I'm pleased to announce that the Philosophical Society's Members'
Weekend for 2020 will be held at Rewley House in Oxford on Saturday
15th and Sunday 16th August. I have the honour of organising the event
again, and am very much hoping it will be as entertaining and well-attended as
last year's. As usual, the weekend will coincide with our annual dinner on the
Saturday evening, which will include the presentation of the Chadwick prize.
Further information and booking details will be available on the website from
The topic for this year is the question: What is Life? What
is it that makes living things alive, or which distinguishes a living thing
from a non-living thing? What are the criteria by which we might decide
whether something is alive or not? Is a virus a living thing? Are crystals
alive? What about computer viruses? If they are living things, are they alive
in the same way that you are? How will we recognise Life if we encounter it on
other planets? Without a clear definition of "Life", none of these questions
is easily answered.
These days, Life as a natural phenomenon is studied by scientists, who
clearly have a very good understanding of how it all works. But, while Science
has been very successful at describing living things and processes in
impressive detail, scientists remain unable to say what Life actually is.
There is no shortage of definitions -- over a hundred, according to a recent
study -- with no single definition generally agreed to provide a clear
distinction between things that are living and things that are not. Wouldn't
you think that if scientists really do have a good understanding of Life,
they'd at least be able to tell us what it is?!
Perhaps there is no meaningful distinction between living things and
non-living things. If the scientific description of Life is correct, then we
are all just biochemical machines of varying degrees of complexity, and hence
the distinction between Life and non-Life may be entirely arbitrary. Does this
mean that there is no essential difference between a human being and a
clockwork mouse, or between you and a pattern of dots on a computer screen
that looks and acts like you? Does it mean that killing a human is the moral
equivalent of smashing that mouse or turning off that computer? It that all
Life really is -- complex biochemical machinery, running an evolved computer
Or perhaps our current scientific understanding of Life is missing
something? Perhaps, a purely scientific, objective view of Life is
insufficient to gain a full understanding of it? Perhaps the way to find that
missing something is to consider Life from the perspective of a living being,
such as ourselves. If we really want to understand what Life is, one might
say, we need to add the internal, subjective perspective on Life, which
we as philosophers are, of course, well qualified to provide.
The aim of the Members' Weekend will be to present a range of perspectives
on What is Life? in the hope of either finding the answer to our
question, or, at the very least, of casting light on this most mysterious of
natural phenomena. So, if you think you have the answer, or would like to
present your own perspective on Life, then please consider giving a talk. The
fact that there is no definition of Life generally agreed by the professionals
means that our own perspectives on this question are as valid as anyone
If you are interested in speaking at our Members' Day, please contact me
via email to indicate your interest (as soon as you can or by the 22 March at
the latest, including a working title and brief outline of your talk (no more
than 150 words). If selected, your talk will last for around 30 minutes
(approx. 3000 -- 3500 words), to be followed by 15 minutes of questions. Don't
worry if you have not spoken at such an event before. We are not looking for
experts, just good communicators who are prepared to do a little research and
present a cogent and passionate argument, which is philosophical in
Ideally, we will have a range of perspectives presented by our speakers,
along with a number of proposed definitions of Life for us to consider. There
are three main ways you might choose to approach the question.
You might wish to make the case for your preferred definition of Life,
drawing on the work of philosophers or scientists from recent times or from
long ago, as you see fit. Examples include:
• Life is a gift from God, one that cannot be understood by the physical
• Life is the animation of matter by some vital substance, e.g.
life-force, entelechy, or Bergson's elan vital - the position known as
• Life is a uniquely biological phenomenon, consisting of complex,
evolved biochemical machines, resulting from Carbon-based biochemistry,
involving DNA, RNA, ribosomes and cells, enabled by metabolism, homeostasis,
• Life is "any self-sustaining (chemical) system capable of
Darwinian evolution", as expressed by NASA in 1992, to aid their search for
extra-terrestrial Life, adding that "the key attribute of life is to allow
complex systems to persist despite an often unpredictable and changing
• Life consists of self-replicating patterns of information,
sustained through Darwinian evolution, existing as material combinations of
atoms and molecules, or as patterns on a computer screen. (e.g. as described
by John Conway's Game of Life -- a view supported by Stephen Hawking in The
Grand Design, 2010).
• Life is the ability to maintain order within itself, far from
equilibrium with its external environment, and hence able to defy the Second
law of Thermodynamics (e.g. Schrodinger's What is Life? 1944, as well
as Lee Smolin's Life of the Cosmos, 1997)
• Life is a self-organising emergent phenomenon from multi-tiered
complex dynamic systems. Like consciousness, it emerges out of complexity as
an unpredictable novel property (e.g. Fritjof Capra's systems theory of life,
in The Web of Life, 1996)
• Life consists of Autopoietic machines, each a network of processes
that continuously destroy and regenerate the components from which they are
made (as per Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition,
• Life is existence itself; the only things that really exist are
fundamental particles and combinations of these that 'possess a life' (e.g.
Peter van Inwagen's Material Beings, 1990)
• There is no meaningful distinction between Life and non-Life. The
definition is entirely arbitrary; it Is whatever we want it to be. There is
therefore no such thing, in reality, as Life.
• Any other definition you would like to offer us.
You might wish to present your own subjective perspective on Life, as your
contribution to a broader understanding of it. Again, you might draw on the
work of philosophers ancient or modern, as you see fit. You might wish to
• Life as the search for happiness, eudaimonia, virtue, morality,
'the good life', etc.
• Life as a search for truth or enlightenment, a quest for knowledge
and understanding of ourselves and the reality of the world we live
• Life as suffering, that without pain or passion we would not be
• Life as a search for meaning, that we are condemned to define our
own purpose in the world.
• (Perhaps you have a view on what the Meaning of Life is, or
whether it has any meaning at all?)
• Any other lessons you have learned about "Life", from the
privileged perspective of a living thing.
You might wish to consider any of the many related questions that might
light on what Life is:
• The classification of living things (Aristotle, Linnaeus,
• The relationship between Life and Consciousness. (Are they the
• The possibility of non-Carbon-based Life; what life might exist on
other planets, and how we would recognise it
• Are viruses alive? Or crystals? What characteristics do they share
with more accepted living things, and what reasons might we consider them not
to be living?
• Can Life exist on a computer? Can robots be 'alive'? Can Life be
virtual, or do living things have to be concrete entities in space?
• Can we create Life in the laboratory? Is 'artificial life' the
same as the real thing?
• Life at the very smallest scales -- the remarkable intelligence of
micro-organisms, or the extraordinary processes inside living cells -- and
what these tell us about Life.
• Biogenesis and the Origin of Life: the idea that Life can only
come from Life (see Thomas Huxley). And yet Life must have begun at some point
in time (abiogenesis). So how did that happen?
• Early ideas such as Spontaneous Generation, and its disproval by
Louis Pasteur in 1864.
• Whether Life began and developed teleologically, with a purpose;
it is in the laws of nature to enable the appearance of Life and of
Consciousness (e.g. Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, 2012; or any
version of Orthogenesis, proposed by Lamarck, Teilhard de Chardin, or
• When do we stop being alive? Brain-death, patients in a persistent
vegetative state. What we learn when such patients wake up?
• The question of whether there is an 'afterlife', with evidence
provided by (for example) near-death experiences, remembering past lives,
• Any other question related to Life, which might shed light on the
question of what on earth it is.
Please don't feel limited to the examples above. You may have a quite
different response to the question and would like to share it with the
Do use the vast resources of Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy when researching and
writing your talk, as well as the writings of philosophers or scientists who
have advocated for, or argued against, your chosen position.