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I met Death today. We are playing chess. (…) My life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering, a great deal of talk without meaning. I feel no bitterness or self-reproach because the lives of most people [plague] are very much like this. But I will use my reprieve for one meaningful deed.”, Antonius Block.

The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet). Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1957 – (…) Disillusioned knight Antonius Block and his squire Jöns return after fighting in the Crusades and find Sweden being ravaged by the plague. On the beach immediately after their arrival, Block encounters Death, personified as a pale, black-cowled figure resembling a monk. Block, in the middle of a chess game he has been playing alone, challenges Death to a chess match, believing that he can forestall his demise as long as the game continues. Death agrees, and they start a new game. The other characters in the story do not see Death, and when the chess board comes out at various times in the story, they believe Block is continuing his habit of playing alone. (…)

(…) In the confessional, the knight says “I use a combination of the bishop and the knight which he hasn’t yet discovered. In the next move I’ll shatter one of his flanks.” Death (in disguise as the priest) replies “I’ll remember that.” When they play by the beach, the knight says: “Because I revealed my tactics to you I’m in retreat. It’s your move.Death captures his opponent’s knight. “You did the right thing“, states the knight, “you fell right in the trap. Check! Don’t worry about my laughter, save your king instead.Death‘s response is to lean over the chess board and make a psychological move. “Are you going to escort the juggler and his wife through the forest? Those whose names are Jof and Mia and who have a small son.” “Why do you ask?” says the knight. “Oh, no reason”, replies Death“. (…) from Wikipedia [link] (Nota bene – bolds and underlines are mine).


Fig. – Knight, Death and the Devil (1513). This is one of three metal engravings by Albrecht Dürer in a series called Meisterstiche (since I have started this blog, I have also chosen a woodcut engraving done by Dürer, – his Rhinoceros – for several reasons, one being that it appeared in Europe for the fisrt time trough Lisbon in 1515). The others are Melancholia I and Saint Jerome in His Study. The engraving is dated 1513, two hundred years after the dissolution of the Knights Templar in 1313. We see a skull in the bottom left corner; the night in full armour (shining armor?) carries a lance; behing him is a pig-snouted horned devil and he is passing Death on his pale horse, who is carrying an hourglass. Under the knight’s horse runs a long-haired retriever, a hunting dog. Dürer called this picture Reuter, which is, Rider. (source).

Every evil leaves a sorrow in the memory, until the supreme evil, death,
wipes out all memories together with all life
“. Leonardo da Vinci.

Carlos Gershenson (Complexes blog), some days ago just uploaded a short (5 pp.) philosophical essay about life, death and artificial life (*) (aLife), which I vividly recommend. He starts his “What Does Artificial Life Tell Us About Death?” with this precise Leonardo’s quote (above). Among other passages it’s interesting to see how different notions of death are deduced from a limited set of different notions of life (in many situations, opposing terms could be used to define each other). Carlos points us out to six currents, or lines of thought:

• If we consider life as self-production (Varela et al., 1974; Maturana and Varela, 1980, 1987; Luisi, 1998), then death will the the loss of that self-production ability.
• If we consider life as what is common to all living beings (De Duve, 2003, p. 8), then death implies the termination of that commonality, distinguishing it from other living beings.
• If we consider life as computation (Hopfield, 1994), then death will be the end (halting?) of that computing process.
• If we consider life as supple adaptation (Bedau, 1998), death implies the loss of that adaptation.
• If we consider life as a self-reproducing system capable of at least one thermodynamic work cycle (Kauffman, 2000, p. 4), death will occur when the system will be unable to perform thermodynamic work.
• If we consider life as information (a system) that produces more of its own information than that produced by its environment (Gershenson, 2007), then death will occur when the environment will produce more information than that produced by the system.

I was aware of Kauffman’s “blender thought experiment”, however Gershenson adds much more into it. A variation. He goes on like this. Nice reading:

[…] Focussing on our understanding of death, this will depend necessarily on our understanding of life, and vice versa. Throughout history there have been several explanations to both life and death, and it seems unfeasible that a consensus will be reached. Thus, we are faced with multiple notions of life, which imply different notions of death. However, generally speaking, if we describe life as a process, death can be understood as the irreversible termination of that process. The general notion of life as a process or organization (Langton, 1989; Sterelny and Griffiths, 1999; Korzeniewski, 2001) has expelled vitalism from scientific worldviews. Moreover, there are advantages in describing living systems from a functional perspective, e.g. it makes the notion of life independent of its implementation. This is crucial for artificial life. Also, we know that there is a constant flow of matter and energy in living systems, i.e. their physical components can change while the identity of the organism is preserved. In this respect, one can make a variation of Kauffman’s “blender thought experiment” (Kauffman, 2000): if you put a macroscopic living system in a blender and press “on”, after some seconds you will have the same molecules that the living system had. However, the organization of the living system is destroyed in the blending. Thus, life is an organizational aspect of living systems, not so much a physical aspect. Death occurs when this organization is lost. […]

(*) even if, I do not recommend this Wikipedia entry. Extremely poor.

[...] People should learn how to play Lego with their minds. Concepts are building bricks [...] V. Ramos, 2002.

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