Seminar: The Challenge of Defining “Life”

Erik Persson, Department of Philosophy, Lund University, SE Tuesday 19 March 2024, 16:00 CET

Astrobiology is about life, more precisely about the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and in the universe.

So what is this thing we call life? Well, we are not totally sure. This may seem pretty odd and it may even come as a surprise to some. Considering how important the concept of life is in all kinds of situations, considering how much ink and paper has been used through the ages writing about life and living entities in biology, in the humanities, in the social sciences, obviously in medical science, in law and of course in fiction, poetry and the news, the least one should be able to expect is that everyone who talks about, sings about, study or save and protect life, is that they know what they are talking about. At the very least, one should be able to expect this from astrobiology, given the definition of astrobiology stated above.

Luckily, the lack of a definition does not mean that we are totally in the dark about what life is. Astrobiologists, just like most of us, have a pretty good intuititive sense of what life is. Most of us can easily determine that you who listen to this presentation is alive but the chair you are sitting on is not. That is great but in astrobiology, it may be more difficult. When looking for life that may be very different from life as we know it we need more than an intuitive sense. When describing the origin lf life we need to be able to identify the border between chemistry and life, and so on.

Why is it then so difficult to transfer our intuitions about life to a clear and unequivocal definition?

In my presentation I will give my answer to that question but also suggest how we might change our search for a definition in a more fruitful direction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *