CHAPTER 17: Mechanism and Organism


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To qualify as a scientific hypothesis, this would have to be experimentally testable.

Carl Sagan’s novel Contact touches on this question. Extraterrestrial mathematicians have discovered a pattern deep within the decimal expansion of π (in base 11 rather than 10). In actual fact, human mathematicians suspect (but have not yet proven) that π is a “normal” irrational number, meaning that the sequence of its expansion should be uniformly random. However, in an infinite expansion, any pattern might be expected eventually to arise, though not more frequently than any other pattern. In the novel, the hidden pattern appropriately generates a circle, and this is supposed to imply that π is not random but an artifact. By further implication, the Euclidean space in which it is defined is also somehow an artifact. (On that account, it would have made more sense for Sagan to use a physical constant rather than a mathematical constant, since π is a matter of definition rather than measurement, and is therefore not tied to physical space.) In the novel, the pattern in π has been deliberately embedded for any intelligence to discover that has sufficient computational power. The ability to probe mathematically thus parallels the ability to probe experimentally, which led to the discovery of the extraterrestrial radio message that is central to the novel, the first contact in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Ironically, however, the deeper within the sequence a pattern is buried, the less it has to say about whether the sequence is truly random. That the extraterrestrials discovered it before humans signifies their superior computational power and that of whoever created it in the first place; but that the circle should be buried so deeply may compromise the significance it is supposed to bear in the story.

Closer to home is the question of “P vs. NP” in computation theory, and as explored in the 2012 film “Traveling Salesman.” It strikes me that P=NP could be true only in a simulated world; if it could be proven false, that would be evidence that nature is real. On the other hand I suspect the question is undecidable for the same reason that randomness cannot be proven.


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Rather, Newton’s laws may be seen to emerge on the macroscopic scale as effects of the collective organization of matter.

‘Emergence’ is a current byword with a longer history in philosophy, psychology, and biology than in physics. C.D. Broad coined the term ‘emergent property’ in the 1920s. [Fritjof Capra The Web of Life Anchor/Doubleday 1996, p28] Emergence is the inverse of reduction. The idea is implied even in Greek atomism, which reduced the properties of matter to microscopic building blocks, through whose varied interactions macroscopic properties “emerge.” Like other complementary ways of looking, reduction and emergence having essentially a dialectical relationship; yet the temporary dominance of one way of looking may have tangible impact on the course of research.


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Suppose that “inert” matter has unrecognized abilities to self-organize, making the cosmos more like an organism than a machine?

We are surrounded by life and other complex phenomena, not by the abstractions of physics. Even ‘life’ only became a scientific puzzle after Descartes and La Mettrie had propounded the mechanist vision; it then became necessary to understand life’s minimal conditions and components, when reduced to the terms of that vision. See: Charles T. Wolfe “Why was There No Controversy Over Life in the Scientific Revolution?” 2010, p4 []

While the mechanist metaphor tended to overlook the interconnectedness and self-organization of matter, another extreme (represented by vitalism or panpsychism) diluted the concept of life beyond recognition. Both extremes are ultimately repugnant to common sense. Nevertheless, since we are emerging from a period dominated by the philosophy of mechanism, there may be more to gain than risk in embracing the metaphor of organism in a modern form—always recalling, of course, that it is but a way of looking.


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…which the philosophy of mechanism supported by limiting the power of nature.

Far from contradicting theology, the philosophy of mechanism supported divine freedom against implications of Aristotle that seemed to limit it. After all, a machine could be designed according to freely chosen principles.

The passivity of nature mirrored the doctrine of salvation by faith alone—that human beings were helpless to contribute to their own spiritual salvation. Contrary to the medieval theory of cooperation, divine sovereignty excluded any contribution to the working out of providence by either human beings or nature. Luther, for example, argued that salvation was by grace alone, for any contribution through good works detracted from God’s sufficiency. [Gary B. Deason “Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature” in Linbdberg and Numbers God and Nature: historical essays on the encounter between Christianity and science, U. of California Press, 1982, p170-74]


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…an impression that is only feasible through the convention of isolated systems.

Views of causality depend on how one divides up matter. The idealized fiction of the isolated system emphasizes efficient causation. As we have seen, however, there are no truly isolated systems. Any system can be decomposed into subsystems in various ways, according to particular explanatory aims. [Ingo Brigandt “Explanation in Biology: Reduction, Pluralism, and Explanatory Aims” Science and Education, March 2011.] ‘Mechanism’ is not just a figure of speech, but indicates a device to fulfill a specific purpose. Such a machine—whether literal or not—is well defined, whereas an organism is not.


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In modern times, the concept of agency…is explained away…

Hence, the notion of responsibility in jurisprudence is eroded when the behavior of an apparently free agent is supposed to be determined by “outside” forces. Perhaps this is why the notion of moral agency continues to be upheld in religion. God, at least, is not the toy of outside forces and cannot pass the buck. He may pardon moral failures, but does not excuse them in the name of determinism! An agent has free will, and thus responsibility, whereas a causal system does not. If the outside forces are other agents, they may be held responsible for determining our actions (as in coercion); but in a society that argues away responsible agency altogether, mechanistic arguments might be used to excuse them too.


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Yet there remains always something outside the causal system, which…must be accounted for by a first cause.

Luther and Calvin had based their understanding of God’s relation to nature on the belief that God created the world ex nihilo. In their view, God did not shape preexistent matter; he merely spoke, and the world was. [Deason, in Lindberg & Numbers op cit, p175] The doctrine of instantaneous creation ex nihilo got a boost in mid twentieth century from the Big Bang theory. However, the “bang” is not quite ex nihilo or instantaneous. Theory either traces the history of the universe back to a primordial fraction of a second, beyond which the equations of physics do not compute, or else posits the earlier existence of some meta-universe. The basic logical problem of continuity—how something can arise from nothing—has not been overcome.


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This need for self-contained systems of thought is a core ingredient both of theology and of scientific theory.

Early scientists demonstrated this need by engaging in the rear-guard challenge to reconcile biblical doctrine with the discoveries of the new sciences and the new world—an effort to fit observed facts into preconceived schemes. ‘Natural theology’ is a latter-day version of this rear-guard effort, an ultimate saving of appearances. For example: “Today God can be viewed as the Designer of a self-organizing system, a many-leveled creative process of law, chance, and emergence.” [Ian G. Barbour Religion and Science: historical and contemporary issues Harper 1990, p246—italics his] Ironically, of course, a truly self-organizing system does not require an external designer!


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Reconciling the immanent reality of nature to the biblical account of creation…

The Cosmological Argument for God’s existence, for example, hinges on the Principle of Sufficient Reason—that everything must have a cause, and therefore an explanation, which lies outside itself. The universe exists, and must have a cause outside itself—namely the First Cause, God, who must therefore exist. This sounds reasonable to the extent that the PSR appears self-evident, as do mathematics and logic in general. Yet it is merely an assumption and, like them, based on common experience. If we can allow that a First Cause has within itself its own reason for being, then why not nature? It is no more logical to conceive the First Cause as personal, than it is to conceive nature as impersonal.


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The possibility that organisms had somehow constructed themselves was upstaged by the promise that bio-engineers would one day do it.

Cf. Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past Times Books, 1988, p87: “…thus the paradigm of modern biology, although nominally mechanistic, has in effect become remarkably similar to vitalism, with genetic ‘programs’ or ‘information’ or ‘instructions’ or ‘messages’ playing the role formerly attributed to vital factors…” The essence of this shift is that the vital factor, formerly held to reside mysteriously in the organism, is now in human hands—literally recreated as a computer data file.


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If the brain…why can’t other complex physical systems be viewed the same way?

Objections to this line of argument tend to fall back on usual commitments to external agency and conscious intent, implicit in traditional ideas about intentionality and agency—i.e., in terms of deliberate actions of persons upon the world. Of course, one must avoid trivial claims, such as that nature creates dvd players because it creates the brains of human beings!


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It may be unnecessarily limiting to think only of some version of natural selection as the basis of cosmic self-organization.

For example, Lee Smolin’s black hole cosmic natural selection theory. See, for example, Smolin The Life of the Cosmos, op cit, p292: “There may very well be principles of which we are presently not aware, but at least until the present time, the only principle of self-organization that science has studied that has the power to make the extraordinarily improbable likely is evolution through natural selection…” Yet, natural selection is not the only principle of self-organization presently known. Phenomena of self-organized criticality, for example, have nothing to do with natural selection. The organization of an ecology must be approached on a different level than the genetic history of a particular species. Even in biology, natural selection has been so emphasized because it is a simple iterative process that can be studied in controlled experiments (with fruit flies, for example). But this situation somewhat parallels the state of psychology at the turn of the twentieth century, when behaviorism came to dominate because it lent itself to experimental study and avoided the metaphysical complications of “consciousness.” However, consciousness, and intentionality in general, reflect the ability of the organism to structure itself, whereas behaviorism reflects only the ability of the experimenter or the external world to affect the organism in various ways. Perhaps this distinction applies to the study of the cosmos as a whole, since there can be no outside, no observer or experimenter who is not part of the system studied.


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Toward that end, we labor against a longstanding psychological investment in our identity as active agents…

Self-generating things pose psychological and real threats to human security. Precisely because they are independent of human agency, they may be inscrutable and dangerously unpredictable. This aspect of nature is implied in the notion of the wild—meaning savage, uncontrollable, alien, chaotic, untamed—and wilderness as a wasteland, not subjugated to human use. Nature was once partially tamed by personalizing it, so that its agency was perceived as little different from human agency, and could be dealt with in the propitiating ways that people deal with one another. Hence, various animistic concepts and the appeasement of effectively animal forces of nature; hence, also, the practice of blaming on magical intervention (performed by human or supernatural agents) what today we call natural phenomena. Personalization went further, so that a centralized agency could be appealed to in human terms: hence, a monotheistic creator god, to whom supplication could be made directly. This stratagem mitigated nature’s fearsome power by transferring agency to a separate divinity, with whom one could establish a parental (and even bureaucratic) relationship, in the person of God or his earthly representatives. Such a god must be masculine, in accord with the kind of authoritative external agency attributed to him. The Goddess, to the contrary, had symbolized the immanent reality of nature, modeled on the female creativity of birthing, in which the child is created through the mother, not by her. The difference between self-creation and creation by an external agent, whether man or god, is the difference between a system in which properties “spontaneously emerge” through internal connectivity and activity, and one in which form is imposed upon matter by fiat.


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Perhaps this reflects a fundamental masculine preference… tacit gender bias.

Before the Scientific Revolution, the metaphors traditionally available to explain the arising of the cosmos had been procreation and artisanal creation. Procreation appears in many creation myths, but requires the prior existence of parent beings. Through the dominance of patriarchy, procreation gave place as a metaphor to artisanal creation (romanticized as creation ex nihilo) and eventually to the notion of mechanism (God as tinker). Laplace, la Mettrie, and Darwin provided mechanist alternatives to special Creation, but self-creation is not a process that could even have been articulated within the mechanist tradition until recently. Only in the twentieth century did self-organization become a scientific topic of study, especially with the aid of computers. It is significant that much of this research has been in chemistry, a field lying between physics and biology.


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More significantly…it also channeled analysis away from concepts of agency and teleology essential for understanding the self-organization of complex systems.

There has been a renewed interest in “essentialism” within philosophy, with a willingness to regard matter as active, so that all things may be considered agents of one kind or another. See, for example, Brian Ellis The Philosophy of Nature, p141: “Specifically, it has to be recognized that the natural world is not intrinsically passive, but essentially active. It is a world in which all things have causal powers, and are therefore agents of one kind or another. So the power of agency is not something unique to human beings, or other living creatures. It is a pervasive feature of reality.” While I applaud the sentiment, the meaningful scientific questions about natural agency concern self-organization. Without revising the concept of agency itself, in a broadened context of self-organization, it is relatively empty to say that everything is an agent.


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While the various kinds of cause could coincide for Aristotle, they were separated in the new mechanist view.

Aristotle had made no distinction between artificial and natural, as far as teleology goes. But his examples apply more to biology than to physics as the new scientists were beginning to conceive it: on the model of mechanism or clockwork. This new model had quite a different place for teleology. If nature as a whole is an artifact, then it must demonstrate and embody the purposes of its creator. At the same time, any subsystem was subject to detailed analysis of efficient causes between its parts.


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…more honest to admit that nature is…not so different from ourselves?

See Francis Heylighen “Cybernetics and Second-Order Cybernetics”, in: R.A. Meyers (ed.), Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology (3rd ed.), Academic Press, New York, 2001. p3-4: “Moreover, such an engineer, scientist, or ‘first-order’ cyberneticist, will study a system as if it were a passive, objectively given ‘thing’, that can be freely observed, manipulated, and taken apart. A second-order cyberneticist working with an organism or social system, on the other hand, recognizes that system as an agent in its own right, interacting with another agent, the observer… [who] is a cybernetic system, trying to construct a model of another cybernetic system. To understand this process, we need a ‘cybernetics of cybernetics’, i.e. a ‘meta’ or ‘second-order’ cybernetics.” Heylighen’s argument characterizes what are presently acknowledged as “cybernetic” systems. My point is that this approach can productively be applied even to natural systems that are not organisms or social systems. We say that a person’s willed behavior is intentional, even when we consider it theoretically amenable to causal description. On the other hand, causal description attempts to penetrate or trump the wall of inscrutability posed by the subject’s free will. It is ultimately motivated by a desire for control.


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Nothing in principle prevents us from bringing a similar relationship to other parts of natural reality.

New Age science popularizers often invoke quantum strangeness as evidence that consciousness plays a causal role in the universe, or that quantum processes play a role in explaining consciousness. This is certainly not what I am advocating here. Quantum strangeness may indeed involve “spooky” interactions in the world, but has nothing to do with pinpointing an interaction of consciousness with matter.


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The best we can do is to try to put ourselves in its shoes, to reason about its reasons.

Following Daniel Dennett’s approach to intentionality, agency might better be considered a “stance” of the onlooker than a property of the system looked upon. The task is to understand the organism’s use of information from its own point of view. In the manner of behaviorism, it is tempting to avoid reference to agency and intentionality altogether, by speaking only of “information flow,” or some such neutral-sounding thing. But this will be at the cost of reifying information, downplaying its essential semantic aspect, and ignoring the problem of human projection. In many cases this strategy also fails to provide a real explanation of what is going on. For example, tree rings provide the human observer with information about the past, but the tree itself does not use this information to control its own growth or flowering. Simply translating a causal (e.g. chemical) description of the process of ring formation into ‘information’ language does little to explain how the tree does what it does.


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On the other hand, religious arguments for intelligent design are usually offered on the grounds that it best accounts for the complexity and apparent “teleological properties” of nature.

For political reasons, the modern Intelligent Design movement attempts to sidestep its overt religious motivation by shifting attention from the creator to the creation. This ploy owes to the fact that challenges to the teaching of Darwinism in U.S. public schools have mostly foundered on the constitutional separation of church and state. ID argues that nature itself bears incontrovertible “marks” of design. However, as always, these are assumed to signify a designer external to nature itself.

Like creationists, many scientists do not take seriously the idea that nature could self-design. While a self-designing nature is anathema to the religious because it has no need of a creator god, the scientist will rightly hold that cosmic self-organization must be a testable scientific hypothesis, based on solid evidence, not a metaphysical doctrine. The issue is not straightforward, however, since the directions of research that could provide such evidence are shaped by fundamental prejudices, some of which have a metaphysical or even religious origin.

While contemporary scientists may dismiss the arguments of creationists as unscientific, many of these arguments were taken seriously only a few centuries earlier by the greatest scientific minds! Some of the sceintist’s disdain may simply reflect the widening gulf between the highly technical domains of modern science and those of daily life, between elite specializations and the lay public (much of which, in America, is religioius). Meanwhile, cosmologists and particle physicists may inadvertently fuel the controversy, by providing creationists with new arguments concerning the extreme unlikelihood that the universe we live in could be a fluke. (The platform of creationists is to “teach the controversy.” The controversy, of course, is not within the science community but between science and religious communities; it is staged before a larger public in what is effectively a political struggle. The “controversy” is by no means frivolous, but points to unsettled and deeply unsettling cultural issues that are inescapably philosophical and political.) Despite the ongoing “warfare of science with religion,” many speculative areas of science embody an approach that is not so far from textual exegesis. Fundamentalism in religion has its counterpart in fundamental science, as the search for irreducible principles.

The historical religious alignment of science is echoed today in the Templeton Prize, often awarded to scientists, which is calculated to compete with the Nobel prize by always exceeding its monetary value: “The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, the Prize aims, in his words, to identify ‘entrepreneurs of the spirit’—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.” []


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Nature’s dazzling intricacy is evidence against such simplification.

Plato had given an early version of the watchmaker argument in the Timaeus. Inspired by Platonism, 17th-century mechanism glossed over the differences between nature and machine. Yet, Descartes and others admitted that the human body—though a machine—is “incomparably better arranged” than any humanly invented one. The perfection of nature was attributed to the infinite design abilities of God. In contrast, Hume recognized that the order in nature might be immanent rather than externally imposed: the world might be more like an organism than a machine. See: Ian G. Barbour Religion and Science: historical and contemporary issues Harper 1990, p44.

“Irreducible complexity” is a catchword put forward to claim that there are structures in nature so intricate that incremental evolution just could not have produced them. This is arguable at all only if evolution is taken to operate exclusively by means of random mutations with natural selection—a passive process that has no place for the complex circularity associated with self-organization. Such concepts belong to the old mechanist paradigm.


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…a natural things bears certain characteristics in common with a made object.

Daniel Dennett, who coined the term ‘intentional stance’, acknowledges that natural designs “are nothing short of brilliant, but the process of design that generates them is utterly lacking in intelligence of its own.” [Dennett 2006, quoting himself in Dennett “Intentional Systems Theory”, online] While I sympathize with this sentiment as a precaution against faulty metaphysics, it also seems to reflect the standard prejudice against nature’s inherent creativity. We have only begun to scratch the surface of what constitutes “intelligence.” Our ideas on the subject have mostly followed the top-down model suggested by human reason and planning. Dennett’s passage goes on to mention the “blindness” of natural selection, as though that were the only process involved in evolution, and as though that disqualified it as a manifestation of intelligence. (By the same token, the “blind” firing of nerve synapses cannot by itself explain the intelligence of the brain in which it occurs, yet it is an indisputable part of any modern explanation.)

At the other extreme, physicist Paul Davies comments that: “the contrived nature of physical existence is just too fantastic… It points forcefully to a deeper underlying meaning to existence.” [Paul Davies 1995 Templeton Prize Lecture] The loaded word in the passage is ‘contrived’, which suggests top-down external agency. (For nature to be self-contriving would have a very different connotation!) The association of design with the mechanisms humans have contrived binds our concepts to simplistic models, so that we feel the need for something transcending such models to provide “meaning.” It is not physical existence that is contrived, but our ideas about it!


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Yet one should not interpret a deficiency in thought as a deficiency in nature.

Margaret Cavendish accused her male contemporaries, the early natural philosophers, of an androcentrism that projects human concepts onto nature: “Man thinks Nature’s wise, subtil and lively actions, are as his own gross actions, conceiving them to be constrained and turbulent, not… by an easie connexion of parts to parts…” [Cavendish Philosophical Letters 152, quoted in Deborah Taylor Bazeley “An Early Challenge to the Precepts and Practices of Modern Science: the Fusion of Fact, Fiction, and Feminism in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)” Dissertation, U. of Calif. San Diego, 1990, chp 4, []


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The philosophy of mechanism is based on a conception of matter as passive.

Cf. Deason, in Lindberg & Numbers op cit, p168: “The mechanical worldview rested on a simple, fundamental assumption: matter is passive. It possesses no active, internal forces… Change did not result from the operation of internal principles and powers, as in the Aristotelian view; instead, motion was explained by the laws of impact and the new principle of inertia… In the absence of internal principles governing change, material bodies in the mechanical worldview were controlled by external laws.”

Cf. also Wikipedia: mechanism (philosophy): “Mechanism is the belief that natural wholes (principally living things) are like complicated machines or artifacts, composed of parts lacking any intrinsic relationship to each other. Thus, the source of an apparent thing’s activities is not the whole itself, but its parts or an external influence on the parts.” Ludwig Von Bertalanffy characterizes it as “concerned with one-way causality or relations between two variables” [The History and Status of General Systems Theory The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4, General Systems Theory (Dec., 1972) p411] The mechanist philosophy suppressed the idea of Aristotle’s various “souls” as organizing principles of living things (in favor of the single rational human soul). In the Epicurean philosophy, atoms had been naturally endowed with motion for all time. Mechanism deprived them of this quality too, holding that the motions of atoms had been imparted by God at the Creation. [Roger, in Lindberg & Numbers God and Nature, p280]


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…“machines of nature”…mechanical down to their smallest parts.

Stahl carried on an extensive correspondence with Leibniz, in which they discussed such questions. The former appears to have viewed the body as though in a process of relentless putrefaction, held together only by a vigilant anima to discharge corrupt materials and manage the body’s economy. Just as Newton and others held the non-organic clockwork world to be maintained or re-wound by a spiritual force, so the organic body. [Charles T. Wolfe “Why was there no controversy over Life in the Scientific Revolution?” 2009, p15]


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…an alternative to both mechanist and vitalist or spiritual notions.

Cf. Ludwig Von Bertalanffy The History and Status of General Systems Theory The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4, General Systems Theory (Dec., 1972), p410: “The evolution of machines by events at random rather appears to be self-contradictory… ‘Survival of the fittest’ (or ‘differential reproduction’ in modern terminology) seems to lead to a circuitous argument. Self-maintaining systems must exist before they can enter into competition…Thus neovitalistic currents, represented by Driesch, Bergson, and others, reappeared around the turn of the [20th] century, advancing quite legitimate arguments which were based essentially on the limits of possible regulations in a ‘machine,’ of evolution by random events, and on the goal-directedness of action. They were able, however, to refer only to the old Aristotelian ‘entelechy’ under new names and descriptions, that is, a supernatural, organizing principle…”


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In contrast, artificial things possessed no such inner nature, but were products of external agency.

It is interesting to note that the term ‘organism’ is derived from the same Greek or Latin word (for ‘organ’) that means ‘tool’. An instrumental view was implied within the word itself, reflecting the artisanal metaphor. An organism was a system of such tools, a whole composed of logically organized useful parts. Today we realize that an organ is not the tool of some central agency, let alone an external agency; each organ serves the other organs and the whole, in a sort of bootstrap arrangement.


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In general, nature was merely sum of its parts, without self-organizing powers of its own.

Following Aristotle’s ideas, Galen had believed that organs of the body fulfill their functions by virtue of their specific natures, so that blood flows from one place to another not because it is pumped mechanically, but because the various organs attract or repel it according to their need for nourishment. [David C. Lindberg The Beginnings of Western Science, p129] This was a scheme of final rather than efficient causes, and Galen was popular in the early Christian world because of his emphasis on such teleology. From a modern point of view, of course, the weakness of the concept of specific natures is that it amounts to no explanation at all. It was justified by the Aristotelian idea that only anomalies, and not the normal course of things, require explanation. The question of whether nature as a whole requires and permits “explanation” could only arise in a post-Aristotelian world that denied specific natures in favor of efficient causes and mechanism. Furthermore, it could only arise in a post-religious society that did not disqualify the question as heretical! Similarly, the question of the immanent reality of nature as a whole can only properly re-emerge in a post-mechanist world that seeks explanation in terms of integration as much as reduction.


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A healthy body resists relatively extreme disturbances…

Cf. Heylighen, F. (2003) “The Science of Self-organization and Adaptivity” in The Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, L. D. Kiel, (Ed.). EOLSS Publishers, Oxford.]: “Self-organization can be defined as the spontaneous creation of a globally coherent pattern out of local interactions. Because of its distributed character, this organization tends to be robust, resisting perturbations.