What is Life? (2) Diachronic Traverse of Starting Points

In the first part of this inquiry, we weighed whether it would be possible to define life in terms of physics, chemistry, and Darwinian evolution. After considering various examples from scientific literature, we concluded that they fall short by
(1) mistaking the medium in, by, or through which life appears and acts for the phenomenon of life itself and by
(2) mistaking life in essence for life as its multitudinous accidents.
In the same vein, we might conceive of this as a mistake of a subject for its predicates, or what life is for what could be said about it.

At this aporia in our inquiry, we might pose the critical question: is it even possible to explain life in terms of what is not life? In other words, did the various definitions that we explored in the last piece merely happen to fall short of their intended aim, or did they set out in the wrong direction from their very origin, and therefore fail not out of circumstance, but out of necessity?

For example, it used to be imagined that by studying the metrics of a person’s skull, it would be possible to determine that person’s psychic and mental constitution. Phrenology was finally discarded as a pseudoscience after scientists accepted that the hypothesis that mind and psyche could be inferred from the shape of a person’s head was simply a flawed one and, therefore, that no quantity of empirical data could compensate for lack of real qualitative or quidditative relation between the terms. Further, it was acknowledged that the phrenology hypothesis was largely inspired by the sociopolitical desire to rationalise claims of racial superiority.

On a side-note, even if a statistical correlation between cranial morphology and intelligence had been empirically demonstrated, and supposing further that this could even be correlated to a manner of racial superiority, it would nevertheless demonstrate an utter misunderstanding of the nature of statistical correlations to imagine that such a general finding could be applied in any particular case. One might as well pre-arrange one’s funeral for one’s half-birthday of one’s 79th year after a consultation with the actuary tables for life expectancy. One only mentions this obvious fact because of the prevalence of precisely this manner of “economist” thinking to all manner of current events. The moment that a statistically-derived “trend” is suspected to reflect the actual state of affairs with some degree of accuracy, the former is immediately exalted beyond all reason and hailed as knowledge. It is forgotten that the accuracy of such a predictive model was contingent on the operation of causal forces of which this abstract approach is incapable to deliver even the slightest inkling. One is tempted to conclude that, despite its pretense as “the science of human behavior,” that the economist is in the worst position to understand human behaviour. The reason is that he fails to take into account the human beings who are behaving as well as the manner in which these behaviours themselves are expressions of a more-or-less conscious hierarchy of values. As a result, the economist’s manner of thinking is capable to provide only a distorted echo of the truth, which he all too readily accepts as a cause and not a dim reflection. The former knows much less than the average person because, where the latter’s knowledge may merely be lacking, the economist’s knowledge is of the wrong sort and this misleads him in his judgements in respect to the most important matters. It has been objected that the present writer’s low estimation of economics stems from his inability to understand the principles of macroeconomics. For all of the reasons above, the only person who would be disposed to make such an objection is one who had failed to understand economics altogether, which understanding can only be accomplished by means other than “economist thinking,” again, for the reasons above. “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space” as long as I have no point of reference to alert me of my limitations, and the same manner of thinking that prescribes my nutshell is ill-suited to lead me beyond it.

One is compelled to come to a similar conclusion in respect to the biologist (or physicist) by the approach that he or she adopts in the study of life. No one who learns about the manner in which biologists treat their laboratory mice can possibly arrive at any other verdict than that the former has detached himself from life. As a result, he is not treating organisms, but specimens, or collections of genetic material, or “self-sustaining chemical systems capable of Darwinian evolution.”  etc…. In other words, one has replaced life with an abstraction. If we want to understand concrete reality, we will have to maintain the latter as our subject matter, and not change the subject by substituting it for another. In practice, this will imply that we resist the seduction of issuing tendentious extrapolations and of treating hypotheses as facts. The phrenology example presented the temptation to turn the rational process on its head and assume conclusion first before subsequently seeking scientific evidence for it. One would like to assume that such a flagrant disregard for the rational process were irrelevant to our question, yet we can not be overhasty in this judgement without committing the same ideological error that is at issue.

Today, it is largely taken as a matter of course that elementary particles collectively bearing the properties of volume and extension aggregate to form “matter” and constitute the basic substratum of physical reality. We will leave aside the fact that “matter” itself presents the same deficiency of real definition as “life” because if we attempted to treat every topic that presented itself we would end up treating none. A basic property of what is called “matter” and what is postulated as the basis of physical reality is that it is inert. This is to say that it is non-living, because living things all display some degree of alertness. As we also observed, given the departure point of lifeless matter, scientists attempt to formulate the causes and conditions that could explain life, in its origin and propagation, out of this hypothetical condition of primordial lifelessness. As straightforward as such a starting-point might seem, we must question whether this straightforwardness is grounded in more than the contingency of present-day scientific convention. In other words, is it scientific, or scientistic? One way to explore this question is to consider whether other societies have taken other departure points.

It might be objected that the knowledge of modern physical science justifies our taking its starting point as the correct one. This would be to confuse physics with metaphysics, however, and to flout the first principles of reason. Precisely whether modern physical science offers the correct approach to life is the question at issue, and to merely affirm that it is represents a petitio principii of the first order because it attempts to enlist one possible conclusion as a premise of the argument itself.  Naturally, one could reject reason altogether and suppose some manner of brute mechanistic materialism, but such an one has no basis to postulate anything altogether, including the very supposition of mechanism or materialism, and therefore such an one establishes himself as an enemy of science. Indeed, Descartes, who was perhaps the most seminal figure in codifying the modern conception of inert matter, still recognised the logical priority of metaphysics to the physical sciences:

Thus, all Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk.

An example of physics is the theory of abiogenesis out of negative entropy gradients that Jeremy England proposed in 2013 and which we examined in the first part of this investigation. Lending foundation to such theories, however, are metaphysical axioms. This is true in principle irrespective of whether a physicist is cognisant of them. In this instance, the postulate that life must emerge out of an initial condition that is lifeless is a metaphysical axiom upon which modern physicists formulate their theories. Even in the most fundamental sense, the basis for the standard model of physics as such cannot itself be physical in the same way that the trunk of a tree cannot constitute its own roots. In respect to the question of primordial lifelessness, we should clearly understand the metaphysical nature of this claim. It must be metaphysical because it is impossible to observe life originate out of non-life. The obvious reason for this is that our universe is a living one and that observation is performed by living beings, as evidenced by the fact that there is life in it and this is known by life. Thus any theory of abiogenesis is strictly theoretical and is not, in principle, subject to empirical verification. I mention this in an effort to counteract temptation to ignore the logical priority of metaphysics to any theory of physical science.

Given this priority, we ought to explore the metaphysical roots from which our present-day knowledge must germinate. We can gain insight into these subterranean metaphysical axioms of Modernity when we compare them to those of other ages. In Mythic accounts of the world’s origin, for example, life is woven into the very fabric of the universe from its beginning. Hesiod’s Theogony, for instance, describes a world which is originally living:

First of all Chaos [Void] came into being. But then
Gaia [Earth] broad-chested, always the unshakable seat of all
the immortals who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus,
and dark Tartaros [Underworld] in the recesses of the wide-wayed earth,
and Eros [Desire], the most beautiful among the immortal gods,
loosener of limbs, who subdues the mind and prudent counsel
in the chests of all gods and of all men.

Thus, the Ancient cosmology depicts the very essence of the world in which we live as the deeds and sufferings of great psychic powers. Psyche is the Greek word for mind, life, and soul, which were conceived of as gradients of the same principle. This will constitute a crucial aspect of the third part of our inquiry. Aristotle clearly delineates these degrees of psychic life in De Anima ( “On the Soul”), whose Greek title is Περὶ Ψυχῆς, Peri Psychēs. Whereas we sought the testimony of Hesiod for insight into the Mythic cosmogony, Aristotle’s teacher provides the preëminent Classical account of the world’s origin. Drawing from Plato’s Timaeus, we can observe that the Classical account differs from the Mythic one in many ways, but that it nevertheless presents life as a principle and not an afterthought. Plato refers to the cosmos as “the intelligible living thing” and characterises it as “the living thing … of which the other living things … are parts. For that [i.e., that living thing] possesses all the intelligible living things, embracing them in itself.” He further describes its generation:

[The Demiurge (Architect)] constructed lōgos (reason) within psyche (soul) and psyche within soma (body) as He fashioned the All, that so the work He was executing might be of its nature most fair and most good. Thus, then, in accordance with the likely account, we must declare that this Cosmos has verily come into existence as a Living Creature endowed with psyche and lōgos owing to the providence of God.

Plato calls this description “a likely account” for the reason that induction can never confer certain truth, but only probable truth. Plato is often criticised for his low regard for empirical knowledge, but he only states clearly and in a consistent manner what any thinking person can discover: that no number of particular cases is sufficient to prove an universal truth. In this way, he is more honest than many scientists, who over-represent the epistemological depth of their inductive conclusions, and more honest also than many modern physicists, who extrapolate particular findings far beyond the scope that reason sets for such findings according to the method from which they were derived.

Plato’s keen sense of logic was not lost on his student, Aristotle, who formalised our innate intuition of conceptual relations, and also achieved the most penetrating metaphysical insights of the Western philosophical tradition. In an exhortation of knowledge, Aristotle concludes a lengthy intellectual investigation of the world’s essence in book XII of Metaphysics:

On such a principle, then, depend the heavens and the world of nature. And it is a life such as the best which we enjoy, and enjoy for but a short time (for it is ever in this state, which we cannot be)…If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder; and if in a better this compels it yet more. And God is in a better state. And life also belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God.

Thinkers of the Medieval period continued to refine Aristotle’s sublime philosophy. Indeed, within the monasteries, the cathedrals, and the first universities in Medieval period, the science of logic that Aristotle initiated was brought to such a pitch as had arguably not been seen before nor has ever been seen since. Starting from the first principles of natural philosophy and theology that Aristotle identified, the Schoolmen elaborated these thought-sequences with crystalline precision. The premise of spontaneous generation of life out of lifeless matter had no place amongst the adamantine thought-structures of the Scholastics. For these great thinkers of the Middle Ages, soul, life, and matter represented varying degrees of Existence, all proceeding from, and to, the Ens realissimum, Who was their “First Cause and Last End,” their origin and their consummation, in Whom Essence and Existence were perfectly coextensive, and Who was the very ground of actuality and reality as such.

In virtue of this cursory jaunt through the Mythic, Classical, and Mediaeval world-conceptions, we now stand at a much better vantage withal to recognise the nature of our Modern one, which we would otherwise likely assume unknowingly as a matter of course. From this perspective, one is forced to conclude that the breadth and quantity of modern scientific knowledge and achievements—which is undeniable—has concomitantly obfuscated the nature of that very knowledge. Specifically, it has disconnected the tree of science from its philosophical roots. We would laugh if a shoemaker sought to describe the world’s origin as the making of a cosmic boot, but he is really doing nothing other than the physicist when he describes the genesis of life by appeal to the laws of thermodynamics. Supposing I have mastered (which I have not) the disciplines of biology, or chemistry, or of physics: this does not thereby imply that the subject matter of the same discipline is suited to describe the origin of life, the nature of substance, or the essence of reality, in virtue of the mere fact that I happen to have mastered it. Though I have achieved little more than an amateur understanding in each of these disciplines, I understand enough philosophy to know that it is, in principle, beyond the scope of any of the natural sciences to answer such question. As no quantity nor combination of vectors in a plane, no matter how manifold, will generate a vector pointing outside of it, so the tree of natural sciences will never provide its own roots, to sustain the Cartesian conceit from above.

For this reason, we can spare ourselves the trouble of seeking an explanation for life where it cannot be found. Preserved amongst the tales of the dervishes is the account of the mullah Nasrudin searching for his house keys under the streetlamp because the light was favourable, despite that he lost them on the other side of the street. Ideally, we could enjoy the mullah’s folly without perpetrating the same blunder ourselves. Nevertheless, the perennial quest to conceptualise life in terms of the quantitative sciences reveals our susceptibility to the temptation of granting greater priority to methodological expediency than to the truth of the matter. Let strive to overcome this temptation and attempt to investigate precisely the truth of the matter. This is to say, let us attempt to understand life on its own terms instead of on terms that are accidental or foreign to it. We will attempt this in the next piece.

Botticelli, “Primavera”

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