Friday, March 28, 2014

Our lives are a concept, not a reality.

It is useful to occasionally be reminded of our essential strangeness, something I attempted in my "I-Illusion" web/lecture some years ago. Associate Scientific American editor Ferris Jabr engages this strangeness in his brief essay "Why nothing is truly alive". He notes the amazing life-like moving sculptures of Dutch artist Theo Jansen (see video), and points out how attempts to define life - as NASA has tried in defining the goal of what a search for extra-terrestrial life would look for - have floundered, the simple point being that while the concept of life sometimes has its pragmatic value for our particular human purposes, it does not reflect the reality of the universe outside the mind. Life is a concept, not a reality.
To better understand this argument, it’s helpful to distinguish between mental models and pure concepts. Sometimes the brain creates a representation of a thing: light bounces off a pine tree and into our eyes; molecules waft from its needles and ping neurons in our nose; the brain instantly weaves together these sensations with our memories to create a mental model of that tree. Other times the brain develops a pure concept based on observations — a useful way of thinking about the world. Our idealized notion of “a tree” is a pure concept. There is no such thing as “a tree” in the world outside the mind...Likewise, “life” is an idea. We find it useful to think of some things as alive and others as inanimate, but this division exists only in our heads.
Recognizing life as a concept is, in many ways, liberating. We do not need to recoil from our impulse to endow Mr. Jansen’s sculptures with “life” because they move on their own. The real reason Strandbeest enchant us is the same reason that any so-called “living thing” fascinates us: not because it is “alive,” but because it is so complex and, in its complexity, beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. I am not sure if this is related, but Edouard Machery is a philosopher at University of Pittsburgh who has written about this—maybe from a different angle.

    See here: