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The problem of defining life: a case study using family resemblance

Abbott, Jessica K. and Persson, Erik (2021) The problem of defining life: a case study using family resemblance. [Preprint]

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Abstract

The question of how to define life has been an unresolved question in the philosophy of biology for many years, but developing a definition of life that is useful in both technical and everyday contexts has become more urgent as researchers around the world attempt to create fully synthetics cells in the laboratory, develop more and more intelligent and autonomous robots, and search for signatures of life elsewhere in the galaxy. Developments in these areas may end up overturning our current ideas about the distinction between life and non-life. It is therefore important to consider whether it is possible to develop a definition of life that encompasses currently known lifeforms, while at the same time having the potential to be applied to as-yet unknown lifeforms. Here, we discuss the pros and cons of some of the current approaches to defining life, then propose an alternative approach based on family resemblance. We also present preliminary data applying our new approach within a statistical modelling framework, and find that although living and non-living entities can be grouped according to overall similarity, it is difficult to find a single set of criteria which is sufficient for defining known forms of life while at the same time being inclusive enough to be useful in identifying or characterizing novel forms of life. We hope that the family resemblance approach will prove to be a fruitful alternative to traditional approaches to defining life.


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Item Type: Preprint
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Abbott, Jessica K.jessica.abbott@biol.lu.se0000-0002-8743-2089
Persson, Erikerik.persson@fil.lu.se
Keywords: definition of life, Wittgenstein, de re definition, family resemblance, cluster analysis
Subjects: General Issues > Explanation
General Issues > Models and Idealization
General Issues > Natural Kinds
Depositing User: Dr. Jessica Abbott
Date Deposited: 17 Jul 2021 03:41
Last Modified: 17 Jul 2021 03:41
Item ID: 19317
Subjects: General Issues > Explanation
General Issues > Models and Idealization
General Issues > Natural Kinds
Date: 31 May 2021
URI: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/id/eprint/19317

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