Posted by: dacalu | 5 October 2015

“Life” Work

This blog is part of a short series setting forth my plans for research in the 2015-2016 academic year.  It starts with a brief introduction, but each of the pieces stands alone. In this installment, I talk a little about what work we may need the concept of life to do in various areas of thought and research.

What’s at Stake in a Life-Concept?

How do you use the word “life”? We all speak of life regularly, from “life on Mars” to “the meaning life” to “lifelong learning.” More technical appearances arise when we speak of metabolism (defined as the chemistry of life), sterile or abiological (free of life), or resurrection (life after death). I think it would be silly to force everyone to use life in only one, highly specified way, but I also think it’s silly to assume that others have the same needs we do when they use the concept. Here I just want to set out a few of the more important things at stake as we talk about life and how we understand it.

Within biology and astrobiology, we want to know about the origin, distribution, and energetic constraints appropriate to life. How do we find new kinds of life (e.g., extremophiles) or life in new places (e.g., planets orbiting other stars). We also want to know if we can speak of life using simple physical concepts and discrete math. Is it useful to speak of a unit of biology – a gene, organism, or population? We can also ask about whether death can be beneficial in evolutionary terms. Taking a step back, we can ask philosophy of biology questions about what constitutes an adequate account of biological causation.

These issues blur with medical issues related to health and whether health is objective and biological. It comes up most concretely in questions of the beginning and end of human life – when does a patient become an object or vice versa? That is, of course, a very blunt way of stating it, but I think it is at the heart of issues around abortion and euthanasia. This flows into questions about how we treat human bodies when they are breathing but not rational.

In medicine, we can also speak about creating sterile environments, free from harmful life, and antibiotics, targeting harmful life.

Similar issues arise in questions of anthropology within ethics, law and policy. What constitutes persons, agents (actors), and patients (sufferers)? They do radically different work than “organism in the species Homo sapiens” and yet arguments commonly conflate the two. More broadly, we can ask questions about whether living tissues can be owned and sold. Life generally gets assigned rights and obligations not given to non-life.

In philosophy and theology, we can broaden the discussion even further to ask whether life has inherent value, perhaps due to a special relationship with the divine. Do we have obligations to all living things? Do they have obligations to us? This plays out concretely in environmental ethics, animal rights, and property law. Most ethical systems attribute dignity to life and greater dignity to “life of the mind.”

I would like to keep in mind the needs appropriate to each of the discourses.  Theology will be accountable to the uses of concepts in scripture and tradition. Law and science require categories clear enough for consistent interpretation; this will probably require that life be a binary property of discrete things (e.g., That particular dog is alive).

What’s at stake for you in defining life?


  1. […] next post will explore various modern questions that hang on our model of […]

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