Is there a qualitative difference between a mechanism and an organism? If there is, can we put our finger on what the difference is? I have recently been told that the corona virus is not alive, but it is clearly not a random assembly of organic molecules inertly cohering. If some were sent to an unpopulated planet, they would presumably gradually degrade, possibly over millennia, depending on the environment in which they found themselves. The virus can only show its reproductive repertoire when encountering certain living beings, its receptive but reluctant hosts. We might choose to say, whether the corona virus is living or non living, that its existence presupposes the existence of living beings whose biochemical complexities can be turned to its own advantage. We stray here into matters of terminological convention, while at the same time attributing purpose to the coronavirus. The existential questions are difficult, perhaps a matter of taste. We now know that the future states of quite simple mechanical systems cannot be predicted with certainty because the initial conditions cannot be measured sufficiently accurately. This does not seem to make them less machine-like or more life-like. I suppose this is because machines (and I include computers) do not have any investment in the outcomes they make possible. They behave like the insensate brutes they are. Any goals they seek have been foisted on them by human masters. But it is clear that those outcomes have not been fully foreseen by their inventors. Science fiction has long been haunted by the possibility of robots with feelings, and though these narratives can be read as parables about oppressed minorities, they fail to convince as the likely end destination of electronics and computer programming skills. Why is that?
As a leavening to these tough questions about life, machines and the questionable life of machines, let me offer this piece of German mysticism, courtesy of Heidegger’s book based on his lectures on Leibniz, given in 1955-56, and taken from his book, The Principle of Reason. In it he quotes Angelus Silesius who published in 1657 a short poem, Without Why:-
The rose is without why: it blooms because it blooms, It pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.
This puts me in mind of the lines by Wordsworth from Lines written above Tintern Abbey
… that best portion of a good man’s life, His little nameless, unremembered acts Of kindness and of love.
Thus, unconsidered and unselfconscious acts of generous spontaneity, having the grace and naturalness of a blooming of a flower, reveal the good heart of a person. I have found this to be true. The inwardness of animals and humans should never be assumed to be absent, simply because they are not immediately evident. As for the rose, it can never be other than true to its nature.