Life, "artificial life," and scientific explanation

Philosophy of Science 63 (2):225-244 (1996)
Recently, biologists and computer scientists who advocate the "strong thesis of artificial life" have argued that the distinction between life and nonlife is important and that certain computer software entities could be alive in the same sense as biological entities. These arguments have been challenged by Sober (1991). I address some of the questions about the rational reconstruction of biology that are suggested by these arguments: What is the relation between life and the "signs of life"? What work (if any) might the concept of "life" (over and above the "signs of life") perform in biology? What turns on scientific disputes over the utility of this concept? To defend my answers to these questions, I compare "life" to certain other concepts used in science, and I examine historical episodes in which an entity's vitality was invoked to explain certain phenomena. I try to understand how these explanations could be illuminating even though they are not accompanied by any reductive definition of "life."
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