What is the definition of life? I remember a conference of the scientific elite that sought to answer that question. Is an enzyme alive? Is a virus alive? Is a cell alive? After many hours of launching promising balloons that defined life in a sentence, followed by equally conclusive punctures of these balloons, a solution seemed at hand: “The ability to reproduce—that is the essential characteristic of life,” said one statesman of science. Everyone nodded in agreement that the essential of a life was the ability to reproduce, until one small voice was heard. “Then one rabbit is dead. Two rabbits— a male and female— are alive but either one alone is dead.” At that point, we all became convinced that although everyone knows what life is there is no simple definition of life. [Koshland, DE. 2002. The Seven Pillars of Life. Science 295: 2215-2216.]
Lately I have been putting myself in the shoes of ideas and trying to see if I can find how it feels like to be an idea. After much thought, I have concluded that if I were an idea, I would be convinced that I am a living being. Ideas do not have to be brought to life, I realized. They are already alive!
Before I go any deeper into this fantastic claim, I wish to discuss a few things first. The first of them concerns the definition for life so that we can be sure that we agree on the same foundations.
The only reasonable definition of life that I know of is due to Daniel Koshland, who was the Chairman of the Biochemistry department at the University of California. In an article in Science, Daniel defines life based on seven essential qualities that it must possess. These are called the “pillars of life”. It is his conviction that life, wherever it originates, Earth or elsewhere, will be founded on these pillars.
The seven pillars of life are Program, Improvisation, Compartmentalization, Energy, Regeneration, Adaptability and Seclusion or PICERAS to be brief. Daniel’s original article discusses these seven concepts in detail and I will quote extensively from this article to build ideas’s case for life.
We must also agree on what we mean by ideas. I will define ideas as any set of concepts that have a collective name. For example, Communism, the Theory of Relativity, Rock music are all ideas. The statement “The car is red”, on the other hand, is not an idea. Let me also be clear in that I am being limiting in my definition of ideas simply because it is easier to deal with simple definitions.
The name of an idea can be thought of as a collective concept which classifies ideas into species. Your concept of Rock music, for example, is an individual that belongs to the species “Rock music”.
Finally, let us agree that ideas are essentially made of two important parts. The first deals with the set of ideas and principles that define the idea and the second is the set of examples and links with other ideas that are bundled along with it.
If we agree on this much, the rest should go smoothly. To begin, put yourself in the shoe of an idea reading Daniel’s article. We will consider each pillar but in a different order.
Regeneration: According to Daniel, regeneration includes both reproduction and repair.
I think no one will deny that ideas reproduce. When you read a book, it reproduces in binary. In political rallies, it creates thousands of copies at the same time.
However, ideas get modified every time they reproduce. This is akin to genetic mutations. This happens because the idea has to make a lot of connections with preexisting ideas and life experiences in a persons head to be relevant or appealing. An idea often becomes more appealing if it changes its “meaning” slightly.
Are ideas capable of repair? Suppose you are Communism and you suddenly find that you are missing a hand, the hand that told you about censorship of art in a Communist society. Will you sit quiet? No! You will nag the person who has stored you in his head until he asks someone/reads from a book about your lost hand. And voila! Now you have a new one!
Energy: We can think of energy as the ability to perform work, or better yet, as the ability to bring about specific changes. Since living organisms are constantly undergoing change (be it transport of molecules, chemical reactions or locomotion) the need for energy is fundamental.
Ideas need energy for two of its most basic life functions. If you are an idea, you must firstly sustain and secondly reproduce when the opportunity presents itself. In order to sustain, the various neuronal connections that support linkage between ideas and experiences must be reinforced. This needs energy. To reproduce, new neuronal connections must be made (in the case of transmission from human to human or media to human). Reproduction from media to media requires energy too.
Where does this energy come from? From nowhere other than human bodies of course! Effectively, ideas are in a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with humans. In this video you will find a more aggressive take on this idea.
Program: According to Daniel
It is an organized plan that describes both the ingredients themselves and the kinetics of the interactions among ingredients as the living system persists through time. For organisms that we find on Earth, the program is encoded in the DNA.
Among other things, DNA helps us defining species. Organisms that are genetically distant usually belong to different species. Isn’t that also the case with ideas? Ideas that are distant in principles and axioms have different names. Ideas that are close to each other, for example, Classic Rock, Progressive Rock and Hard Rock are usually called by similar names.
This points to the fact that just like DNA is considered to be the program of a living organism on Earth, similarly the set of axioms or principles that define an idea can be called the program or blueprint of that idea.
You might argue that the principles and axioms may be more similar to phenotype rather than genotype. After all, the phenotype of closely linked species are also closely similar. It would be a valid objection. But since all phenotypes demand a genotype, and similarities between phenotype of individuals of a species demand a consistent genotype, you have to concede that this points to the existence of a consistent program for ideas too.
Which brings me to the other point. I think we would be mistaken if we consider the principles or axioms to be the complete program of an idea. Ideas have two parts and the second one is equally important. It tells us how an idea relates to your life experience and other ideas. This part decides how aggressive an idea is and how fast it will spread. What controls this part of an idea? I will leave you to think about this one.
Improvisation: Daniel explains this saying :
Because a living system will inevitably be a small fraction of the larger universe in which it lives, it will not be able to control all the changes and vicissitudes of its environment, so it must have some way to change its program
He is essentially talking about natural selection here. The same applies for ideas. Ideas undergo changes just like living organisms on Earth evolve. Some ideas die off for good, like the grammar of lost languages, some ideas spawn new ones, for example, Metal music was inspired from Rock music. Evolution of ideas point again to changes in the program of ideas.
Compartmentalization: This is what Daniel has to say about compartmentalization:
All the organisms that we consider living are confined to a limited volume, surrounded by a surface that we call a membrane or skin that keeps the ingredients in a defined volume and keeps deleterious chemicals—toxic or diluting—on the outside. Moreover, as organisms become large, they are divided into smaller compartments, which we call cells (or organs, that is, groups of cells), in order to centralize and specialize certain functions within the larger organis
How familiar! Ideas live in compartments like your head or in books or in websites. As ideas get bigger, like the General Theory of Relativity or Evolution, you have whole textbooks with numerous (and several essential) Chapters (read “organs”) for it.
Adaptability: Even though this might sound similar to Improvisation, it is not. Daniel explains this saying:
…behavioral manifestations of adaptability are a development of feedback and feedforward responses at the molecular level and are responses of living systems that allow survival in quickly changing environment
He is essentially talking about homeostasis. Ideas do this too. For example, if you see a ghost, your scientific ideas may try to adapt to the life experience by providing possible rational explanations to the sighting.
Seclusion:The concept of seclusion is not as easy to understand as the rest of the pillars because it relates to biological pathways and their inherent specificity. The section on seclusion in Daniel’s article says:
By seclusion, in this context, I mean something rather like privacy in the social world of our universe. It is essential for a metabolizing system with many reactions going on at the same time, to prevent the chemicals in pathway 1 (A→B→C→D for example) from being metabolized by the catalysts of pathway 2 (R→S→T→U). Our living system does this by a crucial property of life—the specificity of enzymes that work only on the molecules for which they were designed and are not confused by collisions with miscellaneous molecules from other pathways. In a sense this property is like insulating an electrically conducting wire so it isn’t short-circuited by contact with another wire. The seclusion of the biological system is not absolute. It can be interrupted by feedback and feedforward messages, but only messages that have specifically arranged conduits can be received. There is also specificity in DNA and RNA interactions. It is this seclusion of pathways that allows thousands of reactions to occur with high efficiency in the tiny volumes of a living cell, while simultaneously receiving selective signals that ensure an appropriate response to environmental changes.
Though this pillar is useful for metabolizing systems, which need to run several life sustaining processes at the same time, it is not so for non-metabolizing systems like ideas which do not need to run a lot of biochemical processes at the same time. Ideas, in general, do not respond directly to things like temperature, toxicity etc. They might respond indirectly. They might make you run and think at the same time in case of a fire. Then one might argue that they are performing locomotion and operations on the mind at the same time. But inherently, they have only one job: to relate to other ideas and life experiences. To form the relevant connections.
Since ideas needs to run this single process to sustain, they are trivially secluded. This single process, however, responds to stimuli in a highly specific manner. Stimuli, in this case, might be a simple question, like “What is the best economic policy for this country?”. A certain moderate ideology may answer this question saying:
1. Create infrastructure
3. Promote foreign investment
4. Subsidize below the poverty line
5. Win elections by hook or by crook
This response is highly specific. The answer to the question “How do I assure goodwill of the minority?” will obviously be very different.
Finally, it is a well known fact that when we sleep, our brain becomes very active. A lot of new neuronal connections are made and many connections are reinforced. It is clear that our ideas do a lot of gymnastics when we are asleep. However not much is known about such processes, so I would not discuss them while I discuss seclusion.
If you have read this far, I hope I have been able to convince you that ideas share many of the essential characters of life as we can best define it. It has a Program, can Improvise, stays in Compartments, uses Energy, can Regenerate, can Adapt, and is trivially Secluded. It is thus not unreasonable to expect, that ideas might indeed be living.
This, if true, has profound implications and I plan to discuss them in later posts. For now, I’ve written a lot, and I am tired. I just want to digress a little bit before I finish and tell you what made me think of this.
We often wonder about our purpose and the meaning of existence. Religion provides answers. Rational thinking provides some too. Personally I find most of this answers begging more answers, and hence not very satisfying. If you similarly suffer, you have a friend here.
Many people give up. They say: there is no meaning. But that doesn’t work for me. I like to think that we have a part to play in the grand conspiracy of life and the universe but we are simply not in on it. It’s like we are small time agents working full-time on a highly classified project with something at its head.
What? God? Well, that’s just a word to me. I don’t know how He looks like. I haven’t heard him speak. Haven’t felt him either.
Religious people have felt Him apparently. They seem to speak of God as a sentient being, just like us humans. The only difference is : His motives are not human, so we have a hard time making sense of things. He does not seem to be very keen on sharing His motives with us either. It’s classified, you see.
I think if you were an idea, your predicament would be similar. You would have no inkling as to why you exist and why you do what you do. And maybe, just maybe, you would also think that you have a role in some grand plot directed by none other than …
You guessed it, humans!