, Volume 185, Issue 1, pp 125-144
Date: 15 Feb 2011

Life without definitions

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Abstract

The question ‘what is life?’ has long been a source of philosophical debate and in recent years has taken on increasing scientific importance. The most popular approach among both philosophers and scientists for answering this question is to provide a “definition” of life. In this article I explore a variety of different definitional approaches, both traditional and non-traditional, that have been used to “define” life. I argue that all of them are deeply flawed. It is my contention that a scientifically compelling understanding of the nature of life presupposes an empirically adequate scientific theory (vs. definition) of life; as I argue, scientific theories are not the sort of thing that can be encapsulated in definitions. Unfortunately, as I also discuss, scientists are currently in no position to formulate even a tentative version of such a theory. Recent discoveries in biology and biochemistry have revealed that familiar Earth life represents a single example that may not be representative of life. If this is the case, life on Earth today provides an empirically inadequate foundation for theorizing about life considered generally. I sketch a strategy for procuring the needed additional examples of life without the guidance of a definition or theory of life, and close with an application to NASA’s fledgling search for extraterrestrial life.