Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kent to Frank, August 16

Kent's response was, as usual, thoughtful, thorough and pleasurably kind and generous at the end. I am enjoying this a lot.

Hi Frank,

I think you've touched on the weakest point in the argument which opposes a city being a literal organism.  Atoms and molecules are not felt to be alive, and yet when assembled into a cell these same molecules suddenly are felt to be alive.  It doesn't seem logically consistent to deny life when assembled one way and to acknowledge life when assembled another way.

So likewise, the argument could go, which is the way I see you arguing, why couldn't the same thing apply to cities. Yes, the individual components of a city, such as roads, buildings, etc. are not alive, yet when assembled together are alive.

We all recognize life when we see it, but it's hard to come up with a definition which includes all forms considered to be alive and excludes all forms not considered to be life.

Here's part of the write-up in the Wikipedia article on "life."  I'm including this in order to try to come up with common ground about the definition of life.

It is still a challenge for scientists and philosophers to define life in unequivocal terms.[12][13][14] Defining life is difficult-in part-because life is a process, not a pure substance.[15] Any definition must be sufficiently broad to encompass all life with which we are familiar, and it should be sufficiently general that, with it, scientists would not miss life that may be fundamentally different from life on Earth.[16]


Since there is no unequivocal definition of life, the current understanding is descriptive, where life is a characteristic of organisms that exhibit all or most of the following phenomena:[15][17]

1.. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, electrolyte concentration or sweating to reduce temperature.
2.. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells, which are the basic units of life.
3.. Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.
4.. Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
5.. Adaptation: The ability to change over a period of time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity as well as the composition of metabolized substances, and external factors present.
6.. Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion, for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism) and by chemotaxis.
7.. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms.
To reflect the minimum phenomena required, some have proposed other biological definitions of life:

a.. Living things are systems that tend to respond to changes in their environment, and inside themselves, in such a way as to promote their own continuation.[citation needed]
b.. A network of inferior negative feedbacks (regulatory mechanisms) subordinated to a superior positive feedback (potential of expansion, reproduction).[18]
c.. A systemic definition of life is that living things are self-organizing and autopoietic (self-producing). Variations of this definition include Stuart Kauffman's definition as an autonomous agent or a multi-agent system capable of reproducing itself or themselves, and of completing at least one thermodynamic work cycle.[19]
d.. Life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.[20]
e.. Things with the capacity for metabolism and motion.[15]
f.. Life is a delay of the spontaneous diffusion or dispersion of the internal energy of the biomolecules towards more potential microstates.[21]
g.. Living beings are thermodynamic systems that have an organized molecular structure.[21]

From the discussion at Wikipedia, the two areas where I see a metropolis as an organism failing to meet the criteria of life is that a city is not literally composed of cells (as brought out in point #2 in the section about organization), and that if "life is a sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution," which is brought out in the section under proposed guidelines of a definition of life, then a metropolis organism would not meet that criterion either.

To go back to your original comments in the email about whether I see humans somehow transcending biology, I would be inclined to say "yes," but I would have a hard time proving that humans transcend  biology.

But I find such a line of reasoning also undercuts a metropolis as being an organism as well.  I would argue that humans do indeed somehow transcend biology, and it seems you would argue that a metropolis also somehow transcends biology for it to be alive as well.   Or another way of putting it, I see that a human is not part of a larger organism, and I think you would move that boundary in order to consider cities not being part of a larger organism.

To be consistently logical, it would seem that we would need to say that there is no life whatsoever, and thus only recognize that everything in the universe is deterministic atoms and energy particles bumping around, or the reverse; we would have to say that if humans and cities are organisms, and that even the building blocks of life, which are atoms, must also be alive.

Historically it seems that mankind has looked at all of existence as being alive--- meaning the rocks and waves as well as people are alive, and that only in modern times have we split off most matter as not being alive. Humanity has basically had an animistic or polytheistic viewpoint that even a rock has a rudimentary spirit or life-force.  For example, until only about 150 years ago the concept of vitalism taught that through spontaneous generation that a rotting corpse could spontaneously generate flies---  meaning something dead generating something alive.

But as I've been writing in these emails, it seems that the old idea of humans or other animals as not being part of any higher or greater collective system of life is giving way to your idea about cities literally being alive--- meaning that we appear to be moving towards transhumanism which is radically altering how we perceive and define what life is--- as machines are being melded with humans and other life forms.  When a robot will be able to do everything a human can do, it will be hard to deny that the robot is alive.

I would be pleased to see the film by one of your students which you mentioned. I look forward to receiving the link when it is posted.

I think being involved in film like you are is a very creative and rewarding life.

I occasionally tell my artist or musician friends that I heal people only one person at a time, but people like yourself can heal a whole group of people all at once when a whole room full of people can watch an uplifting film or listen to a health-giving piece of music.

Sincerely, Kent

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