A question of life and "Other"

Discussions on the philosophical foundations, assumptions, and implications of science, including the natural sciences.

A question of life and "Other"

Postby Event Horizon on March 18th, 2018, 5:04 pm 

Imagine for a moment that you've been tasked with defining a contact protocol for space exploration, how would you define life?
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Serpent on March 18th, 2018, 5:57 pm 

anything that uses natural resources to increase complexity
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Event Horizon on March 18th, 2018, 7:26 pm 

Maybe, but it doesn't really apply to viruses. We could find other things that are hard to define, but we're gonna need to have protocols on how to classify what we do find.
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby zetreque on March 18th, 2018, 7:45 pm 

This thread makes me think of the Star Trek prime directive.

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You might be interested in Asgardia. viewtopic.php?f=53&t=33022
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Event Horizon on March 18th, 2018, 9:48 pm 

Yeah, I see your point. Assuming we eventually find a way to explore other worlds, We're going to need a prime directive for real. Defining life, its presence or absence is going to inform the prime directive and probably research parameters too. It could be that one day we will step from science fiction to science fact.
There are precedents for this all over the place. Arthur C Clarke, Asimov, Rodenberry have all seen fictional tech become a reality.
We're never likely to abandon this pursuit, so finding out different takes on the matter may be quite pertinent to any future policy. I'm trying to assess what it might look like.
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Serpent on March 19th, 2018, 9:43 am 

Event Horizon » March 18th, 2018, 6:26 pm wrote:Maybe, but it doesn't really apply to viruses. We could find other things that are hard to define, but we're gonna need to have protocols on how to classify what we do find.

How does it not apply to viruses? They do exploit natural resources (other cells) to replicate themselves, and they themselves are more complex than the chemical substances of which they are made.
There has been some controversy as to whether viruses are truly alive, but if they weren't, we couldn't use "killed" ones for vaccines, could we?
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Event Horizon on March 19th, 2018, 11:02 am 

Hi Serpent.
Viruses have no internal organs, no brain and no nervous system. They cannot be considered to be alive in the classical sense. They do not gain complexity by using natural resources, they may mutate to escape detection by immune systems, and they need a living host. Many biologists do not regard them as being alive at all as you mention. Just because we can use some of their proteins to prep our immune system is not evidence of life. They do sometimes behave as if they were alive, but what is "alive"?
We're going to need some better way to define this type of problem if we go looking for life elsewhere in our galaxy. I want to ask people to think how better to solve questions like this.
By the time we go exploring I hope to have a protocol to ascertain what constitutes being alive in place because we have little idea of what we might find, if we find anything at all.
Just because we are used to myriad life-forms on Earth doesn't necessarily mean it's the same everywhere else in the cosmos..Viruses are a good example, but who can say its the only example? We may find others.
If we adopted "Anything that can be killed must be alive", we have a new definition. But if we find something living that can't apparently be killed for some reason, the definition fails again. Various cancers might illustrate this problem.
It's not as easy as it looks.
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Braininvat on March 19th, 2018, 12:51 pm 

Serpent » March 18th, 2018, 2:57 pm wrote:anything that uses natural resources to increase complexity


The Terran ambassador to barium crystals will have his work cut out for him!

https://www.nature.com/articles/nmat3342

Jokes aside, I think that planetary life that would be vulnerable to human missteps would most likely exist in an ecosystem, a system of living organisms that would have an imprint on their environment that we humans are capable of detecting and identifying as such. Whatever viruses are or are not, they exist because there is a biosphere on Earth that provides a biological context for their arising and spreading. I think a web of life can be spotted by various kinds of remote sensing before we arrive at a new planet. And if we don't respect alien life, then we shouldn't be invited to join the Federation. Go Prime Directive!
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Event Horizon on March 19th, 2018, 1:39 pm 

There is another pertinent question that came to me as I was trudging through the snow.
We discovered a bacteria on the lens of a camera that had been launched into the cold vacuum of space, that was reanimated on its return. Effectively it survived high radiation, crippling cold, launch and re-entry. During its hibernation period it would have been difficult to ascertain whether it was dead or alive.
It could be that we discover things that appear to be dead, but are not.
Braininvat has a good point when he refers to a "prime directive" a la Startrek. We are going to have to formulate a real directive for real life.
I mean, what if we found "something" On Europa or Io outside of our human experience, we need a way to define and categorize it. Ie. We need to formulate a "prime directive" based in reality, not fiction. Defining it is so nuanced that if we start now, hopefully we will have it nailed down by the time we do find something. This is the real purpose of this thread.
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Serpent on March 19th, 2018, 6:42 pm 

Event Horizon » March 19th, 2018, 10:02 am wrote:Hi Serpent.
Viruses have no internal organs, no brain and no nervous system. ...

Neither do algae or fungi, and they're alive. Plants have organs, but no nervous system, and they're alive. Not conscious, though - probably...
That's a whole other conundrum.
Just because we can use some of their proteins to prep our immune system is not evidence of life.

No, that's not the evidence of life. The evidence is that they actively seek to reproduce their DNA at the expense of cells that are more complex than they are.
They do sometimes behave as if they were alive,
but what is "alive"?

Alive is resisting death.
Until you come up with a more universal definition, settle for the presence of DNA. That's something we know crystals (which replicate themselves) and weather systems (which sometimes act as if they were alive) do not have. It's possible that life on other planets perpetuates its own kind without DNA, but then we'll have to look for more obviously anti-entropy activity.

By the time we go exploring I hope to have a protocol to ascertain what constitutes being alive in place because we have little idea of what we might find, if we find anything at all.

Though there doesn't seem to be any great urgency, it's a good idea to reflect on the question.
Just because we are used to myriad life-forms on Earth doesn't necessarily mean it's the same everywhere else in the cosmos.

I think it's bound to be similar, given the materials available and the physical laws that govern their processes.
.Viruses are a good example, but who can say its the only example? We may find others.

Viruses may be extraterrestrial. Or the remnant of a more complex protozoan that was near-fatally damaged by radiation.
If we adopted "Anything that can be killed must be alive", we have a new definition.

I was using that tongue-in-cheek. While it may work, the discovery of what can be killed could get our space-explorers into a lot of trouble. First contact goes more smoothly if you haven't just murdered the chief's egg-bearer. Still, whatever resists being sampled should be left alone.
Better walk softly and carry an excellent tricorder.
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Event Horizon on March 20th, 2018, 12:09 am 

If we find life anywhere, it will be face to um..whatever constitutes a face. Sensors on a spacecraft would be hard pressed to detect the tiny electrical impulses common to most, if not all life. That means going in person with all the problems and risks that entails. As you suggest Serpent, We don't need to be squishing any alien royalty because people haven't followed protocol. What protocol i hear you say? The one we have to thrash out to prevent us doing more harm than good.
Mars has apparently been compromised due to microorganisms hitching a lift from Earth on landers. It's their loss, its much nicer here. Now if we find anything there there's no way to know if its native or not and the site looses its integrity.

"Neither do algae or fungi, and they're alive. Plants have organs, but no nervous system, and they're alive. Not conscious, though - probably...
That's a whole other conundrum."
No. It's not. It's exactly part of the conundrum at hand. Would an alien visitor regard a virus or fungus. Algae has internal mechanisms and can enter into symbiotic relationships with many other organisms. It is also responsible for sustaining other life like Krill and filter feeders. It is also responsible for the majority of all oxygen on Earth. It is also responsible for lichen.

We need a set of protocols to help us understand what we find respectfully and safely, how to deal with them and how to conduct tests. Recovering anything back to Earth will need yet another article in the "Prime directive" as Braininavat likes to call it in homage to Star Trek.

Lastly, I think you will have a very hard time finding DNA lying around up there. It's not very stable and will degrade by radiation and/or chemicals. But you might want to look for bacterial and viral RNA instead. Bacteria can exist in a strata of rock, underground and even in the Arctic. If anything can survive on another planet AND leave evidence it stores in its genome, bacteria wouldn't be a bad bet. Just don't bring it home, it could kill us all.

I thank you for your thoughts. I'm just trying to ascertain what protocols are needed to create a serious, universal directive. I suspect it will have many protocols, amendments and exceptions. Just don't get it drawn up by a lawyer, we do actually need to be able to understand it!
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Serpent on March 20th, 2018, 10:33 am 

Here is the best protocol: Don't land!
There is no way you can intrude on a planet without intruding on it. Even an orbital probe or spaceship sensor surveillance is a violation of someone's privacy, if there is anyone there. Even a disinfected space-boot can land on something precious.

Directive for meeting space aliens in flight: Speak when you're spoken-to. Shoot when you're shot-at.

But this is not how people will act. If they get the chance, they will blunder onto a new planet - though hopefully with more personal protection than they seem to do on tv shows. But then, on tv shows, all planets have earth gravity, atmosphere and vegetation. So, just don't shoot the fangor beast until you've been introduced.

[Not conscious, though - probably...
That's a whole other conundrum.]
No. It's not. It's exactly part of the conundrum at hand.

You asked about life, not consciousness. Unconscious life-forms may be just as vital to the welfare of other planets as they are to ours, but that won't stop humans harvesting the algae of their oceans to replenish our fuel supply. The humans will say: But it's not conscious, so it doesn't matter. That's the ethical consideration most people recognize. Most people won't have an ethical problem with infecting other planets, or exploiting their resources, even if there is conscious life, because they'll raise the ethical bar to "intelligent" life, and thence to "humanoid" - and maybe not even stop there, if they've got the lithium chrystals we need.

At the moment, the space exploration teams are very sensitive to our incursions, why Cassini had to commit suicide. But they have been criminally careless in the past, why there are a zillion tons of junk floating around in the solar system. And scientists don't make the executive decisions ("The president is expecting a launch. Now, take off your engineer hat....")

That reminds me, i haven't seen the astronomy picture of the day yet.
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Event Horizon on March 23rd, 2018, 9:48 pm 

Any responsible alien ought rightly blow our ship before you got within a parsec of them. Are we to set off across the cosmos as so many locusts I wonder. I dunno about a prime directive, you might be reading from the Ferengi rules of acquisition instead, to borrow from your metaphor. Nowhere we have gone has ever been to enrich the place, it's to strip it.
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Serpent on March 24th, 2018, 12:14 am 

You know that Ferengi R us, don't you? Just as the Klingons are us, and the Vulcans and the Cardassians and the Bajorans. Seems like everything in the galaxy is humanoid. We'll be just as much at home out there as the Europeans were in America.
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Re: A question of life and "Other"

Postby Event Horizon on March 24th, 2018, 12:24 am 

Haaha! The Europeans, Britain, France brought a genocide and a civil war, not to mention slavery to America. I wouldn't hold them up as an example of humanity. It's more an indictment of the society model we currently subscribe to.
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