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A project by Stephen L. Talbott

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From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning

Summary

THE RELATION BETWEEN BIOLOGICAL DESCRIPTION and that of physics and chemistry has long troubled biologists. How can the agent-like, purposive organism we saw described in “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings” be reconciled with the physical sciences? Are we not flirting with mysticism when we speak of “organisms of meaning”? Are we not going beyond cause-and-effect explanation?

This worry represents a severe misunderstanding. Physicists do not deal in causes, but rather in lawfulness. The idea of a cause — which philosophers have found to be notoriously slippery and misleading — comes from our experience with the more or less reliable relationships designed into our machines, whereby one thing “does something” to another. But this regularity is always approximate. The physical laws at work may be inviolable, but the way one thing “causally” acts on another is always subject to change depending on changes in context. Drop a watch on the floor, place it in a powerful magnetic field, or allow moisture to condense inside the casing, and the causal relations between the parts may become different. We can never define what one thing will do to another without specifying a context that is in principle infinite and mostly beyond our ken. Causes are not laws.

Whereas, in a well-constructed machine, we can speak of causes at least in a temporary and approximate sort of way, we fail utterly when we try to understand the organism as such a machine. For the contextual “interference” we try to exclude from a machine is just about the whole point in a living creature. It is continually “bending” causes to its own purposes by shifting the contextual relationships — that is, by altering its own activity. The whole is in this sense governing the parts. This is not a matter of violating the lawfulness of the physical world; rather, it is the organism adjusting causal relations (external to itself and within its own cells) in light of its own needs and purposes. Unlike a machine, the organism, its individual cells, and even its chromosomes, are never in the same relational state twice.

There is nothing mystical about this. We may not know how the organism-as-agent manages its own wholeness as an ever-changing context for its parts, but neither do we understand many basic concepts of physics ("We do not know what energy is”, as Richard Feynman put it) or why the laws of physics are what they are. This does not prevent the physicist from working with the observed laws. Likewise, nothing prevents biologists from observing and learning a great deal about the organism-as-agent before they understand everything they would like to know about its power of agency. The main thing for the scientist is to be faithful to observation, and the organisms we observe are always adjusting their own causal relations in order to pursue ends and fulfill needs in a way that the molecules, rocks, clouds, and machines of the physical scientist do not.

There is no violation of physical lawfulness in the organism. The point is only that we can fully understand the organism neither in the language of the chemist and physicist, nor in the cause-and-effect terms we habitually employ in explaining machines. It is not physical laws that explain the life of the organism; distinctively biological explanation, rather, lies in the way the organism coordinates the physically lawful functioning of its own parts. Biologists observe and describe this coordination every day.

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Selected excerpts from the chapter
bullet A suspicion of vitalism (1)
bullet A suspicion of vitalism (2)
bullet A suspicion of vitalism (3)
bullet There are two kinds of explanation (1)
bullet There are two kinds of explanation (2)
bullet There are two kinds of explanation (3)
bullet The limits of definition
bullet The cells in an embryo “know” their tasks
bullet We live with other organisms in a community of meaning
bullet From the unconscious to the conscious (1)
bullet From the unconscious to the conscious (2)
bullet Causes are not laws (1)
bullet Causes are not laws (2)
bullet Causes are not laws (3)
bullet There are no consistent causes in the organism (1)
bullet There are no consistent causes in the organism (2)
bullet There are no consistent causes in the organism (3)
bullet There are no consistent causes in the organism (4)
bullet Importance of observable traits vs. DNA
bullet Who is sculpting whom?
bullet No “mechanism” controls the body’s rhythms
bullet Losing causal explanations is no disadvantage
bullet Inwardness of the world (1)
bullet Inwardness of the world (2)
bullet Inwardness of the world (3)
bullet The false specter of vitalism (1)
bullet The false specter of vitalism (2)
bullet The false specter of vitalism (3)
bullet The qualitative and thoughtful organism (1)
bullet The qualitative and thoughtful organism (2)
bullet Is biology more fundamental than physics?