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Intrododuction: is artificial life possible?
When posing the question "is artificial life possible?", our immediate answer is that on the one hand: of course it is - people make it, and indeed very interesting and even breathtaking structures have already been constructed, such as `aminats', self-reproducing patterns and the other things, we have seen already. In this sense we are forced to take artificial life as a fact (at least as a fact about a new branch of research), nearly in the same way that the philosopher Kant took the theoretical physics of his days, Newtonian physics, as a matter of fact, and then asked: What are the conditions of possibility for this kind of theoretical science? On the other hand: The situation differs from Kant's. Artificial Life does not confront us with an analogy of theoretical mechanics within the field of biology. We face a curious situation: It is not obvious to the majority of biologists that Artificial Life is possible at all, at least in the purely computational sense of `software life'. Probably, most biologists would never call these artificial constructs `living'. Why not? Because the intuitive notions of life and living systems within biology implies, among other things, that living beings are a result of a long, ongoing evolutionary process that have created autonomous organisms, single-celled and multi-celled, that are highly organized, open (non-equilibrium), material thermodynamic systems based on metabolism and some kind of genetic information supported by macromolecules, that only metaphorically resemble a computer program. It is not that biologists do not think there are some general principles in their field, some kind of `logic of life' (cf. F. Jacob20) or universal forms of the processes that characterizes living phenomena. The genetic code and the structure of heredity is an example. But for biologists, life is not a question of pure form, or formal processes; one might characterize the biological way of looking at things as life seen as a formal-and-material phenomenon.
So the question about the possibility of artificial life immediately raises three other questions; (1) what counts as `artificial life'; (2) what is `real life' after all (and what kind of biology do we invent); and (3) after what criteria can we claim not only to model, modify and experiment with existing life, but also to realize, i.e. `synthesize' life, or different modes of living behaviour. The modeling situation should be considered more closely when simulating formal models of natural systems and artificial universes. Let us first shortly state our basic opinion and simple conjectures on these questions before we proceed to give the full arguments:
Artificial Life is not a unitary field of research: Alife can be very different categories of phenomena.
`Real life' (i.e. biological life) is not a unitary phenomenon either: in fact Alife research may help to deconstruct this presupposition of the life sciences and theoretical biology.
There are three problems with criteria for `aliveness': (a) Criteria for different sorts of living phenomena may be explicated in order to evaluate the theoretical relevance of Alife-models, these criteria, however, may never reflect the richness of various forms of life that we see in the real world, described by some as our poor lonely `single' example: Earthly Life. (b) The criteria of self-reproduction (as a criteria for the presence of life) is not fulfilled (and is not likely to be fulfilled) in non-trivial instances of current Alife. More problematic, however, is (c) Criteria may not be useful at all for evaluating the strong claims of possible construction of life in other media.
Let us consider these claims one by one.