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Life as an End in Itself, a Standard, and Ultimate End

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Ifat Glassman
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[Mod's note: Split from

another thread. -sN]

You can point the funny thing about his claims to him - that he tries to claim in all of them that he is "right". Ask him how he is right. How can anyone be right if there is no such thing as "Truth"? And if he agrees that "true" is a statement that corresponds to a fact of reality, ask him why does he rely on the self evident fact that existence exists, and that there is such thing as "a fact of reality".

Now, that said, I have a few questions of my own on this subject:

Life is a process of self-generated, self-sustaining action. To say that life is an end in itself is to say that the purpose of that process is to continue the process itself.
  1. Just because the outcome of this self sustaining process is to have it continued, doesn't necessarily make it the purpose of it. Nature cannot have a purpose, only human actions can, according to how I understand "Purpose is deliberately thought-through goal-directedness" (courtesy of wikipedia). Forces of nature cannot plan or desire anything.
  2. Another outcome of life is offsprings. Animals act not just to preserve their own life, but also to reproduce and raise the next generation (while putting further risk on themselves). Why can't this outcome be "The purpose of life"? If there are several outcome to some process, what makes one of them "the purpose"?
  3. The entire definition of life by Ayn Rand has several problems as I see it:
    • First and foremost: it does not have a good differentia part. There are a lot of processes that are self generated, like the blood circulation, the water circulation (rain, water flows to sea, sun vaporizes water, rain again), the menstrual cycle.
    • Secondly, it does not explain what that process is. What IS that process which is self-generating?

[*]Moreover, according to Objectivism the purpose (as in, the metaphysically desired by man) of man's life is to be happy. If you are in captivity for life, and cannot have any pleasure or happiness, Objectivism will not encourage you to keep on living. Which means that man's purpose is to be happy (first he has to be alive, but that isn't the ultimate end). So how do you reconcile this with the statement included in Ayn Rand's definition of life?

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[Mod's note: Split from

another thread. -sN]

1.Just because the outcome of this self sustaining process is to have it continued, doesn't necessarily make it the purpose of it. Nature cannot have a purpose, only human actions can, according to how I understand "Purpose is deliberately thought-through goal-directedness" (courtesy of wikipedia). Forces of nature cannot plan or desire anything.

Yes, and this is why Ayn Rand intentionally used the term "goal-directed" to describe the purpose-less behavior of creatures such as plants and animals. Their actions, while not intended towards a goal, nevertheless act automatically in the furtherance of that goal. Using the term "purpose" is a little sloppy and imprecise, but it will do if everyone knows what you're actually talking about.

Another outcome of life is offsprings. Animals act not just to preserve their own life, but also to reproduce and raise the next generation (while putting further risk on themselves). Why can't this outcome be "The purpose of life"? If there are several outcome to some process, what makes one of them "the purpose"?
There's at least one thread that discusses just this issue, however the short answer is that producing offspring can't be an ultimate goal because it presupposes another necessary goal: that you support your own life for at least a short time first. Ultimate goals can't presuppose anything else.

The entire definition of life by Ayn Rand has several problems as I see it:

First and foremost: it does not have a good differentia part. There are a lot of processes that are self generated, like the blood circulation, the water circulation (rain, water flows to sea, sun vaporizes water, rain again), the menstrual cycle.

That would be because this is the "genus part", not the "differentia part".

Secondly, it does not explain what that process is. What IS that process which is self-generating?

A definition doesn't have to describe what the process is: a definition is a condensation of the most essential features that distinguish a concept from other things in its genus. Many things fulfil the condition of "self-generated" action, but they do not fulfil the "self-directed" action criteria.

Moreover, according to Objectivism the purpose (as in, the metaphysically desired by man) of man's life is to be happy. If you are in captivity for life, and cannot have any pleasure or happiness, Objectivism will not encourage you to keep on living. Which means that man's purpose is to be happy (first he has to be alive, but that isn't the ultimate end). So how do you reconcile this with the statement included in Ayn Rand's definition of life?

More sloppy English regarding the use of the word "purpose".

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Thanks for posting Jennifer, I was beginning to lose hope on ever having my questions answered.

producing offspring can't be an ultimate goal because it presupposes another necessary goal: that you support your own life for at least a short time first. Ultimate goals can't presuppose anything else.

:lol: I do not understand your terminology at all. It sounds like complete nonsense to me. If I work to earn money, and I use the money to buy food, then one goal was to earn money, but the ultimate goal was to eat. The ultimate goal requires achieving other goals first, which is exactly what makes it an "ultimate goal".

To quote Ayn Rand on this:

An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means
(bold emphasis mine).

Producing offsprings is one goal that a living creature is directed to. Preserving it's life is another. That's just a fact, easily observed in reality.

It is true for plants and for animals. And those actions taken by the organism to reproduce do not contribute anything to the organism's own survival, but to the survival of the species.

Now Ayn rand wrote:

On the physical level the functions of all living organisms - are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism's life
(bold emphasis mine)

That is a mistake - plain and simple. On the physical level - an organism's body also takes actions directed to the goal of reproducing. That's just a fact.

That would be because this is the "genus part", not the "differentia part".

A definition doesn't have to describe what the process is: a definition is a condensation of the most essential features that distinguish a concept from other things in its genus. Many things fulfil the condition of "self-generated" action, but they do not fulfil the "self-directed" action criteria.

First - I didn't say what the differentia part was. But since you're asking, I was referring to "self-generated, self-sustaining". "Process of action" is the genus. The differentia part is bad because there are many processes that are self-generated and self-sustaining, like the ones that I've mentioned.

Can you point to a reason why those processes are not self-generated and self-sustaining?

More sloppy English regarding the use of the word "purpose".

Why? The pain-pleasure mechanism is inherited in most animals. It dictates what we desire. Pain and pleasure can be both physical and emotional (not all animals have emotions): but the fact that certain animals seek pleasure cannot be changed. Men may make mistakes in judging how pleasure can be achieved but have no choice about wanting to experience it.

Gaining pleasure is a purpose of human beings (and not just goal-directedness) because we are aware of it, we consciously act to gain it. It is "thought through" (to go back to the definition of "purpose" from Wikipedia that I supplied), even if we don't have a choice about it.

Happiness is the highest form of emotional pleasure (though sexual pleasure is a competitor). Happiness is more than just emotional pleasure, but that's for another thread.

Happiness is the state of fulfilment of life
(Translation from Hebrew edition)

There is a different definition of life used in this sentence, and it is not stated anywhere in my books. "Fulfilment of a self-generated process of action" is not what is meant here. Anyone has any idea what IS the definition of life used here? Since obviously, just having blood flowing does not make man happy.

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I'll only ask about "life" first, before going into purpose, etc.

The entire definition of life by Ayn Rand has several problems as I see it:

First and foremost: it does not have a good differentia part. There are a lot of processes that are self generated, like the blood circulation, the water circulation (rain, water flows to sea, sun vaporizes water, rain again), the menstrual cycle.

Secondly, it does not explain what that process is. What IS that process which is self-generating?

Just to clarify, is your argument only with the definition, or with the classification (living vs. non-living) itself? In other words, you look out at the world and see cars vs. cats, or water flowing in a river vs. blood flowing in a body, or even a tiny grain of sand vs. an ameoba; having observed thus, and having investigated these phenomena, do you think it is useful to have a classification such as living vs. non-living, is it useful to have a separate science of Biology? When a non-Objectivist tells you "I had a cat, it was alive, but now it is dead", do you think he's saying anything about reality? (I ask because this is what some people would argue; so, I want to understand if that is what you're saying.)

If "living things" means something. then what facts would you point to to indicate life. What attribute exists in living things and is fairly universal (not necessarily universal, but at least enough to cover the bulk of living beings, ranging across plants, from single-celled organisms, and mammals).

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If I work to earn money, and I use the money to buy food, then one goal was to earn money, but the ultimate goal was to eat.
Eating is a very bizarre ultimate goal. If that is really your ultimate goal, I don't know how to argue with you rationally, but I suspect you will be dead very soon.
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I'll only ask about "life" first, before going into purpose, etc. Just to clarify, is your argument only with the definition, or with the classification (living vs. non-living) itself? ... do you think it is useful to have a classification such as living vs. non-living, is it useful to have a separate science of Biology? When a non-Objectivist tells you "I had a cat, it was alive, but now it is dead", do you think he's saying anything about reality?

LOL! you killed me with that one! Of course there is a difference between a living being and life-less objects.

And I sure better recognize that biology is important, otherwise, what would I be doing studying biomedical engineering? :lol:

My problem is with the definition. And after going more deeply into this subject I now have a few more problems, that I've written about in my last post.

If "living things" means something. then what facts would you point to to indicate life. What attribute exists in living things and is fairly universal (not necessarily universal, but at least enough to cover the bulk of living beings, ranging across plants, from single-celled organisms, and mammals).

Life is the state of organisms and individual cells in which they have several active processes and capabilities: metabolism, response to stimuli, ability to grow/renew tissues, ability to interact with the environment in a way that contributes to that entity's survival and needs, ability to reproduce (last one not necessary for being alive, but it is still a characteristic in most cases).

I'm not entirely happy with this definition though. I'll need to think about it more. Because I think that if we humans create a robot, that is operating on electricity, acting to self preserve, and experiences thoughts and emotions (how the heck can that be achieved and verified I don't know, but it can, proof is our consciousness exists) then it would be alive too, even though it is not a carbon-based life form.

Eating is a very bizarre ultimate goal. If that is really your ultimate goal, I don't know how to argue with you rationally, but I suspect you will be dead very soon.

Now you're on to me. My ultimate goal in life is to eat. In fact, what you are reading at this moment is just the result of me trying to chew out the keyboard. Tfuy, not tasty.

But seriously now, how on earth did you come to the conclusion that I think the ultimate goal in life is to eat?

An ultimate goal has a context. In the example I gave to Jennifer the context was somebody's plan, not his life.

Just like in the context of this thread my ultimate goal is to get answers to my questions, and writing this post is a goal meant to serve that ultimate goal.

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LOL! you killed me with that one! Of course there is a difference between a living being and life-less objects.
Sorry about that! Just trying to draw the lines.
Life is the state of organisms and individual cells in which they have several active processes and capabilities: metabolism, response to stimuli, ability to grow/renew tissues, ability to interact with the environment in a way that contributes to that entity's survival and needs, ability to reproduce (last one not necessary for being alive, but it is still a characteristic in most cases).
That's a pretty long definition; why it's almost a treatise!

If I may ask another odd question: why would we want the best possible definition? What purpose would that serve?

From your robot example, I assume you're going to say that one advantage of a great definition is that when we encounter some unexpected existent like that, we know whether it should be classified as "living" or not. For now, let's leave the completely unknown out of it (and return to that later).

My question is this: within the known categories of existents, how does it help us to do anything more in the definition than saying life is (for instance) "thing with working cells"?

How does the lack of "self-generated" action in the definition help or hurt? How does it help or hurt not to mention "response to stimuli"? How does it help or hurt not to mention reproduction?

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That's a pretty long definition; why it's almost a treatise!

I know, there is room for improvement. It needs to include the most basic things that distinguish a living thing from dead objects, and it needs to be described in the broadest terms possible.

For example, instead of saying "metabolism, breathing, movement, etc'" I should write "processes that prolong the continuous-activity of themselves (as a group)". But then I need to add a description to distinguish these processes from processes of dead-matter that prolong their own existence (like the water cycle). It's a difficult task. I'll think about the definition some more and improve it.

If I may ask another odd question: why would we want the best possible definition? What purpose would that serve?

We want the best possible definition so the sentences we communicate will be understood exactly with their original meaning of the person saying them. If the definition is messed up, if the definition leaves room for different interpretations, two people looking at the same sentence can understand different things from it. And then knowledge cannot be passed on through generations.

From your robot example, I assume you're going to say that one advantage of a great definition is that when we encounter some unexpected existent like that, we know whether it should be classified as "living" or not. For now, let's leave the completely unknown out of it (and return to that later).

Your assumption is correct. And Okay, I agree to leave Artificial intelligence and aliens out of this discussion. I was judging Ayn Rand's definition in the context of earth, of what exists here and now.

As for your two posts above: How can a definition be "excellent", "best" (or "bad")? It can only be true or false in Objectivism. Right?

My question is this: within the known categories of existents, how does it help us to do anything more in the definition than saying life is (for instance) "thing with working cells"?

First of all, you did not define "life" there, you defined a living being (the genus is "thing"). Your definition does not describe what you intended it to describe. If you want to change it to "the state of an organism in which it has active cells" then it would help us to expand the definition to explain what does "working" means, since this definition does not distinguish a bunch of cells in a dish, which are alive individually, but not as a group, from an organism that it's cells act as a system to prolong the survival of the entire system.

How does the lack of "self-generated" action in the definition help or hurt? How does it help or hurt not to mention "response to stimuli"? How does it help or hurt not to mention reproduction?

Once you eliminate them, you expand the group of entities that can fit to your definition. This will cause you to communicate to other people ideas that you did not intend to communicate (you are thinking X and they are thinking Y).

Just thought of a question about "self-generated" - what is "self" referring to (in Ayn Rand's definition)? I was taking "self" to refer to the process ("Self-generated process"). Maybe I am missing something here?

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As for your two posts above: How can a definition be "excellent", "best" (or "bad")? It can only be true or false in Objectivism. Right?

A definition is true if what it says about the concept is actually an attribute of the units contained in the concept. Excellent, good or bad says something about how well the definition performs its intended function. Obviously a definition can only ever be good if it is true, so truth is presupposed when you are talking about how good a definition is.

A definition like: A human is a moving thing, is not a very good definition, but it is still true because humans are moving things. I would say a definition is excellent (or some other such term that indicates it is very good) if it allows you to differentiate the concept from other concepts; if it helps you bring more clarity to your thinking.

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But seriously now, how on earth did you come to the conclusion that I think the ultimate goal in life is to eat?

An ultimate goal has a context.

This is where I think you made a mistake. An ultimate goal is an ultimate goal. Turn to p. 17 of VOS: "An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil." I'm all for keeping context, but in fact for an Objectivist, their ultimate goal is constant -- it is life, and all other goals, such as eating, are evaluated against that hard, invariant, non-contextual ultimate goal which is the embodiment of your fundamental choice, namely to exist. Getting answers to your questions is a higher goal: don't confuse "higher" and "ultimate". Nothing is higher than ultimate.
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Producing offsprings is one goal that a living creature is directed to. Preserving it's life is another. ... ... certain animals seek pleasure cannot be changed.
Okay. Now, for a moment, take human beings out of the picture; therefore remove the Ethicist hat for a moment, and put on a biologist hat. In other living beings (plants and non-human animals) how would to explain (as a biologist) the relationship between reproduction and life, or between preservation behaviors and life, or between the pleasure-pain mechanism and life. Is there a causative link between elements in these pairs? Edited by softwareNerd
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This is where I think you made a mistake. An ultimate goal is an ultimate goal. Turn to p. 17 of VOS: "An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil."

The problem with that would be that bearing children is bad if we take life to mean the physical state of being alive. The process of giving birth is risky, the menstrual cycle itself involves pain, discomfort etc' which no doubt sabotages a woman's ability to survive (especially in the past, when technology was primitive). If the physical state of being alive is the standard by which all other actions of humans are to be judged then suicide is never justified.

I smell a misused word in my claims above. And the word is "life".

I think Ayn Rand uses the word "life" to mean "life of a certain species, as it is characterised in that species.

And in that case, human life are a rational life, and the standard to evaluate other goals/values becomes that which contributes to the survival of a rational animal qua rational animal.

Sex and sleep are a good examples: if sex was not pleasurable, and if sleep was not needed (metaphysically) then it would be irrational to do it, and it would be bad. But since sexual pleasure and sleep are metaphysical facts that are an integrated part of human life, they are good.

The physical state of being alive could not possibly have been meant as "life" in that statement, for the reasons I have shown. So I'm asking: which definition is it?

I'm all for keeping context, but in fact for an Objectivist, their ultimate goal is constant -- it is life, and all other goals, such as eating, are evaluated against that hard, invariant, non-contextual ultimate goal which is the embodiment of your fundamental choice, namely to exist. Getting answers to your questions is a higher goal: don't confuse "higher" and "ultimate". Nothing is higher than ultimate.
(bold emphasis mine)

What did you mean by "life"? "to exist"? I thought the ultimate goal for Objectivists is to be happy - physical existence alone is not the ultimate standard. So what did you mean by "life"?

Okay. Now, for a moment, take human beings out of the picture; therefore remove the Ethicist hat for a moment, and put on a biologist hat. In other living beings (plants and non-human animals) how would to explain (as a biologist) the relationship between reproduction and life, or between preservation behaviors and life, or between the pleasure-pain mechanism and life. Is there a causative link between elements in these pairs?

This is easy: I wish you wrote all my tests in biology: Without reproduction the individual's life will not stop, but the life of the species will. Without the life of the individual, there cannot be life of next generations. Pleasure is what triggers animals to reproduce and make more living things.

The question is: Is reproduction a value for animals and plants? (like water for example).

And most of my questions have not been answered (I mean no one tried to answer them) by now. I'm referring to the questions in the post that was left behind in the other thread, and to questions in my posts in this one. I'd appreciate it if someone tried to answer them one by one.

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Forgot to say three more things:

  1. Jennifer already answered my claim #1 in the post in the previous thread, so no need to answer it.

  2. Maarten, thanks for the clarification, it's been helpful.
  3. Dave Odden, another point about your last post: Can you explain to me how having children is a lesser-goal that serves the ultimate goal of individual survival? It seems false to assume that, to me. Please see my claim/question #2 in the previous thread. and also bear in mind that "goal" here is in fact an outcome, and not a purpose (see point #1 in that post of mine).

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The problem with that would be that bearing children is bad if we take life to mean the physical state of being alive...

As far as I know, when an Objectivist talks about life (in the context of it being the standard of value) they are almost always talking about life worthy of a rational being. So if at some point it just becomes impossible for you to live a life proper to a human, then I would say that suicide is a rational option. I'm not sure what percentage of suicides that is committed actually qualifies for this, or if they are mostly based on a false view of the situation.

I'm not exactly sure why you raise this problem, though. I think that Miss Rand is quite clear on what she means, exactly, when she is talking about life...

[3]Dave Odden, another point about your last post: Can you explain to me how having children is a lesser-goal that serves the ultimate goal of individual survival? It seems false to assume that, to me. Please see my claim/question #2 in the previous thread. and also bear in mind that "goal" here is in fact an outcome, and not a purpose (see point #1 in that post of mine).

Children serve the ultimate goal that is your life because they (can) add a tremendous amount of value to your life, making it better in this way. Sure, the investment is quite large but I think in many situations the pay-off you get as a parent is more than worth this. The standard isn't survival, but life as a rational being.

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Another outcome of life is offsprings. Animals act not just to preserve their own life, but also to reproduce and raise the next generation (while putting further risk on themselves).
Consider non-humans: i.e. living beings that do not make choices.

The important attributes of these plants and animals exist because they sustain life. The ability to feel pain or pleasure and the ability to reproduce exist because they further life. If they did not further life, they would not exist.

Of course the act of reproduction does not primarily further the life of the entity that is reproducing. However, the entity owes its life to the fact that it (and the others of its species) are "programmed" to reproduce. It might seem like a "which came first, the chicken-or-the-egg", but I don't see it that way: life does not exist to meet the end of being able to reproduce, rather reproduction is an essential ability without which that living organism would not exist.

Now, with human beings, who have choice, things can get more complicated. However, wouldn't you say that for plants and non-human animals, every significant attribute they possess owes its existence to the fact that it contributes to life in the sense that if they were not designed this way, they would not be alive.

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Children serve the ultimate goal that is your life because they (can) add a tremendous amount of value to your life, making it better in this way.

What is the definition of "life" that you are using in your sentence?

Other than that, the rest of what you said was just stating the obvious for me, and was not referring to any of my questions.

Consider non-humans: i.e. living beings that do not make choices.

The important attributes of these plants and animals exist because they sustain life. The ability to feel pain or pleasure and the ability to reproduce exist because they further life.

Yes, but some sustain life of the species, not of the individual animal/plant.

If the standard of value is only the individual's survival, then wasting energy into producing the next generation is a disease.

If, however, life is referring to the survival of the individual and it's activities of reproduction then the energy that goes into producing the next generation is good, it is a value for the animal/plant just like water is. See the problem?

life does not exist to meet the end of being able to reproduce, rather reproduction is an essential ability without which that living organism would not exist.

How would you know which one exists for what end? Are you talking cause and effect? We are talking about forces of nature here, not about thought-through decisions. The word "end" here can only have the meaning of outcome, not of purpose.

Every healthy living being's body is designed to do two basic things: to keep the individual alive, and to prepare itself to reproduce. How would you choose just one as the "ultimate goal of the organism's activity" over the other? If reproduction would serve the goal of individual survival, we would not be having this discussion. But it does not. Quite the contrary actually: the outcome of individual survival serves the goal of reproducing, but not vice versa.

Either reproduction is a value for animals, like other functions of their body (breathing, swallowing), or it is not. What is your answer to this?

Now, with human beings, who have choice, things can get more complicated. However, wouldn't you say that for plants and non-human animals, every significant attribute they possess owes its existence to the fact that it contributes to life in the sense that if they were not designed this way, they would not be alive.

I disagree. For plants and non-human animals there are attributes that do not contribute to the individual survival. In fact if those attributes would not exist, the animal would be able to survive more easily.

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One of the problems here is the Objectivist definition of life. I'll try to untangle that a little:

The main problem one faces here is that the Objectivist definition differs from the definition pretty much every other person on earth uses to define life: as the state of not being dead right now.The Objectivist definition goes beyond that. Here life is defined as "a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action." (Ayn Rand Lexicon)

This includes quite a lot when you talk about human beings, which is where all this trouble comes from.

Note that life doesn't simply describe a state as it does with the common definition. According to Rand, life is a process and not a state. This explains the different view on many issues concerning life.

Another quote reveals the view concerning the problem of "Isn't reproduction the reason to live?":

"There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence- and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. ... It is only the concept of "Life" that makes the concept of "Value" possible." (Ayn Rand Lexicon)

The reasoning goes like this: You have one fundamental choice: Living or dying.

Therefore life is at the top of the chain regarding values and its very source. The last sentence in the quote is crucial here. "Life" is considered as the concept that makes "Value" possible in the first place.

So the idea is that you can't even talk about offspring and reproduction without accepting life as the ultimate value first. Everything else is derivative by definition.

Ifat, if I understand you correctly, you challenge the definition of life Rand provides. And - in fact - if one accepts the definition of life as something like: survival with the goal of reproduction to keep the species from extinction (which is common among biologists today), it follows logically that creating healthy offspring is a goal superior to sustaining your own life.

This is where the problem lies:

Which definition of life is correct?

If this question is answered, the answers to all the other questions fall into place.

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@ softwareNerd and Ifat

We want the best possible definition so the sentences we communicate will be understood exactly with their original meaning of the person saying them. If the definition is messed up, if the definition leaves room for different interpretations, two people looking at the same sentence can understand different things from it. And then knowledge cannot be passed on through generations.

The question inside quotes was asked by softwareNerd. I did not see sN respond or comment on it, however. sN, should I take your silence on this portion as the sign that you agree with the reply by Ifat or that you plan to tackle it later?

I disagree with that answer. I think that the purpose is not communication (communication with others, I assume is implied here, as communication with yourself doesn't make any sense). The purpose of definition should be to provide solid and logical grounds for building up knowledge about reality. I think this is what leads Objectivism to state that definition can be true or false - reality becomes the judge of definition.

Ifat, from your reply I deduce that for you the judge of definition is not reality, but the quality of communication with others. Am I correct?

P.S. If so, I find it really weird/illogical, that the standard of quality of a definition is communication with others.

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[sN, should I take your silence on this portion as the sign that you agree with the reply by Ifat or that you plan to tackle it later?

I disagree with that answer. I think that the purpose is not communication (communication with others, I assume is implied here, as communication with yourself doesn't make any sense). The purpose of definition should be to provide solid and logical grounds for building up knowledge about reality. I think this is what leads Objectivism to state that definition can be true or false - reality becomes the judge of definition.

Yes, I did put it off for later, because this thread has about 3 sub-threads going!

I agree with Olex, that communication is secondary to cognition. If we wanted to clearly communicate what we mean by "life", we could write a couple of paragraphs. OTOH, a definition is purposely brief, because that's easier to "hold" in focus. In other words, we use definitions because they aid cognition in some way.

Briefly, from the perspective of cognitive usefulness, as long as the definition brings to mind the concretes that are subsumed by the concept, it serves its basic purpose. If it also acts as a reminder of the key attribute that we identified when delineating those concretes from otherwise similar concretes, it serves its purpose well. If a definition is really bad, but still names a truly distinguishing characteristic, then it will serve to distract.

So, if I call man the "thumbed animal" and if that really brings visions of human beings to my mind when I think of it, then it kinda works. However, it fails to remind me of the key distinguishing fact about men, and will probably end up making me wonder... "wait, don't some apes have thumbs", or "how does having a thumb really matter, maybe I should not distinguish between men and apes". So it is not very useful. With a good definition, I am reminded that rationality is a key feature of man. If I use something like "the proud animal", it might be more useful, because I'm closer to that which distinguishes men from other animals.

If we suddenly discover some previously undiscovered deep-ocean fish is rational, we would not call that fish "man". We would not call it man, because it isn't. It is sufficiently different from man to warrant a name of it's own. Nor will that change anything we know about man (except that he's the only rational animal, but so what?) Ideally, we'd have to change the definition of man. Perhaps "rational landlubber" might work.

So, when Felix (in his recent post) says that the confusion comes from the definition, I don't completely agree with that. I'm pretty certain that we all have the same concept of life. That is to say, if we listed 100 living and non-living things, we'd all agree which ones were living and which ones weren't. So, it's clear that we have no differences in our concept of life. [That's why I don't want to pursue this sub-thread on the purpose of definitions just yet.]

So, the next question becomes: what is the essence of all these living things? What is similar about them? And, relevant to the currnt thread, to what end(s) are living things "designed", to what end(s) do they act?

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What did you mean by "life"? "to exist"? I thought the ultimate goal for Objectivists is to be happy - physical existence alone is not the ultimate standard. So what did you mean by "life"?
You're posing a false dichotomy. The fundamental choice is between existence and non-existence, living or not living. Recall from Galt's speech "My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live". Living doesn't mean anything fancy, and it is emphatically false that the ultimate goal of Objectivists is a happy life; it is, simply, life, meaning "living". Let's weed out happiness first. Again from Galt's speech "Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values". So obviously, happiness cannot be the ultimate value.

The important distinction is that not all forms of non-deadness constitute "being alive". Usually, before a living being becomes fully dead, it goes through the process of dying. That can be particularly clear with house plants that are sickly for months of years, and on the slow train to the trash heap. Check for curling of the leaves. The same is true but less obvious with some people: even though they are not technically dead yet, they are dying, and they are not living.

The question for the present is whether a person should take a walk in the woods, especially if doing so is not dangerous. You can get the same death-delaying benefits from taking the same walk on a treadmill of walking on a track, so should you walk in the woods? Some people should, some people should not -- the ones who dislike the woods should not (let's not bother to argue with their dislke because they could argue that liking to walk in the woods is irrational). The point is that it it a fact that for some people, a walk in the woods does not enhance one's life. These are optional values. Exactly analogously, having a child is, for a volitional being, an optional value. I can easily sustain my continued existence without spawning, and as a volitional being, spawning is optional for me. My interest is not in the interest of sustaining the collective existence of the hive.

It is true that there is pain involved with childbirth and that there are risks, but only a dying man sees the purpose of life being to avoid all risks. It would be profoundly irrational for a woman to give birth to a child when doing so will certainly cause her death (assuming some medican condition, and assuming that an abortion would save her life). Riding a Hog carries some risk, but it is not a guaranteed death sentence. If it were, I'd be the first to call Vern irrational and Moshiach (for having come back from the dead so many times).

There is a subtle but important error in your statement "If the physical state of being alive is the standard by which all other actions of humans are to be judged then suicide is never justified." You must first decide whether to continue living or to not live. If you know that it is metaphysically impossible to continue living, then I can see how ending it would be a choice someone can make. This choice is not something justified in terms of something else. I might justify my choice to take a particular job because it has the desired effect on my ultimate goal (to live). I don't justify my ultimate goal in terms of anything, because it I could, then that would not be my ultimate goal. Now about suicide: IF you have chosen to live, suicide is not a rational means of accomplishing that goal. On the other hand, IF you chose not to live, then feeding yourself is not a rational means of accomplishing that goal. Suicide is rational only if you have death as your ultimate goal. There are circumstances where I could see making that choice.

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The main problem one faces here is that the Objectivist definition differs from the definition pretty much every other person on earth uses to define life: as the state of not being dead right now.The Objectivist definition goes beyond that. Here life is defined as "a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action." (Ayn Rand Lexicon)

This includes quite a lot when you talk about human beings, which is where all this trouble comes from.

Note that life doesn't simply describe a state as it does with the common definition. According to Rand, life is a process and not a state. This explains the different view on many issues concerning life.

You are right that there is a difference, but this difference is not the main problem. Life as a state in which there are active processes and life as a collection of processes (or "a process" as Ayn Rand calls it) are close enough in meaning. sNerd is right, this is not the main problem.

You said "this [definition of Rand] includes quite a lot": What did you mean? What does it include?

If I understand Ayn Rand's definition of life (which I think is bad, for the reasons I have states but no one referred to yet), it does mean something like "the physical state of not being dead". If one has life, one has processes. If one is dead, one does not have those processes, or one is not in the state of having active processes. If I don't understand the meaning of the definition correctly, please correct me.

Another quote reveals the view concerning the problem of "Isn't reproduction the reason to live?":

"There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence- and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. ... It is only the concept of "Life" that makes the concept of "Value" possible." (Ayn Rand Lexicon)

The reasoning goes like this: You have one fundamental choice: Living or dying.

Therefore life is at the top of the chain regarding values and its very source. The last sentence in the quote is crucial here. "Life" is considered as the concept that makes "Value" possible in the first place.

So the idea is that you can't even talk about offspring and reproduction without accepting life as the ultimate value first. Everything else is derivative by definition.

I never said anything about reproducing being the ultimate goal of living things. I said that the functions of the body of organisms lead always to two main goals: self-preservation, and reproduction.

And I asked how one goes from this fact to say that the ultimate, single goal of all living things is their own survival.

Moreover, if the standard of good is the survival of the organism (nothing more) then it then follows that if an animals/plant lose their ability to reproduce it is good for them, since it increases their odds of surviving.

Water: value for animal. Cubs: disease.

Ifat, if I understand you correctly, you challenge the definition of life Rand provides. And - in fact - if one accepts the definition of life as something like: survival with the goal of reproduction to keep the species from extinction (which is common among biologists today), it follows logically that creating healthy offspring is a goal superior to sustaining your own life.

Gosh no! I was not saying that reproducing should be or is superior to one's own survival.

I was saying that on the physical level, both processes take place in organisms.

And also: It is bad for an animal to be castrated, it is bad if all living being have lost the ability to reproduce. And this is because for an animal, individual survival+ability to reproduce (something like the definition you gave of biologists (which I haven't read)) correspond positively to it's pleasure-pain mechanism, and are thus good for it. Those are the two processes that characterize it's nature. An animals without reproductive ability is defected, not improved.

I don't have time to go into it now.

I need my points answered first. Not generally, but specifically. If someone tried to answer them instead of explaining Objectivism to me in general it would be good.

This is where the problem lies:

Which definition of life is correct?

If this question is answered, the answers to all the other questions fall into place.

One problem is with the definition of life by Ayn Rand. The other problem is with some observations she makes about living things (one single goal). Another problem is with the meaning of "life" used in "life is the standard by which all other values are judged".

Are you stressing the word "individual"?

Yes, I was.

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Ifat, from your reply I deduce that for you the judge of definition is not reality, but the quality of communication with others. Am I correct?

If you want any question answered by me, you need to first answer the questions I have asked you (not anything I asked in this thread).

I agree with Olex, that communication is secondary to cognition. If we wanted to clearly communicate what we mean by "life", we could write a couple of paragraphs. OTOH, a definition is purposely brief, because that's easier to "hold" in focus. In other words, we use definitions because they aid cognition in some way.

Okay, I agree with that. I was taking that into account as I was answering your question, but eventually I decided not to mention it (=benefit of definitions to just one man) since I thought that a man who had already developed his concepts would have no problem thinking about things to himself using his concepts, and that only in communication will there be a need for definitions. But, okay, I agree that definitions can also help cognition.

So, the next question becomes: what is the essence of all these living things? What is similar about them? And, relevant to the current thread, to what end(s) are living things "designed", to what end(s) do they act?

I already answered that a lot of times in this thread. Two basic things: survival and reproduction.

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You are right that there is a difference, but this difference is not the main problem. Life as a state in which there are active processes and life as a collection of processes (or "a process" as Ayn Rand calls it) are close enough in meaning. sNerd is right, this is not the main problem.

You said "this [definition of Rand] includes quite a lot": What did you mean? What does it include?

If I understand Ayn Rand's definition of life (which I think is bad, for the reasons I have states but no one referred to yet), it does mean something like "the physical state of not being dead". If one has life, one has processes. If one is dead, one does not have those processes, or one is not in the state of having active processes. If I don't understand the meaning of the definition correctly, please correct me.

Well, what I mean with this difference is the following:

Let's say that you are in an emergency situation. No matter what you do, you will die very soon. In this situation, according to the state-definition, you are alive. According to the process-definition, you are dead, because you are incapable of taking self-sustaining action. The process of taking self-sustaining action to ensure your survival can't be kept running. The process-definition is more long-term than the state definition.

But this is nothing to focus on in this discussion, because it is essentially about something else, as you have already said. I just wanted to shed some light on where Rand's definition comes from.

I never said anything about reproducing being the ultimate goal of living things. I said that the functions of the body of organisms lead always to two main goals: self-preservation, and reproduction.

And I asked how one goes from this fact to say that the ultimate, single goal of all living things is their own survival.

...

Gosh no! I was not saying that reproducing should be or is superior to one's own survival.

I was saying that on the physical level, both processes take place in organisms.

...

I don't have time to go into it now.

Just so that I understand what you're saying: Your point is not to say that reproduction is the ultimate goal, but rather that an organism has by its nature two goals (survival and reproduction) none of which can be picked as the ultimate?

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When AR says all the functions of a living organism are directed towards the maintenance of the organism's life, she's not saying they don't act to reproduce.

She is dispelling the idea that the animate is basically the same as the inanimate except for one added thing: the spark of life. No. The animate is different in every way. Every part of it, from the most basic systems up, is goal directed.

But why bother to emphasize this? Because it explains the sense in which the animate faces the alternative of existence or non-existence but the inanimate does not. And therefore it is the animate that allow us to form the concept "value."

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