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Our panel of 88 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Depends on what you mean by "account for life." Many living things aren't conscious at all. On the other hand, if consciousness is a matter of physical goings-on, then it's possible that something could be conscious without being a living thing at all---at least, not in the biological sense. Human consciousness, of course, is consciousness in a living creature, but it doesn't follow that talking about life will add anything to our understanding of consciousness.

More important, there's a danger here of missing Strawson's point. Strawson is concerned with the qualitative character of consciousness---with what's it's like to smell the smell of coffee or feel a pounding headache or a frisson of delight. Strawson's view, which he identifies with Bertrand Russell's, is that physics doesn't tell us anything about the intrinsic qualities of matter; physics only deals with mathematical structural properties. Strawson, with Russell, thinks that conscious episodes acquaint us with the intrinsic albeit temporary qualities of some bits of matter---matter in our heads. Since physics deals with things at the level of mathematical structure, it can't tell us anything about the nature of conscious episodes. Or so the Russell/Strawson view holds.

Whether something is living, however, isn't a matter of its intrinsic qualities. We understand life not as a mysterious "Je ne sais quoi" but in functional terms: reproduction, nutrition, growth, motion, responsiveness to the environment and so on. From Strawson's point of view, none of that tells us anything about conscious experience. That said, Strawson's view is controversial and in fact there are many philosophers who think that consciousness is best understood in functional terms. But even if that's right, it doesn't mean that talking about life as such is likely to provide insight into the nature of consciousness.

As for breathing fire into the equations of physics, I don't think Hawking has life in mind. He's puzzling over the fact that there's a universe to fit the equations. To use his words, "Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?" Some people think that's a good question, and other don't. Good or bad, however, the question has no special connection with life except insofar as (so it seems) if there were no living things, there probably wouldn't be any minds, and so there'd be no one to ask Hawking's question, let alone write the equations down.