Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

Is biology more fundamental than physics?

The depths of physical reality are, of course, as hidden from us in the living organism as they are in the rest of the physical world. But in the organism we encounter something further: reason and meaning come to much more “visible” and insistent manifestation, narrating the stories of living beings — stories that, evoking as they do the intentional and meaningful patterns of our own lives, are more accessible to us than whatever speaks to us now through the qualities of inorganic substance. It’s ironic that the organism has been regarded as a more difficult challenge for science than the world of physics. The truth is that the organism is much closer to us — we are, after all, organisms ourselves — and it offers many informed, articulate responses to our inquiries. We can apprehend it with a richness and depth of comprehension far exceeding the admirable mathematical comprehension of the physicist.

If the world is indeed intelligible — if it speaks meaningfully, as must be assumed by every scientist who tries to capture that meaning in revelatory words and ideas — then the place where we find it speaking most fully and explicitly is presumably the place where we will find its fundamental truths most fully declared. And that is in the living organism.

The “difficulty” of the organism is really just the difficulty of reducing it to mere physics and chemistry. Yes, very difficult indeed — but that’s because the organism is alive, as we are alive, and because every biologist instinctively understands this life as offering more than lessons in physics and chemistry. As for the “nonliving” world: we imagine it is simpler to understand only because we are bewitched by the precision and predictability of the physical laws we find implicit in things — things of whose nature we know almost nothing.

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