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Science historian George Dyson: Life is whatever you define it to be


Here’s Martin Eiermann’s European (17.10.2011) interview with science historian George Dyson, son of Freeman Dyson, “Information Is Cheap, Meaning Is Expensive”:

The European: Which brings us to the question of what it means to be alive. Biology, philosophy or religion might answer that question in very different ways.

Dyson: That is a huge and unanswered question that we are unlikely to agree on. Life is whatever you define it to be. There are some clear examples of intelligent life: A kitten is clearly alive, and a human being is clearly an intelligent living being. But very quickly you get into murky areas where the answers are much less clear.

The European: Do we have to embrace the uncertainty?

Dyson: It becomes a question of judgment. Barricelli pushed for a very broad definition of life. In the 1950s, we were just beginning to travel out into space and perhaps discover an answer to whether there might be life and intelligence outside of our planet. Barricelli was concerned that we might not recognize life or intelligence when we saw it, because our definitions of what it takes to be alive or intelligent were so narrow.

The European: Are there any predictions for the future we can make, based on these lessons from the past?

Dyson: The universe is a probability space in which possible things can happen. Over the last fifty years, we have developed a combined human-computational intelligence that is able to search that space at a tremendous rate. But we have no way to predict what might happen in the future to that space of possibilities. The whole idea of species might be called into question. Darwin called his book “On the Origin of Species”, but evolution really isn’t limited to species. The next step might be the end of distinct species and the beginning of a more symbiotic life.

Confused, but interesting.


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