Let's examine "life"

Greg Bryant
Rain Magazine

When we ask ourselves "what is alive?" or "what is life?" ... what is actually happening?

"Life" is a word. This is not to belittle it: quite the opposite.

As a word, when we think "life", a particular structure in our brain "lights up". That structure, whatever it is, is the meaning of "life", in a biological sense. We know very little yet about what this "structure" or its "lighting up" actually entail, and what parts of the brain are recruited, or what they do. But we can say that "meaning" is within the mind/brain, and the word "life", and everything we feel about it, resides there, in some form, when it comes to mind.

Figure 1: the experimental question ("does a person think this is alive"), the thing measured (left, say, a tree), and the measurement result (right, based on the "life meter" in the brain)

It turns out, not surprisingly, that the structure that "lights up" (that is, bloodflow as detectable with an fMRI scan) is nearly identical for all human beings, irrespective of the language spoken.1

But this result was completely expected, by some who gave the problem careful thought. For example, Aristotle and Descartes both directly remarked on it. Aristotle, On Interpretation, Part I: "... the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs, are the same for the whole of mankind ..."

It's a corollary to a point made by David Hume. Consider the actual sound, or written word, for "life". It contains nothing in itself that tells us meaning. All the meaning already resides within the heads of the speaker and the listener. This mental activity is triggered by the sound of the word "life" because they are part of the same speech community. In other speech communities, the trigger is quite different, but the rich internal meaning is basically identical. And, again, we know very little about it, because it's really complex.

Figure 2: Meaning is in our minds. This lets us think. It also lets us "share thoughts".

Communication is just the speaker's attempt to "light up" similar structures in the listener's brain. This is also true for non-linguistic communication (a purr, a fashion statement, etc.) ... human language just has this spectacular additional property (still not found elsewhere) that it can cyclically compose words in order to create new meanings ... that is, new thoughts in the head.

We only have, as yet, very crude ideas of what actual sub-components, modules, or structures are recruited in these compositions, or how they are composed. At best, we just approximately know where their associated increased blood-flow may lie in the brain. But the actual cognitive "mechanism" (if that word will fit) is still a mystery, a very distant research goal. If the brain is a machine, or computer, we have no clue as to what kind of machine or computer it is.

This is why the other definition of 'semantics', where meaning is somehow outside of the head, out in the world, is not really a rational project in the natural sciences or the human sciences. Certainly a person's mind receives some stimulus from the outside, and certainly a person acts in the world. But the mind is not a 'mirror' of the outside, unless 'mirror' is meant as a metaphor for a highly contrived reflection. Everything that resides in your mind at any time is internal, including your ideas about what you see.

So the word 'life' is a feature of the brain of a human being. This will make some people angry, because they think it refers to something 'out there'. But the word does not refer to the outside world. It can be used to refer, but the actual meaning of life is in your head. Again, that does not belittle it. It simply sets the stage for finding out what stimulates humans, who are themselves living things, to see life.

Experimental equipment

Any biological feature that you investigate is a mental construct. There is something in the real world, outside of your mind, of course. But we have pre-defined it somewhat. So, it's confusing at first to do this kind of work: we are investigating a mental construct, and our investigation is shape by our mental tendencies. We need to keep that in mind when we believe we've discovered something.
'Life' may also be a feature of non-human animal mentation, but we have no way of knowing that. The only way we know anything about human language, is by constructing experiments, using ourselves as guages, or meters, or detection mechanisms.

We can ask ourselves questions experimentally: "Is sentence A grammatical?" "If I change one word to create sentence B, is it still grammatical? Has its meaning changed?" We are using ourselves as informants, constructing experiments whose results are very reliable. We can present the same experiment to others, and ask the same question of their impression. This is the only way we know about, say, an afterimage ... by asking someone if they see one, and by forming the question ourselves, as a human investigator. This is not "introspection" ... in the sense that we cannot look within our conscious minds to discover these answers. We need to construct experiments, and use ourselves as test subjects.2

We'll get back to this experimental method when we come to morphology.

The factors behind features

If we treat the word 'life' as a feature of our cognitive biology, what factors are behind its expression in our phenotype?

A useful generalization is Chomsky's "three factors" model.3 Any biological feature will entail the integration of:

(1) a genetic or inherited endowment
(2) environmental stimuli and interaction
(3) natural law or biophysics

Again, note that any biological feature (e.g. the nose, the kidney etc.), is shorthand for our interest. Whether or not this feature has distinctiveness, or cohesiveness, in some form in the actual world outside of human perception, would need to be demonstrated. In order to construct better theories about the world outside of our instinctive perceptions, we usually begin by admitting that we are puzzled by some feature, something we take for granted. Though the feature is "only an impression" or perception within our mind, until shown otherwise, still, we need need to start somewhere.

So, in this sense, the pre-molecular biology notion of "gene" was simply factor (1) for some feature that interested us. Not that this feature may be completely unimportant to the survival of the animal, its daily life, its internal operation, its own umwelt or worldview, or its role in its environment. It is in our mind. In an important sense, it is universal and objective, because it is possible for any human to see it as a 'feature'. But in an equally important sense, it is completely subjective, because it is a creation of human cognition. The molecular biological notion of 'gene' is simply misnamed, because it tacitly implies that human-perceived features are somehow defined by only very slim factors involved in creating that stimulus. But the factors that enter into the emergence of a feature are slowly becoming better understood.

In any case, the word 'life' is such a feature (along with its cognates: alive, living, etc.) What are the three factors that enter into it?

The Life-detection Faculty

The human language faculty (LF) has a consistent and integrated character that allows us to experiment with it, using native speakers as informants.

Simlilarly, although we have yet to agree upon an external definition or detection mechanism of "life" (again, because its meaning is in our head) we have a very real and reliable ability to say whether something is, or is not, "alive".

The dissatifaction we feel about the formal definitions of 'life' so far produced by the sciences are, at one level, an indication that we innately know something about life. Which is not surprising ... of all the elemental ideas or core conceptions that could be recruited into the mind-internal meanings of words, some kind of "sensibility about living things" is a very likely candidate.

That sensibility is complex, and not easily satisfied by formal definitions, which are, after all, idealizations with their own agendas. 'Self-reproduction' is one of these not-quite-satisying formal definitions. Again, because we're looking for 'life' outside our minds, when we need to start by looking inside.

We can make use of ourselves as "meters" of "life", and construct experiments, in much the way Chomsky used informants as meters for experiments into the structure of the language faculty.

We would be pursuing the Life-detection Faculty (LdF).

Nature and feeling

The first real work in uncovering and investigating LdF was done by architect Christopher Alexander. It's an interesting journey, and, outside of the sciences, an influential one.

By the early 1960's, he began to notice that this notion of "life" could be used as a kind of diagnostic by everyday people, to determine life-supporting preferences in the built environment. Over the years, he found ways to convey to people, typically in person, a method by which this "life meter" was more easily accessed, because it tends to be assaulted by other aspects of cognition.

Here are some of the aspects that interfere:

* Lack of seriousness.

* Our mental tendency towards discrete logic, categories, objects, and networks.

Here's how you can clear the interference:

Ask yourself the right questions, such as 'if you imagine yourself standing in the place in that photo, so you feel more comfortable as a person, than if you imagine yourself in the other photo?', and try to answer them honestly, with feeling. Try it yourself. Which has more life? Which makes you feel more alive?

This can help us to identify more of those things that we consider make up life. At the very least, Alexander believes that our LdF detects artifacts and buildings with life in the same way ... which means that this notion of a creature's structure defining their alive-ness can be investigated by the LdF. Even more, the third factor seems to 'deeply intertwine' with LdF in some way that is hard to imagine, and so probably will be very promising as a research direction.

leveraging existing structure

davies point about looking at a pathway map looks nuts, but really features are built ontop of existing technology. except it clearly doesn't look like our technology.

unfolding and differentiation

Unfolding and differentiation seem to be the key.




organization and l-systems


Related results

Fifteen properties

When you've cleared away the interference, this is what emerges:




Feeling examples

physical systems that generate 15 properties
automatic writing systems that generate 15 properties



feeling experiment


1Much of this fMRI research is done by Marcel Just and Tom Mitchell of Carnegie-Mellon.

2This method, which is not broadly understood by the academic public, is quite old. In a sense it emerges in the late 19th and early 20th century arguments over psychology and phenomenology. It's revival in the 50's was primarily due to Noam Chomsky's circle (including Eric Lenneberg and Morris Halle), who were inspired by the ethologists (Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenze, etc.)

3"Three factors in Language Design", Noam Chomsky, 2005