BREAN, Joseph "Lab's polio virus opens old puzzle: What is life? Research breakthrough: one view: 'There is no such thing as life'" National Post, July 13, 2002

by Robert Brow  (

A New York State Laboratory has built a polio virus from scratch. Brean comments that "Viruses were thought to straddle the fuzzy border between living things and lifeless stuff." This breakthrough brings scientists close to synthesizing things that are living.

This raises the old question "What is the meaning of life?" Brean suggests that "life is not the sort of thing that has meaning, like words or symbols. Life just is." But that is only a half truth. It fails to grasp Wittgenstein's point that words and symbols only have a meaning in a particular form of life where we can pick up the particular way that word or symbol is being used (the language-game) in that situation.

In the first chapter of Genesis for example, fish and birds are called "living creatures," as are the mammals. But plants and vegetation are not called "living creatures" (Genesis 1:11-12, 1:20-21, 1:24-25). This is not a scientific statement to suggest that fish and birds and mammals have life, but plants lack it. Here the "form of life" (Wittgenstein) is artistic description. And the artist is distinguishing between the trees and flowers which have a fixed location and the animals which jump and run. Later there is a form of life in which the other mammals (including the apes and hominids) are sharply distinguished from image of God humans (Genesis 1:26-27).

Now let us assume scientists one day manage to synthesize a flower that looks and smells like a rose. In the language of Genesis 1 it would be counted as vegetation, regardless of how it was made. Brean reports that work is going on to make a robot that looks like, behaves, and reproduces itself like a baboon. In the language of Genesis it would be counted as a "living creature."

What should interest us is our image of God, ability to talk to God, thank God, hear God's voice, choose among alternative models for living our life, pray for others. We know that we could reduce ourselves to being a vegetable (couch potato). Many choose to limit themselves to the instincts that we share with the apes. But the life that God offers us is the enjoyment of God's kind of freedom, creativity and conversation with him and others. This is why the language-game for life in John's Gospel is so important for us (John 1:4, 3:16, 36 etc.). Better not get brainwashed into a scientific definition.

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