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!