What are definitions of life good for? Transdisciplinary and other definitions in astrobiology

Biology and Philosophy 32 (6):1185-1203 (2017)
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The attempt to define life has gained new momentum in the wake of novel fields such as synthetic biology, astrobiology, and artificial life. In a series of articles, Cleland, Chyba, and Machery claim that definitions of life seek to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for applying the concept of lifeā€”something that such definitions cannot, and should not do. We argue that this criticism is largely unwarranted. Cleland, Chyba, and Machery approach definitions of life as classifying devices, thereby neglecting their other epistemic roles. We identify within the discussions of the nature and origin of life three other types of definitions: theoretical, transdisciplinary, and diagnostic definitions. The primary aim of these definitions is not to distinguish life from nonlife, although they can also be used for classificatory purposes. We focus on the definitions of life within the budding field of astrobiology, paying particular attention to transdisciplinary definitions, and diagnostic definitions in the search for biosignatures from other planets.
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