The next few blogs lay out the overarching theme for my research this year at Princeton. They are adapted from a paper I presented here at the Center of Theological Inquiry.
What do you want from “life”?
We feel intuitively that life is both distinct and significant to our understanding of the world. And yet attempts to define life – or at least generate a conceptual framework for understanding it – have failed to achieve consensus for at least two hundred years. We may be using competing criteria that prohibit agreement. For these reasons, I would like to look at who is asking the question at what they have at stake in an answer. Specifically, I hope to address these three questions:
What work do we need a concept of life to do?
How do we frame concepts of life?
Which frames satisfy which needs?
For example, when Moses says “choose life” (Deu 30:15-20) the concept of life does normative work; “life” means living well. Irwin Schrödinger equates death with thermodynamic equilibrium and life as that which delays decay into death (What is Life? 1944). Does Schrödinger’s concept suit Moses’ needs? Cross-fertilization is valuable but, as with Planetary protection, we need to be careful of certain types of contamination. What belongs where when we talk about life concepts?
The next post sets out a history of life-concepts or models for understanding life in order to highlight the work that people have tried to do with it in the past.