Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Élan Vital

I find myself inexplicably drawn to the discredited theory of vitalism, all the more so since it's been my business for the last few years to build tools to help vitalism's murderer, mechanistic biology. Whatever draws me has got to be the same force that draws me towards religion, another area where I really ought to know better than to go. Not very surprising, I suppose, that I should feel some kind of connection between the animation of living matter and the animation of the cosmos as a whole.

Just as I have no truck with fundamentalist or literalist forms of religion, I don't think I'm interested in dumb literalist theories of vitalism, which posit some force or substance that is somehow beyond matter yet acts on it. Dumb vitalism died when the synthesis of urea from inorganic components was demonstrated, thus showing that there was no substantial quality that distinguished the living from the nonliving. So what remains? I'm not sure, just this unshakeable feeling that there is something alive that permeates the world, and that it is as real as anything else, and that it is somehow transcendent or at least orthogonal to the realm of unliving matter. "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower". Or something like that. Just as there are compatabilist versions of religion that can coexist peacably with science, there is perhaps room for a compatabilist vitalism, one that is does not argue against mechanism but lives with it, in it, on it, over it.

I cannot figure out what to do with this feeling. It doesn't really interfere with whatever work I do in support of ordinary science, but it doesn't help much either. Some of it crept into my PhD dissertation, where I looked at how metaphors of aliveness were used in the discourse of programming languages. This was not really ontological vitalism -- it was more of an epistemological treatment, based on the idea that we have different modes of understanding when we think about non-living, physical systems compared with how we think about those that are alive. It's not that living systems contain a magic substance; it's that we can't think about such systems without using concepts like goals, desires, and purposes, and other properties associated with being alive. Organisms may be machines, but they are machines on a level of complexity that we can't capture by comparing them to dishwashers and cars -- they are machines with goals, desires, purposes, and a degree of autonomy. (Of course since then Latour has taught me to see goals and purpose in everything).

I haven't really pursued the idea further since then, but it won't leave me alone.

Awhile back I stumbled on the book Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett whichs seems to be a post-Latourian philosophy of vitalism, or something like that. From there I learned about the concept of conatus, which means something like the innate tendency of all things to try and persist themselves. There's a whole modern vitalistic tradition that is apparently not dumb (as defined above) but it's not clear what it's implications are or whether it's truly worthwhile or a dead-end.

See also previous posts: Hylozoism, Proteus


Ben Hyde said...

I often play a particular card into the game when working on a project. I insist that parts of the system be treated as full fledged individuals.

"This screw hates me. Clearly it was happy in it's jar with it's friends. Look, there, it just dove into the case and is hiding under the mistress motherboard. Silly screw, this is will fulfill you."

I learned this trick before reading Latour, but later I found him using the same device in Love of Technology.

This card tends to trigger strong emotional reactions in my coworkers. Some giggle nervously. Some chortle and join in the fun. Some are annoyed.

I started this habit because it amused me and then continued it because I found that an dose of exaggeration was useful in pushing a design forward. As, for example, the way that root classes tend over time to accumulate all attributes.

But these days I think it's entirely a find idea because it taps into a huge the linguistic and cognitive assets that we all have for talking about human relations. Mother board indeed.

These are very practical benefits. Huge timesavers. And amusing. Given all that it seems a sufficient explanation that we fall into the habit of project in this manner because of those benefits. My annoyed coworkers, I suspect, recognize that my habit has religious and hence anti-science/engineering overtones.

scw said...

Wöhler did not really "synthesize" urea from its isomer ammonium cyanate. He wrote in 1828 to Berzelius that he could "...make urea without the necessity of a kidney, or even of an animal. Ammonium cyanate is urea." He wrote in the same letter, "It is remarkable that for preparation of cyanic acid (and also ammonia) an organic substance is always originally necessary." Note that at the time, "organic" was understood by all (including Wöhler and Berzelius) to mean "of animal or vegetable origin," not merely carbon-based, as it does today.

The word 'synthesis' for the artifical production of an organic compound _from its elements_ was apparently first used by Hermann Kolbe, who was a pupil of Wöhler's. Neither cyanic acid nor ammonia had yet been synthesized in 1828 from their elements. Thus, Wöhler's preparation was not a true synthesis, because the cyanate he used as a precursor was ultimately of animal origin - as he himself acknowledged in the passage quoted above. See Partington's "History of Chemistry," vol. IV, pp. 259-60.

What Wöhler's discovery demonstrated was that an organic compound could be made without being the direct product of a living creature's metabolic process. While that was a significant milestone in the history of chemistry, it was very far from "showing that there was no substantial quality that distinguished the living from the non-living."

mtraven said...

Here's the section of my thesis where I talk about animacy and computation. Unfortunately I was trying to fit the rest of the universe into it as well so didn't treat the issue with the depth it deserved.

Matthew C. said...

Go read Rupert Sheldrake's A New Science of Life. He touches on exactly this with a theoretical framework you might find interesting.

daedalus2u said...

The anthropomorphic imputation of animacy is extremely common, almost universal. I think it is pretty much an artifact of the evolution of human language and language acquisition. I discuss that (somewhat) in two posts I have on autism and xenophobia.

I see autism as a trade-off of a “theory of mind” for a “theory of reality”. The anthropomorphic imputation of animacy is a necessary component to a “theory of mind”. The only way you can understand what someone else is actually communicating is to emulate their thinking so you can instantiate “the same” mental concepts. If you can't instantiate those mental concepts, then you can't understand what it is they are thinking.



When you can't understand what someone is thinking, the normal human default is to impute nonsense or evil which then triggers xenophobia.

I have only looked at the table of contents of your thesis, so my comments right now are shallow. I don't have formal training in this area and have not read a great deal in the area either. I don't want to bias my learning too much. ;)

The imputation of animacy doesn't “solve” the problem of where that animacy comes from, it just moves it to a different meta level. We know that at the bottom level there are not little homunculi inside cells that are pulling levers and controlling things. At the bottom, there is only physiology.

I think the imputation of agency and consciousness is an illusion (albeit a persistent one). There is no self-identical entity that persists over time.

mtraven said...

daedalus2u -- thanks for commenting. I only had time to skim your long piece on theory of mind, which looks very interesting. But I'd quibble with your terminology of opposing "mind" and "reality". Minds are a part of reality, after all. Better to say that (normal) people have both a "theory of mind" and a "theory of matter" (or mechanism, maybe).