From PhilSci Archive:
Abstract: Despite numerous and increasing attempts to define what life is, there is no consensus on necessary and sufficient conditions for life. Accordingly, some scholars have questioned the value of definitions of life and encouraged scientists and philosophers alike to discard the project. As an alternative to this pessimistic conclusion, we argue that critically rethinking the nature and uses of definitions can provide new insights into the epistemic roles of definitions of life for different research practices. This paper examines the possible contributions of definitions of life in scientific domains where such definitions are used most (e.g., Synthetic Biology, Origins of Life, Alife, and Astrobiology). Rather than as classificatory tools for demarcation of natural kinds, we highlight the pragmatic utility of what we call operational definitions that serve as theoretical and epistemic tools in scientific practice. In particular, we examine contexts where definitions integrate criteria for life into theoretical models that involve or enable observable operations. We show how these definitions of life play important roles in influencing research agendas and evaluating results, and we argue that to discard the project of defining life is neither sufficiently motivated, nor possible without dismissing important theoretical and practical research. (public access) – Bich, Leonardo and Green, Sara (2016) Is defining life pointless? Operational definitions at the frontiers of Biology. [Preprint] More.
With any definition, one must ask how it is to be used. Supermarkets shelve mushrooms as vegetables. Only a crank would complain. Of course, we might complain ourselves if we found the mushrooms labelled and treated as Poultry.
Then again, some definitions end up in flux. At a supermarket chain in Ottawa, for example, some rice products are “hidden” from local cooks trying vogue-ish new recipes because they are shelved as International Foods rather than as Rice. One hears people muttering stuff like, That’s twenty minutes I wasted! Who decides this anyway? (Mmmm, probably no one, in particular, decided it. When enough people complain, it’ll change.)
Maybe that’s a bit like the question of whether viruses are a fourth domain of life.
So yes, we must ask, what is the intended use of a definition of life? How will it help us understand?
See also: Do some viruses meet the definition of being alive?
What we know and don’t know about the origin of life
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Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista