Beyond categorical definitions of life: a data-driven approach to assessing lifeness

Synthese 198 (5):4543-4572 (2019)
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The concept of “life” certainly is of some use to distinguish birds and beavers from water and stones. This pragmatic usefulness has led to its construal as a categorical predicate that can sift out living entities from non-living ones depending on their possessing specific properties—reproduction, metabolism, evolvability etc. In this paper, we argue against this binary construal of life. Using text-mining methods across over 30,000 scientific articles, we defend instead a degrees-of-life view and show how these methods can contribute to experimental philosophy of science and concept explication. We apply topic-modeling algorithms to identify which specific properties are attributed to a target set of entities (bacteria, archaea, viruses, prions, plasmids, phages and the molecule of adenine). Eight major clusters of properties were identified together with their relative relevance for each target entity (two that relate to metabolism and catalysis, one to genetics, one to evolvability, one to structure, and—rather unexpectedly—three that concern interactions with the environment broadly construed). While aligning with intuitions—for instance about viruses being less alive than bacteria—these quantitative results also reveal differential degrees of performance that have so far remained elusive or overlooked. Taken together, these analyses provide a conceptual “lifeness space” that makes it possible to move away from a categorical construal of life by empirically assessing the relative lifeness of more-or-less alive entities.

Author's Profile

Christophe Malaterre
Université Du Québec À Montréal (UQAM)


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