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Ltryptophan's avatar

Are tools alive?

Asked by Ltryptophan (10710points) January 31st, 2012

What are the criterion for life? Do tools meet all or most of these requirements?

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20 Answers

MilkyWay's avatar

No, they do not. To pass as ’living’, something needs to have the ability to carry out the following:
Excretion and

Movement: For example, cells in our body and plant bodies move around the organism. Plants move towards light.
Respiration : To pass oxygen in and out the body, to respire.
Sensitivity: Respond to stimulas. Plants, animals and humans feel. They have nerve endings.
Growth: Cells in the organism multiply and the mass increases.
Reproduction: To be able to mate with another of it’s kind and produce offspring.
Excretion: To pass out waste products out of the body, to excrete.
and Nutrition: To need and be able to absorb nutrients from food in order to survive.

PhiNotPi's avatar

If you are talking about an individual tool, then no. It lacks a metabolism, uses no energy and is incapable of movement on its own, and cannot gather its own raw materials from the environment to reproduce on its own.


But, if you are talking about the idea of using tools, then it is a meme. Not the sort of meme like Nyan Cat, but a meme in the same category of permanence as the ideas of religion, culture, and other similar things. Meme theory treats these ideas as a sort of bizarre life form that uses humans as the medium of life, and that these memes can evolve like a virus does.

A very good example of a meme is language. Nobody is born with a language. Languages are spread from person to person through use. When a person is born, they eventually acquire a copy of the “English meme” (to use one language as an example). Just like no two organisms are never alike, no two people use the exact same version of English. Through communication with other English speakers, different people’s versions of English mix and “evolve” through innovations of language.

When two groups of people have more intra-group communication than inter-group communication, then it is possible for those groups’ versions of English to diverge, much like a species diverges when two populations are isolated. This diversion is slow, but is evident in the usage of the words “y’all” and “ain’t”. Since the American South is still connected to the rest of America, this is about as far as the diverging will go.


When two competing memes come into contact, they can either merge, repel, or coexist, depending on the type of meme.

If the American South was suddenly as connected to other parts of America as it is within itself, the word “y’all” may disappear or become more widespread. Both indicate the merging of the dialects of English.

When it comes to religion, one religion will usually try to either convert or kill the followers of the other religion. All major world religions assert its superiority over other religions (even if it is not as violent), because all religions that didn’t were swept up by those who did. This is similar to the idea of natural selection / survival of the fittest, at least close enough that it is a neat comparison.

Most memes coexist. The ideas for mechanical pencils and printers coexist quite nicely. This is usually because the memes are of completely different category and thus can’t merge and will probably not have any reason to go against each other.


The idea of tools is a meme. It spreads from person to person, and people can make different versions of tools, such as screwdrivers and power drills. Some tools out-compete others when a better version comes along. Many coexist. Some tools merge to create larger and more complex tools. Separated societies evolve different forms of tools. Different companies create slightly different versions of tools that are only slightly diverged from each other.

I think everyone can agree that tools have “evolved.”

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marinelife's avatar

No, they are inanimate.

Hobbes's avatar

Tools are not alive in the same way that we are. Both we and they are different configurations of the same energy, but biological organisms have properties that the tools we create do not share. However, I am as convinced as I am of anything else that everything is “alive” in a broader sense of the word, in the sense of having an experience of being. We cannot know what it is like to be a hammer or a computer any more than we know what it is like to be another human, yet if we believe that other humans have an experience resembling ours, it seems just as possible that there is an experience of being hammer or a computer, even if it is vastly different from our own.

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bea2345's avatar

Of course tools are alive. My vacuum cleaner does not like me.

prioritymail's avatar

It depends on how you define “tool”. Maybe the intuitive definition leads to examples like shovels and tractors, but in this day and age, we also use living things as tools to do a lot of different things. We exploit bacteria to clean up oil spills, for example.

zenvelo's avatar

They’re just as alive as rocks! Maybe more so ‘cuz they get stuff done!

Ltryptophan's avatar

@phinotpi the meme concept was very informative. @Milkyway I ask because I see how one might project those attributes onto tools. They have a certain “life” quality. I think this meme concept fits well. I suppose I could refine the question by asking instead: is information alive. Would the answer still be the same?

JaneraSolomon's avatar

If your question is serious, you might want to read some philosophy books, for instance Heidegger’s term “readiness to hand.” The implications are that while tools are not alive per se, they become extensions of the body. A blind person really does feel the ground not with fingers but THROUGH the cane. A sculptor or surgeon expresses his or her ideas and intentions through tools. A microscope or telescope is a tool/instrument for viewing. Think carefully. When you use one do you look at the instrument and the image it presents? Or do you look at the star, bird, or bacterium effectively DIRECTLY THROUGH the instrument? When you experience the sense of the instrument or tool dissolving, it has in essence become a living part of your being and your sensory system.

Ltryptophan's avatar

@JaneraSolomon I think it is a serious, thought provoking question. Your answer tends to agree. I can’t help the modern vernacular.

Look at hair/fur. It is inanimate I’d say. But it does many things that help organisms to survive including mate, stay warm, repel pests, and protect the skin. Is it dead though despite its significant role in aiding life, and its owing its physical configuration to life. Looking at it that way it’s hard for me to say that the thought of hair and its role is 100% not alive. Maybe I’m opening up a big can of worms. It could be said the planet itself is alive, or the whole universe and all its contents. I know it is said.

My point is a little smaller than such a large conclusion as that. What if a tool does more to help life survive than the actual finite processes which constitute living. Was Noah’s Ark alive?

I guess a coherent thesis on what I’m saying is this: When a tool leaves the imagination of its creator and begins to be implemented to help in the survival of the bearer it has essentially taken on life within the frame of its benefit.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Ltryptophan , I like your suggestion about ideas being alive, at least when considered as memes. Looking at @MilkyWay ‘s requirements, ideas definitely move, grow and reproduce. A case could be made for them having sensitivity in the sense that one idea is sensitive to another. As for nutrition. respiration and excretion, all of these are inherited from the cellular substrate that provides the physical manifestation of the idea.

Ltryptophan's avatar

@LostInParadise How would you have an idea think itself?

Ltryptophan's avatar

Or…isn’t environment just as important as the heart in my chest? Could we say environment is then my most vital organ? If then, the temperature drops sufficiently isn’t the tool that makes me a fire my most vital physical process. Does it matter that it is not within my being?

Maybe I am describing the value of the thinking part of my life. It is the brain and not the brain’s output which is alive. If my brain orders things in such a way that increases survival, then it is not the order which is alive, but the brain that did the ordering.

But that is my point. My brain devises a TOOL that is essential for my livelihood. That thing is therefore derived from life, and as you have said @Lostinparadise, its food, and other necessities are built into it from birth. The life it has is real because it is within me. Yes this readiness to hand does seem to be making sense. I’ll be looking into Heidegger…

Ltryptophan's avatar

Yeah, after reading up a little on Heidegger it seems I was reinventing the wheel.

LostInParadise's avatar

The idea does not have to think itself. If you tell me an idea, there is a sequence of events by which a cellular arrangement gets transferred from you to me. The idea has reproduced. The tool that you build starts out as an idea. Both you and the tool are means by which the idea promotes its survival by helping to assure your survival.

JaneraSolomon's avatar

You also might want to read about the concept of “Homo Faber,” a philosophical concept articulated by Hannah Arendt and Max Scheler that refers to humans as controlling the environment through tools. Henri Bergson also referred to the concept in The Creative Evolution (1907), defining intelligence, in its original sense, as the “faculty to create artificial objects, in particular tools to make tools, and to indefinitely variate its makings.”

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