James Barham, the philosopher who runs The Best Schools, got collared by friends recently, and had to answer some questions. Like, why is he an atheist but not a Darwinist? This is him on self-organization theory, currently hot.
UD: Among these “new vistas,” we suppose, you must have in mind the theory of “self-organization,” as advocated by Stuart Kauffman and many others, which is all the rage nowadays. Is that right?
JB: Yes and no.
First, we must distinguish very clearly between “self-ordering” processes, in which order occurs spontaneously under nonequilibrium conditions, and real “self-organization,” which has to do with teleological coordination. The first is fairly well understood physically, but falls within what I have been calling the Maupertuis regime. The latter falls within the Ockham regime, but is not understood at all. When we are discussing the latter phenomenon, “self-organization” is nothing more than a label for a puzzling phenomenon.
That doesn’t mean it’s not important. As I say, you can’t break new ground until you are willing to admit there’s something you don’t understand. But sometimes I’m afraid “self-organization” is in danger of turning into a shibboleth—a mental anesthetic—in the same way as “natural selection.” As long as it acts as a stimulant to real research, and not as a narcotic blocking research, I have no problem with the term as a label.
The key is to keep the Maupertuis/Ockham divide firmly in view. The importance of the irreducibility of functional stability to free-energy minimization has been discussed by many authors, notably Howard Pattee, Hubert Yockey, Robert Rosen, and, most recently, David Abel, but it cannot be stressed often enough.(4)
As to what the principle might be that unites the Maupertuis and the Ockham regimes at a deeper level, I would note that cytoplasm is extremely crowded and has many properties in common with gels and liquid crystals. This means that we ought to look to condensed-matter physics for the ultimate explanation of the long-range correlations that are constantly observable in the living state of matter. Many authors, notably Gerald Pollack, Mae-Wan Ho, Giuseppe Vitiello, F. Eugene Yates, Gilbert Chauvet, and Francis Bailly and Giuseppe Longo, are looking into various aspects of this problem, but it is too soon to say where their researches will lead.(5) Or some other set of ideas may ultimately be required, which we can no more envision today than Newton could envision quantum mechanics.
What is certain is that the more we penetrate into the mysteries of the living state of matter, the more Darwin must recede into his proper place as a respected but essentially irrelevant historical figure. You will know that biology has finally become a science on a par with physics when biologists have the same attitude towards Darwin as physicists have towards Galileo and Kepler.
Biology has yet to find its Newton, much less its Einstein, its Heisenberg, its Schrödinger, or its Dirac. Of course, Kant famously declared there could never be a “Newton of the blade of grass,” but if we take “Newton” to refer to a more penetrating physical understanding of life, then he was surely mistaken.
Of course, what Kant most likely intended by invoking the name of Newton was the mechanical form of the laws of nature discovered by that great thinker. And in this sense—that biology is irreducible to mechanism—Kant was of course quite right.
We can best honor Kant’s great and enduring insight by emending Dobzhansky’s old saw to read:
“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of teleology.”
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up #I: He’s an atheist but he thinks reality is real
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up #II: Folk psychology is basically correct
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up III: Biology (like the social sciences) is guilty of massive and systematic equivocation
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up #IV: The theory of natural selection is wholly inadequate to deal with the idea of purpose
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up #V: Another perspective on ID that is too often overlooked – functional stability
(1) Simplicius, Simplicii de caelo, Vol. VII of Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, ed. J.L. Heiberg (Berlin, 1894); p. 148.
(2) Toshiyuki Nakagaki, et al., “Maze-Solving by an Amoeboid Organism,” Nature, 2000, 407: 470.
(3) Alexei Kurakin, “Self-Organization vs. Watchmaker: Stochastic Dynamics of Cellular Organization,” Biological Chemistry, 2005, 386: 247–254; p. 250.
(4) Howard Pattee, “The Physics of Symbols: Bridging the Epistemic Cut,” BioSystems, 2001, 60: 5–21; Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (Cambridge UP, 2005); Robert Rosen, Life Itself (Columbia UP, 1991); David L. Abel, The First Gene (LongView Press, 2011).
(5) Gerald H. Pollack, Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life (Ebner and Sons, 2001); Mae-Wan Ho, The Rainbow and the Worm: The Physics of Organisms, 3rd ed. (World Scientific, 2008); Giuseppe Vitiello, My Double Unveiled: The Dissipative Quantum Model of Brain (John Benjamins, 2001); F. Eugene Yates, “Homeodynamics/Homeokinetics: A Physical Heuristic for Life and Complexity,” Ecological Psychology, 2008, 20: 148–179; Gilbert Chauvet, The Mathematical Nature of the Living World (World Scientific, 2004); Francis Bailly and Giuseppe Longo, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences: The Physical Singularity of Life (Imperial College Press, 2011).