Being And Hyperbeing: Life Beyond Life-Forms

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Eukaryotic life in some of its many forms. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5.

In the 1994 science fiction film Star Trek Generations, while attempting to locate the missing Captain Picard, Lt. Cmdr. Data is given the task to scan for life-forms on the planet below. Data, an android having recently been outfitted with an emotion chip, proceeds to proclaim his love for the task, and makes up a little impromptu ditty while operating his console, to the bewilderment of his crew mates.

The scene plays as comic relief, but is not without some poignancy. The status of Data himself, whether he can be said to be himself ‘alive’ and therefore worthy of the special protection generally awarded to living things, is a recurring plot thread throughout the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In his struggle to become ‘more human’, his attainment of emotions marks a major milestone. Having thus been initiated into the rank of an—albeit artificial—life-form, one might cast his task as not so much a scientific, but a philosophical one: searching for others of his kind.

It is then somewhat odd that there is apparently a mechanizable answer to the question ‘what is life?’, some algorithm performed on the appropriate measurement data returning a judgment on the status of any blob of matter under investigation as either alive or not. If there is some mechanical criterion separating life from non-life, then how was Data’s own status ever in question? Read more »

The Lobster and the Octopus: Thinking, Rigid and Fluid

by Jochen Szangolies

Fig. 1: The lobster exhibiting its signature move, grasping and cracking the shell of a mussel. Still taken from this video.

Consider the lobster. Rigidly separated from the environment by its shell, the lobster’s world is cleanly divided into ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘subject’ and ‘object’. One may suspect that it can’t help but conceive of itself as separated from the world, looking at it through its bulbous eyes, probing it with antennae. The outside world impinges on its carapace, like waves breaking against the shore, leaving it to experience only the echo within.

Its signature move is grasping. With its pincers, it is perfectly equipped to take hold of the objects of the world, engage with them, manipulate them, take them apart. Hence, the world must appear to it as a series of discrete, well-separated individual elements—among which is that special object, its body, housing the nuclear ‘I’ within. The lobster embodies the primal scientific impulse of cracking open the world to see what it is made of, that has found its greatest expression in modern-day particle colliders. Consequently, its thought (we may imagine) must be supremely analytical—analysis in the original sense being nothing but the resolution of complex entities into simple constituents.

The lobster, then, is the epitome of the Cartesian, detached, rational self: an island of subjectivity among the waves, engaging with the outside by means of grasping, manipulating, taking apart—analyzing, and perhaps synthesizing the analyzed into new concepts, new creations. It is forever separated from the things themselves, only subject to their effects as they intrude upon its unyielding boundary. Read more »