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Members' Weekend 2020, Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th August,
Lecture Theatre, Rewley House, 1 Wellington Square, Oxford, OX1 2JA

What is Life?

PhilSoc Members' Weekend 2020 – Call for Speakers

I'm pleased to announce that the Philosophical Society's Members' Weekend for 2020 will be held at Rewley House in Oxford on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th August. I have the honour of organising the event again, and am very much hoping it will be as entertaining and well-attended as last year's. As usual, the weekend will coincide with our annual dinner on the Saturday evening, which will include the presentation of the Chadwick prize. Further information and booking details will be available on the website from around May.

The topic for this year is the question: What is Life? What is it that makes living things alive, or which distinguishes a living thing from a non-living thing? What are the criteria by which we might decide whether something is alive or not? Is a virus a living thing? Are crystals alive? What about computer viruses? If they are living things, are they alive in the same way that you are? How will we recognise Life if we encounter it on other planets? Without a clear definition of "Life", none of these questions is easily answered.

These days, Life as a natural phenomenon is studied by scientists, who clearly have a very good understanding of how it all works. But, while Science has been very successful at describing living things and processes in impressive detail, scientists remain unable to say what Life actually is. There is no shortage of definitions -- over a hundred, according to a recent study -- with no single definition generally agreed to provide a clear distinction between things that are living and things that are not. Wouldn't you think that if scientists really do have a good understanding of Life, they'd at least be able to tell us what it is?!

Perhaps there is no meaningful distinction between living things and non-living things. If the scientific description of Life is correct, then we are all just biochemical machines of varying degrees of complexity, and hence the distinction between Life and non-Life may be entirely arbitrary. Does this mean that there is no essential difference between a human being and a clockwork mouse, or between you and a pattern of dots on a computer screen that looks and acts like you? Does it mean that killing a human is the moral equivalent of smashing that mouse or turning off that computer? It that all Life really is -- complex biochemical machinery, running an evolved computer programme?

Or perhaps our current scientific understanding of Life is missing something? Perhaps, a purely scientific, objective view of Life is insufficient to gain a full understanding of it? Perhaps the way to find that missing something is to consider Life from the perspective of a living being, such as ourselves. If we really want to understand what Life is, one might say, we need to add the internal, subjective perspective on Life, which we as philosophers are, of course, well qualified to provide.

The aim of the Members' Weekend will be to present a range of perspectives on What is Life? in the hope of either finding the answer to our question, or, at the very least, of casting light on this most mysterious of natural phenomena. So, if you think you have the answer, or would like to present your own perspective on Life, then please consider giving a talk. The fact that there is no definition of Life generally agreed by the professionals means that our own perspectives on this question are as valid as anyone else's.

If you are interested in speaking at our Members' Day, please contact me via email to indicate your interest (as soon as you can or by the 22 March at the latest, including a working title and brief outline of your talk (no more than 150 words). If selected, your talk will last for around 30 minutes (approx. 3000 -- 3500 words), to be followed by 15 minutes of questions. Don't worry if you have not spoken at such an event before. We are not looking for experts, just good communicators who are prepared to do a little research and present a cogent and passionate argument, which is philosophical in character.

Ideally, we will have a range of perspectives presented by our speakers, along with a number of proposed definitions of Life for us to consider. There are three main ways you might choose to approach the question.

  1. You might wish to make the case for your preferred definition of Life, drawing on the work of philosophers or scientists from recent times or from long ago, as you see fit. Examples include:

    • Life is a gift from God, one that cannot be understood by the physical sciences.

    • Life is the animation of matter by some vital substance, e.g. life-force, entelechy, or Bergson's elan vital - the position known as Vitalism.

    • Life is a uniquely biological phenomenon, consisting of complex, evolved biochemical machines, resulting from Carbon-based biochemistry, involving DNA, RNA, ribosomes and cells, enabled by metabolism, homeostasis, reproduction, etc.

    • Life is "any self-sustaining (chemical) system capable of Darwinian evolution", as expressed by NASA in 1992, to aid their search for extra-terrestrial Life, adding that "the key attribute of life is to allow complex systems to persist despite an often unpredictable and changing environment"

    • Life consists of self-replicating patterns of information, sustained through Darwinian evolution, existing as material combinations of atoms and molecules, or as patterns on a computer screen. (e.g. as described by John Conway's Game of Life -- a view supported by Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design, 2010).

    • Life is the ability to maintain order within itself, far from equilibrium with its external environment, and hence able to defy the Second law of Thermodynamics (e.g. Schrodinger's What is Life? 1944, as well as Lee Smolin's Life of the Cosmos, 1997)

    • Life is a self-organising emergent phenomenon from multi-tiered complex dynamic systems. Like consciousness, it emerges out of complexity as an unpredictable novel property (e.g. Fritjof Capra's systems theory of life, in The Web of Life, 1996)

    • Life consists of Autopoietic machines, each a network of processes that continuously destroy and regenerate the components from which they are made (as per Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition, 1973)

    • Life is existence itself; the only things that really exist are fundamental particles and combinations of these that 'possess a life' (e.g. Peter van Inwagen's Material Beings, 1990)

    • There is no meaningful distinction between Life and non-Life. The definition is entirely arbitrary; it Is whatever we want it to be. There is therefore no such thing, in reality, as Life.

    • Any other definition you would like to offer us.

  2. You might wish to present your own subjective perspective on Life, as your contribution to a broader understanding of it. Again, you might draw on the work of philosophers ancient or modern, as you see fit. You might wish to consider:

    • Life as the search for happiness, eudaimonia, virtue, morality, 'the good life', etc.

    • Life as a search for truth or enlightenment, a quest for knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the reality of the world we live in.

    • Life as suffering, that without pain or passion we would not be truly alive.

    • Life as a search for meaning, that we are condemned to define our own purpose in the world.

    • (Perhaps you have a view on what the Meaning of Life is, or whether it has any meaning at all?)

    • Any other lessons you have learned about "Life", from the privileged perspective of a living thing.

  3. You might wish to consider any of the many related questions that might shed light on what Life is:

    • The classification of living things (Aristotle, Linnaeus, Darwin)

    • The relationship between Life and Consciousness. (Are they the same thing?)

    • The possibility of non-Carbon-based Life; what life might exist on other planets, and how we would recognise it

    • Are viruses alive? Or crystals? What characteristics do they share with more accepted living things, and what reasons might we consider them not to be living?

    • Can Life exist on a computer? Can robots be 'alive'? Can Life be virtual, or do living things have to be concrete entities in space?

    • Can we create Life in the laboratory? Is 'artificial life' the same as the real thing?

    • Life at the very smallest scales -- the remarkable intelligence of micro-organisms, or the extraordinary processes inside living cells -- and what these tell us about Life.

    • Biogenesis and the Origin of Life: the idea that Life can only come from Life (see Thomas Huxley). And yet Life must have begun at some point in time (abiogenesis). So how did that happen?

    • Early ideas such as Spontaneous Generation, and its disproval by Louis Pasteur in 1864.

    • Whether Life began and developed teleologically, with a purpose; it is in the laws of nature to enable the appearance of Life and of Consciousness (e.g. Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, 2012; or any version of Orthogenesis, proposed by Lamarck, Teilhard de Chardin, or Bergson)

    • When do we stop being alive? Brain-death, patients in a persistent vegetative state. What we learn when such patients wake up?

    • The question of whether there is an 'afterlife', with evidence provided by (for example) near-death experiences, remembering past lives, parapsychology, etc.

    • Any other question related to Life, which might shed light on the question of what on earth it is.

Please don't feel limited to the examples above. You may have a quite different response to the question and would like to share it with the society.

Do use the vast resources of Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy when researching and writing your talk, as well as the writings of philosophers or scientists who have advocated for, or argued against, your chosen position.

I look forward to hearing from you.