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Earth Science

Boiling Down the Meaning of Life 218

Posted by timothy
from the why-are-we-here-what's-life-all-about dept.
Shipud writes "A recent article in Journal of Biomolecular structure and Dynamics proposes to define life by semantic voting [Note: open-access article]: 'The definitions of life are more than often in conflict with one another. Undeniably, however, most of them do have a point, one or another or several, and common sense suggests that, probably, one could arrive to a consensus, if only the authors, some two centuries apart from one another, could be brought together. One thing, however, can be done – short of voting in absentia – asking which terms in the definitions are the most frequent and, thus, perhaps, reflecting the most important points shared by many.' The author arrives at a six-word definition, as explained here."
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Boiling Down the Meaning of Life

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  • Monty Python already knew what it was: look here [wikiquote.org] for some quotes.
  • by bazald (886779) <bazald@zenip e x . c om> on Sunday February 12, 2012 @03:52AM (#39009963) Homepage

    Life may have many definitions but no meaning at all.

    • by Ardeaem (625311)

      Life may have many definitions but no meaning at all.

      Yes, but "life" has both definitions and meaning.

    • by RDW (41497)

      Life may have many definitions but no meaning at all.

      I think Sartre and George Lucas said it best:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-uQWNd540I [youtube.com]

  • by Improv (2467) <pgunn@dachte.org> on Sunday February 12, 2012 @03:57AM (#39009971) Homepage Journal

    Seriously, what's wrong with having a bunch of competing definitions?

    • by epyT-R (613989) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @04:13AM (#39010009)

      because the passive aggressive culture we have today needs it in order to feel secure. it loves argumentum ad populum (among others).

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by gox (1595435)

        because the passive aggressive culture we have today needs it in order to feel secure. it loves argumentum ad populum (among others).

        Most insightful comment I've seen in ages.

        The need to distinguish life from non-life arises from the need to define will, which human society sorely needs in order to find stable footing in the void left by religion. It's a hopeless endeavor, as we witness in the article, since will is but a bunch of norms. There is no rigid barrier between "things that act by themselves" (conventionally animals, God, but not zombies) and "things that are devoid of motive". It ultimately boils down to where the norms of the

        • ...the need to define will...[is] a hopeless endeavor, as we witness in the article, since will is but a bunch of norms.

          Way to go, nullify your own argument by providing a definition for what you say cannot be defined.

          But that's okay, since the rest of the comment has nothing to do with the subject at hand. Nor anything to do with any other subject, really. Post does serve as an example of how good spelling, an adequate vocabulary, and correct grammar can still sum up to something with no semantic value.

          This reply is snarky since it is clear that the author of parent post has a strong enough mind that he can write quite

      • by sgt scrub (869860)

        Popular belief is that argumentum ad populum is not an argument.

    • by Hognoxious (631665) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @05:56AM (#39010243) Homepage Journal

      Seriously, what's wrong with having a bunch of competing definitions?

      It would cost Apple more to patent them all.

    • by Chemisor (97276) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:30AM (#39011401)

      The first law of logic is that you must know what you're talking about. Without an agreed upon definition, any use of the word "life" invalidates logical arguments containing it.

      • by slick7 (1703596)

        The first law of logic is that you must know what you're talking about. Without an agreed upon definition, any use of the word "life" invalidates logical arguments containing it.

        Logic, going wrong with confidence.

    • by lennier (44736)

      Seriously, what's wrong with having a bunch of competing definitions?

      Trying to link results from different scientific disciplines together to form a coherent scientific (or legal) argument would get awkward, I imagine.

      But doing that would require some kind of globe-spanning computer network, and what are the odds of that ever being built?

  • by tchuladdiass (174342) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @03:57AM (#39009973) Homepage

    An entity that a) reduces local entropy, and b) came into existence via being replicated from and by another similar entity. Thus, you have the requirement of self replication, consuming resources, etc., which allows for those who can't reproduce, and rules out fire.

    • by goombah99 (560566) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @06:14AM (#39010267)

      The definition I like came from NASA astrobio asking the question, what would be an observable indication of life on a remote planet. That what might exist in spectra, or surface photos or any remote observation that would be a hallmark of life.

      One definition promoted by David Wolpert was the notion of self dissimilarity across scales. Consider that perfectly organized things (crystals) and perfectly disorganized things (gas) are both dead. So a hallmark of life is not entropy. Gas and crystals are dead because as you zoom out on them, their organizational simmilarity does not change (seen a small region of gas or a small region of a crystal, and you can extrapolate or predict all properties of the organization at a larger scale.). On the otherhand life has organizations that change as you zoom out. atoms become become proteins, become complexes, become organelles, become single cells. Single cells become organs. Organs organize into animals. Animals organize into packs. Different kinds of animals form an eco system. And so on.

      At each scale, the organization observed remains predictable for a while as you zoom then it abruptly shifts to a new one. The idea is that a hallmark of life is that if you look how each scale can be predicted from the scales below it, that this predictcablilty, perhaps measured as information surprisal, is nearly constant over a range, and then abruptly goes to zero at some scale.

      You should therefore look for this same scaling phenomena in spectra or sand dunes or whatever you can remotely observe. A planet that displays anomolies in this probably has some sort of activity that is partially organizing it.

      • by Nemyst (1383049)

        This works well for finding signs of life, but I'm not sure we could actually extend it to being a definition of life. After all, wouldn't computers (especially modern ones) fit into the definition of self-dissimilarity across scales? A processor has layers upon layers of fairly different building blocks, from transistors to logic gates and so on. You could argue that the layers are not quite as different as organic life's layers, but then you get into the question of how different they need to be for it to

      • by roman_mir (125474)

        OK, so software running on a computer is alive then?

        • by goombah99 (560566)

          OK, so software running on a computer is alive then?

          it's a sign of life. Something created that software and computer. Whether one wants to say computer themselves are alive is another discussion,

          • by roman_mir (125474)

            Something created that software and computer.

            - really?

            How about a solar system - there are stars, planets, if you scale down, there is probably nuclear / thermonuclear activity, electromagnetism, thermal, volcanoes, tides, there is all sorts of chemistry going on on a small scale and all sorts of huge physical manifestations, like interaction among planetary orbits for example on large scale.

    • Interestingly enough, by your definition, my hive of neural networks evolved via genetic programming are considered alive.

      Now, I'd like to hear your favorite definition of person. I'm sure they'll qualify for that soon as well; If not, then dolphins and apes will.

  • by deesine (722173) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @04:06AM (#39009985)

    "Undeniably, however, most of them do have a point, one or another or several, and common sense suggests that, probably, one could arrive to a consensus, if only the authors, some two centuries apart from one another, could be brought together."

    Forget water boarding: just use that sentence.

    • by edittard (805475) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @05:09AM (#39010155)
      The article crashed my browser so I can't decisively, notwithstanding that it was in quotes, determine if that awful prose you rightly cited is the submitter's own words or not, however it is undeniably (though some might disagree) neither the first, nor likely on the balance of probability the last heap of inaccurate, illegible and (to some ears, arguably illegible) tripe to be posted on Slashdot, all of which begs the question: "is our editors editing?"
    • by Sulphur (1548251)

      "Undeniably, however, most of them do have a point, one or another or several, and common sense suggests that, probably, one could arrive to a consensus, if only the authors, some two centuries apart from one another, could be brought together."

      Forget water boarding: just use that sentence.

      Will it get you elected to the Water Board?

  • by hihihihi (940800) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @04:44AM (#39010093)

    "Service Temporarily Unavailable"... nah, its just three words based on my definition of counting :)

    But if we look deep into the message and add "try again later", i think author is spot on.

  • Here's mine (Score:5, Funny)

    by Hognoxious (631665) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @05:24AM (#39010185) Homepage Journal

    The author arrives at a six-word definition.

    "it's like a box of chocolates"

  • by DrkShadow (72055) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @05:25AM (#39010189) Homepage Journal

    Life: something which defies the apparent path of least resistance (which would be to sit down and do nothing/die.)

    Conciousness, of course, is much more involved.

  • by msobkow (48369) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @05:45AM (#39010229) Homepage Journal

    I like a quote I read recently:

    The meaning of life is to give life a meaning.

  • Life is paradoxically coincidental to the ironical tyranny applicable to the unparalleled definition of reverse entropy.
  • But he's counting "self-reproduction" as two words.

    • But he's counting "self-reproduction" as two words.

      So are or aren't viruses "alive" by this definition? They don't reproduce by themselves, they require a host environment... much like the first reproducing chemical chains required a primordial soup, or how Humans require another human along with their ambient environment, or how my neural network machine intelligence requires a computer system to breed within.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        So are or aren't viruses "alive" by this definition? They don't reproduce by themselves, they require a host environment...

        We don't reproduce by ourselves (whole lotta knuckles) and we require a host environment (air, gravity) too. But that's not the "self" that he meant.

  • Guess how many characters there are in the above sentence? (between the quotes)

    Okay, you don't have to guess... you can count them.

    • by Snard (61584)

      Sorry for the self-reply, but I had to mention this too:

      "Life is autonomous self-reproduction with variations." (the final version from the article) clocks in at 53 characters, which is unfortunately one short of the correct total of 54 (which, of course, is what you get when you multiply 6 by 9, in base 10)

    • Guess how many characters there are in the above sentence? (between the quotes)

      Okay, you don't have to guess... you can count them.

      I didn't have to guess or count. I suspected, then estimated, and now your question has verified my suspicion. I may never know for sure, but I'm quite satisfied in thinking that I am.

    • by Tablizer (95088)

      Viruses and other "parasites" are not necessarily self-reproducing. They con the host into doing some or all of it for them. Males are usually not self-reproducing also.

  • by hey! (33014)

    ... is not obligated to supply phenomena that fit neatly into our preconceived ontological categories.

    It is quite possible that any possible definition of life either includes things we don't think of as "alive" or excludes things we do.

  • Life is... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DigiTechGuy (1747636) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @09:19AM (#39010681)

    Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% fatality rate.

    • by Xtifr (1323)

      Amusing, but...

      sexually transmitted

      Except for all those asexual life-forms, like amoebae and bacteria--the vast majority of life on this planet.

      100% fatality rate

      Unless you're talking about the heat-death of the universe, then the 100% fatality thing is pretty much limited to sexual creatures. If you are talking about the heat-death of the universe, then carbon atoms are as close to being alive by your definition as E. Coli.

  • Life is self-reproduction with variations
  • His definitions require replication with variations. So if someone found a way to suppress genetic mutation in humans, we would not be alive right? An artificial creation can also not be alive unless it can reproduce? Does factory production count? It seems we can shorten his definition even more if we embrace his bias:

    Life is: from evolution.

    I don't object to evolution, but I don't think it's correct to define life by this existing process. Or am I missing something?
    • by Nemyst (1383049)

      Since the human genome differs from individual to individual, you'd have to kill every human but one and make clones of that last one forever. Genetic mutations aren't necessary for variations with the size of our population pool.

      However, you're entirely missing the fact that most if not all definitions of life include reproduction. How else would you define life, considering reproduction is one of the few things that are wholly unique to it? Can you name something you consider to be "alive" that cannot rep

      • Mules and other sterile offspring, for starters.

        Life on Earth is essentially biomolecular cells powered by ATP.

        Can something that resembles life on another planet be made up of something different? Theoretically robots that manufactured replicas of themselves and otherwise behaved like an intelligent being would normally have to be considered a form of life, except that we know from our own experience that it is software and hardware that replicates the life experience and was created and put into place by

    • by robotkid (681905)

      His definitions require replication with variations. So if someone found a way to suppress genetic mutation in humans, we would not be alive right? An artificial creation can also not be alive unless it can reproduce? Does factory production count? It seems we can shorten his definition even more if we embrace his bias:

      Life is: from evolution.

      I don't object to evolution, but I don't think it's correct to define life by this existing process. Or am I missing something?

      There IS a blatant agenda here, and it has nothing to do with defining life.

      This type of paper is what I would call "borderline scholarship". It was done by a real scientist, passed "real" peer review, and even ended up in a "real" journal (more on that in a bit). But I would estimate this sort of work took maybe one weekend in a library and 20 minutes in excel. "Top science" this is not. It was picked up by JBSD, a washed-up journal that used to publish edgy stuff a few decades ago, and has lately decid

  • by subreality (157447) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:43AM (#39011497)

    "What is the meaning of life?"

    What is the meaning of that question? I take particular issue with "Meaning".

    Does it mean "purpose"? If so, life's purpose is defined by its creator; if there is no creator, it's purpose is self-defining; empirically, the one we've decided on is "keep reproducing until you deplete all available means to do so and/or come up with something else to do".

    Does it really mean "Meaning" as in "This means something"? A creator may have intended some meaning; if there is no creator, I'm afraid all it can mean is "Stuff can successfully self-reproduce for at least a few billion years on this particular rock". Any other meaning is entirely made up by us.

    I suppose in that sense data mining the meaning of life is as good an answer as any.

    Personally, I think "Meaning" is a worthless question, and "Purpose"... well, it's only what you make of it. Mine is to try to make this world a better place for it's inhabitants at least until we can make contact with and/or go somewhere more exciting. I accept that this may take a while.

Work without a vision is slavery, Vision without work is a pipe dream, But vision with work is the hope of the world.

Working...