IAS-Research Talk by Leonardo Bich: Why defining life is not pointless

Date and Time: June 21, Tuesday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Leonardo Bich (Universidad de Chile)

Title: Why defining life is not pointless


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. Commenting on the merits of this pessimistic conclusion, this paper explores the instrumental potential for operational definitions of life in scientific research. Rather than as classificatory tools for demarcation of natural kinds, we consider definitions of life from a pragmatic standpoint as theoretical and epistemic tools, and we focus on the possible contributions to research in those domains in which they are used most (e.g., Synthetic Biology, Origins of Life, Alife, and Astrobiology). 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. 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.