What Do Organisms Mean? > From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning > Summary
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

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From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning


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 mach