Life After Darwin (another response to Benjamin Cain)

I linked to Cain’s essay on Darwin in my last post on his theory of the psychedelic origins of religion. I wanted to comment on what he tries to do in the Darwin essay. His claim is that, post-Darwin, the old distinction between life and matter no longer holds; therefore, we are all more like undead zombies than living creatures. He even goes so far as to argue that Nature in its entirety must be some kind of Super Zombie.

What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural spirit. Here we had an absolute distinction between life and death, much like Newton’s sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organism’s distinguishing features–its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains–as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwin’s theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next so that their distant ancestors migrate and occupy other niches, becoming more complex and specialized in the process.

I wonder what Cain makes of Kant’s argument in the Critique of Judgment (sec. 75) about the impossibility of explaining living organization according to mechanical causes alone. He (famously or infamously, depending on your philosophical persuasion) claimed that natural science could never understand how even a mere blade of grass grew–that there could never be “a Newton of the grass blade.” Darwin, of course, has been championed by many biologists as precisely such a “Newton of the grass blade.” Many of a more scientistic persuasion have argued that, after Darwin, natural science definitively surpassed philosophy as the superior (if not the only genuine) mode of knowledge production.

Were Kant still alive, I imagine he would dismiss the triumphant claim of scientistic biologists to have explained life mechanistically as but a transcendental illusion. This despite all that has been learned since Darwin about biochemistry and genetics. Organisms display a form of circular causality that is not applicable to machines: in the case of organisms, the cause and the effect are both internal to the organism in question, whereas a machine’s cause is external to its effects. I’ve argued on many occasions that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has more in common with William Paley’s argument from design than most modern biologists are willing to let on. Both Paley and Darwin understood organisms to be machines assembled by an outside “agent”; Paley believed the agent was God, while Darwin showed how Nature could do the same job (at least when analogized to human selection). But Darwin never claimed his theory could explain how organisms themselves were possible. The last paragraph of The Origin of Species defers to a Creator to account for how life may have been originally breathed into the first organism/s. His theory offers an account of organic speciation, not origination. Which is to say that he had to assume the existence of biological individuals for Nature to do the selective work he showed it could.

Post-Kantian thinkers like Goethe and Schelling took Kant’s transcendental claims about organisms to the next level by attempting to articulate how self-organization could be intrinsic to the universe (Kant had only shown that the human mind could not know how organisms were possible in the absence of self-organization, not that such organization was necessarily intrinsic to Nature). Alfred North Whitehead also developed an organic conception of the universe. Cain’s argument in favor of a zombie universe is one possible direction to take after Darwin’s erasure of the life/matter dichotomy. The other direction would be to accept something like Whitehead’s panexperientialism, whereby material bodies at every level of organization (from the atomic to the astral and galactic) are in some sense “alive.” I argued as much in my essay on Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

See below for more in depth arguments about this topic…


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Benjamin Cain says:

    Well, I take the undead god idea to be pantheistic. The point is that science is methodologically naturalistic and thus atheistic, and yet nature is mindlessly creative, meaning that there’s no intended endpoint, but there’s plenty of evolution and complexification (novel diachronic and synchronic changes, yielding emergent properties). So intuitively, nature takes on the role of God. Nature must be self-creating, as explained by quantum mechanics, and self-evolving. We’re forced to think of nature as having creative power without any personhood, and so everything in nature becomes curiously undead (including us): neither living in any supernatural way nor dead in the sense of being inert and incapable of surprises.

    My thoughts on scientism are up in a new article on R. Scott Bakker’s blog (link below). I have this debate with him where I push the transcendental line against his cognitive scientific theory of the mind. He thinks it’s mechanisms (heuristics) all the way down, but I’m suspicious even of the concept of “mechanism.” It’s quasi-teleological, since the idea of a mechanism comes out of an engineering, anthropocentric context, like all concepts symbolized in natural language. I interpret the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright as explaining the teleological aspect of all special sciences and ceteris paribus “laws” (i.e. models). These laws pick out idealized situations that require conditions to be just so. Economics is the most extreme example of this, where the mathematical model is highly idealistic and really never applies to the actual world, because the stars never align to live up to the economist’s principles. In this way, the difference between natural and social laws breaks down.

    The debate here is whether science deals with laws or with models. Cartwright says says models, but models are simplifications which edit out irrelevant properties, according to aesthetic, rather Platonic criteria. The idea is that we see patterns within the buzzing confusion of actual phenomena, but our way of seeing reads between the lines, as it were. We see how things should be, using our concepts to stereotype and simplify, not just to record or list everything we actually perceive in all its imperfections. So there’s something teleological about scientific explanation in general, and this gets worse when we resort to mathematics. Anyway, this is a Platonic, transcendental line of argument.

    I agree about Darwin. He doesn’t explain the origin of life. I think something like viruses (self-assembling molecules) would be the missing link between life and nonlife. As for self-creation, quantum mechanics takes care of this since empty space is in flux, according to the uncertainty principle.

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