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

What is Life? (Response to Joe Norman)

Sharing my reply below to a brilliant series of thoughts concerning the essence of life at Joseph W. Norman’s blog (CLICK HERE TO READ IT).


Thanks for pointing out the relevance of N. Taleb’s distinction between randomness and an agent’s exposure to randomness for the question of “life.” Much to ponder here…

My friendship with the idea of autopoiesis is about as old as my friendship with you. I’ve felt a deep kinship with the scientific scheme and the phenomenological/philosophical method developed by Maturana, Varela, Thompson, et al., since my first exposure to them in Mason Cash’s Philosophy of Mental Representation course back at UCF in 2006ish. In the decade since, I’ve fallen in love with Schelling and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. I have not fallen out of love with autopoiesis (or enactivism) in all this time, but I have found myself entering into a (friendly!) polemic with Evan Thompson about whether or not autopoietic biology and enactive cogntive science remain ontologically underdetermined. I’ve argued that the Chilean school (and its inheritors) can find an elucidating metaphysical foundation in Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy of organism.

From my perspective, the initial sites of inquiry whenever we ask about the essence of life must be agency and intuition. The only reason physical science needs a special science called “biology” is because when human knowers observe living organisms, they cannot help but intuit an agency in them. This “living” agency is understood by physicists to be absent in “merely” physical (i.e., “non-living”) processes.

Accept for a moment, if you will, my parody of the polemic between a reductive physicist and an emergentist biologist:

The physicist argues that whatever “life” is, and whatever our experienced “intuitions” of it might be, all of its apparently living agency, and all of our apparently “inner” intuitive experiences of it, are really just external mechanical processes that have not yet been fully understood and explained in terms of the equations of physics.

For the emergentist biologist, in contrast, “life” has real effects on physical processes. Life is a cause, even if secondarily (and improbably!) emergent from primary physical causes. Life makes a difference in how things happen. Life is not a passive passenger on planet Earth. The “laws” of physics may provide life’s primary environmental condition, but to say life slavishly “obeys” these laws is to dramatically downplay the extent to which life uses these laws as a stage upon which to innovate. Earth is not a dead rock with a few patches of slime growing in scattered crevices. Earth–better, Gaia–is a living community composed of multifarious organic agents whose eco-semiotic entanglements have made them evolutionary players since day one in the +4 billion year formation of the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Earth is an ecopoietic process (h/t Lovelock). “Not only is life a planetary phenomenon, but the material environment of life on Earth is in part a biological construction” (Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 119).

The biologist thinks of life as something irreducible to physics. Life is something special, perhaps unique in all the universe, present only on our pale blue dot. We should feel lucky to be alive.

The reductive physicist endeavors to resolve what appears to be “life” into something more generic, to explain it away as a local anomaly temporarily afloat amidst a sea of total randomness.

But what if life is more generic than matter, organism more generic than mechanism? If Robert Rosen is right, the biologist and the physicist both have inadequate ideas of life. Whitehead would say this is because both have unquestioningly accepted the modern bifurcation of nature into physical causes and psychical excitations. Why must we bifurcate nature? Is there a good philosophical argument for doing so?

The biologist’s idea of life isn’t radical enough: it doesn’t get to the root of our intuition of the agency of organisms. The physicists idea of life isn’t revolutionary enough: it doesn’t fully embrace Giordano Bruno’s Copernican intuition that the center of the cosmos is everywhere because life pervades the cosmos.

I wonder if we might re-examine your claim that “a hurricane is not alive because there is a missing ingredient”… Are we sure that a hurricane doesn’t feel to us in some way living? We may have learned a scientific rationale for why we should not think of hurricanes as alive. Ignoring this rational norm could be professionally hazardous for an academic! But if we look again at a hurricane through the eyes of a child, without all our smart ideas about it?

Is there really a missing ingredient here? Obviously there is a long chain of auto-catalytic chemistry (etc.) separating a dissipative structure like a hurricane from a human person. But again, what if biological life is a special case of a more generic or cosmic tendency toward organizational complexity? Could it be that we have too deflated a view of the teleodynamics of hurricanes and too inflated a view of human consciousness? Do we know that hurricanes are not sometimes capable of following ocean temperature gradients? Might some sort of “structural coupling” or “concern” emerge in the creative tension between differentially heated water and air? Obviously, plenty of hurricanes don’t follow the temperature gradient and thus unravel into chaos. But some hurricanes, the one’s which grow and thrive, do follow the gradient. They do so with gusto. In the satellite image you can literally see Erma’s heartbeat as she eats evermore heat and grows and thrives. Isn’t this a kind of natural selection at work (even if only at the level of self-production or autopoiesis, without the help of reproduction)? From one perspective, hurricane Erma’s teleodynamic behavior is blind chance. From another perspective, this is a sentient cloud. And anyway, isn’t the human mind a lot more like a cloudy sky than a self-regulating free agent? Aren’t we constantly pulled in circles by love and strife (heat and cold in hurricanese), swayed this way and that by fortune and fury? Conscious reflection and intention are the rolling thunder of the mind. They come loudly, but late, always after organic intuition in a flash brings new worlds into view. Life lives in this flash of intuition prior to reflection upon objects over and against subjects. This is Stu Kauffman’s “poised realm” of adjacent possibilities. This is the capacity to ingress novelty, and it is not specific to biological organisms. Life is the aim toward the future enjoyed in the present. It is essential to the whole of cosmogenesis.

This way to panpsychism.




10 responses to “What is Life? (Response to Joe Norman)”

  1. Joe Norman Avatar

    Thanks for your reply Matt.

    I don’t think there is cause for putting much weight on the idea that hurricanes have telos of some kind. Simply, there is no evident media for its ‘behaving’ in such a way. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t, but I wouldn’t spend too much time wondering if it ‘really is’.

    That said it is telling and validating of my proposal that the degree to which you perceive a hurricane to be crafting its own exposure is the degree to which you perceive it to be a living entity.

    It is interesting what clues we use to perceive what in our environment has agency, and what not, but I would not rely on these judgements being uniformly correct.


    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      Thanks, Joe. I do like the language of exposure crafting for talking about these issues. My take would be that this crafting happens in all self-organizing processes (where “self” need not necessarily imply conscious reflection, but only that a process is not completely determined by its environment).

      I guess I spend most of my time wondering what “really is.” Ontology is my favorite game to play. Scientifically speaking, it is perfectly fine to limit ourselves to saying telos cannot be definitively affirmed or ruled out in a far from equilibrium heat dissipator. But when we start doing cosmology–that is, when we start talking about the nature of the universe as such–we need to decide whether telos is real or not. If it only becomes real once a certain magical threshold is crossed, we need to find some way of mitigating that magic with an actual explanation (unless we are content with mysterianism).

      Science cannot rely only on intuitions for its inquiries (though I think most new research programs and paradigms are abductions from novel intuitions). But part of what I’m trying to get at in my response is that, in the case of “life,” our intuitions are among the primary evidences available to us. Going back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), the only reason natural science needs a distinct discipline called biology is because we intuit agency in some processes that cannot, even in principle, be explained mechanically. If we don’t want to accept panexperientialism, we are stuck having to accept a miracle or having to explain how mechanism can produce, via “emergence,” something radically non-mechanical. Does Taleb’s notion of exposure crafting help close this gap?

      If we are open to it, the path from questioning the bifurcation of nature to affirming panexperientialism goes something like this:

      In Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797), Schelling wrote:

      “So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”

      In Process and Reality (1929), Whitehead wrote:

      “It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is doubled-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.”

      This is speculative philosophy, not empirical science. I’m perfectly happy not having scientific answers to these questions. The question of life may always be a mystery to science. Philosophy might offer us other avenues toward understanding it.

      1. Joe Avatar

        From my perspective, it is clear that this crafting does NOT happen in all self-organizing systems.

        Your take on philosophy tends to be along the lines of ‘everything is everything’, ‘everything is conscious’, ‘everything has experience’, ‘everything crafts its own exposure’.

        Whenever *everything* is/had some-thing, the global redundancy reduces the information content to 0.

  2. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

    Joe, I would say there are plenty of salient distinctions to be made. Most importantly, that between a self-organizing process and chaos; otherwise put, between an individual and an aggregate of individuals. In the later case, the agency of individuals is averaged out. So a rock, as an aggregate, is not an agent and does not craft exposure. Further, it is important to recognize that individuals/self-organizing processes are graded. There is a scale of complexity that thinkers like Erich Jantsch and more recently Alicia Juarrero (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/dynamics-action) have done a lot of careful work to flesh out.

    1. Joe Avatar

      aggregates only ‘average out’ if their behavior is independent. do the ‘components’ of a rock have agency? or is it aggregates all the way down for a rock? what are the properties, features, behaviors that make some things other than ‘mere aggregate’?

      1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        An organic realism would suggest that some processes within rocks do have varying degrees of agency. Crystallization is telic. Atoms are self-organizing ecopoietic agents. The periodic table of elements is a taxonomic hierarchy sorting different species of living organism.

        What turns aggregation into agency? I guess we call that “soul” or “psyche.” Or we call it “life,” “consciousness.” But what is it and where does it come from? Is it really just an illusion (=Dennett)? Does it somehow “emerge” out of non-living matter (=Deacon)? Or, is soul active cosmically from the get go? Is space-time/matter-energy intrinsically experiential, concernful, aesthetically invested in what is going on?

        If not, if no soul holds the cosmos whole, then what are our alternatives for resisting exposure to randomness, that is, to vain meaninglessness? Can we make meaning of a story about the emergence of mind from matter? I mean, can we derive our sense of purpose from the idea that birth was the absolute beginning and death the absolute end of what I call me myself? Can we see the human being as a civilized creature, a rational animal, if we also believe that this creature’s mind is ultimately nothing more than an aggregation of cells? Plenty have tried over the millennia. Here is Nabokov (recently excerpted inBlade Runner 2049):

        “The Crashaw Club had paid me to discuss
        Why Poetry Is Meaningful To Us.
        I gave my sermon, a full thing but short.
        As I was leaving in some haste, to thwart
        The so-called “question period” at the end,
        One of those peevish people who attend
        Such talks only to say they disagree
        Stood up and pointed his pipe at me.

        And then it happened–the attack, the trance,
        Or one of my old fits. There sat by chance
        A doctor in the front row. At his feet
        Patly I fell. My heart had stopped to beat,
        It seems, and several moments passed before
        It heaved and went on trudging to a more
        Conclusive destination. Give me now
        Your full attention.
        I can’t tell you how I knew–but I did know that I had crossed
        The border. Everything I loved was lost
        But no aorta could report regret.
        A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;
        And blood-black nothingness began to spin
        A system of cells interlinked within
        Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
        Within one stem.
        And dreadfully distinct
        Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

        I realized, of course, that it was made
        Not of our atoms; that the sense behind
        The scene was not our sense. In life, the mind
        Of any man is quick to recognize
        Natural shams, and then before his eyes
        The reed becomes a bird, the knobby twig
        An inchworm, and the cobra head, a big
        Wickedly folded moth. But in the case
        Of my white fountain what it did replace
        Perceptually was something that, I felt,
        Could be grasped only by whoever dwelt
        In the strange world where I was a mere stray.

        And presently I saw it melt away:
        Though still unconscious, I was back on earth.
        The tale I told provoked my doctor’s mirth.
        He doubted very much that in the state
        He found me in “one could hallucinate
        Or dream in any sense. Later, perhaps,
        but not during the actual collapse.
        No, Mr. Shade.”
        “But, Doctor, I was dead!
        He smiled. “Not quite: just half a shade,” he said.

        Ecclesiastes tells another story: From dust we come and to dust we shall return. And yet, so the story goes, those who love God can follow another path that leads beyond this world:

        “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?”

        Panpsychism is an alternative to materialism, emergentism, and traditional theism. It sees life running up and down this world from top to bottom. It grants spiritual dignity to all beings, not just humans, or even just animals, plants, and cells, but to planets, stars, and galaxies, to protons and electrons. It makes meaning at a cosmic level, rather than limiting meaning to humanity, or to biology. None of which is to say it makes everything everything. It isn’t panpanism. There is a hierarchy, a holarchy (Koestler), a cosmic tree with roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. But all of it is sentient in degrees.

  3. What is Life? (Part 2) – Footnotes2Plato Avatar

    […] Continuing this dialogue, particularly the question of whether rocks have agency. […]

  4. Joe Avatar

    so, in other words ‘magic’ gives the components of the rock agency, but not the rock itself

    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      Organization gives them agency. What gives them this outward organization? Experiential intensity. That’s the wager, at least.

  5. philiptryon Avatar

    Joe, I thought you asked good questions and drew Matthew out of his comfort zone a bit.
    What neither of you mentioned is that every organism – every entity with an agenda and an ability to perceive facts about surroundings and opportunities/liabilities – has countless similar predecessors. Predecessors who formed in a similar way and had a similar agenda.
    When it comes to the Matthew’s final question, “What gives them this outward organization?”, it may be helpful to consider what is retained through time in terms of information defining the overall script of the organism, as well as how it (the retained script) manifests itself in the individual enactment.
    And is there room for, or a source of, informed (not random) improvisation in the course of enactment of the recurring script?
    And finally,is this improvisation (or information gained from it) also retained as part of the evolving script?

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: