Thursday, December 9, 2021

Yet another account of life

I think a really interesting philosophical question is the definition of life. Standard biological accounts fail to work for God and angels.

Here is a suggestion:

  • x has life if and only if it has a well-being.

For living things, one can talk meaningfully of how well or poorly off they are. And that’s what makes them be living.

I think this is a simple and attractive account. I don’t like it myself, because I am inclined to think that everything has a well-being—even fundamental particles. But for those who do not have such a crazy view, I think it is an attractively simple solution to a deep philosophical puzzle.


scott said...

I think this is a really cool idea. Let me try out a few counter examples.

1: Imagine I die. It seems like I still have a welfare since I'd be better off if God raises me from the dead than I would if God left me dead. But I'm not alive.

2: What do people think about stasis cases? Do they think someone in stasis is alive? If not, then I'd still have a welfare. I'd be better off if I were removed from stasis and allowed to continue to live. But I wouldn't be alive.

I'm not sure these counterexamples will stick. But I thought they might be worth considering.

James Reilly said...


In (1), YOU are still alive in some sense (whether with God, or in "soul sleep" as the Protestants would have it); it is only your body which is dead. Also, do people commonly deny that someone in stasis (say, somebody who were cryogenically frozen) continues to live? That strikes me as implausible. Then again, even if somebody DID take that view, we could simply say that they're mistaken!

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am not sure these examples work with my four-dimensionalism. :-)

Scott said...

thanks for your work.. Would unborn humans (at least the early stages) be alive by this definition? If not then that seems to contradict the scientific consensus.. As an unrelated question, do you have any blogs on epistemology of teleology and essentialism? I have problem understanding how it is not arbitrary in most cases (e.g. telo of our sexual faculty)

Scott said...

Btw I am another scott

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see any reason to doubt that an early stage human would have a well-being. Various abnormalities are bad for them, whether they are aware of that or not. (Just as disease is bad for a tree, and so trees have well-being.)

The epistemology of teleology is a part of my current book project. It's not easy. I think there is a holistic judgment to be made as to which teleological attributions fit with ethical intuitions, with a plausible picture of the kind of being something is (e.g., a self-reproducer, in the case of sexual faculties), etc.

M.Rıfat Algan said...

Hello Dr. Pruss, I didn't know you had a new book project. What will your book be about? Also, are you new to writing, when can we read your book?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Growing very rough draft in progress:

Marius Blomlie said...

What about the following definition:

x has life if and only if the uncertainty of its future states differs from the uncertainty predicted by quantum mechanics.

Unknown said...

This suggestion is fascinating...Does it assume that plants have a well-being?

Arath55 said...

Dr. Pruss what is your opinion on this pro choice argument that it’s morally acceptable to terminate a fetus during pregnancy:

Reasoning is there is no meaningful distinction between some hypothetical sex addicted depending on someone for survival and a fetus depending on someone for survival (can explain particulars)

The way you can reasonably object to someone needing you for survival in the addict case, you can reasonably object to someone needing you for survival in the fetus case.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It seems clear that Dutch elm disease is bad for elm trees.


We normally consider it murder to disconnect someone from ordinary means of sustenance of life. For instance, to deprive them of ordinary sources of nutrition, hydration and oxygen. But at the fetal stage, the maternal environment is the ordinary source of nutrition, hydration and oxygen.