Where does reality come from?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.


The best-known and most thoroughgoing exponent of active mechanisms was Gottfried Leibniz. Convinced that the closed mechanical systems described by Boyle and Newton could not explain motion or change, Leibniz posited a vis viva, a living or vital force. It was a “principle underlying all material events.” Instead of impenetrable, indivisible, insentient atoms, Leibniz proposed that the fundamental units of matter were a species of metaphysical points, with, as Riskin remarks, “something vital” about them.17 These were the monads, elementary spiritual substances from which more complex creatures were constructed. The resulting entities were best described as organized rather than designed; their plan allowed for spontaneity and learning.

…The philosophes, although committed to materialism and often to atheism, also found evidence of agency within both living creatures and machines. “Organization,” according to Julien Offray de La Mettrie, the author of L’homme machine, “is the first merit of Man.” This is a sentence that requires Riskin’s elaboration: “An organized machine was a concurrence of active parts, unlike the rigidly deterministic, designed clockwork described by natural theologians.”20 The favored eighteenth-century metaphor was weaving; organisms were self-moving looms, their bodies a self-weaving fabric.21 Although Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle believed that the legacy of the eighteenth century was a “dead world of atoms controlled by the laws of a dead causality,”22 Riskin claims that a closer look reveals “a physical world imbued with perception, feeling, and self-organizing agency.”23

…Life was “a form of activity, a continual effort to constitute oneself from and against dead matter.”25 It is in this intellectual climate that biology came existence into as a separate subject. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who offered biology its name, has been generally misunderstood. Or so Riskin claims. The inheritance of acquired characteristics does not rely on a mysterious mental agency, or a mystical élan vital. The life force, or pouvoir de la vie, was entirely material, but not wholly passive, and its effects were not altogether random. In the course of their development, organisms respond to new challenges by evolving new capacities, sometimes by altering the environment to favor the selection of these capacities, and sometimes by changing the organism’s hereditary material. The pope of late nineteenth-century Darwinism, August Weismann, declared this impossible, formulating the still-prevalent doctrine that changes in an organism’s physiology or environment can only affect its somatic cells, not its germ cells.

There is a long, semi-underground history of Lamarckian challenges to Darwinian orthodoxy, beginning, Riskin suggests, with Darwin himself, who asserted the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and hesitated, through all six editions of the Origin of Species, to omit all references to purpose and internally directed adaptations. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, his successors—Weismann, Wilhelm His, Ernst Haeckel, Wilhelm Roux, Jacques Loeb, Erwin Stresemann, Hans Driesh, Hugo De Vries, Thomas Hunt Morgan, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson—argued the mechanisms of biological causation back and forth, their arguments traced in heroic detail in The Restless Clock. The neo-Darwinian synthesis that emerged was a decisive victory for the passive mechanists, enshrining the principle that “agency cannot be a primitive, elemental feature of the natural world.”26

The intuition that deterministic models of causation, at least as currently conceived, cannot fully explain the behavior of living beings refuses to die. Riskin finds traces in cognitive science, between embodied and computational theories of intelligence; and in evolutionary biology, between strict and modified adaptationism. Both sides in these debates explicitly disavow any recourse to individual agency or purpose. But Riskin draws hope from the unsettled state of both debates. She looks to generative grammar and epigenetics, and, like everyone else, occasionally casts her eye downwards to that bottomless well of quantum uncertainty.

But this is silly:

But I must confess to an even more fundamental dissatisfaction. I am still unclear about the difference between a world with agency and a world without it. The book opens by recounting Thomas Henry Huxley’s celebrated joke, in a lecture of 1868, to the effect that we no more need a constitutive principle called vitality to explain life (or by extension, agency to explain action) than we need a constitutive principle called aquosity to explain water. Riskin does her best to suggest that the joke is on Huxley. I am not convinced.

Where does free-will come from? Surely our hypothesis changes if we believe there are some fundamental particles that have agency?

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