...Recently, a new voice has entered the debate. Carol Cleland, who teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado and works with NASA's National Astrobiology Institute—essentially as their philosopher-in-residence—is making a more radical argument: Scientists should simply give up looking for a definition of life. They can't even begin to understand what life really is, she claims, until they find forms of life profoundly different from those we know here on Earth. Only when we can compare alien life with life on our planet will we understand the true nature of this ubiquitous, ephemeral thing.
Cleland believes biologists need to build a theory of life, just as chemists built a theory of the elements and physicists built a theory of electromagnetism. Definitions, she argues, are concerned only with language and concepts, not true understanding. By taking the semantics seriously, Cleland is calling for nothing less than a scientific revolution. Only when we change the way we think about life, she argues, will the true study of it begin.