In the year 2000, an international conference considered the question "What is life?" Every participant was asked to draft a definition, and every speaker was required to address the central question. According to David Abel, who was one of the speakers, no two definitions of life were the same. This finding replicated that obtained by Rizotti who, in 1996, published a book with the title Defining Life. Abel considers that definitions can be grouped into two subsets: one of which perceives life as an essentially physicochemical phenomenon, and the other has an emphasis on coded information superimposed on material systems (developing Hubert Yockey's seminal ideas).
"Yockey was among the first to realize the linear digital nature of genetic control. Many others have appreciated that life was somehow different, but could not put their finger on exactly what this difference is. Ernst Mayr argued that physics and chemistry do not explain life. Monod and Bohr argued the same. Bohr pointed out, "Life is consistent with, but undecidable from physics and chemistry." Kuppers agreed." (p.107)
Hurricane Ivan over the Gulf Coast: ordered but not self-organised (source here)
Abel's review paper argues that life manifests characteristics that cannot be explained by physicodynamics alone, whether the focus falls on chance or on necessity (natural law). This is because biological information governing life processes and organisation is essentially nonphysical.
"The most fundamental distinction is the ability of "life" to exercise formal (nonphysical) organizational and pragmatic control over its otherwise physical interactions (e.g., chemical reactions, molecular associations, electrostatic attractions/repulsions; hydrophilic/hydrophobic tendencies, phase transitions; quantum uncertainty and "information entanglement"). The formal controls are attributable specifically to Prescriptive Information (PI) and its carefully regulated algorithmic processing. More than anything else, the ability to organize, regulate and holistically manage physicodynamics into a formal meta-metabolic scheme that values and pursues staying alive is what defines the uniqueness of life." (p.108)
Some have thought that the genetics of the simplest living prokaryote provides insight into the question "What is life?" Mycoplasma genitalium has a 580-kilo-base-pair genome containing 470 genes. However, sequencing is just the first step towards understanding this free-living cell. Research has revealed unsuspected complexities in the regulation of these genes.
"The number of interacting, formally integrated layers and dimensions of life's Prescriptive Information (PI), even in the simplest known free-living organisms, is mind-boggling." (p. 108-9)
Rather than persevere with the challenge of trying to define life, Abel suggests that it is more realistic and productive to identify the distinguishing characteristic of life. Nine of these are listed. In the main, they relate to familiar characteristics: possession of a membrane, reproduction, metabolism, etc., but expressed using words that identify the biological information requirements.
"All free-living classes of archaea, eubacteria, and eukaryotes meet all nine of the above criteria. Eliminate any one of the above nine requirements, and it remains to be demonstrated whether that system could remain "alive". RNA strands, DNA strands, prions, viroids, and viruses are not free-living organisms. They fail to meet many of the above well-recognized characteristics of independent "life"." (p.109)
Having established this baseline, Abel identifies a number of issues arising from these distinctives that warrant further discussion. However, in every case, Abel counsels caution, because there have been far too many cases of scholars defending pet theories by the selective use of evidences, rather than building theory on well-grounded empirical foundations. "Science must constantly guard itself against Kuhnian paradigm ruts". First, the concept of complexity is in need of urgent clarification. Many scholars appear unable to get beyond the Shannon approach to quantification.
"The place to begin understanding the phenomenon of linear digital prescription is a study of the three different types of sequence complexity. Biologically functional linear complexity lies in the subset of Functional Sequence Complexity (FSC), not Ordered Sequence Complexity (OSC) or Random Sequence Complexity (RSC). Functional Sequence Complexity (FSC) is a linear string of monomers or composite units that collectively perform some nontrivial function. Empirical evidence of the purely spontaneous formation of such strings, especially when more than 10 loci are involved, is sorely lacking. [. . .] FSC is a succession of algorithmic selections leading to function. Selection, specification, or signification of certain "choices" in FSC sequences results only from nonrandom selection. These selections at successive decision nodes cannot be forced by deterministic cause-and-effect necessity. If they were, nearly all decision-node selections would be the same. They would be highly ordered (OSC). Moreover, the selections cannot be random (RSC). No sophisticated program has ever been observed to be written by successive coin flips where heads is "1" and tails is "0"." (p.112)
This leads us to the concept of functional information. Abel distinguishes between two subsets: descriptive (DI) and prescriptive (PI). He refers to a Mercedes automobile to clarify the distinction. DI tells us about the component parts of the car and how they operate together in a harmonious way. PI tells us how to engineer and build that Mercedes.
"Unfortunately, many semantic information theorists make the mistake of thinking of functional information solely in terms of human epistemology, and specifically description (DI). This in effect limits the meaning of "function". DI provides valued common-sense knowledge to human beings about the way things already are. Being can be described to provide one form of function. [. . . ] The term "functional information" as used in peer-reviewed naturalistic biological literature by Nobel laureate Jack Szostak et al. in 2003 can be a completely inadequate descriptor of the "how to" information - the instructions - required to organize and program sophisticated utility. Potential formal function must be prescribed in advance by Prescriptive Information (PI) via decision node programming, not just described after the fact. As its name implies, PI specifically conceives and prescribes utility." (p.114)
Whereas some consider digital information to be crucial for understanding biological evolution via Darwinian mechanisms, Abel is unimpressed. Random mutations are incapable of constructing PI, with or without natural section.
"Life crosses The Cybernetic Cut across a one-way CS (Configurable Switch) Bridge. This bridge traverses a great ravine. On one side is found all those phenomena that can be explained by physicodynamics alone. On the other side are those phenomena than can be explained only by selection for potential (not-yet-existing) function. Traffic across this bridge flows only from the nonphysical world of formalism into the physical world through the instantiation of purposeful choices. Such instantiation requires arbitrary (dynamically inert) physical configurable switch-settings and selections of physical symbol vehicles in a material symbol system." (p.116)
Some have sought an explanation of PI using the concept of self-organisation. They suggest that if snowflakes form exquisite patterns naturally, why not life? The answer is very simple. Abel points out that there is confusion here between self-ordering phenomena and self-organisation. He distinguishes two types of self-ordering phenomena: sustained and dissipative. Sustained structures include crystals and snowflakes, and dissipative structures emerge from chaos, like the vortex that forms as water runs out of a bathtub, or the order observed in a hurricane. But neither of these types of self-ordering deliver organisation. At this point, Abel's clarification of the characteristics of life sets a benchmark to guide our analysis.
"Self-ordering events occur spontaneously daily. But, they do not involve decision nodes or dynamically-inert, purposeful, configurable switch settings. No logic gates need to be programmed with self-ordering phenomena. Self-ordering events involve no steering toward algorithmic success or "computational halting". Self-ordering phenomena are purely physicodynamic and incapable of organizational attempts. Laws and fractals are both compression algorithms containing minimal complexity and information. Inanimate physicodynamics cannot exercise purposeful choices or pursue potential function. No model of undirected evolution pursues the goal of future utility." (p.120)
Even the word "system" is widely used without thinking rigorously about what a system actually is. When Abel uses the term, he is referring to a "sustained functional system" that is organised rather than ordered. As an example, consider what is intended when people talk about a weather system:
"It is merely a physicodynamic interface of wind, temperature and atmospheric pressure differential. A weather front may involve phase changes and manifest self-ordering (e.g., a hurricane); but it is not organized. It manifests no choice contingency, no purposes or goals, no accomplishment of function or utility. Weather fronts have no formal components, no computational achievements, no algorithmic optimization, and no intended purpose."(p.118-9)
Throughout the review paper, Abel draws attention to the relevance of philosophy for analysing the various approaches that have been made to answer questions about life. He points to the inadequacy of physicalism or materialism to grapple with data relating to Prescriptive Information. A different paradigm is needed which is more appropriate for engaging with the different characteristics of life.
"Materialistic presuppositional commitments are causing us to turn our backs on a rapidly growing empirical biological reality that hollers into our deaf ears, "Materialism is dead!" We will never understand life under the purely metaphysical imperative, "Physicodynamics is all there is, ever was, or ever will be". Professional philosophers of science rightly respond, "SEZ WHO?" How was that pontification scientifically determined? The scientific method itself cannot be reduced to mass and energy. Neither can language, translation, coding and decoding, mathematics, logic theory, programming, symbol systems, the integration of circuits, computation, categorizations, results tabulation, the drawing and discussion of conclusions. The prevailing Kuhnian paradigm rut of philosophic physicalism is obstructing scientific progress, biology in particular. There is more to life than chemistry. All known life is cybernetic. Control is choice-contingent and formal, not physicodynamic." (p.125)
This paper is necessary reading for all who have an interest in abiogenesis research!
Is Life Unique?
David L. Abel
Life, 2012, 2(1), 106-134 | doi:10.3390/life2010106
Abstract: Is life physicochemically unique? No. Is life unique? Yes. Life manifests innumerable formalisms that cannot be generated or explained by physicodynamics alone. Life pursues thousands of biofunctional goals, not the least of which is staying alive. Neither physicodynamics, nor evolution, pursue goals. Life is largely directed by linear digital programming and by the Prescriptive Information (PI) instantiated particularly into physicodynamically indeterminate nucleotide sequencing. Epigenomic controls only compound the sophistication of these formalisms. Life employs representationalism through the use of symbol systems. Life manifests autonomy, homeostasis far from equilibrium in the harshest of environments, positive and negative feedback mechanisms, prevention and correction of its own errors, and organization of its components into Sustained Functional Systems (SFS). Chance and necessity - heat agitation and the cause-and-effect determinism of nature's orderliness - cannot spawn formalisms such as mathematics, language, symbol systems, coding, decoding, logic, organization (not to be confused with mere self-ordering), integration of circuits, computational success, and the pursuit of functionality. All of these characteristics of life are formal, not physical.
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