What is Life? - Part I

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What is Life? - Part I

Towards a science of life as creative organisms

By Norm Hirst

Published in Cosmos and History - The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

See Editors Summary ~ Arran Gare's Description Of Placement, What Is Life?

Abstract: There is a paradigm shift occurring. The transition underway is from a rigid, mechanistic, and materialistic worldview to a process organismic worldview supporting a foundation of interconnectedness, cooperation, and the intersection of science and spirituality. A new paradigm must start with abductive hypotheses. I present the following as a presentation of abductive hypotheses. In semiotics abduction is a kind of reverse deduction to discover a law or some factor that would render some phenomenon intelligible. (Most of Sherlock Holmesís so-called deductions were abductions.) The importance of abduction is that it is creative; it escapes the confines of deduction and induction. In this paper we’re not putting forth claims of truth or arguments for a position, but we are putting forth claims of usefulness; what do we need to be investigating to support this new paradigm?

Keywords: Life-itself; beyond materialism; process metaphysics; not matter; structured energy; Dirac Sea; biofields, self-causing; non-deterministic; creative organisms; value driven; new formalisms; beyond math; self-creating, self-organizing


Life is sui generis, that is, life is unique and in a class by itself. It cannot be compared to or explained by physics. What is coming out in today’s research in biophysics labs around the world requires understanding how living organisms are free to act and combine in societal unities. Life is fundamental. Life is unpredictable and uncontrollable. To be alive is to be able to act. There is nothing in our history of ideas, whether philosophical or scientific, that deals with living self-acting entities. Everything in our philosophy and science is an attempt to imitate life with non-living entities not capable of self-determining and self-initiating action. We will talk about life as energies within the electronics nature of living organisms, and mysteries such as how bodies of so many parts can be holistic. The answer is the organizing processes within them are holistic. The living processes within them are “metastable” and constantly have to be maintained by energy. If the organizing processes cannot be maintained, all that’s left is hardware.

Life means organisms. There seems to be more agreement to this than I would have expected. Actually, organism is a broader category then we knew. If it is an organism, it is alive. This draws a distinction between mechanisms, as in computers, and organisms that do not function by mechanisms. Organisms may include the cells in our bodies, you and me, or you and me as cells in society, the ecosystem, the economy, or planet earth as a cell in the universe. Thus it is being said today that the cosmos is an organism; what used to seem an outrageous claim that the cosmos is living. We know that the Gaia hypothesis claims the earth is a living organism; the cells in our bodies are organisms, now, by high tech observation, the molecules in the cells are living organisms.

Life means structured energy in the Sea of Dirac (pre-space), a primordial matrix that creates the physical universe as a living entity/organism. Within this living entity (infinite because there is no other) are many hierarchal societies of organisms, all connected and interacting. Life is primordial activity, which Bohm called the implicate order.

…it is possible, not only for the manifest level of ordinary experience, but for the quantum level underlying it, to emerge from a deeper implicate level in which the classical Cartesian notions of form, order and structure have more or less dissolved …this suggestion is close to one that has been under consideration recently by physicists, i.e., that of ‘pre-space’ …[1] Life means the organizing principles that are creating all forms of life. I shall talk of the “laws of life” referring to the laws by which organisms function. There will be many differences of details but throughout there will be organizing principles that characterize life and life as organism. All forms of life are organisms and they obey universals. It is our hypotheses that on every hierarchal level in living entities, the same kind of processes will occur and can be recognized as universal living processes; organismic. These principles obey very different kinds of logic than that known in the scientific materialism of physics. The material world can be accounted for by induction and deduction, but in the world of life and organisms abduction is also required. Bear in mind as we go, the subject of this paper cannot be approached in the old style of simulation by computation.

To get through the mechanistic deadlock to further understanding requires a new foundation of philosophy with matching logic.

Towards that end I bring into question scientific materialism and advance considerations for the foundations of a new science for life as organism. The challenges will be based on new discoveries in physics and biophysics. Presenting them has a dual purpose. I think they decisively falsify scientific materialism and provide ideas that have to be incorporated in a new worldview to understand life.

Scientific materialism, in spite of its triumphs in creating technology, is such a limited and incomplete view that it is deadening and destructive when applied to living contexts.

Towards a science of life as creative organisms, we consider the following topics:

  1. Life as fundamental and creative, not matter
  2. The characteristics of life as organisms and organismic functioning
  3. Foundations for a new organismic philosophy and formalism
  4. Logic (Early Formalism) of Organisms


Fifty years ago I became convinced that there was going to be an urgent need to understand values. At MIT I studied values with Robert Hartman, a visiting professor developing value theory as formal axiology for a science of value.[2] I thought I would find the logic of value in the mathematical and logical foundations of physics. Instead, I would discover through a lifetime of inquiry that physics and it’s foundations in substance metaphysics and accompanying logics is totally inappropriate for applications to understanding life. Way down deep human knowledge developed in a way that became committed to errors that destroy life.

I had studied physics gaining experience with an actual science. I studied the philosophy of science to help me understand science in general. I studied mathematics to understand the driving force behind scientific inquiry. I studied the theory of logic to understand the limitations of mathematics. I discovered the limitations of logic itself. I then studied the most modern theory of formalisms and discovered that logic, as we know it, is simply one amongst many possibilities for doing meaningful formalisms. What people today believe is rational is simply one choice. Believing that philosophy itself was a way of exploration I turned to it. Mainstream substance philosophy offered a worldview, a metaphysics that further entrapped us.

Recent experiments of the past 20 years in physics and biophysics are producing results that cannot be explained with the traditional scientific materialism and substance philosophy. A new worldview is required. Not only is a new view of reality required, we also need to change protocols of inquiry to cope with it.

Section I: Life as fundamental and creative, not matter

Life is fundamental and creative, and creativity is supported by abduction. Abduction is the logic of creativity. So why don’t we say that? We don’t say that because, given scientific materialism, we think matter is fundamental and everything has to be reduced to matter. Reinforcing that idea, normal logic only has the procedures of deduction and induction; that is all that is needed for thinking about matter. Unlike matter, with organisms being self-initiating, self-acting and creating, abduction is required.

It is not hard to say what life is. It is hard to understand what life is. It is as if trying to describe a new theater production by elaborating the facts. Begin by describing the stage scene and the physical movement of the actors around the stage. Something is missing. That something is meaning. That something is what theater critics will write about, and they might not even mention the fact details.

What makes “life is creative” hard to understand is the dominance of a materialistic worldview as described by Whitehead:

Thus in framing cosmological theory, the notion of continuous stuff with permanent attributes, enduring without differentiation, and retaining its self-identity through any stretch of time however small or large, has been fundamental. The stuff undergoes change in respect to accidental qualities and relations; but it is numerically self-identical in its character of one actual entity throughout its accidental adventures. The admission of this fundamental metaphysical concept has wrecked the various systems of pluralistic realism.[3]

This might be metaphysics for a world of rocks. Indeed, considering the efforts that have gone into discovering the origin of life, I believe we do think in terms of rocks. It has been claimed that life began by accident when lightening hit a pond of chemicals ultimately producing life on earth. This myth has perpetuated the search of space for signs that such accidents may have happened elsewhere. Could there be life on other planets? Hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon are fundamental constituents of life as we experience it. We look where these are available in the right combination. So much for life being fundamental!

Indeed, considering the efforts that have gone into discovering the origin of life I believe it hasn’t occurred because life is fundamental. That pond of chemicals must have had some kind of predisposition toward life if they were to come alive by a lightening strike.

The question should be how does matter arise from life? Life is creative, but everything in flux would simply be chaos. As a ground for building order, life takes on habit, over-powering habit. The result is matter, entities that no longer are capable of self-acting. There is more to reality than we knew. Could there be living patterns of energy? Is there a biofield in pre-space creating matter?

Let us consider some evidence beginning with the electronic environment within living organisms, as we know them

Research in biophysics has discovered that living organisms are not simply matter. I do remember years ago when some computer folks, in pursuit of artificial intelligence, argued that machines could do anything people could do since people are just meat machines; now biophysics shows that is not true. In 1992 liquid crystalline living tissue was discovered in the laboratories of biophysicist, Mae Wan Ho.[4] Our bodies consist of trillions of cells all connected through a living matrix of liquid crystalline tissue supporting proton jump conduction; a flow so fast that all cells are acting simultaneously. Thus our bodies, as with all living organisms, function holistically as a single unity. Functioning as a single unity is a characteristic of organisms. If it functions as a collection of parts, it’s not an organism. If it functions as a single holistic unity, it is an organism.

Appearances to the contrary, there are no parts. The “parts” are so integral to the whole that they cannot exist - they cannot be the same thing - when separated from the whole.

Before the discovery of the living matrix of liquid crystalline tissue, it was thought that the only signaling flow was the electron flow in the nervous system lending credence that the body is composed of organs as parts. The electron flow was too slow for everything to be functioning in a single unity. It is now said that the body is powered by electricity for electron flow and proticity for proton flow with all the cells functioning in simultaneity of unity.

To learn about life, it had been thought we should turn to biology. Biology should be to health care what physics is to engineering. Unfortunately, below is the condition of biology today as described by Robert Rosen.[5]

The question “What is life?” is not often asked in biology, precisely because the machines metaphor already answers it: “Life is a machine.” Indeed to suggest otherwise is regarded as unscientific and viewed with the greatest hostility as an attempt to take biology back to metaphysics.

This is the legacy of the machine metaphor. I hope to convince the reader in the course of the present work, that machine metaphor is not just a little bit wrong; it is entirely wrong and must be discarded.

Biophysicist and biochemist, Szent Gyorgi, points out that metabolism works only with reactions that are statistically improbable. Since the reactions are improbable, it takes some form of catalyst to keep them going. This is done by internal meta-stable energy flows. Their stability has to be maintained by oxygen. If their stability disintegrates, the reactions of the body will stop working. That is why we can only last several minutes without breathing. This may be stating what seems obvious; however, it shows the importance of maintaining internal energy flows in life.

For years I have said there is no similarity between computers and living organisms such as people. Now I see there is one. Computers are matter, hardware. They cannot do anything until a program is installed in memory. When the power is turned off, the program disappears. Once again the computer cannot do anything. What is a computer program anyway? It is called software. It is not matter. It is not a thing. We might think of it as a ghost in the machine. Actually a program is a well-ordered set of codes. In the computer they can be read in order to trigger an internal act by the computer.

When a computer is turned off, the hardware can be studied forever without ever revealing a clue as to how it does what it is known to be capable of. When a living organism is dead, the energy fields and flows inside disappear. The “hardware of the body” can be studied forever without revealing a clue as to what life is.

Mathematical biologist, Robert Rosen and biophysicist (discoverer of Vitamin C) Szent Gyorgi point out that biology of the past is more like physics. That biology has led to the study of structure where we wind up with nothing but misleading guesses as to what processes are going on. Now, electronic biology has been discovered. The living energy structure in our bodies is electronic and biophoton energy flows. To quote biophysicist and biochemist, Szent Gyorgi:

There is a basic difference between physics and biology. Physics is the science of probabilities. If a process goes 999 times one way, and only once another way, the physicist will not hesitate to call the first the way. Biology is the science of the improbable and I think it is on principle that the body works only with reactions that are statistically improbable. If metabolism were built of a series of probable and thermodynamically spontaneous reactions, then we would burn up and the machine would run down as a watch does if deprived of its regulators. The reactions are kept in hand by being statistically improbable and made possible by specific tricks that may then be used for regulation. So, for the living organism, reactions are possible which may seem impossible, or at least, improbable to the physicist…. If Nature wants to do something she will find a way to do it if there is no contradiction to basic rules of Nature. She has time to do so. (Living Nature also often works with more complex systems than the physicist uses for testing his theories.)[6]

The last paragraph it Szent Gyorgi’s book on sub molecular biology states:

In an earlier chapter I emphasized the biological importance of “organization,” by which I meant that if Nature puts two things together a new structure is born which can no more be described in terms of the qualities of it components. The same holds also for functions. In living systems the various functions, too, seem to integrate into higher units. We will really approach the understanding of life when all structure and functions, all levels, from the electronic to the supramolecular, will merge into one single unit. Until then our distinguishing between structure and function, classic chemical reactions and quantum mechanics, or the sub- and supramolecular, only shows the limited nature of our approach and understanding.[7]

It used to be that the only way biologists could study living organisms was to cut up dead ones and study the material structure. Then following what they thought was a proper scientific protocol, reductionism, process them down to the smallest particles. Biology as it has been known is a dead end.

Mae Wan Ho says:

I do not think quantum theory per se will lead us through the mechanistic deadlock to further understanding. Instead, we need a thoroughly organicist way of thinking that transcends both conventional thermodynamics and quantum theory.[8]

The scientific materialism worldview of “matter as a fundamental reality” does not work. The idea of “matter being fundamental” has led us astray. Matter doesn’t do anything. It is non-active, but acted on. Matter is rearranged by cause and effect. It comes down to mechanisms. It is useful to distinguish between entities that are autonomic, obeying self-law and entities that are allonomic, obeying non-self law. We have been led astray by our experience of obedient things. In dealing with living autonomic self-acting entities it may come as a surprise that they do what they want with no thought of obedience.

In the case of quantum theory, I wonder if relational quantum theory isn’t pointing to an organismic creative reality. If so, then quantum theory won’t be separate from an organicist point of view, but it will be reinterpreted to be seamless with the organicist point of view. Similarly, conventional thermodynamics will be enlarged to account for the way living entities manage energy. And it will be seen that the second law of thermodynamics does not apply to living organisms.

What was not considered in physics is the contribution that organisms could initiate their own acts. In organisms, their acts can create new forms of order. Thus organisms do not approach reality in a machine-like fashion; always limited to the current context of order. Living entities must change and adapt constantly to evolving forms of order.

An organism is not calculating, and second of all, it is connected to the requirements of its environment. Living organisms must live in an organismic environment to function. Organisms function to conform to coherence conditions imposed by their environment while co-creating coherent acts through internal processes that individuate and add their uniqueness to the whole. Thus organisms have a Janus character. Janus was a Roman God with a double-faced head, each looking in opposite directions at the same time. An organism is looking both to its own unique experiences while sensing what also can be unique contextual conditions of the moment. Thus to develop their unique contributions, organisms must harmonize this reality and that is accomplished through the use of inherent value intelligence. I have found that this requires values as guiding force, as opposed to cause and effect. More on that in section III.

Now given the discoveries in physics, the Dirac Sea, and biophysics, and the electronic inner environment of living organisms, I don’t think it would be outrageous to suggest that our being alive is due to energy flows. We can no longer assume that physics will help us understand life.

Section II: The characteristics of life as organisms and organismic functioning

The following provides beginning subject matter to be addressed by new philosophy of organism; the characteristics and properties of organisms that must be accounted for in new organism philosophy and formalisms.

Life requires a science that deals with the improbable. In the observation of living processes, we see that Life does not function in any of the ways traditionally thought. I propose the development of such a philosophy, with accompanying logic based on process metaphysics. Process metaphysics will provide the organizing principles by which life works to manifest and maintain organisms.

Philosopher Nicholas Rescher provides contrasting descriptions of Substance Philosophy and Process Philosophy.[9] As we examine organisms as life, consider how Process Metaphysics is more characteristic of life than Substance Metaphysics (upon which physics as been founded).

Substance Philosophy

  • discrete individuality
  • separateness
  • condition (fixity of nature)
  • uniformity of nature
  • unity of being (individualized specificity)
  • descriptive fixity
  • classificatory stability
  • passivity (being acted upon)

Process Philosophy

  • interactive relatedness
  • wholeness (totality)
  • activity (self-development)
  • innovation/novelty
  • unity of law (functional typology)
  • productive energy, drive, etc.
  • fluidity and evanescence
  • activity (agency)”

Characteristics of Organisms

  • Self-creating
  • Self-referencing
  • Self-motivated, acting
  • Self-knowing
  • Autonomous
  • Connected
  • Cooperative, must form societies
  • Invariant identity
  • Comes into existence in its totality, it has no separate parts
  • Originates acts
  • Choices are made from value intelligence
  • Able to act in unrestricted, unknown environments

Requirements of Organisms

  • Instant communication
  • Variety
  • Energy management
  • Holism
  • Vibratory - between categorical contrasts/oscillation.
  • Cooperation
  • Living at edge/Avoidance of equilibrium
  • Improbable/Non-predictable

Recent Empirical Philosophy about Organisms

  • Organisms are self-creating, i.e., autopoietic -autopoiesis requires self-creation, self-correction & self-reference. Autopoiesis requires autonomy. It rejects allonomy leading to informational closure.
  • Living entities exhibit invariant organization and structural plasticity. Self-making requires self-knowing and self-reference. These requirements destroy the applicability of logic as we have known it. Also life is dipolar requiring the assertion of both poles of categorical contrasts, a paradox resolved by time and oscillation. Do not think of anything living as being logical. There is a rationale to be discovered. Meanwhile, give up consistency and shine light on Jung’s dark side. See good days and bad days as being in the normal flow.
  • Living organisms are holistic. There are no parts and no states. Organisms are created as a single whole. It seems as if there are parts. We have hearts, brains, kidneys, livers, etc. But they are not truly parts as in machines.
  • Life works by creating new realities, novelties, variety. It is life itself that produces evolution, not random processes or survival of the fittest. Living processes are vibratory, oscillating between both poles of categorical contrasts to find effective acts in its creation process. This is why, for thinking about life, I reject consistency and truth valued inference.
  • Organisms are autonomous. Autonomous means self-law. Everything they know and can do is developed within by processes only now being discovered. They are not like any processes a machine view would imagine. There are no computations. There are societies of living entities, cells in humans, societies of molecules in the cells and so on down to particles. At each level the societies permit maximum freedom subject only to coherence conditions some of which are values and value processes. And we, as human beings are cells in a higher order society. The role of values and the valuation process that Hartman put forth now becomes incredibly important. Strictly speaking I believe it is valuation processes that are important to living entities. The necessary autonomy of living entities prevents their having any informational inputs. Yet they do need to discover what works in their living context. They do that by acting, to find effective acts. Acts that produce the organism’s intentions are effective acts.
  • Organisms are “informationally” closed systems. This seems to conflict with Prigogine’s thinking for whom organisms are open to their environment taking in energy and creating islands of order within the universe moving towards disorder. Here, I am only asserting that organisms are closed to what we think of as information. Otherwise they are open to taking in energy, for example.

In the case of possible conflicts with Prigogine, the primary conflict would be the idea that the universe is moving toward disorder. As a living organism, the universe is not moving toward disorder, but it certainly may appear to be as old orders are destroyed to be replaced by new orders. Life is creative.

  • Informare. Living entities are autonomous, i.e., only responsive to self-law based on informare. Informare means formed within. That is, the “information” available is not gathered by senses from the outside; it is formed within. They are autonomous, so they can differentiate subject only to coherence. Autonomy implies they are closed to information. Information is not a commodity. Informare, formed within, replaces information.
  • Organism can only know and do what its own living history, and that includes inherited history, has provided.
  • The only thing the organism really knows is its inner experience. By inference and by abduction, it makes hypotheses. The hypotheses are often called “abductive hypotheses”. Abductive hypotheses are advanced for their possible usefulness and are subject to tests to determine their value. There are no in-puts in living organisms. By body field awareness, intuitions are developed from experience formed in the body/mind directly through fields of energy. It’s a kind of “feel-think process we call “felt sense.” Free will plays a key role in the functioning of an organism.
  • Organisms are capable of acting and initiating their own acts. They are free to act and choose their acts based on values. In living processes there is no cause and effect or determinism. Life evolves based on values. At all the levels mentioned above, living entities are choosing acts based on values characteristic of their level, i.e., molecules, cells, societies, etc.
  • Living entities are manifest with an invariant identity. Identity refers to the process specifications by which their autopoiesis occurs. A living entity cannot violate its identity. Yet a living organism can be in process and change over time. Thus the identity allows for structural plasticity. The process specifications cannot be changed or violated, but they do allow freedom in their fulfillment. In the development of structural plasticity the organism can maintain its identity. Now we begin to see many consequences such as a person cannot be controlled, may not be able to fulfill arbitrary expectations, there is no possibility of literal language and we all live in different realities.
  • Holistic means the entire organism functions as a single unity. Appearances to the contrary not withstanding they have no parts.
  • Organisms are meta-stable, living on the edge. When something appears to be trying to push it over the edge, it can suddenly mobilize massive energy. The organism is a “meta-stable energy structure” within the physical structure of a living organism. Being meta-stable, it requires energy to maintain it. Turn the energy source off and it is gone. This is also true for living organisms such as us. For us the energy source is the oxygen we breathe. Without oxygen the meta-stable energy structure dissipates. There is nothing left but non-functioning “hardware.”
  • Organisms avoid equilibrium. For example in energy management thermal equilibrium would mean death. Thus non-thermal energy is stored in many nested fractal space-time regions. If the energy in our bodies were thermalized it would produce thousands of degrees Kelvin. In nature biodiversity is essential for energy management; without sufficient biodiversity our life support system will not function
  • Organisms are a pure democracy with each entity making choices for itself autonomously and at the same time for the benefit of the whole organism. It functions like a jazz band. In a jazz band each musician autonomously decides what to play, yet his or her decisions work to the benefit of the whole. In a press release, from The Institute for Science in Society, Dr. Ho says: Quantum Jazz is the music of the organism dancing life into being. We are all quantum jazz players, in the very substance of our being. Organisms are thick with spontaneous activities at every level, right down to the molecules, and the molecules are dancing, even when the organisms sit still. The images obtained give direct evidence of the remarkable coherence (oneness) of living organisms. Even if we could know the complete state of an organism we could not predict its next state
  • Organisms have maximum freedom of action subject only to coherence conditions within its living context. Coherence from coheres – to stick together. Coherence means compatible habits of acting. Coherence can be quantum coherence to axiological coherence.
  • Organisms are autonomic and come into being as a whole entity and grow into maturity as a whole entity unlike machines that are assembled piece by piece by some other. There is a distinction between being autonomic, obeying self-law, and allonomic, obeying some other’s law. Machines are allonomic; they obey the laws built in by external agencies. There is no way for any other to build in the internal laws of a living entity.
  • Organisms are complex systems versus simple systems (autonomic). Complex (living) does not mean the same as complicated.

Continue To Part II

[1]. David Bohm & B.J. Hiley, The Undivided Universe, Routledge, London, New York, 1996, p.374.

[2]. Robert Hartman, The Structure of Value: Foundations of Scientific Axiology, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.

[3]. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology, The Free Press, New York, London, 1978, p.78.

[4]. Mae-Wan Ho, The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, 2nd Edition, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 1998.

[5]. Robert Rosen, Life Itself, A comprehensive Inquiry Into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life, Columbia University Press, 1991, p.23.

[6]. Albert Szent-Gyorgi Introduction to Submolecular Biology, Academic Press, 1960, p.3.

[7]. Szent-Gyorgi Introduction to Submolecular Biology, p.135.

[8]. Ho, web article.

[9]. Nicholas Rescher Process Metaphysics, State University of New York Press, 1996, p.35