What is it that distinguishes life from non-living entities? A new peer-reviewed scientific paper by David L. Abel, “Is Life Unique?,” attempts to answer that question, noting that “Life pursues thousands of biofunctional goals,” whereas “Neither physicodynamics, nor evolution, pursue goals.” Is it possible that unguided evolution and strictly material causes produced life’s purposeful processes? According to Abel, who recently edited The First Gene, the answer is no.
The paper explains that life’s goals include the use of “symbol systems” to maintain “homeostasis far from equilibrium in the harshest of environments, positive and negative feedback mechanisms, prevention and correction of its own errors, and organization of its components into Sustained Functional Systems.” But the article notes that “the integration and regulation of biochemical pathways and cycles into homeostatic metabolism is programmatically controlled, not just physicodynamically constrained.” This programming is termed “cybernetic” — yet according to the paper cybernetic control “flows only from the nonphysical world of formalism into the physical world through the instantiation of purposeful choices.”
Abel’s paper concludes, “Only purposeful choice contingency at bona fide decision nodes can rescue from eventual deterioration the organization and function previously programmed into physicality.” Life thus cannot be the result of unguided material processes — some cause capable of programming “purposeful choices” is necessary.
See David L. Abel, “Is Life Unique?,” Life, Vol. 2:106-134 (2012).