Blog 7: Alien Life and Its Characteristics

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Just how foreign and novel could life be in the universe? To me this is not a valid question for two reasons: one, the scientific community has not yet arrived on a clear consensus on what separates life from non-life. Two, to postulate some wild, alternate biochemistry may seem like a legitimate stab at the question, but the very process of seeking answers to this exact question invokes a serious logical fallacy.

What is life? The very term is so often tossed around in all registers of speech, from lay to scientific, that a precise definition is difficult to furnish. That is, when presented with a sample of matter, we as humans can quite confidently point to it and declare it as living or non-living based on our experiences interacting with living organisms. However, we are at a loss when asked to elucidate the exact conditions that must be present – and all must be present in order to meet standards of logical rigor – for life to exist. There are a few obvious ones, such as all living things intake and process energy, as well as reproduce. However there are a few sketchier ones such as a criterion postulated in the late 1970s that all life must reproduce without host organisms. This condition would bar viruses from the sphere of living organisms, and to this day, biologists hotly debate whether viruses and viroids should be considered as living. Of course, the whole debate on viruses is just one issue, but if virus-like organisms were to be found somewhere in the cosmos, would extraterrestrial life exist?

It is possible, however, to avoid the whole mess of assigning criteria for living organisms by simply postulating some alternate biochemistries and then accepting whatever peculiar forms of existence may result. In essence, we’d be creating models here: switching a few parameters (like have silicon take the place of carbon, or hydrogen sulfide as the universal solvent in place of water), observing how the system responds to such changes, and then go about our whole process of assigning criteria. However, such a process involves a fatal flaw in our reasoning: namely, our assuming that life has to follow the chemistry presented here on Earth.

The very act of postulating alternate biochemistries assumes that alien life must follow a set of prescribed rules observable here on Earth: that the diverse combination of and interaction among chemical elements in our known Periodic Table underlies life. As basic a principle this may be, according to logical standards such a statement is not an axiom but an a priori statement. That is, without observing other worlds, we assert that we already know the principles that undergird life. However, it is entirely possible that a novel form of life exists that does not even require organic elements, much less atoms at all. Just look at the alien short story ‘Meat.’ What if aliens were composed of both cyber electronics and organic matter, and the ratio happened to be skewed towards electronics? Would they still be considered living forms? Most of us would say no, but biologists would have a field day, arguing back and forth over the extent to which we can be ‘wires and switches’ and yet still be considered living creatures.

Moreover, as ironic as this may seem, our living our whole lives on planet Earth proves detrimental to any creative efforts in wondering about alien life. The continual observation of organisms that operate to a so-called ‘Earth paradigm’ has permanently etched into our minds the prejudice that the ‘Earth paradigm’ is the preferred model by which life evolves. This is merely a case of classical bias, in which our minds are trapped to reason and think a certain way. There is no evidence whatsoever that the ‘Earth’ paradigm – or to a broader extent, the chemical paradigm – must be preferred.

In the end, though, I guess my arguments are simply beating around the bush. If I were to break standards of rigor and wander into my own fantasies, alien life would not even be contained in discrete organisms. Rather, living organisms would be superseded by living systems, vibrating self-contained environments of matter that behaved a single unit albeit scattered physically throughout some vital medium akin to qi, or the Chinese perception of ‘life force.’ If this sounds strange, it’s supposed so. Welcome to my imagination.

Sean Justin Lee

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