March 12, 2014

"Recognizing life as a concept is, in many ways, liberating."

"We no longer need to recoil from our impulse to endow [Theo] Jansen’s sculptures with 'life' because they move on their own. The real reason Strandbeest enchant us is the same reason that any so-called 'living thing' fascinates us: not because it is 'alive,' but because it is so complex and, in its complexity, beautiful."

From a NYT op-ed titled "Why Nothing Is Truly Alive," which does not — as you might anticipate — address the Roe v. Wade concept-of-life question. Here's video of the genuinely enchanting Strandbeest:



The Crack Emcee said...

And this is why I just wrote sex, as entertainment, bores me on the other thread.

This is waaay better,...

Bob Ellison said...

Impractical on the streets of Manhattan. And no cup-holders that I can see.

cubanbob said...

A beautiful piece of engineering as art but a simulacrum of life isn't life.

As for Ann's observation regarding abortion the same holds true for executions. What isn't truly alive can't be killed.

Crimso said...

Nice. This was actually written by an associate editor of "Scientific American." Where to even begin?

Being quite familiar with Joyce's work (we just finished covering 3 of his seminal papers on self-replicating RNA in a Topics in Biochemistry class), I can assure you that Joyce is under no illusions that his work remotely represents life. I know this because Joyce, you magnificent bastard, I READ YOUR PAPERS! His systems provide a starting point to try to determine the origins of life.

Now, on to the author's assertion that nothing is truly alive. You'll note he offers this observation after telling us there is no definition of "alive." I agree no real definition exists. I tell my students that, to borrow from a Supreme Court Justice, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." That's not satisfying, and it's not meant to be.

He seems to seize on the exceptions around the margins to prove no attempt at a definition has been acceptable. Many commonly accepted definitions suffer such exceptions without controversy.

Going back to Joyce's work and other research on origins of life. There was almost certainly (i.e., necessarily) a period during which the prebiotic era overlapped with the biotic era, and the transitional systems would have both compellingly fit and compellingly not fit definitions of life as we know it today. The key part of that is "today." We don't know what those transitional systems looked like because we weren't there, and we will only ever be able to do experiments to assess the likelihood of particular scenarios.

Long response longer: take it to the realm of intelligence. We can't say for sure when a computer would become "intelligent," but who would argue that as a result nothing is truly intelligent? Apparently an associate editor of Scientific American.

Long response, longer still: one of the origins of life researchers (I don't recall the one in question) paraphrased a quote by Nietzsche, IIRC. He may not have caught Nietzsche's actual point, but the statement was to the effect that some words have no definition, only a history.

traditionalguy said...

A Phd in Recognising Life is going to be the next hot degree at Harvard. The first needed skill of good death Panelists is seeing "end of useful life" everywhere, at younger and younger ages.

Crimso said...

And as I suspected, it turns out that Ferris Jabr is not even a scientist. He is a journalist. Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. Remember this (if you can) when reading Scientific American, a magazine which was largely responsible for my choice to become a biochemist.

Bob Boyd said...

"We find it useful to think of some things as alive and others as inanimate, but this division exists only in our heads."

I'll bet Mr. Jabr would have another remarkable insight if he was being chased by a maniac with an ax. Namely that not having a division in his head is the difference between alive and inanimate.

Bob R said...

Lovely sculptures.

mgarbowski said...

For crying out loud those things are just wind vanes. Charmingly complex to be sure, but the idea that they undermine our concept of life is inane.

rhhardin said...

Dogs believe that blowing curtains are alive.

Scott said...

"Here is my conclusion: Life is a concept, not a reality."

Driving back to New Jersey from Florida this weekend, I listened to Jack Hawley reading his translation of the Bhagavad Gita. It's a religious work associated with Hinduism; a very long parable of the warrior prince Arjuna who, when confronting the battle of his lifetime, decides to quit -- and of Lord Krishna, his friend and chariot driver, who becomes an earthly manifestation of the Godhead, and sets out to convince Arjuna that it's okay to slaughter his relatives. (Among other things.) In the process, Krishna lays out the concepts of consciousness, life, death, and reality that are the foundation of Hinduism.

After having listened to this, I find Ferris Jabr's pronouncements about life, concepts, and reality a little glib.

n.n said...

It's not complexity which fascinates us. It's the perception of complexity, which we accept as an article of faith. It's chaos where an indeterminate, underlying order exists.

William said...

It's a nice bouncy rack, but it looks high maintenance.

Amexpat said...
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Saint Croix said...

We might call art a miracle of creation. Indeed, if Roe v. Wade was a right to destroy art, a right to buy a Monet and put your foot through it, liberals would be aghast. It would be recognized as a depraved thing to do, as the wanton destruction of beauty by assholes.

Now imagine how much more miraculous human DNA is, compared to a painting.

I think of DNA as God's idea, God's concept, God's blueprint for humanity. (Or, if you're an atheist, nature's blueprint). Ripping up a blueprint is not the same thing as a homicide. But it is a barbaric and vicious attack on creation, on art, on a culture of life and love. People are right to be appalled.

Saint Croix said...

And the idea that we can't identify a homicide is preposterous.

This is why the New York Times censors abortion photographs. They use ignorance as an excuse for the violence, but then censor the violence because they know that knowledge will be their undoing.

n.n said...

Saint Croix:

There are three explanations for why people are capable of choosing to support and tolerate an unprecedented violation of human rights. First, there is willful or practical ignorance. Second, there is faith (i.e. spontaneous conception). Third, they are immoral individuals who are incapable of self-moderating, responsible behavior.

It's worth noting that "concept" is decidedly an atheist characterization of life, and, in particular, human life, which laid the foundation for murder and enslavement of populations on, not coincidentally, an unprecedented scale. It is not a coincidence because both individual dignity and intrinsic value are articles of faith, presumably endowed by our Creator.

khesanh0802 said...

Amazing what Tinker Toys is up to these days!

Ignorance is Bliss said...

The real reason Strandbeest enchant us is the same reason that any so-called 'living thing' fascinates us: not because it is 'alive,' but because it is so complex and, in its complexity, beautiful."

My poop is far more complex then his sculptures. That don't make it enchanting, fascinating, or beautiful.

Freeman Hunt said...

Dumb column. Neat kites.

Saint Croix said...

"concept" is decidedly an atheist characterization of life

What it reminds me of is free speech.

Think about free speech for a minute. We can be Nazis if we want to be Nazis. We can deny the humanity of Jews, we can deny the humanity of Africans, we can deny the humanity of babies. All of this is allowed, right? Free speech allows us to be Nazis. And you can't stop us from thinking this way. That's the promise of free speech, that our ideas and thoughts will not be policed by the state.

The Supreme Court wrote this in Casey:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

That sounds good if we're talking about free speech, right? It sounds exactly right. You can't punish Nazis for their thoughts, or racists for their thoughts. You can't punish anybody for their concepts.

But the argument falls apart when we take it outside the context of free speech. Dr. Gosnell has a different concept of humanity than you or I do. He thinks newborns are sub-human and may be killed. And he has a legal right to think that, and speak his doctrine. He just does not have a right to kill people.

Saint Croix said...

"concept" is decidedly an atheist characterization of life

The Catholic Church thinks conception is very important! Interesting to read the definitions of conception.

We might characterize a respect for the sanctity of life as a concept. For instance, we treat our dead with respect.

You're dead! Why are we treating you with respect? Because we still have this concept of you as a human being, worthy of respect.

Saint Croix said...

It's interesting that both the Supreme Court and the Catholic Church frame the issue in terms of when life begins.

I understand why they do it. It's a nice, happy way to talk about the issue.

But I prefer to talk about death. (Maybe I'm not so much pro-life as anti-homicide!)

We have laws that define when people die. You can reason backwards from that and figure out when people are alive.

But the main thing, I would think, is taking the homicide issue off the table.

I get annoyed with lawyers and judges who (implicitly) say they don't know when people die. Scalia talks this way. They all talk this way.

Why are they ignoring our death statutes? Why are they ignoring the issue of homicide?

Not because the law is tricky. It's very clear.

What makes it difficult is all the emotions that go along with realizing that we've killed people, a lot of people. It's dark, mind-blowing, and upsetting. Pro-lifers and pro-choice people both want to be positive and affirmative. So we skip over the dark and ugly question.

n.n said...
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n.n said...

Saint Croix:

Evolution from conception and evolution until death are a dichotomy, not a duality. From conception, an evolutionary process describes the emergence of a consciousness, either as an original or expressive phenomenon. Conception signals the beginning, while death signals its terminus. From conception, a life will evolve through stages, until the final known stage which is death. As far as we know, there is no life before conception, and there is no life after death. Consider the evolution of life as a vector field. The direction of the process is equally relevant as the function.

n.n said...

Saint Croix:

I distinguish between concept as an idea and conception as a realization. While the former is malleable and negotiable, the latter is real and definite. The former is imminent, while the latter is current.

I prefer to have a firm basis for reality when discussing philosophical topics; otherwise, everything is subject to interpretation and individual whims. Science is that philosophy which when constrained to a limited frame of reference forms an objective foundation for reality. I reserve the right to change my opinion when circumstances merit it but not before.

Anyway, I understand why this is such a controversial issue. Yet it is still difficult to watch and accept that people will fall from grace for the most trivial of causes. It is further difficult to realize that the consequences of their juvenile behavior will not be constrained to their immediate environment and to themselves

Saint Croix said...

Conception signals the beginning, while death signals its terminus.

No. Those two points do not match up at all. Conception signals the beginning of a human body at the microscopic level.

Death is not the end of your body. Certainly not at the microscopic level!

Saint Croix said...

Death, legal death, happens when you lose all activity in your brain stem and cerebral cortex.

I happen to like this rule, but it doesn't actually matter what I think. I'm just describing our rule.

From this rule we know precisely what biological criteria a human being needs to have (brain activity) in order to be alive.

Imagine a doctor in an emergency room removing a beating heart from a brain dead patient. Is that a homicide? No. Why not? Heartbeat is not the relevant criteria. The patient died when he lost all brain activity.

We cannot be vague on these things, because we're talking about homicide.

Can you charge a doctor with the murder of a baby for giving emergency contraception to a woman? No. What if that contraception causes the destruction of a zygote? No. Why not?

He did not kill anybody under our death statutes.

It's the same analysis. You are determining whether you are going to charge a doctor with a homicide. And we have laws in place that define when people die.

I doubt very much that you could come up with a death statute that would protect zygotes. Try it! Your new death statute would lead to all sorts of absurdities when applied to you or me.

Saint Croix said...

The point of recognizing the unborn baby's humanity is to apply our rules to the unborn. Specifically our homicide rules (murder, manslaughter, etc.) But it would also mean applying our death statutes, which are designed precisely to apply in specific medical controversies. Is the doctor killing a person when he does X? We can answer this question. We have answered it.

If we don't like the answer, we can change our death statutes and come up with new death statutes.

Equal protection is a procedural guide, not a substantive answer itself. Our Constitution does not say when life begins, or when people die. It merely says that our rules will apply to all people.

ricki said...

Or in other, is the origin of life just the consummation of a peculiar electromagnetic bond, the last or first step in a logical recipe? A recipe with two, five, trillions, infinite ingredients and cooking conditions? Equally, is a cell or a body just an organic machine, a synergyc set made of pieces? If it is, can machines be born and die? What is to be born or die apart from acquiring or losing certain qualitative configuration? But, is there a qualitative leap detached from raw matter-energy transformations, a sort of magical doorway that living beings go through two times? Therefore, is there a beginning or it would be as finding a cut in the material history of the universe, an infinite void that human language patches now for convenience? In the same way, is there death? If not, what are we without beginning and ending? What is life apart from knowledge and its technology, is life or a cell just a word? Along these lines, there is a peculiar book, a short preview in Just another suggestion in order to free-think for a while.

Roger Sweeny said...

I assume unborn babies are without sin and their souls go to heaven. So isn't abortion doing them a favor? Had Adam Lanza been aborted, his soul would be in heaven now.

Saint Croix said...

I assume unborn babies are without sin and their souls go to heaven. So isn't abortion doing them a favor? Had Adam Lanza been aborted, his soul would be in heaven now.

Roe suggests that abortion is theological or philosophical, a spiritual question.

Like there is no homicide issue for us even to consider.

So now we get incredibly bad theology. We get people who kill their babies and "reason" that their baby is in heaven now.

We would never make this sort of argument in regard to killing newborns. They too are without sin.

Here is God's rule: "Thou shall not kill." Also, Christians can seek redemption for any sins, including the most vile and awful things we do.

But the religious issues do not resolve the homicide issue. That is specific and quite important, not something for our unelected officials to ignore.

n.n said...

Saint Croix:

I am only concerned with human consciousness. The body is uniquely unremarkable, other than it sustains the consciousness. As far as life is concerned, I am concerned with not just its function, but also its direction. This ensures that both the body and consciousness are substantive elements of the process.

Factually, elective abortion terminates human evolution for trivial causes. Not only is this a violation of an individual human right, but devaluing human life has consequences for society, which is to say the survivors. It is also an indication that a woman, and perhaps a man, are incapable of self-moderating, responsible behavior, which is self-evidently a prerequisite for liberty.

While we, as a society, struggle to establish an objective, reproducible standard for assigning value to human life, it would be best that the issues of merit not be submerged or obfuscated by incidental or topical concerns. Elective abortion is a murderous act for cause of sex, money, ego, or convenience. It was normalized for purposes of tax revenue, democratic leverage, and as an integral component of a population control protocol.

As for doctors, the guidance is always best practices. There are two human lives which must be considered: the mother and child. Their work should reconcile the interests of each individually and collectively. The stage of development is not a consideration which should materially degrade the life of one or the other. They each deserve equal protection under our moral and procedural laws.