Monday, March 16, 2009

CONTEST: Name this Creature

Let me describe a hypothetical creature, a thought experiment to clarify the distinction between a machine and an organism, and perhaps you can come up with a name for it. It is based on the observation that flames share certain characteristics with living things: they have a “hunger” for food or fuel, and in some sense, they are constituted by what they consume. So why can’t we harness these characteristics to make a “living” machine?

Presumably we'd construct from metal, or from some sort of non-flammable material a body for our creature, something that houses the flames and channels them to create reactions more characteristic of an organism.

CONTEST QUESTION: What name would best capture the essence of this creature?

Also, I'd appreciate hearing you explain why this creature would NOT be living. What separates it from organisms?

Please submit your answers in comments to this post. Winners get special honors announced in a future post. I know nobody reads this blog, so maybe I'll set a deadline of one month, maybe two weeks if by some miracle I get a lot of good responses. We'll see how it goes....

Note: the photo of a mechanical soldier from Hellboy II: The Golden Army is just for interest. I'd be surprised if the creature I'm describing was what Guillermo del Toro had in mind, but images from the film did help me come up with this idea.


Charles R. Walter said...

The 'creature' would not be living because it would be incapable of immanent or intrinsic motion. Its motion would be driven by an extrinsic substance, namely fire, and therefore its motion would be transient. This creature would best be called a composite mineral!

I think the being you have in mind would manifest nonequilibrium or irreversible thermodynamic properties, giving rise to 'dissipative structures', much like whirlpools, hurricanes, or chemical pheonomenon like the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. I.e. it would appear to display ordered activity, perhaps simulating a living creature, but ordered activity resulting directly from extrinsic forces.

Lawrence Gage said...


Interesting thoughts. Whether the motion is intrinsic or extrinsic would seem to depend on what you consider "inside" and "outside." I was actually thinking of the fire (as with a flame) as being the "living" part. The motion of the fire would of course be intrinsic to the fire.

I certainly agree that the whole (flames + housing) would be a composite. But how is it a composite, while an organism isn't? Organisms can be divided into heterogeneous parts too (e.g., muscle + skeleton).


Charles R. Walter said...

Fire has no substantial reality in and of itself, rather being an accident of substantial change or combustion. The fuel or substrate of combustion is the extrinsic substance whose substantial change provides the transient motion to the 'hypothetical creature'.

A living organism is a composite creature composed of a substantial form and prime matter. What we may regard as heterogeneous parts within a living being have only a 'virtual' existence as such, much like the 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen exist 'virtually' with the substance of a water molecule. The 'hypothetical creature' is an artifact composed of individual artifacts whose real existence differs little whether in isolation or in a composition.

Todd Tharp said...

Let me try...Something made of metal, which houses flames which hunger for fuel...

How about 'rocket'? Or internal combustion engine? :D

Todd Tharp said...

In all seriousness, I think your set up was lacking specificity. Isn't 'fire' analogous to 'spirit'? Does the fire in your example animate the vessel which contains it? Maybe Daemon is a good name for it...

It seems to me for something to be living it must 1. be able to reproduce itself or repair in perpetuity. 2. resist local entropy via consumption of environmental energies.

Lawrence Gage said...

Charles, are you telling me that fire isn't an element?! ;) Good point about fire being an accident of the substantial change of combustion. What makes the existence of organismic parts virtual, while that of a machine's parts isn't? In other words, given a particular thing, how can we tell whether its parts are virtual or not?

Todd, "internal combustion engine" is technically accurate, but it lacks specificity. I think you're right that fire is analogous to spirit, but it's something like the analogy between the form of a wave--say, a water wave--and the form of an organism. The wave form is an accidental form, while the living form is substantial.

What puzzles me is that I had thought that accidental forms had to adhere to a substance;, whereas but here we're talking about them "adhering" to a substantial change and not a substance per se. How do Aristotle and Aquinas treat of such accidents, and where?

Good modern-style points about self-propagation and entropy, Todd. As far as the latter is concerned, non-equilibrium thermodynamic systems also resist local entropy increase.

There's also an interdependence among organismic parts (i.e., organs), as well as what Jonas calls a dependent independence of the whole on the parts/matter (viz., atoms). In other words, the whole is dependent on the matter, but not on any particular bits of matter, which are always coming and going as the organism renews itself. In modern terms, the whole supervenes on the particular atoms that constitute it.


Mike Flynn said...

Well, I was going to make the same point about fire not being a thing, but rather a quality of a thing, but Charles beat me to it. Likewise, the question of the various processes of living forms. A fire may consume material and make it part of itself. It may also reproduce by starting other fires. But I don't see it maintaining homeostasis or having metabolism. Basically, it doesn't defy entropy like good little living things.

The fire is not analogous to spirit because it is not the substantial form of the "housing" that has been imagined.

As for a name, The Human Torch comes to mind, but I think that is already taken.

Lawrence Gage said...


As far as homeostasis, fire does resist environmental changes: notice it does take a little effort to blow out a candle flame; you can even hear a little snap when you "break" the flame. Taking in new fuel is analogous to metabolism. I'm pretty sure this creature, like any engine, is a non-equilibrium (open) thermodynamic system, a category that also includes life.

"Human torch" is a good try, but doesn't sound quite right. I can't imagine a creature like the one we're talking about doing a characteristically human thing like speaking or exercising free will. Perhaps reading about another impossible creature will help get the creative juices flowing: Peking homunculus.


Joe said...

There is a little bit of a joker in the deck with your definition of the "thing:"

"...non-flammable material a body for our creature, something that houses the flames and channels them to create reactions more characteristic of an organism..."

Using that definition of the "thing," there is no need to define "life" further as it contains its own definition: "reactions...characteristic of an organism."

The question really is what are those reactions? And if life needs to have the ability to have reactions (or react) -- then that means that life has to be viewed in an environment -- some "frame" that permits the "thing" to react -- because without reactions there is no characteristics of an organism.

So if reactions are key to life then it doesn’t matter the form -- and so this could be placed within a standard species/phylum, etc. classification. Since it is created by man I would propose that its name acknowledge that -- as no other life form has been.

homo creo primitus: man creates for the first time.

Mike Flynn said...

I thought of that, regarding metabolism and homeostasis; but then I thought, "A simulation of a thing is not the thing." I'd rather not "define homeostasis down," as it were. Analogy can be useful, but "like" is not "is." I still think that Ignis vivens (to give him another name) is a one-way arrow as far as entropy is concerned. Living things defy entropy, insofar as they are living.

OTOH, a being made entirely a plasma is not entirely unimaginable. I don't think it can be a simple flame enclosed in a casing. That sounds like art, not nature, and the matter may not be complex enough to receive the form of life.

Charles R. Walter said...

Lawrence, With respect to your query: "What makes the existence of organismic parts virtual, while that of a machine's parts isn't? In other words, given a particular thing, how can we tell whether its parts are virtual or not?" I refer to ST IIIa. Q2, a1. St. Thomas distinguishes 3 types of composition involving material substances. The first includes a juxtaposition of individual substances of either a random or ordered nature. Your 'hypothetical creature' would fall into this category.

The second includes individual substances resulting from the coming together of individual 'elements' which lose their substantial nature in forming a new substance and nature. Chemical compounds including the water molecule illustrate this second category.

The third category includes complete substances which may be considered to have subsisting integral parts whose properties derive from the substantial nature of that of which they may be considered a part. A living material being may be considered to include such integral parts as organs, limbs, etc. Such parts do not comprise complete substances in their own right but contribute to one complete substance in union with a complete being.

Consider a highly advanced prosthetic limb. We may in fact be unable at first to tell whether such a limb is an integral subsistent part of a living being or an artificial prosthesis. Nevertheless, the prosthesis retains the same relationship to the living being as a cane or a walker, items readily identified as artifacts. Perhaps the limits of our ability to distinguish a virtual or subsistent part from a machine part is limited or related to our ingenuity in making such parts.

Regarding your comments: “What puzzles me is that I had thought that accidental forms had to adhere to a substance; whereas but here we're talking about them ‘adhering’ to a substantial change and not a substance per se.” I’m not sure I see any inconsistency. Any substantial change involves corruption and generation of substances with their inherent accidents. St. Thomas deals with an exception to this rule in ST IIIa. Q75,77!

Lawrence Gage said...

Joe seems to have missed the entire point of the post, so I won't tax his obviously limited abilities by addressing him.

Mike, what differentiates the dynamic equilibrium of homeostasis from the dynamic equilibrium of a flame? It would seem that flames too maintain a non-increasing local entropy.

Btw, I'll count "Ignis vivens" as the first entry in the contest. Hooray!

Charles, thanks for the Summa reference and your elaboration of it. I don't see any inconsistency: I'm just trying to understand something that apparently isn't covered by the usual "rules." With fire we seem to be talking about an accident that accompanies the dynamic process of the change itself, and not either of the endpoints of the change. Are there other examples of this kind of phenomenon? If so, how are they treated by the classic authors?

I think this is an important point and touches the intersection of the Aristotelian concepts of energeia and entelecheia (roughly: activity and actuality). Understanding these concepts and their interplay is key to understanding life, and, I suspect, photons, among other things.

(The exception you allude to, of course, doesn't fall within natural philosophy.)


Joe said...

I love the fact that I have been accused of having “obviously limited abilities.” By a physicist!

However I want to see if I can meet a modified version of Richard Feynman’s test. Unless I can successfully convey the proposition so that it is understandable to one of a third grade level, it is not true. So stay with me here, there will be cookies at recess.

The questions were two:
- What name would best capture the essence of this creature?
- Also, I'd appreciate hearing you explain why this creature would NOT be living. What separates it from organisms?

The problem with your two questions aren’t the questions. It is the definition of the word “creature.” Your definition makes your questions and whatever point you were making meaningless.

The creature is made of something and has every external indicia of life. Within it is fire which isn’t really a “thing” but is “an accident that accompanies the dynamic process of the change itself, and not either of the endpoints of the change.”

No, it isn’t. Or it is. But what it is meaningless. Indeed, fire can be said to be just like DNA under that definition. DNA is an “accident that accompanies…”

By use of the word ”accident” you might be attempting to call fire, or DNA, random. But a reductionist would have it that the pattern in a contained fire is predictable, given known operating conditions. The motion of gas molecules, forming a fire pattern, could be in their statistical aggregate, predicted. If they are predictable they are not random, by definition. Because the operating conditions in a contained environment that cause the fire are known.

And if the pattern is random it doesn’t matter because it isn’t purposeless. You have given them a purpose by putting them in a container whose reactions are observed as “life.” That that is the same as putting nothing in the container and saying it will have lifelike reactions. Thus again -- the reactions are all.

So instead of fire, or DNA, or Spirit, or the Light of a gnostic, you don’t need anything inside.

Flip your experiment around. If you put fire in a rock, and gave it all the “reactions” of a rock -- it would be a…rock. Again according to your own questions and materials the reactions are all. What is inside is meaningless.

Or, if you put nothing but an accident inside a tin can and gave it the reactions of life, it would be…life -- with nothing inside.

So yes my friend I am, being human, of obviously limited abilities, as are you. But at least within the scope of those limited abilities we can all try to convey accurate “thought experiments” so that we can all proceed to a greater understanding.

Lawrence Gage said...

Sorry for the snark, Joe. From your comments, it sounded like you were just a casual commenter and it was less than apparent that you were a patient person actually willing to take a little time to discuss and understand a different perspective. Being snarky is definitely one of my personal limitations.

One thing you need to know is that "accident" in this discussion is a technical term in philosophy. It means (roughly) non-essential.

The distinction between essential and accidental reflects the different ways that something can exist. Things exist either in themselves or in something else. (By "things," I mean anything that can be the subject of a sentence.) For example, you exist in yourself, but your characteristics (e.g., eye color, height) don't exist on their own, but only in something that does exist on its own (you).

This distinction is related to the definition of nature as an intrinsic source of motion and rest. Living things draw matter and energy from their environment, but their motion comes from within. On the other hand, for a characteristic, like a water wave or like fire, the motion comes primarily from without.

So the distinction being investigated doesn't primarily have to do with chance and necessity, but with something that seems to be a characteristic and to receive its motion or being from without (fire) and something that exists on its own and has its own source of motion within (an organism).

I hope that makes the discussion more understandable. But please feel free to ask for clarification or any other questions.