Posted by: dacalu | 31 December 2015

The Blood of Life

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

-John 1:12-13


My friend Rev. Kari Jo Verhulst asked me to comment on this passage. She was concerned about the potential biases here toward males and toward humans, but also toward an apparent dualism one can easily read from the passage. She also noted a rather obscure Aristotelian reading of the passage, which, if potentially historical, was not compelling. Knowing my penchant for Aristotelian and Biblical biology, she thought I might have some insights. I’ve not had a chance to look closely at the passage, but wanted to share my best guesses of the moment, in case some others find them interesting. I know I will want to come back to this later, for it is a rich passage.  Thus I must start with a heartfelt thank you to Kari Jo, for bringing it my attention.

My short answer is that I think it might be more helpful to read through the lens of Plato, noting that Jesus is the life of the cosmos, and therefore closer to the fullness of Being and the Good than mere life, mere animality, or even mere humanity. Our own fulfillment cannot come solely from any lesser form, but only from participation in the Word (logos) that orders all of Creation.

If I were to unpack that a little, I’d start by highlighting a few words that appear to be key to understanding biology and cosmology in Ancient Greek thought. To start with, Jesus is called the logos of creation. Usually translated “Word” and problematically conflated with the scriptures, the Greek logos is not an utterance, but a principle or rationality behind something. When John calls Jesus the life (zoe) and light (phos) of the world (kosmos), it comes close to meaning the soul of creation – the cause, identity, and end of all that is. [And there I am borrowing from Aristotle’s use of soul as efficient, formal, and final cause.  I doubt John thought of it so technically, but in this case it works and is consistent with broader Greek thought.] Before the 16th century, the cosmos was thought to be alive – in exactly the same way that animals are alive. It had a common activity that coordinated the parts to work together. It was an organism because it was organized by soul. [This is solid Plato – Phaedo. See C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image; Margaret Osler, Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy; and/or Michael Ruse, Science and Spirituality for how this changed between the Renaissance and Enlightenment.] That may sound complicated, but the take-home message is that John is talking biology from the very beginning of chapter 1.

In verses 12 and 13, John contrasts different types of life. The “children of God, who [are] born, not of blood (haima) or of the will of the flesh (thelema sarx) or of the will of man (thelema aner), but of God.” It has been easy to interpret this dualistically as a simple flesh (sarx) versus soul (psyche) or spirit (pneuma) contrast; and this interpretation has been common in readings of Paul, but strikes me as again a 16th century anachronism. Plato does not have this dualism. Instead, he speaks of an unformed world of “Becoming” moving toward a perfect world of “Being.” Like the process of nutrition, by which we turn chemicals into ourselves by metabolism, so the cosmos enfolds becoming into being through the logos.

The Ancients, both Greek and Hebrew, viewed blood as the vital heat or vital fluid that enlivened all living things (including some plants.). This sounds vitalist (invoking a mystical “life-stuff”) until you realize that we also talk about digesting sugars to produce calories (heat) that moves through the blood to give us the energy to live, move, and grow. It goes slightly farther in Greek and Hebrew only in the sense that the blood holds the limbs together, so that spilling the blood is removing the glue that binds them. It seems a short step to me from the Greek blood (haima) to biochemistry or metabolism.

The will of the flesh and the will of man apply similarly to what holds an animal together and what holds a human together. Ancient thinkers recognized something interesting about animals that made them more than metabolism. They acted with intentionality, sensed their environment, moved. Thus they were more than just alive. This more has been called many things – most notably “animal” from anima, the Latin word for soul. Note, however, that it is a contraction of anima sensibilis, while vegetable is a contraction of anima vegetibilis. Plants had souls, too! There is nothing supernatural about the animal soul. Plato and others called this something special the spirit or spirited aspect of the soul and it was associated with anger, courage, and will. It seems a small step in this context to say that the will of the flesh (thelema sarx) refers to that which enlivens and motivates animals. I will take a small liberty here, as the term has no modern correlate, and call it “instinct” as that comes closest in modern sensibilities to animal “reasoning” and “motivation” in many minds.

“The will of man,” at a cursory glance, seems to be a bad translation made by the crafters of the NRSV. I admit from the outset that they are much more knowledgeable than I, so take this with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, looking at other uses of aner in the Bible, it seems to emphasize masculinity particularly in the context of active reason (thinking man versus unthinking boy). Admittedly, this would have been tightly joined to common perceptions of sex (thinking man versus unthinking woman), but I don’t think it necessary or even important to the point that John is making. His emphasis is on wisdom or reason, present particularly in humanity. Indeed the word aner is occasionally used to speak about men and women. Thus, let us render the “will of man” as “human reason.”

With those reflections in mind, the passage becomes something like this: The children of God are not the product of metabolism, or the product of animal instinct, or the product of human reason but genuinely begotten of God. Plato was not a dualist (matter versus form) but a gradualist (becoming, moving through life, body, soul, and humanity, to being). Only logos can beget logos, but it does so through all of these stages, just as humans beget other humans through nutrition (present in all life) and instinct (present in animals). The higher does not oppose the lower, for it does not exist, except through the lower – at least for us. [God is something different.] To prevent us from slipping into dualism, John immediately reminds us that the logos “became flesh (sarx).” This will be reinforced later (John 6:53-56) when Jesus says you cannot have life within you unless you eat of his flesh (sarx) and drink of his blood (haima). The way of salvation is not to avoid the blood, flesh, and humanity of incarnation, but to allow them to be transformed by the logos into the very body of Christ. It is summed up neatly in Athanasius’ comment that “God became human that humans might become God.” By becoming blood and flesh, Christ has enabled us to quite literally eat and drink of that Divine order which is the life of

Posted by: dacalu | 25 November 2015

Mythic Approaches to Life

This post is part of a series on what we want from definitions of life.  It stands alone, but if you want to see the whole series, it starts here. I’ve already spoken about visceral approaches to life – as threat and opportunity. Now we turn to broader and more abstract evaluative approaches.

Is life good? Are some kinds of life better than others?

We call life good, perhaps because we are alive. How do we connect the two concepts? This approach also opens questions about how different types of life – biological, mental, spiritual – relate to one another. Is one more alive than another? Does that mean it’s better?


Version A: The Progressive Approach – Is the cosmos moving toward better life? Are agents and thinkers better forms of life?

The progressive approach seeks to understand the universe as a ladder of life states. The lowest are good, but the highest are better. Plato spoke of biological, emotional, and intellectual life as tiers in a process aimed at logos or cosmic harmony. Medieval philosophers spoke of a pyramid or ladder of nature (scala naturae) reaching from the creeping things in the dirt up to the angels in heaven, each more complex and valuable than the things below. More recent models speak of a historical progression from disorder, through plant life, animal life, rational life, and social life to spiritual or technological fulfillment. Chardin’s “noosphere,” Lovelock’s “Gaia,” and Kurzweil’s “Singularity” appear as inevitable products of cosmic evolution. Sometimes manifest destiny appears as well, as we can see in Star Trek and Interstellar.


Jewish and Christian thinkers often use physical development and evolution as a metaphor for salvation history. Paul’s “groaning of creation” (Rom 8:22) links childbirth to the coming kingdom, while Moses’ exhortation to “choose life” (Deu 30:19) links obedience to fruitfulness. Paul Tillich explicitly takes this approach (Systematic Theology III p26).


In a slightly different perspective, some modern “pro-life” perspectives suggest that more life – in this case more children – is always better. They go beyond asserting that killing is bad to asserting a moral obligation to generate more humans. Many advocates have a more sophisticated approach, but the label in itself suggests that life is always good and more life is always better.


Version B: The Romantic ApproachAre agents and thinkers worse forms of life? Do our action, thoughts, technology, etc. draw us away from natural goodness?

Biological life is (almost) always framed as good, but sometimes other life – the higher life of the progressive frame – is seen as a move away from natural order. Artifice becomes associated with evil. Intellect becomes less than – or potentially less than – life. This romanticism appears blatantly as a nature versus technology motif in Star Wars, but also in countless other works – from Lord of the Rings to Avatar. In theology, I believe this has roots in concepts of the Fall. Humans default to goodness, nature, and life, but our will allows us to choose other options. It occurs very commonly in arguments against “playing God” or “tampering with the natural order” (e.g., in response to genetic engineering, cloning, and reproductive technologies).


Version C: The Warfare Approach – Is life at war with death?

A third issue arises, when we consider a cosmic struggle between the forces of life and death. Life and death are characterized as active forces – perhaps even personalities – competing for control of the universe. This usually comes paired with versions A or B, but it can also appear on it’s own. We can view life as the inevitable winner – as in the Chronicles of Narnia and other Christian narratives of fall and redemption. Or we can view the two sides as evenly matched – as in the classic battles between Chaos and Cosmos in Babylonian mythology and between Light and Darkness in Manichaeism. Life might even be the the inevitable loser, as we can see in personifications of increasing entropy or talk of life (or reason) as a flickering candle in the dark. This last position appears Battlestar Galactica and the recent movies Gravity and The Martian.


Mythic approaches requires value orientation like the visceral approach, but it is universal value and always associated with life (as opposed to non-life or artifice). A mythic frame research program would involve looking at things of value and determining in what way life was present in them. Alternately, one might look at all things identified as living and try to find value.


Posted by: dacalu | 26 October 2015

Halloween Prayer

“From ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night; dear Lord, deliver us.” (traditional Anglican prayer)

It sounds quaint now, but it should remind us that, for many, ghosts and ghouls are real. They are the very real and present traumas that remain from losing people close to us and the very real and present vices that feed on these traumas. I do not say this to naturalize or temporize supernatural ghosts and ghouls. Perhaps they exist; perhaps they don’t. I say it to recognize that our dead stay with us and this can be a way of talking about it. Ghosts and ghouls are just as real as the mosquitos and other long-leggity beasties that bring sickness to most of the world. They are just as real as Vikings – whose longboats when bump against the town dock in the middle of the night before a raid – and other terrors of politics beyond our control. Halloween brings us face to face with our terror and fascination for forces beyond our control which nonetheless drive our lives and our deaths.

May God protect us from the terrors of the night – and the terrors of the day; may we remember the great and terrible work of making the world a place of truth, trust, hope, and love; may we find our way amidst the storm; and may God bring us safely home. Amen.

Posted by: dacalu | 26 October 2015

Trick and Treat

Sometimes an idea grows so large you can’t wrap your head around it in only one day. Sometimes a holiday requires multiple days. Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and the Day of the Dead give us a chance to deal with life and death, and to give the boundary between the two the space (and time) that it deserves. If you like your holidays to be nothing more than an excuse to eat, or party, or be with friends, now is the time to stop reading. Those are wonderful things – we need our excuses – but at the end of the day they are only the byproducts of a proper “holy day.”

One of my favorite descriptions of the Holy is the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” that which is wholly other, fearful, and fascinating. The phrase was coined by Rudolf Otto, a 19th century Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion. He thought some such experience of the holy or the numinous was at the root of all religion. In just such a way, I think the triple holiday coming up gives us an opportunity to deal with death in all of its ambivalent glory. Whether you are Christian or not, I think this is a true holy day, and one not to be missed.

Each of the three festivals has its own history, though the names we give them all derive from the same Christian feast day. Halloween, is an 18th century Scottish contraction of All Hallow Even, the night before All Saints’ Day. It coincides with Samhain, the Celtic new year and beginning of winter. Day of the Dead (Spanish: Dia de los Muertos) observances have been going in on Southern Mexico for two to three thousand years, though they settled on November second, falling in with Roman Catholic observance of All Souls’ Day. The Christian holy day of All Saints’ has been broadly observed on November 1 since the 8th and 9th century and observed as a multiple day festival since the 1400s. With such ancient roots, I cannot claim to tell you what the three days should be about. I can say what they mean to me in a way that I hope respects some of the many traditions that have grown up around them.

First, I think we must respect that they are three very different days. No one has an uncomplicated relationship with death. Perhaps one day will be more important to you, but I truly believe each of us can gain something from engaging in all three. Each of us can benefit from meditating on death in a way that brings us more fully in touch with the fearful and and wonderful mystery – that allows us mental, emotional, and spiritual space to deal with our own ghosts. That said, here is my threefold observance.

Halloween gives us a chance to think about the “thinning of the veil” between life and death. We recognize the importance things past have on things present. We pause to recognize how thin the line is between living and dying. Halloween is a holiday of contingence and chance and powerlessness. It is a time when the dead come to visit the living. We bring out sweets to placate and masks to scare the dead. We flirt with our fear of death and of those who have gone before. Halloween unsettles us, as it should. Before you can deal with your dead (those you have lost) and your mortality, you must be aware of them.

All Saints’ Day flips our fear, for it reminds us that our dead have helped us, too. Despite the workings of the unknown, our loved ones have reached out to change the world we live in. People have power. Christians celebrate God reaching into history, not only in the life of Jesus, but in the lives of countless saints. They are our examples and our inspiration. They include not only those recognized by the church, but everyone who has shed light in our lives. Christians particularly remember those who gave their lives to do this – those who were martyred for love or truth or hope. All people can remember that our dead continue to helps us, that some of them truly helped the world, and that we can, too.

On the Day of the Dead, the living go to visit their dead. It is the opposite of Halloween, for on this day, we accept death. Instead of scaring or propitiating the dead, we dwell among them. We celebrate them, whether they helped or harmed us. We recognize them for who they are and for all of those forces beyond their control that they struggled with. We talk with those we no longer talk to. It is a day to be reconciled with the past, a day for forgiveness, acceptance, and peace. It is a day to anticipate our own passing from this world. We hope to leave it a better place. And we hope we go to a better country.

When I do things right, I leave the threefold holiday knowing my dead a little better – and knowing my own life a little better, because of the dead. I hope this year’s visit with the dead will help you, too.

Posted by: dacalu | 19 October 2015

Approaches to the Meaning of “Life”

This post is part of a series on what we want from definitions of life.  It stands alone, but if you want to see the whole series, it starts here.

I would like to suggest five prominent approaches to how we model life. I do not claim these five ways are exclusive or exhaustive. Rather they are five well worn paths that many have taken in search of the meaning of “life.” Specific models – such as Aristotle’s nutritive soul or Schrodinger’s delayed entropy – can be assessed by the work they do in each approach. Often they will have been designed with one approach in mind and be very successful in that way. Often they will then be appropriated by thinkers to do work in another approach – with mixed success.

Each of the approaches comes associated with a focusing question or two that highlights what I see as a central concern. I hope to better identify the place of these various approaches in specific conversations – for example scientific origin-of-life research or Catholic environmental ethics – as well as global conversations on the definition of life. I will return to these questions at the end with my own concerns – how to search for life in space and how to build healthy relationships between individuals and communities. First though, I hope to improve communication between a wide variety of people with a wide variety of concerns by talking about what may be at stake for them – and for all of us – as we discuss “life” together.

The Visceral Approach – Can I eat it? Can it eat me?

The first approach frames life in the context of opportunities and dangers. At the most basic level, we ask “can I eat it?” and “can it eat me?” Evolutionary theory suggests that we would have evolved very accurate, very fast heuristics for answering those two questions. In a more generic way, we often ask whether something is alive so that we can assess it as a threat or opportunity. In medicine, we want to eliminate potential pathogens. In international law, we want to preserve common goods. Alien-as-threat and alien-as-exploitable-resource are two of the most common tropes in science fiction and they often challenge us to think of species wide interests or even life-wide interests.

Using the visceral approach requires a reference subject and some statement of their interest. To whom is this life an opportunity or danger? A visceral approach research program would involve observing and anticipating outcomes. It must be subject dependent and prospective. When we speak of Extinction Level Events – such as a meteor impact killing off the dinosaurs – we think in terms of diminished life on Earth.

More approaches in the next post!

Posted by: dacalu | 15 October 2015

That Lived in Look

I’ve been thinking about architecture today. Why do we build beautiful buildings and how do we put them to use? Being a fan of architecture, several examples came to mind.

Vista_aerea_del_Monasterio_de_El_Escorialver-1-tnHampton Court aerial 300 HB22

These are pictures of L’Escorial (17th c. Spain), Versailles (17th c. France), and Hampton Court (16th c. England). Each one is a palace and no one could mistake them for purely functional. And yet, they were built for more than luxury. Each one was established as an operational center of government for a State. Work was done in these places – not always well, certainly not democratically, but productively. Now consider three more.

Neuschwanstein StBasils Taj-Mahal-5

Neushwanstein (19th c. Bavaria), St. Basil’s (16th c. Russia), and the Taj Mahal (17th c. Mughal Empire) were all constructed as feats of architecture for a more limited audience. Neuschwanstein was a retreat for Mad King Ludwig. St. Basil’s was a Cathedral, but the interior space is quite limited – it’s more of a landmark. The Taj Mahal is a tomb. These are, in my opinion, three of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, and yet I am slightly uneasy thinking about them. The first and the third threatened national economies. The second commemorates military victories and was a demonstration of imperial power. If nothing else, they must represent for us the accumulation of immense wealth and power in the hands of a single individual.

I’d like to ask how theologies and philosophies relate to these buildings. When you go beyond a specific claim (e.g., my table is flat, it’s bad to hit your brother) to a system (e.g., Natural Law Theology, Physicalism), what kind of building are you making. How many people can live there (or work or worship…)? I don’t like ugly philosophy any more than I like ugly buildings.

Gropius Dormitories

Still, even among beautiful buildings, there is something to be said about functionality and common goods. No matter how elegant, how well crafted, how beautiful a philosophy is, it’s probably not worth living there alone – especially if other people have to work to keep you there.

What kind of philosophical building do you live in?

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?

Posted by: dacalu | 30 September 2015

The History of Life

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 give a quick and dirty summary of the history of life-concepts in Western culture (Europe and North America from ~1000 BCE to the present).

Concepts of life are as old as recorded history. They are rarely explicit definitions, but they consistently oppose life and non-life/death, either in exclusive categories or as ends of a continuum. [1]

Greek and Hebrew conversations set the stage for Western discussion. Homer wants to know what holds the limbs together and what remains after death. Genesis identifies life with the breath of God, which gives form, animal life, human life, and spiritual life. Parmenides, Pythagoras, and Plato associate life with the fundamental harmony that orders the universe, while Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius want to disentangle the two so that we are free to dissolve into nothingness at death. Thales and Aristotle are more concerned with reconciling biological and abiological causation and explanation. All of them want to understand why and how life manages to surprise us in ways that non-life does not.

Life concepts in the West came to be dominated by the concept of psyche as interpreted by Plato (through Plotinus) – discrete, substantial eternal units of life – and Aristotle – dynamic processes in material substrates. By the Middle Ages, the life of humans takes on a Platonic air, driven by theologians who want to attach it to will, intellect, and the image of God. Meanwhile, the life of plants and animals takes on an Aristotelian air, driven by a desire to conceive of the cosmos as a unified whole. Curiously, both are called psyche or anima. Aquinas attempts to integrate the two with mixed success.

By the start of the 17th century, Aristotelian ideas of formal and final causes have come to be used in ways increasingly unpalatable to natural philosophers. Descartes and Gassendi usher in a “mechanical philosophy,” eliminating those elements. [2] As formal and final causes are central to the Aristotelian model of life, plant and animal life lose their meaning and human life shifts definitively to a Platonic frame. Life becomes mysterious in the new worldview, and no consensus can be found on how biological causation relates to general causation. This is fertile ground for epistemological inquiries over the next two centuries as the rules of modern science are set. Kant wants to understand living things, while Goethe, Hegel, and others seek to construct historical narratives. In this period, both Progressive and Romantic approaches develop.

Modern science constructed under the mechanical paradigm may not be able to meaningfully differentiate life and non-life. Kant attempted a pragmatic solution, appealing to a concept of organism – parts moving with a common end. He was aware that such an end constitutes a final cause and was, therefore, not justifiable empirically (Critique of Judgment §64-65). Instead he accepted that they must simply be asserted if we want to understand life. Foucault (The Order of Things) describes a broader epistemological shift at this time, from uncovering inherent meaning to taking on the ideal perspective.

In light of this history, Paley did not invent “Design” arguments for living properties. [3] Instead, he followed Descartes and later enlightenment thinkers in moving the goal-directedness of living things from intrinsic purpose (Aristotelian final cause) to extrinsic Divine purpose. Gassendi, Kant, Hume and others had rejected attempts to determine such purpose empirically, leaving open the question of whether “science” was allowed to determine them in some other way (a priori necessity a la Descartes or pragmatically a la Kant).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries numerous life concepts arose, each gaining only temporary or local popularity. Life might be made up of living stuff. Lucretius proposed “soul-seeds” and Chardin “spirit-matter.” Ruthorford and Soddy suggest radioactive elements as “metabolons.” Moving up into chemical components (rather than atomic) Abernethy proposes a fluid like electricity while Huxley speaks of “protoplasm.” [4] The Miller-Urey Experiment (1952) was the most famous in a series of experiments establishing that the same components make up life and non-life.

Alternatively, life could be a question of natural laws, with some life-force driving the biosphere toward a particular end, just as the second law of thermodynamics drives the universe toward heat-death. Concepts of “orthogenesis” or progressive evolution became popular among biologists and economists (e.g., Haeckel and Spencer), but they were never fruitful in terms of predictions and were firmly rejected in biology in the early 20th century. [5]

In the 20th century, life concepts focused on unique functions of life such as metabolism and reproduction. Like life, they appear intuitively distinct and significant. Like life, we have not found any rigorous definitions that match our intuitions. These approaches have opened up productive avenues of research, they have not as of yet provided us with a dominant concept of life. Theologians, philosophers, and ethicists noted the dangers of operationalizing or reducing life and losing value components.

Most recently, we have begun to explore concepts of feedback loops and integrated systems. Von Neumann pioneered this approach with his concept of “cybernetics” and Sara Walker represents the cutting edge of such research applied to definitions of life. The promise lies in recognizing scalable relational properties of physical systems, rather than compositional or energetic properties. These moves were consonant with the process philosophy of Whitehead as well as expressly relational anthropologies, dating at least from Hegel and appearing as I/Thou in Buber.

The next post will explore various modern questions that hang on our model of life.



[Note 1: Non-life and death are not always equivalent.]

[Note 2: See Margaret Osler, Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy.]

[Note 3: William Paley is famous as the originator of modern “intelligent design” argument. You may have heard of a watch found on the ground – arguing that it must have been designed because of how it works – or his book, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.]

[Note 4: In fiction, the first drives the plot in Frankenstein, the second in R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots).]

[Note 5: See Micheal Ruse’s book, Monad to Man.)]

Posted by: dacalu | 30 September 2015

What do you want from “life”?

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.

Posted by: dacalu | 12 September 2015

Diversity and Teaching

In one of my job applications (for a professor position), I was asked how I would address issues of diversity in course materials and activities.  Because it started a great Facebook discussion, I thought I would post my final essay here.

[We are] committed to recruiting, hiring and supporting ethnically and culturally diverse faculty and to developing curriculum that emphasizes cultural competence and reconciliation.  Please respond to this statement by briefly describing how you would address issues of diversity (such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender) in course material and class sessions.

I watched a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She spoke on the danger of a single story – how we can become biased when we think of people and places only in terms of a single narrative: my poor neighbor or that oppressed country. I found this helpful in thinking about teaching and more broadly in thinking about both epistemology and Christian love. Diverse stories stir our curiosity, inviting us into deeper thought and more careful attention.

In teaching biology, I want to provide multiple stories to the students, encouraging them to create their own stories about the material. This starts with a conversation about what kinds of story make for good scientific work – generally concise, fruitful, concrete models of how a system works or how things fit together. They need not all agree with one another – but each needs to do a particular kind of work. It opens the door for students to discover their own ability to do science and encourages them to look for diverse positions on any topic. Where possible, I like to bring in examples of scientists with diverse backgrounds. I also want to introduce the idea that “we” as a class and “we” including all scientists are trying to tell a group of stories together so students can think about what that means, when it works, and when it might be challenging. Biology provides wonderful examples of dangerous ideology (Lysenkoism), misappropriation of science (eugenics), popular controversy (sex, gender, and orientation) and conflicting perspectives (adaptationism, levels of selection, biological altruism). We must think carefully about what work we expect it to do – and what work we don’t expect it to do.

The process requires diverse avenues for students to respond, as well. Studies suggest benefits to cold-calling students systematically and creating discussion spaces in which each student has an uninterrupted turn. I think free discussion can be invaluable, but it should be balanced with opportunities for students to prepare remarks. This can include short prepared reports, structured discussion, and scheduled meetings outside of class. It requires careful thought not only about the content of conversation, but the framework – issues such as not always calling on the first person to raise their hand, immediately stopping as hominem arguments, and rotating discussion/study partners.

One of the most important aspects for me is to be available to students as a person as well as a teacher and to reinforce the importance of their concerns and their perspective in achieving what will ultimately be their knowledge.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 62 other followers