What is Life? - Part II

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What is Life? - Part II

Continued from Part I - Published in Cosmos and History - The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

  1. No simulation possible
  2. Many living entities acting uniquely
  3. No largest model
  4. Always becoming
  5. Cannot be predicted
  6. Ordered by valuation and meaning
  • Organisms are Not simple systems (Allonomic)
  1. Mechanistic
  2. Ordered by cause and effect
  3. Finite in nature, allonomic, built by external agencies
  • Nature’s way of management or solving problems is to create societies of living entities. Thus in this world of overwhelming variety there are uncountable societies. Not just international societies but all kinds of sub societies; social, business, professional, the societies of cells within our bodies, etc. Also super societies from Gaia to the living cosmos. Now, harmonize does not mean homogenize but harmonize presents logical difficulties that go beyond current thinking. But it is not beyond jazz. I am told that the theory of music enables jazz musicians to bring very diverse music into harmony. They may have learned the theory at Julliard or simply in their experience playing. I wonder if the theory of life will be more like music theory than like physics.
  • For dealing with life itself we must recognize that life is creative. Truth preservation is irrelevant. The necessity of consistency is, in my opinion, the most crippling error in history.
  • For living process space is fractal. Space/time as we have known it does not apply.
  • Living entities are born into unknown environments to which they must learn and adapt. To permit learning and adaptation, the identity processes allow for structural plasticity. Survival depends on learning effective acts not representations of external world. An act is effective if the results are what were intended by the actor. To avoid chaos and confusion a living entity must distinguish itself from its environment. See the logic of distinction in Brown’s “Laws of Form”.[10] Brown’s calculus is not expressed in sentence-like forms. It is expressed in symbols for acts of distinction. Thus it begins to present logic as a theory of acts as we will require for the logic of life. Another paper is required to explain this.
  • Organisms require cooperation. Life creates change and novelty. It creates evolution. We don’t need random processes and survival of the fittest. I wonder if survival of the fittest hasn’t led to our belief in the law of the jungle; nature red in tooth and claw. I wonder if such beliefs made competition seem attractive. It is now known that life in nature is primarily cooperative. Yes people insist on calling predator-prey relationships competitive. That’s our interpretation without fully realizing the living processes involved. Trying to interpret activity that we see based on materialism leads to false interpretation because it doesn’t recognize the over-all cooperative nature of Life-itself. Cooperation between interspecies and intra-species is dominant. Without cooperation there would be no life.
  • Competition is only appropriate in activities that are “autotelic,” such as football. That is, games have their own built-in goals that should not be relevant to anything but the game. In normal life, competition is destructive!
  • Living process is social, i.e., carried out by democratic societies of cells. At all levels from atoms to the universe life forms societies. The society is called a nexus. Values conflicts are resolved by a “Regnant nexus” replacing the notion of controllers. Regnant nexus are transient as required.

Section III: Foundations for New Organismic Philosophy and Formalisms

All fact and thing-oriented formalisms are not appropriate for life. That includes both mathematics and logics as we’ve known them. For this new paradigm, new metaphysics, recent advances in empirical philosophy (see Section II) and new formalisms are required.

There is a complementary role between philosophy and science/organismic logic. I suggest that metaphysics and logic should be a matched pair to create the new science. I am tempted to call them the analytics and synthetics of the most fundamental notions; but I think the current use of those terms is a confused mess. I would define them as:

  • Analytic: derived from analysis of experience
  • Synthetics: postulated

In western philosophy there are two traditions. Logic as we know it traditionally has been developed to be compatible with substance metaphysics. Now I believe process is moving into dominance.

The best-known process views today are those of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organisms. Though Whitehead is thoroughly incompatible with materialism, I am amazed to find many interpreters claim he is a materialist and wreak havoc on his views as pointed out by Florence Bradford.[11] What thinking really is: Fact Logic has been considered laws of thought. It is not. To find out what logic is really all about, we begin by looking at Peirce’s semiotics. As we recognize that life is fundamental, it will no longer work to look to a material world for understanding. We need to examine our own internal living processes. For this I add my insights from Peircian semiotics. With many experts to choose from, however, my choice is Floyd Merrell.[12]

Awareness begins with fleeting impressions. This domain is called Firstness. It progresses by analysis to conceptual understanding called Secondness. Finally it reaches by postulates relational understanding called Thirdness.

Seeing this from my Whiteheadian perspective the concepts are not about things; they are about acts.

The explanatory purpose of philosophy is often misunderstood. Its business is to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete things. It is a complete mistake to ask how concrete particular fact can be built up out of universals. The answer is, ‘in no way.’ The true philosophic question is how can concrete fact exhibit entities abstract from itself and yet participated in by its own nature? [13]

The organizing principles of this whole business of organisms will explain how abstract entities arise out of the reality of experience, and are used to guide actions of living entities.

A new logic required

Logic, as known today, is thoroughly extensional. It is shocking to realize extensional means form, syntax, but without meaning. Likewise, mathematics is extensional. Life requires logic with meaning, i.e., a new formalism.

In a materialistic worldview all attempts to develop a logic with meaning have been defeated. Materialism has been a seemingly insurmountable block. Of course, a logic of things would not require meaning. Further, a logic of meaningful acts can create new realities. Life itself evolves and produces the long and circuitous history we call “evolution.” Materialism might permit truth preservation in logic, but creation of new realities, as in evolution, it does not. This implies that reconsideration of implication is needed.

For a logic of truth-values, i.e., an implication based on truth values, a contradictory statement such as ‘A and not A’ collapses the entire system. Thus it is thought that consistency is necessary. Since Aristotle, a statement such as ‘A and not A’ has been forbidden by the Laws of Non Contradiction (LNC). Today I am pleased to see challenges to the LNC in a movement called dialetheism.

For understanding the dynamics of life I believe consistency is a tragic fundamental blunder. Life requires self-knowing by self-reference. Self-reference introduces what has been called vicious self-reference often illustrated by the sentence “this sentence is false”. If so, it is true. This sentence is now called a dialetheia. A dialetheia is a true contradiction, a statement, A, such that both it and its negation, are true. I have read that Wittgenstein called this a Janus headed figure facing both truth and falsity. Janus has also been applied to organisms.

Is there really a problem with a true contradiction? There is if inference is based on modus ponens. There are other forms of inference, as we will find in functional logics, for which a true contradiction presents no difficulty.

If truth is not conserved, what replaces truth? I suggest coherence. Living entities are capable of self-determining, self-originating, acting. They choose their acts based on value perceptions and the coherence conditions of the newly discovered laws of value.

The laws of value were discovered in the 1950s by philosopher, Robert Hartman who specialized in axiology.[14] He found three distinct value dimensions: intrinsic, extrinsic and systemic. These dimensions seem to correspond to the levels of semiotics, i.e.

  • Intrinsic with Firstness: presentational awareness
  • Extrinsic with Secondness: conceptual awareness
  • Systemic with Thirdness: relational awareness

These dimensions form a hierarchical order. Intrinsic is the highest and systemic is the lowest.

Firstness/intrinsic corresponds to what psychologist, Eleanor Rosch calls “primary knowing.”

…'primary knowing’ arises by means of interconnected wholes, rather than isolated contingent parts and by means of time-less, direct, presentation rather than through stored re-presentation. Such knowing is open rather than determinate, and a sense of unconditional value, rather than conditional usefulness, is an inherent part of the act of knowing itself,… Acting from such awareness is spontaneous, rather than the result of decision-making, and it is compassionate…since it is based on wholes larger than the self. [15]

The next form of knowledge, Extrinsic/Secondness, is conceptual learned in and abstracted from experience. Concepts are the basis for judging good and bad. Through experience we learn the full meaning of a concept; its intension. For any thing belonging to a concept, we judge good to bad based on how well it fulfills the intension, i.e., our expectations. Finally it all has to be put together by relations, Systemic/Thirdness.

With appropriate modifications of terminology, I believe more exact treatment of values as coherence conditions will be discovered. In selecting terms we have to be careful that we don’t confuse mere abstractions with reality. Remembering that Whitehead wrote Principia Mathematica, it is quite a surprise in that he first embraced and was expert about formal logic and then in the last thing he ever wrote in his festschrift volume, he says it’s a fake.

The conclusion is that Logic, conceived as an adequate analysis of the advance of thought, is a fake...The exactness is a fake.[16]

I concur there is no exactness in the meaning of words in philosophy, in science, story telling or conversation or even this paper. With respect to life, boundaries are blurred, copies are not exact replicas, reproduction is imperfect, quantities of life forms change their quality – unlike numbers that can be added to infinity – and so on.

The propositional components in logic are abstractions; to think they are real, commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Fitting life forms into logical concepts is trying to fit square pegs into round holes. In organisms everything is connected. Also, abstract terms point to a reality and a context. The reality cannot be pulled out of context and stand-alone. In an organismic reality there are no stand-alone facts. When we use mathematics we think we’re talking about something real, real facts. But in an organism, real facts are in contexts that modify the meaning.

In a living domain, it is not meaningful to talk about facts. Instead we can talk about organizing principles, processes and intelligence. We need not look for facts, but organizing principles. For example, in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, the first principle is, “the many become one and are increased by one”. True, the meaning of that doesn’t just leap into ones mind. It is all explained in “Process and Reality” by:

  • Eight categories of existence
  • Twenty seven categories of explanation
  • Nine categoreal obligations.

All of which describe the basic principles for organismic process.

An example of process: An actual occasion is a living event composed of many living entities with their own identity in which every entity in the composition is making judgments for itself; what do I want based on prehensions (felt sense facts of togetherness or the awareness of one another) guided by mental pole of eternal objects. Eternal objects are perfect because they are outside space and time like Plato’s Ideals in mathematics. Eternal objects (these are the organizing principles of life) are organizing principles around which space/ time organizes itself within perfections. Each entity is going to be invoking some aspect of some eternal object(s). This could be the same as laws of coherence. Eternal objects are like objectives (intensional attractors). A living entity in an actual occasion has prehensions giving it what it’s got to work with. All of this said is what is presented to us at the beginning of the actual occasion. An actual occasion reaches satisfaction in the concrescence of its being positively prehended by another actual occasion and becomes a superject. Each individual will decide on the basis of the eternal objects (superject) and the prehensions.

For life, where freedom of choice in acting exists, control and prediction is impossible, attempts to control are destructive of life and lead to chaos. Most of the problems of the world today are resulting from attempts to control and predict the nature of organisms. If we examine the causes of our failing institutions, it is easy to show that attempts to control them, violating normal processes of life, makes them fail. Nowhere is this more obvious than the immoral idiocy of war.

Section IV: Logic (Early Formalism) of Organisms

For a logic of organismic function, we should be mindful, based on experience, that it should lead to the following results:

  • New Realities
  • Novelty
  • Variety
  • Paradox
  • Cooperation
  • Avoidance of equilibrium, is meta-stable
  • Energy, energy stores
  • Improbability
  • Effective Acts
  • Functioning as a unity
  • Evolution, not random processes or survival of the fittest
  • Oscillation and vibratory processes between both poles of categorical contrasts to find effective acts in its creation process
  • Final cause

In contrast to...

Results of materialism:

  • Deterministic
  • Materialistic
  • Cause and effect, there is no way of seeing process or how something becomes other than cause and effect
  • Passive things/a thing world
  • Parts/things/machine-like
  • No final cause
  • Only way to cause action is with force
  • It’s predictable
  • Has need for consistency/ truth preservation
  • Discrete separate things
  • Deals only with facts

Rosch characterized perception based on materialism worldview of knowledge as follows:

In the analytic picture offered by the cognitive sciences, the world consists of separate objects and states of affairs, the human mind is a determinate machine which, in order to know, isolates and identifies those objects and events, finds the simplest possible predictive contingencies between them, stores the results through time in memory, relates the items in memory to each other such that they form a coherent but indirect representation of the world and oneself, and retrieves those representations in order to fulfill the only originating value, which is to survive and reproduce in an evolutionarily successful manner.[17]

In the context of primary knowing, analytic knowledge can be beneficial. However, without primary knowing, analytic knowing can be fatally flawed. Today all social institutions are failing. Without knowledge of life, analytic knowing produces “work-arounds” that are ill adapted and exacerbate the catalogue of existing problems.

Considerations for Organismic Formalisms

I do have problems with the word logic. Logic is a collection of formal systems originating in the need for sound arguments. Needed now is a class of formal systems with different properties for different purposes.

The logic of physical matter (discrete things or objects) is much concerned with truth preservation, consistency, mono-polar, and cause-and-effect. For 2000 years it was believed that paradox was fatal. We now know that it need not be, but it does require a different kind of logic.

The logic of life is creative, rich in variety and even paradoxical as it embraces both poles of contrasts (strong/weak). Instead of cause and effect, life logic supports willful intensional acts.

Philosophy is a talking discipline. We exchange ideas by describing what we have in mind by talking. In science we exchange ideas by thought recipes or formalisms. This has two advantages. First, we can exchange ideas that cannot be meaningfully said, and second there is no ambiguity. Using logic whose structure is derived from natural language, we see propositions. These are a form of sentences expressing what we want to say. If we begin with true sentences, and follow the rules of logic we will not inadvertently wind up defending false statements. In contrast looking at mathematical formalism expressions, we are not likely to want to say anything. Mathematical expressions or formalisms are commands to do something.

There is something I want to illustrate here. In high school I learned that Newton’s law of motion was F = ma. That is easy. F is a number equal to two numbers, m and a, multiplied. Simple, I know how to multiply. But that is not Newton’s Law. It is nothing scientifically useful. Newton’s law is F = d(mV)/dt. Except for the fact that I learned calculus I would have no idea what to do with it.

F and V are vectors. In n-dimensions vectors are sets of n-numbers called n-tuples indicating a magnitude and direction. The only simple number here is m for mass. The expression d(mV)/dt means the derivative of mV with respect to time, i.e., how fast it is changing. Now we encounter a whole set of rules for doing this.

It is the job of empirical philosophy to discover and describe what there is in the world. Empirical philosophy is a precursor to science leading to thought recipes. As an existing science creates serious difficulties scientists will often say, “Let’s be philosophical”. Much of the work being done today by biophysicists, for example, is empirical philosophy. They are discovering what we need to know to develop a science of life.

Will Mathematics Serve?

Mathematics creates the required thought recipe for physics. Can it create the thought recipes for a science of life? I think not. I believe that applying mathematics to living contexts is itself a disaster. Life is a domain of organisms. It would help if we had a fully developed theory of organisms. For now consider the following:

Organisms are born to create and maintain their own life. They are self-creating, i.e., autopoietic; they are not just self-organizing. They maintain their own life by constantly recreating it. Their purpose is not to become machines fulfilling some external task. Thus they are autonomic, i.e., obeying self-law. They are autonomous. An organism’s purpose is to develop its own life. Thus maintaining its life does not mean homeostasis. Since its purpose is not something external, no organism is an input/output machine. They have no information inputs or outputs as the theory of autopoiesis claims. [18](Varela)

Mae Wan Ho, a prominent biophysicist, has used advanced technology to observe living organisms as they live. After 27 years of laboratory observation she describes a human as a society of 75 trillion cells functioning with no controllers or set points, unlike computers. A living society might be described as a super jazz band including instruments as small as 10-9 meters to as large as 1 meter and performing our personal theme with endless variations in 72 octaves without a pause. Our bodies are not doing computations, or logic as we know it, nor anything our technology-oriented world is prepared to understand.

In a press release, from The Institute for Science in Society, 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.

Like the little fruit-fly larva, the Daphnia, and any other small creature, we too, would be resplendent in all the colors of the rainbow when observed under the polarizing microscope at a special setting that lets you see right through to the tissues and cells and especially the molecules, as they are busy being alive, and keeping the organism alive.

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.[19]

Even if we could know the complete state of an organism we could not predict its next state.

During my computer days I learned a lesson about variety proliferation; I learned the power set law. The total variety in a set of things is 2n where n is the number of things. For example for three things the variety is 23 or 8. I can write them out: 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110, 111. The variety in eight things is 28 or 256. I can write them out, but I would rather not. Now the variety in 256 things is 2256 or 1.15 x 1077. This means add enough zeros to move the decimal point 77 digits to the right. If I could do one a second and I had started when the universe began I would still be far from done.

Organisms have to select what they want to pay attention to. To accommodate this the theory of autopoiesis reverses the theory of perception. The standard theory begins with inputs. In autopoiesis the theory of perception begins with acts. I call them acts of inquiry. The organism acts and then sends reafference messages to the senses asking, “What changed?” The organism seeks effective acts, i.e., acts that produced the change intended. The organism’s life depends on learning effective acts for survival in its ecological niche.

Organisms function internally as jazz bands playing their themes without interruption. They do not pause for input or instructions. I think of the acts of inquiry as analogous to a trumpeter’s solo. It may add to expression of the organism’s theme upon successful closure or begin abductive processes to find new possibilities.

In short, mathematics won’t serve because its rigidity does not allow the flexibility required by living processes.

I make the following distinctions between traditional logics and organismic formalisms:

Characteristics of Traditional Logics:

  • Truth preserving
  • Thing oriented (extensional)
  • Consistency that denies process
  • Static
  • Excludes self-reference (self-knowing)
  • Excludes values

Characteristics of Organismic Formalisms:

  • Abductive/Creative
  • Meaning oriented (intensional)
  • Allows oscillation
  • Dynamic
  • Requires self-reference (self-knowing)
  • Value-driven

The primitives of the Organismic Formalisms:

  • Will not be things
  • There will be acts and inner relations (Inner relations are relations that change the related)
  • The rules will not be inference rules but transformations
  • They will not have truth-values
  • Truth values will be replaced by coherence, coherence will be conserved
  • They will not have subject-predicate forms of propositions.
  • Categories will not be object categories but function categories
  • The questions we will ask of organismic formalisms will not be “is it true”?
  • We will ask, “Can one get there from here”?

One might ask, “What will it be?” I can give some clues. A basic frame will be inspired by the logic of combinators used to develop variable free mathematics. This provides for what is called applicative logics, i.e., applying functions to functions. Here the functions will be acts, transformations.

Finally, for a world of organisms I suspect the formalism will not feature the inference/induction pair of processes. Rather, it will feature transformations/abductions. Organisms have to be what might be called self-programming. Also, they have to be self-connecting to their organismic environment. This requires abductions. I suspect that abductions will depend on primary knowing.


What is life? Life is more like a verb and an adjective than a noun in that verbs are often processual, and adjectives have to do with value, while nouns are usually a matter of thingness, and of substance.

Life as organisms is process. Life is not a thing.

It must be stressed that life, being creative organisms, is basically free. However, when and where it gets bogged down and develops habitual patterns, it is not free; and only then when freedom is lost, can it be understood by logical concepts, theoretical physics, mathematics, and the hard sciences. But the ultimate goal of life is to increase value. What values and how they’ll be manifested is a free expression of organisms. Purposes (final cause) do not lend themselves to prediction by the hard sciences. Being creative organism, life comes with value intelligence: its creativity has direction and purpose that becomes its own free gift to the universe.

From the organizing principles of life we can learn better choices for acting, both individually and for social policy.

[10]. G. Spencer Brown, Laws of Form, The Julian Press, Inc. New York, 1972

[11]. F. Bradford Wallack, The Epochal Nature of Process in Whitehead’s Metaphysics, State University Press at Albany, 1980.

[12]. Floyd Merrell, Peirce, Signs, and Meaning, University of Toronto Press Inc., 1997.

[13]. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology, The Free Press, New York, London, 1978, p.20.

[14]. Robert S.Hartman, The Knowledge of Good, Critique of Axiological Reason, Rodopi, Amsterdam – New York, NY, 2002.

[15]. Eleanor Roach, in Peter Senge, Otto C. Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers, Presence, An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, Doubleday, New York, 2005, p.98f..

[16]. Alfred North Whitehead, The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, 2nd Edition, Tutor Publishing Co., New York, 1951, p.700.

[17]. Eleanor Roach, in Peter Senge, Otto C. Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers, Presence, An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, Doubleday, New York, 2005, p.98.

[18]. Francisco J.Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy, Elsevier North Holland, Inc., New York, New York, 1979.

[19]. Mae-Wan Ho, Quantum Coherence and Conscious Experience, www.1-sis.org.uk/SO.papers.php (Science in Society).