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Cultural Conceptions of "Life"

I was just reading on about the concept of autopoiesis. I've written here about complex systems quite a bit, and as most would know, all life forms are complex systems, but obviously, not all complex systems are life in the conventional understanding of the word. So what makes come complex systems "life" while others are not?

Autopoiesis is a trait that some complex systems have (but not all), whereby they are constantly remaking themselves. They take in new material and use that to rebuild themselves as they function so that, over time, they are made up of completely new matter, and yet the pattern, form, and function has remained consistent.

This seems like a wonderful way to parse out which complex systems are life and which are not. It obviously includes all living things.

The problem is that it also includes things like the red spot on Jupiter, which has been around far longer than the time any one particle of gas has spent within it. It also might be said to include corporations, which are constantly changing out individual workers, buildings, etc. but maintain their organizational form and function.

Furthermore, it includes the entire planet earth - and not just the life forms or ecology of planet earth, but all of the non-biological material, from volcanoes, to weather, all interacting in one complete system.

Many would take this as a failure of the endeavor to use autopoiesis as a definitional marker of life. However, there are many who seem undaunted and maintain the integrity of the definition. As I will explain, I remain uncertain about this.

These folks say that we might be more accurate in seeing that the earth and other autopoiesetic complex systems really are examples of life, even if different from purely biological life. They maintain that there can be great advantages to seeing life in this manner.

Unfortunately, this concept (called Gaia when referring to the earth as a life form) has been misrepresented by many New Age groups who take it to mean there's some vital life force of 'mother earth' and so on.

When I pointed out to my wife how the processes of the earth and those of a life form are identical in a complex systems sense, both being autopoiesetic, she simply said, "I don't like that". I asked her why and what the difference was and she couldn't say. She just said, "I don't know but I don't like it".

I think we all have a sense that lizards and people and cats and trees are alive and rocks and clouds and rivers are not. It seems like it's almost self evident and there's something extremely intuitive about it. So much so that we figure there MUST be some rational and logical formula that should clearly delineate why one is alive and the other not.

But that got me thinking, is it really self evident? Is it really intuitive or obvious even? Or, might the difference between what is alive and what is not simply be a cultural convention?

As the biological sciences developed, it seems we've been told since elementary school that x is alive and y is not. That's a very early viewpoint that's explained to kids if memory serves. But in many primal cultures, the idea of other moving systems being alive (or perhaps they might say, being infused with spirits) seems commonsensical and intuitive to them. While I don't believe in spirits and vital life "forces", the fact that these cultures saw such systems as intuitively alive makes me question our own intuitions in that regard; especially now that complexity science is having trouble finding real concretely measurable validation of our conceptions.

Maybe the only reason we "don't like" the idea of other autopoiesetic complex systems being alive is simply due to an ingrained cultural predisposition concerning what is thought to be alive and what isn't.

As I said, I am a strict materialist with no notions of spirits, souls, the supernatural, or even natural vitalism (life forces). But when we look at life as a process of Complexity involving natural elements interacting according to natural laws, it is a two-sided proposition, for it inherently begs the question of why other such systems are NOT to be considered alive. Maybe they should?