Diary of a summer scholar: Sam Woolley

15 February 2017
Sam Woolley

Sam is completing a Summer Research Scholarship on definitions of life with Dr Emily Parke.

The big question I have been tackling this summer is: what is life?

This is a deceptively simple question that demonstrates the interface between philosophy and science, and perfectly suits my undergraduate background in biology and philosophy.

The opportunity to engage with the philosophical underpinnings of biology was revealed to me in my last semester of undergraduate study in Dr Emily Parke's course on the philosophy of biology.

What Emily and I are interested in this summer is what makes something living as contrasted with non-living.

What makes us group plants, animals, and bacteria under the banner of life, and not chairs, crystals, or water?

I've spent the summer poring over books, articles, and 'scientific' blog posts, looking for answers to this question.

As it turns out, biology is the perfect field for a philosopher. It's bursting at the seams with conceptual issues, and everyone thinks their definition of x is much better than those other definitions of x.

The debate over how best to define life has been raging for millennia, since Aristotle first gave an account that invoked the 'soul' of the living thing in question; that is, its capacities to do certain things that other non-living things simply cannot.

This seems to capture to some degree our intuitive understanding of what qualifies as life and what does not, but there are exceptions to any rule. 'Life' feeds, metabolises, and grows, but so too does fire. Living things move and constitute an evolving system… just like planets and their planetary systems.

Since Aristotle, numerous authors have refined their definitions of life to be more specific and exclude, as much as is possible, all those pesky counter-examples.

Biologists, chemists, physicists and philosophers have all weighed in to offer definitions that, oddly enough, mirror to varying degrees what they're interested in.

Recently, there has been a surge in a kind of 'definitional pessimism' — a few authors have claimed that attempting to define life is the wrong approach to answering the question. But the differences between the pessimists are vast also: some say that we need a new approach, others say that any approach is flawed, and some claim that there is no fundamental difference between living and non-living things.

After you've traced a debate back to the Bronze Age, making an original statement feels a daunting task. But that’s Emily's job.

What I've tried to do is impose some order: to categorise the definitions according to several variables, and to link ideas between thinkers, sometimes across centuries.

A nearly 100-page document of article and chapter summaries, and a poster-sized mind-map of authors and their core opinions are the fruits of my efforts. Evidently, I’m quite proud of them!

This Summer Research Scholarship has afforded me much. I've integrated my interests almost seamlessly and discovered an academic path I can pursue. I’ve learnt more than I could have expected in such a short time, and I’ve been paid to do it.

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