Artificial life: Synthetic versus virtual

In Chris Langton (ed.), Santa Fe Institute Studies in the Sciences of Complexity. Volume XVI: 539ff. Reading, USA: Addison-Wesley (1993)
Authors
Stevan Harnad
Université du Québec à Montréal
Abstract
Artificial life can take two forms: synthetic and virtual. In principle, the materials and properties of synthetic living systems could differ radically from those of natural living systems yet still resemble them enough to be really alive if they are grounded in the relevant causal interactions with the real world. Virtual (purely computational) "living" systems, in contrast, are just ungrounded symbol systems that are systematically interpretable as if they were alive; in reality they are no more alive than a virtual furnace is hot. Virtual systems are better viewed as "symbolic oracles" that can be used (interpreted) to predict and explain real systems, but not to instantiate them. The vitalistic overinterpretation of virtual life is related to the animistic overinterpretation of virtual minds and is probably based on an implicit (and possibly erroneous) intuition that living things have actual or potential mental lives.
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