I'm not sure how I feel about Ferris Babr's opinion piece in the New York Times, "Why Nothing is Truly Alive." On the whole, I think I like the idea.
Why so much ambivalence? Why is it so difficult for scientists to cleanly separate the living and nonliving and make a final decision about ambiguously animate viruses? Because they have been trying to define something that never existed in the first place.
Here is my conclusion: Life is a concept, not a reality.
To better understand this argument, it’s helpful to distinguish between mental models and pure concepts. Sometimes the brain creates a representation of a thing: light bounces off a pine tree and into our eyes; molecules waft from its needles and ping neurons in our nose; the brain instantly weaves together these sensations with our memories to create a mental model of that tree.
Other times the brain develops a pure concept based on observations — a useful way of thinking about the world.
Our idealized notion of “a tree” is a pure concept. There is no such thing as “a tree” in the world outside the mind. Rather, there are billions of individual plants we have collectively named trees. You might think botanists have a precise unfailing definition of a tree — they don’t. Sometimes it’s really difficult to say whether a plant is a tree or shrub because “tree” and “shrub” are not properties intrinsic to plants — they are ideas we impinged on them.
Likewise, “life” is an idea. We find it useful to think of some things as alive and others as inanimate, but this division exists only in our heads.
This is a jarring notion. I'm used to perceiving myself as someone who is alive. And, one day, won't be.
Yet what if my nature is no different from how everything in the universe is? Everything including, of course, both what we humans consider to be alive, and what isn't alive. When a rock erodes, or a star explodes as a supernova, we don't mourn its passing or view the dissolution of the entity as the loss of something special.
Part of the universe just changed form. The rock became dirt, in which plants can grow. The star was transformed into heavy elements, which enable Earth to be what it is, and us to be what we are.
Consciousness does seem to be a characteristic of some forms of life that acts to differentiate "living" from "not-living." I know that I am what I am. Seemingly a rock or a star doesn't.
But the presence of consciousness can be fitted into Babr's nothing is truly alive perspective. Clearly, consciousness is a continuum. Some entities are more conscious than others. Say, an ant compared to a human.
Our self-consciousness appears to give us a special edge in the What is Alive? sweepstakes. However, so far as we know, the human brain that generates consciousness is made up of atoms and chemical elements guided by the forces of nature.
Like everything else in the universe is.
So Babr may be right: "life" is just a concept, a product of the Homo sapiens brain. It is a way of organizing reality into conceptual boxes, yet arguably not a reflection of how the universe really is. (Assuming "really" has any more meaing than "life.")
Here's the beginning of "Why Nothing is Truly Alive."
On a windy day in Ypenburg, the Netherlands, you can sometimes see sculptures the size of buses scuttling across a sandy hill. Made mostly from intricately conjoined plastic tubes, wood and sails, the many-legged skeletons move so fluidly and autonomously that it’s tempting to think of them as alive.
Their maker, the Dutch artist Theo Jansen, certainly does. “Since 1990, I have been occupied creating new forms of life,” he says on his website. He calls them Strandbeest. “Eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.”
Poetic, most would say, but Strandbeest are not alive. They are just machines — elaborate, beautiful ones, but inanimate contraptions nonetheless.
A few months ago I would have agreed with this reasoning. But that was before I had a remarkable insight about the nature of life. Now, I would argue that Strandbeest are no more or less alive than animals, fungi and plants. In fact, nothing is truly alive.
Together my wife and I watched a video of the Strandbeest cavorting. After seeing these amazing creatures do their thing, I said to her, "It almost looks as if they are conscious. But they aren't deciding how to move. The wind blows them."
Laurel replied, "How do we know that humans are any more in control of their actions? We might be just as subject to deterministic causes and effects."
Have a look. Maybe you will agree with Babr that the Strandbeest are just as alive as we are. And that "life" is a word that doesn't point to anything truly real.