We are in a crucial moment in history – a moment when we are close to reproduce life – biologically or through Artificial Intelligence. Many could even argue that this has already happened.
Is 2011 now and scientists are researching how the universe was created, they reverse aging in mice, make AI that imitates humans (see turing tests), cars that drive unmanned through towns, theorists debate whether consciousness can be downloaded or not, artificial biological brains are created, life is created from artificial DNA, cloning, the list could go on.
The most notable development is the well known Watson project from IBM, who beat in February 2011 in a televised show 2 of the best Human players in the world at Jeopardy. Watson did not just beat the humans – it literarily crushed them, proving its impressive language capabilities.
Well known futurist Ray Kurzweil famously says in his book "The singularity is near":
In 2045 - "The Singularity occurs as artificial intelligences surpass human beings as the smartest and most capable life forms on the Earth.".
Does anybody notice what is strange about all these discoveries and advancements?
We still don’t know what life is. We are reproducing it in primitive forms and we are getting close to reach human level without knowing what life is.
Psychology – the designated field to find an explication to what is life – might have been left behind by pioneers in other fields.
In this context, the advancements brought by the “Unified theory of personality” and “Individual order of needs” to psychology – could prove to be very helpful.
Definition of living organisms.
So how can life be defined in the light of this new theory of “Individual order of needs”?
From the previous discussion, the definition of living organisms can be summarized as:
Living organisms are entities with a preset number of needs, a preset order for those needs and a biological body that allows them to be pursued.
Now the word “biological” might be removed in the future from the definition of life when we create Artificial Intelligence.
Also, we are accustomed to consider living beings as wanting to exist now and for as long as possible and to reproduce themselves, so this can be embedded into the definition of life.
(*It is arguable that if our orders of needs are what we should call life or other configurations of orders of needs can still be called life, this definition applies to life on earth. We never know what we will find out there…)
The needs of “wanting to live now” and “for as long as possible” and “to reproduce” encapsulates all the other needs, as for example the need to breath is triggered by the need of “wanting to live now” while social needs could be triggered by the need of “wanting to live for as long as possible” and the need “to perpetuate the species’’.
This is how the definition of living organisms becomes:
Living organisms are entities with a preset number of needs and a preset order of those needs – among which, the need to exist now and for as long as possible and to reproduce should be present – and a body that allows them to pursue those needs.
When a living organism is functioning according to its definition – it is alive – and when it stops functioning it is dead.
Making the difference between entities that can and cannot support life.
A different discussion can be made here.
We could have an organism – an entity which has all the necessary internal mechanisms to support life. But this organism might not function at this very moment. Such examples could be frozen insects and animals or an organism which dies but then can be resuscitated. The organism has all the parts ready to function but is not functioning for various reasons. Then if some conditions are met, the organism’s internal parts all start to function again.
So we have entities that can support life and which can be functioning or not at one moment. They might be functioning now, stop functioning and then start functioning again.
The situation, when an organism is not functioning but can still sustain life if resuscitated, is a one for which we don’t yet have a wording. It is not a “living” organism because it is inactive, but it can potentially sustain life – and that is a very important difference from entities that cannot sustain life no matter how much you might resuscitate them – like a rock.
What is life.
Life is an abstract concept – it is not something that exists – compared with living beings which are “material objects”.
The concept of “life” has a lot of history in media – movies, pictures or books and can be seen for example as a fog that can be insufflated by supernatural beings to dead or not living organisms.
This could lead to the confusion that life is something material and can exist independently of living organisms – which it is not.
The millenary question “what is life” is actually the wrong question – the correct question is what are living beings.
Life is only what differentiates the living beings from non living beings (dead) or systems which were never alive.
This difference can be summarized as: life is the sum of all properties that defines a living organism which are not to be found in dead or non living organisms, among which the next one are necessarily to be present: needs must exist, they must have a certain order, the need to exist now, for as long as possible and to reproduce must be present, the system must have all the tools required to fulfill these needs.
So what is life? Life is an abstract concept – it is a sum of properties which can be found only in living organisms.
Can those definitions help us to delimitate living organisms from non living organisms?
For example bacteria are considered to be alive while viruses are not.
Do bacteria have needs while viruses don’t? Do bacteria want to live while viruses don’t?
To get the most precise answer to this question we will need to find first how needs are stored in living beings and by this I mean – scientists will have to do proper research.
Also the discussion could easily get philosophical as the term “want” or “need” – might not have a very precise meaning. How can bacteria or viruses want to live? We might be inclined to say that none of them want anything – they are just self reproducing complex structures with no individual will. We might be inclined to say that they don’t want to live but they resist destruction due to their internal structure.
The problem is that if by wanting to live we understand resisting to destruction then also a rock does that. Does the fact that a rock resists being destructed means that it “wants” not to be destructed? Is this “want” a feature which is actually possessed by all bodies in the Universe?
Or we could consider that living beings resist destruction by being active as opposed to a non living structure which resists destruction only by internal composition – which allows them to exist even statically. Living beings have to be active to resist destruction – they need to gather food, to process it. But again there are phenomena we don’t consider to be alive which only exist in motion – like the wind.
Another difference can be noticed: we could argue that living beings possess internally the cause of their activity while the wind is produced mostly by external factors. Bacteria does what it does because it has RNA codes which it possesses internally while the wind is just air moved around by external factors. But again the cause of the action is hard to be said that is done only because of internal or external factors…
This discussion could go on but at this very basic level where live structures meets the non alive structures there is still a grey area where things can be interpreted. The good thing is that this definition is helpful as life forms get more complex and terms like “needs”, being active, the need to survive are more clearly delimited from non alive structures.
Following the above discussion, we can complete our definition of living beings:
Living organisms are entities with a preset number of needs and preset order for those needs – among which, the need to exist now, for as long as possible and to reproduce should be present – and a body that allows them to pursue those needs. Alive beings resist destruction by being active and also they carry inside themselves the determinant factor of being active.