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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Cultural Conceptions of "Life"

I was just reading on www.prototista.org about the
concept of autopoiesis. I've written here about
complex systems quite a bit, and as most would know,
all life forms are complex systems, but obviously, not
all complex systems are life in the conventional
understanding of the word. So what makes come complex
systems "life" while others are not?

Autopoiesis is a trait that some complex systems have
(but not all), whereby they are constantly remaking
themselves. They take in new material and use that to
rebuild themselves as they function so that, over
time, they are made up of completely new matter, and
yet the pattern, form, and function has remained
consistent.

This seems like a wonderful way to parse out which
complex systems are life and which are not. It
obviously includes all living things.

The problem is that it also includes things like the
red spot on Jupiter, which has been around far longer
than the time any one particle of gas has spent within
it. It also might be said to include corporations,
which are constantly changing out individual workers,
buildings, etc. but maintain their organizational form
and function.

Furthermore, it includes the entire planet earth - and
not just the life forms or ecology of planet earth,
but all of the non-biological material, from
volcanoes, to weather, all interacting in one complete
system.

Many would take this as a failure of the endeavor to
use autopoiesis as a definitional marker of life.
However, there are many who seem undaunted and
maintain the integrity of the definition. As I will
explain, I remain uncertain about this.

These folks say that we might be more accurate in
seeing that the earth and other autopoiesetic complex
systems really are examples of life, even if different
from purely biological life. They maintain that there
can be great advantages to seeing life in this manner.

Unfortunately, this concept (called Gaia when
referring to the earth as a life form) has been
misrepresented by many New Age groups who take it to
mean there's some vital life force of 'mother earth'
and so on.

When I pointed out to my wife how the processes of the
earth and those of a life form are identical in a
complex systems sense, both being autopoiesetic, she
simply said, "I don't like that". I asked her why and
what the difference was and she couldn't say. She
just said, "I don't know but I don't like it".

I think we all have a sense that lizards and people
and cats and trees are alive and rocks and clouds and
rivers are not. It seems like it's almost self
evident and there's something extremely intuitive
about it. So much so that we figure there MUST be
some rational and logical formula that should clearly
delineate why one is alive and the other not.

But that got me thinking, is it really self evident?
Is it really intuitive or obvious even? Or, might the
difference between what is alive and what is not
simply be a cultural convention?

As the biological sciences developed, it seems we've
been told since elementary school that x is alive and
y is not. That's a very early viewpoint that's
explained to kids if memory serves. But in many
primal cultures, the idea of other moving systems
being alive (or perhaps they might say, being infused
with spirits) seems commonsensical and intuitive to
them. While I don't believe in spirits and vital life
"forces", the fact that these cultures saw such
systems as intuitively alive makes me question our own
intuitions in that regard; especially now that
complexity science is having trouble finding real
concretely measurable validation of our conceptions.

Maybe the only reason we "don't like" the idea of
other autopoiesetic complex systems being alive is
simply due to an ingrained cultural predisposition
concerning what is thought to be alive and what isn't.

As I said, I am a strict materialist with no notions
of spirits, souls, the supernatural, or even natural
vitalism (life forces). But when we look at life as a
process of Complexity involving natural elements
interacting according to natural laws, it is a
two-sided proposition, for it inherently begs the
question of why other such systems are NOT to be
considered alive. Maybe they should?

6 Comments:

Blogger Aliocha said...

Well, I think I know the solution to the problem below:

The problem is that it also includes things like the
red spot on Jupiter, which has been around far longer
than the time any one particle of gas has spent within
it. It also might be said to include corporations,
which are constantly changing out individual workers,
buildings, etc. but maintain their organizational form
and function.

I think we all have a sense that lizards and people
and cats and trees are alive and rocks and clouds and
rivers are not. It seems like it's almost self
evident and there's something extremely intuitive
about it. So much so that we figure there MUST be
some rational and logical formula that should clearly
delineate why one is alive and the other not.


It is quite simple, and the guys that created the notion of autopoiesis thought of that: if you add the condition on the matter itself (a lipid bylayer, with proteins, etc...) you have a definition that "fits" perfectly what we "intuitively" see as alive. I know of no other way out of this difficulty.

11:33 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Hi Aliocha, thanks for posting! I agree that if we add the condition of the material makeup, that the definition then fits what we traditionally call "life".

However, when we look at the actual process, it calls into question whether perhaps that condition might be arbitrary. In other words, perhaps our traditional and intuitive distinction of "life" is rather meaningless given what we've discovered about Complexity. Therefore, adding the condition of organic materials is just an arbitrary qualifier we stack on top to bring the definition in line with that misperception.

This approach may have a good utility to it for biological sciences purposes, but when we're trying to see beyond mere language and intuitive conception, and trying to conceive of reality as unbiased and accurately as possible, perhaps realizing and accepting that being picky about the specific material is a distraction from truly understanding what life is in a wider philosophic sense of the word? Just a thought.

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One sees in various poplular articles on autopoiesis, that the Jupiter GRS is an example of autopoiesis.

Is this really true? Is there a more formal discussion of this in a peer reviewed journal? If you could let me know, I would appreciate it.

thx.
Paul
pjoseph@gmail.com

8:50 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Hi Paul, thanks for reading and for your comments. I'm not a scientist myself, and probably most of what I've read of autopoiesis is from what would be called 'popular science'. However, I think these are often written by serious scientists. One thing you might want to do is check out the Wikipedia article on autopoiesis. Wikipedia, of course, is even less 'official' than pop science books (since it is editable by anyone). However, they list a number of references at the bottom and some of these may be peer reviewed (I'm not certain).

If you're simply asking whether or not it is factually true that the red spot on Jupiter has lasted longer than any one molecule within it has been a part of it, I'm not certain where that data and calculation comes from, but I suspect one of those references.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reply. None of the links you mention, point to more information re. Jupiter's GRS. I guess this is the current strength/weakness of the internet--points to potentially valuable information, but without rigour.

8:51 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Quite true. I find it funny how often I ask someone where they got something and they say "off the internet" - as if it's just one thing. Care in where we get our information is important.

You mean you've already looked through the content of The Observer Web, the papers on archonic.net, the Ragnar Heil papers, "Autopoiesis and the Enterprise", Tom Quick's overview, and Limone's article? I would think that one of these might have had a reference to it.

In any case, if it should turn out that the spot on Jupiter has NOT been around longer than any one molecule in it, that would mean it's not a good example of autopoiesis. However, the inapplicability of that one example shouldn't damage my overall thesis. In any case, if you do happen to find more rigorous data on Jupiter's spot, please let me know.
-thanks! :)

8:30 AM  

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