Living, Dead and Non-living

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

Living, Dead and Non-living

Postby samooha`at on March 9th, 2006, 11:20 pm 

Biologically the conditions of living, non-living and dead are definable in most cases.

Living is the condition of being alive. This refers to all plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. Biologists have a set list of characteristics that can help determine whether an object is living. This list includes the ability to reproduce, the ability to grow, the ability to eat and the ability excrete waste, among other things.

Dead is the condition these objects enter when they are no longer alive. So, to be dead an object must once have been living.

Non-living is the condition of never being alive. Non-living could refer to inorganic matter. Rocks, for example are non-living. They are not dead, because they were never alive (as a rock, but they may contain chemicals that were once part of a living organism).

Now, those may sound fairly clear definitions at first glance. However, they are often too simplistic. Viruses for example cannot be clearly placed in any of these categories. A non-living object cannot, by definition, meet all of the requirements for being living, however they can meet SOME of the requirements. Where to draw the line is the source of much debate.

Similarly, the distinction between living and dead is not always clear. Most people could tell if they saw a brain-dead and heart-dead person that the person was dead, but the issue becomes much muddier when we consider people who have lost all higher brain function, but retain the small amount of function needed to keep the heart pumping and the lungs working (most likely with the aid of machinery).

I chose to post this in the PCF rather than the SCF because it seems to me that the lines between living and non-living and between living and dead are ones we cannot draw scientifically at this point, because they are ones we cannot test. Something is either living, dead, or non-living. Since we can't clearly define "dead," we can't use killing as a test for "living-ness." This question therefore seems to me to fall into the realm of philosophy, but philosophy that is still very much science.

This question is of great interest to Biologists. I say it is philosophy, only because I believe that for the time being at least, the answer must be found through thought not experiment. To me, that is the line between philosophy and science.

Please, in composing your responses try remember that these are specifically-defined biological terms, and not colloquial ones. Also, please consider the possiblities of testing any hypotheses you put forth. By this I don't mean that all hypotheses must be testable, but rather that if your hypothesis is testable, I would like some sort of idea of what tests could be done.

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Postby Fuqin on March 10th, 2006, 1:55 am 

If I cut my toe nail off is it dead or alive? As a component of me was it ever alive? I say this because I have considered these questions you are asking many times. the example of viruses is one that I would place in the above questions, being purportedly non living but having once been a component of a living thing.
A hypothesis ‘and quiet an outlandish one too I might add’ that I have for many years considered, as it relates somewhat to the Gia principal or theory, is that the universe itself is a living thing not necessarily an entity but alive, its very expansion could be related to growth ,within it all things have life spans from stars to amoeba and contain various levels of complexity and express synergistic behaviour ,I know I’m getting dangerously close to ID here but the definition of what life is dose not include being sentient-aware-or intelligent, however living things have other living things within them and non living depending on how far you break it down ,in the case of the virus it should by your definitions be dead yet it evolves or adapts and rather rapidly too it came from a living thing first so its not non living yet its not alive ‘I LOVE IT’ it could almost be classified as a machine, in any case within what I understand about it all the definitions seem to be lacking, so my conclusion is that living, dead , viruses , machines ,and non living are all components of something we as yet have no definition for.
It may always be beyond our capacity to understand.
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Postby Tranquil on December 30th, 2006, 7:50 am 

I would say, that we cannot catogerize the matter just among this three categories. . . You were talking about viruses. Althought they possess a genetic material, they are not able to reproduce alone, and all the viral structures is syntethised by the host. So, from your pt. of view, I would clasify them as non-living . . . But, comparing rock and virus, we would find many differences, why they cannot be placed in the same category. I would say, matter shoud be categorised on the base of DNA possesion, doesnt matter whether they have been living. . .
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Postby rrushius on December 30th, 2006, 1:42 pm 

Interesting question Sam, and one of great interest to philosophy as well as to science. For me in philosophical terms, life is a process of discrimination which means that it is by somewhat differentiating things as opposed to ‘oneness.’ It should be noted that I am not simply referring to the feeling of oneness that some people (usually religious) claim to feel for if one feels a certain way it is still a distinct feeling as opposed to not feeling at all. I think that it is possible to put up categories along this line to explain (to a degree) the different levels through which life evolves, albeit it would by necessity be a very general system.

The problem however remains in the unsurpassable jump that is needed in order for something to pass from a state of unity to a state of differentiation, but this problem is ultimately more philosophical in nature. We can probably put it off for the moment, at least until we explain the other levels that spring from it.

Therefore, starting from a state of unity and jumping to one of differentiation, where discrimination is possible in so far as either pain can be felt or in the sense of an intention to overcome pain, pleasure is produced. Although for our purposes here these can be seen as different categories with a chronology attached to them; i.e. discrimination/differentiation, pain/pleasure, intention/instinct, - these categories are not so clear cut as they may seem at first and may in fact be much more similar to each other, or even different aspects of the same thing.
In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud elaborates on the great impact pain and therefore the instinct to reduce it; i.e. by returning to an earlier state, - have in all life forms, following its implication to the ultimate borderline, namely the death instinct. However, things cannot remain in such an uncomplicated state since a return to an earlier state demands a repetition of everything that has occurred in the evolution of previous generations (DNA, RNA information) and as such the seeking of pleasure becomes somewhat independent of the existence of pain. This by its nature is a contradiction to the death instinct and opposes it, as a sexual instinct. There are of course other complications that can be included here, such as for example the fusion of the sexual instinct with aggressive ones etc, which I will not follow here for lack of time. It will be enough to point out that a preservation instinct arises in much the same way and is not unrelated to the sexual instinct.
According to Freud the Reality Principle works only as a postponement of pleasure (demanded by the preservation instinct) until it is judged appropriate to act without submitting to extensive dangers in order to achieve one’s goal. Thus pain and its expectation introduce fear onto the scene.
There is of course much room for error here, but in general lines I think it may be a good explanation.
By this explanation, if any light was shed at all, it was only directed at living things and only implicitly on dead or non-living things. The whole, however, does become a little more organized as an order is established, from non-living, to living, to dead and the necessary cycle that follows. The borderline between these different states remains as I said earlier, indistinguishable. Considering that it was precisely the distinguishability that made possible the three different states, it comes as a paradox that we should not be able to tell apart their differences, perhaps even suggesting that distinguishabilty is indistinguishable from indistinguishability.
Pesla is going to love this :)
The Mandelbrot set would be a great visualization of what happens at the border: ... tml#applet
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Re: Living, Dead and Non-living

Postby vivian maxine on April 20th, 2016, 7:00 am 

If I hand you a shell that was shed by a terrapin, is that shell dead or non-living? Viruses? A whole topic in itself.
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Re: Living, Dead and Non-living

Postby Don Juan on May 22nd, 2016, 2:02 pm 

I am reflecting that if a virus is a non-living particle, then what is the difference between it and a cryogenically frozen bacterium to be revived in a suitable condition and environment? Both have the potential to preserve a degree of their identity and reproduce once provided with the right environment...
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