A dialogue between Philobios and Philopraxis

Scene: The agora of ancient Athens.

Enter Philobios and Philopraxis, two philosophers.

Philobios: Greetings, Philopraxis! Have you a moment? I have been thinking about the nature of life, and I should like to share my ideas with you.

Philopraxis: Ah well, actually I’m busy. I’m searching for my dog, you see. He’s run off again.

Philobios: It won’t take long. Then I can help you search for your dog.

Philopraxis: Very well. If it won’t take long.

Philobios: Excellent. To begin, then: Some things are alive and some things are not, and we are good at telling which are which. You and I are alive, obviously, and so are many other things, from bears to beetles to beetroots. It seems there is some property they all share, a vital property, a that-it’s-aliveness, which we can immediately recognize when we encounter it. But what is this property exactly, and how does inanimate matter come to possess it?

Philopraxis: Isn’t that a question for our scientists? Like young Aristoteles, for example.

Philobios: Ah, no. Scientists describe processes that occur in living things — responsiveness to stimuli, metabolism, growth, reproduction, and so on — but this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. We can easily imagine all those processes occurring without life. A machine might detect things, convert resources into energy, use raw materials to augment itself, and even make copies of itself, without really being alive. Processes such as responsiveness and metabolization may be necessary for life, but they aren’t sufficient for it, and explaining how those processes occur in living things won’t be sufficient to explain life itself. We’d still have to explain how things that support those life-related processes acquire a vital property, an intrinsic that-it’s-aliveness. This is a really hard problem! We need a new science of life, which takes life seriously as a fundamental aspect of reality. Perhaps life emerges spontaneously, by natural necessity, when sufficiently complex life-related processes occur. Or perhaps all matter possesses a tiny spark of life, and the vital properties of complex organisms like us are produced by combining the micro-level vital properties of their atomic constituents. We should explore these exciting ideas! Don’t you agree?

Philopraxis: Erm, no, actually, I don’t. I think processes of the sort you mentioned are all there is to life. Being a living thing is just a matter of being a persisting system that is responsive, metabolizes resources, grows, and so on. There’s no need for an extra animating ingredient. Maybe it seems otherwise to you because we can recognize life so easily. When we encounter a living thing, we don’t have to check that all those processes are occurring within it. We can just see that it’s alive. And that tempts us to think that we are detecting a special property that is distinct from all those processes. I can understand. I feel the same, in fact. But I don’t trust my feelings here. I think it’s a sort of illusion. For her own good reasons, Nature has tuned up our perceptual systems to be highly sensitive to indications of life, so that animate things leap out at us perceptually. And this leads us to think that they possess a special property — a vital property, a that-it’s-aliveness — which can’t be explained in more basic terms. That’s how it seems; animation is a fundamental feature of the world as we take it to be — of what we might call our manifest image. But it’s not a fundamental feature of reality independent of us, and we would be making a big error if we were to set about asking how it arises, whether all matter possesses it, and so forth. We’d be mistaking a feature of our reaction to the world for a feature of the world itself.

Philobios: But that’s not taking life seriously. In fact, it’s denying life! That’s the silliest view I’ve ever heard. What’s more, it’s an immoral and dangerous view. If you deny that life exists, then presumably you don’t think that murder is possible? I assume you think that the tyrant Hippias was a fine man. For on your view, he never deprived anyone of life!

Philopraxis: You’re missing my point. I’m not denying that life exists; I’m denying that life is what you think it is…

Philobios: You’re equivocating! Does life exist? Yes or no!

Philopraxis: Yes, but…

Philobios: So you concede that vital properties are real…

We pan away to a dog scratching itself. The dog settles down to sleep in the sun as Philobios and Philopraxis continue to argue in the background.

KF: Philobios and Philopraxis continue to argue, but I think you will have got the gist of their views about life, and I hope you will agree that Philopraxis’s view is better and that it is unfair of Philobios to accuse him of silliness and immorality.

Now substitute ‘consciousness’ and ‘phenomenal properties’ for ‘life’ and ‘vital property’ and replace the references to biological processes with ones to perceptual and cognitive processes. Philobios’s position is now a robust form of phenomenal realism and Philopraxis’s is a form of illusionism.

Do you still agree with Philopraxis? If not, why not?

George Harrison - What Is Life
Posted in Tricks of the mind and tagged .


  1. I feel somewhat obligated to come to the defense of the phenomenal realist, if you’ll forgive me…

    It’s an interesting comparison to draw to vitalism, but of course as you are aware Chalmers insists it is a disanalogy on the grounds that it was always understood that vitalism was a doctrine about function at its core, and whatever intrinsic life component that was postulated, was done with the intention to explain functionality. To see who’s right, I think it’s worthwhile to explore the analogy in more depth.

    I thought it telling in particular that your thought experiment uses the example of a “machine” to fill in the role of a functional duplicate. But if vitalism was really about some intrinsic non-functional component of life, then we should be able to create an exact biological replica, in a functional sense, which just ends up being a philosophical zombie all over again (although I suppose we should remain neutral regarding the question of whether it is conscious). In other words, according to this vitalist doctrine, there can be two Keith Frankish’s who behave and think exactly the same (and may even be conscious in the classic qualia sense of the word!) and yet one may be the alive while the other is not.

    Does this sound like a plausible interpretation of the vitalist movement to you? It doesn’t to me. I don’t think the 19th century vitalist scientists like Lord Kelvin had such a thing in mind, I think the main issue was really just a concern over the implausibility of abiogenetics (in the absence of modern biochemical knowledge).

    Furthermore, there is, I feel, a second issue with regards to the vitalism analogy, and this is the issue of first-person knowledge. Say what you will about knowledge by acquaintance, the point remains that most phenomenal realists think that we are immediately acquainted with the concept of consciousness through first-person data. But I don’t think any vitalist would agree that we somehow have a first-person data of life, that we come out of the womb having some sense of what life might be. But many phenomenal realists do think that we come out of the womb knowing what it’s like to be a consciousness entity (through our experiences). Just some food for thought.



  2. Your little exercise is another shining example of the zero-sum game of a priori analysis where the content of the predicate-concept of the proposition (all of the arguments for and against) is already contained within the subject-concept of that proposition.

    In contrast to a priori analysis, only synthetic a priori analysis is capable of leading to new insights thereby breaking the gridlock of the zero-sum game of a priori analysis. This is because in synthetic a priori analysis, the predicate-concept is not already contained within the subject-concept. Synthetic judgments add something to a concept, whereas analytic judgments only explain what is already contained in the concept. Synthetic a priori judgements introduce conditions on the possibility, and it is those possibilities which are not contained within the subject-concept of the original proposition.

    So my question would be thus: Does academia teach students the innovative and empowering techniques of synthetic a priori analysis and likewise, does the academic community itself, including yourself Keith, understand synthetic a priori analysis?? The reason I ask is because I never see the technique being employed in any of you or your colleagues arguments…..

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