're no fun to read and no fun to think about. Stick to economic and other absurd issues. Leave pustulant political lesions alone: they never heal, and picking at them merely inflames them all the more.
Jan 26, 2009
I think Scott just pointed a key point of Human evolution and “civilization”, since Genesis mankind intents to divide life in classes, setting itself on the top of it with the right to kill and cut what ever he wants whenever he feels good to do. It seems not enough and than starts the classification within the Humankind, we can refer to philosophers such as Aristotle and Voltaire. Finally everything that can die is somehow alive. I hope the comment of missionaries killed by Muslim is a joke, just a bad bad joke. Thanks to Rousseau we finally started to understand the value of mankind life, so far after the universal message that love is the last to remain, and the most important.
So perhaps to be a living creature you just need to love, don’t you agree Brad?
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