Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Building an Astral Body in the Comfort of Your Own Skin, or I Never Speculate!

Continuing this gnostalgic romp through Nature, Man, and Society, biologist Harold Morowitz describes how "each living thing, including man, is a dissipative structure," meaning that "it does not endure in and of itself but only as a result of the continual flow of energy in the system" -- like an eddy in a stream, or a welfare state from the flow of taxes.

As it so happens, that was one of the main arguments of my doctoral thesis, later published in 1994 as Psychoanalysis, Chaos, and Complexity: The Evolving Mind as a Dissipative Structure. I must have only found this book after completing my dissertation, because it's not in the bibliography. At any rate, it would certainly have been a confidence booster to have the authority of an esteemed theoretical biologist at my back, instead of having to rely solely on Raccoon night-vision.

We hear a lot about biology, but not enough about theoretical biology, or what might be called "meta-biology." Or maybe I just don't know where to look. Meta-biology would be to life what metaphysics is to existence, or historiography to history, or metapsychology to psychology -- a more general set of assumptions and principles that helps explain and contextualize the particulars.

There is a glut of books on the meaning of modern physics, but comparatively few on the meaning of biological life. Whitehead certainly touched on it, what with his philosophy of organicism, and physicist Erwin Schrödinger (famous for writing the play Cats or something) wrote a classic little meditation on the subject called What is Life?

Now, there's something I didn't know: the wiki article says that a number of thinkers formed a secret cult, just like the Raccoons, called the Theoretical Biology Club, founded "to promote the organicist approach to biology. The Club was in opposition to mechanism, reductionism and the gene-centric view of evolution. Most of the members were influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. The Club disbanded as funding was failed from the Rockefeller Foundation which was needed for them to carry out their investigations." D'oh! Foiled by the conspiracy!

In the subsection immediately above, it mentions Robert Rosen, who may be dead but at least now has his own page, so he's got that going for him. Alert readers will recall that my stumbling into his phase space was a kind of eureka moment for me, as his ideas helped me build the bridge between matter and mind in the bʘʘk. Without him, I might have have been reduced to merely speculating about the nature of ultimate reality.

I believe I have told the story about contacting his literary executor -- his daughter -- for a blurb. When I described the nature of the book, she was initially very enthusiastic. However, I made the mistake of sending her the infamous Cosmogenesis section, and never heard from her again. I guess some people only permit themselves to be so weird.

But in my opinion, Rosen was plenty weird. Although he published his ideas in respectable journals, one can easily see how they could be plundered by unrespectable Raccoons and made to look weirder than he might have wanted. A good summary from the wiki entry: he

"believed that the contemporary model of physics -- which he thought to be based on an outdated Cartesian and Newtonian world of mechanisms -- was inadequate to explain or describe the behavior of biological systems; that is, one could not properly answer the fundamental question What is life? from within a scientific foundation that is entirely reductionistic.

"Approaching organisms with what he considered to be excessively reductionistic scientific methods and practices sacrifices the whole in order to study the parts. The whole, according to Rosen, could not be recaptured once the biological organization had been destroyed. By proposing a sound theoretical foundation via relational complexity for studying biological organization, Rosen held that, rather than biology being a mere subset of the already known physics, it might turn out to provide profound lessons for physics, and also for science in general."

That last bit is what really caught my attention: that biology might be more general than physics, and explain more about it than vice versa! My first thought was that I wanted to buy some pot from him, but by then he was already dead.

The other thing that riveted my attention was the whole idea of relational biology, I mean RELATIONAL biology. Hello?! He's talking about Life Itself as an icon of the trinity. Of course, he never said that, and if I had let that slip to his daughter she would have obtained a restraining order, but what can you do? The Raccoon has no place to rest his head among the tenured, so that's nothing new.

Here are some of the key principles of a relational biology: it "maintains that organisms, and indeed all systems, have a distinct quality called organization which is not part of the language of reductionism.... [O]rganization includes all relations between material parts, relations between the effects of interactions of the material parts, and relations with time and environment, to name a few. Many people sum up this aspect of complex systems by saying that the whole is more than the sum of the parts."

Now, what is a relation? It cannot be the parts as such; rather, it is in the space between. Or in other words, there can be no relation in the absence of this space. Without it there would be the opposite of relatedness, just an undifferentiated, monadic oneness. (Seriously, just look at all the space!)

Now, as mentioned in our book, we do not say that God is the way he is because physics or biology are the way they are; rather, physics and biology are the way they are because God is the way he is. Which is precisely why both are wholly relational right down to the ground. There is nothing "beyond" relation because God is relation. In the absence of God -- a specific type of God -- interior relations would be impossible and unthinkable. So there.

As Rosen wrote, "The human body completely changes the matter it is made of roughly every eight weeks, through metabolism, replication and repair. Yet, you're still you -- with all your memories, your personality... If science insists on chasing particles, they will follow them right through an organism and miss the organism entirely."

Now, take that same idea and apply it to the vertical: a human being is not just an open system on the biological level, but also open on the psychological/emotional/intellectual plane, and even more critically, on the vertical/spiritual. In short, we are always open to O, and cannot not be open to O, on pain of a living spiritual death.

What?

No, I never speculate. This is completely logical, empirical, experiential, and I would even say necessary, in that no other theory can account for the phenomena (or better, theomena).

In our open relationship to God, something is "taken in," metabolized, and assimilated. In a dissipative structure there is a continuous flow of matter, energy, or information. What is the medium of exchange in the divine vortex? You could call it grace. Or, if you spent too much time hanging out at the Bodhi Tree, shakti, or chi, or orgone, or kundalini. In the book I tried to simplify matters by just calling it (≈).

The following could apply equally to horizontal or vertical systems: "The build-up and breakdown" of order is "linked to the environment around us: the inflows of energy must come from outside ourselves, and we in turn must radiate energy to our surroundings." Just say "downflow" of grace and prolongation into the world, and you've got it: downcarnation, you might say. So start spreading the nous!

Cosmological biology tells us that there is more to the universe than we have yet dreamed of. --Harold Morowitz

17 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

Now, take that same idea and apply it to the vertical: a human being is not just an open system on the biological level, but also open on the psychological/emotional/intellectual plane, and even more critically, on the vertical/spiritual. In short, we are always open to O, and cannot not be open to O, on pain of a living spiritual death.

Yes, just so. This resonates with some nebulous thoughts that have been floating around in my noggin for a week or two - the mystery of how it is that on the one hand, we are entirely isolated from each other (for instance, even though as a mother my kids are literally part of me, I have no idea what's going on in their minds most of the time), and yet on the other, it is possible to know and be known from the inside out. "Face to face," and yet far more intimately than that.

1/27/2015 09:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Petey said...

Love is the medium of interior relations.

1/27/2015 09:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Cousin Dupree said...

In my opinion, it all comes back to the dynamic trinity of Spock-Bones-Kirk.

1/27/2015 09:26:00 AM  
Blogger Olden Ears said...

"We are always open to O."

It was about 10 years ago I actually heard the opening sentence of the collect appointed for that Sunday: Almighty God, in Whom we live and move and have our being... Now here I am.

1/27/2015 09:29:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Dupree, we used to joke that if we had a son, we'd name him James Tiberius. Probably a good thing we decided against it. I doubt he'd ever have found friends named for Spock and Bones.

1/27/2015 09:31:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

I do believe the dissipative nature of reality also aligns with the telos of the cosmos. If structures can't be in perfect equilibrium, then there must be an asymmetry to the dynamism of life (which also lines up with Harthshorne's idea that in two complementaries, one must be fundamental). Hence, the cosmos must have direction, incarnationally teleologically speaking.

1/27/2015 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

"Love is the medium of interior relations."

Nicely said Petey!

1/27/2015 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

"No, I never speculate. This is completely logical, empirical, experiential, and I would even say necessary, in that no other theory can account for the phenomena (or better, theomena)."

Exactly, speculation is what it is not. Introspeculation maybe? Hmm, will have to think about that.

1/27/2015 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger John Lien said...

In our open relationship to God, something is "taken in," metabolized, and assimilated. In a dissipative structure there is a continuous flow of matter, energy, or information.

This makes the Eucharist make more sense. Eating is necessary for life.

1/27/2015 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger John Lien said...

Nice suite of posts these past few days.

Life as matter set to cosmo-music.

You done tweaked my worldview.

1/27/2015 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

"... If science insists on chasing particles, they will follow them right through an organism and miss the organism entirely."

I like it. You'd think life would be impossible in the materialists' universe, but death is as much of a problem. How could "life" leave? Apart from being eaten by Chris Christie or Michael Moore.

1/27/2015 01:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Alan said...

As I was about to start this comment I realized how long it had been since I had posted anything here (a veritable coon's age - forgive the really bad joke).

Anyway... I've been reading works mentioned on Edward Feser's blog regarding the "big problem" of consciousness and how the world of "science" is approaching it (varyingly denying it a la Dennet to acknowledging some sense of duality while trying to maintain a materialist reductionist worldview).

While reading that, I thought to myself "isn't the problem of life" even bigger than consciousness for materialists.

Forgive me if I'm asking something that has been covered recently but what is the state of the materialist view of life and are there books anyone would recommend where such views are expressed or promoted.

(I have been reading One Cosmos but more in batches and it is nice to see the names of commenters I recognize and even seeing fresh material continue to pour out of the hands of our host!)

1/27/2015 07:46:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"believed that the contemporary model of physics -- which he thought to be based on an outdated Cartesian and Newtonian world of mechanisms -- was inadequate to explain or describe the behavior of biological systems; that is, one could not properly answer the fundamental question What is life? from within a scientific foundation that is entirely reduction."

And it doesn't take a Sherlock Coon to see where this leads to IRT "what is life?!"

Elementary my dear Whatson.

1/28/2015 04:23:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi Alan. Good to see ya!

1/28/2015 04:24:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Hi Alan--

--what is the state of the materialist view of life and are there books anyone would recommend where such views are expressed or promoted.

It's been awhile since I researched the subject, so I don't really know the answer to that. However, materialism can't really progress on that kind of fundamental question, but can only go around in circles, so the same principles apply.

Robert Rosen is pretty difficult. He mostly wrote for professionals, not the likes of us. Other people that influenced me along the way were Ilya Prigogine, Erich Jantsch, Hans Jonas, Michael Polanyi, Errol Harris, and a few others I'm not thinking of.

Interesting and important subject, since relatively few people deal with the bigger question of the meaning of Life Itself, as opposed to the mechanics of it. Perhaps we'll revisit it if the spirit blows that way.

1/28/2015 07:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Alan said...

USS Ben: Thanks!

Bob: I was thinking both about how materialists explain life as a property of living things - whence it came, how it is measured, etc - and then the philosophical view of the meaning of life given such an explanation.

Thanks for the pointers!

1/28/2015 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Jules said...

After his spectacular Nde, Eben Alexander, the neurologist, he said the brain was a reducing valve for our consciousness. Ie the brain does not produce consciousness. So when we die, our consciousness is intact.

He likened the brain to a radio tuning into a radio station . He also said there are parallel universes, there is reincarnation.
He recovered fully from full on meningitis, after being in a coma for 5;days. Itself extremely unusual.

1/31/2015 04:23:00 AM  

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