Rediscovering Life

From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self (Part 1)

The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology
Stephen L. Talbott

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Tags: explanation/biological; inwardness

Posted: December 5, 2013   (Article 14)

With this article — the opening section of a much longer essay — I begin an experiment. My aim is to write the essay in sequential installments, published first in this “Rediscovering Life” venue. These installments will alternate with shorter reports of the sort more commonly appearing here. The strict, sequential discipline this imposes upon my writing of the large essay is contrary to my normal writing habits, so I will have to see how it goes. I expect some unpredictability, at least in schedule, but hope to proceed in a fairly straightforward manner through the essay over the course of a few months, while I continue to work on other projects as well.


Organisms do things; rocks have things done to them. Even at rest a cat is doing something; rocks do not rest, but are brought to rest. An organism is always engaged in tasks, always going somewhere. Its activity is directed and in some sense intentional and purposeful (“teleological”). Its judgments in responding appropriately to environmental challenges reflect a profound biological wisdom.

From the molecular level on up, organisms mobilize their resources in order to achieve things, whether replicating DNA, splicing RNA, orchestrating cell division, forming embryonic organs, healing wounds, breathing, constructing a nest, securing food, caring for offspring, shedding a skin, maintaining body temperature, hibernating, or anything else we can properly regard as biological activity. Such activity is always part of a life story, and the protagonist in that story is in some sense what every story protagonist must be: a reasoning agent.

This reasoning agent is one of the many wildly diverse creatures on earth whose appearance and ways may strain our credulity and challenge our imagination. Yet, however bizarre its metamorphosing appearance and life cycle may appear to us, its complex and fine-tuned qualitative intelligence is unerring, enabling it to hold itself together and “stay in character” throughout its life and development, even as it differentiates itself internally into a community of organs and tissues that may be as wildly diverse as any external ecological community.

But you will already have asked, quite rightly, what is meant by “reasoning agent”? And even if we are driven to use such a phrase, how can we distinguish an aphid’s “reasoning” from that of a nuclear physicist? This is the question I will address here. Until we sort the matter out, the language of the preceding paragraphs (and of the paragraphs immediately following — and even much of the standard biological literature) invites horrible misunderstandings. Note that I have already twice said, in some sense. We must be on our guard.

Organisms With Intentions

It may seem curious that the language of agency and reason has so thoroughly infiltrated biological description, despite the fact that, when the language is pointed out to them, biologists feel obliged to explain it away. But the fact of the matter is not hard to see. The language is there because routine observation so compellingly testifies to something like reason at work — something that cannot be altogether divorced from reason. And this something, it turns out, resides at the heart of all biological understanding.

I am at this moment observing a cat three feet from my chair. In the few weeks since she moved into our home, she has become expert at pushing doors open and walking into rooms as if she owned them. So now she has entered my study and I, in order to preserve heat in the room, have closed the door — nearly all the way, but not to the fully latched position. It’s been a while, and she has received little attention from me. So, restless creature that she is, she has begun searching out how to open the door from this side. She pushes gently, but then restrains herself, for she has already learned that, although some pushes open a door easily, others cause it to snap shut irretrievably. It’s best not to push too hard.

As I watch, she is exploring every possibility accessible to her — inserting now this paw and now that one against the exposed edge of the door, scratching at the hint of an opening, stepping back, looking upward for some sign of an escape hatch, backing away from the door, her eyes scanning the whole area. Then it’s back to the crack of the door for some more pawing and investigation. Finally, worried about the fate of my rug if she doesn’t get out in time (she’s already had one “accident”), I open the door a little bit and then, lest any doubt remain about her intent, she makes a sudden dash toward freedom — and, I presume, relief.

That’s one brief episode in the ongoing story of our recently inherited cat, Missy. And one thing absolutely clear about this story, like any story, is that Missy was trying to achieve something. She was, in her way, pursuing an intention — something it is impossible to do without a reasoning process somehow, from somewhere, in some form, being implicit in her activity. A purely non-intentional and unreasoning language will never capture what was going on. The physics and chemistry of leg movements, muscle contractions, nerve impulses, gene expression, blood flow, and all the rest — none of this conveys the meaning of the narrative. Muscle fibers and nerve bundles, in our normal, material construal of them, can never say “I want to get out of this room”.

But, in her own cat-language, Missy was saying just that. While her story may imply muscular, nervous, and other processes, no such goings-on, seen only as expressions of a physical and chemical lawfulness, can themselves tell the story. Rather, a critical aspect of explanation works the other way around: it’s the purposeful aim or intention of leaving the room that enables us to make sense of the muscle and nerve activity — by contextualizing it upon a larger stage of meaning.

Acknowledging and ignoring the biological narrative. There’s a subtle distinction here. We might be tempted to say the preceding a little differently: “A cell knows nothing of searching, investigation, experimentation, or the intention to leave the room”. But this isn’t quite right. It’s only that the cell, characterized as an entirely mindless physical entity, cannot show us the intention. But the cell, in its full reality, does know something of that intention. It participates in the intention; it takes its rightful place within the intentional activity of the organism as a whole. And it can do this only because it is, in some sense (that phrase again!), capable of expressing intentions, or sensibly engaging with them, in its own sphere.

In this way we find some sort of reason and intention (or purpose) at all levels of biological description. No explanation of electrical, mechanical, and chemical interactions in a dividing cell conveys the narrative meaning of cell division. Nearly all the specific interactions, considered singly, could occur under other circumstances, or could occur differently in the present circumstances. Their elaborate and magnificently coordinated “striving toward cell division” — a striving that tries to adapt in a consistently directed way to whatever conditions the environment may throw up — does not lawfully follow from the underlying physical lawfulness. The striving, rather than being explained by it, gives direction to the physical lawfulness, just as we saw with Missy’s intention to leave the room.

In one way or another all biologists acknowledge intention or purpose in this inescapable, practical, and descriptive sense. They recognize that the objects of their study are creatures caught up in a narrative — a narrative that is coming from somewhere and going somewhere in a reasonable, means-end sort of way, and not merely a law-abiding way. Organisms live purposeful lives.

Yet, it is this narrative stream that the molecular biological literature assiduously ignores. Or, rather, the typical research article begins with a narrative concern and then ends by pretending the concern has vanished. How does the cell divide? how is body temperature maintained? how do signals originate, move through the uncertainties of multicellular environments, get transduced, and ultimately produce their specific effects within individual cells? — such inquiries about sustained narratives commonly provide the questions for research projects. But the “explanations” arrived at typically abandon the narrative context of the original inquiry and focus instead on isolated physical causes. For example, how does the structure of this molecule fit together with the structure of that one, or which proteins interact with which others? It may be implied that answers to such questions explain the narrative, but they never do1. They are simply caught up in the narrative.

The truly biological problems have to do with how countless such interactions are woven together as the threads of an integral and recognizable story, when it would be perfectly lawful, in a physical sense, for every one of the interacting molecules to head off in a direction irrelevant to the storyline and engage in any one of a thousand other transactions. No analysis of physical lawfulness can distinguish the different cases, because physical laws know nothing of the organism’s storyline.

What the typical explanations fail to acknowledge, in other words, is the overall, ongoing, coordinated activity — the appearance of purpose — that prompted the very questions the biologists began investigating. The language of physical causes never gets us to the story of the organism — never traces the organism’s unique and colorful path through its own world. Of course, we do need the usual physical picture, but we get its meaning only when we look through it, rather as we “listen through” the physical sounds of speech in order to discern the thoughts and intentions of the speaker2.

Can we rise above the old mechanism/vitalism disputes? But I say all this only in order to raise the severe questions now posed. No one believes birds, cattle, or amoebas have purposes in the same sense that we humans do. They neither reason nor intend nor judge in our manner. And the same is true of the molecules, cells, and organs of our own bodies: their well-directed processes are not purposeful in the way we are in our conscious activity. How, then, are we to conceive the relation between our reasoning, purposeful selves and other living creatures, or between ourselves and our own cells?

This problem of reason and purpose has a long history in biology, and I do not intend to be trapped within the inadequate framework of old debates. My account will be one that, at least in part, you have never heard before.

Writing around 1940 or a little earlier, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer thought he saw at least a partial resolution of the long-running vitalism/mechanism debate. Citing the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Cassirer imagined that a form of holism, exemplified by systems biology, was bringing the debate to an end — and that it was doing so by removing the concepts of purpose and, indeed, all inner or psyche-related terminology from the discussion:

Vitalism was guilty of overstepping its bounds as soon as it went on to “explain” the organic wholeness by tracing it back to transcendental factors, and, in the last analysis, factors analogous to the psychic. “Psychism” in every form must be rejected. But the new “organismic biology” does not need that notion in any way. It puts in place of the idea of purpose the concept of organization and characterizes life by ascribing to it the property of a system. What we call “life” is a system arranged in hierarchic order. This order is the clearest, indeed the only, distinguishing feature of the life processes in contrast with the usual physicochemical processes. (Cassirer 1950, p. 216*)

I think Cassirer got it the wrong way around. A reluctance to cope with what biologists have long recognized as the inner (“psychic”) qualities of the organism is what has fueled the mistakes of both vitalism and mechanism. Biological agency — always in some sense a reasoning and purposive agency — is undeniable from the simplest, one-celled organism to ourselves. Our refusal to reckon with it is why the “psychism” Cassirer abjures shows up repeatedly in pathological forms to this day — shows up, that is, in the wrong sense3. Failure to see organic, reasoning agency for what it is necessarily results in our seeing it for what it is not. But once we acknowledge it where we find it and in the manner we find it, disregarding old taboos, we will have the key to a third way, lifting us altogether above the old dispute between mechanists and vitalists.

Especially today in this dawning, post-classical era of molecular biology, dismissing the “inwardness” of the organism out of hand is not an option. It would, after all, be an odd thing to excise human beings, with our conscious reasoning capacities, from the larger drama of earth evolution, as if we were alien arrivals. And it would be odder still if, at a time when something like a “psychosomatic unity” of the human being is finally being acknowledged even within the more resistant disciplines of the life sciences, we were to reinsert a sharp, Cartesian, dichotomizing wedge between psyche and soma.

Read Part 2: Psyche, Soma, and the Unity of Gesture.
Read Part 3: Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside?.


1. For examples showing how the pretense of causal explanation falls far short of explaining biological phenomena, see the following article sections: “Who Regulates the Regulators?”; “Can We Explain the Form of Organisms?”; or, to uproot a paragraph from its proper context and in a slightly modified form:

There’s a rather strange lacuna characteristic of virtually all molecular biological writing today. A “regulatory” action is invoked as if it were explanatory, without notice being taken of the fact that it only raises wider questions about regulation. In the present case, we’ve seen how gel phases in cells are said to regulate the movement of proteins that are themselves regulatory and in fact are part of the means by which the “regulating” gel is formed or dissolved. There’s no clear cause-and-effect relationship here, and we can’t say in any definitive sense who is regulating whom, or toward what end, despite a naïve use of language that suggests we can.

(You’ll find the original paragraph here.) And, to read some quotations exemplifying the causal ambiguity so frequently perplexing molecular biologists, see the article section, “Beings in Context”.

2. References to purpose or intention are not something most biologists are comfortable with, so there are many circumlocutions. Some will say that the organism acts as if it had purposes — although I’ve never seen them explain the difference between actual, physically enacted purpose and as-if purpose. Others will talk about organisms as bearers of computer programs, thereby importing “under the table” the purposes of an unnamed computer programmer. More generally, all appeals to machine-like qualities introduce an external designer’s purposes. Still other biologists deaden the idea of purpose as best they can by entombing it within the concept of function. I have yet to see a definition of “function” that does not either retain a purposeful aspect or else leave biological understanding behind in favor of merely physical description.

3. Cassirer was one of our wisest twentieth-century philosophers. But now, some seventy-five years later, we can see what has become of his hope for biology. The lack of discipline he may have imagined as the inevitable outcome of a psyche-infected biology seems rather to have resulted from our ignoring the psyche. We therefore find it leering at us, unsuspected, in the most inappropriate places.

Some have noticed what is going on. Commenting on the way the germ-plasm of his day was spoken of (it was then on its way to becoming the genetic material of our day), marine biologist E. S. Russell (pp. 267-8*) wrote, “Aristotle would have recognized in this almost mystical conception something strangely like his ‘soul’!” Somewhat later, cell biologist Paul Weiss (1962)* remarked that terms such as “regulate”, “organize”, and “control”, as they are commonly used by biologists, are an “obvious reversion in modern guise to animistic biology, which let animated particles under whatever name impart the property of organization to inanimate matter”. More recently, philosopher of biology David Scott Robert noted how, with the demise of vitalism, the “animistic (and otherwise problematic) idea of a genetic programme” took its place (2004, p. 37; emphasis in original*).

There are, of course, other symptoms illustrative of how psyche pops up inappropriately (rather like an unconscious content!) in biological thought. There is, for example, the frequent recourse in some circles to the almost magical power of emergence, a concept rather like a deus ex machina, which is presumed to have brought forth, as if ex nihilo, new features of life, including consciousness. Or the blithe references to self-organization — as if an unidentified self capable of organizing itself into existence were not at least as difficult to conceive as organisms expressing from the very start a form of reason and purpose. Or the modern notion of systems biology (a notion very unlike what Cassirer had in mind), which, with no justification at all, re-fashions the organism in the anthropomorphic and rationalistic image of human computer programmers.

It would have been far better to acknowledge the inwardness of organisms just as and where we found it, while making appropriate distinctions along the way. There was no need to conceal the biological agent from ourselves by hiding it within particular things, such as DNA molecules, or within abstract and vague principles such as emergence and self-organization.

Tags: explanation/biological; inwardness

Sources: Cassirer, Ernst (1950). The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History Since Hegel. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Robert, Jason Scott (2004). Embryology, Epigenesis, and Evolution: Taking Development Seriously. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, E. S. (1930). The Interpretation of Development and Heredity. Reprinted in 1972. Freeport NY: Books for Libraries Press.

Weiss, Paul (1962). “From Cell to Molecule”, in The Molecular Control of Cellular Activity, edited by John M. Allen, pp. 1-72. The University of Michigan Institute of Science and Technology Series. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Further information: The two major articles that lay a foundation for this one are The Unbearable Wholeness of Being and From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning. On the necessity of “meaning talk” in biology, see How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life

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Steve Talbott :: The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology