Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hylozoism

[updated below]

is my vocabulary word for today (via). It's one of those things I feel I ought to have known many years ago. Wikipedia says:
Hylozoism is the philosophical conjecture that all or some material things possess life, or that all life is inseparable from matter.
I was unusually moved to make some Wikipedia edits, and added two of my favorite intellectual weirdos to the list of contemporary hylozoics:
Architect Christopher Alexander has put forth a theory of the living universe, where life is viewed as a pervasive patterning that extends to what is normally considered non-living things, notably buildings. He wrote a four-volume work called The Nature of Order which explicates this theory in detail.

Bruno Latour's actor-network theory, based in the sociology of science, treats non-living things as active agents and thus bears some resemblance to hylozoism. This work has spawned a movement called Object-oriented philosophy which promotes the idea of a "democracy of objects".
And I see animism has a homepage.

I find myself attracted and repelled by these ideas; partly out of intellectual naughtiness -- they are very much not in the spirit of the nerdy materialist culture I was educated in. On the other hand, they aren't that far apart either -- you can see both strands of thought (mechanistic AI style and squishy panpsychic California style) intermingle over the years, for instance at the historical Macy conferences.

And of course, I'm a victim of the same tendency I criticized in this post on the Singulatarians. For some reason, everybody thinks its very important to get metaphysics straight, to know for certain whether mind or matter or life or god or whatever is the ultimate foundation of reality. On my better days I know this is a dumb question, dumb because unanswerable, and the question itself is just a reflection of the limited metaphors we use to construct our models of the universe. Perhaps the real foundation of the universe is status, and the real reason we are so eager to fight for our particular metaphysics is so that the intellectual tribe we identify with (eg, physicists, anthropologists, theologians...) can thump its chest and declare itself more important than the rest.

[update: this earlier post is on related themes...which I realize now probably falls under the rubric scientific romanticism. Here's no less a light than Freeman Dyson:
Is it possible that we are now entering a new Romantic Age, extending over the first half of the twenty-first century, with the technological billionaires of today playing roles similar to the enlightened aristocrats of the eighteenth century? ... a new Age of Wonder would be a shift backward in the culture of science, from organizations to individuals, from professionals to amateurs, from programs of research to works of art...If the new Romantic Age is real, it will be centered on biology and computers, as the old one was centered on chemistry and poetry.
]

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hylozoism was once a very common view, and particularly informed the thinking of many alchemists. Indeed, before Pasteur and the discovery of microbial/enzymatic activity, hylozoism was the only obvious explanation for spontaneous change in apparently dead matter, e.g., the "growth" of saltpetre in nitrous earths, or the fixation of iron by chemotrophic bacteria in chalybeate hot springs.

The abiogenetic hypothesis - that life as we know it originated spontaneously by virtue of chemical reactions in a primordial soup, without any external agency (the idea begin the unsuccessful Urey-Miller experiment) - appears to have much in common with earlier hylozoism. Urey and Miller were in some sense successors to Faust and his homunculus.

Anonymous said...

bad self-proofrerading - the parenthetical expression in the second para. of the prev. post should read "the idea _behind_ the unsuccessful Urey-Miller experiment".

mtraven said...

The Urey-Miller experiment was neither unsucessful, nor particularly in the spirit of hylozoism as I understand it. It fits quite comfortably into a standard materialist worldview that drives normal science.

Anonymous said...

The Urey-Miller experiment did not generate recognizable life forms. It thus was just as unsuccessful a demonstration of abiogenesis as were Paracelsus's attempts to create an homunculus, upon which the passages to which I alluded in Goethe's "Faust" were based.

The concept of animated matter, so central to hylozoism, was much debated in the seventeenth century. Robert Boyle was drawn into the study of chemistry by his philosophical opposition to this idea. See for further discussion Antonio Clericuzio's essay in "Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories", eds. Luthy, Murdoch, and Newman (Leyden, 2001: Brill Academic).

That happenstance congelations of apparently dead matter can, without external agency, give rise to life as we know it, is an hypothesis going back at least to Lucretius, and is central to hylozoism. One would have to be quite oblivious to the history of ideas not to see the similarity of this concept to that implicit in the Urey-Miller experiment, or indeed to "the standard materialist worldview that drives normal science."

mtraven said...

The Urey-Miller experiment was neither unsucessful, nor particularly in the spirit of hylozoism as I understand it. It fits quite comfortably into a standard materialist worldview that drives normal science.
-
It wasn't intended to create "recognizable life forms"; it was intended to show how organic compounds could form under prebiotic conditions -- which it did. That's why it's science and not alchemy. There is a difference, you know.

My impression of the meaning of hylozoism (and I won't vouch for its accuracy since I just learned the temr a couple of days ago) is that it refers to a sort of panvitalism, of life as a field permeating what is normally considered nonliving matter. That's a vastly different notion than modern models of the abiotic origins of life, which don't involve any such vitalist ideas.

Anonymous said...

You are relying on an overly restrictive definition of hylozoism. "Modern models of the abiotic origins of life" are thoroughly Lucretian in character, and would have been recognized as such by Boyle.

You are also redefining the purpose of the Urey-Miller experiment to suit your position. Here's a short description of it as given at www.juliantrubin.com/bigten/miller_urey_experiment.html -

"The Miller-Urey experiment was an experiment that simulated hypothetical conditions present on the early Earth in order to test what kind of environment would be needed to allow life to begin."

Obviously, life didn't begin as a result of the experiment. It was unsuccessful in that respect. The most that can be said of it is that it was inconclusive, since even though it did not demonstrate the hypothesis, it didn't disprove it either.

mtraven said...

Re the Urey-Miller experiment, you simply have no idea what you are talking about.

Re hylozoism, maybe. I'm taking a modern, scientific view of it, where it represents a tendency towards a set of fringe beliefs. I have no real feel for what it meant to premodern minds, so I'll have to take your word for it.

Anonymous said...

And how, regarding the Urey-Miller experiment, may we know you have any better idea of what you are talking about? Have you spoken personally with Urey or Miller, or read their journal articles?

I'll happily admit that all I have read about the experiment is the sort of popular description for which I provided the link. Such descriptions note a number of criticisms of it by Urey's and Miller's professional colleagues, in which (among other things) suggestions are made that the atmosphere with which they began was not of the same compositions of the early earth, that the mineral composition of the earth's crust may not have been as they expected, etc. So it is possible they could have persisted with the experiment for many months or years longer while still achieving nothing resembling conditions that actually existed.

This seems all to familiar to one familiar with the history of chemistry. Alchemists often pursued long and futile coctions, some for entire lifetimes, without finding the philosophers' stone, the elixir of life, or the alkahest - and their colleagues explained their failure by saying they had not used the proper ingredients, or regulated their furnaces incorrectly, or some other excuse. Centuries passed before it was recognized that their theories were wrong. Plus ça change.

No experiment can prove a theory. A well-designed experiment either demonstrates a theory by yielding results that are strongly supportive of it (e.g., the Curies' early experiments suggesting that there had to be some element in pitchblende other than uranium or thorium to account for its total measurable radioactivity), or it disproves the theory (e.g., Albert Michelson's and Edward Morley's experiment disproving the existence of aether; Lavoisier's experiment disproving Becher's and Stahl's phlogiston theory). As compared to these experiments the best that can be said of Urey's and Miller's is that it is inconclusive - not least because their colleagues are not even agreed that the conditions under which it was conducted resembled those of the early earth. It was neither broadly supportive nor positively disprobative of their hypothesis.

And, certainly, as regards "modern models of the abiotic origins of life," they have in common with those of Lucretius that none of them have ever been documented, demonstrated, or disproved. They remain as speculative as such ideas were in 55 B.C.

mtraven said...

And how, regarding the Urey-Miller experiment, may we know you have any better idea of what you are talking about? Have you spoken personally with Urey or Miller, or read their journal articles?

Well, anyone who has taken and retained a high-school level biology course would know this, but if you like, here's one of the original publications. As you can see, there's no alchemical or promethean cackling over Life! Itself!, just boring old chemistry. There's a longer survey paper from 1959 entitled Organic Compound Synthesis on the Primitive Earth if you are really interested, you can find it via Google scholar, but it too will disappoint anyone looking for Paracelsus or Frankenstein.

I don't really think you need to be lecturing me on the epistemology of science, I do it for a living.

And, certainly, as regards "modern models of the abiotic origins of life," they have in common with those of Lucretius that none of them have ever been documented, demonstrated, or disproved. They remain as speculative as such ideas were in 55 B.C.

While you are right that all origin-of-life theories so far are speculative, there is a big difference between those of today and those of Lucretius, namely, ours are informed by a far better understanding of how the material world actually works. For instance, one my favorite OOL theories is the RNA World hypothesis, which is based on the observation that RNA networks can be autocatalyzing. It's not even a complete theory, it just fleshes out one step of a possible path from no life to life as we know it today -- which is just what Urey-Miller did.

Do you have a point?

Anonymous said...

My point is that abiogenesis as asserted by recent theorists, like the theory set forth by Lucretius in De rerum natura, is - absent documentation, demonstration, or disproof - best regarded as just another creation myth, in this case, a creation myth for atheists.

As for "alchemical or promethean cackling over Life Itself" - this is a characterization drawn from popular fiction rather than from any sober study of the history of chemistry. Alchemy was just early chemistry, with some wrong theoretical underpinnings. That was Justus von Liebig's view of it, and it is mine.

While ordinary synthetic and analytic chemistry are fairly settled bodies of knowledge today, certainly any speculative investigation of the purported abiogenetic origins of life falls outside their purview - and it is an unseemly arrogance to suppose that its theoretical foundation is any more positive than those of similar earlier notions of animated matter.

jlredford said...

"Hylozoic" is also the title of a recent Rudy Rucker SF novel, where it becomes literally true because of some kind of post-singularity nanotech. I'm not very far into it, because Rucker too erratic to stay at the head of the reading queue, but there's usually some fun stuff in his novels.

Bruce Sterling has been talking about this too for the last decade in terms of wanting an Internet of Things. Stuff should be sentient enough to know what we want of it. E.g. "Hey books, where is the one of you that I was reading last week in the bathtub?" When people in the modern world have literally tons of stuff lying around, they need some help from it for it to get used.

mtraven said...

My point is that abiogenesis as asserted by recent theorists, like the theory set forth by Lucretius in De rerum natura, is - absent documentation, demonstration, or disproof - best regarded as just another creation myth, in this case, a creation myth for atheists.

And I explained how they are different.

As for "alchemical or promethean cackling over Life Itself" - this is a characterization drawn from popular fiction rather than from any sober study of the history of chemistry.

Yes, that was somewhat unfair. I'm perfectly happy to acknowledge the historical contributions of alchemists to the development of chemistry -- but they are different. Roughly speaking, science is modern, alchemy is premodern, and the contemporary forms of hylozoism that I mentioned strike me as attempts to either go backwards from or beyond the modernist "settlement" (Latour's term), because the modernist model is unsatisfying in some way.

While ordinary synthetic and analytic chemistry are fairly settled bodies of knowledge today, certainly any speculative investigation of the purported abiogenetic origins of life falls outside their purview - and it is an unseemly arrogance to suppose that its theoretical foundation is any more positive than those of similar earlier notions of animated matter.

Not really. Informed speculation about that kind of thing is well within the mainstream of science, although of course experimental confirmation is still the gold standard. Schrödinger's "What is Life" is a good example of a purely speculative exercise about the physical structure that could support life that eventually panned out in the discover of DNA.

And I just got done explaining why those speculations are better than those of the premoderns, so what is the point of reiterating the same wrong point without further argument? You've already demonstrated that you don't understand the goals or methodology of science wrt to the Urey-Miller experiment, so why do you suppose I would find your unsupported opinions interesting?

If you want to chime in about alchemy, feel free, that's something I don't know that much about, but l suggest you leave science alone.

mtraven said...

jlr: yes, I ran across that Rucker book soon after posting...he also has a serious theory of panpsychism and hylozoism which at first glance seemed like bs, but I could be wrong. There's someone who gleefully works to blur the boundaries between science and science fiction.

Anonymous said...

Well, the "goals or methodology of science" outside the physical sciences quite obviously don't meet the same standards of procedural rigor, experimental testability, or predictive value as they do in them.

Your blog drips with contempt for just about everyone with whom you disagree, as do your responses to my observations. This is hardly a substitute for rebuttal, and unlikely to convince anyone who doesn't already agree with you. It's not an attractive trait, and more like that of an ideologue than of a scientist.

The epistemology of science is what you do for a living? Your comments elsewhere have suggested that you are employed in the private sector rather than in academia or government. What do your employers imagine such abstractions bring down to their bottom line?

mtraven said...

Didn't I just supply a reference that proves my point, complete with link to a pdf? What more do you need?

Sorry if you feel dripped upon, but nobody is forcing you to comment here. My feeling is that the level of contempt displayed here is pretty mild relative to the general level of the internet, but your mileage may vary. I also feel I only display contempt when it's called for. In this case, where someone clearly don't know what he's talking about, contempt is called forth, but in areas where you appear to know more than I do (ie, about alchemy) I'm perfectly happy to listen.

My job involves creating computational representations of scientific data, discourse, and reasoning, so I deal with the nuts and bolts of scientific epistemology all the time.

Anonymous said...

"Computational representations..."

Computers are just the latest sort of office machines. You are, in plain language, employed in the office machine business. That does not a philosopher make! A philosophaster, perhaps, who cannot stand it when the same scepticism is applied to his faith in the abiotic origins of life that he applies to the faiths of various theists.

Modern advocates of abiogenesis do not differ in substance from the Epicurean or Lucretian view that the tiniest pieces of matter - call them corpuscles, or seminal atoms, or molecules - can somehow produce living bodies "by a casuall shufleing of matter" (Boyle's words), without the intervention of an external agency. Their claims are distinguished only in technical details, of which an intimate command is unnecessary to understand their overall essence. Nor have they ever successfully demonstrated those claims. Can you show otherwise?

mtraven said...

You once again have no idea what you are talking about, and you don't seem educable, so I don't see any point to continuing the conversation.

Computers may be office machines but the theory of computation is one of the truly deep ideas of the 20th century, causing deep reverberations in physics, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and pretty much everything else. That does not mean that working with computers makes one a philosopher, true. But to dismiss computation as trivial is a pretty good sign of someone whose thinking is decades out of date.

Also, if you want to remain "anonymous" you might consider not repeating the same arguments and phrasing that you used a year ago.

Anonymous said...

It hardly matters how or whether I sign my name. It's an extra step - why bother?

You are a study - one moment, advocating the viewpoint that science is a "social construct," the next defending the current version of it as absolute truth.

And you still haven't shown that anyone has ever successfully demonstrated abiogenesis. How neatly you sidestep that question - because you can't do anything else, unless you want to admit they haven't.

Anonymous said...

See also:

www.alternativeright.com/main/the-magazine/the-myth-of-technological-progress/

mtraven said...

It's common courtesy to identify yourself, especially when there are multiple people commenting.

When did I say "the current version is absolute truth"? And where did I claim that anyone had successfully demonstrated abiogenesis? You are very confused.

Anonymous said...

No, you didn't say anyone had demonstrated abiogenesis. I challenged you to do so, and you have evaded answering the question directly.

You defend the knowledge claims of modern science, if not as absolute truth, then as something close to it, when asserting the superiority of its unproven hypotheses to the unproven hypotheses of the ancient world.

I refer you to your comments third from the top, about the "standard materialist worldview that drives normal science"; fifth from the top, "that's why it's science and not alchemy. There's a difference, you know" (is there?); seventh from the top, "I'm taking a modern, scientific view..."; and so on.

You try to play "modern science" as some sort of trump card, yet if neither its speculative assertions nor those of the ancients are anything but social constructs, how can one be better than the other? You can't have it both ways.

For someone displaying the manners you do to protest about points of courtesy is as amusing a vaudeville as, for example, that of a computer jockey ignorant of Latin or Greek posing as a philosopher.

mtraven said...

Everybody knows that artificial abiogenesis hasn't been demonstrated; I didn't see any particular need to say it.

I've had a series of posts explaining why saying that science is socially constructed is not the same thing as saying it's arbitrary or that any view is as good as any other. Go read them.

I'm not sure why you insist on trying to pull me into exactly the sort of dead-boring standard debates that I am trying to transcend. Read the original post and tell me my agenda is some sort of scientific triumphalism.

Anonymous said...

Social constructivism, indeed, does not say that science is arbitrary; it is more subtle. What it seeks to do is to replace the logic of science with its sociology. According to it, what passes for science at any given moment is not based on what happens to be the evidence for one or another theory, and that belief in reasonable theories is justified simply by their being reasonable; it is, rather, based on the prevailing interests that science serves or is alleged to serve.

I don't for a minute believe that this is true of settled knowledge in the physical sciences. It doesn't seem to me that the laws of kinetics and thermodynamics, or the gas laws, or the modified rule of Crum Brown and Gibson serve any particular social, political, or economic interest. They exist because they are empirically demonstrable and represent objective truth as closely as it is possible for fallible human senses to approach it.

On the other hand, when dealing with unsettled areas such as abiogenesis and its Lucretian assertion that the origins of life lay in the random and purposeless motion of atoms and molecules, it seems to me that there may well be an application for the social-constructivist criticisms. First of all, these hypotheses appear, at least as they are at present formulated, unfalsifiable, and their standing as science thus questionable at best. They also seem to serve a particular non-scientific interest, namely that of proselytizing atheism. To such arguments the best response is the ambivalent verse of Vergil, inspired by the work of Lucretius:

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
atque metus omnis et inexorabile fatum
subjecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari.
[Georgica, II:490 et seq.]

"Happy is he who can know the causes of things,
and trample beneath his feet all fear of inexorable fate, and the greedy cries of Hell."

Examples of some other instances where a similar sociological approach to (purported) science might well be valid are with respect to the effects of peer pressure and competition for funding, academic tenure, or publication space in the studies of climate science or human biodiversity.

mtraven said...

I don't for a minute believe that this is true of settled knowledge in the physical sciences.

They weren't always settled.

Anonymous said...

They weren't always, settled, indeed - but they became settled in a period before the politically correct agenda had influence upon, or even anything to do with, the science in question. Furthermore, the theories of physics and chemistry are inherently more susceptible to experimental testing than are woolly speculations about the origins of life. Accordingly, they were settled by considerations of logic rather than by social pressures.

mtraven said...

You seem to be under the impression that the social construction of science means only explictly political efforts at steering science, and even then you seem to only consider one particular kind of political ideology. That's a very boring point of view, not at all what I'm talking about,. and also clearly wrong.

The point is, that until science is settled, it is unsettled. In its unsettled state, there are many forces pulling it in many different directions. Some may be explicitly or implicitly politcical, others may depend on funding or just on the particular research direction some scientist has chosen, which then becomes his favored approach which he will promote over others. Integrating all these forces into something settled is a social process.

Anonymous said...

The social process is irrelevant to the logic of deduction or the empirical evidence supporting a theory, in any science worthy of the name.

Furthermore, there is a difference between unsettled science and what Hayek has called "scientism." It is into this category that untestable theories, such as those of ancient and modern abiogenesis, fit.

I certainly don't deny the effects of social pressures on scientists. The recent treatment of James D. Watson, or the "Climategate" e-mails (to name just a couple of instances), attest to that. Such episodes should, however, raise a warning flag to their observers that what is involved - whether on the part of the protagonists or their critics - may very well not be merely unsettled science, but an overreaching of the limits of science that trespasses into the territory of scientism or pseudo-science.