What is Life? (3.1): Life as Bios

The soul is a breath of living spirit, that with excellent sensitivity, permeates the entire body to give it life. Just so, the breath of the air makes the earth fruitful. Thus the air is the soul of the earth, moistening it, greening it.

—Saint Hildegaard von Bingen

In the last pieces, we explored various approaches to understanding life and concluded that they generally misapprehend their subject by mistaking the quantitative signature of life for life itself. In fact, it is likely that the only reason it strikes us as even remotely plausible to explain life through the methods of quantitative science is because we already know what life is. We know what life is because we are it. Thus, we experience life directly. We live it ourselves and relate to it, and through it, in other beings. If we really had to begin our explanation of life from non-living physical and chemical processes, we would never arrive at our end. We skip over this inevitable explanatory gulf by unconsciously interpolating our immediate knowledge of life from outside of the physicalistic explanation we are proposing. Anything other than this would be as contradictory as trying to measure the darkness with a lantern. Perhaps the most famous proponent of physicalism in our age, the late scientist Stephen Hawking, hints at the explanatory gap of his own method when he asks, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Characteristically, the moment this question is posed, physicists tend to set about explaining it away. Hawking, for instance, proposed that, in fact, nothing was needed to breathe fire into the equations, and rather the entire physical universe was explicable by “random fluctuations in the quantum vacuum.” Of course, the latter are also equations so it is hardly an explanation. Because an equation cannot confer what it does not posses, we must supplement our quantitative knowledge with knowledge of a more concrete sort if we are to have any hope of understanding life on its own terms.

To begin, let us consider the nature of definition. Specifically, we can imagine the instance of defining “yellow.” A common technical definition of yellow would explain yellow according to its correlative wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum, which is roughly 570 nm. In this case, however, it is not difficult to see that the latter describes the medium by which yellow is conveyed to one’s eye, but discloses nothing of the nature of yellow itself. If a scale reveals 1kg to be the weight of a block of rock salt, it does not follow that the nature of the block of rock salt is 1kg. Rather, 1kg is the manner in which the object must appear in a medium (i.e. to an instrument) that can register only its weight. Similarly, we should pose the very serious question of whether “yellow” can possibly be abstracted from yellowness (i.e. the quality of yellow). No one who had never experienced yellow would have any more insight into it after he learned of its correlative wavelength than before in the same way that the weight of something alone would not convey the nature of the thing that has that weight. It follows then that yellow is irreducible to anything not yellow. If someone were to insist that a definition according to its correlative wavelength were indeed sufficient to capture the meaning of “yellow,” then we could only conclude that she was meaning something else with that word. Because it is our wish to avoid such an error in respect to our project, we must ensure that we maintain a fidelity to the phenomenon in question and that we mean what we say with the words we use. Our task is to contemplate life and allow its definition to grow organically from our consideration.

In this manner, we will undertake our inquiry in a living manner—in the spirit of life itself—since to grow organically is, in the first instance, an essential characteristic of living beings. In contrast, a stone does not grow. Instead it is increased through aggregation in virtue of extrinsic forces. Sedimentation or volcanism, for instance, are ways that the Earth can generate rocks. The Earth grows and this generates rocks. An artefact, similarly, depends on the imposition of a form by means of an external agent, who must further administer this form through the application of a formative force. One may imagine Michelangelo chiselling away at his block of marble in Renaissance Rome, or Jakob Böhme sewing leather soles onto a pair of boots in Görlitz. In a similar manner, a mechanism also requires an external force to assemble it from its component parts.

The approach we employ to understand these non-living things is evidently insufficient for our general purpose of understanding life. As one may turn a glove inside-out, so we would have to reverse our manner of thinking if are to have any hope of comprehending life. It is clear that in an organism, the formative principle no longer appears as an imposition from without, but rather constitutes an essential aspect of the organism as such. Thus, where external forces cause the formation of a rock, a sunflower causes itself to form. In the first instance, causation is transitive but in the second instance it is reflexive, which is to say, it acts upon itself. We will call this phenomenon “immanent causation” because the causation is intrinsic to the entity itself. In this manner, we have discovered an essential aspect of life.

We can continue our exploration and consider whether it is possible to refine our notion of immanent causation to account for the diverse kinds of life. It is our fortune to inherit the legacy of great thinkers of the past, since the results of their investigations can guide us in this project. Aristotle, “il maestro di color chi sanno,” as Dante referred to him, helpfully delineated various degrees of life, which he called “psyche.” Thus, one of his most famous treatises is called Peri Psychēs (Περὶ Ψυχῆς.) It is most commonly known by its Latin title, De Anima, which means “On the Soul.” Aristotle uses the word “soul” to the mean “the principle of life,” which is the same principle as we meant to indicate by the term “immanent causation.” Aristotle distinguishes several gradients of soul-life, from vegetative, to sensitive, to appetitive, to locomotive, to rational. Each of these aspects depends on the ones that precede it in the manner that the blossom of flower depends on everything green that came before it. We can examine these in more detail, and in this piece we will attempt to understand the first gradient of life and leave the following ones for future pieces.

The threptikon, which is often translated as “vegetative soul,” but which might also be called the “nourishing soul” or “formative soul,” is the most basic part of the soul. Thus, the threptikon is the sine qua non for life. It designates the first degree of immanent causation in which the organism works upon itself to generate, build, and maintain its form or body. The threptikon is the active force without which a plant would wither. It may be clear by now that it is beyond the scope of physical science to study this force. Such an assertion may surprise some readers who might suppose physiology and biology to present patent counterevidence to this claim: biology, after all is nominally “the account of life,” while physiology is “the account of nature.” More careful consideration, however, will reveal that biology and physiology study the products of life as manifest in the medium of matter, but not life as such. This is analogous to the scale the registered the rock-salt in the medium of weight. The nature of the sciences and their relation to life is a straightforward consequence of the explicit spirit of the natural sciences from their very infancy. Francis Bacon, for example, famously set forth the method of natural science in 1605 in the Advancement of Learning:

[Natural science] doth make inquiry, and take consideration of the same natures: but how? Only as to the material and efficient causes of them, and not as to the forms [and final causes]…Matter rather than forms should be the object of our attention, its configuration and changes of configuration, and simple action, and laws of action or motion, for forms are figments of the human mind, unless you call those laws of action forms.

Bacon refers to the Aristotelian schema of four causes: efficient, material, formal, and final. In the terms that we have assumed for this particular investigation, Aristotle’s efficient and material causes present causes that are extrinsic to the nature of a being, while formal and final causes are immanent to this nature. By “nature,” we mean “essence,” and by “essence” we mean that which makes a given being that being that it is. As we noted above, the essence of life is to be its own formal cause. This is just what differentiates life from non-life. It is telling to observe that the efficient and material causes are to be the exclusive objects of natural science and that these are precisely the causes that fail to distinguish what is living from what is not. For this reason, we concluded above that even the “life sciences” are actually physical sciences since do not take life as their object, but only life’s image in material bodies and efficient processes.

J. W. von Goethe was keenly aware of the need to supplement the physical sciences with a study of life. Indeed this aspiration was a continual theme in Goethe’s biography. In a letter in 1770, for instance, Goethe wrote of a butterfly:

The poor creature trembles in the net, rubs off its most beautiful colours; and even if one captures it unharmed, it still lies there finally stiff and lifeless; the corpse is not the whole creature; something else belongs to it, a main part, and in this case as in every other, a most major main part: its life …”

The same theme appears decades later in 1808 in the lines from Faust: Part I:

Who’ll know aught living and describe it well,
Seeks first the spirit to expel.
He then has the component parts in hand
But lacks, alas! the spirit’s bond.

Goethe went on to devote a great portion of his life to developing a scientific method that was suited to study life, and not life’s image in physics. His morphological studies of plants represented his most concerted endeavours in this field. Although not unknown, one might imagine Goethe’s scientific work would have exerted greater influence on subsequent generations. He himself held his scientific work in higher esteem than all of his poetic achievements combined, which is a significant statement from the man who is regarded as the Shakespeare of the German language. One obvious explanation for the lack of popularity of Goethe’s method is that it demands a far more energetic engagement with the world of experience than many are wont to give. The conventional scientific method’s ideal of objectivity often allows the scientist to study the phenomenon in question at an arm’s length, as it were. In this way, “objectivity” is invoked as a license for the scientist to maintain a bourgeois impersonality towards living nature. It can hardly be a surprise if one, from this condition, begins to imagine that the world could be reduced to an handful of abstract principles. The conventional scientific method is perfectly suited for disclosing the meaningless aspect of the world, like the statistical models of thermodynamics, or the blind evolutionary pressures of natural selection. A mistake would be to suppose that because physical science studies the aspect of nature that is without meaning, it follows that this is nature’s only aspect. Another mistake would be to suppose that the same method of science that was developed to study the meaningless aspect would be suited to study life. We only imagine life could be meaningless because we assume as a premise what is supposed to be demonstrated. Goethe strove to counteract this tendency in his work, seeking to allow phenomena to reveal their meaning, which is their being.

Goethe devoted his studies to the vegetative, nourishing, or formative soul, elaborating our understanding of what Aristotle called to threptikon. We could also understand this as the quality the makes an organism an organism instead of an aggregation. Cultures of all ages have recognised this force and investigated in according to their particular values. The Egyptians, for instance, called it “ka,”* while in the Yogic tradition of Ancient India it was called alternatively the “pranamaya-kosha” or the “linga-sharira.”** Paracelsus called it the “archeus.” Theosophical and Anthroposophical teachings call it “the etheric body.”

In our continuing investigation of life, will generally follow Aristotle’s terminology, since it is not less scientific than other systems, and more so than many. It has the further advantage of being relatively unknown. This is an advantage because it may alleviate readers from the temptation to interpolate prior associations with the words, into their evaluations of the concepts that these words are meant to denote. We wish, as it were, to bear our wine with virginal wine-skins. In conclusion and in transition to a new subtopic of investigation, we can assert that the threptikon is foundational to life, but it does not exhaust life’s nature. We conceived of the principle of “immanent causation” above as an essential aspect of life, and in this piece, we have attempted to consider this principle in respect to life as bios—”life of the body.” In pieces to come, we will attempt to investigate life as psyche—”life of the soul“—and life as zoē, “life in the spirit.”

*For instance, on may read in the Book of the Dead:

Osiris, may he rest in peace, knows the names of your ka, the aspect of your soul that abides in the ground:
Nourishing ka,
ka of food,
lordly ka,
ka the ever-present helper,
ka which is a pair of kas begetting more kas,
healthy ka,
sparkling ka,
victorious ka,
ka the strong,
ka that strengthens the sun each day to rise from the world of the dead,
ka of shining resurrection,
powerful ka,
effective ka.

**From the Taittiriya Upanishad, circa 4th century

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