Are Living Systems Machines?

There already exists a case from theology and philosophy… many cases in fact… science only plays an auxiliary role in such discussions at best if it cannot address things such as design or a designer

I understand how your comment works in physics. However in biology, living systems are more machine like than other natural systems. Biologists themselves describe various “cellular machines”. This implies design as a critical part of biology… else a totally different category has to be defined which need not have been designed… and justification needs to be given for the same scientifically…(i.e not with respect to methodology or philosophy). Otherwise applying scientific facts from biology to theological questions lead an a priory bias towards materialism.
How do you think this can be avoided?

Fairly easily @Ashwin_s. Just remember that this is mainly false…

Living systems are not more machine like than physics.

You are misunderstanding the jargon. Biologists often communicate using analogies. The occasional use of the term “cellular machines” does not mean that living system are essentially machines. That is just false.

Just remember that biology is only part of the story. As long as science doesn’t dictate theology as if it is the whole story, there is not much risk of this.

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Josh, who is actually a biologist, has basically expressed eloquently what I was thinking. In general, scientists in every sub-field (physics and apparently biology too) like to use language in an analogous manner to the way you would use them in daily life. Therefore, without actually studying in depth what is meant by that term, it’s dangerous to assume the usage of a term has certain rigid philosophical implications. (This brings into mind the conversation the other week about electrons having “zero size.”)

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Not in the real world…

I think you are wrong here. Just look at how molecular machines are defined… they convert chemical energy to mechanical energy. The connection is not as tenous as you claim.

I am just wondering why biology should even be part of the story if it follows different rules from theology and philosophy. How can the differences in approach be integrated. I think this is an important question.

This quote from is describing the error well. To be clear, we can’t know for sure if it is an accurate description of the moment he describes (I’m told it is not, but who can know for sure?). However, it is an apt description of the pitfall we need to avoid.

The presentation included machine-like cartoons of the flagellar apparatus, but did not say they were cartoon representations. Here I was flabbergasted – I assumed this was a rhetorical stance, but some of these folks actually believe the machine metaphor to be the literal truth. News flash – flagella are not actually little machines (and sperm do not contain little homunculi).
ID: Intelligent Design as Imitatio Dei (report on the 2007 'Wistar Retrospective Symposium')

On biology, I’m not wrong. There ways living systems are like machines. There are ways they are not. It is largely confusing you to fixate on that, because you are less aware of how they are not like machines.

I agree. It is the important question. That is what we are working on here all the time.

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That still leaves the question what exactly are biological systems… pls note I used “machine like”…

Are you suggesting they are the same as non living systems studied in physics?

It is nearly self-evident that living systems are in a class by themselves. They are not like non-living systems, in fundamental ways. They equally unlike human designed systems, in similarly fundamental ways. They are essentially a different category.

I am not talking biology perse… Are you suggesting there is more to life than mere physical interactions?(scientifically speaking)

If not, why would a description as “machine like” be problematic?
I am not being argumentative here… i am seriously wondering.

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Of course there is more to life than mere physical interactions. You are more than a robot @Ashwin_s. For that matter, even a robot is more than mere physical interactions too. On a theological level, on an ethical level, we should resist the reduction of life, of humans, to “machines.”

I can agree with you on that…
What exactly is the differentiator? Is it within the scope of science to study what makes something alive?
I know that I am more than a robot… but can science access this reality about me and you?

Now you are touching on grand questions. There is a long history of thought, both inside and outside science here. These are the questions on which to focus. Resist simple answers.

Several things this brings us to:

  1. The meaning of “human”
  2. The meaning of consciousness.
  3. The history of vitalism.
  4. The ongoing exchange between reductionism and emergence, especially in neuroscience.
  5. The rise of artificial intelligence.

Engage those grant questions. It should be fun. Do not silence the questions by thinking living systems are “machines.”

To give you another threads to follow. There is interesting debate about whether viruses and/or prions are alive. Are they? Ironically, they are perhaps the most machine-like of “life”, yet we also question if they are “life.”

Do you think the scientific method is potent enough to engage these “grand questions” without slipping into philosophy…
And do you think such an impotency will stop scientist from commenting on these subjects while displaying a total ignorance of the philosophical assumptions they bring to the table.( I am not talking about you here… more about scientists in the public domain addressing these questions and making clowns of themselves in the process).

Incidentally Josh, what do you think of Jeremy England’s theory of explaining life in terms of pure thermodynamics? Such as this and more recently this. It seems like yet another case of a physicist trying to explain away biological problems in terms of physics. I tried reading his paper some time ago and couldn’t really understand it. I wonder what an actual biologist would think about it.


Sounds more like the magical thinking that sometimes emanates from cosmologists. :smile:

Physicists have made very important contributions to biology, even winning Nobel Prizes. They have also taken forward some strange pet theories. That is what this sounds like to me. It is about as believable as the thermodynamic arguments against abiogenesis we more commonly see. To disconnected from the realities of chemistry and biology to be salient, or even true.

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Science can only obliquely engage these question. It cannot engage them head on.

Of course scientists will say stupid things in public. When that happens, hope that Peaceful Science has risen to high enough prominence that we can set the record straight.

I agree with you on this… unfortunately scientists don’t. I don’t see how origin of life sciences can avoid the definition of life… and the distinction between the living and non living.
I don’t see science limiting itself according to its limitations… and in such cases there is no hesitation to bend the rules such as testability (for example string theory). The only unbendable rule seems to be materialism.Either the scientific method should be consistently used, or the special cases should be identified where all bets are off… an inconsistency application of rules just looks like a philosophical bias as opposed to a methodological one.

Well I appreciate your efforts… However the more I listen to people here, the more this seems like a political/ideological slugfest.
I will pray for you.

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There is more than just this. There is quite a bit happening behind the scenes. We are trying to cultivate a new type of engagement. For each person that joins, there is a journey to understand what that might mean for them. @Ashwin_s, you are really contributing greatly to our community here, much more than when you first came. Thank you for staying.

Thank you for praying for me. I really do think we have another way forward here.


No, living systems are not machines.

Honestly, I don’t think this argument can be easily settled. I have often run into people who insist that living organisms are machines. That’s a common view in the AI (artificial intelligence) community, though it seems obviously wrong to me.

As it happens, I was thinking about this last week. And it seemed to me that the contrast we should make is between mechanical and adaptive. Parts of a biological organism are mechanical, while other parts are adaptive. But, overall, a biological organism is adaptive, while a robot is mechanical. Thinking is adaptive, while computation is mechanical.

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Can the parts that are adaptive be reduced to mechanical systems?
Ultimately, how can such reductionism be avoided if we consider only “natural” mechanisms? If it is natural, it has to be reducible to mechanical/physical and chemical interactions… isn’t that nature’s suite of cards…?