Fake Banner
    The Language Of Life
    By Steve Davis | March 12th 2012 12:18 AM | 38 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    gadfly: noun (1) fly that stings horses and cattle. (2) (derog) annoying person, esp one that provokes others into action by criticism, etc....

    View Steve's Profile

    The question as to how many meanings a word can have came up in the discussion that followed "The Intelligence Paradox". Two excited respondents found the whole thing so alarming that they volunteered the following helpful hints to improve my approach; “hogwash” “pseudo questions” “vacuous sophistry” and “hogwash” again, just in case I missed it the first time. I was also told that intelligence could not be cooperation because cooperation is cooperation.

    So let’s see if a word can have two meanings, and a good place to start would be that emotion-charged hot-potato that we know as life.

    In 1943 when Erwin Schrodinger asked the world “What is life?” he was not asking “what is an organism” or “what is a life form”. He simply asked what is life. That’s because there is general agreement as to what a life form is; we recognise it because it demonstrates the accepted functions of living things; growth, reproduction, metabolism and homeostasis. (There is support for other functions to be included in that list, and that can be a legitimate area of discussion, but let’s not get side-tracked.)

    The problem that arises when we ask “what is life” is that we have developed the unfortunate habit of referring to life forms as “life”, when in fact life is the underlying essence of a life form. Life is what distinguishes a living entity from a non-living entity, but it is not the functions of a living entity, it is the driver of those functions. If we only needed to describe the functions to describe life itself, then Schrodinger would not have felt the need to ask the question.

    His seemingly simple question was examined over time in a series of lectures that culminated in a book that had no final answer. So anyone saying that life is any particular function of a life form is in effect saying that Schrodinger was an idiot who could not see the obvious. I don’t think anyone will put up their hand to that one.

    Our substitution of “life” for “life form” occurs so often it’s become second nature. When we ask “Is there life on Mars?” we do not have an image in our minds of an underlying essence or a philosophical question; we have an image of an organism, fuzzy though the image might be. When we ask “Can we create artificial life?” we do not have an image in our minds of a process or concept, we have an image in mind of a robot or of something gurgling in a test tube.

    This is due to a deficiency in our thinking. That in turn is due to our sensory system and how it enables us to survive in the natural world.  We interact with our environment by seeing, feeling, hearing and smelling objects, so objects are what we are comfortable with, and objects are what our brains have evolved to deal with. The survival of our ancestors was never threatened by a concept. We are less comfortable dealing with abstractions, which is possibly why it’s taking so long to reach anagreement as to a definition of life.

    But deep down we know, as Erwin Schrodinger knew, that life is not something concrete, it’s not something that can be measured, it can only be observed, yet in our complacent need for short-cuts we have agreed that life can also refer to entities.

    So there it is. Words can have two quite different meanings. And we now see that, as I claimed in The Intelligence Paradox, intelligence can mean cooperation without breaking any standards of normal language usage. That does not resolve the question of course, so let’s look at an argument that I raised in the comments after the article.

    There is a school of thought in quantum physics that the universe is ultimately comprised of nothing more than information. So matter is, in the final analysis, bits of information. If this is the case then living beings can be defined as entities that interpret and use information. There can be no dispute over that if the original premise is valid. But as we saw in the discussion above, a definition of a living entity is not a definition of life. To find what life is we have to find the underlying essence of a being that interprets and uses information. It can only be intelligence that interprets information. So life is intelligence.

    And as life is also cooperation, (see What is Life? www.science20.com/gadfly/what_life ) then intelligence is cooperation and examples of that can be seen everywhere in the natural world, as I explained in The Intelligence Paradox.

    So here’s the challenge.

    Not only have I presented three explanations of life that are capable of standing alone, I’ve also shown that they support each other. Now, to my mind that makes the full package close to bullet-proof, but don’t mistake confidence for hubris. I would be more than happy for someone to pull it apart so I can turn my attention to other things.

    So go to it lads, but remember, this is about intelligence and cooperation, so be nice to each other!

    Comments

    vongehr
    Two excited respondents found the whole thing so alarming that they
    You wish, but no, there wasn't anybody excited. We were bored and now you put me almost asleep.
    when in fact life is the underlying essence of a life form ... but it is not the functions of a living entity, it is the driver of those functions.
    Mmmm, the taste of phlogiston and pure spirit instead of the scientific method, that is always what gets us scientists so excited, yaaaawn.

    in effect saying that Schrodinger was an idiot who could not see the obvious. I don’t think anyone will put up their hand to that one.

    A dose of name dropping, the good old argument from authority, how exciting. Being reminded of the large number of Nobel guys who in their old age went silly, trying to raise my hand, half there, oh no, ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzz

    Mmmm, the taste of phlogiston and pure spirit instead of the scientific method, that is always what gets us scientists so excited, yaaaawn.
    I see you're on form today :)

    I just wish I'd checked the link before clicking on it. But to help Steve pad out his vacuous sophistry with some real solid ad hominems I'll be the one to say it:
     
    Schrodinger was an idiot who could not see the obvious!
     
    That should be good for a couple more blogs. I'll try not to click on them.
     
    Steve Davis
    Go easy on the medication Sascha, you keep nodding off!
    Now that you've had your obligatory tilt at me, have a tilt at the argument!
    vongehr
    There is an argument? Well there is certainly no "obligatory tilt", but you should not be surprised about a reaction of those you charge publicly (in the opening of an article no less) with having had no arguments but excitedly screaming "hogwash". Seems there is only one here who should calm down; helps enormously with being rational. That nobody responds to your "arguments" may be a hint.
    Steve Davis
    "That nobody responds to your "arguments" may be a hint"
    But you are responding Sascha. You just can't leave it alone.
    You're tip-toeing around trying to nit-pick.
    If the article has no substance, then point that out.
    As I said, "I would be more than happy for someone to pull it apart so I can turn my attention to other things."
    I don't think you can.
    If the article has no substance, then point that out.
    Allow me. The article has no substance.

    *Re-plonk*
    Thor Russell
    If there is anything I find alarming it is that you appear to be seriously losing the plot now and heading into crackpot territory. Do you not understand that a word is just what people understand it to mean? It has no timeless absolute form-like meaning. Do you not agree with this, putting you over 2000 years out of date, like your namesake the gadfly?
    Thor Russell
    Steve Davis
    "Do you not understand that a word is just what people understand it to mean?"
    And did you not read the article?
    You're still hung up on word meanings Thor.
    And like Sascha, you're nit-picking instead of addressing the substance of the article.
    It's disappointing.
    Thor Russell
    Of course I read the article, I'm not the one hung up on word meanings. The point I raise is crucial before you even say anything. If you think that words have absolute meanings then I think thats pretty much a hopeless starting position.
    Do you or do you not think a word is just what people believe it to mean or not? That is a crucial question. If you think it does have some timeless meaning just waiting to be discovered, thats a clear path to mindless word games. You need to define things, not say something IS something else. Anyone that attempts to discuss anything in a sensible manner realizes this. 
    Thor Russell
    Steve Davis
    "If you think that words have absolute meanings then I think thats pretty much a hopeless starting position."
    Is there a comprehension problem here?
    Did I write "Words can have two quite different meanings" or did I just dream it?
    Thor Russell
    You seem to be saying the two concepts are the same thing, in which case they have just one meaning.Anyway, I will try to explain what is wrong with your definition of intelligence. 

    In order to define something you need to provide both necessary AND sufficient conditions:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necessity_and_sufficiency
    If you just list one/some necessary but not sufficient conditions for something you quickly say nonsense.
    e.g. An engine is necessary for a car, but not sufficient. If you don't think about the sufficient part, then you can define "car" as "engine". Obviously nonsense, a car has an engine but an engine is not a car.

    So, is cooperation a necessary condition for intelligence? Yes
    Is it a sufficient condition for intelligence? NO
    The parts in my toilet cooperate so by your definition my toilet is intelligent. However it isnt.
    Cooperation is not sufficient for intelligence, defining intelligence to be cooperation is wrong.
    Thor Russell
    Steve Davis
    You just don't get it, do you?
    This is not about tightly worded definitions.
    In fact, it's almost the opposite, as you should have realised by now.
    Definition of life is just a term I've used. I've also used theory of life and explanation of life for exactly the same idea.
    Because all I'm attempting to do is add a layer of understanding to what we know of life. Yet you seem to have taken the view that I want to be the guru of life studies.
    Go and annoy someone else.
    Thor Russell
    Calling everyone else wrong, saying your package is close to bullet proof sounds a lot like you want to be considered a guru. You asked for a discussion and were disappointed when Sascha etc left. Now you are annoyed because I try to engage.


    Thor Russell
    Steve Davis
    Good-night Thor.
    "...defining intelligence to be cooperation is wrong."

    Thor, I agree completely with your assessment of Steve's conclusion. End of story.

    New story. This may not be news to anyone who has read Steve's profile, but Steve is, by his own admission a gadfly. I am referring here to the second derogatory sense of the definition given... an "annoying person, esp one that provokes others into action by criticism, etc."

    There are two ways such a person may be handled. You can swat him dead, which is an action I will not be provoked into, not even for a fly, or you can ignore him and hope he goes away. But as far as I can tell, you can't talk science with him.

    Thor Russell
    Thanks, noted.On a different note, I see "not verified" by your name. Can I suggest that you sign up with Science20 so its easier to talk science with people who are clearly interested in doing so? 


    Thor Russell
    But the true underlying 'substance' seems to be an attempt to define life, by substituting other words that to most people are at best symptoms of life. Then treating these substitutions as some profound insight that will enable the detection of life.

    If I came across cooperation (such as between the cogs and springs in my pocket watch example) why should that cooperation intrinsically establish this system as alive ?
    If I came across a virus, or even an amoeba, no obvious intelligence is manifest in the behaviour of these things, so how could your "life is intelligence" definition help me distinguish these as alive ?

    Yes some life exhibits intelligence, and all that we recognise as life, as well as a lot that we do not recognize as life, consists of systems (i.e. cooperating elements) ... But where does that get us?

    Thor Russell
    Exactly, I think almost noone agrees with Steve's approach here. It leads nowhere but to confusion and silly word games.
    Thor Russell
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Not only have I presented three explanations of life that are capable of standing alone, I’ve also shown that they support each other. Now, to my mind that makes the full package close to bullet-proof, but don’t mistake confidence for hubris. I would be more than happy for someone to pull it apart so I can turn my attention to other things. 
    Steve, you are starting to remind me of Ned Kelly and his iron mask and bullet proof armoury, like him I admire your resilience against such concerted attacks from people in self-appointed positions of authority. According to Wikipedia :-
    This case was extraordinary in that there were exchanges between the prisoner Kelly and the judge, and the case has been the subject of attention by historians and lawyers. When the judge uttered the customary words "May God have mercy on your soul", Kelly replied "I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go". At Ned's request, his photographic portrait was taken and he was granted farewell interviews with family members. 
    His mother's last words to Ned were reported to be "Mind you die like a Kelly".  

    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Steve Davis
    Helen, as someone born close to Glenrowan where the famous armour was worn, I loved your comment!
    Gerhard Adam
    At this point, I think some good definitions are being stretched beyond the bounds of their usefulness.  There's no question regarding the importance of cooperation in biological processes and organisms.  Similarly if we consider even the most rudimentary form of intelligence to be a pre-requisite for information processing [data from environment], I think we can readily see how these are all traits that are fundamental to life.

    However, my concern is that even the term "life" has become so vague that we are attempting to discuss it as if it has any meaning outside the boundaries of an "entity". 

    So, we could argue that life requires an ability to process data from the environment and extract information which could serve as a rudimentary definition of "intelligence".  Similarly we could argue that life requires a mechanism of coooperative components to survive and reproduce.

    To what end?  Obviously if an organism were completely self-contained then it wouldn't need to do anything except exist.  However, like with all chemistry, if we want to keep the reaction going we are going to have to introduce fresh new materials, as well as get rid of undesirable byproducts.  Thus is something like metabolism born.  However, more specifically it illustrates that the success of any organism is going to be dependent on its ability to use the tools of "intelligence" and "cooperation" to exploit its environment to its own end.

    So to refer to Paul King's comments previously, it is the exploitation element that is missing from the two examples provided because the "cooperation" of watch gears don't do anything else.  Similarly while viruses or amoeba may not display any overt intelligence, even short observation illustrates that they are capable of processing information from the environment for exploitation to advance their own survival.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    "So, we could argue that life requires an ability to process data from the environment and extract information which could serve as a rudimentary definition of "intelligence". Similarly we could argue that life requires a mechanism of coooperative components to survive and reproduce."
    Thanks for that Gerhard.
    "...my concern is that even the term "life" has become so vague..."
    You're right, but that's the nature of it, it's a process after all, and difficult to summarise in a few words.
    rholley
    Steve,

    You seem to be touching some very raw nerves.  I think your antagonists would be equally ferocious if you had tried to define “love”. 

    Methinks they do not really want to think about it, rather like those Dutch planters in Java who, as the Japanese army was approaching, sat around the table drinking heavily and singing

    “Wij zijn niet, wij zijn niet bang.”

       (source – Laurens van der Post)

    Anyway, I for one do not think the following applies to your writing:


    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Steve Davis
    Cheers Robert, your thoughts are appreciated, as always.
     And the clip had me in stitches!
    rholley
    Two green men step out of their flying saucer and knock at the door of a suburban house.  The householder opens the door to them.

    “You mean there really is life on Mars?”, he asks, incredulously.

    “No way, man”, they reply.  “If there were, we wouldn’t have to come all the way to Earth to party!”
     
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    can i suggest to any scientists out there that any natural human concept that is borrowed for scientific purposes should be renamed so as to minimise confusion?

    Eg. don't discover or define the meaning of "life". Define the meaning of the word "liff" instead.

    Scientists' decision that a porpoise isn't a fish has caused me centuries of fury.

    Gerhard Adam
    Scientists' decision that a porpoise isn't a fish has caused me centuries of fury.
    Wow, are you ever lost in the weeds.  Where does someone come up with this stuff?
    Mundus vult decipi
    woah! .. ? .. what's that all about?

    i think my point is simple. Words in natural language may be meaningful, but their meanings are (naturally) vague. Ie. there isn't a particular meaning for the word "life" so there's no point looking for it. If you want to study what you think is "life" then it would be better to create a different word with a particular definition rather than borrow an existing one and cause confusion.

    My apoplectic rage about the corruption of the word "fish" by scientists was an example of my terrible, terrible sense of humour. I'm sorry it distressed you to the point where you felt you needed to crush the comment.

    .. please accept my apologies and this halibut in good faith.

    Gerhard Adam
    What "corruption" of the word fish? 
    If you want to study what you think is "life" then it would be better to create a different word with a particular definition rather than borrow an existing one and cause confusion.
    Actually no.  The ability for people to corrupt language to their own ends, and then expect science to perpetually invent new words is unnecessary and inappropriate.   It's a different argument if a common word is used in a scientific definition whose meaning is radically different.  Those that don't understand will continue to not understand if they don't apply themselves. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    "Those that don't understand will continue to not understand if they don't apply themselves."
    Gerhard, you can read my mind!
    OK - language evolves. It isn't fixed. There isn't "a" meaning for any naturally evolved word. Searching for "a" meaning is nonsense.

    There isn't "a" meaning for the word "life". What on earth would be the point of making a scientific study of a word that has a vague, swarm of meanings. (Unless it's some kind of psychological study - A study of what people think they mean when they use the word.) And if you're making up your own definition so you can study what *you* think the word means, why use the original word? Would that be to patronise the masses (holds hand up) via craptastic headlines in cheap newspapers? ("Scientist makes breakthrough in discovering the secrets of life!!" .. not caring to mention that the scientist isn't using the word in the way the reader is led to assume.)

    For study, the rational course would be to create a word that is defined to encompass the points of interest. That way you won't be struggling against all the various interpretations of that word (and reduce the time and effort needed to clean up misunderstandings). But of course, this would reduce the awesomeness quotient to the ignorant (holds hand up).

    (PS. Indianna Jones has a lot to answer for)

    No, it's not about words.  This is the trouble with so many arguments. We fall into the "definition trap". As A J Ayer always said "It all depends what you mean by..." Unfortunately that's only half true. It not that we have a plethora of different scientific meanings requiring different words - I prefer subsripts myself: IntelligenceMACHINE , for example -  it is precisely because the everyday concept is vague and woolly that we need to refine our meaning. Pick holes in the everyday concept. Find out where it doesn't really make sense. Insist that scientists do not ignore the obvious meaning. If there's a deeper understanding to be had than most people possess, then that too becomes part of the everyday concept for the simple reason that people will assimilate it when they discover it. 

    That doesn't mean I agree with Gerhard or the other chap, I think they are wrong about what constitutes the consensus idea of life. But the answer is not to invent words for them to play games with - there plenty of situations where jargon is needed but not here. The answer is to expose the folly of what they are saying. After all, you will NEVER get St G or the other chap to change their minds or retract unless it's a simple oversight or a spelling mistake.  That's as unchangeable as the second law of thermodynamics. But you may save all those benighted readers who flock to these blogs from getting confused about what they mean when they talk amongst themselves down in the pub.
     
    I do hope none of that made sense.
     
    Steve Davis
    No, it's not about words. This is the trouble with so many arguments. We fall into the "definition trap".
    Exactly! You're starting to get the feel for it.
    If there's a deeper understanding to be had than most people possess, then that too becomes part of the everyday concept for the simple reason that people will assimilate it when they discover it.
    Beautiful! Now you're really warming to it.
    That doesn't mean I agree with Gerhard or the other chap, I think they are wrong about what constitutes the consensus idea of life...But the answer is to expose the folly of what they are saying.
    Oh-oh, that blew it! I thought it was too good to be true.
    That point was so poorly backed up that it doesn't even amount to trying to have it both ways.
    What's happened there is that your emotional side has pulled rank on your reasoning side; the reasoning side that was doing so well.
    I guess it just emphasises Gerhard's point that "Those that don't understand will continue to not understand if they don't apply themselves."
    You flatter yourself. I don't read your silly blather let alone warm to it.
    Thor Russell
    If life was intelligence, then the organ used for thinking would be the same one used for reproduction... Oh yes, perhaps that explains a lot about the world!
    Thor Russell
    rholley
    Which would explain why Schrödinger’s cat was always out on the tiles.
    On the personal side Schrödinger had two further daughters while in Dublin, to two different Irish women. He remained in Dublin until he retired in 1956 when he returned to Vienna and wrote his last book Meine Weltansicht (1961) expressing his own metaphysical outlook.
    (from his MacTutor biography.)
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Thor Russell
    Sure you may have explained that, but if you watch the Big Bang theory, or any other show about geeks, then you sure have some explaining to do about their distinct lack of Irish women.
    Thor Russell
    rholley
    A Methodist friend at work very much admired Donald Soper, a prominent Methodist minister, socialist and pacifist.  That one used to frequently debate with the crowds at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
     
    In one of his speeches, he referred to the heart, at which a heckler called out “It’s only a pump”.
     
    To which Soper replied “Try telling your girlfriend ‘I love you with all my pump!’ ”
     
     
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England