Op-ed pick: What is life?

One of our producers, Maddy Mahon, was struck by this column in the New York Times. Maddy likes big questions about justice and truth. In this op-ed, Ferris Jabr wants us to ask ourselves whether we know what life is. Not the meaning of the life, but rather what makes something animate or inanimate.

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. Rather, there are billions of individual plants we have collectively named trees. You might think botanists have a precise unfailing definition of a tree — they don’t. Sometimes it’s really difficult to say whether a plant is a tree or shrub because “tree” and “shrub” are not properties intrinsic to plants — they are ideas we impinged on them.

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.

He was inspired to ask himself this question after seeing a sculpture called a Strandbeest on a beach in the Netherlands.