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The Philosophical Society

Members’ Weekend

Sat 15th – Sun 16th August 2020

(To be held online at a virtual Rewley House)

What is Life?

This year’s Members’ Weekend will tackle one of the oldest problems in philosophy, that of saying what Life really is. Join us online, via Zoom, to discover why the question is not as easy as you might think, and add your contribution to the debate. The cost is £10 for members, £16 for non-members. To register for the Weekend, just send Paul Entwistle a very short email (at pePhilSoc@gmail.com ) saying you would like to attend. He will send you everything you need to know now. Full joining instructions will be sent out nearer the date.


Saturday 15th August

10.00Meet and Greet
Join us in the Bar, the Common Room or the Courtyard, any time after 10am. It’ll be a good opportunity to say hello, catch up with old friends and find out how everyone else has been coping with Life in 2020.
10.30Welcome to the Member’s Weekend (Lecture Theatre)
10:35Introduction to What is Life?Tim Bollands
Life, as a natural phenomenon, is studied these days by scientists, who have been very successful at describing living things and living processes in impressive detail. And yet, despite this success, they remain unable to say what Life actually is. There’s no shortage of definitions – over a hundred, according to a recent study – with no single definition providing a clear distinction between things that are living and things that are not.
So, how might we distinguish Life from non-Life? What are the criteria by which we might decide whether something is alive or not alive? Is a virus a living thing? What about computer viruses? If they are living, are they alive in the same way that you are? What is it that makes living things alive? 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.
Over the course of the weekend, our speakers will address the question What is Life? from a range of different perspectives. This will be followed by a Panel Discussion, where you can put your questions to each speaker, and maybe tell us what you think Life is.
10.55It’s Life Jim, but not as we know itMike Arnautov
Mike kicks off our discussions by asking what it is we have in our mind when we use the word “Life”, and hence when we ask the question: What is Life? Is it limited to the sort of Life we are familiar with here on earth – cell-based, Carbon-based, DNA-based, etc. - or do we have a broader concept of what Life can amount to – a concept which allows Mr Spock to utter those immortal words: “It’s Life Jim, but not as we know it.” By examining our human conception of Life, Mike sets out to find what key characteristics we look for when we distinguish in our minds between Life and non-Life.
Mike Arnautov is from Prague where he studied mathematics and physics, followed by an MSc in statistics. He came to England in 1970 and was awarded a PhD by Bristol University for research in Artificial Intelligence. He then spent 30 years as a systems programmer / architect in a research environment, supporting biologists, geneticists and bioinformaticians. In his spare time, he reads a lot of science fiction, which is how he got interested in AI. Mike considers all these strands important in shaping his views on life, the universe and everything.
11.40Short break
11.45The Nation as a Living OrganismGordon Nichols
The biological world, ranging from viruses and bacteria to Homo sapiens, is examined and classified by the biological sciences. The man-made world, with all our society, machines, buildings and culture, lies outside of this classification and is examined through other disciplines, e.g. social sciences, history or politics. And yet Nations share many of the same key characteristics we find within living organisms. Gordon examines these characteristics and proposes a new four-level structure for classifying living things.
Gordon Nichols is a scientist who has worked as a Consultant Epidemiologist within Public Health England. He has contributed to research projects on gastrointestinal infections, food, water and the environment, epidemiology, public health and climate change and has been important in surveillance and outbreak management. He has contributions to international initiatives and has given over 400 scientific presentations, written 31 book chapters and 78 papers in peer reviewed journals.
12.30Break for Lunch
Or join us for a chat in the Bar, the Common Room or the Courtyard
1.30What is Life? God only KnowsJeff Morris
Life, it may seem reasonable to suppose, is an emergent property of matter, which appeared by chance four billion years ago via a yet-to-be-understood process we call abiogenesis. And yet, the idea of Life as an emergent property brings with it a number of problems. What does this so-called ‘emergence’ amount to? How did all the biological capabilities required for Life emerge at the same time? And could this really have happened by chance? But perhaps the biggest challenge for this emergence view of Life, Jeff argues, is that, in order for it to be true, you need to show that God does not exist.
Jeff Morris is an Oxford Trinity 2019 student essay prize winner who has studied metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. He has published a half a dozen popular level articles, and a short philosophical novel entitled, A Moment in Time. He is currently enrolled in graduate studies at Tyndale, one of Canada’s leading theological Universities.
2.15Short break
2.20Lessons from Schrödinger and ProssTomy Duby and Stewart Fisher
In 1944, Erwin Schrödinger addressed the question What his Life? from a physicist’s perspective, noting the ability of living things to defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics and maintain their bodies far from equilibrium with their environment. In the process, he anticipated the discovery of the aperiodic crystal we call DNA. Seventy years later, Addy Pross addressed the same question, this time from the perspective of a chemist, describing how autocatalytic, replicating chemistry is able to outsmart the Second Law. Tomy and Stewart look at what lessons we can learn from Schrodinger and from Pross.
Stewart Fisher is a retired consultant respiratory physician, an amateur biologist, a lepidopterist and until recently a biological field guide in Central Africa. He collaborated with biologist Brian Goodwin looking at fractal geometry in biological organisms.Tomy Duby, born in Bratislava, is a retired experimental physicist who spent his working life designing superconducting magnets for medical purposes. Since forced retirement five years ago he and Stewart have almost daily sessions where they read books, mostly on philosophy, covering a range of topics from Harold Bloom to Karl Popper. They approach this topic from diametrically opposed perspectives.
3.05Longer Break
Grab a drink and continue the conversation in the Bar, Common Room or Courtyard.
4.00Life as a Flow of Information through TimeMartin Jacoby
Starting with the Big Bang, Martin describes the principal changes that enable matter to behave in the way we call Life. He argues that there was no spark or moment when Life began, but rather a continuous process of increasing complexity, which depends on a flow of information through time. Our minds are ill-suited to understanding this continuum, because they build models with well-defined boundaries, and seek to fit our perceptions to them. However, they do provide a habitat for ideas which compete for our conscious attention and, in so doing, themselves fit this understanding of Life.
Martin Jacoby is a life-long naturalist. After reading zoology at Oxford, he taught in schools before going to live in Spain. There, and later in South America, Africa, Caucasian Georgia and elsewhere, he explained to holiday-makers the human impact on wildlife. Personally witnessing desertification and the global collapse of biodiversity, Martin enquired into the human condition, especially the origins of our drive to convert the beautiful places of the Earth into human waste.
4.45Short break
4.50Autopoiesis and the Complexity of LifeBob Clarke
Autopoiesis was conceived in the 1970’s with Maturana and Varela’s description of living things as autopoietic machines – self-producing networks of processes, which constantly regenerate the components from which they are made. Since then, autopoiesis has developed into a much broader understanding of Life, involving a range of concepts, including Cognition, Emergence, Embodiment, Enaction and Embeddedness, providing both a Bottom-Up and a Top-Down view of Life. Bob provides an overview of the field, and explains why a simple answer to the question What is Life? may not be feasible.
Bob Clarke studied Physics at Bristol University in the late 1960s and has since followed a career in Physics and Microwave Engineering – he is still working part-time in this area. He acquired an interest in Philosophy and History of Ideas in the early 1980s and subsequently obtained a BA in History of Ideas from Kingston University in 1994 and an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College in 2010. Bob is a judge for The Philosophical Society’s Student Essay Prizes and occasionally gives talks to amateur philosophy groups.
Grab yourself a drink and join us in the Bar, the Common Room or the Courtyard, where we will argue over which talk we enjoyed the most and what we think Life really is.
6.00Presentation of Chadwick and Boethius Prizes in the Bar – Peter Gibson
As Secretary of the Philosophical Society, Peter will say a few words reflecting on the year, and present the society’s two most prestigious prizes to the well-deserving winners.
6:15Ongoing discussion in Bar, the Common Room or the Courtyard.

Sunday 16th August

9.30Breakfast in bed. (Have a lie-in. It’s Sunday)
11:00Welcome back to the Lecture Theatre
11.05Life: Facts, Fictions and Leaps of ImaginationFauzia Rahman-Greasley
“The idea of ‘objective reality’ […] undergoes important modifications when it is to be understood, not in relation to the ‘world described by science’, but in relation to the progressing life of a person.” (Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good)
In our penultimate talk, Fauzia argues that scientific attempts to answer the question ‘What is Life?’ fall foul of several fallacies. Nonetheless, the question is philosophically interesting because of what these attempts show us about human agency and imagination. She concludes with arguably the most pressing and “real” of all questions: not the question ‘What is Life?’ but rather ‘How ought we to live?’
Fauzia Rahman-Greasley is a retired medical practitioner (qualified from St Barts, London) with an MA in Philosophy (from Birkbeck, London). She is a former chairman of The Philosophical Society (2015-18), Editor of the Review (2018-19), and is course director and regular lecturer of the Gerrards Cross Philosophy group. She is author of the farce, ‘The Philosopher’s Tale’, which premiered in Covent Garden in 2013.
11.50Short break
11.55Biogenesis: All Life comes from LifeTim Bollands
Tim wraps up the weekend by drawing lessons from all seven talks so far, in his attempt to develop a definition for Life that draws a clear and unambiguous distinction between living and non-living things. In doing this, he suggests that any successful definition will necessarily be circular, but that there’s a reason for this. All Life, as Thomas Huxley said, comes from Life – a proposition known as biogenesis and supported by all available evidence. The problem is: biogenesis doesn’t fit with our current scientific understanding of the world. Therefore, for it to be true, our current scientific worldview must be false.
Tim Bollands studied mathematical physics at Oxford, and spent the next 30 years or so as a management consultant, helping large organisations gain greater value from their IT systems. He never lost his desire to make sense of the universe, however, and since the age of 25 has been struggling to write his ‘magnum opus’, in which all the great problems of physics and natural philosophy would finally be solved. On turning 50, he put his career on hold, started writing in earnest and has recently finished his first book: Life, the Universe and Consciousness.
Or join us for a chat in the Bar, the Common Room or the Courtyard
2.00Panel Discussion
Join all eight speakers for an extended Q&A, and a chance for you to propose your own answer to the question What is Life?


If you would like to read some background to the question What is Life? in advance of the Members’ Weekend, the following books, papers and internet resources are recommended.

Wikipedia, Life, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life

Weber, Bruce (2011), Life , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Davies, Paul (1999), The Origin of Life, Penguin Books

Wikipedia, Family Resemblance, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_resemblance

Lane, Nick (2015)The Vital Question, Profile Books Ltd.

Wikipedia, Organism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organism

Spencer, H (1860), The Social Organism, Westminster Review

Huxley ,Thomas (1870), Biogenesis and Abiogenesis, Huxley’s Collected Essays, Volume VIII

Wikipedia, Abiogenesis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenesis

Connor, Timothy and Wong, Hong Yu (2015), Emergent Properties,Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/properties-emergent/

Schrödinger, Erwin (1944), What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, Cambridge University Press, 15th printing 2013 http://www.whatislife.ie/downloads/What-is-Life.pdf

Mayer, Ernst (2007), What Makes Biology Unique

Pross, Addy (2016), What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13689317-what-is-life

Pascal, Robert, Pross, Addy (2015), Stability and its manifestation in the chemical and biological worlds, Chemical Communications, 51, 16160—65

Maturana, Humberto, Varela, Francisco (1979), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/695442.Autopoiesis_and_Cognition

Thompson, Evan (2007), Mind in Life, Harvard University Press

Eddington, Arthur (1939), The Philosophy of Physical Science, Cambridge University Press. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16184052-the-philosophy-of-physical-science

Murdoch, Iris (1970), The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge

Bollands, A.T. (2020), Life, the Universe and Consciousness (available on Amazon very soon!)