Second Life

This could be very big news: the discovery of a new life-form, in California’s Mono Lake, with a significant difference in its most basic biochemistry.

(Having turned up in California, chances are it will soon be demanding in-state tuition rates.)

Story here.

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10 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    The replacement of phosphorus with arsenic in the basic building-blocks of life strikes me as another piece of evidence that functionalism, in philosophy of mind, may not be so crazy after all. I’m not saying that the discovery of arsenic-based life is a knockout punch for the functionalist or strong AI schools, but it does show that some of life’s essential components can be switched out for others.

    Posted December 2, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Kevin, that seems a bit of a leap to me. I don’t see why, just because you can make a living organism in which arsenic takes the place of phosphorus, it means you can make consciousness out of any old thing. (Keep in mind that strong functionalism doesn’t even insist on biology at all.)

    I suspect (and here I agree with Searle, Penrose, and others) that not just how a system is organized, but also what it’s made of, are vital criteria for consciousness. I could be wrong, of course, but functionalism insists that I am wrong — and I don’t see this new discovery as advancing the argument in either direction.

    Mind you, I don’t think functionalism is crazy, and of course I’d say that how a system is organized is probably of critical importance for the emergence of consciousness. I just think that functionalism overreaches, given that the only conscious systems we know of are biological brains — and even among those, the only ones we can be sure of are our own.

    Posted December 2, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    I guess my thinking ran approximately this way: if mind is a subset of life, and different basic physical elements can be switched out to make other forms of life (that are recognizable as life), then it’s at least possible that different basic physical elements can be switched out to create mind. Far from being a leap, I think my insight borders on being trivial. Heh.

    For the record, I’m definitely not in Searle’s camp. I’m closer to Kurzweil on this question.

    Posted December 2, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    …if mind is a subset of life, and different basic physical elements can be switched out to make other forms of life (that are recognizable as life), then it’s at least possible that different basic physical elements can be switched out to create mind.

    I certainly can’t rule that out either. What’s happened here, with this newly discovered organism, is that an element, phosphorus, has been switched out for another element, arsenic, that is just below it on the periodic table, and so has roughly the same physical properties. So if we consider three different hierarchical levels — logical function, mechanical structure, and chemical composition — we have a change here only at the very lowest level of the three, that of the particular material that composes the biological structure that implements the logical pattern.

    The strong functionalist position is that to get consciousness all it takes is to implement the right logical pattern: that it doesn’t matter what the mechanical structure is, or what the building blocks are made of.

    What I think you are saying (please correct me if I misunderstand you) is that maybe what’s necessary for consciousness is just to have the right functional pattern and mechanical structure, made out of any of a variety of suitable materials. (That’s about the most we might infer from this find, I think.) It certainly seems more likely to me than pure functionalism, and for all I know it’s the right answer. But it also may be that there is something about the particular material substrate itself that matters too.

    The bottom line is that until we know in virtue of what, exactly, our brains manage to create consciousness, we’ll never answer the question. But to me strong functionality, even if it turns out eventually to be right, seems for now an awfully unparsimonious assumption, and I’ll be very surprised if just getting the logical pattern right is all it takes.

    Posted December 2, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  5. JK says

    The link – if I read it correctly – states the lake has been, er, cut-off from “freshwater sources for fifty years.”

    I’m just wondering – no scientific education underpinning my wondering – but I’d like to see some sedimentary studies done before I make any firm conclusion.

    Might what the bacteria seem to show not actually be “a new life-form” but rather an adaptation?

    Posted December 2, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    Back in the day, functionalism self-consciously (sorry, I couldn’t restrain myself) bracketed questions about sentience in order to focus on questions of sapience. This proved to be fruitful, both scientifically and philosophically. The notion that more, or more complex sapience results in the elimination of sentience, however, seems a stretch too far.

    Posted December 3, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    JK, from what I’m reading today, you seem to be right. See today’s post.

    Posted December 3, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    The notion that more, or more complex sapience results in the elimination of sentience, however, seems a stretch too far.

    I’m afraid you’ve lost me, Bob. Who’s saying that?

    Posted December 3, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  9. bob koepp says

    I don’t know anybody who’s put it quite that way, but given the old-fashioned linkage between ‘sentience’ and ‘consciousness,’ and the new-fangled linkage between ‘sapience’ and ‘functional informatics,’ I was beating the same old drum. Sorry.

    Posted December 3, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  10. JK says

    Malcolm, if you’ll recall – you purchased for me and sent me the book.

    And of course you “might know” (probably not) the Geologist/UFO guy has been pestering me about both sedimentary evidence and when he can expect a properly formatted disc back.

    I advise him of course, “Aren’t you the old fart insisting these things take time?”

    There are exceptions apparently (excluding the Scotch he absolutely, positively expects delivered) on Mondays.

    So far as I’ve seen (despite the lack on his part of delivering) he demands FTL from me, and apparently geologic delivery from him – despite the fact he’s got 25 years on both of us.

    As I admitted, no scientific training on my part – I just needed studies of the layers of bullshit.

    Posted December 4, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink