Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Matter, Life, and Culture (so far)

Edit: Tuesday evening, 16 Oct. I have added three paragraphs since first posting this in the morning. They are at the end of the section on Realms of cultural practice.
Having devoted several posts to developing concepts of literary criticism within a pluralist framework, it’s time to have a distinctly different discussion, one about the distinction between the Realms of Matter and of Life. We must be careful here, however, not to think of matter as the inert substance of Descartes’ res extensa. In talking of vibrant matter it seems to me that Jane Bennett has it about right. Rocks, clouds and star dust may not be alive, but in view of quantum mechanics and complex dynamics we cannot say that matter is as dead as Descartes and, of course many others, believed it to be.

Further, I don’t assume that either of these Realms is a single Realm. For the moment, however, I’m going to proceed as though that were the case. What I’m after is the distinction between mere matter, if you will, and life.

Conceptual Machinery: A Review

First, let’s reprise the basic propositions that I stated in From Objects to Pluralism. We have two propositions taken over and modified from Harman:
1. Individual entities of various different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. These entities enter into relations with other entities but are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations.
To these I’ve added two more:
3. Realms of Being consist of specific kinds of entities in specific relations with one another.

4. Our cosmos has evolved from one Realm to the many evident today. It is possible that Realms exist of which we are unaware. There is no obvious limit to the emergence of new Realms from existing ones.
That’s the basic framework we’re working with.

Matter and Life, Rocks and Acorns

Consider the difference between a rock and an acorn. A rock is pretty much a hard dense lump of stuff regardless of its local environment. Whether it’s on the ground in a woods in Western Pennsylvania, or miles under the Pacific in the Marianas Trench, in specimen case in a museum somewhere, or floating somewhere between Jupiter and Mars, it is what it is, a rock. If you nudge it toward the Sun, however, when it gets close enough it will melt, then vaporize, and its atoms will break down into plasma (of the physical kind, not the Latourian). No more rock.

What happens to the acorn in those same contexts? To be honest, I don’t really know. But, shove it toward the Sun and it will vaporize to plasma just like that rock did. Floating in space between Mars and Jupiter it’s just stuff; not as hard and dense as the rock, but pretty mucb dead like the rock. Put it in a specimen case and it’ll just lay there, though it might require some preparation to prevent decay. I don’t know what’ll happen to it in the Marianas Trench—probably, but I’m quite sure that, whatever it is, it’s not going to be what happens in the forest in Western Pennsylvania. In that forest the acorn might get eaten by an animal, it might rot and decay to dust, but it might also germinate and, in time, grow into an oak tree.

For both rocks and acorns there are contexts where they just lay there, doing nothing. There are also contexts in which they’re vaporized. But there is no context for the rock where it catalyzes a local process comparable to that which the acorn can catalyze in the appropriate environment. In the appropriate environment a seedling will sprout from the acorn and then, perhaps, a tree. And that tree will drop more acorns.

The acorn can participate in a causal process that is distinctly different from any causal process in which the rock can participate. That’s the difference I’m after in distinguishing between the Realm of Matter and the Realm of Life. The acorn can replicate itself in a way that’s unlike anything that happens in the Realm of Matter alone, and yet, at every point in its life cycle, the acorn-oak is constituted by matter and so participates in the Realm of Matter.

Objects in the Realm of Life necessarily participate in the Realm of Matter. The converse is not necessarily true. There are many objects in the Realm of Matter that do not participate in Life.

Beyond that, of course, there is the question of how life came from inanimate matter. That is a scientific rather than a philosophical one. But philosophers have to be cognizant of it. And, if I’m to proceed with pluralism I certainly must deal with it because it is, in effect, “in the boundary” between the inanimate and animate realms.

I have little to say about that here, but I’ll quote two paragraphs from a paper David Hays and I published some years ago, A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity:
Prigogine has noted that the twentieth century introduction of physical constants such as the speed of light and Planck's constant has given an absolute magnitude to physical events (Prigogine and Stengers 1984: 217-218). If the world were entirely Newtonian, then a velocity of 400,000 meters per second would be essentially the same as a velocity of 200,000 meters per second. That is not the universe in which we live. Similarly, a Newtonian atom would be a miniature solar system; but a real atom is quite different from a miniature solar system.

Physical scale makes a difference. The physical laws which apply at the atomic scale, and smaller, are not the same as those which apply to relatively large objects. That the pattern of physical law should change with scale, that is a complexity inherent in the fabric of the universe, that is a complexity which does not exist in a Newtonian universe. At the molecular level life is subject to the quantum mechanical laws of the micro-universe. But multi-celled organisms are large enough that, considered as homogeneous physical bodies, they exist in the macroscopic world of Newtonian mechanics. Life thus straddles a complexity which inheres in the very structure of the universe.
Evolutionary Leaps and Realms of Life

Is there only one Realm of Life, or are there several? I don’t know, but I suspect there are several. Whether they’re all sub-realms or exist in parallel, that’s a more subtle question than I’m prepared to address here and now.

Over the last two decades biologists have been talking about major transitions in evolution. John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry wrote a 1995 book on the subject, The Major Transitions in Evolution (1995). Does each transition introduce a new Realm of Life? I don’t know, but that is the kind of question an ontological pluralist should consider—in consultation, of course, with biologists.

I’ve not read Smith and Szathmáry, but the Wikipedia has an entry on it and that entry has a chart listing eight transitions. I’ll simplify things and do a bit of interpreting of the Wikipedia chart. The chart begins with an initial transition from no chemical replication to a world that contains replicating molecules [major transition 1: MT 1]. Are we now in the Realm of Life? Beats me, but possibly so. Let’s go on.

By compressing the next two chart transitions into one we have a transition from replicating molecules to prokaryotic cells [MT 3 on the chart]. Then we have a transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells having a differentiated nucleus and organelles [MT 4]. Compressing two more transitions yields a transition from protists to multicellular organisms: animals, plants, fungi [MT 6]. Then we have the transition from solitary individuals to colonies with non-reproductive castes, such as we have in the eusocial insects [Mt 7] and finally the emergence of human society [MT 8]. These last two strike me as being logically parallel, though MT 7 happened long before MT 8 rather than MT 8 building on MT 7.

What strikes me is that there is no distinction between plants and animals on this chart. Both are forms of multi-celled organism, along with fungi, but transition theory, at least as outlined in the Wikipedia, makes no particular distinction between plants and animals. Should ontology recognize plants and animals as being in different Realms? I suspect so, most likely fungi too, but I’ve not attempted to think it through. Again, that’s the kind of issue we must consider.

My point, then, is just that we cannot a priori consider the Realm of Life to be only one Realm. That’s an issue to be argued on the basis of the stable patterns of causal relationships—in Harman’s sense of vicarious or indirect cause—that different objects have with one another. In a similar fashion, we cannot consider the Realm of Matter to be unitary. It may or may not be. That’s something that needs to be investigated.

Corresponding Realms of Cultural Practice

Now things get trickier. In talking about the Realms of Life and Matter we’re talking about objects such as quarks, leaves, DNA molecules, galaxies, ecosystems, tectonic plates and so forth, the stuff studied by the biological and physical sciences. But what of those sciences themselves, are they not Realms of Being like Naturalistic Literary Criticism and Ethical Literary Criticism?

Yes, they are.

If so, just what do those realms consist of?

Radio telescopes, synchrotrons, microscopes, pipettes, Bunsen burners, cameras, laboratory benches, experimental procedures, observational protocols, notebooks, and so forth, the whole material apparatus of scientific practice that Latour and others emphasize. But also the concepts and cognitive strategies employed in those disciplines and studied in the cognitive sciences.  This is where the study of ontological cognition comes into play. 

How is it that meter readings and photographs are interpreted to be evidence of bosons, gravitational lensing, mitosis, or distant galaxies? Yes, there is the physical apparatus but there is also the mental apparatus, the concepts and methods of inference, conscious and implicit. All these things make up Realms of cultural practice.

The trick, of course, is to be clear about the difference between a Realm of cultural practice, such as molecular biology, and the objects studied by and posited by that discipline, such as DNA. X-ray diffraction radiography is a technique in the Disciplinary Realm of molecular biology; the double-helix DNA molecule is an object in the Realm of Life. Two different Realms, two set of objects. But, obviously, closely connected.

Now we’re in a position to answer questions such as: Which physics? Which biology? Aristotle and Newton proposed somewhat different physics. Aristotle and Darwin proposed somewhat different biologies. Which will we admit to our ontology?

All of them, of course.

With the provision that for each different account of the biological world or the physical world, we have, in parallel, an account of the disciplinary matrix (to borrow a term of Thomas Kuhn) in which the account is constructed. We can accommodate alchemy and astrology in the same way, not to mention creationist biology. Each posits a different set of objects in the world and each consists of a different set of experimental, observational, and cognitive objects.

But if we’re going to admit all this hocus pocus into our ontology, well aren’t we stuck in hopeless relativism?

No. We’re not stuck. For the purpose of living one’s life, one can, one must, pick and choose among the Realms according to suitable criteria. But that’s different from the pluralist study of ontology. The pluralist studies what is without prejudice.

How one lives once one leaves the study, that’s different. There prejudice and choice are unavoidable. But one should strive to leaven prejudice with an explicit politics, ethics, and aesthetics.

That is, whether one adheres, say, to a biology grounded in contemporary evolutionary theory or to one compatible with young-earth creationism is an ethical matter, where ethics is broadly conceived as pertaining to how one lives one’s life. It is a political matter in the sense, I believe, that Latour articulates in Politics of Nature. The choice is not inscribed in some ‘Nature’ that is ‘out there.’ It is a matter of one’s values, of how one interprets and balances a broad range of experiences, influences, knowledge, and insights and determines THIS is how I will live my life.

Such matters have not always and everywhere been presented as explicit choices, as though they’re arrayed on the surface of a table where one can examine them one after another, compare them, and so on and, in time, make one’s choice. For many people at many times, the earth was flat by default and the difference between humans and animals was absolute and categorical. We, some of us, live in a different world. We are aware of different ways of considering the world, different cultural Realms in which one may live,. But we rarely, more likely never, consider the full range of such alternatives. And rarely choose dispassionately when choose we must.

But such choices are beyond ontology. The early Wittgenstein famously said of such matters that we must pass over them in silence. He was wrong about that. He was not however wrong in his judgment that such issues are different from those of ontology. But they are within the broader scope of philosophy, of the love of and search for wisdom.

The Structure of Being, so far

So, we have objects. Objects are organized into Realms of Being according to stable patterns of relations among them. I’m now wondering whether or not there is an even higher level of organization among Realms. Let us provisionally—and here I’m just making things up—call them Arenas of Abundance. Each Arena is constituted by several, perhaps many, Realms of Being.

If I am going to do this, then I’m going to posit three Arena: Matter, Life, and Culture. So far as we know, the Arena of Culture consists almost entirely of Realms constructed by humans. Yes, I understand that animals do have culture—I’m thinking particularly of bird song and of chimpanzee cultures. None of those, however, have been elaborated to the extent and sophistication of human culture. I have no opinion on whether or not there are Beings elsewhere in the universe who have elaborated cultural Realms of their own.

Each of these Arenas has within it many Realms of Being. This higher level structure of Arenas must, of course, be explicitly justified by stable and persisting patterns of relationships among Realms of Being. For example, in the previous section I discussed certain kinds of relationships between intellectual disciplines in the Cultural Arena and objects in the Arenas of Life and of Matter.

Is there an Arena of Abundance beyond these three (Matter, Life, Culture)? I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t exclude the possibility. In fact, I rather suspect that there is. The universe, after all, is abundant. Why should it ever stop evolving Realms?

Alas, I have almost no way to talk about this fourth Arena. I will note, however, an interview I conducted with computer scientist Alan Kay some years ago. Richard Friedhoff and I were interviewing him in connection with our book, Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution (1989). Kay made a remark to the effect that the 20th Century had routinized the business of of creating paradigms. He was using “paradigm” as a generalization over Thomas Kuhn’s notion. Kuhn coined the word for science, and only science; but it had become generalized to all of culture by the mid-1970s, well-before the interview (which took place in the late 1980s).

If THAT sense of paradigm is more or less equivalent to the notion of a Realm of Being in the Cultural Arena—and I’m not sure that it is—then Kay’s remark would seem to imply that we’re already operating in some other Arena, one that can take Realms of Culture as explicit objects of investigation. Either that, or Realms in the Cultural Arena are recursive and so can posit themselves as objects, though perhaps not without paradox and vertigo.

How do we figure out whether or not we are (moving) beyond Culture? What could that possibly mean?

* * * * *

If we accept, even provisionally, the notion that Realms are, in turn, organized into Arenas of Abundance, then our system is based on five propositions:
1. Individual entities of various different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. These entities enter into relations with other entities but are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations.

3. Realms of Being consist of specific kinds of entities in specific relations with one another.

4. Arenas of Abundance, in turn, consist of consistent patterns of relationships among Realms of Being and their constituent entities.

5. Our cosmos has evolved from one Realm to the many evident today. It is possible that Realms exist of which we are unaware. There is no obvious limit to the emergence of new Realms from existing ones.

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