“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Robert Rosen and Friedrich Schelling on Mechanism and Organism

I’ve been reading some of the theoretical biologist Robert Rosen‘s essays on the relationship between biology and physics and can’t help but compare him to Friedrich Schelling.

Rosen writes:

[Contemporary physics embodies] a mechanistic approach to biological phenomena, whose only alternative seems to be a discredited, mystical, unscientific vitalism. [It] supposes biology to be a specialization of something inherently more general than biology itself, and the phenomena of life to be nothing but very special embodiments of more universal laws, which in themselves have nothing to do with life and are already independently known. In this view, whatever problems set biology apart from the rest of science arise precisely because organisms are so special.

One prevailing manifestation of such ideas is the naive reductionism that passes today as the prevailing philosophy underlying empirical approaches to organisms. The very word connotes that living things are special cases of something else, and that we learn everything there is to know about them by reducing them, treating them as mere corollaries of what is more general and more universal.

However, organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.

-(p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000).

Schelling, considering nature’s fundamental organization, writes:

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.

-(p. 70, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI).






5 responses to “Robert Rosen and Friedrich Schelling on Mechanism and Organism”

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Oh Alex Rosenberg… This will be fun to watch. Thanks, Dirk!

      1. dmfant Avatar

        ha, a sharp axe on your part will require a rough stone, why settle for straw-men when you can aim high and embrace the agon, remember Heraclitus!

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        I don’t know… Rosenberg’s arguments are tired. He seems to selectively ignore large portions of cutting edge theoretical biology. Is he really still going to argue that “passive environmental filtering” is a robust explanation for organismic adaptation? What about the obvious role organisms play in constructing their own niches? What about the fact that biosystemic feedback loops have non-teleologically regulated the atmospheric composition to keep the temperature relatively stable despite a 25% increase in the Sun’s heat output over the past few billion years?

        And I’d dispute his claim that biological life must begin at a point of zero adaptation. There is evidence of adaptation in physical ecologies prior to the form of adaptation Darwin discovered operating in biological ecosystems (an adaptive mechanism that requires natural selection of inherited variation). Wherever resilient ecosystems are found, whether at the atomic, biotic, or anthropic level, it is evident that their success is a result of an adaptive association of organisms “providing for each other a favorable environment.” Whitehead offers a descriptive example in Science and the Modern World (see Ch. 6) of the adaptive evolution of atomic ecologies: “Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.” Obviously this is a different sort of adaptation that that described by Darwin, since it doesn’t depend on inheritance (so far as we know–if Sheldrake turns out to be right about morphic fields then maybe there is a non-local form of inheritance). But still, it shows that adaptations can emerge “for free,” as Stu Kauffman might say, as a result of the intrinsic self-organizational tendencies of matter.

  1. gary goldberg Avatar
    gary goldberg

    Rosen’s book “Life Itself” elaborates further on these ideas and is a very important book in understanding the alternative to radical Newtonian materialism/naturalism with the recognition of the importance of the organization of matter than the constitution of matter in living organisms. Another recent book is one that I think I may have previously mentioned is “Beyond Mechanism” Edited by Brian Henning and Adam Scarfe and Dorion Sagan…


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