Friday, June 19, 2015

Toward Radical Organicism: A Rant on the Philosophy of Nature as Creature

The processes that operate inside a living cell might tempt us to credit for their organized complexity some kind of executive intelligence. And any such intelligence as might be involved in the metabolic churnings of a cell must reside either beyond this world (i.e., in deity) or within this world (e.g., in DNA). Admittedly, the former conjecture asserts intelligence literally, while the latter attributes it more or less figuratively.

Nonetheless, such speculations invite philosophizing:
  • Can a nonphysical anything wield intelligence?
  • Can intelligence reside in a mere, albeit complex, molecule?
Cutaway illustration of the living cell.  Neither divine artifact nor improbable chemical machine.
Point is (aside from the prospect that intelligence is no natural kind at all but a construct of human definitions and usages) recommending either approach toward understanding nature’s organized processes is to anthropomorphize: Both approaches, metaphysical and merely material, project human capacities onto things that are not human. To project intelligence onto supernatural entities or onto master molecules is to anthropomorphize, a conceit that inquiries into nature ought to avoid.

To suppose that a deliberating mind is needed to design or operate the biochemical levers that trigger or impede processes inside a cell is to anthropomorphize. To suppose that somewhere physically inside the cell is a something that makes such decisions as are made is to anthropomorphize. This latter observation is particularly the case now that research into gene regulatory networks demonstrates that the biochemistry inside a cell operates as an organic whole. There are dependencies and interdependencies, but no executive intelligence sits atop a hierarchy of control.

We have “intelligent” and “design,” “master genes,” “control switches,” “codes” and “programs” from which to construct an understanding of the cell as a representative organism. Such concepts are fine work-a-day metaphors, but literalizing and projecting them onto nature is a detour into anthropomorphism. Nature is not designed or programmed by an intelligence or anything else. Nature is not a whew! of chance. Nature is not of gods or fortunate happenstance. Nature is neither a miracle nor a machine.

Peel back the curtain, and there’s nothing to see. Nature, in all its messy complexity, in all its nurturing and desolation, in all its unlikely satisfactions is all there is: Organism. Nature earns its living by weaving novelty, habit, objects and subjects into ever more intense, elaborate and sublime aesthetic processes and experiences. It suffers the setbacks inherent in being alive. Its animate soul inspires each new universe it bears. Nature is ontologically animate, exuberant, irreducible, and non-contingent. This is the broad sense of organicism, the last philosophy left standing once dumb dead matter and disembodied consciousness have slapped one another silly.