What Is Life - Part 1
    By Gerhard Adam | July 29th 2011 07:03 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Before embarking on this discussion it is important to try and resolve some language and definition issues that will likely occur in this post.

    One of the main difficulties in addressing this problem stems from the limitations of language.  Language exists for humans, so by default, many of our words convey a meaning that is primarily interpreted within a human context.  As a result, when it comes to describing other living things we often find ourselves faced with terms that carry a significance that is misplaced when addressing other organisms.  I want to be clear that there is nothing in the following discussion that is intended to be anthropomorphic.

    The specific case I want to address are the words; "intent", "accident", and "random" from the following dictionary definitions:

    Intent:  "Resolved or determined to do (something)"  "something that is intended;  purpose; design;"

    Accident:  "An unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally"  "lack of intention or necessity : chance"

    Random:  "Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective"

    If we examine any process, we can apply one of these terms to describe it.  In physics and chemistry we generally conceive of specific activities as occurring randomly among the atoms and molecules involved, with associated probabilities describing the likelihood of particular results.  Using this we can begin to direct how specific processes work by providing the necessary ingredients (including energy) to cause a particular reaction to occur or to favor a particular outcome.  So, to obtain a specific result, these probablistic processes must be directed in some manner.

    Intent can then be used to describe such directed processes.  As an example, we can use the process of oxidation to "intentionally" produce a fire.  In that way, we have a directed action that produces a specific result.  

    An accident would occur when an intended action fails or is misdirected.  We may intentionally build a fire, but unintentionally burn down our house.  A lightening strike is an essentially random event, that produces an unintentional fire.  In this case, we can clearly recognize that the lightning didn't "intend" to produce a fire.  We simply have two processes that occur under the proper conditions by either random action, or accident.

    All of this is well understood and produces no real surprises in our use of language.  However when we begin to consider the issue of defining life we suddenly face some difficulties.

    Primarily the difficulties occur because of our concept of "intent" where we assume that in order to direct a process there must be some form of intelligence to perform that action.  Of course, the word "intelligence" presents its own baggage and problems, so let's ignore it for now.  In examining "intent" we must consider that this happens when some process occurs where the objective is to produce a different or specifically directed outcome.  In the example of our fire, we may build one to produce light and heat, so the "intent" or objective for the fire would be the production of light and heat.  So in that sense, the "director" of the process is involved in the produced result.  In other words, "intent" also conveys a sense of having exploited a process to a particular end.

    In other words, A + B simply produces more A + B.  However, in living things, A + B produces C.  A separate phenomenon which could arguably be considered the "intent" of the interaction.  For example, rapid oxidation of fuel will produce fire, which releases energy as heat and light.  However, no matter what fuel is used or how things are arranged, fire (by itself) will only ever produce more fire until one of the required components is exhausted.  Contrast this with the oxidation that occurs in a cell and the "intent" (or objective "C") is that this process is utilized by the cell for energy.  In the latter example oxidation isn't simply an uncontrolled chemical process, it is a specific process with a specific objective.  Living things exploit processes to achieve objectives.  This doesn't mean that there is some cognitive process at work which assigns an "intent", but rather that it is an emergent property of being alive. (1)

    The lightning strike mentioned previously isn't involved in the fire that it triggers, since it ceases to exist after it strikes, so we can conclude that the occurrence of a fire is not "intentional".  Similarly, fire doesn't "intend" to provide light or heat, but whatever is "directing" the production of fire may "intend" that light and heat are produced.  Therefore the "director" of this process is exploiting this process for its own use.  So in our definition, "intention" indicates an actor that initiates/controls the direction of a process to produce a specific outcome for their own end.

    Is intelligence required for "intent" to exist?  

    Yes, but this presents us with the problem of defining "intelligence".  

    At this point it is important that we put aside notions of human intelligence and simply consider the property of "intelligence" itself.  I want to try and establish some basic definition that is more broadly applicable, rather than only addressing the uniquely human aspect of it.

    To keep it in general terms, we could argue that intelligence occurs for any organism that:
    (1) is capable of learning about or from its environment
    (2) is capable of directing its actions according to such feedback from the environment

    Let's also distinguish that this concept of "intelligence" doesn't actually require "understanding".  One doesn't need to understand the chemistry of fire to be able to light one.  This can be as simple as a stimulus-response event.  Even the concept of "learning" needs to be qualified as not necessarily possessing a long-term memory.  

    In effect, we can use a definition of intelligence that indicates that it is a property that provides a method of interacting with one's environment, obtaining feedback from that environment, and being able to adjust one's reactions to that environment. Note that it requires nothing associated with reasoning, nor the ability to abstract.  In short, intelligence measures that ability of an organism to exchange information with its environment and act (within its capabilities) on that information.  Note that this is beyond simply "interacting with the environment" since a rock rolling down a hill could be said to behave in that capacity.  Rather it is the ability to direct actions based on information feedback.

    This further requires a means by which this information exchange can occur, and from here we can stipulate that some sensory mechanism must be available for life to exist.  Some of these principles are outlined in a paper by De Loof (July 2004).,%20pp.%2047-50.pdf

    From this we might reasonably be able to argue that one of the primary traits of life involves the ability to display "intent" by the exchange of information with its environment through some sensory mechanism and directing its actions accordingly, limited by its morphology and physiology.  Why should such a characteristic exist and what does it mean?  Simply put, life requires the ability to interact with its environment in such a fashion so that it can preserve itself.  This is a trait that no inanimate object has and marks the beginning of why life requires "intent", "awareness", and ultimately "consciousness".

    In part 2, I will develop an expansion of these ideas to demonstrate how they are integrated into life.

    (1) It may seem inappropriate to use a term like "intend" to describe these activities, but if a bacteria divides, it is difficult not to argue that it "intends" to reproduce.  However, if one were to extend this argument to more base functions, like the combination of Hydrogen and Oxygen, while would could claim that Hydrogen "intends" to bind with Oxygen, there is no particular preference or regard for the outcome.  Inanimate objects can direct no actions, as a result, there is no "purpose" in the combination of Hydrogen and Oxygen beyond that of combining.  We apply a similar criteria to describe organisms that are dead, in that they no longer possess the ability to act on their "intent" to survive.


    This sounds very similar to Dennett's "intentional systems", though without the perspective from which intend is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Not that I encourage name dropping, but Dennett is actually a big name well worth reading on evolution*. Can you comment somewhat on where you perhaps borrow or diverge from his description of Darwinian processes producing life and consciousness? That would help locate you position.

    *Dennett, C. Daniel. (1995): Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon&Schuster.
    Gerhard Adam
    Hopefully I will resolve most of those questions in the second part.  I do realize that the concept of "intent" is a bit difficult, so I'm trying to ensure that I provide enough background to lead to the basis of how this relates to life, and how it manifests itself.

    Mundus vult decipi

    The problem of defining “intent” worries me at the human level.  For example, how is an authority figure to react to a child who appears to be lying?  My own experience is of a teacher using the word “fabrication” as a pompous way of imposing on such a child.

    For example, Supernanny may well observe that Terror Tot is controlling his/her parents, but is an inference ‘he/she is doing this to control you’ justified?

    The same may, I think, be noticed in the Dog Whisperer programmes, though I haven’t watched those for a couple of years now.

    Further down the scale (if it’s biologically correct to express it this way) we may observe phenomena like that of Toxoplasmosis ‘controlling’ the behaviour of its rodent hosts to get eaten by a cat.

    The moral ideas of the individual are equally related to his general situation: it is no accident that parents and schoolmasters so often tell us that they can stand any vice rather than lying, the lie being the only defensive weapon of the child.  (C.S.Lewis.)
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Gerhard Adam
    I fully agree, and in part two I will try to refine this concept of "intent" and "purpose" to a more palatable "opportunistic" type of definition.  In particular, part of the problem here is that for evolution (i.e. natural selection) to work, biology must be capable of filtering out all those efforts that don't work reliably so that greater and greater accuracy in being "repeatable" becomes the norm.  As a result, "intent" actually becomes a kind of "intentionality" to describe what is taking place to ensure accurately repeatable behaviors so that, in developed systems, we can have a circulatory system, a digestive system, a nervous system, etc.  Each of these depends on predictable, repeatable behaviors and consequently the perspective of "intentionality" in their behaviors.

    I want to be clear that I'm not talking about "intent" from any external perspective (i.e. external designer), nor from a conscious perspective (i.e. willful "intent" driven by the organism itself).  Instead it is strictly a trait that describes what eventually emerges from the filter of natural selection, so that randomness and disorder, result in organized and predictable systems.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Gerhard, you said, "In short, intelligence measures that ability of an organism to exchange information with its environment and act (within its capabilities) on that information."
    That's a good point, and awareness of the environment is consciousness, so intelligence is a measure of consciousness.
    You said, "Simply put, life requires the ability to interact with its environment in such a fashion so that it can preserve itself."
    My position on that is that life does not require that ability, life simply IS that ability! And how do we detect that ability? By observing cooperation as I argued in What is Life?, or, as in your wording, observing an exchange of information.
     Nice work.
    This article reminds me a lot of a brief discussion we had on another article.

    Personally, I agree with most of your definitions above. The 'intent' stuff - I take it using your logic, a one-step reaction has no intent, but a two step reaction does? How many steps are required? What level of sophistication? I am assuming here that we agree that a bacteria is alive and is nothing more than a set of chemical reactions - reactions which we are understanding more and more as time goes by.

    My old neuroscience professor had a pet theory that life started as a simple set of RNA interactions in a pool, not even contained in any kind of membrane (unless you count the puddle/pool boundaries). Once they can replicate, evolutionary processes optimise the system, and membranes - if they appear - can rapidly speed the whole thing up by improving concentrations of reagents etc.

    I am sure I am not alone in not completely grasping your meaning w.r.t. intent. I look forward to part 2.

    Gerhard Adam
    I take it using your logic, a one-step reaction has no intent, but a two step reaction does? How many steps are required? What level of sophistication? I am assuming here that we agree that a bacteria is alive and is nothing more than a set of chemical reactions...
    Actually it isn't the number of steps, but whether a process is being "exploited" to perform a specific action.  I realize the terminology is a bit strange, but the point is that whatever process is being examined, it invariably performs a function that is used by the organism and exists beyond the basic process itself. 

    Bacteria are certainly alive, but I'm not sure why they should be considered a "set of chemical reactions" any more than a human being would be.  Ultimately all of life is chemistry, but the difference between living and non-living systems is that the reactions are never simply uncontrolled reactions that begin arbitrarily and run until all resources are exhausted.  They are quite specifically bounded and perform a specific function to achieve a specific purpose. 

    Every living thing is capable of bringing new resources into the chemical reactions and removing waste products, which is never a directed process in non-living systems.  As a result, the basic chemistry is "maintained" by a living organism.

    Mundus vult decipi