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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Drinks (at home)
Presentation of Chadwick and Boethius Prizes in
the Bar – Peter Gibson
“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.
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.
Break for Lunch
Or join us for a chat in the Bar, the Common Room or the
Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)
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.