THR Web Features   /   March 14, 2014

Is Nothing Truly Alive?

Paul Nedelisky

Theo Jansen's Strandbeest. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is no such thing as life.

That is the provocative claim made by Ferris Jabr in a recent op-ed appearing in The New York Times. Ferris Jabr is an associate editor at Scientific American, and at first blush, his claim sounds ridiculous. I know I'm alive. So there's one example of life. Surely Jabr knows that he himself is alive. And we all see hundreds of examples of living things every day. So why exactly does Jabr think there is no such thing as life?

Jabr makes his case this way: "What is life? Science cannot tell us. Since the time of Aristotle, philosophers and scientists have struggled and failed to produce a precise, universally accepted definition of life." Since we don't have a definition of life, he continues, how can we talk about living things?  He points out that science textbooks describe living things by picking out features that living things often have. Such lists usually point to organization, growth, reproduction, and evolution. If something has all or most of these features, then it's probably alive.

However, Jabr explains that these textbook lists fail miserably as definitions of life.  We can find things that are organized, display growth, reproduce, and evolve, and yet are not alive.  And for some things—viruses, for example—we can't figure out whether they're alive or not.

He continues: "Why is it so difficult for scientists to cleanly separate the living and nonliving and make a final decision about ambiguously animate viruses?"  Jabr has an explanation: "Because they have been trying to define something that never existed in the first place…Life is a concept, not a reality."

But here Jabr has gone astray.  He concludes from the fact that life doesn't have a definition that there is really no such thing as life.  But this is an invalid inference. For a concept can lack a definition and yet still be a real thing.  

Here's an easy example: redness. Redness doesn't have a definition. If you don't believe me, take a stab at defining it. It's a color—sure. It's not blue, or yellow, or black, or any of the colors that aren't red. Neither is it some particular wavelength of light; that's what causes us to experience redness, but that isn't what redness is. But this isn't helping—none of these distinctions tell us what redness is. Redness is its own special thing, and nothing besides redness itself accounts for what it is. Nevertheless, redness is real. It's a real thing whose concept doesn't have a definition. The concept of redness is what is called a primitive concept.  It helps define other things, but nothing else defines it. It's an unexplained explainer.

Redness isn't the only primitive concept.  There are plenty of others.  For example: the concept of being part of something, the concept of possibility, the concept of goodness, the concept of being identical to something, to name a few.  But most importantly for the matter at hand, others have researched the very issue Jabr's talking about—the failure of philosophical and scientific efforts to define life—and have given good reasons to think that the concept of life is primitive.  Perhaps most notably, Michael Thompson, a philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh, has made this case in his profound and influential book Life and Action (2008).

Where does all this leave Jabr's argument?  The absence of a definition for a concept in no way suggests that the concept lacks real instances.  And life certainly seems to have real instances.  So it looks as though we should continue to accept the reality of life and simply recognize that it can't be defined. Jabr's case turns out to be less than compelling.

But so what? What's the real-world significance of arguing in a New York Times op-ed that life doesn't exist? More than we might initially think. To see what I'm getting at, let's suppose for the moment that Jabr is right. Jabr illustrates the upshot of his claim about the non-existence of life by comparing things we ordinarily think of as living with certain artifacts, in particular the life-like handiwork of Dutch artist Theo Jansen. Jansen's Strandbeest are wind-propelled mobile structures that resemble gigantic, many-footed arthropods. Jabr's conclusion is that "Recognizing life as a [mere] concept is, in many ways, liberating. We no longer need to recoil from our impulse to endow Mr. Jansen’s sculptures with “life” because they move on their own. The real reason Strandbeest enchant us is the same reason that any so-called “living thing” fascinates us: not because it is “alive,” but because it is so complex and, in its complexity, beautiful."

If life isn't real—if life is just a sort of beautiful complexity—then the distance between artifacts like the Strandbeest and things we normally consider living is removed. With this distance removed, we are free to see the Strandbeest as "alive." Jabr thinks his conceptual innovation has brought enchantment to artifacts.

But there is a dark flip-side to this argument.  For with the loss of distance between life and mere elegant complexity, we are also free to see genuinely living things as mere complex artifacts. When a complex artifact—say, a watch—has outlasted its practical usefulness or lost its aesthetic value, there's no barrier to it being scrapped or thrown away. Of course, we are ordinarily much more hesitant to treat living creatures in this way. Why this is so is a complicated question, but it is in part because we recognize that living creatures possess a mysterious value in virtue of being alive.  Anyone who has seen an animal die learns this, watching the animating spark fade away.

However, if we lose the distance between life and mere complexity, will we feel a heightened sense of loss when we discard a watch?  Or will we merely be less inclined to believe in the strange yet precious value of living creatures?  Jabr thinks he is bringing enchantment to artifacts.  We should worry he is disenchanting the living.

Paul Nedelisky  received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 2013 and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, where he is working on a book about science and morality.