The Virtual Identity of Life

Budimir Zdravkovic
City College of New York


Information can be defined as any sequence or arrangement of things that can convey a message. Here I would like to focus on information coded by biological organisms and how that information is related to their identity. The essence of living things has been difficult to define conceptually. Living things or biological things have certain properties which are unique to them and which are absent in inanimate matter. Defining life has been an ongoing problem for scientists and philosophers, but what is more puzzling is that living organisms do not appear to be defined by the conventional rules of identity. To illustrate what is meant by conventional rules let us look at the Ship of Theseus paradox, which begins with an old boat made of old parts. As this boat is renovated and the old parts are replaced with new ones, it gradually begins to lose its identity. When all the parts of the ship are eventually replaced, can we still say this new renovated ship is the Ship of Theseus? If so, what if we reassembled the old ship from the old parts? Would Theseus now possess two ships? In this paradox it is clear that the problem of identifying the ship stems from defining it in terms of its old and/or new components. The conflict of identity exists because old components are replaced with new ones, confusing our common-sense notions of continuity.

But now let us turn to biological organisms, who constantly experience this turnover in components and materials.  The atoms and molecules in a living cell are constantly replaced; and at one point in a particular cell’s life it would have completely replaced those molecules and atoms it originally possessed with completely new ones. Despite this fact the living organism persists in terms of being the same living organism; it persists in being ‘that particular cell.’ The same is true for complex living organisms such as human beings: human tissue is constantly replaced and replenished, but a human persists in being the same person throughout his or her entire life. Biological organisms are constantly in flux but, unlike the Ship of Theseus, they do not lose their identity over time. Could it be that the identities of living organisms do not really depend on their components, but on something else? In this paper propose that the identity of living organisms depends on the nature of information they store and use. (more…)

The Oxford Philosopher Speaks to… Stephen Boulter

9781137322814Stephen Boulter is a Senior Lecturer and Field Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Oxford Brookes University. Having completed his PhD at the University of Glasgow, he is now both a published author (see Metaphysics from a Biological Point of View and The Rediscovery of Common Sense Philosophy) and a respected member of Oxford’s philosophical milieu. Boulter has also been contracted to the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (SCCC) as a Development Officer and National Trainer of Scotland’s philosophy A-level. His research interests include the philosophy of language, the philosophy of evolutionary biology, perception, metaphysics, virtue ethics, Aristotle, and medieval philosophy. We at The Oxford Philosopher interrupted these interests for a moment to ask Boulter a few questions about his own experience of philosophy as an academic discipline.

What was the first piece of philosophical literature you read from beginning to end, and have you revisited it since?

My first piece of philosophical literature read from beginning to end was Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. It was part of a course that included Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. I’ve reread the work many times since. Part of my current research focuses on the continuities between scholasticism and early modern philosophy – the theme of the so-called ‘long middle ages’ – so there is a sense in which I’ve never stopped reading it.


The Crossroads of Power: Michel Foucault and the US/Mexico Border Wall

Thomas Nail
University of Denver

Part I: Abstract

This paper draws on the work of Michel Foucault in order to analyze the constellation of political strategies and power at the US/Mexico border wall. These strategies, however, are incredibly diverse and often directly antagonistic of one another. Thus, this paper argues that in order to make sense of the seemingly multiple and contradictory political strategies deployed in the operation of the US/Mexico border wall, we have to understand the co-existence and intertwinement of at least three distinct types of power at work there: the sovereign exclusion of illegal life, the disciplinary detention of surveilled life, and the biopolitical circulation of migratory life. By doing so this paper offers an original contribution to two major areas of study: in Foucault studies this paper expands the existing literature on Foucault by analyzing the crossroads of power particular to the US/Mexico border wall, which has not yet been done, and in border studies this Foucauldian approach offers a unique political analysis that goes beyond the critique of sovereignty and toward an analysis of coexisting strategies of power.

Part II: Introduction

The official reason given by the Department of Homeland Security for building the estimated 49 billion dollar border wall is to ‘stop’ unwanted human migration from Mexico into the US. However, in addition to the fact that the US government’s own records indicate no conclusive reduction in non-status migration since the wall’s construction [2], similar government reports have found that a variety of other ‘secondary’ phenomena have been much more successful: 1) migrant deaths: ‘since 1995, [the year after NAFTA and Operation Gate-keeper [3] went into effect] the number of border-crossing deaths increased and by 2005 had more than doubled’ [4]; 2) incarceration: ‘of the detainee population of 32,000, 18,690 immigrants have no criminal conviction. More than 400 of those with no criminal record have been incarcerated for at least a year’ [5]; and 3) excessive costs: ‘despite a $2.6 billion investment, it cannot account separately for the impact of tactical infrastructure’ [6]. Given the clear disjunction between the discursively expressed primary goal of the wall, ‘to stop all migration,’ and the strategically expressed secondary effects of the wall (increased migrant deaths, incarceration, etc.) how are we to understand the continued existence and function of the US Mexico border wall? Is it a discursive failure or a strategic success? Furthermore, how are we to reconcile the failed strategic aims of the state to ‘stop migration’ with the economic aims of those who employ non-status migrants and benefit from their precarious labor, which may further clash with the aims of the private security contractors whose aim is to make as much profit as possible from the efficient ‘catch and release’ of migrants?


Five States of Nature in Hobbes’s Leviathan

Gregory B. Sadler
Marist College


In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes develops a constellation of notions of considerable conceptual refinement and of lasting rhetorical power. These notions coalesce at their most central point, the ‘state of nature.’ An overly simplistic view of the Hobbesian state of nature forms part of what may be called a standard reading of Leviathan.  This interpretation is prevalent in scholarship engaging Hobbes’s thought and doctrine not for its own sake, but in order to provide a contrast against other thinkers, to fit Hobbes into a broader schema of intellectual trends, tradition, or movements, or to diagnose Hobbes and his thought as the precursor of something particularly unsavory arising specifically in modernity.  Pedagogical uses of Hobbes also typically rely upon (and in the process perpetuate) that reading.  Such interpretations can also be found in scholarship engaging Hobbes in more focused and systematic ways, since studying other portions of Hobbes’s thought is rendered easier and less messy by ignoring ambiguities and puzzles arising when the state of nature is understood in relation to other notions intimately connected with it [1].

My central contention in this paper is that closer attention to Hobbes’s text allows discernment of at least five conceptually distinct ‘states of nature.’ The first of these represents the one the standard reading relies on. I argue that to Hobbes the most important of these states of nature is the fifth, i.e. factional strife leading to breakdown or disintegration of already existing but flawed civil society.  The first state of nature is revealed as a powerful rhetorical construct that does not hold up under scrutiny, but which does not thereby tumble down the remaining edifice of Hobbes’s thought.  Instead, the reverse happens: the heuristic utility of the rhetorical construct is sustained, and enabled to do its work, by the rest of the argumentative and descriptive Hobbesian edifice, the remainder of Leviathan’s first two books.

The primary motivation of Hobbes’s theory as a whole is, by producing what he views as the first genuinely scientific moral and political philosophy, diagnosing and remedying causes and effects of factional strife in already existing and imperfect commonwealths [2]. His goal is not to adequately and realistically describe the state of pre-political or pre-social humankind, nor a historical transition from a pure state of nature to that of civil society.  Rather, he is concerned primarily to illuminate sources of, and solutions to, moral disagreement, escalation of claims and conflicts, in short, breakdown of order. This requires radical reexamination of human nature, production of a new comprehensive theory of human nature, moral norms, and civil society, and advocacy of fundamental transformation of contemporary social institutions, structures, and arrangements in line with the theory. (more…)