thoughts i had in the bath
Razib just did an E. O. Wilson retrospective podcast, it’s fantastic and worth listening to. As Tyler Cowen used to say, interesting throughout.
One might identify Life as the second great level of emergence. The first is physics, to the extent it represents emergence at all rather than the ground floor.
Emergence can be explained as “occur[ing] when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, properties or behaviors which emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.” So, for example, waves may be an emergent property of liquids, chemistry may be an emergent property of various subatomic particles, societies may be an emergence of certain types of life.
These examples are limited emergences in the sense that each requires a more- or-less specific underlying phenomenological substrate, perhaps contained within a single lower level of emergence. Chemistry requires specific subatomic particles, plate tectonics requires rocks, culture requires participants. Waves can emerge from many diverse phenomena at multiple emergence tiers,from subatomic particles to crowds. In this sense waves are the most generally emergent phenomenon from this list.
I want to distinguish between “life” and “biological phenomena” because I think the latter is better viewed as a strict subset of the former. That is, like waves, life could be a type of phenomenon that emerges from potentially many substrate. One could imagine defining life as anything which evolves, which is to say any situation in which three things are present:
In this case life would include biological phenomena as defined today only as a subset, which makes sense. The current definition of life in the biological sense is absurdly complex:
One popular definition is that organisms are open systems that maintain homeostasis, are composed of cells, have a life cycle, undergo metabolism, can grow, adapt to their environment, respond to stimuli, reproduce and evolve.
An ontological enormity. “Those that are open systems that maintain hom . . .” get the fuck out of here with that. This is semantic gerrymandering and subdisciplinary cope.
But it may be useful. Suppose that biology is a strict subset of life. We might expect some of its aforementioned common features, to the extent that we can see them as emergent of biology, to perhaps be a more general phenomenon directly emergent of life.
This solves the stupid question of “are viruses living.” Open and shut case, they live. Are they biotic? This distinction is less important than before, because they share the common emergent properties of life. This is also resolves the ontological-empirical problem where one thing (viruses) that behaves quite a lot like another thing (biology) and shares many properties with that thing that no two other things share is somehow classified in an entirely separate and vastly broad category of “the non-living.”
All of this is very interesting but the point I am actually trying to raise here is that using evolution as the condition for life is a superior approach. Lots of things evolve that are not biological but as far as we know there’s nothing biological which does not evolve. Evolution is the basal feature.
Other disciplines, eg Chemistry, represent valid levels of emergence, but are limited in a sense I will explain later and so I do not call it great.
I could define this more rigorously but you know what I mean. Biology is at a higher tier than chemistry which is above physics.
This is fundamentally an argument on aesthetic grounds but if you have a developed ontological palate the awareness of this approach to cleaving reality should offend you.
It’s also bad clustering.